I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. You shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself a graven image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth; you shall not bow down to them or serve them.
It is written: "You shall worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve."
"YOU SHALL WORSHIP THE LORD YOUR GOD AND HIM ONLY SHALL YOU SERVE"
2084 God makes himself known by recalling his all-powerful loving, and liberating action in the history of the one he addresses: "I brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage." The first word contains the first commandment of the Law: "You shall fear the LORD your God; you shall serve him... . . You shall not go after other gods."5 God's first call and just demand is that man accept him and worship him.
In its treatment of the First Commandment the Catechism merges the two pronouncements from the Law, the earlier text from Exodus and the later text from Deuteronomy. The texts over time have been condensed into the formula we all learned in school, “I am the Lord, thy God; thou shalt not have strange gods before me.” The First Commandment is enigmatic in the sense that its language is heavily time-oriented while still pregnant with meaning for any succeeding generation.
Scholars are quick to point out that the commandments, as laid out in the Bible, take the form of a “suzerainty contract” or “vassal treaty,” a template of an agreement between a superior and a subject. Such contracts have five parts: (1) a solemn statement of the name of the lord or ruler; (2) the name of the party or parties with whom the ruler is dealing; (3) a summary history of previous dealings; (4) the quid pro quo of the contract, i.e., its stipulations; and (5) the blessings and curses for compliance or betrayal. Father Boadt notes that this formula is easier to see in the Book of Deuteronomy, written later when governmental affairs were better formulated (pp. 147-151).
When looking at the place of the First Commandment in relation to the entire series, it is evident that the first holds a logical priority, for it assumes both the existence of God and the power of God, at least in the minds of the Israelites who first received the revelation, and then later to the rest of the world. The choice of the vassal treaty is in its own way a statement of faith, an acknowledgement of a lord with a history of faithful dealings who has a rightful and specific claim to loyalty and devotion. The other nine commandments—not to mention the expansion of the Judeo-Christian tradition—would be meaningless if there is no God in the first place around whom life and conduct are arranged.
About a year ago on this stream I discussed the revolution in contemporary moral theology, with the introduction of Bernard Haring’s The Law of Christ (1954) and a renewed emphasis upon union with Christ. Haring and his generation of moralists understood that the starting point of their discipline was personal orientation to Christ. This was a challenge to the pre-Vatican II era of moral theology called “the manualist tradition” in which the study of morals was act-oriented and logically self-contained, at least in its least desirable presentations.
I mention Haring in this post to address a common misconception about the Old Testament Law, specifically the Commandments. A gross simplification of catechetics—a misreading of St. Paul, I suspect—has led generations of Christians to a hasty judgment that Old Testament life was preoccupied with law, in stark contrast to the Christian era’s emphasis upon love. In fact, the First Commandment, in its form and content, makes clear that the first loyalty and the first love of an Israelite was to a very personal God. The term “jealous God” appears from time to time in the Bible—and those of us who have loved and lost over the years in the romance department understand the meaning of jealousy and the passion of Eros. There are numerous metaphors throughout the Hebrew Scripture--notably the Song of Songs—in which the relationship of God to his people is described as anything but black leather law.
It is a fact that that when Jesus was asked to name the greatest of the Jewish laws, he cited the First Commandment with considerable detail, but he saved some of his harshest words for those whose god had become the black leather law in and of itself. Here he was continuing what Israel’s prophets had preached energetically over many centuries, that law of itself without passion for its author was misbegotten theology. Next Wednesday’s Ash Wednesday Mass proclaims the Prophet Joel’s cry, “Rend your hearts, not your garments!” The heart, source of the emotions for the ancients, is the focus of Christian observance of Lent just as it was for Joel and faithful Israelites. The early medieval philosopher St. Anselm (1033-1109 A.D.) is famous for his definition of God: “God is that, than which nothing greater can be conceived.… And [God] assuredly exists so truly, that it cannot be conceived not to exist.” If this rendering does not stir your blood, even the Catechism cites Anselm only once (para. 158), but not this particular quote. Rather, the Catechism cites a description of divine and human interaction in Anselm’s definition of theology, “faith seeking understanding.”
The Christian medievalists—both the academics and the mystics—knew that human life could never behold the full beatific vision of God nor apprehend his being, but both cohorts of believers were equally convinced that “the chase” was the most noble and self-consuming enterprise of the baptized. The Catechism, centuries later, would assert that everyone is inherently created with the capacity of desire for full union with the divine being.
Christians and Jews approach the First Commandment with a shared understanding that a love of God rests at the heart of what we call morality. The first “sin” one can commit against the First Commandment is its abandonment: a deliberate closure to “the chase.” Jesus identifies the only unforgiveable sin is “blaspheming the Holy Spirit,” cessation of any interest in or movement toward the outpouring of God’s life.
It is true, too, that a man or woman’s relationship with God is unique, shaped by a kaleidoscope of learning, experience, culture, and even neurobiology. The Catechism posts many such circumstances in subsequent listings and the appropriate moral responses to the same. I will choose the most pertinent for our examination here over the next few weeks, including questions of atheism and the nature of evil.