September 15th, 2013

Be careful what you worship, because you will become its slave.

Judges 2:10-19

September 15, 2013

Competition for Yahweh

In today’s reading we introduce the book of Judges.  You may say, “But I thought that’s what we did last week.”  We did.  It’s not unusual, though, even in a modern book to find a Preface, a Prologue, a Foreword and/or an Introduction.  In the Prologue (chapter 1) the primary antagonists were human and geographical.  We encountered the names of people and places and nations Israel sought to displace in Canaan.  In the Introduction (chapter 2) the antagonist is spiritual – a rival to Israel’s God, Yahweh. His name is Baal.

The first lesson we need is a lesson in pronunciation.  Let’s go from worst to first in terms of how to say this name.

  • Worst: Pronounce “Bay-all” as if it rhymes with “Hey, y’all!”  This clearly identifies you not only as from the South but as from HICK-ree.
  • Next to worst: It rhymes with Hell.  Of course, for some southerners “Hell” also is pronounced, “Hey, y’all.”
  • Improved:  It rhymes with “Pale” or “Tale” or “Male.”  That’s the most common way to say it in English.  The plural is pronounced “Bales.”
  • Erudite: “Bah-AHL.”  In other words, it really is two syllables.  In Hebrew, as in Hawaiian, two back-to-back vowels should be separated when you pronounce them.  When you pronounce “Ba’al” this way, people think you are, to quote Andy Taylor, “Smart….real smart.”  The plural is Bah-ahl-EEM.

Now to more important matters. Before the arrival of the Israelites, Ba’al (Lord, Master) was supreme god in the religious system of Canaan and surrounding nations.  Ba’al was actually his title, not his name.  The god’s name is Hadad.  As the Jews would say, “Yahweh is God,” the Canaanites might say “Hadad is Ba’al.”

In that polytheistic system various towns and regions had their own gods, but Ba’al was not local.  In some places in the Bible, however, a hyphenated name assigned him to a particular place, such as Ba’al-Hermon (Judges 3:3).  There were also other compound words, such as Ba’al-zebub, “Lord of the Flies” (2 Kings 1:2), a title borrowed by William Golding for his 1954 novel.

Among the gods of Canaan (which technically should be pronounced “Kah-NAH-ahn”),  Ba’al had a specialty, as did all the other gods.  Ba’al was the god of storms – of clouds, wind, and rain.  No wonder he was the supreme god.  In an agricultural society, the god who controls weather is the god of sustaining life itself.  For this reason he was also the god of fertility.  In a famous stele (carved stone slab), Ba’al is pictured with a lightning bolt in his left hand that extends into a spearhead and a club overhead in his right hand.  On his head is a helmet with the horns of a bull, a symbol of fertility.

It’s clear in the book of Judges that God wanted the worship of Baal eradicated from Canaan.  Because it didn’t happen for almost a millennium, we have a good deal of information in the Old Testament about the forms of Ba’al worship as the rivalry continued.  There were temples, shrines, and altars throughout Canaan, that included vessels and idols.  When Linda and I visited Israel in 2011, we saw some rather well-preserved archaeological ruins of an altar in the tribe of Dan built for the worship of Ba’al.  Priests at these worship sites wore special vestments.  The usual offering was incense, but birds and animals, and sometimes human beings, even children, were offered to Ba’al as sacrifices.  At times the priests worked themselves into a state of frenzy and slashed themselves with knives during their religious dances.

In a later sermon in this series, we will address the moral question about how God told the Israelites to eradicate the worship of Ba’al – that is, through extermination of the people.  Today, I want to focus on the why.   Moderns look with disdain on colonial-era Christians who did the same thing in the Americas and in the Pacific islands, including Hawaii – all of which had their own version of Baal-worship, or polytheism.  We westerners displaced not only their land but their beliefs and much of their culture.

Today’s question is, “What’s Wrong with False Gods?”  Why are Judaism and Christianity (as well as Islam) so exclusive in their worship of one true God?  We not only disdain physical idols, but we insist wrong ideas about God (other religions) amounts to idolatry, a word we  use pejoratively.  We also use the “I” word to describe addictions to money or pleasure or sex or anything that creates a rival for God in our trust and obedience.  Why must we insist there’s only one true God?  And shouldn’t we be open to the idea of blending the best of religions, the cream of religious ideas, into a delicious dessert of gods?

This is the subject the narrator of Judges covers in his introduction (chapter 2).  He says that the Israelites “did evil in the eyes of the LORD” (11) and this “provoked the LORD to anger,” but I want to know why.  Does the narrator of Judges give us any hints?  I think he does, and he uses four different relationships that are familiar to us.

The teacher perspective: forgetfulness (10-11)

“Another generation grew up, who knew neither the LORD nor what he had done for Israel.  Then the Israelites did evil in the eyes of the LORD and served the Baals (2010 NIV: ‘Baalim’).”

The role of a teacher is to pass on to a new generation the lessons learned by those who preceded them.  In America we teach our kids about Pilgrims and the Boston Tea Party and Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King, Jr. and 9-11 because we don’t want them passive about religious oppression and taxation without representation and slavery and civil rights and terrorism.  George Santayana, a nineteenth century Spanish-American philosopher, said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

Americans mandate education – about reading, writing and ‘rithmetic, but also about American history. Nobody seems to question American teachers teaching American children about American stories and American ways.  There’s an exclusivism about the value we place on freedom and democracy.  So why shouldn’t Christian teachers teach Christian children about Christian ways?

Yahweh’s first problem with the Ba-alim and all false gods is forgetfulness.  His people had lived with polytheism in Egypt just a few generations before, and it was a miserable life of slavery.  Their ancestors before Abraham had lived with variations of local gods, and it was a life of constant fear and insecurity.  God had brought his people out of idolatry into the light of his provision and protection, and he didn’t want them to forget.

In Deuteronomy 6, Moses had declared, “Hear, O Israel, Yahweh is one.  Love Yahweh your God with all your heart and soul and strength.”  He went on to urge his people to be sure their children would remember their stories and the commands and ways of Yahweh their God.  “Be careful that you do not forget Yahweh, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery” (Deuteronomy 6:12).

A columnist once wrote in the Charlotte Observer that Christians should stop talking about their faith and just live it.  I wrote her and said, “If Christians had taken that counsel for 2000 years, there wouldn’t be any Christians today to live their faith.  Many of the hospitals, universities, camps, ministries to the poor, and so on, would never have existed if the Christian faith has not been spread and passed on to the next generation.  She responded to me, and said, “You’re right.  I don’t know what I was thinking.”

We unapologetically invest much of our time and resources in teaching our young and spreading our faith, which has done far more good in the world than bad.  I feel a little defensive when people say churches invest too much time and money internally and not enough on the world around.  I disagree.  Our current Confirmation class has 50 kids in it, so imagine the difference we can make in the next generation if this one class of Confirmands is taught the Bible, the ways of Jesus, and the lessons of faith learned by those who have preceded us.

The parent perspective: ingratitude (11-15)

“They forsook the LORD, the God of their fathers…and served Baal and the Ashtoreths.”

Here’s a second angle on the exclusive claim of Yahweh on his people.  Once again: I’m looking for hints in the text that we might be able to relate to.

The key word in verse 12, repeated in verse 13, is “forsook.”  This is the part of the text that says the people “provoked the LORD to anger…because they forsook him and served Baal and the Ashtoreths” (12).  (These are the female gods, the playmates of Ba’al and the other male gods.)

Verse 14 continues, “In his anger against Israel Yahweh handed them over to raiders who plundered them.  He sold them to their enemies all around, whom they were no longer able to resist.” The result was defeat and distress (15).

Why is God so angry?  Why is God so jealous?  It seems unworthy of him.

The word “forsake” means “to depart, to abandon, to neglect.”  There are certainly times that call for leaving one place or relationship for another.  But God seems to be speaking here as a parent would speak when a rebellious child gets tired of parental boundaries and leaves home far too early.

Should a mother be hurt when the child she bore and nursed and taught and sacrificed for runs away with an older man who got her pregnant?  Should a father be angry that his son was seduced by a drug gang?  The opposite of love is not anger – it’s indifference.

This is the adolescent phase of Israel’s life.  As they emerged from Egypt, God gave them dramatic signs of his presence.  He took care of their needs.  He gave them clear boundaries.  He appointed their leaders.  Now he’s giving them some freedom.

God would like them not only to remember but to be thankful for what he has done.  It wasn’t Ba’al who clubbed their enemies or rained on their crops or made their wombs and lands fertile.  Don’t they owe Yahweh a little gratitude?

This is still one issue with God’s exclusive claims on us.  Because of the gifts of life and patience and salvation and direction and the loving community he gives us in his church and a thousand other gifts, God expects our gratitude.  Why would we turn to other gods when The God has cared for us so completely?

The husband perspective: prostitution (16-18)

(They) “prostituted themselves to other gods and worshiped them.”

In the next section, our narrator becomes even more graphic.  Why is God so angry?  Well, these verses present the “judges” God sent to his people.  Remember, we are dealing here with the Introduction to Judges.  We are previewing what is to come.  Starting next week, we will read the stories of individual judges.  A better translation is probably “leaders” or “deliverers.”  In any case, don’t think of robed magistrates.

In other words, God doesn’t leave his people completely without leaders.  He is no longer appointing successors as he did with Joshua after Moses.  He’s going to let them figure it out.  But as we’ll see as the story unfolds, each time they go through a cycle and the God-sent deliverer bails them out of trouble, they wind up in the same place.  Verse 17 says, “They would not listen to their judges….”

And then the narrator gets graphic.  “…but prostituted themselves to other gods and worshiped them.”  Now there’s a metaphor any married person can identify with.  Adultery is bad enough.  But prostitution?  It would be bad enough if we were talking about visiting a prostitute.  In this particular metaphor we’re talking about a beloved and nurtured wife becoming a prostitute.

Nobody asks, “What’s wrong with becoming a prostitute if you’re a married woman?” But why is it wrong?  It’s not a broken promise and an insult to the relationship.  It’s a bright, flashing, clanging warning symbol that something is terribly wrong not only with the marriage but with the woman who decides that marriage is not enough to satisfy her physical and material needs.

What’s pictured here in Judges 2 is repeated rescues from johns, each time getting “caught” by a detective, punished by a magistrate, freed by an advocate, and restored by a therapist.  The detective/magistrate/advocate/therapist is the multiple role of the “judges.”  But each time this happened, the people “quickly turned” back.

If the teacher perspective is remembering and the parent perspective is gratitude, the husband perspective is loyalty, fidelity, and integrity.  You made a promise.  We’re not talking at this point about unbelievers choosing among various religions.  We’re talking about God’s people who have pledged themselves to him in an exclusive covenant now saying their promises don’t matter anymore and they’d like to play the field, religiously speaking.  Our narrator in Judges calls that prostitution.

The pastor perspective:  destruction (19)

“But when the judge died, the people returned to ways even more corrupt than those of their fathers.”

I don’t know whether I should call this the “pastor perspective,” the “counselor perspective,” or the “life coach perspective.”  I could even apply this to any of the other perspectives we have already mentioned – teacher, parent, or husband.

As a pastor, imagine an alcoholic coming to me and saying, “What’s so wrong with one drink at a bar?”  Imagine a recovering porn addict asking, “What’s the harm in the swimsuit edition of Sports Illustrated?” Imagine a greed addict saying, “Why should I give 10% of MY money?”

And so the people of this Judges cycle think, “What’s the harm in a short bow before the altar of Ba’al? I’m just covering my bases.”  Or, “So what if a few of us intermarry with the locals?  Most of us are still keeping the faith.”  Or, “What if we do chop off the thumbs and big toes of our conquered kings?  They did it to everyone of their enemies.”

And the answer is, “Once you start there, once you decide it doesn’t matter where your loyalty lies, once you determine that a little self-indulgence or compromise doesn’t matter, you alter your soul.”  The pastor perspective is not as worried about what you do next as what you will do after that, and after that, and after that.

As a pastor, I want people to seek what will bring true meaning, lasting joy, deep contentment, settled peace, assurance of being loved and forgiveness, and ultimately, eternal life.  I am convinced this comes only through a relationship with the one true God and his Son, Jesus Christ.  But I realize all of that is unseen – an invisible God gives intangible benefits gained by waiting indefinitely.

Now – and in the time of the Judges – faith in the one true God is in competition against what produces gratification through pleasures that are tangible and immediate.  You can see it, touch it, feel it, get a rush.  But you serve what you worship, and when you serve a false god you will ultimately destroy yourself.  That’s the pastor perspective God gives to his people through our narrator early in this book.  Be careful what you worship, because you will become its slave.  Guard your heart from false idols, because after they have deceived you, they will destroy you.


A popular bumper sticker urges all religions to “coexist.”  The symbols on the bumper sticker represent Islam, Judaism, and Christianity, as well as paganism, science, and eastern religions.  So is coexistence a biblical idea?

I’m going to say yes and no.

The book of Judges says coexistence was the problem, but we’re not living in Israel in the 13th century before Christ.  We’re living in America in the 21st century after Christ.  If you remember the sermon a couple of weeks ago on politics, the Apostle Paul’s perspective on government is not to ask God to make the empire’s leaders agree with us or even favor us.  His prayer is that “we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness” (1 Timothy 2:2).

I do think we should “coexist” in the sense that Christians more than anyone else can operate out of the security to trust God and follow his example.  He doesn’t force anyone to believe in him or follow his ways.

But to take it the next step and say it doesn’t matter what anyone believes – that we have no reason or right to challenge other religious systems or the idolatries of today – that would not only be unbiblical but unloving.  “What’s wrong with false gods?”  The primary answer is in the question – because they’re false.

As the Bible’s story unfolds, there are many lessons about how to share that message, as Peter says in 1 Peter 3:15, “with gentleness and respect.”  We can pursue the truth and share the truth, with love.  Amen.

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