Saul Bellow won more honors and recognition than any writer of his time. Everywhere he went he was revered as a “wise man,” and his award-winning books were read by untold thousands. By the time he died in 2005, he was considered one of the great writers of his generation.
But less than twenty years after his death, Bellow’s books no longer speak to most people. Contemplating the dramatic fall in popularity of Bellow’s books, the critic James Atlas writes: “Was it possible that even Saul Bellow’s work would fade from the collective memory, that his books would one day molder on the shelf… their spines creased, the yellow pages crumbling? Then recede even further back in time… available only from Abe Books? Then become footnotes in some grad student’s dissertation on twentieth-century American literature; and finally be forgotten altogether?”
Here today, gone tomorrow; there is no guarantee that even the very best books will remain relevant from generation to generation. But there is one exception: the Bible. Every verse in the Bible is Divinely inspired. Every verse, word and letter is eternally relevant!
A powerful example of this truth can be found towards the end of the Book of Judges, in the obscure story of Micah’s idol.
The story begins with some good old-fashioned intra-family theft:
“There was a man in the hill country of Ephraim whose name was Micah. He said to his mother, ‘The 1,100 shekalim of silver that were taken from you, so that you uttered a curse which you repeated in my hearing – I have that silver; I took it.’ ‘Blessed of Hashem be my son,’ said his mother.” (Judges 17:1-2)
Overcome by temptation, Micah stole 1,100 pieces of silver from his mother. Though he ultimately returned the money, he did not do so because he felt guilty about taking advantage of his mother, but because he heard his mother utter a curse against the person who stole the silver from her, and he feared the consequences of that curse.
From the first two verses of this story, we learn that Micah is a strange sort of man – a man of contradictions. On the one hand, he stole from his own mother, a blatant violation of God’s word, but at the very same time he feared that God would strike him down because his mother had uttered a curse!
Micah’s contradictory impulses continue to emerge as the story unfolds:
“He returned the 1,100 shekalim of silver to his mother; but his mother said, ‘I herewith consecrate the silver to God, transferring it to my son to make a sculptured image and a molten image. I now return it to you.’ So when he gave the silver back to his mother, his mother took two hundred shekalim of silver and gave it to a smith. He made of it a sculptured image and a molten image, which were kept in the house of Micha. Now the man Micha had a house of God; he made a breastplate and small idols and he inducted one of his sons to be his priest.” (Judges 17:3-5)
Micah and his mother could have used the 1,100 pieces of silver for many purposes, but they admirably chose to dedicate it to God. There was only one problem: instead of donating the money to the Tabernacle, God’s chosen dwelling place, they used the money to create an idol!
It appears that Micah believed in God, but felt he needed an alternative to the Tabernacle so he could better worship God according to his own preferences. As the next verse states: “In those days there was no king in Israel; every man did as he pleased” (Judges 17:6).
The story of Micah and his idol occurred over three thousand years ago – and yet it is more relevant in our time than ever before! Personally, I cannot think of a story that better illustrates one of the great religious challenges of our time. We live in an era of radical autonomy, when people believe they have the right to “pick and choose” from the Bible and practice only those teachings that personally speak to them. Like Micah, millions of people in our generation yearn for meaning in their lives – but they want it strictly on their own terms.
In 1985, the American sociologist Robert Bellah wrote about Sheila Larson, a nurse who “has actually named her religion (she calls it her ‘faith’) after herself.” She said, “I believe in God. I’m not a religious fanatic. I can’t remember the last time I went to church. My faith has carried me a long way. It’s Sheilaism. Just my own little voice.” She defined the principles of “Sheilaism” as “It’s just try to love yourself and be gentle with yourself. You know, I guess, take care of each other. I think He would want us to take care of each other” (Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life).
“Only that shall happen which has already happened, only that shall occur which has already occurred; there is nothing new beneath the sun!” (Ecclesiastes 1:9).
Sheilaism, at its core, is “Micah-ism.” Both, of course, share the same fatal flaw. As human beings, we are here in this world to serve God – and we must do so the way that God wants us to. Otherwise, religion will devolve into a self-serving exercise that makes us feel good about ourselves, rather than authentic service of God.
The Bible speaks powerfully to our generation – and every generation!