American Idolatry (And The Whole World For That Matter)- Lessons from the Golden Calf, Cont’d: Idolatry and Sex
Then they rose early on the next day, offered burnt offerings, and brought peace offerings; and the people sat down to eat and drink and rose up to play. Ex. 32:6
Now when Moses saw that the people were unrestrained (for Aaron had not restrained them, to their shame among their enemies)… Ex 32:25
The story of the golden calf continues. Most commentators and the language itself suggest that sexual immorality is one, perhaps the main, aspect of the ‘play’ described here. The questions to consider now are why sex is closely associated with idolatry in both ancient and modern eras and whether we as Christians are caught up in it today.
It is certainly a fact that sex is a preoccupation of our culture, so much so that it actually defines much of our social structures. We have gender issues, gay/lesbian/transgender issues, pedophilia issues, pornography addiction, what the proper definition of marriage is and the list goes on. All of this accompanied by the rising dominance of moral relativism and political correctness make any Biblically grounded ethical declarations (i.e. this is right, that is wrong) largely unheard by an increasingly morally deaf population.
As a start to answering the above questions consider this: there is a difference between sex and sexuality. Put simply, sex is something we do, our sexuality (maleness or femaleness) has to do with how and why we do it. In many conversations, however, sex and sexuality are considered the same thing; they are not. For example, a person who chooses celibacy does not cease being a sexual being. It is not so much the activity of sex itself that is of concern, then, but how our sexually defined selves involved in the activity are understood.
The sexuality of the Hebrews was defined by the Creator in Genesis emphasizing a strong differentiation between male and female along with the establishment of marriage. On the other hand, sexuality and fertility was the main emphasis of the idolatrous nations surrounding Israel. Consequently, each had its own take on what the purpose of sex was all about; procreation, family and social structure for Israel whereas, along with procreation, appeasement of gods and goddesses, good fortune and abundant harvests for the idolatrous nations. What is interesting is that Israel had offerings and festivals pertaining to harvests and prosperity as well. The difference is the Being to whom the sacrifices were made; those made by the hands of the worshippers themselves, hence idolatry, or the One true God revealed to Israel.
Sexuality, then, is a fundamental part of who and what we are as human beings and sex a manifestation, albeit only one among many, in which we engage. If it is the case that idolatry is essentially a substitution of a narcissistic, prideful self for the Creator of all selves, then the sexuality/sex dynamic is bound to reflect this substitution. And since sexuality/sex is that single characteristic that all human beings share despite cultural differences (and necessarily so because we are all sexed/sexual beings), the preoccupation with it, and its many expressions, is more easily understood. In other words, when idolatry runs rampant, it will both include and promote sexual perversions that fly in the face of what God’s intentions for sexuality/sex are since the beginning. Such is the case in the passages before us. The construction and subsequent worship of the golden calf included sexual deviance from the get go.
And if we are tempted to think that Christians are above such atrocities 1 Cor. 10:7, suggests otherwise: “Do not be idolaters as some of them were; as it is written, THE PEOPLE SAT DOWN TO EAT AND DRINK, AND STOOD UP TO PLAY. Nor let us act immorally, as some of them did, and twenty-three thousand fell in one day.” (NASB) Paul is referring to the same events in Exodus as this blog and using the Septuagint translation of the Old Testament. Two Greek words stand out regarding sex: the first in v7 is “play” (παίζειν) and the second in v8, “immorally” (πορνεύωμεν- from which we get ‘pornography’).
While there is not an across the board agreement amongst Greek scholars whether the word ‘play’ refers to sex specifically (although the majority do), there is nearly universal agreement that, taken along with the word ‘immorally’, sexual perversions are being referred to. Since these verses are for Christians and much of Paul’s letter addresses it, it is safe to assume that idolatry/sexual immorality was a problem in the Corinthian church.
Fast forward to our day and it seems things haven’t changed that much. While we expect the world to be idolatrous, the number of sexual lapses by prominent church leaders we all read about shames us among our enemies (Ex. 32:25) and shows, just as it did for Israel, how the idolatry all around us has entered into our midst. It is indeed shameful when the real differences between Christians and the unsaved disappear because of the way we live, how we dress, how we think, what we say, the places we go, the company we keep and the standards we uphold.
Given all this, what are we to do? Paul’s imperative in 1 Cor. 10:14 should suffice: “Therefore, my beloved, flee from idolatry.” That is, when you see it, get away from it as far as you can and as fast as you can and do it now. And this is really the hard part, isn’t it? Disengaging ourselves from mental attitudes, intellectual loyalties, relationships, organizations, activities, and even churches/church leaders that are in essence idolatrous.
This is what Israel failed to do, separate itself from the nations and their practices and thereby becoming a holy and dedicated people, Yahweh’s own chosen to be a light unto the nations and a witness to His claim on creation. So, as Paul says, “Now these things happened to them as an example, and they were written for our instruction, upon whom the ends of the ages have come…” (1 Cor. 10:11 NASB) that we, the Church, might learn from them and that we might be “holy even as He is holy” especially with regard to our sexual lives.
© W.G. Ryzek 2013