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The perils of plundering the Egyptians

From The Briefing:

flickr: Gary Soup

In our previous post, we looked at a story that has often been used as analogy for the way that Christians can use secular wisdom in gospel mission and ministry. This is the account of the Israelites, plundering the gold of the Egyptians as God rescued them from slavery (Exodus 3:19-22). The analogy works because at least some of the Egyptian gold probably ended up being used to worship God (Exodus 25:1-8). But keen readers will notice that there’s another place the Egyptian gold ended up too:

When the people saw that Moses delayed to come down from the mountain, the people gathered themselves together to Aaron and said to him, “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.” So Aaron said to them, “Take off the rings of gold that are in the ears of your wives, your sons, and your daughters, and bring them to me.” So all the people took off the rings of gold that were in their ears and brought them to Aaron. And he received the gold from their hand and fashioned it with a graving tool and made a golden calf. And they said, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!”

Exodus 32:1-4

The gold of the Egyptians was not only an instrument for worshipping God. It was also the source of a terrible, deadly danger for Israel. The plunder from Egypt became an Egyptian-style idol. Israel, in other words, used the gold of the Egyptians to turn away from the living God.

The Israelites’ problem was, in the end, a problem of theology. When I say “theology” here, I’m not talking about dry dusty academic books; I’m talking about the life-changing knowledge of the God of the universe. Israel had originally come to know God through hearing his servant Moses and witnessing God’s spectacular deliverance of them from slavery in Egypt. But then, very quickly, Israel abandoned their theology–that is, they abandoned their relationship with this powerful, true and living God.

Of course, the Israelites probably wouldn’t have put it that way. In fact, they probably thought they had their theology all sorted out. After all, they were able to remember (and repeat) one of the fundamental truths they’d just learned: God was the God who had brought them out of Egypt. But it was a superficial theology. They didn’t go any further with their knowledge of God. They got bored. They knew that Moses had been God’s spokesman, but they wondered where he’d got to, and decided they needed something more tangible than words and memories. And so, instead of glorifying God with the gold of Egypt, they ended up using the gold of Egypt to fashion their own god (or gods). Because they had got bored with Moses’ revelation of God, the shiny gold of the Egyptians became their new god(s).

This, then, is the dark underbelly of the often-used analogy between Egyptian gold and secular wisdom. Secular wisdom, in the end, isn’t just a collection of shapeless nuggets, or discrete techniques, that we can grab and bolt harmlessly on to our theology as we seek to serve God. Wordly wisdom affects our whole way of thinking, our way of relating, our way of speaking to one another. Corporate management textbooks invite us to speak (and therefore to think) about our church as a corporation. Music lessons encourage us to treat church as a performance. Self-help books invite us to believe that we can help ourselves. None of this is a reason to avoid secular wisdom altogether. In fact, as we’ll see in future posts, we can’t avoid using secular wisdom. But it does remind us that secular wisdom is inherently dangerous. The more we think and speak and behave according to secular patterns, the greater the danger there is to us of forgetting about God and who he is. The more we get used to the groove of secular wisdom, the more we run the risk of fashioning a god for ourselves out of our secular nuggets. Given this danger, then, what should we do?

The short answer is to make sure we don’t get bored of theology. We need to keep growing in our understanding of the Bible, and of our love and knowledge of God. This will enable us to constantly and explicitly measure the worldly wisdom we’re using against the light of our knowledge of God. In one sense, this is something that all Christians need to pay attention to. But it’s also particularly relevant for you if you have any kind of responsibility in Christian mission and/or church life. You don’t want to end up like Aaron (Exod 32:24)–sheepishly shrugging your shoulders and making lame excuses as you witness those shiny nuggets of secular wisdom which you gleaned from the world emerging from your ministry as an idol, bringing spiritual death to those under your care. In fact, one of the greatest challenges of Christian leadership is working out how to plunder the gold of the Egyptians without seeing a golden calf emerge from your ministry furnace.

The long answer? That’s something we’ll explore more in future posts.

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