Snakes and Ephods
Why is it so easy to see when other people’s religious devotion is sliding into idolatry while perhaps being completely blind to one’s own?
At the time of the judges in Israel’s history, Gideon was a channel for a great Israelite victory over the Midianites who had been oppressing them. Judges chapter 8 tells the story of how, perhaps meaning well, Gideon shook down the grateful Israelites for gold from the plunder and actually collected 43 pounds. With it he fashioned an ephod, i.e., a replica of one of the sacred garments of the priests. Ephods are sort of like Mexican serapes—a garment that goes over the head with no sleeves, just a front and back buckled together at the waist. Perhaps Gideon wanted to create a shrine so that Israel would never forget its deliverance. What actually happened was that the golden ephod became a cult object, an idol that the people worshiped instead of God, their true Deliverer. Verse 27 says that they “prostituted themselves by worshiping it there, and it became a snare to Gideon and his family.”
Another particularly sad story comes from the reformation brought about by King Hezekiah in the late 700s B.C. Remember the brass snake that Moses had made in the desert? As the Israelites were dying of snakebites, God attached a wonderful promise to that brass snake. He had Moses put it up on a pole and whoever looked at the snake in faith would be healed. The amazed Israelites kept the snake (for seven centuries!), but as you could guess, they made a cult object out of it as well. They called it Nehushtan and burned incense to it. Hezekiah broke it into pieces so that that particular piece of metal would never again misdirect someone’s religious devotion.
When I’m on vacation I like to get around the Christian world and learn things outside my tribe. One Sunday, my kids and I attended a very high-church service (I won’t tell you which denomination). To my astonishment, right before the Scripture reading one of the ministers took a seat in a special “throne” off to the right, facing away from the lectern, and immediately a line of people formed before him. As the Scripture was being read, people kneeled before him. I couldn’t tell what they were doing—making confession, perhaps? They would then rise, kiss his ring, and return to their seats. As an outsider, I know I may not quite understand the backstory and intent of the practices of another denomination, but I was shocked that people were being diverted from hearing the Word of God being read. Liturgy is extremely important to some Christians, me included, but the terrible risk is that performance of the ritual can become a form of cult object that actually draws attention to itself instead of God.
All worship is “worthship,” i.e., declaring God worthy of our praise, adoration, admiration, thanks, and gifts. And yet everything we do to show our devotion—songs, poetry, musical instruments, stone and wood carvings, tapestries, metalwork, stained glass, and fabrics—is a platform that Satan can use to pull our attention away from our Creator, Savior, and Counselor.
Back to my opening dilemma challenge—do I do that? Do I have my own ephod and Nehushtan? Do I ever worship the creation instead of the Creator?
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