Covetousness, Which is Idolatry

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In Colossians 3:5, Paul lists a bunch of things to put to death in oneself, ending with "covetousness, which is idolatry". He also links the two in a similar way in a parallel passage in Ephesians 5:5. The usual explanation for how covetousness is idolatry is to find elements of idolatry in covetousness. At root, idolatry in the Hebrew scriptures is the placing of anything above God or in the place of God. Having your priorities in the wrong order can be idolatry if it involves moving God to any place lower than the top. So if you're longing after something that's not yours, to the point where you place your desire for it above your desire for God, including the desire to be righteous and to be content with what God has given you, then you are in effect practicing a sort of idolatry.

I was reading John Oswalt's commentary on Isaiah recently (p.499 of his second volume, to be exact), and I discovered that he conceives of the relationship in the other direction, drawing on the self-centered features of pagan idolatry that seek to use religious ritual to get a god's attention for benefit to the person engaging in those rituals:

In what way is acquisitiveness the sum of all sins? Perhaps it is as an expression of all the others. The proud, unbridled self wishes to make the universe center on itself, to draw all things inward to itself, confident that it can amass enough of the power, comfort, security, and pleasure that money and possessions signify it will be secure. Idolatry exists to satisfy these desires, so it is not surprising that Paul should identify covetousness as idolatry (Col 3:5). This may also explain why the prohibition of covetousness is the last of the Ten Commandments. To break this commandment is to break the first, in effect.

So it's not just that covetousness is idolatry because covetousness has features of idolatry. Covetousness is idolatry because idolatry itself stems from covetousness to begin with. My first thought on reading Oswalt is that he had it backwards, but I wonder if what he's put his finger on is actually the more fundamental relation of the two.

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Kinda-sorta related, I wonder whether CSL might've been on to a similar idea when he writes the following in the preface of his Screwtape Letters:

I feign that devils can, in a spiritual sense, eat one another; and us. Even in human life we have seen the passion to dominate, almost to digest, one's fellow; to make his whole intellectual and emotional life merely an extension of one's own -- to hate one's hatreds and resent one's grievances and indulge one's egoism through him as well as through oneself. His own little store of passion must of course be suppressed to make room for ours. If he resists this suppression he is being very selfish.


On earth this desire is often called "love". In Hell I feign that they recognise it as hunger. But there the hunger is more ravenous and a fuller satisfaction is possible. There, I suggest, the stronger spirit -- there are perhaps no bodies to impede the operation -- can really and irrevocably suck the weaker into itself and permanently gorge its own being on the weaker's outraged individuality. It is (I feign) for this that devils desire human souls and the souls of one another. It is for this that Satan desires all his own followers and all the sons of Eve and all the host of heaven. His dream is of the day when all shall be inside him and all that says "I" can say it only through him. This, I surmise, is the bloated-spider parody, the only imitation he can understand, of that unfathomed bounty whereby God turns tools into servants and servants into sons, so that they may be at least re-united to Him in the perfect freedom of a love offered from the height of the utter individualities which he has liberated them to be.

Have to admit,I thought this a good post. Makes sense doesn't it?

I can see the connection between covetousness and idolatry being a tight one but even so I'm not sure how idolatry winds up finding it's source in coveting. Murder, it seems to me, doesn't have features of idolatry per se but I think it comfortably fits in that category: I am the final arbiter of Your life. Covetousness (want) resonates with the subject of that desire (I).

So that whole swirling event horizon swallowing up all is only a pulling towards its gravitational center because of the singularity. The connection is a tight one, but it's because of the center.

I think, anyway. I'll have to hit this to the tuning fork in my head.

I believe there's an entire book by Brian Rosner, an Australian New Testament scholar, on the covetousness/idolatry connection.

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