By Rabbi Elie Mischel
One of the Catholic practices that angered many people and led to the Protestant Reformation was the doctrine and practice of indulgences. Essentially, the Catholic church said that sinners could buy forgiveness for their sins by paying money to the church. Even sinners who had already died and were suffering from purgatory could be immediately freed and forgiven if a living person paid for the indulgence.
Understandably, many people were repulsed by this practice, as it transformed religion into something selfish and functional. All that mattered was getting into heaven; God’s larger plan for humankind was forgotten. As G.K. Chesterton wrote, “There is such a thing as a small and cramped eternity; you see it in many modern religions.”
A similar phenomenon occurred among the people of Israel after the great leader Gideon died:
“After Gideon died, the Israelites again went astray after the Baalim, and they adopted Baal-berith as a god.” (Judges 8:33)
What was this “Baal-berith god” that the Israelites adopted? The Rabbis explain: “This refers to the fly-god of Baal Ekron. It teaches that everyone made a likeness of his idol and put it in his bag: whenever he thought of it he took it out of his bag and embraced and kissed it” (Talmud Shabbat 83b).
A fly-god? Why would the people of Israel abandon God for a tiny idol shaped like a fly that they could keep in their pockets?
In Jewish tradition, the fly represents the individual’s evil inclination. Like a fly buzzing annoyingly around your face, the evil inclination pesters us until we lose sight of what truly matters in life and focus on our petty desires. The fly represents smallness – those times when we focus on the trivial, selfish and insignificant and forget the important things.
This is what happened to the people of Israel after Gideon died. They reduced God to a mini-idol that they could carry around in their pockets! They transformed God and religion into something small and selfish. All they cared about were their own, selfish desires – a successful crop, making money, health for their family, and so on. The larger goal of the Bible – bringing God’s glory down to the world – was completely forgotten.
By trivializing religion and becoming obsessed with selfish pursuits, the people paved the way for Abimelech, the evil son of Gideon, to become their leader. Like the people, Abimelech only cared about promoting himself and acquiring power. His selfishness, tragically, drove him to murder all but one of his siblings – the entire family of Gideon:
“Then he went to his father’s house in Ophrah and killed his brothers, the sons of Jerubaal, seventy men on one stone.” (Judges 9:5)
The lesson for our generation is clear. When a society trivializes religion and people become obsessed with their own selfish desires, it is only a matter of time before a leader with the very same qualities will take power. If our leaders are petty and selfish, it is a sign that we must reflect and look inwards. For each generation receives the leaders it deserves.