For the week of December 10, 2011 / 14 Kislev 5772
Torah: Bereshit / Genesis 32:4 - 36:43
(English: 32:3 - 36:43)
Haftarah: Hosea 11:7 - 12:12


Foreign Gods in our Midst

God said to Jacob, "Arise, go up to Bethel and dwell there. Make an altar there to the God who appeared to you when you fled from your brother Esau." So Jacob said to his household and to all who were with him, "Put away the foreign gods that are among you and purify yourselves and change your garments. Then let us arise and go up to Bethel, so that I may make there an altar to the God who answers me in the day of my distress and has been with me wherever I have gone." So they gave to Jacob all the foreign gods that they had, and the rings that were in their ears. Jacob hid them under the terebinth tree that was near Shechem. (Bereshit / Genesis 35:1-4; ESV)

As Jacob was settling back in the land of his birth, he instructed his household to get rid of their foreign gods. It isn't clear how Jacob knew his household had such things in their midst. Earlier in the story, soon after Jacob and his household left Mesopotamia, where he lived for over 20 years, his father-in-law, Laban, accused him of stealing his gods. It turned out that Jacob's wife, Rachel, Laban's daughter, had taken them without Jacob knowing. And even though Laban searched her tent, she kept them hidden (see Bereshit / Genesis 31:25-35). Whether or not Jacob eventually found out about them, Jacob assumed that they had foreign gods among them and ordered his household to remove them, which they did.

It would not be the last time that the people of Israel would need to remove foreign gods from their midst. Throughout their history, Israel had the tendency to integrate foreign gods within their society. Repeatedly this would drag the nation down until they were completely overwhelmed by foreign nations. Each time, the people of whom God was to be Lord, Master, Husband, and Father, would find themselves in servitude to other nations. First, they would begin by worshipping the gods of these nations; then they would be ruled by them.

Jacob's directive to put their foreign gods away was a preventative measure that kept his household from falling into an oppressive trap. Why he didn't do this earlier, we don't know. But better late than never.

This story illustrates for us the fact that we all tend to have foreign gods in our midst. Regardless of how they got there, they're there. From time to time it's a really good idea to take stock of what we are carrying around in our lives and get rid of those things that are not of God. Whether they are of a more religious nature, like literal idols and other material things that have become objects of worship, or non-material things like unbiblical teachings and psychological gimmicks, I cannot overestimate the destructive nature of these foreign influences.

I don't know what Rachel's motivation was in taking her father's idols with her. It might be that she wanted a little piece of home to keep her connected with the past. Travelling into the unknown as she was, it is difficult to fault her for perhaps wanting to retain some sense of continuity with the familiar she was leaving behind.

Sentimental attachment to things and ideas is one of the most powerful forces that prevent us from getting rid of our foreign gods. We often hold on to such ungodly things because of the sense of identity or security they provide - or should I say, "false identity" and "false security." In the end these things that seemingly helped us and comforted us will control us one way or another.

It can feel scary to throw away our foreign gods. We may feel that we might destroy a part of ourselves if we do; but that's a big lie! They may even fool us into thinking that the difficulties we are having in life and in our relationship with God are not their fault, but rather due to our lack of loyalty to them. The truth is that the sooner we get rid of our foreign gods, the sooner we will experience God's reality and freedom in our lives.

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