Money, Sex, and Self: Idols of Western Civilization

Summary: The Torah’s prohibition on making idols for others. Idolatry in the West: money, sex, politics, and worship of self. Apostle Paul’s Torah exegesis, where he sees idolatry in sexual immorality and greed.

I thought I’d get back to studying Torah and mapping them into our giant commandments tree:

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As a refresher, we’ve been going through the famous 613 commandment list created by the influential medieval Torah scholar, Maimonides.

We’ve mapped only a measly 67 commandments so far, lots to go! SmileBut I like digesting commandments one by one; it helps me learn, and maybe it helps you too. Bonus: adding each commandment to the giant commandments tree leaves a truly awesome visual artifact.

Don’t make an idol for others

“Do not turn to idols, or make molten gods for yourselves. I am Adonai your God.”

-Leviticus 19:4

Maimonides previously derived a commandment from this same text:

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But here, Maimonides derives a second commandment: not to make idols for others.

A plain reading of the Biblical text doesn’t speak about making idols for other people, unless one interprets hidden meaning in the text. And that’s precisely what Maimonides does:

In the words of the Sifra, "’And do not make gods,' means that you may not even make them for others." Our Sages said, "One who makes an idol for himself transgresses two prohibitions," i.e. the prohibition of making an idol with his own hand, even for others, as explained in this Third prohibition; and also the prohibition of acquiring an idol and having it made with his permission — even if someone else made it for him — as we explained previously in the Second prohibition. Therefore he is punished with two sets of lashes.

-Maimonides, Sefer Hamitzvot

In other words, there are two commandments here, according to Maimonides and the Sages:

  1. Don’t inquire into idolatry, derived from the Biblical text, “Do not turn to idols.”
  2. Don’t make an idol for others, derived from the Biblical text “And do not make gods for yourselves.”

I’m not entirely comfortable making two commandments from a single verse here – I’m not sure I buy Maimonides’ explanation – but sometimes we must recognize our humble status. I’m no Maimonides! Not nearly as studied and engaged with the Biblical text nor the sages of Judaism who have studied the text for their whole lives. So I bow to their interpretation here; two commandments it is.

I’ve decided to map the commandment underneath the “Don’t inquire into idolatry”, which is the other commandment from this same verse:

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Idolatry today in the West

When I read about idolatry in the Torah, it’s easy to skim over it because we don’t really deal with idols today. It was a significant source of apostasy in ancient Israel – nearly all nations worshiped multiple gods in the form of figurines and statues – and a threat to faith in the one God, the God of Israel.

But today, idol figurines are almost nonexistent; we see remnants of it in Hinduism in the east, but here in the Western world, it’s a thing of the past. Humanity has grown to understand that idols made with human hands are powerless figurines – hooray! That’s a huge accomplishment and evolution from the old world.

Their idols are silver and gold,
The work of human hands.
They have mouths, but cannot speak;
Eyes, but cannot see.
Ears, but cannot hear;
Noses, but cannot smell.
Hands, but cannot feel;
Feet, but cannot walk,
Nor utter a sound with their throat.
Those making them will become like them.

-The psalmist of Psalm 115 correctly predicting the downfall of idols. #savage

That isn’t to say we have abandoned idolatry. On the contrary, in the West, we worship other things besides idols. We worship celebrities. Via extreme environmentalism and overzealous animal rights activism, we worship nature. We worship money; capitalism is great, yet it’s easy to become addicted to money and money-making.

But above all, we worship ourselves. The selfie generation isn’t merely photogenic; the West is primarily concerned with the cares and wants and desires and pleasure of self.

Take it on the personal level: a man who fails to control his alcohol consumption becomes an alcoholic; a slave to alcohol. A man who cannot keep his gambling habit under his command becomes an addict; a slave to dice. Ditto for drugs, sexuality, and money. If you don’t exercise control over self, self rules you, and you become a slave.

And that’s precisely where we are in Western civilization. Self rules you.

Abortion is an outgrowth of selfishness: it puts the wants and desires of self over that of an unborn and blameless child. “I don’t want this child, so I will kill it before it’s born.”

Socialism is an outgrowth of selfishness: those without envy and covet those with, demonizing those with and seeking to take their possessions and wealth and give it to self. And it does it under the guise of justice.

The generation of the triggered snowflake is an outgrowth of selfishness. This produces universities concerned more about the feelings of students than fostering a healthy forum of ideas. In the selfish generation, being offended is a virtue, being perceived as persecuted doubly so.

An unselfish generation would welcome life, even if it were inconvenient.

An unselfish generation would seek to create and multiply wealth, raising all boats, rather than taking from the few who have created it.

An unselfish generation would serve other people for God’s glory.

But here in the 21st century, people worship themselves and their feelings and their desires. And that’s still idolatry.

Idolatry beyond gods

Paul the apostle says that idolatry goes beyond worship of gods.


If you have been raised up with Messiah, keep seeking the things above—where Messiah is, sitting at the right hand of God…Therefore, put to death what is earthly in you—sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desire, and greed—for that is idolatry.

-Paul to the Colossians, chapter 3

Image result for saint paul writing his epistlesThis really strikes me that Paul, the Jewish scholar and writer of much of the New Testament, sees idolatry in these things. Sexual immorality, impurity, and lust: how are these idolatry? Because, I think, it’s again worship of self.

If a man is driven and commanded by his sexuality; he is a slave to it. Porn is huge today in the West, and I think a great deal of people, especially men, are enslaved to it. We see it also in sexual abuse perpetrated by men who are living a secret life. This is idolatry because it makes you serve your desires; you become a slave to desire rather than God.

(Women are affected too, but I suspect not to the degree men are due to our biological differences.)

Evil desire and greed are also idolatry, Paul says. How so? Like sexual immorality, a person becomes a slave to these things. How many people are driven by money? People steal for money, people deceive for money, some murder for money. Our modern forays into socialism likewise are driven by greed. Instead of worshiping God, people worship money. And that is idolatry.

Leviticus and Colossians: Idolatry kills

Tying this back to our Torah commandment, God commands us not to turn to idols. The reason is that you’ve gotta serve somebody. And you can only serve one thing; it’s impossible to serve two masters.

Everybody serves something. In this the modern West, most people serve money, sex, power, or themselves.

But God speaks to the ancients, and to us: service to God alone produces upright living and a moral, stable civilization. 3500 years have passed since this divine command was given, and history attests to this truth: idols, in whatever form they take, destroy a man, destroy a family, destroy a civilization.