Several months ago, a friend 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 this question, many people answer the question incorrectly. In order to properly answer this question, some clarification is in order.
First, some people believe that Yahweh, the God of Abraham, is the same God which the Quran calls 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 reveals 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, in the wilderness, the Israelites worshiped the golden calf. After the idol was made the people proclaimed: “This is your god, O Israel, who brought you out of the land of Egypt!” (Exodus 32:4 TNK). Then the question arises: Is it possible that the golden calf was just another name for the God of Israel? 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).
When the people began to worship the golden calf, they provoked God to anger. The reason for God’s anger was 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.
Some people say they cannot worship God because God is invisible and cannot be known. People say: “If God expects his followers to worship him on the basis of the correct name and appearance, surely he would reveal himself to them personally.” But the Bible clearly says that God has revealed himself and his name to his people.
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 my friend’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. As Yahweh spoke through the prophet Jeremiah: “What fault did your ancestors find in me, that they strayed so far from me? They followed worthless idols and became worthless themselves” (Jeremiah 2:5 NIV). 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).
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary
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