Why Would Anyone Worship Idols? What Idol Worship Really Means | Aleph Beta

Why Would Anyone Want To Worship Idols?

What Idol Worship Really Means

Immanuel Shalev


God doesn’t like foreign gods .... but does He have to remind us over and over? And the people, too, seemed to be obsessed with foreign gods. What made avodah zarah so attractive, and therefore so destructive, that God needs to devote law after law to its eradication? And what does any of this have to do with us, today?


Welcome to Parshat Re'eh. If there's one thing we see everywhere in the Book of Devarim, it's the laws against avodah zarah, worshiping foreign gods.

The Laws Against Avodah Zarah... Again?

It was in Va'etchanan, in the 10 commandments, in Eikev, where Moses scolded the people over the Golden Calf, and it's here, now, in Parshat Re'eh:

Moses says, אַבֵּד תְּאַבְּדוּן אֶת-כָּל-הַמְּקֹמוֹת אֲשֶׁר עָבְדוּ-שָׁם הַגּוֹיִם – you should destroy all the places where the other nations serve their gods.

We get it, God doesn't like avodah zarah. But we're not done. Later in this parsha, we hear that not only should we destroy all the idols, but we shouldn't try to worship God through any means or rituals that were used for avodah zarah. And we hear about the false prophet who tries to lead people to do avodah zarah. And the family member who tries to get you to do avodah zarah, and the laws of a city that does avodah zarah.

Why is God so obsessed with avodah zarah? And God's not the only one – the people seemed to really have this strong desire to worship foreign gods. And that's like, not something we encounter on a daily basis. How many of you have a friend, Sally, who tries to catch you on your way to synagogue: "Psst! Come with me, let's pass our children through fire in the worship of Molech!"

Why Did the Israelites Worship Idols?

What was it about avodah zarah that made it so attractive, and therefore so destructive, that God needs to devote law after law to its eradication?

Ok, so maybe, the answer is that back then, there was a temptation for idol worship – but we don't have that temptation anymore. And while that solves our problem, it creates a new one: We believe that the Torah was written lidorot, with applicable lessons for every generation of readers.

Is there a way then, for us to read passage after passage on avodah zarah and not immediately file it away in the "irrelevant" category in our brain? How can we understand this in a way that is relevant and meaningful for us? This week on the Parsha Experiment.

Commandments Against False Idol Worship in the Bible

Let's delve into the treatment of avodah zarah in our parsha and see if the text gives us any clues.

Moses begins by giving us a dual commandment. On the one hand: utterly destroy all the places where the other nations – who were there before you – served their gods.

וְנִתַּצְתֶּם אֶת-מִזְבְּחֹתָם – break down their altars,

וְשִׁבַּרְתֶּם אֶת-מַצֵּבֹתָם – and shatter their monuments

וַאֲשֵׁרֵיהֶם תִּשְׂרְפוּן בָּאֵשׁ, וּפְסִילֵי אֱלֹהֵיהֶם תְּגַדֵּעוּן; burn their asheira trees, and destroy their idols...

And on the other hand, all these nifty ways of serving gods, these idols, altars and monuments?

לֹא-תַעֲשׂוּן כֵּן, לַיהוָה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם – don't do the same to God. Don't worship Him the way people worship avodah zarah, building altars in your own backyard.

כִּי אִם-אֶל-הַמָּקוֹם אֲשֶׁר-יִבְחַר יְהוָה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם מִכָּל-שִׁבְטֵיכֶם – instead, you must go to the special place that God will choose, to the mishkan or, eventually, the Temple

וַהֲבֵאתֶם שָׁמָּה, עֹלֹתֵיכֶם וְזִבְחֵיכֶם – and there you should bring your offerings.

Now, I get why a non-physical God doesn't want to be represented by mere sticks and stones. But what's wrong with building altars? There is a mizbeach in the mishkan! Take Rivky. She is a tzadeikes. She feels SO close to God. It's really inconvenient to schlep out to Jerusalem whenever she feels like she wants to reconnect. She wants to build an altar in her backyard, a special shrine to worship God. What's so wrong with that?

But let's keep reading. Moses continues: There – in the place God chooses – bring your offerings, and your tithes, and the firsts of your flock and your voluntary tributes.

וַאֲכַלְתֶּם-שָׁם – and you should eat there,

לִפְנֵי יְהוָה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם – before God.

וּשְׂמַחְתֶּם בְּכֹל מִשְׁלַח יֶדְכֶם, אַתֶּם וּבָתֵּיכֶם – and you shall rejoice in all your undertakings – you and your household,

אֲשֶׁר בֵּרַכְךָ, יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ – with which God has blessed you.

Also, by the way, don't forget to rejoice with your kids, your slaves, your maidservant, and don't forget the Levite either, you know, because he doesn't have an inheritance in the land. Also, Moses adds, don't worry, you can still eat meat. You can't sacrifice the meat to God in your backyard in order to eat it, but you won't need to come to the Temple to offer your meat either. You can just slaughter it, wherever you live...just make sure to pour the blood on the ground.

This is so random. Are we just exploring tangent after tangent? Destroy avodah zarah. Come to my special place, to sacrifice to me, bring your offerings there and rejoice! By the way, you can still eat meat in your backyard, you just can't offer it to God. Is there a theme that connects these laws?

What Connects the Bible Verses About Idol Worship?

Now you might say, Imu, relax. These laws don't all have to relate. We talked about avodah zarah, and now we've moved on to some new topics! Well, let's read the very end of this perek:

When you finally destroy all the nations in the land,

הִשָּׁמֶר לְךָ; פֶן-תִּדְרֹשׁ לֵאלֹהֵיהֶם לֵאמֹר,

be extra careful, lest you seek out avodah zarah, the foreign gods that you destroy, and ask:

אֵיכָה יַעַבְדוּ הַגּוֹיִם הָאֵלֶּה אֶת-אֱלֹהֵיהֶם.

How did they serve those foreign gods?

וְאֶעֱשֶׂה-כֵּן, גַּם-אָנִי

I'll worship God that way!

Don't do that, says Moses. God hates their form of worship, it is an abomination to Him, after all, they burned their children in fire for the sake of their gods!

Now...where do these last few verses belong? Don't they belong way up in the beginning? The chapter should go: "Destroy the avodah zarah. Don't worship God the way people worshiped avodah zarah, God hates that stuff." And then we can hear about the laws of God's place, the Levite, laws about meat. Why do we have all of these seemingly-arbitrary digressions in between?

I think, these questions together leave us a trail of clues that will help us understand what avodah zarah is, why it was so tempting, and how the laws that Moses is teaching fomented a religious revolution that has lasting meaning for us, thousands of years later.

Why Did Idol Worship Tempt People?

In our video for Va'etchanan, we mentioned that there is a world of difference between monotheism and polytheism. Many different ancient peoples had many different gods. But not every culture shared the same types of gods. Some pantheons included a god of war, a god of the sea.

But there's one god that they almost all had in common: The Egyptians, the Norse, the Etruscans, the Mayans, the Canaanites – they all had gods of fertility. A god who could help them have children and get through childbirth, and who would also provide rain for their crops.

Why? Because if you consider humanity's greatest anxieties – the things over which we have the least control – it is our fertility. Think about how vulnerable a struggling couple is, and how easily they can be taken advantage of; talk to this doctor, wear this amulet, visit this faith-healer. And think about how much fear there is surrounding livelihood. Eat this! It's a segulah for parnassah! Hire someone to chant these Psalms for 30 days, and heavenly gates of wealth will open for you!

The anxieties were even greater in the ancient world, where a bad crop would cause famine, where childhood mortality was the norm, where women would die during childbirth. That's very, very scary. And so, the notion that I could, somehow, gain some control over an area of my life where I don't truly have control, that is very attractive. And that is the great promise of polytheism.

One God vs Many Gods: Why We Shouldn't Worship Idols

In polytheism, my worship of god is out of fear. If I'm a sailor, I worship the ocean god. If I'm a soldier, terrified of dying in battle, I will pay any tribute I can to the god of war. I think, if I scratch his back, he'll scratch mine. But really, my motivation is pure selfishness – I don't really care about the god, all I care about is what he can do for me.

In monotheism, I'm not picking one god out of a pantheon to worship – there is only one God! When I recognize that there is one God, I am saying: God, everything is from you. You are the Source, of rain, of life, of me. I can't help but feel close to You, my Parent, my Creator. And in this system, I don't worship Him through barter, that's ridiculous. He's the Creator, there's no lack that I could possibly fill with gifts.

Yes, I give to God – but as an expression of gratitude. When a child gives his mom a sloppy handwritten Mother's Day card, the value isn't in the gift… mom doesn't need the card. It's about what the gift means: the relationship between the giver and the recipient.

And that's monotheism; the idea that there can be a real relationship between people and God. Love.

On the flipside, the desire for avodah zarah is a desire stemming from fear, a desire to have control. This desire for control was Israel's greatest struggle in the desert. As we saw throughout Numbers, they were terrified of surrendering to God, because it meant admitting that their fate really lies in His hands.

But all too often, when we look for some sort of spiritual trick, an amulet, a faith-healer...we lose sight of God. We unconsciously hide from the fact that He is truly the one in control. God is the Creator, and it's all in His hands.

And here, in our parsha, Moses takes it a step further: serving God – the true God – by conveniently sacrificing to Him on private altars in your backyard, that too is about trying to take control – even within Godly worship. An altar isn't an appliance. It's not a toaster or a washing machine to make your life easier. The altar isn't meant to be in the backyard, in your domain, available for you to put in requests with God whenever you need.

What Rejecting Avodah Zarah Means in Practice

True worship is following God, to the place where He chooses. Because when you journey to God's special place, you're not just asking God to fulfill your needs; you put in effort too. So you should seek out God, Moses says, you should go to Him: to express gratitude and love.

It's not about convenience, it's about a relationship. And your sacrifices take on a tone of relationship as well. You don't barter with sacrifices. No, you bring tithes, good-will offerings, and they're consumed entirely by God, right? NO!

וַאֲכַלְתֶּם-שָׁם, לִפְנֵי יְהוָה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם – you're the ones who eat them before God.

Enjoy what you have, but enjoy together with your father in Heaven.

אֲשֶׁר בֵּרַכְךָ, יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ – in gratitude for all that He has blessed you with.

וּשְׂמַחְתֶּם בְּכֹל מִשְׁלַח יֶדְכֶם – and therefore, rejoice in all that you have.

Do you see the difference between the anxiety and fear of polytheism, and the gratitude, the love and joy, of monotheism?

But it doesn't stop there. If you have one God, if He is your parent, then He has other children too. And so, you can't consume your bounty selfishly:

וּשְׂמַחְתֶּם, לִפְנֵי יְהוָה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם – rejoice before God, with others,

אַתֶּם וּבְנֵיכֶם וּבְנֹתֵיכֶם, וְעַבְדֵיכֶם וְאַמְהֹתֵיכֶם – include your children, slaves, maidservants,

וְהַלֵּוִי אֲשֶׁר בְּשַׁעֲרֵיכֶם, כִּי אֵין לוֹ חֵלֶק וְנַחֲלָה אִתְּכֶם – the Levites who don't have their own land – include the rest of God's children in your happiness… that's also an expression of worship of God.

It's an acknowledgment of God's Oneness. He is the source of everything, and everyone. And so God's special place is the philosophical antithesis of avodah zarah. Therefore, these topics are just an extension of the original command to destroy avodah zarah. But what about the strange commands about meat?

In the desert, it seems that Israel was not allowed to consume meat except when they were partaking as part of a sacrifice. And this makes sense. If you remember, in our video on Parshat Shemini, we talked about how vulnerable we become to thinking that we are masters of the world, that we're in control and not God, whenever we take the life of another living being and consume its flesh. So every time you consumed meat, you ate as part of a sacrifice, as part of a recognition that God is in control, He is the ultimate Creator.

But now that sacrifices would no longer be permitted except in God's special place, כִּי-יִרְחַק מִמְּךָ הַמָּקוֹם, אֲשֶׁר יִבְחַר יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ, when you enter the land, and you might live too far from the Temple, don't worry, you can still eat meat. You need not sacrifice it to God. Recognize, instead, that you are not the Creator, by simply returning the animal's blood to your common source, the earth.

Understanding What Is Idol Worship Today?

But why? It's such a beautiful ritual; every time you want a steak, you must partake as part of an offering to God! The Temple is too far for you? Fine, I guess I'll just build my altar in my backyard. Look how religious I am. I promise, God, it's all for you. And God says, yeah right. You think I don't know that you're building a grill, and calling it an altar?

You want to eat meat. בְּכָל-אַוַּת נַפְשְׁךָ, תֹּאכַל בָּשָׂר – God says, that's okay, you can indulge in your desire. But let's not conflate these two things. Yes, sacrifice meat – but that's only in the Temple, the place I choose. And yes, eat meat – but don't call your barbecue a religious experience. When our needs and desires mix too closely with our religion, with our need for control, then we approach the evils of avodah zarah.

A more mature look at the roots of avodah zarah reveals an ugly human failing that is terribly relevant in modern times. We should not fool ourselves, turning page after page of Tanach, detached from laws and stories about idol worship that we see as primitive, irrelevant and unrelatable.

Yes, God doesn't want us to worship idols. But more importantly, He wants us to have a relationship with Him that is based on love, based on recognition that He is in control of the universe.

Despite our fears and our worries, we must not submit to false illusions of control in an effort to calm our anxieties or to get what we want.

Our God is a God of love. He is a parent. Come seek Him out in that special place. Celebrate your accomplishments and rejoice. Share what you have with your brothers and sisters. We are all the family of the One God.

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