11/16/08 at 09:32 PM
This week I had the opportunity to be part of a conversation looking at the bible through the lens of civilization skepticism. Theologian Ched Myers took us through the first 11 books of Genesis looking at the way that much of the sinfulness in this story is caught up with the rise of civilization, from the Garden of Eden to the Tower of Babel.
This morning my friend Kristin preached on 2 Kings 17:7-23, a passage that lays out the sins that led the children of Israel into exile. As Kristin spoke, I began to notice things about the passage through the lens of civilization skepticism. I thought I’d share some of those thoughts with you here:
7 All this took place because the Israelites had sinned against the LORD their God, who had brought them up out of Egypt from under the power of Pharaoh king of Egypt.
The sin of the Israelites is specifically against the God who brought them out of the Egyptian domination system in which they were slaves. It is a sin of forgetting. They have forgotten that they were liberated from the story of Pharaoh which told them the only way to survive was service to the Egyptian project. The rest of the passages goes on to detail the form their forgetting took.
They worshiped other gods 8 and followed the practices of the nations the LORD had driven out before them, as well as the practices that the kings of Israel had introduced.
One of the central themes of the Exodus and the entrance into the promised land was trusting in God, not in force of arms (i.e. the unarmed defeat of Jericho) or in accumulating wealth (i.e. the rules for gathering manna). However, after the people of Israel had been living in the Promised land for a while, the seduction of security and wealth began to lead them into the rituals of the wanna be empires around which supposedly would bring them. Despite the warnings of Samuel, the Israelites had set up their own wanna be empire and sure enough, the Israelite kings brough all the trappings of empire: slavery, a standing army and heavy taxes.
9 The Israelites secretly did things against the LORD their God that were not right. From watchtower to fortified city they built themselves high places in all their towns.
So what are these high places that we keep on hearing about? We know that mountains were sacred places for the Israelites. God gave Moses the laws on Mt. Sinai and there are many other sacred encounters on high places throughout the scriptures. However, when they ended up settled in towns and villages, the priests wanted to have control of the holy places. They didn’t want to have to mess with the wildness of a mountain. So they build their own high places.
The biggest of these high places were the massive ziggurats of the Sumerian, Babylonian, and Assyrian empires that would have dominated the horizon. The story of the Tower of Babel is a clear rebuke of the ziggurats and the imperial aspirations they represent. It’s not coincidence that these high places are named in conjunction with fortified cities and watch towers. Fortifications and watch towers were a result of the two fold sin of accumulation of wealth (not trusting in God to provide) and the creation of the warrior class (not trusting in God to protect)
10 They set up sacred stones and Asherah poles on every high hill and under every spreading tree. 11 At every high place they burned incense, as the nations whom the LORD had driven out before them had done. They did wicked things that provoked the LORD to anger. 12 They worshiped idols, though the LORD had said, “You shall not do this.” [a]
The NIV version has a cross reference here to Exodus 20:4 in which God says “You shall not make for yourself an idol in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below.” The mention of heaven, earth and the sea is not incidental. The Israelites were trying to commodify nature. They wanted to be able to have idols they could control. They wanted to be like their neighbors who could use rituals to bargain with domesticated Gods for rain and good crops. They didn’t want to be dependent on a God that they couldn’t see or touch.
13 The LORD warned Israel and Judah through all his prophets and seers: “Turn from your evil ways. Observe my commands and decrees, in accordance with the entire Law that I commanded your fathers to obey and that I delivered to you through my servants the prophets.”
The prophets and the law and the prophets. The prophets were constantly calling the people back to God’s vision of shalom: peace, justice and wholeness for all of creation. The law was calling them to just relationships with one another. What did the people of Israel do instead?
14 But they would not listen and were as stiff-necked as their fathers, who did not trust in the LORD their God. 15 They rejected his decrees and the covenant he had made with their fathers and the warnings he had given them. They followed worthless idols and themselves became worthless. They imitated the nations around them although the LORD had ordered them, “Do not do as they do,” and they did the things the LORD had forbidden them to do.
Here we have the problem of trust named explicitly. They did not trust that God would take care of them. The Israelites were embracing the promises of civilization and progress. If our armies are just a bit stronger. If we just had an alliance with the right empire. If our storehouses were just a bit bigger. Then we could be like the Sumerians, Babylonians, and Assyrians. We could dominate those around us.
16 They forsook all the commands of the LORD their God and made for themselves two idols cast in the shape of calves, and an Asherah pole. They bowed down to all the starry hosts, and they worshiped Baal.
Baal was the patron god of cities in the Ancient Near east according to wikipedia. The word literally mean lord, master and owner. The one who dominates others. As people moved into cities, the seduction of having power over others grew. Social stratification grew. And with it the worship of cities and masters and lords. And the memory of the God of the Exodus faded.
17 They sacrificed their sons and daughters in the fire. They practiced divination and sorcery and sold themselves to do evil in the eyes of the LORD, provoking him to anger.
The more stratified a society grows, the less human life at the bottom matters. Parents hungry for prosperity would do anything to achieve it, including kill their own children. And again, divination and sorcery were all about controling the future. Security through selling our souls.
Today in her sermon, Kristin quoted John Calvin saying “our hearts are a perpetual factory of idols”. I would expand that to say that the myth of progress is driven by the idolotrous imagination. We dream endlessly of new ways to not trust in God. The Israelites were exiled, but the results of our blind faith in progress could be much worse.
Scripture quoted from New International Version via Bible Gateway