Friday, March 28, 2008

Mike on the Second Commandment

The story continues. God through Moses says, "You shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself an idol in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments." (NIV)

I agree. The commandment requires a great deal of unpacking. I'll stick with verses 3-4 in this installment.

The first thing that strikes me is the magnitude of the task God sets himself. He intends to wean the Israelites from the normative religious assumption of the day: polytheism. To put it another way, God sets out to teach them the discipline (or art)of monotheism.

Step one in what will prove to be a long process is to lead the people to unlearn an old habit and practice a new one. Rami's translation captures the idea: "You shall not recognize the gods of others in My presence." Since God is present with them always, this amounts to saying: "Now that I am with you, you must stop treating other gods as, well, God."

The commandment does not address their feelings. They may well go on feeling as if other gods are real, have powers potentially useful or dangerous, and that a wise person prefers not to offend them. God starts with actions.

This nearly always surprises us. Yet any competent spiritual director recognizes the formation technique. Actions usually precede theory. We learn to pray not by mastering a theory of prayer but by praying, often to patterns created by others.

Changing metaphors, we learn to play a piano by setting aside freelance fingering techniques in favor of practicing set finger techniques. Music theory comes later, if at all. Imagine the Isrealites in the wilderness as would-be pianists of varied talent, none of whom have heard a master pianist play, all of whom have had their potential corrupted by exposure only to the technique available in the ancient Egyptian music scene. God must wean them from bad technique in order to teach them how to make his kind of music.

In the commandment, God establishes a practice routine for his people-in-the-making. They will find it hard going. When I was young, I took piano lessons. Many a time, I skipped or shortened practice in order to go and do something I already knew how to do (read a book, play baseball, watch television). In short, while my idols or gods were fairly petty, they still had quite a grip on me. So it was for the Israelites, and so it is for us in our time. The second portion of the commandment begins to address this problem.

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