John Calvin famously said:
“From this we may gather that man’s nature, so to speak, is a perpetual factory of idols…Man’s mind, full as it is of pride and boldness, dares to imagine a god according to its own capacity; as it sluggishly plods, indeed is overwhelmed with the crassest ignorance, it conceives an unreality and an empty appearance as God.” – Institutes, 1.11.8
Idolatry plagued the story of Israel just as it has at times plagued the story of the Church. In Israel’s story we read how Aaron pressurised by the Israelites in the wilderness formed a golden calf for them in Moses’ absence. Many scholars today suggest that the Israelites did not think that the calf was Yahweh their god but rather imagined him standing upon it. Many ancient near eastern images show a god standing on the back of a bull.
The Israelites in this view saw the calf like the ark, an object upon which the presence of Yahweh rested. The difference however was that God had instituted the ark whilst the calf was condemned as an idol. They were guilty of loving the right thing (Yahweh-God) but in the wrong way (calf idol). This mistake would be repeated. When the United Kingdom split into Israel in the north and Judah in the south Jeroboam the northern King made two calves of gold which he placed at Bethel and Dan, declaring, “It is too much trouble for you to worship in Jerusalem. Look, Israel, these are the gods who brought you out of Egypt!” (1 Kgs 12:28). Like Aaron it is possible that Jeroboam might have seen himself as an orthodox worshipper of Yahweh and that the calves he had created where simply the footstools of God. God however condemns the action once again. Were the Israelites once again guilty of loving the right thing (Yahweh-God) but in the wrong way (calf idols)? They thought that what they were doing was ok but it was not.
The central commandment that was meant to govern Israelite faith, life and worship was:
Exodus 20:3-5 (NLT)
“You must not have any other god but me. You must not make for yourself an idol of any kind or an image of anything in the heavens or on the earth or in the sea. You must not bow down to them or worship them, for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God who will not tolerate your affection for any other gods.”
The Israelites were told:
• No other elohim but Yahweh.
• No idols.
• No bowing before images/idols.
• No worshiping/serving the images/idols.
We are told the reason “I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God who will not tolerate your affection for any other gods.”
Many Christians assume that the first commandment “You must not have any other god but me” means just what we mean by the word ‘god’ and the attributes that we as 21st Century westerners assign to that term. The truth is that many Old Testament scholars consider Elohim ‘god’ to be a place of residence term rather than carrying the baggage and attributes that we now ascribe to the word ‘god’. The word elohim is applied to Yahweh the Christian god, his divine council (Psalm 82), foreign gods like Molech (1 Kings 11:33), the spirits of dead people (1 Samuel 28:13), demons (Deuteronomy 32:17), and angels (Genesis 35:7). Elohim therefore refers then to any and all inhabitants of the unseen realm.
The story of Israel and Judah is the story of idolatry. King Solomon built the Temple of Yahweh but 1 Kings 11:5-8 (NLT) says:
“Solomon worshiped Ashtoreth, the goddess of the Sidonians, and Molech, the detestable god of the Ammonites. In this way, Solomon did what was evil in the Lord’s sight; he refused to follow the Lord completely, as his father, David, had done. On the Mount of Olives, east of Jerusalem, he even built a pagan shrine for Chemosh, the detestable god of Moab, and another for Molech, the detestable god of the Ammonites. Solomon built such shrines for all his foreign wives to use for burning incense and sacrificing to their gods.”
For over 200 years the shrines remained in place until King Hezekiah closed them. The shrines were not shut for long however as Manasseh reopened them. It was not until the days of Josiah 50 years later that they were finally torn down. Once again the Kings who followed Josiah turned back to idolatry. As John Calvin said “man’s nature, so to speak, is a perpetual factory of idols”.
Even whilst Jesus was alive there were those who sought to give the Virgin Mary an inappropriate place. We read in Luke 11:27-28 (ESV):
“As he said these things, a woman in the crowd raised her voice and said to him, “Blessed is the womb that bore you, and the breasts at which you nursed!” But he said, “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and keep it!”
Women in the crowd sought to place Mary in a special position and Jesus shot them down. He said “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and keep it!” May we be those who heard the word of God and keep it!
As Christianity spread across the Mediterranean the Council of Elvira that took place between 295-302 or 306-314 in Canon 36 decreed:
“There must be no pictures used in churches: Let nothing which is adored or worshipped be painted on walls.”
Whilst pictures can be useful especially for catechists there were many in the church who did not want converts to use images in a wrong way.
Returning for a moment to the first commandment “You must not have any other god but me”. Since the word of ‘god’ elohim is used also for the disembodied spirit of the dead prophet Samuel in 1 Samuel 28:13 it follows then perhaps all the saints in heaven likewise being disembodied spirits of the dead fall under the condemnation of the first commandment. It therefore follows that the other condemnations proceed from the first. If you are forbidden from having any other elohim but Yahweh then we must not bow, worship at or serve any image/idol of Mary or the saints. Why? “I, Yahweh your God, am a jealous God who will not tolerate your affection for any other elohim.”
We must always be careful that “ecclesia reformata et semper reformanda secundus verbum Dei” that is, the church, having been reformed, must continue to be reformed according to God’s Word. May we be those who hear the word of God and keep it! May we hold fast to the commandments of God knowing that he is a jealous God who will not tolerate our affections for any other inhabitant of the unseen realm. Let us hold fast to 1 Corinthians 10:6-7 “Now these things took place as examples for us, that we might not desire evil as they did. Do not be idolaters as some of them were”.
ANE images from here.