Do not have other gods besides me. Do not make an idol for yourself, whether in the shape of anything in the heavens above or on the earth below or in the waters under the earth. Do not bow in worship to them, and do not serve them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, bringing the consequences of the fathers’ iniquity on the children to the third and fourth generations of those who hate me, but showing faithful love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commands.
Exodus 20:3–6 (CSB)
In today’s Bible reading* we see the people of Israel violate both of these top commandments to align themselves with Baal of Peor. The Bible actually tells us that the people prostituted themselves with the Moabite women. (Numbers 25:1) And God’s anger burned against these men.
The Covenant-making, Covenant-keeping LORD God told Moses to kill every man who had slept with a Moabite woman. A modern reader might ask why God would want to execute men for merely having sex with women from a particular geographic region. “It’s just sex, right?” Numbers 25:2 tells us that the Moabite women enticed the Israelite men to worship Baal through sexual immorality. So no. It wasn’t “just sex”.
This is the first time — and definitely not the last time — the name of the main Canaanite fertility god Baal is given in the Bible. For many more years into the future, the people of Israel vascillate between the worship of God and the worship of Baal. Time and again, God accuses His people of committing adultery against Him by worshipping Baal. In fact, the book of Hosea is the story of a prophet that God tells to marry a prostitute. God uses Hosea and his wife Gomer as a parable of Israel’s on-and-off relationship with God.
But this isn’t the first time the people of Israel bowed down to a fertility god. Remember the golden calf the people worshipped while Moses communed with God in Exodus 32? Apis was the fertility god of Egypt and was portrayed as a bull. So when Aaron fashioned the golden calf, he merely borrowed from what he saw all around him as he grew up.
So what are the top commandments of God?
Jesus told a Jewish leader that the Greatest Commandment is to love God with all that you are. He then offered up the Second Greatest. Rather than going to Exodus 20 and quoting two of the Top Ten Commandments, Jesus combined Deuteronomy 6:5 (love God) and Leviticus 19:18 (love your neighbor) as the Top Commandments. He went so far as to say that all of the Law hangs on these top commandments: Love God and Love Others (Matthew 22:36–40).
All of this goes to demonstrate that God’s ways aren’t all about activity and behavior, but relationship. When the Israelite men involved themselves in sexual immorality with the Moabite women, it wasn’t about sex. It was about leaving their relationship with God and pursuing a relationship with another god.
When we as Believers turn our backs on white-hot pursuit and worship of God to pursue anything else, it’s all about abandoning our relationship with God. That’s why the Top Commandments of God are about relationship, not behavior. And when we focus on behavior change, we completely miss the point of having a relationship with God. In doing that, we turn to religious moralism, thinking we can behave our way into God’s favor. Instead, God offers to transform our lives in a covenant relationship by the power of His abiding Holy Spirit, changing us from the inside-out.
* Chapters covered in today’s reading: