Confronting – or Cuddling Up To – Idolatry

I read a very interesting section of the book of Joshua in my daily reading this morning which certainly caught my attention. It comes from Joshua 22. The context is this: the long conquest of Canaan has come to an end, and the allotment on the land is now being worked out.

As agreed upon earlier, two and a half of the twelve tribes (Reuben, Dan, and half-Manasseh) will settle east of the Jordan river, now that the fighting is over. Joshua had just got done speaking to them, blessing them, and reminding them of their covenant obligations to faithfully obey the law of Yahweh, when he learned of an ominous development.

It seems these two and a half tribes actually built an altar over there! As we read in Josh. 22:10: “When they came to Geliloth near the Jordan in the land of Canaan, the Reubenites, the Gadites and the half-tribe of Manasseh built an imposing altar there by the Jordan.”

And what is the response? Verses 11-12 tells us: “And when the Israelites heard that they had built the altar on the border of Canaan at Geliloth near the Jordan on the Israelite side, the whole assembly of Israel gathered at Shiloh to go to war against them.”

Wow, that was a sure and swift reaction. No futzing around here. No half-hearted measures: they prepared for war. This was very serious business indeed. As James Montgomery Boice comments, “This was no light matter. An altar other than the altar at Shiloh, where the tabernacle of the Lord stood, symbolized a break with worship of the true God. It meant apostasy.”

But as we read in the following verses, a delegation from Israel first confronted them, and the two and a half tribes protested their innocence, explained their actions, and were eventually let off the hook. They said they never intended to use the altar for sacrifices, and did it with the best of intentions (to use it as a memorial for the real altar in Shiloh). So major conflict was avoided and peace was again established.

But the whole point of this is that Israel – at least under Joshua’s command – took idolatry very seriously indeed. They were even willing to go to war against their own brothers and sisters. Civil war was preferred to idolatry and apostasy. They could not just sit by and do nothing in the face of this.

schaeffer 3Francis Schaeffer asks us to use our imagination here: just how close must have all these men been after fighting side by side for so many years? Such a strong bond must have existed between them all. “And suddenly the complexion of the situation changed….

“These men had just departed as companions of war. . . . But now they thought the holiness of God was being threatened. So these men, who were sick of war, said, ‘The holiness of God demands no compromise.’ I would to God that the church of this century would learn this lesson. The holiness of the God who exists demands that there be no compromise in the area of truth. Tears? I am sure there were tears, but there had to be battle if there was rebellion against God.”

Now things are a bit different today of course. For one, we are not ancient Israel. And we do not go to physical war against our own when they are engaging in idolatry. But the point is, we obviously should have the same determined, single-minded attitude here: idolatry is always wrong; it will always lead our brothers astray; and it must always be confronted and dealt with.

Yet regrettably we live in such a wishy-washy, namby-pamby age of the church (at least in the West) that I suspect most believers would never dare open their mouths to any idolatry in their midst. They would be far more convinced that saying something against this is wrong (being judgmental and intolerant, etc) than believing in the sin of idolatry.

They would throw up their arms and say, “Who are we to judge?” They would go on about “casting the first stone” and how we must not be so judgmental and close-minded. They would claim that any confrontation with the idolaters would be wrong, and not something Jesus would do.

We have so bought the world’s mindset and values that we are loathe to ever confront anyone about anything. We think that disturbing the peace or rocking the boat is the worst thing we can do. But we are dead wrong here. There are far worse things we can do.

And one of them is to allow sin to go unchecked, to allow idolatry in the camp. Indeed, the book of Joshua and the Pentateuch are full of such things, and demonstrate how seriously God takes them. Recall the sin of Achan as recorded in Joshua 7. Because of this one man’s sin, Israel was not able to defeat Ai, but suffered a humiliating defeat. So serious was this that all Israel put Achan and his family to death.

In fact, the rebellion at Peor (as recorded in Numbers 25) is invoked by Joshua and Israel as they confront the two and a half tribes (vv. 17-18): “Was not the sin of Peor enough for us? Up to this very day we have not cleansed ourselves from that sin, even though a plague fell on the community of the LORD! And are you now turning away from the LORD?”

So they knew full well just how utterly serious such matters were. And things are no different in the New Testament. When Paul walked through idolatrous Athens, for example, he did not engage in interfaith dialogue, he did not try to find common ground with the idols, and he did not seek to say that all religions are true.

Instead we read in Acts 17:16: “While Paul was waiting for them in Athens, he was greatly distressed to see that the city was full of idols.” We too should be greatly distressed, instead of falling for all this unbiblical interfaith mumbo-jumbo, Chrislam, and other unhelpful acts of syncretism and compromise.

And Christians of all people have a very clear biblical responsibility to exhort, warn, and encourage one another, and make sure we are all pressing on in Christ, and not allowing sin and idolatry to thwart our walk. But as I find all too often nowadays, most Christians shrink back from this like the plague. The idea of mutual accountability seems anathema to so many Christians today.

They have so imbibed of the world’s understanding of things, that they actually think it is wrong and un-Christlike to confront a fellow believer, warn a brother or sister, or rebuke another Christian when necessary. Sure, we are to do it prayerfully and carefully, but we must do it nonetheless.

Elsewhere I have spoken about such matters, including the missing art of church discipline. See here for example:

Schaeffer finishes his discussion of this chapter with these wise words: “Whenever church leaders ask us to choose between the holiness of God and the love of God, we must refuse. For when the love of God becomes compromised, it is not the love of God. When the holiness of God becomes hardness and a lack of beauty, it is not the holiness of God.

“This is the calling to us who live in the New Testament era too – to practice the holiness and love of God with no compromise to either. If anything, it is an even greater responsibility for us than for those who practiced it so beautifully in Joshua’s time, for we live on this side of the cross, the open tomb, the Ascension, and Pentecost.”


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7 Replies to “Confronting – or Cuddling Up To – Idolatry”

  1. Bill,

    Funny that you should submit this article, last night I just read Joshua 22. Now I agree with you that the Israelites was very zealous for the law, especially anything to do with idolatry.

    I see a point that speaks to me, maybe a bit different from the article, in part.

    We cannot judge the times. However:

    I think that this was clearly a case of over reacting.

    Yes, I remember that they were willing to go to civil war if necessary to put a stop to it. However, I think the 9 1/2 tribes were a bit to zealous for the law, so much so, that they missed the bigger picture. What I am saying is that they were even willing to sacrifice, even LOVE, in favor of they zealousness of the law.

    Isn’t love and obedience, even in the old testament greater than that of overzealously following the law? I don’t mitigate the law, but it’s the manner and mindset of following the tenets of their faith.

    They were so zealous that they over reacted towards the 2 1/2 tribes living over on the Jordan. I thought their reaction was badly handled. Instead of getting hot headed about what those tribes were doing and jumping to conclusions, they could have sent a delegation and lovingly ask what their intentions were with the alter in the Jordon.

    Personally I thought the 2 1/2 tribes had a valid point, they didn’t want to be excluded from worship in Shiloh. I thought their intentions were good, they were trying to protect their interests the best way they knew how. It wasn’t selfish, but they didn’t want to be excluded from worship, some day in the future. After all, the alter was NOT used as a place of worship, but served as a reminder of the REAL alter in Shiloh. It seemed to serve a witness in the old covenant that the 2 1/2 tribes had a part of and their part in worship when they went to Israel to worship to the Lord.

    I believe the 2 1/2 tribes didn’t want to be shut out of the Old Covenant. That was their fear. Was it a valid one, I think so. They felt the alter was the best way to act as a witness, that they too were part of salvation. That way, there was no way they would be denied Salvation by the Lord caused by the other 9 1/2 tribes. When these tribes heard their true intentions, they had no cause for war, and accepted the intentions of the tribes over in the Jordon.

    In short, seek out love, follow the teaching of Jesus the best way you can. Besides the 10 Commandments and the other smaller ones, the Israelites were also taught the Golden Rule, and the 2 Greatest Commandments; Love of God and Love of Neighbor. Had they done that, maybe they might not have over reacted. I believe that they would have gotten the facts first, cool headedly, then determine what to do next.

  2. Thanks Erik. But there is nothing in the text to suggest they were overreacting or being displeasing to God in what they did. Instead, they were wholly devoted to the Lord and to his holiness, and were fully prepared to ruthlessly – and properly – deal with any idolatry and apostasy in their midst – even with their own brethren.

    But of course they first consulted with the 2 1/2 tribes, so they were not hot-headed and reckless here. They consulted with them, found out things were not as they appeared, and then reacted accordingly. So I think they had God’s complete imprimatur during this whole affair.

    And as Schaeffer rightly says in his Joshua and the Flow of Biblical History – which I cited in part – both love and holiness are absolutely essential. The Israelites demonstrated both, and thus were fully and faithfully representing Yahweh and his standards.

  3. Hi Bill,

    In Vs 12, And when the children of Israel heard of it, the whole congregation of the children of Israel gathered together at Shiloh to go to war against them. Woah, easy boys, let’s find out the facts first, put away your guns. Let’s hear what they have to say, remember a person is innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. That’s the supporting scripture that spoke to me.

    That’s the hot headedness I speak of.

    Please allow me to also give you a link supporting my point here. Please understand that I am talking about the Children of the Israelites’ initial reaction.

    Please note number 4 of the Top 10 Human Reflexes and Natural Instincts.

    I see a case of mob psychology and jumping on the bandwagon without thinking for themselves. I believe that the heated energy was contagious.

    I don’t dispute the intention of putting out apostasy and idolatry, and that is following the Lord. But I believe it took Joshua, Eleazar and the elders to calm down the mob first. Only after the Elders of the 2 1/2 tribes explained their intentions, I believe they cooled down.

    Reading on verses 16-20, especially 20, that sounds a bit ‘J’accuse’ to me. Especially without the fact of why there was an alter in the first place. I can see anger in these verses without the word ‘anger’ appearing in these verses. They bring up Achan, remember what they did to him. But they inquired first that time, then punished, ok good.

    I think that there could have been a cooler headed manner to asking them what the 2 1/2 tribes were doing with the alter in the first place, not some angry ‘why you doing this!?’ type of approach.

    Anyway, I read this passage a number of times, and it spoke to me. The point I am making is the manner in which they go about putting out apostasy and idolatry. It’s good that they obey the Lord. But what’s in their heart? Is it love or anger. Are they following the Lord because they sincerely love the Lord, or because they are scared into submission in loving and followed the Lord?

    That is my observation.

  4. Thanks Erik. But I will simply stick with the Word of God here, not pop psychology. The text never censures them, but gives every indication that Yahweh was quite pleased with their actions. However, we may have covered this topic enough by now! But thanks for your thoughts.

  5. My zeal for truth has gotten me into trouble plenty of times ad I admit I have a lot to learn about the love bit that belongs to the “speak the truth in love” admonition Paul gives us. The other thing people suspect of “legalistic” people like me is skeletons in the closet. Well, they are welcome to look, but my conscience is clear because my sins have been confessed and forgiven.
    And when they quote John 1 about grace came by Jesus Christ, well, grace and truth came by Jesus Christ and we are to worship him in spirit and in truth. Without truth therte is no love and without love the truth kills instead of giving life. Love covers sin, not truth. etc.
    Many blessings
    Ursula Bennett

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