Tuesday, February 13, 2018

New Testament Gods

I covered the Old Testament understanding of not having other gods and not making any graven images, in Molten Gods last week. After the Captivity in Babylon those were no longer an issue, though they were still used for divination.  Divination continued to be a problem up until Jesus's time, and continuing on into our days as well.

From the Catholic Catechism: All forms of divination are to be rejected: recourse to Satan or demons, conjuring up the dead or other practices falsely supposed to "unveil" the future. Consulting horoscopes, astrology, palm reading, interpretation of omens and lots, the phenomena of clairvoyance, and recourse to mediums all conceal a desire for power over time, history, and, in the last analysis, other human beings, as well as a wish to conciliate hidden powers. (Emphasis mine.  Oh well, there goes my preferred superpower of time travel. Though I suppose any superpower might have the same effect.)

There are a few things that get described as other gods in the NT.  I could make the argument that the Book of Jude is largely a warning that worshiping other gods leads to disobeying all the other Declarations.*

Jesus identifies money, or Mammon, as a rival god.  Matthew 6:24-34
v. 24 No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money. (Also Luke 16:13)
We might regard wealth as something of a cross between a physical and an abstract God, but Jesus names him and makes it sound personal, as if he were talking about Zeus or Apollo. Perhaps he was only using it as a common metaphor, but I wouldn't want to count on that. It might be someone He knew personally.

Paul is talking about the more familiar types of gods that we see in books for students about "Myths of Many Lands" or the like when he speaks in the agora.  Acts: 17:24-31. Key verse is 29, Therefore since we are God’s offspring, we should not think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone—an image made by human design and skill. But that does hearken back to the household gods of the OT as well.

The Epistles in general go on to describe gods more in the way we are used to: sets of behaviors, especially greedy or sexual, that take over our lives and become "gods" to us, even if they aren't named Venus or Freya. (Though Revelation makes a strong tie-in with sacrificing to other named gods and sexual immorality Revelation 2:14  Revelation 2:20)

Colossians 3:5 
 Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry.

Galatians 5:19-21  In part
The acts of the flesh are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; 20 idolatry and witchcraft

Philippians 3:19 
Their destiny is destruction, their god is their stomach, and their glory is in their shame. Their mind is set on earthly things.

Ephesians 5:3-6  v.5
 For of this you can be sure: No immoral, impure or greedy person—such a person is an idolater—has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God.

As I mentioned before, the commandment against adultery may not refer only to family harmony, keeping promises, and being loyal, but to refraining from worshiping other gods.  The whole town may be going out to do that for festival, and they may think their fertility cause for their flocks and fields is jeopardised by your abstaining, but you are not to join them.

*Eventually the whole list comes in.
James 4:3-5  Therefore, anyone who chooses to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God

Romans 1:18-32

I think that covers the territory.  In contrast, God has chosen to speak, not through idols, or temples, or even magical ceremonies, but in words, actions in history, and actions of his people.

So here's the exercise.  What gods are behind the other commandments? Stealing is connected to wealth, certainly - though security, laziness, or revenge could also be motives.

What god is worshiped when we bear false witness, or don't keep the Sabbath?  Scratch them down.  It's a fun, and I hope revealing exercise.


Earl Wajenberg said...

I tend to use the Seven Deadly Sins as moral vocabulary. Motives for violating the Sabbath would most likely be Avarice or Vanity, combinable as Ambition. Failing to honor parents is probably most often motivated by Wrath (the old folks are irritating) or Vanity (they are so uncool). False Witness could have a wide variety of motives.

Somewhat off topic but related: Neil Gaiman does an interesting job of imagining "new" gods in his fantasy novel (now a TV mini-series) American Gods. There's Media, pervasive and insidious. There are the Automobile Gods, receiving blood sacrifices undreamt-of even by the Aztecs. There are various drug-gods. There's the Tech Kid, the archetypal nerd. There's a mysterious dark god connected with wealth who I think is the Invisible Hand of the Market. They are up against the Old Gods, Odin, et. al.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

I read about that, maybe a year or more ago.

james said...

There's Gounod, of course.

I thought American Gods was good but flawed: he understood what people did in worship, but not why.

james said...

Let's see: Mercury was the god of trade, and of thieves, and of liars. Venus is the goddess of lust, natch, and Cupid the god of mad attraction ("Past reason hunted, and no sooner had. Past reason hated"). Maybe Pluto for envy?

On a related topic, Warwick Allison created this list a number of years ago:

Times are changing, and things are not as they once were...

The Old | The New
Pride | Self Esteem
Anger | Assertiveness
Envy | Appreciation
Greed | Enterprise
Lust | Libido
Gluttony | Appetite
Sloth | Stress Management