Idol worship

During the Israelites 400 years of slavery in Egypt, they became immersed in a culture of idol worship. It wasn’t long after God had delivered them that the people of Israel’s tendency to worship material objects became evident. It says in Exodus 32:1-4, “When the people saw that Moses delayed to come down from the mountain, the people gathered themselves together to Aaron and said to him, ‘Up make us gods who shall go before us. As for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.’ So Aaron said to them, ‘Take off the rings of gold that are in the ears of your wives, your sons, and your daughters, and bring them to me.’ So all the people took off the rings of gold that were in their ears and brought them to Aaron. And he received the gold from their hand and fashioned it with a graving tool and made a golden calf. And they said, ‘These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!’” Aaron offered the people idolatry as an alternative to worshipping the true God who had spoken to them on Mount Sinai. Exodus 19-20 tells us that God came down on Mount Sinai and spoke the words of the Ten Commandments directly to his chosen people. Exodus 20:1-6 states:

And God spoke all these words, saying,

“I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.

You shall have no other gods before me.

You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments.”

When Moses came down from the mountain and saw the calf and the dancing, he threw the tablets on which God had written the Ten Commandments “out of his hands and broke them at the foot of the mountain. He took the calf that they had made and burned it with fire and ground it to powder and scattered it on the water and made the people of Israel drink it” (Exodus 32:19-20). “Moses had just been given the law by God (Exodus 32:15, 16), and it strictly forbade the worship of false gods. Even though the Israelites had promised earlier, ‘All the words that the LORD has spoken we will do’ (Exodus 24:3), they had forsaken him while Moses was on the mountain with God” (note on Exodus 32:26, 27).

The Israelites were instructed to take possession of the land that God had given them and to clear away the nations that were living there. Moses said, “When the LORD your God gives them over to you, and you defeat them, then you must devote them to complete destruction. You shall make no covenant with them and show no mercy to them. You shall not intermarry with them, giving your daughters to their sons or taking their daughters for your sons, for they would turn away your sons from following me, to server other gods” (Deuteronomy 7:2-4). Moses told the people of Israel not to pity the inhabitants of the land that they were going in to take possession of because, “that would be a snare to you” (Deuteronomy 7:16). The Hebrew word that is translated snare, moqesh (mo-kasheˊ) means “a noose…a snare, a trap, bait. The proper understanding of this Hebrew word is the lure of bait placed in a hunter’s trap. From this sense comes the primary use of the term to mean the snare itself. It is used to signify a trap by which birds or beasts are captured (Amos 3:5); a moral pitfall (Proverbs 18:7; 20:25); and anything that lures one to ruin and disaster (Judges 2:3; Proverbs 29:6)” (H4170).

The angel of the LORD reinforced Moses’ message to the people of Israel after they had failed to complete the conquest of the land of Canaan. Judges 2:1-3 states:

Now the angel of the Lord went up from Gilgal to Bochim. And he said, “I brought you up from Egypt and brought you into the land that I swore to give to your fathers. I said, ‘I will never break my covenant with you, and you shall make no covenant with the inhabitants of this land; you shall break down their altars.’ But you have not obeyed my voice. What is this you have done? So now I say, I will not drive them out before you, but they shall become thorns in your sides, and their gods shall be a snare to you.”

Israel’s unfaithfulness was primarily attributed to a lack of personal experience with the wars that were fought in the early years of Israel’s entrance into the Promised Land (Judges 3:1). It says in Judges 2:10-13, there arose another generation after Joshua’s death, “who did not know the LORD or the work he had done for Israel. And the people of Israel did what was evil in the sight of the LORD and served the Baals. And they abandoned the LORD, the God of their fathers, who had brought them out of the land of Egypt. They went after other gods, for among the gods of the peoples who were around them, and bowed down to them. And they provoked the LORD to anger. They abandoned the LORD and served the Baals and the Ashtaroth.”

“Canaanite deities, such as the Baals and the Ashtoreths, remained a problem for Judah until the Babylonian exile. Other Canaanite deities included the Asherahs (Judges 3:7) and Dagon (Judges 16:23). It took seventy years of captivity to finally cure the Israelites of their idolatrous ways. Recent archeological discoveries have clarified some facts about the region of Canaan in the days of the judges. Baal and Ashtoreth were the names of two individual gods in a much larger and complicated system of polytheism, but they were also community gods whose names differed from region to region. For instance, there was the Baal called Baal of Peor (Numbers 25:3), Baal-Berith (Judges 8:33), and Baal-Zebub (2 Kings 1:2). It is for this reason that Scripture describes the Israelites as serving ‘Baal’ in some instances and ‘Baals’ in others. Overall, the religion of the Canaanites was extremely corrupt. It was characterized by the practices of human sacrifice, ritual prostitution and homosexuality, and self-mutilation. These religions taught that these practices were prevalent among their gods, so it is not surprising that the people became equally debased. Many false gods were particularly connected with agriculture (the seasons, weather, and grain) and some of God’s judgments against these people would ultimately discredit the supposed abilities of these Canaanite ‘gods’ (1 Kings 18:18-40; Hosea 2:8-13; Amos 4:4-12)” (note on Judges 2:13).

After Gideon’s supernatural victory over the Midianites, it says in Judges 8:22, “the men of Israel said to Gideon, ‘Rule over us, you and your son and your grandson also, for you have saved us from the hand of Midian.’ Gideon said to them, ‘I will not rule over you, and my son will not rule over you; the LORD will rule over you.’” Gideon’s refusal to take God’s place in the lives of the Israelites was commendable, but he made the mistake of taking a portion of the spoil from the war that he had fought and made an ephod which was put in his hometown of Ophrah (Judges 8:24-27). “The ephod mentioned here may have varied from the priestly ephod (Exodus 28:6-30) or may have been a mere copy of Aaron’s ephod, It came to be a form of idolatry because the object itself was worshiped rather than God” (note on Judges 8:27). It says in Judges 8:27, “All Israel whored after it there, and it became a snare to Gideon and to his family.”

Gideon’s direct assault to the altar of Baal that his father had erected may have caused him to become a target of spiritual warfare. It says of the incident in Judges 6:28-32:

When the men of the town rose early in the morning, behold, the altar of Baal was broken down, and the Asherah beside it was cut down, and the second bull was offered on the altar that had been built. And they said to one another, “Who has done this thing?” And after they had searched and inquired, they said, “Gideon the son of Joash has done this thing.” Then the men of the town said to Joash, “Bring out your son, that he may die, for he has broken down the altar of Baal and cut down the Asherah beside it. ”But Joash said to all who stood against him, “Will you contend for Baal? Or will you save him? Whoever contends for him shall be put to death by morning. If he is a god, let him contend for himself, because his altar has been broken down.” Therefore on that day Gideonwas called Jerubbaal, that is to say, “Let Baal contend against him,” because he broke down his altar.

Joash’s conclusion that Baal would contend against Gideon because he had broken down his alter was true in the sense that there is a real spiritual force that contends against God’s followers. The Apostle Paul said in his letter to the Ephesians, “We do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 6:12). The name that Gideon was called, Jerubbaal was said to mean, “Let Baal contend against him” (Judges 6:32) suggesting that Gideon became a target of the spiritual forces that were behind Baal worship.

Gideon’s construction of an ephod (Judges 8:27) may have opened him up to satanic influence. It states in Judges 8:29, “Jerubbaal the son of Joash went and lived in his own house.” The use of the name Jerubbaal might indicate that Gideon was acting according to the epithet that was associated with him. The passage goes on to say, “Now Gideon had seventy sons, his own offspring, for he had many wives. And his concubine who was in Shechem also bore him a son, and he called his name Abimelech” (Judges 8:30-31). A concubine was the illicit partner of a married person and therefore, Abimelech was not considered to be one of Gideon’s own offspring. Judges 9:1-2 states:

Now Abimelech the son of Jerubbaal went to Shechem to his mother’s relatives and said to them and to the whole clan of his mother’s family, “Say in the ears of all the leaders of Shechem, ‘Which is better for you, that all seventy of the sons of Jerubbaal rule over you, or that one rule over you?’ Remember also that I am your bone and your flesh.”

Abimelech was identified as the son of Jerubbaal even though he was Gideon’s illegitimate child. Abimelech’s question, “Which is better for you, that all seventy of the sons of Jerubbaal rule over you or that one rule over you?” (Judges 9:2) points out the fact that he was not among “all the seventy sons of Jerubbaal,” but was identified with his mother’s relatives. Abimelech said to them, “I am your bone and your flesh.”

The Hebrew name that is translated Abimelech, Abiymelek (ab-ee-melˊ-ek) is derived from the words ab (awb) which means “father” (H40) and melek (mehˊ-lek) which means “a king” (H4428). “The word melek appears 2,500 times in the Old Testament. In many biblical contexts, this term is simply a general term, denoting an individual with power and authority…In pagan worship, the worshippers of idols attribute this term with it connotations to their idols (Isaiah 8:21; Amos 5:26). Abimelech’s suggestion that there should be only one ruler over the people of Israel implies that he was willing to take God’s place as the spiritual leader of the Israelites and viewed himself as a type of deity. This mindset is indicative of antichrist and is aligned with Satan’s objective of overturning the establishment of God’s kingdom on earth. It says in Judges 9:3-6:

And his mother’s relatives spoke all these words on his behalf in the ears of all the leaders of Shechem, and their hearts inclined to follow Abimelech, for they said, “He is our brother.” And they gave him seventy pieces of silver out of the house of Baal-berith with which Abimelech hired worthless and reckless fellows, who followed him. And he went to his father’s house at Ophrah and killed his brothers the sons of Jerubbaal, seventy men, on one stone. But Jotham the youngest son of Jerubbaal was left, for he hid himself. And all the leaders of Shechem came together, and all Beth-millo, and they went and made Abimelech king, by the oak of the pillar at Shechem.

“The house of Baal-berith” (Judges 9:4) refers to an idol temple. “An obvious contrast is made between Baal-Berith, which means ‘lord of the covenant,’ and the true God, with whom the Israelites had made their covenant. The Israelites were essentially exchanging one covenant for another. This apostasy was centered in Shechem, and Gideon opened the way for it by making the gold ephod” (note on Judges 8:33, 34).

Jotham, Gideon’s youngest son, escaped the slaughter of all Gideon’s male descendants. When he was told what had happened, Jotham went to a Mount Gerizim to confront the leaders of Shechem. Mount Gerizim was the designated location for Israel to receive God’s blessing after they entered the Promised Land. After the Israelites defeated Ai, Joshua renewed the Israelites’ covenant with God. Moses had commanded the people of Israel to erect “an altar of uncut stones, upon which no man had wielded an iron tool” and offer burnt offerings to the LORD (Joshua 8:31). Joshua 8:32-34 states, “And there, in the presence of the people of Israel, he wrote on the stones a copy of the law of Moses, which he had written. And all Israel, sojourner as well as native born, with their elders and officers and their judges, stood on opposite sides of the ark before the Levitical priests who carried the ark of the covenant of the LORD, half of them in front of Mount Gerizim and half of them in front of Mount Ebal, just as Moses the servant of the LORD had commanded at first, to bless the people of Israel. And afterward he read all the words of the law, the blessing and the curse according to all that is written in the Book of the Law.” The reading of the blessing and the curse was meant to remind the Israelites of the choice they had made to keep the Ten Commandments and to love the LORD their God with all their hearts and with all their souls and with all their might (Deuteronomy 6:5). The mountains where the reading took place, Mount Gerizim and Mount Ebal, were symbolic of the two choices that Moses offered the Israelites at the close of his ministry. Moses said:

“See, I have set before you today life and good, death and evil. If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I command you today, by loving the Lord your God, by walking in his ways, and by keeping his commandments and his statutes and his rules, then you shall live and multiply, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to take possession of it. But if your heart turns away, and you will not hear, but are drawn away to worship other gods and serve them, I declare to you today, that you shall surely perish. You shall not live long in the land that you are going over the Jordan to enter and possess. I call heaven and earth to witness against you today, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse. Therefore choose life, that you and your offspring may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying his voice and holding fast to him, for he is your life and length of days, that you may dwell in the land that the Lord swore to your fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, to give them.” (Deuteronomy 30:15-20)

Moses encouraged the people to choose life, but realized that not everyone wanted to obey God’s commandments. Mount Gerizim represented the blessing that would result from obedience and Mount Ebal the curse that was associated with idolatry. When Jotham confronted the leaders of Shechem from the top of Mount Gerizim, he told them a parable that was later revealed to be a curse (Judges 9:57). Jotham may have done this intentionally to confuse his listeners or he may have wanted to remind the people that they still had the option to choose life.

Jotham’s parable (Judges 9:7-15) “is one of the few parables in the Old Testament” (note on Judges 9:7-15). Jesus frequently spoke in parables and when he was asked why he did it, Jesus told his disciples:

“To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given. For to the one who has, more will be given, and he will have an abundance, but from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away. This is why I speak to them in parables, because seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand. Indeed, in their case the prophecy of Isaiah is fulfilled that says:

“‘“You will indeed hear but never understand,
    and you will indeed see but never perceive.”
For this people’s heart has grown dull,
    and with their ears they can barely hear,
    and their eyes they have closed,
lest they should see with their eyes
    and hear with their ears
and understand with their heart
    and turn, and I would heal them.’

But blessed are your eyes, for they see, and your ears, for they hear. For truly, I say to you, many prophets and righteous people longed to see what you see, and did not see it, and to hear what you hear, and did not hear it. (Matthew 13:11-17)

Jesus referred to the things that he was sharing with his disciples about God’s kingdom as secrets and said that many prophets and righteous people were not given access to the same information. The Greek word that is translated secrets, musterion (moos-tayˊ-ree-on) is where the word mystery comes from. From a biblical standpoint, a mystery is “something into which one must be initiated or instructed before it can be known; something of itself not obvious and above human insight.” Musterion is used “specifically, of the gospel, the Christian dispensation, as having been long hidden and first revealed in later times (Romans 16:25; 1 Corinthians 2:7; Ephesians 3:3, 4, 9; Colossians 2:2; 4:3; 1 Timothy 3:9)” (G3466).

Jotham’s parable was a type of gospel message in that it gave the people of Shechem an opportunity to repent and change the course of their actions, but it was delivered to the people as a pronouncement of judgment because the leaders of Shechem had already made Abimelech king (Judges 9:6). Jotham said, “If you have acted in good faith and integrity when you made Abimelech king…then rejoice in Abimelech, and let him also rejoice in you. But if not, let fire come out of Abimelech and devour the leaders of Shechem and Beth-millo” (Judges 9:16-20). God dealt with the apostasy that was centered in Shechem by letting Abimelech become the source of his own family’s demise (Judges 9:46-49). It says in Judges 9:55, “And when the men of Israel saw that Abimelech was dead, everyone departed to his home.” The anticlimactic ending of Abimelech’s life not only showed that the false god Baal-berith was unable to protect his followers, but also that God would indeed execute the curses on his people that were promised for idol worship. Judges 9:56-57 states, “Thus God returned the evil of Abimelech which he committed against his father in killing his seventy brothers. And God also made all the evil of the men of Shechem return on their heads and upon them came the curse of Jotham the son of Jerubbaal.”