Throughout the scriptures there’s a looping pattern that we see in the nation of Israel. Over and over and over again, the Israelites rebel against God. And this isn’t a one-time occurrence, it happens all the time. It’s not even limited to one book of the Old Testament, it’s the whole thing
One of the earliest commands that God gives the Israelites is, “You shall have no other gods.” And one of the first sins that the nation of Israel commits against God is they begin to worship an idol. And then it just keeps on happening, time and time again.
The Pattern of the Judges
The book of Judges provides a glimpse of this repetitious pattern.
The Israelites are drawn to the same sin over and over again. The Israelites are addicted to the sin of idolatry; they cannot help but repeatedly worship other gods. Just as a dog returns to its vomit, so the Israelite repeatedly returns to what God commanded them not to do. And eventually this leads to their slavery.
In their behavior, we see a pattern emerge: sin, slavery, and death. Edward Welch describes this as the “Descent of Idolatry.” The progression is sin to slavery to tragedy or unprepared to friendship to infatuation to love and betrayal to worship.
Rebellion against God leads to slavery. And being enslaved, owned and oppressed by their enemies, eventually leads to tragedy. And this happens not once, but many times.
In Judges 2:16-18,
“Then the Lord raised up judges, who saved them out of the hands of these raiders. Yet they would not listen to their judges, but prostituted themselves to other Gods and worshiped them. Unlike their fathers, they quickly turned from the way in which their fathers had walked, the way of obedience to the Lord’s commands. Whenever the Lord raised up a judge for them he was with the judge and saved them out of the hands of their enemies as long as the judge lived, for the Lord had compassion on them as they groaned under those who oppressed and afflicted them.”
Israel rebelled against God which led to this slavery. They are owned by their enemies and in the midst of this slavery they cry out to God. God actually steps in by sending judges, but what we find is that even when they are rescued, “they would not listen to their judges.”
Sin, slavery, and death.
James speaks of this cycle that we all face when he writes:
￼“But each person is tempted when they are dragged away by their own evil desire and enticed. Then, after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death.” - James 1:14-15
The temptation to sin grows and eventually gives birth to death. A growing, dangerous cycle.
But God interrupts this cycle of sin, slavery, and death with rescue. God sends judges to rescue the people of Israel before it ends tragically, but then Israel starts that pattern over again. And it grows progressively worse each time.
Judges 2:19 describes Israel’s repeated response. “But when the judge died the people returned to ways even more corrupt than those of their fathers, following other gods and serving and worshipping them they refused to give up their evil practices and stubborn ways.”
I read Judges and can’t help but be frustrated. Really? God rescues you and you just go back and do the same thing again. Not once, not twice, but over and over and over again. How can someone keep returning to the same thing they’ve been rescued from?
But then there’s this sense that we aren’t too different. Their story is our story. We find the same sins to return to time and time again.
And their cycle becomes our cycle.
Sin, slavery, and death. It always starts with sin.
It begins simply, with a rebellion against God. God says,”Don’t do this,” and we do it. For the Israelites this is idolatry. God says, “Don’t have other gods.” The Israelites rebel and worship other gods.
This is where our addictions begin. A rebellion against God as we worship something other than God. Addiction is always an issue of worship. Luther described our gods as whatever we fear, love, and trust.
When you are faced with a difficult situation, where do you turn? If you turn to your addiction, you are trusting that behavior to provide what you are looking for.
And while we may have difficulty making the connection between the Israelites’ idolatry and our idolatry, the purpose of idolatry is the same today as it was then. Most of us don’t struggle with the temptation to worship tiny statues, but the statues aren't the end-goal of idolatry. Edward T. Welch writes, “The purpose of all idolatry is to manipulate the idol for our own benefit.”
For the Israelites this means that if they can find a way to manipulate their gods then they might get what they want. If they worship in a certain fashion, if they behave a certain way, if they do certain things, then Baal will be happy with them and give them the desires of their hearts. In Israel’s case idolatry often revolved around fertility and rain and growing crops. So if they behaved a certain way they could manipulate the idol into providing rain to help their farms flourish.
For us we just replace tiny statues with people, experiences, substances, or behaviors.
We use those things in a certain way in order to give us what we want. We manipulate a relationship, a substance, or an experience in order to meet our needs. They’ll help us be happy. They’ll help us deal with our stress. They’ll help us cope with our self-image issues.
The purpose of idolatry is always manipulating the idol for your purpose. The culture of Israel may be a lot different from ours, but the struggle is really the same.
Sin makes a promise that it won’t deliver on. Idolatry tempts us to believe that it will meet our needs, but it will never happen. Sin tries to appeal, it promises happiness, relief, or freedom.
But it gives us something different.
“They promised freedom, but they themselves are slaves of sin and corruption for you are slave to whatever controls you.” - 2 Peter 2:19
Sin promises freedom, but it brings only slavery.
Wants become needs. Desires become what the body demands. Addictions - even for things like anger, shopping, video games, lying - all have a physical effect on the body. Just like drugs, alcohol, and sex have chemical reactions that the body gets addicted to, so do these other behaviors. And as we struggle with these sins, the body literally begins to rewire itself so that it doesn’t just become a want, but the body begins to crave and need those behaviors.
This is why our addictions feel like slavery.
This is why our addictions own us, because after a while our body actually needs it. This is why addiction is so oppressive. This is why those of us who struggle with addiction begin to feel beaten and worn down. This is why we feel like we can’t fight the battle any longer.
It’s slavery. It owns us. It masters us.
Israel’s rebellion leads to their slavery. And it doesn’t end in slavery. For the Israelites their homes are ripped apart, their families are destroyed, and their national identity lies in ruins.
You’ve likely experienced this yourself through your own or others’ addiction. It doesn’t just stop with the slavery. Eventually slavery progresses to death.
It seeks to destroy families and friendships. It destroys people physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. Parents no longer talk to their children; husbands no longer talk to their wives. This is what sin does. Sin progresses to slavery and slavery to tragedy. Sin seeks to destroy. It grows progressively worse and worse until it rips apart heart and soul. It devours us and rips apart families.
Sin never sits dormant. It progresses. It doesn’t just go away. And it doesn’t even stop at slavery. It seeks to destroy us and end tragically. Sin appeals and then it owns and then it destroys.
Fully realizing that ending at this point would be a terrible way to end a post, make sure you read this complementing post about the God who Rescues.