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Reflections on Ethics 67
The First Commandment
The Bible Deity and Abraham Lincoln

by: Joseph Lewis

Editor's note: Continuing with Joseph Lewis's analysis of the 10 Commandments, this is a look at the first commandment. Lewis has used the Jewish version of the first commandment as he explains in the text. The two sections extracted here are the opening and concluding sections. The main body of the chapter (not included) is concerned with Moses and his role in bringing the Israelites out of Egypt.

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"I am the Lord thy God, which have brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage."

The Bible Deity and Abraham Lincoln

Were we not quoting the words of one who is supposed to be the God of the universe, we would judge them to have been uttered by some braggadocio leader who was trying to impress his followers with the great deed he had performed.

If George Washington, the Commander-in-Chief of the Revolutionary Army, had made a similar statement at the conclusion of our War for Independence, much of his value as a leader would have been lost.

Egotism and self-praise are not very commendable qualities. Accomplishments should speak for themselves. It is rarely necessary to make worthy deeds appreciated by boasting about them.

Does anyone really believe that if there is a God over this vast universe, he would be so small and petty as to make the egotistical statement which constitutes the first declaration of the Decalogue? Does anyone really believe that this is the most important message such a God could impart to the children of the earth to express his importance and as a manifestation of his power? Is it possible that there are those who believe these are the words of a God who is considered the Creator and Ruler of the universe, the Almighty One who is responsible for all that is?

These words are, however, an indication of the character of a tribal god, attesting to his primitive origin. They place him in an ignorant and superstitious age when deception and "sorcery" enabled the priest-magicians to dominate and enslave the primitive peoples over whom they ruled.

To determine the ethical and moral value of this Commandment, let us assume that the Bible God did free the Children of Israel from the yoke of Egyptian rule (though it might be asked why he permitted their enslavement in the first place). Why, then, did he permit them to become slaves under the yoke of the Romans? Was slavery under one tyrant more desirable than under another?

While he was setting the Hebrews at liberty, why did he not free others who were held in bondage? Was freeing of the Children of Israel the most important problem in the world at that time? The Hebrews were not the only people who were slaves. Were not the other enslaved peoples equally deserving of liberation? Is not slavery itself an obnoxious institution, and are not all peoples worthy of freedom? Slavery at that time was a universal institution. Enslaved humanity under brutal tyrants everywhere filled the air with cries of agony and despair. Why was he so partial to the Hebrews? If this God was omnipotent, there is no question as to his ability to perform the task. If he could and he did not, he deserves the sternest condemnation.

Would not the little knowledge that we have today, acquired after thousands of years of struggle with the forces of nature, have been of more benefit to mankind than the exodus of an insignificant tribe of people? Think of the great progress that would have been made if this God had shown the people how to construct the printing press, the automobile, the electric light, the motion picture, the electric dynamo or the X-ray machine, or to produce anesthesia, or had revealed the secrets of radium, or any one of the hundreds of inventions and discoveries that man has used so advantageously to liberate himself from physical pain and to cure the ills to which flesh is heir. Why, in his first statement to the people of the earth, did not this God reveal the laws that govern nature, and the formulas by which the materials of the earth could be used? The Bible does not contain even the basic law of the earth upon which we live -- the law of gravitation.

While we are speaking of the liberation of the Hebrews from bondage, it will not be irrelevant to mention Abraham Lincoln's efforts to free the Negro slaves in this country. By way of comparison, Lincoln's task was just as arduous as that of the God of Israel; in fact, it was more so, for Lincoln was only a common mortal. He had to combat others stronger than himself. He also had to fight in the open against the invisible foes of racial, political and social prejudices. He had to fight the Bible's own pronouncement that slavery existed by divine approval. In support of the institution of slavery, ministers of religion consistently quoted scriptural edicts, such as Leviticus, Chapter 25, verses 44 to 46:

44. Both thy bondmen, and thy bondmaids, which thou shalt have, shall be of the heathen that are round about you; of them shall ye buy bondmen and bondmaids.

45. Moreover, of the children of the strangers that do sojourn among you, of them shall ye buy, and of their families that are with you, which they begat in your land: and they shall be your possession.

46. And ye shall take them as an inheritance for your children after you, to inherit them for a possession; they shall be your bondmen for ever: but over your brethren the children of Israel, ye shall not rule one over another with rigor.

Ministers also quoted Timothy, Chapter 6, verse 1:

1. Let as many servants as are under the yoke count their own masters worthy of all honour, that the name of God and his doctrine be not blasphemed.

These Biblical quotations were flung in the face of Lincoln to justify the enslavement of human beings.
Lincoln was far superior to the God of Israel in this respect: his task was more difficult and his accomplishments far greater. But more important still, and far more valuable than his deeds, was his character. He did not boast of his accomplishments. He wanted no credit other than to know that he had freed human beings from the shackles of slavery.

Nor did he demand adoration and worship. His compensation was the satisfaction of destroying the most vicious institution that ever cursed human society, although it had Biblical sanction. And Lincoln did not pose before his liberated Negroes with this statement: "I am Lincoln, your Emancipator, who freed you from your masters and liberated you from the shackles of bondage."

Nor was Lincoln a Negro. The slaves were not "his" people. He was not bound to them by ties of blood. He did his work purely for the love of humanity. No member of the human race was a stepchild to him. He did not flatter them by calling them his "chosen people." His passion was the principle of freedom for all mankind.

Lincoln said that this nation could not remain half slave and half free, and so he set about to make all free. The Bible Deity's performance dwindles into insignificance when compared with that of the Great Emancipator. Certainly, if Lincoln could free the Negro slaves in the United States of America, a God of the universe should have been able to abolish slavery throughout the earth.

If the Bible God had abolished slavery completely, the bloody sacrifice of the Civil War would not have been necessary. When Lincoln freed the Negroes, he did not in turn permit them to enslave others; whereas the Bible Deity sanctioned the barter and sale of human beings.

These Bible laws, presumably with divine approval, established to God's eternal infamy the property right in man, with all the heartrending misery that slavery has brought upon the earth. Consider the intellectual and moral progress that would have resulted had slavery never existed.


The Clergy and the First Commandment

Although I have already shown by a comparison of the Decalogue the conflict between the different religious systems which accept the Commandments as a revelation from God, I also wish to mention that there is a greater divergence of opinion concerning their meaning by the ministers of these various sects. Only the Hebrews -- and properly, because it applies to them only -- accept this First Commandment as it appears in the code. Most of the Protestant sects reject the first half completely, and start the Decalogue with the first line of the Second Commandment. The Catholics combine the first half of this Commandment and the first line of the Second and use it as the First Commandment. The refusal of both the Catholics and Protestants, however, to accept this commandment in its original form is a deliberate attempt to conceal its application to the Hebrews only, thereby pretending that the Decalogue is a divine revelation applicable to all people.

In the opening paragraph of his book, The First Commandment, William Jennings Bryan says:

"Thou shalt have no other gods before me," reads the first of the commandments brought down from Sinai. The fact that it stands first would indicate that it is the most important of the ten, and the same conclusion is reached if we compare it with the other nine."

Need any comment be made after quoting these words? They are in themselves sufficient to reveal either the deliberate evasion of the actual words of the First Commandment, or the ignorance of the writer. If "Thou shalt have no other gods before me" is the First Commandment, why do they continue to print Bibles with the words quoted at the beginning of this chapter?

Is this commandment the most important precept of the ten, even though it came first, in comparison with the other nine? It is pitiful to think that this was the extent of the knowledge of the Ten Commandments of the "Great Commoner," the man who three times aspired to the presidency of the United States of America!

Dean Farrar, noted English divine, changes this commandment to suit himself, and minces no words in emphatically insisting upon his interpretation. After giving this commandment as "Thou shalt have no other gods before me," he asks

"Who were the gods after whom the backsliding Jews, again and again, went astray? Were they not devil-deities -- Ashtoreith the abomination of the Sidonians, and Chemosh the abomination of Moab, and Moloch the abomination of the children of Ammon? [19]

One would think that the belief in the existence of these other gods would be sufficient to convince any intelligent person that the Hebrew God was one of the many tribal gods worshiped in that primitive and nomadic time; and he was not superior to the others by any standard by which we measure values.

Dean Farrar further states:

"Men seem to think that these Ten Commandments are something Jewish; that God did not really mean them to be kept. Why, this First Commandment, 'I am the Lord thy God, thou shalt have none other gods but me,' is nothing less than the key to man's whole existence! It is the eternal basis of all worship and all morality. [20]

What a ludicrous, contradictory, and puerile statement! In his first comment, Dean Farrar specifically mentions the existence of other gods, and explains that this commandment was a warning to the Hebrews not to abandon their God for the "devil-deities" of other tribes. In the next statement he states that this commandment is the basis of all worship and morality. Only a religiously trained individual could make such a contradictory statement without a blush of shame.

How can a person who deliberately mutilates texts he holds sacred, to suit his purpose, speak: about the moral attributes of devotion and loyalty?

The Rev. Frederick David Niedermeyer reveals much needed knowledge of the Decalogue and particularly of this commandment. He informs us that

"The Ten Commandments are theocentric. As the heavenly bodies in our solar system are centered around the sun, so is the divine law centered in God, putting Him into the place of first consideration." [21]

He continues with a more earthly interpretation, saying: "The Commandments were delivered orally in the hearing of the awe-struck Israelites, and later inscribed by the finger of God on two tables of stone. The size of those tables is not revealed, but they may well have been smaller than usually represented by artists." We are grateful for this information. Artists in the future should be more accurate in their description of the sacred tables of stone upon which God with his finger wrote the Ten Commandments. What about the set that God dictated to Moses? The Rev. Mr. Niedermeyer has the honesty, however, to say that, although "the Ten Commandments have a wide reputation," and "most people know something about them, far fewer really know the actual commandments." He gives as an illustration of the general ignorance of the commandments the reply of an adult who said one of the commandments was "You should not take your neighbour's cow." [22]

He also states that "a commandment like the First might be given, indeed, by a small-minded, jealous potentate, who was hoping thereby to keep his political fences in repair and to safeguard his own authority. He might give such a law with an eye single to his own benefit, and it would seem only human to take such steps." [23]

The Rev. J. C. Masse says, concerning this commandment: "Here is not a force setting in motion a train of sequence. Here is not original energy inherent in all matter. Here is not simply a great first cause of all substance. Here is the personal, holy God, eternal, immortal, all glorious. It is the incomparable, glorious Person who spake to Moses out of the bush."

The reverend gentleman has the integrity to include the words at the beginning of this chapter as they appear in the First Commandment, although he adds the first line of the Second Commandment. This is how he lists the First Commandment:

"I am the Lord thy God, who brought thee out of the land of Egypt out of the house of bondage. Thou shalt have no other gods before me."

He continues in his analysis of this commandment: "As deep answers unto deep, so normal mankind must respond to God. Otherwise man has missed the very purpose of his being. The challenge of this first command, 'I am Jehovah thy God,' conveys all this to thoughtful, intelligent, moral mankind." [24]

And as for the Deliverer, he makes this comment: "But He who is incomparably glorious in His person, and is to be worshiped for what He is, is none the less glorious in His works and is to be worshiped also for what he does. And so to the majesty of His name He adds a reminder of the compassion of His character, 'I am Jehovah thy God that brought thee out of the land of Egypt, that delivered thee from bondage.'" [25]

The following gems of expression I take from the learned Reverend G. Campbell Morgan's book, The Ten Commandments: "The severity of the law of God is the necessary sequence of His infinite love. The fiery law is the most perfect expression of his love for the peoples. Let men then with reverent sincerity stand in the light of His law, that they may understand the perfection of His love."

He does, however, make one statement which is incontrovertible: "The ten words of Sinai were not ten separate commandments, having no reference to each other. They were the ten sides of the one law of God." [26]

The Reverend John Alexander Hayes offers a rather new explanation of why there is a misconception of the commandments. He says that "the average person thinks of the size of the stone tablets, on which the commandments were inscribed, as being much larger than they really were." "Artists," he says, "have helped this mistaken conception by drawing them so."[27] He believes that by this commandment "Atheism is forbidden." [28]

What a convenient interpretation to stifle all opposition so as to prevent an exposé of this piece of religious dishonesty.

The theologians are wrong. "I am the Lord thy God who brought thee out of the house of bondage, out of the land of Egypt" are the words of the First Commandment. Any abbreviation or change is pure imposture on their part. It is a necessary introduction to the religion of the Israelites and a proper prologue to the Ten Commandments.


19. The Voice of Sinai, p. 99.
20. The Voice of Sinai, p. 100.
21. Frederick David Niedermeyer, The Ten Commandments Today, p. 15.
22. Niedermeyer, The Ten Commandments Today, p. 17.
23. Ibid., p. 19.
24. Rev. J. C. Masse, The Gospel and The Ten Commandments, p. 17.
25. Masse, The Gospel and the Ten Commandments, p. 17.
26. Rev. G. Campbell Morgan, The Ten Commandments, p. Il.
27. Hayes, The Ten Commandments, p. 31.
28. Ibid., p. 35.