Posts Tagged ‘idolatry’

2 SAMUEL 6:1-5, 12b-19

David again gathered all the chosen men of Israel, thirty thousand.David and all the people with him set out and went from Baale-judah, to bring up from there the ark of God, which is called by the name of the Lord of hosts who is enthroned on the cherubim. They carried the ark of God on a new cart, and brought it out of the house of Abinadab, which was on the hill. Uzzah and Ahio, the sons of Abinadab, were driving the new cart with the ark of God; and Ahio went in front of the ark. David and all the house of Israel were dancing before the Lord with all their might, with songs and lyres and harps and tambourines and castanets and cymbals.

So David went and brought up the ark of God from the house of Obed-edom to the city of David with rejoicing; 13 and when those who bore the ark of the Lord had gone six paces, he sacrificed an ox and a fatling. 14 David danced before the Lord with all his might; David was girded with a linen ephod. 15 So David and all the house of Israel brought up the ark of the Lord with shouting, and with the sound of the trumpet.

16 As the ark of the Lord came into the city of David, Michal daughter of Saul looked out of the window, and saw King David leaping and dancing before the Lord; and she despised him in her heart.

17 They brought in the ark of the Lord, and set it in its place, inside the tent that David had pitched for it; and David offered burnt offerings and offerings of well-being before the Lord. 18 When David had finished offering the burnt offerings and the offerings of well-being, he blessed the people in the name of the Lord of hosts, 19 and distributed food among all the people, the whole multitude of Israel, both men and women, to each a cake of bread, a portion of meat, and a cake of raisins. Then all the people went back to their homes.

The Ark of the Covenant was about as close as ancient Israel was allowed to come in representing the deity named Yahweh, who had revealed himself to Moses on Mount Sinai through the burning bush. Graven images of the god (idols, reliefs, portraits) were prohibited, and even mental images (or concepts) of Yahweh were rejected by the more puritanical critics as sacrilegious attempts to reduce the transcendent mystery and holy otherness of Yahweh to visible and inferior form. While the Ark did not itself represent Yahweh, it was believed that the god resided in the sacred space between the outstretched wings of two golden cherubim positioned on either side.

As we might expect, and knowing the tendencies of human nature, there were some who made the Ark itself into an idol. A story from earlier in 1 Samuel tells of a terrible defeat suffered by the army of Israel at the hands of the Philistines, having advanced to the battle line in the belief that victory was guaranteed so long as the gold-plated war box was out in front. For his part, however, David appears to have kept the Ark in perspective, celebrating its history and presence with his people, but acknowledging all the while that the reality of God is beyond every symbol. Valid symbols and healthy ceremony relate us to the Divine without making absolute claims for themselves.

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PSALM 104:24-34, 35b

24 O Lord, how manifold are your works!
    In wisdom you have made them all;
    the earth is full of your creatures.
25 Yonder is the sea, great and wide,
    creeping things innumerable are there,
    living things both small and great.
26 There go the ships,
    and Leviathan that you formed to sport in it.

27 These all look to you
    to give them their food in due season;
28 when you give to them, they gather it up;
    when you open your hand, they are filled with good things.
29 When you hide your face, they are dismayed;
    when you take away their breath, they die
    and return to their dust.
30 When you send forth your spirit, they are created;
    and you renew the face of the ground.

31 May the glory of the Lord endure forever;
    may the Lord rejoice in his works—
32 who looks on the earth and it trembles,
    who touches the mountains and they smoke.
33 I will sing to the Lord as long as I live;
    I will sing praise to my God while I have being.
34 May my meditation be pleasing to him,
    for I rejoice in the Lord.
35b Bless the Lord, O my soul.
Praise the Lord!

In what we earlier referred to as the brokerage of orthodoxy that religion over time tends to become, the idea of God is typically rather distant and sterile, without power and drained of mystery. God is “up there” somewhere, above the turning world as its maintenance supervisor and moral judge. This is where the many countless “idols” creep in, filling the space of daily life concerns and providing people with a link to something of supernatural yet tangible value.

The psalmist’s view of God is rather unorthodox in the way God is seen as related to the process and diversity of life on earth. Not as detached, up and away from the swarming and fruiting living forms, but as the present source of oxygen, food, and every necessity of survival and flourishment. Clearly the Divine Life is the very matrix out of which all this pours forth, expands, differentiates, and is fulfilled. Earthquakes and volcanoes are the tremble of reverence the earth has for God, who is properly considered not as one above and outside the universe, but as the very ground of its being and abundant diversity.

In our day, what has become of this Divine Reality underlying, energizing, and redeeming all things? Have we settled down with something less than God?

ACTS 17:22-31

22 Then Paul stood in front of the Areopagus and said, “Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way. 23 For as I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship, I found among them an altar with the inscription, ‘To an unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. 24 The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands, 25 nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mortals life and breath and all things. 26 From one ancestor he made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and he allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live, 27 so that they would search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him—though indeed he is not far from each one of us.28 For ‘In him we live and move and have our being’; as even some of your own poets have said,

‘For we too are his offspring.’

29 Since we are God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the deity is like gold, or silver, or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of mortals. 30 While God has overlooked the times of human ignorance, now he commands all people everywhere to repent,31 because he has fixed a day on which he will have the world judged in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed, and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.”

It’s questionable whether a lot of religious “objects” – presumably temples, altars, and idols – directly translates into a population being “extremely religious.” We know from our own day that the paraphernalia and even the practices of religious life do not necessarily correlate to a vibrant spirituality. A religion can be dead inside, underneath all the elaborate display and outward activity.

The gods of Greek culture were associated with the wide range of concerns in daily life. There was a god of commerce and a goddess of marriage, a god of wine and a goddess of the hunt, a god of war and a goddess of love, a god of healing and a goddess of the harvest; on and on across many domains of nature and society. Each god or goddess was represented by an emblem or idol, and since most Greek deities were anthropomorphic (human-like) in character, their associated idols were commonly statues – “formed by the art and imagination of mortals” –  set up in temples or sacred locations.

The Hebrews, on the other hand, had been a nomadic federation of tribes in their early history. Carting around an idol would have been a logistical challenge – although Yahweh’s war-box (the ark of the covenant) did serve as, or at least slip into the function of, an idol during that time. Eventually graven images and artistic likenesses of Yahweh were prohibited and violently rejected as idolatry, which refers to worshiping an idol.

A danger for the Jews, and for the Christians after them, was more a conceptual than physical idolatry – becoming so enamored of and devoted to a particular mental representation of God (in idea and doctrine), that it effectively closes down access to the divine presence. This is the mystery “in which we live and move and have our being,” which is really a definition that defies definition when you think about it.

How can you picture this mystery? How do you symbolize being itself? It would seem that the mere attempt would amount to constructing an idol.

                                                                                           

Jewish religion was really the first example of what is called ethical monotheism, a belief in one god whose primary relationship to humans is as the absolute moral authority. Yahweh demanded purity, obedience, retribution and repentance; and at some fateful time in the future, he will judge all people according to their righteousness or sin, rewarding or condemning them as they deserve.

As Christianity began as a messianic sect within Judaism, this was its basic worldview and expectation as well. As the religion got going, Jesus was simply inserted into the existing program as the long-anticipated savior and final judge. His death on the cross had paid the penalty for sin, but only for those who believe. For everyone else – all those nonbelievers – things would continue as before, with them punished according to the principle “You get what you deserve.”

Had Christianity stayed true to the life and gospel of Jesus himself, this entire system would have been thrown off by the radical force of his insistence that we don’t get what we deserve – none of us do. Instead we get grace, love and forgiveness out of the generous initiative of God. Nothing has to be earned, paid, or believed; and no membership is necessary – if it’s even possible to talk of insiders and outsiders any longer.

In fact, it could even be said that our belief in God is the last idol to set aside.