I don’t remember the first time I heard the idea that God’s provision of the land to the Israelites was conditional. I know it was a sermon I listened to online, but I don’t remember who it was or where I found it. That simple idea changed the way I thought about the modern nation of Israel and their conflict with Palestinians. Leviticus 26 describes this provisional gift of the land to the Israelites, but it goes deeper than a place for them to lay their heads.
You shall make for yourselves no idols and erect no carved images or pillars, and you shall not place figured stones in your land, to worship at them; for I am the Lord your God. You shall keep my sabbaths and reverence my sanctuary: I am the Lord. (Lev 26:1-2)
I’ve written a bit here about idolatry and about Sabbath, but I’m not sure I’ve connected the two the way this passage does. The rest of Leviticus 26 is framed, and should be read, with this initial statement in mind. Do not make and/or worship idols and keep my sabbaths. I am God.
I’ve unpacked before that Sabbath is not about taking a day off to lie in the hammock (but that does sound nice). The sabbatical laws include the Sabbath day in the creation narrative and enshrined in Exodus (20:8-11), the Sabbatical year every seventh year to give the land rest and culminate in the vision of the Jubilee in which both land, humans and non-human animals are restored to right and whole relationships. These laws gather together a vision of the right relationship between YHWH, God’s people and the land including non-human animals.
Who cares about idolatry?
To our ears idolatry in the Bible sounds strange and foreign. It doesn’t sound like anything we would ever do. “Don’t make little (or big) figurines/statues out of wood or stone and then bow down to them.” That doesn’t seem like much to ask. I haven’t been tempted to do that lately and don’t foresee my new whittling hobby turning into a religious obsession. Am I right?
However, in the marketplace of gods and religions that Israel found itself in, this was a real problem. People had friends and family (especially after the intermingling during the Babylonian Exile) who subscribed to all kinds of different gods and religious notions. In a world where you are focused primarily on survival and security for yourself and your clan, people were probably willing to go along with whatever seemed to work. They were not concerned the way we are with whether or not a theological idea or religious belief system is the correct one. They wanted a good yield from crops and their livestock to be protected. They didn’t want to get killed by other clans, tribes or nations.
I’m not saying they didn’t actually believe in these gods or the myths and beliefs surrounding them. I’m sure they did (though let’s admit that it’s pretty hard to get inside the head of these people). What I’m saying is that their rationale or reason for choosing to believe or follow particular god or gods did not stem from their quest to discover the “Truth”, their own existential journey for self-enlightenment or self-actualization. These are modern inventions.
What is idolatry?
The prohibition against idolatry comes from Exodus 20:2-6,
I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me.
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.
The end of this prohibition certainly sounds overly harsh to our ears, but this kind of prohibition was a new thing and worshiping whatever god worked for you was probably the norm. Monotheism was the new kid on the block and the point had to be made that this was serious. The game had changed.
In this prohibition to worship or create idols we have the same reason given as in Leviticus 26, “I am the Lord your God.” In other words, I am YHWH, the one who demands absolute worship and rejection of other gods. The invocation of the name of their God and their relation ship as God’s people is tied in to what God has done for them, “the one who brought you out of Egypt.” So, in part, idolatry has to do with relationships and right-relatedness. These people have entered into a covenant relationship with YHWH through their ancestors, the oft invoked “Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.”
YHWH has also held up YHWH’s end of the deal. They have been incredibly liberated from slavery in Egypt. This is the foundational act which ties these people to YHWH and which is invoked to maintain their covenantal commitments to this God and what this God requires. With this background in mind then, idolatry is a breaking of this covenant relationship with YHWH particularly by following other gods, creating and worshiping idols.
So, why does this YHWH, the new kid on the block, demand something that none of the other gods do? I’ll explore the answer in the next post which will connect Sabbath to this idea of idolatry.