We are the bride of Christ.
You can’t make a parable walk on all-fours, but symbols are chosen for a reason. The most manly shepherd in the Kingdom of Heaven still has to understand the bride’s perspective on things. You can’ tell me that King Solomon, the biggest skirt-chaser in Hebrew history, didn’t have a grasp of the godly bride’s point of view in his Song of Solomon. We who follow Jesus, as a whole, are that woman.
And we are His exclusive domain. The Hebrews were pretty prickly about keeping the sexes from mixing in public. That is, random adults who weren’t related could not speak to each other if they weren’t the same gender. We should hardly be surprised that they had no trouble extending that to the metaphor of Israel as the Bride of Jehovah. Israelis traveling in a polytheistic world would avoid any hint of unfaithfulness to God. Acting differently was the primary means of evangelism.
“You shall have no other gods before Me.” So long as you expect to live in His Presence and under His blessings (the feudalistic term “before me”), you weren’t permitted to dilute your religious devotion with other deities. The Law made much of rituals on this point.
Here’s what’s crazy: The rituals of Moses were fairly consistent with the rituals and symbols acceptable to a wide range of tribal nations in that part of the world. The primary reason Israelis kept drifting off into worship of Baal was the broad similarity. Hey, a Hebrew woman called her husband “baal” — meaning “my lord.” Again, there’s that ANE feudalism as the assumed background. And if one worshiped any Baal, there was always his consort Astarte. As noted yesterday, a rhinoceros in the room was how sexually depraved the Canaanites were in everything they did. To them, depravity was required by their gods.
So while a great many ritual items in the Law of Moses were nothing more than avoiding the rituals of pagan idolatry, there was plenty of overlapping symbolism and ritual. A major point was that God insisted their could be no physical representation of Him, against the utter requirement of having idols in virtually every other religion. Even then, there was some hedging. The Golden Calf was not the god they worshiped, but symbolized the mount ridden by the invisible god. The details have been analyzed to death by some truly great scholars, and any summary would be an injustice. But it boils down to God’s declaration: “I am not like the others.”
At what point does social reverence become idolatry? When does a hero become a demigod, or a genuine deity? Where do you draw the line to avoid idolatry? In our modern English usage, “idolize” hardly means genuine worship. It’s a figure of speech.
Something becomes an idol when it comes between you and Jehovah. It becomes idolatry when reverence and pursuit of something hinders your divine calling.
Every culture has a mythology. The academic meaning reaches far beyond the common usage. Mythology is the bulk of values and beliefs about reality that are seldom discussed and virtually never questioned. The Hebrew people had a mythology in that sense. In the latter stages of the Judean kingdom, that mythology became an excuse for all sorts of idiocy. When the meaning of the language changes, the stories that illustrate the meaning of life also impart a different meaning. The Jews of Jesus’ day idolized their theology, a body of intellectual assumptions they didn’t have before the conquest of Alexander the Great. His Hellenism completely altered the meaning of the Hebrew mythology, making it a false mythology, diverging from revelation. It was just a step away from worshiping their own intellects.
Their theology excluded the Son of God, who was very much an Ancient Hebrew Messiah.
I can tell you where and when Western mythology contradicts the Bible. There is a wealth of heavy-duty scholarship I can point to, backing my claim that a Western orientation is contrary to following Christ. I can tell you generally how other religions in that part of the world might be a problem for Christians. I can describe a reasonable facsimile of what Abraham likely believed before he left his tribal home (he was a polytheist), and how it was quite different from the eventual revelation in Moses. I can also show you how Moses absorbed some ideas previously unique to Egyptian mythology because he saw it was consistent with revelation. I cannot tell you when your various religious reasonings cross the line. In truth, I really can’t say when your fruit is morally rotten, but I can tell you when I won’t be working with you. I can tell you when you’ve crossed the boundaries God laid for me.
We are not at all like the Zoroastrians, for whom all deities were like a college of associates (over whom Zarathustra presided). We assert there may be a lot of mythology and heroes, but there is only one Creator. Paul notes in 1 Corinthians 10:14ff that to the degree you actually worship something other than Jehovah, it’s messing with demons. He is quite squeamish about engaging in pagan rituals. I suppose if we paid more attention to Corinthian religious habits, we would understand better. It was almost as depraved as ancient Canaan. You can’t afford to have women chanting and speaking in esoteric languages when your place of worship is on the same street as a temple with ritual prostitutes making the same kind of noises. Context is everything; try avoiding any activity that might be already used as some kind of religious ritual in that crazy place.
But Paul echoes something Moses struggled to get across: There is no other god. Sometimes we can see where a pagan religion is struggling out of darkness for whatever truth they can see. So Paul talks about how pagans can sometimes be morally more acceptable to God than some Jews or Christians. He also noted how going to Heaven was not dependent on having the right theology, but that spiritual awakening is the beginning of a search for a useful theology.
I have a bigger objection to most mainstream Western Christian religion than I do with a lot of pagan religion I’ve encountered. If your morals match my understanding of God’s character, we can work together. If you claim Christ as your Lord, we can worship together. I’ll leave a lot of room for you to be different from me because I have doubts about my own righteousness; we remain fallen creatures until we leave this world. Still, I have to paint the boundary markers in this world that I find in my conscience. So do you.
If you can swallow what I write here, then at the least we’ll be friends.