Israel, Idolatry, and Separated Brothers

Israel, Idolatry, and Separated Brothers May 24, 2012

There has been a huge response to my post on “Too catholic to be Catholic” earlier this week, and I can’t hope to respond to everything. Given what I’ve seen of some of the responses, though, it will be helpful for me to clarify and elaborate briefly the biblical framework I assume for thinking through the problem of the divided church. That framework is taken largely from the history of the divided kingdom of Israel as it’s recorded in 1-2 Kings.

The theological history of 1-2 Kings gives an overall model for thinking about a church that is genuinely divided; it explains how I can describe Catholics and Orthodox as brothers and sisters while at the same time accusing them of liturgical idolatry; in the end, 1-2 Kings (with some parallels from 1-2 Chronicles) gives hope that the division of the church is not permanent, and that we will all one day share a great Passover, such as there never was in Israel (2 Kings 23:22).

Let me elaborate these points.

The idea is common on all sides of the divided church that there is in fact no divided church. Some Protestants unchurch Catholics and Orthodox; on this view, Protestants constitute the only true, pure church, and therefore the line that divides Protestants from Catholics and Orthodox is not a line that runs through the middle of the church. It’s instead a line that runs between church (Protestants) and non-church (everybody else). There are forms of the same idea in both Catholicism and Orthodoxy, though since Vatican II the Catholic church has acknowledged that while the church subsists in Catholicism, “many elements of sanctification and of truth are found outside of its visible structure” ( Lumen Gentium , 8) and has famously recognized that some outside the Catholic church are “brothers,” albeit separated ones.

From the perspective of 1-2 Kings, this is altogether too sanguine a view of the state of the church. In the history of Israel, the line that divides the northern kingdom of Israel from the southern kingdom of Judah is a line that divides brothers, a line that divides two covenant nations, a line that runs right through the middle of Israel herself. At the beginning of the history of the divided kingdom, Yahweh warns Rehoboam, the son of Solomon, not to attack the northern kingdom and force them back into the Davidic orbit, and in that warning describes Israel as Judah’s “brothers” (1 Kings 12:24). The prophets pick up on similar familial language: Ezekiel describes Jerusalem and Samaria, capital cities of nother and south, as twin sisters (Ezekiel 23). More remarkably, toward the end of the Northern kingdom, after a long history of calf worship and worse, Yahweh holds back from finally destroying Israel because of the promises He made to the patriarchs: “Yahweh was gracious to them and had compassion on them and turned to them because of His covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob” (2 Kings 13:23).

Sectarianism is a comfort. If my church is the only church, then there’s no tragic division within Christendom, no rent in the fabric, to tearing of Christ’s body. 1-2 Kings gives us no such comfort: Christ has been divided in our divisions.

Both Israel and Judah are guilty of First-Commandment idolatry. Ahab erects an altar and temple for Baal in Samaria (1 Kings 16:31-32), and Ahab’s descendants who rule in Judah construct a temple for Baal in Jerusalem (cf. 2 Kings 10). As noted above, in spite of this Yahweh loves both Israel and Judah for the sake of the fathers, still considers them his bride, though she acts like a prostitute, still woos her back from her other lovers.

Far more common in 1-2 Kings, though, is the Second-Commandment idolatry of worshiping Yahweh through foribidden means. The First Word says, Don’t worship any God but Yahweh; the Second Word says, When you worship Yahweh, do so in the way He commands. The Second Commandment specifically prohibits worshiping Yahweh through images, but when the Second Word is elaborated in Deuteronomy and elsewhere, it is broadened. The commandment that Israel is to offer sacrifice only at the central sanctuary (Deuteronomy 12) is in the “Second Word” section of Deuteronomy.

Violations of the Second-Commanddment are the most common form of idolatry in 1-2 Kings. When Jeroboam sets up the golden calves at Dan and Bethel, he doesn’t exhort Israel to worship Baal or Molech; he rather calls Israel to worship Yahweh, the God of the exodus, through the golden calves (1 Kings 12:28-33). The “sin of Jeroboam the son of Nebat, which he made Israel to sin” is a mantra throughout the history of 1-2 Kings. In the southern kingdom, the violation of the Second Word does not involve calf images but worship at the high places. In the high place shrines, Judah does not worship gods other than Yahweh; they worship Yahweh. Yet that worship is forbidden, and constitutes a form of liturgical idolatry, because Yahweh commanded them to sacrifice to Him only at the temple in Jerusalem. Along with Asherim and sacred pillars, Judah builds “high places” during the reign of Rehoboam (1 Kings 13:23-24). This liturgical sin persists throughout most of Judah’s history. Even faithful kings like Asa, Jehoshaphat, and Joash don’t carry their liturgical reforms far enough, for “the high places were not taken away; the people still sacrificed and burnt incense on the high places” (1 Kings 22:43; cf. 1 Kings 15:14; 2 Kings 12:3; 14:4). Hezekiah finally removes the high places (2 Kings 18:4), and Josiah has to do it again because Manasseh re-erected the high places after Hezekiah’s purge (2 Kings 23:5; cf. 2 Kings 21:3).

We can imagine the uproar that must have greeted Hezekiah’s reforms. High places are a regular part of Judah’s piety all the way back to the beginning; for several centuries, Judah has worshiped at high places. Then Hezekiah comes along and tears them all down. He looks like a radical innovator, but we know from Kings that he is fulfilling Yahweh’s commands concerning Judah’s worship.

This history is the biblical basis for speaking simultaneously, as I did in my earlier post, of “brothers” and “idolatry.” Throughout this history of violations of First and Second Words, Yahweh continues to regard Israel and Judah as His bride and his children, and Israel and Judah throughout are supposed to regard one another as brothers and sisters. Israel and Judah figure the divided church. I have my own opinions about which ancient kingdom best corresponds to which branch of the divided church, but leave that to the side for the moment. If Israel and Judah figure the divided church, then we have a basis for calling brothers to abandon their liturgical idolatry. Israel and Judah both worship Yahweh, but through forbidden means. It is possible for Christians to be devoted to Jesus, and worship Jesus, and love Jesus, but still be guilty of liturgical idolatry.

Of course, there are other implications to this figural history. If Israel and Judah figure the divided church, then we should expect to find First- or Second-Word sins on both sides of the divide. Protestants have their own liturgical sins to repent of, and I have spent a good bit of energy over the years identifying those sins and urging Protestants to liturgical faithfulness. One of the persistent sins of Protestants is the very same as the charge I lodged against Catholics and Orthodox: By restricting the Lord’s table to their own kind, they have claimed the right to determine the terms of access to the meal of Jesus. They have in effect treated Jesus’ table, a table for all who belong to Him, as their own.

With this figural history in mind, we also have a basis for celebrating the faithfulness of men and women in parts of the church
where liturgical idolatry remains in place. I have often said that I regard John Paul II as the greatest Christian leader of the last century; yet I would also add that, like Asa and Jehoshaphat, he did not remove the high places. Henri de Lubac and Yves Congar are among my favorite theologians, and their labors cast down idols and falsehoods; yet they did not remove the high places. Alexander Schmemann is a prophet to Orthodoxy, and another of my favorite theologians; yet he did not call for a removal of the high places. These and other great figures in recent Catholicism and Orthodoxy are my brothers; yet they did not push their reforms to the limit. They did not remove the high places.

Eventually, kings arise who did remove the high places – Hezekiah and Josiah. And the latter not only removes the high places in Judah but also destroys the shrine of Jeroboam at Bethel (2 Kings 23:15-20) and other high places throughout the northern territories (2 Kings 23:19; 2 Chronicles 34:33). That is to say, Josiah’s purge of the land extends into the territory that once belonged to the northern kingdom of Judah. When he calls the great Passover in his 18th year, Josiah not only gathers the people of Judah but invites the people of the conquered northern kingdom as well: The feast is celebrated by “all Israel and Judah who were present” (2 Chronicles 35:16-19). One can imagine that not everyone liked what Josiah was doing: Israelites from the north might complain about the arrogance of the Davidic king asserting his power in their lands; Judahites in the south would no doubt be hesitant to share a Passover with former calf worshipers of the north. But it happened: After centuries of political and liturgical division, Israel and Judah were reconstituted as one people – as “all Israel” – at a great feast.

Josiah’s reign gives us a vision of the church’s future devoutly to be wished: Brothers separated for centuries sharing one table; a divided people guilty of multiple idolatries restored to fellowship with God and with one another. If the history of Israel figures the history of the divided church, Josiah’s reign gives hope that the rending of the corporate body of Jesus is not permanent, and that like the rending of Jesus on the cross it will in time be followed by a glorious corporate resurrection.

Are we in a “Josiah moment” when the divided church can finally share a single feast? I believe there are signs that it is such a moment. If it is, then the agenda for every branch of the church is the double agenda of Josiah: Remove the idols, whatever they are, tear down the high places, and join with all brothers and sisters at the one table of the one Lord.

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