God, Idols and Atheism: Discussing what matters most – Part II

In my second session in this series I outlined the Ancient Near Eastern context for what it meant to use the language of gods and idols. I began with the question, Can we assume that the people of the Old Testament were not complete idiots? I asked this question because I always wondered why the people of the Old Testament seemed unable to stop worshipping idols. Didn’t they know those little figures were idols? What was so special about them? What was wrong with these people? Idols were not simply objects of personal value, they were integrated into the legal, political, and economic fabric of life.

Most nations had at least one deity that established their power and brought order to their world. When the people of Israel were released from exile by Cyrus ruler of Persia the prophet Isaiah says,

“Yahweh says of Cyrus, ‘He is my shepherd, and he shall carry out all my purpose.’”

For the people of Israel it is Yahweh who directs the movements of world history while giving life its value and order. In a world of forces beyond their control Israelites trusted (another word for faith) Yahweh as watching out of their interests.

Interestingly enough archaeologists have discovered what they call the Cyrus Scroll. This clay cylinder also accounts for Cyrus resettling several smaller people groups including the Israelites. On the scroll it says,

“I am Cyrus, king of the world, . . . I resettled upon the command of Marduk, the great lord, all the gods of Sumer and Akkad . . . to their former temples, the places which make them happy.”

Cyrus himself places his trust and interests in Marduk. You could not speak of national existence or well-being without reference to gods.

The same held true for smaller communities and family structures. Household gods reflected the legal, economic, and traditional value of a family. One Mesopotamian legal documents specifies what is to be done with household gods in the case of adoption when there is later a naturally born son. The adopted son is the elder but the naturally born appears to maintain the rights of the firstborn and so the household gods will pass down to that son. The significance of household gods plays out in the conflict between Jacob and his father-in-law Laban where Rachel steals the household gods when they flee Laban. The household gods are not sentimental objects but seem to legitimize rightful heirs.

The role of gods and idols in the Ancient Near East were integrated into the fabric of value, trust, and devotion in much the same way that money, legal documents, and symbols of patriotism do today. Gods and idols were the way people were able to speak of and express the powers and forces that were evident but beyond control; or perhaps more specifically it was an attempt to try and gain some sense of control over these forces.

The reality of our understanding and interaction with larger social forces in many ways remains unchanged. In the session we discussed just where the source of power for capitalism, government, and law resided. No one would really argue about whether it existed and yet try and pinpoint the source of power and you will always be shuffled from one site to another with different language and various objects standing in for these dominions. Focusing on capitalism we noted that our current economy reflects nearly all aspects of a traditional religious system. Capitalism makes promises as is seen by the apostles of advertisement. Capitalism demands devotion and obligation commonly through wage-labour and debt. Capitalism determines value in being able to convert everything time, objects, legal liabilities, abilities, etc. into a monetary value. Capitalism proves vengeful when threatened. Our economy can appear lavishly tolerant (a gracious and benevolent god?) in what it can embrace but that is only true so long as the movement of the economy is not hindered (strike or blockade).

Our language and objects relating to larger social forces remains structurally similar (that is, it has a similar pattern) to the language of gods and the objects of idols in the Ancient Near East even if the terms and some of the concepts have shifted. If this is true I then asked what the biblical tradition said on these matters. One distinction of Israelite worship was the prohibition of idols. Temples from various nations reflected general similarities; they were the houses of a particular god and the god would reside in the center of the house in some form. And so typically an object, an idol, would occupy the most important place in the Temple. But when Moses receives plans for the Temple there is to be a space above the Ark of the Covenant and between the cherubs wings. There was nothing at the center of Israelite worship. What is the significance of this way of worship?

This form of worship should leave us open to criticism. If we worship a God who is simply the result of good Reason or proven by national or personal success then we worship an idol. We worship something defined by something else. It is easy to defend idols because they are investments of our time and value. But if God cannot be defined in these terms then there is nothing to defend, then we can simply remain open to questions or criticisms that perhaps we have fallen into worshipping an idol. This of course is seen clearly in the prophetic tradition.

This form of criticism should also leave us open to new movements. If idolatry is the movement of solidifying control of power then the movement towards opening that space allows for an attentiveness and responsiveness to life. The first commandment given to Moses is the prohibition of idols. For a people coming out of slavery in Egypt their time in the wilderness and this command was to help teach them how to resist the temptation to solidify and control power as represented by Egypt (and later Babylon). An idol is a concentration of our attempts at control but as the prophets warned, if you worship an idol you will become like it. You will give up your ability to discern, to feel, and to act. You will be controlled by forces around you rather than be in control of them. The time in the wilderness for the Hebrew people was a time of resistance, a time of dismantling idols to free themselves of their control (which was no small accomplishment as the people continually complained and longed for the ‘security’ of slavery, of idolatry).

While the initial Old Testament image of idolatry is largely one of prohibition and resistance Jesus makes the connection positive when asked what the greatest command is. Jesus speaks of loving God and loving neighbour. We might not initially think of connecting this statement to the prohibition of idolatry but idolatry provides the shadow, the implication or result of not holding to these commands. Linking love of God with neighbour demands that we leave space open for the unpredictable and uncontrollable nature of life in common. In the Gospel it was Jesus’s own time in the wilderness, of dismantling the idols of his age that allowed him to transition to his constructive proclamation of the Spirit of Lord being upon him to express good news.

As I read the biblical tradition, the question is not ultimately about answering yes or no about God’s existence but about better understanding how gods and idols are formed and how they impact us in life. Idols are objects of our investment that keep us from being attentive to the call of love our neighbour. The more we are able to focus on dismantling idols and integrating love of neighbour as the necessary condition for loving God the less we will find interest or need of determining the existence of God.

God does not need our defense. Rather, our faith calls us to an openness and willingness to consider the idols set up in our life. So far as I can tell we as humans will continue to worship, it just what we do. The gods are not going anywhere soon. Some idols are easy to name but hard to get rid of like money. Others, however, can be harder to identify, particularly when we have learned to call them ‘Jesus’ or consider them the ‘God of the Bible’ but function just like idols when they keep us from attentiveness to the living Spirit of God.


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