“So Jacob said to his household and to all who were with him, “Get rid of the foreign gods you have with you, and purify yourselves and change your clothes. Then come, let us go up to Bethel, where I will build an altar to God, who answered me in the day of my distress and who has been with me wherever I have gone.” So they gave Jacob all the foreign gods they had and the rings in their ears, and Jacob buried them under the oak at Shechem. Then they set out, and the terror of God fell on the towns all around them so that no one pursued them.” Genesis 35:2-4 NIV
Purifying ourselves ready to worship the Lord is an age old ritual. Outer purification can be a symbol for the cleansing of our hearts or our inner world. In this case, Jacob feels that building an altar to God isn’t something he and his household can do without first ridding themselves of their foreign gods and the symbols of occult protection which were traditionally worn in the ears, made of gold and imprinted with images of sun and moon gods and so on.
In Christian circles we tend to be at the extreme end of a spectrum of feeling about such things these days. We can either be quite blasé about the strange ways people use talismans and amulets, thinking small pagan rituals harmless, or we can be completely over the top fire and brimstone in our reactions, bandying the word heretical about and condemning any practice that has a sniff of paganism about it, even in our ignorance, those practices which have been taken on board or transformed by the church. Somewhere in the middle might be more sensible.
Social media is full of adverts as I’m sure you know, and because a lot of my time is spent talking about spiritual matters, I do get some rather bizarre tailored ads, including those for pagan bookshops, witches’ groups and tarot cards. These I avoid like the plague, because I know however harmless they look, they are not compatible with a life that follows Christ. In his service, I am not going to focus on demonology, divination, curses or spells. I cannot serve two masters. And whilst we might say that that is an obvious split, there are those who try to walk both paths. It cannot be done. And Jacob knew this.
But what Jacob also knew was that it was not only superstitions and occult practices that needed to be banished from his household before they could come before the Lord, but also everything they held as gods. I imagine that a lot of the gold earrings were the only valuable things that some of his servants owned, so to give them up to be buried under a tree was like asking us to take our life savings and pour them into the sea! But if our hearts or vows or loyalties are tied up anywhere that opposes the Living God, then they need to be cut loose. These might be things like obsessions, or reliance on fashion, looks, money, power or pride. These things tie us to wrongdoing just as surely as the practicing of any dark arts. Only then, when we have given up our false gods and manufactured idols, including the imagined strength of our own egoes and independence, can we build the altar of our lives truly dedicated to the one true God.
Photo from Morguefile.com