Rabbi Reuven Chaim Klein’s book “God versus gods” is filled with information on every page about Jewish history, ideology, God, idols, superstition, and mistakes made by the ancients. There are seven chapters on the history of monotheism in 276 pages, many hundreds of footnotes in this first of two sections filled with information, insertions from time to time of gray areas containing interesting somewhat tangential information, such as “who was Rabshakeh” and how is he significant. There is also a second section of 82 pages where the rabbi lists the many idols mentioned in the Hebrew Bible and explains what they were in detail with 638 footnotes.
Rabbi Klein addresses and answers many questions in the book. He tells us that today it is virtually impossible to understand why the ancients, Jews and non-Jews, worshipped idols and he explains why this is so. He explains many biblical episodes such: What is the meaning of the various divine names? How did idol worship differ in different periods of history? What was the Golden Calf during the days of Moses? Why did the Israelites worship the calf? What was Aaron’s role in the affair? What were the two calves that were set up at the two temples in the northern kingdom of Israel? What was the battle the prophet Elijah had with the priests of Baal and Asherah? Who was Micah, what was Micah’s idol mentioned in the book of Judges, and how long was it worshiped? Did the judge Gideon rid the Israelites of Baal and if so, why was it worshipped after his death? What actually happened when King Josiah of Judah found a Torah scroll? Who were the Cutheans and did they worship idols? And, especially, what is an idol, how did it differ in different places, what caused people to think that it could help them, and much more.
Some readers may not agree with his approach of taking the Bible, Talmud, Midrashim, classical and modern commentators literally, even when these sources state what seems to be unscientific. Some few of these ideas are: (1) Saying the world was created just over 5700 years ago, a view expressed in the anno mundi calendar developed in the sixth century, after the Babylonian Talmud was composed and so the talmudic rabbis knew nothing about this calendar. (2) Asserting that when Adam was created all the animals thought that he was God and came to him and bowed to him, as a Midrash states. (3) The idea that God created heavenly beings with some divine powers to rule over non-Jews and care for them, while God cares for Jews, the opinion of some Bible commentators, including Nachmanides. (4) Idol worship began in the time of Adam’s grandson Enosh because a Midrash states that when Enosh told people that he grandfather Adam was created from earth, they argued that earth must be God and began to worship it. (5) The notion contained in Midrashim that the ancient rabbis were so powerful that they were able to somewhat magically stop people from believing in the usefulness of idols. (6) The belief that the ancients were far smarter than their descendants and if they were like humans, we are like donkeys; thus, even the ancient evil-doers were great scholars; which raised some Midrashim to ask, how could such brilliant people act improperly?
However, even readers who dislike his approach will benefit by learning about the problems created when we try to understand biblical narratives, Jewish history, and why the ancients worshipped idols, and they will be prompted to think of their own solution to the problems that are raised.