David Michael, is his blog, Perplixicon, asked a very interesting question: “Is it possible to believe in false gods? The answer to this question is obvious, but in the process of trying to answer his own question, David introduced so many incorrect statements that I believe some clarification is in order, lest David’s readers are led astray. In my response to his statements, I will be brief, otherwise, this post would be very long.
First, David identifies Yahweh, the God of Abraham, with Allah, the God of Islam. It is true that the Quran declares that Allah is the God of the Bible. However, a comparison between what the Bible says about Yahweh and what the Quran says about Allah reveal so many differences, that no one who knows the Bible would say that Yahweh and Allah are the same God.
When one compares what the Bible has to say about the nature and the character of the God of Abraham with what the Quran says about the nature and character of Allah, it becomes clear that the two are not the same God.
Second, David said that in the wilderness, the Israelites worshiped “the Golden Cow.” Then he asked the following question: “Isn’t the name “Golden Cow” just another name for God (to me)?” Again the answer to this question is obvious.
The name of the God of the Bible is Yahweh. When God revealed his name to Moses on Mount Sinai, God told Moses: “This is my name forever, and this is my title for all generations” (Exodus 3:15). In addition, the idol the Israelites made for themselves was not a cow (˓eglâ), but it was a young bull (˓ēgel).
Third, David said that God was jealous because he wanted credit for creation. The reason for God’s anger was not because he wanted credit for creation, but because God had told the Israelites not to make images and use them in worship: “You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or worship them” (Exodus 20:4-5).
Israel promised to obey all the demands of the covenant, but while Moses was on the mountain, receiving the tablets of the covenant, the people corrupted themselves by disobeying the very commandment they promised to obey. They made for themselves an image of a bull and worshiped it and made sacrifices to it (Exodus 32:7-8).
The making of the golden calf was a violation of the demands of the covenant the Israelites promised to obey. Their act was a clear rejection of Yahweh in favor of an image of a god of their own creation.
Fourth, David wrote: “If God expects his followers to worship him on the basis of the correct name and appearance, surely it is only courteous to introduce himself to them personally” But he did.
Until the time of Moses, God had revealed himself to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as El Shaddai, but the people did not know him by his real name (Exodus 6:3). But God was serious in his desire to make himself known to the people. So, when Moses worried that the people would demand to know the name of God, God revealed his name to Moses and then commanded him to tell the people: “‘I AM has sent me to you’” (Exodus 3:13-14).
The covenant between God and Israel made the nation a unique people because the worship of Israel was to be aniconic, since the worship of gods in the form of idols was central to the worship of Israel’s neighbors. Israel was forbidden to make a graphic representation of God, either in the form of human beings or animals.
Israel would be the only nation in the Ancient Near East to worship a God who could not be represented by an image. The prohibition of making images and worshiping them is a declaration that nothing that God had created could capture the essence of the character and likeness of God. The nations of the Ancient Near East worshiped their gods by bowing before the images they had created, but the God of Israel was to be worshiped without any physical representation.
Eventually, Israel came to realize that gods of wood and stone were just that: wood and stones. This reality was vividly presented by the prophet known as Deutero Isaiah:
The ironsmith fashions [an image] and works it over the coals, shaping it with hammers, and forging it with his strong arm; he becomes hungry and his strength fails, he drinks no water and is faint. The carpenter stretches a line, marks it out with a stylus, fashions it with planes, and marks it with a compass; he makes it in human form, with human beauty, to be set up in a shrine. He cuts down cedars or chooses a holm tree or an oak and lets it grow strong among the trees of the forest. He plants a cedar and the rain nourishes it. Then it can be used as fuel. Part of it he takes and warms himself; he kindles a fire and bakes bread. Then he makes a god and worships it, makes it a carved image and bows down before it. Half of it he burns in the fire; over this half he roasts meat, eats it and is satisfied. He also warms himself and says, “Ah, I am warm, I can feel the fire!” The rest of it he makes into a god, his idol, bows down to it and worships it; he prays to it and says, “Save me, for you are my god!” (Isaiah 44:12-17).
The prophet Jeremiah said that idols are worthless things and those who worship idols become worthless themselves:
Thus says the LORD: What wrong did your ancestors find in me that they went far from me, and went after worthless things, and became worthless themselves? (Jeremiah 2:5).
Goldsmiths are all put to shame by their idols; for their images are false, and there is no breath in them. They are worthless, a work of delusion (Jeremiah 10:14-15).
So, now I come back to David’s question: “Is it possible to believe in false gods?” As I said above, the answer is obvious: Of course it is.
The idolatrous practices of the people of ancient Israel is a vivid reminder that people can worship false gods, but those who worship those worthless things become worthless themselves. If anyone wants to worship a god, why worship false gods? People should worship the true and living God, and serve only him (Deuteronomy 10:20).
NOTE: For a complete list of studies on the book of Isaiah, read my post, Studies on the Book of Isaiah.
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary
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>With respect, I think it is you who is leading your readers astray, even despite being an authority on the matter.Let me try to address your points in turn:First, I didn't actually say that Yahweh and Allah are the same god. But believers of both of them think that there is only one god, therefore, according to their own beliefs, Allah is just a misrepresentation of Yahweh and vice versa. So they are in fact the same, it's just the descriptions which differ.I didn't say that the Israelites worshipped a golden cow. I only supposed that I was an Israelite who worshipped a golden cow. After all, they worshipped many false idols, and the Bible doesn't have to list them all.God may have insisted that his name was Yahweh, but he didn't protest to being called anything else. Is it blasphemous to worship Jehovah and not Yahweh? What if you mispronounce his name? And what if you call him God or the Lord? Why do we not call him "I AM"?Justifying God's position within a Biblical framework is pointless. My aim was to show that God's position was untenable, not that he didn't hold that position. Allah is equally wrong to think that false gods can be worshipped.Moses may have said he saw Yahweh, but how do the Israelites know he is telling the truth? As it stands, Exodus is a testimony of a testimony (and quite probably a testimony of a testimony of a testimony), and that is not the sort of evidence we would normally trust.Why does something have to "capture the essence of God" anyway? An idol is just a representation, and is not supposed to be the thing itself. If Yahweh is so against representations of him produced by mere mortals like us, what of the representation of him in the Hebrew Bible! And besides, don't Christians have the cross as an idol?
I came across this post in search of information on false gods in the old testament. Realizing it is an old post it peaked my interest and thought to through my two cents in.
The issue may not be in the name, image or appearance of what one is worshiping, but rather the issue of the heart, we all worship something. Whether believer or atheist, your belief system is based on where you choose to hang your faith on. If one believes in a all powerful Creater, “God,” where did he acquire the knowledge of God? Most likely, from the bible, if so the ignorance card can no longer be used. There is a verse, Acts 17:23, in which Paul was observing the idols or gods of the men of Athens. He found one idol to the “Unknow God” he then proceeded to proclaim who this unknown God was.
Now what they decided to do with that information is an issue of the heart, the responsibility is ultimately placed on the recipient. If they worshiped in ignorance not understanding on who their adoration was bestowed on, would a loving God punish them? I believe not, once the enlightenment came to them. They now have a choice. Here is an illustration, say my ten-year-old son has been watching a program that unbeknownst to him is detrimental to his emotional well being. It comes to my attention that he has been watching this. In line with the good father that I am, (a bit of humor) can I punish him? No, we sit down to let him know (in generalities, he will not understand the details at this age) why we do not want him to watch this program anymore.
What he does with this new information is up to him, not completely due to his age, but in his heart, it is, and we will act accordingly. The example is used because I find that most of the issue in life can be broken down to family issues, if it works in a family setting in works in life overall. The old adage “What is good for the goose is good for the gander,” comes through again when used with common sense and balance.
A layman’s views
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I apologize for the delay in answering your comment.
I agree with you that the heart determines, but once people discover the truth, they cannot choose that which is false. Idols are false gods; only the God who reveals himself in Christ is the true God.
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