I am hoping that the TV-gods who reign over CBS television will prove to be benevolent merciful and quickly cancel the mediocre new sitcom Living Biblically. Until then, we are offering an episode-by-episode review, just to set the record straight on what the Bible really says and how it’s lived out according to the traditional interpretation of the people to whom it belongs.
In episode two of “Living Biblically,” our hero Chip, the man committed to living his life according to the Bible, attempts to root idolatry out of his life to fulfill the biblical prohibition “You shall have no other gods before me” (Exodus 20:3). Chip decides his mobile phone is an idol. He observes, “We are all worshiping at the altars of our tiny little idols.”
If the writers of the sitcom wanted laughs, they should have consulted us in the Messianic Jewish movement. We could have told them lots of entertaining stories about Hebrew Roots initiatives to fulfill this prohibition on idolatry through various campaigns against all perceived forms of paganism. Imagine Chip on a campaign against Christmas trees and Christmas carolers, or how about an episode in which Chip refuses to use the names of the days of the week because of their association with pagan gods. That could be funny stuff. We call it “paganoia,” and it’s the subject of our audio teaching, “What About Paganism?”.
Instead of consulting us, the sitcom scriptwriters looked around for the modern equivalent of idolatry and landed on pop music divas and mobile phones. Chip’s wife, Leslie, is a devoted Beyoncé fan, and Chip feels that she has made the performer into an idol. Chip himself decides that his obsession with his mobile phone is a form of idolatry. When his God Squad (a priest and a rabbi) tells him that, according to the Bible, idols should be smashed, Chip obliges and smashes his phone. The rest of the episode revolves around problems that ensue when one doesn’t have a mobile phone.
How did a mobile phone become an idol? Chip arrives at that conclusion when his God Squad tells him that anything a person regards as more important than God constitutes an idol to that person. Is that true? And if it is true, is it our responsibility to destroy those things?
The rabbis make similar statements about behaviors that they regard as the equivalent of idolatry. In Jewish teaching, for example, anger is considered tantamount to idolatry because the angry person places himself or herself higher than HaShem’s providence. In the New Testament, the apostles commonly pair sexual immorality with idolatry, perhaps because idolatry often had connotations of sexual immorality. In both of these examples, idolatry is being used as a moral benchmark to emphasize how serious the other sin is. Anger is not idolatry. Sexual immorality is not the same as idolatry. However, we should regard both sins as seriously as the sin of idolatry. These are homiletical statements not meant to be taken literally. In terms of actual Torah law, they do not literally constitute idolatry. After all, worshiping an idol carried a death sentence—a punishment not incurred by someone who simply lost his temper from time to time.
In Jewish law, an idol is an image intended for religious veneration. Actually worshiping an idol involves bowing or prostrating oneself before the image. Maimonides explains that the prohibition also forbids other acts of reverence associated with the divine worship of God: “We are equally forbidden to sacrifice, pour a libation, or burn incense before an idol” (Sefer HaMitzvot N5).
It’s common for people to re-assign the prohibition on idolatry to a prohibition against placing any other thing above God, but that’s not idolatry. Making something more important than God doesn’t constitute idolatry, but it does transgress the positive commandment to love God with all your mind, all your life, and all your resources (Deuteronomy 6:5). So according to the Torah, Chip didn’t need to smash his phone at all. He just needed to bring it into the service of God.
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