Book review: The biblical tussle - God and the gods

Rabbi Reuven Chaim Klein tells the story through the eyes of the Oral Torah sources. His book is fascinating and is far more than it appears.

God Versus Gods: Judaism in the Age of Idolatry (photo credit: Courtesy)
God Versus Gods: Judaism in the Age of Idolatry
(photo credit: Courtesy)
The Bible is punctuated by the tussle between the Almighty and the false gods. The 10 Commandments make it perfectly clear that the people of Israel must not bow down to or serve false gods, and warnings against making idols permeate the Tanakh (e.g. Exodus 20:23, 34:17).
Sometimes the biblical texts laugh at the idols and sometimes they go on full-frontal attack, constantly warning that idolatry is a false morality as well as a false theology. It is not just that the idol was a nonentity (Hebrew exegesis links elil, an idol, with al, not), but it emphasized sensuality and allowed and invited orgiastic immorality.
In this new book God Versus Gods: Judaism in the Age of Idolatry, Rabbi Reuven Chaim Klein tells the story through the eyes of the Oral Torah sources. His book is fascinating and is far more than it appears.
Despite its title, it does not limit itself to the nature and influence of ancient idolatry. It looks deeply into the meaning of God in biblical history, asks why anyone in their right mind would choose to worship idols, wondering whether ancient man could believe both in God and in idolatry, asking whether idolatry still exists, and tapping into the major problem of how we should read the Bible and what we mean by biblical truth.
In a sense, the book is a vorspeise, an appetizer. The plan is to produce a second volume, which will concern itself less with the historical facts and more with philosophical and ideological subjects such as astrology, demonology and witchcraft. I, for one, look forward to seeing the second volume, now that my appetite has been whetted by the first.
I am particularly drawn to the author’s argument, again based on rabbinic source material, that the ancient idolater was not necessarily a denier of God, but accepted the existence of a higher power though he distorted the identity of that power. Rabbi Klein might well have read too much into the notion, but it is possible that he is right that the idolaters were not so much challenging the existence of God as seeking to give Him material shape and/or to anger Him. It’s an unusual idea but it seems to be consonant with the rabbinic writings.
A contrary view is presented by Isidore Epstein in his Faith of Judaism (page 285): “Whether it was the sun or any other natural power, the idol was served as a mysterious deity behind the natural forces.”
Why does biblical Judaism castigate the Jewish people for their interest in idolatry, in Rabbi Klein’s view, to rather an exaggerated extent? Not just because idolatry is false but because they did not oppose it strongly enough. Their failure to oppose idolatry sufficiently gave idolatry extra credence.
This is not the first solid work on idolatry. Jews and non-Jews have both analyzed the idols and idolaters. The Jews include Samuel Krauss, Saul Lieberman and Ephraim E. Urbach; the non-Jewish authors range from Selden and Milton to the more recent DDD (Dictionary of Deities and Demons in the Bible, 1999). What Klein has done is trace the history of idolatry among the Jews and offer an encyclopedia of ancient idols. His descriptive pantheon possibly needs corrections here and there, but it is a most valuable contribution to biblical scholarship.
Modern idolatrous thinking is more difficult. Though there are survivals of idolatrous elements in some eastern and even monotheistic religions, biblical idols more or less lost their appeal to Jews after the destruction of the First Temple. Klein makes this point in Chapter 7 as well as in a prefatory sentence that lacks the author’s usual clarity when he says, “The Sages abolished the idolatrous inclination at the onset of the Second Temple period.”
That does not mean that the laws against idolatry lost their force; the rabbinic material in tractate Avodah Zarah are adamant that there was still a problem, but the substance of idolatry had been revamped and now echoed the calendrical and other practices of the Greek and Roman powers.
Modern people hitch their wagons to many stars (in all senses of the word) that are blatant baloney. Their agnosticism cannot be assuaged by the relatively polite interpretations of the rabbis and traditionalists. No longer can anyone say that those who follow the stars are fundamentally believers in God. Their problem is not misbelief but unbelief.
Klein is one of the growing band of Jewish scholars who are not prepared to leave biblical research and writing to the non-Jews, or to aver that only Rashi and the rabbinic commentators have the right to be considered exegetes. They ask themselves what attitude faithful Jews can and should have toward the Bible, and how and how far the Bible can be read as source material.
Klein quotes Prof. James Kugel, who sees a divide between Bible and Tanakh. Jewish traditionalists cannot wriggle away but need to arm themselves with an appropriate hermeneutic. As opposed to the academic scholar who has no compunction shifting the text around like pieces on a chessboard and thinking he can do better, the traditionalist insists that the text is Torah and must be treated with respect and humility.
Klein adopts this second approach and is unapologetic about it. Echoing a famous American document, he says, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that the Bible is of Divine origin, that the Masoretic text of the Bible is the most genuine, and that the Written Torah is inseparable from the Oral Torah.”
The writer is emeritus rabbi of the Great Synagogue, Sydney