This article was first published in the Fall 2003 issue of Bible and Spade.
One of the most frequent rebukes that came from the mouths of the prophets was their condemnation of idolatry. They of course condemned their fellow Israelites’ apostasy, but they also condemned Israel and Judah’s pagan neighbors, accusing them of worshiping empty, lifeless pieces of wood. Some critics have claimed that the prophets greatly misinterpreted the true theology behind the idol-worship of Israel’s ancient neighbors. They accuse the Biblical prophets of misrepresenting or misunderstanding the spiritual context in which the Babylonians and other pagan peoples expressed their devotion to divine images.
An example of this line of thinking can be found in the statement of Michael B. Dick, professor of Hebrew Bible at Siena College in New York, in an article he wrote entitle “Worshiping Idols: What Isaiah Didn’t Know.” After mentioning Isaiah’s scathing condemnation of pagan idolatry in Mesopotamia, Prof. Dick asks rhetorically, “But does he [Isaiah] really understand the idols he condemns? ... [W]ould an Assyrian or Babylonia worshiper give us a different, perhaps more favorable, not to say even-handed, picture?” (2002:30). Prof. Dick seems to think Isaiah gave a slanted, biased—and incorrect—view of the idolatry of his day: “We get an entirely different understanding of cult images,” he claims, by reading religious texts written by the very people whom Isaiah criticized (2001:31). Ironically, however, a scrutiny of these texts reveals that Isaiah and other Old Testament prophets actually got it exactly right.
A dragon, sacred animal of Marduk, patron deity of Babylon. In the 12th century BC Marduk was viewed as the supreme cosmic ruler of the earth. The Babylonians believed he was the creator of the universe and ruler of gods and humans. Michael Luddeni.
Let us start by examining Isaiah’s sarcastic description of the way in which the Babylonian crafted statues and imbued them with the divine presence, as found in Isaiah 44:10-20 (KJV):
10 Who hath formed a god, or molten a graven image that is profitable for nothing?
11 Behold, all his fellows shall be ashamed: and the workmen, they are of men: let them all be gathered together, let them stand up; yet they shall fear, and they shall be ashamed together.
12 The smith with the tongs both worketh in the coals, and fashioneth it with hammers, and worketh it with the strength of his arms: yea, he is hungry, and his strength faileth: he drinketh no water, and is faint.
13 The carpenter stretcheth out his rule; he marketh it out with a line; he fitteth it with planes, and he marketh it out with the compass, and maketh it after the figure of a man, according to the beauty of a man; that it may remain in the house.
14 He heweth him down cedars, and taketh the cypress and the oak, which he strengtheneth for himself among the trees of the forest: he planteth an ash, and the rain doth nourish it.
15 Then shall it be for a man to burn: for he will take thereof, and warm himself; yea, he kindleth it, and baketh bread; yea, he maketh a god, and worshippeth it; he maketh it a graven image, and falleth down thereto.
16 He burneth part thereof in the fire: with part thereof he eateth flesh; he roasteth roast, and is satisfied: yea, he warmeth himself, and saith, Aha, I am warm, I have seen the fire:
17 And the residue thereof he maketh a god, even his graven image: he falleth down unto it, and worshippeth it, and prayeth unto it, and saith, Deliver me; for thou art my god.
18 They have not known nor understood: for he hath shut their eyes, that they cannot see; and their hearts, that they cannot understand.
19 And non considereth in his heart, neither is there knowledge nor understanding to say, I have burned part of it in the fire; yea, also I have baked bread upon the coals thereof; I have roasted flesh, and eaten it: and shall I make the residue thereof an abomination? Shall I fall down to the stock of a tree?
20 He feedeth on ashes: a deceived heart hath turned him aside, that he cannot deliver his soul, nor say, Is there not a lie in my right hand?1
This passage is not a misrepresentation of Babylonian idolatry, as critics like Prof. Dick claim, but an accurate assessment of Mesopotamian theology. H. W. F. Saggs, Lecturer on Assyrian and Babylonian Languages at the University of London, remarks:
The divine image itself would be carved from a piece of wood, and ornamented with metals and precious stones, a fact of which Isaiah (xliv. 12–20) made merry play. For the Babylonians there was a definite point in the manufacture of the idol at which the deity took up his dwelling therein, and a ritual is known for the ‘opening of the mouth’. Two pots of holy water were provided in the workshop and a preliminary ‘washing of the mouth’ of the newly-made image performed (1962:357).
This ritual was known as M+s Pi, meaning “the Washing (or Opening) of the Mouth.” The Babylonians believed that the wooden, gold-covered creation (see Is 30:22) did not actually possess any divine attributes until this ceremony was performed. One ancient Mesopotamian inscription records the vital words of this ritual: “This statue cannot smell incense, drink water, or eat food without the Opening of the Mouth!” (Dick 2002–33-34). The ceremony, which was held on a riverbank, took two day. On the first day, the statute was set apart from its craftsmen, who were officially recognized as mere humans. Their tools would be sewn up in a sheep’s carcass and thrown into the river, the domain of the craftsman god Ea (also called Enki). On the second day, the craftsmen’s hands were tied with red yarn and symbolically cut off with a wooden sword while each swore, “I did not make you rather the craft-god made you” (Dick 2002:35).
Other aspects of Isaiah’s mockery of idol making are just as appropriate. For instance, he derides the very idea that a piece of wood, even after the “Opening of the Mouth,” could be infused with the divine, pointing out in vv. 14–19 that wood is wood is wood. This is a direct jab at contemporary pagan beliefs, which held that the wood of an idol possessed a particularly sacred nature. According to a written account of the mouth-opening ritual, the statue was made from,
bright wood, (like the spring of a stream, which is born in the pure Heavens, [it] spreads out on the clean earth. [Its] branches grow up to Heaven. Enki makes [its] root drink up pure water from the Underworld.
The wood, thus, was composed of elements of the three levels of the Universe—heaven, earth, and the underworld (Dick 2002:34). Isaiah caustically points out that it’s just plain wood, Babylonian mythology notwithstanding.
Drawing and relief of the removal of enemy gods, ca. 728 BC. Found in the palace of Tiglath-pileser III (744–727 BC) at Nimrud, Iraq, now in the British Museum, London.
Isaiah further hints that the craftsmen who created these statues were ordinary human beings. In v. 11, he points out “the workmen, they are of men.” This is another jab at pagan beliefs, since it was believed that those who carved idols were special, divinely appointed persons (albeit human). In one of his inscriptions, Assyrian king Esarhaddon recorded that the “great gods” had designated the craftsmen who would create idols for him. The king employed diviners to “determine the experts who should do the work.” The craftsmen were believed to perform their work under the influence of the craftsman god Ea/Enki, and they received no credit for their creations (Dick 2002:34). Isaiah is thus refuting the “divine inspiration” of the mere men who carved idols in his day.
In vv. 19–20, Isaiah points out that the base material for these pagan idols (wood) is ultimately corruptible. Yet again, he is accurately criticizing pagan beliefs regarding statues. In the Erra Epic, an eighth-century-BC Mesopotamian tale, a statue of the god Marduk (Merodach in Hebrew, also known as Bel becomes damaged, and Marduk’s enemy Erra, the god of plagues, taunts him:
“Where is the wood, flesh of gods,
suitable for the lord of the universe,
The sacred tree, splendid stripling, perfect for
Whose roots thrust down a hundred leagues
through the waters of the vast ocean to the
depths of hell,
Whose crown brushed Anu’s heaven on high?
Where is Ninildum, great carpenter of my
Wielder of the blinding hatchet, who knows
Who makes it shine like the day
and puts its subjection at my feet?
Where is Kusig-banda, fashioner of god
Whose hands are sacred? (Dick 2002:35).
Top of the Hammurabi law code. The sun god Shamash (seated, right), the god of justice, hands Hammurabi (ca. 1792–1750 BC) (standing, left) a scepter and ring as he commissions him to write a code of laws. Inscribed in cuneiform below the relief on this 2.3 m (7.5 ft) high stela are a prologue, 282 laws and an epilogue. The stela was found in Susa, Iran, where it had been taken as booty by Elamites in ca. 1200 BC, possibly from Sippar in northern Babylonia. It is now on display in the Louvre Museum, Paris.
According to Mesopotamian belief, if any god’s statute became corrupt, the god would temporarily abandon it. In the Erra Epic, the face of Marduk’s statue is covered with soot and its clothing has deteriorated. When this occurs, it is tantamount to happening to Marduk himself, leading Erra to ask mockingly,
What happened to your attire, to the insignia of your lordship, magnificent as the stars of the sky? It has been dirtied! What happened to the crown of your lordship, which made Ehalanki as bright as Etemenanki? Its surface is shrouded over? (Dick 2002:35–36).
The plague-god then promises that he will take over when Marduk exits the decaying statue. In this instance, Isaiah is playing the role of Erra, pointing out the foolishness of pagan logic: if the statue is indwelt with Mesopotamia’s most powerful god, Marduk, how then can it become corrupt, and why does it need humans to fix it up again?
What is worse, pagan belief maintained that a god could actually abandon the statue permanently. King Esarhaddon stated regarding some statues, “The gods and the goddesses who dwelt therein flew off like birds.” Another Assyrian king, Ashurbanipal, destroyed the temples and idols of Susa (Shushan), the capital of Elam, when he conquered that nation in the seventh century BC (see Ez 32:24). He recorded, “I desecrated the sanctuaries of Elam and counted their gods and goddesses as powerless ghosts.” The word “ghost” here is zaqiqu, which indicates the disembodied spirit of the god or goddess, now wandering helplessly about (Dick 2002:36).
As acknowledged by Prof. Dick, Isaiah’s description, though full of mockery, is nonetheless highly accurate. In fact, Prof. Dick notes that in Isaiah 44:14 the ash tree, ‘oren, is the exact Hebrew equivalent of the Akkadian erenu, one of the words used to describe the wood from which Mesopotamian statues were made (Dick 2002:36). The Isaianic passages condemning Mesopotamian idolatrous practices, then, are not biased, ignorant misinterpretations, but are appropriate criticisms of a foolish and unrealistic religion.
Assyrian female protective spirits on either side of a sacred tree. From the palace of Tiglath-pileser III (744–727 BC) at Nimrud, Iraq, now in the British Museum, London. Michael Luddeni.
Another prophet who assessed pagan idol-worship correctly was Zephaniah. In Zephaniah 2:11 he states, “the Lord...will famish all the gods of the earth.” The word “famish” here is rzh in the original Hebrew. It appears nowhere else in the Bible. Many translators, unable to understand how God could starve pagan gods, have mistranslated the word as “shrivel,” “reduce to beggary,” “destroy,” “enfeeble,” or even “rule over” (Rudman 2002:37). However, “famish” is perfectly correct. Its related Biblical words make its true meaning clear: “The glory of Jacob shall be made thin, and the fatness of his flesh shall wax lean [yeirazeh]” (Is 17:4); “Behold, I, even I, will judge between the fat cattle and between the lean [razah] cattle” (Ez 34:20). Moreover, the related Arabic word radhiya means, “grow thin” or “grow weak” (Rudman 2002:38).
Now, since pagans in Mesopotamia treated the statues of their gods as fully imbued with the divine presence, the logical conclusion was that the statues had to be fed, since the gods themselves needed to eat. At the temple of Uruk in southern Babylonia (the Erech of Gn 10:10), idols of gods and goddesses were provided two meals a day, according to a text from that city dating to the second millennium BC (Rudman 2002:39). During the “Opening of the Mouth” ceremony, statues that had been thoroughly imbued with the divine presence “dined” on beer, honey, fruit, and fine cuts of meat served on gold platters. After the meal, water was brought so that the statues could “wash” their hands (Rudman 2002:38). An Assyrian inscription from the mid-ninth century BC describes King Nabu-apla-iddina’s role in the Opening of the Mouth ritual performed on a statue of the sun god Shamash. After washing the statue’s mouth, the king bestowed on it food and clothing. According to an Assyrian hymn dated two centuries later, a statue of the moon-god could not “smell incense, eat food, [or] drink water” until King Ashurbanipal performed the Opening of the Mouth ritual on it (Rudman 2002:38–39).
Assyrian eagle-headed protective spirits on either side of a sacred tree. From the palace of Tiglath-pileser III (744–727 BC) at Nimrud, Iraq, now in the British Museum, London.
The translation of rzh as “famished” is thus perfectly correct. Zephaniah’s use of this word reveals his knowledge of the foolish pagan practices of his day. As with Isaiah, this minor prophet was not ignorantly misrepresenting pagan idol-worship, but was correctly describing the pagan beliefs and practices of the era and region in which he lived.
Recommended Resources for Further Study
1. The prophet Jeremiah made similar mockery of these practices in Jeremiah 10:3-5.
Dick, Michael B.
2002 Worshiping Idols, Bible Review 18.2:30–37,
2002 When Gods Go Hungry, Bible Review 18.3:37–39,
1962 The Greatness that Was Babylon. New York: Hawthorn.