Idols That Won’t Stand

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by Levi Jones

1 Samuel 5:1-12

Israel had marched out to war against their foe, Philistia.  The Philistines routed them, killing four thousand troops.  Israel retreated and re-grouped.  What could have gone wrong?  Why were they defeated?  Hophni and Phineas, Eli’s sons and fellow priests, surely gathered the army leaders together to instruct them on warfare.  They had neglected to bring the Ark of the Covenant with them.  That was why they tasted the bitter sting of defeat.  After all, if “God is for us, who can be against us?”

The troops run and grab the Ark.  As it enters the camp, the Israelites are thrown into a Pentecostal frenzy.  Victory is in their grasp now that they have God there.  With God on their side, victory is sure to come.  The hollering is deafening, so much so that it travels to the Philistines’ nearby camp.  Fear grips their hearts because “gods have come into the camp.”  They recalled the stories of Egypt’s destruction by these gods.  The “gods’” might had been displayed against the greatest military might in the known world.  It seemed the writing was on the wall, but it was better to go out and die like men than run like cowards and become slaves to Israel. 

They clash on the field of battle.  But for Israel the battle is no closer to victory than it was before.  In fact, many more of their soldiers fall to Philistine blades.  Hophni and Phineas are killed and the Ark is carried off into Exile, into Philistine territory.  The glory has departed…

The Philistines march home, carrying on about their feats of strength and courage.  When faced with the terrible god of Israel, the future looked bleak and grim.  Yet, they had emerged the victors and heroes.  They patted each other on the back and they laughed at their good fortune, toting home their trophy of conquest – the Ark.  They had captured the gods of Israel.  The only appropriate way to celebrate was to give offerings to Dagon, the god of grain, and to place YHWH in Dagon’s house as a servant god.  Thus, the Ark came to rest in the presence of Dagon, lord of the Philistines.

The irony of this story is that Israel, due to its disobedience, has forgotten the story of its salvation and rescue from Egypt by YHWH.  It is the Philistines who are able, more or less, to recite the story of Israel’s “gods.”  The theologians, those who speak of God, are not God’s people.  Instead, they are the outsiders to the covenant community.  It’s sad to think that outsiders might know the story better than those whom God has redeemed and saved.  The response of the Philistines is one of fear and respect (even if misguided).  The Israelites have become flippant, assuming, and proud.  Their pride results in their destruction and the glory departing.

Of course, we noticed last week that even the “glory” is misunderstood by Israel.  Ichabod’s mother names him “glory departed” because Eli and his sons have died.  In other words, the reign of greed, lust, and abuse that has lined their pockets and brought them power ended decisively.  That is what Israel understands “glory” to entail. 

As the market crash of 2008 demonstrated, it is easy to get wrapped up in a society that worships security, power, and money that is so fleeting.  The market crash of 2000 and 2008 were often couched in terms that bemoaned the “glory” departing our systems of governance and commerce.  Gone were the glory days.  It seems Israel is not the only one to misunderstand the nature of glory.

Israel has treated the Ark, and by extension God, as a piece of “spiritual technology,” as Eugene Peterson calls it.  God becomes a tool that we manipulate to get what we desire while tagging God’s “approval” on our agenda.  Israel marches out to war backed by the Ark, but never actually addresses God.

God is reduced from being a Person (Subject) who has called Israel into being and transformed God into an Object that Israel can control.  It is the subtle move of talking with God to talking about God.  When God ceases to be Subject and is made into an Object, we have effectively silenced God.  Well, God may speak, but it tends to be our words in God’s mouth.  In essence, we have made God in our image rather than remembering that we are made in God’s image.  And, as such, a God that we have objectified (made into an idol) cannot make demands upon us; only we can make any such demands. 

The Philistines march YHWH into the city of Ashdod and into the Temple of Dagon.  They seem to have little more understanding than Israel, even though they do recall the story of Israel’s Egypt exodus.  YHWH is treated like a trophy displaying Dagon’s power over the gods and his favor upon Philistia.  YHWH becomes another magic talisman or god-in-a-box which will bolster their power and help them maintain the security of a nation.  They have no problem with YHWH being a part of Dagon’s retinue, as long as, YHWH does not take the place of Dagon, the god of grain.

Dagon is the god of economic security.  He is the one, according to the Philistines, that keeps the market economy flourishing, as demonstrated in their military conquest of Israel and other surrounding neighbors.  It is an economy based upon power and competition.  Limited resources can only be stretched so far.  The market demands that those resources be hoarded so that they have plenty. 

Of course, the Philistines’ plenty is the absence of plenty for their neighbors, but that’s the name of the game.  Dagon is the god of commercial and economic success, achieved through the power of politics and military might, but always at the expense of the neighboring communities.  YHWH is placed next to Dagon, symbolizing the Philistines’ hope that YHWH would bless their enterprise though remaining subservient to Dagon, to the economy.

Although the Philistines seem to be more adept theologians than the Israelites in this story, it is obvious that they still lack clarity.  The story of the Exodus is remembered, but it is also quickly forgotten by the Philistines. 

God had dethroned Pharaoh, a proclaimed god, whose economic practice made slaves out of people.  Pharaoh’s insatiable desire for more created an environment of amassing great wealth at the expense of the poor and the weak – in this case, the Hebrews.  Pharaoh did not allow anyone to challenge his system, his kingdom.  Pharaoh represents a system of scarcity that must always build more storehouses for his grain and do so by demanding more “bricks.”  The Philistines neglect the story of Pharaoh, failing to recognize their own similar practices of oppression, dominance, and extortion.  And, as such, they fail to remember the radical call of YHWH to cease the economics of scarcity that grasp and hoard YHWH’s abundant provision in the Creation for all.

The next morning the Philistines go to worship Dagon but find him face down before the Ark.  Thinking that it was merely a fluke, an accident, the people raise up the idol to its proper standing position.  Notice the god cannot help himself.  The people prop up Dagon, expecting him to stand – this god is too big to fail, after all.

The next morning the people again arose to go to the Temple of Dagon.  Again, they find Dagon prostrate before the Ark.  This time, however, Dagon’s head and hands have broken off.  Dagon is dead.  YHWH will not play second fiddle, nor be coerced into blessing that which is counter to God’s character and nature of Holy Love.  Dagon, patron of manipulative economics, falls apart before a God of generosity.  Dagon is found to be no god at all, but a visible reminder of a broken system of exploitation that results in death and destruction.

Chaos breaks out in the community of Ashdod.  Their practices of taking advantage of their neighbor now comes back upon their head.  Just as Pharaoh’s attempt at genocide by waters comes crashing down upon him and his army, now, the Philistine’s practices of greedy grasping through any means necessary implodes.  To their credit, they recognize that God is acting against their way of politics and economics – represented by Dagon.  God’s “hand is heavy against them.”

But, instead of ridding themselves of Dagon, they rid themselves of YHWH.  They oust YHWH from their halls and send YHWH on “down the road.”  If YHWH cannot be controlled and part of their way of life, then they don’t need to change but must send God away.  God is too dangerous because God might very well expect us to live differently… but, there’s just so much to lose by leaving Dagon on the floor.  To leave Dagon on the floor might mean changing the way we treat our neighbors.  It might require that we don’t exact violence against them or compete against them.  It might honestly require that we live on less so that others can share in the bounty of Creation.  But, following Dagon is just so… well, it’s just so comfortable and we can’t forsake “the Dream.”

So, regardless of how patched up Dagon looks, we brush him off, pick him up off the floor, and try to cement him back together as much as possible.  It’s easier to ignore what has happened than to truly consider that we have misplaced our hope.  We like the idea of YHWH being in our house… so long as YHWH doesn’t shake things up too much.  But, as soon as YHWH begins to challenge our allegiances… “That’s it, YHWH, please leave!”

Ashdod and its inhabitants aren’t sure where to send the Ark.  The city of Gath decides to give the Ark a try.  Perhaps Ashdod simply was naïve and didn’t understand how to properly use YHWH.  After all, you can’t use a hammer like a screwdriver.  YHWH, in the proper hands, could be wielded as “spiritual technology” to champion their nation’s cause. 

Try as they might, Gath discovers the same thing that Ashdod did.  YHWH will not be “boxed in.”  Tumors and something like the plague breaks out in Gath.  The people are in panic.  Gath plays “hot potato” with the Ark and sends it to Ekron.  But, Ekron doesn’t want it for long because they have seen the devastating effect of allowing YHWH to come into their midst.  YHWH is far too disruptive of their lives to be welcome there. 

The five Philistine lords convene to decide what to do with the Ark.  “’Send away the ark of the God of Israel, and let it return to its own place, that it may not kill us and our people.’ For there was a deathly panic throughout the whole city. The hand of God was very heavy there; those who did not die were stricken with tumors, and the cry of the city went up to heaven” (1 Sam. 5:11-12).

God’s judgment falls upon the nation of Philistia, as it had upon Israel, due to its economic, political, and military practices that preyed upon vulnerable neighbors.  One can recall the story of Gideon threshing grain while hiding out of fear that the Philistines would attack and take what little food they had.  Now, those very systems that live off the backs of those it has enslaved (namely, the poor and those without power) are brought under judgment.  The walls erected by practices of greed and competition buckle, crumbling down.

The Ark is packed up on a cart pulled by two heifers.  The collective sigh of relief by the Philistines can be heard as the Ark disappears over the ridge, headed back to Israel.  YHWH had proved too difficult to control and unwilling to bend.  It was too risky for YHWH to remain where YHWH might disrupt life as it was.  The Philistines were ready for the glory to depart.

The glory of God was something that would not be compromised for any nation.  It was a glory that demanded entire allegiance – nothing else was to be in the place of honor that belonged to God.  God would not be used, coerced, or manipulated as a seal of approval for systems and politics that created death and destruction for the weak and needy of those societies.  God’s glory would not bow before the market.  Rather, it was the economic system of grabbing and grasping that finally had to prostrate itself before God. 

Hans Urs Von Balthasar states: “The good which God does to us can only be experienced as the truth if we share in performing it… we must do the truth in love… not only in order to perceive the truth of the good but, equally, in order to embody it increasingly in the world… This is possible because it is already a reality for God and through God” (Theo-Drama: Prolegomena, 20). 

Both Israel and Philistia had failed to comprehend the good God was doing for the simple fact that they refused to live out God’s way of being in the world, which is about life-giving, life-blessing, and life-sustaining.  To live otherwise is to create an environment of death, both for our neighbors and for ourselves.

To hold tightly to our idols is to hold tightly to our own lives.  Jesus cautioned that “those that hold onto their lives will lose their life.”  Eli’s empire crumbles under the weight of its own greed.  Now, the Philistine community is rupturing from its oppressive economic practices.  If we believe that we can bring YHWH into our lives without also cleaning house, we will be mightily surprised when YHWH begins to shake things up.  YHWH will not pretend to be blind to the idols that we continuously erect.  We very well might find them smashed, laying on the floor in a rubble heap.  God desires our entire lives, our entire devotion, all of our love.  Holding onto “God and (insert any name)” is idolatry that betrays where our hope really lies. 

We can respond as the Philistines, though they know the story of YHWH, still choose to send YHWH away from them because they prefer life as it is.  Or, our response might be to sweep Dagon up off the floor and throw him in the trash bin where he belongs.

A young man that was a little troubled attended church one morning.  The community was a little wary of him because you never knew what he was going to do.  The pastor preached a powerful sermon on smashing the community’s idols.  That’s all that idols are good for – smashing them!  The church service ended and everyone went home.

However, the young man took the sermon quite literally.  Idols should be smashed.  He later returned to the church with a sledge hammer and destroyed a statue of an angel sitting in one of the flower beds.  The young man had lived out the sermon.  The pastor had figuratively meant that idols should be smashed, but one could hardly say that the young man had not live out the sermon – even if misunderstood.  It may have appeared wild and crazy to the church-goers, yet the young man had demonstrated in a tangible way what it means for us to smash those idols that we hold dear.

The community of faith has time and time again been tempted to follow the gods of economic prosperity.  We have been tempted to bow the knee at the shrine of personal gain at the expense of our neighbor.  We have even willingly validated violent means for holding on to our economic and political security, sometimes while naming God as the one who goes before us to fight our battles. 

Would it be fair to say that like Gather, Ashod and Ekron the divisive, destructive nature of politics in our culture might actually be God’s hand against us?  Might we have mistaken just how much God is on our side when we fail to live out God’s call to be a “blessing to all nations?”  Has the death and destruction, blaming and fighting among us sufficiently demonstrated that God will not be pressed into service for any nation or system? 

The Scriptures remind us that there will come a time “when every knee shall bow in heaven and on earth and below the earth and every tongue shall confess that Jesus is Lord.”  There will come a time when we will “cry out to heaven” in recognition of the part we have played in living counter to God’s Kingdom.  But, I pray that we will not wait as we watch the presence of the Lord disappearing over the horizon beyond our sight, saying “the glory has departed.”

Lent is a time of repentance, turning away from our broken and sinful ways.  It is a time of recognizing our idolatry, the things that we worship beside God.  And, it is a time of dying to our selfish desires and practices and replacing them with God’s love that overflows for love of our neighbors.  In other words, we pick up our cross and follow Jesus. 

We crucify the deeds of the flesh that are death and receive the Spirit of life while we “work out our salvation.”  Lent calls for us to smash our idols and give singular focus to God as the only One worth giving honor, praise, and glory forever.  It is the call to embody God’s holy love, for that is the only way to comprehend God’s good truth.

Levi Jones serves as co-lead pastor at Cornerstone Community Church of the Nazarene (Wagoner, Oklahoma) and an Associate Editor of Preacher’s Magazine.   

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