Throughout the Jewish Scriptures we find mocking remarks directed against idols and idolatry. The prophets describe the idols as: “… those who do not see or hear…” (Deuteronomy 4:28, Psalm 115:5, see also Habakuk 2:18). The prophets ridicule idols of wood and stone (Deuteronomy 28:36, 29:16, 2Kings 19:18, Ezekiel 20:32). The Scriptures describe idolatry as worshiping the handiwork of men (Deuteronomy 27:15, 31:29, 1Kings 16:7, Isaiah 2:8, 37:19, Jeremiah 10:3, Hosea 14:4, Micah 5:12, Psalm 135:15).
In this same spirit, Isaiah presents us with a vivid teaching on the subject of idolatry (Isaiah 44:6-20). The prophet describes how the craftsman exerts himself to create an idol. The prophet then speaks of the wood that is used to make the statue. Isaiah points out how one part of the wood is used to provide heat and cooking fuel for the same person who worships the image that had been fashioned from the other half of the same piece of wood.
What is the point of all this? Most idolaters would argue that it is not the statue that they are worshiping, but rather they worship the spirit that the statue represents. Furthermore, throughout history, many idolaters worshiped natural objects such as the sun, the moon, cats, cows and various people. How do the Scriptural lessons on idolatry pertain to these idolaters? Why is there so much emphasis on mocking the physical statue when in many cases the actual statue is not the focus of the idolater’s devotion?
When we understand the underlying principle of worship and devotion we will be able to appreciate the Scriptural lesson.
Worship of the Divine demands that one submit totally and unconditionally to God. Such absolute submission is only appropriate from created towards Creator, from one who is intrinsically a subject to One who is intrinsically the Master. The One who created everything and continuously sustains everything already owns every facet of our existence. It all belongs to Him and to Him alone. In submitting ourselves to Him we are merely acknowledging the truth of our complete dependence upon His mercy.
The key principles of worship and devotion are: Creator, the One to whom we belong, and the Master who is inherently the Master of all.
With this understanding we can now look at the Scriptural mockery of idolatry with clarity. Every statue is but a symbol, a representative of some concept or some entity. The statue will have to share some commonality, real or imagined, with the concept or entity that it is meant to represent. A statue can be used to symbolize almost any concept or entity. One can create a statue to represent the concepts of prosperity, of good fortune, of fertility, of strength, of forgiveness from sin and of human excellence.
There is one concept that can never be represented by a statue. There is one entity that can share no commonality with any physical body. That concept is the concept of “intrinsic Master” and “Creator of all”. When we think in the terms of “Creator versus created” and “the true Owner of all versus His subjects” – every entity that can be encompassed by our finite minds – will fall on the side of created and subject. There is nothing that can be used to represent the true Master and Creator because everything that we might use is equally subject and created by the Master and Creator.
The mockery of the prophets focuses on the concepts of “Creator” and “Master”. When one creates a statue and submits himself or herself to it – then the concept of worship has been completely subverted. The human is the creator of the statue, and the wood from which the statue is formed is actually the servant of man in the heat and light with which humanity is served. Whoever bows to a statue cannot be thinking in the terms of “Creator” and “Master”, because the statue is both “created” and “servant”.
Any worship aside from the worship of the One infinite Creator of all can be represented by a statue. Let us take the Christian devotion to Jesus as an example. Jesus was contained in a physical body that walked this earth. There is no intrinsic reason why he cannot be represented by a replica of his physical body. Since Jesus was limited to a physical body there is no reason why a finite physical body cannot be used to represent him.
In fact those who worship Jesus do not think in the terms of “Creator” or “the One to whom all belong”. The Christian devotees of Jesus think in the terms of obtaining forgiveness from sin, escaping the fires of hell, and acquiring a place in eternal life. If these followers of Jesus were to ask themselves: “does this man already own every facet of my existence?” – “is this man the Creator of all existence?” – they would not be directing their worship and devotion to a finite inhabitant of God’s earth. It is only when these crucial questions are ignored that the path is open for idolatry.
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Yisroel C. Blumenthal