Most Westerners have struggled at one time or another to understand the attraction of idolatry in the ancient world. What could be so compelling about an inanimate block of wood or chunk of stone? Hard core idolatry feels as tempting as beet juice. It’s likely someone out there loves a frothy glass of obscure vegetable extract, but the temptation doesn’t weigh heavily on our souls.
But idolatry made a lot of sense in the ancient world. And, had we lived two or three millennia ago, it almost certainly would have been tempting to each one of us. In his commentary on Exodus, Doug Stuart explains idolatry’s attraction with nine points. You’ll likely want to save this list and file it for future sermons or Bible studies.
1. Idolatry was guaranteed. The formula was simple. Carve a god out of wood or stone and the god would enter the icon. Now that you have a god in your midst, you can get his (or her) attention quickly. Your incantations, oaths, and offerings will always be noticed.
2. Idolatry was selfish. Scratch the gods backs and they’ll scratch yours. They need food and sacrifices; you need blessings. Do your stuff and they’ll be obliged to get you stuff.
3. Idolatry was easy. Ancient idolatry encouraged vain religious activity. Do what you like with your life. So long as you show up consistently with your sacrifices, you’ll be in good shape.
4. Idolatry was convenient. Gods in the ancient world were not hard to come by. Access was almost everywhere. Statues can be used in the home or on the go.
5. Idolatry was normal. Everyone did it. It’s how woman got pregnant, how crops grew, how armies conquered. Idolatry was like oil: nothing ran in the ancient world without it.
6. Idolatry was logical. Nations are different. People are different. Their needs and desires are different. Obviously, there must be different deities for different strokes. How could one god cover all of life? You don’t eat at one restaurant do you? The more options the better. They can all be right some of the time.
7. Idolatry was pleasing to the senses. If you are going to be especially religious, it helps to be able to see your god. It’s harder to impress people with an invisible deity.
8. Idolatry was indulgent. Sacrificing to the gods did not often require sacrifice for the worshiper. Leftover food could be eaten. Drink could be drunk. Generosity to the gods leads to feasting for you.
9. Idolatry was sensual. The whole system was marked by eroticism. Rituals could turn into orgies. Sex on earth often meant sex in heaven, and sex in heaven meant big rain, big harvests and multiplying herds.
Can you see the attraction of idolatry? “Let’s see I want a spirituality that gets me lots, costs me little, is easy to see, easy to do, has few ethical or doctrinal boundaries, guarantees me success, feels good, and doesn’t offend those around me.” That’ll preach. We want the same things they wanted. We just go after them in different ways. We want a faith that gets us stuff and guarantees success (prosperity gospel). We want discipleship that is always convenient (virtual church). We want a religion that is ritualistic (nominal Christianity). Or a spirituality that no matter what encourages sexual expression (GLBTQ). We all want to follow God in a way that makes sense to others, feels good to us, and is easy to see and understand. From the garden to the Asherah pole to the imperial feasts, idolatry was the greatest temptation for God’s people in both testaments.
A look around and a look inside will tell you it still is.