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What the Old Testament’s Main Theme Means for Us

What do we worship?

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Who, or what, do you worship?

Biblical scholars agree that the Old Testament as we know it today did not come into existence until after the Babylonian Exile.

Meaning, the ancient stories and traditions of the Israelites existed in oral and written forms prior to the Exile, but they were not compiled and edited into the Old Testament we read today until after King Nebuchadnezzar razed Jerusalem to the ground and marched the survivors back to Babylon.

In other words, our Old Testament was created in the context of defeat and exile. The Israelites faced the daily temptation to assimilate into the culture and religion of the land in which they found themselves, partially to survive, partially from simply going with the flow to fit in.

Imagine the feelings of the children of the first generation of exiles. They were born in Babylon, not Jerusalem or Israel. Why wouldn’t they act, live, and even worship like the majority in their new country? Wouldn’t becoming more Babylonian be so much easier than keeping their foreign traditions?

And the Exile came after centuries of living in proximity to Egyptians and Canaanites who worshipped Ra, Molech, Asherah, and other gods. The Israelites had a history of flirting with polytheism and getting cozy with pagan religious traditions (see Exodus, Judges, and 1 and 2 Kings).

Unsurprisingly, the Old Testament, or Hebrew Scriptures, beats one big drum throughout — worship Yahweh alone, not any other gods.

Once I understood its post-exile context, I saw the “worship Yahweh alone” theme everywhere in the Old Testament.

  • Exodus tells the Israelites to worship only Yahweh because He delivered them from bondage in Egypt.
  • Moses instructs the Israelites to love God with all their being and warns them of the consequences for worshipping other gods.
  • David, for all his flaws, was a “man after God’s own heart” because he worshipped Yahweh alone.
  • Solomon delivers a lengthy prayer in 1 Kings about following Yahweh and the disaster of falling away from Him.
  • The Books of Kings and Chronicles recount the history of Israelite worship of other gods and purging idolatry from the country.

What does the Old Testament’s main theme — worship Yahweh alone — mean for us?

We may not face the temptation to worship Molech, Asherah, Ra, or Tiamat, but we have our own idols. Money. Power. Sex. Even the Holy Bible.

If an idol is something we invest more trust into than God, then our modern culture presents plenty of temptation for idol worship, both inside and outside churches.

We can try to become rich, so we’ll never need to worry. We can seek power over others to achieve and protect status. We can view politics as our salvation. We can indulge in physical pleasure to numb deeper yearnings. We can put our comfort ahead of sacrificially loving others.

And we can elevate the Bible, tradition, or doctrine to a fourth (or fifth or sixth) member of the Holy Trinity. We can forget that our ultimate hope does not come from scripture but rather the God revealed in that scripture — not from tradition, doctrine, or liturgy, but the God encountered through them.

For most of Israel’s history, larger and more powerful kingdoms dominated them. Their scriptures took shape in defeat, exile, uncertainty, anxiety, struggle, and hardship.

And they insisted on placing ultimate hope in God. That’s a good reminder for us today.

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