Idolatry and Injustice: Two Sides, Same Coin

Genesis-Chapter-21-Abraham-Sends-Hagar-and-Ishmael-AwayThe Bible makes a big deal about the sin of idolatry, and since it does we feel like we should also, but the truth is that there aren’t too many idol-worshiping religions to be found in the U.S. It’s just not a threat, so when we teach about idolatry we tend to say that anything that we place above God is an idol—sports, career, wealth, etc. This reduces idolatry to a metaphor about misplaced priorities, and while misplaced priorities are bad, this really isn’t idolatry in the biblical sense.

Idolatry in biblical times wasn’t a metaphor, and the issue at hand wasn’t as simple as misplaced priorities. Idols were seen as real. The Israelites of the Old Testament and Christians of the New Testament live in a world in which the religious norm was the worship of actual idols. It was a much different world than the one we live in today in the U.S. Nonetheless, the danger that is inherent in idolatry still exists, even in America, perhaps especially in America. To understand that danger we need only to look at two events in Genesis.

The first is after Sarah finally bears a son to Abraham. It had been a long wait, and Sarah had grown impatient at different points along the way, already having given her handmaiden Hagar to Abraham, who bore him a son, Ishmael. The two boys spend their first years together as brothers, but eventually Sarah can’t stand to see Ishmael and Isaac playing together.

It’s interesting how the biblical writer puts it: “But Sarah saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian, whom she had borne to Abraham, playing with her son Isaac. So she said to Abraham, ‘Cast out this slave woman with her son; for the son of this slave woman shall not inherit along with my son Isaac.’” (Genesis 21:9-10 NRS)

(The readers, both ancient and modern, can’t be blind to the irony of this statement, for Genesis ends with the Israelites in Egypt, and Exodus begins with their unjust enslavement by the Egyptians.)

This is one of the first incidents of both ethnic and class strife that we see in the Bible, and it clearly shows both ethnic and class strife are causes of human injustice. Hagar and Ishmael, through no fault of their own, are cut loose from patriarchal protection.

Perhaps not so clearly shown, at least to modern readers, is the link between this injustice and idolatry. If God had not intervened and protected Hagar and Ishmael the chances were high that they would would have been enslaved and made into temple prostitutes in one of the Canaanite fertility cults; this was not an uncommon fate for women and children who were abandoned, widowed, or orphaned and underlies the commands to take care of widows and orphans.

The second event involves the sacrifice of Isaac. The world in which Abraham lived was a violent world. Even worship was violent. All the religions of the time involved sacrifice, and sacrificing to the gods usually involved killing something: a bull, a lamb—or a child. Human sacrifice appears to have been widespread in the land of Canaan, and the first-born son was seen as the most valuable gift that could be given to a god.

For this reason Abraham doesn’t seem particularly surprised when God commands him to sacrifice his only son Isaac. At the crucial moment, however, God commands Abraham to spare his son and provides a ram for him to sacrifice instead. This pivotal story in Israel’s history is God’s declaration that human sacrifice, common in idol worship, has no place in Israel’s worship. There is still violence in worship, but it is lessened, limited to the killing of animals.

Both of these stories, and many more in the Old Testament, show the link between idolatry and injustice. The problem with idolatry isn’t so much that it offends God that people would worship some other gods besides him. This isn’t a dating ritual where God can‘t stand to see his date dancing with someone else. I rather imagine that God is bigger than that; he may not like it, but he is not going to go off in some jealous rage. He’s not going to act like Sarah towards Hagar, in other words.

The problem with idolatry is that it involved so much violence and injustice toward other humans. This is what God can’t abide—the violence and injustice inherent in the idol-worshiping cults in Canaan. This is the crucial point: idolatry and injustice are not two different sins that God finds intolerable; they are in fact two sides of the same Original Sin that God finds abhorrent.

Idolatry and injustice go together. We take upon ourselves prerogatives that only belong to God, and the immediate result of that is violence and injustice. First we want to decide what is right and what is wrong, then we want to decide who is right and who is wrong, and before long we are deciding who deserves to live and who deserves to die.

These are prerogatives that only belong to God, and our usurping of God’s role is both idolatry and injustice. One leads to the other. The presence of injustice is clear evidence of idolatry.

This is the idolatry that we must fight today: the tolerance and even glorification of violence and injustice. (And when we commit in God’s name, it is blasphemy.)

God won’t stand for it; neither should we. He stands against it; so should we.

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