Images of golden calves, or the thought kneeling before stone altars with animals killed on them have never struck a chord with me. I easily gloss over the temptations of the Israelites to make up their own gods and the devotion to little wooden or stone carved beings. Who can commiserate with such strange, ignorant people? How are we to understand ourselves as parallel to these people who would take a tree trunk and make it into a “god”?
This morning I realized that idols are a way to try to control our lives–it seems that idols, or for example the ancient Greek or Roman gods and goddesses, would scratch your back if you scratched theirs. We rule-loving people could do the right things (give this amount of money, or offer that sort of animal) and we could expect to be safe from this disaster or to receive that blessing. Idols are predictable; they help people feel like they have some power, a few cards to play.
Understood this way, idols have a lot more resonance for me. Imagine the Israelites at the foot of Mount Sinai after they’ve left their homes in Egypt. Sure, the conditions were bad in Egypt, but at least it was familiar, at least there was a status quo, a stable lifestyle. Abandoned in the shadowed valley of the Mountain of God, the Israelites clung to anything they could get their hands on. Perhaps they thought, “This God that Moses says is ours is all well and good, and we’ve even seen his great work in the Red Sea and in the twelve plagues, but he hasn’t given us the game rules–we don’t know what he wants of us. We know that we can gain some semblance of order if we just solve this problem ourselves, now, by setting up our own life schedule and making our own rules of life. It can’t be too hard!” And they do–they set up their own way of understanding the world and of understanding power, and they even begin to form their lives around this new philosophy they’ve created. Then, of course, Moses comes down from the mountain, literally shining from the time he’s spent with God, full of the Spirit, burning to share with the people the love that God has for them and the plan that God has for them to be able to live well together. And then, of course, more trouble begins–the people aren’t so interested in this demanding, totally transforming, difficult, somewhat obtuse way of living, a way of living that is purposely not status quo and purposely not just a set of rules or boxes to check off.