Parshat Ekev: Why worshipping alien gods is a trap

(NOTE: My apologies for the absence of Hebrew verses. I am away from home and my laptop does not allow me to type in Hebrew — jjg)

In last week’s Torah reading, Parshat Vaethanan, we were given a more elaborate reprise of the Ten Commandments which opens with:

“I am the Lord your G-d Who took you out of the Land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. You shall not have the gods of others before me”  —Devarim/Deutronomy 5:6-7

It is interesting that the verse offers no reason for us not to have other gods. This is a commandment that should require no explanation, even though we may wonder why it does not say “I am the Lord your G-d, there is no other”. Indeed it seems to imply that there are other deities, but Israelites are enjoined from worshipping those others.

Nevertheless both here and in the earlier version which appears in Exodus (Parshat Yitro) we are told in no uncertain terms to eschew any worship of foreign deities, and we never ask or expect any reason. Indeed the reason should be obvious.

And yet in this week’s reading, Parshat Ekev, we are treated to a very puzzling verse:

And you shall consume all the peoples which the Lord your God gives you; you shall not spare them, nor shall you worship their gods, for that will ensnare you.”  —Devarim/Deuteronomy 7:16

This is both remarkable and puzzling. After all, the Israelites have just heard – for the second time – the Ten Commandments in which the very first utterance forbids us from “having any other gods”. We have our one G-d to the exclusion of all others. Now, suddenly, we are told here that we should avoid worshipping the gods of the nations which we will vanquish and obliterate (which clearly proves their gods’ impotence) because those gods will be a trap. In other words we avoid worshipping other gods not because we already have our G-d, but because worshipping those other gods is a trap.

Astonishing! How can we possibly be seduced by the failed gods of nations we have defeated? And what exactly can  the worship of such deities actually entrap us into doing? Isn’t the very act of worshipping such idols the ultimate infraction? What can possibly be triggered beyond this consummate sin?

Remarkably Rashi has nothing to say about this verse – a verse that cries out of interpretation..

There may be a hint later on in verse 25 which also uses a variation of the word “mokesh” – snare, only here the word appears as a verb “tivakesh” – you will be ensnared.

The graven images of their gods you will burn with fire; you shall not covet (lo tahmod) the silver or gold that is upon them and take it for yourself, lest you be ensnared (pen tivakesh) by it, for it is an abomination to the Lord, your G-d. — Devarim/Deuteronomy 7:25

It is fascinating to note that verse 7 in which we are commanded not to worship the Canaanite gods, and which warns of entrapment by them, is in effect an expansion on the first of the Ten Commandments. Verse 25 in which we are commanded not to covet the gold and silver encrustation on such deities lest we be entrapped by them, is a clear expansion of the Tenth Commandment, not to covet.

And therein, perhaps, is the answer to our question. For indeed verse 7 and verse 25 are a single idea. The fundamental difference between the Israelite G-d and these other gods is that our G-d cannot be seen, touched, measured, weighed or traded. Our G-d is not the sum of its parts, let alone greater than the sum of its parts. Our G-d is an abstraction.

By contrast a Canaanite god may have no abilities or powers. But it does contain silver and gold,  materials which we can indeed covet to the point where we lose any perspective  and can actually forget G-d in our pursuit of such material treasure. Hence when the first commandment says “You shall not have the gods of others before me”, it is not referring to those gods in terms of them having any powers. Rather it is referring to them only as the mercantile value of the silver and gold of which they are made, and the power of silver and gold to seduce us into forgetting our priorities.

So, yes, if we worship other gods we are in effect debasing ourselves by worshipping gold and silver. By not destroying the Canaanite idols we are indeed forgetting our G-d because of the seductive nature of the precious metals from which these gods are crafted.

 This is confirmed later in this very parsha when the Torah warns us about taking credit for our material success; “My power and the might of my hand has gotten me this wealth.’(Deut. 8:17). This is the trap about which we are being warned in verses 7 and 25. The worshipping of (gold and silver) idols is all about the coveting of material goods which leads us into the ultimate trap, that of taking credit for our material achievements. And this is the ultimate form of idolatry.

About the Author
J.J Gross is a veteran creative director and copywriter, who made aliyah in 2007 from New York. He is a graduate of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and a lifelong student of Bible and Talmud. He is also the son of Holocaust survivors from Hungary and Slovakia.
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