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Although arrogance, murder, stealing, lying, and oppressing the poor are all great sins in the Old Testament, idolatry ranks number one. The story of Israel is a story of idolatry virtually from beginning to end. Abraham's ancestors worshipped idols (Joshua 24:2), and the descendants of Abraham worshipped idols in Egypt (Joshua 24:14). Even before the children of Israel reached the Promise Land, many had already begun to worship Baal, the god of Canaan (Numbers 25:1-5). King Solomon himself became an idolater (1 Kings 11:4-8), as did Jeroboam, the first king of the northern state (1 Kings 12:25-30). Eventually, persistent idolatry brought about both the Assyrian and Babylonian captivities (2 Kings 17:6-18; Ezekiel 7:1-9; 8:5-18; Jeremiah 2:20-25).

As the philosopher Henri Bergson (1859-1941) once noted, only intelligent beings are superstitious. Animals worship no gods and make no images to bow down before. Something in human consciousness draws us to believe in powers that are beyond our ken. Although idolatry may seem a curious relic of the past, one need only observe the prevalence of astrological forecasts in the newspapers or the new age crystals dangling from rear view mirrors to realize that belief in supernatural forces is alive and well.

In ancient times, idolatry was a form of nationalistic superstition that claimed the sovereignty of local gods over human affairs such as agriculture, war, and personal success. In one wryly amusing passage (1 Kings 20:23-30), the counselors of Ben-Hadad, king of Aram, tell him the reason they are losing battles to the Israelites is that the Israelites have a mountain god. If they fight in the valley, they reason, their army will win the victory. In 2 Kings 5:15-18, Naaman, healed of his leprosy by God, requests two mule loads of Israeli dirt. Even though he believes in the true God, he still thinks he must stand upon the physical ground of Canaan in order to worship. The distinctive idea of the Bible is that one righteous God rules over all the earth (Exodus 19:5).

This monotheism, as articulated in Deuteronomy 5-6, forms the foundation of biblical religion. What Moses taught in the wilderness of Sinai, Paul was still proclaiming in Athens well over a thousand years later (Acts 17:22-31). God, the Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made with human hands. He cannot be tied down, pigeon-holed, or domesticated. He is not the product of a self-serving, superstitious imagination. Instead, he has revealed himself through the history and experience of a people whom he has chosen. His incredible deeds on behalf of this people constitute the proof of his existence.

Monotheism contains important ethical implications. First is the brotherhood of mankind. Since we have all been created in the image of one God, we all have similar worth. Second, because God is holy, righteous, and good, all ethical values derive from his revealed nature and character. Third, because God is the sovereign Lord, to place our confidence and trust in other values or forces constitutes sheer folly. In other words, racism, relativism, and rugged individualism are all sins against monotheism.

To love God means to be sure you are serving the right God (Deuteronomy 30:15-17; 13:1-5). Although few people in modern industrialized countries ever bow down before idols to pray for a good harvest or a good job, many bow the knee to the capitalistic "god" of economics whose prophet is Adam Smith. They truly believe that economic laws set irresistible boundaries to human conduct. In reality, something doesn't have to have an altar or a temple to become a false god; you simply have to trust it and obey it by letting it determine your behavior and values. The first commandment is plain, "You shall have no other gods before me" (Exodus 20:3).


This page contains a single entry from the blog posted on June 30, 2007 8:47 PM.

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