Shemot/Exodus 23:24 You shall not bow down to their gods and you shall not serve them, and you shall not do according to their practices
These words come towards the end of one of the weekly portions that contain the most commandments; the text from Shemot 20:20(23) to 23:33 being called the "Book of the Covenant" byIbn Ezra. While many of the mitzvot are enduring - "Whoever attacks a person and causes his death must be put to death" (21:12, CJB), "You are neither wrong or oppress a foreigner living among you, for you yourselves were foreigners in the land of Egypt" (22:20(21), CJB), "For six years, you are to sow your land with seed and gather in its harvest, but the seventh year, you are to let it rest and lie fallow" (23:10-11a, CJB) - some seem particularly related to the relatively short period of time during which Israel will enter and occupy the land of Canaan. Here, in the first half of this verse, we are presented with three negative commands: things that the Israelites must not do while they are making the Land of Israel their own. HaShem will push out the seven nations currently occupying the Land1 and the Israelites are to take possession, cleaning and clearing as they go to purge the Land of idolatry and false gods. Targum Onkelos even refuses to allow them 'god' status, changing , "to their gods", to , "to their idols".
Three commands are given: do not bow down to their gods; do not worship or serve them; and do not follow their practices. Ibn Ezra points out that while the Book of the Covenant both starts and ends with warnings against idolatry, the "warning at the end is much stronger - that idolatry should be entirely uprooted. For one who worships idols violates all the prohibitions in the Torah." RabbiHirsch expands the text a little to offer an explanation of what HaShem might have meant: "You are neither to think that your future is dependent on the supposed physical powers of these gods, nor that you owe them anything for your past and present and so you are not to allow their delusions to have any influence on your doings." Hirsch's choice of the word 'delusion' is interesting, pointing us towards Rav Sha'ul's comment to the community in Thessalonica: "Therefore G-d sends them a strong delusion, so that they may believe what is false, in order that all may be condemned who did not believe the truth but had pleasure in unrighteousness" (2 Thessalonians 2:11-12, ESV). Perhaps there is a hint here that those who worshiped idols in ancient times refused to believe the truth - the witness of the heavens and the world around them (Acts 14:16-17) - because they preferred to live in unrighteousness.
The first two prohibitions seem quite obvious: not bowing down to idols and not worshiping them in any other way either, but why was the third prohibition necessary - was it not already covered in the first two? TheRamban felt that the command clearly needed to be repeated, since Moshe presented it again to the Israelites in the next book of the Torah: "You shall not copy the practices of the land of Egypt were you dwelt, or of the land of Canaan to which I am taking you" (Vayikra 18:3, JPS) and Drazin and Wagner comment that "this prohibits even idol worship dishonouring other idols, since the beginning of the verse prohibits customary idolatry." It is left to Gersonides to pick up the third prohibition: "Do not worship Me as they do their gods." Nahum Sarna affirms that "the adoption of their cultic practices - even in the service of the G-d of Israel" are forbidden. HaShem is not to be worshiped or served in the same way that the idols or pagan gods are.
Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks - a contemporary British scholar, rabbi and commentator - quotesMaimonides' writing about the way in which G-d should be worshiped in the Guide for the Perplexed. Maimonides suggests that worship by means of sacrifice, the slaughtering and burning of animals, was never what G-d desired; rather that He should be worshiped in the way we have worshiped since the destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans in 70 CE, by prayer, study and acts of kindness. Nevertheless, G-d instituted the sacrificial system outlined in the Torah because the people could not and would not be able to abandon the way of sacrifice that they saw all around them among the other nations. "For a sudden transition from one opposite to another is impossible," writes Maimonides, "and therefore man, according to his nature, is not capable of abandoning suddenly all to which he was accustomed."2 Instead, G-d drew the sacrificial system together into one regulated place, and focussed it on Himself alone in an orderly and humane way that specifically excluded any sexual or human (read: child) sacrifice, until the time would come to abolish it altogether. Rabbi Sacks explains that without an explicit divine intervention, change takes time - many generations in this case - to happen; "He gave humanity the freedom to grow. But that inevitably meant that change in the affairs of mankind would be slow."3
How then, is G-d to be worshiped? Samuel fired perhaps the first warning short across the bows of the sacrificers - "Has the L-RD as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices, as in obeying the voice of the L-RD? Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, and to listen than the fat of rams" (1 Samuel 15:22, ESV) - although he did himself offer sacrifices. This questions the priority or value of sacrifice compared to living within the terms of the covenant. David picked up the baton in several psalms - for example, "For you will not delight in sacrifice, or I would give it; you will not be pleased with a burnt offering. The sacrifices of G-d are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O G-d, you will not despise" (Psalm 51:16-17, ESV) - while Hosea affirms, "For what I desire is mercy, not sacrifices, knowledge of G-d more than burnt offerings" (Hosea 6:6, CJBa). It is not at this stage, although David gets very close to the line, that the practice of sacrifice is discouraged; rather that sacrifice on its own is not acceptable or appropriate without a heart attitude of worship, contrition or service. The people were later challenged more directly: "For when I freed your fathers from the land of Egypt, I did not speak with them or command them concerning burnt offerings or sacrifice" (Jeremiah 7:22, JPS). This almost seems to be a denial of the Torah, so requires careful handling. What did G-d command the people? "Do My bidding, that I may be your G-d and you may be My people; walk only in the way that I enjoin upon you, that it may go well with you" (v. 23, JPS). Back to the question of obedience again. A sacrifice given out of rebellion or disobedience is meaningless!
Does this lie behind Yeshua's words to the Pharisees - "Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others" (Matthew 23:23, ESV)? Lots of modern readers stop halfway through the second sentence, without including the rest of the verse, as if Yeshua were criticising the tithing of the herbs. It is not that tithing the herbs was the wrong thing to have done - on the contrary, it was perfectly correct and appropriate as far as it went. The problem was that the Pharisees had taken their eye off the larger matters: justice, mercy and faithfulness, things that the prophets had been shouting about for hundreds of years. And in that context, the 'smaller' matters of tithing, just like sacrifice, were not acceptable on their own.
Now consider Yeshua's conversation with the woman at the well in Samaria, recorded in John's gospel: "But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship Him. G-d is spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth" (John 4:23-24, ESV). How many times have you heard these words piously quoted by people rather like a slogan or talisman who have no idea at all what they mean, beyond a vague idea that they must mean something other than sacrifice and, of course, exclude formal church and liturgy? Perhaps HaShem's words to the Israelites could help. Not bowing down to other gods - worshiping G-d alone, not the pastor or the PA system, or the powers that be in a denomination or network. Not serving other gods - recognising our single calling to serve G-d through Yeshua and to serve His people as directed by the Ruach. Not serving our G-d in the way others serve their gods - perhaps this is the most important, given that the first two may be straightforward. We have to know G-d intimately, not worship Him from a distance and in fear; at the same time, we have to hold Him in awe and not treat Him like an equal. He is not interested in legalism, or us serving Him to tick the boxes or win brownie points. He wants to share His truth with us and have us be honest with Him - no playing games or trying to hide things. Lastly, perhaps, we must be ourselves - he doesn't want us to worship him as someone else does, pretending or putting on a style. Our relationship with Him must be from ourselves, from the heart!
1. - Although only six are named in this block of text - the Amoriates, Hittites, Perizites, Canaanites, Hivites and Jebusites - the Girgashites make up the full list of seven given to the generation that will actually enter the Land in D'varim 7:1.
2. - Moses Maimonides, The Guide of the Perplexed, tr. Shlomo Pines, University of Chicago Press, 1963, III.32, page 526
3. - Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, Conversation and Covenant - Exodus: the Book of Redemption, Maggid Books, 2010, page 99
Further Study: Romans 8:15; Philippians 3:3
Application: Do you serve G-d slavishly or in fear? Are you hiding insecurities or past failures in a big outward show? Or are you too afraid of G-d to actually worship Him at all? Today is the day to reach out to Him in "spirit and truth" and make that heart connection that you both desire!
© Jonathan Allen, 2016
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