Ezekiel 20. A History of Israel and Idols.
Monotheism Was Not the Issue.

Key Notes: Idolatry was found in Abraham's family. Playing with God and idols--halting between two opinions. Sabbath?

Ezekiel 20 outlines four of Israel's experiences with idols. It began when the elders of Israel came to Ezekiel to get a word from the Lord. They did not get the word that they wanted. Years later, Zechariah the prophet similarly had no patience with a delegation that came to get a word from the Lord--"to stroke the face of Jahweh", to get his advice about their yearly fastings. Zech.7:1–14

20:4–12 The only word Ezekiel offered was to review the idolatry of Israel, beginning in Egypt. Idolatry began in earnest in Egypt, where Israel grew from 70 souls to 2 million people and had 400 years of contact with the Egyptians. But they did not abandon the idols when they left Egypt and God refrained from destroying them for His Name's sake.
"Cast away the detestable things your eyes feast on, everyone of you, and do not defile yourselves with the idols of Egypt." (20:7).

Parenthetically, idolatry began even before that. Joshua said "your fathers of old, living beyond the Euphrates--Terah, father of Abraham, and Nahor--served other gods". (Josh..24:2). Rachel, Jacob's wife, stole her uncle's household gods in their escape back to Canaan. (Gen.31:30–35).  Jacob later ordered his family to get rid of their household gods. (Gen.35:2). So idolatry was practiced even in the families of the patriarchs. But Jacob knew God by revelation, from a personal vision of the ladder to heaven. Gen.28:10–17

20:13–17 Israel rebelled against God at Mt. Sinai, in the wilderness. "Up, make us gods who shall go before us. As for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him." (Ex.32:1). And so Aaron made the golden calf. Again God spared them for His Name's sake.

20:18–26 The second generation in the wilderness also rebelled. There were several occasions, but the most notable was when Israel "yoked herself" to Baal-Peor on the way into Canaan. (Num.25). There God also withheld His hand for His Name's sake but swore that someday He would disperse them out of the Land—even before they got there. (Deut.30)
20:25 When Israel failed to obey God's laws, she became subject to other laws that were not good and sacrifices (of infants) that were horrible.

20:27–32 In Canaan, Israel continued her idolatry, sacrificing to the gods and goddesses on every high hill and under any green tree. (A high place is called a “bamah”. 20:29)
20:32 And even now the elders, sitting before Ezekiel in exile, were thinking that they should worship the idols like other nations.

20:33–39 God says that He will judge them face to face in the "wilderness of the nations", make them pass under the rod--individual inspection--as shepherds inspect sheep, and bring them out of Babylon, although not the rebellious (20:38) until later. (20:41). Then they would have remorse, hating themselves for the sins they had committed. The verse is reminiscent of Zech.12:10 "when they look on Him whom they have pierced, they shall mourn for him, as one mourns for an only child...."

20:40–44 Later, God will accept them back to Israel and they will know God’s grace, dealing with them for His Name’s sake.

20:45–49 More immediately there will be a destructive fire in the Negev. But the exiles think he is talking in abstractions—allegories.

Discussion:

There are three views of Israel's religious history.
• Israel was given a high view of God at the beginning in Mt Sinai and fell progressively into polytheism.  That is a traditional view.
•Israel evolved her religion from animism to polytheism into monotheism and edited a biased and largely fictitious Old Testament history to hide it. It was done to help the morale of the exiles. This is part of the outmoded hypothesis created by Graf-Wellhausen.
•I think Israel was acquainted with God from the time of their fore-father Abraham. Her religious life was contaminated with idolatry throughout OT history, with God pleading with her to be reconciled, bringing salvation to repeated generations. For example, "And the people believed and when they heard that the Lord had visited the people of Israel and that He had seen their affliction, they owed their heads and worshiped. " (Exx.4:31). They were not being introduced to a new God.

He pursued Israel in all her years. He interrupted her national life early by a forty-year delay before entering Canaan, and by two dispersions—the first under the Assyrians and Babylonians, and the second under the Romans. His appeal to return to Him continues to this day.

This is the view of Ezekiel 20 and it is reflected in Steven's sermon 500 years later, shortly before the second dispersion or exile.

"And they made a calf in those days, and offered a sacrifice to the idol and rejoiced in the works of their hands. But God turned and gave them over to worship the host of heaven, as it is written in the book of the prophets. 'And you took up the tent of Moloch and the star of the god Rephan, the figures which you made to worship, and I will remove you beyond Babylon.'" Acts. 7:41–43

"You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you always resist the Holy Spirit. As your fathers did, so do you. Which of the prophets did not your fathers persecute? And they killed those who announced beforehand the coming of the Righteous One, whom you have now betrayed and murdered, you who received the law as delivered by and angels and did not keep it." Acts7:51–3

An ancient fragment of clay (ostracon) found recently in Palestine has this inscription: “I serve My Lord JHWH and My Lady Asterte.” It was not a question of serving God, but of serving Him exclusively. They knew God but they wanted to hedge their bets and enjoy whatever the pagans did. Monotheism was not the question. There is no evidence that Israel was ever confused about who God is. The tension was always on the issue of love, faith and obedience. One clear benefit of the exile into Babylon was that it put an end to overt idolatry. Israel never again worshiped the pagan gods.

God is still dealing with Israel in the "wilderness of the nations". Can we help in His work of reconciliation?

Ezekiel mentions the secularizing of the Sabbath six times in chapter 20. “I gave them My sabbaths, as a sign between Me and them, that they might know that I the Lord sanctify them.” (20:12). One of the marks of the Christians of former generations was honoring the Lord's Day by church attendance, abstaining from athletics, work and commerce. That set us apart from the World, and was a mark of our sanctification. Honoring Sunday created the crisis for the movie “Chariots of Fire”.

Can we refrain from worshiping idols ourselves while we still profess to worship God?