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We know as Christians, on an intellectual level, that we have idols--be it family, food, football or whatever. But to see the allure of idolatry can be hard for those of us in the Western world.

That’s why I appreciate the points laid out by Doug Stuart in his Exodus commentary (450-54). Stuart suggests nine reasons idolatry was attractive to the Israelites and in the cultures of the Ancient Near East.

1. It was guaranteed. If you do the right incantation, you get the right results. Just say the right words and the gods show up. Who wouldn't want that?

2. It was selfish. In the ancient world, the gods, though they were powerful, needed humans to feed them. Sacrifices were brought to the gods because they were hungry. Consequently, you can get what you want from the gods simply be bringing them the sacrifices they need

3. It was easy. Sure, you need to show up and offer your sacrifice, but ancient religion demanded little in the way of ethical standards or personal sacrifice. To be a good Canaanite, you didn't have to follow an elaborate moral code. You just had to put the meat on the altar. That was the mistake Israel fell into time after time. They thought they could live and worship anyway they wished, so long as they kept up with the religious rituals.

4. It was convenient. There were religious franchises all over the place. That's why Israel got in trouble with their high places. They thought they could take care of their ritual duties just like everyone else. Israel was unique, however, in that there was only one place to go to--first to the tabernacle and later the temple.

5. It was normal. The only people who did not do religion like this in the ancient Near East were the Israelites. For everyone else, though they had gods with difference names and in different places, religion was done the same way.

6. It was logical. It made sense that there were lots of gods who specialized in one area of blessing or held sway over one part of the cosmos.

7. It was pleasing to the senses. There was an appeal to aesthetics and beauty. There was something to see and do in idolatrous worship. It was more entertaining and probably felt more relevant.

8. It was indulgent. Meat was a relative rarity in the ancient world. Not everyone had herds that they could sacrifice, so meat was often eaten only as a part of ritual worship. You would offer your meal, and in some cases you drink, to the god and then enjoy the feast yourself. As a result, worship took on a party atmosphere, filled with gluttony and drunkenness.

9. It was erotic. During ritual worship it was believed that if worshipers took the parts of Baal and Asherah (for example) and had sex, it would stimulate the deities in heaven to have sex. And when the gods and goddesses had sex, it meant procreation, which meant earthly blessings like fertility, rain, health, and good harvests. This is why prostitution became common at religious sites and why God rebuked Israel for adopting the same practice with both heterosexual and homosexual temple prostitutes.

The whole system of idolatry--guaranteed, selfish, easy, convenient, normal, logical, pleasing, indulgent, and erotic--when you look at it that way, the allure of idolatry does not seem far removed from us. It is easy to see how we can make idols out of everything from health insurance to retirement accounts to political candidates to academic approval to sports to entertainment to Facebook to food and sex.

What God was telling Israel was not easy for them, nor is it easy for us, but we must fight the good fight of faith and shun all idolatry. No matter common and no matter how attractive.

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8 thoughts on “The Attraction of Idolatry”

  1. Neville Briggs says:

    Mr Stuarts points are all relevant but there is one issue that always puzzles me.
    How could the people of Israel turn away from God to idols after seeing God’s deliverance in action. They saw the Egyptians destroyed by plagues and in the Red Sea, why turn to the golden calf after what they had seen and experienced of God.
    In the Book of Acts, Stephen reminded them of their apostasy in the face of God’s powerful revelation, over and over again in their history. Stephen said that they always resisted the Holy Spirit.
    Is idolatry resisting the Holy Spirit ?
    Israel was the chosen, the elect people of the covenant, how could they resist the Holy Spirit.

    If Christians are sealed with the Spirit, is it possible that they, the elect of Christ, would resist the Holy Spirit going for the “attractive” idolatry.

    These seem hard questions. I don’t know the answers.

  2. Dean says:

    Neville, some things that remian strong and constant for me is Gods patience & perseverance. His covenant with Abraham & Israel that God eventually cancelled out due to their continued disobedience as a nation. Deut 28. They had so much blessing & freedom but recieved the covenant curses & were reduced to a mess. But in it all God’s covenant of grace remained sticking to his promise of the seed that would come to bless the nations. Its like Abraham has fathered two nations, Israel & Christ’s if that makes any sense.Not everyone in OT Israel was born of the spirit. Rom 9:6-16.

    Eph 1 speaks of the NT covenant & the blessings we have in Christ. At times Scripture addresses our permanent state in Christ at other times it addresses personal struggles & warns us so that we may daily turn from sin & walk in joyful obedience with gratitude in our hearts.

    Even with the spirit we sin daily as we are tempted & allured by our own old nature, the world & satan. So in one way we resist God’s wisdom by sinning but that doesnt mean it equates to Israels disobedience as a nation that eventually left them seperate from God.

    So when we find ourselves in sin we look to our advocate & recieve grace & mercy. It is tricky, its because we are totally justified & saved, but the process of sanctification, of God making us holy like Him is a daily event as the spirit works powerfully in the life of God’s NT people.

    Idolatary is one of many sins that are summarised in the 10 commandments, I think Kevin is preaching on them at the moment.

    Thats some of the stuff I have learned so far & thought it was worth sharing with you. Doctrinley some churches bear greater witness to God’s redemptive plan in history better than others.

  3. Curt Day says:

    We might add that idolatry is sometimes self-flattering.

  4. Jana says:

    I appreciated these new perspectives. Helpful to understand the historical context and the human reasons.

    (Note/friendly suggestion: there are a number of typos in this post.)

  5. Kevin says:

    Hello Neville,
    In Joshua 24 you read in verses 14-16 that the Israelites were worshiping idols even when they were in Egypt.
    So it does not come as a big surprise to me. Also the bull calf that they chose was an Egyptian idol. This is all the more pointing to their previous practices.
    Hope this helps.

  6. Eric F says:

    Idolatry is in the nature of man. If he identifies 1000 objects of idolatry and shuns them, a man will find something else to idolize. He may even idolize his own ability to not bow to idols. It is deeply ingrained. Only way to end idolatry is to put to death the idolater. I can’t put myself to death, because I’ll die. Only God can properly put me to death. He can raise me up again too.

  7. Neville Briggs says:

    Thanks for the replies, Dean and Kevin. I shall think on these things.

  8. Nevilles questions are very appropriate, one point seems to be important…the god of this world wants us to fall into idolatry, Satan had not had his power broken by the cross at this time and the people of Isreal were prime targets. So supernatural temptation seems to me be part of their problem. They were still slaves to sin we are not becasue of Christ. Food for thought

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Kevin DeYoung

Kevin DeYoung is the senior pastor at Christ Covenant Church in Matthews, North Carolina. He is chairman of the board of The Gospel Coalition, assistant professor of systematic theology at Reformed Theological Seminary (Charlotte), and a PhD candidate at the University of Leicester. Kevin and his wife, Trisha, have seven children. You can follow him on Twitter.

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