Understanding the Old Testament

The Temptation of Idolatry

(All quotations are from the New American Standard Bible translation)

One of the dominant themes of the Old Testament is that the Israelites repeatedly fell into idolatry. And in Numbers 25, it happens again.

The Moabites could not have defeated the Israelites in war, but they were able to mislead them in religion. While the Israelites waited to invade Canaan, the Moabites invited them to worship and offer sacrifices to the Moabite god, Baal of Peor. And many accepted the invitation.

Of course this angered the Lord, but we need to understand why. A partial explanation is the fact that the pagans of Canaan—and presumably the Moabites too—engaged in such detestable practices as sorcery, temple prostitution, human sacrifice, and even child sacrifice. For example, see Deuteronomy 12:29-31 and 18:9-10, I Kings 14:24, and Ezekiel 16:20-21. 1

They may have even practiced cannibalism, since many years later the Israelites had adopted that particular custom, per Ezekiel 23:37: "For they have committed adultery, and blood is on their hands. Thus they have committed adultery with their idols and even caused their sons, whom they bore to Me, to pass through the fire 2 to them as food." (Emphasis added per boldface.)

But I believe the problem goes deeper. The most dangerous aspect of idolatry is that it promises to put us in control. If you placate the gods, then they are obligated to give you what you desire: children, prosperity, victory, etc. The gods are like vending machines. Make the required offerings and they will dispense what you desire. Thus, the allure of idolatry is similar to the serpent’s false promise to Eve: “you will be like God”(Genesis 3:5). Idolatry promises that you will be in control.

God doesn’t work that way. He calls upon us to trust Him and obey Him. We make sacrifices—such as tithes and offerings—from obedience and gratitude, not greed. There is no automatic quid pro quo. We believe He is faithful and will fulfill His promises to us, but in His own time and in His own way, not on demand. He does not work at our convenience or on our schedule.

For many of the Israelites that was unsatisfying. Perhaps they wanted immediate gratification, just as we often do. So they turned to the idols that promised quick and certain returns for their investment.

24,000 of them paid with their lives for their unfaithfulness to God. The plague that killed them was quieted only when Eleazar’s son, Phinehas, acted with faith and obedience by slaying one of the Israelites who tried to openly cohabitate with a pagan Midianite woman.

The Lord rewarded Phinehas by making him and his descendants “a perpetual priesthood.” (Numbers 25:13)

Question to ponder or discuss: I have heard it said that God always answers our prayers, but sometimes His answer is “No” or “Not yet.” James 4:2-3 says we do not receive what we desire because we do not ask God for it, or because we ask with improper motives. What are some other reasons why God does not say “Yes” to some of our prayers? (Paul provides one answer in 2 Corinthians 12:7-10.)

   1 For more on this topic, and additional citations, see Chapter 7, “Is Yahweh an Ogre?,” in my book, Beyond Blind Faith: Reasons for the Hope We Have (1 Peter 3:15).


   2 “Pass through the fire” is a euphemism in the Old Testament for human sacrifice. For example, see Ezekiel 16:21: "You slaughtered My children and offered them up to idols by causing them to pass through the fire." "The fire" is italicized in the NASB translation because it is implied rather than literally stated in the original Hebrew text.


Copyright 2018 by Don Davidson

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Beyond Blind Faith: Reasons for the Hope We Have (1 Peter 3:15):

Why Reasonable People Should Consider Christianity

Stories of the Faithful (with some church history)

Christmas Stories

Understanding the Old Testament

The Truth About America Star Books


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