Academic journal article International Review of Mission

"I Am the Lord Your God and You Shall Have No Other Gods before Me": Identity and Plurality

Academic journal article International Review of Mission

"I Am the Lord Your God and You Shall Have No Other Gods before Me": Identity and Plurality

Article excerpt

The Old Testament witness is an exhortation to courage and dialogue. Every new generation of Israel faced the challenges of its time without hesitation and often daringly. The history of Israel was marked by serious crises, which could well have wiped out the covenant people. In all, these crises, Israel rallied to the call of Yahweh and sometimes triumphantly, sometimes agonizingly, faced the new situation. The nation came through the tests and grew through them, not only in inner strength and stature, but also in insight regarding matters of faith. New dimensions were opened up to the Israel of each new generation. An earlier generation would have failed to perceive these fresh perspectives in faith and understanding.

Not least, Israel's faith came to be what it was through the encounter with nonIsraelite religions and cultures. No better proof of the inherent vitality and moral strength of the faith of Israel could be given than the power it possessed to assimilate and transform the various elements with which it came into contact through its historical environment. (1) The Old Testament offers numerous illustrations of this profound truth. We note in this connection the theological enrichment for the faith of Israel when its God came to be understood clearly, through the use of the pattern of the ancient West Asian vassal treaties, as the sovereign king of God's people. The faith of Israel rarely emerged without being enriched and strengthened by its encounters with other religions and cultures, which brought to light and set forth new elements of the Jewish faith.

For our reflection on the theme, Identity and Plurality, I have chosen a text from the book of Exodus. As a story of deliverance from oppression, the birth of freedom, and the divine sanction of human rights and responsibilities, the exodus story has served as a paradigm for over two and half millennia. From the sixth century BCE to the present, the images, the values and the ideas of exodus persist. There is something in the story that pertains to the human spirit irrespective of cultural and ethnic differences. The human condition is elucidated by the encounters of the Hebrews and the Egyptians, Moses and Pharaoh, and Yahweh and Israel, as well as by the concepts of the mountain of God and the promised land. The exodus is paradigmatic in every generation and every circumstance for those engaged in eradicating human oppression and bringing salvation on the temporal horizon.

The exodus is the story of the birth of a people, a social and ethnic unity that emerges in Israel beginning in the Iron Age. This forging of identity is a process that extends over the lifetime of Israelite society. The processes of ethnic self-definition are evident in the symbolic rites of passage in the exodus story: the people are separated and delivered from the house of bondage; transformed into a new identity a s the "people of Yahweh" at the holy mountain; and reincorporated into the promised land with their new identity in place. The story as a whole defines the collective identity and ethnic boundaries of the people, and provides a common foundation for social and religious life. "The social function of history is evident in the processes of ethnic self-definition in the story and in the annual festival of Passover that re-enacts this collective memory." (2)

One key dictum given to the people that provided for an authentic identity amidst the pluralistic ethos of the time, was the expectation on the part of Yahweh, that Yahweh would be the God of Israel and Israel would have no other god before Yahweh.

The words "before me" in Hebrew al panay could more easily be translated "along side me", and would appear to have had most direct relevance to a cultic situation in which it was usual for more than one god to be worshipped at a sanctuary. However, it certainly came to imply that no other god was to be worshipped in preference to Yahweh, or instead of Yahweh. …

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