The Most Dangerous Idol of Them All

By Dan Clendenin

As far back as we can peer into the mists of history, human beings have always been religious.

In his book A Little History of Religion (Yale, 2016), Richard Holloway notes the first undisputed evidence for our religiosity — the funeral rites and burial customs 130,000 years ago in which people painted the bodies of the dead with red ochre paint, then laid them to rest in special places, with special objects, and in special ways. Death, these rites seemed to say, was a door to another place rather than to nothingness.

For all its notoriety today, atheism, observed the Harvard scholar of comparative religions Wilfred Cantwell Smith, has always been “oddly parochial in space and time.” It’s astonishing that anyone would ever believe something so wrongheaded like the idea that “religion will wither away.”

But not all that glitters is gold. Some of our religious views and practices are clearly false, violent, and even despicable — like Aztec human sacrifice, the Christian Crusades, and the Hebrew “texts of terror” in which God commands his people to exterminate their enemies without mercy. Today we would call these three examples war crimes or crimes against humanity.

And so a recurring theme for Holloway comes from this week’s Leviticus 19:4 and the first three of the Ten Commandments. He calls it “the most important insight into God ever discovered by humans” — the prohibition against idolatry.

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Moses receives the 10 commandments, Jewish prayer book, Germany, c. 1290.

There are four versions of the Ten Commandments — Exodus 20 and 34, Leviticus 19, and Deuteronomy 5. The telling of this ancient story is remarkable for its honesty. The second “Word” reads, “you shall not make for yourself an idol.” But a few pages later that’s exactly what the people did: “Come, make us gods who will go before us” (Exodus 32:1).

Before Moses ever descended Mount Sinai with the Ten Commandments, the Hebrews grew impatient. They begged Aaron for a golden calf. They built an altar so they could bow down to their “gods of gold” (32:31). In this ancient story, so evocative with contemporary applications, the people worshiped a golden god, sacrificed to it, “indulged in revelry,” and proclaimed national celebrations.

We’ve been creating our own gods in our own image ever since.

Idols lure us with powerful illusions and misplaced hopes. They make seductive promises. They promise much but deliver little.

Our false gods come in all sizes and shapes. The advertising industry testifies to the power of our puny “household gods.” We idolize anything and everything — career, race, gender, sex, wealth, age, and especially nation. Our personal gods are so petty and pathetic that they would be laughable if they weren’t so insidious and corrosive.

These household gods are child’s play compared to our national idols. National idols are more global than personal, more public than private, and more institutional than individual. They unleash far more violence upon humanity than our household gods.

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Moses and the 10 Commandments, 16th century church fresco.

The most vicious of national idols is the War God. C. Wright Mills used a suggestive description when he spoke of our “military metaphysic,” by which he meant a way of construing every national aspiration or international problem in distinctly military terms. In the last hundred years, at least 200 million people, mainly civilians, have been sacrificed to the War Gods. Only the state has the wherewithal to unleash mass murder on this scale, and both our leaders and we citizens bear responsibility.

Our inherent religiosity, our deeply human impulse to create God in our own image, is so strong and dangerous that the Swiss theologian Karl Barth (1886–1968) called the gospel revelation the Aufhebung of all human religion — its abolition, annulment, or invalidation.

That’s too extreme and conveniently binary for my taste. But Barth was repudiating Hitler, who claimed divine sanction, and his own theological professors, who had signed on to Hitler’s genocidal program, so his warning is well taken — divine revelation and human religion are not the same thing.

And so the insight of Holloway. The “real target” of the ancient prohibitions against idolatry was religion itself: “And not just the kind that got people dancing around a golden calf. It was warning us that no religious system could capture or contain the mystery of God. Yet in history, that’s exactly what many of them would go on to claim. The Second Commandment was an early warning that the organizations that claimed to speak for God would become God’s greatest rivals, the most dangerous idol of them all.”

The commandment about idolatry would save us from our besetting sin of presumption: “You shall not misuse the name of the Lord.”

To bestow a name, to use a name, or to know a name, says Michael Coogan in his book The Ten Commandments (Yale, 2014), is an “expression of control.” When Adam and Eve named the animals in Genesis, they expressed their “dominion” over them. When conquering nations subdued an enemy, they often changed their names as a sign of subjugation (cf. the book of Daniel).

Despite the casual confidence with which we speak and worship, control or dominion over the name of God is precisely what no person can have. Ever. The very thought is blasphemous. Coogan gives two examples.

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Moses and the 10 Commandments, 16th century church fresco.

When Jacob asks the divine messenger to tell him his name, the response is evasive, “Why do you ask my name?” Similarly, when Manoah asks the angel of the Lord, “What is your name?” the reply is similar: “Why do you ask my name? It is beyond understanding.”

These two examples echo God’s famously evasive response to Moses, who also asked about God’s name: “I am who I am.”

And so some Jews honor the mysterious, the inexpressible, and the inviolable name of “God” (YHWH) by not even pronouncing it. Instead, they substitute the word “adonay” or “Lord.” Or sometimes you might hear an observant Jew refer to God as Hashem — “The Name.”

The third commandment about the name of God warns us not only about our casual presumptions. It reminds us of the limits of human language when we speak about the Wholly Other God. CS Lewis captures the practical implications of this in his Footnote to All Prayers.

He whom I bow to only knows to whom I bow
When I attempt the ineffable Name, murmuring Thou,
And dream of Pheidian fancies and embrace in heart
Symbols (I know) which cannot be the thing Thou art.
Thus always, taken at their word, all prayers blaspheme
Worshiping with frail images a folk-lore dream,
And all men in their praying, self-deceived, address
The coinage of their own unquiet thoughts, unless
Thou in magnetic mercy to Thyself divert
Our arrows, aimed unskillfully, beyond desert;
And all men are idolaters, crying unheard
To a deaf idol, if Thou take them at their word.
Take not, O Lord, our literal sense. Lord, in thy great
Unbroken speech our limping metaphor translate.

This isn’t the last thing or only thing we could say about the inexpressible Name of the infinite God, but it should be the first.

These limitations can be a liberation. I no longer have to pretend that I fully understand God. The mystery of prayer becomes something to honor rather than to explain. I don’t even need to be right, for in his “magnetic mercy” God will “my limping metaphors translate.”

Having honored the third commandment as best we can, we’re prepared for the shocking words of Jesus — that God Almighty is not only the Infinite Other. He’s also my Intimate “Abba.”

Image credits: (1) Library of Congress; (2) PicassoMio; and (3)

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