Failing the Driving (Out) Test: Israel’s Idolatry (Judges 1-2)

Bible Commentary / Produced by TOW Project
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Judges 1-2 picks up where Joshua 13-22 left off, with the failure of Israel to drive out the Canaanite nations in the land. “When Israel grew strong, they put the Canaanites to forced labor, but did not in fact drive them out” (Joshua 17:13). There is a certain irony in the newly liberated Israelites becoming slave owners at the first opportunity. But the chief reason Israel was supposed to drive out the Canaanites was to prevent their idolatry from infecting Israel. Like the snake in the Garden, the idolatry of the Canaanites will test the Israelites’ loyalty to God and his covenant. Israel fares no better than Adam or Eve did. Failing to remove the temptation of the Canaanites, they soon began “serving” the Canaanite gods, Baal and Astarte (Judges 2:11-13, 10:6, etc.) (The NRSV translates the Hebrew as “worshiping,” but virtually every other English translation more accurately reads “serving.”) This is not merely a question of occasionally bowing before an image or uttering a prayer to a foreign god. Instead, Israel’s life and their labor are spent in futile service to idols, as Israel comes to believe that their success in labor depends on assuaging the local Canaanite deities.[1]

Most of our work today is dedicated to serving someone or something other than the God of Israel. Businesses serve customers and shareholders. Governments serve citizens. Schools serve students. Unlike worshipping the Canaanite gods, serving these objects is not evil in itself. In fact, serving other people is one of the ways we serve God. But if serving customers, shareholders, citizens, students, and the like becomes more important to us than serving God, or if it becomes simply a means of enlarging ourselves, we are following the ancient Israelites into worshipping false gods. Tim Keller observes that idols are not an obsolete relic of ancient religiosity, but a sophisticated, though false, spirituality we encounter every day.

What is an idol? It is anything more important to you than God, anything that absorbs your heart and imagination more than God, anything you seek to give you what only God can give. A counterfeit god is anything so central and essential to your life that, should you lose it, your life would feel hardly worth living. An idol has such a controlling position in your heart that you can spend most of your passion and energy, your emotional and financial resources, on it without a second thought. It can be family and children, or career and making money, or achievement and critical acclaim, or saving “face” and social standing. It can be a romantic relationship, peer approval, competence and skill, secure and comfortable circumstances, your beauty or your brains, a great political or social cause, your morality and virtue, or even success in the Christian ministry.[2]

For example, an elected official rightly desires to serve the public. In order to do that, he or she must continue to have a public to serve, that is, to stay in office and keep winning elections. If serving the public becomes his or her ultimate goal, then anything necessary to win an election becomes justifiable, including pandering, deception, intimidation, false accusations, and even vote-rigging. An unlimited desire to serve the public—combined with an unshakable belief that he was the only person who could lead them effectively—seems to be exactly what motivated US President Richard Nixon in the 1972 election. It seems that an unlimited desire to serve the public is what caused him to pursue winning the election at all costs, including spying on the Democratic National Committee at the Watergate Hotel. This in turn led to his impeachment, loss of office and disgrace. Serving an idol always ends in disaster.

People in every occupation—even the family occupations of spouse, parent and child—face the temptation to elevate some intermediate good above serving God. When serving any good becomes an ultimate goal, rather than an expression of service to God, idolatry creeps in. For more on the dangers of idolizing work, see the sections on the first and second commandments at Exodus and Work (“You shall have no other gods before me” (Exodus 20:3); “You shall not make for yourself an idol” (Exodus 20:4)) and Deuteronomy and Work (“You shall have no other gods before me” (Deut 5:7; Ex 20:3); “You shall not make for yourself an idol” (Deut 5:8; Ex 20:4)) at