Formations 07.31.2016: The Things that Drive Us

Judges 18:14-31

Even though I grew up in the Midwest, my family roots are in Kentucky. It’s where most of my extended family lives, where I attended seminary, and where my thoughts always turn on the first Saturday in May.

UK_purse_smAs you might imagine, University of Kentucky basketball features prominently in my life. It is a topic of conversation at most family get-togethers. UK-themed Christmas presents are likely to be exchanged every year. My mom carries a UK purse. (I have a cousin who’s lobbying for Mom to give it to her in her will.) Watching the games is a major part of every winter and spring. Truth be told, the hardest part of my job is having a Duke fan for a boss.

If you’ve read the lesson title for this coming Sunday, I’ll bet you know where I’m going with this. Idolatry comes in many forms, and some of them involve face paint and questionable fashion sense.

But in all seriousness, diehard fans often send a message—subtly or overtly—that their favorite coaches and players are more important than anything else. In that environment, it’s easy to understand (though impossible to condone) when people come to believe the rules aren’t meant for them. That’s why so many collegiate athletics programs are reeling from scandals related to sex crimes, recruiting violations, and academic improprieties. In such a world, a lesson on the dangers of idolatry may be in order.

We modern westerners may think we’ve outgrown false gods and their idols, but have we really? What are the things that fill our lives—and push out everything else? For some, it might be our favorite sports team. For others, it might be the drive to acquire wealth, to have the perfect body, to make life an endless party, or to see our candidates voted into office.

None of those things are necessarily bad, and I’m pretty sure Mom is allowed to keep her purse. But I think we can agree that all of those things can become bad—even disastrously bad—when they challenge God’s rightful place as the center of our lives.

As we conclude this study of the book of Judges, maybe it’s worth the time to consider what modern-day idols command our attention. What might “idolatry” mean in our contemporary setting? How can this story from Judges 18 help us reflect on its causes and consequences?

Discussion

• What makes something (or someone) an idol? What can Christians do to prevent this from happening?
• Our modern “idols” are often legitimate concerns or interests pressed to an unhealthy extreme, but is this always the case? Explain.
• Where did the Danites go wrong?
• What is the relationship between idolatry and violence and injustice?

Reference Shelf

Idolatry in Israel

Israel’s prohibition against images in the worship of her God stands in stark contrast to her culture. People of the ancient Near East commonly accepted that fertility was as much a result of their participation in agriculturally oriented religions as conscientious cultivation of the soil. Sacred objects such as stone pillars, images of fertility gods and goddesses, and sacred poles (Asherim) were all part of this religious practice. A household image of the earth goddess would have been regarded as important for farming as a strong plow. Given this cultural mindset, it is not surprising that archaeologists have discovered numerous fertility figurines in Hebrew settlements, for the average worshipers of Yahweh had difficulty excluding such commonly accepted cultural practices from their lifestyle. It would seem very natural to these Hebrew folk, even great heroes of faith like Aaron (Exod 32) and Gideon (Judg 8:24-27), to adapt local images to the worship of Yahweh. Thus in Israel’s law it was necessary not only to prohibit the worship of other gods (Exod 20:3), but also prohibit the use of images in the worship of Yahweh (Exod 20:4).

Unless this image-oriented milieu is taken seriously, modern readers will fall into several common misunderstandings of Israel’s prohibition against idolatry. First, the prohibition against idols was not a claim for a rationally sophisticated religion versus primitive religions. Ancient Near Eastern writings indicate an awareness of the difference between gods themselves and the images that represented the gods or that the gods temporarily inhabited. Second, the notion that Israel advocated a spiritual religion versus the material one of idolatry draws on a distinction that was foreign to the ancient Near East including the Hebrew people. OT narratives often describe manifestations of Yahweh associated with material objects, e.g., burning bush, pillar of fire, the Ark of the Covenant. Third, it is a gross oversimplification to portray Israel as consciously rejecting Yahwism through involvement with idols. Israel easily fell into the polytheism found among Canaanite neighbors (e.g., Exod 20:23, NEB) or the past (cf. Josh 24:14; Gen 31:14-32) while maintaining that Yahweh was the chief god. Israel adapted images for what was perceived to be a justifiable syncretistic devotion to Yahweh; but images legitimately used by Yahwism in one era—e.g., Moses’ brazen serpent (Num 21:8-9), sacred pillars (e.g., Judg 3:19), sacred trees (Josh 24:26), and the enigmatic ephod (e.g., 1 Sam 23:6-7)—were rejected as idolatrous by later eras. Perhaps, as Lev 26:1 suggests, the issue was whether or not the sacred object became the focus of worship (“bow down to them”). Or, perhaps, the issue had been the object’s resemblance (“likeness”) to humans or creatures as the Decalogue suggests (Exod 20:4; Deut 5:8), though as the problem of idolatry increased, all ritual objects became suspect.

David Nelson Duke, “Idolatry,” Mercer Dictionary of the Bible, ed. Watson E. Mills et al. (Macon GA: Mercer University Press, 1990), 399–400.

The Danites Find a New Home

Five spies from Dan are sent north to find a new territory. On their way they stay with Micah for the night and recognize the voice of the Levite—perhaps because of his accent, or his use of prayers, or because they have met him before. The spies ask the Levite to inquire of God concerning the success of their mission. The Levite does, and the spies receive a favorable oracle.

After having spied out Laish in the north, the spies return and present a good report concerning the place to the tribe. The spies describe Laish as an unsuspecting and wealthy city, a description that agrees well with Phoenician culture. The Phoenicians were more interested in commerce and agriculture than war, so Laish would present a tempting target. The Danites send 600 soldiers with their families (18:21) to conquer the city.

On the way the Danite force stops at the home of Micah and asks the Levite to become the priest of not one family but an entire tribe. The Levite accepts the offer and accompanies the Danites, who also take the idol, ephod, and teraphim. Micah discovers his shrine and priest are gone and gives chase. In a pitiful scene he asks for the return of his homemade gods and employed priest. When the stronger Danite force threatens Micah, he returns home.

The Danites continue their journey, destroy Laish, and rebuild it as Dan. The Levite sets up the shrine, and he and his descendants serve as priests until the deportation by Assyria, probably under Tiglath-pileser III in 733 B.C.E.

Although the narrative describes how Dan settled in the north, another purpose seems to be to mock the temple constructed in Dan (1 Kgs 12:28-30). As ancestry became more important for the priesthood, it was noted that the Levite had good credentials (18:30) but he was a priest for hire, serving his own selfish interests. Furthermore, the shrine itself was the result of thievery, a curse, greed, and death. Such a shrine could not help but produce a faithless people. In 1 Kgs 12, the shrine set up by Rehoboam at Bethel also is criticized for being under the care of unsuitable priests.

Robert C. Dunston, “Judges,” Mercer Commentary on the Bible, ed. Watson E. Mills et al. (Macon GA: Mercer University Press, 1995), 256.

Darrell Pursiful is the editor of Formations. He is an adjunct professor at Mercer University and an active member of the First Baptist Church of Christ in Macon, Georgia.

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