What the Second Commandment Can Teach You about God
- John Dickson
- 2016 28 Jun
GOD IS NOT A GOD
The second commandment is intended to preserve the “otherness” of God. Making God in our own image is such a persistent danger of the human mind— ancient and modern— that Israel’s Lord forbade any such attempt and attached to it one of the sternest warnings imaginable:
You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments. (Exodus 20:4–6; Deuteronomy 5:8–10)
I will discuss the dire warning in these verses — punishment “to the third and fourth generation”— at the end of the next chapter, after having fully explored the second and third commandments. Both are about taking God seriously, and both are connected to this threat and promise. But first, idols.
Ancient pagans divinized everything— the sun, the moon, the sea, the earth, and so on. All of these were seen as divine relics. This was as true for ancient Egyptian worship of the sun (Ra) as it was for ancient Indian or Germanic worship of storm gods (Indra or Thor). It would be tempting to think that this made everything “special,” turning simple physical elements into objects of wonder and delight. In fact, it made everything unpredictable and potentially dangerous. As a consequence, it fostered an oppressive superstition, where magical solutions were desperately sought in order to tame the capricious forces of the world.
The ancient Israelites divinized nothing. They thought of the material world not as a magic charm or totem to be feared and placated, but as a work of art from the hand of a benevolent Artist. It was separate from the Artist but it reflected his character. The words “it was good” appear as a refrain (seven times) throughout the Bible’s opening chapter, climaxing with the emphatic “God saw all that he had made, and it was very good” (Genesis 1:31).
This separation between God and his creation is one of the key thoughts of the Bible and a philosophical dividing line between Judaism (and later Christianity and Islam) and all ancient Near Eastern, Greek, and Roman visions of deity. But it is also one of the most obvious missteps of contemporary (popular) atheism. You will sometimes hear Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Lawrence Krauss, and others speak of the “Christian God” as just another competitor in the endless roll call of gods through history— Marduk, Zeus, Indra, Wotan, Thor, and so on. We are told that a Christian’s unbelief toward, say, Wotan, the great Norse deity, is no different from the atheist’s rejection of all the other gods, including the biblical one. Since the reasons for believing in the biblical God are no more sound than those for believing in Nordic gods, so the argument goes, Christians really ought to dismiss one god more and embrace atheism.
At this point atheists are making a category error. And I am confident no philosophically informed atheist who also knows about the history of religion would go along with the line. Wotan, Zeus, Indra, Ra, and the rest, are all supernatural creatures within creation. Scepticism about them is akin to scepticism about fairies or the Loch Ness Monster. There is no particular reason for such creatures to exist. It is just that people say they exist. We look for any trace of evidence and find that such evidence is not forthcoming— to the satisfaction of most, anyway. The God of the Bible is another species entirely. By definition, the biblical God is outside of creation and outside of time. Otherwise, he could not be the source of space-time. He is the eternal mind responsible for existence itself. God, in other words, is not a god at all.
Dawkins and others are looking for God like he’s a magical wardrobe hidden somewhere in the house of creation. But the Bible describes him more like the Architect of the house itself. Atheists are running through each room of the house gleefully declaring the absence of the wardrobe, all the while missing the more telling fact that there is a house, complete with rooms and doors and hallways, in the first place. . . .
The existence of God provides a powerful explanation of why there is something rather than nothing, why the universe has the character of mathematical beauty and order instead of chaos, and why the universe has produced minds like ours that are able to ponder such matters. Fairies, on the other hand, explain nothing.
All of this explains why the Bible is so dogmatic in its rejection of idol worship. Idolatry dethrones the one true God who stands outside and over creation, and it relegates him to a merely mysterious and powerful feature of creation itself, like a fairy. It turns God into a god. To take a piece of creation and worship it— whether the sun in the sky or an idol made with human hands— is to give the Artist’s glory to his art. Idolatry, in other words, insults the power of God by redefining the very nature of God. An idol is a speechless, lifeless, actionless item of the world. It could never represent the speaking, life-giving, action-packed Lord of all creation. This is the logic of the second commandment.
John Dickson (PhD, Ancient History) is an Honorary Fellow of the Department of Ancient History at Macquarie University, Founding Director of the Centre for Public Christianity, and Senior Minister of St. Andrew’s Roseville. The author of more than a dozen books, he is the host of two major historical documentaries for Australian television, and is a busy public speaker, university lecturer, and media commentator.
Publication date: June 16, 2016