I’m continuing my way through Idolatry, by Moshe Halbertal and Avishai Margalit. I have three items.
1. Halbertal and Margalit ask if the ancients equated the astral bodies (i.e., the sun) with the gods of those astral bodies. Their answer is no. They say that the morning and the evening star are the same entity, and yet the Greeks worshiped two separate deities for them. I am unclear from my reading of Halbertal and Margalit if the Greeks were even aware that the morning and evening star were the same, for Halbertal and Margalit say “if the Greeks…had found out that Hesperus (the evening star) and Phosphorus (the morning star) were identical” (page 141). I think that the validity of Halbertal and Margalit’s argument in this case is contingent on whether or not the Greeks actually knew this. In any case, Halbertal and Margalit propose that the god was like an institution whereas the heavenly body was the building for the institution. Halbertal and Margalit say on page 142: “…the astral worshipers are not necessarily worshiping the stars any more than the worshipers of the God of Israel, who swear by the name of heaven and direct their prayers to heaven, are worshiping the heavens.” (UPDATE: On page 279, Halbertal and Margalit say that the Greeks at some point believed that the morning and evening star were the same star.)
2. One reason I started this book was because I was interested in the Golden Calf of Exodus 32—-did the Israelites consider it a god other than the true God, or a symbol of the true God, or a pedestal for the true God? On pages 186-187, Halbertal and Margalit refer to the view of Rabbi Judah Ha-Levi (twelfth century). According to Judah Ha-Levi, the Israelites in constructing the Golden Calf did not “deny the God who had taken them out of Egypt” (Halbertal and Margalit’s words). Rather, they wanted a picture that would provide them with God’s presence, and they could then address that symbol as a deity. But the problem was that they were doing this without a command from God.
I think that Judah Ha-Levi may be on to something. It certainly accounts for the different features of Exodus 32: the Israelites were holding a feast for YHWH at the Golden Calf, and yet they were also worshiping the Golden Calf itself and believed that, in constructing the Calf, they were making for themselves gods. Halbertal and Margalit’s point also reminds me of a thought I was having as I was reading Exodus: Moses was on the mountain, receiving instructions about the construction of the Tabernacle, which would allow God to dwell in the midst of Israel. Meanwhile, Israel was on the ground attempting by her own efforts to foster a divine presence in her midst, by constructing the Golden Calf. God was arranging to give Israel what she wanted and needed, and she was jumping the gun, and doing so inappropriately, at that.
3. This third item is rather diverse, for it mentions in a general sense some of the discussions in my latest reading of the book. I learned about Mahdi, the Islamic Messiah, who in folk belief is believed to be Jesus (page 166). I read about the Kabbalistic view that we should not worship one divine attribute at the expense of others, and that reminded me of conservative Christians who say that we shouldn’t just focus on God’s love but should remember that God is just and holy. Another topic was whether or not God can judge us over what we believe, since we cannot help what our beliefs are. One solution to this that the book mentioned was that we may not be able to control our beliefs, but we can still do concrete actions that will enhance our faith and lead us on the path to belief. In my opinion, though, that presumes that the person believes in Christianity at the outset, for why would she want to do those concrete actions unless she had the goal of becoming a Christian, or growing as one?