"... a god or ... image that can do no good?" - A Theological Reflection on Idolatry
January 17, 2023
The faith of Israel was centered in the worship of YHWH (also known as El, Adonai, Elohim, El Shaddai), the God Who Is. Judaism, was not simplistic, but it was simple.
The worship of One God is the greatest common ground that Christians, like myself, find with Judaism and other monotheistic faiths.
With regard to others, we may have differing understandings of the nature of God, but the common understandings are that God is good, loving, gracious, merciful, just, holy, all powerful, sovereign, and self-defined.
Judaism influenced the nations with its understanding of God in the days of the prophets. While not all were called to be Jews, all were called to the worship of God.
It had not always been understood among the people of God. They developed in their understanding that their God was not tribal nor exclusive to their people. Isaiah, both pre-exile and post exile, forms for the scripture, a theology of a God of the Nations.
Before his time, the theology was their in hints and glimpses.
The Judaism of Isaiah's time was not simplistic because it demanded deep thought and was adorned with many meaningful rituals which taught truths.
It was simple because it focused on One God who is defined by his very Existence. This God is described with a masculine pronoun, but makes it clear that He defines it and cannot be defined by it. He has no gender or human limitations and yet, is personal and relatable.
God is to be reflected upon, experienced as Job experienced God, and revered as one who cannot be fully comprehended.
No prophet expresses this as clearly as Isiah.
This God is beyond understanding and yet, unifies all being and knowledge.
This God transcends presence, but is present.
This God is unknowable, but can be known through divine initiative and revelation.
This God is unapproachable, yet welcoming.
The contrasts and paradoxes can be explored for hours and a lifetime, but they all bring us to this readding for today with a central, underlying truth with no paradox or contradiction:
God cannot be created, controlled, defined,, nor manipulated by human beings or even by religion. The attempt to do so is idolatry and idolatry is the greatest offense to the sovereignty of the Almighty.
Isaiah 44:9-20 (NRSV)
All who make idols are nothing, and the things they delight in do not profit; their witnesses neither see nor know.
And so they will be put to shame.
Who would fashion a god or cast an image that can do no good?
Look, all its devotees shall be put to shame; the artisans too are merely human. Let them all assemble, let them stand up; they shall be terrified, they shall all be put to shame.
The ironsmith fashions it and works it over the coals, shaping it with hammers, and forging it with his strong arm; he becomes hungry and his strength fails, he drinks no water and is faint.
The carpenter stretches a line, marks it out with a stylus, fashions it with planes, and marks it with a compass; he makes it in human form, with human beauty, to be set up in a shrine. He cuts down cedars or chooses a holm tree or an oak and lets it grow strong among the trees of the forest. He plants a cedar and the rain nourishes it. Then it can be used as fuel.
Part of it he takes and warms himself; he kindles a fire and bakes bread.
Then he makes a god and worships it, makes it a carved image and bows down before it. Half of it he burns in the fire; over this half he roasts meat, eats it and is satisfied.
He also warms himself and says, "Ah, I am warm, I can feel the fire!" The rest of it he makes into a god, his idol, bows down to it and worships it; he prays to it and says, "Save me, for you are my god!"
They do not know, nor do they comprehend; for their eyes are shut, so that they cannot see, and their minds as well, so that they cannot understand. No one considers, nor is there knowledge or discernment to say, "Half of it I burned in the fire; I also baked bread on its coals, I roasted meat and have eaten. Now shall I make the rest of it an abomination? Shall I fall down before a block of wood?"
He feeds on ashes; a deluded mind has led him astray, and he cannot save himself or say, "Is not this thing in my right hand a fraud?"
These human-created gods are worthless, powerless, and without free will.
"Who would fashion a god or cast an image that can do no good?"
That is non-simplistic simplicity.
That is the core of monotheism.
Can this God know, act, think, rule, intervene, create and relate out of this same God's own initiative or does this god need a creator in order to exist?
Any God who is God is
As Aristotle articulated, a primary cause, a cause that is not caused, "perfectly beautiful, indivisible, and contemplating only the perfect contemplation: self-contemplation."
St. Thomas Aquinas, used the term "unmoved mover" in the Quinque viae.
If God can be caused, God is not God.
If God can do no good, God is not God.
This is what Isaiah is shouting into the ears of contemporary humans, his and ours, who substitute false deities for the true God. As we elevate the work of our hands, the ingenuity of our minds, the value of our bank balances, the reach of our power, the influence of our prestige, our self-importance, and the profitability of bank balances above the mysteries of God, that is idolatry. To Isaiah, it makes no sense and is self-defeating in the long run.
From the Jewish Virtual Library
"Greek eidōlon originally meant "image" or "fantasy." By the time of the Septuagint the term was used for images of gods. "Idolatry" is literally "image worship." To grasp the character of image worship in biblical literature one must first realize that the Bible describes the worship of all "strange gods" as idolatry, or the worship of "wood and stone." In addition, one must distinguish the biblical polemics against these gods from the opposition to the use of certain images in the service of Yahweh. At times the use of these images is equated with the service of other gods. It should also be borne in mind that there is no necessary connection between aniconism (opposition to images) and monotheism. On the one hand, a monotheistic religion, Roman Catholicism for example, can make use of images. On the other hand, there is evidence of aniconism in polytheistic religions among Israel's neighbors in biblical times (Mettinger)."
Note- I find it interesting that the Wikipedia article on Idolatry in Judaism seems to avoid any images of any sort on its page. Is this a gesture of respect to the religious sensitivities of the Jewish faith.
Additional note - Islam takes this note and prohibition further, as Britannica explains, ""Many (though not all) Muslims reject visual representations (e.g., images and sculpted figures) of religious figures, or even visual representations of living things, seeing it as a form of idolatry (worship of physical objects), which is inconsistent with their monotheism." - www.britannica.com
Final observation - Genesis 1:27 teaches that man was made in the "image of God," Hebrew: צֶלֶם אֱלֹהִים
The word used is
-derived from the parent root צל (tsal) meaning a shadow. Tselem is the outline or shape of a shadow. This contrasts with Graven Image פצל.
See article at Hebrew Research Center: Hebrew Words for Image.
This is a subject for another day, but, consider this: If humans were made in the representation and reflection, however dim, of God, they are the only such dim reflections God made or authorized to represent divine attributes in the world. What are the possible implications of this?
In Conclusion, According to Isaiah and the the long-term witness of Judaism, Idolatry is as foolish as it is offensive. One would be as well of with no God as one would with a God who humans could create. The God Who Is dwells in mystery and vast unknown eternity at visits humanity out of love and a desire to gather us into a transcending and transformational relationship.
This is a simple faith, not simplistic.
It is not adorned with a complex hierarchy of deities and not defined by a complex mythology. Mythology is utilized as accounts of living history and personal encounters where God is met and experienced by men and women. But God is greater than the stories and the histories where he reveals himself.
God is the one who defines all existence and creates, sustains, and gives meaning to all things.
That sort of God is worthy of worship and worth knowing - even if it takes forever to begin to begin to begin to do so.