Idols and the Return to Mount Carmel

Ezekiel 14:1–11

We recall the LORD’s vehement opposition to all forms of idolatry, expressed in the first two commandments of the Decalogue:

You shall have no other gods before me.

You shall not make for yourself a graven image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth; you shall not bow down to them or serve them; for I the LORD your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments. (Ex 20:3–6)

The world is populated by principalities, powers, necessities, and goods that promise our flourishing and control of history. If Karl Barth is right, here is the heart of religion—the invocation of these powers to secure our happiness and prosperity against the multiple threats that confront us. Natural religion is inevitably polytheistic, for the powers are many and our needs are great. As the early history of Israel demonstrates, the temptation to combine the worship of YHWH with the worship of Ba’al, Asherah, Moloch, Pacha­mama, whomever, whatever is almost irresistible. Robert W. Jenson comments: “Human­ity’s ability ‘to believe six incompatible things before breakfast’ becomes almost a defining characteristic when it comes to religion. Never mind if, for example, the Lord and Moloch are declared opposites, we will, if given the chance, worship both at once—and whatever else seems powerful in the neighborhood” (Ezekiel, p. 117). Moses had only been a few weeks on Mt Sinai before the Hebrews below were remaking the idols of Egypt, thus incurring the terrible wrath of the LORD and his Levites. And when the twelve tribes are about to enter the pro­mised land, Moses once again reminds them of the jealousy of their God: “Take heed to yourselves, lest you forget the covenant of the Lord your God, which he made with you, and make a graven image in the form of anything which the LORD your God has forbidden you. For the LORD your God is a devouring fire, a jealous God” (Deut 4:23–24). God has called Israel—and the Church—into being precisely to be a people who will faithfully witness to the truth and reality of the jealous God, the one and only God. And lest we think that the concern about idolatry belongs to the ancient past, we need only recall the recent display before the altar of the Church of Santa Maria in Traspontina, Rome, of three indigenous statues of a pregnant woman. Defenders of the statues have argued that they are only symbols of fertility, yet Catholic traditionalists believe that the statues are idols of pagan nature religion (see “Our Lady of the Amazon”). The line between symbol and idol can be fine indeed, especially when the image is placed before the altar of Christ. Suddenly we are back with the Glorious Holy Prophet Elijah at Mount Carmel (also see “Abominations and Idols“). The LORD is a jealous God.

Elders of Israel come to the prophet Ezekiel seeking a word from the LORD. The LORD reveals to Ezekiel that they are compro­mised by their idolatry: “Son of man, these men have taken their idols into their hearts, and set the stumbling block of their iniquity before their faces” (14:3). He then declares that any Israelite who, without repenting of their idolatry, seeks a word of the LORD from a prophet comes under divine judg­ment (“I will set my face against that man, I will make him a sign [oth] and a byword and cut him off from the midst of my peo­ple; and you shall know that I am the LORD” [14:8]). Their fate at the hands of the Baby­lonians will testify to all of Israel the reality and power of the jealous God who demands total and exclusive loyalty—this monothe­istic truth Israel will finally learn and indeed did learn, as evidenced by her faithfulness during the exile and centuries later their heroic defense of Jewish tradition against the Seleucid Empire, the Maccabean Revolt. Humanity can be rescued from idolatry only by radical judgment, followed by a new beginning. “Those elders,” comments Jenson, “are about to experience the judgment, in service of others’ new beginning” (p. 117).

But what if the elders approach a false prophet and he gives them a word—no doubt a word of encouragement and false hope—in the LORD’s name? Then the prophet will himself be judged:

And they shall bear their punishment—the punishment of the prophet and the punishment of the inquirer shall be alike—that the house of Israel may go no more astray from me, nor defile themselves any more with all their trans­gressions, but that they may be my people and I may be their God, says the LORD God. (14:10–11)

But the prophecy given to Ezekiel includes the following cryptic statement: “And if the prophet be deceived and speak a word, I, the LORD, have deceived that prophet, and I will stretch out my hand against him, and will destroy him from the midst of my people Israel” (14:9). We have already reflected on the mystery of predestination in a previous article, yet more needs to be said. Thus Jenson:

One more thing must be attended to before the Lord can utter the great promise that has been the goal of all these zigs and zags. The presenting situation is between the elders and a prophet. What of the prophet? If he goes along with the elders’ request and provides a “word from the Lord” at their request, he sins as do they, and his own fall will be included in the oth [sign] their fall will make (14:10). But how can a prophet be thus deceived—whether he is a real prophet like Ezekiel or a false prophet who does not know he is false? In either case, there is only one possibility: the Lord himself has deceived him (14:9).

We encounter again the mysteriously simple relation between the Lord’s will and our wills. The antimony appears everywhere in scripture. Jesus tells his hearers that no one can come to him except those whom the Father gives him, and he does this in a speech aimed at bringing his hearers to him (John 6:65). In the case always adduced when theology takes up this matter, the Lord hardens Pharaoh’s heart against letting Israel go and then destroys him for not letting Israel go (Exod. 7:3–5; 12:1–16).

We should ask ourselves: if we find predestination offensive, what would we rather have the Lord do? Let us go the ways of our rebellion, to the destruc­tion that terminates those ways? Or turn history over to our wise rule? Or, as Ezekiel here portrays God’s rule, be himself in some utterly mysterious way responsible also in our iniquities? One may of course say that God is surely not bound by such dilemmas. But that would be true only if he withdrew from his history with us; if he soldiers on with creatures who are both finite and fallen, he too faces alternatives. One may say that God should not in the first place create a history that poses such choices. But what other sort of history would we, in our great wisdom, institute? (p. 119)

The passages quoted by Jenson, as well as others, pose a problem for the theory of noncom­petitive double agency I have defended on this blog over the years. Jenson is himself a sup­porter of this theory, yet he argues that in his transcendence God remains free to enter into history and providentally determine human action, according to his salvific plans for his people. If we insist that God is bound to always respect libertarian freedom, then we effec­tively remove God from history and deny his providential rule and his combat with evil.

(cont)

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3 Responses to Idols and the Return to Mount Carmel

  1. Grant says:

    Considering what is idolatry in particularly situations is always difficult, yet it is ever present, but it cannot be easily applied as some might like. Take some of the stories under consideration here, or yet the whole OT, historically it comes from a number of different cultural streams and influences and numerous different and complex historical situations the peoples who would become the Jewish people, the people of Israel (and of that, more particularly those from the Kingdom of Judea, rather than say the kingdom of Israel where YHWH was worshiped through or with the image of a calf, to which conflict with the Temple and Jerusalem centred worship the issue of infidelity and idolatry to the golden calf when Moses is depicted as going up the mountain likely was reflecting by it’s initial editors and composers, of that theological dispute, similar to that later between Jews and Samaritans, where and how is God truly worshiped, ultimately neither, He is worshiped in Spirit and Truth). Influences from Canaan areas (YHWH as a god was worshiped but others besides those who became Hebrews, and even after Hebrews are a people), Egypt (at the very least shared influences in the Pharaoh Akenaten and his hymn to the Aten and Psalm 104), various near Eastern literary motifs (such as Moses being found by Pharaoh’s daughter), influences from Babylonian/Chaldean, Persian and in some cases Hellenic sources, all play a part in the developed tradition(s) of 2nd Temple Judaism(s) and the developed versions of the OT we have, including the versions of the stories we deal with.

    This itself gives more and deeper resonances to the questions of idolatry, then a more simple picture of going after one pagan god and abandoning YHWH, it’s more deeper and more insidious then this, as it becomes rather even within the broader religion where and how to truly worship God (the conflict becomes which is Lord, and perhaps which worshiping YHWH is worshiping YHWH rather than Baal, where is the living God to be known and found). It also already makes us now realize even at this point, the fusion and drawing from many cultural sources means God is found and reflected everywhere, and to bring and know and illuminate this in Christ is part of the Christian calling. This of course becomes clear in Christ, to which these stories talk about, Elijah or Moses, it is talking about Christ, and as the epistle to the Hebrews tells us, was written for us, the Church, and as the Gospel of St Luke reminds us, it is about Christ and the Gospel, and through whom as St Paul reminds us we remove the veil over the OT and read it truly as Scripture (and so as the Lord says to the Samaritan woman at the well, we know and begin to come to worship the Father in Spirit and Truth). We must bring all things into captivity to Christ, St Paul reminds us, that is to illuminate the customs and ways, the groping ways that people have in our current state of fallen ignorance to understand God and illuminate it and truly raise it up in Christ, showing it pointing to and about Him, and bring clarity and truth. This happened from the get-go in the Church, first already in relation to the sacred Tradition and mythology of Israel, and quickly of Greco-Roman culture and Chaldean and Persian cultures, there were always the conflicting points of those who were more exclusionists in this exercise (say Tertullian with his famous ‘what has Jerusalem to do with Athens?’) yet ultimately those who more generous and more truly discerned the nature of Christ knew all knowledge comes from God and instead critically embraced the knowledge around them, of Greek philosophy (using the analogy of the crafts of Egypt coming to produce the Ark of the Covenant to glorify and reveal the place of God’s Presence, and so here brought and illuminated by Christ to both reveal God’s Presence in these thoughts and culture and to illuminate, reveal and glorify God and His Christ) .

    This extended beyond just the developing Christian intellectual tradition (of which is became indispensable in either Greek East or Latin West, where of course during the High Middle Ages the introduction of Aristotle , via Islamic thought, and of Islamic theological reflection would have profound impacts and influences such as on St Thomas Aquinas) but through the last two millenniums on the general customs and practices of worship. Elements of how saints were venerated, certain practices of worship, churches say in Rome often developing from where pagan worship would be, the nature and placing of festivals and pattern and cycle of worship to in existing customs and brought them into the Church, baptizing them. This approach also produced works of literature showing this instinct, say the Beowulf poet, again showing this vision in bring in the old thoughts and pagan past and finding and displaying the Gospel light within, or the forming of the Eddas in Iceland, or even more recently in the works of Tolkien or Lewis, all show this instinct. Further afield, the Holy Assyrian Church of the East showed this same instinct in China, displayed particularly well in the Xi’an Stele which related the history of Christianity of the last 150 years in China in both Chinese and Syriac, erected in 781, conveying and illuminating Christian concepts through Chinese phonetization of several Syriac, Persian, and Sanskrit words, and using expressions and ideas native to Mahayana Buddhism and Daoism as well as interactions with Confucian thought. Philological analysis of the text used indicates that the Christians in question were well versed in these traditions and used terminology and concepts to both communicate and reveal Christ in the Truth the native Chinese already had. For example, the Chinese word the author chose to represent God, Aluohe, is a phonetization of the Syriac word for God, Aloha, equivalent to the Hebrew Eloah, while the specific characters employed are the same as those used in Buddhist scriptures to represent Arhat, the fruit of Buddha. Or characters chosen to represent Satan, or Suodan, and Messiah, or Mishihe, are likewise phonetizations of their Syriac names. The author Adam used standard Buddhist terms for such concepts as monk and scriptures, Scriptures represented by the character for sutra. When presenting Christianity name, he followed a form and terminology that mirror the work of Laozi in Dao De Jing in which is written, ‘I do not know its name, so I call it ‘Tao’ / Forced to name it further I call it ‘The greatness of all things.’’ This sentence from a familiar Chinese classic, according to some scholars, likely provides the form for the statement in the stele’s text, ‘This ever True and Unchanging Way is mysterious, and is almost impossible to name. But…we make an effort and call it by the name of “The Luminous Religion.’ Throughout the inscription, Christian practice is frequently termed “The Way” or the Dao.

    This is also seen in the artistic symbolism adorning the stele. Above the Christian cross that precedes the title of the inscription is an ornate engraving that portrays twin creatures—perhaps dragons or beings called “Kumbhira”—whose tails meet in the center holding a large pearl, which in Christianity symbolizes a thing of great value. Supporting the cross are two clouds, possibly the “flying cloud” or “white cloud” that may represent a traditional symbol of Daoism as well as of Islam. Also beneath the cross is a lotus flower, a symbol frequently employed in Buddhism, a symbol for immorality, and it rides on a turtle, one of the four animals (alongside the white tiger, phoenix and dragon) that had spirit and were sacred, the stele is carried and rises out of this as with the Lotus. And here is a interesting Western connection, in that phoenix were also an image of rebirth and immorality in prior pagan cultures unitized in Christian symbolism, shown very well with images of phoenixes in the Book of Kells feeding of the wine chalice and vines. This was characteristic of the Church of the East approach and was also indicative of earlier Jesuit missionary instincts in China until this was vetoed by opponents persuasion in Rome, to very damaging effects for the Gospel in China.

    This is to say that part of God being jealousy and the Church’s call to bring disciples of all nations is to illuminate Christ within the culture itself, to bring it’s ways into the light shown by Christ, to baptize it, to show Christ already Incarnate in their present and illuminate the Truth in their presence so that they come more truly into the Life of Christ and worship the Father in Spirit and Truth. This brings a deeper understanding to the conflict on Mount Carmel, God’s fire of love and His living light consumes what is dead and false, what are destructive affects of idolatry of literally turning to nothing, to non-being, away from His glory and from Life, illuminating it’s own destruction and death, and it’s powerlessness and inherent failure (no fire or life comes from such mistaken embrace of darkness confusing it with the light, or as St Paul would say, even if an angel were to bring another gospel let him be accursed). The fire that Christ baptizes with reveals and cleanses all that is of destruction and death, and is a call, in both ourselves and from the culture we are in to discern where Christ is and how and who He truly is, to reveal where and how in a situation God and His nature and Gospel is revealed and to follow and illuminate that life, and turning from and leaving practices and aspects of beliefs or assumptions revealed to be enslaved to death and confused and destructive mistakes for God (under whatever name). To bring and reveal Life that consumes and swallows up death, and reveals the Way of Life present in full illumination.

    And it cautions us to be aware of this in our own Christian life and traditions, where that current cultural forms we have themselves become an idol, and sometimes a idol in service to yet another (the perennial problem of the idolatry of Mammon, or current political situations, kingdoms or nationalisms etc, political and religious cultures). It can lead to a particular tradition and cultural form being worshiped rather than God Himself, being raised up as they only way, imposed (remember Rome’s response to the initial Jesuit instincts for missionary work for example) rather than allowing the Spirit to be free. This occurs in both Catholic and Orthodox and Protestant circles, all have this kind of devotion to a particular tradition and cultural structures, often this in our times leads to culture wars and to conflicts within various confessions (the above issues in relation to the Amazon synod and similar situations seen among Orthodoxy, and of course often seen in Protestantism in various types of traditions of what Scripture says and so on, and this itself is very generalized). It is always important to remember it was in part this very instinct that lead the priesthood of Israel to not see their God in Christ, and to reject Him, and for the majority of Israel to do the same. Worship of tradition is very hard to avoid, and yet it is a very subtle but often dangerous idolatry that leads us astray far to often, where we choose Baal rather than Christ, and sometimes only the full consuming and illuminating work of the Spirit will deliver us from this illusion and false image of ourselves. The same relates to when we ignore others, and those in need with religious justifications and reasoning, and so we ignore Christ Himself, again mistaking Baal for Him.

    And fundamentally, we are and in this age remain always to an extent idolatrous, only the judgement of God in Christ delivers and will deliver us, as He promises to draw us always to Himself, the healing serpent staff raised and heals us from our path to destruction and enslavement, and reveals truth to us, now and in the age to come.

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  2. brian says:

    Grant, you’re going to get a lot of TLDR non-response on this, I fear, but nicely stated. The prudence of the truly wise person cannot be read off from a catechism or reduced to a chart of prohibited or approved artifacts. The Spirit speaks in silence pregnant with music and one must practice a deft act of interpretation alert to nuance, mirroring, analogy, modes that seem to speak Christ, but do not; and the opposite. Often one must struggle with equivocities where tares are interwoven with wheat so that simple acts of interpretation are ruled out. Moreover, guidance ultimately must determine how unique persons with specific histories, talents, and limitations interact with all that making summary judgments impossible. In short, you are correct to draw out the hermeneutic implications and just how difficult an act of complex discernment is called for.

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  3. How can an Orthodox criticize the Catholics on this when you also uphold Nicaea II?

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