When I was asked to write an article about the problem of syncretism in ancient Israel, I puzzled over that word, skeptical of its suitability for describing Israel’s sin. The term comes from the Greek sunkretizein, “to unite,” and in the ancient world it seems to have referred to the alliance of cities for political purposes. Since the Reformation, however, Christian writers have come to use syncretism to refer to the dilution or corruption of Christianity through the blending of orthodox doctrines and practices with alien philosophical and/or religious elements. I wonder, however, if the use of this term might give the impression that the error being described is something of a technical mistake involving the mixing of two incompatible “ideas” or “practices.” Although there is some truth to this description, it fails to do justice to the irreducibly personal character of biblical faithfulness.
The sin of which Israel was guilty, and which is always a danger for contemporary Christians, was and is not simply an impersonal, technically incorrect mixture of contradictory religious doctrines or rituals. Rather, it is what the Bible calls religious adultery, which is, as Jesus put it, the failure to love, worship, and serve the true God with all of one’s heart, soul, mind, and strength (Mark 12:30).
You see, there is a kind of syncretistic blending that is relatively innocent and even productive. Our culture loves to mix things up, but that might not be an altogether bad thing. It depends on what is being combined. If I say that I enjoy blending a variety of spices when cooking, you likely will shrug your shoulders. To each his own; personal tastes differ. If I commend to you the importance of bringing together various races, nationalities, and classes of people in order to achieve some political or social good, you probably wouldn’t criticism me, though you might not like the goal or end that I hope to achieve. I suspect that even most Christians will concede that the various modern churches and denominations could learn quite a bit from one another. A little blending of denominational gifts might actually strengthen the church of Jesus Christ.
But what if I were to say to my wife, along the lines of the pop hit Mambo No. 5, “Honey, I hope you’ll understand, but I need a little bit of Monica tonight, and, you know, maybe tomorrow a little bit of Mary all night long”? We call that marital unfaithfulness, not simply syncretism. That kind of blending manifests disloyalty to one’s spouse, an intensely personal matter.
Peter Leithart, in his Old Testament survey titled A House for My Name (reviewed on p. 60), reminds us that the Lord married Israel at Mount Sinai. Remembering that covenant between Yahweh and His people alerts us to the gravity of their idolatrous disloyalty in their syncretistic practices in Judges and beyond.
The wedding service is recorded in Exodus 19–24. Moses is the minister officiating at the wedding. He goes up on the mountain to hear the Lord’s Word and brings it back down to the people. The husband’s part of the wedding service begins with the Lord reminding His bride of what He has done for her (Ex. 20:1–2). Then Yahweh tells the Israelites how they are to live as His holy people (Ex. 20–23). When Moses brings these words to the people, they say, basically, “I do”: “ ‘All the words which the LORD has said we will do!’ ” (Ex. 24:3). The wedding ceremony ends with a reception, a feast in the Lord’s presence (Ex. 24:9–11). Then, once Yahweh and Israel are married, Yahweh moves in with His bride. According to Leithart, most of the rest of Exodus is about the kind of house He wants Israel to build for Him (Ex. 25–40).
Because Yahweh graciously married Israel at Sinai (Ezek. 16:1–14; Hos. 1–3), disloyalty to the mutually-agreed-upon stipulations of the covenant was considered “playing the harlot” (Ex. 34:15–16; Lev. 17:7; 20:5–6; Deut. 31:16), what we today call “spiritual adultery.” With such a powerful and gracious God as this, one who “ ‘brought [them] out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage’ ” (Ex. 20:1b), how could they ever flirt with Molech or Baal? Did not Yahweh Himself repeatedly warn them that He was a jealous husband (Ex. 20:5; 34:14; Deut. 4:24; 6:15; Josh. 24:19) and that He would not establish and extend their culture but frustrate and ruin it if they went a-whoring after other gods? Just before Moses died, the divine husband appeared at the door of His house and told him what was going to occur: “ ‘Behold, you will rest with your fathers; and this people will rise and play the harlot with the gods of the foreigners of the land, where they go to be among them, and they will forsake Me and break My covenant which I have made with them. Then My anger shall be aroused against them in that day, and I will forsake them, and I will hide My face from them, and they shall be devoured. And many evils and troubles shall befall them’ ” (Deut. 31:16–17a). Sadly, Israel failed to heed this warning.
The author of Judges reminds us that Israel’s error was not simply disobedience to a divine taskmaster or a failure to live up to certain rules and regulations laid down by a power-crazed god who delighted in putting humanity in its place. And it was not merely a technical problem involving a little inadvertent blending of two incompatible religious doctrines and rituals. Rather, “they turned quickly from the way in which their fathers walked” and “played the harlot with other gods, and bowed down to them” (Judg. 2:17; see also 8:27, 33). Not satisfied with Yahweh as their gracious husband, they needed a little bit of Baal and Molech in their lives. In the haunting words of Jesus, they “ ‘left [their] first love’ ” (Rev. 2:4).
Reading that word from our risen Lord reminds us that we are now the bride of Jesus (2 Cor. 11:2; Eph. 5:22–33; Rev. 21:2). He has manifested His great love for us even more astonishingly than He did in the old covenant by giving His very life for us on the cross.
Mambo No. 5 ends with, “a little bit of you makes me your man,” a surreptitious recognition that fornication creates a one-flesh relationship between lovers. The Bible says something similar with regard to the adultery of idolatry. What I as a Christian must recognize when I am tempted to be disloyal to Jesus, to dilute my “pure and sincere devotion to Christ” with competing loyalties to people, ideas, or things that cannot offer any genuine good news (2 Cor. 11:4), is that a little bit of them makes me their slave.
Do we really want to become one flesh with gods who are by nature not gods (1 Cor. 8:5–6; Gal. 4:8)? Shall we forsake the husband in whom we find true freedom and abundant life for a new bondage to idols of money, power, sex, or some seductively attractive ideology? May it never be!