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In Exodus 20:3, we read:

You shall have no other gods before me. [ESV]

The ESV here provides a textual note on before, saying "or besides." And indeed, many translations use that phrasing.

Personally, I have understood the word "before" here as referring to rank – that is, you may not consider any other god to be more valuable/worthy than the one true God. But recently I noticed that the Westminster Shorter Catechism has a different focus:

Q. 48. What are we specially taught by these words before me in the first commandment?
A. These words before me in the first commandment teach us that God, who seeth all things, taketh notice of, and is much displeased with, the sin of having any other god.

The WSC seems to be understanding before in a spatial sense, i.e., in the presence [or sight] of. So because God sees all, everyone is always "before God['s presence]," and the sin of having another god is easily noticed by him.

How should we understand the original text? Is the WSC's interpretation reasonable, or must it be excluded in favor of an idea of rank or some other approach?

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Exodus 20:3

לֹֽ֣א יִהְיֶֽה־ לְךָ֛֩ אֱלֹהִ֥֨ים אֲחֵרִ֖֜ים עַל־ פָּנָֽ֗יַ*

Literally: Not|shall-you-have|to-yourselves|gods|other|before|the-face-[of-me]

Thus,

Thou shalt not have other gods before me*

* "my face/presence," or, as we might say, 'in my sight'.

That is, God wants no other Gods to be worshiped alonside with Him, in addition to Him. Whom He wants alone to be worshiped (and of course considers to be alone worthy of worship).


Or, dynamically, you could say,

"You shall suffer no god to be held on par [as if they could be] with me."


The meaning of the preposition עַל־ ('al') and its use in the Hebrew Bible

The preposition "before" here (עַל־ al: Strong's #5921) is a simple preposition, and simply means upon, over, above, on (e.g. Genesis 1:2; Leviticus 9:7; 18:30) toward, about (Exodus 18:13), against (Exodus 17:3) beside(s) (Genesis 15:27), before (the passage in quesiton); on account of, because of, for this reason (Genesis 2:24; Exodus 15:23; 18:9), among other synonymic meanings, being used to specify position of something, often in relation to something else (originating from a verb עָלָה alah describing movement). So no, it cannot be taken to denote a 'higer rank', and is never used to that effect in the rest of the Hebrew Bible.

What the English word before may or many not denote does not apply to the Hebrew preposition. In other words, "above someone in rank" and "above the rock" are two meanings of the word in English, whereas in Hebrew, only the latter sense is meant: simple spatial or other relation to something else.

(I suspect a preposition like מִ mi would have been used instead, meaning, "more than; above; [greater] than" etc. as in Psalm 45:7—"above thy fellows")


The Septuagint translation/the Ancient interpretation

This is made clearer in the translation into Greek of this verse in the Greek Septuagint:

οὐκ ἔσονταί σοι θεοὶ ἕτεροι πλὴν ἐμοῦ

Literally: Not|there-shall-be|to you(pl)|gods|other|except|me

Thus,

There shall be to thee no other gods except me.

i.e.

Thou shalt have no other gods except me

And it is therefore clear that the hebrew intends to convey the sentiment of God in Exodus 34:14 (cf. 20:5):

For thou shall not worship another god: for the LORD, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God.

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    Thanks! Very interesting. If you'd be able to provide some sources backing up this analysis, that'd be helpful to me as well. – Nathaniel Jun 9 '17 at 13:50
  • I updated it a little. This is all I can personally say on the matter. You may have to consult someone who can defend the Hebrew linguistic factors better than I have. – Sola Gratia Jun 9 '17 at 18:11

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