Idols and idol-making (Isaiah 44)

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Illustration: Miniature Durga Idol making in Kumortuli

The technical details of Isaiah’s diatribe in Isaiah 44:9-21 suggest that he was well acquainted with the idol-making practices of his day, including an important ritual known from Mesopotamian sources as “the mouth-washing” or “mouth-opening” ceremony (a similar rite is known from Egypt). Through a series of ritual acts and incantations, Mesopotamian craftsmen and priests believed that their deities were created and “brought to life” by means of the animation of the statues sensory organs. An inert statue of wood or stone was thus in their view transformed into a living manifestation of the deity it represented.

However, some scholars argue that Isaiah’s attack was based upon a superficial understanding of the mouth-washing/mouth-opening ritual. Isaiah claimed that the image remained a lifeless, artificial product, but at the close of the Mesopotamian rite was a disavowal of any human participation in the creation of the deity, suggesting that the pagans rejected the idea that human beings could manufacture a god. Furthermore, the mouth-washing texts include an acknowledgement that the transformation of the idol from man-made to divine was a work of the gods alone.

Was Isaiah aware of this important aspect of the mouth-washing ceremony? It is hard to imagine that he was not, considering how widely practiced it was in the ancient Near East. It seems, rather, that the prophet made a brilliant play on the idea by claiming that the transformation of the sensory organs occurred not in the wooden or stone image, but in the heart and mind of the worshiper, who became dumb and blind (44:18-20) by being transformed into the inert image of the idol he or she worshiped. This same principle of “You are what you worship” is echoed in Psalms 115:1-8, 135:15-18 and in Jeremiah 10:14. However, for those who worshiped Yahweh, Isaiah promised a restoration of their sensory organs (Isaiah 32:3-4, 35:5-6), including eyes that would no longer be glazed over and minds that would experience understanding (44:18). Isaiah concluded his attack on idol-making with a fitting reminder to God’s people that they had not created Yahweh. Rather, God reminded them “I have made you” (44:21).


 

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