matt (hbergeronx) wrote,

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on "no other gods"

I'm currently reading closely the passage which part of the "first commandment", from Exodus 20:2, commonly translated "Thou shalt have no other gods before Me."

לֹא-יִהְיֶה לְךָ אֱלֹהִים אֲחֵרִים, עַל-פָּנָי

לֹא-יִהְיֶה: lo-adonai, no God
לְךָ: l'cha, for yourself
אֱלֹהִים אֲחֵרִים: elohim akherim, other gods
עַל-פָּנָי: al-panay, "on my face", in front of me, in my presence.

I'm curious what the concept of "לֹא-יִהְיֶה" has meant over time. I don't believe there was a concept of "no god" anywhere of significance in the world, nor at any point in time: not in the ancient world (Socrates was put to death for such an assertion), certaintly no less today. In ancient warfare, the losing side is often written to cry "our god has abandoned us!", in the sense that there is despair in not having the presence of a god. Even the (considered athiest) Enlightenment had its Jeffersonian God, Deism, which was at best a Pascallion unknowable/ineffable and at worst a form of monotheistic animism. There's something appealing about Unitarian rejection of Christian Trinitarianism but it would seem obvious that Unitarianism has currently reduced itself to UU, which is indistinguishable to me from the same deist monotheistic animism.

"Nature abhors a vacuum"- even in modern particle physics the universe is a buzzing soup of constantly created and annihilated virtual particles, such that there is no nothing anywhere. What is nothing?

Furthermore, what hardening of meaning did the Masoretic vowelization have? There's this fascinating repetition in Genesis 12:1, " לֶךְ-לְךָ " where the same two lettters, lamed-final khof, are vowelized differently, translated to "go": lech and "for yourself": l'cha, and this portion is named after this compound, "Lech Lecha", describing how Abraham leaves the house of his father to go and visit the future "promised land".

The concept of "taking" or "having" a god, especially "the" God, is a logical absurdity, whereas making the word "l'cha" sufficiently ambiguous as "go", "go yourself", modifies the statement

לֹא-יִהְיֶה: lo-adonai, no God
לְךָ: l'cha, goes with you
אֱלֹהִים אֲחֵרִים: elohim akherim, other gods
עַל-פָּנָי: al-panay, like modern slang "in my face".

converting it into a statement of logic, consistent what is to follow, "you take for yourself no God when you take other gods in my place".

It seems to be a statement of "don't accept substitutes or allegory"- in a sense, it is better to have no god, and not risk "the consequence of jealousy", then to (inadvertantly, even) take tangible substitutes and confuse them for the real thing- no image or representation of any thing in heaven, on earth, or in the sea. The idea of "no god" is, in my opinion, never actually been on the table- a rare few, such as Socrates, perhaps, but certainly not Enlightenment era thinkers, and by extension, certainly not the major paricipants in science. Polytheistic animism is certainly a pre-rational era concept, and monotheism is a product of Platonic rationalism carried through to the enlightenment and modernism.

What, then, does it mean, more than לֹא אֱלֹהִים אֲחֵרִים , to say לֹא יִהְיֶה ? And what is the curious representation often made in Hebrew letters of the first commandment, on many of those stone monuments people are wont to put up these days? Graven image, or mere irony? Look closely!
Tags: atheism, ethical culture, theology

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