By Justin Rossow
A friend of mine has a collection of artifacts from the Holy Land in his office, including a woven basket full of household gods. These crude figurines are replicas of actual pieces found in digs around the Middle East. Each god is unique and all appear to be imminently portable; these are gods that can fit in your pocket.
A portable deity makes good sense for a nomadic people. We know these handy idols were used for divination; that is, you could consult your pocket idol when you were out and about and really needed to know what your god was thinking (Zechariah 10:2 and Ezekiel 21:21, for example, both tie household gods with this kind of seeking divine input in order to make decisions about the future).
When God called Abram to leave his family and go to a land of promise (Genesis 12), that commissioning was also a call to leave not only his father Terah behind, but Terah’s gods as well (which is exactly how Joshua would later recount the story of Abraham in Joshua 24).
But old god habits die hard. When Abraham’s grandson, Jacob, finally got to marry Rachel and head back home, Rachel took her father Laban’s household gods with her for the journey (Genesis 31). We can’t be sure what exactly Rachel was thinking, but Laban was also a descendent of Terah, and you can imagine a direct line to your family deity might be a useful thing to have in your pocket if you were heading out on a long journey into the unknown.
The One True God renews the promise first made to Abraham and Isaac to Rachel’s husband, Jacob, and in Genesis 35, Jacob gathers the foreign gods from all the saddlebags and back pockets of his entire caravan and buries them all. And that should have been the end of it. But, of course, it wasn’t.
Generations later, when Jacob’s twelve sons had become the Twelve Tribes of Israel; after centuries of slavery; after the miraculous Exodus that pitted the Great I AM against all the gods of Egypt (who are not); after Sinai; after “Though shalt have no other gods in my presence;” after the Golden Calf Incident; after 40 years of eating manna in the wilderness; after Moses was buried in sight of the Promised Land and Joshua took up the mantle of leadership; even then, as God’s people were about to re-enter the land promised to Abraham so long ago, Joshua has a come to Jesus moment with God’s people:
“Now fear the LORD and serve him with all faithfulness. Throw away the gods your ancestors worshiped beyond the Euphrates River and in Egypt, and serve the LORD. But if serving the LORD seems undesirable to you, then choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your ancestors served beyond the Euphrates, or the gods of the Amorites, in whose land you are living. But as for me and my household, we will serve the LORD.”
Joshua 24:14-15 (NIV)
And, as you might expect, even that rededication wasn’t the end of household gods or idolatry in the history of God’s people.
The whole idea of a clay replica that gives you insight and hope for the future, and helps you make important decisions, and gives you direction in life—that all seems so distant and removed from my regular, everyday experience.
Until I realize that I keep something in my pocket that gives me insight and directions, that helps me make important decisions, and often makes me feel like I have direction in life. When it dings or buzzes, I feel connected, like I have a purpose. Sometimes, in the dark, at night, I will stroke that little household god, scrolling through the latest news or Facebook posts.
“What are we looking for when we browse on our phones late at night?” another friend asked me several months ago. That question stuck with me, and comes back to me when that white glow of my phone creates an unholy halo around my head late at night. What are we looking for, if not for purpose, direction, meaning—something only God can really give?
My own actions seem as ridiculous to me today as those ancient nomads with clay idols in their pockets. Why wouldn’t I be looking for meaning, or healing, or hope, or purpose in Scripture and in prayer? Why do I hold onto the weak promise of iDivination or iHope for the Future?
That’s just the way of household gods, I guess. We carry them around in our pockets, assigning them purpose and power and a measure of control over our lives, without even realizing what we are doing.
“I want to read the Bible more regularly,” my friend told me today. “But this thing,”—and here he pulls his own household god out of his pocket—“this thing is always near me, and telling me what’s important, and what I need to pay attention to right now. And it gets in the way!”
Knowing that my phone can get in the way of my relationship with Jesus doesn’t suddenly make it easy to set my phone down or leave it in the other room. I’m reminded of the scene in J. R .R. Tolkien’s The Fellowship of the Ring, when the old Hobbit Bilbo is finally cowed into leaving his golden ring behind (as Bilbo himself had been intending to do). Yet even after he decides to put it down and leave it, the precious ring mysteriously finds its way back into Bilbo’s pocket. My phone is altogether too much like that.
Of course, cell phones aren’t inherently evil. And of course, anything that gives you direction and purpose and hope that isn’t the God and Father of our Lord, Jesus Christ is a kind of idol. So maybe that famous Bible verse from Joshua 24 is something more than a one-time commitment or a slogan for a T-shirt.
I’m not going to ask you to bury your phone under the terebinth tree near Shechem (like Jacob did with the portable pocket gods of his whole household). But I do invite you to consider again today how much of your identity is wrapped up in your portable device.
Then keep dedicating yourself to finding your true identity in your relationship with the One True God. You might need to say it again tomorrow, and the day after, and the day after that; but still, for today you can say, “As for me and my household, we will serve the LORD!”
Jesus, it’s so easy for me to let my identity get wrapped up in my calendar alerts, my emails, my newsfeed, and my text messages. Please break into that constant demand on my attention with your Word and your Spirit.
Forgive me whenever I turn your gifts into idols, and call me back to dependence on you. Give my life direction, and hope, and meaning according to your good purpose and to your glory. Amen.