Yitro: Not in My Face

April 11, 2011 at 5:43 pm | Posted in Yitro | 2 Comments

(This blog was first posted on January 16, 2011.)

You will not have other gods besides My presence.

You will not have gods of others in addition to My presence.

You will not have gods of others in addition to My visible side.

You will not have other gods over against Me.

You will not have other gods in My face.

(Five literal translations of Exodus/Shemot 20:3)

elohim acheirim = other gods; gods of others

al = besides, in addition to; over against; concerning; because of. (The most common meaning of al is “on, upon, over, or above”; but verse 5 explains that you must not worship anything else but God—so verse 3 cannot mean that it’s okay to serve other gods as long as they are below God.  )

panai = my face, my presence, my surface, my visible side, my identity

The Ten Commandments appear in this week’s Torah portion, Yitro, which is named after Moses’ father-in-law.  Yitro comes to the Israelite camp at Mount Sinai and tells Moses to govern by delegating lesser cases to intermediaries to judge.  Later, the people are terrified by a direct experience of God, and ask Moses to be their intermediary, and tell them God’s orders.  So God gives Moses the Ten Commandments (aseret devarim,  “ten statements”).  The last five are simple orders, such as Don’t steal.  The first five come with at least some explanation, and the longest explanation is given following the second commandment.

This commandment opens with the verse translated in different ways above.  Next the Torah explains:  Do not make yourself a carved idol or any likeness of what is in the heavens above, or of what is in the land below, or of what is in the water beneath the land.  Do not prostrate to them and do not serve them.

Then it gives reasons for obeying: Because I am God, your god, a jealous god, calling to account the wrongdoing of fathers upon children over the third and fourth (generations), for my enemies; but doing kindness to the thousandth (generation) for those who love me and who observe my commandments.

Despite these elaborations, over the millennia people have written reams of commentary on what that first sentence of the second commandment means.  This year I noticed that various commentaries are related to various translations of the Hebrew, so I generated five valid translations of the verse.

First let’s look at the difference between “other gods” and “gods of others”, two phrases that are identical in Biblical Hebrew.  If the Israelites can’t have “other gods”, they are not only forbidden to worship the gods of others, but also any gods they happen to think of or notice on their own.  Therefore they must not worship any manifestations of God, such as angels or the weather or nature.  Only the one God itself will do.

On the other hand, if the Israelites can’t have “gods of others”, the focus turns to the kind of gods worshiped by Egyptians, Mesopotamians, and Canaanites.  These peoples made idols in an effort to entice gods to come down out of the heavens or up from under the earth and inhabit their statues, the way humans inhabit their bodies.  A god living in a statue is easier to communicate with, and easier to appease and honor and butter up so it will act for your benefit.

But the Torah repeatedly condemns idols, and insists that God, the god of Abraham, the god of the Israelites, is different from gods (or non-gods) that can be idolized.  God may appear as a humanoid angel or as fire or cloud, but what we see is God’s choice of manifestation, not the work of our own hands.  The vision may disappear at any moment; it is not solid; it cannot be set on a table or paraded through town.

That brings us to the last two words of the sentence:  al-panai.  If the phrase means “over against Me”, or even “in my face”, it is a warning that God would be offended if you worshiped any other gods, considering that God rescued you from slavery.  (In the first commandment, God specifically identifies itself as the one “who brought you out from the land of Egypt, from the house of slaves”.)  The second commandment goes on to explain that God is a “jealous” god, i.e. passionately exclusive.

However, if al-panai is translated as “in addition to My presence” or “besides My presence”, it means simply that the Israelites must worship and serve only the one god.  Some commentators who translated the word panai as “My presence” interpreted it as meaning that God is present everywhere and at all times, so don’t think you can get away with having another god without the One God noticing.

But since the next verse in Exodus begins “Do not make yourself a carved idol”, I think panai means both “My presence” and “My visible surface”.  The Torah contrasts the carved idols that are supposedly inhabited by the gods of others with the presence of the God of the Israelites, which is some-times visible as a vision of an angel or a fire, and sometimes invisible, as when God is present in the empty space above the cherubim in the Holy of Holies.

Similarly, sometimes the God of the Torah is audible to everyone, as a sound like thunder or the blowing of rams’ horns.  And sometimes God is audible only to one person, who “hears” the words that God speaks inside him or her.

I bet you’ve all encountered the idea that “You will have no other gods besides Me” means we must not make a god out of wealth, or having a perfect body, or any other value exalted by our culture.  And it’s a good point.

Yet the second commandment not only orders us to refrain from bowing to and serving other gods, but also asks us to bow to and serve  our one God.  How do we do that?

How can we bow to this God, i.e. honor it and be humble before it, when God cannot be contained in a statue, or a synagogue or church, or even in the Holy of Holies?  What can we do when God makes its presence known unpredictably, when you never know where, when, or who will become aware of God for a moment?

And how can we serve our elusive God, when even the Ten Commandments give us only a rough idea of what we’re supposed to do?  And when half of the more specific laws in the Torah were dropped as inapplicable more than 1,500 years ago in the Talmud?  Does anyone today have the authority to tell us how to serve God?  What actions and attitudes can we take that count as service?

I’m working on some answers to those questions.  It will take me the rest of my life




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  1. […] Itself and tells the people not to worship other gods (or the gods of others; see my earlier post, Yitro: Not in My Face). God continues by telling them not to make or bow down to […]

  2. […] (For other translations, see my post Yitro: Not in My Face.) […]

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