Thursday, July 29, 2010

Why did God ban idols? My answer*

Read this post first.

Before we can understand why the Torah banned images of God, we must first understand what purpose those images served.  For a very long time, scholars couldn't accept that the statues found all over the middle east were though by their devotees to be actual gods. Their original consensus was that these idols of stone and clay were representations of the deity and something upon which the worshiper could focus his devotion. The worshiper knew, the theory went, that the god was off somewhere, and not the statue itself. Today, following the uncovering of reams of old texts, this theory is largely out of favor. No longer do scholars think that the idol was merely reminder of the god; today they mostly accept that the statue was thought to be something like a container for the god. 

Even this is hard for us to fathom. It sounds primitive and ridiculous, yet the evidence from the old texts seems clear. Based on their interpretations of these texts, James Kugel and others, propose that men and women of the ANE conceived of their gods as something of a celebrity, all powerful superhero. These gods usually lived in a sort of parallel reality, a dimension superimposed over this world, where they did their daily work of pulling the levers and pushing the buttons that made rain fall, and crops grow and so on. Occasionally, the gods would, forsome reason or another, take human form and pop into our world for a visit. Various OT narratives are thought by scholars to tell these types of stories. Gideon, for example, is minding his own business when he's greeted by a man. After a few moments of confusion, he recognizes that he's actually speaking to God, and falls on his face. Sarah laughs at something she hears the 3 guests say, but the verse tells us that it is God who objects, and the story of their visit is introduced with the words, "And God appeared to Abraham".  Many more example could be supplied.** Even if we must reject the notion that the biblical stories mean anything other than what later interpreters said they mean, there still exists plenty of evidence from other, extra-biblical texts, that this is how gods were thought to operate in the broader ANE culture. The case, Kugel says, can be made without the Bible. 

If you wanted to encourage these types of meetings, there were a few things you could do. One approach was to build the god a house, and entice him to visit with grilled meat and sweet smelling incense. This is believed to be the idea behind the ANE Temples that have been uncovered, and the rites performed in these Temples as described in various texts. Sacrifice, which predates Temples, of course,  may have been, in the ANE, an attempt to share a meal with a god. Another approach was the statue. If you built it correctly, the theory went, the god would come and dwell in it for a while. 

The God of Israel, however, was different. Or, as the scholars might put it, at some point the people of Israel began to think about Him differently. Though archeologists working in Israel and the fertile crescent have uncovered  hundreds if not thousands of statues, fewer than five have inscriptions which identify them as images of YKVK, and those are among the very oldest. The absence of these types of statues is surely significant. What it means, the scholars suggest, is that at some very early moment, the Israelites began to think of their God as one that could not be contained in something as petty as a statue. Or if you prefer, the God of Israel, via His dictation to Moses, made it perfectly clear to his people that He, unlike the other, more familiar gods, would never take up residence in a stone doll.  

6 of one, half dozen of the other....

 * Not really my answer, but an amalgamation of many answers.

** The narratives include: Gideon's call, the announcement of Shimshon's birth, Jacob's wrestling match with the man/angel, Abraham's 3 visitors, Joshua's encounter with the captain of YKVK's army, among many others. Though I'm discussing how scholars regard these stories, I'm also attempting to remain sensitive to how the stories are understood by the rabbinic interpreters.

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