Three Questions about Idolatry

I started Idolatry, by Moshe Halbertal and Avishai Margalit.

I decided to read this book because I had questions about idolatry.  First, why does the Hebrew Bible forbid the Israelites to represent God visually, when it arguably maintains that God has a form after which human beings are patterned, plus it often describes God in anthropomorphic terms?  Second, was the Golden Calf in Exodus 32 considered to be a god, or merely a pedestal for the god, since there are ancient Near Eastern pictures of gods standing on bulls?  And, third, I had a question as I was reading Exodus 34 last night.  In Exodus 34:15, the Canaanite worship of their own gods seems to be described in terms of harlotry.  How can this be, when there are many biblical scholars who contend that certain writings in the Hebrew Bible do not expect for foreigners to worship the God of Israel alone, but are content with other nations worshiping their own gods?  Shouldn’t the notion that idolatry is harlotry technically be restricted to Israel, which is practically married to its God within a covenant that forbids her to worship other gods?  (I guess my third question is technically two questions.)

In my latest reading, my first question was addressed head on.  My second question was somewhat addressed.  And my third question was not explicitly addressed, and yet Halbertal and Margalit discuss the concept of idolatry being like harlotry.

For my first question, why the Israelites were forbidden to represent God visually, Halbertal and Margalit essentially argue that a visual image of God compromises God’s uniqueness.  In the same way that a work of art becomes cheapened when there are more reproductions of it, so likewise does God become cheapened when there are many visual representations of him.  Plus, God wants to keep an aura of mystery around him as well as distance between him and the worshipers.  Halbertal and Margalit compare God to a Persian king, who kept himself hidden to foster a sense of “remoteness and authority” (page 47). 

Then why does the Hebrew Bible depict God anthropomorphically?  Does not that likewise reduce God’s dignity?  Halbertal and Margalit refer to different perspectives on this issue.  Some think that representing God visually is bad while depicting God linguistically is acceptable because the former actually confronts the worshiper with an object that can be sensed—-and that can lead to such negative things as treating the object as a fetish.  Others believe that it’s dangerous to depict God with language, however, because that uses “judgments and propositions” to represent God, and those things are quite limited in terms of capturing who and what God is.  Maimonides tended to shy away from using language to represent God, for he said that we can describe what God is not but not really what God is, and he maintained that believing God had multiple attributes compromised God’s unity.  (At the same time, if I understood Margalit and Halbertal correctly, Maimonides thought that we can know God’s actions.)  But I am not clear as to what Maimonides does with the biblical descriptions of God that are anthropomorphic.  If they are for our benefit—-to bring God down to a level that is understandable to us—-what is wrong with using them rather than shying away from them?  (UPDATE: On pages 238-239, Halbertal and Margalit say that Maimonides attempts to reinterpret and allegorize biblical language in order to overcome anthropomorphism.  And, on page 128, they say that Maimonides argues that the Torah counters idolatry, in part by limiting an idolatrous custom—-appeasing a deity through sacrifice—-to one location, as well as by narrowing the “reasons for bringing sacrifices”.)

For my second question—-whether the Golden Calf in Exodus 32 was considered to be a god or a pedestal for the god—-Halbertal and Margalit refer to a view that an object can be believed to stand for God.  For example, there are passages in the Hebrew Bible in which God’s advancement is described in terms of the Ark of the Covenant’s advancement.  Consequently, I’m concluding, the Golden Calf can be treated as a god, while actually serving as the pedestal for the God.  What I read about the Golden Calf in my latest reading may not be the last word on the Golden Calf in the book, however.

Halbertal and Margalit do not explicitly address my third question—-how the Canaanites were committing prostitution in worshiping their deities, when they were not in a covenant with God that required them to worship only the God of Israel.  But they do make an interesting point about idolatry being whoredom, on page 13: “The sin of idolatry is whoredom.  Israel gives her favors to whoever pays her the highest fee…”  Idolatry does not take into consideration such things as truth and justice, but rather who seems to pay more.  Halbertal and Margalit focus on Israel in their chapter “Idolatry and Betrayal”, but perhaps this sort of concept can apply to Gentile idolatry, as well.

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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