Modern Idol Worship and the Book of Judges

This guest post was written by David Beldman, author of Deserting the King: The Book of Judges. 

When Christians look for instruction and inspiration, when we look for a deeper sense of our calling and mission, we typically turn to the more obvious Scripture passages: Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, the Great Commission, or the New Testament letters. We don’t often turn to the book of Judges for this sort of thing. Judges is chock-full of violence, warfare, and people behaving very badly. What’s more, the cultural and historical situation of God’s people in Judges seems so far removed from the experiences we face. What can the book of Judges possibly offer us today?

But stopping at this short-sighted—though understandable—view of Judges will prevent us from some vital teaching from God’s word. When Paul wrote to Timothy that “all Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness” (2 Tim 3:16 ESV), he was referring to the Old Testament—including Judges! And when we look closer, we’ll see that even the book of Judges act as a mirror, showing us aspects of our lives and culture that we’d rather overlook.

In the Old Testament, we see that Israel’s purpose—their mission—was to build a culture and society motivated by love for God, their Redeemer-King, and for their neighbor. The covenants (including the many laws and stipulations) made at Sinai and on the Plains of Moab (in Deuteronomy 5–31) provided the framework for that kind of culture and society. In Judges, when God’s people finally enter the land and start to settle in, the Canaanite religion and culture provide a constant allure and barrier to fulfilling their calling. Their worship of foreign gods not only diminished their allegiance to King Yahweh, it also influenced the kind of culture and society they were producing—often in ways they weren’t aware of. 

It might seem silly to us that the Israelites would turn again and again to worship the foreign gods, but according to the wider culture at that time, local deities were responsible for weather and crops, fertility and overall prosperity. When moving to a new location, it would have been natural to identify the local deity and offer appropriate homage in order to ensure success. And so the Israelites’ service to the Canaanite gods had implications for the culture and society that emerged among God’s people. As they worshiped the Canaanite gods, they in turn became like the Canaanites in their life, conduct, and culture.

But the truth that Jesus expressed so vividly is that no one can serve two masters (Matt 6:24; Luke 16:13). It’s an important lesson for Christians today. To what extent are the idols of our society influencing the culture we’re helping create? Do we confess Jesus with our lips but bow to the idols of our day? It can be extremely difficult to get the kind of perspective we need in order to perceive the ways that our culture influences us. What’s more, it can be painful and downright dangerous to identify and challenge the idols of our day. Gideon literally broke down the idols in his community and was nearly killed for it (see Judg 6–8). But Gideon’s story also teaches us that it is all too easy to tear dowin idols only to construct other idols in their place.

When we split our allegiance in this way, we effectively desert our divine King with devastating results—not only for ourselves, but also for our communities and the larger culture that we are called to bless. Judges is a sobering warning about the dangers of idol worship—a warning just as relevant today as it was for its original hearers.