If you don’t have a terebinth tree in your backyard, plant one so you can dig it up. Terebinth trees, it turns out, are great places to bury gods and make covenants.
Do you recall the story of Jacob as he made the journey from Haran to Bethel? Jacob planned to stay just a few days in Haran to avoid the wrath of his angry brother Esau. But because of his father-in-law’s chicanery, a few days turned into a few decades. Twenty years have come and gone. Jacob has married (twice in one week), begun his family and grown wealthy. But he longs to worship God in his homeland. As Jacob and his sizeable entourage returns home he tells everyone in his company to prepare to worship the true God of the universe.
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.” (Genesis 35:2-3)
And then it happened. Jacob took the foreign gods, along with the earrings of the people and buried them under the terebinth tree that was near Shechem. (Genesis 35:4) Think for a minute about this: gods, thought to possess a modicum of power, gods who would, just maybe, bring rain and crops, gods who promised fertility and favors galore, these gods Jacob buried in the dirt. And along with these idols of promise, the golden earrings of the whole company, presumably so that they could not fashion still other gods by melting them in the fire (Exodus 32:3-4).
The worship of pseudo-gods is the most frequently mentioned problem in the Scriptures. Were we to make a list of the “big” sins in the Bible, stealing and illicit sex would come quite a few bullet points below idolatry and the worship of local deities. This is bad news for the people of God because they tend to gravitate toward the worship of idols. To paraphrase G. K. Chesterton, when the people of Israel ceased to worship Yahweh they did not worship nothing – they worshiped anything. More precisely, they worshiped any god that was available. People in biblical times weren’t tested by atheism, they were tempted by every-god-ism. They wanted to worship Yahweh along with the gods of the valley and the mountain.
And so also us. We err if we think the temptation to idolatry faded with the Enlightenment and the rise of secularism. Far from it. Indeed, we no longer make gods out of gold or silver and call them such. But idols spring forth, first and foremost, not from our hands, but from our hearts. As Richard Keyes writes, An idol is something within creation that is inflated to function as a substitute for God. What are our substitute-gods? What are our idols? The answer to these questions is found in examining our hearts. When Paul makes a list of sins the believer should avoid he ties our tendency toward greed to idolatry (Colossians 3:5). In other words, the simple lust for more (covetousness in the ESV) is idolatry!
What is it in your heart that competes with God? Again, what are our idols? Hold these candidates up to your heart and see how they fit: progress, digital technology, efficiency, beauty, relevance, acceptance, power, wealth, health, sexual desire and fulfillment, travel, experience, new car, children, financial portfolio, pleasure, cash, education, marriage, freedom, political stability. Are these good things? They can be, but they can be inflated into idols. As Joy Davidman writes,
Idolatry lies not in the idol but in the worshiper. It is a psychological attitude that governs his whole life and a very murderous attitude. We begin by offering others to the idol; we end by offering ourselves. Men threw their babies into the fiery furnace of Moloch and [then] threw themselves before the crushing car of [Jaguar]; men unconsciously sacrifice themselves and their children daily to the automobile juggernaut and the brain-consuming furnace of the modern city… The real horror of idols is not merely that they give us nothing, but that they take away from us even that which we have. (Smoke on the Mountain, p. 39)
So let us go with Jacob to the terebinth tree and bury our idols before they bury us. Let us dig deeply and toss them in the hole. But notice, burying your gods is not enough. Our hearts abhor a vacuum. Our hearts are idol factories. Bury one falsegod and our hearts will create seven others.
There was another leader in Israel who dug a hole under the terebinth. Centuries after the time of Jacob, Joshua led the people of Israel to the same place near Shechem. Now the land was to be Israel’s lasting possession. And there, as Jacob had done, Joshua ordered the people to surrender their gods. But Joshua took things a step further — he filled the void. He commanded the people not only to forsake their gods, but to incline your heart to the LORD, the God of Israel…And the people said to Joshua, ‘The LORD our God we will serve, and his voice we will obey.’ (Joshua 24:24) A covenant was made and a monument was placed under the terebinth tree.
Have you dug the hole and built the monument under your terebinth tree? Have you not only forsaken your gods, but also given your heart to God? Is the Lord your treasure and delight (Psalm 37:4)? Is God himself the satisfaction of your soul (Psalm 63)?
Our experience and the Scriptures agree. Confronting idols is the corollary to living by faith. And living by faith is the positive side to decrying idolatry. Again, it is not enough to forsake pretender gods. The positive side of smashing idols is embracing God, loving God, being satisfied with God. So let the confrontation begin. Let us dig, and bury, and then let us fill our hearts with God. Let us surrender our trust in chariots and renew our trust in God (Psalm 20:7).