Volcanos and Idolatry

On the morning of the third day there was thunder and lightning, as well as a thick cloud on the mountain, and a blast of a trumpet so loud that all the people who were in the camp trembled.  Moses brought the people out of the camp to meet God. They took their stand at the foot of the mountain.  Now Mount Sinai was wrapped in smoke, because the LORD had descended upon it in fire; the smoke went up like the smoke of a kiln, while the whole mountain shook violently. -Exodus 19:16-18-

This scripture is the prelude to the giving of the 10 commandments. One of the key moments of the story of God-and-us recorded in scripture. From the top of the mountain God speaks to the chosen people and teaches what it means to be one of the children of God. Have you ever read this and thought, that kinda sounds like a volcano? Mountain wrapped in smoke, mountain shaking, smoke going up like a kiln… volcano right?

Towards the close of the Pandemic, I took my two boys out on a road trip to Yellowstone, home of some grand American volcanic activity. We passed the Badlands, Devil’s Tower, and Mt. Rushmore along the way but for us it was Yellowstone or bust. The Yellowstone Caldera is the volcanic crater underneath the park, it’s estimated to be 35-40 miles wide and 45-50 miles long. The whole area is all old, volcanic ground, and you can certainly smell it (as my younger son pointed out), and some of it is still a bubblin’. The whole landscape is transformed by the power beneath the ground.

To stand in the presence of anything volcanic, in my experience, is to walk upon a thing that cannot be controlled. The land is beautiful, with all its color pools and steaming rivers. It’s even ethereal with all the mist, vapors, and uncannily deep blue water. But it’s also dangerous. In Yellowstone there are signs all over the place (not miracle signs, actual signs) and they say things like ‘there are unseen geysers and vents under the surface’ and ‘you could be walking on a crust that looks safe but won’t support your weight’ and ‘you could fall in’ and ‘this water is crazy boiling hot’, and other stuff to that effect. They even build walkways so you know where the safer places to walk are.

While this was my boys’ first time on volcanic soil, it wasn’t mine.

This is a picture that I took myself in the late 90’s while doing some work for the church in southeast Asia. I believe it’s Gunung Merapi, or Mt. Merapi, a very active volcano with frequent, smaller eruptions (at the time) sometimes more than once a day if I remember correctly. It is impressive, and… completely uncontrollable.

I think that’s what God is going for in the Exodus.

Volcanic imagery fits the pattern of Exodus, where God structures the supernatural plagues and miracles out of natural things: Frogs, flies, hail, locusts, etc. Most of Exodus’s miracles use the building blocks of the natural world. God is just stepping in to show that those are His blocks, not Pharo’s, not Sobek’s, not Ra’s, not Hapi’s, or any other statue worshipped by the ancient Egyptians.

One of the main points of the Exodus is that human-created religion, idolatry, is impotent to affect the natural world. I mean, we can make a mean statue, and come up with some wild and impressive rituals, costumes, and temples but can they do anything? Change the course of the weather, promise the birth of a child, cure the plague, stop the sands… anything like that?

But… with human effort and imagination… You could lay claim to that power. You could pretend to control the lava.

Really you could, you could learn all about it, experiment, test, theorize, research. You could become a caldera expert, the foremost in your field. You could make models, build buildings on it that are lava proof (to the best of your ability), with rooms that have all kinds of cool sci-fi screens and equipment in them. You could teach symposiums where everyone walks out of the room thinking, dang that gal knows her volcanos! You could even make predictions about if or when the Yellowstone Super volcano would erupt, and stage evacuation plans and plan damage mitigation and all kinds of things…

But have you really gained… any control over the magma?

And isn’t what you’re doing exactly what the ancient Egyptians did, when they tried to control the river? We need it to flood at this season and not that one, we need to be protected from the crocodiles, and to be blessed the life that the water brings… So we’ll make a statue of the river, we’ll get its attention with songs and art and sacrifices and build our elaborate buildings and once we get the river’s attention then it might bless us, it might give us the thing we want. I mean sure they didn’t have cool sci-fi screens and equipment like we did, but hello… pyramids. I mean what are those if not a giant manmade attempt to control death and legacy?

Idolatry isn’t about the statue, or the science, or the art, or any other amazing (and often inherently good) tools of our creativity or imagination. No. Idolatry is about fantasy. In the ancient world we used art to do it, and now we use other things, but the fantasy is still the same.

It says you are in control. You set the universe into being with your thoughts, ideas, and perspectives. You speak and dictate what is true and what is false. You control, or have mastered, the forces of the universe. And we are really, really, skilled at creating that fantasy.

We’ve been doing it since the dawn of time. The idols we build are simply the tools that help us imagine that we’re in control of the universe. The fantasy persists for most of us until something that is truly out of our control: death, loss, world events, or maybe even… a volcano, arrives. For a moment the protective bubble of imagination, creativity, and trinkets pops and we have a chance to see the world clearly. Some choose to turn and embrace the truth of God, to find real purpose, and calling… some double down on their fantasy.

So, I say to you, it is good to hike a volcano. Good to stand in the presence of the Grand Canyon, or witness the deep sea, or face a thing that you cannot control (preferably from a distance). Those things have the potential to dispell our unhealthy spiritual fantasies. And once that has happened, we have a chance to notice the presence of God.

And isn’t that a part of what the Exodus is about? Yes, the story is about justice, and yes, it’s about rescue, and more… but it’s also about confronting our fantasy of idolatry. It’s about removing the blinders we have put before our own eyes, so that for a moment we can see clear, and see God at work. After 10 dramatic supernatural events… then the red sea parts, then water and food are supernaturally provided, then this volcanic moment in scripture. Only then are the 10 commandments given.

It’s almost like God is saying… now that I finally have your attention

You know, you don’t have to wait for a moment like that. You don’t have to only see God in a moment of crisis. You can break the fantasy of idol worship and manmade religion on your own initiative. I believe God blesses that spiritual work, it’s healthy for the soul. There are fantastic spiritual disciplines like sabbath, prayer, and simplicity (more about these in upcoming posts) that God can use to bless you with the ability to notice the very thing that the volcano would force you to notice.

The very presence of the divine.

3 thoughts on “Volcanos and Idolatry”

  1. Nature seems to be very active right now. Oppressive heat, wildfires worldwide, more rain than historical averages are top of mind. These have my attention. Are we approaching end of time? I’m not going to speculate, as GOD is in control, so always be prepared, keeping our focus on HIM. GOD ASKS US TO TAKE CARE OF HIS CREATION. Let’s all commit to HIS guidance.

    1. Amen John, thank you for commenting. I appreciate and share your hesitancy to speculate on the end of time. Mark 13 (especially the end) is a guide I use to avoid too much speculation about God’s plans for the future. Today is where we are, and today is where God is working… even if today is really hot!

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