You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me, but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments. Exodus 20:4-6
Here is the second Law-Word, followed by both a curse and a blessing. The Lord insists here that God’s uniqueness and undefinable-ness is such that all attempts on the part of Yahweh’s subjects to get their arms or minds around their god by picturing their god or by creating a shape to represent their god are doomed to failure and are thus strictly prohibited. If they call the image they make Baal or Molech or Chemosh they sin, but if they call it Yahweh, they also sin.
Why is this important? When the people could, in their conceit, define their gods, it meant that they could better control their gods. They could “know” what the god wanted and so know how to manipulate the god to their own desired ends; they could link the god to various attributes of the creature they selected to represent the god and then cater to the known needs and desires of that creature. Therefore, in this second of all laws, Yahweh declared God would not be defined by people in terms of the creation God had made. God would only be defined in terms of Yahweh’s revelations of Yahweh to them. What was more, god-like power should never be ascribed to any thing in creation be it in heaven, on the earth or under the earth. Only Yahweh, the god who could only be known by his words and deeds, could deliver Israel from distress.
The curse and the blessing in this law are typical of ancient treaty sanctions: blessing and curse, the two-edged sword of judgment, declared God’s possible responses, depending on human faithfulness or rebellion against this covenant Law-Word.
So how long did it take the people of Israel to break this law? They started building a golden calf to represent Yahweh just days after they first heard the law and before they even had a copy of it, written in stone. And once Israel was settled in the land of promise, in only their second generation in the land, a woman wishing to celebrate a happy event, spent a small fortune having an image of God made out of silver (Judges 17)! It was this image, a calf made of silver, which the tribe of Dan stole when they left the place where they were to commanded to settle and moved to the northern tip of the land of Israel. The Danites used this idol as an object of worship which they called Yahweh until the day the Assyrians carried them away into captivity (Judges 18). Interestingly, the list of the tribes of Israel in the Revelation of St. John (chapter 7) does not include Dan as a tribe of Israel at all.
Later, Israel returned from captivity in Babylon, and the prophet Isaiah declared that although they no-longer made images and worshiped them, the people might as well do so, given the way they lived. Is it possible to make graven images of gods in our minds without actually carving or pouring a statue?
Of course. Anything we believe, anything we cling to without reservation, that is something we worship. This becomes much clearer when we understand the two basic Hebrew words for worship. Both appear in the subject text, above: You shall not bow down to them or worship them. One of the two words, shakha, means, to bow down, to prostrate one’s self in the formal action of worship. The other, avad, means to worship in the more basic sense of to work for, to serve, to be pressed into service by a god. When we find ourselves pressed into service to any belief, to any ideology, by any person other than King Jesus, then we probably serve an idol. This is not worship in the formal, bow-down, shakha, sense. This is worship in a far more basic, fundamental sense.
It was toward this deeper sense of worship and not the other that the Syrian general Naaman referred when he asked the prophet, Elisha, if the true God of Israel would forgive him if he bowed down before the Syrian god, Rimmon, in the presence of the Syrian king (II Kings 5:1-19). Naaman knew his heart, his true service, his avad, would forever belong to Israel’s God, Yahweh, but would it be all right if he made a show of bowing to Rimmon? The prophet tells him to go in peace, because one’s true god is the god one serves, one works for, one actually depends upon. And unless one also publicly “bows down” before that same god one serves daily, the god one bows down before is not truly the authority in one’s life.
How can we tell if we are working for and thus serving idols rather than God in our lives? The darkly whimsical answer is, if one is breathing, one has idols. Is there any more helpful method of identifying an idol? Ask yourself, “Can I do without this person or this thing in my life?” If the very thought of losing the person or thing makes you weak in the knees, then there is probably some believing in, some working for, some unhealthy symbiosis in your relationship. And when the idol is a concept, a conviction, a theory or an ideology? Can I seriously imagine a certain assumption might be wrong without a shudder? Or not? Let me give you some examples.
Recently, I had a conversation with a student of mine about the Iraq War (I called it an “occupation;” he called it a “war”). When we got to the place where we discussed the motivations which had led to this conflict, I suggested that we might have gone to war in the middle east for oil.
“Oh, no!” he reacted. “It was not for oil!”
I suspect you can hear with me the vocal qualities which accompanied this response. I asked another question, but the level of emotion and determination which went into his first words served as a pretty good predictor for his next answer. I asked (anyway), “Tell me, is there any evidence that I could give you or any conceivable authority that I could quote to you that you could, for the sake of argument, imagine would cause you to change your mind on that?”
The student crossed his arms in front of him and said simply, “No.”
What had I learned? I had come to discover that for this person the issue of U.S. motivation for war in Iraq, at least where the issue of oil was concerned, was not open to examination. It could not even be discussed. That the U.S. had not gone to war for oil was an article of faith or at least it was based on some hidden article of faith.
“The Iraq conflict was not started nor did Iraq continue to be occupied in order to secure oil interests for the U.S. and its corporate oil lobby,” was a conviction which no so-called facts could alter for this person. That is the very exact, kind of thinking (or avoidance of thinking) and believing which functions as avad, the worshipful service of something. It should raise a flag for us that Jesus might have a competitor in the life of a person who claims to be a Christian, who is regularly involved in shakha for Jesus but who holds such a firm but distant “undoubtable.”
Another example: Some years ago, I was reading through the Bible in one of those programs where you go over three chapters a day for a year and, wallah! You have read through the entire Bible in a year (whether you understood or even remember what you read or not)! Anyhow, I got to the section in Ezekiel 24 where the prophet is told that God is going to strike down his wife, “the desire of his eyes.” This will be, says God, a sign, an object lesson to the exiles in Babylon, because Ezekiel is to refuse to visibly mourn her loss in any way. This, says God, will be a sign which the stubborn exiles from Judah will neither understand nor accept.
Sitting here, writing this, I feel an echo of the fury, the blinding hot rage which welled up in me, way back then, at the very idea that God would take away the woman Ezekiel loved, God would kill her to make a point about Jerusalem and the temple which would not, finally, change a single thing for anyone except that Ezekiel will have lost his wife for nothing. I sat, stunned. I quietly closed the Bible, saying out loud to no one in particular, “Well, I do not think I will read this book again for a while.”
I didn’t. I did not pick up a Bible for many months. All this happened about a year after my wife, Karen, had survived two surgeries and most of a year of chemotherapy for cancer. I had lived with the terror that I might lose her for the previous two years. Now, here I was reading about how God, who I thought had claimed to love me, was treating his prophet, one of the few people who actually cared about God, like he was nothing. How dare God treat him (and maybe treat me?) like that!
Did I have an idol in my life? You bet I did. I probably still do sometimes where Karen is concerned, but at least I know it now, I can confess it now, I can work through it before the face of God now. It took a long time to let go of some right I thought I had to a good life with a wonderful wife. I did let it go. Yet, every once in a while I find myself back there again. God help me not to turn the one I love into what she can never be: a finite god in my life!
When we serve good creatures as false gods we ruin both the good creatures they actually are and we mess ourselves up real good.
Someone once quipped, ‘In the beginning God made humankind in God’s image and we humans have been returning the favor ever since.’ We not only serve/work for/worship other gods, we also remake the living God to suit our idols and to not interfere with them.
How do we re-shape Yahweh to suit ourselves today? Do some of us believe in a Lord Jesus who has called the U.S.A. to be God’s especially chosen nation which can do no wrong? Or, do we believe in a deist God, an austere, powerful, transcendent deity who is largely un-supportive or uncaring, observing it all from a distance? Or is our God a celestial wimp who cares very much about how hard things are for us but who is powerless to do much of anything about our situation? Is the God we claim to worship a bit embarrassed, like many of his people, about nudity and sex, a bit tongue-tied about where babies come from? Or have we become enthralled with the God of prosperity? How, I wonder, is that particular re-imaging of God working out during the great recession? The prosperity gospel must be easier to sell during booms than during this long bust.
Sorting out the God who is from the god we fashion is a struggle. It is something we cannot do alone or at least, can’t do alone for very long. We need each other. We need the Word-in-scripture. We need the Spirit in our hearts to commune with that which is in the redeemed hearts of others. We need to be attuned to the Word-in-creation or behind creation or where-ever it is. We need help. In order to truly know the God who reveals himself in the scriptures, we need as much as we know of God to speak to as much as we know of the world, ourselves and each other.
To put it another way, in order to come to the God which really is and not stay with our convenient remix of God, we really need to become children again. Children, after all, do not know much but at least they do know that. We adult-types, by contrast, know only a little more than the kids do, yet we fold our arms and say, “No!” or we get all enraged at what we think we know is unjust, when maybe we really do not know Jack, let alone God. If we will be children again in our attitudes, then we will not dismiss each other out of hand or get all hatey and defensive when we find out someone disagrees with us. After all, we’re really barely more than infants in this universe and it’s just fine to admit we really do not know much at all.
Because that is the joke, you know. We don’t know much, but our Father does. And our father-God wants us to learn everything and to re-learn everything we already think we know, from his point of view, not from ours. That, after-all, was the problem in the very first place:
But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not die; for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” Genesis 3:4-5
We have been seeing things from our own rebellious perspectives almost from the beginning. If nothing else, then, let’s begin by admitting, our understanding of the God who really is is certainly flawed, is quite possibly well off-center. Then, like Samuel, in the Bible, the child who knew almost nothing at the time (I Samuel 3:1-20), we can listen for the voice that will speak if we will ask and then be quiet. Then, when we hear our names called, we can say, “Speak, Lord, for your servants are listening.” And if we have ears to hear, we will relearn, our minds will be transformed and we will share with all the people in the world, from Dan to Beersheba, what the sovereign, living God has told us, about war and peace, about hate and love, about festering sores and about healing power. Or we can continue to serve the convenient god we have devised and wonder why there is no power in our lives. Clearly, the loving God who sent King Jesus wants us to know him and be filled with his power!
Comments, anyone, before I finish this one with bullet points and a closing prayer?
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1 Back to Post It is worth noting, as matter of full disclosure, that at the time of the discussion in question I did not have a firm view of why the U.S. went to war against the government of Iraq. I still do not, although subsequent events have led me to suspect it was like nearly every geopolitical decision in the last eighty years, mostly about oil. However, I do not here mean to discuss this specific, historical, political issue at all. As I was writing, this incident came to mind as a perfect example of what I am trying to say here about the indubitable nature of convictions as conceptual idols. When anything is held at a level where no evidence, nor argument, no logic, and no authority, can change my mind, that thing is for me, a matter of faith. I try very hard to have very few such “undoubtables” because I have come to learn that they are usually the thin curtain which obscures my ability to see an idol, a false god, in my life. This is a very real problem, one which Paul addresses in Romans 12:1-2. It makes a difference. To the degree that we have not kept ourselves from such idols of the mind, our minds cannot be renewed and we cannot be transformed into the image of Christ, nor can we helpfully identify what is good, acceptable and perfect, nor therefore can we discern what is truly deadly in our society.