Tag Archives: Divine Image

All the Gods of the Nations are Idols

Both 1 Chr 16:26 and Ps 96:5 state that “For all the gods of the nations are idols, but YHWH made the heavens” (כי כל-אלהי העמים אלילים ויהוה שמים עשה). This has long been appealed to in scholarship addressing monotheism in the Hebrew Bible as an example of the text’s denial of the existence of the gods of the nations. They are idols, not gods. I recently ran across this reading in James Anderson’s new book, Monotheism and Yahweh’s Appropriation of Baal:

It is to Psalm 96 that one must turn to find a more pointed affirmation of Yahweh’s uniqueness: ‘For great is Yahweh, and greatly to be praised; he is to be revered above all gods. For all the gods of the peoples are idols, but Yahweh made the heavens.’ (Ps. 96.4–5) There, the onslaught against idols is complete with a clear statement that the other gods are no gods. The claim that Yahweh is the only god has to be backed up by the claim that he created the heavens. This massive theological claim was a novelty.

The problem is that “idols” is a terrible translation that completely obscures the rhetorical force of the verse and facilitates the incorrect interpretation of these verses as denying the existence of other gods. The word translated “idols” is אלילים, but that word does not mean “idols,” it means “worthless things.” It is a play on words that works because if looks and sounds so similar to the Hebrew word אלהים. It would become a lexical substitute for “idol” similar to the way “abomination” (שקוץ) functions as a substitute for “god” in places like Exod 8:26; 1 Kgs 11:7; and 2 Kgs 23:13. The text is not saying the other gods are not gods, it’s saying they’re worthless and powerless—and here comes the rhetorical hook—but YHWH made the freakin’ heavens! That’s how much more he is to be revered over all those puny gods. This is the rhetorical force this text was supposed to have, but too many scholars are too concerned about finding monotheism in the Bible to pay close attention to that.

The Cult Statue Is and Is Not the Deity

BaalThorkild Jacobsen’s contribution to the Frank Moore Cross Festschrift, “The Graven Image,” makes the following observation after discussing one set of texts that shows the cult statue was identified with the deity and then another set that shows the cult statue was not the deity (p. 18):

The contradiction of is and is not in the matter of the cult statue is so flagrant and cuts so deep that there must seem to be little hope of resolving it unless one goes to the most basic levels of understanding and attempts to gain clarity about the very fundamentals of ancient thought, about what exactly “being” and “nonbeing” meant to the ancients. We must consider, if only briefly, the ontology of the ancients, their ideas of what constituted “being” and “reality,” their criteria for judgment of true and false.

While it’s certainly true that one must retreat to the ancients’ fundamental conceptualizations of their identity and the world around them, I would suggest that framing it as ontology and “being” v. “nonbeing” is imposing contemporary categories precisely where we’re trying to see beyond them (I would suggest Bauckham commits the same presentism when he defines “identity” for his “Divine Identity” christology according to what we understand “identity” to entail today). In the ancient world, the concern was not so much for ontology as for social role and function. This draws less firm boundaries than we’re used to and makes it possible for the statue to both “be” and “not be” the deity, at least insofar as we understand “being” and “nonbeing.”