WILDERNESS: The Problem with Polytheism


Exodus 18:1-4 (NIV)

1 Now Jethro, the priest of Midian and father-in-law of Moses, heard of everything God had done for Moses and for his people Israel, and how the Lord had brought Israel out of Egypt.

2 After Moses had sent away his wife Zipporah, his father-in-law Jethro received her 3 and her two sons. One son was named Gershom, for Moses said, “I have become a foreigner in a foreign land”; 4 and the other was named Eliezer, for he said, “My father’s God was my helper; he saved me from the sword of Pharaoh.”


The Bible tells us a lot, yet there is so much the Bible doesn’t tell us. We aren’t getting the comprehensive daily logs of all the happenings of the Israelites on this journey. We are getting the Holy Spirit inspired highlights. Cloud by day. Fire by night. Quail in the evening. Manna in the morning. Moses raised arms with the staff of God and the defeat of the Amalekites. Moses builds an altar and names it, “The Lord is our banner.” Moses’ in-laws visit.

One of these things is not like the others, right? Why so much about Jethro, the priest of Midian, who pays a visit to Moses? Why might the Holy Spirit, who inspired the writer of the text, want us to know about Moses’ in-laws? This is a good principle of Bible Study—to ask why certain things are included in the text and other things left out.

In the very last verse of the Gospel of John we get this: “Jesus did many other things as well. If every one of them were written down, I suppose that even the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written.” The Holy Spirit is very selective about what gets included in Scripture. Everything there is for a purpose. We must be curious about the purpose.

So why such detail about a visit from the in-laws? I have two observations to offer; one from today’s text and the other from tomorrow’s. Here’s what I see today: He [Jethro] said, “Praise be to the Lord, who rescued you from the hand of the Egyptians and of Pharaoh, and who rescued the people from the hand of the Egyptians.” These times, perhaps like all times in one way or another, were very polytheistic times. There were many so-called gods. Jethro was a priest of one of these gods. He was the Priest of Midian. It’s what makes his next comment worthy of note: “Now I know that the Lord is greater than all other gods, for he did this to those who had treated Israel arrogantly.” Notice the phrase: “Greater than all other gods.” In these times, which differ from our times only in the names of the false gods, everyone was a polytheist. There is always room for another god in the pantheon of deities. It highlights the political correctness violation of a statement like, “Greater than all other gods.”

I am going to do something now I rarely if ever do on the Daily Text. I am going to bring in a current event to demonstrate just how salient these issues remain in our world. I intend absolutely no political implication whatsoever in the following observation, but I found the Governor of New York’s recent comments about the slowing of the COVID-19 virus astonishingly revealing.

“Our behavior has stopped the spread of the virus. God did not stop the spread of the virus.” And in case it was considered a misguided stroke of bad judgment, or that he really didn’t mean what he said, he later said this: “The number is down because we brought the number down. God did not do that. Fate did not do that. Destiny did not do that. A lot of pain and suffering did that.”

It reveals the widely held conviction that God is at best one possible actor among many others, even daring to place human beings on the same level, if not on a higher level in this instance. Here’s a translation of the statement: “Human behavior is greater than all other gods.” It’s kind of a modern day Genesis 11 Tower of Babel moment. And this is not a critique of Governor Cuomo, who is a confessing Catholic, but merely a reflection of the broadly sweeping spirit of the age in which we live. Note the “Progressive Secular Humanist” blog’s ringing endorsement of Governor Cuomo’s remarks: “Cuomo is right. Prayers do not effect the virus. Some imaginary God does not effect the virus. But people, human behavior, can and do effect the virus.”

Imagine if Jethro had said, “The Israelites were delivered from Pharaoh because Moses delivered them. God did not do that. Fate did not do that. Destiny did not do that. Moses did it.” It would be shocking to say the least. Jethro said a very different thing. “Now I know that the Lord is greater than all other gods, for he did this to those who had treated Israel arrogantly.” He not only said it, he sealed it at an altar.

“Then Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law, brought a burnt offering and other sacrifices to God, and Aaron came with all the elders of Israel to eat a meal with Moses’ father-in-law in the presence of God.”


Father, reveal to me the deeper wisdom of your will and ways in the wilderness. Search me and reveal my own tendencies to acknowledge, salute and maybe even unwittingly worship other gods in addition to the one true and living God. It’s not that I would put other gods before you. It’s that I would have other gods at all that cuts me to the heart. You alone are God. This is my faith—you alone. O, God, who by the light of the Holy Spirit, did instruct the hearts of the faithful, grant that by the same Holy Spirit we may be truly wise and ever enjoy his consolations, through Christ Our Lord, Amen.


Are you a practicing polytheist? Even an unwitting one? Is the God of Heaven and Earth in a category of his own or on some kind of par with other actors and factors?

For the Awakening,
J.D. Walt

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