My child, do not be a diviner, because this leads to idolatry; nor be one who casts spells, nor one who studies astrology, nor one who performs purification rites. Do not even desire to see these things, for from all these things idolatry results. (Didache 3.4)
Idolatry was a real issue for new Gentile believers in the Apostolic Age, and hence it’s mentioned quite a few times in the Didache.
The Greco-Roman world was steeped in idolatry, both in public and private life, so exposure to idol worship was, to a certain extent, almost unavoidable. Because of the new Gentile initiate’s previous pagan life, it was important to remind him early on of the dangers that could put him on a slippery slope back to idol worship. The instructions regarding the prohibition of idolatry play a vital role in preparing the candidate for immersion into the community. Idolatry is mentioned two more times after this:
But this is the Way of Death, which is first of all evil and full of curses: murder, adultery, lust, sexual immorality, theft, idolatry, magic, use of potions. (Didache 5.1)
Concerning food, bear what you can, but scrupulously guard yourself from what has been offered to idols, because it is the worship of dead gods. (Didache 6.3)
Idolatry in Rabbinic Hebrew is known as avodah zarah (“foreign worship,” עבודה זרה). While new Gentile believers were commanded at the Jerusalem Council only to “abstain from the things polluted by idols” (Acts 15:20), the apostles surely meant this to include all forms of idolatry. It is in this spirit that Paul gave the injunction to “flee from idolatry” (1 Corinthians 10:14). The New Testament writers frequently admonished the new Gentile believers to refrain from idol worship and reminded them that idolatry was part of their pre-Messiah life—something to be left behind.
Over forty-five of the 613 commandments in the Torah deal exclusively with forbidding idolatry and what to do with those who practice it. In turn, the apostles would have viewed all these commandments as binding on the Gentile disciples coming into the community.
For us who live in the modern world, it's often easy to skip over prohibitions on idolatry like this because we think these kinds of things don't exist anymore. To be sure, idol worship is still around, but it is indeed not as in style as it was in the days of the apostles. While the actual worship of idols certainly has dwindled within the last two thousand years, there are some critical spiritual principles we can take away from the Didache’s instructions.
Worshiping the Vessel
Many years ago one of my favorite musicians shared the stage with the Chasidic reggae superstar Matisyahu. While talking with Matisyahu, he started thinking about the commandments “You shall not worship false gods” and “God is One.” He began to see them in a new light, that these verses are also referring to the messenger as a false god. Worship the real deal and not the vessel. For him, this hit home because he was a famous musician worshiped by many fans. He knew he was not a deity but considered himself a conduit of sorts for the divine through his musicianship.
I’m currently reading a popular Chasidic text called Kuntres Uma’ayon. It’s a short work by Rabbi Shalom Dovber Schneerson, the fifth leader of Chabad, on ethics and spiritual living. Toward the end of the book, he discusses the idolatry of worshiping the vessel. Rabbi Schneerson doesn’t talk about rock stars but instead focuses on earning a living. Our jobs are a source of blessing that HaShem can use to provide for us. Money is a vessel through which he can shine forth his mercy on us and reign down blessings.
But what if we lose sight of the fact that our employment and money itself are only vessels through which God works and not the means in themselves? What happens when our job and earning money become everything to us? So much so that we neglect responsibilities of discipleship? Rabbi Schneerson says that we have then entered idolatry. The Didache refers to this as the “love of money” (3.5, 15.1) and in truth, it is the worship of a false god.
The reality is that we can apply this principle of worshiping the vessel and not the source to many areas of our lives. Any blessing and goodness that comes to us are from HaShem. James tells us: “Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights” (1:27). Be it money, a guitar solo, gourmet meal, or the beauty of nature; we need to be vigilant to thank God for these blessings and realize they come from him alone. To not do so, to focus instead on the messenger or vessel brings us into idolatry, God forbid. Instead, we as disciples of the Master must concentrate on the source.
For more on the Didache check out First Fruits of Zion’s new Messianic Jewish translation and commentary on the Didache entitled The Way of Life: The Rediscovered Teachings of the Twelve Jewish Apostles to the Gentiles.