Did Second Isaiah Misunderstand Idolatry?; Greek Sodom and Gomorrah Story

Yesterday, I finished Mark Smith’s The Origins of Biblical Monotheism and started Moshe Weinfeld’s Social Justice in Ancient Israel and the Ancient Near East.

1. For Smith’s book, what stood out to me was his discussion of the conception of idols in the ancient Near East. Second Isaiah (a monotheistic document in the Hebrew Bible) equates the idol with the god. Isaiah 44 ridicules idolaters who cut down a tree, use half of it for a fire, and construct an idol for worship with the other half. The implication is that the idol is the god, and why would people worship a mere piece of wood that they themselves fashioned? For Second Isaiah, idolatry is ridiculous.

In Isaiah 46, Second Isaiah contrasts the Babylonian gods with the God of Israel. Whereas the gods of Babylon (the idols) are carried in procession, God carries the Jewish people, so the God of Israel is the one true God. Again, Second Isaiah equates foreign gods with the idols that are used in their worship.

Historical-critics have argued that the Israelites misunderstood idolatry, for the people of the ancient Near East never equated their gods with the idols that represented or housed them. After all, the Babylonian epic Enuma Elish presents Marduk creating the cosmos, so the Babylonians obviously believed that Marduk was more than a statue. Marduk existed before the statue was even made!

But Smith cites examples in ancient Near Eastern literature that actually do identify the god with the idol. At the same time, he also refers to a passage affirming that “Without mouth-opening this image does not smell incense, eat food or drink water” (STT 200). The mouth of the image needs to be opened for it to become the god, who will eat, drink, and smell incense in worship; otherwise, it’s a lifeless statue. So the ancients didn’t totally identify the god with the statue, but they did hold that the statue could become the god at certain points in time.

Was Second Isaiah aware of this? My impression is that Smith tries to rescue Second Isaiah from the charge that it misconstrues idolatry. Isaiah 44:9-10 denies that idols can look, think, or benefit people, so Second Isaiah may realize that foreigners believe their idols have consciousness. And Smith states that, if there’s only one God (the God of Israel), then no god inhabits the idols, and so Second Isaiah is correct to say that the idols are mere pieces of wood (192).

I’m not sure where I stand on this. Second Isaiah apparently expects his Israelite audience to see the idols as mere pieces of wood. My impression is that he doesn’t expect them to say, “But wait a minute, the idol is not the god, but is inhabited by the god, so your point that the Babylonian gods are weak because they are carried is null and void!” Did Second Isaiah really believe that foreigners were so foolish as to worship a mere piece of wood as if it were a god? We see in biblical literature that some Israelites realized that foreigners didn’t limit the god to the idol. If Genesis 1 responds to Enuma Elish, for example, then the priestly author knew the story of Marduk creating the cosmos. And, in I Kings 18, the prophets of Baal ask their god to bring rain, and Elijah responds that perhaps Baal is on a journey. So Baal is not an idol, but is a deity who can move about.

Perhaps the Israelite idolaters in some sense did equate the god with the idol, though: they had heard from the foreigners that the idol had consciousness, and they believed them.

2. In a footnote on page 30, Weinfeld refers to Greek parallels to the biblical Sodom and Gomorrah stories (Genesis 18-19; Ezekiel 16:49). Hesiod’s Works and Days, Homer’s Odyssey (XVII, 485-487), and Ovid’s Metamorphoses (VIII 611-712) discuss cities and nations that were destroyed on account of their subversion of justice, as well as immortal gods walking among men to learn of such subversion. This is like the Sodom and Gomorrah story, in which Sodom was destroyed in part for its lack of justice, and angels (maybe even God himself) went to Sodom to see for themselves if the city was as wicked as it was reputed to be.

In my first semester at Jewish Theological Seminary, I first learned about parallels between the Bible and Greek legend. A speaker I heard compared Samson to the muscle-men of Greek lore. And Tikva Frymer-Kensky referred in passing to Greek parallels to the biblical Sodom and Gomorrah story.

I wasn’t sure what their point was. Were they saying that the Bible borrowed from Greek mythology, or that Greek mythology borrowed from the Bible? I have heard that there were connections between Israel and the Aegeans in pre-exilic times, so there may have been a sharing of stories that occurred through trade.

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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