Spiritual Thoughts - Sept. 22, 2020

The idol factory: counterfeiting God’s nature (Part II)

In Part I of “The idol factory,” I examined the Hebrew prophet Isaiah’s “most important” passage, Is. 44:9-20, which entails Isaiah’s attack on the making and worshipping of idols, and in Part II today, I will examine how the prophet offers a revelatory, yet satirical, attack on the industry of idol-fabrication.

The prophet’s descriptions such as “human form,” “figure of a man,” or the “beauty of a man” satirizes the idol-maker’s attempt to counterfeit God’s character in three ways. First, according to Strong’s Concise Dictionary of the Hebrew Bible, the Hebrew word for “idol” throughout the passage in Isaiah means “form” or “shape,” and these forms and shapes can mean “beauty,” or “images of beauty.” Therefore, this idol-maker has counterfeited our humanity, but a humanity created by God.

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Second, in Second Isaiah’s Idol-Fabrication Passages, Holter states, “Some interpreters have suggested that Isaiah by using the expression [figure of a man] here in v.13b could be making an oblique reference to Gen 1:26 f., and the creation of man” (165). Likewise, in Gen. 1:26, we read, “Let us make man in our image,” which the Hebrew word for “image” here is tselem (Strong #6754), but it is also the same Hebrew word used in Exodus 20:4 “not make unto thee any graven image, as it is used again in Lev. 26:1 “make you no idols nor graven image.” Therefore, Isaiah chose the same Hebrew word for “image,” as is used in Ex. 20:4 & Lev. 26:1, yet for a different purpose — to reveal how these idol makers exploited our image for their counterfeiting purpose.

Third, by exploiting technology — another of God’s creation — the fabricator counterfeited God's nature into these idols. Hence, the prophet described an ironic parallel between Yahweh and the idol-fabricator, and between the idol and Yahweh’s creation. In doing so, the prophet revealed how the idol-fabricator is even a counterfeit of Yahweh, and how the idol is a counterfeit of Yahweh’s creation — us!

As Gen. 1:26 testifies to the fact that our “human form” is a witness of God’s nature, so the prophet ridiculed the idol-fabricator’s attempt to be a counterfeit of Yahweh. For instance, Holter explains that when “Isaiah uses it (Hebrew for their witnesses) in 44:9, the connotations of the word emphasize that the idol-fabricators desire their idols to such a degree that these have become their incarnate” (135). Furthermore, Holter clarifies what “witness” means when the author states, “The underlying idea of the text is not that the idols would need any witness, but that these idols themselves give witness about their makers….”(136). Therefore, the prophet formed his own ironic parallel between Yahweh and the idol-fabricator to show us how these idol makers are a cheap imitation of our magnificent creator-God.

However, according to Holter, the prophet’s choice to develop this parallel reveals his strategy to ridicule the goals of the idol-fabricator. “By contrasting the idol-fabricator with Yahweh, he [Isaiah] manages, not only to ridicule the idol-fabricator – which presumably is an important motive – but also to point out how the idol-fabricator within idolatrous religion has placed himself in a place exclusively belonging to Yahweh… The result in v.13 is that the idol being made actually resembles its maker” (156-7).

Isaiah’s satirical attack on this idol making industry shows us how crucial his literary skills were in serving his purpose. According to Abrams, satire is “the literary art of diminishing or derogating a subject by making it ridiculous and evoking toward it attitudes of amusement, contempt, scorn, or indignation” (187). We observe Isaiah’s satire in numerous ways, but two examples will suffice for now. First, in verse 10, the prophet displayed contempt for this “image” because it can “do no good.” In the NKJV, the translation reads, “good for nothing”, “vain or vanity,” “no value” (play on profit in v.10), or “thing of nought.” (Strong #457).

Second, Isaiah mocked the people of Israel for worshipping wood when the prophet resorted to scorn and sneering phrases. For example, in v.19, the prophet’s scorn is noticeable. “Shall I fall down before a block of wood? v.20 He feeds on ashes; a deluded mind has led him astray…” (Emphasis added). In God & The Soul, Peter Geach claims this “deluded mind” is evidence of human folly. “Both ideas [witchcraft and idolatry] involve an exceedingly strange combination of beliefs as to what lies inside and what lies outside the limits of human folly” (103).

The important point we should all know now is that an idol-making industry exists today, and like its OT and NT counterparts, the one today uses technology to deceive God’s people, yet on a far larger scale. Accordingly, in the Old Testament Prophets For Today, Carolyn Sharp argues, “technology can enable the dissemination of false information, and it makes possible the exploitation of far larger numbers of people than would have been possible before our global age… Here, the prophet can help. For the prophet is a truth teller” (2). Likewise, billions of people today devote countless hours energized by their technological devices such as computers and cell phones, — like the idols of the past — they too have humanlike qualities, and according to Walter Brueggeman in The Prophetic Imagination, these electronic devices make up a cult based on the “American ethos of consumerism” (1).

In light of the relationship between technology and idol making, Isaiah’s detailed description reveals how these idol makers became so successful; they exploited technology to engineer a counterfeit of God’s power, energy, strength, and God’s image in us. Whether it be “in human form, with human beauty,” or by the humanlike qualities attached to the computer, idol-fabrication has tragic consequences for all of humanity, but will God send his prophets to warn us of the dire consequences of worshipping these concrete material objects today? And if God does commission His prophets to do so, will His people actually listen?

Bibliography: Abrams, M.H. A Glossary of Literary Terms. 6th edition, New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, College Publishers, 1993.

Gilbert McInnis is completing his master’s degree in Divinity through Queen’s College, Memorial University, and currently is an assistant professor and the co-ordinator of the writing centre for the University College of the North, Thompson. His recent book “Kurt Vonnegut: Myth and Science in a Postmodern World” is published by Peter Lang Inc. See his Amazon Author’s website for more works by him. 

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