The Politics of Idols—Exodus 20:1-4, 7-9, 12-20 (Amy Allen)

Lectionary, The Politics of Scripture

Our discomfort with the notion of God visiting the sins of parents upon their children may lead us to avoid wrestling with Exodus 20:5-6. This would be a mistake. This reference occurs in the context of the prohibition upon idolatry and challenges both our attempts to sanitize God and our idolization of our children.

Then God spoke all these words: 2 I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; 3 you shall have no other gods before me. 4 You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.

7 You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not acquit anyone who misuses his name. 8 Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy. 9 Six days you shall labor and do all your work.

12 Honor your father and your mother, so that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you. 13 You shall not murder. 14 You shall not commit adultery. 15 You shall not steal. 16 You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor. 17 You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.

18 When all the people witnessed the thunder and lightning, the sound of the trumpet, and the mountain smoking, they were afraid and trembled and stood at a distance, 19 and said to Moses, “You speak to us, and we will listen; but do not let God speak to us, or we will die.” 20 Moses said to the people, “Do not be afraid; for God has come only to test you and to put the fear of him upon you so that you do not sin.”

Two verses are conspicuously absent from the Revised Common Lectionary appointed reading today, which are included in the Narrative Lectionary’s (otherwise roughly equivalent) appointment of the same text. These are the verses I would like to focus on this week:

Exodus 20:5-6
5 You shall not bow down to them [idols] or worship them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me, 6 but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments.

There is no doubt that this is a difficult text. Few people like to think of God as a jealous God; even fewer like to picture God punishing innocent children. And so, it is not entirely surprising to me that in their bowdlerization of the Scripture text, the Revised Lectionary committee chose to omit these two verses from the reading. Perhaps it should come as a greater surprise to me that the Narrative Lectionary committee chose to leave them in.

Nevertheless, completely apart from my feelings about the need to wrestle with—and perhaps even preach against—difficult texts, I would like to suggest that in the context of this commandment in particular—“You shall not make for yourself an idol” (Exodus 20:4)—that these verses serve an important function.

A few days ago, I read an article written by Danielle and Astro Teller entitled, “In the Name of the Child: How American parenting is killing the American marriage.” Their thesis is that parenthood has become a religion in America. They explain, “Nothing in life [including one’s marriage partner] is allowed to be more important than our children, and we must never speak a disloyal word about our relationships with our offspring. Children always come first. We accept this premise so reflexively today that we forget that it was not always so” (Quartz, 30 Sept 2014).

In short, they are speaking against idols—perhaps the same idols that led to the omission of these verses in the first place. These authors are not advocating for the abuse of or even the neglect of children, of course, they are simply questioning the unspoken premise that children must always come first.

Similarly, God is not proclaiming utter destruction or desolate hopelessness for children of iniquitous parents. I’m not the best at math, but I’m pretty sure that somewhere in the comparison between 3-4 generations and thousands of generations, faithful and loving children of sinful parents (and perhaps even sinful children of righteous parents) are likely to win out.

Instead, God (or at least the ancient author of the Exodus text) is highlighting a reality in our sinful world: children suffer for their parents’ mistakes. Children even suffer for mistakes made by their parents’ parents, generations removed.

In order to confirm this reality we need look no further than the environmental crisis, war-torn territories and countries, and the endemic poverty and homelessness even in the most developed of countries. In fact, if we look closely enough, we’ll realize that more often than not, children don’t merely suffer for their parents’ sins, they suffer for the sins of other people’s parents and grandparents just the same.

We live in an unjust world. We live in a world of suffering and a world of sin—a world in which many people, children included, suffer unjustly. In fact, I am hard pressed to think of any suffering I would term “just”. No amount of textual editing can change that.

And yet, in these words of Scripture, passed on for thousands of generations to us today, God gives us a word of hope: “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery” (Exodus 20:2).

Jewish groupings of the first commandment stop there. Commandment One: The LORD is God. Not ourselves. Not our marriage partners. Not money or fame or anything else. Not even our children. God comes first.

The rest of the commandments—including verses 5-6—are essentially commentary on this one basic truth. We can and ought to pay attention to the needs and welfare of other people around us—honoring our parents, looking out for the good of our neighbors by avoiding murder, adultery, theft, false witness, and coveting; and providing for our children and others in our care, making sure that they too are taught to honor God (these are the other two verses omitted by the Revised Common Lectionary, vv. 10-11).

But first and foremost, we must get our priorities straight: we must love and honor God. It’s easy to say that we’re already doing this, of course—to say that when we love our children (or whatever our personal idols might be) first, that we really mean we love them just after our love for God. However, the way we live often tells a different story.

Like the committee for the lectionary today, do we bowdlerize our versions of God? Do we make for ourselves of God an idol that conforms to the idols we already worship? Do we make for ourselves a God in our own image, who shares our same idols? For example, do we imagine that our God is a tender God, who only wills good for small children and would never consider punishing them?

If we do, then not only are we breaking the first commandment, but even more dangerously, I think, we are missing out on the extent of God’s grace expressed in v.6 when God proclaims that even more than being a jealous God, God is a God who shows steadfast love to the thousandth generation.

We cannot experience gain without loss. We cannot experience grace without judgment. And we cannot experience God unless we allow God to permeate every part of our lives, moving and empowering us so that we might be number ourselves among one of the faithful who does good for our children and our neighbors’ children, that they might live to experience it into the thousandth generation to come.

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