Idolatry Part I
1. We are used to thinking of idolatry as statues and images of other sects or religions. So our usual idea of idolatry is cultural—it marks what is already outside our fence. Let us pause for a while and look again at idolatry. It is so rejected by the prophets and other persons in the Bible. The rejection is not limited to “protecting what is inside our fence”. The fear of other statues and carven images is not just about protecting one’s culture and religion. There is something more. There is a deep insight into the rejection of idolatry. We need to go beyond the cultural colors of idolatry.
2. One of the more famous passages dealing with idolatry in the Old Testament is Ex.20/3-4. It might surprise you but maybe a good way to understand the prohibition of idolatry is to look back at the book of Genesis, in the garden of Eden story.
3. God gives a command—an order—to Adam in the garden. “The LORD God gave the man this order: You are free to eat from any of the trees of the garden except the tree of knowledge of good and evil. From that tree you shall not eat; when you eat from it you shall die” (2/16-17). The order is summarized as “you may…but”. You may eat from all the trees but not from this one tree. To live well and happily in the garden, “you may…but”.
4. This is the first part of the command: “You may…” do what you want. Do anything you want. Feel free. The second part of the command gives a limit: “but…” there are just certain things you cannot do because if you do them you will die. This is actually a description of human life and human condition. The human is a creature of desire. The human desires for many things. Why not? There is nothing wrong with desiring. However, recognize the limits of desire. Recognize that your desire cannot hold on to everything. Your desire cannot possess and control and dominate over everything. There is a limit.
5. Think of driving a car. We might want to drive freely and in full speed. But we need to step on the brake from time to time otherwise we crash onto a wall or a tree or fall off a cliff. We crash on to other cars or we flip our car. Without recognizing the use of the brake we get into an accident, or as verse 17 says, “when you eat from it you shall die”. There is a “speed limit” on the road of life. Recognize that limit, the travel will be fantastic.
6. The command of Gen.2/16-17 is about suspense and adventure. When we fail to recognize the limits of our desires, when we go full speed without limit and without stepping on the brake, we give ourselves the impression that we are now dominating, fully possessing, fully in control of life. We occupy all the space available, we become “too full of ourselves”. There is no more suspense. There is no more mystery and no more further knowing and learning. We stop the dynamism of desire.
7. The command of God is meant to open more room and space in life. There are things to see, discover, know and understand. Do not think you can have it all. Do not let your desire give you the illusion that you can have it all. Know the limits. The limits allow for mystery; they allow for developing, deepening, discovering more, broadening horizons. Life is an adventure, face it. Suspend your desires and do not give full speed to them.
8. If we try to pursue our desires full speed without limits we isolate ourselves. We stop recognizing the reality in front of us. We want to make all reality conform to our desires. The alterity of the world around us is rejected. Being too full of ourselves we make ourselves isolated. We start seeing only ourselves and our desires.
9. This is why Gen.2/16-17 opens up to verse 18: “It is not good for the man to be alone”. It is not good to be alone. It is not good to be isolated. We need a face-to-face relationship. We know the story, eventually the woman emerges (from the ribs of Adam, as we traditionally say). Now there is a face-to-face contact.
10. The presence of the other person tells us that we are not alone. Other people have their own thoughts, feelings, plans, dreams, hopes and fears. We have to recognize that. I am not the only person in this room. I am not the only person in this family. I am not the only person in this community. I am not the only person in this society. The presence of the other person limits me, that presence forces me to step on the brake of my desires and recognize that the other person has his/her desires too.
11. What is fascinating in God’s command is this: we adventure in life together. You and I, we both have limits to our desires. We are both in the same human condition of desires and limits. You and I can adventure in life. I learn from you, you learn from me.
12. Imagine living in a community where each member is just “too full of oneself”. Nobody wants to know what others feel and desire. Nobody dares to ask, “How are you”. So in that community each one lives in isolation from others. It is always about me, not you. In that community there is no adventure. Members do not explore life together. Each one is to his or her own. Somewhere along the way desires clash. Violence, even in discreet ways, is applied. Being in that community one does not feel “alive”. Did you ever have an experience of living in such a community?
13. The command of God in Gen.2/16-17 including 18 is an “instruction” guide on how to live properly—in the world with others. It is an instruction guide on how to live with adventure in life. It is an instruction guide on how to “bloom”.
14. We know the story. The serpent shows up. The serpent seems to know so much, it even claims to know God’s secret. God may not know that the serpent knows. The serpent then has an “edge” over God. The serpent is like God.
15. What is the serpent presenting? It is presenting the reason why the command of God need not be obeyed. God cannot be trusted, he has a secret, and his command is meant to preserve that secret. God is telling a lie. So do not put faith in God; have no confidence in God.
16. God has his desires and he wants to go full speed. But the presence of the humans is an obstacle. God feels threatened in the competition with humans. So God gave the command to gain control over humans, to stop humans from winning in the competition. God is too full of himself and it is the reason why he gave the command. God’s command violates human freedom; it is a command that prohibits humans from blooming. Again, do not trust God. Trust me, I am the serpent, I know God’s secret.
17. The serpent speaks well. It is so convincing. The “full-speed-desiring” of the humans is stimulated. Now that God is given a negative image, humans can then fulfill their own “full-speed-desires”. We know the story, from the prohibited tree humans start eating fruits.
18. As soon as a prohibited fruit was eaten, desire transformed into coveting. Coveting is desiring without respect for limits. There is no more stepping on the brake. Take a look at one commandment, “You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife” (Ex.20/17). She is not my wife. She belongs to someone else. Both of them have a family. They have a life together. To covet the wife is to be blind from all the limits; it is assume that I can step over the limits. I desire and better have what I want, never mind the limits. To covet is to refuse recognizing that my neighbor has his adventure to do in life with his wife. My coveting gets in the way of that life; it violates that life.
19. To believe in the talk of the serpent is idolatry. To accept the lie about God—that God is jealous and cannot be trusted with his command—is idolatry. To accept that I have all the reason to covet and there is no stopping me…this is idolatry. To accept that I can live life full of myself and that I can go full speed and do what I want without stepping on the brake…this is idolatry. To live without considering the command of God is idolatry. I can pervert my desire, this is idolatry.20. The cunning serpent is the figure of that Idolatry. The serpent is that idol. Note how far this view is from the simple cultural prohibition in idolatry. Idolatry is not just about statues and carved images of a god or goddess. It is about rejecting God and his command to live fully, humanly, “bloomingly”. Underneath the cultural fear of other statues and carved images is this insight about God and ourselves.
Idolatry Part II
1. In part I we had a description of the command of Gen2/16-17. We recall that the command is an “instruction” on “how to live in the garden”. The command is summarized as: “you may…but”. You may do what you want…yes, anything. Fulfill your desires. Pursue your plans. Follow your dreams. Express your passion. Yes, feel free to do anything. Yes, do anything you want. But…be responsible. Know the parameters of what you desire and plan and dream. You do not make an absolute of your desires, for if you do… “if you eat a fruit from that tree you will die”. Death comes in many ways. There is the actual death, but there is also the death of relationships, there is also the death of joy, happiness, vibrancy in life. Life becomes miserable.
2. The command of Gen2/16-17 tells us that life is an adventure, put suspense on desires, do not assume to completely fulfill desires. Have confidence in the present of others, live together and adventure together in life. Learn from each other, share and receive with each other. Learn to also place yourself in the hands of others and accept when others place themselves in your hands. As an old song puts it, “We’re in this love together”. Nobody monopolizes anyone. It is not good to be alone (see Gen2/18)—it is not good to be the only person in this family, in this community, in this workplace, in this school, in this government, in this society….Adventure with everybody else. Is it not true that when each member, say, of a community starts being “alone” and “full of oneself”, the community falls apart. It turns gloomy and rough.
3. Rejecting Gen2/16-17 is to accept dehumanization. The command says you may do anything you want just do not dehumanize. Do not dehumanize yourself, do not dehumanize your relationships with others, do not dehumanize social life.
4. Israel got into a Covenant with God. It was sealed with the agreement that the people will follow the Law. God liberated the people from Egypt—from the slavery there. God gives the Law during the Covenant to let the people have references for their lives in the land given to them. The law was designed so that slavery will not be repeated in the land, in society. The law has its discipline. It is designed to “tame” impulses, to shape desires, to know how to live responsibly. God’s demand in the Covenant and its laws is that the people elevate themselves to a level of moral-ethical living. Hence, for example, the prophets remind the people to live in justice and be vigilant against injustice.
5. Rejecting the Covenant and its Law is treason. It is to turn back on God and on the call to ethical living. Idolatry is a treason. It is to say that only one law applies, “you may”. The “but” part makes no sense, there is no room for that. Such is idolatry.
6. When the prophets warned the people, the prophets reminded the people of the link between injustice and idolatry. They are a perfect pair.
7. Idolatry means that the people prefer their own god. No they do not like the Lord God who makes moral demands. They prefer their own god whom they can domesticate. They prefer a god who will allow them to covet, a god who will not question their moral lives. They prefer a god who will allow them to make an absolute of their desires.
8. They prefer a god who will allow a life without “speed limits”. No stepping on the brakes. They prefer a god who will give a “seal of approval” for their limitless desires, dis-ordinate they may be. They are disciples of the serpent in the garden.
9. Do we have examples of this? Yes, we can look at two. One is the story of the golden calf in Exodus and the other is the issue of prostitution in Hosea.
10. In the Exodus story we read the Moses is called up the mountain and “disappears” for forty days. In that absence the people start getting uneasy. They feel that they have been abandoned in the wilderness. They have no one to lead them, their God is felt absent. It is an occasion to take a leap of faith, have confidence in God. God is a mystery with his own way of living. Now God and his mediator (Moses) are not visible, their presence is sought. Have confidence. But the people prefer to take hold of their God. They cannot tolerate mystery, they cannot tolerate the felt absence of God. Idolatry is a way of escaping that mystery. Idolatry is a way of creating a god that the people can hold. It is not a god of mystery, it is a god of human fabrication. It is a god brought to birth by human imagination.
11. It is a golden calf. Archaeology has discovered that the calf is used as footstools for temple gods. Calf is a wild fertile animal, still in the prime of its fertility. It has power, but it is power that can go wild. This is the god the people created. The gold is from Egypt; as the people escaped they ransacked Egyptian properties and took gold with them.
12. The people could not trust this “absent God”. They need a god in their image and likeness. They prefer the god of their ideas and imaginations. A god who will be partisan to their own ways. The calf is human made. Adoring the calf is self-adoring. Meanwhile the God who liberated the people from Egypt is now eliminated. From now on, with the golden calf, the people can start hearing only themselves.
13. The prostitution in Hosea is opposed to conjugal marriage. The Lord God is married to Israel and a Covenant has been sealed. But Israel, like a prostitute, decides to go after lovers—baals. This is adultery, for Hosea. Infidelity to God and connecting with baals is idolatry.
14. In prostitution, both the client and the prostitute relate with each other “economically”. The prostitute sells pleasure, the client buys it. The goal of their contact is not to build relationships. It is to derive from each other needs. It is a very utilitarian relationship that goes no further than the economic exchange. One is not really concerned with the other. Each one can remain too full of oneself.
15. Baalism is this adultery, this prostitution. Israel breaks fidelity from God and goes to the baals. The baals get their pleasure, they receive rituals. Israel gets her pay—the agricultural products, with oil and wine. It is a pure utilitarian relationship. The baals do not require moral living from the people. All that the baals want are rituals. The people prefer this. They do the rituals and they get their agricultural products. There is not demand for ethical living. There is no call for justice. Just do the religious rituals—that is enough. The rituals can be done yearly, like in prostitution where the client returns regularly for the quick pleasure moment. Baalism is a very convenient religion. It is what the people prefer.
16. In a conjugal relationship of love, like that of Israel and the Lord God, the exchange is free. Nobody pays anything to anyone. The goal of the relationship is communion, love. The relationship is marked by confidence and mutual trust; each promises fidelity to the other. Israel promises to “live good” and “live morally”. The communication is dialogue—prayer—and not rituals. Hosea invites the people of Israel to return to their true lover—to their true husband.