Sunday, November 10, 2013

TorahBytes: Hidden Idols (Va-Yishlah)

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)

Last week's message was about Rachel, Jacob's wife, and how she didn't get caught for stealing her father's idols. There is no indication in last week's Torah portion, or anywhere else in Scripture that I am aware of, that her crime was ever discovered or that she suffered as a result of it. But, as I mentioned last week, I don't think the story of the stolen idols ends there.

This week's portion includes Jacob's unusual and dramatic encounter with God in which God comes to Jacob in human form and wrestles with him through the night. Jacob emerges from this as a transformed man with a new name, Israel. God then directs him to resettle in the Promised Land in the town of Bethel and instructed him to build an altar there. In preparation for that, Jacob directs his large household to, as we read, "Put away the foreign gods that are among you and purify yourselves and change your garments." And so they did. In fact, they gave all their foreign gods to him and he buried them. This would have included the ones that Rachel stole from her father and lied about.

There is no excuse for Rachel's wrong, but better late than never. It certainly would have been preferable had she owned up when confronted by her father, but at least she finally got rid of the idols. In case you might be thinking that she should have made arrangements to return them to her dad, we need to remember that these were evil objects that were wrong for anyone to have. But for the purposes of our discussion, that's beside the point. So let's move on.

It must have been difficult for Rachel to part with the idols. It isn't clear why she took them in the first place. She might have believed in their power and wanted whatever benefit she thought they could provide, or it was a little piece of home to connect her with her past. Whatever the reason, it was clear that she was willing to risk much to steal them and then to cover up her crime in order to keep them. It's not easy to part with something like that. But she did.

Note, however, it took Jacob's directive to bring her to the point of ridding herself of these destructive items. His instruction to his family to "put away the foreign gods" tells us that he was aware of their existence within the clan. Regardless of whether or not he knew that his own wife was in possession of such things, he knew there were idols in their midst and it was wrong to have them. We may wonder what took him so long to address this, but he did eventually. As head of his household Jacob took a stand in order that his family would be right with God.

That it took so long for Jacob's family to address their hidden idols should not encourage us to take our time before addressing ours. On the contrary! That they finally dealt with such things should encourage us to come clean now regardless of how long we have held on to our hidden idols. The longer we wait, the harder it gets. Hidden, secret sins have a way of becoming an accepted part of our lives. After a while they no longer seem like idols. That's why from time to time we need people to say to us, "Put away your foreign gods." Perhaps it's time to do personal, family, and community inventory and clear out any and all foreign items that don't belong.

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