Much of the book of Devarim is devoted to warning the people against being seduced by idolatry when they enter the land. It is often hard for us to appreciate why idolatry was such a temptation in the past. To better understand the attraction, we must look more closely at the metaphors and images the verses use in the exhortations against it.
This week’s parasha contains two very different prohibitions against idolatry. One occurs in the repetition of the Ten Commandments: “Thou shalt have no other gods before me….Do not bow down to them and do not worship them, for I, the Lord thy God, am a jealous God (Devarim 5:7,9). This is a clear prohibition against abandoning faith in the one true God for belief in foreign gods. The Torah tells us not to “have” any other gods, not to believe in them or accept them as gods over us. It also tells us that this applies to action as well as belief; we cannot worship these gods or bow down to them.
The end of the verse provides a powerful metaphor for this form of idolatry. God describes Godself as an E-l kanna, a “jealous God.” Elsewhere, the trait of jealousy is associated with a husband who suspects his wife of committing adultery: “If a man’s wife strays and breaks faith with him….a fit of jealousy (ruach kinnah) comes over him and he is jealous (vi’keenei) for his wife who has become defiled” (Bamidbar 5:12,14). This jealousy comes to the fore when a bond of fidelity has been broken, when one of the parties gives loyalty, worship, or even a part of him- or herself to another.
Thus, the act of idolatry is often compared to fornication: “And this people will rise up, and go a whoring after the alien gods of the land … and will forsake me, and break my covenant which I have made with them” (31:16). In this metaphor, God is the husband and the children of Israel are the wife, firstly, because the husband is understood to hold the position of authority, and secondly, because in a polygamous society marriage only demanded fidelity from the wife. Our belief in and worship of God must be to the exclusion of all others. God, on the other hand, is free to have relationships with the other nations of the earth.
Beyond speaking to the aspect of betrayal, this framing also points to one of the seductive aspects of idolatry. Many idolatrous cults incorporated sexual acts in the worship of their gods, hence the kedeishot (cult prostitutes) referred to in the Torah. Moreover, as we saw at the end of Parashat Balak, women would call to people to have sex with them and to participate in the worship of their gods. Sex and idolatry become intertwined; the worshipper “fornicates” with other gods both literally and figuratively. We can now understand why Pinchas was described as kanno et kinnati, “jealous/zealous on my behalf,” when he rose to slay Zimri. He embodied God’s double jealousy over the people’s spiritual and literal fornication and acted appropriately.
This double sense of fornication appears earlier in the Torah, in the book of Shemot:
For thou shalt worship no other god: for the Lord, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God; Lest thou make a covenant with the inhabitants of the land, and they go a whoring after their gods, and do sacrifice unto their gods, and one call thee, and thou eat of his sacrifice; And thou take of their daughters unto thy sons, and their daughters go a whoring after their gods, and make thy sons go a whoring after their gods (Shemot 34:14–16).
In these verses, fidelity is transferred not just to a different god, but to a different people; the breaking of the covenant with God finds its counterpart in the making of a covenant with the people of the land. This whoring, jealousy-provoking betrayal of God is reflected and reinforced through the sexual pull of these pagan sons and daughters. It is an abandonment of God for other gods and the sexual freedoms they provide. The Sages put it succinctly: “Israel did not worship foreign gods except to give themselves permission to do sexual transgressions out in the open” (Sanhedrin 63b).
It would be misguided, however, to believe that greater sexual freedom was the only pull that idolatry exerted on the people when they entered the land. There is something in the words “fornication” or “to go whoring” that communicates more than adultery and the breaking of trust. There is a sense of indiscriminate activity, of sleeping with any passerby who will pay the price. The attraction here is for the thrill, the excitement, the novelty of the experience. After many years, people may become bored with worship that is so familiar to them. They see and hear things which sound unusual, unfamiliar, and hence, exciting. Over-familiarity can often erode eroticism and passion. There is also a much greater variety of worship, and something indiscriminate about the worship itself: “You shall utterly destroy all the places, wherein the nations which ye shall possess served their gods, upon the high mountains, and upon the hills, and under every green tree” (12:2). The variety and opportunities afforded by this worship, especially when contrasted to the single-Temple, highly-structured worship in the Torah, can be powerfully seductive.
But there is another type of idolatry as well, one that has nothing to do with adultery, jealousy, or betrayal. It appears earlier in the parasha, when Moshe is describing the events surrounding the giving of the Torah at Har Sinai:
And the Lord spoke unto you out of the midst of the fire: you heard the voice of the words, but saw no similitude; you heard only a voice….Take you therefore good heed unto yourselves; for you saw no manner of similitude on the day that the Lord spoke unto you in Horeb out of the midst of the fire: Lest you act corruptly, and make you a graven image, the similitude of any figure, the likeness of male or female (4:12,15–16).
Moshe is warning the people to not make idols and bow down to them, but this is clearly not the worship of foreign gods. The people are told twice, “you ‘saw no similitude’ on the day that you received the Torah.” The point here is obvious: having experienced this tremendous theophany, seen the thunder and lightning, and heard God’s voice, it is very possible that the people will trick themselves into thinking that they actually saw some image of God. Wanting to recapture that experience, they might then make some image to represent what they think they saw. This would not be the worship of a foreign god, but worship of the one true God through an image. The problem is not betrayal, and the key word is not fornication. The problem here is corruption: “Lest you act corruptly.” To make an image of God is to corrupt who God is. It is to bring God down, to make God part of this world: concrete, imaginable, easily accessible. The radical theology of the Torah is not simply in there being one God rather than many gods. It is also in God’s complete transcendence of the physical world, a God for whom any physical representation is a corruption.
This word, corrupt, sh’ch’t, is also the key word used in describing the sin of the golden calf. “Go down quickly, for your people have acted corruptly,” “ki sheecheit amekha” (9:12, and Shemot 32:7). To me this is clear evidence that the sin of the golden calf was not the worship of other gods—something that would make no sense in the context of just having seen all of God’s miracles—but rather the need to create a concrete way of accessing God in Moshe’s absence. This is the other way in which idolatry can be so seductive. It is exceedingly hard to worship an unseen God, to know that any image that we have in our heads is fundamentally false. How much easier it would be if we could direct our worship towards some representation of God, be it an object or a person! The Torah, however, demands from us a purity of belief and a purity of worship.
We live in a world where idolatry is not our chief concern. As one writer put it, the problem today is not too many gods, but too few. But I would go further. The chief problem is not the ability to believe in God. It is maintaining a system of belief that demands we turn away from the seductions and freedoms of the world, that we find a way to deepen our relationship rather than to go looking for new thrills, and that we find the deep satisfaction that comes with loyalty, consistency, and a relationship that is honest and true.