Does al panai – “before Me” mean that we must not grant other gods a higher priority than HaShem, possibly implying that other gods may be placed lower down in the list?
The answer of Targum Onkelos is that the Hebrew does not mean “ahead of God” but “besides God” – i.e. “There are to be no other gods apart from Me”. Ibn Ezra and Nachmanides consider that the phrase means “in God’s Presence” – i.e. “Since you have Me, no other gods should be countenanced”.
A Midrashic view summarised by Rashi suggests that God is saying, “As long as I exist (i.e. eternally) you must have no other gods”.
A more difficult question is why the verse speaks about other gods at all. Are there really any other gods? If not, why mention them? If they are mentioned, does this not imply that they do exist? Maimonides warns us, “Do not even harbour the thought that there is any other god beside HaShem”. So what does “other gods” mean?
Various suggestions have been made, e.g. “the ‘gods’ that others worship”, “the ‘gods’ that are ‘other’ (i.e. ineffectual)”, or even – taking the word we translate “other” as coming from “achar”, “after” or “late” – “the ‘gods’ that delay the redemption of the world”.
Unfortunately every age has its false gods whom gullible people follow for a time and then find that they are “nothing gods”, which some suggest is the meaning of elil, “an idol”, as if it came from al, “not”.