Today we are going to finish 1st Samuel 7 and discover the misunderstood biblical concept of what idolatry is. This section of 1st Samuel brings up profound and complex theological issues, so we’re going to spend all the time needed to examine them thoroughly.
I ask you to keep your focus because some of what we’re going to discuss will challenge the assumptions you make when reading the Bible; things that you’ve taken for granted.
Or as Dr. Robert McGee likes to put:
We’re going to see just what it is that you believe you believe and see if you really do or if there is really any basis for those beliefs you hold beyond Christian traditions.
Last week I rattled some cages and challenged some sacred cows by asking you to examine yourself regarding which things in your life you are hanging on to that please you, but that perhaps have no place in the life of a Believer and certainly does not please God.
And I told you at the start of that lesson that by its end some of you might go to bed and have a sleepless night wrestling with this challenge, and others would simply be mad at me for pulling the covers off a deep-seated problem you’d rather not face.
Perhaps the main thrust of my previous teaching was that followers of God who (in the story of Samuel) wind up being judged for idolatry are NOT those who have renounced the God of Israel.
Rather the idolaters are invariably those Hebrews (who steadfastly remain Hebrews) who have permitted pagan ways to infiltrate their faith, their beliefs, their worship practices, their traditions and customs, and then finally their daily behavior.
This condition that I called the “Believer in the kettle” happens over an extended period, and in such a stealthy manner, that we don’t notice any change or often sense a growing danger.
We too easily distract ourselves from the real issue of idolatry by our drawing this mental picture of ancient Israelites who made a wholesale rejection of Yehoveh and instead adopted in full the Canaanite gods.
Interestingly Israel also felt that idolatry was essentially a conversion from Yehoveh worship to Baal worship (which they knew they hadn’t done) so in the midst of their idolatry, they didn’t see themselves as idolatrous.
In other words, from the Hebrew viewpoint as long as some acknowledgment of the Lord remained in their lives and culture, and in their rituals and conversations, the pagan ways that became intertwined with the ways of the Torah were thought to be normal and acceptable to God (anything but idolatry).
And this is also the modern Church viewpoint of idolatry. Paganism at first was but a tiny and unnoticed blemish on Christianity. But over time it has metastasized and so embedded itself into our cherished customs and traditions that we either don’t notice it. Or we have decided that it’s better only to accept it and move on rather than perform radical surgery and remove it because of the disruptions it might cause in our lives and our relationships if we did that.
A paganized Christianity is the new normal. So as an alternative means to put aside our guilt and concerns we have developed creative ways of rationalizing it away; from declaring that we have taken a pagan custom and attached God’s name to it, so that makes it holy and acceptable to the Lord.
All the way to say that we hang on to this pagan thing because it’s merely “fun,” or we don’t worship it; we don’t take it that seriously. Or that on balance it’s a good thing that helps us to strike up a conversation with non-Believers that might lead to their conversion.
See idolatry is a misunderstood biblical concept. Generally speaking, pagans are not called idolaters (I’m talking about the biblical use and intent of the word).
Idolatry and apostasy are of similar character; both assume that the person who is committing either of these sins is a follower of the God of Israel, not a pagan.
That is to say that you can’t apostatize from something of which you aren’t already a part. You can’t commit idolatry if you aren’t first a believer in the imageless El Shaddai.
In case that’s not making sense let me illustrate this rather simply: you can’t be fired if you don’t first have a job. The term “fired” ONLY has meaning to the person that was employed; apostasy only has meaning to a person who has something to apostatize FROM.
And you can’t commit idolatry unless you have already been set apart for Yehoveh and thus forbidden from having things in your life that you place on par, or above, God (whether that is false gods, pagan traditions, or some material thing whose importance overwhelms all else).
I tell you this so that you can sort of “reset” your thinking about what the Lord considers idolatry to be. And who idolaters are (as opposed to how we typically think of it), and what it was that the Israelites were doing and thinking in Samuel’s era that the Lord judged them as idolaters.
Once more: idolatry is NOT renunciation of God in exchange for something else; rather it is the inclusion of pagan practices (impure practices) into one’s worship of God and the accompanying traditions and lifestyle that invariably comes with it.
Idolatry is the illicit mixing (sha’atnez) that leads to confusion (tevel) that the Torah prohibits and warns against. And unfortunately we modern Believers have been sold a bill of humanmade theological goods that says (erroneously) that since the Law is dead, well then illegal mixing must be dead, and therefore idolatry (except for some spiritualized ethereal concept of it) well that must also be dead.
So when we incorporate decidedly non-scriptural pagan-based elements into our worship and holiday observances and even into the symbols we use to express our membership in the Kingdom of God, we are doing no less than what Samuel called all Israel to Mitzpah to repent from doing.
As we closed in my last blog post, the Israelites were in a mopping up exercise of the Philistine army that was routed, supernaturally, by the Lord.
The Lord through a combination of some thundering (probably literally thunder of a level and extent that is nearly unimaginable), and by His divinely causing this feeling of overwhelming terror within the enemy soldiers, he sent them fleeing in all directions.
They had crossed the border into Canaan with the intent of punishing Israel for what they deemed as an unlawful assembly at Mitzpah, which they felt was a threat and an affront to their authority. But before they arrived at Mitzpah the Lord struck them.
Let’s Read 1 Samuel 7:11-17
The Philistines were so devastated by their defeat that they ceased from excursions into Israel for quite some time and retreated deep into their territory to lick their wounds. And the glory of this victory is awarded (rightfully) to Yehoveh, God of Israel, for the resultant new political reality.
It is memorialized with a stone monument being erected near the site of the battle from some years earlier where Israel lost 34,000 men as a sober reminder that the Lord weighs things out in His system of justice. We should envision an ancient balance scale where the scales are unfairly tipped in one direction by men’s evil inclinations and selfish ambitions, but the Lord supernaturally and providentially tips the scales back in the opposite way to punish the wicked and rescue the oppressed.
God reverses the fortunes of men at His will. And now that the Philistines were put into their place by divine decision, Israel enjoyed several years of relative peace, giving them the time and space needed for the coming transition from a loose confederacy of tribes to a united nation ruled by a Hebrew monarch.
But what we witness at this point in the book of 1st Samuel is also the next stage of the God-pattern that was so well established during the period of the Judges:
- Faithfulness to God,
- Followed by apostasy,
- Followed by the oppression of God’s followers by the enemy,
- Followed by repentance,
- Culminating in deliverance.
Israel repented at Mitzpah, and so they were delivered at the very place where they were oppressed and defeated by the enemy earlier. Once again the worshippers of Yehoveh lived in peace and harmony with the Lord. And the extent of the time that this shalom lasted is defined in verse 13 as, “as long as Samuel lived.”
Now recognize that historically, Samuel lived well into the reign of King Saul, dying only a few years before Saul died. So the military victories that we will soon see credited to King Saul early in his career (many of them over the resurgent Philistines) are to be understood within the context of God protecting Israel on account of Samuel.
Not long after Samuel’s death conditions in Israel once again Israel seemed to be headed towards apostasy and oppression.
God’s victory over the Philistines at Ebenezer was so successful that Israel even won back territory that they had lost hundreds of years earlier.
The Philistine strongholds of Ekron and Gat were initially assigned to Dan and Judah, but they were never able to conquer and hold on to those places.
There is some disagreement among scholars as to whether this passage is saying that Ekron and Gat marked the outer boundaries of the land Israel recovered and so Israel re-settled what lay in between; or if those cities were included and now Israel inhabited Ekron and Gat. There are good sound arguments both ways, so we’ll just have to leave it as an unsettled matter.
Fortuitously there was also peace in this same period between Israel and their other arch-enemy in the region, the Amorites. However, when we examine this in light of the geopolitical realities of the times, we see that the age-old adage of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” is entirely applicable.
The Amorites and the Philistines were bitter enemies as both sought to dominate Canaan and much of the Middle East; so when Israel subdued the Philistines it was natural that (for a time) the Amorites found themselves in the unfamiliar position of being on Israel’s side.
Plus since Israel no longer had a threat from Philistia that it had to monitor (they didn’t have the prospects of a 2 front war facing them) they could be much more prepared and able to take on the Amorites. And the Amorites understood that and so they kind of laid low for quite a while until a better opportunity arose.
Samuel was now the highest religious and secular authority over Israel. While I have said that Samuel was the first Judge or ruler since Joshua to have authority over all the tribes of Israel, I don’t want to overextend the picture of Samuel’s influence.
All 12 tribes seemed to respect that Samuel was God’s ordained prophet for them as a whole congregation, but not all the tribes and their princes and clan leaders were so ready to accept too much in the way of his absolute authority over them.
Even his religious authority was muted somewhat by the remnant of a hereditary priesthood that existed at a place called Nob (and likely other places, too). And so his influence while more widespread than any other judge who came before him, was not so great in all parts of Israeli occupied Canaan that he was almost “king-like”.
In fact, we see in verse 15 that on the one hand Samuel traveled a circuit from his hometown of Ramah to Bethel, to Gilgal, to Mitzpah where he would act as a circuit court judge.
But on the other hand, when we look at a map we see that these four towns represent a rather limited area in central Canaan and so Samuel exerted much less presence and power over the tribes located in the more extreme northern and southern areas of the Promised Land.
We see in the final verse of this chapter that Samuel indeed saw himself in a religious as well as a secular role because he had an altar of sacrifice built in Ramah (his home), and that there were also altars in these other places that he frequented.
I think we need to notice that by the standards of the Law of Moses and the instructions given in Deuteronomy this is a pretty peculiar set up. We have Samuel, the Levite (but non-priest), as the highest religious authority that even performs sacrifices on behalf of Israel but by all rights, he shouldn’t be.
We also see the Samuel-authorized presence of many altars of burnt offering even though the Lord says there should be only one. And the extra-biblical material, archaeology, and geographical reality tell us that there were many other altars scattered around Canaan used by various Israelite tribes and clans.
So even though God had delivered Israel from oppression and given them shalom (for a time, anyway), Israel was hardly pure (when held to the standard of the Law) and even Samuel’s behavior and his assigned duties have huge question marks hanging over them.
But this strange set of circumstances in Samuel’s era is more understandable when we view it from the broader context of men’s foibles and human affairs; this was unquestionably a period of transition for Israel and transitions are always messy things; usually confusing and often chaotic.
Look no further than our present era when every American knows that we are in a messy, confusing and chaotic time. We are aware we are in a transition period, but we’re not entirely certain what we’re transitioning to.
Goodness, even our past President, Obama, ran on the platform of change (transition to something new), and indeed that is what happened.
But just like for Samuel’s time, it wasn’t Samuel who CAUSED the conditions for this transition, he was merely an agent for the change. So is it in our time when our past President Obama didn’t CAUSE the conditions for change that we were feeling (and some are embracing and others dreading) but he was the agent of bringing about this transition.
Samuel couldn’t have known the outcome of all that was happening, and I guarantee you that neither did President Obama and Congress know the outcome of their tidal shift in the direction of our nation towards a secular, one-world, ecologically driven policy. But it was different.
Do You Have Paganism In Your Home And Are You Ready To Give Up Your Pagan Traditions?