Does the Old Testament Slander Pagan Idol Worshipers?

Part 2: Criticisms of Ancient Pagan Religion (relative to images)



[Draft: Jan 3/2011; Updated May 28]


In addressing this question about the OT/Tanaach portrayal of pagan idols and idolatry:

An atheist I know also said that the writers of the Old Testament were simple minded, since the other tribes etc didn't actually think the Idols were gods, but just representatives. That people believed that the gods dwelt in them when you talked. As you can see this is confusing, please help… Thanks


I am approaching this subject in three parts:

  1. Description of ancient pagan religion on the subject [previous piece, idle1.html]

  2. Criticisms of ancient pagan religion by non-biblical and then biblical writers [this piece, idle2.html]

  3. Specific Pushbacks (i.e., scholars / writings which consider the OT portrayal as being either 'culpably ignorant' or 'conscious distortions' of pagan thought) [final piece, idle3.html]


In PART ONE (idle1.html), we first of all looked at a description of ancient pagan religion (relative to images) and found that

"For the vast majority of the populace in the ancient world, the image was considered to be identical with the deity (with some remainder, in the cases of major cosmic deities). There are complexities, inconsistencies, and exceptional cases to this, but this concept that the deity 'fused' with the image at its animation was presented, proclaimed, and celebrated in all the genres and all the festivals of the ANE (at least in the post-Abrahamic periods). Some of the theologians and theoreticians would have had qualms, reservations, and qualifications about such a simple equation of the two, but for most people this would be the default belief for them."

In this section we will look at Criticisms of ancient pagan religion by non-biblical and then biblical writers, before turning to Specific Pushbacks (i.e., scholars / writings which consider the OT portrayal as being either 'culpably ignorant' or 'conscious distortions' of pagan thought).



First of all, the Israelite polemical satire about worshipping idols was in perfect continuity with the rest of the ancient world. There were critics of pagan idol/deity identity in most of the ancient cultures surrounding Israel, including Persia, Egypt, Greece, Rome, and even some voices within Mesopotamian literature (examined in the next section).

Some of the criticisms were directed against the use of common material, some against the possibility of capturing the 'form' of a god in material, and some against exhaustive identification of deity and image. But much of this was in biting satire--as it was in many of the biblical passages.


From Egypt:

"With this, we have reached the end of our quest for information on how the ancient Egyptians believed that their cult statues were alive with divine essence. We can close with two passages that interestingly echo the prophetic polemics against idols.

"The first is from a story fictitiously set in the reign of Ramesses II (ca. 1290—1224 B.C.E.). The copy we have is from the Ptolemaic period, but the story could have been written as early as the period of the first Persian occupation of Egypt (525-404 B.C.E.), and it seems to reflect Egyptian concerns about the removal of cult statues from Egypt, perhaps at that time (see Mdrschauser 1988b: 216—23; texts recording the return of at least some of these statues to Egypt by the early Ptolemies were quoted above, pp. 126-27). In the tale, a cult statue of the god Khonsu of Thebes is sent to the far-off land of Bakhtan, where it cures a princess of an illness caused by an evil spirit that has possessed her. Once expelled, the evil spirit says to Khonsu, "Welcome in peace, great god who expels disease demons! Bakhtan is your home, its people are your servants. . . ." These seemingly welcome words are a ruse. The statue should have been returned to Egypt once its mission had been fulfilled, but it is the troublemaking spirit who evidently puts it in the mind of the Prince of Bakhtan to make Khonsu a god of his own land, as the spirit's own words already implied. The text goes on to say of the prince of Bakhtan:

Then he schemed with his heart, saying: "I will make the god stay here in Bakhtan. I will not let him go to Egypt." So the god spent three years and nine months in Bakhtan. Then, as the prince of Bakhtan slept on his bed, he saw the god come out of his shrine as a falcon of gold and fly up toward Egypt. He awoke in terror and said to the priest of Khons-the-Provider-in-Thebes: "The god is still here with us! He shall go to Thebes! His chariot shall go to Egypt!" Then the prince of Bakhtan let the god proceed to Egypt, having given him many gifts of every good thing and very many horses and soldiers (the translations are from Lichtheim 1980: 92-93).

"We have just been considering texts that describe how the divine ba, sometimes imaged as a bird, comes down from the sky and "alights" on the cult statue and "embraces" or "mingles with" it. Khonsu's dream threat to the prince is precisely this process, but in reverse: if the prince insists on keeping the statue in Bakhtan, the god's divine presence will depart from the statue and return to Egypt, leaving the prince with no god at all but only an inert material object. The prince then realizes the futility of his scheme, and he returns the statue to Egypt.

"The second passage is:

[. . . the wri] tings (or "drawings") of the manual of their primeval bodies [ . . . ] they have ceased, one after the other, (whether) of precious stones, gol[d . . . ] (Redford 1981: 89, 102).

"Carved on a block found reused in the Tenth Pylon of the temple at Karnak, the text preserves fragments of a speech of Akhenaten (ca. 1367-1350 B.C.E.). It is unfortunate that we do not have the entire inscription, because it was evidently a proclamation of essential elements of his "heretic" religious doctrine. In any event, the statement with which we are concerned clearly deals with cult statues, whose iconographic features, as we know from other surviving sources, were recorded in the form of drawings in manuals (Redford 1981: 93-94). For Redford, who published the text, this passage refers to "the evanescence of all other gods who, while perhaps once existing, have now 'ceased,' in contrast to the eternal, matchless sun. To me, at least, this text militates strongly in favour of the view that Akhenaten's beliefs approached the status of monotheism, rather than merely a pale, henotheistic tendency" (Redford 1981: 98; see also Redford 1984: 172). But a monotheistic statement would deny the existence of other gods, which this statement does not explicitly do. Coming as it does between reference to manuals containing drawings and a reference to precious stones and gold, the "they" of "they have ceased" cannot be deities per se but rather cult statues (see already Murnane 1995: 31). Akhenaten's form of worship was focused directly on the sun in the sky (the Aton, or 'sun-disk'); even the temples of Aton were open-air for this purpose, and no cult statues were used (see Redford 1984: 235). Even if an explicitly monotheistic statement appeared in a now-lost portion of this inscription, the most obvious and direct reference of the statement in question is to the king's decision not to employ cult statues in his own religious practice. Understood thus, this derision of cult statues as made of precious, but perishable, materials is a remarkable presaging of the polemics of the Hebrew prophets. [HI:BIHMOE, 199-201]


From Persia:

"Another reason for rejecting the statues and pictures of the gods is the belief that God is imageless. This is, of course, a central theme of the present study, and in the course of the current section we shall have to deal with the major expressions of this view. Already here, however, I should emphasize that the attribute of "imageless" is not unambiguous in Greek and Roman discourse. It may mean that God cannot be seen at all, somewhat similar to the biblical assumption; but it may also mean that God has no human form. As a rule, form means human form, but there are also other versions. We find a good example of this particular ambiguity already at an early stage of ancient culture: Herodotus tells of the customs in Persia, of which, as he points out, he has personal knowledge: "They [the Persians] are not wont to establish images or temples or altars at all; indeed they regard all who do so as fools, and this, in my opinion, is because they do not believe in gods of human form, as the Greeks do." [I, 131] The gods' images are, finally, rejected because idol worship is criticized. Ridiculing the worshipper of a statue is a common topos in ancient literature, one that occurs in most phases of Antiquity. We shall therefore have to refer to this argument frequently, but it should be said at the beginning that a criticism of idol worshipping is not directly concerned with the image, but with the worshipper's behavior. By implication, however, it also contains a view of what is the nature of the image. It is this implied view, often coming close to a clear statement, that concerns us here." [HI:ICON, 49-51]


In Greek/Hellenistic literature:

"As we saw in our last lecture, the Greek world which surrounded the Jews from the days of Alexander did worship images in a sense which gave justification to the Jewish mockery. Yet we have to note that in the Greek world itself there arose, quite independently of Jewish suggestion, a protest against the prevailing image-worship, a thin stream of protest running on through the centuries which can be traced from the sixth century B.C. up to the time when the Christian Church had spread through the Roman Empire and taken up the protest with a new loudness and passion. When we find writers of the popular philosophy in the second century a.d.Dio Chrysostom and Maximus of Tyre—discuss the question whether images of the gods are right and offer for them a regular philosophic defence, we could infer, even if we had no independent knowledge of the fact, that the lightness of images had been widely criticized. No one puts forward an elaborate defence of something which has not been attacked. It may well be that at a time as late as the second century a.d. many people in the Greek world had become uneasy in their minds about image-worship precisely because the Jewish and Christian denunciation of it was generally known. Yet we cannot say that Dio Chrysostom and Maximus of Tyre were thinking specially about Jews or Christians: both these writers felt themselves too much the representatives of the pure Hellenic tradition to be much troubled because some Hellenic institution was disliked by Orientals or people with an Oriental religion. It was probably the protest which had been raised by Greek philosophers of recognized standing against which they felt that image-worship needed to be defended. … With regard to the Jewish protest we saw that there were two grounds of objection to idolatry—one, the falsity of supposing that an inanimate material thing was alive, that you could give pleasure to any person by what you did to an idol, or get any help yourself from it; two, that to make anything which purported to be a visible similitude of God was to dishonour Him. Both these grounds of protest are found amongst the Greeks long before they came into contact with the Jews." [HI:HI, 63f]

"The philosopher Heraclitus, Xenophanes' younger contemporary, was also concerned with divine images. In negating the images of the gods he emphasized that other theme, and formulated a motif that was to become a central subject in the rationalistic critique of beliefs in the animated image, and in holy images in general. This theme is simple: it emphasizes the well-known fact that the material of which the gods' images are made is plain matter, regular wood or stone or metal, totally inanimate and utterly incapable of any perception, or understanding. Heraclitus exposes the flagrant contrast between people's belief in the image, and their behavior resulting from this belief, and the real nature of the idol they pray to and address in different ways. Believers, he said, "pray to statues of the gods, that do not hear them, as if they heard, and do not give, just as they cannot ask." It is correct to say that Heraclitus is not opposed to praying as such for, "his complaint is aimed at the obtuse idea that the images are gods." "Moreover," so another fragment reads, "they [the believers] talk to these statues [of the gods] as if one were to hold conversation with houses, in his ignorance of the nature of both gods and heroes." Heraclitus's satirical tone in the rejection of divine images, it has been said, anticipates that of the Christian polemicists. I do not intend to trace here the history of the critical attitude to sacred images in Antiquity, but I should note that the dependence of the god's forms on those of the people who make its images, and the utter lifelessness of the matter of which the images are made—that is, the arguments of Xenophanes and Heraclitus—in fact became the central topoi of the skeptical, critical tradition. As I have said, it was mainly the latter theme on which later critics focused. Contacts, reliable or fantastic, with foreign cultures and religions in distant lands brought home the acquaintance with aniconic cults. Of the Scythians Herodotus tells us that "images, altars, and shrines they do not make customarily, except to Ares." But what was the image on the altar to that one god? It was not a statue in human shape. A large amount of wood is piled up, Herodotus relates, and "on this pile is set an ancient iron sword" that serves as the cult image. But stories of foreign countries are also made to support the traditional themes of the critical tradition, especially the stress on the material of which a god's image is made. The Egyptian king Amasis, we learn, "had many treasures, and among them a golden footbath, in which Amasis himself and his fellow guests washed their feet on occasion of need. Amasis cut this up and made out of it an image of a god and set it up at the most suitable part of the city." The Egyptians, Herodotus continues, showed great reverence to the statue. Rejecting the god's image because it is a mere material object is a central argument in the satirical literature, especially in Hellenistic and Roman times. Ridicule and satire played a major part in combating popular beliefs in sacred and animated images. Making fun of the gods' statues lasted throughout Antiquity, and in the course of the centuries it assumed many forms. An important theme is the striking contrast between a god's omnipotence, and other qualities deemed to be characteristic of a divine being, and the utter helplessness of the image representing the god. This particular contrast, taken up time and again, was elaborated in concrete detail and taken to grotesque, laughter-evoking dimensions. I shall mention only a few examples. Heraclitus already strikes a satirical tone in dealing with adoring sacred images; as we have just seen, he compares the believers who talk to the statues of gods to people who are conversing with walls. But here the specific motif is that of the statue's inanimate nature, a subject to which we shall shortly return. Explicit satire of the god's image based on the helplessness of matter seems to have emerged only in Hellenism. The Battle of the Frogs and the Mice (known as the Batrachomyoma-chia) is an ancient parody of the Iliad. Although actually composed only in the third century b.c. (possibly even later), in late Antiquity it enjoyed the prestige of a text of legendary age. Athene (or rather Minerva), we learn from the parody, complains to Saturn that mice have nibbled away her mantle, and she cannot afford to pay the tailor for a new one.

O father, never will I come as an assistant to the mice in trouble, since they have done me many ills, having befouled my garlands, and lamps, for the sake of the oil. But this thing, such as they have done, has particularly eaten into my soul, they have nibbled away a garment, which I had worked with my own toil, and they have made holes in it. But the weaver presses me, and demands usury of me, [and] on this account I am worn out. For having borrowed, I worked it, and have not the wherewithal to pay back.

 'Mice inside the statue of a god, nibbling away at its very substance— that was an image that captivated the satirical imagination of Greek rationalists. One could hardly think of a more striking example of the contradiction between a god and its material image. We keep hearing of mice eroding a holy image from within. A satirist such as Lucian would certainly not miss the point. In the "Zeus Tragoedus" he tells the story, combining it with an interesting observation on the materials artists in different countries prefer for their work. He juxtaposes the techniques of Greek and Egyptian sculptors: the Greeks make marvelous statues of gold and ivory (a good description of the xoana, the typical cult statues). These statues, Lucian says, "have grace, beauty, and artistic workmanship," but they are "wood inside, [and thus] harboring whole colonies of mice" [HI:ICON, 52-54]


"In Greek literature we find identical objections to the confusion of the god and the image [footnote 57 to Plutarch]. The pious iconodule laments the identification; the satirist ridicules it. Diogenes (Vitae Philosophorum 2.116) reports that Stilpo of Megara, who taught at Athens around 320 BCE., once pointed to the famous chryselephantine statue of Athena and asked a man if that were the goddess Athena, the one of Zeus. When the man replied, "Yes," Stilpo countered that it was Athena of Phidias, not of Zeus, and therefore it was not a god." Few biblical texts can equal the satirical wit of Lucian (second century C.E.) in his Juppiter Tragoidus 7: Zeus, presiding over the assembly of the gods, seats them according to their material and workmanship: those of gold in the front row, followed by those of silver, then ivory, bronze, and lastly those of stone. Zeus does afford special honors to those made by Phidias, Alcamenes, or Myron. However, the atechnoi ('un-crafted') are ordered to huddle together apart from the rest. [HI:BIHMOE, 31]


"The Greek philosopher Zeno, the fifth-century B.C.E. founder of the Stoa, echoed the objections of Deutero-Isaiah in the following citation from Clement of Alexandria's Stromata:

Zeno, the founder of Stoicism, says in his Republic that there should be neither temples nor statues, for no product of human labor is worthy of the gods. He did not fear to write in his own words, "It is not fitting to construct temples, for a temple is not of much value and should not be called holy. For no product of human builders and handymen is of much value or holiness." [5.11.76] [HI:BIHMOE, 37]


"It is important to recognize that there was also a critique of “idolatry” expressed by Hellenistic intellectuals (Ps.-Heraclitus Ep. 4.; see H. W. Attridge, First-Century Cynicism in the Epistles of Heraclitus, HTS 29 [Missoula, MT: Scholars, 1976] 13–23, where there are a number of references to ancient sources). Plutarch (De Iside 379C–D) observes that some Greeks speak of the bronze, painted, and stone effigies as gods, rather than as statues (ἀγάλματα) of the gods, which is what they really are (see Acts 19:26; cf. v 23). Zeno, the founder of Stoicism, reportedly thought that the making of temples and images was unnecessary, for such human products are not worthy of the gods (von Arnim, SVF vol. 1, frag. 264 [quoted in Clement Alex. Strom. 5.12.76]). [Aune, D. E. (2002). Vol. 52B: Word Biblical Commentary : Revelation 6-16. Word Biblical Commentary (543–544). Dallas: Word, Incorporated.]

"Between the belief of the peasant, who took the animation of the idol in its most gross realistic sense, and the belief of the educated main, who regarded the ceremonies of worship as only expressing in a symbolic way that there was some unseen power somewhere, who liked to receive the homage of men, there may have been any number of intermediate shades. And the accessibility of the idol was far from always giving complete assurance that access was secured to the deity. In the beginning of the third century B.C., a time when rationalism had eaten far into ancient beliefs, the Athenians in their hymn to the Macedonian prince Demetrius contrast him with the far-away gods, whom men could only apprehend by means of idols.

"God mighty and near!
The other gods are far away somewhere,
Or cannot hear,
Or are not, or for men have no concern:
Thy form we see,
A living god, not wood or stone, and turn
Dear god, to Thee." [Athenaeus, vi. 253e]

[HI:HI, 29f]



In Roman literature:

"Another theme belonging to the subjects traditionally brought up in arguments against divine images relates to the material origin of the god's statue. Time and again we hear that from the very same piece of material the artisan can fashion either the figure of a god or some everyday, regular object, usually one lacking significance or dignity, and sometimes even serving base needs. As we have seen, this theme, clearly bearing a satirical character, already appears in the Bible (Isaiah 44). In Greek and Roman literature it is well known. Earlier in this section we have seen that Herodotus, who praises the Persians because they do not imagine their gods in human shape, tells of a golden footbath being melted down to become the image of a god. I shall not here set out to trace the history of this motif in Greco-Roman intellectual life. Perhaps its continuity may be suggested by a text composed many centuries after Herodotus. Horace begins one of his satires by making a god's image tell the story of how it came into being: "Once I was a fig-wood stem, a worthless log, when the carpenter, doubtful whether to make a stool or a Priapus, chose that I be a god. A god, then, I became." [Satires, I, 8, 1-3]. The mental picture of an artisan contemplating a piece of wood or stone, wondering whether to make of it some ordinary object or the image of a god, bears testimony to two important points. It shows, first, that there is nothing divine or supernatural in the stuff of which the god's statue is made. In its material substance, at least, the god's statue is not different from any other material object, and this total indifference of the matter to the shape of the god, into which it is cast, cannot but affect the god's image itself. Secondly, that mental image forcefully shows that the very existence of the god's statue is a matter of chance, or a human's arbitrary decision. There is no compelling inner necessity of the statue's coming into being. … In Jewish-Hellenistic literature, well known for its influence on the intellectual world of emerging Christianity, the motifs here discussed found forceful expression. [HI:ICON, 56f]


And this type of critique is even found today in the modern versions of image-worship (e.g. Hinduism):

"In view of these testimonies we may ask whether the mockery of the old Hebrew books is not justified, when it ridicules the absurdity of supposing images of wood and stone to be living beings ? So far as conceptions such as the Indian and Egyptian ones just spoken of have prevailed, we can hardly deny that the charge brought by the Hebrews against idolaters is substantiated. One may sometimes to-day hear superior persons rebuke the stupid narrow-mindedness of European Christians, especially of missionaries, who speak of Hindus bowing down to wood and stone. Such critics, they say, ought to understand that it is not the material image which the so-called "heathen" worship, but the divine being whom the image symbolizes. Unfortunately we have a striking testimony, in support of the missionary assertion, not from a missionary, not from a Christian, not from a European, but from a Hindu of such militant nationalism as the late Lala Lajpat Rai. That eminent Indian leader adhered to the sect of the Arya Somaj, founded by the holy man, Swami Dayananda Saraswati, in the early part of the last century. The sect is, of course, numerous and powerful to-day in Northern India, and makes it a principal part of its programme to combat idolatry, which it declares to be a perversion of the original Hinduism of the Vedas. In his book on the Arya Somaj Lala Lajpat Rai describes how the founder, Dayananda, first got his insight into the wrongness of idolatry. He was set, as a lad of fourteen, to watch an image of the god Shiva, in a temple at night. He saw a mouse run over the god's body and the god remain motionless. The shock convinced him, Lajpat Rai wrote, that "the image could not be Shiva himself, as was taught by the priesthood.” Note that the belief is here stated to have been, not merely a popular belief held by the simple and uninstructed, but a belief which the authoritative exponents of the religion, the priests, taught as true. [HI:HI, 35f; tanknote: notice the mice/pest theme as in the G-R criticisms]


We will see that the biblical passages against pagan religion include this argument content (i.e. inert matter) and its form (i.e. satire).



Secondly, the "pro-idolatry" voices in the ancient world RECOGNIZED the force of these criticisms. There are actual admissions of this problem in the literature, and specific attempts to overcome this material/naturalistic set of objections.


This can be seen in the ritual and/or theological attempts to 'remove' the human-craft and the 'natural origin' aspect in the construction of a cult statue:

"… Esarhaddon fully realized the theological problem stressed by the Israelite prophets, namely, of human artisans presuming to craft a divine image:

(14) Whose right is it, O great Gods, to create gods and goddesses in a place where humans dare not trespass? This task of refurbishing (the statues), which you have constantly been allotting me by oracle, is difficult! (15) Is it the right of deaf and blind human beings who are ignorant of themselves and remain in ignorance throughout their lives? (16) The making of the gods and goddesses is your right, it is in your hands; so I beseech you, create (the gods), and in your exalted holy of holies (17) may what you yourselves have in your heart be brought about in accordance with your unalterable word. (18) Endow the skilled craftsmen whom you ordered to complete this task with as high an understanding as Ea, their creator. (19) Teach them skills by your exalted word; (20) make all their handiwork succeed through the craft of Ninsiku.

The creation of the god was a supreme act of synergy between heaven and earth (STT 200.11: ina same ibbani ina erseti ibbanu), for the statue had been produced by earthly and godly artisans (STT 200.19: [sa]lam [bun]nanesa ili u ameli). Mesopotamian religion subordinated the earthly craftsmen to the craftsmen of the gods in several ways….The statue had to be enlivened by the special ceremony called the ka.luh.u.da.dingir/mis pi (pp. 55-121), equivalent to the Greek hidrusis or the Roman dedication. Without this ritual, the statue was only a dead product of human artisans: "This statue cannot smell incense, drink water, or eat food without the Opening of the Mouth!"—a phrase reminiscent of Psalm 135 and Jer 10:5. There is no need to discuss the Mesopotamian mis / pit pi ritual here, since Christopher Walker and I treat it in detail in another chapter in this book. However, two elements in this rite directly concern the way Mesopotamian religion responds to the theological difficulties of humans' crafting a god, as highlighted in the prophetic parodies: (1) the workmen swear that they did not make the god; (2) the ritual traces the statue back to its origin in the orchard and then witnesses its "rebirth" as a divine product. First of all, the two-day rite takes great pains to demonstrate that the statue was really a product of Ea and to disassociate it from the human craftsmen in whose atelier it had been prepared. In "reality" it was the product of the craft deities. Although Deutero-Isaiah and Jeremiah portray the human artisan searching the forest for the right tree, in the Mouth Washing incantations, this role is performed by Igi-sigsig, the carpenter of Anum:

Tamarisk, pure tree, growing up from a clean place, coming from a pure place, drinking water in abundance from the irrigation-channel; from its trunk gods are made, with its branches gods are cleansed. Igisigsig, the chief gardner of Anu, cut off its branches and took them (K.3511, 1—9).

After the reed hut and the cultic materials had been prepared on the river bank, the statue was processed from the bit mummi to the river with the accompanying incantation, "From this day forth you shall walk before Ea, your father." On the bank the tools used by the artisans (an adze, chisel, saw) together with a gold and silver tortoise and turtle were bound up in the body of a sacrificed sheep and thrown into the river. The artisans were mere surrogates of Ea: upon the completion of their task, the tools were again consigned to the watery abode of Ea, who was the 'Image Fashioner' (nu-dim-mud). The next morning the artisans {maru ummanu mala ila sudta ithu) are brought before the craft-gods Ninkurra, Kusibanda, Ninildu, and Ninzadim. Their hands are bound with a fillet and then are (symbolically) cut off with a tamarisk knife while each swears, "I swear that I [the smith] did not make you; Ninagal, Ea of the smith, made you" or "I [the carpenter] did not make you; Ninildu, Ea of the carpenter, made you," and so on "The meaning of what is here done is of course clear: the fact that the statue is the work of human hands is ritually denied and thus magically made nonexistent, nullified" (Jacobsen 1987: 23-24). [HI:BIHMOE, 39f]



Thirdly, the biblical anti-pagan arguments include--as only one of the arguments/attacks--the same criticisms and style of the voices outside the bible.

The biblical anti-pagan position includes at least these elements:

  1. The pagan deities (of whatever form) are not 'above nature' but are part of, and dependent on, the natural order themselves (unlike YHWH, 'creator of heaven and earth')

  2. The pagan deities (of astral/celestial form) cannot reliably predict the future (unlike YHWH)

  3. The pagan deities (of material/image form) are lifeless and cannot do anything, good or bad (unlike YHWH)


We will come back to the first two anti-pagan positions at the end of this, but here we are still working on the argument of number 3: the anti-idol position.


The biblical passages are in perfect continuity with the satires, lampoons, and denunciations as we have seen in the cultures around Israel. There is nothing essentially new or surprising here--it was a common position of the educated and 'more advanced' voices of the world at that time. [One author disparaged the prophetic critique as being 'unoriginal'. But in a world where 'originality' meant 'innovation' and 'not being rooted in the ancient or primordial past', this 'unoriginality' would be plus, not a minus!]


Here are the biblical passages that are mostly closely related to this (some addressed to Israel, actually), with some commentator comments following (all passages are from the ESV):


Why should the nations say, “Where is their God?”
Our God is in the heavens; he does all that he pleases.
Their idols are silver and gold, the work of human hands.
They have mouths, but do not speak; eyes, but do not see.
They have ears, but do not hear; noses, but do not smell.
They have hands, but do not feel; feet, but do not walk;
and they do not make a sound in their throat.
Those who make them become like them; so do all who trust in them. (Ps 115:1–8)


The idols of the nations are silver and gold, the work of human hands.
They have mouths, but do not speak; they have eyes, but do not see;
they have ears, but do not hear, nor is there any breath in their mouths.
Those who make them become like them, so do all who trust in them! (Ps 135:15–18).

Hear the word that the LORD speaks to you, O house of Israel. 2 Thus says the LORD:

Learn not the way of the nations, nor be dismayed at the signs of the heavens because the nations are dismayed at them, for the customs of the peoples are vanity. A tree from the forest is cut down and worked with an axe by the hands of a craftsman. They decorate it with silver and gold; they fasten it with hammer and nails so that it cannot move. Their idols are like scarecrows in a cucumber field, and they cannot speak; they have to be carried, for they cannot walk. Do not be afraid of them, for they cannot do evil, neither is it in them to do good.” There is none like you, O LORD; you are great, and your name is great in might. Who would not fear you, O King of the nations? For this is your due; for among all the wise ones of the nations and in all their kingdoms there is none like you. They are both stupid and foolish; the instruction of idols is but wood! Beaten silver is brought from Tarshish, and gold from Uphaz. They are the work of the craftsman and of the hands of the goldsmith; their clothing is violet and purple; they are all the work of skilled men. But the LORD is the true God; he is the living God and the everlasting King. At his wrath the earth quakes and the nations cannot endure his indignation.

Thus shall you say to them: “The gods who did not make the heavens and the earth shall perish from the earth and from under the heavens.” It is he who made the earth by his power, who established the world by his wisdom, and by his understanding stretched out the heavens. When he utters his voice, there is a tumult of waters in the heavens, and he makes the mist rise from the ends of the earth. He makes lightning for the rain, and he brings forth the wind from his storehouses. Every man is stupid and without knowledge; every goldsmith is put to shame by his idols, for his images are false, and there is no breath in them. They are worthless, a work of delusion; at the time of their punishment they shall perish. Not like these is he who is the portion of Jacob, for he is the one who formed all things, and Israel is the tribe of his inheritance; the LORD of hosts is his name. (Je 10:1–16).


To whom then will you liken God, or what likeness compare with him? An idol! A craftsman casts it, and a goldsmith overlays it with gold and casts for it silver chains. He who is too impoverished for an offering chooses wood that will not rot; he seeks out a skillful craftsman to set up an idol that will not move. (Is 40:18–20)


All who fashion idols are nothing, and the things they delight in do not profit. Their witnesses neither see nor know that they may be put to shame. 10 Who fashions a god or casts an idol that is profitable for nothing? 11 Behold, all his companions shall be put to shame and the craftsmen are only human. Let them all assemble, let them stand forth. They shall be terrified; they shall be put to shame together. 12 The ironsmith takes a cutting tool and works it over the coals. He fashions it with hammers and works it with his strong arm. He becomes hungry, and his strength fails; he drinks no water and is faint. 13 The carpenter stretches a line; he marks it out with a pencil. He shapes it with planes and marks it with a compass. He shapes it into the figure of a man, with the beauty of a man, to dwell in a house. 14 He cuts down cedars, or he chooses a cypress tree or an oak and lets it grow strong among the trees of the forest. He plants a cedar and the rain nourishes it. 15 Then it becomes fuel for a man. He takes a part of it and warms himself; he kindles a fire and bakes bread. Also he makes a god and worships it; he makes it an idol and falls down before it. 16 Half of it he burns in the fire. Over the half he eats meat; he roasts it and is satisfied. Also he warms himself and says, “Aha, I am warm, I have seen the fire!” 17 And the rest of it he makes into a god, his idol, and falls down to it and worships it. He prays to it and says, “Deliver me, for you are my god!” 18 They know not, nor do they discern, for he has shut their eyes, so that they cannot see, and their hearts, so that they cannot understand. 19 No one considers, nor is there knowledge or discernment to say, “Half of it I burned in the fire; I also baked bread on its coals; I roasted meat and have eaten. And shall I make the rest of it an abomination? Shall I fall down before a block of wood?” 20 He feeds on ashes; a deluded heart has led him astray, and he cannot deliver himself or say, “Is there not a lie in my right hand?” (Is 44:9–20).

Assemble yourselves and come; draw near together, you survivors of the nations! They have no knowledge who carry about their wooden idols, and keep on praying to a god that cannot save. (Is 45:20).

Bel bows down; Nebo stoops; their idols are on beasts and livestock; these things you carry are borne as burdens on weary beasts. They stoop; they bow down together; they cannot save the burden, but themselves go into captivity. (Is 46:1–2).

To whom will you liken me and make me equal, and compare me, that we may be alike? Those who lavish gold from the purse, and weigh out silver in the scales, hire a goldsmith, and he makes it into a god; then they fall down and worship! They lift it to their shoulders, they carry it, they set it in its place, and it stands there; it cannot move from its place. If one cries to it, it does not answer or save him from his trouble. (Is 46:5–7).

What profit is an idol when its maker has shaped it, a metal image, a teacher of lies? For its maker trusts in his own creation when he makes speechless idols! Woe to him who says to a wooden thing, Awake; to a silent stone, Arise! Can this teach? Behold, it is overlaid with gold and silver, and there is no breath at all in it. But the LORD is in his holy temple; let all the earth keep silence before him.” (Hab 2:18–20).

The heavens proclaim his righteousness, and all the peoples see his glory. All worshipers of images are put to shame, who make their boast in worthless idols; worship him, all you gods! (Ps 97:6–7).

Their land [Israel] is filled with idols; they bow down to the work of their hands, to what their own fingers have made. (Is 2:8).


Commentator comments:

"Isaiah’s denunciation of idols is the most theologically based of all the prophets. He finds the source of the inclination for the worship of idols in spiritual blindness (44:18) and self-delusion (44:20). Idolatry is thus the external manifestation of a spiritually impoverished mind. Isaiah points to the impossibility of likening anything on earth to God (40:18–20) and thus roots his polemic against idolatry in the spiritual nature of the deity. At the heart of Isaiah’s theological polemic is the fact that God cannot be likened to anything that is finite or temporal (cf. Dt. 4:15). Because God is pure spirit, any attempt to represent Him in symbolic form is a distortion of His person and hence a falsification of truth. [Bromiley, G. W. (1988; 2002). Vol. 2: The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, Revised (799). Wm. B. Eerdmans.

"Thus, the idol is nothing at all: man made it (Is. 2:8); its very composition and construction proclaims its futility (Is. 40:18–20; 41:6–7; 44:9–20); its helpless bulk invites derision (Is. 46:1–2); it has nothing but the bare appearance of life (Ps. 115:4–7). The prophets derisively named them gillűlîm (Ezk. 6:4, and at least 38 other times in Ezekiel) or ‘dung pellets’ (Koehler’s Lexicon), and ’elîlîm, ‘godlets’. [Wood, D. R. W., & Marshall, I. H. (1996). New Bible dictionary (3rd ed.) (496). Leicester, England; Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press.]

"The author now turns to an explicit discussion of the way in which an idol is constructed. Later (vv. 18–20) he will make explicit the implications of these actions, but that is not necessary. Without a word of explanation it is apparent to anyone that creation of the transcendent from the mundane is a contradiction in terms. The poet’s skill is in making painfully clear just how mundane the whole process is. He does so by taking us backward step-by-step from the end of the process to the beginning, showing in each stage how ludicrous it is for humans to make gods. We go from the final step of plating the wooden form with metal to the first step of planting seedlings from which the wood will be cut. The final irony is that the same log that supplies the god also supplies the fuel to heat the craftsman’s food and warm his body. (Verse 12) The author takes us into the process of god making at the final stage, where metal is applied to the wooden form. We stand at the forge in some awe as we watch a man of strength and skill go through all the steps of forcing the recalcitrant metal to obey his will and to take the shape he has designed. In both this verse and the next the piling up of activities suggests what a complex and wearisome task the business of making gods is. That suggestion is made explicit here with the closing statement. No matter how strong the ironworker may be, he will faint if he does not eat and drink. The contrast with God’s statements to Israel both before and after this is evident. Because Israel has not formed God, but he has formed them, they need not be wearied (40:28–31); because they do not carry him, but he them (45:20; 46:3), they need not hunger and thirst (43:19–20). [Oswalt, J. N. (1998). The Book of Isaiah. Chapters 40-66. The New International Commentary on the Old Testament (180–181). Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.]

"As in vv. 12 and 13, the conclusion of v. 14 seems to stress again the dependence of the gods. Here the man planted the tree and the rain made it grow. The god or the goddess of the idol is completely passive, acted upon, but incapable of any independent action. Of course, the pagan would have insisted that the god was active in the process because of the law of continuity, but Isaiah’s point is that the process of idol making calls that whole principle into question. Where is the activity of the gods, if they have to inhabit a form that is wholly dependent on the human mind for its inception, human skills for its creation, and the gifts of nature for its materials? (Verses 15–17) With relentless repetition the prophet now bears down on the final irony. How can a log, part of which was burned in service of human needs, become a god that demands human service and offers deliverance to its supplicants? Isaiah’s reaction to the gods is much the same as was Paul’s some 700 years later. They are nothing, lacking the power to bless or to defile (1 Cor. 8:4–8; cf. also Acts 17:29). The tragedy of the whole picture is established in the first words of v. 15: It shall be for people to burn. “Shall be for” expresses the idea of possession. The wood is given to humans (taking ʾādām in its general sense) for blessing, to be used. But instead of allowing that gift to turn their eyes in gratitude to the transcendent Creator who cannot be manipulated, they use the gift to make God in their own image in an attempt to make certain that the gifts will not be cut off in the future (cf. Rom. 1:18–23). Instead of the freedom of trust and grace, they (and we) constantly choose the bondage of manipulation and coercion. some of them (lit. “from them”) refers to part of the wood of the trees. The repetition of ʾap, moreover, is characteristic of chs. 40–48. It serves to emphasize the additional activities. Not only does the idol maker heat himself with the fire, he also feeds himself. But more than that, he also uses it to make a god for himself. The repeated statements that he makes it into an idol and worships (lit. “prostrates himself to”) it (vv. 15, 17) express the writer’s incredulity over the situation. It is as though he says, “Can you believe it, they actually.… Really, they actually.…” [Oswalt, J. N. (1998). The Book of Isaiah. Chapters 40-66. The New International Commentary on the Old Testament (181–182). Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.

"The immobility of the completed idol is now described under two images. It is like an immobile and speechless scarecrow in a patch of cucumbers. It has to be carried about because it lacks even the power to move from one place to another. Here is powerful irony. Idol-worship tried to capture in material objects what is a spiritual experience. As a result it encouraged the absurd practice of people venerating their own impotent creations. Jeremiah’s appeal to the people here is not to fear such lifeless inventions, which can do neither good nor evil. [Thompson, J. A. (1980). The Book of Jeremiah. The New International Commentary on the Old Testament (328). Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.

"The word “scarecrow” () appears only here in the OT and was misunderstood by the Versions, but Ep Jer 69 “like a scarecrow (προβασκάνιον) in a cucumber-field” secures the meaning. In aniconic Israel the only public images were scarecrows, ridiculous images to frighten off birds. As the signs of the sky are reduced to an idol, idols are here reduced to scarecrows; religious images that awe the populace are no different from a pole in a garden hung with rags waving in the wind. Scarecrows cannot speak; idols cannot speak. And more than not speaking, they even have to be picked up and carried, since they cannot walk. The description of the way idols are made makes it crystal clear that there is nothing in them to inspire fear; they cannot do any harm—but of course they cannot do any good either. (Compare Zeph 1:12, where the doubters are portrayed as saying the same thing about Yahweh.) Yehezkel Kaufmann has pointed out how curious it is that the prophetic mockery of idolatry never mocked any of the myths of the gods, myths which would have offered a fertile treasure-store for satire. But it is true that the pagans made no clear distinction between the heavenly bodies and the gods manifested in those heavenly bodies, and between the gods and the idol images in which the gods were made manifest; and this confusion allowed the prophet to make the dizzying reduction from an alarming portent in the sky to the contemptible scarecrow in a few short verses, demythologizing the whole pagan religious system by attacking it at its weakest point. [Holladay, W. L., & Hanson, P. D. (1986). Jeremiah 1 : A commentary on the Book of the Prophet Jeremiah, chapters 1-25. Hermeneia--a critical and historical commentary on the Bible (331–332). Philadelphia: Fortress Press.

"Abruptly the reference shifts from the omens of the sky to the cutting of a tree for an idol. How easy it is for a superstitious population to be awestruck by some celestial phenomenon; but really it has no more significance than a tree felled by a woodsman in the forest—what a stunning reductio ad absurdum! And the reduction is reinforced by the word “hands” in the next colon: an idol is a human creation, an expression of human imagination. The misplaced faith of pagans is nothing but a set of do-it-yourself tasks in a workshop. The subject of “he cuts” is not stated (compare GKC, sec. 144d). [Holladay, W. L., & Hanson, P. D. (1986). Jeremiah 1 : A commentary on the Book of the Prophet Jeremiah, chapters 1-25. Hermeneia--a critical and historical commentary on the Bible (331). Philadelphia: Fortress Press.

"The whole verse is heavy with sarcasm: these gods depicted by the idols had no part in the creation of heaven and earth and do not belong upon the earth or under the heavens. They must disappear. [Holladay, W. L., & Hanson, P. D. (1986). Jeremiah 1 : A commentary on the Book of the Prophet Jeremiah, chapters 1-25. Hermeneia--a critical and historical commentary on the Bible (335). Philadelphia: Fortress Press.

"The tension within this passage brought about by the contrast between the flippant contempt the poet expresses for the pagan gods and their images on the one hand and the awe he expresses for Yahweh is almost unbearable. Yahweh is unique, and great, and worthy of fear, the master of earthquakes and the Lord of history; the idols, by contrast, are nothing but scarecrows, dolled up with bits and pieces of decoration, worthy only to frighten passing birds intent on a meal. Yahweh and the idols—they are hardly in the same universe of discourse at all, yet the poet shifts repeatedly from the one to the other, giving the hearer a kind of vertigo in awareness. The idols are mocked in a kind of doggerel poetry, laughed to scorn; Yahweh is addressed and hymned in the solemn language of liturgy. Deutero-Isaiah would manage the same shift, but in large literary units (Isa 44:6–22*); the poet in the present passage manages to shift the hearer from the ridiculous to the sublime, back and forth, dizzyingly, and as a climax, as a bonus, he tosses in a word to say to the idolaters and the idol makers in their own tongue, a joke that spells the doom of their whole elaborate religious system with the plurality of their gods: “these”—the isolated plural pronoun—must ultimately perish, perish because Yahweh will ultimately deal with them. What a word from a defeated population lost among all the populations in the vast Babylonian Empire!—what a word, that Yahweh of hosts, who is the portion (almost the “possession”) of Jacob, will see to the destruction of the idols of that empire! If the idols are doomed, can Babylon’s doom be far behind? [Holladay, W. L., & Hanson, P. D. (1986). Jeremiah 1 : A commentary on the Book of the Prophet Jeremiah, chapters 1-25. Hermeneia--a critical and historical commentary on the Bible (336–337). Philadelphia: Fortress Press.

"This verse is part of a polemical taunt-song (Isa 44:9–20) directed at the Jewish exiles, which ridicules idolatry by representing it in the form of a caricature (see esp. Westermann, 144–52). This caustic satire exposes the preposterous inconsistency of using as fuel for warmth and for baking (“he kindles a fire and bakes bread”) the same perishable tree from which a god to be worshiped has been laboriously carved. Whereas in Gen 1:26–27 God made human beings in his image and likeness, this passage in Isaiah 44 unveils the absurdity and ignominy of deluded man, trying to make God in his image (McKenzie, 68; cf. Knight, 80). A similar satirical attitude towards the ridiculous futility and self-deception of idol makers and the folly of a quasi-magical veneration of images is found in chs. 13–14 (particularly, 13:11–13) of the deutero-canonical book of Wisdom, written in Alexandria in the mid-first century BC, and in the Roman poet Horace’s Satires, I, viii, 1–3 (Skinner, 57; Scullion, 64). [VanGemeren, W. (1998). Vol. 3: New international dictionary of Old Testament theology & exegesis (173). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House.

"The MT simply has 'one impoverished in respect of an offering', insisting that in idolatrous religion the 'value' of a god depends on the financial state of the devotee. Offering (fruma) is used of material given for a religious purpose (Ex. 35 - 36 passim). The god is not stronger, more lasting etc. than the earthly capacities of the chosen tree, nor more impressive, beautiful etc. than a skilled craftsman can make it. An idol that will not topple/'which will not/cannot move' is the crowning exposure of uselessness - for all the discernment in making the right choice of wood and skill in making the best figure, the thing is designed for immobility! The idolater would suppose his idol to represent some supernatural force or being, but the prophet inculcates a true understanding. Idols may look magnificent, venerable and mysterious, they may excite a sense of awe but there is nothing there except the materials - no ability but human ability, no innate resources but those of earth. Isaiah reflects not the creed of the idolater but the monotheism of the Bible. [JA Motyer, Isaiah, at 40.20]

"But in either case the setting up of the figure is the final operation, ver. 20b. Presumably the image would be fenced off in some way, rather like a 1914-18 war memorial. A cognate word ritka is used in Talmudic Aramaic for a 'chain-like fence'; in 1 Kings vi. 21 we read that Solomon 'drew chains (rattukot) of gold across in front of the inner sanctuary' (d'bir) of the temple. The next thing is to make a platform or base for the image. This must be of hard wood—that it was mulberry is a later fancy. To make the platform and fix (hakin, 'make firm') the image securely so that it will not fall down is the work of another skilled craftsman, this time a joiner (haras 'esim, xliv. 13). And when all is finished, what a pitiable 'likeness' of the living God! This is not malicious caricature. Durr (Ursprung und Ausbau der israelitisch-judischen Heilandserwartung, 1925, p. 147) quotes from the Babylonian New Year Festival liturgy a 'prescription' for making an idol: '(He summons) an engraver and gives him precious stones and gold from the treasury of Marduk to make two images for the sixth day (of the festival). He summons a joiner and gives him cedar and tamarisk-wood. He summons a goldsmith and gives him gold', overlays it . . . beaten] yerakk 'ennu, lit. 'beats it out', cf. xlii. 5, xliv. 24; Exod. xxxix. 3; Num. xvii. 4; Jer. x. 9. A noun from the root is rakia', 'firmament' (Gen. i. 6), conceived as a solid covering, 'beaten out', cf. Job xxxvii. 18, which speaks of 'beating out' the skies as a molten mirror. [OT:2NDIS, at 40.20]

"The OT knows nothing of the distinction between an idol in which the god is supposed to reside, and which may therefore be said to be identical with the god, and a symbol intended to remind the worshipper of God's presence. We may regret that, if only because the ancient Hebrews contributed nothing to the plastic arts. But such a distinction is hard to maintain, with the result that the Jew, to be on the safe side, almost without exception eschewed animal symbols, even in two dimensions, altogether. When all is said, crude idolatry is no better than the Bible depicts it. If we look for a reasoned anti-philosophy of idolatry, we can find it in Wisd. xiii. f. And the conclusion there is no less devastating than it is here. The truth is that monotheism with its aniconic, and pantheism-cum-polytheism with its iconic—to use an inoffensive adjective—worship, are based on different, and perhaps irreconcilable, conceptions of Reality. [OT:2NDIS, at 44.9-20]

This prong of the anti-pagan position was continued in post-biblical Jewish writings, most vividly in the Wisdom of Solomon and the Letter of Jeremiah. In the main, they conform to the biblical (and extra-biblical) themes and styles but go beyond them slight in detail.


From Wisdom of Solomon 13.10-19:

But miserable, with their hopes set on dead things, are those
who give the name “gods” to the works of human hands,
gold and silver fashioned with skill, and likenesses of animals,
or a useless stone, the work of an ancient hand.
A skilled woodcutter may saw down a tree easy to handle and skillfully strip off all its bark,
and then with pleasing workmanship make a useful vessel that serves life’s needs,
and burn the cast-off pieces of his work to prepare his food, and eat his fill.
But a cast-off piece from among them, useful for nothing, a stick crooked and full of knots,
he takes and carves with care in his leisure, and shapes it with skill gained in idleness;
he forms it in the likeness of a human being,
or makes it like some worthless animal, giving it a coat of red paint and coloring its surface red
and covering every blemish in it with paint;
then he makes a suitable niche for it, and sets it in the wall, and fastens it there with iron.
He takes thought for it, so that it may not fall, because he knows that it cannot help itself,
for it is only an image and has need of help.
When he prays about possessions and his marriage and children,
he is not ashamed to address a lifeless thing.
For health he appeals to a thing that is weak;
for life he prays to a thing that is dead;
for aid he entreats a thing that is utterly inexperienced;
for a prosperous journey, a thing that cannot take a step;
for money-making and work and success with his hands
he asks strength of a thing whose hands have no strength.



From the Letter of Jeremiah 6.8-69:

Their tongues are smoothed by the carpenter, and they themselves are overlaid with gold and silver; but they are false and cannot speak. 9 People take gold and make crowns for the heads of their gods, as they might for a girl who loves ornaments. 10 Sometimes the priests secretly take gold and silver from their gods and spend it on themselves, 11 or even give some of it to the prostitutes on the terrace. They deck their gods out with garments like human beings—these gods of silver and gold and wood 12 that cannot save themselves from rust and corrosion. When they have been dressed in purple robes, 13 their faces are wiped because of the dust from the temple, which is thick upon them. 14 One of them holds a scepter, like a district judge, but is unable to destroy anyone who offends it. 15 Another has a dagger in its right hand, and an ax, but cannot defend itself from war and robbers. 16 From this it is evident that they are not gods; so do not fear them.

17 For just as someone’s dish is useless when it is broken, 18 so are their gods when they have been set up in the temples. Their eyes are full of the dust raised by the feet of those who enter. And just as the gates are shut on every side against anyone who has offended a king, as though under sentence of death, so the priests make their temples secure with doors and locks and bars, in order that they may not be plundered by robbers. 19 They light more lamps for them than they light for themselves, though their gods can see none of them. 20 They are just like a beam of the temple, but their hearts, it is said, are eaten away when crawling creatures from the earth devour them and their robes. They do not notice 21 when their faces have been blackened by the smoke of the temple. 22 Bats, swallows, and birds alight on their bodies and heads; and so do cats. 23 From this you will know that they are not gods; so do not fear them.

24 As for the gold that they wear for beauty—it will not shine unless someone wipes off the tarnish; for even when they were being cast, they did not feel it. 25 They are bought without regard to cost, but there is no breath in them. 26 Having no feet, they are carried on the shoulders of others, revealing to humankind their worthlessness. And those who serve them are put to shame 27 because, if any of these gods falls to the ground, they themselves must pick it up. If anyone sets it upright, it cannot move itself; and if it is tipped over, it cannot straighten itself. Gifts are placed before them just as before the dead. 28 The priests sell the sacrifices that are offered to these gods and use the money themselves. Likewise their wives preserve some of the meat with salt, but give none to the poor or helpless. 29 Sacrifices to them may even be touched by women in their periods or at childbirth. Since you know by these things that they are not gods, do not fear them.

30 For how can they be called gods? Women serve meals for gods of silver and gold and wood; 31 and in their temples the priests sit with their clothes torn, their heads and beards shaved, and their heads uncovered. 32 They howl and shout before their gods as some do at a funeral banquet. 33 The priests take some of the clothing of their gods to clothe their wives and children. 34 Whether one does evil to them or good, they will not be able to repay it. They cannot set up a king or depose one. 35 Likewise they are not able to give either wealth or money; if one makes a vow to them and does not keep it, they will not require it. 36 They cannot save anyone from death or rescue the weak from the strong. 37 They cannot restore sight to the blind; they cannot rescue one who is in distress. 38 They cannot take pity on a widow or do good to an orphan. 39 These things that are made of wood and overlaid with gold and silver are like stones from the mountain, and those who serve them will be put to shame. 40 Why then must anyone think that they are gods, or call them gods? Besides, even the Chaldeans themselves dishonor them; for when they see someone who cannot speak, they bring Bel and pray that the mute may speak, as though Bel were able to understand! 41 Yet they themselves cannot perceive this and abandon them, for they have no sense. 42 And the women, with cords around them, sit along the passageways, burning bran for incense. 43 When one of them is led off by one of the passers-by and is taken to bed by him, she derides the woman next to her, because she was not as attractive as herself and her cord was not broken. 44 Whatever is done for these idols is false. Why then must anyone think that they are gods, or call them gods?

45 They are made by carpenters and goldsmiths; they can be nothing but what the artisans wish them to be. 46 Those who make them will certainly not live very long themselves; 47 how then can the things that are made by them be gods? They have left only lies and reproach for those who come after. 48 For when war or calamity comes upon them, the priests consult together as to where they can hide themselves and their gods. 49 How then can one fail to see that these are not gods, for they cannot save themselves from war or calamity? 50 Since they are made of wood and overlaid with gold and silver, it will afterward be known that they are false. 51 It will be manifest to all the nations and kings that they are not gods but the work of human hands, and that there is no work of God in them. 52 Who then can fail to know that they are not gods?

53 For they cannot set up a king over a country or give rain to people. 54 They cannot judge their own cause or deliver one who is wronged, for they have no power; 55 they are like crows between heaven and earth. When fire breaks out in a temple of wooden gods overlaid with gold or silver, their priests will flee and escape, but the gods will be burned up like timbers. 56 Besides, they can offer no resistance to king or enemy. Why then must anyone admit or think that they are gods?

57 Gods made of wood and overlaid with silver and gold are unable to save themselves from thieves or robbers. 58 Anyone who can will strip them of their gold and silver and of the robes they wear, and go off with this booty, and they will not be able to help themselves. 59 So it is better to be a king who shows his courage, or a household utensil that serves its owner’s need, than to be these false gods; better even the door of a house that protects its contents, than these false gods; better also a wooden pillar in a palace, than these false gods.

60 For sun and moon and stars are bright, and when sent to do a service, they are obedient. 61 So also the lightning, when it flashes, is widely seen; and the wind likewise blows in every land. 62 When God commands the clouds to go over the whole world, they carry out his command. 63 And the fire sent from above to consume mountains and woods does what it is ordered. But these idols are not to be compared with them in appearance or power. 64 Therefore one must not think that they are gods, nor call them gods, for they are not able either to decide a case or to do good to anyone. 65 Since you know then that they are not gods, do not fear them.

66 They can neither curse nor bless kings; 67 they cannot show signs in the heavens for the nations, or shine like the sun or give light like the moon. 68 The wild animals are better than they are, for they can flee to shelter and help themselves. 69 So we have no evidence whatever that they are gods; therefore do not fear them. (Let Jer 6:40–69).



These anti-idol passages are not aimed at ANE religious elites, theologians, or myth-makers(!), but to the audiences of the prophets: the common Israelite who would see idols in trade encounters, hear stories of the beauty of idols from travellers, have perhaps seen the elite rich foreigners in lavish worship of the idols/temples set up by Solomon's wives in Jerusalem (I Kings 11), have relatives in idolatrous Northern Israel, and/or live among idols in the waves of Diasporas experienced by Israel since its inception. The passages were to remind the Israelite that idolatry was as 'silly as it looked'--at rock bottom, it was just about rocks.

"In the satires the poet makes fun of the idol-maker, who uses the same wood for an image and to make a fire, and then worships the image. This is most clearly seen in the “idol parody” poems (cf. Roth). This kind of polemic is not aimed at proselytizing, since no worshiper of another religion would accept the caricature, but at minimizing the attraction of such worship to the Judaeans of the Diaspora living amongst Babylonians, Egyptians, and Greeks. Many of these poems have been collected in Isa 40–45; cf. also 48:5. But others may be found in Jer (e.g., Jer 10:1–16), Hab (Hab 2:18–19), and (using עָצַב) Psalms. [VanGemeren, W. (1998). Vol. 3: New international dictionary of Old Testament theology & exegesis (645–646). ]

"One might argue, of course, that Second Isaiah's radical attack on idolatry was aimed at all idolaters, not only Israelites, and that by implication this attack denounced the worship of other gods as vain and stupid wherever that worship was to be found. It seems clear, however, that the denunciation is principally aimed at the practice of idolatry among the prophet’s Israelite audience rather than at Israelite toleration of that practice among others; it cannot in fact be determined whether the author was concerned with such toleration at all and even meant to include it among the targets of his polemic." [HI:NKTN, 25f]

"A third difference [between ANE and biblical prophets] observable in the content of the message is the result in the audience to whom it is addressed. When the classical prophets of Israel begin to bring their messages to the people rather than the king, they depart from anything known from the ancient Near East context." [AILCC:214]


This can be clearly seen in Amos 5.26f. The transportation of idols is not some Meso-cultic parade, but the action of an Israelite going into exile(!):

"There are several reasons for linking v 26 to v 27. It predicts something that will happen when they go into exile. They will carry their gods with them. This reading is supported by the natural meaning of the waw-consecutive used with the initial verb. Because the gods in question are most probably Assyro-Babylonian astral deities, they are probably a feature of contemporary worship in Israel, already infected by influences from that quarter. The association with Mesopotamia probably reflects common unofficial cultural interchange, and we can speculate that Israel was on friendly terms with Assyria in a time of open warfare between Israel and Aram (cf. 2 Kgs 14:28ff.). When they go into exile they will take with them the gods whom they worshiped in Israel, and they will worship them in their new homeland." [ABC, Amos 5.25]

Practically speaking (even has Kaufman has noted: "The mass of worshipers, even among the pagan nations, had at times only very dim notions of the mythological basis of their rites.") we don’t need an attack on the complicated mythology--which nobody in the audience would have understood anyway!--to accomplish to teaching goal that idols are pretty-but-empty for spiritual purposes!


Indeed, in the case of family deities, there WAS NO weird mythology to attack, and in the case of many of Israel's direct Transjordanian neighbors, there weren't any elaborate mythologies attached to Chemosh or Milcom. ANE deities generally just 'borrowed' (often via assimilation, but sometimes through military subjugation) the legacy of other, similar deities. There were some developed myths for Ashtoreth and Baal, but the 'high' mythology (as opposed to the 'lower behavioral morality'!) was not clearly communicated in the rituals, to say the least. [We will consider the 'lower' versions below...]


Most of the performances of the big-myths were done in royal, closed-temple-session, and private enactments anyway--without the public even getting a glimmer of an idea of constitutive myth going on. The Israelite prophets hit the issue head on, and correctly…

"At least one question remains: to what degree were those sacred buildings accessible, and to whom? There is a chance that as a rule— at least for practical reasons of keeping order—the public was no more easily allowed into them than they were into the palaces of the kings. ... The temples, at least some of them, were therefore more or less accessible to the common "faithful," who were free to carry out their devotions there. [OT:RIAM, 118f]


Ok, so where are we?

  1. The biblical anti-idol argument is essentially the same as the pagan anti-idol arguments.

  2. The biblical anti-idol argument (like the pagan anti-idol argument) does not misrepresent the prevalent belief of the non-elite worshipper.

  3. The biblical anti-idol argument (like the pagan anti-idol argument) is addressed to the common Israelite who might have been attracted to the pageantry, tangibility, or novelty of idol worship.



Fourthly, the biblical anti-pagan arguments go beyond the simple satirical attacks, and hit at the more theological bases of pagan religion as well.


The biblical anti-pagan position also included these elements, targeted at other claims of foreign religion.

1. The pagan deities (of whatever form) are not 'above nature' but are part of, and dependent on, the natural order themselves (unlike YHWH, 'creator of heaven and earth')

2. The pagan deities (of astral/celestial form) cannot reliably predict the future (unlike YHWH)


Let's look at the second one first--the argument from prophecy of the future.


The Mesopotamians were famous for divinization, astrology, omen-counting, astronomic records, and fortune-telling. And yet the prophecies recorded in their literatures are vague, imprecise, and nebulous. The Israelite challenge to these deities is to predict something really historical and something concrete--or abandon the claim to be a god.

"21–24 Here the idols are called to give evidence that they can tell the future, or that they have ever done so. Can they explain how the world began or how it will end? Is there any place where an idol’s interpretation of the future has been recorded so that its accuracy can be checked? The prophet answers all these with a resounding no and a scathing denunciation of the worship of such beings. Some commentators (e.g., Duhm) suggest that Isaiah’s arguments are only so much rhetoric since he certainly must have known about the many ways in which the priests and prophets of the pagan religions purported to give oracles of the future. But study of these oracles shows that they were always guardedly ambiguous, so that almost any outcome could be taken as fulfillment of the prediction. A classic example is the Delphic oracle’s response to Croesus’s query concerning the outcome of the conflict between himself and Cyrus. Croesus understood the answer “a mighty empire will be destroyed” to mean that he would be victorious. But after Cyrus’s crushing victory, the oracle indicated that it was talking about Croesus’s own Lydian Empire. By contrast, the Bible is noted for the detailed and meticulously recorded predictions that it makes, especially about the exile. As Westermann notes, there is nothing like the prophecies of the exile in either the Egyptian or the Babylonian literatures. Furthermore, the explicit nature of the biblical prophecies not only about the exile but also about many other matters is unparalleled. To be sure, many biblical critics discount such predictions, arguing that they must have occurred after the fact. Nevertheless, they are found in the biblical record, not elsewhere. If Isaiah knows or even suspects that the predictions are not predictions at all, it is not only disingenuous of him to argue as he does here, it is completely inexplicable. Why expend this much eloquence on a case one knows is false? [Oswalt, J. N. (1998). The Book of Isaiah. Chapters 40-66. The New International Commentary on the Old Testament (106). Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.]

"The most illuminating commentary is a story in Herodotus (i. 46-51), who relates that when Croesus of Lydia was faced with the prospect of having to measure his power with that of Cyrus, he took the initiative and prepared to attack Media, which had recently been absorbed by Persia. He sent lavish gifts to all the oracles of Greece and even beyond, praying them to let him know what would be the outcome of the campaign. 'We can understand that for all this Croesus got the best advice consistent with the ignorance and caution of the priests whom he consulted. The oracles told him that if he went against Cyrus he would destroy a great empire; but he forgot to ask, whether it was his own or his rival's' (G. A. Smith, The Book of Isaiah, ii, 2nd ed., 1927, p. 117). The oracles always took care to be on the right side, on the principle, 'Heads I win, tails you lose!' The Prophet had every reason to be satirical about idols. Even if he had never heard of Delphi, the oracles of the Babylonian gods did not inspire any greater confidence (cf. xlvii. 13). [OT:2NDIS, at 41.24]

"26 God challenges the gods to tell him which one of them predicted Cyrus’s coming. Of course the answer is that none of them did. But some reflection on this answer is called for. When did God make this prediction? In 545 B.C., after the Persian’s conquests had begun? This was also, incidentally, after the Babylonian king Nabonidus had gone off with the Babylonian gods to the oasis at Tema with the result that the New Year’s processions were not carried out (an offense for which it is later said Marduk abandoned Nabonidus and called in Cyrus). Thus it would have been entirely possible, even likely, for Babylonian oracles to have made the same prediction. Yet Isaiah speaks of something which was said to Jerusalem (v. 27), which was clearly neither expected nor ordinary. If these predictions were something any prescient person could have made, then what is the point of the argument here? If these predictions were indeed made at least 160 years in advance, as the present form of the book clearly maintains, there is every reason to believe that the argument is stunningly correct. In other words, all the arguments from predictive prophecy are useless unless the idols clearly could not duplicate such prediction. If the only kinds of prophecy that existed were those that modern critics are willing to admit—those with no supernatural intervention necessary—then the ground is cut out from under the central argument for God’s uniqueness (vv. 22–23; cf. also 43:8–13; 44:6–8; 45:18–19). Then the supposed writers are not gifted theologians, but either ignorant poets or crafty charlatans. For Isaiah, any interpretation of history has to have the possibility of verification. This is similar to the scientific theory. If one claims to understand a process, then one must be able to predict how that process will unfold, given certain circumstances. So it is in history. We must be able to say, It is right. Without that kind of verification one interpretation of history has as good a claim as another. In a ringing triad of conclusions, each introduced by ʾap, in fact, God declares that none revealed, none made anyone hear, and none heard. The literary progression from revealer to listener is satisfying in its completeness, as is the shift in subject in the last phrase from that in the first two. The effect is one of absolute certainty. Not one whisper of Cyrus’s coming has been made by the gods or heard by one of their adherents. [Oswalt, J. N. (1998). The Book of Isaiah. Chapters 40-66. The New International Commentary on the Old Testament (103–104). Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co. (at 41.26)]


For comparison, the largest collection of non-biblical prophetic texts come from Mari, and are addressed to the king and royal family there.

"The ancient city of Mari was the capital of a kingdom that in the second half of the third and the first half of the second millennium B.C.E. was a significant political and economic power in the Near East. The kingdom of Mari occupied large areas on the middle Euphrates and the river Habur and controlled the principal trade routes between Babylonia and Syria. Since 1933, the temples and palaces of Mari have been unearthed in excavations at Tell Ḥarīri in modern Syria, located on the western bank of the Euphrates river only a few kilometers from the Iraqi border. The royal palace of Mari soon turned out to be a treasure trove of written records: more than twenty thousand tablets have been brought to light so far, thousands of which are still unpublished. The overwhelming majority of the tablets date from the time of Yasmaḫ-Addu (ca. 1792–1775) and Zimri-Lim (ca. 1774–1760), the last kings of Mari prior to its destruction by Hammurabi, king of Babylon (for chronology, see Birot 1978; Anbar 1991: 29–37). The texts, published in the series Archives royales de Mari (ARM), include administrative documents of different kinds (expense texts, gift texts, texts concerning provincial administration, etc.), letters, treaties, ritual and omen texts and literary texts (Durand 1992). …

"Among the hundreds of letters excavated from Mari, a substantial dossier deals with divination. Besides the correspondence between the diviners and the king, dreams, oracles and ominous events are reported to the king by several individuals, mostly by high officials or royal ladies. Even prophetic oracles are frequently reported in letters, which are the only available source of information about the contents of prophetic messages at Mari. … As mouthpieces of deities, prophets were primarily servants of the gods whose words they proclaimed. The Mari prophets tend to be associated with a specific deity. They are often referred to as “NN prophet of DN,” for example, Abiya, āpilum of Adad (no. 2) and Lupaḫum, āpilum of Dagan (no. 9). This indicates the attachment of the prophets to particular deities and temples. In many cases the prophecy is said to have been uttered and dreams to have been seen in the temple of a goddess or god. Among the deities speaking in the prophecies, the god Dagan (thirteen letters) and the goddess Annunitum, a manifestation of Ištar (five letters), most often have the word. In addition, several other goddesses (e.g., Belet-ekallim, Diritum, Ninḫursag) and gods (e.g., Adad, Šamaš, Marduk) speak through the mouths of the prophets and dreamers…

"The outstanding theme of the prophecies, as can be expected of oracles embedded in the royal correspondence, is the well-being and the warfare of the king. Especially in the letters sent by the royal ladies, the king is advised to protect himself, whether as a part of the prophecies delivered or as the writer’s personal message attached to them (nos. 7, 14, 23, etc.). Many prophecies proclaim the victory of the king over his enemies and adversaries in general terms. The enemies in question are often called by name, which connects the prophecies with specific political crises (see Durand 1988: 399–402; Charpin 1992).

"The rebellion of the Yaminites, the nomadic groups living on the southern side of the Euphrates, in about the fourth year of Zimri-Lim’s reign, is the theme of numbers 10 and 38, and the oracles against the Yaminites are mentioned as a precedent for Zimri-Lim’s peace preliminaries with Ibalpiel II, king of Ešnunna, in the sixth year of his reign in number 9. The peace with Ešnunna is explicitly opposed also in number 7 and, implicitly, in numbers 12 and 13—obviously in vain, since Zimri-Lim, despite the prophetic warnings, indeed engaged himself in an alliance with Ešnunna! The enemies mentioned in the prophecies also include Hammurabi, king of Kurdâ (no. 4), and the Elamites (no. 18), against whom Zimri-Lim was at war in his eleventh year. Another enemy was Išme-Dagan, who was of Yaminite origin, son of Šamši-Adad, king of Assyria, and brother of Yasmaḫ-Addu, the predecessor of Zimri-Lim on the throne of Mari. Išme-Dagan was appointed by his father the king of Ekallatum in Assyria. He is mentioned not only as an aggressor against Mari (no. 17; cf. no. 48), but also as a refugee under the protection of Hammurabi, king of Babylon (no. 47). Zimri-Lim’s war against Hammurabi is referred to in a number of encouraging oracles (nos. 19, 20, 22), but the hopes inspired by these oracles were dashed, since this war led to the final destruction of Mari. [Nissinen, M., Ritner, R. K., Seow, C. L., & Machinist, P. (2003). Vol. 12: Prophets and prophecy in the ancient Near East. Writings from the ancient world (13, 16-17). Atlanta, GA: Society of Biblical Literature.]


To see the level of detail and tone, here are a few of the first (multi-line) texts with predictive content from the resource quoted above:


Speak to my lord: Thus Nur-Sîn, your servant:

3 Abiya, prophet of Adad, the lord of Alep[po], came to me and said: “Thus says Adad: ‘I have given the whole country to Yaḫdun-Lim. Thanks to my weapons, he did not meet his equal. He, however, abandoned my cause, so I g[av]e to Šamši-Adad the land I had given to him.Šamši-Adad [...]

1′... let me re[st]ore you! I restored you to the th[rone of your father’s house], and the weapon[s] with which I fought with Sea I handed you. I anointed you with the oil of my luminosity, nobody will offer resistance to you.

………….


S[peak t]o Zimri-L[im]: Thus the prophet of [Ša]maš:

3 Thus says Šamaš: “[I am] the lord of the lan[d]! Send quickly to Sippar, the [ci]ty of life, a great throne for [my] enjoyable dwelling, and your daughter whom I desired from you! Now the kings who [conf]ronted you and regularly pl[undered you] have submitt[ed] to your p[ow]er. Now the he[ap] (of the enemies’ corpses?) is given [to you] in the land!

32 Another matter: thus says Šamaš: “Hammurabi, king of Kurdâ, has [talked d]eceitfully with you, and he is contriving a scheme. Your hand will [capture him] and in [his] land you will promu[lgate] an edict of restoration. Now, the land in [its entirety] is given to your hand. When you take con[trol] over the city and promulgate the edict of restoration, [it sho]ws that your kingship is etern[al].

……………………………..


Speak to my lord: Thus Šamaš-naṣir, your servant: 5 When my lord decided to undertake the campaign, he gave me the following instructions: “You reside in the city of God. Write to me whatever oracle is de[live]red in the temple of God and which you hear.” [Sin]ce that day, [I have not hea]rd anything [in the temple] ...

1′“[Now, let them c]all [Tišpak before me] and I will pass judgment.’ So they called on Tišpak for me, and Dagan said to Tišpak as follows: ‘From Šinaḫ (?) you have ruled the land. Now your day has passed. You will confront your day like Ekallatum.”

………………………………….


Speak to my lord: Thus Sammetar, your servant:

5 Lupaḫum, prophet of Dagan, arrived here from Tuttul. The message that my lord entrusted him in Saggaratum: “To Dagan of Terqa entrust me!”—this message he transmitted and they answered him: “Wherever you go, joy will always find you! Battering ram and siege-tower will be given to you, and they will travel by your side; they will be your companions.” With this message they answered him in Tuttul. …

29 To me he spoke: “Wh[at] if the king, without consulting God, will engage himself with the man of [Eš]nunna! As before, when the Yamin[ite]s came to me and settled in Saggaratum, I was the one who spoke to the king: ‘Do not make a treaty with the Yaminites! I shall drive the shepherds of their clans away to Ḫubur and the river will finish them off for you,’ Now then, he should not pledge himself without consulting God.” This is the message Lupaḫum spoke to me.

41 Afterwards, on the following [da]y, a qammatum of Dagan of T[erqa] came and spoke [to me]: “Beneath straw water ru[ns]. They keep on send[ing to you] messages of friendship, they even send their gods [to you], but in their hearts they are planning something else. The king should not take an oath without consulting God.”

……………………………………


[Sp]eak [to m]y lord: [Th]us Aḫum, priest of [Annunitum], your [servant]:

5 Ḫubatum, the prophetess, delivered the following oracle:

7 “A wind will rise against the la[nd]! I will test its wings and [its] two ...[...]b—[let] Zimri-Lim and the Simʾ[al]ite [do] the harvest[ing]! Zimr[i-Lim, do not let] the land in i[ts e]ntirety [slip] from [your] ha[nd]!”

17 Again she [spoke]: “O Yami-[ni]tes, why do you cause wor[ry]? I will put you to the proof!”



For another example, the second largest collection of non-biblical prophecies we have is Assyrian and they are basically 'think positive' type messages:

"The second biggest corpus of ancient Near Eastern prophetic texts outside the Hebrew Bible comes from the royal archive of Nineveh, which is the main source of our knowledge of the Neo-Assyrian empire … Most of the prophecies can be characterized as oracles of well-being (šulmu), proclaiming the reconciliation of the king with the gods. This reconciliation guarantees the equilibrium of heaven and earth, as demonstrated by the stable rule of the Assyrian king, his superiority over all enemies and adversaries and the legitimate succession. The divine reconciliation is effected by the intercession of Ištar who protects the king and fights for him; this is described by rich metaphorical language, that employs maternal images side by side with metaphors for destruction, often taken from nature (Weippert 1985). [Nissinen, M., Ritner, R. K., Seow, C. L., & Machinist, P. (2003). Vol. 12: Prophets and prophecy in the ancient Near East. Writings from the ancient world (97, 100–101). Atlanta, GA: Society of Biblical Literature.]


Here are the first few texts (multi-line) listed in the reference above, starting at page 102, so you can see the level of predictive detail:

4′ [Esarh]addon, king of the lands, fear [not]! What is the wind that has attacked you, whose wings I have not broken? Like ripe apples your enemies will continually roll before your feet.

11′ I am the great Lady, I am Ištar of Arbela who throw your enemies before your feet. Have I spoken to you any words that you could not rely upon?

18′ I am Ištar of Arbela, I will flay your enemies and deliver them up to you. I am Ištar of Arbela, I go before you and behind you.

…………………….


30′ King of Assyria, fear not!

31′ The enemy of the king of Assyria I will lead to the slaughter. [In] the Palace of Succession [I prote]ct you and [rai]se you.

36′ I am [the gr]eat Lady, [I am Ištar o]f Arbela! [... fr]om it. [...]

1′[...] w[ha]t [...] I did not hear y[ou]? [I will bring enemies] in necksto[cks, allies] with tribu[te]. I have de[feated] your enemy in a single [combat]!

8′I have inspired you with confidence, [I] do not sit idle.

………………….


16′ Fear not, Esarhaddon! I am Bel, I speak to you! I watch over the supporting beams of your heart. When your mother gave birth to you, sixty Great Gods stood there with me, protecting you. Sîn stood at your right side, Šamaš at your left. Sixty Great Gods are still standing around you; they have girded your loins.

27′ Do not trust in humans! Lift up your eyes and focus on me! I am Ištar of Arbela. I have reconciled Aššur to you. I protected you when you were a baby. Fear not; praise me!

34′ Is there an enemy that has attacked you, while I have kept silent? The future shall be like the past! I am Nabű, the Lord of the Stylus. Praise me!

…………..


7′ I am Ištar of [Arbela]! Esarhaddon, king of A[ssyria]!

9′ In Assur, Ninev[eh], Calah and Arbe[la] I will give endle[ss] days and everlasti[ng] years to Esarhaddon, my king.

15 ′I am yo[ur] great midwife, I am your excellent wet nurse. For endless days and everlasting years I have established your throne under the great heavens.

23′ I keep watch in a golden chamber in the middle of heaven, I let a lamp of amber shine in front of Esarhaddon, king of Assyria, I guard him like the crown on my own head.b

30′ Fear not, king! I have spoken to you, I have not slandered yo[u]! I have inspi[red you] with confidence, I have not caused [you] to come to shame! I will lead [you] safely across the River.

iv 5 Esarhaddon, legitimate heir, son of Mullissu! With a sharp dagger in my hand I will put an end to your enemies. Esarhaddon, king of Assyria—cup filled with lye, axe of two shekels!

14 Esarhaddon, in Assur I will give yo[u] endless days and everlasting years! Esarhaddon, in Arbe[la] I [will be] your effective shield!

20 Esarhaddon, leg[itimate] heir, son of Mul[lissu]! [I] keep thinking of [you], I have loved yo[u] great[ly]! I hold you by yo[ur] curl in the great heavens.

30 I make smoke go up on your right, I light a fire on your left. The kingship upon [...]


It really doesn’t get a whole lot more detailed than this--I am not merely selecting these texts to support my argument(!) here… The bible has many general and imprecise prophecies too, of course, but it also has very detailed and very long-range predictions.


For comparison:

"thus says the Lord GOD: “ ‘It shall not stand, and it shall not come to pass. For the head of Syria is Damascus, and the head of Damascus is Rezin. And within sixty-five years Ephraim will be shattered from being a people. (Is 7:7–8).

"This is the word that the LORD spoke concerning Moab in the past. 14 But now the LORD has spoken, saying, “In three years, like the years of a hired worker, the glory of Moab will be brought into contempt, in spite of all his great multitude, and those who remain will be very few and feeble.” (Is 16:13–14).

For thus says the LORD: When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will visit you, and I will fulfill to you my promise and bring you back to this place. (Je 29:10–11).

Now Elisha had said to the woman whose son he had restored to life, “Arise, and depart with your household, and sojourn wherever you can, for the LORD has called for a famine, and it will come upon the land for seven years.” 2 So the woman arose and did according to the word of the man of God. She went with her household and sojourned in the land of the Philistines seven years. 3 And at the end of the seven years, when the woman returned from the land of the Philistines, she went to appeal to the king for her house and her land. (2 Ki 8:1–3).


Walton can point out [AILCC:213f]:

"In the ancient Near East there is much prophecy that is military/political in focus. It would be wrong to suggest that even classical [Hebrew] prophecy lacks a political focus. But the political element has a far different connection in the oracles of Israel's prophets. Instead of oracles that suggest that this battle or that battle will be won or lost, we discover messages concerning the long-range political destiny, not only of Israel, but of many nations of the ancient Near East as well. These messages reflect belief in a God who is totally sovereign and carrying out a plan in history rather than belief in the ancient Near Eastern gods who intervene arbitrarily."



The final prong of the three-fold argument against pagan religion is that the pagan gods--even according to their mythology--are not 'above nature' but are 'trapped in it'. They are not true creators of time and space, heaven and earth, but are rather occupants and re-shapers (sometimes) of those. They are part of the natural order (i.e. the principle of continuity) and as such are subject to the forces of time and nature themselves.


This gives rise to the most astute of the prophetic criticisms by the prophets: the argument that the gods are not independent, sovereign, transcendent beings at all. They are not masters of history but subject to it. They cannot initiate anything that is not contingent.



Sometimes this argument is embedded in the argument against images, sometimes it is advanced against the celestial (forms of?) the deities, but sometimes it is worded simply as affirmation of YHWH's uniqueness as Creator and Transcendent Lord.

"EXCURSUS ON GOD AND THE GODS: The pagan understanding of existence rests on the concept of continuity [refers to Kaufman here!]. According to this concept, everything that exists is part of everything else. Thus humanity, nature, and deity are all inseparable from one another. In an ultimate sense, the cosmos is eternal. What is always has been, and what has been always will be. In the cycles of existence there is no beginning and no end, and nothing ever changes. Thus the way to tell the future in such a system is to find the ways in which the present is congruent with the past, for what happened in the past under similar circumstances must happen again. But the gods are absolutely helpless to tell us how the world began or how it will end; the gods are the system personified. By the same token, they are helpless to tell us about something that has never happened before. First, by definition there cannot be such a thing; second, the system cannot know what it has not yet experienced. Thus Isaiah’s attack betrays a penetrating understanding of the nature of the system he is attacking. He has attacked it precisely at its weak point. His attack also illustrates the breathtaking difference between his (and the Bible’s) conception of God and that of Israel’s neighbors. What kind of God is he who knows what has not happened? What kind of God is he who can explain the first principles of existence? He is one who is Other than the system, one who has made the system according to certain specifications, one who makes the system operate according to his sovereign will. He is the one who is himself “the first and the last” (cf. 41:4; 44:6; 48:12; and the discussion of “first” and “last” above on 41:22). Isaiah says, in effect, that anything worthy of the term “god” must be more than the system itself. Since these beings are incapable of independent activity, they are not gods. This is philosophical sophistication of a sort found elsewhere only in the logical reductionism of Aristotle’s Unmoved Mover. But there it is little more than an abstract formulation that was little more than a philosophical concept. Here it is the fervently held conviction of a whole people, a conviction that was to change the entire Western world. Whence came such a belief, except, as the Hebrews insist, through divine self-revelation? [Oswalt, J. N. (1998). The Book of Isaiah. Chapters 40-66. The New International Commentary on the Old Testament (106). Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.]

"22 The proofs of their deity that the gods are required to bring is some evidence that they are independent of the cosmos and its functioning. Much more than merely telling the future is at stake here. This is a highly sophisticated attack at the very roots of the pagan understanding of existence. What separates God from the gods is this concept of absolute transcendence that allows him to act independently of the system and to predict what the system will do in new and as yet unexperienced situations. [them] is understood here; the objects remain the same as in v. 21. In their defense the gods are called on to declare, or report. This verb (nāgad) occurs three times in vv. 21 and 22. The gods must reveal what cannot be otherwise known, what will happen (in the future), or suffer the judgment that they are nothing (vv. 24, 29). … The gods are being asked to explain the past in such a way as to make sense of the present, and to foretell the future in such a way as to make its developments intelligible. This is exactly what God had done for his people throughout their history. Can the gods do that? On this interpretation what will happen is a general introduction to God’s demand, while first and latter develop the challenge further. … It is not enough merely to foretell the future (the things to come). Rather, God calls on the gods to show that the pattern of the future somehow corresponds to the very nature of things. This is something the gods, being only personifications of the psycho-socio-physical universe, cannot do. (VERSE 23) If the gods are incapable of telling the meaning of the future, then let them do something, anything, that is not contingent. Here again, the attack is at the very roots of pagan religion. The devotees of Babylonian or Canaanite or Egyptian religion could undoubtedly point to things that they could say their gods had done. But here Isaiah is alluding to the argument that the true God can do something that is a radical break with what has happened before (e.g., 42:9). He is not locked into endless repetition of what he has done before. He is free. Are the so-called gods free? In fact, do good or ill expresses the prophet’s exasperation with the gods and his challenge to them to do something. This understanding takes the combination good (ṭôb) and ill (raʿ) to be a merismus, that is, the whole of activity is expressed by the two extremes (cf. Gen. 31:24; Num. 24:13; Jer. 10:5; Zeph. 1:12). God applies this same terminology to himself in Isa. 44:7, where he asserts that he can do all things. ill here need not imply moral evil, but rather injury or harm. The reading be terrified and afraid parallels that of 41:10. There God says that his people do not need to be frightened by his works as the peoples of the nations are. Here he challenges the gods to do something equally shocking in its unexpectedness." [Oswalt, J. N. (1998). The Book of Isaiah. Chapters 40-66. The New International Commentary on the Old Testament (106). Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.]

"Isaiah also points his hearers to the attributes of Yahweh and then contrasts Yahweh and His glorious attributes with the brooding idol of stone or wood, incapable of thought, speech, or action. He speaks of the Lord’s ability to declare future events, and denounces the idol as “empty wind” (41:26, 29; 44:7). The idol cannot stand before the inexorable progress of God’s will in history (41:5–7; cf. vv 8–16). The Lord is the creator of the worlds, controlling the destinies of nations (40:21–23); an idol cannot compare with Him (40:25). [Bromiley, G. W. (1988; 2002). Vol. 2: The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, Revised (799). Wm. B. Eerdmans.

"Nevertheless, there is only one God, and the contrast between Yahweh and idols is to be drawn in terms of life, activity and government. The idol cannot predict and bring to pass, but Yahweh can (Is. 41:26–27; 44:7); the idol is a helpless piece of flotsam on the river of history, only wise after the event and helpless in the face of it (Is. 41:5-7; 46:1–2), but Yahweh is Lord and controller of history (Is. 40:22–25; 41:1–2, 25; 43:14–15, etc.). [Wood, D. R. W., & Marshall, I. H. (1996). New Bible dictionary (3rd ed.) (496). Leicester, England; Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press.]

"The tension within this passage [in Jeremiah] brought about by the contrast between the flippant contempt the poet expresses for the pagan gods and their images on the one hand and the awe he expresses for Yahweh is almost unbearable. Yahweh is unique, and great, and worthy of fear, the master of earthquakes and the Lord of history; the idols, by contrast, are nothing but scarecrows, dolled up with bits and pieces of decoration, worthy only to frighten passing birds intent on a meal. Yahweh and the idols—they are hardly in the same universe of discourse at all, yet the poet shifts repeatedly from the one to the other, giving the hearer a kind of vertigo in awareness. The idols are mocked in a kind of doggerel poetry, laughed to scorn; Yahweh is addressed and hymned in the solemn language of liturgy. Deutero-Isaiah would manage the same shift, but in large literary units (Isa 44:6–22*); the poet in the present passage manages to shift the hearer from the ridiculous to the sublime, back and forth, dizzyingly, and as a climax, as a bonus, he tosses in a word to say to the idolaters and the idol makers in their own tongue [Aramaic], a joke that spells the doom of their whole elaborate religious system with the plurality of their gods: “these”—the isolated plural pronoun—must ultimately perish, perish because Yahweh will ultimately deal with them. What a word from a defeated population lost among all the populations in the vast Babylonian Empire!—what a word, that Yahweh of hosts, who is the portion (almost the “possession”) of Jacob, will see to the destruction of the idols of that empire! If the idols are doomed, can Babylon’s doom be far behind? [Holladay, W. L., & Hanson, P. D. (1986). Jeremiah 1 : A commentary on the Book of the Prophet Jeremiah, chapters 1-25. Hermeneia--a critical and historical commentary on the Bible (336–337). Philadelphia: Fortress Press.

"A related issue is the question of the openness of Yahweh to the acceptance of special gods for other nations. The Old Testament seems to reflect on this issue at several levels. At the literary level, the prophecies of Jeremiah and Isaiah speak freely of Chemosh, Milcom, Bel, Marduk, and Nebo as the gods of their respective peoples. At another level, however, Deuteronomy is emphatic about the qualitative difference between the God of Israel and the gods of the other nations. Only Israel could claim relationship to a divinity that was responsive to their prayers (Deut. 4:7); only Israel had been blessed with such a righteous set of statutes from their deity (4:8); only Israel had received such a revelation from their God (4:9-15); only Israel had experienced the mighty salvific acts of their God in such a personal way (4:32-40). Yahweh had delivered the nation from the bondage of Egypt, driven out their enemies before them, and given them their land as their inheritance (4:34-38). At a third level, we observe several strong denials of the objective reality of other national deities [Ps 96.5=1 Chrn 16.26]. Accordingly, the polemical statements by Isaiah and Jeremiah on the folly of idolatry also have implications for the idolatries perpetrated by other nations as well. [HI:GN, 70f]

"To my knowledge, there is no Mesopotamian cosmogonic myth that deals with the origin of the whole cosmos, as is found in the biblical Book of Genesis. Most of the tales are content to fill in only pieces of the puzzle. [OT:RIAM, 82]

"The gods of the ancient Near East were not capable of controlling the destiny of the world without help. In Mesopotamia there existed the “tablets of destiny,” texts which contained the destinies of all things (including the gods) in the universe. Whoever controlled these tablets controlled fate. Occasionally these tablets came into the “wrong hands,” and chaos ensued. Some gods, including Enki, wore sorcerer’s hats, showing that they had the ability to control and predict the future, but only by way of spells and incantations. Conversely, Yahweh controlled all things without resort to superficial means of tablets or spells (see comment on 14:26–27). [BBCOT, at Isaiah 46.10]


By contrast, YHWH could dwell in heaven AND with his worshipper--without an image at all:

For thus says the One who is high and lifted up, who inhabits eternity, whose name is Holy:I dwell in the high and holy place, and also with him who is of a contrite and lowly spirit, to revive the spirit of the lowly, and to revive the heart of the contrite. " (Is 57:15).


YWHW was Lord over all the Host of heaven (which would have included any pagan celestial deities!), and as the creator of the sun, moon, and 'lesser lights' in Genesis 1, YHWH was clearly in a transcendent league ABOVE the other pagan deities, including celestial ones.

…………….


What we have seen is that the biblical writers of the prophetic critique of pagan religion took a multi-pronged approach to it, countering all three aspects of foreign gods: earthly images, celestial bodies, and the gods in themselves (as invisible beings). Idols were only inanimate matter, the celestial bodies were subordinate to YHWH, and other gods simply did not even exist.

No one of these three items would have been sufficient to address the pagan system, and so the biblical approach is neither incomplete nor ignorant of the major issues of force here.

Some have accused the biblical writers of distorting pagan thought (more on this in the next article in the series) in specific passages, but this is not true: the prophets dealt with one issue at a time, applying their words and arguments to individual components of the belief system which threatened Israel, in different passages.

Passages which fault rulers for the 'worship of the starry host' do not talk about the deadness of idols, and passages which speak of YHWH's unique prophetic powers do not talk about the inability of a pagan god to 'do either good or ill'. It is important to consider the entire collection of anti-pagan arguments in formulating a description of anti-pagan polemic.

…………………….

Pushback: "I understand your point here, Glenn, but why don’t the prophets extend their anti-pagan satire against the absurdities of pagan deity portrayals? Kaufman argued that the silence in the OT of any such attacks was evidence that the prophets were truly IGNORANT of pagan thought. Doesn’t this silence count as evidence against your statement that the prophetic response was accurate, on-target, and complete/adequate?"


Good question--smile. I will comment on Kaufman's position in the final article in this series (along with other statements that depict the OT responses as either ignorant misunderstandings or conscious distortions), but let me make the following points in summary here.


There was really no point in interacting with the 'high mythologies' of the surrounding nations at all, for several reasons:


First, as even Kaufman states ("The mass of worshipers, even among the pagan nations, had at times only very dim notions of the mythological basis of their rites." [OT:TROI, 15-16]), the satire or argument would likely not have even been UNDERSTOOD by the audience. Most of the mythological texts are either only accessible to the elite (e.g. kings, priests) or are used in rituals that the common man was excluded from (i.e. the opening of the mouth ceremony, most royal ceremonies). And the public festival texts --presumably recited in some communal setting(?)--are indeed the ones which seem to affirm this 'crude identity'!

So, for a Jeremiah or Isaiah to go into the bizarre and/or immoral behavior of some Mesopotamian deity might have produced nothing more than a simple "Huh?" from their audience.


Second, we noticed earlier that the common folk were more closely aligned with the less-mythological minor deities (e.g. family gods and village gods) than with the gods-reserved-for-kings. And 'low worship' was radically different from 'high worship'--even in Israel--and we actually do not really KNOW what popular 'thinking' was on the subject of myth-theology. Our 'good' data applies to the elite, it presents different verious of the myth/theology (e.g. epic versus myth, successive versions of stories--which version should they have attacked??), and the data sources for personal/family piety are equally shaky. We don't know enough about popular beliefs to 'extrapolate' to what a 'satire' would be about them.

"Considered as a group, the cult places described and discussed above comprise an extremely heterogeneous collection. They indicate that the religion was practiced differently in home, village, sanctuary, urban temple, and extra-urban sanctuary, lending much credence to the Deuteronomic taxonomy of social circles within which religious practices and belief were contained: region (Deut. 13:2 - 6), family (Deut. 13:7-11); and city (Deut. 13:13-16). They also indicate that within any such self-delimiting social-geographical circle, where cult places were used, there were differences in architecture, layout, and appurtenances. As a concomitant of these, I think that there were also differences of ritual, sacerdotal personnel, sacred traditions, and mythology. Furthermore, as analyzed above, some of the sites attest to a polytheistic cult. These sites, and the others where no such evidence was found, provide no direct evidence as to what deities were worshipped." [OT:RAI, 265f]

"The use of myths as a source of knowledge on religious practice is fraught with difficulties." [OT:FRIB, 164]

"Almost nothing is known about the veneration of particular gods by individual Ugaritic families. About the only evidence available in this area is onomastic, and the hazards of reconstruction based on theophoric names need not be rehearsed. The institution of the marzeah (or rather marzahu or marzihu) throws some indirect light on the matter, since it is a socio-religious group usually associated with a particular patron deity (Satrana, Istar hurri, and perhaps Anat) and hereditary in the paternal line. Yet membership of the marzeah was not based, it seems, on kinship ties. The interest of the institution in connection with the study of Ugaritic family religion lies in its possible analogy with the religious function of the kin group. In the absence of more data on the marzeah, however, the possible parallel of its rites with those of family religion cannot be explored. This leaves us, once again, with a situation in which we must go by evidence either from the literature (that is, in our case, the epics) or relating to the royal family. In neither case can we be sure that the concepts and practices from these realms are representative of the general population of Ugarit." [OT:FRIB,169]


"During the last twenty years there has been a growing awareness of the fact that many of the existing textbooks on ancient religions fail to do justice to their subject because they tend to see religion as the combination of the cosmology of the elite and the liturgy of the state cult. Though these are indeed religion, they are not more than a part of the entire complex of religion in a given civilization. No religion is a monolith; it is an assemblage of different clusters of beliefs, values, and practices, each cluster having its own niche in society. There is, in nearly every historical religion, an internal pluralism—pluralism because the diversity is tacitly accepted by most of the participants in the religious system. Since the discrete clusters of beliefs, values and practices are at home in distinct social groups, it is possible to speak of 'domestic religion', 'city religion', 'royal religion', and the like. Despite this plurality of religions, the differences between them are not insurmountable. All these 'religions' are aspects of a single religious system; they are not separate entities, but hold together. [OT:FRIB, 2]

"The Religion and Mythology of Epic: In epic literature, the behavior of the gods is less theologically precise than in myth. Ilu intervenes very decisively in the events of mortals. For instance, he predicts and instructs Kirta on the procedure for obtaining his desire to obtain a wife, a desire that the deity sanctions and carries out. Similarly, he grants both the king and Danilu the efficacious blessing of fertility that takes effect immediately. In these cases, Baclus intervention is merely to intercede with the supreme god. Thus the literary texts, usually considered as later than the myths, confirm Ilus uncontested supremacy over Baclu, even in an area where the latter's main intervention would be expected, i.e., fertility. The same can be said in the case of Kirta's illness: once again it is Ilu who cures him, in the face of the helplessness or reticence of the other gods, including Baclu, of course. In any case, both deities appear as benevolent and favorable to man.
The goddesses Atiratu and cAnatu, instead, have a disruptive role in human destiny in the epics of Kirta and Aqhatu. Atiratu, jealous of his vow, seems to be the cause of the king's illness(?), as he had been unfaithful to her. However, cAnatu, in particular, wreaks her characteristic violence against man and even against the will of the supreme god himself, causing the death of the hero, who opposes her. Her behavior, therefore, is in contrast to her "brother" Baclu, whom she always supported in mytholog­ical literature. There is no escaping that in myth, the "stories" of the gods, the way the various deities behave, is not the same as in epic, which is about humans. Within human destiny and so at the margin of their naturalistic character, the gods are more autonomous and less hierarchical. Each retains his own role in respect to man, at least as far as the principal gods are concerned.  [OT:CRLTU, 324]

"The historiographic process has been adequately studied for the Late Assyrian period, particularly in relation to the elaboration of royal annals. Similar studies for Babylonia are lacking, owing partly to the lack of a comparable historiographic tradition in the south. The purpose of my communication is to partly fill this gap by presenting an analysis of a tradition focusing on a dramatic event that took place at Uruk during the first half of the eighth century B.C.E. This event was the abduction of Istar, the patron deity of Uruk, from the Eanna temple. It is reflected in no less than six sources, each of which belongs to a distinct cuneiform genre: royal inscriptions, hymnic-epic literature, literary prophecy, polemical pamphlet, and archival texts. All these sources mirror the same event from different points of view, offering in some cases substantially different versions. In addition, they span a period of four hundred years, from the end of the eighth century until the beginning of the Seleucid period. This affords us a unique opportunity to study the formation and development of a historiographic tradition centered on the same event, and also to evaluate how each source reflects that event in accordance with the shifting interests of those who produced those narratives." [HI:HCW, 29, 'The Abduction of Istar from the Eanna Temple: The Changing Memories of an Event' by Paul-Alain Beaulieu]


Third
: But be that as it may (about the pagan foreigners), the main reason the argument was not needed is that the audience was the Israelite populace and not the foreign one.

If the pagan commoner knew little about their own mythology, how much less would the average Israelite know?! Their contacts with the pagan world were constant, of course, but these contacts were still down at the travels-and-trade level, and not the 'carriers' of high mythology and theology (e.g. diplomats and traveling scholars).

And even if the Israelite had known--what the pagan commoner typically didn't know--they would not have necessarily kept the mythology anyway. They were constantly borrowing practices from the surrounding nations -- and changing it to suit themselves:

"Since they [Ezekiel's Jewish contemporaries] had no scruples about adopting pagan religious ideas from their environment and adapting them syncretistically to their own patterns of belief and practice, they probably also adopted many non-Israelite anthropological notions.” [NICOT, Ezek]]


The audience of the prophets was both the elite and the commoner, and a close reading of the prophetic critiques show that they are descriptive of Israelite/Jewish practices, and NOT those of 'high culture' Mesopotamia.

Zevit's close reading of the texts in the Isaiah 44.12-17 and 46.1-2 (both traditionally assumed to be describing Babylonian practice) surfaces the Jewish populace as the main addressee:

(Isaiah 44.12-17) "This reconstruction of the chain of events described by the prophet bears some resemblance, and some dissimilarities, to activities surrounding the construction of Babylonian cult images. The images were made from the wood of special trees, generally that of the mesu or binu trees. The shapes of the images followed some acknowledged conventions. They generally had human shapes and proportions; they were manufactured in special temple workshops; they underwent secret nocturnal ceremonies in which they were "endowed with life;" their eyes and ears were "opened" so that they could see and eat; and in a ceremony described as "washing of the mouth" or "opening of the mouth," they were invigorated, endowed with a special sanctity. In this manner, they became animated, sacrilized and operative in a cultic sense. The objective of these ceremonies was to return the man-made image to the mythic origins of the deity represented, to ritually purge any connection with human manufacture through rituals and recitations, to empower its senses, to determine its destiny and thus to effect a change in the substance of the image. Once transubstantiated, it became the god that it represented. Although the cult statue was completely identified with the god, the ubiquitous god was not restricted to the local image. The image, mystically united with the god, was his local theophany, the real, immanent presence of transcendent reality. Its manufacture was explained mythically as an expression of divine will and according to divine design…. The abovementioned rituals known from Mesopotamia and Egypt reflect the awareness of sophisticated idolators that they manufactured the images or artifacts for which they claimed divinity. I assume that rituals of this nature were present in other religious cults at the same level of sophistication in civilizations across the ancient Near East during the second and first millenia BCE. Therefore, it cannot be claimed that what is described in Isaiah can only be a Mesopotamian ritual or one influenced or imitative of a Mesopotamian ritual. Indeed, lacunae in his description suggest that the ritual comes from another milieu: (l)the artisan is not described as a temple worker; (2) the place of construction is not mentioned as being on temple grounds; (3) the combined rituals of purification-empowerment are not described as occurring in a temple or any particular sacred spot; (4) the purification-empowerment rituals do not include opening the mouth or washing the mouth, multiple lustrations and bathing - dominant features of Babylonian rituals (cf. Berlejung, 1997: 53-60). Quite the contrary. As noted above, water seems to be avoided. (5) Fire is used in the ritual by which empowerment is accomplished, cf. Isa. 6:5-7. Finally, the whole speech is directed against "all who form idols" (Isa. 44:9) and not a particular group. … Lack of mention of any temple, the overt emphasis here that a single individual is the artisan, and the absence of any reference in this oracle to the common, public nature of the idol, leads me to conclude that the prophet is not describing Babylonian, but rather, Israelite practice. So also Isa. 46:1-7, discussed below. Furthermore, reference to planting trees so that they could be harvested for workable lumber to be manufactured into an idol suggests that this activity took place in the forested mountains of Judah and Samaria and not in the plains of Babylon. Depending on the species involved, it could take anywhere between one and five decades for a sapling to achieve dimensions suitable for this project. [OT:RAI, 525f, on Isaiah 44.12-17]

(Isaiah 46.1-2) "Verses 1-2 describe a religious procession in which images of Bel and Nebo, whom some Israelites believed were responsible for bearing the burden of Israel and providing for its safety (a conceptual error pointed out by YHWH in verses 3-4), loaded on a single pack animal (verse 1), tumble and fall because the animal itself fell (verse 2a). Such processions were an important part of Mesopotamian religious life where much time and wealth was lavished on the vehicles and appurtenances associated with the "divine journey" (Oppenheim, 1964: 187; Mann, 1977: 76-89; Berlejung, 1997: 67-8). Verses l-2a, however, contain a significant metaphor which enables us to recognize that what is being described occurred not in Babylonia but in Israel. … Reading verses 1-2 as a description of the Babylonians fleeing their city while carrying their images or as a caricature of the Akitu or some other festival is borne neither by the verbs nor by the context. Admittedly, Isa. 45:20-25, immediately preceding this section, addresses the "remnants of the nations," - in absentia, I assume - other foreigners in Babylon, but the repetition of the literary images and vocabulary between Isa. 46:1-2, 3-4, and 5-7 link these as a unit. Furthermore, even in Isa. 45:20, those "who carry images of wood," and "pray to a god that doesn't save," are Israelites. In Isa. 45:20-25, YHWH attempts to convince non-Israelites that he is god using the argument of prognostication far in advance of events. Cf. Isa. 48:5, discussed below, where this argument is addressed to Israelites. At best, the reference to Babylonian deities indicates that the milieu within which the metaphor was cast was familiar with the Babylonian pantheon (cf. Hallo, 1983: 14-15). A similar procession is implied by Amos 5:26. … Since the animals who bore the images went into exile, they are a metaphor for Israel. Accordingly, what is described must have occurred prior to the exile and was presented as a reason for the exile. Verses 6-7 repeat information found elsewhere in Isaiah, e.g., Isa. 30:22, regarding the use of silver and gold in the manufacture of these idols and the apparent generosity with which largesse for their manufacture was made available. More important, however, these verses describe a procession by which the images were introduced into shrines. They were borne on the shoulders of individuals, set in a permanent place from which they did not move - unlike their Mesopotamian and Egyptian counterparts - and there they were worshipped. [OT:RAI, 525f, on Isaiah 46]


And "pagan Israel" didn't care about 'refined' mythology--they wanted the visceral elements associated with foreign idols. They didn’t care about the mythology of Baal-Peor in Numbers 25 (probably Chemosh)--they wanted an orgy with the foreign women and a feast of sacrificial meat! They didn’t care about the exalted warrior-ess myths of Asherah--they wanted the sacred prostitution that was part of her cult (Isa 57.7). They didn’t want the esoteric theology of Baal--they wanted the practical power that came from the religion's sorceries and soothsaying (Micah 5.12-13; 2 Kings 9.22).

In fact--at least in the case of the peoples of the land (the Canaanites) the Baal myths were actually supportive of this 'visceral attraction'! The sexuality and excesses of the religion-on-the-ground could not be the object of satire, since they were part of the 'attaction' of that religion to the Israelites! It would have been very counter-productive (and even misunderstood by populace) to try to make satire of the immorality of the gods in the myths and pervasive fertility rituals!

"The religious system of signs that used massebahs, sacred trees, deities and rituals that had a patently sexual character, regarded by many as typical of "the" Canaanite religion for the entire period from 1500 to 500, may in reality have played a decisive role only during Middle Bronze Age IIB and might have merely undergone radical modifications during the following periods, surviving only in a marginal way as the religion of the pagani, the villagers (see above, §4). [OT:GGIG,47f]


And YHWH wasn't interested in a "Battle of the Stories"--He was about action and deeds, on behalf of His covenant people. When Elijah challenges Baal worship in the Northern Kingdom (1 Kings 18), he didn't say "The God with the best mythology, let Him be God", but rather "The God who answers by fire, let Him be God". It was about action and the power to influence history, to defend His people, to subdue evil, and to predict the future. To be sure, Elijah even uses satire in the encounter ("And at noon Elijah mocked them, saying, “Cry aloud, for he is a god. Either he is musing, or he is relieving himself, or he is on a journey, or perhaps he is asleep and must be awakened.", verse 27), but this is similar to the later prophetic critique of the powerlessness of the pagan gods--'do SOMETHING, either good or ill'.

"Suddenly Elijah stands before Ahab (in Samaria?) and quotes Yahweh’s oath to withhold moisture indefinitely, until Yahweh says otherwise. Baal claims to be god of storm and fertility, present in the dew and rain, but Yahweh directly challenges him. [WBC, DeVries, S. J. Word Biblical Commentary : 1 Kings (Second Edition). 286 p.; Word Biblical Comm (216). Dallas: Word, Inc.]

"The policies and actions of Ahab and Jezebel are intended to promote Baal as the national deity of Israel in place of Yahweh. The dispute championed by Elijah concerns which deity is king—which is more powerful. In the Canaanite material available from ancient literature (particularly the information provided by the Ugaritic tablets), Baal is a god of lightning and storm, and responsible for the fertility of the land. By withholding rain, Yahweh is demonstrating the power of his kingship in the very area of nature over which Baal is thought to have jurisdiction. Announcing this beforehand to Ahab is the means by which Yahweh’s kingship and power are being portrayed. If Baal is the provider of rain and Yahweh announces that he will withhold it, the contest is on. [Matthews, V. H., Chavalas, M. W., & Walton, J. H. (2000). The IVP Bible background commentary : Old Testament (electronic ed.) (1 Ki 17:1). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.]


Fourth: The apparent emphasis on the tangible/visible image problem in the prophetic critiques is probably more reflective of the emphasis of the audiences on visual experience. The average Israelite of the day just wasn't satisfied with God's prohibition against making an image of YHWH--they wanted a god they could see, could haul around into battles, be used for blessing some locale, etc. The archeology of the period shows this quite clearly:

"They (cultic figurines, altars, ceramic stands, scarabs, and seals in ancient Palestine) also argue that in ancient Israel, however the sacred may have been encountered by individuals alone or in collectives, the society as a whole esteemed the visual experience of seeing the sacred. [OT:RAI, 349]


And this proclivity can be seen in the fact that the average Israelite was more interested in 'lower spirits' and 'intermediaries' than in the 'high gods' of YHWH, Bael, and (Canaanite) El--maybe because they could be 'seen' and 'represented'?


So, during the 9th and 8th centuries, the iconographic data shows this preoccupation with the 2nd-tier beings (although these are not all idols per se):

"There is no doubt that both Israel and Judah took for granted that other deities besides Yahweh existed, both assumed also that they were active, and both thought that there were other daemons, hybrid creatures, powers, and forces in addition to Yahweh. The selection of images shown on seals and ivories gives us lively insight into the many ways that the beings that surrounded the "Lord of Heaven" could be depicted. The only question that remains concerns how they conceived the relation of these powers and forces to Yahweh. Iconography, epigraphy, and biblical texts all point in the same direction: these powers and authorities, asherahs, Bes figures, saddayim, cherubs, uraei, etc., were not of the same order as Yahweh, but were rather subordinate to him, mediating the protection and blessing of Yahweh. During Iron Age IIB, the asherah, the cultic symbol in the form of a stylized tree, appears to have been the most important mediating entity through which Yahweh was seen as functioning. This is the only one of the mediating entities that is mentioned in inscriptions. We see that winged hybrid creatures were subordinate to the asherah in depictions. The flanking creatures indicate, by their position, the hierarchical priority of the power that they flank and guard… In the texts, whether they be biblical or epigraphical, the high deities, on the "level of El," especially Yahweh and his rival Baal(shamem) but also El, are the chief characters. But there are only a few images in the iconography that can be connected to these deities with confidence (four-winged Baal, sun-child on a blossom). As regards the iconography, the portrayal of the subordinate powers and authorities is much clearer than that of the distant god of heaven who is shielded to a certain extent within his sphere and is represented only in a symbolic way (winged solar disk, scarabs, and the like). " [OT:GGIG, 280, 281]

This is the period in which the anti-image texts of Isaiah and Psalms are deployed against the (Israelite) practice.


Fifth: And maybe it worked! Maybe the emphasis of Isaiah and Psalms on the problems with images helped create and fuel the reforms of Josiah in the 7th century. For sure, Jeremiah and Ezekiel do not have the same level of emphasis on that problem--although it is still strongly present--but they expand from the 'image' problem to a wider range of aberrant Judahite practices (esp. celestial worship--bowing to the east, Queen of Heaven, Manasseh's worship of 'all the starry host').


And this is manifest in the iconographic data of the period as well:

"The chief characteristic of the glyptic art of Iron Age IIC [720/700-600 in the book's periodization scheme] is not the generally modest presence of Assyrian deities but the general tendency toward the astralization of the religious symbol system. During the seventh century, preference was given to the divine powers being accepted and worshiped in their astral form, with emphasis on their nocturnal appearance in the starry heavens. Mediating creatures, such as winged, hybrid creatures, no longer play a significant role in Iron Age IIC iconography. Instead, there are frequent cultic scenes and representations of - almost exclusively male - worshipers. The general tendency toward astralization of the symbol system, noticeable not only on imported glyptic art but also on what was produced locally in many different formats, may have been influenced significantly by the Arameans. One of the most remarkable characteristics of the era is the appearance of the crescent moon standard, the cultic emblem of the Moon God of Haran, who appears to have been the most significant "international" god of the Assyrian Empire in the western provinces (illuss. 281,291,295-301). In general, the tendency toward astralization that is visible on the seals permits one to witness the same religious upheaval about which biblical texts speak, since those texts also show an awareness of the massive increase in the number of celestial-astral oriented cults in Judah during the seventh century.

§212. On the southwestern periphery of the empire, in Judah and in northern Transjordan, the local so-called "Most High God" - in Judah: Yahweh - assumed lunar features under the influence of the Moon God of Haran. An enthroned figure, of the El type, appears on a typical seventh-century Palestinian seal group, in the act of blessing, as an anthropomorphic moon god (illuss. 303-307). A partially anthropomorphic El, who is giving a blessing, appears on the tridacna shells (illuss. 337a-b) as a celestial, creator god with solar connotations. Comparable changes and a new tendency toward anthropomorphic representation are noticeable even regarding the asherah. Even though the asherah was still thought of as a cultic symbol in the form of a stylized tree during the transition from the eighth century to the seventh century, as in earlier times (see illus. 308 for an uncommonly clear depiction of this form) and was connected with El (or Yahweh), subordinate to him and mediating his blessing, this symbol was eclipsed by another phenomenon that led in a totally different direction. In the second half of the eighth century, goddess figurines in the shape of the female body, in the form of pillar figurines (illuss. 321a-c), having been produced only rarely during Iron Age IIA-B in Israel and Judah, began to be manufactured in terra-cotta form in increasing numbers. By the turn of the century, this trend led to a widespread use of the figurines, especially in Judah, attributable to an interplay between familial or "private" piety and official state religion. This motherly goddess, whose image emphasizes especially the face (accessibility) and full breasts (blessing), appears to be none other than the (repersonalized) Asherah. According to biblical tradition, Manasseh set up a cultic image of the goddess in the Jerusalem Temple (2 Kgs 21:7; 23:6f.) that may have corresponded to the general tendency toward producing images of the female body. .. The design of this study makes it impossible to search within the archaeology of Israel/Palestine for proof of the historicity of the cultic reforms of Josiah. There are other things to accomplish here. But a religio-historical study that has established, first of all, the enormous popularity of Asherah in a female human form and the so-called "Host of Heaven" in seventh-century Judah cannot help but detect traces of an "early deuteronomistic," orthodox religious practice that might be suggested by the artifacts that Judah left behind. We have found such evidence in Judahite name seal glyptic art from the end of the seventh century and from the beginning of the sixth century. These seals have largely abandoned iconic decoration. Where such does exist, it accentuates the imagery found in the temple (§§207f.). The fact that names that we know from the book of Jeremiah appear on bullae from Jerusalem archives of this period is no more an accident than the fact that the texts on the silver amulets from Ketef Hinnom (§210) are those we recognize from the Bible. These documents provide us with evidence for the existence of early exponents of a decidedly non-mythological movement that recognized neither Asherah nor another goddess, wanting instead to orient itself toward Yahweh and his temple alone. During the exilic and early postexilic periods, this movement gave us the Torah in its present form. The religious ambiance, documented for us by the silver amulets, name seals, and perhaps also by the bullae, points to a beginning of this effort among the elite from the capital city. The question of how the reform affected the specifics of religious practice in the country as a whole calls for separate investigation. [OT:GGIG, 371, 372]


Sixth
: In the case of the Canaanite religion, there actually WAS an attack on the mythology--via an explicit attack on the associated ritual. It is in the case of Canaanite religion that we have the closest connection between 'basic myth' and 'cultic practice'. And, to the extent this connect is correct, the biblical admonitions to 'not follow the cultic practices of the Canaanites' (because they are abominations) embodies a repudiation and de-valuation of any myths which undergirded Canaanite religious practice.

Let's look at the main passages on this and see the connection between the gods-of-the-myths and the debaucherous praxis of the 'faithful':

First, Deut 12.1-4 (against locale-based practices)

“These are the statutes and rules that you shall be careful to do in the land that the LORD, the God of your fathers, has given you to possess, all the days that you live on the earth. 2 You shall surely destroy all the places where the nations whom you shall dispossess served their gods, on the high mountains and on the hills and under every green tree. 3 You shall tear down their altars and dash in pieces their pillars and burn their Asherim with fire. You shall chop down the carved images of their gods and destroy their name out of that place. 4 You shall not worship the LORD your God in that way.  (Dt 12:1–4).

"4. Do not worship the LORD your God in like manner Literally, “You shall not act thus toward the LORD your God,” as in verse 31. The prohibition means that Israel must not worship the Lord in the ways that Canaanites worshiped their gods, as indicated in verses 2–3: by sacrificing in many places, on hills and under trees, with pillars and idols and sacred posts. This meaning is clear from the indictment of northern Israel in 2 Kings 17:9–11: “The Israelites … built for themselves shrines in all their settlements … they set up pillars and sacred posts for themselves on every lofty hill and under every luxuriant tree; and they offered sacrifices there, at all the shrines, like the nations whom the LORD had driven into exile before them.” The prohibition is repeated below, and the warning not to adopt Canaanite religious practices even in honor of the Lord is made more explicit (vv. 30–31). Compare Exodus 23:24: “You shall not follow their [the Canaanites’] practices.” [Tigay, J. H. (1996). Deuteronomy. The JPS Torah commentary (120). Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society.]

"The injunction to destroy foreign sanctuaries. The foreign sanctuaries, which were to be destroyed, were located in places believed by the Canaanites to have particular religious significance. Some shrines were located on high mountains and hills; the mountain or hill was sometimes thought to be the home of a god, and by ascending the mountain, the worshipper was in some symbolic sense closer to the deity. There were also shrines located under every luxuriant tree; certain trees were considered to be sacred and symbolized fertility, a dominant theme in Canaanite religion. It was not primarily the location of the foreign shrines that was abhorrent to Israelite faith, but the nature of the worship conducted there; that worship was characterized by altars, pillars (standing stones, symbolizing the deity in some manner), asherim (a tree or wooden pole, symbolizing the fertility-goddess), and images of their gods. [Craigie, P. C. (1976). The Book of Deuteronomy. The New International Commentary on the Old Testament (216). Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.]

 "2–3  The people of Israel are commanded to destroy “all the places” in which the Canaanites worshiped their gods in the promised land. The Canaanite places of worship were apparently open-air shrines “upon the high mountains and upon the hills.” …. That the Canaanite shrines are said to be “under every luxuriant tree” suggests that pagan shrines were scattered widely throughout the countryside. ... The paraphernalia of Canaanite worship in these sanctuaries included “their altars, their pillars, and their asherim” . The “altars” were constructed of stone on which offerings of food, drink, or incense were made to their gods. The “pillars” refer to standing stones, either cut or uncut, which were erected for cultic purposes (cf. the stone Jacob “set up for a pillar and poured oil on top of it” at Bethel in Gen 28:18). The asherim were normally images of the goddess Asherah in the form of standing wooden objects. In Deut 16:21 the אשׁרה, asherah, is a tree planted by an altar. Elsewhere the asherim (אשׁרים ) appear to be images, artificial trees, or perhaps a tree trunk or pole. A connection of some sort with the Canaanite mother goddess Asherah is obvious by the identical name. It is possible that all sacred trees or wooden posts located at sacred shrines were called asherim, even in places devoted to the worship of YHWH in ancient Israel. The association with the Canaanite goddess was sufficient reason for the command to “tear down their altars . . . smash their pillars and their asherim you shall burn with fire and the images of their gods you shall hew down” (cf. also 7:5). The concluding command “to obliterate their name from that place” indicates that the people of Israel are to remove all reminders of the gods of Canaan from their midst (cf. 7:24). [Christensen, D. L. (2002). Vol. 6A: Word Biblical Commentary : Deuteronomy 1-21:9. Word Biblical Commentary (241–242). Dallas: Word, Incorporated.]


Second, Deut 12.29-31 (against a broader range of cultic practices):

When the LORD your God cuts off before you the nations whom you go in to dispossess, and you dispossess them and dwell in their land, 30 take care that you be not ensnared to follow them, after they have been destroyed before you, and that you do not inquire about their gods, saying, ‘How did these nations serve their gods?—that I also may do the same.’ 31 You shall not worship the LORD your God in that way, for every abominable thing that the LORD hates they have done for their gods, for they even burn their sons and their daughters in the fire to their gods.  (Dt 12:29–31).

"31. You shall not act thus toward the LORD your God This injunction echoes verse 4, which implies that using many places for sacrifice is an inherently pagan practice. Here the principle of not imitating Canaanite practices is applied across the board and explained: none of their religious practices may be adopted because many were abominable, including even child sacrifice (see the more complete list in 18:10–11). [Tigay, J. H. (1996). Deuteronomy. The JPS Torah commentary (127). Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society.]

"29–31  In these closing verses, the attention is turned once again to the theme that has already formed a framework for the chapter as a whole, namely, the dangers of foreign religion (see also vv. 2–4, 13–14). The time envisaged in the warping is described in v. 29; the danger would come after the Israelites had taken possession of the promised land and driven out the former residents. The danger was that the Israelites too would be driven out of the land by acting in the same manner as the former inhabitants (v. 30). These words not only function as a warning to the Israelites, but they also present the religious justification for the expulsion and extermination of the Canaanites. They were not to be dealt with harshly simply at the Lord’s whim, nor out of sheer political necessity, but because their life style, as reflected in their religion, had become repugnant to God, the creator of all men; they do for their gods every abomination of the Lord, which he hates (v. 31). The Israelites were not immune from God’s wrath on account of the covenant relationship; if they behaved in the same manner as the Canaanites, they would also be liable to be driven from the land, unworthy to continue there as its residents. [Craigie, P. C. (1976). The Book of Deuteronomy. The New International Commentary on the Old Testament (219–220). Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.]

"The second clause, “that thou inquire not after them” (their gods), etc., explains more fully to the Israelites the danger which threatened them. This danger was so far a pressing one, that the whole of the heathen world was animated with the conviction, that to neglect the gods of a land would be sure to bring misfortune (cf. 2 Kings 17:26). [Keil, C. F., & Delitzsch, F. (2002). Commentary on the Old Testament. (Dt 12:28). Peabody, MA: Hendrickson.]

Third, Leviticus 17 (with more detail on the sexual elements):

"Israel is not to follow the customs (מעשׂה) of the Egyptians nor of the Canaanites. When they settle in Canaan, they might be tempted to put into practice some Egyptian customs that had enamored them. Or they might envy some of the practices of the Canaanites so much that they would imitate them. The customs in view are cultic practices rooted in fertility rites and alternative patterns of family relationships. Nor is Israel to walk in the decrees (חקות) of the neighbor nations. “Walk” means to follow these decrees in everyday life by inclination (cf. 20:23; 26:3; Ezek 5:6, 7; 11:20; 18:9, 17; etc.). [Hartley, J. E. (2002). Vol. 4: Word Biblical Commentary : Leviticus. Word Biblical Commentary (293). Dallas: Word, Incorporated.]

"Chapter 17 opened a new section in Leviticus, dealing with private religion and morality as opposed to official worship which was the principal concern of the first sixteen chapters of the book. This chapter goes further in setting out the fundamentals of Israelite morality and defines which sexual unions are compatible with Yahwistic principles. There is a strong polemical thrust in these laws. Seven times it is repeated that the Israelites are not to behave like the nations who inhabited Canaan before them (vv. 3 [2x], 24, 26, 27, 29, 30). Six times the phrase “I am the Lord (your God)” is repeated (vv. 2, 4, 5, 6, 21, 30). Israel’s sexual morality is here portrayed as something that marks it off from its neighbors as the Lord’s special people. Ch. 17 also stressed that Israel was not to compromise her witness by worshipping demons, or eating blood. This chapter insists that certain standards of sexual morality are equally decisive marks of religious allegiance. [Wenham, G. J. (1979). The Book of Leviticus. The New International Commentary on the Old Testament (250). Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.]

"You must not behave as they do in the land of Egypt … in the land of Canaan (v. 3). The prevalence of the customs denounced here as Egyptian and Canaanite perversions is well attested in Scripture and in nonbiblical sources. In the Egyptian royal family brothers married sisters. The laws of Hammurabi and the Hittites ban some of the incestuous relationships listed here, but by implication allowed other unions mentioned here. Even the patriarchs disregarded some of these rules: Abraham married his half-sister9 (Gen. 20:12; cf. Lev. 18:9) and Jacob was married to two sisters simultaneously (Gen. 29; cf. Lev. 18:18). Homosexuality (v. 22) is referred to among the Canaanites (Gen. 19:5ff.) and also attested in Mesopotamia. Bestiality (v. 23) is also known from Egyptian, Canaanite, and Hittite sources. There was a cult in the Eastern delta that involved the cohabitation of women and goats. Indeed Ramses II, possibly the Pharaoh of the exodus, claimed to be the offspring of the god Ptah, who took the form of a goat. Ugaritic texts speak of gods copulating with animals. The Hittite laws (c. 1500 B.C.) legislate against certain forms of bestiality while permitting others. In connection with the offerings to Molech, the charred bones of children found in a temple near Amman, destroyed at about the time of the Conquest (late Bronze Age), show that the pre-Israelite inhabitants of the land practiced child sacrifice (v. 21). [Wenham, G. J. (1979). The Book of Leviticus. The New International Commentary on the Old Testament (251–252). Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.


"in the land of Egypt. Egypt was reputed for its licentiousness (Ezek 16:26; cf. 23:3, 20–21; see also Potiphar’s wife, and Sarah in Pharaoh’s harem). That brother-sister marriage prevailed among Egyptian royalty was well known. It was even practiced by the patriarch Abraham (Gen 20:12; cf. Lev 18:9). Moreover, as shown by Monkhouse (1989), consanguineous marriages (father-daughter, brother-sister, aunt-nephew, uncle-niece, and others) prevailed in Egypt in every period, in nonroyal as well as royal cases (see, e.g., Breasted 1906: 386–88, 390–91; Murray 1927: 45–46; Černy 1954). … in the land of Canaan. Canaan was identified with homosexuality (Gen 9:20–26; 19:5–8) and bestiality (van Selms 1954: 81–82). Sex crimes are referred to as a nĕbālâ bĕyiśrāʾēl ‘an outrage in Israel’ (Gen 34:7; Deut 22:21; Judg 20:6; 2 Sam 13:12; Jer 29:23). Seven times is Israel warned not to behave as the nations that inhabited Canaan (vv. 3 [twice], 24, 26, 27, 29, 30). [Milgrom, J. (2008). Leviticus 17-22: A new translation with introduction and commentary (1518–1520). New Haven; London: Yale University Press.

[I have shown elsewhere that these elements were present in the surrounding mythologies: qamorite.html ]

So, I think a strong argument can be made from the data that the lack of satire about the mythologies of the high pagan gods is more reflective of the audience and main issues, rather than of some alleged ignorance on the part of the classical prophets.

………………………………………………………. ……………


Ok. Summary time:


  1. The biblical anti-idol argument is in perfect continuity with anti-idol arguments made in other ancient cultures (Persia, Egypt, Greece, Rome) and in modern aniconic movements as well (e.g. Hinduism).

  2. The pagan religious system was aware of this weakness and attempted to 'work around it' by denial of both the human craft contribution and the 'ordinariness' of the materials.

  3. The post-biblical Jewish position is also reflective of the biblical and extra-biblical anti-idol argument.

  4. The biblical anti-idol arguments are not aimed at the mythologically-interested religious elite of the foreign lands, but to the common Israelite (and probably the royal family too).

  5. Most of the common folk in the ANE would not have known what the myths contained, since the myths were largely confined to the various elites (and what myth they DID see often confirmed the 'transubstantiation' view).

  6. The biblical argument does not misrepresent anything.

  7. In addition to the anti-dead-image argument, the prophetic critique also attacks two other main weaknesses of pagan gods: their inability to predict the future, and their inability to act independently of the cosmic system.

  8. The lack of satire about the mythologies of the high pagan gods is more reflective of the audience and main issues, rather than of some alleged ignorance on the part of the classical prophets.


I think this data would adequately counter the claim that the prophetic critique of idolatry was off-target and mis-informed.

Next, I will try to dig a little deeper into the more advanced claims against the accuracy and appropriateness of the prophetic critique (in idle3.html).

Glenn Miller


The Christian ThinkTank...[http://www.Christian-thinktank.com] (Reference Abbreviations)