Beyond The Wand

How the Bible writers made straw men out of pagans

The Hebrew people seemed to do a lot of things just for the sake of setting themselves apart from their neighbors.  For example, they weren’t allowed to blend two types of fibers, and they couldn’t go around breeding mules.  While these laws may seem frivolous and silly, these laws probably had symbolic value as well - they learned early on that you just don’t mix things, no matter how trivial they seem.

Another way the Hebrew culture set itself apart from everyone else was by forbidding the use of idols.  Religious law made it an offense to create or worship a statue of a deity.

Now, what’s interesting is how the Bible frequently depicts so-called idolatry: people literally worshiping statues.  For example:

Isaiah 2:8 - Their land also is full of idols; they worship the work of their own hands, that which their own fingers have made.

Isaiah 42-17: They shall be turned back, they shall be greatly ashamed, that trust in graven images, that say to the molten images, `Ye are our gods.’

Jeremiah 50:2 - “Declare ye among the nations, and proclaim and set up a standard; proclaim and conceal not. Say, `Babylon is taken, Bel is confounded, Merodach is broken in pieces! Her idols are confounded, her images are broken in pieces!’

Micah 5:13 - Thy graven images also will I cut off, and thy standing images out of the midst of thee; and thou shalt no more worship the work of thine hands.

2 Kings 17:41 - So these nations feared the LORD, and also served their graven images, both their children and their children’s children: as did their fathers, so do they unto this day.

And it’s not just in the Old Testament/Tanakh, either.  For example, somebody - either Paul of Tarsus or the writer of Acts - decided to take a jab at the Greeks and Romans in a slightly different way:

Acts 17: 22-24 - Then Paul stood in the midst of Mars’ Hill and said, “Ye men of Athens, I perceive that in all things ye are too superstitious.  For as I passed by and beheld your devotions, I found an altar with this inscription: `To the Unknown God’. Whom therefore ye worship in ignorance, Him I declare unto you.  God who made the world and all things therein, seeing that He is Lord of Heaven and earth, dwelleth not in temples made with hands.

According to the writer of Acts, Paul found an altar inscribed with “To the Unknown God,” then declared that “the Unknown God” was in fact Yahweh/Jesus and that they had been ignorantly worshiping him all along.

However, there was no such altar.  There were altars to unknown gods, as in the plural.  The Romans, having conquered a huge empire, were aware that there were a ton of gods they didn’t know much about, and likely as not they didn’t want to offend any of them.  These altars were as much for Thor, Amaterasu, and Chango as they were for Yahweh.  (Read more here.)

And the author of Revelation takes some potshots at statues:

Revelation 9:20 - And the rest of the men, who were not killed by these plagues, yet repented not of the works of their hands, that they should not worship devils, and idols of gold and silver, and brass and stone and of wood, which can neither see nor hear nor walk;

It’s clear that these writers either didn’t know or didn’t care about the difference between pagan gods and statues of pagan gods.  As far as they’re concerned in their writings, they’re one and the same.

But thanks to archaeological research and translations of documents written by the very people slammed as statue-worshipers, we now know that they never worshiped statues any more than the Jews worshiped a golden box with cherubim on top.  Their rich and elaborate mythologies make it clear that just like Yahweh and his angels, their gods were also believed to inhabit celestial realms.

In other words, these writers made a straw man out of the pagans by painting them as people who worshiped statues rather than people who made statues representing the gods they worshiped.

Now, I’m not really qualified to say whether this was more likely to be deliberate political slander or simple human error.  Either way, the effect would have been largely the same - understanding that other people were such idiots that they worshiped statues of all things as gods must have made ancient Jews and Christians feel very superior indeed.