Posts Tagged ‘idolatry’

Note: I promise this post will be more interesting than the title indicates.  If you disagree, I’ll refund your money.

Anytime we encounter lists in the Bible, we’re probably tempted to breeze over them.  There are, after all, more exicting things to get to and lists were something that were important to ancient people but less important to us.  But, they can, at times, reveal something very near to the heart of the biblical authors.

Take, for instance, the list of the tribes of Israel in Revelation 7:5-8.  It would seem straightforward enough, a listing of the 12 tribes is not that difficult to understand, except that when you look closely, the list isn’t quite what you’d expect.  Here is the list in the order it’s presented:

  • Judah
  • Reuben
  • Gad
  • Asher
  • Naphtali
  • Manasseh
  • Simeon
  • Levi
  • Issachar
  • Zebulun
  • Joseph
  • Benjamin

Now, there are a number of listings of the 12 tribes in the Bible, and they almost always differ (Genesis 35:23-25; 49; Exodus 1:2-4; Numbers 1:5-15; 26; 1 Chronicles 2-8).  I want to focus strictly on one aspect of this particular list, though, to demonstrate how it can reveal the author’s intentions.  Levi is left off some lists in the OT, mainly because his sons became the priests of the land and did not receive an allotment of land like the other 11 tribes.  Instead, Joseph’s two sons, Ephraim and Manasseh, received land, keeping the number 12 intact. 

But this list is not for land allotments, so Levi makes an appearance.  One would expect, then, that Joseph would be on the list and the number would come out to 12 again, corresponding to the actual 12 sons of Jacob who originally headed the 12 tribes.  Joseph does make this list in Revelation 7, but so does one of his sons- Manasseh.  Ephraim, on the other hand, does not make it (despite his brother’s presence).  Dan, one of the original 12 sons of Jacob, is also left off the list. 

The omission of Dan would seem to be confusing, given the presence of the other 11 brothes, and Ephraim’s absence is also confusing because of his brother, Manasseh, making the cut.  So, the question is: of the available candidates (14 in all, the 12 sons and Ephraim and Manasseh), why were Dan and Ephraim chosen to be left off this list of tribes?

I would venture to guess that the answer goes back to 1 Kings 12:25-33.  I’ll quote vv28-30 (TNIV), with an explanatory comment or two, to make the point:

After seeking advice, the king [Jeroboam, of the Northern Tribes] made two golden calves.  He said to the people, “It is too much for you to go up to Jerusalem.  Here are your gods, Israel, who brought you up out of Egypt.”  One he set up in Bethel [which was controlled by the tribe of Ephraim, Jeroboam’s tribe], and the other in Dan.  And this thing became a sin; the people came to worship the one at Bethel and went as far as Dan to worship the other.

The tribes of Ephraim and Dan became the centers of idolatry for the Northern Kingdom.  Instead of going to God’s Temple in Jerusalem to worship and offer sacrifices, the citizens of the northern tribes (all except Benjamin and Judah) would worship at these two centers of idolatry.  Hosea even changes the name “Bethel” (meaning “House of God”) to Beth Aven (“House of Wickedness,” see Hosea 4:15; 5:8; 10:5). 

I don’t think the omission of Ephraim and Dan are random or accidental, especially given their roles in the Old Testament as the centers of idolatry.  Idolatry is a grave concern for the book of Revelation because it gives worship that is due only to The One Who Sits on the Throne and the Lamb (see 4:8-11; 5:9-14; 7:10-17). 

The churches of Pergamum (2:12-17) and Thyatira (2:18-29) are warned about new incarnations of Balaam (who enticed the Israelites toward idolatry, see Numbers 31:1-24) and Jezebel (who promoted Baal worship in the Northern Kingdom, see 1 Kings 18; 21:25; 2 Kings 9:22).  The people of the earth worship the dragon (13:4) and the beast (13:8, 11-17), and kill those who refuse (13:15).  Throughout the Bible, adultery and harlotry (chapters 17-18) are images used of idolatry. 

But we are encouraged to “worship him who made the heavens, the earth, the sea and the springs of water” (14:7; 15:1-4).  Those who worship the beast and receive his mark will be judged (14:9, 16:2; 19:20-21).  Those who reign with Christ in 20:4-6 are those “who had not worshipped the beast or his image.”   Idolaters are among those who will have no part in the New Heaven and New Earth (21:8; 22:15). 

Looking back at the list of the tribes in Revelation 7, John could have chosen a different way of presenting them.  He could have gone with the originally 12 sons of Jacob, leaving out Ephraim and Manasseh and including Dan.  He could have gone with the 12 tribes as they received their portions of land, leaving out Levi and Joseph and adding Ephraim and Manasseh.  But Ephraim and Dan were the ones omitted. 

I submit it was because of their role in leading Israel into idolatry.  I want to be clear, I don’t take this list of 12 literally, as if no descendents of Ephraim or Dan have any part in the Kingdom of God.  I think there is a theological and literary point John is making throughout the book that is captured in this list, or more specifically, what is omitted from the list.  Those who participate in idolatry, who worship anything other than the only One worthy of worship, have no inheritance in God.

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Special thanks to Connie of Crossway for a review copy of this book.

Trevin Wax is a popular blogger over at Kingdom People, and a pastor in Tennessee.  While 99% of bloggers out there should never write a book, I was excited about this one since I’ve found his blog insightful and challenging.  I appreciate his ability to step back and examine a situation, not without bias but not allowing his biases to rule everything.  This ability serves him well in his first book, Holy Subversion.

Holy Subversion is appropriately subtitled, “Allegiance to Christ in an Age of Rivals.”  In this book, Wax tackles modern day “Caesars” in our (Western, specifically American) society.  Throughout the book he refers to his 5 years in Romania, which gave him an opportunity to examine American culture from afar (he refers to this in an interview here).  By stepping back and looking at America, and more importantly, the American church, he saw 6 “Caesars” that plague the church and stood as a rival to the honor due Christ.

In his introduction he helpfully overviews how “Jesus is Lord” was a radical and subversive statement in the New Testament times.  After all, Caesar was lord, the one to whom all people were to bow and profess loyalty.  The earliest Christians stood against this and, thus, were deeply offensive to their neighbors, for whom allegiance to Caesar was an unquestioned part of their worldview.  Caesar no longer exists in our culture but, as Wax notes, the “powers and principalities” that stood behind Caesar still do exist in a more subtle form.  Those subtle Caesars, so ingrained to our worldview that we may easily overlook them, are given a place in our lives reserved only for the King of Kings.

I can appreciate Wax’s use of “Caesars” rather than “idols.”  The reason is simply this: an idol is never good, Caesar can be good.  There is never a good reason to own an image of another god (or the one true God, for that matter).  But a Caesar is, at least theoretically, a good thing.  Someone has to rule.  Romans 13 tells us that the Roman Emperor (Caesar) was given power by God himself.  It is what Caesar does with that power that may make him evil (and did, in the case of the actual Roman Caesars).  When Caesar claims for himself, or more crucially for this book, is ascribed by those who serve him the authority that belongs to Jesus alone, he must be subverted.   In the same way, sex, leisure, money, etc., are not inherently idols.  They do not always serve an evil purpose.  They are Caesars, gifts from God whose original purposes have been abused and distorted.  They have been given the honor due to Christ and must be subverted by those who claim allegiance to him.

The 6 “Caesars” that Wax tackles are: Self, Success, Money, Leisure, Sex and Power.  Not all of these will hit each reader with equal force, but if you feel no conviction at any point you’re either perfect or obtuse.  But not only does Wax diagnose the problem, he offers suggestions to cure our ailment.  It should be pointed out that Wax is using the term “subvert” not in the sense of overthrowing, but putting in its proper place.  Thus, being a failure is not the solution to the Caesar of Success, but having a proper understanding of the nature and purpose of success.

One major reason I like Wax’s book so much is that he avoids easy reductionism.  There are some who hear the cry “Christ, not Caesar, is King” and they merely politicize it.  “Tell Caesar Obama (or Caesar Bush, or Caesar Whoever) that we aren’t going to stand for his claims to power any more!”,  as if they can co-opt biblical truth to serve their political interests, and rarely look at their own lives to see if Jesus is truly King.

But Wax doesn’t reduce “Christ vs Caesar” to “what’s the Caesar in your life?” either.  This book isn’t simply a call for Christians to look inward (although there is that), as if spending less time watching TV or playing World of Warcraft will make Jesus Lord.  Holy Subversion asks us, the community of Christ, not just the individuals, to consider our entire worldview and challenge those aspects of our culture than attempt to claim Christ’s authority.

Wax’s goal is to reclaim “the subversive nature of Christian discipleship.”  By stepping back to look at our culture, he helpfully reveals the subtly of these Caesars (e.g., “The Caesar of Power is most seductive when it appeals to our good instincts”) and calls us to “subversive evangelism” (in his excellent last chapter).  At a short, but power packed 150 pages, Holy Subversion will benefit all who read and hear its message.

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Knowing GodChapter 4 of Knowing God is always one of the most interesting to discuss.  It is here that Packer deals with the second commandment and proper worship of God.  His basic premise is that the 2nd commandment, which is a prohibition of idols, is talking about making an idol or representation of God Himself.  Many Christians take it as setting up an idol and worshipping it instead of God, but Packer argues this would be nothing more than repeating the first commandment.  For the sake of conversation we’ll go with Packer’s notion here, with the caveat that not all agree with him.

Regarding physical images of God, Packer states two reasons why this commandment is given: 1) Images dishonor God, for they obscure his glory, and 2) Images mislead us, for they convey false ideas about God (45-46).  In essence, we can’t capture the glory of God in an image, so we’re creating false (or incomplete) impressions about him that do not honor who God truly is.

Truthfully, I don’t really have an issue with Packer here.  Where most people get tripped up is on the next section, regarding mental images.  The idea is the same as the previous point, that our mental images dishonor God and mislead us about him.  Our mental images cannot capture the fullness of the glory of God, so making those images is breaking the second commandment.

I have a number of thoughts on this chapter, so let me run down the list.  NB: these mostly deal with the mental images portion of the chapter.

1)  I wish Packer would have handled the issue of the Son separately from the Father.  The fact is that Jesus did come in a physical form.  He is seen after his resurrection in a physical form.  Is there significance to the fact that Jesus is desribed in physical terms in Revelation 1, whereas the Father is not in Revelation 4?  It would have been nice for Packer to address this.

2) If we cannot ever have a picture of God in our mind, then I feel like God has played a cruel joke on us.  Were the original hearers really expected not to picture a shepherd when they heard Psalm 23?  What about when God talks about his “right arm” stretching out to save Israel?  Is one to repent for having a picture of an arm pop into their mind?

3) I hear Packer’s concern for not capturing the fullness of God in an image, whether physical or mental.  But, can’t we say the same thing about using words to describe God?  If I say God is a loving Father, which is certainly biblical, am I sinning because I’m not emphasizing the fullness of God’s character?  How would one ever capture all who God is accurately, in any form of communication?  I’m reminded of Haddon Robinson’s words: “every sermon borders on heresy.”  His point- you can’t capture everything in a sermon, thus you run the risk of short-shrifting God.  If you are preaching on the love of God, you naturally will not focus on the wrath of God.  That, of course, means you might mislead your listeners to think that God has no wrath.  Welcome to the challenge of living with human limitations!  I’m not sure why a mental image is any different from these other potential problems.

4) I’m not sure Packer adaquetly accounts for sanctification here.  The Bible teaches that believers go through a process of sanctification- being made holy.  What may be used for evil can now be used for good.  For instance, my mouth as an unbeliever may speak lies.  But as a believer, the Lord sanctifies me and uses my mouth to proclaim truth.  This process includes the sanctification of the mind.  So couldn’t an image in that sanctified mind be good?

I do have some strong agreements with Packer, lest anyone think I dismiss this chapter easily.

1) There is, even with my caveat about sanctification, a serious danger of imagining God as we would like to imagine him rather than the biblical revelation of him.  You don’t have to talk to a Christian very long to realize that God is often spoken of in limited terminology: Father, Savior, Friend, etc.  Those are all true and good, but they often reflect what that person wants God to be rather than what he fully is.  Often times the picture of God one has reveals more about the person than it does about God.

2) The second commandment “is a summons to us to recognize that God the Creator is transcendent, mysterious and inscrutable, beyond the range of imagining or philosophical guesswork of which we are capable-and hence a summons to humble ourselves, to listen and learn of him, and to let him teach us what he is like and how we should think of him” (48).  Amen and amen.

3) There are cultures in which one would do well to heed Packer’s warning.  I think specifically of a place like India, where people are accustomed to worshipping an idol that represents a god.  To introduce images into a culture such as this could be extremely dangerous.

I enjoy rereading this chapter every year.  Part of the reason is because it forces me to step back and look at my life and ask myself whether or not I’m truly worshipping and recognizing God for who he is.  Am I guilty of only focusing on those aspects of God’s character that I find most palatable?  Do I create an image of God that I prefer, over against who God has revealed himself in the Bible?  While I know many people will read this chapter and easily dismiss Packer’s point, I think it offers a wise and valuable look into the idolatry of our hearts.

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Once again, I extend my thanks to Adrianna of IVP for a review copy of this book.  For more on this book, consult Part I, Part II, Part III, Part IV.

We Become What We WorshipIn this last portion of the review I will summarize briefly the contents of the last 2 chapters, as well as offer some final thoughts on the book as a whole.

G K Beale set out from the beginning of the book to demonstrate his thesis: we resemble what we revere, either for ruin or restoration.  He surveys the biblical data thoroughly and fleshes out nuances carefully.  It is easy to tell that he has spent years, if not decades, thinking on this subject and what the Bible teaches about it.  We stand in his debt for all his hard work.

In the final 2 chapters, Beale discusses briefly the flip side to idolatry, being conformed to the image of Christ.  Since humans are “imaging beings” (a phrase he likes to use), we will reflect the image of something, whether it be God Himself or something we have constructed in His place.  The final reflection of Christ’s image will be seen at our resurrection, which itself follows Christ’s resurrection (1 Corinthians 15:45-54, Philippians 3:20-21).

As far as the contemporary church, Beale relies heavily on David Wells (the theologian, not the pitcher) in demonstrating modern forms of idolatry, specifically idolatry in personal life (the idolatry of self) and idolatry in church life (the idolatry of psychology and business managing in running our churches).  Beale issues a call for the church to reflect the character of God more than reflect the latest trends in marketing and entertainment, which our bound to change rapidly.  We must realize that idolatry is more subtle in our day than in the days of wooden idols, but it is no less dangerous.  “Sometimes the sin of idolatry is like gum disease: we may not feel the spiritual hurt until significant harm has happened; though we have eyes we may not be able to see the destruction that is occurring within us” (p309).

Of course, one could wish for a more extended discussion of contemporary applications, particularly how the theme of reflecting an idol is seen today (in other words, how does one reflect money when money is his idol?).  In fact, I’d love to see more work done on modern forms of idolatry in the church.  Beale could have also spent more time on reflecting the image of God (in case he’s looking for ideas for his next book), though what he does say is very good.  But Beale’s book is intentionally a detailed study of relevant biblical texts on idolatry, and he surveys the texts admirably.

If you have been reading the previous portions of this review, you’ll know that I have lodged some disagreements here and there.  There have been times I felt that Beale was digging a little too deep for support of his thesis.  I just wasn’t always convinced it was as front-and-center as he thinks it is.  I’m not denying that it is explicitly stated in Scripture, nor am I denying that it is assumed rather than demonstrated in certain places.  I’m just not sure it pops up as often as Beale does.

But these disagreements can be misleading, because I’m convinced that Beale has done us a great service by writing this book.  Truthfully, I would not have spent the time working on a 5-part review of a book that I didn’t think was worthy of it. I not only learned a ton about the biblical teachings on idolatry, but learned more about picking up intertextual hints and echoes throughout Scripture.  In fact, at numerous times throughout the book I found myself thinking, “I really need to get a copy of his book, The Temple and the Church’s Mission.”

For any pastor or teacher who is covering the issue of idolatry, Beale’s book is a must read.  Not only does it include countless helpful insights, Beale brings to the fore the gravity of idolatry and its disastrous consequences.  For those who have ears to hear, the call to forsake the idols of our generation and turn back to our Creator will be heard loud and clear in this book.  May we grow to reflect the image of God in Christ more fully as we learn to worship Him as He deserves.

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Special thanks again to Adrianna of IVP for a review copy of this book.  See also Part I, Part II, Part III.

This portion of the review covers Beale’s chapters on Paul’s epistles and Revelation.  As we work through these chapters, keep in mind that Beale’s thesis statement is: “What people revere, they resemble, either for ruin or restoration.”

Beale takes on Paul’s letters, specifically Romans 1:20-28 and 1 Corinthians 10.  There are no real surprises here; he sees Psalm 106:19-20 and Jeremiah 2:5-11 in the background of the Romans passage, as well as allusions to Genesis 1-3 (important texts for Beale, as we saw in part II of this review).  The language of worshipping and serving the creature rather than the Creator, exchanging their glory and becoming vain are all seen in idolatrous contexts of the OT, all of which is also seen in 2 Kings 17:15-16.  The idolater is “punished by means of its own idolatry (p216).  While he argues, fairly persuasively, that these idolatry texts are in the background, how does it fit his thesis statement?  Beale says, “the punishment is that the idol worshipers’ unnatural relationships with others resemble their unnatural relationship with God” (p204).

He gives a little portion of this chapter to Romans 12:1-2 to show the flip side of his thesis statement.  Here, when someone gives themself to worship God, they are transformed and conformed to His image (see also Romans 8:29).  I actually wish he would have spent more time  here, but I understand this is a book about idolatry.

Beale explores the quotations and allusions to the OT in 1 Corinthians 10:14-22.  Paul doesn’t want the Corinthians to partake in sacrificing to demons because “I do not want you to become sharers in demons” (v20).  On the phrase “sharers of demons,” Beale states, “the idea in 1 Corinthians 10: 18,20 is that of sharing in or reflecting the nature or attributes of the demons in contrast to those who share in Christ and are identified with him and reflect his spiritual character” (p229).  We see similar uses of “sharer” in 1 Peter 5:1, 2 Peter 1:4, 2 Corinthians 13:4, and other places.  This, of course, fits Beale’s thesis very well.  I found his analysis of idolatry in Paul to be quite helpful.

Beale has written extensively on the book of Revelation, including what I have called elsewhere the best commentary on Revelation.  This chapter contains a wealth of insight into the problem of idolatry in Revelation: the “Jezebel” of chapters 2-3, the harlot of chapters 17-18, the Beast of chapter 13, etc.  While he does go into 9:20-21 a bit, I think he probably could have done more here.  Let me explain.

As much as I enjoyed this chapter on Revelation, I didn’t find much support for his thesis: “What people revere, they resemble, either for ruin or restoration.”  Idolatry is prevalent in Revelation, and Beale offers many helpful suggestions throughout his discussion.  But I fail to see where Revelation talks about someone becoming like the idol they revere (with the possible allusion in 9:20-21).  Beale states, “They [the Beast worshippers] have devoted themselves to the beast and so have themselves become beastly, which is part of the consequence of being identified with the name of the beast” (p258).  But where in Revelation are idol worshippers portrayed as beasts?  Beale doesn’t demonstrate this.  To be sure, those who worship the Beast suffer the same fate as the beast, but that is not saying the same thing.  Nor is noting that idol worshippers identifiy themselves with the Beast (they receive “the mark”) saying the same thing as them coming to resemble the Beast.

For instance, in passages in Isaiah and Psalms (115, for example), there is a clear teaching that idol worshippers become like their idols.  Beale demonstrates this clearly back in the earlier chapters of the book.  So, if someone worships an idol of stone which cannot see or hear, they themselves will be unable to see or hear what the Lord is doing and saying.  They take on the characteristics of the idol.

This is different from saying they will someday be destroyed like that idol.  That is what we have in Revelation.  The worshippers of the Beast do not become like the Beast.  The descriptions of the Beast are not applied to those who worship it.  Thus, while I think Beale offers some wonderful insight in this chapter, he does not support his actual thesis statement.

As I look back on this chapter and go back through Revelation, I wonder if one would be better trying to make the case that those who worship the Beast do so because they were already idolaters.  In other words, because they came to resemble the idols they worship (i.e., they cannot see or hear what is really going on), they were unable to spot the deception of the beast.  So, worshipping the Beast is actually a consequence of their idolatry, as well as a continuation of it.  This wouldn’t be hard to demonstrate, since we know that pretty much all pagans in John’s day were idolaters.  John’s call for the church not to participate in idolatry in chapters 2-3 are all that much more important considering they need to be able to discern what is really the driving force behind the Beast.  So, I do think Beale’s thesis can be found in Revelation, just not where he thinks it is.

With all that said, I don’t want to come across as if one can simply discard all that Beale has written here.  On the contrary, I find myself being driven back to the Bible to see what Scripture is saying.  I look forward to reviewing the final chapters of this book soon.

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Thanks once again to Adrianna at IVP for a review copy of this book.  See also Part I, Part II.

We Become What We WorshipI’m picking up this review with Beale’s chapters on the Gospels and Acts.  I’m skipping his chapter on Intertestamental Judaism, not because it wasn’t helpful or interesting, but because this review is ridiculously long already.  Remember, Beale’s thesis is: what people revere, they resemble, either for ruin or restoration.

Beale’s main text, Isaiah 6, appears clearly in the Gospels, usually quoted along with Jesus’ parable of the sower (Matthew 13:10-15, Mark 4:12, etc).  It does not, however, seem explicitly connected to idolatry.  Beale admits this is a potential problem for his thesis.  In fact, idolatry doesn’t seem present in the Gospels at all.

Beale, however, appeals to the use of Isaiah 29 in Mark 7:6-13 (and Matthew 15:7-9).  The Isaiah passages use sensory-malfuncation language, which Beale has argued all along is due to idolatry (becoming like what you worship).  In the case of the Gospel passages, however, the worship is not of physical idols but of tradition itself.  Thus, Beale reads this use of Isaiah 29 back into the use of Isaiah 6.  Tradition has become the new idol, particularly of the Pharisees.  “Jesus’ application of Isaiah 6:9-10 and Isaiah 29:13 to his Israelite contemporaries indicated that what had happened in Isaiah’s day was happening again: Israel was being judged for idolatry–committing itself to something besides God” (p176).

I’m not entirely sure what to make of this.  It makes sense, but I still can’t help but think that he is, at points, making connections that are tenuous at best.  Here’s how I see it working in Beale’s scheme: we see the context of idolatry in the use of Isaiah 6 in Mark 4 via the use of Isaiah 29 in Mark 7.  I have to be honest, I find myself scratching my head on this one.  It makes sense, to be sure, but I’m wary of needing multiple steps to come to such a strong conclusion.  It’s not that I think he’s wrong, it’s just that I feel like more work would need to be done here.  I can accept Beale’s statement at the end of the chapter that “adequate interpretation necessitates that the interpreter retrieve unmentioned correspondences between two passages” (p183).  I’m just not sure he’s done so convincingly here.

Beale admits that while idolatry shows up in a number of places in Acts, “the notion of idol worshippers becoming like their idols is difficult to discern in the book” (p200).  It’s interesting that the one place in Acts (28:25-28) that quotes Beale’s central passage of Isaiah 6 is discussed only briefly, since even Beale admits idolatry is not central here.  He does try to show how it might fit, but one wonders if he’s trying too hard to make it all work together.

This chapter does include an extremely helpful discussion on Stephen’s speech in Acts 7, which Beale summarizes, “For Jews to continue to believe that God’s unique revelatory presence was in their physical temple and not in Christ was idolatry–the same as believing that God’s unique presence was in some wooden idol or ancient tree (p195).  He appeals to the references of the golden calf incident and Stephen calling the Jewish leaders “stiff-necked” (see part II of this review for more on that) as evidence of his central thesis that people resemble what they revere.  I found this section illuminating; I’ll probably not read Stephen’s speech quite the same way again.

My plan is to review his chapters on Paul’s epistles and Revelation in Part IV, then Part V will discuss his concluding chapters as well as summarize my final thoughts on the book.

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Thanks again to Adrianna of IVP for a review copy of this book.

We pick up from part 1 of this review, starting with chapter 3, which covers “evidence elsewhere in the Old Testament.” As a reminder, Beale’s thesis statement is “what people revere, they resemble, either for ruin or restoration.”  The first review dealt with his introductory chapter (covering assumptions and methodology) and the chapter on idolatry and Isaiah 6.  In this review, we summarize Beale’s treatment of the story of Israelites worshipping the golden calf and idolatry in the Garden of Eden.

Beale shows the verbal connections between Deuteronomy 4:27-28, 29:4- dealing with the earliest history of the Israelite people- and Isaiah 6:9-10 and Psalm 115:4-7.  “Thus the roots of the irony of idolatry are to be found as early as Israel’s first generation that emerged out of Egypt.  And so the wilderness generation and Isaiah’s generation are people who are becoming like the idols they are worshiping, and that likenss mortally injures them” (p76).

Beale demonstrates this in the “golden calf incident” (Exodus 32).  “The point of the comparison between the first generation’s idolatry and that of future generations is that the golden calf idolatry was seen to be paradigmatic of Israel’s future idolatry, so that the latter was patterened about the former” (p77).  We see this in Psalm 106:19-20, in the “stiff-necked” Israelites of 1 Kings 12:25-33 and 2 Kings 17:7-18 (notice in the latter passage “they followed vanity and became vain”), the idolatrous Israelites condemned in Hosea (4:7-17, 8:4-7, 10:5, 10:11, 13:2-3), and in Jeremiah (2:5-11, 7:22-27 among others).  Along with these texts, we see other places where “sensory-malfunction” language is used, the vast majority of which is connected to idolotary (see Ezekiel 12:2).

Even though there are places in this chapter where you have to wonder if Beale is seeing more than what’s there, there’s no doubt that he successfully makes his case that (1) idolatry is prevalent throughout the OT, (2) that the golden calf incident of the wilderness generation is the paradigmatic incident of idolatry and (3) the consequence of this idolatry is becoming like the object worshipped (stiff-necked and stubborn like cattle, “following vanity and becoming vain,” etc).

Beale then turns in chapter 4 to the narrative of Adam and Eve in the garden to discuss the idolatry of the first humans.  He acknowledges that idolatry is not specifically mentioned, but argues that this is precisely what happens.  “Adam’s allegiance shifted from God to himself and probably also to Satan” (p133).  The tree of the knowledge of good and evil is the place where judgment occurs (“knowing good and evil” frequently occurs in contexts of kings exacting judgment, and trees are often places where judgments are rendered), and is precisely where Adam failed to judge the serpent and guard the garden (again, Beale admits that “guard/protect” is never explicitly stated).

Keeping in mind that his thesis is “what people revere, they resemble,” Beale notes that Adam “comes to resemble the serpent’s character in some ways.  The serpent was a liar (Gen 3:4) and a deceiver (Gen 3:1, 13)” (p133).  Technically, I’m not sure the logical connection must be what Beale says it is.  In other words, Beale’s thesis is “a leads to b” but that doesn’t necessarily mean “b must be the result of a.”  With that said, it’s not hard to see the connection when you assume his thesis (which is easily demonstrable from elsewhere in the OT).

Interestingly, Beale appeals to Ezekiel 28 to show how the later prophet understood Adam’s sin.  Ezekiel 28:1-10 and 11-19 are successive judgments on the King of Tyre.  The second is often seen as a judgment on Satan (which I disagree with) or Adam, the stance that Beale takes.  So, the King of Tyre, who is judged because he promotes himself to the level of God (vv 2, 5, 9) is judged like Adam, whose heart is also “lifted up” (v17, see vv 2, 5).  “[T]he king of Tyre’s sin and judgment is seen primarily through the lens of the sin and judgment of the figure of Eden instead of his own particular sin, and the latter’s sin and judgment is viewed as a kind of recapitulation of the primeval sin” (p137).

Thus, what we have here is a development from the theme of worshipping an idol of stone or metal.  The specific form of idolatry here is idolatry of self.  “[W]hen we try to enlarge ourselves and try to bring glory to ourselves, then we are actually reflecting our ego in a greater and greater way.  If this is so, then it fits with the particular idea of idolatry that we have noted earlier: The idol that we revere, we reflect, which leads ultimately to ruin” (p140).

In the next portion of this review, we’ll dive into Beale’s treatment of the relevant NT texts.

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Special thanks to Adrianna of IVP for a review copy of this book.

I mentioned at the end of last year that I had received a copy of Greg Beale’s book We Become What We Worship: A Biblical Theology of Idolatry and that I was genuinely excited to get a chance to read it.  In fact, I’m so excited that this will end up being a multi-part review, probably 4, if I had to guess.  This first review covers the first 2 chapters.

The first chapter helpfully sets out Beale’s thesis and approach.  His thesis: “What people revere, they resemble, either for ruin or restoration” (p16).  Not surprisingly, Beale starts with the assumption that Scripture coheres, and that biblical writers intentionally pick up passages and themes from previous contexts (sometimes in quotations, sometimes in allusions), and still respect the original context (intertextuality).  He considers himself a “maximalist” in regards to intertextuality, a refreshingly honest admission in a day when spaghetti-spined scholars want to paint themselves as “middle of the road” and “best of all worlds” kinds of guys.

He also openly admits to doing “hyperegesis,” which is “going beyond the Old Testament authors’ conscious original intention, not violating it but trascending it by creatively developing it in the ongoing light of progressive revelation and consistently within the parameters of the willed type of the original utterance” (p32).  Undoubtedly, some will not be convinced by this approach and wonder about its validity.

Two aspects of Beale’s approach are somewhat (though not entirely unique).  First, he tries to see where later OT writers used earlier OT writers.  Since most of the focus has been on the NT writers’ use of the OT, it’s interesting to see someone pick a slightly different path (though Beale isn’t the only one doing this, Douglas Stuart does this is in prophet commentaries).  Second, instead of arbitrarily picking a theme to study in Scripture, Beale opts for a text (in this case, Isaiah 6) and shows how it is developed.

Occasionally, you’ll find annoying caveats like, “I suspect there will be moments in the remainder of this chapter that some readers will have to exercise patience in following my discussion” (p22).  This, to me, is akin to a preacher starting his sermon, “Just a heads-up, this will be long and boring, but if you pay attention, you’ll get something good out of it.”

In one sense, it is odd that Beale opts for Isaiah 6 as his base text.  After all, Psalm 115 (and 135, with almost the exact wording) states his thesis clearly.  But, his point isn’t simply to prove the truth of his statement, but to show its importance for the biblical understanding of idolatry.

More than that, as noted above, Beale isn’t simply trying to trace a theme, but to trace a text (Isaiah 6) and its use in the rest of the Bible.  And Beale’s reading of Isaiah 6 is that it is a judgment of Israelite idolatry, and the punishment is becoming blind, deaf and unable to understand.  Take a second and read this chapter, especially vv9-13, in your English translation and you’ll probably wonder how he gets this reading from these verses.  Well, that’s what chapter 2 is for.

Beale notes that the “sensory-organ malfunction” language in Isaiah is applied to idols and those who worship them (42:17-20; 43:8,10; 44:17-18), as in Psalm 115.  Thus, the similar language in Isaiah 6 shows that the problem is idolatry, and the punishment is becoming like the idols being worshipped in place of God.  Beale also argues that the language in v13 (“subject to burning,” “terebinth,” “stump”) are words linked to idolatry elsewhere (see “terebinth” in Isaiah 1:29-31).  Thus, what we have here in Isaiah 6 is a denouncement and necessary punishment of Israel’s idolatry, becoming like the idols they revere.  I’m leaving out a lot of the discussion, largely because it’s rather dense.  Instead, I’m simply laying out Beale’s thesis and understanding of this passage.

I’ll admit, I was skeptical at first of this take on Isaiah 6.  But after reading this passage, I really feel that Beale may be on to something.  I would like to see an evaluation of a more established OT scholar, though endorsements on the back cover from Douglas Stuart, Bruce Waltke and T Desmond Alexander do count for something (though we all know endorsements don’t mean wholesale agreement, either).  There are enough connections with other passages on idolatry, both conceptual and lexical, that make his reading plausible, if not probable.

The next portion of the review will cover the next 2 chapters on other portions of the OT.

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