Sunday, 26 April 2015

The Idea of Being in Israel

This is a sample chapter (in draft) from the Sacred History of Being:

'Something paradoxical and intriguing about human religion'

This chapter looks at the body of Mesopotamian ideas about the gods and the divine through the extensive commentary on these ideas present in the books of the Old Testament. It draws extensively on a study published in 1999, Born in Heaven, Made on Earth, edited by Michael Dick.  The chapter also explores how Old Testament ideas about images were understood by the christian writer Tertullian, in the early second century of the common era.

….within the hierarchy of Mesopotamian ritual, the lengthy performance of washing the mouth of the temple statue is the most solemn, most sacred and most secret of rituals. This conclusion is reached from consideration of the special circumstances of the performance of the mis pi, the investment of time and resources, and the goal of the ritual. This ritual calls upon all the knowledge and spiritual know-how of the ritual specialists to transfer the deity from the spiritual world to the physical world. It requires the most expertise in ritual matters and accomplishes the epitome of ritual possibilities actualising the presence of the god in the temple. [1]

 Though not the intention of Born in Heaven, Made on Earth, the book brings together much of the evidence for the case which argues that there was a complex and philosophical metaphysic beneath Mesopotamian religion.

In addition to an introduction by Dick, there are four main sections, covering prophetic parodies of making the cult image contained in biblical sources, authored by Dick; a chapter on the induction of the cult Image in ancient Mesopotamia (concerning the Mis Pi Ritual) co-authored with Christopher Walker; an essay by the Egyptologist David Lorton on the theology of cult statues in ancient Egypt for purposes of comparison, and finally an essay by Joanne Punzo Waghorne on the divine image in contemporary south India, where much of the practice known to the Assyrians and Babylonians is still in existence, though it is a practice which has been maligned in modern times.

The following discussion mainly concerns Michael Dick’s contribution to the book, and principally his study of the prophetic parodies of the making of the cult image found in the Old Testament, which casts light on the intellectual currents of a remote world in which cult images possessed great power, prestige, and life, but were also the focus of theological disputation.

Dick has been interested in the detail surrounding cult statues since 1977, when he worked in this area for a year as a post-doctoral student at Johns Hopkins University, and it has remained a focus of his attention. His research as he says in his introduction to the volume, ‘soon convinced me of the importance of the Mesopotamian Mis Pi ritual used to “give birth” to the god represented by the cult image’. He was introduced to Christopher Walker, who had written his Oxford University dissertation on the Mis Pi rite, by Dr. Jerrold Cooper of John Hopkins University. [2]

The introductory remarks on the cult Image are prefaced with a quotation from James Preston, which is worth repeating here:
Through the study of icons and their construction we are able to perceive some of the most vital impulses underlying religious experience. Sacred images are products of the human imagination – they are constructed according to systematic rules, and then they are infused with sacrality and kept “alive” by highly controlled behaviours intended to retain the “spirit in matter”. An analysis of this process of constructing sacred images, and the corollary process of the destruction, reveals to us something paradoxical and intriguing about human religion. [3]

Some aspects of religion are more religious than others, and the paradoxical aspects of human religion are, as well as intriguing, more religious than we are accustomed to accept.

The normal approach to the academic study of iconic imagery in religion is phenomenological and comparative. The phenomenological approach, as the term suggests, looks at the obvious and the external, and the relationships and patterns which can be discerned. Mainly this is a study of differences and similarities, but of course such a study can be much richer in nature, and a great deal can be discovered in this way. No-one however has been looking for a logical, philosophical and technical basis to the worship of images, either in the ancient past or, as in the case of cult statues in India, in contemporary human societies. This is because the scholarly model in which cult imagery is understood presumes that no such basis is present, and the phenomenological approach does not provide suggestive evidence to the contrary. [4]

Immanence and Transcendence in Divine Images

Born in Heaven, Made on Earth treats of cult imagery as a form of concretization of the divine. Dick argues that

attitudes (positive or negative) toward the concretization of the deity represented by the cult image reveal significant positions about the divine presence, about immanence and transcendence, about the very nature of the deity. [5]

While there have been many struggles in history between iconodules and iconoclasts, the seminal struggle is of course (as things have worked out) the one which is represented in the Old Testament. [6] The Israelites had come into very close contact with the Babylonian iconodule during the exile of the 6th century B.C.E., although it is unlikely to have been necessary for the Israelites to actually live among the Babylonians to understand their culture enough to rebel against its icons. Dick points out that many of the Bible’s ‘most strident’ parodies of making an image of the god date from this period, and that even many of the Deuteronomistic legal prohibitions concerning the making of a cult image probably date from the post-Exilic period. The existence of these parodies within the Bible, which have received little attention outside scholarly circles, will probably come as a surprise to many. But that they are there suggests that the Israelites had at the very least a rudimentary awareness of Babylonian ritual for the installation of cult images. And of course there were long-standing connections with Egypt, a culture which also had rituals for the making and installation of cult images.

Indeed, this problem (how can gods be made?) is still at the heart of our inability to understand the conceptual model which lies beneath the practice of idolatry in the ancient Near East, and, more remotely, beneath the veneration of cult images in modern India. Dick quotes an interesting statement by the Assyrian king Esarhaddon, from the early years of the seventh century B.C.E., in which the problem is directly acknowledged, but also in which Esarhaddon directly ties in the importance of cult images in Assyria with an intellectual outlook and conceptual model of the world which was later familiar to the Greeks. Esarhaddon says:

Whose right is it, O great gods, to create gods and goddesses in a place where humans dare not trespass? Is it the right of deaf 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. [7]

The insertion of ‘images of’ in the last sentence is warranted only by the needs of our own perspective. The text literally says ‘the making of the gods and goddesses is your right…’ [8]

The point which is being made here however is that there is a strange circularity involved in the creation of the gods – a god must create a god, and man cannot do this. So the craftsmen of Esarhaddon can only create gods (as we shall see) if they are technically gods themselves at the moment of their creation and installation, and that they can only function in this way if it is the will and command of the gods, mediated through the king, who is the representative of Assur, the chief of the gods on earth.

This perception of a problem in the creation of something quite ‘other’ is also reflected by the reverse scenario, found in Plato’s Timaeus, in which god created a lesser creature - the Living Animal. But the Living Animal cannot be made directly by the the god – it must be created by lesser gods, or as Plato would say, demiourgoi, otherwise there would be too much of the divine in the world. [9]

Esarhaddon expressly associates divinity with knowledge in this text, in that man is defined as ‘deaf and blind’, and human beings ‘are ignorant of themselves and remain in ignorance throughout their lives.’ It follows that the divine has the opposite characteristics, and that the artisans who build the statues must, at least temporarily in the cultic context, possess the attributes of the divine. Thus there must be a roughly parallel process in the creation of a temporary divinity in the artisan, and the installation of a divine statue.

We have the Babylonian ritual procedures for the installation of cult images, and a parallel rite from Egypt. But we do not have an equivalent from Greece. Early Christian literature ‘often refers to similar Greek and Latin rites (‘dedicatio’)’, but Dick suggests that it is not clear that such rites existed, citing studies by Barasch in 1992, [10] and Walter Burkert in 1985, who says that “there are no magical rites to give life to the cult image as in Babylon”.[11] This is perhaps showing undue deference to the statements of these very eminent scholars. At this stage in this exploration, after the discussion of Plato’s writings on images, the likelihood would seem to be that the Greeks did have magical rites for the dedication and vivification of cult images – though unfortunately they have not survived. It is also likely that the statues were made divine on the basis of a similar (if not identical) notion of the nature of the divine, and that the magical rites bore a resemblance to one another in essential details. After all, both Plato and Esarhaddon equate the divine with knowledge, and ignorance with earthly existence: they are both looking to one thing, [12] the one thing which transcends all categories of earthly existence and the ultimate source of knowledge, and both (it would seem) believed that it may be accessed through the mediation of form (eidos).

A significant reference to the installation of statues in Christian literature is in the Octavius of Minucius Felix, where the importance of the will of the operative is isolated as critical. To Minucius Felix this is an argument against the credibility of the procedure, but in theurgic practice, the will of the operative to sacralise an object, or to work with the gods, is key to the process.

The Babylonian ritual procedures which prepared the statue of a god for functional use were known as ‘mouth-washing’ or ‘mouth-opening’ rituals. [13] We have texts which document both the ritual used, and many Babylonian and Sumerian incantations which were an essential part of the ritual. The Egyptian ritual is known as ‘performing the opening of the mouth in the workshop for the statue of the god’. [14]

Exile and after

Dick’s essay on prophetic parodies of making the cult image emphasises that the parodies are mainly restricted to the Exilic and post-Exilic prophets of the 7th and 6th centuries B.C.E. His essay isolates and treats the three principal characteristics of the arguments against the making of cult images, which were also later discussed in Hellenistic times by Jewish, Christian and Pagan authors. Dick utilises an examination of the Israelite legal prohibition of cult images by Christoph Dohmen, which identifies altogether five types of texts dealing with these images. Of these, three are of principal importance – narratives which mention images, but in which the images are not important to that narrative; texts in the Deuteronomistic History or the Chronicler which relate to cult reform; and prophetic texts which focus their polemic against the making of cult images and their worship. These three types of argument are found in Deutero-Isaiah, Jeremiah, and late wisdom texts; and prophetic texts which mention cult images, but which are focussed on conflict with external religions and gods; and the legal prohibition of cult images. [15]

Dick’s study concentrates on the third category of texts – the polemics against the making of cult images. He says that Dohmen’s ‘careful study of the evolution of the prohibitions against the cult image suggests that they were largely the product of 6th century redaction’, and that the theological stresses of 586 B.C.E. assured both the triumph of Yahwistic monotheism and of aniconic worship; Yahweh’s cult had probably always been aniconic, but now there were no gods but Yahweh, so there was utterly no room for any cult image! The prophetic parodies respond to the same contemporary crises. Although they stem from different traditions, the legal and the prophetic understandings of a monotheistic and iconic Yahwism cope with the same catastrophe. [16]

Some terminology is borrowed from a recent discussion of aniconism by Mettinger, who uses the term ‘aniconism’ to refer to cults lacking iconic representation of the divinity, whether anthropomorphic or theriomorphic, ‘serving as the dominant or central cultic symbol’, whether or not the issue is an aniconic symbol or ‘sacred emptiness’. Mettinger’s term for the former is ‘material aniconism’, and the second he calls ‘empty-space aniconism’. Dick points out that Mettinger also distinguishes ‘de facto aniconism’ and ‘programmatic aniconism’: the former refers to an indifference to the absence of images, and the latter refers to an active antagonism to images. [17] Parodies by the prophets of the making of cult images clearly fall into the second category.

Looking at the archaeological evidence, Dick suggests that ‘the complexity of recent finds reminds us that the biblical prohibitions and the roughly contemporary prophetic parodies are the end result of a long development within Israelite religion and date from the last prophetic and Deuteronomistic phases of the Exilic and post-Exilic periods (7th-5th centuries B.C.E.).’ He also suggests that recent biblical studies tend to indicate that Israel’s monotheism represents ‘the eventual triumph of a small “Yahweh alone” group over the exigencies of the Exile following the destruction of Jerusalem in 586 B.C.E.’ In other words, Dick is suggesting that a cultic group within Israel eventually determined the nature of Israel’s pattern of belief. He reminds us that ‘this victorious group played such a dominant role in editing the Hebrew Bible that their final triumph has been anachronistically regarded as both normative and universal during the entire preceding biblical period from 1200 to 600 B.C.E.’

This is quite extraordinary. If indeed the ‘Yahweh alone’ group did triumph after the destruction of Jerusalem, then we are left with very little idea of the nature of Hebrew beliefs before 600 B.C.E., except what we can infer from the biblical parodies and prohibitions. [18] Probably (says Dick) there were regional Yahwehs, with other deities in the pantheon, though the main deity was probably ‘de facto aniconic from the beginning’. However we have no evidence to explain why this Yahweh would be aniconic. But we can be sure there were other images within the cult of Yahweh, since the later prohibitions indicate this. Eventually the prohibitions excluded most of the earlier iconography. 

Clues about the intellectual context of Divine Images in Israel

The prohibitions are very suggestive about the origin and original intellectual context of the cult of images. Dick cites the classic formulations of the prohibitions, Exodus 20:3-4, and Deuteronomy 5:7-8. The first of these runs:

You shall not make for yourself an idol, and the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.

The second is almost identical. We might observe that the Exodus prohibition explicitly forbids the creation of images of what is in heaven above, but does not give any clue that it was ever conceivable to set up gods in heaven by means of the inauguration of cult statues. Dick says that the prohibitions recorded in Exodus and Deuteronomy seem to be ‘the end of a long development and not its beginning’, and so it might be that the prohibition concerns the practice and conceptual model of the time, rather than something long-established. It does however refer to images in the water under the earth, which recalls the very old Mesopotamian image of Ea/Enki in his shrine in the sea, in the sweet waters of the apsu.

The model of the evolution of aniconism in Israel used by Dick is based on that constructed by Christoph Dohmen. Dohmen’s evolutionary model starts with a reconstruction of Exodus 20: 23b and 24a:
Gods of silver and gods of gold you shall not make for yourself; an altar of earth you shall make for me.

This commandment does not forbid image worship, but rather simply the ‘making’ of gods of gold and silver. Dick says the passage forbids ‘the ‘making’ of gold and silver statues’, but, once again, the original does not say ‘images of gods of silver and gods of gold’. The making of gods is exactly what is referred to. Dohmen’s interpretation of the commandment is: ‘rather than cult images let there be sacrifices and blood rites’. Whether or not we are looking at this phenomenon from the point of view of a cultural evolution or as a theological dispute between factions, both of which privilege the aniconic nature of Yahweh, this commandment served to direct the Israelites away from notions of contact with the divine by means of images, and to substitute contact via ritual action rather than the worship of cult statues.

A lot of ink has been expended over the years on this crucial development in the history of the Israelites. Dick quotes Dietrich and Loretz’s summary of several traditional reasons for an aniconic religious culture in Israel. They argue that the culture is
….an expression of primitive aversion to images, a particular preference of the Israelites for “hearing” (over “seeing”), a peculiarly Israelite spirituality in its concept of the deity, the Israelite sense of awe before the divinity, Yahweh’s jealousy of the Caananite gods, the prohibition against other gods, cultural poverty resulting from the desert experience, animosity towards luxury items among prophetic-Levitical circles, the dependence of the Yahwistic religion on the aniconic worship of an early Semitic main god.

Quite why there should be a ‘primitive’ aversion to images is not explained. Likewise, there is no real basis for arguing a ‘a peculiarly Israelite spirituality’, since that explains nothing. ‘Awe’ is not a response confined to aniconic divinity, and to qualify it as an ‘Israelite sense of awe’ simply implies that they responded differently to everyone else. The other reasons given for the Israelite struggle with cult images are equally unhelpful.

However there is another ‘related but distinct’ argument for aniconism in Israel, suggested by the scholar Ronald Hendel in 1988. Hendel documented the ‘close connection between the royal iconography and the portrayal of such main Canaanite deities as El.’  He suggests that, since in the ancient Near East ‘the earthly king, who was at times described as the “image/statue” of the god, was the embodiment of the main god’, it is possible that ‘ancient Israel had such a deep hostility toward the institution of the monarchy that it could consequently have adopted an aniconic representation of its god to reflect that he had no royal counterpart.’ [19]

This is a much more persuasive suggestion, and hostility of this sort was clearly part of the process by which Israel moved towards an aniconic mode of religion, shorn of all religious imagery. But this evolutionary model of the development of an aniconic Yahweh seems to imply an iconic precursor (i.e., a symbol of kingship), which is not supported by the archaeological and textual evidence. If there is no iconic precursor, it is difficult to see this process as evolutionary.

In the time of the Early Monarchy it seems that the Ark of the Covenant symbolised the presence of God, and Dick argues that it was essentially aniconic, though it is clearly a cult image. The Ark was moved to Jerusalem, [20]  in the discussion of the construction of the Temple [21] it was placed in the normal location of the main cult image. Later texts however place the Ark in a position subordinate to that of the Cherubim (often described in conjunction with the Ark), [22] and indeed the Cherubim were understood to represent the throne of Yahweh. Dick suggests that

Solomon made a compromise by combining the Cherub-throne and the empty throne represented by the Ark. In which case, at this period it appears there was no general prohibition against images – other symbols in the cult, such as the bronze serpent (attributed to Moses) and Jeroboam’s bull, were retained.

Dick points out that when Jeroboam ‘wished to establish a rival for the Jerusalem Temple, he set up the bull postament in Bethel, and it probably served like the Jerusalem Cherubim as part of the throne for the invisible Yahweh’.

Dick identifies the prophet Hosea as a critical player at an important stage of Israel’s development of aniconism. Hosea [middle of the 8th century] stood against syncretism, and for the exclusive worship of Yahweh, to the exclusion of all other gods. At Hos. 13:4 there are the lines:
And I am Yahweh your God from the land of Egypt; and you shall not know any gods besides me, and there is no saviour but me.

Here there is no polemic against cult images as are found in later periods, but his criticism of ‘idols’ ‘represents an important step in that direction’. From the time of Hosea onwards, the foreign gods of other nations were ‘idols’.

The 8th and 7th centuries B.C.E. were decisive for the emergence of the proscribers of images. Dick suggests that the ‘seductiveness of Assyrian religion created a further crisis in the South.’ [23] The cultic reforms of Hezekiah and the centralization of the cult under Josiah, led to the prohibition of images. Among the reforms of Hezekiah was the expulsion of the bronze serpent. [24] This action may have been influenced by the fact that the serpent played a role in Assyrian religion. However, there does not seem to have been in place a general antipathy to images even as late as the 7th century. According to Dick, ‘some scholars argue on the basis of seals from the 7th century, which generally prefer inscriptions to images, that there was already a commandment against images.’ However, the son of Hezekiah, Mannasseh, reversed his father’s reforms, and foreign cults were reintroduced. Dick suggests that the Deuteronomic movement may have arisen in response to the reintroduction of syncretism in religion.

Within the Deuteronomistic theology, the view of Hosea about the ambivalence of images developed into the demand that every image or cult object that could point toward another god ‘was to be rejected’. Dick argues that the reform of Josiah [25] had a Deuteronomist agenda, and that the destruction of the Asherahs and Massebahs was not the result of a prohibition of images, but rather out of the demand for an exclusive Yahwistic religion. There are no allusions to a prohibition of images in the accounts of Josiah’s reform, and according to Dohmen, the prohibition at Deuteronomy 5:8 – ‘You shall not make for yourself an image’ – probably stems from the later post-exilic Deuteronomistic movement. Dick reminds us that the earliest form of the prohibition against images was not a broad prohibition against all religious representational art, but only against cult images, quoting the text at Leviticus 26:1 –

You shall not make for yourselves idols, and cult images and massebah you shall not set up for yourselves, and a worked stone you shall not place in your land to bow down to it because I am Yahweh your God.
Thus, the prohibition of images arose originally as a special instance of the commandment against other gods, but the prohibition of images became dominant. Leviticus 26:1 goes further than the dismissal of foreign gods as ‘idols’ found in 19:4 by identifying these gods with their images, and prohibiting their making. [26] The prohibition of the making of cult images thus subordinates the commandment against foreign gods, and emphasises the focus on cult images by means of the specification of the objects meant – cut stone; stone; cult image; and massebah.

The prohibition is in close proximity to the Holiness code found in Leviticus 19-26, which I think is of some significance. The formula found at Leviticus 19:2, “you shall be holy because I Yahweh your God am holy”, implies that worship of the divine Yahweh may confer holiness on earthly individuals: a fact of some relevance to the business of the creation of divine images within religious cult. [27]

The prohibition was expanded to all representation during the late Exilic period. Deuteronomy 4: 16-25 reveals this latest stage in the development of the prohibition:

Lest you worship and make for yourselves a cult image, a representation of any beast on the earth, a representation of any winged bird in the heavens, a representation of anything that crawls on the land, a representation of any fish which is in the waters under the earth….. Lest you forget the covenant of Yahweh your God which he made with you and make for yourselves a cult image, the form of anything…. and bow down, and you make a cult image, the form of anything.
The ‘form of anything’ (it has been suggested) is perhaps an editorial expansion to eliminate any ambiguity about the commandment. [28] Or, perhaps, just possibly, it represents the core of the objection, peeking out, giving us a clue as to the real basis of the objection to cult images.

In any case, the original prohibition was expanded to list various types of likeness, and then extended to cover all types of cult objects, both anthropomorphic and zoomorphic, as well as symbols and posts, etc.

Summarising this discussion, as we have seen, there is no evidence that there ever was a physical representation of Yahweh in Israel – it seems as though Yahweh was never represented as a cult image. The concept of Yahweh seems according to the evidence we currently have to have always transcended the idea of physical representation. It is clear also that artistic representation and even cult images were not prohibited during the pre-Exilic period, and some survived into the post-Exilic period. The cult images which did exist may well have had some important religious functions in relation to Yahweh, and when these cult images were prohibited, it would be necessary to find some alternative way to address these functions. This difficulty was addressed by the legitimising of the use of an altar of earth.

The conventional model argues for an evolutionary development of the cult of Yahweh, in which the deity is progressively isolated from religious iconography and cult images, whether or not Yahweh himself was at any time represented by an image. Eventually of course, not only was all imagery suppressed, but worship (and also the practice of sacrifice) was later centralised in a single cult centre based in the temple at Jerusalem.

Thus the trajectory of the cult was to circumscribe more and more the liberty of the Israelites to engage with their god. Prophecy was forbidden, and superseded by priestly interpretation of the law. Together with the removal of the license to worship and sacrifice at altars of earth, this small caste of iconoclasts managed to remove entirely the personal aspects of the Israelite religion from its adherents. Eventually sacrifice also was abandoned, after the destruction of the temple.

This picture of this development indicates that the adherents of the cult of the aniconic Yahweh were engaged in extending the prohibition of the cult image to all images associated with their religion. That is to say, that in addition to the necessity of avoiding the representation of Yahweh, it became ultimately desirable for them to destroy all the religious images of Israel. This suggests very strongly that, unless they were possessed by some kind of mania which had little to do with their religion, it was the idea of images which was close to the heart of the problem, not simply the representation of the god of the Israelites.

So it might not be the case that the prohibition against the cult image was aimed principally at dissociating the Israelite religion from echoes of the logic of Mesopotamian religion, in which the king was seen as an image of the supreme deity. Nor is it likely to be the result of a ‘cultural poverty’ produced by a desert existence – the objection to imagery was clearly much more fundamental than that. So fundamental in fact, that, ultimately, it gave rise to proscriptions reaching beyond the removal of images. In other words, the target of the iconoclasts was something even more fundamental than the danger which inhered in the Israelites response to images, though part of the same complex of religious ideas.

Idolatry and Iniquity

What could this great danger be? We need to move forward in time by several hundred years, and to another part of the world, in order to find a wider view of the supposed iniquity of idolatry. The clearest existing discussion of the danger of idolatry is found in one of the works of the first of the Christian theologians, Tertullian, who lived in Rome, and who wrote around 200 A.D, some seven hundred years after the codification of Hebrew scripture. He is not popular with modern christian scholars, partly because there is a whiff of the extremist in his writing, which nevertheless has intelligence, wit, and clarity. He is unrelenting about the implications of scripture for the limitations of the engagement of Christians with the world - limitations which the urbane modern christian has left far behind.

He wrote a short book On Idolatry [29] which survives, which tells us a great deal about the underlying objections to idolatry in the ancient world. He suggests that ‘the principal crime of the human race, the highest guilt charged upon the world, the whole procuring cause of judgment, is idolatry’. This is because, apparently, all crimes can be understood as aspects of idolatry. Tertullian acknowledges that ‘each single fault retains its own proper feature, …[and] it is destined to judgement under its own proper name’…. yet he says that: ‘it is marked off under the general account of idolatry’.

Tertullian argues that in former times there were no idols, and that temples and shrines stood empty. Yet even at that time idolatry was practised ‘not under that name, but in that function’. This is because it can be practised outside a temple, and without an idol. He argues that ‘every art which in any way produces an idol instantly became a fount of idolatry…’ since:

it makes no difference whether a moulder cast, or a carver grave, or an embroiderer weave the idol, because neither is it a question of material, whether an idol be formed of gypsum, or of colors, or of stone, or of bronze, or of silver, or of thread.. For since even without an idol idolatry is committed, when the idol is there it makes no difference of what kind it be, of what material, or what shape….

There is not much room for the excuses of the sinner if idolatry is a broader crime than that of making or worshipping idols! But we have here a discussion of a core objection to the cult image, and the model of reality in which the crime of idolatry can reach beyond the use of idols, which may have underpinned the Israelite struggle with the presence of cult images in their religious life.

He argues that the idolater is a murderer, an adulterer, and a fornicator. A murderer, because his idolatry murders not a stranger or a personal enemy, but his own self, through the snares of his own error. His weapon is the offence done to God, and the number of blows are as many as his idolatries. He is an adulterer and a fornicator,

for he who serves false gods is doubtless an adulterer of truth, because all falsehood is adultery. So, too, he is sunk in fornication. For who that is a fellow-worker with unclean spirits, does not stalk in general pollution and fornication? And thus it is that the Holy Scriptures use the designation of fornication in their upbraiding of idolatry.

In exploring the intellectual background of idolatry, Tertullian explicitly refers to the terminology for images found in Plato [eidos, signifying ‘form’, and eidolon for ‘image’]. [30] He suggests there is a cognate pattern of meaning in his own language (Latin) which means that he regards an idol as a ‘formling’. He says that ‘every form or formling… claims to be called an idol’.

He reminds us that the prophet Enoch had predicted that:

the demons, and the spirits of the angelic apostates, would turn into idolatry all the elements, all the garniture of the universe, all things contained in the heaven, in the sea, in the earth, that they might be consecrated as God, in opposition to God…. The images of those things are idols, the consecration of the images is idolatry…. Ye who serve stones, and ye who make images of gold, and silver, and wood, and stones and clay, and serve phantoms, and demons, and spirits…and all errors not according to knowledge, shall find no help from them.

The reference to ‘errors not according to knowledge’ makes it clear that we are here essentially within a quasi-Platonic model of the world in which only apprehension of the ultimate form constitutes real knowledge – everything else represents illusion and error. And Tertullian has no difficulty in placing this interpretative scheme beneath the world view of the prophets and lawgivers of the Israelites who lived before Plato. [31]

The standard scholarly response to this would be to argue that Tertullian is retrojecting into antiquity a theological reading where no such understanding of the world existed. Yet without such a theology being present in the 8th and 7th centuries, we have little to explain the nature of the epochal religious struggles in the development of the religion of the Israelites. The phenomenological analysis of the history of religion in Israel leaves us with a struggle whose motive is essentially unfathomable, and which leaves evidential details unexplained.

So if, like Tertullian, we infer a philosophically based theology beneath the outward form of the religious history of the Israelites and their struggle with idolatry, how well does it fit? Is it broken as a frame, or does it infuse the evidence with life?

First, the question of the aniconic nature of Yahweh ceases to be a difficulty. It is aniconic because the definition of the deity places it beyond all imaging. This it has in common with Plato’s definition of the Good: as we found in the Sophist, the form of forms has no colour, shape – or indeed form. In this the god of the Israelites has the same nature and properties as the transcendent divine among the Assyrians, their principal antagonist to the north-east.

In the early part of the 1st millennium B.C.E., this aniconic divinity held principal place in a cultural context which sanctioned the use of cult images. The use of cult images in Israel might have been closely analogous with the practice in Assyria.

If these images (for example) served as the elements in a chain of images leading to the contemplation of Yahweh (as Plato would say, ‘looking to one thing’; a thing transcendent of all appearance), the removal of the images would necessitate the creation of a new way of worshipping Yahweh, and an alternative way of focussing the minds of the worshippers on the nature and power of the god. The alternative suggested at Exodus 20: 23-24, as already noted, is the altar of earth. In other words, sacrifice to Yahweh was the substitute form of engagement with the god.

There are several possible motives, stemming from the centrality of an aniconic divinity representing Being itself, for the proscription and removal of the images (it is unlikely that the reasons were simple): it could be that it was decided that the role of images in the cult of Yahweh ought to be reduced on the grounds that the proper focus of attention and worship ought to be the unchanging and unfathomable nature of Yahweh. Or, since the nature of Yahweh is to be beyond representation to the ultimate degree, it might have been argued that any representation in a cultic context would offer the danger of misleading the adherents of the cult. Another possibility is that representations within the cult involving the use of form to recall that which is utterly without form, which ought to be represented as a paradoxical phenomenon, might instead be represented as a contradictory practice, and as a species of error. In which case the proper course of action would be to remove all images from the cult.

Another possible scenario is that, given the former importance of the images to the functionality of the cult, those members who understood the point of having images in the cult of an aniconic deity, might have found themselves arguing the undesirability of images in public, but attempting to continue the cultic procedures and the worship of images in private.

It is one thing for a religion to have two views of its icons, however - one for the initiated priesthood, and another for the ignorant and ill-educated - but another altogether to try to remove cult images from all public view and use, yet keep them for private priestly worship. To have attempted this would very quickly have exposed the priesthood to charges of heresy and hypocrisy, and would have threatened the life of the cult. [32]

The likeliest explanation is that some faction of the cult of Yahweh (the one which eventually triumphed) came to believe that images were unacceptable in a cult which had as its focus an aniconic deity. Like statues themselves, which live and think, yet do not move, there was a paradoxical element in a religion which venerated a divinity which transcended form, and yet surrounded it in ritual which utilised a number of images. Unlike the Assyrian religion, the Israelites do not seem to have had a complex of myths around the idea of a trickster god, emphasising that one of the ways in which the transcendent nature of the divinity expresses itself is through actions and judgement which do not make sense to mortals. [33]

My own view is that the Israelites, for whatever reason, lost their understanding of Yahweh as a philosophically based concept, and ditched all cult images, without a consensus understanding of the cultic consequences of this action. The radical faction perceived only contradiction, not paradox, in the proximity of an aniconic divinity, and cult images.

The essential aniconic nature of Yahweh would be (on the face of things) defended by this development, but at the cost of demolishing a significant part of the supporting theology and the cultural model of Yahweh, in that a cult originally using images and forms to point to an aniconic deity would lose its former means of contact and continuity with that deity. The substitution of sacrifice for this continuity would break the connection between the world of appearances and the divinity, and images no longer would be understood as a way of recalling the divinity and its role in the world. [34]

If this interpretation is broadly correct, what we are looking at is not so much an evolutionary process, but a revolutionary one, which has had profound and long-lasting consequences

[1] Boden, Peggy Jean, The Mesopotamian Washing of the Mouth (Mis Pi) Ritual: An Examination of Some of the Social and Communication Strategies Which Guided the Development and Performance of the Ritual Which Transferred the Essence of the Deity Into Its Temple Statue. Ph.D Diss. Near Eastern Studies, The Johns Hopkins University. Pp 1-261, 1998.
[2] Early on Walker and Dick discussed working on two related publications – one (as Dick says) a haute vulgarisation on the making and dedication of the cult image in the Ancient Near East (Born in Heaven, Made on Earth) and also in Egypt, and secondly, a critical edition of the ritual mis pi in its various versions.
[3] Preston, James J. “Creation of the Sacred Image: Apotheosis and Destruction in Hinduism”. Pp. 9-30 in Gods of Flesh, Gods of Stone, ed. Joanne Punzo Waghorne and Norman Cutlet. 1995, Chamberberg, Penn.: Anima.
[4]The Christian struggle with idolatry has been extremely long, and biblical attacks on cult images have had an impact on the relationship between the West and cultures of the East, even in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Dick points out for example that when the East India Trading Company assumed the role of protector of India’s shrines in the mid-nineteenth century, there were denunciations in Parliament about the ‘idolatrous’ expenses for England in giving protection to cult images. Dick also mentions that scholars had difficulty explaining how an urbane and literate society such as India could still practice so-called ‘primitive idolatry’. In Born in Heaven, Made on Earth, Eisenbrauns, 1999 p ix.
[5] Op. cit., ppviii-ix. Citing the apocryphal Letter of Jeremiah, dating to the second or third centuries B.C.E., which ‘attacks the making and worship of the cult image as a mere ‘work of human hands’, which is contrasted with the ‘work of God’. This topos (“How can the product of human hands be a god?”) is at the core of the biblical assault on the cult image. How could the great ancient religions of Babylon and Egypt (and the Hinduism of modern India) explain that a statue crafted by human hands can embody the divine?’
[6] Greek eikonodoulos: "One who serves images"; also iconodulist or iconophile.
[7] Published originally (in German) in Die Inschriften Asarhaddons, Königs von Assyrien. AfO Beiheft. 9. Graz
[8]This is the essence of the practice of theurgy – the making of whatever it is that is essential to the divine, to the gods, and thus the creation of gods and goddesses. The results of the procedure is gods, not merely their images. Dick is of course well aware that Mesopotamian texts often do not distinguish between the god and the image of the god. He says [Born in Heaven, Made on Earth,  p32] ‘There is no question that cuneiform texts from Mesopotamia, both historical and religious, can refer to the statue as if it simply were the god himself/herself. The multiple peregrinations of Babylon’s statue of Marduk due to raids were often phrased as if the God Marduk went on a journey’. He instances a text from the reign of the Kassite king of Babylon Agumkakrime (1602-1585 B.C.E) which talks of Marduk’s return from captivity in Hana:

When the Great Gods told by their pure word Marduk the Lord of Esangila and of Babylon to return to Babylon, Marduk determined to return to Babylon…. I planned and paid close attention and made him ready to take back to Babylon; I supported Marduk who loves my reign. I consulted King Shamash through a lamb of the bārû priest.
[9]This way of thinking is common to both Mesopotamian and Greek models of the creation of man. For the Mesopotamians the world was created by lesser divinities. In the case of Plato’s description of the creation, the world is a copy, a moving image of eternity, and created by the demiourgos, after the pattern of unchanging eternity itself. For both cultures, this reflects the notion that the begotten world could not be created by the unbegotten divine directly.
[10] Barasch, Moshe Icon: Studies in the History of an Idea. New York: New York University Press, 1992.
and I sent to a far country to the land of Hana so that they might take Marduk and Sarpanitu who love my reign by the hand; and so I brought them back to Esangila and to Babylon. In the temple which Shamash carefully fixed (by oracle) I returned them.
[11] In his book Greek Religion, trans. John Raffian. Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 1985. Of course Greek literature contains many references to divine images. It would be a strange circumstance if divine statues in Greece were uniquely not associated with rituals for installation.
[12]  In Esarhaddon's case, toward the Abzu, which 'determines the destinies'.
[13] The former in Babylonian are referred to as mis pi rituals, and in Sumerian KA.LUH.U.DA. The latter are known as pit pi in Babylonian, and in Sumerian KA.DUH.U.DA).
[14] The Egyptian term for statue is ‘tut’. The name of Tutankhamun is read as ‘Living image of Amun’ – thus the term ‘tut’ for statue may also mean ‘image’.
[15] In Exodus 20:4, 23; 34:17; Leviticus 19:4; 26:1; Deuteronomy 4:15ff; and 27:15
[16]Born in Heaven, Made on Earth, pp1-2. Dohmen’s work was published in 1987 – Das Bilderverbot: Seine Entstehung und Seine Entwicklung im Alten Testament. 2nd. ed. BBB 62. Bonn: Athenäum.
[17] Mettinger, T. 'No Graven Image? Israelite Aniconism in Its Ancient Near Eastern Context.' ConBibOT 42. Stockholm: Alqvist & Wiksell, 1995.
[18] Dick suggests that earlier Israelite religion ‘probably tended toward henotheism or monolatry rather than monotheism.’ However this suggestion depends on the inference that there was an evolution in the pattern of Hebrew belief during the 1st half of the 1st Millennium B.C.E.
[19] Hendel, Ronald S. “The Social Origins of the Aniconic Tradition in Early Israel”. CBQ 50: 365-82.
[20] Psalm 132
[21] 1 Kings 6
[22] 1 Kings 8:7; 2 Chron 3:8ff.
[23] For the reason that images can become quickly more important than the ideas which they represent, and offer the danger of assimilation to other cults.
[24] 2 Kings 18:4.
[25] 2 Kings 22-23.
[26] However this identification may have been implicit in the conceptual model within which cult images made sense. As we have seen, modern translators are reluctant to recognise an ancient identification of gods with their images where their manufacture is concerned. This difficulty was present for commentators in antiquity also.
[27] We might ask how it was understood Yahweh can confer holiness on human beings. It is possible to accept this idea as a religious revelation. But we have already encountered an intellectual idea which provides a logical and rational basis for this kind of statement: the doctrine of wholes and totalities, referenced by both Pythagoras and Plato.
[28] According to D. Knapp in Untersuchungen zu Deut. 4. Ph.D Dissertation. Göttingen [no date]. Cited in Christoph Dohmen’s Das Bilderverbot: Seine Entstehung und Seine Entwicklung im Alten Testament. 2nd. ed. BBB 62. Bonn: Athenäum.
[29] Published in The Ante-Nicene Fathers, vol. iii.
[30] He does not use the more neutral ‘agalma’ which means ‘statue.’
[31] Knowledge has an ancient association with altars as well as statues, since the altar is a point of ritual contact with the divine.
[32] Such things do happen however. For example, Queen Elizabeth I is known to have attended Catholic Mass in private at least once, though she was the head of the Protestant Church of England which forbade them.
[33]The lamentations of Job indicate that the cult was aware that Yahweh necessarily transcended the capacity of its adherents to understand the divinity. Or at least that the nature of divinity was problematic for mortals.
[34] This might explain why the Hebrews came to read the action of Yahweh in the world in terms of events and history. The bibilical texts are however full of images, constantly echoed by those in other books.


  1. Dear Thomas,

    I don't see reference in this chapter, except obliquely in f.n.2 , to the critical edition of the text by Walker and Dick: The induction of the cult image in ancient Mesopotamia: the Mesopotamian Mīs Pî ritual / transliteration,
    translation, and commentary by Christopher Walker and Michael Dick.
    Helsinki : Neo-Assyrian Text Corpus Project, Institute for Asian and African Studies, University of Helsinki, 2001.
    State archives of Assyria literary texts, ISSN1457-9189



  2. Chuck,

    Thanks for your comment. This is a chapter in a book as it says at the start, and the references are for this chapter. I've not referenced their critical edition of the texts in this chapter. The full chapter list is available elsewhere on this site, and you will see that two of the chapters deal with the ritual tablets from Nineveh and Babylon. These rely heavily on the Walker and Dick critical edition.


    Thomas Yaeger.