Those who concentrate on the New Testament mostly ignore idolatry; those who concentrate on the Old Testament face it daily. Chris Wright’s 5th chp in his book The Mission of God faces idolatry as he maps the missional focus of the Bible. And this chp is worth the price of the book.
How often are you bothered by the apparent polytheistic ideas of Israelites in the Old Testament? (Like the golden calf in Exod
24 32.) How do you explain such things? Would it bother you if Israel’s monotheism evolved or do you think it has to go back to the very beginning, to Adam and Abraham and Moses?
One of the features of this chp is his interaction with some critical thinking on the evolution of the idea of God in the Bible, a theme we will be looking at on this blog in a couple of weeks. (Remember, in about a week or so we will begin A. Jamieson, Chrysalis.) The standard theory is that ancient Israel went through a three-step evolution in understanding God: first, polytheism; second, henotheism — YHWH was above all other gods; monotheism — there was really only one God, YHWH.
Wright finds this thesis unconvincing. He begins with this observation: just because Israel talked about other gods doesn’t mean they thought there were other gods. They believed in relation to YHWH, the other gods were nothing; they believed in relation to pagan and false Israelite worshipers, they were something. This paradox shapes the writings of the Old Testament, including Deut 4:35: “YHWH, he is the God; there is no other beside him.” We find this same paradox at work in 1 Cor 8 with Paul, and he clearly did not believe there were other gods.
So how did Israel depict these other gods, who were real in that they were real to their worshipers but not real in relation to YHWH?
Idols and gods were objects within creation itself — some Israelites and pagans worshiped things that were part of creation (cf. Job 31:26-28; 2 Ki 17:16). Sometimes they saw these gods as demons (Deut 32:16-17; Ps 106). And, third, these idols and gods were the work of human hands — and this is a big theme in the Bible: “the work of human hands” (maaseh yede-adam).
Here again we stumble into an issue many readers of the Bible have: many think Israel lacked empathy and civility and accurate description when they spoke of idols and when they equated pagan gods with those physical “works of human hands.” In other words, the “aniconic’ (no idols) theology so shaped their descriptions that the pro-iconic pagans’ own ideas were distorted. They, some argue, knew their “works of human hands” were not the gods themselves.
Wright takes this apart by saying it is just the opposite: it was because Israel did not know the difference that the ridicule and comedic descriptions could happen. So, read Isa 46:1-2. The alleged gods, Israel concluded, were no different from the idols because they are both human constructs even if the pagans and Israelites thought they were to be distinguished.
What Wright expounds is that the exclusivity of Israel in its belief in one God and that God was YHWH and that the gods of other religions were not real gods were fundamentally new ideas in that ancient world. This was without parallel.