In preparation for the Jewish New Year where the kingship of God is proclaimed, we re-explore the essence of the prohibition of Idol Worship and its opposite, the image of God.
Recorded live at TCS, The Conservative Synagogue of Westport Connecticut we come to the surprising conclusion that from the perspective of the earliest biblical texts, the prohibition of Idol worship was less important than the positive injunction for mankind to serve as the Tzelem or Image of God.
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If the rejection of idolatry is the essence of the Biblical project, why does it not appear in the Genesis account of the founders?
But Didn’t Abraham destroy his father’s idols?
בראשית רבה ל״ח
(יג) וַיָּמָת הָרָן עַל פְּנֵי תֶּרַח אָבִיו (בראשית יא, כח), רַבִּי חִיָּא בַּר בְּרֵיהּ דְּרַב אַדָא דְּיָפוֹ, תֶּרַח עוֹבֵד צְלָמִים הָיָה, חַד זְמַן נְפֵיק לַאֲתַר, הוֹשִׁיב לְאַבְרָהָם מוֹכֵר תַּחְתָּיו. הֲוָה אָתֵי בַּר אֵינַשׁ בָּעֵי דְּיִזְבַּן, וַהֲוָה אֲמַר לֵהּ בַּר כַּמָּה שְׁנִין אַתְּ, וַהֲוָה אֲמַר לֵיהּ בַּר חַמְשִׁין אוֹ שִׁתִּין, וַהֲוָה אֲמַר לֵיהּ וַי לֵיהּ לְהַהוּא גַבְרָא דַּהֲוָה בַּר שִׁתִּין וּבָעֵי לְמִסְגַּד לְבַר יוֹמֵי, וַהֲוָה מִתְבַּיֵּשׁ וְהוֹלֵךְ לוֹ. חַד זְמַן אֲתָא חַד אִתְּתָא טְעִינָא בִּידָהּ חָדָא פִּינָךְ דְּסֹלֶת, אֲמָרָהּ לֵיהּ הֵא לָךְ קָרֵב קֳדָמֵיהוֹן, קָם נְסֵיב בּוּקְלָסָא בִּידֵיהּ, וְתַבְרִינוּן לְכָלְהוֹן פְּסִילַיָא, וִיהַב בּוּקְלָסָא בִּידָא דְּרַבָּה דַּהֲוָה בֵּינֵיהוֹן. כֵּיוָן דַּאֲתָא אֲבוּהָ אֲמַר לֵיהּ מַאן עָבֵיד לְהוֹן כְּדֵין, אֲמַר לֵיהּ מַה נִּכְפּוּר מִינָךְ אֲתַת חָדָא אִתְּתָא טְעִינָא לָהּ חָדָא פִּינָךְ דְּסֹוֹלֶת, וַאֲמַרַת לִי הֵא לָךְ קָרֵיב קֳדָמֵיהון, קָרֵיבְתְּ לָקֳדָמֵיהוֹן הֲוָה דֵּין אֲמַר אֲנָא אֵיכוֹל קַדְמָאי, וְדֵין אֲמַר אֲנָא אֵיכוֹל קַדְמָאי, קָם הָדֵין רַבָּה דַּהֲוָה בֵּינֵיהוֹן נְסַב בּוּקְלָסָא וְתַבַּרִינוֹן. אֲמַר לֵיהּ מָה אַתָּה מַפְלֶה בִּי, וְיָדְעִין אִינוּן. אֲמַר לֵיהּ וְלֹא יִשְׁמְעוּ אָזְנֶיךָ מַה שֶּׁפִּיךָ אוֹמֵר.
Bereishit Rabbah 38
(13) “And Haran died in the presence of his father Terah” (Gen. 11:28). Rabbi Hiyya the grandson of Rabbi Adda of Yaffo [said]: Terah was a worshiper of idols. One time he had to travel to a place, and he left Abraham in charge of his store. When a man would come in to buy [idols], Abraham would ask: How old are you? They would reply: fifty or sixty. Abraham would then respond: Woe to him who is sixty years old and worships something made today – the customer would be embarrassed, and would leave. A woman entered carrying a dish full of flour. She said to him: this is for you, offer it before them. Abraham took a club in his hands and broke all of the idols, and placed the club in the hands of the biggest idol. When his father returned, he asked: who did all of this? Abraham replied: I can’t hide it from you – a woman came carrying a dish of flour and told me to offer it before them. I did, and one of them said ‘I will eat it first,’ and another said ‘I will eat it first.’ The biggest one rose, took a club, and smashed the rest of them. Terah said: what, do you think you can trick me? They don’t have cognition! Abraham said: Do your ears hear what your mouth is saying?
But Didn’t Rachel steal her father’s idols?
(יט) וְלָבָ֣ן הָלַ֔ךְ לִגְזֹ֖ז אֶת־צֹאנ֑וֹ וַתִּגְנֹ֣ב רָחֵ֔ל אֶת־הַתְּרָפִ֖ים אֲשֶׁ֥ר לְאָבִֽיהָ׃
(19) Meanwhile Laban had gone to shear his sheep, and Rachel stole her father’s household idols.
תגנב רחל את התרפים. לְהַפְרִישׁ אֶת אָבִיהָ מֵעֲ”זָ נִתְכַּוְּנָה (בראשית רבה):
AND RACHEL STOLE THE TERAPHIM — her intention was to wean her father from idol-worship (Genesis Rabbah 74:5). quoted by Rashi
(לב) עִ֠ם אֲשֶׁ֨ר תִּמְצָ֣א אֶת־אֱלֹקֶיךָ֮ לֹ֣א יִֽחְיֶה֒ נֶ֣גֶד אַחֵ֧ינוּ הַֽכֶּר־לְךָ֛ מָ֥ה עִמָּדִ֖י וְקַֽח־לָ֑ךְ וְלֹֽא־יָדַ֣ע יַעֲקֹ֔ב כִּ֥י רָחֵ֖ל גְּנָבָֽתַם׃
(32) But anyone with whom you find your gods shall not remain alive! In the presence of our kinsmen, point out what I have of yours and take it.” Jacob, of course, did not know that Rachel had stolen them.
לא יחיה. וּמֵאוֹתָהּ קְלָלָה מֵתָה רָחֵל בַּדֶּרֶךְ (בראשית רבה)
LET HIM NOT LIVE — In consequence of this curse Rachel died on the journey (Genesis Rabbah 74:9). quoted by Rashi
Rather the only reference to a rejection of false images, is a positive reference to the Image of God – Imago Dei
(כו) וַיֹּ֣אמֶר אֱלֹקִ֔ים נַֽעֲשֶׂ֥ה אָדָ֛ם בְּצַלְמֵ֖נוּ כִּדְמוּתֵ֑נוּ וְיִרְדּוּ֩ בִדְגַ֨ת הַיָּ֜ם וּבְע֣וֹף הַשָּׁמַ֗יִם וּבַבְּהֵמָה֙ וּבְכָל־הָאָ֔רֶץ וּבְכָל־הָרֶ֖מֶשׂ הָֽרֹמֵ֥שׂ עַל־הָאָֽרֶץ׃ (כז) וַיִּבְרָ֨א אֱלֹקִ֤ים ׀ אֶת־הָֽאָדָם֙ בְּצַלְמ֔וֹ בְּצֶ֥לֶם אֱלֹקִ֖ים בָּרָ֣א אֹת֑וֹ זָכָ֥ר וּנְקֵבָ֖ה בָּרָ֥א אֹתָֽם׃ (כח) וַיְבָ֣רֶךְ אֹתָם֮ אֱלֹקִים֒ וַיֹּ֨אמֶר לָהֶ֜ם אֱלֹקִ֗ים פְּר֥וּ וּרְב֛וּ וּמִלְא֥וּ אֶת־הָאָ֖רֶץ וְכִבְשֻׁ֑הָ וּרְד֞וּ בִּדְגַ֤ת הַיָּם֙ וּבְע֣וֹף הַשָּׁמַ֔יִם וּבְכָל־חַיָּ֖ה הָֽרֹמֶ֥שֶׂת עַל־הָאָֽרֶץ׃
(26) And God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. They shall rule the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, the cattle, the whole earth, and all the creeping things that creep on earth.” (27) And God created man in His image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them. (28) God blessed them and God said to them, “Be fertile and increase, fill the earth and master it; and rule the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, and all the living things that creep on earth.”
(א) זֶ֣ה סֵ֔פֶר תּוֹלְדֹ֖ת אָדָ֑ם בְּי֗וֹם בְּרֹ֤א אֱלֹקִים֙ אָדָ֔ם בִּדְמ֥וּת אֱלֹקִ֖ים עָשָׂ֥ה אֹתֽוֹ׃
(1) This is the record of Adam’s line.—When God created man, He made him in the likeness of God;
(ו) שֹׁפֵךְ֙ דַּ֣ם הָֽאָדָ֔ם בָּֽאָדָ֖ם דָּמ֣וֹ יִשָּׁפֵ֑ךְ כִּ֚י בְּצֶ֣לֶם אֱלֹקִ֔ים עָשָׂ֖ה אֶת־הָאָדָֽם׃
(6) Whoever sheds the blood of man, By man shall his blood be shed; For in His image Did God make man.
(נב) וְה֨וֹרַשְׁתֶּ֜ם אֶת־כָּל־יֹשְׁבֵ֤י הָאָ֙רֶץ֙ מִפְּנֵיכֶ֔ם וְאִ֨בַּדְתֶּ֔ם אֵ֖ת כָּל־מַשְׂכִּיֹּתָ֑ם וְאֵ֨ת כָּל־צַלְמֵ֤י מַסֵּֽכֹתָם֙ תְּאַבֵּ֔דוּ וְאֵ֥ת כָּל־בָּמֹתָ֖ם תַּשְׁמִֽידוּ׃
(52) you shall dispossess all the inhabitants of the land; you shall destroy all their figured objects; you shall destroy all their molten images, and you shall demolish all their cult places.
“any Old Testament scholar worth her salt will tell you that the semantic range of tselem, the Hebrew word for “image” in Genesis 1, typically includes “idol,” which in the common theology of the ancient Near East is precisely a localized, visible, corporeal representation of the divine. A simple word study would thus lead to the preliminary observation that visibility and bodiliness are minimally a necessary condition of being tselem elohim or imago Dei. Based on this usage Walter Kaiser Jr. translates tselem as “carved or hewn statue or copy.” The Liberating Image? Interpreting the Imago Dei in Context By J. Richard Middleton Christian Scholars Review 24.1 (1994) 8-25
מלכים ב י״א:י״ח
(יח) וַיָּבֹ֣אוּ כָל־עַם֩ הָאָ֨רֶץ בֵּית־הַבַּ֜עַל וַֽיִּתְּצֻ֗הוּ אֶת־מזבחתו [מִזְבְּחֹתָ֤יו] וְאֶת־צְלָמָיו֙ שִׁבְּר֣וּ הֵיטֵ֔ב וְאֵ֗ת מַתָּן֙ כֹּהֵ֣ן הַבַּ֔עַל הָרְג֖וּ לִפְנֵ֣י הַֽמִּזְבְּח֑וֹת וַיָּ֧שֶׂם הַכֹּהֵ֛ן פְּקֻדּ֖וֹת עַל־בֵּ֥ית ה’׃
II Kings 11:18
(18) Thereupon all the people of the land went to the temple of Baal. They tore it down and smashed its altars and images to bits, and they slew Mattan, the priest of Baal, in front of the altars. [Jehoiada] the priest then placed guards over the House of the LORD.
דברי הימים ב כ״ג:י״ז
(יז) וַיָּבֹ֨אוּ כָל־הָעָ֤ם בֵּית־הַבַּ֙עַל֙ וַֽיִּתְּצֻ֔הוּ וְאֶת־מִזְבְּחֹתָ֥יו וְאֶת־צְלָמָ֖יו שִׁבֵּ֑רוּ וְאֵ֗ת מַתָּן֙ כֹּהֵ֣ן הַבַּ֔עַל הָרְג֖וּ לִפְנֵ֥י הַֽמִּזְבְּחֽוֹת׃
II Chronicles 23:17
(17) All the people then went to the temple of Baal; they tore it down and smashed its altars and images to bits, and they slew Mattan, the priest of Baal, in front of the altars.
(כ) וּצְבִ֤י עֶדְיוֹ֙ לְגָא֣וֹן שָׂמָ֔הוּ וְצַלְמֵ֧י תוֹעֲבֹתָ֛ם שִׁקּוּצֵיהֶ֖ם עָ֣שׂוּ ב֑וֹ עַל־כֵּ֛ן נְתַתִּ֥יו לָהֶ֖ם לְנִדָּֽה׃
(20) for out of their beautiful adornments, in which they took pride, they made their images and their detestable abominations—therefore I will make them an unclean thing to them.
(כו) וּנְשָׂאתֶ֗ם אֵ֚ת סִכּ֣וּת מַלְכְּכֶ֔ם וְאֵ֖ת כִּיּ֣וּן צַלְמֵיכֶ֑ם כּוֹכַב֙ אֱלֹ֣קֵיכֶ֔ם אֲשֶׁ֥ר עֲשִׂיתֶ֖ם לָכֶֽם׃
(26) And you shall carry off your “king”— Sikkuth and Kiyyun, The images you have made for yourselves Of your astral deity—
(א) נְבוּכַדְנֶצַּ֣ר מַלְכָּ֗א עֲבַד֙ צְלֵ֣ם דִּֽי־דְהַ֔ב רוּמֵהּ֙ אַמִּ֣ין שִׁתִּ֔ין פְּתָיֵ֖הּ אַמִּ֣ין שִׁ֑ת אֲקִימֵהּ֙ בְּבִקְעַ֣ת דּוּרָ֔א בִּמְדִינַ֖ת בָּבֶֽל׃
(1) King Nebuchadnezzar made a statue of gold sixty cubits high and six cubits broad. He set it up in the plain of Dura in the province of Babylon.
The case for demut (“likeness”) is more complicated. Although biblical scholars have often suggested that the physical, concrete connotation of tselem is intentionally modified by the more abstract demut, this latter term is sometimes used within Scripture for concrete, visible representations. [Middleton ibid.]
Tselem and demut are also used with reference to resemblance:
(ג) וַֽיְחִ֣י אָדָ֗ם שְׁלֹשִׁ֤ים וּמְאַת֙ שָׁנָ֔ה וַיּ֥וֹלֶד בִּדְמוּת֖וֹ כְּצַלְמ֑וֹ וַיִּקְרָ֥א אֶת־שְׁמ֖וֹ שֵֽׁת׃
(3) When Adam had lived 130 years, he begot a son in his likeness after his image, and he named him Seth.
“a recent (1979) excavation at Tell Fekheriyeh in Syria unearthed a 9th century statue with a bilingual inscription containing the cognate equivalents of both tselem and demut in Assyrian and Aramaic as parallel terms designating the statue.” [Middleton ibid.]
The statue is referred to by two Aramaic words, both with Hebrew cognates. The initial word of the inscription introduces it as dmwt’, “the image.” At the start the second part the word used in the Aramaic is slm “statue,” in the Assyrian its cognate salmu. This is not a means of distinguishing the two parts of the inscription, for dmwt’ reappears three lines later. These two words in their Hebrew dress are the famous “image” and “likeness” in God’s creation of man in Gen 1:26; cf. 5:3. Their clear application to this stone statue, the only ancient occurrence of the words as a pair outside the OT, provides fuel for the debate over the meaning of the clause in Genesis 1 [STATUE FROM SYRIA WITH ASSYRIAN AND ARAMAIC INSCRIPTIONS A. R. Millard and P. Bordreuil, BIBLICAL ARCHEOLOGIST/SUMMER 1982]
Among Bible scholars one of the most common interpretations is that being created in the image of God means being given the special role of “representing . . . God’s rule in the world.” The Torah’s view is that people are God’s “vice-regents” and “earthly delegates,” appointed by God to rule over the world. One traditional Jewish commentator, R. Saadia Gaon (882–942), anticipated this understanding of Genesis, arguing that being created in the image of God means being assigned to rule over creation (Saadia Gaon, commentary to Gen. 1:26). בְּצַלְמֵנוּ כִּדְמוּתֵנוּ שליט
The ancient Near Eastern context sheds remarkable light on the audacity of the Torah’s message. In the ancient world, various kings (and sometimes priests) were described as the images of a god. It is the king who is God’s representative or intermediary intermediary on earth, and it is he who mediates God’s blessings to the world. In dramatic contrast to this, the Torah asserts that ordinary human beings—not just kings, but each and every one of us—are mediators of divine blessing. “The entire race collectively stands vis-à-vis God in the same relationship of chosenness and protection that characterizes the god-king relationship in the more ancient civilizations of the Near East.” Genesis 1 thus represents a radical democratization of ancient Near Eastern royal ideology. We are, the Torah insists, all kings and queens.
Shai Held. The Heart of Torah, Volume 1: Essays on the Weekly Torah Portion: Genesis and Exodus . The Jewish Publication Society.
Feminist Objection to the Royal Interpretation of “In the Image of God”
Such a picture, claims McFague, is derived from a patriarchal model of man ruling over woman and serves to enforce and legitimate such rule by its association of male dominance with God’s transcendence. [Sallie McFague, Models of God: Theology for an Ecological, Nuclear Age (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1987), pp. 63-69.]
The Environmental Objection to the Royal Interpretation of “In the Image of God”
Some environmentalists have placed the blame for the modern West’s despoliation of the earth squarely at the Bible’s feet. Thus, for example, one influential writer charges that according to Christian (and by implication, Jewish) thinking, “God planned all of this explicitly for man’s benefit and rule: No item in the physical creation had any purpose save to serve man’s purposes.” The environmental crisis, he insists, was rooted in religious “arrogance towards nature” and the only solution, therefore, lay in moving beyond these patently damaging and outdated ideas. [Held, Shai. The Heart of Torah, Volume 1: Essays on the Weekly Torah Portion: Genesis and Exodus . The Jewish Publication Society.]
“ancient Near Eastern society, whether Mesopotamian (that is, Sumerian, Babylonian or Assyrian), West Semitic (that is, Canaanite), or Egyptian, was hierarchically ordered…. Standing between the human realm, on the one hand, and the gods, on the other, was the king, universally viewed in the ancient Near East as the mediator of both social harmony and cosmic fertility from the gods. To contrast the two cultures we know most about, whereas in Egypt the Pharaoh is viewed as the eternally begotten son of the gods, in Mesopotamia the king was but an adopted son. Both, however, are referred to as the image of this or that particular god, whether Re, Amon, Marduk, ‘Shamash or Enlil. [Middleton ibid.]
פסיקתא דרב כהנא כ״ג
(א) פסקא כג אות א ראש השנה: (א) לעולם י”י דברך נצב בשמים (תהלים קיט פט) תני ר’ אליע’ בעשרים וחמשה באלול נברא העולם ואתיא דרב כהדא דתני ר’ אליע’ דתניא בתקיעתא דרב זה היום תחילת מעשיך זכרון ליום ראשון וגו’ כי חק לישראל הוא משפט וג’ (שם פא ה) על המדינות בו יאמר איזו לחרב ואיזו לשלום איזו לרעב ואיזו לשובע איזו למות ואיזו לחיים וביריות בו יפקדו להזכירם חיים ומות נמצאת אומ’ בראש השנה נברא אדם הראשון בשעה ראשונה עלה במחשבה בשנייה נמלך במלאכי השרת בשלישית כינס עפרו ברביעית גיבלו בחמישית ריקמו בשישית העמידו גולם על רגליו בשביעי’ זרק בו נשמה בשמינית הכניסו לגן עדן בתשיעית ציוהו בעשירית עבר על ציוהו באחת עשרה נידון בשתים עשרה יצא בדימוס מלפני הק”ב א’ לו הקב”ה אדם זה סימן לבניך כשם שנכנסתה לפניי בדין ביום הזה ויצאתה בדימוס כך עתידין בניך להיות נכנסין לפניי בדין ביום הזה ויוצאין בדימוס אימתי בחדש השביעי באחד לחדש (ויקרא כג כד
Pesikta D’Rav Kahanna 23
A. Rosh Hashanah. Your word stands firm in heaven (Psalms 119; 89) R. Eliya learnt: On the 25th of Elul the world was created and he cited R. Kehada who learnt that R. Eliya learnt during the blowings of Rav “This is the day, the beginning of your works, is in remembrance of the first day etc. For it is a law for Israel, a ruling of the God of Jacob; etc. (psalms 81:5) on the Nations it was written, who for the sword, who for peace, who for famine who for plenty, who for death, and who for life and with shots he will be selected deserving of life and death as they say On Rosh Hashanah Adam (the first Man) was created.
In the first hour it came into His mind. In the second (hour) he ruled among the heavenly host. In the third he gathered the dirt. In the fourth He kneaded. In the fifth he formed him. In the sixth he raised the Golem onto his feet. In the seventh he threw into him a soul. In the eighth he brought him into the garden of Eden. In the ninth he commanded him (not to eat of the Tree of Knowledge). In the tenth he (Adam) transgressed His command. In the eleventh he was judged. In the twelfth hour he was pardoned by the Holy One Blessed be He. Said to him, God: “Adam, this is a sign for your children. Just as you came in judgement before me on this day and went out pardoned so also in the future your children will come before me in judgement on this day and leave pardoned. When? On the seventh month on the first (day) of the month (Leviticus 23:24)
The Torah’s assertion that every human being is created in the image of God is a repudiation of the idea, so common in the ancient world, that some people are simply meant to rule over others. If everyone is royalty, then on some level, when it comes to the interpersonal and political spheres, no one is.
Assigned the role of God’s delegates, human beings are told to “be fertile and increase, fill the earth and master it . . . rule the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, and all the living things that creep on the earth” (Gen. 1:28).
What’s more, Genesis 1 repeatedly emphasizes and seems to revel in the fact that God created both vegetation and creatures “of every kind.” … then, the biblical . . . creation story is like a hymn to biodiversity, which is seen as unambiguously good in its own right.
If Genesis 1 teaches that human beings are meant to be kings and queens over creation, …“The task of a king is to care for those over whom he rules, especially for the weakest and most helpless. . . . This means that humans are expected to care for the earth and its creatures. Such is the responsibility of royalty.” What we find in Genesis 1, then, is not a license to abuse and exploit but a summons to nurture and protect.
The problem with the notion of human stewardship over creation is not that it authorizes human exploitation of the earth and abuse of the animal kingdom—which, as we have seen, it emphatically does not. The problem is, rather, that we have not really taken it seriously enough to try it. In modern times, amid an almost manic need to produce and consume more and more, we have all too often lost sight of what has been entrusted to us. What we need is not to abandon Genesis 1 but to return to it and to rediscover there what we have forgotten or failed to see altogether. We are created in the image of God and are thus mandated to rule over creation; this is a call to exercise power in the way Tanakh imagines the ideal ruler would, “in obedience to the reign of God and for the sake of all the other creatures whom [our] power affects.” [Held, Shai. ibid]
“Obedience to God is also the negation of submission to man.”
You Shall be as Gods – A Radical Interpretation of the Old Testament and its Tradition, Erich Fromm 1966 p73