Picture of a statue of the God Nabu
Biblical history,  Houseful of Chaos Press,  religion

When Gods Made of Wood and Gold Came Alive

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Think of all the stories where we know the end before we get there. There are stories where we know the underdog will win. We know which couple will become ‘an item.’ Try for a moment to picture one of those stories, and imagine what it would look like to someone from a cultural context that told them the opposite results should happen. Maybe the woman should stick to her boring fiancé instead of leaving him for the funny more caring person. Maybe the underdog should come in last because really, he’s an underdog for a reason, right? Some stories are so predictable and prewritten that it is hard to switch them around in our heads and imagine a world in which the opposite situation would be seen as correct. Imagine the story of Cinderella where the girl gets all dressed up by the fairy godmother, goes to the ball, and the prince meets a real princess there and totally ignores Cinderella? So she goes back to her drudgery, where she spends the rest of her life. Imagine thinking that was the right way for the story to be because class boundaries, destiny, duty or something.

The reason I’m thinking about stories turned upside down is that I’m reading the book “Images of Others” by Nathaniel B. Levtow. It talks about the Biblical criticism of the use of religious statues, and I’m finding it both hard and fascinating to approach the story the way the book is challenging me to approach it. I live in a context in which it seems inevitable and normal that people would have written criticizing statue-based worship with lines joking about how the statues are built by human hands, made out of wood and gold and unable to do anything. It takes deliberate effort to pull myself out of that mindset and see what Levtow explains about the context of that criticism. It takes deliberate effort to imagine first a world where the worshipping of statues makes sense. I can do it, but it is work.

In some Mesopotamian cultures, after a statue was built, it would be moved down to a garden near a river. The workmen would all declare that they did not build the statue. They would say the statue built itself or that a god had built it. I let myself imagine the times when a piece of writing or a work of art seems to flow through me. A character in a novel writes itself. Why couldn’t a statue? Why should I judge them for saying the statue creates itself?

Then the statue is taken to the temple where it will be enthroned. It is declared a god, told that it belongs among the gods. At various steps in its journey, prayers will be said to open the god’s eyes, ears and mouth. Prayers will be made to encourage the god to be able to give prophecies, to guide the people to wisdom.

At the church I used to go to, the minister would say “let the words of my mouth and the meditate of all our hearts be pleasing in your sight, oh lord.” How much harder is it to imagine people praying that the building and its central icon be pleasing, that it bring guidance to them, that the rituals performed within it be powerful and the questions asked within it be answered truthfully by the priests and diviners.

I can look at a Christmas tree and see it not as a plastic replica of a tree wrapped in a string of small lights and covered in an odd assortment of crafts and purchased decorations but as a symbol of a holiday and our hopes for our commitment to creating a holiday for ourselves. I can understand that Christmas itself is a ritual we recreate each year. In itself, it is nothing, unless we create it. So too, would their celebrations be.

The Akitu festival could not be celebrated when the statues of Marduk had been removed from Babylon by the Assyrians. For twenty years, the priests recorded that loss. I imagine that as Christmas cancelled, not because the festivals were similar but because they are both communal holidays. Christmas is personal but also communal. Our economics, our school holidays, etc, are tied in with it. Stores rely on it. So too, the twelve day Akitu festival play a significant role in society, and the statues that were part of that helped make it possible. It helped organize their world.

Believing a statue ca be more than the wood and gold it is made out of does not seem so strange, when I think about it. I think of the Catholic belief in transubstantiation, believing that the bread and wine become more than what they are. I think of how a child’s toy becomes more than just cloth and filling. A wedding ring becomes more than just metal.

Ancient gods could be captured. If a city fell, both the victors and the defeated would say that the city’s gods had chosen to belong to the victors. The defeated would hope that someday their gods would return to them. The victors would take the gods home, knowing the strength of the gods was now added to their own. Someday they might return the gods with pomp and festivity, making it obvious that the gods had chosen then to escort the god back to the captured city, and that by returning the god to that city they acquire even more glory and prestige.

The Biblical writers said that God allowed the Ark of the Covenant to be captured by the Philistines and then he orchestrated its return. The Biblical writers also said that God allowed the Babylonians to defeat Jerusalem, destroying his temple there and that later he anointed Cyprus the Great of Persia to send people back to restore his temple there. Even without anthropomorphized statues, the ark and temple both served as seats of God’s power that could leave and be restored much as the statues were.

The argument that Nathaniel Levtow makes in his book is that the Biblical passages against statues was not inevitable. The Jewish people would have understood the power of the statues and their significance in society. It wasn’t a common sense criticism they were making, and the Mesopotamian people who worshipped the statues weren’t foolish people. He argues the passages are deliberate political parodying of the rituals by which the statues were given power, but in the Bible passages they are negating those powers, declaring them dead. He says the audience would have been other Judeans in exile, and it was part of them constructing their identity as a separate people, rejecting the authority of the Babylonian kings as much as of their gods. They will not accept that their conquered status means the power of their god goes over to their enemy, but that the whole system of understanding is wrong. It is a hard concept to grasp from this side of history, where their writings have since become scripture and their ideas a part of our philosophical systems even when we’re not part of the specific religion.

Picture credit: Osama Shukir Muhammed Amin FRCP(Glasg), CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons. Thanks!

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