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September 27th, 2023

david harris church pagePASTOR’S CORNER, David Harris, Fellowship Baptist Church, Liberal


One Old Testament scholar summarized well the theme of the first five books of the Bible when he said they describe "a divine initiative in a world where human initiatives always lead to disaster.”

The human side of this story is evident in a little episode in Genesis 31:17-21 (if you are not familiar with the story, I encourage you to take a moment to read it before reading through the rest of this article).

Despite Jacob’s deceit, God is intervening to bless him. Laban’s sons are jealous of Jacob’s blessings. Their complaints get to Laban, and to no one’s surprise Jacob’s approval ratings take a quick plummet. Jacob is convinced it is time to return to his homeland. He tells his wives of his dream from God that confirmed this, and has an easy time convincing them. They aren’t very happy with their father anyway. Jacob is packing up to go while Laban is off shearing his sheep. Rachel takes advantage of that moment to steal her father’s household idols. 

Now the reader may want to know, why would Rachel do this? After all it would seem she had a lot going for her. She was financially secure. In fact she was so secure her family envied her husband’s growing prosperity. She was physically attractive. She was valued by her husband. Her husband heard from the one true God. He had been given dreams that validated God’s promises to take care of him and his family. But it seems that all of this was not enough for Rachel (or so she felt). The way she viewed her inclusion into God’s covenant family was so shrunken and thin that she looked elsewhere for her security and identity.

Whatever the household gods were, all idolatry, whether ancient and pagan or modern and secular, has common motivations: they promise security, prosperity, and future happiness in return for being valued as ultimate. 

Do Rachel’s stolen idols make good on the promise? No. In fact quite the opposite is true. Instead of bringing security they put Rachel in grave danger. Instead of bringing prosperity they brought her to the point of nearly losing everything. Instead of bringing future happiness the narrative finds her hiding in the tent after her husband accidentally threatens to have her killed. Instead of helping her, in an ironic twist these gods have to be stolen, hidden, sat on, and (if she was telling the truth to her father) made ritually unclean, to put it politely. 

Now what’s the point of all this? Moses’ readers after the Exodus had left a land full of idolatry, and were going to enter a land full of idolatry. Genesis 31 gives Moses’ audience the very first explicit mention of idolatry in the Pentateuch. And here is how they are introduced to idol-keeping from God’s perspective. God had promised to be everything Rachel needed. But instead of trusting God she looked to secure blessings from something else. And instead of being as good as God to her, these substitutes put her in danger of losing God’s blessings.

Of course that is also the case with Israel. The idols of their neighbors will promise them security, prosperity, and the securing of future happiness in return for ultimate allegiance. But Israel’s future flirtations with idolatry tragically robbed them of the very things they were attempting to possess.

What’s in this for careful Christian readers today? Though we are less likely to worship idols of wood and stone, we, God’s people, are tested by the lesser things of this world. We are lured into believing something other than God can provide us security, prosperity, and future happiness in return for our ultimate allegiance. Like Rachel, we foolishly believe the lie that something other can God will make good on its promise to do only what God can. 

What is the thing that has your attention? What thing do you think will make you happy? Material prosperity is alluring. But make the accumulation of stuff your idol and your most important relationships will dissolve into dust. Financial security promises internal happiness, but if propped up above everything else your ethics will begin to leak and your moral life will come crashing down. Binging, digital overload, over-eating, alcohol and other addictive substances all are different manifestations of the popular idol of escapism. Yet if you numb yourself to reality long enough you will lose bits and pieces of your soul along the way, and what is left of you will be something very different than the beautiful, whole creature God intended. 

Only God can truly give his people what they need. All substitutes, in the end disappoint. Idols make promises on which they can never deliver. Not only that, they often rob you of the very blessings God offers. Learn from Rachel. Don’t be fooled.

[1]. David J.A. Clines, “The Theme of the Pentateuch” (Journal for the Study of the Old Testament, 10, 1978), 29.