The _____ captivity of the church

Sometimes I think we Christians after Christendom think we’re William Wallace. That we’re in front of a shield wall firing people up for the battle we face… when, actually, we’re already not just prisoners of the enemy, but serving the empire we think we’re standing against. We talk about the world now being ‘Babylon’ and don’t always confront how much Babylon already infects our hearts. Here’s a piece, in part, inspired by Martin Luther’s The Babylonian Captivity Of The Church

“Aye, fight and you may die. Run and you’ll live — at least a while. And, dying in your beds many years from now, would you be willing to trade all the days from this day to that for one chance, just one chance, to come back here and tell our enemies that they may take our lives, but they’ll never take our freedom!” — William Wallace in Braveheart

Freedom.

Religious freedom.

Freedom of speech.

It seems we Christians are a bit obsessed with questions of freedom at the moment. We’re positioning ourselves like an army of Scots ready to fight to maintain our independence from the empire. We’ve got thought leaders who are bracing us for impact, telling us that we’re in the middle of a battle that will decide our future; the battle for our freedom. These freedoms. Hard won freedoms. Freedom from the tyranny of Babylon. Freedom from bending the knee to Caesar and his rainbow sash.

The problem is we talk about religious freedom and how important it is, while we the church are captives in Babylon; and if we think freedom looks like Babylon-lite we’re in big trouble. If we think freedom is simply the ability to maintain a distinct sexual ethic we don’t realise just how much we’ve already been captivated by a world that is an entirely different kingdom to the one we live for if we follow king Jesus. We’re so focused on sex, that we fail to realise that we, mostly, already belong to ‘Babylon’.

We’re captives.

We’re political captives.

We’re economic captives.

We’re captivated by a counter-Gospel. We’re narrative captives, enthralled by Babylon and its shiny promises and explanations about who we are, and what we’re for; blinkered so that we don’t often look beyond our defaults; the status quo of our immediate context and culture.

We’re captivated in our hearts, and our minds, in our desires and in our imaginations.

But still. We picture ourselves as William Wallace, just without the face paint (and so we end up looking a whole lot like Mel Gibson, it’s ok to be a raving lunatic if you’re in character, elsewise, not so much).

We think our freedom is at stake; that it is under attack.

Apparently our real enemies; the ones who will decide our fate, are those who’ve risen up from the margins of the empire who now threaten to take control of everything, or at least to wield disproportionate influence as they capitalise on our collective guilt and shame at how our culture has treated those who are different. We don’t feel guilt, or shame, not in any way that manifests itself in sitting down at the table to make reparations and to reconcile, anyway. We might have changed some of our practices so we don’t do conversion therapy any more or kick out our same sex attracted children (hopefully); we celebrate celibacy for those in our community who are same sex attracted, sure, but we’re not particularly on the front foot explaining to same sex attracted folk outside our community how Jesus is the best possible news for them, and better than any desire for earthly things, including sex, we’re not particularly interested in how life in a contested, pluralist world might be safe for them. It’s not just Christians, or the last vestige of christendom/Old Testament morality that cause bullying, or discrimination, or the world to be unsafe for those who statistically, are not normal. It’s the human heart. It’s the beastly part of the human heart. We’re like chicks, who turn our beaks on the little bird in the clutch who is different, and peck at them until we feel secure, and they are broken beyond recognition.

Well. Now these marginalised folks are at the head of an army; they’ve rounded up the forces of Babylon, both the politicians, and the market forces — corporations — and they’ve brought that army to our shield wall.

“They may take our lives… we might say, but they’ll never take our freedom.” 

We get these bracing call to arms type blog posts on all the big Christian platforms. We get books trying to chart a strategy for the church going forward in a hostile world where our freedom is under threat.

Freedom.

Religious freedom. That’s our shtick; and partly because we so value it for ourselves, it’s one of those things, those common goods, that we want to fight for for everyone else. We tend to see ourselves as the warriors fighting the good fight for freedom on the frontline. William Wallace in a battle raging against the ‘secular’  empire. And by secular this is the sort of hard secularism that sees no place for worship, rather than secularism as ‘no religion is favoured’ pluralistic secularism.

“They may take our lives… we might say, but they’ll never take our freedom.” 

Only we can’t really say that. Or rather, we can’t really say that and mean it. Because our freedom is already gone. We’re already captives. When it comes to Babylon, they’re not at the gate banging on the doors using the new sexual revolution to break down the walls. We’re already captives, and have been for a long time. This stuff on sexual difference is just, perhaps, the last defence to fall before we capitulate, bend the knee to Caesar and kiss the ring. And that we don’t realise we’re already captives makes our resistance pretty pathetic and futile.

We think we’re fighting the good fight here on same sex marriage and safe schools. But the truth is, we’re already captives to Babylon in so many ways that this resistance is pathetic, and unless it leads us to seek freedom in a whole bunch of other areas where ‘Babylon’ has infiltrated, we’re in a bit of trouble.

But the other truth is that Babylon in the Bible isn’t just judgment from God (as we’ll see below); it’s opportunity. It’s an opportunity to reach people outside Israel, and outside the church. Babylon is our mission field, and always has been. And the thing that keeps us focused on the main thing — joining with God in bringing dead people to life through the Gospel — is realising that we’re in Babylon, not Israel, that our neighbours are facing death for rejecting God, and that we’ll be part of God inviting them out of Babylon into a new kind of citizenship.

If we really want to resist Babylon in order to be part of winsomely calling people from death to life, there’s a whole lot of stuff we might need to free ourselves from first. We have to figure out how we’re distinct from Babylon (or should be) in order to reach Babylon with the Gospel (oh, and we need to remember that because we’re not Jews, we’re actually converts from Babylon, Babylonians who’ve decided to follow a different king, that our job isn’t first to identify with Israel and its story, but to appreciate that because of the one faithful exile, Jesus, we are brought home to God and made citizens of something new); we also need to be clear about what ‘Babylon’ means as a metaphor in a Biblical sense (beyond the exile).

There is a sense that God’s people being scattered into Babylon is both vital for his mission to see his image bearers spread over the face of the earth (Genesis 1), and judgment for failing to do the job of being his image bearers in the world; a case of God achieving his purposes through judgment. There’s also a sense in which exile into Babylon is judgment giving people a taste of what it seems they desire — to not live like his people; it’s a purifying thing. This is where his judgment in response to the impulse at Babel — where a bunch of people didn’t scatter, but instead stayed together to build a big, central, tower — probably an ancient ‘ziggurat’ (a staircase into the heavens to make themselves gods) — fits in with his plans for the world. These people rejected his call to go into the world, they built a tower for their own name to make themselves gods ascending to the heavens, and were scattered as a result. It’s this moment, in the Biblical narrative, that creates nations like Babylon, and there’s some pretty interesting historical ties between Babel and Babylon, so that in the first century, the historian, Josephus, says:

“The place wherein they built the tower is now called Babylon, because of the confusion of that language which they readily understood before; for the Hebrews mean by the word Babel, confusion”

The Babylonian captivity of Israel

When Israel was carted off into exile in Babylon the first time around, what got them there, what got them in trouble, was they were already Babylonian at heart before the armies arrived. They were captivated by Babylon before they were captives in Babylon.

They’d already rejected God, and what should have been their distinctives as his people, and they’d turned to idols instead.

They’d signed up with their hearts, and exile was a case of them becoming what they loved. In the book of Ezekiel we get an explanation read by people in Exile about why they’re in exile in the form of the words of the prophet who warned them what was coming.

There’s this scene where a group of Israel’s leaders rock up to Ezekiel to ask him what God says, and it turns out they’re in trouble because they’ve ‘set up idols in their hearts’ — abominations one might say… it turns out they’ve already deserted God. They’re already captives in this sense, even if the physical takeover is not yet complete (though it is for the first readers of Ezekiel)…

 When any of the Israelites set up idols in their hearts and put a wicked stumbling block before their faces and then go to a prophet, I the Lord will answer them myself in keeping with their great idolatry. I will do this to recapture the hearts of the people of Israel, who have all deserted me for their idols.’ — Ezekiel 14:4-5

The heart reality, the ‘Babylonian captivity’, is going to become the real deal though.

“Therefore this is what the Sovereign Lord says: ‘Because you people have brought to mind your guilt by your open rebellion, revealing your sins in all that you do—because you have done this, you will be taken captive.

“‘You profane and wicked prince of Israel, whose day has come, whose time of punishment has reached its climax, this is what the Sovereign Lord says: Take off the turban, remove the crown. It will not be as it was: The lowly will be exalted and the exalted will be brought low. A ruin! A ruin! I will make it a ruin! The crown will not be restored until he to whom it rightfully belongs shall come; to him I will give it.’ — Ezekiel 21:24-27

Exile is a judgment from God on those whose hearts have already gone from him; those who are already captives. The end of this Babylonian exile, according to Ezekiel, is the restoration of the crown to a rightful king of Israel. That’s Jesus. This restoration would also include a restoration of the heart, and a return from exile.

 I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your impurities and from all your idols. I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws. Then you will live in the land I gave your ancestors; you will be my people, and I will be your God.” — Ezekiel 36:25-28

The first Babylonian captivity of the Church

The ‘Babylon’ of Revelation is, first, Rome. It’s the Babylon Israel are still enthralled by; to the extent that when Jesus came, they joined the Romans in executing him. Israel is still in exile, they don’t have new hearts, and they haven’t recognised God’s king. They’re part of this Babylonian kingdom. It’s a picture of a beastly kingdom that has set itself up in total opposition to the kingdom of God. The kingdom we see launched by the death and resurrection of King Jesus. It’s a kingdom whose values are both the opposite of Jesus’ values, and that are so totalising, coherent, and integrated, that once you let just one bit creep into your heart, it’s a trojan horse that lowers your ability to fight the rest. When John starts describing ‘Babylon’ in Revelation he paints this vivid picture of a powerful and beautiful woman who rides a beast, and seductively takes people away from God:

The woman was dressed in purple and scarlet, and was glittering with gold, precious stones and pearls. She held a golden cup in her hand, filled with abominable things and the filth of her adulteries. The name written on her forehead was a mystery:

Babylon the great

the mother of prostitutes

and of the abominations of the earth.

I saw that the woman was drunk with the blood of God’s holy people, the blood of those who bore testimony to Jesus. — Revelation 17:4-6

This isn’t some mystery where we need a decoder ring, or to get in touch with our inner Nostradamus…

“The woman you saw is the great city that rules over the kings of the earth.” — Revelation 17:18

For John, in his day, this is a description of Rome. Rome who loomed large as the totalising persecutor of Christians, but also as a compelling, integrated and coherent picture of civilisation; where order was kept and maintained and the seduction of beauty and power was never far away from the stick of its military. The carrot and stick of Rome were the threat to Christians aiming to maintain their distinction as citizens of heaven who bow the knee to Jesus, not Caesar, so we have a little exchange between governor Pliny and Emperor Trajan where Pliny is trying to figure out what to do with the Christians, and Trajan says “if they are denounced and proved guilty, they are to be punished, with this reservation, that whoever denies that he is a Christian and really proves it — that is, by worshiping our gods — even though he was under suspicion in the past, shall obtain pardon through repentance.” And this lure, which caught Israel, also threatens the church — when John opens Revelation by directly speaking to the churches who first read this apocalyptic (revealing) text; that showed the real lay of the land, he warns the churches ‘not to forsake their first love’, not to be lured by Jezebels and the promises of false worship, not to become ‘lukewarm’ because of their own economic might within the empire… people in the church are in danger of forsaking Jesus and ending up in judgment, in Babylon.Everyone is an exile — you’re just either exiled from God, or from the beastly Babylon. Whatever happens their lives are lived in the physical reality of Babylon. They’re not home. And they’re treated like exiles too, by the world. The church is facing persecution for not bending the knee to Caesar.

Escaping persecution was so simple. You just had to sign up, totally, to the empire. To give in to Rome; to the empire; to Babylon; was to become an abomination; to become “children of the mother of the abominations of the earth.” Now this is pretty strong language, and for a long time the church has got itself in a spot of bother by using versions of the Bible that seem to single out sexual sin as the only sort of ‘abomination’ and abomination as a particularly insidious different type of sin. All sin is fundamentally an abomination to God. Stuff we might give a hall pass to out there in the public square — like greed — but also stuff we’re thoroughly conscripted into and captivated by as Christians — like lust, gluttony, and, umm, greed.

An ‘abomination’ was something put in the place reserved for God — in the Temple, at the altar, but also, fundamentally, in our hearts. An abomination is anything you replace God with. It’s the thing that turns us, as it conscripts us and deforms our behaviours (and so the image we bear in the world), in such a way that we become more like Frankenstein than human. We become vaguely human, in terms of what God’s kingdom looks like. The whole Roman enterprise — though much of it looked beautiful, ordered, and admirable — was built on an abominable rejection of God as God and Jesus as king.

When the Maccabees revolted against the Seleucid Empire (a hellenic kingdom), they were motivated, in part, by that empire fulfilling what they thought were Daniel’s prophecies about the abomination that causes desolation. It was all about God’s temple, and the altar, and the purity of whole-hearted worship that Israel was able to offer to God. So 1 Maccabees describes this abominable moment:

Now on the fifteenth day of [the month] Chislev, in the one hundred forty-fifth year, they erected a desolating sacrilege on the altar of burnt offering. They also built altars in the surrounding towns of Judah — 1 Maccabees 1:54

This sacrilege is later described as an abomination.

… that they had torn down the abomination that he had erected on the altar in Jerusalem; and that they had surrounded the sanctuary with high walls as before, and also Beth-zur, his town. — 1 Maccabees 6:7 

The Romans, when they destroy Jerusalem in 70AD, build a temple to Jupiter on the site of the Temple. And some believe this is what the ultimate abomination Rome is going to carry out looks like. It’s abominable, no doubt.

But I think the ultimate abomination was what Rome — and ‘captive’ Israel — did to God’s ultimate temple. They executed him; utterly rejecting his rule; holding up a mirror to what the beastly kingdom looks like against the face of God’s king. The great irony is that this is where king Jesus is enthroned and his kingdom begins — the kingdom that would ultimately be the undoing of Roman rule and the downfall of the Caesars (if you take the long term view, and of course, the eternal view). We repeat the abomination that causes desolation whenever we put anything but God in the place of supremacy in our hearts — we were made to bear the image of God; to be walking ‘temples’ for whatever it is we worship (the things we love and serve).

The church’s job, according to Revelation, is to bear faithful witness in Babylon as people distinct from Babylon because we bend the knee to a different king — the king described in Revelation 1 who brings the kingdom described in Revelation 21-22, after Babylon is destroyed. In the meantime we’re to be faithful witnesses (see the letters to the churches at the start of Revelation), who call Babylon to repent; who speak truth to power; even to the point of sharing in Babylon’s treatment of our king. Or, as Revelation 11 puts it, when talking about the faithful ‘lampstands’ (which is what the churches are depicted at in the start of the book):

Now when they have finished their testimony, the beast that comes up from the Abyss will attack them, and overpower and kill them. Their bodies will lie in the public square of the great city—which is figuratively called Sodom and Egypt—where also their Lord was crucified. For three and a half days some from every people, tribe, language and nation will gaze on their bodies and refuse them burial. The inhabitants of the earth will gloat over them and will celebrate by sending each other gifts, because these two prophets had tormented those who live on the earth.

But after the three and a half days the breath of life from God entered them,and they stood on their feet, and terror struck those who saw them. Then they heard a loud voice from heaven saying to them, “Come up here.” And they went up to heaven in a cloud, while their enemies looked on. — Revelation 11:7-12

Avoiding ‘Babylonian Captivity’ in the early church

Avoiding Babylonian Captivity after Jesus is a matter of right worship; it’s a matter of being part of the return from exile promised in Ezekiel (and because we’re not Jews, most of us, a return from the exile where we’re humanity was kicked out of Eden). It’s a matter of participation in God’s kingdom, the church, following his king, Jesus, and having him rule our hearts via the Spirit; a removing of the ‘abomination’ of false gods that rule our hearts.

The point is — it’s not sexual sin per say that is the ‘abomination’ (it’s a form of it), it’s idolatry. It’s the participation in worship of things other than God, through undifferentiated participation in kingdoms that are not God’s. It’s captivity. And the thing about Babylon, ‘the mother of abominations’ is that it’s not just sex that captivates us and so makes us captive; it’s not just the ‘sexual revolution’ that aims to restrict our freedom… there’s politics (power), and economics (money), and philosophy/wisdom (education and a vision of the good life) in the mix too.

Early Christians, knowing what was at stake, were more William Wallace like in their ability to avoid this sort of captivity. They refused. They maintained a distinction that included sexual fidelity, and an approach to marriage that was counter cultural in the Roman world, but it included much more than this. Here’s a passage from a second century document called the Letter to Diognetus. It’s about how the Christians avoid being caught up in the trappings of Babylon.

Instead, they inhabit both Greek and barbarian cities, however things have fallen to each of them. And it is while following the customs of the natives in clothing, food, and the rest of ordinary life that they display to us their wonderful and admittedly striking way of life.

They live in their own countries, but they do so as those who are just passing through. As citizens they participate in everything with others, yet they endure everything as if they were foreigners. Every foreign land is like their homeland to them, and every land of their birth is like a land of strangers.

They marry, like everyone else, and they have children, but they do not destroy their offspring.

They share a common table, but not a common bed.

They exist in the flesh, but they do not live by the flesh. They pass their days on earth, but they are citizens of heaven. They obey the prescribed laws, all the while surpassing the laws by their lives.

They love all men and are persecuted by all. They are unknown and condemned. They are put to death and restored to life.

They are poor, yet make many rich. They lack everything, yet they overflow in everything.

They are dishonored, and yet in their very dishonor they are glorified; they are spoken ill of and yet are justified; they are reviled but bless; they are insulted and repay the insult with honor; they do good, yet are punished as evildoers; when punished, they rejoice as if raised from the dead.

The writer of this letter says some other stuff too, including this passage on the stupidity of the idolatry of ‘Babylon’ from earlier in the piece…

“Are they not all deaf? Are they not all blind? Are they not without life? Are they not destitute of feeling? Are they not incapable of motion? Are they not all liable to rot? Are they not all perishable?

You call these things gods! You serve them! You worship them! And you become exactly like them.

It’s for this reason you hate the Christians, because they do not consider these to be gods.”

This is what it looks like to really fight for freedom — to be poor and make many rich, to be lowly, dishonoured, without power, marginalised, but to bless, honour, and do good. To be sexually distinct, to share a common table, to be living a different story because we follow a different king.

Getting out of Babylon now (or getting Babylon out of the church)

I look at how we play politics as the church and feel like there’s not a huge amount of difference to how politics get played by other ‘religious’ groups. The politics of power, of zero sum games where it’s our way or nothing. The politics of picking the people who best represent our views, rather than the people most qualified for the job. We try to play politics with everyone else, we’re just not very good at it (bizarrely, perhaps, because other people have cottoned on quicker that we’re more shaped by our loves than by ‘knowing the facts’, and so they tell better stories).

I look at how I approach money, and career, and security, and experience, and toys, and I think that there’s not much difference in my approach to consuming and my pursuit of luxury, than anyone else in my life (except perhaps that I earn slightly less because of career choices, but this just means I crave slightly more in an unrequited way).

It’s not just about sexual difference, this Babylon thing — though that is important, and our marriages should be rich testimonies to the love of Jesus, and we should love and nurture our kids. And we should fight the temptation to sexual immorality and the corrupting of our imaginations by a ‘sexular society’… but there has to be much more than that in our kit bag.

If we want to be people who aren’t captives, people who live as though ‘every land is like a homeland’ and a ‘land of strangers’ we need to be people who are so caught up in the vision of a kingdom greater than Babylon and a sense of certainty that our future is greater than the present, and the past. That the picture of life in Revelation 21-22 doesn’t just surpass Babylon, or Rome, but Eden.

This will mean a totally different approach to politics that is not wedded to a sort of conservatism where we’re trying to restore paradise lost (and end up building Rome)but a progressivism that shoots for the kingdom of heaven — the kingdom we are citizens of even now.

This will mean, in some corners of the world, divorcing ourselves from worldly political establishments (and not shooting for a wedding with any particular political party here in Australia).

This will mean we don’t seek to be at the centre of the empire culturally, or politically, or economically — to be at the centre would require the ’empire’ being at the centre of our hearts — an ‘abomination’ and a form of captivity… like Spiritual Stockholm Syndrome. We won’t seek to be at the centre, but nor will we seek to be at the margins to the extent that we don’t participate in life with our neighbours. But we do need to be close enough to those at the margins to bless the people there, hear the people there, and be champions for the bringing about of change for the benefit of those Babylon treads on. Our distinctives on these fronts are to be prophetic and the noticeable and part of our appeal (think Daniel in Babylon).

This will mean listening to voices from the global church, from marginalised communities (from people who aren’t white blokes with multiple university degrees).

This will mean a totally different approach to economics. When John describes the downfall of Babylon he describes it with reference to its material prosperity — its luxury — and in terms of the downfall of a worldly economy built on the powerful controlling the goods of this world for their own benefit (and at the expense of other people — like those sold as slaves (Revelation 18:11-13) — and of the world itself which John says is “corrupted by her adulteries” (Revelation 19:2-3). The Babylon lost when God judges is not just built on sexual excess (though that is part of the picture), but on economic and political excess — a beastly and abominable approach to God’s world created by the worship of these things in the place of God. This sort of idol worship is totalising

This will mean a different approach to arts, and culture, and storytelling. The appeal of Babylon, in any form, rests in its counter-gospel and the way its gods are dressed up as appealing counterfeits to the real God. It’s no coincidence that even the word Gospel is ‘Babylonian’ (in the Roman sense); the proclamation of the marvellous victories of king Caesar. We need to be people who proclaim a different king in ways that call people to worship the one who ends our exile from God; the one who brings us out of captivity.

This will mean a different approach to personhood, discipleship, and education, that doesn’t see us just as solitary brains to be educated towards sanctification, but worshippers whose worship is cultivated in the ‘heart’, by practices, by stories, and in community where we follow our king by imitating him together, and show and reinforce our distinctive ‘story’ together.

This will mean a different approach to being the church. One that is not defensive or inwards looking, but that cultivates hearts that in looking to the king, and his way of life, joyfully and hopefully look to the lost sheep in our world; those crushed by worldly kingdoms, and offer them good news. Our practices and disciplines and the rhythms of our life together should, like the church from the Letter to Diognetus, be aimed at ‘making many rich’…  There are plenty of people at the margins of our society where the gospels of our ‘Babylons’ are exclusionary. Get an education; get a job; buy a house; collect experiences; be ‘free’… there are people for whom this vision of the good life is a millstone pulling them into depths of despair, not a picture of freedom at all. These are the people the freedom of the Gospel is for, and yet we spend our time hand wringing because the ‘elites’ don’t like us.

Babylon is a totalising system that aims for all of us — our desires, imaginations, beliefs, belonging, and actions… much as the Kingdom of God is a totalising system in a totally counter-Babylon, counter-Rome, way. These are where some of my misgivings about Christendom as an enterprise historically are located… we like to think the church civilised the barbarian empire… and in many ways we did… but we’re not so aware of the ways that this also allowed the empire to barbarianise the Church… and this was part of what Luther was getting at, in the Reformation he launched of the ‘Roman Church’ in a text like The Babylonian Captivity of the Church. This is the scale of the challenges we’re facing as the church now, and it might not be the Benedict Option that gets us to where we need to be, but we don’t really have the option of not changing if we’re already captivated by the trinkets and baubles of Babylon and just waiting for the last little bit of resistance to crumble while we fight for ‘religious freedom’… we need to fight for religious freedom, certainly, but more than that we need to fight to be free from abominable religions that pull our hearts from God.

When Luther described his task of pulling the church out of what he perceived to be a Babylonian captivity, he recognised how hard this would be because the captivity was so entrenched by the traditions of the church…

“I am entering on an arduous task, and it may perhaps be impossible to uproot an abuse which, strengthened by the practice of so many ages, and approved by universal consent, has fixed itself so firmly among us, that the greater part of the books which have influence at the present day must needs be done away with, and almost the entire aspect of the churches be changed, and a totally different kind of ceremonies be brought in, or rather, brought back. But my Christ lives, and we must take heed to the word of God with greater care, than to all the intellects of men and angels. I will perform my part, will bring forth the subject into the light, and will impart the truth freely and ungrudgingly as I have received it.” — Martin Luther, The Babylonian Captivity of the Church

Like many things, Luther saw the corruption of the way church was happening — removed from truths of the Gospel — as the work of Satan, work achieved through idolatry (any worship without Jesus); he says where we lose our centre — faith in Christ — we end up in judgment,  “removed from our own land, as into bondage at Babylon, and all that was dear to us has been taken from us.”

In this our misery Satan so works among us that, while he has left nothing of the mass to the Church, he yet takes care that every corner of the earth shall be full of masses, that is, of abuses and mockeries of the testament of God; and that the world shall be more and more heavily loaded with the gravest sins of idolatry, to increase its greater damnation. For what more grievous sin of idolatry can there be, than to abuse the promises of God by our perverse notions, and either neglect or extinguish all faith in them. — Martin Luther, The Babylonian Captivity of the Church

We need to be prepared to change; we, the church, need to acknowledge where we are captives, and we need to be prepared to reform. It’s a big deal, and it’s about much more than what goes on in our bedrooms.

“But you will say: “What? will you ever overthrow the practices and opinions which, for so many centuries, have rooted themselves in all the churches and monasteries; and all that superstructure of anniversaries, suffrages, applications, and communications, which they have established upon the mass, and from which they have drawn the amplest revenues?” I reply: It is this which has compelled me to write concerning the bondage of the Church. For the venerable testament of God has been brought into a profane servitude to gain, through the opinions and traditions of impious men, who have passed over the Word of God, and have set before us the imaginations of their own hearts, and thus have led the world astray. What have I to do with the number or the greatness of those who are in error?”

Reading the Bible (and life) as the story of God ‘re-creating’ and ‘re-vivifying’ broken images of God: Part 1 — By the rivers of Babylon

In which, over a two part epic, I quote significant chunks of Babylonian religious propaganda to make the case that we should understand being made in the ‘image of God’ as a call to play a part in representing God in his world, while our idolatrous hearts keep leading us to play that part for idols.

This post is fairly epic in size, but the good news is, I’ve split it in two. Ok. So here’s a fun way to read the Bible, in sum, think of this as the TL:DR; version of what follows:

  1. The Bible is the story of God giving life to his image bearers — making living images or idols to represent himself — and then restoring life to those images when they stop serving that function. Part of this restoration involves the image being ‘revivified’ — given life, breath, and a function — near or through water. This vivification, or revivification, happens through a ritual ceremony that was a ceremony used throughout the ancient world to give and restore life to broken idol statues.
  2. God’s people are meant to function for him the way idol statues function for the other gods of the ancient world — to represent the presence of his kingdom, to, in a sense, manifest his rule and give legitimacy to it.
  3. The flip side of this reading is that the stuff in the Bible about not making idols to represent God is actually a pointer to the truth that only the living God can make representatives of himself, that share his qualities, because all things that are made by makers reflect their maker. The problem with the gods of the nations — gods of stone, shaped from the human imagination but based on things that God made — is that its an overturning of the created order, in which it is God who makes images (humans), not humans who make gods.

God creates his images (and gives them breath and a purpose, near water)

Creation as ‘giving something a function’…

Old Testament scholar John Walton has written a bunch of stuff about how the Genesis creation account relates to its ancient near eastern context. One really important point he makes is that we, as modern readers, bring modern concerns to the text as well as modern notions of what it means ‘to be’ (a modern ontology). We think ‘being’ is meaningfully tied to questions of what substance a thing is made of, our ontology is material. This wasn’t the case in the ancient world, nor, (just to give you a sense of how this question plays out significantly in different times, while we might take our modern thinking for granted) for some time after that. The Greeks, for example, as described in Plato, saw being as a thing reflecting some perfect infinite form, and a thing’s ‘being’ was measured, in some way, against this ideal. The significance of this, in the Greek world, was that people often separated a thing’s physicality from its ‘ideal form’ — prioritising the ‘spiritual’ over the physical. This question matters more than we think it might. In the world the Bible came from, existence was tied not to its material essence, or a thing’s ‘ideal form’, but to the function it was given within a system of functioning things. The ancient world had what Walton calls a ‘functional ontology’… Here’s a quote where he explains what this means:

“WHAT DOES IT MEAN FOR SOMETHING to exist? It might seem like an odd question with perhaps an obvious answer, but it is not as simple as it may seem. For example, when we say that a chair exists, we are expressing a conclusion on the basis of an assumption that certain properties of the chair define it as existing. Without getting bogged down in philosophy, in our contemporary ways of thinking, a chair exists because it is material. We can detect it with our senses (particularly sight and touch). The question of existence and the previous examples introduce a concept that philosophers refer to as “ontology.” Most people do not use the word ontology on a regular basis, and so it can be confusing, but the concept it expresses is relatively simple. The ontology of X is what it means for X to exist… When we speak of cosmic ontology these days, it can be seen that our culture views existence, and therefore meaning, in material terms… Since in our culture we believe that existence is material, we consequently believe that to create something means to bring its material properties into existence. Thus our discussions of origins tend to focus on material origins.

If we are going to understand a creation account from the ancient world we must understand what they meant by “creation,” and to do that we must consider their cosmic ontology instead of supplying our own. What did it mean to someone in the ancient world to say that the world existed?

People in the ancient world believed that something existed not by virtue of its material properties, but by virtue of its having a function in an ordered system. Here I do not refer to an ordered system in scientific terms, but an ordered system in human terms, that is, in relation to society and culture… In this sort of functional ontology, the sun does not exist by virtue of its material properties, or even by its function as a burning ball of gas. Rather it exists by virtue of the role that it has in its sphere of existence, particularly in the way that it functions for humankind and human society… In a functional ontology, to bring something into existence would require giving it a function or a role in an ordered system, rather than giving it material properties… Unless people (or gods) are there to benefit from functions, existence is not achieved. Unless something is integrated into a working, ordered system, it does not exist… Consequently, the actual creative act is to assign something its functioning role in the ordered system. That is what brings it into existence.” — John Walton, The Lost World of Genesis One: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate

Walton obviously takes a position on how this affects the way we read the nature of ‘creation’ in Genesis 1, but that’s a red herring in this discussion. His observation is borne out through a study of the sort of things ‘created’ and what is said of them throughout the Bible (it’s always linked to function, rather than form), and also in texts apart from the Bible — other creation accounts, and other stories about people ‘creating’ things in the Ancient world. I think its fair to say this ‘ontology’ is not disputed, and you might have to take it to whatever conclusions are necessary when it comes to how to read the Genesis accounts as they relate to our ‘material ontology’ and the questions we might want Genesis to answer. I’m going to go in a very different direction though, and specifically consider the questions this creates for us when Genesis talks about us. Humans. Where we’re made in God’s ‘image’ and likeness. I think the likeness part captures a sense that we share some qualities of God in how we operate in the world, we reflect him, but the ‘image’ part is also functional and is tied to us representing him.

I’m suggesting that to be made in God’s image in the sense in which Genesis (and the rest of the Bible talks about it), is not just to be something, but also to do something. And that something is caught up with the idea that we are the living, speaking, God’s living, speaking, statues, in the same way that dead and dumb statues represented dead and dumb gods.

The Hebrew word for image selem is often translated as idol, both later in the Old Testament (rarely, because there are a few different words used), and elsewhere in the ancient near east (frequently, like, this is a very common word for how the nations describe their statues), it does come up a few times like:

Speak to the sons of Israel and say to them, ‘When you cross over the Jordan into the land of Canaan, then you shall drive out all the inhabitants of the land from before you, and destroy all their figured stones, and destroy all their molten images and demolish all their high places; and you shall take possession of the land and live in it, for I have given the land to you to possess it. — Numbers 33:51-53

“You also took the fine jewellery I gave you, the jewellery made of my gold and silver, and you made for yourself male idols and engaged in prostitution with them.” — Ezekiel 16:17

The verbs used for God’s creation of humanity in Genesis 1 and 2 are later used when talking about the forming of idols, or to refer back to God’s creation of humankind.

There’s a consensus emerging amongst a stream of good Bible scholars — people who believe the Bible is God’s word, and is about Jesus — that Genesis 1-2 should be read as the story of God creating his cosmic temple, a place for him to dwell, and rest, and be worshipped. I don’t think this is controversial. This is the ‘ordered system’ then that we are placed in and given the function we’re given as ‘images’… The word for ‘image’ in Hebrew, selem, has an ancient near eastern link to the word used elsewhere for idol statue, salmu. We’ve added vowel sounds to Hebrew, which was traditionally just written as consonants, so slm. 

There are some steps to notice in what happens as God makes an image of himself in Genesis 2.

  1. Formed and fashioned, near water (and symbolically, in a sense, moved through water, it’s interesting that God places the man in the garden twice, once before the mention of the water, and once after) (Genesis 2:6, 8, 10-15)
  2. Inspired, or given ‘breath’ so that it the image is vivified. It is to be thought of as a living representation of the God whose image it bears. (Genesis 2:7)
  3. Declared fit for purpose within a system, and via connection to God. (Genesis 1:26-31)
  4. Placed (or enthroned) in the Temple/garden sanctuary and given a job within the Temple. (Genesis 2:8-9, 15
  5. The images are provided for with food and drink. (Genesis 2:16-17)
  6. The image fulfills a function in representing the God behind the image (Genesis 2:19-20)

These steps are pretty much a summary of the steps required for people to create images of God in the ancient world. The sequencing is interesting here because 3 actually happens in Genesis 1, and then Genesis 2 zooms in to sequentially cover 1-2 and 4-5. Genesis 1 also supplies the sense in which 5 happens. God creates and rules by speaking good things (and a good system) into being. God creates humans to rule over the things he has made — especially the other living things — as his images. And in Genesis 2, Adam ‘names the animals’ by speaking their names into being, and thus rules them — in the Ancient Near East, to name something was to express your authority over it.

Humans are meant to serve as God’s images in his temple — his living breathing representatives.

The creation, and re-creation, of images of God in the ancient world

The notion of ‘images of God’ in the ancient world, outside the Bible, was linked to the role the king of an ancient nation would play in being the representative of that nation’s god as both priest and king of the nation’s cult. Here are some things written about a couple of kings. The image of the king, and the image of the nation’s god were so closely tied that the king of a successful nation almost always became God.

“He [the king] alone is the image of Enlil, attentive to the voice of the people, to the counsel of the land.” — EPIC OF TUKULTI-NINURTA

 

“The King’s image, made brilliant like the heavenly stars, was set up before the eyes of the God Enlil”  — A HYMN DEDICATED TO SULGI OF UR

 

He created his royal image with a likeness of his own countenance and placed it before the God Ninurta.”— INSCRIPTION DESCRIBING ASSURNASIRPAL, KING OF ASSYRIA

Some of the words in this bit are going to seem foreign — because they are. Not just foreign, but ancient. Just let those bits wash over you, but as you read (if you read the chunks of quotes from inscriptions) try to notice the similarities, and the differences, to how the Bible describes the making of an image of God. The Genesis account comes from a world much closer to these tablets than to our modern world. What’s really striking, I think, is how much the conclusion from the first section, and those steps present in making an image of God (and supplying a function), is supported in the ancient world — and what sort of comparison is struck between the Bible’s story of God’s creation of humanity, and the ancient, human, stories of how people were to make images of God. Those same 6 steps are there, with a couple of key subversions, in an ancient Babylonian ritual called Mîs-pî, where images are created, given the job of representing the god(s) who made the universe, and enthroned. Here’s the text of the ritual. There’s heaps of stuff here that sounds like it could be said about the God of the Bible, what’s interesting is what changes if you remember that this is a person speaking to the gods, about the creation of an image of a god. An image that is a statue where they need to create a sort of cognitive dissonance because the statue does not breathe or move, which brings into question just how powerful these gods are. The king/image-creator would say (the times ‘statue’ appears from here on in are ‘salmu’):

Ea, Ṧamaš, and Asalluḫi, the great gods, who judge the heavens and the earth, who determine the destinies, who fix decisions, who make sanctuaries great, who set the foundations of the throne daises, who lay out the plan, who outline the ordinances, who apportion the lots, who watch over sanctuaries, who keep the rites pure, who creates the rites of purification, it is in your hands to determine fates, to draw plans, you alone establish the fate of life, you alone draw the plans of life, you alone make the decisions of life, you inspect all the throne daises of god and goddess, you alone are the great gods who direct, the decisions of the heavens and earth, of springs and seas, your utterance is life, your pronouncement is well-being, the work of your mouth is life itself,  you alone bestride the farthest heavens, you dispel evil (and) establish the good, you loosen the evil portents and signs, disturbing and bad dreams, who cut through the cord of evil. I am the chief exorcist who <knows> the pure rites of Eridu, I have poured out water; I have cleansed the ground for you;  I have set up pure thrones for your sitting; I have dedicated clean red garments for you; I have set up the pure offering arrangements for you; I poured out for you a pure libation; I set up for you an adakurru-bowl with našpu-beer.

I libated for you wine and best beer. Because the completion of the rites of the great gods and the direction of the plan of the purification rite rest with you, on this day be present: for this statue which stands before you ceremoniously grant him the destiny that his mouth may eat, that his ears might hear. May the god become pure like heaven, clean like the earth, bright like the center of heaven. May the evil tongue stand aside! — Mîs-pî Ritual Tablet

After this had been recited, the king would “set up a libation for the gods Kusu, Ningirima, Ninkura, Ninagal, Kusigbanda, Ninildu, Ninzadim,” and ritually carry some incense and a torch past the image of these gods that had already been created. Then, the king would approach the new image that was being given life (vivified).

“You purify him with the egubbû-basin and (then) perform the Mīs Pî ritual, you set up a libation and the āšipu-priest stands to the left of that god. You recite three times the incantation “When the god was made” — Mîs-pî Ritual Tablet

The words of this incantation make it clear, or attempt to, that these statues are the products of all these other gods. Ignore all the funny types of Babylonian stone, and notice where those names of the gods mentioned above come up. And their ‘involvement’ as makers, but the key bits that are bolded. This is an exercise in overcoming the knowledge that these images are crafted by people, and can’t actually do what they symbolise.

“When the god was fashioned, the pure statue completed, and the god appeared in all the lands, then bearing an awe-inspiring radiance totally suited to rule with perfect strength; surrounded on all sides with splendour, endowed with a sparkling-pure appearance, he appears magnificently, the statue shines brilliantly; in the heavens, it was crafted; on earth, it was crafted. This statue was crafted in the entire heavens and earth… this statue grew up in the forest (of) Tir-ḫašur (ḫašur-cedar); this statue went out from a mountain, the pure place; the statue is the product of gods and humans; the statue (has) eyes that Ninkura has made; the statue (has) … that Ninagal has made; the statue (has) features that Ninzadim has made; the statue is of gold and silver that Kusibanda has made; [the statue ] that Ninildu has made; [the statue ] that Ninzadim has made; this statue of ḫulālu-stone, ḫulāl īni-stone, muššaru-stone, pappardillû-stone, pappardildillû-stone, ḫulālu parrû elmešu, by the skill of the gurgurru-craftsman, this statue that Ninkura, Ninagal, Kusibanda, Ninildu, Ninzadim have made,  this statue cannot smell incense without the ‘Opening of the Mouth’ ceremony. It cannot eat food nor drink water…” — Mîs-pî Ritual Tablet

These eyes can’t see. These features can’t do what they represent — see, or smell, or hear. These gods are made of gold and silver. These gods are statues. They are made by craftsmen, not gods. And here’s the ritual that ‘opens’ its mouth, that gives it life and breath and the ability to manifest the presence of the god it represents.

Water of the Apsû, brought from the midst of Eridu, water of the Tigris, water of the Euphrates, brought from a pure place: tamarisk, soapwort, heart of palm, šalālu-reed, multi-colored marsh reed, seven small palms, juniper, (and) white cedar throw into it; in the garden of the canal of the pure orchard build a bīt rimki. Bring him out to the canal of the pure orchard, to the bīt rimki. Bring out this statue before Shamash. Put again at their place the adze that was driven (into the wood), the chisel that carved it, the saw that cut it, and the master craftsmen who prepared it. With a scarf bind their hands; with a tamarisk knife cut off the fists of the stoneworkers who touched him. This is the statue that Ninkura, Ninagal, Kusibanda, Ninildu, (and) Ninzadim made. Kusu, the chief purification priest of Enlil, has purified it with a holy-water-basin, censer, and torch with his pure hands. Asalluḫi, the son of Eridu, made it resplendent. The apkallu and the abriqqu-priest of Eridu have opened your mouth twice seven times with syrup, ghee, cedar, (and) cypress.

May this god become pure like heaven, clean like the earth, bright like the center of heaven. May the evil tongue stand aside.” — Mîs-pî Ritual Tablet

The ceremonial ‘cutting off the hands’ of the stoneworkers to ritually deny human involvement fascinates me. The whole process to this point has been so very human. The king has been in the driving seat both in terms of speaking life into the god, via the incantations, and in terms of organising the design and creation of the god. This human involvement is clear from the number of “I did X” statements. It’s a very human process and this little ritual shows how much the idol maker must operate with a weird doublethink, the “I made this, it is my god” thing that Isaiah nails when he talks about how idol makers cook their food over half a lump of burning wood, and worship the other half. I say ‘ceremonial’ because tthe knife is wooden so I don’t think they actually chopped the hands off. After this ritual the statue is ‘commissioned’ by this prayer, and then carried to its temple.

“In the ear of this god you shall say the following: “Among your brothers you are counted,” you shall whisper into his left ear. “From this day let your fate be counted as divinity; among your brother gods may you be counted; draw near to the king who restored you; approach your temple…. To the land where you were created be reconciled.” — Mîs-pî Ritual Tablet

Notice the water mentioned at the start, is ‘water of the Apsû,’ the Apsû is the divine source of water in the ancient near east so this is ‘divine water’ from the mids of the god Eridu, which is said to come from two rivers. This water is brought into the place where this ritual happens, a ritual that happens in a garden-canal area in a ‘pure orchard,’ you may have identified all six of those elements of the Genesis creation narrative I mentioned above too, but check this out.

A river watering the garden flowed from Eden; from there it was separated into four headwaters. The name of the first is the Pishon; it winds through the entire land of Havilah, where there is gold. (The gold of that land is good; aromatic resin and onyx are also there.) The name of the second river is the Gihon; it winds through the entire land of Cush. The name of the third river is the Tigris; it runs along the east side of Ashur. And the fourth river is the EuphratesThe Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it.” — Genesis 2:10-15

This, then the subsequent creation of Eve, is how God places his images in his Garden/sanctuary/temple. To ‘work it and take care of it’ — and, for bonus points, the two verbs translated as ‘work it and take care of it’ are later used, and only ever used in this pairing, or construction, as describing the role of the priests in God’s temple. It’s also interesting that when God essentially ‘re-creates’ humanity, his images, a few chapters later through Noah, his family, and the waters of the flood, much of the same process repeats.

But God remembered Noah and all the wild animals and the livestock that were with him in the ark, and he sent a wind over the earth, and the waters receded. Now the springs of the deep and the floodgates of the heavens had been closed, and the rain had stopped falling from the sky. The water receded steadily from the earth. At the end of the hundred and fifty days the water had gone down, and on the seventeenth day of the seventh month the ark came to rest on the mountains of Ararat… Then God said to Noah, “Come out of the ark, you and your wife and your sons and their wives. Bring out every kind of living creature that is with you—the birds, the animals, and all the creatures that move along the ground—so they can multiply on the earth and be fruitful and increase in number on it. So Noah came out, together with his sons and his wife and his sons’ wives. All the animals and all the creatures that move along the ground and all the birds—everything that moves on land—came out of the ark, one kind after another.  Then Noah built an altar to the Lord and, taking some of all the clean animals and cleanbirds, he sacrificed burnt offerings on it.” — Genesis 8:1-3, 16-20

Then God blessed Noah and his sons, saying to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number and fill the earth. The fear and dread of you will fall on all the beasts of the earth, and on all the birds in the sky, on every creature that moves along the ground, and on all the fish in the sea; they are given into your hands. Everything that lives and moves about will be food for you. Just as I gave you the green plants, I now give you everything. — Genesis 9:1-3

Here, God re-creates humanity in his image. We see God:

  1. Forming a new people for himself through water (6:1-8:4),
  2. Placing them where the ark — his vessel for salvation — lands on a mountain (8:4, 16),
  3. Giving them a function in this cosmic system — he gives Noah and his family the job he gave his image bearers in Genesis 1 (8:17, 9:1)
  4. Providing food for them (9:3).

And we see Noah and his family ‘representing God’ — even if temporarily, as he builds an altar/sanctuary (8:20), and then as he, ‘a man of the soil,’ gardens, like Adam did (9:20).

There are also plenty of connections here to the later creation of Israel, through the waters of the red sea and the Exodus, to be placed in the Promised Land with it pictured as a rich, fruitful land marked by flowing water… When God speaks of his creation of Israel he talks in terms of creating a nation of priests, he does that through the waters of the exodus, and he moves them from Egypt to the Promised land (where, as they’re about to enter the land, he makes it very clear they’re not to follow any sorts of images given life by empty man-conducted rituals.

Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession. Although the whole earth is mine, you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’ These are the words you are to speak to the Israelites.” — Exodus 19:5-6

Note the similarities here to the things humanity was meant to rule, and read it remembering who humans are meant to be.

You saw no form of any kind the day the Lord spoke to you at Horeb out of the fire. Therefore watch yourselves very carefully, so that you do not become corrupt and make for yourselves an idol, an image of any shape, whether formed like a man or a woman, or like any animal on earth or any bird that flies in the air, or like any creature that moves along the ground or any fish in the waters below. And when you look up to the sky and see the sun, the moon and the stars—all the heavenly array—do not be enticedinto bowing down to them and worshiping things the Lord your God has apportioned to all the nations under heaven. But as for you, the Lord took you and brought you out of the iron-smelting furnace, out of Egypt, to be the people of his inheritance, as you now are.

The Lord was angry with me because of you, and he solemnly swore that I would not cross the Jordan and enter the good land the Lord your God is giving you as your inheritance. I will die in this land; I will not cross the Jordan; but you are about to cross over and take possession of that good land. Be careful not to forget the covenant of the Lord your God that he made with you; do not make for yourselves an idol in the form of anything the Lord your God has forbidden. For the Lord your God is a consuming fire, a jealous God. — Deuteronomy 4:15-24

Just as Israel is about to be placed, like a divine image, in the promised land — a new Eden — there’s this reminder of who they’re to be, and a warning that if they do turn away from God, they’ll end up captured and taken into exile — God’s images removed from this temple — where they’ll worship ‘man-made gods of wood and stone, which cannot see or hear or eat or smell’ (Deut 4:25-28).

Images broken by exile, restored through waters

Ok. Here’s an extra fun part. When an image — as in the statue in a temple — was captured by an enemy army and taken into exile it lost its power. The God behind it was emptied, the statue was de-vivified. When nations went against nation they went after the idol statues in their temples. Statues functioned a bit like a flag in a game of capture the flag, if a nation held another nation’s statue of their god it was meant to show how little power the nation and its king had, and the king couldn’t exactly say ‘hey that statue is a fraud’ because the statue guaranteed the king’s own power — oh, yeah, the story of the capture of the Ark of the Covenant and its little power struggle with Dagon in 1 Samuel 5 is a fun example of this. If ever a nation captured back its statue, or if the winning nation wanted to take the power and prestige of the god behind the statue as a means to control the captured nation then the statue had to be re-vivified using a pretty similar ceremony, essentially following those same steps (this is fun background to read when we see foreign kings allowing Israel to restore the temple or practice their religion during exile).

There was a king of Assyria, Esarhaddon (he gets a mention in the Bible, in 2 Kings 19), who, famously restored the idols he’d captured in one of his conquests. I say ‘famously’ because Esarhaddon had his restoration of the Babylonian gods he (and his family) had captured inscribed in stone to shore up his own personal claims to divinity. Here are some bits of what he says in the inscription. In this you get a picture of the role the king played when it came to setting up an image of god, and the kind of kudos that came with it. The TL:DR; version, if you want to skip this quote, is that the king claimed divine right to create gods, found the craftsmen to do it, then decorated the image with gold and jewels to make them ‘more radiant than before,’ before conducting the same ceremony conducted to give them life in the beginning.

“When in the reign of an earlier king there were ill omens, the city offended its gods and was destroyed at their command. It was me, Esarhaddon, whom they chose to restore everything to its rightful place, to calm their anger, to assuage their wrath. You, Marduk, entrusted the protection of the land of Assur to me. The Gods of Babylon meanwhile told me to rebuild their shrines and renew the proper religious observances of their palace, Esagila. I called up all my workmen and conscripted all the people of Babylonia. I set them to work, digging up the ground and carrying the earth away in baskets… When in heaven and on earth signs favourable for the renewal of the statue of the gods occurred, then I, Esarhaddon, king of the universe, king of the Land of Ashur, the apple of Ashur’s eye, the beloved of the great gods, with the great intelligence and vast understanding, which the great Nudimmud, the wise man of the gods, bestowed on me, with the wisdom which Ashur and Marduk entrusted to me when they made me aware of the renewal of the the statue of the great gods, with lifting of hands, prayers, and supplication, I prayed to the divinities Ashur, king of the gods and to the great Lord Marduk: “Whose right is it, O great gods, to create gods and goddesses in a place where man dare not trespass? This task of refurbishing the statues, which you have constantly been allotting to me by oracle, is difficult! Is it the right of death and blind human beings who are ignorant of themselves and remain in ignorance throughout their lives? The making of images of the gods and goddesses is your right, it is in your hands, so I beseech you, create the gods, and in your exalted holy of holies may what you yourselves have in your heart be brought about in accordance with your unalterable word. Endow the skilled craftsmen whom you ordered to complete this task with as high an understanding as Ea, their creator. Teach them skills by your exalted word; make all their handiwork succeed through the craft of Ninshiku… When in the reign of an earlier king there were ill omens, the city offended its gods and was destroyed at their command. It was me, Esarhaddon, whom they chose to restore everything to its rightful place, to calm their anger, to assuage their wrath. You, Marduk, entrusted the protection of the land of Assur to me. The Gods of Babylon meanwhile told me to rebuild their shrines and renew the proper religious observances of their palace, Esagila. I called up all my workmen and conscripted all the people of Babylonia. I set them to work, digging up the ground and carrying the earth away in baskets… With red gold, the product of Arallu, ore from the mountains, I decorated their images. With splendid ornaments and precious jewelry I adorned their necks and filled their breasts, exactly as the great lord Marduk wanted and as pleased queen Sarpanitu. They the artisans made the statues of their great divinity even more artistic than before. They made them extremely beautiful and they provided them with an awe-inspiring force, and they made them shine like the sun… I, Esarhaddon, led the great god in procession. I processed with joy before him. I brought him joyfully into the heart of Babylon, the city of their honour. Into the orchards, among the canals and parterres of the temple E-kar-zaginna, the pure place, they entered by means of the office of the apkallu, mouth washing, mouth opening, washing and purification, before the stars of heaven, before Ea, Samas, Asalluhi, Belit-ili, Kusu, Ninigirim, Ninkurra, Ninagal, Kusibanda, Ninildu, and Ninzadim.” — Esarhaddon Inscription

It’s a bunch of foreign ‘super-powers’ like Esarhaddon who cart Israel off into exile, and gods like those he decorates in jewellery that Israel are so enamoured by, who so capture their hearts, to their peril. Not only are the Israelites taken into exile, as a result of worshipping stone idols dressed in fancy stones, they are ‘de-vivified’ — they lose the essence of their life as they lose connection with the life giver. They need restoration. Isaiah nails the ‘man made’ nature of the nation’s gods, and their destructive capacity, so too Psalm 115. Their idolatry leaves them exiled, and with hearts of stone. No longer living images of the living god in his temple, but dying images of dead gods captured by the foreign kings.

Here’s the thing — to bring this all home to 21st century you and me — we are all Esarhaddons. We don’t have ‘kings’ and ‘national cults’, but we all build pretty idols and become ensnared by them. Our hearts are led astray. We think we’re super impressive, we make life all about us, and our idols, though they don’t speak, are the things we look to, apart from God, for a sense of self worth or a picture of success. They guarantee our self-rule. Only. They destroy us. Because they take us away from God. That tendency you have to put yourself at the centre of the universe, the ‘Lord,’ as David Foster Wallace puts it, ruling your own skull shaped kingdom, that is going to kill you.

Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And an outstanding reason for choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship – be it JC or Allah, be it Yahweh or the Wiccan mother-goddess or the Four Noble Truths or some infrangible set of ethical principles – is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive… The insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they’re evil or sinful; it is that they are unconscious. They are default settings. They’re the kind of worship you just gradually slip into, day after day, getting more and more selective about what you see and how you measure value without ever being fully aware that that’s what you’re doing. And the world will not discourage you from operating on your default settings, because the world of men and money and power hums along quite nicely on the fuel of fear and contempt and frustration and craving and the worship of self. Our own present culture has harnessed these forces in ways that have yielded extraordinary wealth and comfort and personal freedom. The freedom to be lords of our own tiny skull-sized kingdoms, alone at the centre of all creation.”

David Foster Wallace is right about the destructive power of worship, but wrong that there is anything other than God the creator who won’t ‘eat you alive’ — there’s only one right option. And the worship of self, which provides this apparent freedom, actually enslaves. We become what we behold. We cut ourselves off from the voice that set creation into being, and that’s why, to pinch another phrase from that famous DFW speech, we have that sense of having had, and lost, some infinite thing. We are, as a result of our worship of things other than God, in exile from God. De-vivified. In need of new breath. In need of re-imaging so we might re-imagine life as God’s people, his images, again. So that we might speak, and taste, and see, and smell, the world the way we were made to, not the way our senses are dulled as we pursue hollow gods.

Israel’s situation, in exile, is dire. They are images waiting to be restored. That Psalm made famous by Bony M, which, somewhat poetically, pictures those waters the Babylonians believe brought life to their statues, picture Israel losing their lives, and their identity and their ability to speak, or sing, as they were meant to — as God’s representatives.

By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept
    when we remembered Zion.
There on the poplars
    we hung our harps,
for there our captors asked us for songs,
    our tormentors demanded songs of joy;
    they said, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”

How can we sing the songs of the Lord
    while in a foreign land?
If I forget you, Jerusalem,
    may my right hand forget its skill.
May my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth
    if I do not remember you,
if I do not consider Jerusalem
    my highest joy. — Psalm 137:1-6

The hope expressed by the prophets, especially Ezekiel, is that life will be restored to God’s people, that they’ll function as his images again. Re-vivified (given life and breath), re-commissioned, and replaced in his temple, through water, with God providing them with food. See how many of the six elements of Genesis 2 you can spot here.

“For I will take you out of the nations; I will gather you from all the countries and bring you back into your own land. I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your impurities and from all your idols. I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws. Then you will live in the land I gave your ancestors; you will be my people, and I will be your God. I will save you from all your uncleanness. I will call for the grain and make it plentiful and will not bring famine upon you. I will increase the fruit of the trees and the crops of the field, so that you will no longer suffer disgrace among the nations because of famine.” — Ezekiel 36:24-30

Or, in chapter 37…

Then he said to me: “Son of man, these bones are the people of Israel. They say, ‘Our bones are dried up and our hope is gone; we are cut off.’ Therefore prophesy and say to them: ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says: My people, I am going to open your graves and bring you up from them; I will bring you back to the land of Israel. Then you, my people, will know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves and bring you up from them. I will put my Spirit in you and you will live, and I will settle you in your own land. Then you will know that I the Lord have spoken, and I have done it, declares the Lord.’”… I will take the Israelites out of the nations where they have gone. I will gather them from all around and bring them back into their own land. I will make them one nation in the land, on the mountains of Israel. There will be one king over all of them and they will never again be two nations or be divided into two kingdoms. They will no longer defile themselves with their idols and vile images or with any of their offenses, for I will save them from all their sinful backsliding, and I will cleanse them. They will be my people, and I will be their God. My servant David will be king over them, and they will all have one shepherd. They will follow my laws and be careful to keep my decrees. They will live in the land I gave to my servant Jacob, the land where your ancestors lived. They and their children and their children’s children will live there forever, and David my servant will be their prince forever. I will make a covenant of peace with them; it will be an everlasting covenant. I will establish them and increase their numbers, and I will put my sanctuary among them forever. My dwelling place will be with them; I will be their God, and they will be my people. Then the nations will know that I the Lord make Israel holy, when my sanctuary is among them forever.’” — Ezekiel 37:11-14, 21-28

 

Where and how this restoration happens is part 2.