Conversations with Scripture (4): Idolatry

Brian D. Russell

The Bible is an invitation to experience liberation from all the powers that bind us. What if the goal of spirituality is to free us to live fully as the people we were created to be?

One of the core confessions in Scripture is the Shema:

“Hear O Israel. The Lord is our God; the Lord is one. You will love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your might.” (Deut 6:4-5)

Verse 4 begins with the exhortation: “Hear.” To hear is to listen and take action. True hearing assumes a faithful response. To listen is to hear and take action.

The remainder of v. 4 may be translated several different ways. For example, the above translation follows the ESV, NASB, and NIV (among others). The CEB reads “Our God is the Lord! Only the Lord!” This is close to NRSV’s “The Lord is our God, the Lord alone.” These are various attempts to render the Hebrew focus on the meaning of “one.” Is it a statement of God’s uniqueness, Israel’s singular exclusive commitment, or God’s unity (see S. Dean McBride Jr., “The Yoke of the Kingdom: An Exposition of Deuteronomy 6:4-5,” Int 27, no. 3 [1973]: 273–306)? Each of the possible English translations struggle to highlight one of these dimensions. R. W. L. Moberly has advanced the issue by suggesting that the idea may be expressed by thinking of the Lord as Israel’s “one and only” (Old Testament Theology: Reading the Hebrew Bible as Christian Scripture [Baker Academic, 2013], 7–40). The same word translated “one” appears in Song of Songs 6:8–9. The emphasis in the Song is on the selection of the beloved out of all competing options available for the writer.

The issue at stake in Deuteronomy is twofold. First, there are competing gods in the Near East. At minimum, Deut 6:4–5 calls for allegiance to the Lord. Israel is to choose the Lord for exclusive service over all others. Second, the Lord is incomparable to any other deity. This is the reason for Deuteronomy’s adamant opposition to idolatry in any form. The Lord is unique as Israel’s “one and only.” There may be claims about the existence of other gods, but if the incomparable Lord is indeed god, there cannot be any other God for God’s people (cf. Deut 4:35, 39). The Lord is qualitatively different and thus must be embraced exclusively by God’s people.

Following the declaration of the Lord as our “one and only,” v. 5 calls for a response of full devotion and commitment with the totality of who we are as people. Faithful commitment rather than sentimentalism captures the meaning of love here. This is not to deny an emotional response to God, but the emphasis falls on a moment-by-moment decision to live faithfully. Our faithfulness in terms of exclusive commitment is the means of expressing love for God. “All your heart, all your soul, and all your strength” form a triad that emphasizes a whole-person response to the Lord. “Heart” refers to the will or thinking center of a person. “All your soul” covers all aspects of a person as a living being. “All your might” is a magnifier that emphatically restates the need for a full commitment. Together this triad calls for an “all in” response by us to the Lord as our “one and only.”

The language of “one and only” is helpful as we seek to live as the people whom God created us to be. As modern believers, the challenge of idolatry is not diminished. 1 John 5:21 ends with a warning, “Little children, keep yourselves from idols.” For readers of 1 John, this is the sole time that John addresses explicitly the issue of idolatry. As I read through Scripture, idolatry is a common topic. What if spirituality involved freeing ourselves from idols? What if John’s concluding advice is the key to our growth?

We live in a globally connected world. There are competing narratives about the divine. Is the material world all that exists or is there a divine presence? Are the Universe, Mother Nature, and God all the same realities? Is there one God or many gods? If there is only one, who is the true God?

Whether we choose to believe in the existence of the universe, gods, or God, the reality that they represent is real. In the ancient world, there were many gods. Each tended to function within a specific sphere of life, with separate gods for sex, wealth, war, health, and wine, among others. Some present-day religions, such as Hinduism, still work within such a polytheistic framework. I want to suggest however that many of us are at minimum practical polytheists. If we think of gods as spheres of life, we can make a list of the gods that exist in our secular world: sexuality, family, work, affluence, security, sickness, health, pleasure, beauty, and fitness. For some of us, our political ideologies take on the role of a god. Many of us cannot separate our allegiances to the Democratic or Republican Parties from our self-identity.

Whatever is the name of the god or gods who hold our allegiance we must recognize that this choice matters. The god(s) we choose to embrace define(s) the chains that bind us. The Bible makes exclusive claims about the uniqueness of God, but more often it is subtle. For much of Scripture, its authors do not deny the reality of other gods. Instead, they deny that any other “god” is truly worthy of the title God. This is an important distinction especially in the twenty-first century where there are so many competing claims to truth.

Is the Lord truly our “one and only”? What would it look like if we de-elevated all other gods and lifted up King Jesus? Is this not the heart of the confession “Jesus is Lord”? This is a conversation that Scripture desires to have with us.

Posted Apr 24, 2017

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