Summary: The second in a series on the 10 Commandments dealing with how the human craving to be in control translates to making graven images, idolatry, worshiping the work of our hands.
One of the Christmas cards I got this year wasn’t really a Christmas card. It wasn’t even a Hannukah card. It was a Solstice card. It came from an old friend of mine named Sally who sang soprano in my medieval chamber vocals ensemble and taught me Middle Eastern dancing. (That’s belly dancing, to the carnally minded.) Sally was raised Methodist, has a BA in English lit, earns her living as a paralegal, and is very spiritual. She’s like the Athenians Paul preached to in Acts 17, after he’s wandered around the city for a few days looking at all the temples and shrines and statues. He starts out his sermon with "I see that you Athenians are very religious, for as I walked through your city and looked at the places where you worship, I found an altar on which is written, ‘to an Unknown God.’" And Paul proceeded to explain to the Athenians that this unknown God they had been seeking was the creator of Heaven and Earth, now made known to them in Jesus Christ. And many of his listeners were intrigued, and wanted to know more.
Unlike the Athenians, though, Sally doesn’t have an altar to the unknown God. She worships everything else. She’s into astrology, and Tarot, and crystals, and reincarnation, and channeling, and who knows what all else. Her family was Christian, at least nominally, but she rejected - not the unknown God, but the known God, YHWH God who revealed himself first to Moses on Mt. Sinai, then through Scriptures and the prophets, and finally in Jesus Christ. So I got a Solstice card instead of a Christmas card, sharing with me her latest adventure in spirituality.
Now, for those of you who haven’t kept up to date on all the do-it-yourself religions the New Age has brought us, the Winter Solstice is December 21st, the shortest day of the year. (The Summer Solstice is the longest day of the year). The other two major festival days of the ancient Druid religion are the spring and fall equinoxes, when day and night are of equal length.
The Druids were the priests and scholars of the Celtic tribes of France, Britain and Ireland. Rome just about wiped them out with the conquests of Gaul and Britain a couple of thousands of years ago, and the last remnants, in Ireland, were routed by Saint Patrick within another couple of hundred years. The Druids weren’t all bad. Part of the legacy they left was a love of music and poetry. But one of their more colorful customs was telling the future through human sacrifice. They had a number of different ways of carving up the individual, depending on what the question was. Another of their religious practices was burnt offerings. They’d put a slave or a prisoner of war in a wicker cage, and hang him on one of the oak trees in their sacred grove, and set it on fire. You see, these people were valuable "things" they were giving to God, to get protection or provision or power.
It makes you wonder why anybody would be interested in awakening these old religions, doesn’t it?
And yet another friend of mine, a Unitarian whose ancestors were Jewish, tells of participating in dawn rituals in college by a group of so-called neo-Druids featuring toasting the return of the sun every winter equinox with single malt Scotch. Now, maybe most of the point of the ritual was the Scotch, but why the flirtation with pagan gods?
Maybe Moses knew what he was talking about, coming down from Mt. Sinai 3000+ years ago.
Maybe there was a reason for the 2nd commandment that would outlast not only the Divided Kingdoms of Israel and Judah, but also the exile in Babylon, the rise and fall of Rome, the Dark Ages and the Renaissance and the Enlightenment.
Maybe God knew we wouldn’t change.
"’You shall not make for yourself a graven image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth; you shall not bow down to them or serve them; for I YHWH your God am a jealous God. [Dt 5:8-9]
It seems so far away from us, that camp in the desert in the wilderness of Sinai. What can it have to do with us, those refugees from forced labor, semi-starvation, and occasional outbursts of ethnic cleansing. No humanitarian missions here, flying in food and medical supplies, no starving children or heroic freedom fighters getting their pictures on the evening news, no stirring speeches in the UN or uneasy speculatons about the cost of living up to treaty obligations.
No, just a rag-tag band of religious fanatics followed by a horde of bewildered travelers in their third month on the road, no doubt with their children whining "Are we there yet?" at every rest stop. Sure, they’d had plenty to eat, manna appearing as if by magic every morning and quail falling out of the sky and water bursting from rocks in the desert but they wanted what they were used to, hamburgers or pizza and a good cup of coffee, for goodness sake, they’d sell their souls for a cup of coffee and a good night’s sleep in their own bed. This wasn’t what they’d expected. God was really unreasonable. Why didn’t he just kill the Egyptians and let them take over? Wouldn’t that have been easier on everybody? Why did they have to go through all of this trouble?