Scripture and summary
A point of transition from a general call to specific demands. Two important items to notice are the use of the instruction translated as “teach” and “keep” (NET). The law that the Israelites were being called to obey required an active obedience so that every successive generation would be able to rightly approach their God and King. There was no “opt-out” button to select in God’s covenant, a person taking it up was bound to its “terms and conditions”.
Idolatry seems strange to us, to attempt to capture the essence of the infinite in wood or stone, but it was a reality in the ancient world. We mustn’t think that those people were stupid and actually thought that the statues had power, rather we must recognize that people believed that the statues were memorials that their gods could be invited to inhabit so that they could bargain with them and try to control them. It was a very nuanced relationship that we will explore later in the study, but here the Israelites are reminded of their encounter with the LORD at Sinai: they saw “no form”, nothing that could be represented in any tangible way. The LORD’s uniqueness is to be expressed in their worship of him.
Moses has to admit to a measure of idolatry on his own part by calling back to the disobedience that prevented him from entering the promised land. His idol was his closeness to God. This shows, as an example to the people, to not allow the illusion of the personal closeness and friendship with God to blind one to the reality that God is still God who is a “consuming fire (v.24).”
Continued warnings in regards to the practice of trying to capture the essence of the infinite in the finite is that it ultimately leads to the corruption of the finite. Idol worship, because it limits the expression of the divine to the physical realm, the physical realm ultimately becomes the focus. Pagan idol worship was filled with sexual anarchy and death. This passage serves as a warning against that, as well as the prophetic invocation of a curse that would see its fulfillment later in Israel’s history.
“Have you ever heard of such a thing?” This section is formed around a number of questions that are inherent in the ancient world. The gods of the peoples were tied to the regions that were inhabited. The Israelites had just come out of the deeply pagan land of Egypt and had seen the LORD make sport of those gods, mocking them openly in his displays of power and authority. The gods of the peoples had territorial limits, the LORD did not. The gods of the peoples had limits on what they controlled in regards to the elements, the LORD had total control over everything, even life and death. The LORD was not like the other gods and was not to either be thought of in the same way or worshipped in the same way. The acts of the past were to be constantly considered in the present and were to be constantly pronounced to future generations.
Idolatry, biblically speaking, is anything that lowers the concept of God, the True and Living God, in the minds of men and tries to capture it in human terms or limit it to one or two aspects. It’s not merely wood and stone as much as ideas.
The early heretic Marcion could not conceive of God, made present in Jesus,—who was seen as so loving and kind—as being the same God who could drown a corrupt world in the deluge of the flood. He created an idol, a ghost, who had no power, whose love and kindness could not administer justice to the wicked and corrupt. He had to deny everything that proved that Jesus was truly God. His idolatry corrupted the truth about God, thereby slandering his nature and holy character.
Modern Christianity does the same thing when it favors “the red letters” over the whole letters. When it places one translation or one line of manuscripts over the entire revelation of God. When it places alliance to a particular doctrinal understanding to careful study of the Word itself. Idols pop up everywhere and they serve to only divide us.
Does this mean that there aren’t clear places where men should not take a stand? Absolutely not. We cannot, we must not, sacrifice truth for peace. We must take scripture seriously, soberly, carefully. That is why it should be studied submissively, slowly, and optimistically.
Let us tear down the idols of our hearts that limit God and swear ourselves to him in his covenant.