"Do not worship any god except Me."
In 1898, the British empire was in the midst of a 26-year project to construct a railroad across the eastern portion of the African continent. In March of that year, Col. John Henry Patterson was commissioned to build a permanent bridge across the Tsavo river as an integral part of that project. When he arrived in Tsavo, he became a pert of one of the most horrific and memorable encounters between man and beast of the past 1000 years of human history.
For months preceding the Col.’s arrival, men had been disappearing from camps in the area. Most were chalked up to fights or desertion, but rumors of man-eating lion’s were also circulating. Patterson, an experienced big game hunter, initially rejected these legends, as lions were known to regularly hunt humans. Shortly after his arrival however, he found that the legends were true. It took 10 months of stalking baiting failed trapping attempts and near fatal failures on Patterson’s part to finally kill what turned out to be two gigantic Mane-less male lions. In the end they had killed nearly 140 people!
The 1996 movie, “The Ghost and the Darkness” depict this historical account with surprising faithfulness to the true accounts. The actual story was so dramatic even Hollywood didn’t have to change much. However, this is not the first time something like this has ever occurred. In the Bible we find mention of a similar occurrence of horror, caused by lions, led by God. It is found in 2 Kings 17:24-34.
In this passage the Assyrians thought lions were attacking because a local deity was upset. The phrase “god of the land” is spelled with a little “g” in most English translations. This is because the god referred to is a regional god of Israel, not the true God of the Bible. Israel did serve the true God, but in this case the Assyrians, and for that matter the Israelites are reducing Him to a merely local deity, thus a false concept, not the true God, Yahweh. This phrase is used only four times in the Bible, three here and once in Zephaniah, where it is translated gods of the Earth, once again referring to false deity.
This passage reflects a view humanity has held from ancient times. In Bible times, each nation had their own deity, and when wars and conquests would occur, the winning nation possessed the supreme god. The local deities would still exist and be worshiped, but would become underlings of the new deity. Religious practice would mix and syncretism would result.
A more modern example of this idea, which has always been around in one form or another, is the syncretism that exists to this day in Latin America. When the Spanish and Portuguese conquered the New World, they imposed Catholicism on the Natives. These in turn would adopt the Christian God and His saints, but they would keep their old pagan gods as well. Today many saints are mere reinterpretations of the old pagan deities. This syncretism is called Santinismo.
In the Kings passage, this is exactly what we see happening. The local deity needed appeasing so a priest is sent to teach the new population to please him, while they continue to worship their own gods as well. In truth though, syncretism and false Yahweh worship had already existed in Israel for centuries. We see that earlier, in verses 7-23.
The danger with syncretism is that anyone can fall prey. When we give into worshiping other gods, we convince ourselves we are OK because we are still worshiping God. But the Bible insists you can’t have two masters, you can’t truly worship two gods.