Last night the Torah group met. We discussed the place in Exodus in which the Ten Commandments first appears. I learned from our instructor that the Ten Commandments are presented differently depending upon what denomination you're talking about. This isn't just about translation, but about where the sentences end, and what they say, as well as how many commandments there actually are.
The original Hebrew text has no vowels and no punctuation. Therefore, it is always a matter of interpretation just to make sense of it at all. When one reads the Torah aloud, as I did in my bat mitzvah about 5 years ago, s/he sings the text, in a system called trope. Though there are no vowels, the text includes "musical" markings that tell the reader what notes to sing.
We spent some time discussing the dictum that the Hebrew people should "have no God before [Adonai]." I noted that it didn't say that Adonai was the only God; indeed, it is plain in many instances, including the Golden Calf debacle and Rachel's stealing of her father's idols that these people were not monotheists. However, they viewed their God as the most powerful of many. That God was the only one that was not localized, linked to a given natural phenomenon, such as sun, wind, water. Rather, part of what gave God power was that s/he could not be visualized or limited. In fact, that's one of the commandments.
But I think that we do not really understand polytheism--then or now. When I speak to Hindus, they tell me that they believe, like the people of Genesis and Exodus, in a God who rules over the pantheon of minor gods, and that these minor figures are aspects of that larger God. So what is the difference between so-called polytheism and monotheism if that is the case? I would like to know more about this.