Deuteronomy 7:12 – 11:25
This week’s parashah continues Moses’ final address to the people: it includes a reflection on the golden calf and a number of harsh references to idolatry, which is one of the great concerns of the Hebrew Bible.
Idolatry was always a powerful source of temptation, but why it was so attractive is not immediately clear, because it is both feared and ridiculed at the same time. Psalm 115 famously derides “idols of silver and gold made by human hands … with mouths that say nothing, eyes that see nothing, ears that hear nothing, and noses with no sense of smell …” Elijah confronts the priests of Baal on Mount Carmel (1Kings 18:20) and proves their claims are wholly spurious. Jeremiah (2:13) describes idols as cracked cisterns that can hold no water and “scarecrows in a cucumber field” that are “stupid and foolish” (10:5+8). Isaiah 4:4 is mystified as to how anyone can cut down a tree, use part of it as fuel for his oven and the rest for an image that he bows down to in worship (44:9-20).
It is quite possible that idols symbolised the forces of nature of deities that had to be served and appeased, but in both the Hebrew Bible and the Roman world of the first followers of Jesus, the process was often by no means innocent or politically naïve.
In the early decades of the Roman Empire, Augustan propaganda was ubiquitous around the Mediterranean and beyond. Statues of Augustus, proclaiming him to be a god who had brought peace to the world were erected in many cities to be worshipped by the populace. The power of Rome was thus given ‘divine’ sanction and would be seen as a god-given reality, thus forestalling any thoughts of rebellion. Roman propagandists were clearly using religion as an instrument of social and imperial control and their claims were made plausible by the very real presence of unassailable Roman power. (Centuries later, St Augustine said that the Romans had created gods and goddesses to celebrate and protect their military victories and dominance over others [City of God 4:14-15]).
In the Hebrew Bible, idolatry is frequently associated with injustice and social abuse. In Jeremiah 5, when the people had forsaken God and served foreign deities in their own land (5:19), Jeremiah is asked (5:1) to “search the squares of Jerusalem and see if you can find one person who acts justly and seeks truth”. In Jeremiah 7:5, “going after other gods” is associated with injustice, oppression and the shedding of innocent blood, and 7:11 adds a catalogue of wrongs, including stealing, swearing falsely, adultery and murder. A similar catalogue in 22:3 is accounted for in the same way: “They abandoned the covenant of the Lord their God and worshipped others gods and served them” (22:9).
In today’s parashah, God is described in terms of justice and compassion, providing the vulnerable with food and clothing and exhorting the people to love the stranger, because they were strangers in the land of Egypt (Deut 10:18-20). Idolatry seems to involve abandoning all of this and serving deities which have no similar ideals or concerns. It permits the powerful and the unscrupulous to dispense with righteousness and justice: when Ahab covets someone else’s vineyard, Jezebel obtains it by murdering the rightful owner and inviting her husband to take possession (1 Kings 21).
Idolatry need not involve sacred trees or stone pillars or the worship of the various local deities. At the beginning of Isaiah, the prophet rails against people who bring endless sacrifices to the Temple while their hands are full of blood. They observe the festivals, the Sabbath and even new moons, but their piety is to no avail, their offerings are futile and their income is an abomination: the city of righteousness once full of justice has become a lodging place for murderers, thieves and corruption (1:13,15,21,23).
Jeremiah 6 is very similar: the people are told that their sacrifices and their burnt offerings are not acceptable because “from the least to the greatest, everyone is greedy for unjust gain” and there is nothing but oppression in the city (6:13). What is happening in those sources – and in the book of Amos – is that the people are worshipping God idolatrously. Their understanding of God has evidently been defined by the religious perceptions of the world around them and God is seen and served in a manner that is appropriate for the surrounding deities, but wholly repugnant and unacceptable for the God of Israel.
The influence of the wider world on social and political perceptions is very much in evidence in 1 Samuel 1:8, which is the highly inauspicious founding narrative of the Israelite monarchy. The elders of Israel approach Samuel in his old age and ask him to appoint a king to govern them, “like other nations’. Samuel offers them a prescient portrait of what exactly a king would do to them, but they are insistent and tell Samuel: “No! But we are determined to have a king over us, so that we also may be like other nations and that our king may govern us and go out before us and fight our battles” (1 Samuel 8:19+20).
The self-perception of the elders was no longer defined by the heritage of the wilderness – Samuel followed the Mosaic model of inspired prophetic leadership – but by the surrounding nations. The elders clearly had no interest in being “a people who dwell alone” (Numbers 23:9) and their sense of God had also changed, which does not go unnoticed in the text. Samuel is guided by God, who is the ultimate king or source of governance, but the elders make no mention of God and seem to see politics in a purely secular framework. God is ‘religion’, but politics is a separate domain that is to be governed by the king. This separation is not far removed from the ‘internal idolatry’ mentioned above and, as Samuel points out, it is very perilous.
Idolatry was wholly without substance but, like kingship, it too was normative in the wider world, and this was the source of its plausibility. Furthermore, it was an attractive alternative for the Ahabs and Jezebels, the wealthy, the powerful and the unscrupulous because, unlike the faith of Israel, it had no concern for the vulnerable and no interest at all in justice, righteousness and compassion.