Helping the Chronically Overworked Find Life Balance

Is the Sacrifice Of Family Time For Work Idolatry?

Moloch Was Worshiped by Burning Children Alive

Chapter 2: Idolatry Then and Now Part 1

Each Chapter begins with a personal story from my life to set the tone.  Here is the story for Chapter 2.

Until a few years ago, the last I had thought about idolatry was in Sunday school when I heard the story of Abraham smashing the idols in his father’s shop.  As a precocious, independent-minded boy in grade school, I loved a story that combined sticking it to your dad with smashing things. On a deeper level, I was very impressed with Abraham’s cleverness.  He found a simple way to reveal a deeper truth about the world that his father was unable to deny. 

A common question I get goes something like this “Dude, idolawhat?  I’m trying to get my life together, don’t go to church, and you are dropping the Old Testament on me.

Ok, I hear you.  If you want to go on vacation for a few weeks and come back after I’ve covered the section on Idolatry, I won’t hold it against you.  But, you may be surprised at how strongly the age-old conflict against idolatry resonates today.

The term idolatry is both loaded and complex.  In fact, some people have told me that the term “idolatry” has too much religious baggage, and is something they are uncomfortable having associated with their work life.  I understand that too.  The word idolatry does carry judgmental and religious connotations, and rightly so as it was first introduced to the world to contrast the first monotheistic religion with the polytheistic practices of the time.

Let me be clear that I am referring to polytheism as it was practiced in the ancient world, and not to modern day pagan or polytheistic religions.  In ancient civilizations like Canaan, Babylon and Greece, people worshipped multiple gods via statues know as idols.  And much of it was barbaric – the most egregious of which was child sacrifice to Moloch.

Moloch, which was made of brass; and they heated him from his lower parts; and his hands being stretched out, and made hot, they put the child between his hands, and it was burnt, when it vehemently cried out; but the priests beat a drum, that the father might not hear the voice of his son, and his heart might not be moved. [1. Rashi commenting on Jeremiah 7:31]

Over time, the view of idolatry has changed from statue worship to human behavior.  For example, The thirteenth century Rabbi Menahem Ha-Meiri wrote that idolatry is characterized by a lawless and amoral lifestyle, and not by number of gods or issues of theological doctrine per se[i].

I have come to believe that idolatry is the adoption of a value system that conflicts with certain universal, people-first values.  Over the course of this chapter, I will explain why I believe this, through stories and a sampling of philosophical thought from the last few thousand years.  This definition steps outside the bounds of religious doctrine, and into the realm of human behavior and psychology.  Since the days of the clay statues, idolatry keeps coming back in new forms, because it is something that grows out of the human heart.

Corporate Idolatry is the adoption of a value system that prioritizes the company over the people in your life.  Have you ever made a personal sacrifice for the company, a sacrifice that came at the expense of  your family?


[i] Idolatry by Moshe Habertal and Avishai Margali.  Translated by Naomi Goldblum.  Harvard University Press.  P. 212.

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  1. Greg Marcus says

    Have you ever made a personal sacrifice for the company, a sacrifice that came at the expense of your family? – Unfortunately yes. But doing this once does not an idolator make, any more than getting one parking ticket a parking scofflaw make. The years I worked 90 hours a week meant a regular sacrifice of family time, and my kids were worse off for it. It didn’t have to be that way, and I found a way to change.

  2. You’re right that the idolatry language is heavy for people, but it’s so exactly right. I was reflecting on this very thing a couple of years ago, and considered all the “sacrifices” that people had made to pursue a career or their vision of a perfect family. This uncovered it for me.

    Today the word “sacrifice” means something that we set aside in order to achieve something greater. So you have to make a “sacrifice” if you want to succeed. The word is pretty innocuous. But when you consider that the origin of the word refers to exactly the kind of thing you discuss with Moloch — people making sacrifices in order to appease their gods — the word changes tone.

    In the Old Testament there are good sacrifices (honoring God with the “first fruits” of your crops, essentially thanking God for the harvest and the conditions that made it possible), and there are bad sacrifices (trying to appease a false god through the sacrifice of your children.)

    If we don’t get caught up in the idea that this is an ancient culture, and think about the principles, it makes so much sense. We can have a greater good we want to pursue (like a career), and in order to achieve we have to make some sacrifices. That’s normal. But what are we sacrificing? If we’re sacrificing time in front of the TV, that’s fine. If we’re sacrificing time with our spouse, then we are putting our marriage “on the altar” and choosing success over our committed relationship. If we’re sacrificing time with our children, then we’re putting them “on the altar.” We’re not killing them like the old worshippers of Moloch. But we are damaging them–and as someone who has worked with youth for fifteen years, I can tell you the damage done by neglectful parents who were pursuing career is devastating.

    • Greg Marcus says

      Hi Marc

      Thanks for sharing your story and perspective. You are right sacrifice can be for either a good or a bad cause.


  1. […] a wide collection of additional stories and commentary about Abrhams life.  In this story that I first learned as a child, Abraham elegantly shows that the statues people worshiped were false […]