A Brief History of Idolatry part 1

Technically, idolatry did not exist until Moses went up on the mountain and received the stone tablet containing the Ten Commandments. Sin is not counted where there is no law, Paul tells us. Sin is lawlessness, John tells us, and naturally there can be no lawlessness where there is no law. While people had made images of wood or stone or gold and had worshiped them, it was not counted as idolatry. They had no idea what they were doing. They did not know there was such a thing as a false god. It never entered their minds to question how there could be more than one God or who He was or how a rock could embody Him.

Abraham had grown up in just such a world that acknowledged the existence of many gods. He had spent much of his adult life in Ur, the residence (as they believed) of the Moon, the god Nanna-Sin. When the Most High God spoke to Abraham in Haran, another location with its own resident god, there is no indication that he knew this was really and truly the only God. It seemed to take him a while to catch on that the Most High God was different from the others.

Certainly Jacob, Abraham’s grandson, didn’t understand the distinction. Jacob’s wife Rachel stole her father’s household gods because she believed them to be actual gods with some power, and by stealing them she thought she might weaken him. Jacob’s son Judah, the direct ancestor of the Messiah, worshiped one of the gods of the land when he visited Tamar thinking she was a cult prostitute. Joseph married the daughter of the priest of On, and though he knew better than anyone in the world that the Most High God really was most high, he had not finished connecting the dots on the idolatry issue.

But then the Most High God appeared to Moses and used the name Yahweh and invaded a land belonging to the gods of Egypt. It was the legend of the warfare in heaven coming down from the mythical remote past into historical fact, one God attacking another god to take away His people. And after He won, instead of boasting about how much stronger He was than other gods, He let Moses in on what had only been hinted to that point: the gods He had been fighting didn’t actually exist. He had won the battle, He had done great miracles, but when He had knocked on the temple doors, there had been no one at home. Only Pharaoh and a army of men with chariots. No gods.

It was only after the people had been told that other gods didn’t exist that the concept of idolatry occurred. It was only after the people had seen the real God in action, and in a tangible, visible form, that He mentioned that the other gods who seemed to have visible forms, were just empty masks. The other gods were only rocks, only things carved by men, capable of no action, having no power. The whole vast array of gods, dozens or hundreds of them, were suddenly reduced to One and He demanded that they quit worshiping all of those other things.

It was natural for the people of Israel to be somewhat skeptical. Yahweh was introducing a major change in their conceptual framework. It was a lot to swallow, even though He had backed it up with astonishing and powerful plagues and miraculous deliverance and daily bread and a formidable looking guide in the shape of a cloud. He at least was genuinely God. They only needed to jettison all the gods who had not come up with deeds of power of their own, who had not fought back as plague after plague hit their people. They were only being asked to disbelieve in the ones who had not shown up, who had never shown up. It should not have been difficult.

And Yahweh was serious about forbidding idolatry. There were many laws, but the emphasis was unmistakable, repeated more frequently than any other admonition in the Law. The abolition of idolatry had become the divine priority. The abolition of idolatry became the central enforcement issue. Over a millennium, through judge after judge, the oppression of Israel by some outside king was caused by the people breaking this one rule: worship Yahweh and Him only. No other issue – moral, ethical, dietary, or theological – was important enough to cause Yahweh to surrender His people to the power of another. His  language was violent when he described idolatry as “whoring”, as “adultery”, as “prostitution” in which the prostitute paid her customers.

The battle between God and gods is no where more vividly portrayed than the confrontation between Elijah and the priests of Baal. Elijah had already demonstrated the power and anger of God against Baal by keeping the rain out of the land for three years; Baal had not been able to rescue his people from Yahweh’s anger, just as the Egyptian gods had failed the Egyptians. So Elijah alone among Yahweh’s prophets stood against 850 prophets of Baal and Asherah. (Asherah was imagined to be the wife of El, the most high god in the Canaanite mythology.) And again, neither Baal nor Asherah came through in answer to all of their own priests praying at once. Maybe Baal was asleep. Maybe Baal was away on holiday. Maybe Baal had grown old and could no longer hear them pray, as they imagined El had grown old and senile. There are not many passages in Scripture as sarcastic as the ones God reserved for the idols.

The other eight commandments were purely secondary. Obviously, they were important, but not nearly at the level of the first two. The land was never destroyed by invading armies because thievery became rampant. The land was never destroyed by invading armies because they had quit observing the Sabbath. The land was never destroyed by invading armies because adultery had become common or because children were rude to their parents. There was only one other sin that was mentioned as making God so angry that He was ready to destroy the nation: the oppression of the poor by the rich. Read Amos. I will come back to this later.

But in over a thousand years of struggle against the idols, Yahweh did not vanquish them. Baal, Ashtoreth, Chemosh the detestable, Milcom the abhorrent, they all endured, they all maintained their fictional existence by their very real hold on people’s allegiance. Eventually the names got changed and Baal gave way to Marduk. There was a flavor of the month in god names  but those names were just aliases anyway. Throughout the Old Testament history there are ups and downs in the struggle to keep the people faithful to Yahweh, but no final victory, right up until the Babylonian army burned Yahweh’s temple and carried the last king of Judah into captivity.

Ezekiel was nearly the last of the prophets of the Old Testament and he testified, in chapter 20 of his prophecy, that the worship of wood and stone was a crime in Israel right up to their destruction as a nation. It is virtually the end of the Old Testament, and the only glimmer of light was Nehemiah and Ezra rebuilding the temple and re-instituting the worship of Yahweh. But the gods were still there, buzzing like flies around the entrails of Israel.

And then there was a break of about three centuries in which there were no prophets, no new Scriptures, everyone waiting for something or Someone and everyone with a different idea of who or what was expected. And meanwhile the slow dissolution of the nation and its hopes creeps through the fabric of Israel. And then, at a dark hour, the Messiah appeared. Just as He had left His people in Egypt in slavery for centuries before Moses appeared, Israel had been left in  the lurch and under pagan rule for centuries before the Messiah arrived. Their expectancy had reached a peak and everyone was ready for the next confrontation with the idols. Yahweh had made no move to fight for His own name against the gods for way too long and it was about time. What would he do now?

It is with a feeling of bewilderment at an invisible enemy that we turn to the New Testament. Baal had disappeared. Molech was not there. Ashtoreth also was missing. Even the new aliases – Zeus and Jupiter – are ignored as if they had never been imagined. What happened to the idols?! Did Yahweh spend a millennium fighting them to no avail, only to have them disappear when His back was turned? Or did Yahweh decide idolatry was a losing battle and wasn’t worth the trouble to fight? What exactly happened during those three hundred years that made people abandon the idols they had stubbornly kept through the years? If Yahweh’s kindnesses did not convince them to abandon their idols, what did?

The answer is that a new goddess came in, a new goddess more powerful than any of the previous idols, a new goddess so powerful that the old gods all disappeared into her shadow forever: Money. In the third century b.c. the king of Lydia, traditionally known as Midas, invented Money. This is going to take some explanation.

Obviously, something very like money had existed since ancient times. The difference between the ancient times and the kingdom of Lydia was scale and control. Earlier, each merchant had coined his own coins, weighed out his own gold into usable pieces, and went to trade. Sharp businessmen could systematically short change their customers, make their coins just a little bit under weight. The prophets of Israel had rebuked such merchants in no uncertain terms. Then the king of Lydia thought to himself, “What if I were the only one in the kingdom who was allowed to make coins? No businessman could cheat another businessman that way. I would personally guarantee the value of the coins and the people could trust it.” And that is what he did. The state assumed a monopoly over the currency.

There were obvious advantages to Money. Commerce could be done more easily and fairly. Individual business men found it more difficult to cheat their customers or each other when someone else controlled the scales. And Money gave a systematic, “objective” way of assigning value to goods and services that applied everywhere and which could be relied on. Thus Money was born, a kindly benevolent sort of deity, establishing justice and peace between men.

Money replaced the gods using much the same strategy Yahweh had tried to use when He rescued Israel from Egypt, though on a smaller scale: acts of power. Unlike other gods or goddesses, Money had some real power, some real presence. Unlike Baal, Money answered her prophets. Pray to Baal for a new camel, or a new wife, or a good harvest, and you just never knew what might happen; but it was usually disappointing. But Money would deliver every time. The guy who had Money could have anything he wanted; Money saw to it. You could look around anywhere and see the evidence of her power: people who served Money well lived in comfort and luxury and enjoyed the best, and people who did not serve Money well might be left to die in a gutter with nothing to their name. And Money was much more powerful than mere wealth. Wealth was too obvious. It was just the stuff you worked for and acquired. But Money was subtle, like the serpent of old. Money was an an invisible power that could control men’s minds from a distance, an abstraction who could be present in all places at once, like God Himself.

There is no way to overstate how greatly Money revolutionized idolatry. All the old gods became obsolete over night. The whole world shook its head and realized it had become monotheistic. Thus Money accomplished what revealed religion had failed to accomplish in its many centuries. Judaism and Christianity had sought to convince the world that there was only one God. But Money arrived on the scene and the world fell to its knees with hardly a whisper of the skeptic being heard.

And the perk was that Money made the king rich. It almost seemed that everything Midas touched turned into gold. The invention of Money gave the king power over the whole realm of business. It gave him power over everything that depended on business for its viability. In short, the king became like a god in fact as well as in theology. No more of this pretending to be identified with some idol or negotiating with some priest about politics. Now the king’s reach went into the very pockets of every man in the realm. Naturally, the king would put his own face on his coins; he himself was to be the incarnation of Money, the face behind the power that made the world go round. It was a fertility cult.

John the Baptist was the last of the old style prophets in Israel and he knew well which goddess he had to confront. No Molech, no Baal ever had the power and influence in Israel that this new goddess did and he attacked the influence of the new goddess head on. In announcing Yahweh’s wrath John stood in line with Jeremiah and Amos and Hosea and the others. “What then shall we do that is an appropriate fruit repentance from our goddess?” the crowd essentially asked. “Whoever has two tunics is to share with him who has none, and whoever has food is to do likewise.” Tax collectors were to collect only what they must, and soldiers were not to use their power to extort money and be content with the wages they get. It was all about Money and taking care of those who were not under her protection.

That is the way the Pharisees of Jesus’ day understood it. Is it right to pay taxes to Caesar or not? The question had never been asked before because in the old days the oppressor just took gold or silver or women or slaves. But what if the oppressor took Money? Paying money was a moral issue whereas paying tribute had never been. But why not? Because paying tribute was the slave giving to his owner what belonged to the owner, whereas paying taxes was the slave giving to a god what the god owned. Jesus’ answer is the same as the Old Testament answer to idolatry. That image has no real existence, no real power; the coin is nothing to God just as the image on it is nothing.

Jesus knew who His real enemy was even more clearly than John. In Luke 16:13 Jesus replied to the Pharisees this way: “No servant can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and Money.” The Pharisees, who loved Money, ridiculed Him.

The old forms of idolatry continued on for a while, like ghosts haunting a house. There were still graven images, but the images were only an excuse for business, an excuse for making a profit, a way of serving Money. In Acts 19 the riot started about the god Artemis was not about the honor due to an idol, it was about profitability.  Money was the issue now, not the old and worthless gods which everyone soon acknowledged to be superstition. What Yahweh had not accomplished by love, Money accomplished by greed.

At first the Christian movement understood very well what the true enemy was. And even when the Church signed a peace treaty with the emperor of the realm, the Church managed to impose on the pagan state certain moral restraints on the idolatry that it carried with it. Money was not allowed to reproduce: charging interest was forbidden. Limits were placed on the quality of worship Money could demand: people could not charge more than a certain amount for their time and labor. Money was even obliged to obey certain moral and ethical restraints: she was not permitted to dispense with people who did not worship her. Her own worshipers were obliged to care for the poor, to feed, clothe, and shelter those who had nothing.

But this goddess was cunning as well as beautiful. She seduced the Church. It was soon discovered that Church leadership could be made quite profitable if one weren’t picky about whom one worshiped. Then Protestants discovered that some of the moral restraints on Money could be relaxed. As long as they put a good face on their worship, used the Christian lingo of the day, assumed the pious external demeanor of  the evangelical pastor, they could carry on a clandestine worship quite handily and even free Money from some of the shackles she had long worn, shepherds who were inwardly wolves. Once moral restraints were relaxed a little, it became easy to relax them a lot. Money whispered it in their ear: It’s their own fault they don’t have as much of me as you. If they served me better, they would have enough. Why should you share with these unworthy people?

Anything could be justified if it were profitable enough: slavery, the murder of the native Americans, treating even the children of the poor as mere dispensable resources for factories rather than people. The judge of all the earth was no longer Yahweh, the God of Abraham, and Isaac and Israel. Now the judge of all the earth was Money and even her smile was merciless. Among the English Christians of just over a century ago, the crime of stealing a gentleman’s wallet was punishable by cutting off the hand; now the punishment is a much slower torture. Those who do not worship her, and who fail to carry the evidence of their devotion in some of her icons, are simply swept away and allowed to starve or bleed or evaporate. Prosperity theology is not a heresy about the Christian God; it serves a different god altogether.

The money we all hold in our wallets and checking accounts are the certificates that the goddess of this world gives to her servants that grants them permission to live with her blessing. Her certificates always carry a tribute to her current lover. The Roman coin had a picture of Caesar, the “god” of that empire, but our money comes from a more subtle serpent. “In God we trust” it says on the coins, and we can lull ourselves to sleep thinking it is the true God she acknowledges. But it is a lie. She is talking about yet another of the new idols, whose story must be told in a second installment.

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3 Comments on “A Brief History of Idolatry part 1”

  1. Eric Alagan Says:

    In one sense idols are false gods. If that is so, what we worship within – other than God – can also be considered idol worshipping.


  2. […] on idolatry, try my longer essay “A Brief History of Idolatry” which begins here: https://calebseye.wordpress.com/2010/09/07/a-brief-history-of-idolatry/ and continues here: […]


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