The Prophets’ Knowledge of Contemporary Idolatry -- By: Stephen Caesar

Journal: Bible and Spade (Second Run)
Volume: BSPADE 16:4 (Fall 2003)
Article: The Prophets’ Knowledge of Contemporary Idolatry
Author: Stephen Caesar


The Prophets’ Knowledge of Contemporary Idolatry

Stephen Caesar

A dragon, sacred animal of Marduk, patron deity of Babylon. In the 12th century BC Marduk was viewed as the supreme cosmic ruler of the earth. The Babylonians believed he was the creator of the universe and ruler of gods and humans.

One of the most frequent rebukes that came from the mouths of the prophets was their condemnation of idolatry. They of course condemned their fellow Israelites’ apostasy, but they also condemned Israel and Judah’s pagan neighbors, accusing them of worshiping empty, lifeless pieces of wood. Some critics have claimed that the prophets greatly misinterpreted the true theology behind the idol-worship of Israel’s ancient neighbors. They accuse the Biblical prophets of misrepresenting or misunderstanding the spiritual context in which the Babylonians and other pagan peoples expressed their devotion to divine images.

An example of this line of thinking can be found in the statement of Michael B. Dick, professor of Hebrew Bible at Siena College in New York, in an article he wrote entitle “Worshiping Idols: What Isaiah Didn’t Know.” After mentioning Isaiah’s scathing condemnation of pagan idolatry in Mesopotamia, Prof. Dick asks rhetorically, “But does he [Isaiah] really understand the idols he condemns? ... [W]ould an Assyrian or Babylonia worshiper give us a different, perhaps more favorable, not to say even-handed, picture?” (2002:30). Prof. Dick seems to think Isaiah gave a slanted, biased—and incorrect—view of the idolatry of his day: “We get an entirely different understanding of cult images,” he claims, by reading religious texts written by the very people whom Isaiah criticized (2001:31). Ironically, however, a scrutiny of these texts reveals that Isaiah and other Old Testament prophets actually got it exactly right.

Let us start by examining Isaiah’s sarcastic description of the way in which the Babylonian crafted statues and imbued them with the divine presence, as found in Isaiah 44:10-20 (KJV):

10 Who hath formed a god, or molten a graven image that is profitable for nothing?

11 Behold, all his fellows shall be ashamed: and the workmen, they are of men: let them all be gathered together, let them stand up; yet they shall fear, and they shall be ashamed together.

12 The smith with the tongs both worketh in the coals, and fashioneth it with hammers, and worketh it with the strength of his arms: yea, he is hungry, and his strength faileth: he drinketh no water, and is faint.

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