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Idols and the I AM

I am fascinated by the often dysfunctional relationship between God and Israel. In Exodus, God appears, seemingly out of nowhere, and provides the Hebrew people with a hope and a future. For reasons known only to God, the Lord chooses an insignificant group of Egyptian slaves and promises to guide them to freedom, peace and prosperity in their own land. Repeatedly, throughout their flight from Egypt, their journey through the desert and their new life in the Promised Land, God works miraculous deeds to protect and guide the Hebrew people. All they are asked in return is to put aside other gods and follow the Lord alone.

This should be a no-brainer, right? In exchange for justice, prosperity, love and stability, wouldn’t you think that a people could be convinced to give up other gods and follow I AM alone? This deal seems so good, that it can be difficult to understand why the Hebrews consistently broke their end of the bargain. Time and again, they worshiped other deities – fertility gods, power gods, national gods – subjecting themselves once again to the horrors of slavery that God had delivered them from. Why would the Hebrews give up such a beneficial relationship to go fiddle around with idols?

At first glance, it’s easy for me to miss the relevance of this spiritual history. After all, no one I know literally worships idols of carved wood, stone or metal. This type of polytheistic worship, while not unheard of, is relatively uncommon in my nation. It is certainly not a live option for me. I have never been tempted to set up an altar to the fertility goddess Astarte or the power god Ares.

Yet, even in 21st-century America, we still worship many things that are not God. It takes a bit of imagination to make the connection between ancient idol-worship and modern-day substitutes for reality, but when I finally do see it, the Old Testament stories are transformed. No longer are they quaint, mostly irrelevant tales from the distant past. Now, they ripple with brilliant color and life. I can see that not only is this same story playing out today, but that I myself often participate in the faithless idolatry that so often got the Hebrews into trouble.

There are many ways that my loyalty to God can get divided. Worries about money or career success are a big one. It’s one thing to say that I trust God to provide for me; it’s another thing entirely to act as if it were true! How often do I pay homage to the god of Success, rather than the I AM who provided for the Hebrews in the wilderness?

In reality, the dynamics of human faith (and faithlessness) are not so different now than they were 3000 years ago. The gods of wealth, fertility, hedonism, and power are all alive and well – and actively sought after. Their names have changed, of course, and most of their devotees would not conceive of their veneration as religious. But worship does not have to take an explicitly religious form to be real. Whatever we give ultimate meaning and priority to, we worship.

We are often lured into believing that we serve God alone, when in fact we have many other priorities – sex, money, power, security, recognition – that are in active competition. Once we see this, it’s no longer so easy to look down on the ancient Hebrews who worshiped their various gods in addition to God. All of a sudden, the story is a little too close for comfort!

More than ever, it’s a story that we need to hear. Though our idols today are rarely made of gold, silver and bronze, they are effective as ever in pulling us away from our primary allegiance to Christ. How can we wake up to the multitude of false gods that populate our culture, and choose to follow Jesus alone? What would it look like to reengage with the I AM of the Old Testament experience, who stands as an alternative to the addictions and delusions of Empire?