Idols of Modern Society
“When Israel was a child, I loved him,
and out of Egypt I called my son.
The more I called them,
the more they went from me;
they kept sacrificing to the Baals,
and offering incense to idols.” (Hosea 11:1-2 NRSV)
The prophets Hosea and Amos were active during roughly the same era in the history of ancient Israel (8th century BCE). Both prophesied primarily to the northern kingdom of Israel during a time of relative peace and prosperity. In spite of appearances, dark days loomed on the horizon for Israel. The threat of an Assyrian invasion eventually became a reality, and Israel was conquered by the year 722 BCE. God sent a series of prophets to call the people back to him, but their voices went unheeded. While the prophet Amos preached against the social sins and injustices of the Israelite people, Hosea’s message focused on their idolatry and lack of covenant faithfulness. As Hosea said, the more God called Israel, “The more they went from me; they kept sacrificing to the Baals and offering incense to idols” (Hos 11:2).
The Logic of Idol Worship
When the Israelites strayed from their covenant with God and worshipped idols, they did so for entirely practical reasons. Many of the deities worshipped were Canaanite fertility gods–higher beings who could cause one’s crops to flourish and one’s wife to bear children. Worship of these pagan deities typically involved a barter system–giving the deity an offering and being blessed in return. In a pre-scientific world, idol worship was much like a business transaction; it was an investment in securing life’s basic necessities.
Hosea made it clear that Israel worshipped pagan gods for this reason. Hosea said that the Israelites told themselves, “I will go after my lovers; they give me my bread and my water, my wool and my flax, my oil and my drink” (Hos 2:5). Therefore, when they received these good things, they attributed them to the idols they worshipped. This, then, reinforced the efficacy of the whole system, fueling further idolatry.
While idol worship itself violated the Mosaic Covenant (Ex 20:2-3), the acts of worship involved in paying homage to a pagan deity also transgressed God’s laws. In Hosea 4, the prophet accused the people of participating in temple prostitution (Hos 4:14) and drunken orgies (Hos 4:18). Most likely the people believed that these ritualistic sex acts unlocked fertility in the cosmic order.
Ultimately, one could argue that the true sin of Israel was really neither idolatry nor the sexual immorality connected to pagan worship. Rather, the true sin was forgetting their Maker (Hos 8:14), who had redeemed them from slavery and delivered them into the Promised Land.
The Irony of Idolatry
In spite of their sin, God continued to bless, protect, and provide for Israel. The irony of their idolatry was that God, in a manner of speaking, enabled it. Because of the nature of idol worship, Israel believed that their abundance and prosperity came Baal and the other gods they worshipped. However, God told them, “She did not know that it was I who gave her the grain, the wine, and the oil, and who lavished upon her silver and gold that they used for Baal” (Hos 2:8). Strangely enough, God’s goodness and kindness gave the people the freedom to forget God and turn to other gods.
Even though the Israelites continued to enjoy a relatively prosperous and peaceful existence, forgetting their Maker had consequences. For one, the Israelites sought political protection from their neighbors. Hosea chastised them for this, saying, “Ephraim has become like a dove, silly and without sense; they call upon Egypt, they go to Assyria” (Hos 7:11). While making political sense at time, this was a foolish choice. Israel turned to one former oppressor and one future oppressor when they sought the security that God alone grants. In another section, Hosea lamented the general moral decay that accompanied the forgetting of God, a moral decay that not only poisoned human relationships but poisoned the entire creation (Hos 4:1-3).
Idols of Modern Society
Reading prophets like Hosea today, it can be easily to insulate one’s self from their messages. Amos’ critique of social injustice and inequality rings true today for many readers, but Hosea’s warnings about idolatry seem archaic and irrelevant. How many modern people offer sacrifices to images of stone or wood, expecting blessings in return? Or, how many people engage in ritualistic sex acts, thinking that these acts will cause their crops to grow? Since much human religiosity has evolved beyond the ancient barter system, Hosea’s words are easy to avoid.
However, when idol worship is examined at its most basic level, one can see that idolatry is a timeless practice. Idolatry, in the biblical sense, is ultimately the search for life in something other than the Creator. It is the belief that arrangements can be made with some entity to guarantee the fruitfulness of human life.
From this perspective, it becomes clear that today’s world is filled with an abundance of idols, just as in the days of ancient Israel. For example, many people see the promise of long life and happiness in modern health care, and the proliferation of hospital campuses reflects our cultural obsession with health and wellness. Whatever gives people hope and ultimate fulfillment, or at least promises to offer that, runs the risk of becoming an idol.
Hosea’s words remain fresh and relevant, then, to people of faith today. God continues to call to his people. In God alone is true life, joy, and abundance. In God alone, do all living things move and have their being (Acts 17:28). Yet, idols constantly hold out the promise of life to those who bow to them. Those that succumb ultimately forget their Maker, the Source of all things.
Featured image from Flickr user Myxi. Used under creative commons license.