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American Idolatry (And The Whole World For That Matter)-Lessons from the Golden Calf-“Idols, What Idols? I Don’t See Any Idols”

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Denial. We all do it and have since Eden; spiritual/moral failure is hard to accept and we don’t like feeling guilty. One sign of denial is making excuses and/or reframing the facts so a story has a different ending that casts us in a positive light. Such is the case with Aaron when Moses asked him how he allowed such idolatry to happen in his absence. Here are the passages we need to see. Note especially Ex. 32:3 and Ex. 32:24.

Exodus 32:2–4 (NKJV)
2 And Aaron said to them, “Break off the golden earrings which are in the ears of your wives, your sons, and your daughters, and bring them to me.” 3 So all the people broke off the golden earrings which were in their ears, and brought them to Aaron. 4 And he received the gold from their hand, and he fashioned it with an engraving tool, and made a molded calf.
Then they said, “This is your god, O Israel, that brought you out of the land of Egypt!”

Exodus 32:21–24 (NKJV)
21 And Moses said to Aaron, “What did this people do to you that you have brought so great a sin upon them?”
22 So Aaron said, “Do not let the anger of my lord become hot. You know the people, that they are set on evil. 23 For they said to me, ‘Make us gods that shall go before us; as for this Moses, the man who brought us out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.’ 24 And I said to them, ‘Whoever has any gold, let them break it off.’ So they gave it to me, and I cast it into the fire, and this calf came out.”

That Aaron engages in the one sign of denial mentioned above namely making excuses (he blames the people) and changing the story about what really happened (the golden calf just came out of the fire on its own) seems clear. It’s not too difficult finding the same kind of denial of idolatry today. When confronted with idolatrous practices there is this common response: “Idol’s, what idols, we don’t see any idols; what we worship is God, so go away” when in fact they are all around and actively being supported in ways this series has suggested in past blogs. When this is the case, the imperative to “flee from idols” doesn’t register because there are none to flee from, at least that’s the party line. So, false doctrines, sexual immorality, covetousness, personal kingdom building, narcissistic self-promotion and blatant disregard for the spiritual needs of people run rampant in so-called ‘Christian’ churches. All of this creates a contemptuous disdain towards the Christian faith by those we hope to reach with the Gospel. In short, we are ‘shamed’ and should be ‘ashamed’ (Ex 32:25 NKJV).

We should carefully note the reaction of Yahweh; He was set on destroying the whole nation in one fell swoop and called the people “obstinate” (NASB) and “stiff-necked” (NKJV), not very complimentary indeed. The Hebrew word used for “stiff-necked” means, among other things, the rebellious resistance of oxen to the yoke making it difficult, if not impossible, to plow a field or haul a load; while the driver wishes to go one way, the rebellious oxen pull in another direction. It’s worth looking at Exodus 33:3, 5; 34:9 also because this same assessment of Israel is repeated. Of course, we know Moses interceded for the people, judgment was averted for the time being (Ex. 32:34) but many perished nevertheless (Ex. 32:28).

The point here is that the practice of idolatry in whatever form it takes comes with a high price, namely the assured judgment of God and the Christian church is not exempt. And so

the time has come for judgment to begin at the house of God; and if it begins with us first, what will be the end of those who do not obey the gospel of God? (1 Peter 4:17 NKJV)

Although the context suggests an eschatological judgment, the point nevertheless remains that before the church can ever hope to be effective at denouncing sin in general, and idolatry in particular, it itself must ‘clean house’ so to speak lest it be rightfully condemned as hypocritical.

There is another interesting story about idolatry worth noting that also reveals the nature of denial and illustrates the last point. In this case, it is knowing exactly what is going on, hiding the sin, and then lying about it. We find the story in Joshua 7 and the incident of Israel’s defeat at Ai because of ‘sin in the camp’. The Lord instructed Israel that during its conquest of Jericho, certain items were not to be taken for themselves, namely all the “silver and gold and articles of bronze and iron” which were deemed holy and to be put in the treasury “of the LORD.” The reason given was “so you do not covet them.”(Joshua 6:18-19)

After the unexpected defeat at Ai Joshua was distraught and God revealed to him that “Israel has sinned…and they have taken some of the things under the ban and have both stolen and deceived.” (Joshua 7:11italics mine)) Eventually, when Achan was confronted he confessed that he “saw among the spoil a beautiful mantle from Shinar and two hundred shekels of sliver and a bar of gold fifty shekels in with, then I coveted them and took them… (Joshua 7:20-21 italics mine). This was the sin of idolatry in the form of covetousness (recall Col. 3:5 from a earlier blog) accompanied by lying (read ‘denial’) that brought defeat to Israel and severe judgment on him and his family.

It is important to note that even though it was Achan who committed the sin, the whole of Israel was implicated in the disobedience and suffered a national defeat verifying that indeed “a little leaven leavens the whole lump” (1 Cor. 5:6-11). Here, Paul is clarifying what he had written in an earlier correspondence and tells the Corinthians to have no fellowship with a “so-called brother if he is an immoral person, or covetous, or an idolater, or a reviler, or a drunkard, or a swindler-not even to eat with such a one.” The parallel between a church and Israel is clear: even though a few are engaged in idolatrous activities and deny it all, the rest of the members are equally implicated by denying what is going on before their eyes. I daresay that many churches would see a precipitous drop in membership if Paul’s admonition was taken seriously and acted on.

And, I might add that maybe, just maybe, the apparent success of many churches and their leaders is because of the idolatrous practices suggested in past blogs; if so success is really defeat. Why? Because such practices appeal to the narcissistic self, the very root of idolatry, and by giving Christian approval to the activities of this ‘self’ idolatry becomes the norm and therefore remains hidden, at least until someone like Joshua has the courage to expose it. Something to consider at least in these last days.

© W.G.Ryzek 2013

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American Idolatry (And The Whole World For That Matter)- Lessons from the Golden Calf, Cont’d: Idolatry and Sex

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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

American Idolatry (And the Whole World For That Matter)-Part 5: Lessons From the Golden Calf, Cont’d

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Exodus 12:35–36 (NKJV)
35 Now the children of Israel had done according to the word of Moses, and they had asked from the Egyptians articles of silver, articles of gold, and clothing. 36 And the LORD had given the people favor in the sight of the Egyptians, so that they granted them what they requested. Thus they plundered the Egyptians.

Exodus 32:2 (NKJV)
2 And Aaron said to them, “Break off the golden earrings which are in the ears of your wives, your sons, and your daughters, and bring them to me.”

If it is the case that every thing belongs to God and that the essence of idolatry is substituting some thing that is made in place of the Maker, then how we think about and what we do with things reveals much about our spiritual state not the least of which is whether we are thankful or not (Rom. 1:21-23). The passages cited above show how the treasure that God gave His people for building the tabernacle (Ex. 25:1-9) was used for their own decoration and constructing the golden calf. They took what was given to them for a higher and sacred purpose, regarded it as theirs and then turned it into something unequivocally opposed to God. The point here is how we, too, can take the very things God has given us and then make idols by regarding them as personal possessions, my car, my family, my job, my money gotten by my strength, my work, my ingenuity, my planning and so on.

It has been noted that Jesus talked more about money issues than He did about heaven or hell and as many as 25% of His parables had material wealth as their theme. One of the major points He stressed was stewardship which tacitly presupposes that what we have belongs to someone else and forgetting, or rejecting, this truth leads to severe problems like, for example, when ownership thinking trumps stewardship thinking the kingdom of heaven stands to be lost to us. Jesus tells us that we cannot serve both God and mammon and note carefully the operative word here: serve from Δουλεύω which means ‘slave’. All of us are slaves to one of two masters so we all know exactly what our options are. However, the great Lie first uttered in Eden suggested there is a third option, serving self but that, it turns out, is the same as serving sin and Satan. So, while we might assume that if we possess something it is ours to do with what we want the fact is we are possessed either by God or by mammon; no human being is, or ever can be, independently owned and operated. And, choosing anything other than God is tantamount to idolatry.

Consider, for example, that some Christians seem to believe, and act accordingly, that once a tithe is paid, the rest is theirs. Making matters worse, it is further assumed that, since they did their part, God is now under some sort of obligation to ‘bless’ them with still more wealth. And so, based on this sort of thinking a Christian can easily end up with a sense of entitlement or, in other words, that they are owed this blessing. This attitude is precisely the same that has overrun our society; someone, somewhere owes us something. The net result is thanklessness usually accompanied by complaining and topped off with bitterness all of which affirm Paul’s assessment in Romans 1 that the whole human race are idolaters. This sense of entitlement will invade the Christian church when we take what God gives us, but is rightfully His, then use it for our own ends thinking because we possess it, it must be ours, and then substitute our own agenda in place of God’s by looking to the world as the source of all we need, and not Him. And all of this while adhering to surface religiosity, language and ‘devotion’ defined as ‘Christian’ when in fact it is all very pagan. We see an example by what happens next in this story.

After building the golden calf, Aaron and the people presented an offering to it that was meant only for God (burnt and peace offerings, v6) suggesting, at least to me, that the difference between the idol and God was lost. (Ex. 32:4) One was as good as the other as long as it got them out of their predicament. So consider this proposition: not understanding or submitting to the basic truth that all we have and all we are is grounded in God’s benevolence distorts reality to the point where idolatry and service to God become indistinguishable. Again, the parallels between this story and Romans 1 cannot be overlooked; what Israel did in this one instance has become the norm for the entire human race. The point here is that what some consider true Christian worship might in fact be the worshipping of idols with the fearful prospect of not being able to tell the difference. However, all of us can at least get a clue by honestly assessing our attitude towards, and use of, the things given us by God.

© W.G. Ryzek 2013

American Idolatry (And The Whole World for That Matter)-Part 5: Lessons from the Golden Calf

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The Old Testament demonstrates that Israel had a frequent problem with idolatry. It officially began with the golden calf, although some might argue otherwise. But, whatever the case, we Christians of the 21st century can learn a great deal by studying this inaugural lapse that ended up being repeated over and over again during their history. It turns out that the forces leading to idolatry haven’t changed and God’s attitude and response to it hasn’t either. So, adding to what we learned in earlier blogs from passages in Paul’s writings, we now turn to Moses and Exodus 32-34.

The backdrop for this story of the golden calf is the Hebrews immersion in the religious idolatry of Egypt. The God of Abraham Isaac and Jacob was, for the most part, forgotten by the people until the call of Moses, their dramatic deliverance by “I Am” and the revelations given at Mount Sinai. What is noteworthy is the gods of Egypt (like most idols in the Old Testament) were visible and tangible, associated with nature and human experience whereas “I Am” remained invisible and transcendent; i.e. the Hebrews could never ‘see’ God like they could ‘see’ idols. It was Moses, not God, they experienced directly and, consequently, the deliverance stories and the golden calf incident show how they continually railed against Moses, accused him of leading them astray and insisted he should take them back to Egypt as if he and not “I Am” was responsible for everything. They couldn’t get over the hump that while they could see what He did for them, they could never see Him.

This point is brought home when some of the more vocal people questioned whether Moses would ever return from the mountain. They didn’t know what had become of him, whether he was alive or dead, whether he had abandoned them or had lost interest in the whole matter (Ex.32:1). But whatever they were thinking their attention was not on God to whom Moses went to see but on Moses himself. Since he had seemingly gone missing it was time to carry out plan B, build an idol and head back to Egypt, something that was on their minds anyway.

Now, given Aaron’s proximity to Moses as his ‘mouthpiece’ thinking that a little more resistance to this idea of building an idol seems reasonable. But, it looks as though Aaron fell right into step and even took leadership over its construction. (Ex.32:2) This is a classic case of the tail wagging the dog, when idolatry among the people spills over to the leaders themselves and they join in and even encourage it.

From all this we can learn that when our attention is turned away from God’s leadership to God’s leaders, to men and women like ourselves, idolatry is not far behind. While we might abhor the ‘cult of personality’ pervading our culture many of us nevertheless do precisely the same thing, idolizing leaders, ministries and even doctrines. When we ‘see’ only the surface of things, the splashy displays, the huge auditoriums, the large number of people, and self-promoting preachers, our need for sensory stimulation overshadows the fact that the ultimately and eternally Real cannot be seen except by faith. Like the Hebrews, then, not being able to ‘see’ God can lead to worshipping something we can. And by surrounding whatever, or whoever, the object of our devotion is with enough ‘Christian’ religious trappings it becomes easy to hide what is really going on.

© W.G. Ryzek 2013

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