Rebellion and Idolatry

by Matthew Raley

Rebellion in a child is not a phase, and it doesn’t just happen. Rebellion is the sin of disregarding or overthrowing authority, and as we saw last week, it is the convergence of four patterns.

These four are on display in Deuteronomy 31-32, where Israel’s past and future rebellions are confronted. In chapter 31, the Lord commands Moses to draft a written witness against Israel to set beside the ark of the covenant. Chapter 32 contains the witness itself, a song about the Lord’s faithfulness and the nation’s twisted response.

Let’s think in more detail about the first pattern described in these chapters, idolatry.

After Moses’s death, the Lord says (31:16), Israel “will rise and whore after the foreign gods among them . . . .” The sexual metaphor captures the intimacy of Israel’s coming betrayal: having taken God’s faithful love the people will reject any bond with him.

Moses dramatizes this unfaithfulness in the song of witness (32:16-18). “They stirred him to jealousy with strange gods . . . They sacrificed to demons that were no gods, to gods they had never known, to new gods that had come recently.”

Rebellion through idolatry has been characteristic of Israel throughout Moses’s life. Most notoriously, the nation made the golden calf at Sinai (Exodus 32:1-6), calling it by the Lord’s name and proclaiming that it had brought them out of Egypt. Israel also worshiped Baal of Peor in Moab (Number 25:1-5).

Israel’s idolatry after Moses is well-documented in the Old Testament. The prophet Ezekiel, whom the Lord called to “nations of rebels” (Ezekiel 2:3), offers an important reference point. He gave repeated descriptions of the nation’s whoring after false gods, with abominations even brought into the temple (8:7-18). Inside, “engraved on the wall all around, was every form of creeping things and loathsome beasts, and all the idols of the house of Israel.”

So Israel’s rebellion both under Moses and after him consistently involved the worship of false gods.

The close association between the scriptural concepts of rebellion and idolatry is no accident. Rebellion has a perverse logic. The Bible’s God is sovereign, making submission to him the only option. For the rebel to gain control of his life, he must fabricate a new god, a pliable deity whom he can manipulate through rituals and rationalizations. A woman who was leaving her husband put this rationale to me quite succinctly: “My god wants me to be free.”

People often grow up treating God like he’s made of Legos.

There’s a pile of ideas of about God on the carpet, and your job is to assemble God out of them. So you try different ideas and see how God looks. If an idea about God’s justice doesn’t work for you, it’s like a black Lego that looks out of place. Pull it off and try a red one, a piece of mercy perhaps, and see if it doesn’t look better. Or if a Bible verse seems like a “hard saying” to you, it’s nothing more than a block that’s too big. The Bible has other verses. Find a smaller block.

Whatever. They’re your Legos.

If you want to nurture your child in a way that prevents rebellion, that first thing you have to do is teach him about idolatry. Train him that the real God does not conform to his imagination.

"Head of Buddha," ca. 4th century, Metropolitan Museum of Art

One summer when Dylan was 2 years old, we stopped in Ashland, Oregon, one of neo-paganism’s many little pleasure domes. In a store, I noticed a wall full of Buddhas and a sampling of Hindu gods. I walked Dylan over to a shelf at his eye-level, got down on one knee, pointed to a fat and happy Siddhartha, and said, “Son, this is an idol. Many people believe this is a god.”

Knitted eyebrows.

“People pray to him, and even bring him food.”

Laughter.

I pointed at the whole wall of shelves. “This store sells idols.”

I did this more than once when Dylan was small. He is now 9, and has a deep aversion to idols. The other night, I was reading him The Lightning Thief, the well-written series opener by Rick Riordan that treats Greek mythology as if it were happening today. We enjoyed it enormously. After I closed the book, he knitted his eyebrows and said, “I can’t understand why anyone would pray to those gods.”

When we instill the truth early that God is God, and will not yield His being to the human imagination, we are building powerful categories for discerning reality from fantasy. Further, we are teaching a child to yield to reality — the one thing a rebel will never do.

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