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Tuesday, November 30, 2004

No graven images...

In my meditation on the first commandment I said that it is easy for me to get the prohibition against idolatry, but relatively harder to understand the commandment for having no other gods. Actually in thinking of the first two commandments, it almost seems to me that they are two sides of the same coin. That these two are part and parcel of the same commandment (It is interesting to note that the Bible doesn't refer to the "Ten Commandments" anywhere). On the one hand, God commands that Israel shall have no other Gods except the LORD. On the other hand, they are not to make nor bow down before any graven images of anything in heaven or earth.

In considering the first commandment, one might be tempted to think that it all but makes the second commandment unnecessary. If the first commandment prohibited Israel from alegiance to any other gods, why is there a need for the proscription against the making of, and bowing down, to any graven images? Doesn't the prohibition against worshipping any other gods also preclude the worship of graven images? One might think that this is exactly the case since in this context the graven images were understood as a substitute for God, and the restriction on making and worshipping graven images specifically prohibits substitituting God with graven images.

Perhaps God wanted to underscore the exclusivity of His relationship with Israel. He is the LORD their God. They are to have no other Gods before Him. And, if they did not really get that, God spelt out what that means. They are not to have any substitute for Him - they are not to worship any graven images:

"You shall not make for yourself an idol in the form of anything in heaven above
or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them
or worship them; for I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, punishing the
children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation of those
who hate me."

Perhaps, there is more to just not having no graven images, or not to make for themselves any idols. Why is it important that we have no graven images? That they are not to make and bow down before any idol?

As a kid, I grew up with all sorts of gods around me and my family. There was the God of the Earth, the God of War, the God of the Kitchen, the Monkey God, the Goddess of Mercy Mere and the King of Heaven. Throughout the year, special days were set aside for different celebrations and worship of these gods and goddesses. Many of these gods are represented by idols and graven or painted images. I still remember some of these gods have terrifying appearances and I did not like to look at them. Still, we worshipped these gods and ask for their favor, blessings and protection.

So when I became a Christian, I was able to relate to not making any idols and bowing down before them. I understood what it means to be an idol-worshipper. It seems that we creatures have a peculiar proclivity to replace God in our lives with an idol. Just as Augustine says, we have a God-shaped vacuum in our hearts and we are restless until it is filled with Him. While it remains void, we will continue to seek a substitute in order to fill that emptiness. Call that a search for meaning or a search for significance or a search for ultimate purpose, whatever you call it, it is a search to fill that void that only He can fill.

We chase after substitutes and if it is in the form of a graven image, or a painting that reminds us of a mythical or legendary figure that can bring us wealth, peace or safety we will bow down before that idol and devote ourselves to serving that god.

That type of idol worship may not be as powerful as what we have also identified as idolatry. That is another form of replacement for God that can be an attractive power that has a hold upon our lives. This can be anything from a past-time, a person, a thing or a passion. A more powerful, and insidious form of idolatry is the idolatry of turning God into something other than Himself. This kind of idolatry is the act of reducing God to a sub-standard image of our own mind's creation. Rather than making a graven image with our own hands, we make this image with our mind and fixate our worshipping of the One True God, with this "god-wannabe" that we have created.

Sometimes idolatry involves seeking God's blessings rather than God Himself. Recently at a dinner party, the friends we were with made a statement that made me raise my internal eyebrows a bit. Referring to their grown son who found a dream job with Disney, they said, "God is good to Him." Although I refused to judge them but instead try to understand what they said in the context of popular beliefs, I cannot help but wonder if our popular beliefs have been unfortunately tainted with misconceptions.

I wonder if sometimes we have the danger of attributing to God's goodness only when we find good results in our life. When things go exceptionally well, when we are in good health and when we have that dream job or when we win that scholarship or get that sale, we say, "God blessed me" or "God is good" but when we suffer, and when we have pain, and when things go terribly wrong, we respond differently. Questioning doubts arise in us, "Why me God?" or we shake our fists against God and say, "Why couldn't you have acted?" Or some such... We may not go through these extremes, but very seldom do we say in times like these, "God is good to us/me". Oh, we may still say, "Thank God in (or for) everything" in our more sober and spiritual moments, but we rarely respond to evil, or bad experiences with a spontaneous, "God is good to me/us."

And, that is the most dangerous form of idolatry. In his famouse sermon on idolatry, J.C. Ryle said, 'idolatry is a worship in which the honour due to God in Trinity, and to Him only, is given to some of His creatures, or to some invention of His creatures.' The worst form of idolatrous creation is the creation in our minds of something that is less than God. It could be a creation of some idea, or concept of God that is less than God Himself. It could be a creation of a blessing, a special gift or something that we desire from God, but as long as it is something else other than God, and it shifts the focus of our relationship with Him, it is idolatry - idolatry of the most dangerous kind.

A particularly dangerous form of such distortion and creation of a replacement for God is what is known as Biblioatry - the worship of the Bible instead of God. This is insidious and misleading, for we then replace the primacy of our relationship with God with a distorted devotion to scriptures, doctrine and "truth."

Instead of realizing that God wants us to relate to Him, that when He gave Moses the Commandments, He began by underscoring the history of who He is and what He had done for Israel, before announcing that He is their God and then going on to give the logical consequences of that relationship. "No other gods" and "no graven images" must be set against the backdrop of "I the LORD am your LORD who rescued you out of Egypt". Also, He needed to give both injunctions for we are created in His image. By nature we are creative, and if we do not harness our creativity within the context of a dynamic relationship with our Creator, we may be tempted to distort the Real by the misapplication of our creative juices.

So when we read God's commandment against idolatry we may conjure up images of pagan idol worshippers that happens in non-Christian temples and places of worship, and say, "I am not guilty of that!" Or we might conjure up modern day replacements of divinity such as the T.V., Football, or something mundane, "worldly" and non-spiritural, and we might have this to say, "I used to be carnal but now I no longer practice such idolatrous sins." However, when confronted with the reality of the other kind of insidious idolatrous behavior is, we need to be extra careful that we don't fall into the idolatry trap ourselves. For we may all be guilty of that sin daily and need to be vigilant against our sinful nature.

As we have seen idolatry can be that tendency to replace the focus on relationship with God with any other form of spirituality. Or it could be a frivolous seeking of His gifts, blessings and other good things, rather than an intimacy with the holy God. Or even a reduction of God to some other distortion of who He is, and the replacement of the dynamic relationship with the Trinity with a stringent adherence to a Book, even the Holy Scritpures.

When we realize the full scope and measure of idolatrous behavior we see then the need for an additional measure of His grace and mercy so that we are able to follow the admonishment of Paul to "flee from idolatry" (I Cor 10:14).