“Everyone has their own false idols.”
After Simon and Levi decimate Shechem, God commands Jacob and his family to travel to Bethel. Jacob announces the itinerary and adds one instruction to his household. “Remove the foreign Gods that are among you.” The text reports that they all obediently handed Jacob their idols.
Jacob takes the contraband and buries it beneath a terebinth tree near Shechem.
What is going on here? Why does Jacob bury the idols under a tree? He should smash them into smithereens! Is he saving them for later, just in case things don’t work out with the invisible God of his father and grandfather?
I actually think that this was a brilliant move by Jacob. When we are destroying false idols of others we may want to make a spectacle and obliterate their false Gods, but that would be cruel. We may think the Gods are ridiculously false, but the other person really believes in those false Gods. When we destroy their Gods, a part of their soul is being shattered along with it. They believed in that God! They may react so viscerally to the destruction of their Gods that they double down on their old Gods.
Jacob is clever. He doesn’t want everyone to freak out about a newfound Puritanism. So he doesn’t destroy the idols. He just buries them. The idol worshiper, like an addict, can think that he will return later for the idols and so the idol worshiper will also be less reluctant to let Jacob snatch his idols. After all, he can always come back to retrieve his old idols.
If Jacob had turned this moment into an idol burning conflagration ceremony, people might have rebelled against Jacob’s display of fanaticism. Instead, Jacob was kind to the worshipers of the false Gods and gently weaned them off the idols.
Whenever we destroy another person’s false Gods, in any sense of the word, we should follow Jacob’s advice and choose to bury their Gods, not pulverize them. Whether it is the false God of wealth, or the false God of traditional baseball statistics, or any other cherished idea that we need to leave behind, let them down easy. There is a person behind those beliefs, and seeing someone nuke your God is very painful and scary. Please be gentle with the beliefs of others.