Violating Covenant: Worshiping Other Gods
This coming Sunday is the first Sunday of Lent. Throughout Lent we will be looking at several of the ways in which we violate God’s covenant.
Our passage for Sunday reads:
Leviticus 20:1-8, NRSVUE
20 The Lord spoke to Moses, saying, 2 “Say further to the Israelites:
“Any of the Israelites or of the aliens who reside in Israel who give any of their offspring to Molech shall be put to death; the people of the land shall stone them to death. 3 I myself will set my face against them and will cut them off from the people, because they have given of their offspring to Molech, defiling my sanctuary and profaning my holy name. 4 And if the people of the land should ever close their eyes to them, when they give of their offspring to Molech, and do not put them to death, 5 I myself will set my face against them and against their family and will cut them off from among their people, them and all who follow them in prostituting themselves to Molech.
6 “If any turn to mediums or spiritualists, prostituting themselves to them, I will set my face against them and will cut them off from the people. 7 Consecrate yourselves, therefore, and be holy, for I am the Lord your God. 8 Keep my statutes and observe them: I am the Lord; I sanctify you.
This is a horrifying passage regarding child sacrifice to the god Molech and the use of mediums or spiritualists to make their way in the world.
When I was 12 years old, I read the Bible from cover to cover, and there were parts of it that made me shudder. This passage was one of many. Even at 12 years old I understood that you don’t typically make a prohibition against something that no one is doing. Having now read a variety of documents reflecting on the life of the Israelite people of this time period, they were, in fact, sacrificing their children to the god Molech. But, before anyone thinks this is bizarre, it isn’t. There were many cultures who sacrificed children to the gods. If not by taking their life, then turning their children over to the service of the gods. The Israelites were no different in this regard. The eldest son was to be dedicated to the service of God—think Samuel, who, as a boy, was sent to live in the sanctuary with the last of the judges, Eli. Samuel became a great prophet and leader of the Israelite people.
The sacrificing of children, or virgins (or anyone really) was believed to appease the gods by showing their loyalty, and in return, the gods would bring rain and plentiful crops to the people, would increase the size of their families, or provide victory in battle against other nations.
For the people of Israel, though, they had been marked by the God of creation and had been given a covenant through Moses that laid out how they were to live in community with one another. Therefore, the real issue at stake is the violation of God’s covenant with God’s people and God’s desire for the people to be holy and God is Holy. This is also where the issue gets tricky.
God states clearly in his covenant with the Israelite people, upon their liberation from the Egyptians, that they should abandon all other gods and have no other god but the God of creation. We claim this God as the one true living God because of the lineage that we follow from Abraham to Jesus. What makes this passage problematic, though, is that you would be hard-pressed to find a group of people during this time period that didn’t worship some sort of deity other than the God we worship. And it would be disingenuous to not state up front that the God of creation has many of the same characteristics as other gods from the region. This, however, is the nature of gods…they are all similar is form and function.
Here is a list of some of the Gods worshiped during this time period:
Inanna: The Goddess of Mesopotamia, also known as Ishtar or Astarte
Shamash: The Patron God of Ancient Babylonia
Naram-Sin: The Self-Proclaimed Deity of Akkad
The Aten: The Monotheistic God of Egypt
Molech: God of the Canaanites
Marduk: Chief God of the Babylonians
Baal: Another Mesopotamian God
Ashur, Anu, Enlil, and Enki: Ancient Assyrian Gods
The ancient Greeks, Romans, and Egyptians had a pantheon of gods that they worshiped including Horus: The Egyptian God of Sun and Sky, Athena: Goddess of Wisdom and War Strategy, and Apollo: The God of Music and Prophecy, to name a few.
The God that we now worship, the God of the Israelite people, was in competition with many other gods and God’s covenant made with Israel was to ensure that they did not wander into devotion or service of these other gods.
We have accepted this God as our own and are called to follow the tenants of this faith that teaches us to deny other gods. So, how are we doing?
If we equate the worship of God the creator with the worship of other deities, I’d say we do pretty well. For the most part, we aren’t searching for any other god to take the place of the God proclaimed by Jesus. However, if we expand our understanding of the covenant and capture the last part of God’s commandment, then the whole point of worshiping God alone is to become holy; to be holy as God is holy. It is hard for me to think of myself as holy, even though I would argue that all of creation is holy because it is created by God who is holy.
From this perspective, I would say that we are missing the mark. We place all kinds of things ahead of God—work, relationships, buying all kinds of things we don’t need, but even more than those trappings, we fail to live up to God’s expectations of us—to be holy. The idea of being holy centers in love of God, love of neighbor, and love of self. The prohibition to sacrifice one’s children to Molech is not something we really have to worry about because culturally we have moved well-beyond child sacrifice of this ilk; however, how often do we sacrifice our own souls for the sake of some lesser man-made thing.
As we enter this time of Lent, it is my hope and prayer that you will take time to evaluate the ways in which you violate covenant by placing lesser man-made things ahead of the God of creation. How can we worship God more and man-made stuff less? How can we learn to love our neighbor and ourselves the way God loves us? How can we be holy as God is Holy? These are the questions that will drive us through Lent toward the God who offers us much grace and mercy and who continually leads us out of darkness and into the light.