Wednesday, June 22, 2022

Foreign Gods in the Least Likely Moments

“He said, ‘Then put away the foreign gods that are among you, and incline your heart to the Lord, the God of Israel.’ ”

Quick question for avid readers of the Old Testament: without clicking or mousing-over the link above, who said these words?

If you guessed Moses, you’re wrong.

A Good Try

Good try though. Moses certainly had to deal with idolatry among the people of God in the wilderness. Even as he received the law from God, the people were persuading his brother Aaron to fashion them a golden calf to worship, turning to foreign gods or their replicas. This abrupt national pivot to idolatry at Sinai may look like it came out of nowhere, but it did not. Israel already had a major problem with foreign gods in Egypt. Ezekiel writes, “And I said to them, ‘Cast away the detestable things your eyes feast on, every one of you, and do not defile yourselves with the idols of Egypt; I am the Lord your God.’ ”

“Every one of you”? Wow. Talk about a systemic problem. The “I” in “I said” is God, and when the Lord spoke to Israel to turn them away from the gods of Egypt, he did it through Moses. So although Moses didn’t speak precisely the words written above, he must have said something very similar when God first sent him to preach the good news of deliverance from slavery to his people.

Getting Judgmental

So no, it wasn’t Moses. But if you guessed one of the Judges, you’re wrong too. To be sure, the period of the Judges was wall-to-wall idolatry. Chapters 2 and 3 reveal idolatry was Israel’s biggest ongoing problem. The story of Ehud refers to idols near Gilgal. Strike one. Gideon destroyed the altar of Baal and an Asherah at the word of God, but later made an ephod that all Israel “whored after”. Strike two. In chapter 18 we read of Micah, an Ephraimite, who had household gods and an ephod. Apparently this was not uncommon in Israel. Strike three. But no, it wasn’t any of the many deliverers in Judges calling Israel back to the worship of the one true God.

If you guessed Samuel, you’re also wrong. Like Moses, Samuel said something very similar to the people around the beginning of his time judging Israel, and God gave them victory over their Philistine oppressors because they responded to his call for repentance. Sadly, it did not last. And this is not quite what Samuel said.

Kings and Prophets

Perhaps it was one of the kings of Israel who said it, or one of the prophets God sent to call his people to repentance? But no, that’s not it either. Certainly there were kings who spoke out sternly against idolatry. Joash and Hezekiah were high points in Judah. Asa even stripped his mother of her royal privileges for Asherah worship, and yet during his reign the high places were not removed. As for the prophets, their repeated calls for repentance and turning to God from idols demonstrated that for Israel, unfaithfulness was a problem that never went away. And none of the prophets said precisely these words.

Okay, but how about an exilic prophet like Daniel or Ezekiel? Ezekiel would be a good guess. He mentions idol worship thirty-plus times, more than any other prophet. But no, it wasn’t Ezekiel. And Daniel’s prayer of repentance for his people never mentions idols or foreign gods. Moreover, so far as we know Daniel in exile never addressed his people as Ezekiel did. It wasn’t him either.

A Sordid History

Last crack: Maybe Ezra or Nehemiah during the post-exilic reformation? Well, no. Neither book contains any direct reference to idolatry. The closest we come is in Ezra 10 and Nehemiah 13, which names the Israelites who had married foreign women. Foreign women led Solomon into idolatry, though his sin is not specified: “Did not Solomon king of Israel sin on account of such women?” So though both Ezra and Nehemiah deserve credit for their part in heading off what would surely have been yet another national descent into the worship of foreign gods, neither can be credited with having uttered the sentence we are considering.

From Egypt to Moses to the Judges to Samuel to the kings of Israel, through all the prophets and the leadership of the Jews returned from Babylonian exile, we have a virtually unbroken stream of testimony that Israel struggled with the worship of foreign gods for its entire existence as a nation. If we follow this tendency into the first century and beyond, we might well consider Talmudic Judaism the idolatrous answer to the Law. It is the voiding of the word of God in favor of human traditions. What else can we call it but idolatry?

Idolatry is an immensely powerful temptation. From our New Testament writers we learn that idolatry is not limited to overtly trafficking with foreign deities, but that anything that becomes more important to us than God has become an idol. Covetousness is idolatry, and you can probably plug any other powerful desire that sets itself up in opposition to God in there as well. Idolatry remains one of the biggest temptations faced by the people of God throughout the church era, though we rarely call it what it is.

The Answer

So whose words brought us our text of the day?

Maybe you know who said it, but if I hadn’t read it this morning I would probably get it wrong. The answer is Joshua. Joshua, who had just led the people of God to conquer the Promised Land. Joshua, who was now at the point of laying down his sword and retiring from active duty leading God’s people. Joshua, who could say with complete confidence to Israel that “not one word has failed of all the good things that the Lord your God promised concerning you. All have come to pass for you; not one of them has failed”.

Wait, what? God blessed Israel with a bunch of idolaters in their midst doing their idolatrous thing?

Well, yes. It would seem so. After Achan, whose sin was sternly dealt with, God apparently looked the other way while Israelites of similar character played secret games with foreign gods. He fulfilled his promises to Israel concerning the land of Canaan notwithstanding the disloyalty and treachery of some members of the congregation. That is some seriously marvelous grace.

And yet it is exactly the same today, is it not? The visible church is as full of weeds as Israel was, and possibly more so. Somehow we are still here. The mercies of God are not only new every morning, but they are also extended to an astounding number who do not deserve them.

No comments :

Post a Comment