For many Christians, this is the season of Lent, that time when individuals, families, and churches commit to fast, pray, and give alms as a means of separating themselves from the things of this world and reorienting their lives toward God. The fundamental idea is to remove those obstacles (or, in Christian-speak, “idols”) that inhibit us from giving worship to God alone. For Jews, this is a similar time of preparation, as Passover approaches. Like Lent, Passover is a time for meditation on the one, true God — indeed, part of the famous Shema prayer, “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the LORD is one,” is recited at the Passover seder. What all of us (to include some atheists!) share in this time of sacrifice, self-denial, and preparation is a recognition that we humans often seem to require dramatic crises to clarify our own problems and direct our attention to what is truly paramount. One of the most striking examples of this paradigm is the story of the Jewish people in the Hebrew Bible, or Old Testament.
We’re often inclined to view Judaism as a monolithic source of monotheistic religion, fundamentally influencing Christianity and then Islam in their assertion of the one, true God. Yet the story from Abraham to the time of Christ is not linear, as if Judaism’s unique monotheistic tendencies were always a dominant, instinctual force driving this peculiar people across the Middle East. In truth, the inclination towards polytheism in the second and first millennia, B.C. was a perennial problem for the Jewish people, one so deeply ingrained in their own self-identity that it wasn’t fully expunged until the centuries directly preceding the life of Christ. Their story communicates to us how truly hard it can be to eradicate harmful habits.
In the Beginning, There was Paganism
In Genesis 31, Rachel, wife of the patriarch Jacob, stole her father Laban’s idols as her and her husband sought to flee back to Palestine — she just couldn’t imagine a life without those pagan gods. Later, Jacob and his twelve sons, the origin of the twelve tribes of Israel, move to Egypt after a great famine. They stay 400 years, during which time they drink deep of the Egyptian polytheist pantheon. Though retaining some manner of unique ethnic identity, the Jews became increasingly wedded to those pagan gods, so much so that the ten plagues that God inflicts on Egypt are all aimed at invalidating the authority of Egypt’s religious system. The Nile, frogs, livestock, even the firstborn were all worshipped in one way or another by the Egyptian people.
Moses finally leads Israel out of Egypt to Sinai, where they are to enter into a covenant relationship with God. The first commandment in this covenant is: “You shall have no other gods before me.” Yet while Moses speaks to God on the mountain, Israel quickly returns to pagan religious practices, crafting a golden calf to worship and rising up “to play,” a euphemism for indulging in an old-school, pagan fertility-themed sexual orgy. This is a remarkable rebellion, given the proximity of the Israelites to their miraculous salvation at the hands of pharaoh at the Red Sea. Their constant “stiff-necked” disobedience ultimately results in God’s punishment that they wander in the desert for forty years, allowing an entirely new, untainted generation to rise and enter the promised land of Judea. Unfortunately, all that discipline didn’t have much of an effect in eradicating the people’s idolatrous inclinations.
Despite strict orders from God, Moses, and Moses’ successor, Joshua, the Jewish people refused to expel all pagan peoples and their idolatry from the promised land. Joshua himself warns them shortly before his death: “If you forsake the LORD and serve foreign gods, then he will turn and do you harm, and consume you, after having done you good.” The Israelites pledge monotheistic faithfulness to their God, only to waver in Joshua’s absence. Judges 17:16 explains: “Every man did what was right in his own eyes,” serving the local gods (“the Ba’als”) they had failed to eliminate from the land. Eventually, Israel asks for a king like their neighbors, and they are awarded Saul, a man who disobeys God and at one point consults a pagan medium. Saul is eventually overthrown by David, one who in the words of the prophet Samuel, was a “man after [God’s] own heart” (1 Sam 13:14).
David represents one of the few times in ancient Israel when monotheism reigned supreme, as he sought to defeat the surrounding pagan nations, and promote a monotheistic religious cult. Yet after his death, David’s son Solomon, despite all his legendary wisdom, built “high places” to foreign gods like Ashtoreth, Milcom, Chemosh, and Molech (the last a god to whom child sacrifices were offered). Solomon’s death is followed by an Israel torn between a northern and southern kingdom, the former called Israel, the latter Judah. The writers of the Hebrew Bible make it clear that the northern kingdom was particularly egregious in their disobedience of God and embrace of polytheistic practices and idolatry. Few men (7,000, according to 1 Kings 19: 18) could be found in the northern kingdom who remained loyal to their covenant God, YHWH. Eventually, the northern kingdom would be wiped out by the Assyrians.
And yet things weren’t so much better in the south — most of the southern kings likewise embraced pagan religious practices. One of the few exceptions in Judah was Josiah, who succeeded his father A’mon, whom the Biblical authors claim “did what was evil in the sight of the LORD,” serving idols and worshipping them. Josiah, a righteous young ruler, sought to reverse his father’s errant ways, beginning with a modest refurbishment of the great temple in Jerusalem. A politically savvy move, he was essentially trying to purge idols from the temple without inciting the rage of the many pagan-leaning Jews within his court.
During that renovation, the high priest, Hilkiah, declared, “I have found the book of the law in the house of the LORD.” Many scholars believe the book in question was probably Deuteronomy, though it could very well have been the entire Torah. In effect, someone during the cleaning had found the book, perhaps lodged behind some pillar or even an idol to a pagan god. What happens next is almost comical: Hilkiah gives the book to the royal secretary Shaphan, who then comes to Josiah and explains, “Hilkiah the priest has given me a book.”
Reflect on this: one of the most senior officials in the entire kingdom of Judah calls the text that provides detailed instructions and prohibitions on every aspect of Jewish life “a book,” as if he had no clue what he was holding. Josiah has this mysterious book read to him. He promptly tears his clothes, and orders his cabinet to “inquire of the LORD” regarding the contents of the book.
Josiah, seeking to be faithful to God, realized that his kingdom is in gross rebellion against the very heart of Jewish law handed down by Moses, the great intermediary between God and the Jewish people. He makes a covenant to obey God’s law, and decrees that the Passover be celebrated — a religious festival that 2 Kings 23:22 tell us had not been kept “since the days of the days of the judges who judged Israel, or during all the days of the kings of Israel or the kings of Judah.”
This story means that one of the most important religious holidays in the Jewish calendar was rarely ever honored! Indeed, elsewhere, we are told in 2 Chronicles 30 that another Judaic king, Hezekiah, invited all of Israel to celebrate the Passover with him. Barely anyone besides the tribe of Judah showed up. A few terrible kings follow Josiah, culminating in the Babylonian invasion, which destroyed the southern kingdom and resulted in the exile of thousands of the Jewish people to distant Babylon. The Jews would remain there 70 years.
Idolatry Even After Exile
When the Jews returned to the promised land generations later, they are led by men like Ezra, a priest scribe, and Nehemiah, the Persian-installed governor of Judea. Both men are righteous, and eager to serve their god alone. After many years, the walls of Jerusalem were rebuilt. In celebration, Ezra reads the “Book of the Law” (again, either Deuteronomy or the entire Torah) to a large assembly of Jews in Jerusalem. On the second day of the festivities, the book of Nehemiah tell us: “They found it written in the law that the LORD had commanded by Moses that the sons of Israel should dwell in booths during the feast of the seventh month.”
The feast of booths, dictated in Leviticus 23:33-43, was intended to be one of the three major feasts of the Jewish calendar, of similar importance to the modern American Christmas or Thanksgiving. By the time of the New Testament, Jesus makes one of his great religious pronouncements during this feast, called there the Feast of Tabernacles (John 7). Yet the Jews at the time of Ezra and Nehemiah had apparently never even heard of it. Indeed, the text goes on to explain, “And all the assembly of those who had returned from the captivity made booths and dwelt in the booths; for from the days of Joshua the son of Nun to that day the sons of Israel had not done so” (Nehemiah 8:17). This is remarkable: the Jewish people hadn’t celebrated the feast of booths since they first entered the promised land directly after Moses’ death!
After the Babylonian exile, the Jewish people were far more diligent in their preservation of monotheism, though the books of 1 and 2 Maccabees tell us that many Jews made a “covenant” with the Gentile Greeks who conquered their territory during the time of Alexander the Great and his successors. These “collusionist” Jews embraced various pagan practices, ultimately culminating in offering sacrifices to the Greek gods (1 Maccabees 1). Only after years of Jewish revolt in the second century, B.C. were the Greeks defeated and the brand of Jewish monotheism we find in the Gospels of the New Testament became once more dominant.
Warnings and Exhortations
The story of ancient Israel, a people we associate with the first great monotheistic religion, is often at odds with our understanding of Jewish religion. The Jews, from the patriarchs down to the generations shortly before Christ, were constantly indulging in pagan religious practices. This, despite the fact that their most important law, stipulated in the Ten Commandments and repeated by all God-fearing Jews in our own day, was to have “no other gods” before YHWH. As we have seen, Biblical Israel rarely obeyed this.
Consider: If Israel had such trouble keeping the first commandment, should we really expect them to do much better with the rest? Including the Ten Commandments, Israel had 613 laws, and yet they didn’t even keep the easiest ones — the Passover and the Feast of Booths — which were essentially big parties!
It took many centuries, much hardship, and much discipline for Biblical Israel to be weaned off polytheism. In truth, given their inter-generational resistance to worshipping a single God, it’s amazing, if not miraculous, that Judaism became the forefather of the other two great monotheistic religions, Christianity and Islam. As we pass through Lent, prepare for Passover, or simply reflect on our own negative habits and need for inner renewal, the story of Israel should give us both hope and caution. Hope, that there is always mercy and forgiveness for us, regardless of the severity of our crimes. Caution, that those things we so deeply cherish were fiercely acquired, and can be easily lost. Thankfully, as it is for the case of God’s own people, even what is lost can once more be found.