As Ancient Israel came to understand it, idolatry is the act of conferring divine status on something that is merely human. The result is the deformation of the gloriously human into inglorious idols.
It is no wonder that the word “false” so easily attaches to the word “idols.” Idols falsify both our human and God’s divine nature.
All kinds of things in human experience can become idols, and we have become more than adept at letting them do this. Consider, by way of examples:
- Ancestors, parents, lovers, and rulers;
- Carvings, paintings, sculptures, and ideas;
- Family systems, conceptual systems, political systems, and religious traditions;
- Beliefs, doctrines, dogmas, and inflexible codes conduct;
- Wealth, fame, power, and pleasure.
We can and do worship any or all of these — and not just the carved images referred to in the Second Commandment — as if they were gods. In Paul Tillich’s phrasing, each can become the object of an ultimate concern, and as a result contaminate devotion to what is truly ultimate.
Most fundamentally, idols dishonor what is genuinely worthy of human beings’ highest praise and loyalty, by drawing attention to themselves and away from what they are intended to symbolize. Humanly fashioned symbols for God in the world — e.g. kings, sacred books, religious leaders — become gods in themselves.
Judaism, Christianity, and Islam all speak of idolatry as something which cannot but bring punishment down on our heads.
And not only on ours, but on our children’s heads as well, even to the third and fourth generation, for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous god. (Exodus 20:5)
Unfortunately, with this image the distinction between faith and idolatry threatens to vanish from sight altogether. The Holy One of Israel is here an angry, grudge-holding, vindictive demi-god little different from tribal deities whose sole reason for being is to fan the flames of enmity in the human heart.
This strangely out of place scriptural text does little more than reduce Israel’s God to yet another idol. The jealousy whose source is only human sinfulness becomes a defining attribute of the Maker of Heaven and Earth.
Obeying the Second Commandment, the prohibition against the worship of idols, is most certainly important to a maturing faith. But not because we have to obey it to keep divine rage under control. It’s to stay human about our own.