The First Commandment
The first commandment of the Decalogue, “You shall have no other gods in my stead” (Exodus 20:3), is not the “first” simply in the sense of being the earliest in the sequence. It is not as though the order within the Decalogue could be switched around, so that it might begin with the prohibition of murder, say, or the injunction of the Sabbath. This lex prima is not prima inter pares.
The first of the Ten Commandments is the first, rather, in the sense that it is the source and fountainhead of the other nine. The commandments are not equal, and the first is formally different from the others. Its priority, that is to say, is not just material but qualitative. Its “firstness” pertains to its essence, not merely its assigned place in the Decalogue’s sequential disposition. It is not only first, but the first.
Thus, the first commandment is first in God’s Law in a manner analogous to the way that the number “one” is the first of the numbers. “One” is not simply the numeral that precedes “two”; “one” is, rather, the number out of which, and by reason of which, that second number comes. “One” is the cause and necessary condition of “two” and all the subsequent numbers. “One” is logically one, then, before it is first. “One” becomes “first” only by the emergence of a second.
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Patrick Henry Reardon is pastor emeritus of All Saints Antiochian Orthodox Church in Chicago, Illinois, and the author of numerous books, including, most recently, Out of Step with God: Orthodox Christian Reflections on the Book of Numbers (Ancient Faith Publishing, 2019).
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