Maimonides, in his legal classic, the Mishnah Torah, opens his discussion of the Laws of Idolatry with a history of how humanity fell into idolatry. In this introduction, he felt compelled to explain how human beings, who had once been intimate with God, went astray, worshiping things other than God. According to Maimonides, human beings benignly started worshiping God’s creations as a means to further honor their Creator until at some point the Creator Himself was forgotten and all that remained was the worship of created things. (See Laws of Idolatry 1:1)
While one might question this historical construction, there is something profound in the Maimonidean realization that perhaps it is not easy to discern God’s existence in one’s experience of the natural world. It may be much easier for human beings to relate to forces in their lives which are more directly experienced, whether it is the forces of nature or political power. From this vantage point, Pharaoh cannot be faulted for his religious naiveté when he thought himself to be a deity, since he embodied the political power who controlled the land which contained a mighty river: “Behold, I am going to deal with you, Pharaoh, king of Egypt, mighty monster sprawling in your channels, who said: My Nile is my own, I have made it for myself.” (Ezekiel 29:3)
Still, Pharaoh’s vision was based on a delusion. He, and those like him, glorify themselves as the ultimate source of their own wellbeing. For others, that delusion is like those mentioned by Maimonides, namely, the worship of the immediate source of their bounty. In both cases, they fail to see any transcendence beyond their immediate needs and experiences and are led astray. Ezekiel attacks this approach vigorously, portraying Pharaoh as just a fish in the river he presumes to rule: “And I will put hooks in your jaws, and I will cause the fish in the rivers to stick to your scales, and I will bring you out of the midst of your rivers, and all the fish shall stick to your scales. And I will cast you into the wilderness…” (29:4-5)
This was not just geo-political posturing on Ezekiel’s part. There was something larger at stake. Ezekiel was taking a clear stand against the worldview that people, things or even ideologies should be the object of worship, taking center stage over all other things. He considered this a destructive belief, antithetical to the tradition that he represented. It is a malady not lost in the modern (or post-modern) world that we live in.
What turns an affection, association or belief into something negative – an idolatry? Absolute and resolute faithfulness at all costs – a blindness to all but the “cause”. (See A. Kasher, Yahadut v’elilut, chapter 2). This is the crux of Ezekiel’s warning to Pharaoh that making himself a deity would only bring about his own downfall and that Israel’s dependence on him as their “savior” would bring about their destruction. This message should serve as a warning to all of us that any absolute beliefs that we take upon ourselves are likely to do the same.