Does the Old Testament Slander Pagan Idol Worshippers?

Part 3: Specific Pushback Statements

[Draft: Aug 23/2011]



I got 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



This is the third of three articles in this series:


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

2.       Criticisms of ancient pagan religion  by non-biblical and then biblical writers [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) [this piece, idle3.html]



In this piece, I want to interact in considerably more detail with some specific statements of scholars in the area, applying the data and conclusions of the first two articles. I won't be repeating much of the data from the first two articles, so this might seem a little like 'assertions' instead of 'arguments'--but the reader can easily verify my summary statements in the previous articles in this series.


I will be bringing additional data to this article, which is not mentioned in parts 1 and 2.


Some of these statements might no longer represent the views of the individual scholars, but the interaction should be generally applicable to similar views.


I have selected these statements because they are referenced (as authoritative and correct) in many subsequent statements, so they are/were key determinants of what might be called the 'misleading polemic' view.


Here's how that view is often worded (from the Jewish Publication Society's Jewish Study Bible/Oxford):


"A comic portrayal of an idolater. The prophet mercilessly lampoons people who make their own gods to worship, implicitly contrasting them with people who worship the true God. The former worship their own creation; the latter, much more sensibly, worship their creator. Deutero-Isaiah to some extent misrepresents, or misunderstands, the actual nature of idolatry as practiced in the ancient Near East, however. Pagans did not believe that idols really were gods, but they believed that the presence of the god entered the idol as there-suit of complex rituals used to activate the idol after it had been made. [Jewish Study Bible/JPS, at Is 44.9-20]



The 'misleading polemic' view essentially holds that:

1.      The biblical prophetic critique is describing foreign pagan use of divine images and it misrepresents that view because of ignorance (it misunderstands it); or


2.      The biblical prophetic critique is describing foreign pagan use of divine images and it misrepresents that view because of conscious distortion (it slanders it)


Point number one is sometimes cast as an 'innocent' type of ignorance, but sometimes it is actually labeled as 'culpable ignorance'.


At this point, readers of the previous two articles will already see a problem with that view: the prophetic critique does NOT seem to be describing foreign practices when it is describing the image/idol identity and worship issue. It is attacking a local, Israelite/Judahite practice, without all the 'official' trappings of Mesopotamian mythology and official cultus.


There would be no 'opening of the mouth' high-church ceremony for these smaller icons (e.g., where two could be loaded on the same pack animal). There would have been maybe only an anointing of oil (like the 'standing stones', massebot) or 'blessing ceremony' by the head of household (cf. Isaiah 66.3; Jdgs 17).


This local audience means, of course, that it will be considerably more difficult to hold to an 'ignorance' accusation, since it will be more difficult to believe that the Israelite prophets did not understand what their neighbors were doing and saying! In other words, the local character of the phenomena under description will argue against the 'ignorance' position.


And a local audience would also militate against a 'conscious distortion' view, since the prophet's audience would immediately realize this--and the prophet would look like an out-of-touch fool or absurdly irrelevant! Having a local target and a local audience of the (largely) oral messages pretty well forces the prophet to at least 'seem fair' in his/her description of the phenomena he is attacking.


Several passages in the prophets reflect popular 'pushbacks' to the prophetic messages. These range from denial (e.g. Jer 2.23--"I have not gone after baals"), blame-shifting ("our fathers have eaten sour grapes and our teeth are set on edge"), counter theological arguments ("since we stopped offering cakes to the Queen of Heaven, all these bad things have been happening to us"), accusations of outright lying (e.g. accusing Jeremiah of giving a false prophecy to keep the remnant from fleeing to Egypt), 'convenient' hermeneutics ('this prophecy is for a far time away--it won't happen to us') and more.


So, this consideration would tip the scales back toward the 'informed' and 'fair statement' judgment of the prophetic critique.



But let's go through some of the statements now, and see if we can glean additional data from them and if we can qualify (or disagree with) them in light of the data.

We will be looking mostly at Kaufman and Saggs here, and restatements or expansions of their positions in later writers.


[Note: I will place the author's work in red, with emphasis in blue. My remarks will be interspersed in black (with emphasis in teal).]




First, the seminal work of Kaufman [OT:TROI]


K: "Is not the biblical polemic against 'idolatry'--consistently misrepresenting the religion of the pagans as fetishism--a monumental piece of evidence?" [OT:TROI, 3]

This is his classic statement of the 'misrepresentation'--as evidence that the biblical authors ONLY KNEW monotheism and therefore 'guessed--and guessed wrongly' what the pagans believed…


K: "This view is founded on the tacit assumption that the pagan gods were conceived of identically by both Israelite and pagan. The passage from the earlier to the later stage is taken as the repudiation of the pagan idea of the reality of the gods. But what does the Bible itself tell us concerning the Israelite conception of the nature of these gods and the nature of their worship?

The pagan conceives of the gods as powers embodied in nature, or as separate beings connected with nature in some fashion. Deification of cosmic forces provides the soil for the growth of mythology. Popular religion conceives of the gods as persons who inhabit the entire universe and are related in specific ways to each other and to men. They are the heroes of popular myths, the subjects of epic poets; to them temples are built, monu­ments and images erected. In the cult, material objects usually play an important part, the natural or manufactured object being taken as the bearer of divine power, the dwelling place of deity, or its symbol. While worship of material objects is not an essential feature of paganism, it is its natural outgrowth. Homage is done to the god through the care given to his image. The cult of images is thus intimately bound up with the belief in personal gods, who have specific forms, who inhere in natural phenomena or control them. The polytheism of the ancient Near East during biblical times was highly developed. Its gods and goddesses appear in literature, art, and culture in fairly standardized forms, which were presumably familiar not only to the clergy but to the laity as well. "


Tank: This needs qualification on several points.


First, the polytheism was so 'highly developed' that there are multiple pantheons which differ by social strata, and we know next to nothing about how any of these pantheons related to the others.


"As has been seen already, the pantheon from which Early Dynastic god lists and literary compositions draw seems to be, by and large, one and the same. However, the vast majority of Early Dynastic texts are neither scholarly nor literary: they are economic and legal documents, normally full of theophoric personal names. Thus, the question is to what extent the pantheon attested in the onomastic materials agrees with the pantheon of literary and scholarly compositions. In Fara, we can compare the theophoric names of the many individuals mentioned in documents, the gods mentioned in lists of offerings, and the entries in the god list. …These figures seem to point to the existence of up to three panthea at Fara. The pantheon represented in the god lists and literary texts is scholarly in nature. The pantheon of the offering lists and cultic texts is that of the official cult. Finally, the theophoric personal names bear witness to both the mainstream tendencies of the official cult and the individual preferences of popular religion… In the case of Ebla, Archi (1996: 142-43) has shown that the theophoric names and the pantheon attested in cultic and religious texts correspond to two different systems. The situation is even more dramatic at Abu Salabih. ... Oppenheim (1977: 199-200) had argued that the personal god could be a wildcard for any god, and thus it could refer to Dagan or Ea, as well as to a protective spirit or a daimon. However, Jacobsen (1970: 37-38) regarded the personal god as an expression of private religiosity and of the relationship between an individual and the whole realm of the sacred. Moreover, Albertz (1978: 138-39) argues that, whereas the official pantheon included a plethora of deities, the individual experienced only a functional unity, the person's own god, the god who protected and helped her or him. Nevertheless, it is impossible to know whether these theophoric names implied an incipient or latent henotheism of sorts, as Albertz (1978: 73, 139) would have it. What seems clear is that there are many contexts, especially later on, at Emar and Nuzi in which these il and Hum names refer to the tutelar deity of a family. For instance, in Nuzi we find references to 'the (household) gods' (ilanu) and 'the spirits of the dead' (etemmu), which seem to correspond to 'the (household) gods' (ilu) and 'the dead' (metu) at Emar (van der Toorn 1994; 1995; 1996: 222-23). … In light of the comparisons made between the panthea to which different sources bear witness, it can be argued that the Early Dynastic god lists were scholarly constructs, in large part detached from both personal religiosity and public cult.. It is commonplace to distinguish between official cult and popular religion. The pantheon of the official cult inhabits offering lists and ritual texts, whereas the deities of popular religion surface in the onomastic materials. To these two panthea, one should add a third, the pantheon of the scribes, which for the most part includes practical awareness of the other two, along with a large number of gods and goddesses whose main role was to fill the interstices of sacred narratives and to shape divine genealogies within the confines of a world made of clay. " [OT:RCRM, 106ff;  "Mapping the Pantheon in Early Mesopotamia", Gonzalo Rubio]


Secondly, we have no data to suggest that the common 'laity' knew anything about the myths. Almost every scrap of data we have suggests that the common man had almost nothing to do with the myths (that Isaiah should have made fun of, under Kaufman's position).


We have already seen numerous statements to this effect in the earlier pieces, but let me cite another source--Oppenheim--who takes a strong stance on our ignorance in this regards:


"As to iconographic material—reliefs, seals, clay plaques— which is likely to shed light on Mesopotamian religion, one can think, a priori, of narrative representations meant to illustrate the story of a deity. Such representations do not seem to have had any important role in Mesopotamian religion. The world of the myth remains relegated to the level of literary creation throughout the entire known history of Mesopotamia. Only quite early and in marginal instances do representations seem to allude, secondarily, to written myths. The heroic or otherwise extraordinary achievements of the deity are not expressed as acts but rather are sublimated and symbolized. Non-narrative, non-objective formulations that bear in some way on the cult as enacted in the sanctuary are displayed in what we call heraldic symbols—often animal-shaped—which acquired sanctity through processes totally beyond our comprehension; furthermore, they may visualize—often in the form of weapons and other objects—formulaic statements concerning the deity and the world of man which are, today, out of our reach. [AM, 174]


"The prayers contain no indication of an emotion-charged preference for a specific central topic such as, for example, the individual in relation to spiritual or moral contexts of universal reach, the problem of death and survival, the problem of immediate contact with the divine, to mention here some topoi that might be expected to leave an imprint on the religious literature of a civilization as complex as the Mesopotamian. One obtains the impression—confirmed by other indications— that the influence of religion on the individual, as well as on the community as a whole, was unimportant in Mesopotamia. No texts tell us that ritual requirements in any stringent way affected the individual's physiological appetites, his psychological preferences, or his attitude toward his possessions or his family. His body, his time, and his valuables were in no serious way affected by religious demands, and thus no conflict of loyalties arose to disturb or shake him. Death was accepted in a truly matter-of-fact way, and the participation of the individual in the cult of the city deity was restricted in the extreme; he was simply an onlooker in certain public ceremonies of rejoicing or communal mourning. He lived in a quite tepid religious climate within a framework of socio-economic rather than cultic co-ordinates. His expectations and apprehensions as well as his moral code revolved within the orbit of a small urban or rural society. [AM, 175f]


"One principle might be singled out as a possible help in approaching Mesopotamian religious life and practice. This is its social stratification, which is more or less in evidence in the texts of all periods and regions. If one separates the royal religion from that of the common man, and both from that of the priest, one could possibly obtain something approaching an unobstructed vista. A large part of what we assume to be Mesopotamian religion has meaning only in relation to royal person-ages—and for this reason distorts our concepts. The religion of the priest was centered primarily on the image and temple; it was concerned with the service the image required—not only in sacrifices but also in hymns of praise—and with the apotropaic functions of these images for the community. In a later section of this chapter we shall discuss in detail how the practices that originally concerned only the king influenced successively the court and even, presumably, the common man in a process of diffusion that is well known to the student of the sociology of religion. The common man, lastly, remains an unknown, the most important unknown element in Mesopotamian religion. We have already pointed out that religion's claims on the private individual were extremely limited in Mesopotamia; prayers, fasts, mortification, and taboos were apparently imposed only on the king.

A similar situation prevails with respect to divine communications. The king could receive divine messages of certain types, but it was not considered acceptable for a private person to approach the deity through dreams and visions. Such practices on the part of private persons are recorded in our sources, but only quite rarely, mostly from outside the Babylonian area (from Mari) and, later, from Assyria—possibly under Western influence. In both regions, certain types of priests make oracular utterances, a practice which is never attested for the Mesopotamian heartland. As already indicated, it can be asserted that communal religious experiences such as participation in cyclical festivals and mourning ceremonies, enacted in Mesopotamia always through the intermediary of the sanctuary, represent the only admitted avenue of communication with the deity. Manifestations of religious feelings, as far as the common man is concerned, were ceremonial and formalized rather than intense and personal. [AM, 179f]


"As for the relationship of the image to the sanctuary in which it resided on its pedestal in the cella, it paralleled in all essential aspects that of the king in relation to his palace and, ultimately, to his city. The god lived in the sanctuary with his family and was served in courtly fashion by his officials, who relied on craftsmen and workers to provide them with the material setting needed to fulfil their functions in a way that befitted the status of the god and his city. In its cella, the image received the visits of lesser gods and the prayers of supplicants, although it remains a moot question to what degree and under what circumstances it was accessible, if at all, to the common man. We even know of Assyrian kings who came as conquerors and were allowed to worship the image only from outside the sanctuary in which it was enthroned. This practice may have differed according to regional traditions and the status of the deity. The image was lifted above the level of human activities by means of a pedestal, encased in the recessed niche of the cella, and shielded from the outside world by one or more antecellas, but still visible from the courtyard through several co-axially arranged doorways and within the frame of the monumental gates. In such cases, the common man was probably not permitted to enter the sanctuary; wherever architectural presentation prevents such a vista, we are at a loss o know whether the worshipers were admitted to or excluded from the sanctuary. [AM, 186f]


The common Mesopotamian--and to a great extent the commoner Israelite audience of the prophets (!)--just would not have understood any such satire--they did not have a base of knowledge to even 'get it'…



K: "There are gods of sky and earth, of life, love, and fertility, of death and destruction. The gods have specific roles. There are gods of light and darkness, of thunder and lightning, of wind and rain, of fire and water. Mountains, springs, rivers, and forests have their gods also. The gods have sexual qualities, the existence of male and female deities being essential to pagan thought. These characteristics serve as the materials for elaborate myths in which the histories and adventures of the gods are related. Theogonies tell of their birth and lineage. Myths tell of their wars, loves, hatreds, and dealings with men. The cult is closely connected with these myths, which are the vital core of priestly and, in a measure, of popular religion.


Tank: This is not warranted by the evidence. The myths were NOT closely related to the cult--they were literary creations of imagination or even propaganda--and rarely expressed in cultic acts.  The common folk were very distant from these works and content. These stories are the work of poets and scribes--not priests:


"The second group of texts to be examined contains myths and mythologically embellished literary works. To state at the outset my objection to the direct and indiscriminate utilization of such texts, I submit that their contents have already unduly encroached upon our concept of Mesopotamian religion. All these stories about the gods and their doings, about this world of ours and how it came into being, these moralizing as well as entertaining stories geared to emotional responses represent the most obvious and cherished topics for the literary creativeness of a civilization such as that of Mesopotamia. They form something like a fantastic screen, enticing as they are in their immediate appeal, seductive in their far-reaching likeness to stories told all over the ancient Near East and around the Mediterranean, but still a screen which one must penetrate to reach the hard core of evidence that bears directly on the forms of religious experience of Mesopotamian man. By now, classical scholars have learned how to bypass the screen created by mythology—and even how to utilize what information it may convey—but in our field we fall victim all too easily to its lure, searching for deep insights and voices from the dawn of history, which they allegedly convey. These literary formulations are, in my opinion, the work of Sumerian court poets and of Old Babylonian scribes imitating them, bent on exploiting the artistic possibilities of a new literary language—apart from the "Alexandrinian" elaborations of the late period (the Nineveh version of the Epic of Gilgamesh) and the Epic of Creation with its "archaic" and learned artificialities. All these works which we are wont to call mythological should be studied by the literary critic rather than by the historian of religion. What they contain are adaptations, for a late public, of mythological elements, unsophisticated and often primitive, dim reflections of stories that circulated among certain groups of the population of Mesopotamia as an inheritance of a distant past.  [AM, 177]


"As has been seen already, the pantheon from which Early Dynastic god lists and literary compositions draw seems to be, by and large, one and the same. However, the vast majority of Early Dynastic texts are neither scholarly nor literary: they are economic and legal documents, normally full of theophoric personal names. Thus, the question is to what extent the pantheon attested in the onomastic materials agrees with the pantheon of literary and scholarly compositions. In Fara, we can compare the theophoric names of the many individuals mentioned in documents, the gods mentioned in lists of offerings, and the entries in the god list. …These figures seem to point to the existence of up to three panthea at Fara. The pantheon represented in the god lists and literary texts is scholarly in nature. The pantheon of the offering lists and cultic texts is that of the official cult. Finally, the theophoric personal names bear witness to both the mainstream tendencies of the official cult and the individual preferences of popular religion… In the case of Ebla, Archi (1996: 142-43) has shown that the theophoric names and the pantheon attested in cultic and religious texts correspond to two different systems. The situation is even more dramatic at Abu Salabih. ... Oppenheim (1977: 199-200) had argued that the personal god could be a wildcard for any god, and thus it could refer to Dagan or Ea, as well as to a protective spirit or a daimon. However, Jacobsen (1970: 37-38) regarded the personal god as an expression of private religiosity and of the relationship between an individual and the whole realm of the sacred. Moreover, Albertz (1978: 138-39) argues that, whereas the official pantheon included a plethora of deities, the individual experienced only a functional unity, the person's own god, the god who protected and helped her or him. Nevertheless, it is impossible to know whether these theophoric names implied an incipient or latent henotheism of sorts, as Albertz (1978: 73, 139) would have it. What seems clear is that there are many contexts, especially later on, at Emar and Nuzi in which these il and Hum names refer to the tutelar deity of a family. For instance, in Nuzi we find references to 'the (household) gods' (ilanu) and 'the spirits of the dead' (etemmu), which seem to correspond to 'the (household) gods' (ilu) and 'the dead' (metu) at Emar (van der Toorn 1994; 1995; 1996: 222-23).

In light of the comparisons made between the panthea to which different sources bear witness, it can be argued that the Early Dynastic god lists were scholarly constructs, in large part detached from both personal religiosity and public cult. This should come as no surprise. If one turns to Greek and Roman literature, a substantial number of variants in the stories do not seem to stem from local versions but from their appropriation and literary elaboration by poets and mythographers. Even though many myths had been standardized or canonized during the Hellenistic period, Roman poets still felt as free as the Attic tragedians to introduce personal variations on traditional stories. [Footnote 45: 45."As Cameron (2004: 271) puts it, 'no less than the Greek tragedians, Ovid felt entirely free to handle traditional stories any way he pleased.'"]

In Mesopotamia, the god lists belong not only to a scholarly tradition but also to the same sphere of literary texts, and Mesopotamian literature was, first and foremost, the business of scribes. Most Sumerian literature as it has come to us consists of scribal artifacts, whose life was confined to the realm of scholars and schools. This cannot be separated from the nature of Mesopotamian scholarship in general. The endeavors of Mesopotamian scholars were not predicated on true empirical observation. Whether dealing with law or with astronomical omens, Mesopotamian scholarship was not concerned so much with what was observed as with what could hypothetically be observed. The same applies to the scribal manufacture of a written pantheon. It is commonplace to distinguish between official cult and popular religion. The pantheon of the official cult inhabits offering lists and ritual texts, whereas the deities of popular religion surface in the onomastic materials. To these two panthea, one should add a third, the pantheon of the scribes, which for the most part includes practical awareness of the other two, along with a large number of gods and goddesses whose main role was to fill the interstices of sacred narratives and to shape divine genealogies within the confines of a world made of clay. "  [OT:RCRM, 106ff;  "Mapping the Pantheon in Early Mesopotamia", Gonzalo Rubio]


Some mythology was simply a matter of national/imperial propaganda:


"Official theology strives to articulate the transcending features of a divinity [Asshur] who, until the time of Sennacherib (704-681 B.C.E.), never had a genealogy or mythology. The translation of the Enlil theology imported from Nippur, the beginnings of which must have occurred already during the time of Shamshi-Adad I (1813-1781 B.C.E.), was elaborated during the time of Tukulti-Ninurta I (1233-1197 B.C.E.) and under Sennacherib and ultimately resulted in the change of his consort. Indeed, in some respects Sennacherib transformed Assur into a more tangible entity. Providing him with the features of a pater familias by taking Zababa as his son, he integrates him into the network of the divine world by ordering the rewriting of Enuma Elish with Assur as the primary actor instead of Marduk. This latter act may be read as an attempt to declare Assur's supremacy over both the Assyrian and the Babylonian gods." [ OT:RCRM, 180f; "Divine Agency and Astralization of the Gods in Ancient Mesopotamia", Beate Pongratz-Leisten]



Indeed, the myths were typically LATER than the cult rituals, and even later symbolic, mythological explanations of the rituals were probably just a 'guess' by the ancient scholars:


"It will be seen that in all the works, except VAT 8917 where comparison is unproductive, some of the myths are later than the rituals. Therefore it is absolutely certain that the myths did not originally belong to the rituals, and the rituals did not originally mean the myths. Since some of the myths are older it could be argued that originally the rituals had mythological meanings different from the myths which require a late date, and that the names of the protagonists were changed to suit different theological conditions. Nevertheless, the point remains that in the myth and ritual works many of the myths originated later than and independently of the rituals. [HI:MAMEW,166]


"It is possible that the use of symbolism in the present texts owed something to the fact that symbolism was used in interpreting dreams. Despite the existence of an ancient manual of dream interpretation there are few clear examples. Techniques used in interpreting omens may also be relevant. While these were certainly part of the general intellectual background, it is more likely that the uses of symbolism here were inspired by actual use of symbolism in rituals. Examples are the libation representing the blood of Dumuzi, the enactment of the defeat of Tiamat, and perhaps the holding up of shields in a ritual to symbolise victory. By analogy with examples such as these, thinkers attributed symbolic meaning to ritual actions which probably in normal practice had no such significance. [HI:MAMEW,168]








K:What would we know of this had we no other source than the Bible?

The Bible knows that the pagans worship national gods, certain of whom are mentioned by name: Baal, Ashtoreth, Chemosh, Milcom, Bel, Nebo, Amon, etc. But it is remarkable that not a single biblical passage hints at the natural or mythological qualities of any of these named gods. Had we only the Bible, we should know nothing of the real nature of the "gods of the nations." In a few isolated passages the pagans are said to worship spirits and demons, but these are anonymous, whereas what we know to have been mythological gods are, in the Bible, mere names. Not a trace remains of the rich store of popular myths associated with these names. [OT:TROI, 8-9]


Tank: This is easily recognized as an argument from silence. Since the Bible does not discuss the mythologies of the pagan, then they obviously did not know these mythologies (under the assumption that they WOULD have discussed--even in satire--the content of the myths).


But we have already seen that this was both irrelevant (i.e. the common Israelite and even common ANE'er wouldn’t have known much of the 'embarrassing' content of the myths) and superfluous (i.e. the attack was multi-pronged already).


Solomon had the worship of idols in Jerusalem, and subsequent kings had Baal and Ashtoreth.  But did even the Judahite elite know the myths of those other (but minor) Gods?  We have seen elsewhere that the 'standard mythologies' of the scholars (in cuneiform) we not even in major circulation then (see on the possible influence of ANE flood traditions on the bible, for a discussion of the distribution/use of the scholarly-only language at the time of Shlomo).


Israel did not have enough contact with the Nebo-crowd to know any of the scholarly myths, and Milcom and Chemosh actually HAD no developed or 'embarrassing'  mythology. Most of the gods just 'borrowed' stories from the others.  


The dominant conquering god of the time (Assur) did not even HAVE a mythology or genealogy to attack!


"And last, this appears in Ashurbanipal's (668-627 B.C.E.) hymn to Assur: "the exceedingly great one, prince of the gods, the omniscient, venerable, surpassing, the Enlil of the gods, he who decrees the fates . . . whose pronouncement is feared, whose command is far-reaching [and], like the writing on the celestial firma¬ment, does not miss its appointed time." What is particularly striking in these theological statements is Sennacherib's emphasis on Assur as a self-creator (banu ramnisu) from whom all other gods emanate. There is no ultimate genealogical link between him and the physical features of the cosmos as there is in the case of Marduk in Enuma Elish, who ultimately descends from the fresh water and saltwater ocean. … Official theology strives to articulate the transcending features of a divinity who, until the time of Sennacherib (704-681 B.C.E.), never had a genealogy or mythology. " [ OT:RCRM, 180f; "Divine Agency and Astralization of the Gods in Ancient Mesopotamia", Beate Pongratz-Leisten]


Baal and Ashtoreh had mythologies (known from Ugarit) but it was the social aberrations of the rituals that the prophets went after anyway. Morally embarrassing moments from the lives of Baal and his consort were things to be EMULATED(!) by the worshippers--without shame! No use mentioning those fertility rites and such--very counter productive!


And as for pagan worship of demons and spirits--this was part of Israel's problem too. They obviously sacrificed to 'goat idols' in the desert (Lev 17.7 and Deut 32.17), and the cult of the dead was a problem in Israel from its beginning…  Lampooning would have done no good--even direct confrontation by the prophets did not help…


Again, there probably were no 'popular' myths--meaning the 'populace'. The most any commoner knew about the gods from the public (ANE) rituals would have been about the 'war victory' of one god over another. Other than promiscuity (since it was apparently referenced in the 'popular' idol worship of Israel), not much other would have been known by the populace.




K[OT:TROI, 8-9]: The Bible has a great deal to say about the image cult that was associated with the named gods. But if the god is not understood to be a living, natural power, or a mythological person who dwells in, or is symbolized by, the image, it is evident that the image worship is conceived to be nothing but fetishism.

[OT:TROI, 8-9]


Tank: Actually, it doesn’t say a 'great deal', but what it does say, it says over and over and over again. The whole prophetic critique started at the tangible idol and 'moved upward' to the true criteria of a 'god'. It challenged the very notion of the 'living, natural power' thing:


Israelite: "Look at your silly idol--it is nothing but a block of wood"

Pagan (or more likely, pagan-ish Israelite): "No its not!--it has a living, natural power or mythological or astral being living inside it!"

Israelite: "Prove it--have it do something god-like! Have it predict the future, interpret the past, or do ANYTHING--either good or ill". If it 'acts lifeless', then there is nothing to your claim that it is indwelt by something living."


This is an attack on the entire system--not just on the theology of idols!



K [OT:TROI, 9-10]: Biblical writers are also aware of the pagans' belief that their idols have the power to act. The pagans worship and sacrifice to idols hoping to receive benefit and aid from them. …We have now arrived at the limit of the Bible's knowledge of the nature of pagan belief. We find no clear conception of the roles the gods play in nature and in the life of man. No cognizance is taken of their mythological features. The named gods are characterized only by the nations that worship them: "Ashtoreth, god of the Sidonians," "Milcom, the abomination of the Ammonites," "Chemosh, the abomination of Moab," and so forth. No god is ever styled according to his function or place in the pantheon, as so often occurs in the literatures of Egypt, Mesopotamia, and Canaan. Nor is the sexual differentiation of the gods ever alluded to; gods and god­desses are both comprised under the masculine rubric ^elohim (e.g., "Ashto­reth, the god of [^elohe] the Sidonians"), there being, in fact, no word in biblical Hebrew for "goddess." [OT:TROI, 9-10]


Tank: There are several comments/pushbacks which can be made here:


One: In the literature of the ANE, it is only the scholarly literature that describes any 'pantheon placement' of the deities. Even the royal inscriptions by conquering kings (e.g. Sennacherib) --when describing the gods of the nations they were conquering--never mention anything more than 'I took their gods as booty' or 'I burned their gods in whom they trusted'.  And when Mesha notes his victory over Israel and his taking of the vessels of YHWH, there is no description of YHWH at all.


Two: There really wasn't a pan-ANE pantheon in which to put the gods of the immediately surrounding nations (unlike perhaps Babylon?). Chemosh, Baal, and Milcom were national gods unrelated to each other. The myths do not really have them interacting at even a literary level. The closest we have is the relationship of Baal and his consort Ashtor/Istar, but they ARE mentioned together in the bible in that role. So, you cannot require the biblical authors to make something up.


Three: As for the roles that gods play, there is a very definite attack on that, at least for the main pagan deities who tempted Israel. Baal was the god of weather and rain, and the Psalmist has YHWH usurp his position as 'rider on the clouds' (Ps 68.4). And the drought and challenge of Elijah (I Kings 17-18),was a deliberate attack on Baal's assumed power over rain:


"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.]


And Astarte, as Baal's consort (or at least one of them…), was the goddess of love and fertility. And this was consistently pointed out as repulsive to YHWH:


"Baal, god of fertility and the storm, was believed to be the son of Dagon, god of grain. Ashtoreth, goddess of love and fertility, vied for supremacy with Asherah, mother-goddess and consort of El (the creator-god in the earlier Canaanite pantheon but now displaced by Baal). The association of Baal, Asherah, and Ashtoreth with fertility, particularly as expressed in depraved sexual ritual at Canaanite shrines, made them especially abominable in the Lord’s eyes." [EBC, at 1 Sam 7.3-4]


"The Canaanites believed that the land regained its fertility because of the annual mating of Baal and Anath. What better form could their own religious activities take than that of imitating the sexual behavior of their chief deities? Hence there was always a pronounced orgiastic element in Canaanite religion. … The three goddesses—Athtarat (Astarte or Ashtaroth in the OT, Dt 1:4, KJV Astaroth; Jgs 2:13), Anath (appearing in the OT in the name of the town Anathoth and as Shamgar’s progenitor), and Athirat (Asherah in the OT)—presented an intricate set of relationships. Astarte was the same as Ashtar or Venus, the evening star. Anath’s original character is uncertain. Athirat was primarily goddess of the sea and the wife of El. She was also called Elat, the feminine form of El. All three goddesses were concerned mainly with sex and war. Their primary function was to have sexual relations with Baal on a continual yearly cycle, yet they never lost their “virginity”; they were “the great goddesses who conceive but do not bear.” Ironically, the goddesses were considered sacred prostitutes and as such were called the “holy ones.” Idols representing the goddesses were often nude and sometimes had exaggerated sexual features. In what circumstances early cultic prostitution was practiced is a matter of some debate, but there is no doubt that both male and female temple prostitutes were used in the cult of Canaanite religion."  [Elwell, W. A., & Beitzel, B. J. (1988). Baker encyclopedia of the Bible (412). Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Book House.]


The role of this 'fertility couple' (or 'fertility group'!) is consistently denied by the biblical prophets. It is YHWH alone who gives the land its produce, who alone gives rain and grain, who alone causes the herd to grow, who alone blesses Israel with her children. Emulation of the pagan theo-sexual myths on the part of Israel is both known and condemned. The bible is very much aware of the 'mythology' of the Baal-consort(s) pairings!

Four: The absence of a female form of el/elohim means nothing, since the Hebrew phrase baalim and ashtarot (gods and goddesses) includes both male and female terms. [Of course, references to the 'Queen of Heaven' are counter-instances as well.] Instead of a generalized, feminized version of El (like there is no female version of 'Baal' either), the bible uses a more specific and more deliberate term--ashtarot. This is parallel to other ANE usage:


"In Phenician countries she was the female counterpart of Baal, and was no doubt worshiped with him by those Hebrews who at times became his devotees. This is proved by the fact that Baalim and Ashtaroth are used several times (Judges x. 6; I Sam. vii. 4, xii. 10) like the Assyrian "ilani u ishtarati" for "gods and goddesses." [Jewish Encyclopedia]


"To put way the foreign gods and goddesses means to reject all rivals to God (Ps. 16:2, 4; cf. Judg. 10:16). The phrase the foreign gods (’ĕlōhê hannēkār; see Judg. 10:16; Jer. 5:19; Deut. 31:16) and goddesses (hā‘aštārôt) make a merismus referring to the totality of idols. The latter term (lit., “the Astartes”) with the article is used as a generalized term for “goddesses.” .. [footnote here:  'Note that Akk. ištaru “goddess,” plural ištarātu “goddesses,” often appears in parallel with ilu “god”; see CAD, I-J, pp. 272–73.']; also on 1 Sam. 12:10, 31:10." [Tsumura, D. (2007). The First Book of Samuel. The New International Commentary on the Old Testament (231). Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.]


"the Baals and Astartes. “Baal” (baʿal, “Lord”) was the chief epithet of the great Canaanite storm god Haddu/Hadad, and “Astarte” (*ʿaštart, Greek astartē; Masoretic ʿaštōret instead of *ʿašteret is probably a deliberate misvocalization to suggest bōšet, “shame”) was the name of the greatest of the Canaanite goddesses. The plurals refer to the several local cults of Baal and Astarte, or rather of gods and goddesses in general, since Baal and Astarte can be regarded as typical names for (illicit) male and female deities in general." [McCarter, P. K., Jr. (2008). I Samuel: A new translation with introduction, notes and commentary (143). New Haven; London: Yale University Press.



Fifth: As we have pointed out before, the major deities of the pagans were rarely involved by the common folk. This can also be seen in the anti-idol passages in the OT, where specific gods are mentioned, but they are 'second tier' (or lower) gods without any real mythologies.


·         Is 28:15ff refers to mwt as Death (probably Mot)

·         Is 57, Jer 32, and Zeph 1 refer to Molech

·         Is 65 refers to a pig-based offering ritual to the gods Gad (a Phoenician god of good fortune) and Meni (unknown)

·         Zeph and Jer speak of the Queen of Heaven often.

·         Hos 14.4 contains either a reference to Ashur or to Assyria

·         Amos 5.26 refers to two minor astral deities from Mesopotamia, Sakkud (Saturn) and Sikkuth (unknown).


Sixth: And the same can be said for the biblical witness to the gods of the people transported into Samaria in 2 Kings 2:30f:


But every nation still made gods of its own and put them in the shrines of the high places that the Samaritans had made, every nation in the cities in which they lived. 30 The men of Babylon made Succoth-benoth, the men of Cuth made Nergal, the men of Hamath made Ashima, 31 and the Avvites made Nibhaz and Tartak; and the Sepharvites burned their children in the fire to Adrammelech and Anammelech, the gods of Sepharvaim.


We know next to nothing about these deities, and this shows how 'localized' common-folk religion was:


 "The list of deities worshiped by the new settlers is confusing because of our lack of detailed information on them. Since many of them are localized gods, they do not find their way into the stories of the gods of the ANE and are thus obscure." [WBC]


"The god names as preserved in MT do not represent known divinities in the Aramaean and/or Assyro-Babylonian pantheons. " [ABC]


The deity Succoth Benoth is not known from Mesopotamian sources. Benoth may be Banitu (fem. “the creator”), often used as a term for Ishtar. Nergal was the Mesopotamian god of plagues and of the underworld. His principal cult center was in fact at Cutha (twenty miles northeast of Babylon). Ashima is known from an inscription from Teima in Arabia as well as from some Aramaic personal names, but nothing is known about the deity. The Avvites are now identified with the town of Awa (Ama, Akkadian, Amatu in eastern Babylonia). Nibhaz and Tartak have been identified with the Elamite deities Ibnahaza and Dirtaq (Dakdadra). Adrammelech is thought to represent Addir-Melek. Addir is a title meaning “mighty one” and is applied to both Baal and Yahweh. Melek means king and would refer to the divine king. Lastly, Anammelech is believed to represent an assimilation of the Canaanite goddess, Anat (or her male counterpart, An) with Melek (a title often applied to the West Semitic deity Athtar)." [BBCOT]


"The only deities in this list who are clearly known from other sources are the West Semitic god Ashima and the Mesopotamian god Nergal, who was an underworld god associated with famine, drought, plague, and death and whose cult was centered in the city of Cuthah. The combination Succoth Benoth alludes at least to the goddess Banitu and possibly also to Sakkut (Ninurta). Nibhaz and Tartak may be Elamite deities, while Adrammelech and Anammelech may be Phoenician and Emarite gods respectively." [ZIBBCOT]



Or it might show how familiar Judah was with them, and therefore could deliberately misspell them:


"Moreover the various immigrants continued the worship of their own gods in the places where they settled (v.29). Those from Babylonia worshiped Succoth Benoth (v.30), probably a deliberate scribal pun on the Babylonian Sarpanitu, Marduk’s wife. Those from Cuth continued their worship of Nergal, the great chthonic deity and god of pestilence. … Those from Syrian backgrounds worshiped the deities associated with their cults. The Syrian gods that are recorded here are likely all deliberate misspellings. Ashima is possibly an abbreviated form of the goddess Malkat Shemayin or the Canaanite Asherah (cf. Amos 8:14 NIV mg.). Some have suggested a connection with the late Syrian goddess Sima or with the well-known Phoenician god Eshmun. Nibhaz (v.31) is otherwise unknown, the most usual conjecture being that it is a corruption of the word for altar, now deified. Tartak is possibly a miswriting of Atargatis, the familiar Syrian goddess. Adrammelech and Anammelech are similar corrupt names probably representing Canaanite forms of the important Phoenician deities Baal and an, the masculine form of Anat, known from Phoenician and Ugaritic names. [EBC]




So, Israel did know the names of the pagan gods that were in their immediate 'temptation zone'. But these are lessor gods, some even unknown to us altogether.







K[OT:TROI, 13-14]: A large part of biblical literature is dedicated to the battle against idolatry, striving to expose its absurdity and discredit it in the eyes of its believers.  


Tank: I am not sure this is the proper nuance for the biblical record. From an emphasis perspective, the battle is first and foremost against covenant disloyalty and covenant disobedience.  Granted, this disobedience is expressed most vividly (and most frequently) as disobedience to the First Commandment against idolatry, but it is more often expressed in terms of rebellion, stubbornness, disobedience, 'harlotry', and faithlessness. Idols are first of all portrayed as an expression of covenant disloyalty (e.g. Golden Calf), then as destructive (i.e. a cause for God's covenant discipline in Judges), then as useless/powerless (e.g. Elijah and the YHWH-vs-Baal contest), and only then as absurd (Classical prophets). The 'premier' book of idolatry is the book of Judges, and it has no passages/messages about absurdity--only about rebellion, unfaithfulness, and stubbornness.


The book's theme is in 2.11f:


And the people of Israel did what was evil in the sight of the LORD and served the Baals. 12 And they abandoned the LORD, the God of their fathers, who had brought them out of the land of Egypt. They went after other gods, from among the gods of the peoples who were around them, and bowed down to them. And they provoked the LORD to anger. 13 They abandoned the LORD and served the Baals and the Ashtaroth. 14 So the anger of the LORD was kindled against Israel, and he gave them over to plunderers, who plundered them. And he sold them into the hand of their surrounding enemies, so that they could no longer withstand their enemies. 15 Whenever they marched out, the hand of the LORD was against them for harm, as the LORD had warned, and as the LORD had sworn to them. And they were in terrible distress. 16 Then the LORD raised up judges, who saved them out of the hand of those who plundered them. 17 Yet they did not listen to their judges, for they whored after other gods and bowed down to them. They soon turned aside from the way in which their fathers had walked, who had obeyed the commandments of the LORD, and they did not do so. 18 Whenever the LORD raised up judges for them, the LORD was with the judge, and he saved them from the hand of their enemies all the days of the judge. For the LORD was moved to pity by their groaning because of those who afflicted and oppressed them. 19 But whenever the judge died, they turned back and were more corrupt than their fathers, going after other gods, serving them and bowing down to them. They did not drop any of their practices or their stubborn ways.  (Jdg 2:11–19).


And the first prophetic message is given in 6:7ff, and it is about disobedience in the face of God's powerful actions on Israel's behalf:


When the people of Israel cried out to the LORD on account of the Midianites, 8 the LORD sent a prophet to the people of Israel. And he said to them, “Thus says the LORD, the God of Israel: I led you up from Egypt and brought you out of the house of bondage. 9 And I delivered you from the hand of the Egyptians and from the hand of all who oppressed you, and drove them out before you and gave you their land. 10 And I said to you, ‘I am the LORD your God; you shall not fear the gods of the Amorites in whose land you dwell.’ But you have not obeyed my voice.  (Jdg 6:7–10).

Indeed, even the absurdity passages are really about the uselessness and powerlessness of the images. The critique is not as theological (e.g. a piece of wood cannot turn into a divine being) as it is evidential (e.g. your wooden statue offers no evidence that it is anything more than just a piece of dead wood) or practical (e.g. your wooden statue cannot help you any--since it cannot produce any effects in history, but is dependent totally upon you for any of its actions).


So the 'absurdity' comment is overstated, imo. And even the 'discrediting' word seems a stretch. Most of the biblical attacks on idolatry are NOT arguments against the 'logic' of idolatry, but instead are simple 'thou shalt not' statements. Stop. Desist. I will discipline you. This is wrong. This is corrupt. This is breaking the covenant. The 'discrediting' aspects are minimal at best, and are in the 'powerlessness' category. YHWH has demonstrated His power via Exodus , Conquest, and the Davidic kingdom--the pagan gods have demonstrated nothing. As in the Judges passage, God invokes the 'audit trail of salvation history'--not some theological argument against the idols. Only late in the biblical record do we see any attention given to the images themselves (as opposed to the gods per se in Judges and 2 Kings).


Additionally, we should note that Israel is represented as being (a) idolatrous from DAY ONE; and being (b) aware of the false gods of the nations around them.  Let's look at these in reverse order:


Israel was aware of the false gods of the nations around them.


This can be seen by the appeals of Joshua just prior to the Conquest of Palestine (Joshua 24):


“Now therefore fear the LORD and serve him in sincerity and in faithfulness. Put away the gods that your fathers served beyond the River and in Egypt, and serve the LORD. 15 And if it is evil in your eyes to serve the LORD, choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your fathers served in the region beyond the River, or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you dwell. But as for me and my house, we will serve the LORD." (Jos 24:14–15).


And in the condemnation of the author of Judges:


The people of Israel again did what was evil in the sight of the LORD and served the Baals and the Ashtaroth, the gods of Syria, the gods of Sidon, the gods of Moab, the gods of the Ammonites, and the gods of the Philistines. And they forsook the LORD and did not serve him. (Jdg 10:6–7).



And the people of Israel did what was evil in the sight of the LORD and served the Baals. 12 And they abandoned the LORD, the God of their fathers, who had brought them out of the land of Egypt. They went after other gods, from among the gods of the peoples who were around them, and bowed down to them. And they provoked the LORD to anger. 13 They abandoned the LORD and served the Baals and the Ashtaroth. (Jdg 2:11–13).



And Israel was idolatrous -- with these deities -- from Day ONE. They were never 'monotheistic' before the Return from Exile (and maybe not even for some time after this). This can be seen from the numerous narratives in which the descendants of Jacob/Israel  are commanded to 'put away' these gods (e.g. Jacob, Joshua, Samual), and in the prophetic critiques in which they are castigated for holding on to these gods--in spite of the prohibitions of the First Commandment (Ezek).


The passage about Jacob, and the clear indication that these 'gods' are 'figurines' and can be buried:


Put away the foreign gods that are among you and purify yourselves and change your garments. 3 Then let us arise and go up to Bethel, so that I may make there an altar to the God who answers me in the day of my distress and has been with me wherever I have gone.” 4 So they gave to Jacob all the foreign gods that they had, and the rings that were in their ears. Jacob hid/buried them under the terebinth tree that was near Shechem. (Ge 35:2–4).


"Commentators have been intrigued by Jacob’s insistence that the people surrender their gods to Jacob, and that he buried them under a terebinth or oak tree in Shechem. He does not grind them to powder, as did Moses with the golden calf, but rather he buries them. Undoubtedly this is the most crucial of his directives, indicated by the fact that v. 4 recounts only what Jacob did with the gods. … What is the significance of burying the gods? … The best parallel to Jacob’s actions seems to be that of Joshua, who (also at Shechem) commanded the elders to “put away the gods [wehāsîrû ʾeṯ-ʾĕlōhîm] that your fathers served” (Josh. 24:14). The presence of such “other gods” will be a barrier preventing legitimate service of Yahweh. The language of Jacob also matches that of Samuel, who calls Israel to the ancient covenant ritual of renouncing foreign gods (hāsîrû ʾeṯ-ʾĕlōhê hannēḵār, 1 Sam. 7:3ff.). … A similar situation is probably in view in Gen. 35. Exactly who or what these strange gods are is unclear, but they must include the teraphim Rachel stole from her father’s house (ch. 31) [NICOT, Gen 35.2-4]



"To complete his vows there had to be a sanctifying procedure (35:2–5). Jacob made the family remove all household idols, the foreign gods they had. God permits no rivals; he does not allow images or magical charms. In Bethel, only the Lord was to be their God. All this getting rid of idols and washing and changing clothes was thorough; and it was instructive for subsequent Israelites who would also need such consecration when they came into the land (see Josh 5:1–9), especially when they went to the house of God. After burying the idols and the earrings associated with pagan worship, Jacob and his family left Shechem and set out for Bethel. (cf. 34:25–29). [Ross, A., & John Oswalt. (2008). Cornerstone biblical commentary, Vol.1: Genesis, Exodus (199–200). Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House Publishers.]


We have already referred to the Joshua passage, but here is the reference to the actual idols/figurines (and this is after the Exodus and the 40 year Wilderness Sojourn!):


"The interesting point is that Israel is charged with false worship not only in the time of their ancestors, but also in the time of their stay in Egypt. The presupposition appears to be that Israel has never yet served Yahweh correctly. They have merely cried, to him in time of need (cf. v 7). Israel is in the new land. The new land presents them with a new life style. The land has known a life style worshiping Baal and El and the other gods and goddesses for many centuries. On the other hand, Israel has a history of worship, worship connected with the gods of the patriarchs and the gods of Egypt. Over against this history, stands the quite brief history of God’s actions for Israel. [WBC, Joshua 24.14ff]


"It is hard to imagine that the Israelites would still be worshiping idols after they had experienced so many of the Lord’s great miracles and victories. While Achan’s disobedience could not be tolerated for a moment, this sin had not been challenged until now. Joshua called the people to give undivided loyalty to the Lord as the only way to experience his presence and blessing in the future. For “the gods your forefathers served beyond the River,” see the comment on v.2. The prophet Ezekiel also mentions Israel’s unfaithfulness in Egypt (20:7; 23:3, 8). There is no explicit reference to the worship of Egyptian idols in the narratives of the Exodus, though Moses did question whether the Israelites were acquainted with the God of their fathers (Exod 3:13). [verse 15] Joshua was calling Israel to honesty and commitment. He wanted them to show singleness of heart. He wanted them to be honest with themselves and declare their allegiance. Though Joshua said, “Choose for yourselves,” he did not intend to encourage idolatry. He was confident that the very thought of making a commitment to an idol would be so abhorrent to them that they would take a stand against all such worship. … The fertility cult of the Amorites with its many corrupt and immoral practices held a special appeal to the Israelites, who were settling down to agricultural life after so many years of wandering. This cult continued to be a strong temptation for many years. [EBC, Josh 24.14ff]



"Service of the Lord is meant to be exclusive service. It involves putting away the gods whom your forefathers served (v. 2). The same demand is made at other points in Israel’s history (Gen. 35:2; 1 Sam. 7:4). The cultus of other deities is forbidden in much the same way that in ancient Near Eastern treaties the vassal was forbidden to have any other overlord except the lord to whom he was bound in treaty. This antithetical nature of Israel’s relationship to the Lord must also be kept in mind when reading the laws of the Pentateuch. Whatever resembled an alliance other than that with the Lord, be it in manner of dress, sacrificial practices, common mores, and the like, was forbidden. Some things prohibited by law were not necessarily immoral when viewed by themselves, but their connection with the cultus of foreign gods rendered them unusable for Israel. A literal application of these laws today may do them serious injustice. … The gods to be put away were served not only beyond the Euphrates but also in Egypt. This addition need not be considered suspect as do some. It is true, in the earlier prophetic summary given in vv. 2–13, that Egypt was the place where the people cried to the Lord and were delivered. But the OT also presents another facet of the situation in Ezek. 20:7; 23:3, 8. According to that viewpoint, Israel is seen as having played the harlot while in Egypt. Thus there is no need to eliminate this reference in order to streamline the account. Some form of idolatry was found among Israel also during the desert journey (cf. Lev. 17:7, which suggests goat [satyr?] worship). [NICOT, Josh 24.14ff]


And here is the main passage from Ezekiel, in which YHWH refers to the idolatry during the time in Egypt:


In the seventh year, in the fifth month, on the tenth day of the month, certain of the elders of Israel came to inquire of the LORD, and sat before me. 2 And the word of the LORD came to me: 3 “Son of man, speak to the elders of Israel, and say to them, Thus says the Lord GOD, Is it to inquire of me that you come? As I live, declares the Lord GOD, I will not be inquired of by you. 4 Will you judge them, son of man, will you judge them? Let them know the abominations of their fathers, 5 and say to them, Thus says the Lord GOD: On the day when I chose Israel, I swore to the offspring of the house of Jacob, making myself known to them in the land of Egypt; I swore to them, saying, I am the LORD your God. 6 On that day I swore to them that I would bring them out of the land of Egypt into a land that I had searched out for them, a land flowing with milk and honey, the most glorious of all lands. 7 And I said to them, Cast away the detestable things your eyes feast on, every one of you, and do not defile yourselves with the idols of Egypt; I am the LORD your God. 8 But they rebelled against me and were not willing to listen to me. None of them cast away the detestable things their eyes feasted on, nor did they forsake the idols of Egypt. (Eze 20:1–8).



So, Israel was idolatrous at its birth and after God's bringing them to the Promised Land. And in Judges, we see their pervasive idolatry (involving the identity of gods and images) during the time of the Judges:


Yet you have forsaken me and served other gods; therefore I will save you no more. 14 Go and cry out to the gods whom you have chosen; let them save you in the time of your distress.” 15 And the people of Israel said to the LORD, “We have sinned; do to us whatever seems good to you. Only please deliver us this day.” 16 So they put away the foreign gods from among them and served the LORD, and he became impatient over the misery of Israel. (Jdg 10:13–16).


Israel demonstrated the genuineness of her repentance by throwing out the idols she was worshiping and by being willing to return to God on his terms. Persistent prayer finally brought an answer from Israel’s compassionate Lord (cf. 2:18). [EBC, at Judg 10.13ff]


And then again, Samuel confronted Israel with its treacherous worship of foreign gods (under the rubric of Baalim and Ashtaroth):


And Samuel said to all the house of Israel, “If you are returning to the LORD with all your heart, then put away the foreign gods and the Ashtaroth from among you and direct your heart to the LORD and serve him only, and he will deliver you out of the hand of the Philistines.” 4 So the people of Israel put away the Baals and the Ashtaroth, and they served the LORD only. (1 Sa 7:3–4).


Like Jacob (Gen 35:2, 4) and Joshua (Josh 24:14, 23) before him, Samuel urged the people to get rid of the foreign gods (idols) that they were so prone to worship (cf. also Deut 12:3; Judg 10:16; 2 Chronicles 19:3; 33:15). “Foreign gods and … Ashtoreths” (v.3) is essentially synonymous with “Baals and Ashtoreths” (v.4; 12:10, Judg 2:13; 10:6), as the people’s response in v.4 to Samuel’s counsel in v.3 indicates. Baal and Ashtoreth (or, alternatively, Asherah; cf. Judg 3:7) were the chief god and goddess, respectively, in the Canaanite pantheon during this period; so the phrases in vv.3–4 signify “gods and goddesses” (cf. the corresponding Akkadian expression ilū u ištarātu). Local manifestations (idols) of such deities in hundreds of Canaanite towns and villages provide yet another reason for the frequent use of their names in the plural. [EBC, at 1 Sam 7.4]


Put away their Baals and Ashtoreths (7:4). Samuel’s exhortation in 7:3 and the people’s response here is indicative of just how syncretistic Israelite worship had become on the eve of the monarchy. But this was not a recent development. Already in the period of the judges, forsaking Yahweh and serving the Baals and the Ashtoreths was a recurrent problem (Judg. 2:11–13 and passim). … Frequent biblical reference to the Baals and Ashtoreths (as here) may reflect these local manifestations but more likely “is simply a way of speaking about Canaanite gods and goddesses generally.” Samuel’s exhortation, then, is aimed at the Israelites’ ridding themselves of all “foreign gods” (cf. 7:3). [ZIBBCOT, at 1 Sam 7.4]


The Israelites accepted Samuel’s challenge and destroyed the images of Baal and Ashtoreth, the chief god and goddess of the Canaanite pantheon (7:4). [Vannoy, J. R. (2009). Cornerstone Biblical Commentary, Volume 4a: 1-2 Samuel (80). Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House Publishers.]


They might not have known all the elite theology and mythology about these deities (assuming they actually HAD a mythology different from the 'standard' borrowed ones), but they had a solid practice of concrete image/idol worship. None of these deities had created their freedom from Egypt and none of them had brought them to the Promised Land and Conquest, but they nonetheless were idolatrous (at least in part) through all their history.




K [OT:TROI, 13-14]: When this material is examined it appears  (a) that the gods, whom the pagans believe to inhabit heaven and earth, are never said to be non­existent;


Tank: As noted in the first articles on this topic, the data on this is mixed. There are enough passages that do state or strongly imply this, from a varied range of literature:


To you it was shown that you might know that the LORD, He is God; there is no other besides Him. .. Know therefore today, and take it to your heart, that the LORD, He is God in heaven above and on the earth below; there is no other.  (Dt 4:35, 39).


There is no one holy like the LORD,  Indeed, there is no one besides You, Nor is there any rock like our God. (1 Sa 2:2).


For all the gods of the peoples are worthless idols, but the LORD made the heavens. (Ps 96:5; KD: "All the elohim, i.e., gods, of the peoples are אֱלִילִים (from the negative אַל), nothings and good-for-nothings, unreal and useless.").


Thus says the LORD, the King of Israel  and his Redeemer, the LORD of hosts:

 “I am the first and I am the last;  besides me there is no god.  (Is 44:6; WBC: "This verse with its counterpart in v 8d states the essential core of Israelite faith. Israel had to listen and assent to this in order to enter into covenant with Yahweh (Exod 20:2–4 and Deut 6). So now she must affirm that Yahweh alone is God; he is unique. There is nothing and no one with which to compare him (…). This singularity applies to all time, first and last. Idol cults rose and fell, as that period of Babylonian history showed. But Yahweh stands above and beyond the cyclical waves of popular acclaim." And NICOT: "The message that this royal Redeemer wants to impart is that there is no one who can even be compared to him. It is not merely that he is the greatest of the gods, but that in comparison to him, there is no other god. Whatever the gods may be, they are not in the same category as the Lord. ")


But the bible is also very clear that there ARE supernatural beings in existence--they are just not 'gods' properly speaking.


"Some psalms indicate that in the heavenly realm, divine (supernatural) beings do exist but are inferior in every way to Israel’s God, Yahweh, who exists in a class of his own (see comments on 29:1; 82:1; 86:8; 89:5; 95:3). Hence, they are not really “gods” worthy of worship as the other nations understand them." [ZIBBC at Ps 46.10]


They stirred him to jealousy with strange gods; with abominations they provoked him to anger. They sacrificed to demons that were no gods, to gods they had never known, to new gods that had come recently,  whom your fathers had never dreaded.  You were unmindful of the Rock that bore you, and you forgot the God who gave you birth.  (Dt 32:16–18).


"This verse disparages the gods Israel worshiped. It does not argue that Israel worshiped nonexistent beings, mere statues, but that it worshiped nondivine beings, beings that lack effective power and are unworthy of worship. … demons Rather, “spirits.” Shed is used in Akkadian for minor protective spirits. The point is that the beings Israel worshiped are mere spirits, not gods. Compare Psalm 106:36–38. … no-gods Beings called “gods” (see the next colon) but undeservedly, pseudo-gods. Compare “non-sons,” “no-gods,” “no-folk” in verses 5 and 21. [Tigay, J. H. (1996). Deuteronomy. The JPS Torah commentary (306). Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society.]


"sacrifice to demons. This word for demon is used elsewhere in the Old Testament only in Psalm 106:37, but it is a well-known type of spirit/demon (shedu) in Mesopotamia, where it describes a protective guardian mostly concerned with the individual’s health and welfare. It is not the name of a deity, but a category of being (like cherub would be in the Old Testament). A shedu could destroy one’s health just as easily as it could protect it, so sacrifices to keep it placated were advisable.  [Matthews, V. H., Chavalas, M. W., & Walton, J. H. (2000). The IVP Bible background commentary : Old Testament (electronic ed.) (Dt 32:17). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.]


Interestingly, the similar passage in Psalm 106:


They sacrificed their sons and their daughters to the demons; they poured out innocent blood,

the blood of their sons and daughters, whom they sacrificed to the idols of Canaan, and the land was polluted with blood.  (Ps 106:37–38)


identifies these demons with the idols of Canaan, supporting the idea that the idolatry in the anti-idol passages refers to common-folk idols of lessor 'deities' rather than the gods of mythology.


"The unusual word translated “demons” (plural of šēd; elsewhere only in Deut. 32:17) is related to an Akkadian word (šēdu) that refers to protective or malevolent spirits (see the sidebar “Demons in the Old Testament”). These were usually lesser, personal, or household gods that played a subservient role in Mesopotamian religion, sometimes translated “genie.” An Assyrian hymn to the goddess Nanaya refers to them as her subordinate servants, although some were imagined to be monsters of the underworld. If these connotations held for usage of the Hebrew word, then the psalmist is amplifying the tragedy, implying that these “gods” to which the Israelites sacrificed their children were nothing more than inferior inhabitants of the supernatural realm." [Walton, J. H. (2009). Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary (Old Testament) Volume 5: The Minor Prophets, Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs (414–415). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.]



So the bible does not deny the existence of sub-deities (of the nations), but it does deny that the gods of the nations are 'real' gods (as opposed to angels or demons). They have no competencies that qualify them as gods:


"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)." [BBC, at Is 46.10]





K: (b) that nowhere is the belief in myths or their telling prohibited;


Tank: Well, I think Exodus 23:13 might count as such a prohibition--if you couldn’t actually 'say' their names, that pretty well kills it in an oral culture:


"Pay attention to all that I have said to you, and make no mention of the names of other gods, nor let it be heard on your lips. "


"The prohibition on mentioning the names of pagan gods, although seemingly intrusive, is actually quite relevant since the rest of the section deals with the celebrations of the seasonal cycle, which in the pagan world were invariably accompanied by magical rites aimed at propitiating divine powers and enlisting their aid in the regeneration of the soil, the ripening of the crops, and the fecundity of the herds and flocks. Such cults must have been very attractive to the Israelites. Hence the need to commence the section by outlawing the invocation of pagan gods. " [Sarna, N. M. (1991). Exodus. The JPS Torah commentary (144). Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society.]


"In making sacrifices and participating in everyday activities like plowing or building a house, it was common practice in the ancient Near East to invoke the name of a god to bless their actions. To prevent the Israelites from practicing polytheism, it was necessary to ban the use of the names of other gods or to acknowledge their existence (see 20:3). Only Yahweh could be called upon for help and blessing." [Matthews, V. H., Chavalas, M. W., & Walton, J. H. (2000). The IVP Bible background commentary : Old Testament (electronic ed.) (Ex 23:13). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.]


And this prohibition found its way into the practice of the Psalmist, so it wasn't simply a 'scribal elite' position:


The sorrows of those who run after another god shall multiply;

their drink offerings of blood I will not pour out or take their names on my lips. (Ps 16.4)



The Holy Bible : English standard version. 2001 (Ps 16:4). Wheaton: Standard Bible Society.



And the actual wording of the First Commandment seems to rule out belief in 'standard' mythologies of the day:


"first commandment. When the text says that there should be no other god “before me,” it does not refer to others having a higher position than Yahweh. The introduction in verse 2 has already indicated as a preexisting assumption that Yahweh is their God. The phrase “before me” means “in my presence” and therefore prohibits other gods from being considered to be in the presence of Yahweh. This prohibits several concepts that were a standard part of ancient beliefs. Most religions of that day had a pantheon, a divine assembly that ruled the realm of the gods, the supernatural, and, ultimately, the human world. There would typically be a deity who was designated head of the pantheon, and he, like the other gods, would have at least one consort (female partner). This commandment forbids Israel to think in these terms. Yahweh is not the head of a pantheon, and he does not have a consort—there are no gods in his presence. The only divine assembly that is legitimate for their thinking is made up of angels (as in 1 Kings 22:19–20), not gods. This commandment also then effectively bans much mythology that deals with the interactions of the gods with one another." [Matthews, V. H., Chavalas, M. W., & Walton, J. H. (2000). The IVP Bible background commentary : Old Testament (electronic ed.) (Ex 20:17). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.]


"This command, therefore, warns against violating the covenant by recognizing in any manner or form what other peoples accept as deities.  [Sarna, N. M. (1991). Exodus. The JPS Torah commentary (109). Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society.]



Additionally, we should note that Jewish interpretive tradition on Ex 22.28(27) would not actually allow such a literary device, even though we do not know how early this tradition developed. For example, Bruce (NICNT) notes in his discussion of the Ephesian riot in Act 19 that:


"Jewish interpretative tradition read Ex. 22:28a (cf. p. 426) as a prohibition of scurrilous attacks on pagan divinities (cf. Josephus, Ant. 4.207; Ap. 2.237; Philo, Life of Moses 2.205; Special Laws 1.53).


Three of the passages he cites are:


“Let no one blaspheme gods whom other cities believe in, nor rob foreign temples, nor take a treasure that has been consecrated to some god." [Josephus, Ant 4.207]


"Now I have no mind to make an inquiry into the laws of other nations; for the custom of our country is to keep our own laws, but not to accuse the laws of others. And indeed, our legislator hath expressly forbidden us to laugh at and revile those that are esteemed gods by other people, on account of the very name of God ascribed to them." [Josephus, Ap 2.237]


"Moreover, he also enjoins his people that, after they have given the proselytes an equal share in all their laws, and privileges, and immunities, on their forsaking the pride of their fathers and forefathers, they must not give a license to their jealous language and unbridled tongues, blaspheming those beings whom the other body looks upon as gods, lest the proselytes should be exasperated at such treatment, and in return utter impious language against the true and holy God; for from ignorance of the difference between them, and by reason of their having from their infancy learnt to look upon what was false as if it had been true, and having been bred up with it, they would be likely to err." [Philo, Special Laws 1.53]




K: (c) that no biblical writer utilizes mythological motifs in his polemic; (d) that the sole argument advanced against pagan religion is that it is a fetishistic worship of "wood and stone."


Tank: We have already discussed these points in detail.




K: The Bible conceives of idolatry as the belief that divine and magical powers inhere in certain natural or man-made objects and that man can activate these powers through fixed rituals. These objects, upon which magical rituals are performed, are "the gods of the nations." The Bible does not conceive the powers as personal beings who dwell in the idols; the idol is not a habitation of the god, it is the god himself. Hence the oft-repeated biblical stigmatization of the pagan gods as "wood and stone," "silver and gold."


Tank: We have already noted extensively that the pagan identified the image with the god, even to the point of calling the wood or the metal the 'flesh of the god'. This is not mere 'indwelling' , but is transubstantiation or fusion.





K: Hence also its sole polemical argument that idolatry is the senseless deification of wood and stone images. We may, perhaps, say that the Bible sees in paganism only its lowest level, the level of mana-beliefs.


Tank: Again, this is appropriate for the likely audience of common folk Israel. Paganism probably was at this lowest level for the vast majority of the populace. The widespread use of spells, divination, household images, cakes in the form of the Queen of Heaven, offerings to the dead, and religious emblems on seals give the real story of how un-sophisticated (relative to the literary myths) popular practice was.


But we should also remember that we saw that the prophets had a multi-pronged attack on the pagan gods (as used by Israelites), and not just the satirical one on the idols.





K [OT:TROI, 13-14]: This view finds clear expression in the prophetic polemics against idolatry. Literary prophecy brought the religion of YHWH to its climax. Chapter upon chapter records denunciations hurled at apostate Israel for their straying after the gods of the nations. If ever there were a struggle with pagan myths and mythological conceptions of deity, we should expect to find its traces here. But we search in vain: not one word have the prophets for mythological beliefs, not once do they repudiate them. Not only do they fail to brand the pagan gods as demons or satyrs, they fail even clearly to deny their existence. In short, the prophets ignore what we know to be authentic paganism. Their whole condemnation revolves around the taunt of fetishism. [OT:TROI, 13-14]


Tank: This is still an argument from silence, and still is subject to the criticisms already mentioned (e.g., irrelevance of the mythology to the common folk, focus on powerlessness of the gods not their 'silliness', and the more central issues of fidelity to the faithful God of the Exodus and covenant). The Israelites (as well as most pagan ANE'ers of the populace) would have KNOWN that they gods they were worshipping were 'lower gods'--the 'big' gods were for the elite. It wouldn’t have made any difference to them to have styled their idols as 'spirits' or 'goat idols' or 'guardian spirits'--that's what they were LOOKING FOR.


The prophets are only ignoring what the ELITE of the day thought 'authentic paganism' was. And the elite --whether Israelite or not--were not the target of (most of) the prophetic attacks on idolatry.


The corrupt kings of Israel and Judah may have led the people into idolatry (but probably not), but when Jeremiah and Ezekiel are talking, it is the family unit and commoners they are talking to.


And, strictly speaking, the bible DOES connect 'demons' with the pagan gods (at least of the surrounding nations), in the passages in Deut and the Psalms, which we have already looked at. The sacrifices to 'new gods' were to 'demons', and 'new gods' would have been a reference to 'newly adopted' (not 'newly invented') gods--the gods of Egypt, Canaan, 'beyond the River', and Transjordan. So, it DOES brand 'other gods' as 'demons', and as such cannot explicitly deny their existence. They can--and DO--deny that these demon-gods are not rivals to the One and Only YHWH, Creator of Heaven and Earth (cf. Deut 32. 39: ‘See now that I, even I, am he, and there is no god beside me; I kill and I make alive; I wound and I heal;  and there is none that can deliver out of my hand', and the JPS commentary remark:  "Israel’s punishment by the Lord and the inability of its pseudo-gods to protect it should finally make it realize that the Lord alone is the only effective divine being, the only true God.")




K [OT:TROI, 15-16]: Jeremiah speaks of idolatry more than all his predecessors. He mentions anonymous "other gods" (11:10) who are impotent (11:12), whom Israel knew not (19:4); these he represents as the gods of foreign lands (16:13). It has been asserted that Jeremiah acknowledged the existence of other gods, objecting only to their worship in Israel. But Jeremiah amply sets forth his conception of pagan religion: it is the worship of wood and stone (2:27) or the host of heaven (8:2). The "other gods" are not the mythologi­cal beings of authentic paganism, nor even demons, but the handiwork of men (1:16), "stone and wood" (3:9), "graven images and strange vani­ties" (8:19), "no-gods" (2:11; 5:7), and so forth. On the day when the nations repent of the sin of idolatry they will say, "Our fathers inherited naught but lies, vanity and things wherein there is no profit. Shall a man make for himself gods, they being no gods?" (16:19 f.). When men stop worshiping fetishistic "no-gods" idolatry shall come to an end. This conception of pagan religion is expressed most clearly and emphatically in 10:1-16 (cf. 51:15-19).



Tank: Several comments are appropriate here:


One. Jeremiah would not be ABLE to 'name' all the gods of the Mesopotamian canon, if he wanted to--there were literally thousands of deities.


Two. He does mention the most-relevant gods for his audience: Baal, Chemosh, Milcom, Bel/Marduk, and a few unknown, 'lower' deities (as noted earlier).


Three. He shows familiarity with the same image-events the common Mesopotamian would have known: the transport-called-'exile' of a god. The common ANE'er would have only/mostly encountered the high myths in the various public parades of the idols (most of the rituals were private, priest-only or elite-only affairs), which were victory celebrations of one god over another. Conversely, they would be familiar with the 'explanations' by the elite when a god 'abandoned them', by 'allowing' itself to be captured by a conquering nation. Jeremiah reflects this understanding in his descriptions of Chemosh going into exile (e.g., 48.7) and Milcom going into exile (e.g., 49.3). He knows that Bel is the epithet of Marduk, and that 'images' and 'idols' can feel shame and disgrace (50.2)


Four. The fact that Jeremiah acknowledges that idol can also be of 'the host of heaven' (admitted by K above) proves that pagan religion was not JUST about images. And the several pagan practices mentioned elsewhere in Jeremiah (e.g. Queen of Heaven; sun-moon-stars) shows his variety of conception, reflecting the practices of his audience.


Five. Jeremiah's frequent mention of the folly and uselessness of images is just a reflection of that the 'popular' view of his audience was. We saw that they identified (strongly) the image with the god--our notions of a god 'indwelling but not fusing with the material' was simply foreign to them. Gods were material, not spirits per se. They had bodies of different materials: light, celestial bodies, wood-stone-metal. There were no 'disembodied gods' in the strict sense of the word, and attacks on images thus WERE attacks on gods.


Six. If the bible portrays the wood/stone 'divinities' as the works of human hand (deflating their importance), it also portrays the celestial/astral bodies as the works of YHWH's hand (deflating their importance and/or claim to power). Consistently, the bible ascribes the creation of the sun, moon, and stars (and 'host of heaven' references) to the action of Israel's God. To assert His creative and management control OVER THEM is both a repudiation of a false religion that worshipped these luminary 'creatures' and at the same time, functions as a semi-sardonic 'dig' at those beliefs. These passages can be called 'anti-mythological', since they attack the very myths themselves. They do not try to 'one-up' those myths, but rather assert that they are groundless, given the creative ultimacy of YHWH and the derivative nature of the creature.


This can be seen in passages from the Pentateuch to Psalms to the Prophets. Here are a couple of such passages:


And God said, “Let there be lights in the expanse of the heavens to separate the day from the night. And let them be for signs and for seasons, and for days and years, 15 and let them be lights in the expanse of the heavens to give light upon the earth.” And it was so. 16 And God made the two great lights—the greater light to rule the day and the lesser light to rule the night—and the stars. 17 And God set them in the expanse of the heavens to give light on the earth, 18 to rule over the day and over the night, and to separate the light from the darkness. (Ge 1:14–18).


"Few commentators deny that this whole chapter has a strong antimythical thrust. Perhaps in no other section—except the sixth day—does this polemic appear so bluntly as it does here. It is sufficient to recall the proliferation of astral deities in most Mediterranean religions: the sun, the moon, and the stars are divine. As such they are autonomous bodies. Around each of them focus various kinds of religious cults and devotees. In the light of this emphasis Gen. 1:14ff. is saying that these luminaries are not eternal; they are created, not to be served but to serve. That is the mandate under which they function. (16–18)  The author’s polemical concerns continue in these verses as indicated, first of all, by his choice of terminology. He uses the unusual expression the greater luminary instead of the normal word for sun—šemeš—of which he undoubtedly was aware. In the same way he opts for the lesser luminary instead of the familiar yārēaḥ, “moon.” The reason for this choice of terms may be due to the fact that these words—which are very similar in other Semitic languages—are the names of divinities. Thus this text is a deliberate attempt to reject out of hand any apotheosizing of the luminaries, by ignoring the concrete terms and using a word that speaks of their function. Second, the antimythical thrust of this section is indicated by the order in which the luminaries are listed: sun, moon, stars. This order contrasts with the order in Enuma elish, in which priority is given to the stars, following which Marduk organizes the calendar and fixes the polestar. … In fact, Enuma elish does not record the creation of these lights, for they are “great gods.” They are simply placed in their cosmic positions as constellations (stars) or instructed by Marduk (moon and sun). It is significant that in Gen. 1 the reference to the stars, which are so prominent in pagan cosmogonies, is touched on so briefly and quite anticlimactically." [Hamilton, V. P. (1990). The Book of Genesis. Chapters 1-17. The New International Commentary on the Old Testament (127–128). Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.]


"Let there be lights This pronouncement corresponds to verse 3, “Let there be light.” The emergence of vegetation prior to the existence of the sun, the studied anonymity of these luminaries, and the unusually detailed description have the common purpose of emphasizing that sun, moon, and stars are not divinities, as they were universally thought to be; rather, they are simply the creations of God, who assigned them the function of regulating the life rhythms of the universe. With regard to the particulars, apart from the alternating cycle of day and night, there is some uncertainty as to interpretation. … signs for the set times Hebrew ʾotot and moʿadim are here treated as hendiadys, a single thought expressed by two words. The “set times” are then specified as “the days and the years.” It is also possible to take ʾotot as the general term meaning “time determinant,” a gauge by which “fixed times” (moʿadim) such as new moons, festivals, and the like are determined, as well as the days and the years….(16). Here the general term “luminaries” is more precisely defined. Significantly, no particular role is assigned to the stars, which are not further discussed. This silence constitutes a tacit repudiation of astrology. Jeremiah 10:2 reads: “Thus said the LORD: / Do not learn to go the way of the nations, / And do not be dismayed by portents in the sky; / Let the nations be dismayed by them!”" [Sarna, N. M. (1989). Genesis. The JPS Torah commentary (9–10). Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society.]


"The creation of the sun, moon, and stars is described at much greater length than anything save the creation of man. The description is also quite repetitive. The fullness of the description suggests that the creation of the heavenly bodies held a special significance for the author… The most obvious reason for the detail in the fourth day’s description is the importance of the astral bodies in ancient Near Eastern thought. In neighboring cultures, the sun and the moon were some of the most important gods in the pantheon, and the stars were often credited with controlling human destiny (cf. Hasel, AUSS 10 [1972] 12–15). So there is probably a polemic thrust behind Genesis’ treatment of the theme. This comes out in several ways. First, the sun, moon, and stars are created by God: they are creatures, not gods. And with creatureliness goes transience; unlike the Hittite sun-god, they are not “from eternity.” Second, the sun and moon are not given their usual Hebrew names here, which might suggest an identification with Shamash the sun god or Yarih the moon god. Instead they are simply called “the larger” and “the smaller light.” Third, the sun and moon are simply assigned the role of lighting the earth and ruling the day and night, as the surrogates of God. This is quite a lowly function by ancient Near Eastern standards, though Marduk does something similar in appointing stations for the great gods in EE 5.1–22. Finally, the stars, widely worshiped and often regarded as controllers of human destiny, are mentioned almost as an afterthought: they too are merely creatures." [Wenham, G. J. (2002). Vol. 1: Word Biblical Commentary : Genesis 1-15. Word Biblical Commentary (21). Dallas: Word, Incorporated.]



“If there is found among you, within any of your towns that the LORD your God is giving you, a man or woman who does what is evil in the sight of the LORD your God, in transgressing his covenant, 3 and has gone and served other gods and worshiped them, or the sun or the moon or any of the host of heaven, which I have forbidden (Dt 17.2-3)




"The phrase “what is evil" could also be translated as “the evil,” namely the great transgression—violation of the first commandment not to worship other gods; for in so doing they are “breaking his covenant.” The wording of the law here, “they go and serve other gods and bow down to them,” echoes what appears in the Ten Commandments: “You shall have no other gods before me . . . you shall not bow down to them and you shall not serve them” (5:7–9). The “sun, the moon, and all the host of the heavens” are presented as the “other gods. The clause “that I did not command” appears in Jer 7:31; 19:5; and 32:35 in similar contexts dealing with idolatry, and does not appear elsewhere in the book of Deuteronomy (L’Hour, Bib 44 [1963] 14). Tigay argues that the expression is a denial of what others claimed to be true. In regard to the law in question, then, the guilty party may have believed that such worship of these particular “other gods” was proper. The meaning then is a flat rejection of “any claim that God does authorize the worship of certain other gods along with Himself” (Tigay [1996] 162). [WBC, Deut 17]



"Specifically, the worship of other gods consists of “bowing down to them” or “to the sun or the moon or the stars of the sky” (v.3). The reference to the sun or the moon certainly suggests that the rendering “stars of the sky” accurately indicates physical phenomena as the sun and moon do. This is not to say that the sun, moon, and stars were not symbols of gods or even thought to be gods by the nations round about. Israel was not to worship the sun, moon, and stars of the sky either as physical entities or as representations of pagan deities. In OT theology the sun, moon, and stars along with other physical elements—as mountains and seas—show the glory of the Lord; but they are by no means idolatrous, pantheistic, or animistic representations of the Lord (Pss 8:3; 19:1; 148:3–6; Jer 10:10–13; see also Rom 1:20). [EBC, Deut 17]


"astral worship. The worship of the celestial bodies (sun, moon, planets, stars) was common throughout the ancient Near East. One of the principal gods of Assyria and Babylonia was a sun god (Shamash), and a moon god (Thoth in Egypt; Sin in Mesopotamia; Yarah in Canaanite religion) was widely worshiped. During most of their history the Israelites would have been familiar with and heavily influenced by Assyrian culture and religion (see Deut 4:19; 2 Kings 21:1–7; 23:4–5). These forbidden practices continued to be a source of condemnation during the Neo-Babylonian period, as Israelites burned incense on altars placed on the roofs of their houses to the “starry hosts” (Jer 19:13). Because worship of the elements of nature diminished Yahweh’s position as the sole power in creation, they were outlawed. However, the popular nature of this type of worship continues to appear in prophetic literature and in Job (see Job 31:26–28; 38:7). [BBCOT, at Dt 17.3]



He determines the number of the stars; he gives to all of them their names. (Ps 147:4)


"Against this elaborate religious backdrop, the psalmist declares that Yahweh both sets the position of the stars and names them. This affirms his control and ownership of any heavenly object that someone might be tempted to worship. He is the only object of true worship and the only source of help. [ZIBBCOT, Ps 147.4]


"Immediately reference is made to the universal power of the God of Israel (vv. 4f.). He is the Lord of the constellations, which in the ancient world were thought of as presiding over fate. The authoritative voice of the Creator and Lord of the world calls the stars by name. This calling is at the same time a creative act and a proclamation of the right of lordship (cf. Isa. 40:26). [Kraus, H. (1993). A Continental Commentary: Psalms 60-150 (557). Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press.]


Lift up your eyes on high and see: who created these? He who brings out their host by number, calling them all by name, by the greatness of his might, and because he is strong in power not one is missing. (Is 40:26).



"From the invitation to compare the author moves, as he did in vv. 19 and 20, to a possible comparison, here apparently the heavens. As mentioned above, the heavens are probably alluded to here because they were supposed to be a visible representation of the gods. This was true not only of Babylonian religion but also of Canaanite, as indicated by the reports that the Israelites sometimes succumbed to the temptation to worship “the host of heaven” (2 K. 17:16; 21:3). Here the prophet argues that far from being deities worthy of being worshiped, the stars (implied by their host and numbers them) are not even self-existent. They are contingent creatures who come and go at the command of the Lord as do sheep before a shepherd, or soldiers before a general. Would we compare such as these to the one who created them and rules them?

"Who created these? He is the one who brings forth their host by number; by name he calls them all. This passage is describing God’s eternal, unchanging nature. host is a military term, and this sense is heightened by the use of number. So the general musters his troops. The daunting stars, wheeling about the sky imperturbably, are really only the obedient minions of one infinitely greater than they. To him they are not numberless; more than that, he knows them each by name. In the ancient world, to know the name of something was to know its essence, and thereby have power over it. What is the power and wisdom of one who knows each star by name? No wonder no star dares to miss muster![NICOT, Is 40.26]



"The statement about Yahveh’s creation and control of the celestial bodies serves to wrap up the polemic against idolatry, appropriately in view of the importance of astral worship and astronomy in the intellectual and religious life of Babylon. The subtext to the invitation to consider these objects visible in the sky by day and night, but especially by night, is the scrutiny of the heavens by Babylonian sages, their naming of the constellations and stars, and the calculations based on their movements that were thought to control human destiny (cf. 47:13). The prophet’s audience is urged to look up at these objects in order to acknowledge Yahveh as its creator and not to worship them (cf. Deut 4:19, using the same language). [ABC, Is 40.26]



"Verses 18–20 had contrasted God with the idols that were all too common in Babylonia. Now the same question introduces an implicit contrast with the astral deities that dominated Babylonia on religion (v.25). This passage is anti-mythological; for it asserts that—far from being deities in their own right—the heavenly bodies are simply the creatures of the one Creator-God, who is also Israel’s Holy One. He orders their pattern, knows each in its distinctiveness and upholds them all in their being (v.26; of Col 1:17; Heb 1:3). All this had, of course, been revealed to God’s people from early times (cf. v.21) in the opening chapters of Genesis. [EBC, Is 40.26]



He who made the Pleiades and Orion, and turns deep darkness into the morning (Amos 5.8)


"Given the widespread knowledge of the stars and the planets in both Mesopotamian and Egyptian cultures, it was important for the biblical writers and prophets to attribute these celestial bodies to Yahweh’s creation (see Job 9:9). Mesopotamian constellations included animal figures such as a goat (Lyra) and snake (Hydra); objects such as an arrow (Sirius) and a wagon (Big Dipper); and characters such as Anu (Orion). The most popular of the constellations was Pleiades, often portrayed on seals even in Palestine and Syria. [BBCOT, at Amos 5.8]



You shall take up Sikkuth your king, and Kiyyun your star-god—your images that you made for yourselves, 27 and I will send you into exile beyond Damascus,” says the LORD, whose name is the God of hosts. (Am 5:26–27).



"Each of the gods is an astral deity—images that you made for yourselves—but “your king” is involved; perhaps the god Saturn (= El) is regarded as ultimate king of the nation. Perhaps the king is Jeroboam, the king of Israel, who is involved in the cult of these images. These gods are said to have been made by the Israelites, and perhaps it was in conjunction with the ratification of a treaty of friendship with Assyria, a logical step for Jeroboam, who had scores to settle with the Aramaeans and who could threaten their rear by a treaty with a weak but potentially threatening Assyria. Such an alliance would suit Israel and Jeroboam before the emergence of Tiglath-pileser and the renewal of Assyrian power….Both gods, if that is the right interpretation of the names, are astral deities and represent the same heavenly body—Saturn. This god was Kronos = Saturn in Greco-Roman mythology, the father of the reigning king of the gods: Zeus-Jupiter. In Canaanite religion these gods are, respectively, El and Baal. Both deities play a significant role in Israelite religion, especially in the north during this period (ninth-eighth centuries). … Nevertheless, it is possible that the inclusion of these deities in the pantheon of Israel was regarded by the king and priests as a small accommodation in the interest of beneficial relations with a foreign power. Such an arrangement was not viewed as a compromise of their religion, for the gods in question could be regarded as equivalent to El, or as attributes or local manifestations of the same chief God. With other images being used, the bull calves for El (= Yahweh) and the female goddess ensconced in Samaria, the addition of these two would not change the essential picture particularly, though the whole development was bound to shock and affront true prophets. [Andersen, F. I., & Freedman, D. N. (2008). Amos: A new translation with introduction and commentary (533–535). New Haven; London: Yale University Press.]


shrine of the king. Because of a mistaken belief that the god Sikkuth was not introduced until after the Assyrian conquest (see 2 Kings 17:30), there has been an attempt to emend the Hebrew so that the text is read “shrine” or “abode” of the king. In fact, Amos’s statement probably reflects the degree of cultural influence exercised by Aramean merchants and other travelers on the Israelites. Sikkuth or dSAG.KUD is associated with Ninurta in Ugaritic sources and specifically with the planet Saturn. … 5:26. star of your god. Since both of the gods mentioned in this verse are associated with the planet Saturn, the phrase “star of your god” is actually a reference to the people’s worship of astral deities. Sacred processions paraded the images and symbols of these gods through the city streets to their shrines, where sacrifices, sacred dancing and other cultic activities would take place. Amos, however, is satirizing these practices. Instead of simply describing what has been occurring, he now predicts a “final” procession, but this time the people carry these idols with them into exile (compare the carrying of burdensome idols in Is 46:1). [BBCOT, at Amos 5.26f]



"Clearly the prophet denounces idolatry, but its exact form is uncertain. One common view, reflected in the NIV text, is that the prophet condemns various cult objects: shrine, pedestal, and star. Amos’s contemporary Hosea also mentions various cultic accoutrements that were revered by the Israelites and of which they would soon be deprived (e.g., Hos. 3:4; 8:4–6). Sometimes these were lifted up and paraded in the ancient world, as illustrated in graphic art. This fits the general context, though is not the easiest way to read the Hebrew words. The other common view, reflected in the NIV footnote and argued by many commentators, is that a form of astral worship is condemned. The word translated “shrine” is really “Sikkuth” and “pedestal” is “Kaiwan,” corrupted forms of names for the god Saturn known from various lists from Mesopotamia, Ebla, and Ugarit. This implies that by this stage Israel had succumbed to the worship of heavenly bodies, as did many of their neighbors and as did Judah a century later (cf. Josiah’s reforms, 2 Kings 23:5).




The fascinating--and informative for our purposes--aspect of this Amos passage is that celestial / astral deities were said to be present in the statues which were being carried around! Just as we saw in the Mesopotamian literature--where even celestial deities were said to be 'incarnated' in its images--so too did Israel's worship of these beings manifest itself in gods which could be carried!:


"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]



"But the significant fault of the Israelites was not their presumptuous abuse of the sacrificial system. It was their outright rejection of Yahweh’s covenant via idolatry. Thus the wilderness continues in v 26 as a paradigm of relative propriety compared to the degenerate practices of Amos’ day. This contrast between the orthodoxy of the wilderness era and the idolatry of the settled era is also made, twice over, in Jer 2:2–8. Here, specifically, two astral deities are described as “carried” around, as idols, probably atop standards (cf. ANEP, figs 305, 535) and presumably as part of the pagan worship which has pervaded the North under the influence of admiration for Assyrian ways at least as early as the time of Ahab (874–853 B.C.) and the days of Shalmaneser III (859–824 B.C.) to whom Israel had payed tribute. The worship of such idols is, in fact, silly because they are simply human products, made by or for (…) humans. Amos’ contemporaries probably thought themselves quite sophisticated in comparison to the ancient wilderness generation. But how sophisticated can any group be who worships what their own hands have made (cf. Isa 40:18–20; 41:22–24; Acts 7:41)? [WBC, Amos 5.26f]



K: [OT:TROI, 15-16]: "In Ezekiel we do find what appears to be an allusion to a foreign pagan myth: the lamenting of Tammuz (8:14; cf. also Zech. 12:11, "the mourning of Hadadrimmon"). Did Ezekiel or his contemporaries know the myth of the death of youthful Tammuz, the beloved of Ishtar? Or did they know only the pagan rites that Ezekiel mentions? The mass of worshipers, even among the pagan nations, had at times only very dim notions of the mythological basis of their rites. Did those "weeping women" know the Tammuz myth? Is it certain that they were Israelites, and not rather pagan priestesses of the royal cult (like the imported pagan priests of Jezebel in an earlier age)? It is certain only that Ezekiel (whom Gunkel believes "filled with mythological material") never once argues against pagan my­thology. Despite the fact that he polemizes often and heatedly against idolatry, he has not a word to say about the myths of Tammuz or any other god, nor does he ever employ an argument based on a mythological motif. He, too, characterizes pagan religion as fetishism. His favorite epithet for the gods is gillullm (dung-pellets); Israel's silver and gold, out of which they "made themselves their abominable images and loathsome things," were their stumbling blocks (7:19 f.). In chapters 16,20, and 23, the prophet describes Israel's apostasy in detailed visions and allegories; Israel have made "male images" of gold and silver, made offerings to them, even sacri­ficed to them their sons and daughters. They have adopted the idol-worship of their neighbors throughout their history, from the Egyptian sojourn on­ward. The imagery is sensual and erotic; the dominant motif is the idol-images, those illegitimate partners of Israel's harlotry, from which the prophet readily passes to the lusty men of the foreign nations—the pan­oplied soldiery—after whom Israel went a-whoring also. Plastic imagery dominates; in fact, the prophet is so involved with the idols that he ignores the gods entirely. It is most remarkable that Ezekiel, fascinated as he is by erotic symbolism, never once utilizes the sexual themes of mythology. He is silent concerning the strong erotic motif of the Tammuz myths. He uses the awkward image of Israel playing the harlot with stocks and stones, with gold and silver images. But he neglects the mythological store of themes that could have furnished rich material for his imagination. Can it be that Ezekiel knew the myths of the pagans in spite of his failure to employ even one of their motifs in his visions? We are not left to inferences. Ezekiel has himself supplied an epitome of his view of the pagan gods: to the elders of Israel he says, "You say, let us be like the nations, like the families of the countries to serve wood and stone" (20:32). What the pagans worship, then, is nothing but deified wood and stone. [OT:TROI, 15-16]


Tank: Several comments are appropriate here:


First, there is no need for Ezekiel to delve into the 'erotic content' of the myths because his point was only one of adultery--Israel was unfaithful to her husband. Whether unfaithfulness expresses itself in illegal union with a neighbor or in the extremes of prostitution (and prostitution without pay even), the issue is one of unfaithfulness, not sexuality. More detail about the erotic elements in the stories of Tammuz or others would have been a distraction (or additional temptation!) in the argument. The elaborate--and moving--story in chapter 16 sets the adultery in the context of God's recue, enrichment, commitment and faithfulness.


Secondly, his 'ignoring the gods entirely' is part of the point--Israel is focused on their idols and local idolatrous practices, and not on the mythologies or stories. K admits in this passage that even the pagans had 'only dim notions' of the myths--why would we expect the common Israelite to have any more?


Thirdly, the actual purpose of the passages describing the idolatrous worship in the temple (e.g. Tammuz, bowing to the east) was not actually focused on Israel, but on Ezekiel himself. The abominations of both elders and populace had a place in moving Ezekiel to further commitment and understanding in his prophetic ministry:  E.g.,  behold, when they come out to you, and you see their ways and their deeds, you will be consoled for the disaster that I have brought upon Jerusalem, for all that I have brought upon it. 23 They will console you, when you see their ways and their deeds, and you shall know that I have not done without cause all that I have done in it, declares the Lord GOD.”  (Eze 14:22–23).


Fourthly, K is probably correct to disagree with Gunkel that Ezy is full of 'mythological' material, but should recognize that Ezy is nonetheless full of 'pagan religious practices'. From the soul-catching armwear of chapter 13 (Thus says the Lord GOD: Woe to the women who sew magic bands upon all wrists, and make veils for the heads of persons of every stature, in the hunt for souls!)  to the divination process used by Nebuchanezzar in 21.21 (For the king of Babylon stands at the parting of the way, at the head of the two ways, to use divination. He shakes the arrows; he consults the teraphim; he looks at the liver.), Ezek shows a great deal of detail about the day-to-day pagan practices. But again, there is no need to go beyond what the unfaithful Israelite populace are practicing--in their attempts to 'influence' the future. [Most of the practices, by the way, were more in category of magic than religion, as they tried to influence nature/future rather than celestial beings--who themselves were subject to 'fate', as noted in Part 2.]





K [OT:TROI, 17]: Over and over again the prophet (Second Isaiah) ridicules the belief that inanimate objects are gods. Only when the nations perceive that a "block of wood" (vs. 19) is not god will idolatry vanish. This from a man who, so it is alleged, was thoroughly acquainted with the polytheistic religion of his environment and even employed mythological motifs in his writing (51:9). And yet he has not a word about the gods or their myths. It never occurred to him to contrast the sublime God of Israel with the contentious, lustful deities of the pagans and to argue from this contrast that the gods are vanity. If our author had but dipped into the treasury of Babylonian myths, what a mine of material he would have found for his satires: gods who are born and die, who procreate, who eat, drink, and sleep, who make war on one another, and crowd like flies around the sacrifice. Here was an arsenal which might have armed him to strike at the very heart of paganism: the faith in mythological gods and goddesses and in their dominion over the universe. And yet, in asserting his God's claim, he can say only, "I am YHWH, that is my name, and my glory I shall not give to another, nor my praise to idols" (42:8)—"to idols," not to "a born god," "a dying god," "a lustful god." YHWH evidently has no other rivals beside the idols and the graven images. [OT:TROI, 17]


Tank: Although most of this material we have already covered in the earlier parts of this series, a few additional comments are appropriate here:


First, again, this is still an argument from silence. And it is especially weakened by the other prophetic arguments we have noted (other than lifeless statues) against celestial gods and nature-bound gods.


Second, we should note that--practically speaking--these characteristics of the pagan deities were not really perceived as weaknesses. Cruelty in warfare, sexual prowess and promiscuity, procreation, and exhibition of human-like behaviors were either valued (!) or taken as a sign of 'solidarity' between the gods and humans. It would not really present an 'attack surface' for this situation.


Third, in the one case in the prophetic narratives where 'human characteristics of gods' ARE the object of prophetic ridicule (i.e. Elijah's taunts to the priests of Baal on Mount Carmel), it is not the taunt that wins the day, but rather divine action--in the form of fire from heaven--that moves God's people to return (for some period, and at some level) to their covenant Lord.


Fourth, the case of the gods crowding around a sacrifice 'like flies' would not have been known except for  very, very few scholars (see that section on OT Borrowing at ). The Israelite populace would not have recognized this (or many of the other mythological themes).


Five, we should note that most of the sardonic/parody 'attacks' on idols occur in the narratives of the Hebrew bible and in word-plays on names, not in the prophetic corpus. We have already noted the YHWH versus Baal contest of Elijah, but there are several narratives which portray other gods as impotent. Consider this analysis of the event in which Jacob collects/buries the household gods in Genesis 35:


"Commentators have been intrigued by Jacob’s insistence that the people surrender their gods to Jacob, and that he buried them under a terebinth or oak tree in Shechem. He does not grind them to powder, as did Moses with the golden calf, but rather he buries them. Undoubtedly this is the most crucial of his directives, indicated by the fact that v. 4 recounts only what Jacob did with the gods. … Exactly who or what these strange gods are is unclear, but they must include the teraphim Rachel stole from her father’s house (ch. 31). The parody on such gods continues from ch. 31 into ch. 35. Such gods may be stolen, sat on, stained with menstrual blood, and now buried. The verb used for the gods’ burial (and for the burial of the jewelry) is ṭāman (see Exod. 2:12), rather than the more common qāḇar. This verb choice may have no special significance; however, when we recall that ṭāman is often used to convey the idea of capturing by hiding a concealed trap (esp. in the Psalms), the choice of the verb may be deliberate. Job 3:16 uses the root to refer to a miscarriage, literally, “a hidden abortion” (nēp̄el ṭāmûn); perhaps some such connotation is present here? Or qāḇar may have been avoided lest the idea be conveyed that the gods were given a (decent) burial. [NICOT, Gen 35.2-4]



Or the Jehu story in 2 Kgs 9-10:


"The suggestion has also been made that the entire Jehu account in 2 Kings 9–10 has been written to evoke and to parody the Baal-Anat cycle from Ugarit, as a way of ridiculing the religious traditions of Israel’s enemies. Specifically in relation to 2 Kings 9:30, just as Anat adorns herself and puts on paint (snail dye) in the myth, so too does Jezebel in the narrative. More generally, just as Anat purges both valley and town in a bloodbath on behalf of Baal, so too does Jehu purge Israel of Baal worship in a bloodbath on behalf of Yahweh." [Walton, J. H. (2009). Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary (Old Testament) Volume 3: 1 & 2 Kings, 1 & 2 Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther (151). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.]


Even the Eden story:


"Given these associations of snake, woman, and fertility goddess, given the intense competition between the worship of Ashtoreth and Yahweh in ancient Israel, we can see that the story of Eve and the snake, in addition to other readings, is a parody of Canaanite religion. For didactically it says that any religion which claims that through the worship of a lewd goddess and her reptilian attribute we can become as gods is a lie. Wake up Israelites! Here is the woman and the snake, the priestess of fertility in her sacred grove, and what does she lead to? Immortal life? Bliss? Never! Her actions lead to a curse, to expulsion, to suffering, to alienation from God and to death." [Kissling, P. J. (2004-). Genesis. The College Press NIV commentary. (184–185). Joplin, Mo.: College Press Pub. Co.]


And word-plays:


“Baal-zebub” literally translates to “Lord [Baal] of the flies.” This was a deliberate change from “Baalzebul,” meaning “Baal the Prince,” a parody designed to be insulting.  [Cabal, T., Brand, C. O., Clendenen, E. R., Copan, P., Moreland, J., & Powell, D. (2007). The Apologetics Study Bible: Real Questions, Straight Answers, Stronger Faith (541). Nashville, TN: Holman Bible Publishers., at 2 kings 1.2]


"This is the first reference to Baal in Kings. Like Solomon (cf. 11:1), Ahab takes a Sidonian wife and allows her to lead him and Israel further into apostasy. Josephus records that Ethbaal (meaning “Baal exists”) was also a priest of Astarte, perhaps explaining Jezebel’s aggressive posture toward Canaanite religion. The form of Jezebel’s name in the Hebrew text may represent a parody. The name originally meant, “Where is the Prince [˒îzĕbūl]?” It is derived from the epic of Baal’s battle with Mot (“death”). When Baal is defeated by Mot and is taken to the underworld, the god of rain “neglects the furrow of his tillage.” The search is made for Baal: “Where is the Prince, Lord of Earth?” In the Hebrew rendering of Jezebel’s name, “prince” (zĕbūl) appears to be vocalized as “dung” (zebel signifies dung in Arabic; cf. 2 Kgs 9:37), surely representing the author’s negative view of Israel’s Sidonian queen and her influence on Israel. Idolatry in the northern kingdom of Israel now takes the form of worshiping foreign gods." [Long, J. C. (2002). 1 & 2 Kings. College Press NIV commentary. (201–202). Joplin, Mo.: College Press Pub.]


"The resulting blessing was materialistic. It included God’s love (˒hb, not ḥēsed as in v. 12) and fruitfulness. First of all they would increase as a people, in contrast to their original smallness (v. 7). This would fulfill the creation blessing of Genesis 1 and 9. Secondly, all their crops and livestock would experience fertility (see on 6:11). All the necessities of life would be provided and then some. This promise was crucial to Israel for it emphasized that the destruction of the Canaanite fertility gods would have no effect on Israel’s actual fertility. Those false gods were totally powerless to influence fertility and their demise would be meaningless. There is also ironic satire here, for each of the Hebrew words used for the different products were also names of Semitic deities. The Israelites may or may not have understood the wordplay." [Hall, G. H. (2000). Deuteronomy. The College Press NIV commentary. (157). Joplin, Mo.: College Press Pub. Co., at 7.13]



Again, there is just no need for any of the prophets to develop additional levels of satire or to attack obscure myths in confronting an Israelite audience with their heart-breaking and self-destructive infidelity to their God.




K (OT:TROI, 18f): Does the Bible portray pagan religion as mere fetishism because the writers themselves disbelieved in the gods? If this were so, the writers must have failed in their primary objective, which was to undermine the faith of those who did believe in them. To this end, there was no point in belaboring the fetish-argument to the entire exclusion of the main claim, that the gods were nonexistent. As a matter of fact, it is abundantly clear that the writers naively attribute their own viewpoint to the idolaters.


Tank comments:


First, there was no point in attacking gods 'in absentia' when there were gods 'in residence' (the idols) to attack. The common person so identified the idol with the deity that --as we have seen--that to discredit one was to discredit the other. If the god-as-idol (tangible, visible) wasn't able to deliver--or even act(!)--why would anybody believe that a god-as-vapor (intangible, invisible, spirit) could do any better? The attack was at the strongest point--NOT the weakest point. The incarnate deities were powerless, so there was no point in relying on disembodied and distance gods.


YHWH heaps sarcasm on the futility of trusting such things, in the Song of Moses (Deut 32.36ff):


For the LORD will vindicate his people  and have compassion on his servants,

when he sees that their power is gone  and there is none remaining, bond or free.

Then he will say, ‘Where are their gods,  the rock in which they took refuge,

who ate the fat of their sacrifices  and drank the wine of their drink offering?

Let them rise up and help you;  let them be your protection!

“ ‘See now that I, even I, am he,  and there is no god beside me;

 I kill and I make alive;  I wound and I heal; 

and there is none that can deliver out of my hand.


Secondly, we have already seen that the position taken in the prophetic corpus DID match that of the common pagan Israelite and common pagan ANE'er anyway. There was no 'naïve attribution'. There is a good chance that Second Isaiah and (especially) Ezekiel knew more mythology than they 'showed', but that they only represented what the popular viewpoint was!





K [OT:TROI, 18f]: The prophets look for the end of idolatry at the time when the idolaters will come to under­stand that man cannot "make" him gods, and that wood and stone cannot save. When Sennacherib boasts of how he defeated the gods of the nations (II Kings 18:33 ff.; 19:11 f. [Isa. 36:18 ff.; 37:12]), the writer explains, "he cast them into the fire" (II Kings 19:18 [Isa. 37:19]). And Isaiah, too, ascribes this thinking to the Assyrian: "As I did to Samaria and its idols, so shall I do to Jerusalem and its images." The pagan fails to realize that while the gods of the nations are "the handiwork of man, wood and stone," Israel's God is a "living God" (II Kings 19:16, 18 [Isa. 37:17,19]). There is, of course, no hint that Sennacherib ascribes his triumphs to the god Ashur who triumphed over the gods of these nations.


Tank comments:


First, the biblical data is very accurate in describing the perspective of Sennacherib, as seen in the monumental inscriptions cited in Parts 1 & 2. Here are a couple of them again:


"As for Ṣidqa, king of Ashkelon, who had not submitted to my yoke — his family gods, he himself, his wife, his sons, his daughters, his brothers, and (all the rest of) his descendants, I deported and brought him to Assyria. [COS2, 2.119B]


"In my second campaign, I marched quickly against Babylon which I was set upon conquering. Like the onset of a storm I swept, (and) like a fog I enveloped it. I laid siege to that city; with mines and siege machines, I personally took it — the spoil of his mighty men, small and great. I left no one. I filled the city squares with their corpses. Shuzubu, king of Babylon, together with his family and his [ ], I brought alive to my land. I handed out the wealth of that city — silver, gold, precious stones, property and goods — to my people and they made it their own. My men took the (images of the) gods who dwell there and smashed them. They took their property and their wealth. Adad and Shala, the gods of Ekallate, which Marduk-nadin-ahhe, king of Babylon had taken and carried off to Babylon during the reign of Tiglath-pileser (I), king of Assyria, I brought out of Babylon and returned them to their place in Ekallate. [COS2, 2.119E]


"I destroyed and tore down and burned with fire the city (and) its houses, from its foundations to its parapets. I tore out the inner and outer walls, temples, the ziggurat of brick and earth, as many as there were, and threw them into the Arahtu river. I dug canals through the city and flooded its place with water, destroying the structure of its foundation. I made its devastation greater than that of “the Flood.” So that in future days, the site of that city, its temples and its gods, would not be identifiable, I completely destroyed it with water and annihilated it like inundated territory. [COS2, 2.119E]


The biblical descriptions are totally consistent with this perspective, and are therefore fair representations of Sennacherib's position.


Second, as for there not being any mention of Sennacherib giving credit to Ashur for his victories (by the biblical author), this is another argument from silence. Apart from the occasional, almost stylized references Sennacherib makes to Ashur in the inscriptions, most of the credit is given to his own might, splendor, and power (as a weapon of Ashur, once). Nations are afraid of him--not Ashur. Nations submit to him--not to Ashur. He takes their gods as booty--not Ashur.


Third, Sennacherib actually 'gives credit' to YHWH (not Ashur) in the biblical text (Is 36.10: Moreover, is it without the LORD that I have come up against this land to destroy it? The LORD said to me, Go up against this land and destroy it.’ ”), probably referring to reports he had heard in Assyria about the prophecies against the Northern kingdom. He knew about the religious reforms of Hezy (Isa 36.7 with 2 Kings 18.3ff), and prophets sometimes traveled to other countries for prophetic ministry and were sometimes well known--or at least their messages were (e.g. Elisha in 2 King 8.7f; Jonah to Ninevah; Jeremiah was known to Nebuchadnezzer). The fact that the prophets of the destruction of the northern kingdom specifically ascribe the action of the Assyrian kings to YHWH (not Ashur), shows that the theological interpretation of these events was squarely in the 'sovereignty of YHWH' category. Sennacherib does not say that Ashur commanded him, and does not say the Ashur will give him Jerusalem. It is YHWH who orders him to do so, and it is Sennacherib himself who will take the city.


This is, of course, similar to the case of Chemosh 'abandoning' his people Moab 'into' the hands of Israel. Notice how the Mesha Stele does NOT attribute the victory to YHWH, but to abandonment by the national deity (like Sennacherib attributes the attach on Judah as the judgment of YHWH, not Ashur):


"people of Chemosh  That is, the Moabites—just as the Israelites are called “the people of YHVH” (Exod. 15:16; Judg. 5:11). Chemosh was the national deity of Moab (Judg. 11:24; 1 Kings 11:7). are rendered  Hebrew natan, an active verb understood passively by Rashi. However, Ramban’s literal translation “he rendered” is preferable, heightening the irony in the poem whereby the god Chemosh willingly surrenders his subjects. In the ancient Near East it was not unknown for a nationwide disaster to be attributed to the decision of the national deity. Once again, according to Mesha inscription 4–5, Chemosh is said to have made such a decision: “Omri … afflicted Moab for many days because Chemosh was angry with his land.” So, too, the Assyrians claimed that their invasion of Judah was willed by Israel’s God (2 Kings 18:25). [Milgrom, J. (1990). Numbers. The JPS Torah commentary (182). Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society. At 21.28]




[This usage of a threatened city's god as a 'turncoat' is common in ancient military strategy. Perhaps most famously done by the Romans, an 'oracle' from a city's patron deity, giving control of the city over to the attacking Romans, was very persuasive and very troubling to a city's inhabitants! There is no reason to doubt that it could have been used here as elsewhere in the ANE. Cf: "The Hittite Proclamation of Anitta of Kushshar claims: “Previously Uha, king of Zalpuwa, had carried off our goddess [Halmashuit] … [Regarding the city Hattusha], their goddess Halmashuit gave it over [to me], and I took it at night by storm.” Cyrus made the same claim: Neglecting worship led the gods to turn Babylon over to him." [BBCOT at Is 36.10]]




K [OT:TROI, 18f]: It may be suggested that the biblical polemic takes this form because, in fact, the mass of people did have this fetishistic concept of the idols, and it was urgently necessary to combat it. Now there was, to be sure, a fetishistic side to paganism: the cult was bound up with an image; the image was, in a sense, the god. This consideration can explain why the fetishistic argument plays an important part in the biblical polemic; it cannot explain, however, the total absence of polemic against the belief in living gods, which was, after all, the root and heart of pagan religion. Greek thinkers in their attacks upon the popular religion gave due attention to its fetishistic aspect, but they did not permit this to distract them from combating the popular myths. Nor did the later Jewish and Christian po­lemics rest content with the fetishistic argument only. And yet we find that the Bible fails entirely to come to grips with the essence of polytheism— the belief in gods.



Tank comments:


First, K admits that the 'popular perspective' may indeed have been this image=god belief we have seen evidenced throughout the ANE literature, but re-asserts his argument from silence. But he seems to raise a false dichotomy here: either the images were considered to be the 'living gods' or they were not. The truth--mentioned by K in the 'was, in a sense, the god' phrase--was MOSTLY the former. An attack on the idol--as the fusion of god and material into a 'tertium quid' (third something)--was the same 'in a sense' as the attack on the living god. The rare cases in which the latter perspective shows up in the ANE literature is at the end of the pen of elite scribes (and not uniformly within them even), and not on the monuments of royalty or the prayers/votive offerings in the temples.


Second, while there is evidence in the elite writings of 'theological refinement' beyond image=god thinking, this is not in the realm of 'practical religion'. This level of theological or mythological thinking was as irrelevant to the common man then as it seems to be in the West now. The theology of the creeds and even the official 'doctrinal positions' of the various Christian denominations is so rarely even understood by the laity, and even less so is it a force of change in those lives. It is almost a waste of breath and ink to argue 'theology' with many people today (in cultures where persecution is not a factor, of course)--and there is no reason to believe the common ANE'er or late-biblical Israelite was any different. It is at the level of practical belief--where the doctrine impacts the wallet or restricts behavior or compels time and resource-consuming rituals--that we live. It is there the prophets speak--into the ritual lives and practices of those who held the idols to be worthy of such behavior change.


Third, the 'root and heart' of pagan religion was not really the belief in living gods, but in the ultimacy of 'natural forces'. The gods were subject to these forces themselves--they required certain types of wood for their images, they had to cast spells themselves, they were subject to 'fate'. These natural forces were MORE ultimate and 'metaphysically prior' than the pagan gods, and these forces are the target of much of the aniconic polemic in the biblical corpus.


Kaufman knows this and explains this in this book (p31ff):


"THE GODS AND MATTER—Although the will of the gods plays a significant part in the cosmogonies, there is something that transcends it: the power of matter, the innate nature of the primordial order. The gods are conceived in the world-stuff, emerge out of it, and are subject to its nature.

The god has a potent mana, inherited from the primordial stuff through which he acts. But this power is regarded as inhering in the substance of the god, not in his will or spirit. This becomes evident from myths in which the god remains potent even after his death—i.e., after he has ceased being a willing being and has become mere lifeless substance. The various stories of creation out of the corpses of gods and the widespread cult of the graves of the gods are rooted in this concept. Moreover, the god's mana belongs to everything given off by his body; his tears, his spittle, his blood, his mutilated members, his dung—all are represented as sources of life and creation.

The dependence of the gods upon what lies outside them is embodied in the common notion that they are in need of food and drink. Corresponding to the theogony which tells how they were born out of the primeval substance, this makes their continued existence dependent upon the external matter they take in. It is a kind of permanent "theogony." Child-gods imbibe vigor from the breasts of goddesses. Certain substances are often specified as the sources of divine vitality: the Indian soma, the Germanic mead, the Greek nectar and ambrosia. At times the gods have recourse to magical foods and drinks that endow them with special powers,  that heal them of sickness, that protect them against evil magic, that rejuvenate them, that act as aphrodisiacs, and so forth.

There are also magical objects that the gods employ for their needs, and that are considered the source of their power. Such are the Babylonian "Tablets of Destiny," possession of which confers supreme authority in heaven. The transfer of these tablets, and with them supremacy, involves a shift in power, as when Marduk takes them from Kingu, or when the Zu bird steals them from Enlil. Again, Marduk arms himself with all sorts of potent weapons before going out to battle Tiamat and her entourage. Ishtar has a girdle with powers of fertility; in fact, all her clothes seem to be magically charged; hence she must be stripped of them before entering the domain of the underworld. Similarly, Aphrodite has an aphrodisiacal girdle which Hera borrows to get the better of Zeus. Hermes has a magic wand which gives happiness and riches. Magic seals, crystals, in which the future can be divined, magic weapons to ward off evil, all these are standard features of mythology the world over. They are a fundamental symbol of paganism, bespeaking the idea that there is no supreme divine will that governs all. The rule of the gods is ultimately grounded on the mysterious forces that inhere in matter, in a realm which lies outside of them.

THE GODS AND NECESSITY—Necessity dominates the universe and the gods who are part of it. Birth, procreation, growth, youth, age, death, and the like—are innate properties of the world-stuff. The fabulous wonderland of myth and magic is bound to necessity; even the gods must bow to the inexorable decrees of fate.

It is this idea, as we shall see further on, that lies at the bottom of the Babylonian astrology which eventually permeated the whole of the pagan world. In Hindu thought, it appears as rita—the world order, the principle of pattern and regularity in all phenomena. By rita, the rivers flow; the wheel of time runs by it; the righteous man meditates on it; it is embodied in the correct cult. The gods are sometimes called the lords of rita, but they are also its servants, guardians, members of its household. The Persians know this concept under the name asha. With the Greeks, the ultimate arbiter is ananke (necessity) or moira (fate). While the gods are spoken of as deciding destinies, they in fact do no more than fulfil the decrees of ananke. Thetis foretells to Achilles that he is destined to die after Hector, but it is not Zeus who decides this. Zeus merely weighs the fates of the two in the balance to learn what is destined for them. Nor are the gods above ananke; the transfer of authority from Uranus to Cronus and again to Zeus is an irrevocable decree. Cronus must resort to swallowing up his sons so that one of them might not depose him. Thetis is fated to give birth to a son who will surpass his father; to avert this, the gods marry her to the mortal Peleus. Again, Uranus and Gaea tell Zeus that his wife, Metis, is destined to bear wise children; the son she will have after Athena will rule over gods and men. Zeus swallows Metis to forestall this evil. Aeschylus utilizes this idea when he has Prometheus threaten Zeus that his son, stronger than he, will dethrone him through the decree of anankS; for even Zeus may not avoid what is destined. The Romans called this sovereign decree fatum: similar notions are found throughout the pagan world.

Another reflection of the same concept is the belief that the gods and the world are subject to fixed times and cycles. The course of birth, growth, death, day and night, and the seasons are all conceived as regulated by necessity. It is a widespread notion that the world is destined to pass through various predetermined stages before its destruction or renewal. The gods have no control over this "natural" process; indeed, their fate, too, is usually involved. Seneca, speaking in the name of Berosus, says that the destruction of the world will eventuate from a certain zodiacal configuration which will bring on devastation by fire or water. Paganism here approaches a scientific and mathematical conception of the universe."


And yet he does not seem to apply this to his critique of the biblical critique, focusing only on the satirical passages aimed at the issue of 'Matter'.


The biblical critique is thus on target when it attacks such 'forces' and when it similarly attacks celestial deities (as not being 'outside the system' enough). There is no need to attack the gods when you attack that to which they are subject--the creation itself. When the prophets explain that ONLY YHWH is truly outside the system, that only He can create, and that only He can 'interrupt fate', this is an attack on the CORE of pagan belief. The gods are merely actors with us on the stage of fate and primeval matter--only YHWH is both outside the stage AND a participant in it. His will 'is fate', and He is subject to no force, no will, no power -- He is sovereign.



Fourth, in the case of the Greek thinkers, K doesn’t actually give any references or citations to support this, and we have already seen that the biblical attacks on idolatry and pagan worship were in basic continuity with them. Even if the Greek skeptical tradition did make fun of the mythic stories, this was peripheral to their main and central argument--which was the same as the biblical one:


"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… 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. " [HI:ICON, 53]


Fifth, in the case of the Greek thinkers, even if there were satirical attacks on the foibles of the deities, they were not in the record until the OT biblical canon was closed. All of the writers we surveyed in the first two parts of this series did not lampoon the character or behavior of the gods--they went after the idol issue. In the Hellenistic and early Roman periods, the 'skeptics' may have disbelieved, but they did not use satire in discussing the matter (from Veyne, Did the Greeks Believe in Their Myths) :


"Among the learned, critical credulity, as it were, alternated with a global skepticism and rubbed shoulders with the unreflecting credulity of the less educated. These three attitudes tolerated one another, and popular credulity was not culturally devalued. [HI:DGBM,54]


"Aristotle and Polybius, so defiant when they are confronting Myth, did not believe in the historicity of Theseus or Aeolus, king of the wind, out of conformity or political calculation. Nor did they seek to challenge myths, but only to rectify them. [HI:DGBM,57]



Six, the Greek writers (before the Christian era) did not really attack the gods but rather other elements, such as oracles and legends. If a myth represented the gods in an 'unworthy manner', it was the myth that was mistaken, and not the belief in gods. The myth was not made an object of satire--it was just 'corrected'.


"It is piety that keep Pausanias from believing most of the legends he faithfully assembles. We have to dissociate demythologization from irreligion. At this time, disbelief was recognized not in criticism of myths but in criticism of oracles. Cicero, Oenomaus, and Diogenianus are certainly not pious souls. By heaping ridicule on oracles, they did not for an instant claim to exonerate the gods." [HI:DGBM,98]


"Pausanias 8.3.6; at this point the Greeks tell a myth about Zeus as Callisto's lover, which is unworthy of the majesty of the gods; it is no less childish and mythological to believe that the gods transform their lovers into stars." [HI;DGBM, 150, n179]


Seven, Greek thinkers in their attacks on popular mythology (like the latter Christians) did not actually argue against a 'belief in the gods' at all. Both Greek and Christian apologists argued that the true gods or True God was not represented fairly or accurately by them. It would be a mistake, then, to compare the biblical writers with these later writers in such a manner--these later arguments would not have accomplished the goal of 'disbelief in gods', as Kaufman envisioned it.


"We will observe the same thing if we move from the heroic myths, which are the only ones we have examined, to belief in gods in the strict sense of the term. In Atheism in Pagan Antiquity, A. B. Drachmann has shown that ancient atheism did not so much deny the existence of the gods as it criticized the popular idea of the deities. It did not exclude a more philosophical conception of divinity. In their own way, the Christians went no further in their negation of the pagan gods. They did not call the myths "vain fables" so much as term them "unworthy conceptions." Since they wished to put their god in place of the pagan gods, it is possible to think that the whole project would first entail showing that Zeus did not exist and then setting forth proofs for the existence of God. This was not their program. They seem less to censure the pagan gods for not existing than to reproach them for not being good ones. They seem less hasty to deny Zeus than to replace him with a king more worthy of occupying the divine throne." [HI:DGBM, 113f]


Eight, there is a strong probability that the pagans did not even believe these myths (at least not the salacious ones!), so that attack on those parts would have been off the mark. Veyne criticizes the early Christian apologists for doing just this--about the Greek and Roman myths--would it have been much different in the ANE?


"This is why the apologetics of ancient Christianity leave such a strange impression. It seems that, to establish God, it was enough to banish the other gods. The desire was not so much to destroy false ideas as to supplant them. Even where the Christians seem to attack paganism on the subject of its veracity, they do nothing of the sort. As we saw earlier, they uselessly criticized the puerility and immorality of mythological accounts in which the pagans had never believed and that had nothing in common with the elevated or sophisticated conception that later paganism had of the divinity. " [HI:DGBM, 114]


Ninth, even when the Greek/Roman writers attached 'unworthy conceptions' of their supreme being, it was not actually with satire per se, but rather with simple assertion or dismissal--just like the Biblical writers simply assert the uniqueness of God ("There is no other"). Pliny the Elder, writing in the Augustian age can display the folly of popular religion, but it is not in an effort to "enthrone a rival deity" nor is it in a genre of mockery (like Isaiah)-merely elite dismissal:


"I consider it, therefore, an indication of human weakness to inquire into the figure and form of God. For whatever God be, if there be any other God, and wherever he exists, he is all sense, all sight, all hearing, all life, all mind, and all within himself. To believe that there are a number of Gods, derived from the virtues and vices of man, as Chastity, Concord, Understanding, Hope, Honour, Clemency, and Fidelity; or, according to the opinion of Democritus, that there are only two, Punishment and Reward, indicates still greater folly. Human nature, weak and frail as it is, mindful of its own infirmity, has made these divisions, so that every one might have recourse to that which he supposed himself to stand more particularly in need of. Hence we find different names employed by different nations; the inferior deities are arranged in classes, and diseases and plagues are deified, in consequence of our anxious wish to propitiate them. It was from this cause that a temple was dedicated to Fever, at the public expense, on the Palatine Hill, and to Orbona, near the Temple of the Lares, and that an altar was elected to Good Fortune on the Esquiline. Hence we may understand how it comes to pass that there is a greater population of the Celestials than of human beings, since each individual makes a separate God for himself, adopting his own Juno and his own Genius. And there are nations who make Gods of certain animals, and even certain obscene things, which are not to be spoken of, swearing by stinking meats and such like. To suppose that marriages are contracted between the Gods, and that, during so long a period, there should have been no issue from them, that some of them should be old and always grey- headed and others young and like children, some of a dark complexion, winged, lame, produced from eggs, living and dying on alternate days, is sufficiently puerile and foolish. But it is the height of impudence to imagine, that adultery takes place between them, that they have contests and quarrels, and that there are Gods of theft and of various crimes. To assist man is to be a God; this is the path to eternal glory. This is the path which the Roman nobles formerly pursued, and this is the path which is now pursued by the greatest ruler of our age, Vespasian Augustus, he who has come to the relief of an exhausted empire, as well as by his sons. This was the ancient mode of remunerating those who deserved it, to regard them as Gods. For the names of all the Gods, as well as of the stars that I have mentioned above, have been derived from their services to mankind. And with respect to Jupiter and Mercury, and the rest of the celestial nomenclature, who does not admit that they have reference to certain natural phenomena? But it is ridiculous to suppose, that the great head of all things, whatever it be, pays any regard to human affairs. Can we believe, or rather can there be any doubt, that it is not polluted by such a disagreeable and complicated office? It is not easy to determine which opinion would be most for the advantage of mankind, since we observe some who have no respect for the Gods, and others who carry it to a scandalous excess. They are slaves to foreign ceremonies; they carry on their fingers the Gods and the monsters whom they worship; they condemn and they lay great stress on certain kinds of food; they impose on themselves dreadful ordinances, not even sleeping quietly. They do not marry or adopt children, or indeed do anything else, without the sanction of their sacred rites. There are others, on the contrary, who will cheat in the very Capitol, and will forswear themselves even by Jupiter Tonans, and while these thrive in their crimes, the others torment themselves with their superstitions to no purpose." (The Natural History, Book 2, chapter 5(7), from Perseus/Tufts)


A couple of centuries earlier, Polybius could say that a nation of wise/philosophers would not need religion or 'superstition' like the Romans had:


"But the most important difference for the better which the Roman commonwealth appears to me to display is in their religious beliefs. For I conceive that what in other nations is looked upon as a reproach, I mean a scrupulous fear of the gods, is the very thing which keeps the Roman commonwealth together. To such an extraordinary height is this carried among them, both in private and public business, that nothing could exceed it. Many people might think this unaccountable; but in my opinion their object is to use it as a check upon the common people. If it were possible to form a state wholly of philosophers, such a custom would perhaps be unnecessary. But seeing that every multitude is fickle, and full of lawless desires, unreasoning anger, and violent passion, the only resource is to keep them in check by mysterious terrors and scenic effects of this sort. Wherefore, to my mind, the ancients were not acting without purpose or at random, when they brought in among the vulgar those opinions about the gods, and the belief in the punishments in Hades: much rather do I think that men nowadays are acting rashly and foolishly in rejecting them. This is the reason why, apart from anything else, Greek statesmen, if entrusted with a single talent, though protected by ten checking-clerks, as many seals, and twice as many witnesses, yet cannot be induced to keep faith: whereas among the Romans, in their magistracies and embassies, men have the handling of a great amount of money, and yet from pure respect to their oath keep their faith intact. " [Histories, 6.56]


Drachmann explains this:


"…he [Polybius] speaks as the educated and enlightened man to whom it is a matter of course that all this talk about the gods and the underworld is a myth which nobody among the better classes takes seriously. This is a tone we have not heard before, and it is a strong indirect testimony to the fact that Polybius is not wrong when he speaks of disbelief among the upper classes of Greece." [HI:APA62]


Tenth. And--at least in the case of the Greeks mentioned by K--attacking the myths in ridicule was not actually an attack on the belief in the gods. Both the philosophical tradition and the 'entertainment/literary industry' (e.g. essayists and rhetoricians) generally held to the belief in the celestial-body gods, but tried to remove the 'unworthy' parts of myth. The philosophical tradition did not address the common man (unlike the biblical prophets), but the popular writers often did. But--somewhat later than our period--the satirical works of Lucian can lampoon the Olympian gods in front of the public, without it affecting popular religion in the least. Myth (at least in the Greeco-Roman world) just wasn’t very tightly connected to religion. This is similar to the biblical prophets: there is no point in attacking the myths, for any number of reasons.


Lucian (later than our period) can cast these words into the mouth of Zeus:


"As to those parasites, and the ingratitude they showed him, I will attend to them before long; they shall have their deserts as soon as I have got the thunderbolt in order again. Its two best spikes are broken and blunted; my zeal outran my discretion the other day when I took that shot at Anaxagoras the sophist; the Gods non-existent, indeed! that was what he was telling his disciples. However, I missed him (Pericles had held up his hand to shield him), and the bolt glanced off on to the Anaceum, set it on fire, and was itself nearly pulverized on the rock. But meanwhile it will be quite sufficient punishment for them to see Timon rolling in money." [Timon, 13]


Drachmann explains:


"… he [Lucian] produced, for the entertainment of the public, a series of writings the aim of which is to make fun of the Olympian gods. …  The fact is rather than mythology at this time was fair game. It was cut off from its connexion with religion--a connexion which in historical times was never very intimate and was now entirely severed… Under these circumstances [tn: the multitude of religious options and waning of community-based loyalty to a kinship patron diety, in the Roman Empire] the existence of the gods and their power and will to help their worshippers was the only thing of interest; all the old tales about them were more than ever myths of no religious value." [HI:APA, 85,86,87]


This issue--'forget the stories, we want the services of a god'--is what the common Israelite (and actually the royalty as well) was concerned about in Israel. And thus the prophetic critiques--which bypassed the mythic content to focus on power to intervene--was the crux of the issue.





K [OT:TROI, 18f]: Those who have recognized this remarkable peculiarity are too enthralled by the assumption that the biblical writers knew the pagan myths to recognize its significance. The fetishistic argument is said to imply that the biblical writers repudiate the existence of the pagan gods. But where do they? If they meant to say that idols are vain because the gods they repre­sent are nonexistent, why do they persist in arguing that idols are things of naught because wood and stone are of no avail? Why do they conceal the denial of the gods behind the facade of mockery and abuse of images? But the attitude toward the idols is only one aspect of the puzzle. How is the silence of the entire Bible—prophets, narratives, and laws alike—con­cerning the pagan mythology to be explained? Not only does the Bible fail to deny the existence of the gods, it nowhere repudiates the pagan myths.  [OT:TROI, 18f]


Tank comments:


First, this is just his summary statement. We have already seen that the prophets attacked at the central point of the religious (not mythic) system: pagan gods were useless, powerless, unworthy of worship, and a poor substitute for the Living God! As in the Roman Empire, this 'utility to humans' was the issue--not which sets of 'stories' were the cleanest!


Secondly, but we have also seen that the prophets did attack the pagan system as a whole, with its attack on ANY rival deity (celestial or otherwise) as being unable to transcend the system and as being unable to predict the future. This attack included all the pagan deities, not just the idols created by human hands.


Thirdly, we have noted throughout the series that there are plenty of reasons for the prophets to simply ignore the mythological satire-worthy stories--any and all of which could have been applicable in the various passage of the OT/Tanaah. Arguing from silence just cannot be held in this case, when there ARE plenty of plausible reasons to focus on other, more critical-to-the-audience factors.



So, we can list the points we made above, in our discussion of K (many of which were already mentioned in Parts 1 and 2):


1.       We have no data to suggest that the common Israelite (the audience of the Classical prophets) would have had adequate knowledge of the content of any of the middle-tier or highest-tier mythology.[And we have contrary data, for both Israelite and non-Israelite populations.]

2.       We saw that mythic stories had almost nothing to do with common religious practice (and maybe not even on elite belief systems).

3.       The more elaborate mythologies (which would have presented the most useful fodder for parody) were more likely simple literary creations of the elite--almost as a 'leisure' or 'competitive' literary activity.

4.       Cult rituals preceded the myths and some of the mythic content was probably a 'guess' by ancient scholars of what the rituals 'meant'.

5.       Most of K's argument is an argument from silence.

6.       The prophetic critique starts with the material of the icon (lifeless) and then moves on to its inability to DO ANYTHING (whether connected to some astral deity or not).

7.       There are definite attacks on the roles ascribed to foreign deities (implying knowledge of them), embedded in the text. YHWH's withholding rain in the face of Baal the rain-giver, is very explicit. The gifts are YHWH in Deuteronomy are word-plays against pagan deities who allegedly provided them, for example. YHWH gives fertility--not Astarte.

8.       Israel DID know the names of the pagan gods of those closest to them (and therefore, in their 'temptation zone'). The average Israelite might not have known the names of the highest gods of the foreigners, nor very many of the vast amounts of names of the respective pantheons.

9.       The issue of idolatry--in the biblical message--is not one of who has the 'best myths', but one of loyalty to the covenant. Whether foreign gods were real or not, whether idols were alive or now, and whether stars influenced fate or not was NOT THE ISSUE. The issue was one of infidelity. Israel and YHWH were bound by mutual covenant commitments. The biblical emphasis is, therefore, on infidelity of YHWH's people and not on inferiority of the gods.

10.   The issue was not theological but about "which" god had demonstrated power and love for Israel, as opposed to anything and anyone else.

11.   Israel's writings demonstrate that they were aware of the gods of the nations around them (especially the Canaanite).

12.   Israel's history in the bible demonstrates that they were idolatrous from DAY ONE, and their common life was filled with low-level iconic worship.

13.   The Hebrew bible admits that supra-human agents exist, but that they are not divine--they are still creatures and dependent upon the One God.

14.   Even the high gods of the pagans were not supreme--they were subject to fate and had to use spells and divination themselves.

15.   Exodus 23 instructs Israel to not even mention the names of the foreign gods--and this might be one reason why many of the pagan deities are left unnamed in the Bible.

16.   Although we do not know how early it was 'in force', there was an interpretive tradition in the 2nd Temple Period which said that Israel could not 'make fun of' pagan deities. If this tradition had developed earlier, it might have conditioned the prophets to use parody sparingly (as is done).

17.   Some of the classical prophets show evidence of understanding SOME of the 'war-related' mythology--i.e. that gods could go into exile or captivity.

18.   In addition to repudiation of image-based 'incarnations' of deities, celestial 'gods' (or manifestations thereof) were also attacked-by the simple assertion that YHWH created them and controls them. They are HIS servants, not gods to be served.

19.   As in other ANE literature, the book of Amos shows that the common Israelite could think that a celestial deity could be 'in' a statue that could be carried around.

20.   The Hebrew bible focuses on concrete, day-to-day cultic practices--and how they are hurtful to God and to Israel.

21.   The elements of myth which would have been good 'sarcasm fodder' were often the elements the common Israelite valued (!) and emulated in the rites.

22.   An attack on an idol--as being powerless--was just as good as an attack on the alleged deity 'animating' it. If it couldn't be moved to action by some 'transcendent' god, then why would we trust the transcendent god otherwise?

23.   The account of Sennacherib fits well with what we know from his monuments, and with what other non-Biblical war-related myths represent.

24.   The biblical attack on 'natural forces' undermined prospective pagan claims that their gods were YHWH-class.

25.   Greek skeptical writers did not lampoon popular myths--they merely said that they needed 'refining'.

26.   Greek skeptical writers did not attack the actual belief in the gods--only the 'crude' myths.

27.   There were plenty of practical reasons for the classical prophets to AVOID getting into too much detail in the pagan mythologies, and so K's argument from silence remains unproven (at best).





Next, Saggs [OT:EWTDMI]



Saggs [OT:EWTDMI, 14-16] "Comparisons between Israelite and Mesopotamian religion have a long history, though the purpose of the earlier instances was purely polemic. The first attested comparison was by the anonymous prophet whom we know as Deutero-Isaiah. For him, on one hand stood a religion worshipping the true God who 'sits throned on the vaulted roof of the earth', who had 'weighed the mountains on a balance, and the hills on a pair of scales', and to whom 'nations are but drops from a bucket', and on the other a religion centered on idols cut out of trees—and not even sacred trees at that, but trees of which the part left over from making a god might be used as fuel to cook a meal. Deutero-Isaiah's invective was splendid but his comparison was methodologically unsound. He was highly selective in his evidence; he presented the data in a manner which made him guilty of conscious distortion; and he placed a phenomenological description of Mesopotamian religion alongside a theological description of Yahwism. A Babylonian could, by using corresponding methodology, without any distortion of data, have turned the tables on Deutero-Isaiah. The Babylonian might have pointed out that for several centuries Yahweh, after emerging from the obscurity of a remote desert, had lived inside, or at the least in close association with, a decorated chest made of acacia wood. He was of rather uncertain temper, but in the main could be kept good-humoured by regular offerings of the smoke of burnt beef fat, of which he was inordinately fond. In contrast, Marduk was a spiritual being, creator of heaven and earth, and so transcendent that it was impossible to see or to comprehend him (En El I:93-4). He was indeed so vast that he filled the universe, so that the Babylonian in his prayer to the god could say: 'The underworld is your basin, the sky of Anu your censer.' (KAR, I, 46, Nr 45, obv. Col. II, line 16). Of another Babylonian god it was said: 'He wears the heavens on his head like a turban; he is shod with the underworld as with sandals.' [WG Lambert, 'The Gula hymn of Bullutsa-rabi', OrNS 36 (1967), 124, lines 133-4.)


Tank comments:


When I first read this as I was gathering materials for these articles, I was impressed by this argument. At first blush, it DID look like Isaiah had made an 'unfair' comparison (not that this would disqualify his argument of course--since lampooning and spoofs often employ exaggeration to achieve its success and the reader KNOWS that this is being used--it is a marker for the literary device).


But the further I got into studying the data, the more this argument seemed to be 'methodologically unsound" itself--it seemed to draw an 'unfair' picture of what was going on in the text. The hypothetical argument by the Babylonian is not even close in parallel to what is going on in the Isaiah text. Consider these observations:


One. Isaiah is not comparing Israelite theology to Babylonian practice, but Israelite 'theology' to Israelite practice. We have noticed often in this series (and Saggs notices in his statement that there is a difference between the 'regular tree' and the 'sacred tree' pieces, an indication that we are not talking about Mesopotamian beliefs AT ALL) that Isaiah (and the other prophets) are trying to counter Israelite or Jewish 'versions'(?) of non-YHWHistic religious perspectives. To be parallel, the Babylonian 'theologian' would have to be contrasting the high-myths of Babylonian gods to the practices of the common Babylonian. But this couldn’t work since it was the Babylonian priests who did the idol-carving and creation themselves. The contrast that Isaiah makes cannot even be MADE in Mesopotamian religion. The cases are not parallel in fact, and actually cannot be paralleled even in theory.


Two.  As a description of Hebrew idol-worship, Isaiah was not 'selective' in his presentation of evidence at all. For all that the existing data tells us, the common Israelite idol worship was just what he pointed out: homemade statues/figurines and worshiping them. There might have been some 'borrowed' mythology (e.g. if the sun that they worshipped was Shamash, then maybe the commoner knew more than vague notions of divine power--but it is unlikely, since even the Babylonian commoners did not either), but the main things left out were not theological, but 'liturgical'--he left out the 'bad parts' (e.g. sexual elements, child sacrifice). If Isaiah was selective, it was 'charitable' and not 'distortionary'!


Three.  As a description of Hebrew idol-worship, Isaiah was not actually contrasting a 'theology' with a 'religion', but a story-of-origins (none in the case of YHWH) versus a competing story-of-origins (natural elements in the case of idols). The comparison did not actually include any worship elements (other than peripherally in the phrase 'bow down' or 'sacrifice'), so it is not accurate to call this a 'theology versus practice' mismatch. Isaiah was not making a 'phenomenological description of Mesopotamian religion' but a 'holistic description of Mesopotamian theogony'. It contains both phenomenological elements (e.g. the substances) and theological (e.g. powerless to deliver, lifeless) ones.


Four. I am not convinced that a Babylonian scribe would have taken such a position, since I tend to agree with Oppenheim that the myths were 'literary exercises' and products and not really theological ones. If the answer to the hypothetical question "Did the Babylonian writers BELIEVE their myths?" is "probably not", then their hypothetical reverse satire is not even close to that of the OT prophets. The OT prophets passionately believed in their theology, and were completely convinced that adherence to that theology was a matter of life or death for Israel. The ascriptions of greatness to Marduk that Saggs adduces might not have been 'serious' theological affirmations at all, and not at all in parallel with the statements of Isaiah.


Five.  The details of Saggs would-be parody do not really match his proposed reversal. A reversal would need to contrast a 'phenomenological description of the origin of Yahweh' (which is impossible to do, with the materials available) with a 'theological description of the active and absolute sovereignty of (some) Mesopotamian god'.  The ascriptions of vastness and invisibility to a/the Babylonian god(s) is not the same thing as the judgment images of Isaiah (e.g. thrones, scales) and the active agency of YHWH in history (e.g. deliverance, prediction of future, fulfillment of His decrees). We have noted elsewhere that Mesopotamian religion was very vague (if not almost silent) on these latter points. They might occasionally make similar claims, but would not have had any historical data to point to for support, like Israel did (e.g. Exodus, Conquest, and numerous events in Judges). And YHWH's claim to absolute uniqueness (no other gods at all) could not have been paralleled in any ANE religion. What this means is that a 'non-distortive' reverse parody cannot be formulated within Mesopotamian religion, and that the example Saggs advances cannot stand as an example of such a reverse parody.


Six. Even the example put into the mouth of the Babylonian scribe is a little off. Phenomenologically speaking, YHWH could not be 'keep good humored' by sacrifices when idolatry itself was being practiced! This central covenant treachery couldn’t be atoned for by 'smoke', as the prophets and the history of the Northern Kingdom would attest! And the 'lived inside--or in close association with' description is not 'without distortion' (even apart from the obvious hedging going on with the 'in close association with'…smile). The central elements of the Solomonic prayer at the dedication of the first Temple make very explicit that the 'box' or 'temple' was simply a place-holder ('where the Name would dwell') for the God who could not dwell in a house made by hands (I Kings 8).


So, although I was impressed by the argument at first, it unraveled as I looked further into the details. There are too many inaccuracies and equivocations in it -- it would need to be reworded, at a minimum.




Saggs [OT:EWTDMI, 14-16]: "Deutero-Isaiah's representation of the religions of other peoples in terms solely of the worship of anthropomorphic idols was indeed a travesty. It would have been recognized as such by earlier Israelites, who well knew that the non-Israelite concept of deity was neither limited to images, nor essentially anthropomorphic. This is clear from Deut. 4:19, where it is specifically stated that the objects of worship allotted by Yahweh to other peoples included the sun, moon and stars; not only were these not anthropomorphic in themselves, but in this context, where the Israelite is warned against lifting his eyes to heaven and being drawn away to the worship of these objects, they were not even thought of as worshipped through the medium of an anthropomorphic representation.

Deutero-Isaiah's approach is reflected in later Jewish writings, for example, in the apocryphal Letter of Jeremiah, which deals with the Babylonian cultus with equal hostility and more detail. It gives indications of being the work of a writer with some personal knowledge of the cultus as well as of some of the scandals alleged against the Babylonian hieratic personnel. (Ep. Jer. 6.10-11)

The author of the Wisdom of Solomon, though not specifically dealing with Mesopotamian religion, took up and elaborated Deutero-Isaiah's satire on idolatry (Wis 13.11-14.1). [OT:EWTDMI, 14-16]


Tank comments:


I cannot understand why Saggs would say that the worship of celestial beings was not 'essentially anthropomorphic'. Ornan presents the current understanding:


"Similarly, that human-like form, properties and character were at­tributed to deified celestial bodies can be assumed from the plethora of textual equations of celestial bodies with prominent personified deities. As demonstrated by Francesca Rochberg in this volume, major deities such as Sin, Ishtar, and Sa-mas, as well as Marduk, Ninurta and Nergal, were all envisioned as anthropomor­phized divinities manifested, inter alia, in particular heavenly bodies. Pictorial associations of the star, the moon crescent and the solar disc with anthropomor­phic representations of Ishtar, Sin and Samas, respectively, support the suppo­sition that deified celestial bodies were basically envisaged as manifesting only one aspect of multi-faceted, personified divine images."  [OT:WIAG, Tallay Ornan, "In the Likeness of Man: Reflections on the Anthropocentric Perception of the Divine in Mesopotamian Art", 98]


As does Vanstiphout:


"Finally, what shape do the gods assume? From a number of data we can infer that they had a shape that was at the very least humanoid. They insist on houses— in cities—that are based on normal human architecture, and as far as we know, this was the case in their heavenly mansions as well as in their earthly dwellings. Also their family structure, their family life, their sexuality, their food and drink preferences, their clothes, their finery, their weapons and other utensils, their means of transport, etc., are identical to those of the human species. This means that it would be very hard to recognise a god if one should meet one in the street. …Therefore it seems that generally the gods may have a (superhu­man shape, but that they also remain invisible in their heaven." [OT:WIAG, Herman Vanstiphout, "Die Geschopfe des Prometheus, or How and Why Did the Sumerians Create their Gods", 25-27]



Saggs [OT:EWTDMI, 14-16]: "The risk of producing distortion by selectiveness in the evidence adduced is not, of course, peculiar to the examination of Israelite religion. Eliade has pointed out that any religion may be exemplified by the beliefs and practices of either a small religious elite or of the uneducated masses, and that both represent equally valid (if incomplete) evidence. They are indeed complementary. But they are not equatable, and in any comparison of two religions it is essential that as far as possible the evidence compared shall be on the same level. This criterion has not always been observed; in the comparative examination of Mesopotamian and Israelite religion, the tendency has been to treat as the 'true' Israelite religion that of the prophetic-priestly elite of the late eighth to sixth centuries B.C., to be compared (as indeed it was by Deutero-Isaiah) with Mesopotamian religion at a crude popular level. It may be noted, as an historical curiosity of no enduring importance, that the Panbabylonian school tended to operate the reverse of this procedure. [OT:EWTDMI,25f]



Tank comments:


If there is one thing we have noticed in this series, it is that the gap between the positions of the 'small religious elite' and the 'uneducated masses' was either wider than we have imagined or narrower than we have thought. The gods of the populace were likely not even the same 'exalted' deities of the elite--a huge gap. And, conversely, whatever the populace believed about the 'exalted' deities had been taught to them by the elite--no gap. This was the case for Mesopotamia, and if the Hebrew prophets  were somehow addressing them (which it does not look like they were doing), then they were still making fair representations of the foreign viewpoints.


If the Hebrew prophets were addressing Israelites who were trying to assimilate their neighbors' religion, then the 'gap' issue does not even surface--they were addressing a 'religion on the ground' which surrounded them. The parody would be appropriate for the low-level theology/mythology of paganized Israelites.



So, I don't think Saggs' position (in this section of his work) is close enough 'to the ground' to fairly represent the situation. Isaiah's 'methodological flaw' just doesn’t seem to be there, the anthropomorphic nature of pagan gods is well-documented, and the suggested reverse parody scenario just doesn’t fit the data we have of Mesopotamian religion.





Next, Vanstiphout's article in [OT:WIAG]



Vanstiphout: "Therefore it seems that generally the gods may have a (superhu­man shape, but that

they also remain invisible in their heaven. This brings us to a difficulty: what is the status of the statues of the gods? We know that they were regarded as somehow identical to the gods themselves: they are clothed and fed and generally cared for as if they were living beings. But the rituals and other ref­erences (poorly understood though they are) make clear that this is merely pious make-believe. There may have been a moment in ritual at which the statue under­goes a transubstantiation (footnote 59) and turns into the living god, but we have no evidence for that." [OT:WIAG, Herman Vanstiphout, "Die Geschopfe des Prometheus, or How and Why Did the Sumerians Create their Gods", 25-27]


Tank comments:


On the surface, this remark seems to imply that the ancient writers 'knew better' than what they seem to saying in the rituals, and that--somehow--they indicate this in the rituals themselves(?). Since he doesn’t give a reference/source for this position, I cannot evaluate his sources, but in the earlier sections of this series, we reviewed tons of data which supports the view that 'they were regarded as somehow identical to the gods themselves' and found NO hard data to suggest otherwise.


I find it very odd that when Vanstiphout says that 'we have no evidence for that (transubstantiation)', the data he gives in the footnote seems to directly contradict this--both for the Old Babylonian period and later:


Footnote 59, Page 26: "The rituals known as mis pi and pet pi ('washing the mouth' and 'opening the mouth") are generally understood as evidence for a kind of transubstantiation. But as far as I know these are much later than the Old Babylonian period. Still, there is perhaps some slight evidence of early forms of the same idea. Even in the Presargonic Sumerian texts from Lagash (roughly 2500-2375 bce), the verb tud 'to bear (children)' is commonly used for the making of a divine statue, and in the later texts, such as the rituals alluded to above, the Akkadian counterpart of tud, waladu, is used. But that is all there is. For tud in this sense, see already H. Vanstiphout, "Political Ideology in Early Sumer," Orientalia Lovaniensia Periodica 2 (1970), pp. 13-14 with footnote 30, and now V. A. Hurowitz, "The Mesopotamian God-Image, From Womb to Tomb," Journal of the American Oriental Society 123 (2003), pp. 147-57, who quotes much earlier literature. Highly intriguing are the lines from the Su­merian poem about Inana's descent to the Netherworld, which Hurowitz quotes there. The goddess pleads with Enlil not to let her die, and adds, "let not your good metal be covered with dust of the Netherworld" and comparable lines about "your good lapis lazuli" and "your boxwood." Hurowitz understands these lines as referring to the cult statue of the goddess, being identified with the goddess. [OT:WIAG, Herman Vanstiphout, "Die Geschopfe des Prometheus, or How and Why Did the Sumerians Create their Gods", 15-40]



Strictly speaking, V's comments about 'no evidence' during the OB period [ca 1900-1595 BC) are not germane to our discussion, since the biblical writers are dealing with a much later period anyway (Middle Babylonian and NeoBabylonian, 1595-539 BC)--when identity beliefs are widespread.







Then the work of Michael B. Dick, in [HI:BIHMOE ]



Dick: As clever as these prophetic parodies were, they were both unoriginal and meth­odologically flawed. Each of the three biblical objections against making the cult im­age has parallels in other ancient literatures. Some of these passages, such as the Hellenistic satirist Lucian, spoof the cult image in language almost indistinguishable from Deutero-Isaiah, while other more reverent texts of the iconodule are thoroughly aware of these objections but attempt to resolve them either philosophically (Dio Chrysostom) or cultically (Opening of the Mouth Ritual).

However, Deutero-Isaiah's method is also flawed, for he has contrasted a phenomenological description of the Mesopotamian practice with a theological portrayal of Yahwism. His argument does not reflect the culpable ignorance of the Israelite re­ligion about other religions (pace Kaufmann 1960: 2, 7) but a conscious distortion forged in polemic. The Mespotamian just as easily have parodied an obscure desert god who liked to live in an acacia box (the ark of the covenant), was constantly and whimsically changing his mind, and who was inordinantly (sic) fond of the smell of burning beef fat (Saggs 1978: 15). [HI:BIHMOE, 45]


Tank comments:


This is simply a restatement of the writings of Saggs and Kaufman, which we have already discussed in detail above.




Dick [33]: Nevertheless, the Mesopotamians clearly maintained a distinction between the god and his/her statue. The destruction of a cult statue did not entail the destruction of the deity. When the statue of Shamash at Sippar was destroyed (CT 34 48 i 7-8) by Sutean raiders under Simbar-Shipak (ca. 1026-1009 B.C.E.), worship of Shamash could still continue, using a symbolic equivalent, a sun-disk (niphu), until the reign of Nabu-apla-iddina (ca. 887-855 B.C.E.). When Nabu-apla-iddina dedicated his new statue of Shamash, he washed its mouth "before Shamash… This passage clearly differentiates the statue being dedicated from the deity before whom it was dedicated, and this despite the fact that this inscription earlier stated that the Suteans had effaced the great Lord Shamash himself (i 1-8).


Tank comments:


Now here we get into some complex data, some of which seems contradictory.


One. As Dick notes, the destroyed statue was explicitly called 'Shamas'. The inscription further describes Shamas as 'resident of Ebabarra' (i.1-12) and that his 'appearance' disappeared with the obliteration of the idol. This would not suggest a 'clearly maintained distinction', even in this passage.


Two. The sun-disc substitute was not a 'full' substitute for the idol. Non-anthropomorphic symbols (like a sun disc) were only used outside of temples, and served only as a reminder of the real anthropomorphic idol. When the idol was destroyed, the temple itself was 'de-constituted' thereby, in effect. When an idol was removed from a temple, it ceased (obviously) to be the residence of that deity. It then took on the statues of a non-temple, in which symbols of the now-gone deity were used in worship. [We really don’t know, however, whether all worship functions could be performed with only a symbol--the data distinguished between symbol and idol, but doesn’t specify what rites were performed before symbols OUTSIDE of a temple.]




"A second monument from the first millennium on which anthropomorphic and non-anthropomorphic divine representations appear side by side is the Sippar Tablet, on whose upper section a sculpted pictorial image depicts a divinity in both guises. The tablet's inscription reports the installation of a new cult statue of Samas in the Ebabbar temple in the thirty-first year of Nabu-apla-iddina II. This visual composition differs from the relief of Tiglath-pileser in that its two divine representations both refer to the same god-Samas. The fact reported in the inscription, that the niphu sun-emblem had replaced the statue of Samas in human form for two hundred years while it had been missing, sheds light on the high status of divine emblems in first-millennium Babylonia. This status is also conveyed by the very large scale of the emblem and its position in the center of the scene. It accords well with the conspicuous role of divine emblems on Babylonian kudurrus and in Late Babylonian glyptic, discussed above. Whether or not the visual composition on the Sippar Tablet actually de­picts the removal of the emblem from the shrine in favor of the human-shaped cult image as described in the inscription, the placement of the latter within the structure while the former is shown outside the temple, implies the somewhat "in­ferior" status of the divine emblem in relation to the god's anthropomorphic im­age. A similarly hierarchical arrangement in which the "lower" rank of the divine emblem is implied can also be observed in the relief of Tiglath-pileser, where Marduk in anthropomorphic form is shown at the front of the scene, while the bird of prey is positioned at the back, farther removed from the beholder. In both of these cases, the positions of the divine emblems suggest the higher status of the human-shaped god in works of art…" [OT:WIAG, Tallay Ornan, "In the Likeness of Man: Reflections on the Anthropocentric Perception of the Divine in Mesopotamian Art", 122-124]


"Moreover, it seems that within Mesopotamian temples the deities retained their human form, and only when it was exhibited outside of the temple was their image modified into a non-anthropomorphic icon… A cultic reality in which the worship of an anthropomorphic image kept in a shrine was accompanied by concurrent worship directed towards a non-anthropomorphic object located outside of the temple, is also documented in other areas of the ancient Near East. For example, contemporary worship of both kinds of cult objects is referred to in Hittite cultic inventories, which mention an anthropomorphic image of a certain deity housed in its temple located within the city, and concurrently huwasi standing-stones representing the same deity located outside the city. Similar phenomena, revealed by archaeological data, existed in second-millennium Syria and Israel where in various cities such as Qatna, Aleppo, Ugarit, Gezer or Hazor, divine anthropomorphic statues were venerated in temples, while steles representing deities were worshipped in open-air sanctuaries.

Evidence that the human-shaped representations were usually confined to the temple precinct is also provided by several artifacts adorned with portrayals of major deities in human shape, which were regarded as 'belonging to' or were actually found in or attributed to temples and sacred enclosures." [OT:WIAG, Tallay Ornan, "In the Likeness of Man: Reflections on the Anthropocentric Perception of the Divine in Mesopotamian Art", 143-145]




Three. In fact, the data for 'interchangeability' is otherwise--symbols were not full equivalents of the statues:


"Texts and images suggest that modes of divine presence or secondary agents were not easily exchangeable and that not every secondary agent could perform the full scope of divine agency. Although the name of the deity, its divine symbols, weapons, emblems, or even its seat could represent the divinity in sanctioning the legal transaction of a king's royal grant to one of his officials, the seat of Marduk, for instance, could not act in the procession during the New Year Festival. In this case, the absence of the image (salmu) did signify the absence of the god. According to the Babylonian chronicles, during times of war or internal strife, the New Year Festival could not be performed because the divinity had forsaken his city. This tells us something about the interactive function of the anthropomorphic image, that it could not easily be replaced or substituted. The explanation for this lies in the fact that, once the mouth-washing ritual had been performed, the divine statue was perceived as a self-propelled agent. " [OT:RCRM,149, "Divine Agency and Astralization of the Gods in Ancient Mesopotamia", Beate Pongratz-Leisten]




Four. The distinction between the statue and Shamash, in this case, is actually only between pre-incarnate Shamash and post-incarnate Shamash. All of the 'opening of the mouth' ceremonies were done 'before' the gods, but one of those gods then became 'fused with' the statue--the transubstantiation motif we have seen before. This ceremony does not imply that the post-ceremony idol was clearly seen to be different from Shamash at all. In fact, the language of the text--and many others--suggest otherwise, that the idol before it was destroyed WAS Shamash and that the idol after it was 'awakened' WAS Shamash again.


Five.  This can even be seen in the various texts used by Dick/Walker in the description of the Opening of the Mouth procedure [HI:BIHMOE]. They divide the ceremony (the Babylonian version) into the pre-liminal, liminal, and post-liminal stages (basically around the 'lighting up' of the statue with the divine luminosity). But the statue is referred to as 'a god' before and after the vivification event (Luminal), even though the word 'statue' occurs in the text occasionally:

·         Babylonian Pre-Luminal: "When you wash the mouth of a god, on a favorable day…" (p.73)

·         Babylonian Pre-Luminal: "You perform mouth-washing on that god…" (p.75)

·         Babylonian Pre-Luminal: "You take the hand of that god…on a linen cloth you seat him…" (p.75)

·         Babylonian Post-Luminal: "You set the god in his cella…with water from the trough you purify that god…" (p.83)

·         Assyrian Pre-Luminal: "to the river in front of the god with a torch you recite…" (p.89)

·         Assyrian Pre-Luminal: "you seat that god on a reed-mat on a linen cloth" (p.91)

·         Assyrian Post-Luminal: "Into the ear of that god you speak as follows: You are counted among your brother gods…From today may your destiny be counted as divinity; with your brother gods you are counted…" (p.95)


Six. And even if they differentiated between the god and the statue sometimes, even the statue was portrayed as being heavenly! The statue was 'born in heaven' too! The god and the piece of wood were so 'fused' that the statue itself was ascribed to whatever mythology might have been related to the deity incarnated. In the Post-Luminal stage, the instructions refer to:


"the incantation, 'Statue born in a pure place,' the incantation "Statue born in heaven," (p.81)


Seven. Even the claim that the destruction of a statue did not destroy the deity needs re-work. Some of the ANE data gets us very close to the notion of 'killing a god' by destroying (or un-making) the divine statue:


"A third analogy to the transformation of the elohim in our psalm [tn: Psalm 82] may be found in the treatment of divine images also in Mesopotamia, especially in Neo-Assyrian imperial practice. Yoram Cohen, in an unpublished paper, has collected and analyzed the variety of texts and visual images that concern military conquest, and as these show, conquest not infrequently involved the capture, deportation, and/or destruction of the physical images of the enemy's gods, who were understood as a principal support and guide of the enemy's actions. Destruction in these instances could entail the mutilation or complete breaking up of the image into pieces and/or the throwing of it into fire or a well. What this meant for the god to which the image belonged was complicated. The fate of an image certainly was understood to reflect in some way on the god but, since a god could have more than one image, the relationship did not have to be one to one. Yet in various royal inscriptions from the Neo-Assyrian, more specifically, Sargonid kings, there can be a kind of easy interchange between the words for image and god; so, for example, from Ashurbanipal: "I smashed their (= the Elamites') gods, and so pacified the lord of lords (= Ashur)." Or, more fully in the same episode from Ashurbanipal: "I removed its sedu and lamassu (= protective deities), those guarding the temple, as many as there were. ... I reckoned its gods and goddesses as a phantom" (amna ana zaqiqi). In these passages, it appears that the Assyrians are identifying the fate of the images with that of their gods, and the result for the gods is indicated by the word zaqiqu. This means 'phantom or ghost, or dream' and, while it does not need to indicate absolute nothingness—it can, for example, refer to the god of dreams or to other minor divine manifestations—clearly, in the above lines from Ashurbanipal, it describes something that has very little substance and no potency: something, in other words, that for all practical purposes has been put out of commission and may be regarded as effectively dead. A parallel to this, as Cohen points out, is furnished by a relief from room 13 of the palace from the Neo-Assyrian royal capital at Dur-Sharrukin (Khorsabad). Here we observe Assyrian soldiers hacking up an anthropomorphic image, probably of a god, and in the main part of the relief just above it, soldiers are weighing out on a balance precious metals that Cohen plausibly argues are from the hacked-up statue and/or other similar objects. This hacking up, Cohen perceptively remarks, may be understood as the reversal of the ritual by which the image, made in a human workshop, was "born"—that is, given divine life-force. The destruction may, therefore, be regarded literally as a killing. What we have in these Neo-Assyrian depictions, thus, is the death of the gods through the destruction of their images—a destruction that involves a neutralization or radical attenuation of the gods' divine potency, with the result that they can no longer function as gods. This is essentially what occurs in Psalm 82, with two differences: in the psalm, there is no mention of images, just of the elohim—although in other biblical texts, especially from the Deuteronomic and prophetic worlds (for example, 1 Sam 5:2-4), images are emphasized and equated with their gods; more important, in the psalm it is not just a matter of individual elohim here and there that are put out of commission as gods; it is the whole pantheon, apart from Yahweh. [OT:RCRM, 221f;  "Mapping the Pantheon in Early Mesopotamia", Gonzalo Rubio]




Further, there was no problem with the same god having cult images in two different temples; thus Shamash had a statue in both Sippar and Larsa. Certain deities like the sun-god Shamash and the goddess Ishtar of the morning and evening star were also worshiped in their celestial bodies. Thus, some deities could be worshiped in their cult images—often in several different shrines—and in the sun or a star, and yet neither of these was considered identical with the god/goddess. Several cylinder seals from the Akkadian period (ca. 2300-2100 B.C.E.) provide visual evidence of the distinction between a cult image and the deity portrayed. One seal impression preserved in the Ecole Biblique in Jerusalem (Amiet 1955: 411-13, pl. v. 4) combines the clear depiction of gods (one enthroned, one seated) with a smaller cult statue in a naos. The gods and the statue are represented differently, the cult statue being half size. Another seal, several impressions of which are in the Louvre collection, shows the typical introduction scene, in which a god presents a worshiper to a seated deity, behind whom is the cult statue. The statue is a half-sized standing figure portrayed in profile as standing on one foot on a pedestal typical of Akkadian statuary in the round."  [HI:BIHMOE, 32ff]




Tank comments:


The data is a bit more ambiguous than this statement might lead one to believe. 


One. Just because a god had a statue in more than one city did NOT mean they were of the same god--even for 'universal' deities like Shamash. We know this from the Ugaritic materials, in which multiple 'Baals' (ok, 'Baalim'…) received different sacrifices. Older views held that the multiplicity of baals meant multiplicity of 'manifestations' of the same Baal-god, but the Ugaritic data leads to a different conclusion: the local deities were still distinct (i.e., separate Baals) even though they had the same name and were described using the same mythological backgrounds:


"Once it has been established that in the Ugaritic mythology Baal and Haddu are two names for a single deity, a follow-up question concerns the relation between the one Baal and his various names and local manifestations. A look at an Ugaritic list of gods shows that at least seven Baal-gods received sacrifice in the official cult (Pardee 2002). Something similar holds for Haddu. Different cities and different populations worshiped their own particular Haddu (or Adda, Hadad, etc.). Such diversity in the worship of the god does not imply that each local Baal or Haddu had its own mythology, however. Though differentiated by local identity, they all partake of a common stock of mythological motifs. In other words, the tale of the Ugaritic Baal cycle is valid for Haddu of Aleppo, Hadad-Rimmon of the Arameans, and the Canaanite deity Baal known from the Bible. [NIBD, s.v. Baal]"



Two. The statement that neither the celestial bodies nor cult statues were considered 'identical' to the god is simply impossible to prove. The data is just too contradictory, too confused, and too extreme to allow any confidence about such a judgment. We have already seen tons of data which indicated a strong belief in the identity of the statue and the god, but there is also a ton of data which identifies a god with a celestial body or describes the body as a manifestation of the god. The divine descriptions are inconsistent and some are flatly incoherent. We also have texts that identify various material objects (apart from statues) as parts of a god's body, and texts which say that other gods form parts of a single god's body! Neither one of our 'either/or' or 'both/and' bifurcations can be applied to the data, since the data is so chaotic. Consider some statements by scholars and some of the more extreme data points on this:


"There are two broad classifications, or modes, of referring to the divinity of the heavenly bodies in cuneiform sources. These different references may represent mere manners of speaking, hence merely a different modality of meaning without implying any difference in conceptualization of the gods or the stars to which they refer. The first class, or mode, derives primarily from texts that we classify as religious-such genres as hymns and prayers. Here, the gods are referred to or spoken of as celestial bodies; for example, Inana is referred to as the planet Venus or Nanna as the moon. The celestial bodies in this mode of reference become visible embodiments of the divine and thus point to the perception or conception of god as heavenly body… The second class of reference is the converse or transposition of the same terms. Here the celestial bodies are referred to as gods—that is, as worldly objects that manifest divine agency and give perceptible form to certain deities. The key element in these passages is personification—in this case meaning that a celestial body is personified and thus referred to as a god in an anthropomorphic way. The anthropomorphism of the stars is not an attribution to them of human form but of human-like agency; that is, they act in ways that sentient beings who hear, write, cry, answer prayers, and create things do. These are in fact all activities attributed to gods and so by extension are attributable to heavenly bodies. Omen texts provide a major source for such references to personified celestial bodies, but traces of these personifications also appear in other astronomical texts. This mode of expression that points to the perception or conception of a heavenly body as an image of a god, therefore, occurs in a variety of genres. … These interrelated modes of reference may seem at first blush to be some kind of true logical conversion of the sort "some gods are stars" and "some stars are gods." But it is not the conversion or transposition that is of interest, but rather the nature of the relationship between divine and celestial. These modes of reference imply different things: the first (gods as stars) reflects something on the order of divine embodiment, say, the moon-god as inherent or manifested in the moon; and the second (stars as gods) seems to express the physical representation of the divine in a perceptible object, that is, the moon as the moon-god. The difference between the two modes of reference may be merely a function of mode of discourse, either god-talk or star-talk. The notions of divine embodiment on one hand and physical representation on the other may also seem somewhat irreconcilable, or even incoherent." [OT:RCRM,123f;  "The Heavens and the Gods in Ancient Mesopotamia: The View from a Polytheistic Cosmology", by Francesca Rochberg,]


"In Mesopotamia and the broader sphere of the ancient Near East, the anthropomorphic statue of the god remains the central cultic image. What is more, the literary and historical sources elaborate extensively on the presence and refurbishing of divine statues or god-napping. The binary model of aniconism versus the cultic image does not do justice to cultic realities, and we should probably not treat them as two rival, mutually exclusive traditions." [ OT:RCRM, 183; "Divine Agency and Astralization of the Gods in Ancient Mesopotamia", Beate Pongratz-Leisten]


"The second example is Venus, for whom a plurality of divine names are used to designate the planet—that is, Dilbat, Ninsianna, and Istar (written dES4.DAR ord15) as well as Istar of the Stars (d15 MUL.MES). In the Ur III period, the planet Venus was called Ninsi'ana ('Lady Light of Heaven'). In addition, she was associated with Samas at sunrise and Nin-urta at sunset. Her dual gender shows up in omens as well; for example, "If (Venus) becomes visible in the West, she is male, ill-portending. . . . (If) Venus rises in the East, she is female, it is favorable." Omens in EAE 59-60 for the male Venus planet, the evening star, include his having a beard, an image also represented in some cylinder seals. Other traces of anthropomorphic language occur in the Venus omens, when the planet wears a crown, or "has a head" or "a rear," all of which have astronomical explanations but would make no sense without the underlying identification between celestial body and deity." [ OT:RCRM, 127f;  "The Heavens and the Gods in Ancient Mesopotamia: The View from a Polytheistic Cosmology", by Francesca Rochberg]

"The plurality of ways of speaking about the divine that confronts us in cuneiform sources adds to the complexity and difficulty of understanding the relation between gods and physical entities, such as the stars or the cosmos itself. From the point of view of the Mesopotamian polytheistic cosmos, the idea of the world presupposed a notion of the divine but seemed to permit contradictions such as divinities removed from the physical world in a kind of transcendent relation to the visible or material plane and/or as active forces within visible physical phenomena in a relation more akin to immanence. The ambiguity inherent in the Mesopotamian sources persists into later periods." [ OT:RCRM, 131;  "The Heavens and the Gods in Ancient Mesopotamia: The View from a Polytheistic Cosmology", by Francesca Rochberg]


"The use of classifiers in the Sumerian and Assyro-Babylonian writing systems corroborates the fact that divine status as a relative category was assigned in specific spatial-temporal contexts to distinguish the respective beings or objects from their surroundings. In addition to the writing system, ritual practice served to segregate and demarcate sacred space and to transform a "dead" wooden object or a celestial body into a divine agent. These cultural strategies argue against the notion of a cosmos in which anything at any time is divine as well as against the notion of a unified divine cosmos. Gods were more than personifications of forces, aspects, and parts of nature: they controlled their respective realms, and they acted with intention and of their own will. In ancient Mesopotamia and the ancient Near East at large, however, anthropomorphism reached far beyond an anthropomorphically imagined agent. Celestial bodies, images, and cultic objects could be considered enlivened in animate terms." [ OT:RCRM, 144f; "Divine Agency and Astralization of the Gods in Ancient Mesopotamia", Beate Pongratz-Leisten]


"Even in the reports from scholars to the Sargonids, when blessings to the king are offered and the names of celestial bodies are given, they are referred to explicitly as gods: 'Assur, Sin, Samas, Adad, Nusku, Jupiter (called Sagmegar), Venus (called Dilbat), Marduk, [Zarpanitu], Nabu, Tasmetum, Saturn (called dUDU.IDIM.GUD.UD) Lady [of Nineveh],... the great gods of heaven and earth, the gods dwelling in Assyria, [the gods] dwelling in Akkad, and all the gods of the world. . . .'"[ OT:RCRM, 129;  "The Heavens and the Gods in Ancient Mesopotamia: The View from a Polytheistic Cosmology", by Francesca Rochberg]





Four. Some of the more extreme data points about the 'bodies' of the gods come from descriptions of these bodies as composite, and as composed of mundane, celestial, or even divine elements. Their bodies are greater in size than the heavenly realm that they supposedly live in! This data alone would support a case for 'non-transcendence' of such beings.


"Explicit expressions of the surpassing nature of certain gods are indeed attested in religious cuneiform texts. Passages of this sort are concerned to describe the god as surpassing in size or greatness anything known in the world, yet these descriptions are, without exception, drawn in terms of the world. Thus Ningirsu appears to Gudea in a dream as a figure "like heaven and earth in extent," and in Lugale, Ni-nurta "arose, touching the sky, with one step (?) he covered a league." One such elaborately developed description of the enormity of a god is found in the hymn to Ninurta, in which Ninurta's face is the sun; his eyes are Enlil and Ninlil; his mouth is Istar of the stars; Anu and Antu are his lips; and other parts of his head, neck, chest, and shoulders are other astral figures. In this way, the heavens become a mere portion of the "body" of the god Ninurta. Similarly, in the hymn to the sun-god, Samas is said to see into the heavens as one would into a bowl, but the eyesight of the god is greater than the physical limits of both the heavens and the entire earth. The scale of the world as something dwarfed by the imagined greatness of Ninurta is also shown in the hymn to Gula in the description of the god's wearing the heavens on his head like a tiara and wearing the netherworld on his feet like sandals! In Ludlul Bel Nemeqi, Marduk is much greater in size than even the heavenly cosmos: "Marduk! The skies cannot sustain the weight of his hand." Marduk's exceeding greatness is equally well expressed in a prayer recited to this god during the Babylonian New Year's festival, in which the priest states, "the expanse of heaven is (but) your insides." And Nanna/Sin is said to fill "the wide sea" and "the distant heavens" with his divinity. Accordingly, natural phenomena such as storms, the sky, the sun, or the moon might become the embodiment of a divine power or the manifestation of a deity envisioned in anthropomorphic terms, but this conceptualization of divine power cannot be contained within the limit of a single natural phenomenon." [ OT:RCRM, 133f;  "The Heavens and the Gods in Ancient Mesopotamia: The View from a Polytheistic Cosmology", by Francesca Rochberg]


"The God Description Texts consist of descriptions of the body of a male god, each part of the body being equated with and described by a metal, a plant, an animal, a substance, or an object. There are two NA editions from Assur and these are partially duplicated by two LB editions. One of these, represented by three manuscripts, is known from the colophon of one manuscript to have been included in the library of Esumesa, the temple of Ninurta in Nippur. The four editions vary greatly in the number of parts of the body and accompanying descriptions they include, but otherwise agree very closely. The two Assyrian editions agree exactly in three of the eight descriptions for which text exists for both editions, and almost agree in another (poplar vs. cypress). The Babylonian editions agree with each other exactly in one of the two cases for which text survives for both, and almost agree in the other (raisin vs. grape). One of the Babylonian editions agrees with one of the Assyrian editions in two cases, and almost agrees in a third (dried fig vs. ripe fig). The existence of Babylonian editions shows that at least the concept of the texts is Babylonian in origin; one cannot dismiss the possibility that the larger Assyrian editions were expanded by Assyrian scribes. The second text given commences with the name of a god, dkar.kar, "the shining one", and it is presumably his body which is being described in that text. Since the descriptions of the parts of the body in the four texts closely agree it is probable that the same god is being described in each text.  dkar.kar is known as an epithet of Samas. However, since the text has the epithet rather than the name, perhaps any god conceived of as shining could have been envisaged. … The essential object of the exposition is clearly to describe a divinity. This is a problem which has often exercised the imagination of mankind, sometimes with similar results. Apart from scholarly expositions such as the present texts Mesopotamian examples include the physical representations of statues, reliefs, and cylinder seals, and miscellaneous poetical and literary passages. Some examples emphasise the ineffable nature of the divine by offering descriptions which are only barely conceivable, and which strain the imagination of the reader. A description of this type is Gudea's account of the appearance of Ningirsu, whom he had beheld in a dream: … (Gudea Cyl. A V 13 — 6), "One like heaven and earth in extent, as to the head a god, but his wings like the Anzu bird, his lower parts a flood. On his right and left crouched lions". It may be that a similar effect was intended by the composer of the present texts." [HI:MAMEW, 92f]


Here are the sample texts mentioned in [HI:MAMEW, 95f]:


VAT 8917 obv.1-18

1         [....] His top-knot is tamarisk. .[..] .. [...]

2        His [.... are ... . His] whiskers are a frond.

3        His knees are [cedar]. His ankle bones are an apple. His penis is a snake. His hand is a harp.

4        His wings are [           ]

5        His [... is ... .] The blood of his heart is a cat. The drop of his heart's blood is a partridge.

6        [..] .. [.]. His inwards are a pig.

7         His lip is [.]. . His tongue is a whet-stone. His arm-pit hair is a leek.

8        The lower jaw is a drum.

9        His larger limbs are a lion. His smaller limbs are a dog. His mole? is a raven.

10     [His] stature is a poplar.

11      His heart is a kettle-drum. His back-bone is a palm. His fingers are reeds.

12     His skull is silver. His sperm is gold.

13     His breast hair is a thorn bush. The hair of his groin is a boxthorn.

14     Lead is his ear wax. His bone is a fruit tree.

15     His breasts are fish. His breasts are figs. His tears are oil.

16     His nose mucus is a bulrush.

17      His flesh is a dried date. ... lower

18     The ... of his blood is [..] [His] eye-balls are a grape.



VAT 9946 rev.9 —17

1         Karkar: [His] pus is honey.

2        His top-knot is tamarisk. [His] stature is a cypress.

3        His .[..] is hemp?. [His] thighs are juniper.

4        His knees are cedar. [His] ankle bones are a medlar tree.

5        His fingers are a bundle of reeds. His fat is myrrh.

6        His blood is a cat. [His] sides are oak.

7        His sperm is gold. His breasts are lettuce.

8       The hair of his groin is [boxjthorn. The hair of his [arm]-pits is a thorn plant.

9       The hair of [his] breast is [..]. .



CBS 6060 rev.i —5 dupl. BM 47463 obv.ii 31—5

1         His eye-balls are a raisin.

2        His breasts are a dried fig.

3        His knees are a pomegranate.

4        His ankle bones are an apple.

5        His flesh is a scone.



"It is relevant that the equation of deities with parts of one deity's body is elsewhere used to express theological syncretism. Examples are, probably, a hymn to Marduk (KAR 304 and 337) where [ ...]-ka, "your [... ]" is repeatedly equated with the names of gods, KAR 328, a section in an explanatory work (see p.233), and a hymn to Ninurta of which the six best preserved lines are given here (KAR 102 dupl. STT 118 11.19-24):

Your teeth are Sibitti, who fells the evil ones.

The area of your cheeks, lord, is the appearance of the stars of

[... Your ears are Ea and Damkina, the sages of wisdom

[... Your head is Adad who [..] heaven and underworld like an artisan.

Your forehead is Sala, the beloved spouse who makes rejoice

[... Your neck is Marduk, judge of heaven and earth, the flood [...


"Works such as this which equate parts of one god's body with other gods must be understood in the context of theology which could synthesise diverse gods into single gods, or explain gods in terms of other gods. In the hymn quoted it is clear that characteristics of Ninurta are being expounded and praised. Not only are parts of Ninurta's body equated with other gods, but the particular characteristic of the god in question which is being attributed to Ninurta is explained. According to the hymnographer Ninurta embraces the warlike character of Sibitti, the appearance of the stars, the wisdom of Ea and his spouse, the role of Marduk as judge, and other attributes. In all, about twenty gods are mentioned, each equated with a part of the body. The hymn also has a syncretistic aspect in endeavouring to see the various gods mentioned as parts of one single god, Ninurta. Ninurta includes in himself the gods with which he is equated, and their attributes. [HI:MAMEW, 101]



Five. As we have noted often, for the general public and probably many of the elite, the statue was the god--for all practical purposes:


"In Babylonian thinking the distinction between 'ritual' and 'myth' is slight. Statues or symbols used in rituals were believed to be in every sense the deities which we regard them as representing." [HI:MAMEW, 169]


"With Alfred Gell, I distinguish between the deity as primary agent; and his or her indices of presence, such as statues, symbols, or a celestial body as secondary agents. The category of secondary agents implies a conceptual distinction between the deity as primary agent and his or her secondary agents. In other words, the deity is neither isomorphic nor identical with the statue and other secondary agents. This, of course, does not exclude the possibility that a supplicant might have blurred the distinction in the past, just as in modern times. This distinction is purely intended to aid our scholarly analysis of the ancient theological frameworks." [ OT:RCRM, 146; "Divine Agency and Astralization of the Gods in Ancient Mesopotamia", Beate Pongratz-Leisten]


Six. The iconic data from visual artifacts also needs to be studied more closely, since the creative-graphical task has to deal with 'compromises' like poets do with words, rhymes, and meter. Accordingly (as we noted in the earlier articles), the representations might be more reflective of constraints of media (e.g. small surface area) than of 'theological views' (e.g. relationship of statue/symbol to deity). So, images which contained multiple representations and/or agents of the divine must not be pressed too hard. Consider this artifact:


"The association of the moon-god with cattle also appears in the earliest iconography of the moon-god, such as on a Late Uruk period seal from Choga-Mish showing a god seated on a horned bull-throne and a small figure beside him holding up the crescent standard, all arranged inside another well-known emblem of the moon-god, the barge." [ OT:RCRM,125; "The Heavens and the Gods in Ancient Mesopotamia: The View from a Polytheistic Cosmology", by Francesca Rochberg,]


You have (1) a god; (2) divine throne; (3) divine standard; embedded inside another image of the god! What are we supposed to infer about the relation of the god-inside-itself?



So the data is just not clear enough to sustain this position, but rather tends to support the more common view of 'practical' identity of god and statue.



………………………………………………………. ……………


So, even after examining the scholarly statements which would suggest that the biblical anti-idol passages are either misinformed or slanderous, I still consider the bulk of the ANE data to be more in line with biblical portrayals of idolatry than otherwise.


And this part of the series (part3) adduces even more data in support of the conclusions of part 1 and part 2.


I hope this is of value to someone,

Glenn (Aug 2011)


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