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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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)
- 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)
- Declared fit for purpose within a system, and via connection to God. (Genesis 1:26-31)
- Placed (or enthroned) in the Temple/garden sanctuary and given a job within the Temple. (Genesis 2:8-9, 15
- The images are provided for with food and drink. (Genesis 2:16-17)
- 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 Euphrates. The 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. 2 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. 3 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:
- Forming a new people for himself through water (6:1-8:4),
- Placing them where the ark — his vessel for salvation — lands on a mountain (8:4, 16),
- 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)
- 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.