People in history

I was recently asked to comment on an article by Israel Finkelstein, which discussed the history of Ancient Israel. As could be expected, the article had some good points, reference to archaeological conclusions, declarations of scholarly consensus where no consensus exists, provocative language and was clearly in line with his customary perspective.
What I had already noted when I previously read his material, or listened to his presentations, again was patently clear in this article: Israel Finkelstein does not have much regard for people in history. For him history is a slow, social process, that has to be explained through social models. Therefore, intentionality – the intentional influence on history by particular people or people groups – has no place in our reconstruction of history. He certainly is not the only academic to take this approach. Indeed, he hardly deigns it worthwhile to quote anyone – except in derisive terms – who takes a different approach. Therefore, the Biblical narratives of the ancestors have to be seen as myths referring to people groups, nearly as allegories for social processes.
To a certain extent an approach that leaves the role of particular people out of history is given through the archaeological material itself: for even though archaeological material was left behind by specific people, we do know little about them, so we have to speak about them in the most general terms. But does that have to be the principal stance towards history?
The ancients clearly didn’t think so. For them history involved people, heroes and villains that rose to the occasion or failed to do so. That’s the view across ancient historians, including my favourite classical author – Tacitus. Yes, people reflected their time. The ancient historians are clear about that. Leaders or those that rose above the mass to make it into the annals of history, did not exist in a vacuum. But nor were they just representatives of an unavoidable social process. People acted, lived up to expectations. Their intentions succeeded, failed, or had results they never anticipated. Actions matter. Attitudes matter. Words matter. People matter.

A similar view of history persisted to a greater or lesser extent throughout the ages. Alongside the new social processes perspective from the 18th century, the focus on key historical figures became quite prominent in the 19th century. It is regarded less favourably at the moment. It somehow seems unscientific, too simplistic.
But can history really disregard the struggles of individuals? I do not think so. Our modern view of history is a valuable corrective counter-point to the previous focus on leaders. But by subsuming everything under social processes, which are defined more by our current worldview than the worldviews of past people, we also run the risk of severely distorting history, and misunderstanding ancient narratives, which indeed did focus on particular leaders.

We have to grasp the importance of people in history. Of course, we can never fully know the various influences on historical events, just as little as we can fully understand what’s happening in the present. We always have only a partial view of history, seeing it from a particular perspective. Much of history is hidden from our view, goes unnoticed. Even extraordinary people are propelled into influential positions by events far beyond their control. But that does not mean that their actions were not intentional, nor that their effect on history inconsequential. What people do has far-reaching historical effects, even if historians do not always have access to these actions.
People have a place in history and so do the narratives about them.

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Pottery reconstruction

While I was writing my dissertation I was wishing again and again that more archaeological excavations would restore pottery and give a detailed report on the pottery found. For only by restoring the pottery can we know how many vessels of a certain type were found in any space, and what exactly the pottery looked like. I calculated the capacity of many storage jars, but that was only possible by using profiles of the vessels. That may no not be fully accurate, but still better than estimating capacity of jars by comparing them to the few restored jars. For storage capacity can vary considerably, and only be having a sufficient amount of comparative jars, can we estimate the range of capacities and shapes of those storage jars.

This jar had an accident a few thousand years ago. It needs a few bandaids to hold together.

To determine the date of pottery, it is often sufficient to find a sherd that clearly comes from a certain time. But if you want to know how the pottery was used by the people who lived there, restoration is important.

And that is what I’m doing this season. Instead of excavating more archaeological features, I am in a room for hours on end, trying to piece together old jars, bowls and jugs from the thousands of pieces they were broken into thousands of years ago. It is a slow process, requiring much patience and concentration. While there can be the reward of a nicely restored jar and all the pieces finally fitting together, most of the time it is just tedious. I listen to podcasts and music, but the reason I keep going is the eventual end result – the possibility to say more about the lives of people in this town of Ancient Judah.

But even in this apparently methodical activity, there is quite some interpretation: At what time do you give up and no longer search for that missing piece? Which pieces do you see as largely whole, which as just fragments? Do you determine that some sherds must have belonged to the same vessel, even though the connecting piece is missing; or where they two separate vessels, of which the opposite parts are no longer present? How much information do you give on the different pottery pieces?
All these things are not always clear. A methodical approach will limit arbitrary decisions, but it cannot eliminate all uncertainties. All those matters, in turn, affect interpretation of the finds and the archaeological site as a whole.

See also my previous post on technical matters of pottery restoration.

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The freedom and responsibility of Biblical Studies


Recently, I summarized a theme in the Old Testament and was told that I could not express it in that way, because it is not how contemporary theologians would address it. I replied that I was not primarily stating a current theological position, but rather describing the a viewpoint from Ancient Israel as expressed in the Old Testament. As such, my treatment was considered permissible. That gives us, as Biblical scholars, immense freedom. For we don’t have to necessarily present the results of our study in the language and concepts of contemporary theology, which is very reliant on current worldviews. Rather, we have the ability to show the stark contrast between the worldview of the Bible and current worldviews.

The Bible as a canonical book is contested, because our interpretation of it affects directly how we think and live, what we hold most dear. But if we take a step back and rather describe what it meant for the people at the time, this is often less contested, because it is not absolute, not the full meaning of the text. It also allows us to interpret the Bible without necessarily attacking or supporting prevalent ideologies today. That is the freedom of Biblical Studies.

But alongside, there also comes responsibility. For Biblical Studies does affect our view of the current world. First of all, it affects our view of the past and our history always informs the present. And then, the Bible remains a canonical book, even if it is interpreted as literature or in its historical context. Therefore, those involved in Biblical Studies have to work hard to be truthful, to be as careful as they possibly can in their research. They have the responsibility not to sensationalize through controversial headlines. In particular, Biblical scholars should be careful not to take one part of the Bible and absolutize it as the Biblical view. Any overall claims need to be seen in light of the whole canon. For example, the Bible cannot be described as an essentially violent book with reference to a few passages, or as a book promoting the emancipation of women with reference to a few other passages. Different parts of the Bible and their message can and should be highlighted, but they must be seen in the light of the Bible as a whole.
While Biblical scholars should bring out the meaning of texts in their original context, this has to be read by theologians within a tradition of interpretation. Biblical studies can challenge common assumptions, but theology cannot stop at repeating a particular viewpoint from 3,000 or 2,000 years ago. It has to be seen in today’s context, not by letting today’s context override the witness of the past, but by intelligently engaging with it. For the church that always also means seeing texts from the centre of its being, from Jesus, and the centre of its confession, that is the death and resurrection of Jesus and the salvation humans achieved through that. That may be more difficult for some themes or passages than for others.
Maybe, if we pursue Biblical Studies and its interaction with theology in such a frame, it can be less confrontational.

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Bibleworld in Rotorua

Recently I visited a relatively small, but very good museum Bibleworld in Rotorua, New Zealand. It is one of the few places in New Zealand, where people can get information about Ancient Israel. While Bibleworld has several artefacts from New Testament times and the Ancient Near East, its particular strength is in the many models that allow visitors to visualize life in Ancient Israel and Roman Judea.

The museum starts with the Bronze Age, with a model of tent-life in the times of Abraham. This is based very much on modern Bedouin tent life. In addition several Late Bronze artefacts are on display, such as the typical lamps. A model of the Tabernacle gives an impression of the sanctuary.

A model of a row of Iron Age four-room houses depicts city life. The elaborate model of an Iron Age city under siege gives a good idea of ancient warfare. It is clearly based on the depiction of Lachish in Assyrian reliefs found at the palace of Sennacherib.

Other Old Testament models include an overview of Jerusalem and a kit-set model of the Jerusalem Temple.

The model of New Testament Jerusalem is more elaborate and detailed, also clearly reflecting the greater knowledge about the city in that time period. A good model of Herod’s temple is on display. A model of a 1st century tomb, both as seen from the inside and the outside, gives a good overview of burial practices. The model of a typical 1st century Galilean house apparently was the start of model-making at the museum and has progressed further.An exhibit of life-size mannequins in the uniforms of Roman soldiers shows the occupying force in Judea at the time of Jesus.

A large 3D map of Israel with important locations indicated by lamps gives an oversight of the Holy Land. There are dress-up clothes, toys for children, many informative signs, games, many more little treasures and even some locusts. There are also many replicas of famous inscriptions.

I was impressed by the amount of research that had gone into the models and clearly all the signage. The curators have a knack of sorting through the wealth of information available on Ancient Israel and presenting that information, which gives a good impression of the times. The museum does not dwell on the sensational, but rather shows that the background history of the Bible is real, that its stories do not take place in a mythical realm, but the real world, even though life at that time was very different from the life we know now.

While Bibleworld is not a big museum, an interested visitor should plan to spend well over an hour here and will come away with a good appreciation of the setting of the Bible.

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The aim of archaeology

During my archaeological studies at university I only got a cursory introduction to the history of the discipline. But we learned that it started mainly with the collection and subsequent classification of artefacts. Just as others in the early 19th century caught butterflies and catalogued them, so some scholars were interested in old man-made objects. This curiosity combined with the anthropological research into savages, which were now scientifically studied. As a result, anthropologists developed a classification of cultures. In the case of archaeology, such a classification of cultures proceeded on the basis of artefacts.

206city of David
In the case of Biblical archaeology, two further influences were often mentioned: the pilgrimage traditions, which encouraged the imagination, depiction and research into Biblical places; and the Biblical geography tradition, particularly the research by Edward Robinson, who identified many Biblical sites on the basis of linguistic and geographical considerations (he travelled to Palestine in 1841).

Imagine then my surprise then, when I found a far more developed discussion of the aims of archaeology in a short book published in 1845. In his Prolegomena to the Theology of the Old Testament (Prolegomena zur Theologie des Alten Testaments) my great-great-great-grandfather Gustav Friedrich Oehler discussed the interaction between Old Testament Theology and Biblical Archaeology. He uses the definition of de Wette (1814): the aim of Biblical Archaeology is to describe the specific natural and social state of the Israelite people. Oehler goes on to mention in particular the lifeways (Volksleben) and the conditions (Volkszustände) of a society as the main subjects of study for archaeology. Gustav Friedrich Oehler suggests that Biblical Archaeology is a discipline that is particularly close to Old Testament Theology as the whole of human life has to be considered if we want to have insights into the religious aspects of society.

Oehler mentions geography as an area of study that is far more important to Biblical Archaeology than to Old Testament Theology. Today, geographical considerations are probably seen as more important as scholars aim to work out differences in the geographical provenience of writings. For example, some passages in the Bible are seen as related to the Northern Kingdom of Israel, while others are seen as characteristically Judahite. But geography is indeed more important to archaeological than theological studies.

Such a wide scope of archaeology, which is not so much focused on the artefacts, but more on a study of ancient societies, has been important throughout the history of the discipline. But it seems this understanding of archaeology has been moved to the background throughout its history by focusing the narrative of its provenience and purpose on the artefacts and cultural classification. Maybe this is partly to the ascendancy of an understanding of archaeology that grew out of a particularly Anglo-American tradition, which disregarded the earlier European understanding.

Of course, the concentration on artefacts is important. The early archaeologies without doubt did not place sufficient importance on those artefacts, as there was not sufficient well-excavated data available. But through that they also avoided the temptation of exhausting archaeology in the study of the artefacts themselves. For past humans and societies need to be at the centre of archaeology.

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Those children of Israel of whom there is no memory

The apocryphal book of Sirach (Ecclesiasticus) contains a hymn to the ancestors of the Jews. It starts in chapter 44

Let us now sing the praises of famous men, our ancestors in their generations.
The Lord apportioned to them great glory, his majesty from the beginning.
There were those who ruled in their kingdoms, and made a name for themselves in their valor;

Some of them have left behind a name, so that others declare their praise.
But of others there is no memory, they have perished as though they had never existed;
they have become as though they had never been born, they and their children after them.
But these also were godly men, whose righteous deeds have not been forgotten. (NRSV)

And so I thought I would write a letter to those Jewish ancestors of whom there is no memory. Some of the scenes might have slight similarities with scenes in the book Daughter of Lachish, but that is because I wanted to portray life characteristic life situations both in the book and in this letter.

673Sunset_TelGoded
We want to remember you today, though we do not know your names, do not know what family you belonged to, do not know your life story. We may have excavated your house, but do not know it was your home. However, we do know that you lived, we can imagine your stories and we can give thanks for your lives.

We remember you, the farmer, who in December, when the early rains have softened the ground, leads the oxen out to plough the fields. You loosen the soil without turning the ground cover over. You have worked in the cold from the first light to dusk to grow food for your family. You worry that there will be no late rains. You worry that the wheat and barley, on which your family relies, will not grow. You fear that locusts will decimate the crop. Laden by the worries for your loved ones, the responsibility for your family, you work hard each day. And yet, when you come tired from the fields, you assemble your children and tell them stories of deliverance, sing psalms your father taught you and strain your eyes in the flickering light of an oil lamp to read from the only parchment your family possesses.

We remember you, the mother of five children, as you rise early in the morning to grind grain. You move the handstone back and forth in rhythmic motion as you have done most of the days of your life. Your arms, your knees have long been strained by the repeated pressure, your back bent. But you continue to wake early each morning to provide bread for your family. You teach your daughters the many household tasks; you teach your sons the care of animals; and you continue to love and advise all your children as they grow. You tell them of the great wonders the LORD has done, you teach them in the right ways.

We remember you, the head of your household, as you plead once more for the debt repayment to be postponed. You know what refusal will mean: the loss of the land that the LORD has given to your ancestors and which you intend to pass to your sons. But it is not to be. You are evicted, many of your possessions confiscated. And so you set out to seek a new existence – somewhere – far away from the support of your clan. Will you be able to feed your children? What future will there be for them? Can you still praise your God? And yet your call for justice is taken up by the prophets, echoes across the centureis and has inspired many to work for a just world. You should know that as you load the remaining possessions of your family on the back of an old donkey.

We remember you, the grieving mother, as you sit beside the still form of your child and see her life slip away. You cannot do anything against the sickness that is snatching your children, first the baby and now this one. The days of joy are past and only an unending time of lament seems to stretch before you. Who can comfort you? Who can ever dry your tears? You hear the faint breathing, you fell the hot forehead. You stay even though you know you cannot do anything more for her. You are with your child and try to give her the comfort that no-one can give to you. Was it you who spoke the words to God about flooding your bed with tears at night? Or did someone else say the words you could not say?

We remember you, the young defender of Judah, as you walk out of the vanquished town and lay your sword at the feet of your enemies. You know you have failed and you wonder whether your God has deserted you or was unable to protect you against the great gods of Babylon. You do not know what horrors you will face, whether you will be tortured here in this land or be taken into exile to a place you do not know. If this is Gods’ judgment, why this town, why you? You do not understand.

We remember you, the slave girl, who was carried from your home in Israel to the land of the two great rivers. Here you suffer the abuse of your master. You are disconnected from your people. And you know that you will never see your parents, your brothers or sister again. Any children you might have will be those of the man you abhor. And yet, you continue to hope, you continue to pray that you may return to the land of your birth, that the LORD will hear your cry and the cries of your people.

Yes, we remember you, our ancestors in the faith of whom there is no memory. And we believe that your lives have been gathered up in the love of our God. We believe that your lives counted on this earth. And across the millenia we want to thank you for your faithfulness.

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Idolatry in the Bible

In recent months I have noticed the concept of idolatry being quite frequently used in Christian (and maybe post-Christian) contexts. Sometimes it struck me as a bit odd, because sometimes what people were accusing as idolatry and therefore as wrong did not seem to me to be judged negatively in the Bible. It seems that generally the concept of idolatry was used to describe a state of giving allegiance, worship and ultimate importance to something which should not be given such ultimate importance. Matters that were considered idolatrous were family and marriage, the Bible, a supernatural and personal god, wealth, and fame.

Since I thought that idolatry was essentially a Biblical concept, I decided I’d better look at what the Bible says about it.

Most people would see the clearest form of a Biblical statement on idolatry in the second commandment of the ten commandments. So that’s where I started as well.
Exodus 20:4-6 and Deuteronomy 5:8-10 say:

“You shall not make for yourself an idol in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments.” (NIV)

But that’s not exactly what it says in the Hebrew. Rather Exodus 20:4 reads:

Do not make for yourself a carving (idol) [פֶסֶל ]or any likeness [תְּמוּנָה ] whether in the skies above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below the earth. (own translation).

The verb פָּסַל , which is from the same root as the noun, is also used, for example, for the process employed by Moses to carve the words of the ten commandments into stone (Exodus 34:1+4). Similarly it is used to describe the action of the craftsmen working the wood and stone for the temple (1 Kings 5:18; Hebrew 1 Kings 5:32). A carving (idol) [פֶסֶל ]is therefore a three-dimensional, probably often wooden, statue that somehow resembles aspects of the natural world, but probably refers to something beyond it.
Maybe it was a bit like this figurine, even though this one is from the later Persian Period:
oldman

The latest version of the NIV has recognised the inaccuracy of the word “idol” and replaced it with the word “image”. For through the word “idol” a lot of meaning gets imputed into the text, which it does not carry.

But how is this word “carving” [פֶסֶל ] otherwise used in the Old Testament?
One of the essential passages is Deuteronomy 4:15-20. Deuteronomy 4:-15-16:

And guard your life very carefully for you did not see any likeness [תְּמוּנָה ] on the day that the LORD spoke to you at the Horeb from the fire, so that you do not become corrupt and make for yourselves a carving [פֶסֶל ], a likeness [תְּמוּנָה ] of any image [סָמֶל ] of a male or female form. (own translation).

The injunction continues to add other creatures, which should not be made into an image. The people should not bow down to them nor serve them. It is clear that these images will cut off the relationship between the LORD and his people. Whether they are separate gods or just a way to worship the LORD, is not entirely clear. Even though the prohibition of making carvings is related to only having one God, it is not the same thing. Maybe it is my protestant heritage, but I would see the practices of having certain saintly images in Catholicism or even the icons in Orthodox Christianity as something that is more akin to the practices that are addressed in the second commandment.

The close association between serving other gods and carvings is also clear from Leviticus 26:1, which nevertheless sees a slight difference between them:

Do not make for yourself gods [אֱלִילִם ]or a carving (idol) [פֶסֶל ] or a standing stone [מַצֵּבָה ] and do not set up for yourself a stone with an image and put it into your land to bow down before it, because I am the LORD your God.

In Deutero-Isaiah the idea of worshipping an image is mocked:

To whom, then, will you compare God? What image [דְּמוּת ] will you compare him to?
As for a carving (idol) [פֶסֶל ] a craftsman casts it and a goldsmith overlays it with gold and beats refined silver.
Someone too poor to present such an offering selects wood that will not rot. He looks for a skilled craftsman to set up a carving (idol) [פֶסֶל ] that will not topple. (own translation) Isaiah 40:18-20

The greatness of God is compared to the worthless carvings. Here, the idea that they are just images, just carvings is important. The desire of humans to have an image to worship is criticized and contrasted with the God who sustains and directs all creation. For Deutero-Isaiah there is just one god, and all the other images or idols humans worship are just human needs and wishes transferred onto a carving.

The relationship between foreign gods and the carvings is still maintained in Nahum 1:14:

The LORD has given a command concerning you [Nineveh]: there will not be sown from your name or from the house of your god [אֱלֹהִים]; I will destroy the carving [פֶּסֶל] and the covering; I will prepare your grave, for you are vile. (own translation)

It seems then that in the Old Testament carvings / idols [פֶסֶל ] are images with some divine aspects attributed to them. They may be understood as some divine aspect of the LORD, or as some lesser powers of the heavenly realm, or as the manifestation of other gods, including the gods of other nations. But the image aspect is the one that is very clear and also clearly described throughout the Old Testament.

So how do we get from these carvings or images to idols?
Well, one of the steps is probably the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament. The second commandment in Exodus 20:4 and Deuteronomy 5:8 contains the word idol:

Do not make for youself an idol [εἴδωλον ] or any likeness [ὁμοίωμα ] whether in the sky above or on the earth below or in the waters below the earth. (own translation)

What is interesting is that only once more does the Septuagint translate carving [פֶסֶל ] as idol [εἴδωλον ]. Otherwise the Hebrew word carving [פֶסֶל ] is always translated as carving [γλυπτὸν].
For example, Nahum 1:14 reads:

The LORD has decreed over you lest you sow from your name or from the house of your god [θεός].I will annihilate the carvings [γλυπτὰ ] and its molten metal; I will place your grave, so that it reaches quickly. (own translation)

I am not sure why the Septuagint uses idol [εἴδωλον ] for the second commandment. But through it, it has shaped the interpretation of the Old Testament.

The Septuagint has affected the New Testament, not least in the Greek language, phrases and vocabulary its authors used. It is interesting that the New Testament does not use the word carving [γλυπτὸν], but the word “idol” [εἴδωλον ]. The words “idolatry” and “idolater” are frequently used.

What we do find in the New Testament is an understanding of idols and idolatry that is quite similar to that expressed in Isaiah. The New Testament book that deals most specifically with the issue of idols is the First Letter to the Corinthians. I’ll quote the entire chapter 8 of 1 Corinthians:

1 Now about food sacrificed to idols: We know that “We all possess knowledge.” But knowledge puffs up while love builds up. 2 Those who think they know something do not yet know as they ought to know. 3 But whoever loves God is known by God.
4 So then, about eating food sacrificed to idols: We know that “An idol is nothing at all in the world” and that “There is no God but one.” 5 For even if there are so-called gods, whether in heaven or on earth (as indeed there are many “gods” and many “lords”), 6 yet for us there is but one God, the Father, from whom all things came and for whom we live; and there is but one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom all things came and through whom we live.
7 But not everyone possesses this knowledge. Some people are still so accustomed to idols that when they eat sacrificial food they think of it as having been sacrificed to a god, and since their conscience is weak, it is defiled. 8 But food does not bring us near to God; we are no worse if we do not eat, and no better if we do.
9 Be careful, however, that the exercise of your rights does not become a stumbling block to the weak. 10 For if someone with a weak conscience sees you, with all your knowledge, eating in an idol’s temple, won’t that person be emboldened to eat what is sacrificed to idols? 11 So this weak brother or sister, for whom Christ died, is destroyed by your knowledge. 12 When you sin against them in this way and wound their weak conscience, you sin against Christ. 13 Therefore, if what I eat causes my brother or sister to fall into sin, I will never eat meat again, so that I will not cause them to fall. (NIV)

Here idols and foreign gods are linked. But they are essentially nothing. They cannot be God, because there is only one God. And yet, idols can draw people away from God. It seems that the aspect of the image was not quite as strong any more, instead the concept of other gods, who really are not God, comes more to the fore. Maybe the New Testament also belittles other gods by calling them just idols, just vain images, rather than other powers over against the one true God.

The Council of Jerusalem was not quite as philosophical about idols. When the leaders of the fledgling church decided that circumcision was not required for non-Jewish converts, they nevertheless added:

Instead we should write to them, telling them to abstain from food polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, from the meat of strangled animals and from blood. Acts 15:20 (NIV)

Christians, then, are not to be involved in idolatry, but they need not fear idols, because they know that they are nothing. Nevertheless, Paul warns that associating with idols also means associating with demons (1 Corinthians 10), with something that is against God, even if it is not in any sense an opponent of God, because it is not God.

We need to mention another aspect of idols in the New Testament. In the New Testament idolatry is considered a moral failing, along with other moral failings to which people of this world succumb.
Let’s start with 1 Corinthians again:

I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people— not at all meaning the people of this world who are immoral, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters. In that case you would have to leave this world. But now I am writing to you that you must not associate with anyone who claims to be a brother or sister but is sexually immoral or greedy, an idolater or slanderer, a drunkard or swindler. Do not even eat with such people. 1 Corinthians 5:9-11 (NIV)

Galations 5:19-21 is similar:

The acts of the flesh are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God. (NIV)

Here idolatry is part of the list of sins, which are expressions of our sinful nature. But it is not seen as the fundamental attitude from which such sins spring. Rather, idolatry is one of the many. These are contrasted with the fruits of the Spirit. The moral failing that idolatry is most often connected with in the New Testament is sexual immorality. Time and again, the New Testament warns against these dangers and expressions of humanity’s sinful nature. While images of gods no doubt were also prevalent during the time of the New Testament, one particular issue was the consumption of food offered to idols.

Overall, idolatry according to the Bible is the depiction in graphic form of something as divine. It is also the participation and reveling in a cult towards these false aspects of the divine. And it often expresses itself together with other actions that are against God’s commandments, particularly sexual immorality.

According to the Bible, therefore, idolatry is not “giving undue worship and importance to something that should not receive such worship and importance”. That is a later abstraction, an abstraction, that has been helped by vocabulary.

But there is a text in the New Testament, which does seem to connect the concepts somewhat. That is Matthew 6:24:

No one can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and Mammon.

Here is a personified opponent of God in the form of wealth. And from the context it is clear that the texts asks us not give more importance to something other than God. But we should not take the personification aspect too far. Mammon is not the name of a deity or demon, but rather just an Aramaic word for wealth. It is therefore not really appropriate to see these verses in the context of idolatry. Rather, they are about placing our trust, about finding our security, in false promises and not in God. I don’t think that the Bible would see wealth as idolatry, but rather as misplaced trust and therefore, like idols, something that takes us away from God.

Some modern concepts of idolatry have very little connection to any Biblical concept of idolatry and even less to the second commandment. We need to recognize that difference and also challenge people who use the language of idolatry to clarify what concept they are referring to.

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