We like to think that idolatry is a thing of the past, that ancient pagans fell prey to the belief that the world was filled with powers beyond comprehension, powers that demanded adulation and sacrifice to ensure the smooth operation of daily life. Their knowledge of the world was deficient, but we are cultured, enlightened, and know better. We know how the world really works, and would never put our faith in something as obviously false as idols of wood and stone.
Despite our seeming sophistication, it is worth asking ourselves whether this is indeed the case. A closer look at the famous midrash of Abraham smashing his father’s idols can help us to recognize that maybe we are not as advanced as we like to think. It is often one of the first stories we are taught when we are young and its appeal lies in its simplicity. Unlike those around him, Abraham perceives the falsehood of idolatry and has the courage to act on his convictions. In fact, Abraham is so clever he gets his father to openly admit that idol worship is nothing more than a sham. When left in charge of his father’s idol shop for the day, he smashes the idols save for one, the largest, and places a hammer in its hand. When Terach, Abraham’s father, returns and surveys the wreckage, he immediately demands to know what took place. In a guise of naiveté, Abraham responds as follows:
“How can hide anything from? A woman came with a basket of bread and said to me that I should offer it to the idols. I brought it in front of them and each one said, ‘I’m going to eat first.’ Then the biggest one got up, took the hammer and broke all the others to pieces.
Terach’s reaction is incredulous: “What are you trying to pull on me? Do they have minds?” With the trap having been laid, Avraham can now spring it close. He defiantly proclaims to his father “Listen to what your own mouth is saying. They have no power at all! Why worship idols?”
As the reader, our sympathies clearly lie with Abraham. One cannot help but read the words he directs at his father and think checkmate! Terach has no choice but to admit the error of his ways as his own words prove it. Nevertheless, the story proceeds in a troubling manner. Instead of acknowledging idolatry’s mendacity and joining with Abraham in smashing the remaining idol, Terach seizes his son, and drags him before Nimrod, the king, to be tried for heresy, an act that puts Abraham’s life at great risk. What exactly is going on here? Doesn’t Terach, as Abraham put it, “hear what his own mouth is saying”? Why does he not embrace his son as a truth-teller who has freed him from his illusions?
There are, I think, a number of important insights that can be learned from this story. First, we like to assume that people in the thrall of ideas or ideologies we find deeply problematic are simply being deceived. They believe something to be true when this is in fact not the case, and if shown the light, they could be convinced of their error. This assumption, however, deeply misunderstands the nature of belief. We don’t assume a set of beliefs and behaviors because they are obviously rational and logical. Every religious person knows this to be true. Rather, we cling to them because they speak to us on a very deep emotional and existential level. Somewhere in our psyche, we know that many of our deeply held beliefs, whether they be religious or political, are not obviously true, yet we grant them a power not unlike the idols worshipped by Abraham’s father. When confronted with the contradictions in our behaviors, the hypocrisies that make up no small part of our lives, we find ourselves deeply unsettled, and like Terach, we do all that we can to remove the threat, even if it comes from those who are closest to us.
Despite the great distance between us and Terach, one can argue that our situation is perhaps even worse than his. Terach knew he was an idol worshipped. We, however, like to think otherwise. To take a common example, we know that money isn’t real, that it doesn’t have any genuine substance to it. No one would deny that it is a social construction which exists only because we collectively will it into being. If our children were to ask us, we would have no problem admitting that it is just printed paper. But when you look at our actions, the way we actually treat money in our lives, we would be hard pressed to claim that we don’t relate to it as an all-powerful being, the most important thing that everything else depends on. This has only become even more apparent in the wake of a worldwide pandemic where it is openly proclaimed that we have no choice but to sacrifice lives to preserve the economy. Money demands its sacrifices and we must be willing to offer them to ensure that we stay within its good graces. In such a climate, we have no right to claim that idolatry is merely a relic of the past, for the moment we believe that we are beyond idolatry is perhaps when it is most dangerous. To truly test one’s beliefs, conscious or unconscious, we must always look at what we do, how we live our lives, and not just what we say.
We know that idolatry did not cease to be a temptation even after God revealed Himself and made a covenant with Abraham and his descendants. Instead, idolatry has been a recurring danger for the Jewish people throughout their history. Faith could be established. if only temporarily, but the desire to worship idols would always return. Abraham’s critique of his father Terach, can be heard echoing in the words of Isaiah, who admonishes the Jewish people that the wood they use to fashion into idols is the same wood they use to heat their homes and cook their food. Nevertheless, “He bows down to it, worships it; He prays to it and cries, ‘Save me, for you are my god!’” (44:17) In doing so, ‘a deluded mind has led him astray, And he cannot save himself; He never says to himself, ‘The thing in my hand is a fraud.’” (44:20) On some level, we do know that the idols we cling to are powerless, but as was the case with Terach, we cannot easily bring ourselves to admit this.
In uncertain and chaotic times like our own, idolatry’s siren call only gets louder and its danger only increases. In such moments, it is perhaps best not to see ourselves as Abraham smashing the idols of others at every turn, for as Abraham discovered, such actions rarely lead to their intended results. But at the very least we must start the difficult work of recognizing our own.