One of the most frequently recurring themes in the Hebrew Bible, from beginning to end, is man’s disloyalty to God via idolatrous worship. Yet the fact that we do not worship idols, nor know anyone else who does so, challenges our ability to fully relate to this foundational text many of us learn daily.
Thanks is therefore due to Rabbi Reuven Chaim Klein for his dazzlingly encyclopedic presentation of this topic in “God versus gods” (Mosaica Press, 2018) and for a planned second volume now in the works. Reading this book will not only help better understand the Bible but should deepen our ability to genuinely understand our present world.
Indeed, a midrash dating from the geonic period foretells a comeback for idolatry in pre-messianic times, portraying the last king to rule the world prior to the final redemption as planting idolatrous trees and worshipping Baal. If this seems far-fetched, consider that New Age and neo-pagan cults have made a significant comeback in the past few decades, and that Gaia-appeasing language is nowadays freely mixed into presidential discussions about climate science and environmental policy. (And that is without taking into account the religion of Woke).
“God versus gods” tells the story of idolatry from its inception, from Adam’s grandson Enosh through the time that the Jewish Sages prayed for end to the idolatrous inclination at the start of the Second Temple period, including all of the disasters in between, which made them willing to pay a certain price for idolatry’s demise (see below). Along the way, the author provides an impressive panoply of rabbinic interpretation, including both early and late commentators, and a constant stream of linguistic and cultural contextual information – a feat of erudition requiring very wide learning.
For example, when learning that Abraham started off by worshiping the moon – until daybreak, when he witnessed the sun’s power trumping that of the moon – Rabbi Klein adds that the patriarch’s hometown was also a Babylonian cult center for moon worship, based on contemporary archeological findings. Abraham eventually concluded that the sun was also not worthy of worship, and indeed he and Isaac and Jacob fixed morning, afternoon and evening prayer times in a manner that would discredit the sun as a god.
Readers learn throughout that Jewish idolatry was frequently less bad than one might at first think, involving the deviant worship of God rather than seeking an alternative to God, and often by smaller numbers of Jews than one might at first assume from a non-careful reading of a Biblical passage. For example, the unprecedentedly evil Baal worship under the wicked King Ahab and his non-Jewish Sidonian wife Jezebel was not a populist movement, but rather imposed from the top down. Jezebel did not and could not persecute worshippers of Hashem because they were too numerous; in contrast, Baal worship was centered on one temple in Samaria, and after Jehu destroyed it, the Bible itself testifies to the eradication of idolatrous worship at that time.
The breakaway northern kingdom of Israel was an idolatrous polity throughout its 241-year history, yet it wasn’t each one of its evil kings that precipitated that kingdom’s fall to the Assyrians and the dispersion and loss of the 10 tribes, but a seemingly good deed that sealed the kingdom’s fate: When Hosea ben Elah finally removed the sentries blocking access to Jerusalem (after the Assyrians had carted off the golden calves that the wicked king Jeroboam had stationed in Beth El to divert Jews from pilgrimage to the capital), the people’s failure to take advantage of the access now given them aroused God’s fury.
From this, and other sources developed by Rabbi Klein, we learn a lesson not only about the age of idolatry but about our own times – namely, that one of the repercussions of idolatry and its modern equivalents is a dulled conscience. He cites a midrash about the elders worshiping idols in “hidden places,” which notes that since nobody objected, they shifted their worship to “behind the door.” When nobody objected to this, they moved to the rooftops. Hearing no objection, they brought their idols to their gardens. When nobody protested, they began worshiping on mountaintops. Since nobody protested, they placed their altars upon the furrows of the field. From there, idolatry moved front and center to every crossroad, every street, every urban square, the suburbs and ultimately to the Holy of Holies of the Temple, now ensuring its destruction and the exile of the two remaining tribes of Judah and Benjamin to Babylon.
After this entire terrible history, which Rabbi Klein records in colorful detail, when given the chance to return from exile and rebuild the Temple, the Sages of Israel beseeched God to remove the desire to worship idols. There is no free lunch, as the economists tell us, so we lost prophecy in the exchange. The author offers numerous interpretations of this trade-off, which all help to understand the lost formerly powerful attraction to idolatry. One of these interpretations, advanced by Menashe ben Israel, suggests that idolatry conveyed some sort of effective power, parallel to the power of prophecy to foretell the future. Consequently, pagans could use witchcraft or other dark forces to inform them of the future as well. He explains that such contaminating spirits still exist in Eastern lands based on Abraham’s gifts to the children he had with Keturah, even when general access to occult powers was curtailed.
Yet while Easterners apparently still see results from idolatry, its curtailment had a powerful secularizing effect on Westerners. Whereas the whole world in Biblical times deeply felt a sense of the transcendental, be it through worship of God or via idols, the Western world following the abolition of the idolatrous urge came to believe in man. With this dulling of spiritual awareness came an emphasis on physical pleasures and the replacement of idols with various isms. Rabbi Klein promises his forthcoming sequel will offer a comprehensive discussion of the ideas and actions which are modern-day equivalents of idolatry, so now is the time to read this unique and original first volume.
Gil Weinreichis a writer living in Jerusalem. His latest book is A Torah Guide to Personal Finance.