Friday, February 09, 2018

Molten Gods

In the Jewish description of the Ten Commandments, they are called Declarations, and the first one is I Am The Lord Your God, which I told you last September. (There is a table of how various groups refer to the commandments at the link.) I like that emphasis, that the first thought is the covenant relationship, not a direction of what God's people should do. The Second Declaration, then is
“You shall have no other gods before me.  You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below.  You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments.

That's quite a bit of commentary, isn't it? No one worships Odin or Aphrodite these days, though some play at it. There are still Hindu gods of the River Ganges, or of death, or of the sky, who are still worshiped with a capital W, and there are animists in may places who worship something like local gods.  These are the first thing we think of these days. The second thing the modern mind goes to is a quick jump to abstract gods, such as money, or power, or beauty. But those would not be the first things the Hebrew children in the desert would have thought of.  "Gods," at that juncture, usually meant household statues, carved or crafted, and painted or decorated as well as one could afford. These statues were chained to pedestals so they couldn't get away.  They had food placed before them and ceremonies performed in their honor, so that they became the embodiment of those gods, which would hear the entreaties of their owners, or speak through them.

These would be what the household gods that Rachel hid from her father in Genesis 31 were. The Jews were still prone to hedging their bets, apparently. If Laban could not find those gods, he would have to have new ones made, and that could be expensive. YHWH in Genesis seems focused on convincing his chosen ones that he is their personal god, and the best god.  He repeatedly suggests that there is more to that story about who He Is, but being their god, who cares for them specially, is the high note. This seems to be the only part that Lot, for example, ever understands. He behaves with little righteousness, but he does get that there is only one god he should be worshiping. There is some of this in Exodus as well, though signs of the Great Reveal are all over the early story in that book. The idea that YHWH might be not only the most powerful god, as demonstrated by the plagues overruling the Egyptian gods, but the only one that has any actual power has become clearer.

Even then He does not seem to insist on the Israelites getting that concept.  It is enough that He is theirs exclusively. Farther on in the Hebrew scriptures he hammers the point home, in Jeremiah, in IIChronicles, in IKings, in Psalm 115: 3-8; and a great many places in Isaiah 17:8; 37:19; 40:19; 41:29; 44:9-20 (more detailed);  These are created things.  They don't hear you.  They don't speak. They have no power. God uses the phrase that they were made by human hands, even your own hands, as a repeated illustration of their powerlessness.

That choice is significant, because the "other gods" that we worship in our day are often things we have in some sense made by our own hands: an education, a business, a family, a fortune, a house.

Further notes, before I move on to the gods of the NT in another post:

It has always seemed frankly incredible to me that the recently-rescued Israelites could so quickly revert to worshiping another god, a golden calf.  Bull-gods were worshiped all the way from Spain to India. One feature was that the god that worked through them sometimes used the bull as a steed or a throne. They may have imagined they were doing something that honored YHWH, even though they weren't quite following directions. Something similar is seen in I Kings 12:25-33 with King Jeroboam. The golden calves were not so much gods themselves, but an announcement that the real God was to be worshiped in the northern kingdom, not in Jerusalem.

Temples to other gods functioned as larger, and more important versions of the household gods. If the ceremonies were done properly and the right food was given, the god was believed to come and inhabit the place. The Jews were instructed to not even look like they might be worshiping in the manner of other peoples. As many of the ceremonies were fertility rites, the command against adultery may be about more than supporting family life.  It may also be intended to keep Jews from any semblance of fertility rites to other gods.

We seem to have finally learned not to rely on household idols by the end of the captivity in Babylon.  However, they were still used for divination, even though this was expressly forbidden.


james said...

Someone quipped that the Exodus was as much to get Egypt of the Israelites as to get the Israelites out of Egypt. Amos 5:26 suggests that it wasn't 100% effective. And living among the pagans--the pagan ideas were bound to rub off. What's the difference between putting a little fish with the corn seed for fertilizer, and putting a little fish with the corn seed as an offering to the local fertility spirit? Without some bright lines in the sand, it is terribly easy to drift away from your path.

I gather that the Nuzi tablets suggest that Rachel's theft of the household gods doubled as a theft of the title to her father's property--not at all easily replaced.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

Well then, even worse, from Laban's POV.