In chapter 17 of 2 Kings, the king of Assyria, Shalmaneser V, besieged and invaded the northern kingdom of Israel including the region of Samaria (724-722 B.C.). He died and Sargon II completed the takeover and capture of Samaria. Some 27,000 Israelites were deported and exiled. Sargon II resettled Samaria with foreigners, or aliens, transplanted people groups that had also been captives of Assyria (v. 24). And then there’s this striking passage:
“The king of Assyria brought people from Babylon, Kuthah, Avva, Hamath and Sepharvaim and settled them in the towns of Samaria to replace the Israelites. They took over Samaria and lived in its towns. When they first lived there, they did not worship the Lord; so he sent lions among them and they killed some of the people” (2 Kings 17:24-25).
A JUDGEMENT OF LIONS
I read this and thought, Wait, what?! God sent lions to kill the foreigners because they didn’t worship him? Is it just me, or does that seem harsh and unreasonable? How would people from foreign nations even know to worship the God of Israel (Romans 10:14)?
Side note: (God used lions on more than one occasion to punish people. See 1 Kings 13:24 and 20:36.)
It was very possible that the number of remaining Jews combined with the number of newly transplanted foreigners was too small to ward off the fast-growing wild animal population, a problem described in Exodus 23:28-30. Regardless though, God did use the lions.
The truth to consider here is that the foreigners should have known to worship God because God’s people, the Israelites, were still living in the region of Samaria! Only some of the Israelites had been deported (Acts 17:26-27).
The Israelites were chosen, set apart unto God, as a light for the Gentiles (Isaiah 49:6)—a veritable lighthouse, if you will, but herein lies the problem. The Israelites themselves “had been worshipping the golden calves since the days of King Jeroboam.”1
And so the new residents were terrified. Imagine being forced into a new land filled with killer, hungry lions, and you assume they are a judgment from the god of that land, but you have no idea who he is or how to appease him. Cultural adjustment and assimilation are hard enough without having to worry about being eaten by lions!
And so they voiced their complaint to Sargon II, who responded by sending back one of the Israelite priests to teach the newcomers how to worship the God of Israel: “Herein they shamed the Israelites, who were not so ready to hear the voice of God’s judgments as they were. Assyrians begged to be taught that which Israelites hated to be taught.”2
THE SLIPPERY SLOPE OF PLURALISM
As you read the rest of the story, it’s pretty clear that the priest sent back to teach the people how to fear the Lord may not have completely understood himself. For one thing, he went to Bethel (v. 28), “the site of one of the shrines dedicated to the golden calf!”3 He had been a victim of deportation, after all, because of a failure to keep the first of the Ten Commandments:
“I am the Lord your God . . . You shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God…” (Exodus 20:2-5a).
This failure to properly teach the exclusivity of the worship of the one true God resulted in pluralism and idolatry. Merriam Webster defines pluralism as “a state of society in which members of diverse ethnic, racial, religious, or social groups maintain and develop their traditional culture or special interest within the confines of a common civilization.”
We have learned to applaud and even rejoice in our pluralistic societies and tolerance of other worldviews. Tolerance of other peoples, cultures and religions is one thing, but acceptance of false religions as truth is another.
“Nevertheless, each national group made its own gods in the several towns where they settled, and set them up in the shrines the people of Samaria had made at the high places…. They worshiped the Lord, but they also served their own gods in accordance with the customs of the nations from which they had been brought” (2 Kings 17:29, 33).
They worshiped the Lord but also served their own gods. These foreigners also ended up intermarrying with the Jews and becoming the “Samaritans.” The religion of the Samaritans was a mixture of truth and error, acceptable to everyone perhaps except for God (John 4:19-24). We also accept this hybrid blend of “faith.” However, it’s not faith—it’s apostasy. Worse yet, we accept it in our own hearts! How can we reach a lost world if our own religion is one of unclarity, passivity, apathy, and idolatry? The answer is: we can’t. Many of us are no better than that priest. In our attempt not to offend or anger anyone, our light grows so dim it makes next to no difference at all in the darkness.
According to a university study, schools should strive for religious ambiguity in the name of inclusivity:
“Given religious diversity in schools, Jewish, Christian and Islamic theologians and experts in religious pedagogy are calling for a religious education that is based on a pluralistic religious pedagogy. ‘Every religious community wants and should be able to pass on its faith to the next generation. But we can and should no longer teach the view today that it is only one particular religion that possesses the truth and that is therefore superior to all others.’”4
Unfortunately, this belief has seeped its way into Christian circles, preventing many from boldly standing on the exclusivity of Christ and the word of God. But it’s not other people’s judgment we should fear, but God’s! If anything is clear in Scripture, it’s that we will be judged according to how we worship God and how we present him to the nations. He makes no apologies for his jealousy or standard of requiring that he be worshipped exclusively. No other gods. No hybrid blends of “truth.” No compromise.
Missionaries would do well to heed this great warning. We need to be very careful that we are not presenting Christ as an “add on,” especially as a way of boosting our number of “conversions” or disciples. He is not an add on, an accoutrement to a worldview we possessed before meeting him.
If he is anything, he is the Lord God, the jealous God. The mouths of lions will be the least of our worries if we fail to present him and worship him as such.
1. The Wiersbe Bible Commentary of the Old Testament, p. 713
2. Matthew Henry’s Commentary in One Volume, Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1960, p. 422
3. Wiersbe, p. 713