Deuteronomy and the Worship Wars

September 25, 2014

I was going to begin today’s blog with a reflection on worship wars as they emerge in Deuteronomy, the book of the Bible I am reading as part of my daily discipline. I got as far as chapter 4:1-20 and realized I had to go back to the time and events of the Exodus. Deuteronomy is the “fifth book of Moses,” and it starts out with the Israelites poised on the threshold of the promised land (Canaan). Moses is recounting their history and the instructions that had been given to them by God on Mount Sinai (referred to here as “Horeb” [Deuteronomy 4:10]. He warned them not to repeat the sins of the past, fashioning idols and worshipping them instead of the Lord.

One of the most colorful examples of the Hebrews caught worshipping an idol is recounted in Exodus 32. You’ll remember the story: Moses had left Aaron in charge of the people while Moses hiked to the top of Mount Sinai. There God gave him the Ten Commandments and etched them on two tablets of stone. Meanwhile, the people in the plain below were getting antsy because Moses had been gone for forty days and they assumed he had ditched them. They gave up waiting for him and decided to take matters into their own hands. With contributions of gold from the Israelite throng, Aaron himself molded a calf and they all began to dance and make sacrifices around it in pagan worship. As Moses headed down the mountain, he heard the ruckus and realized the horror of what was happening. He was so angry he threw down the stone tablets, ground the golden calf to dust, mixed it with water, made the people drink it, and then demanded an explanation. Aaron, uh, did not step up at this point, instead claiming that the people had insisted on doing something, so they gathered some gold which he threw it into the fire, “and out came this calf!” (Exodus 32:24). Yeah, right.

The first three commandments require God’s people to revere his name, worship him alone, and refrain from using images (e.g. carved, cast, or drawn) to depict the Almighty and Eternal Lord. In particular, God forbid them to worship any element of creation:

Since you saw no form when the LORD spoke to you at Horeb out of the fire, take care and watch yourselves closely, so that you do not act corruptly by making an idol for yourselves, in the form of any figure—the likeness of male or female, the likeness of any animal that is on the earth, the likeness of any winged bird that flies in the air, the likeness of anything that creeps on the ground, the likeness of any fish that is in the water under the earth. And when you look up to the heavens and see the sun, the moon, and the stars, all the host of heaven, do not be led astray and bow down to them and serve them . . . (Deuteronomy 4:15-19).

Unfortunately, in the developments through the Old Testament, the Israelites’ wayward eyes and stiff necks would consistently get them in trouble, and worshipping things was usually at the center of it all.

This is no quaint story of a bygone era. It seems embedded in human nature to go after other gods, to shape them in our image or in the image of something we admire or to which we attribute power. In today’s quasi-spiritual jargon (you know, “spiritual but not religious”), it is not uncommon to hear people refer to “a higher power” as the object of their affection. Higher, perhaps, than myself, but not as high as YHWH God! God has no patience with our reliance, as shaky as it is, on powers other than himself, and in fact has tried to get the message across through the millennia:

            Their idols are like scarecrows in a cucumber field,
                        and they cannot speak;
            they have to be carried,
                        for they cannot walk.
            Do not be afraid of them,
                        for they cannot do evil,
                        nor is it in them to do good. (Jeremiah 10:5)

God claims to be “the Most High” God, the highest power and the only one worthy of our praise, adoration, and worship. In fact, God is the sole audience to our worship. He is not a bystander, not a cheering section, not one praising us. God is the One and only around whom our affection gathers, to whom we give praise, and for whom we live. Period.

Tomorrow: An example of worship gone bad.

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2 Responses to “Deuteronomy and the Worship Wars”

  1. Karen Berns Says:

    Thanks, dear Mary. I may quote you on Oct. 12, when Ex. 32 is the lectionary text. Keep up your helpful, insightful writing. Blessings, Karen

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