Religion, at its fundament, is respect for power. We are taught this idea from birth: we must placate those who are more powerful than we are, or we will be cast out to die. The lesson holds true throughout our lives — adults who reject the powerful are risking their wellbeing.
In the ancient world, this concept encapsulated every powerful force man could perceive: wind and rain, sun and sea, trees and mountains and rivers. All of them became gods to mankind, the world over. Indeed, any powerful person was also a god, not because they were above nature or immune to it, but because they had more power than the weak did, and so were naturally deities in their own right. It is no accident that when a man bows down to another and calls him “my lord,” the titled is shared with a name we call G-d: ascribing power and superiority is acknowledging a hierarchy, one that makes more powerful people that little bit more special, closer to a deity than to other men.
One might go so far as to say that People Magazine holds the common attention in the same way that the ancient Greeks delighted in scuttlebutt about the gods slumming it with mankind. Sports and Hollywood celebrities are treated as demigods and heroes in their own right, simply because they are powerful or influential, rich or trend-setting.
And who is to say otherwise? The vast majority of mankind defers to such people, even today. Through the ages, we have seen leaders who were considered Philosopher Kings, people so wise and smart that they could order all the affairs of men. The instinctive respect we pay to “experts” who are akin to Philosopher Kings borders on mass psychosis. It is the most plausible explanation for people who hang on the words and prognostications of charlatans like Fauci: people idolize experts, especially when they are frightened. Those expert are ports in a storm, a higher power that can tell us how we can be safe. “Idolizing” means to create an idol of something or someone. All the trappings of religion have rapidly accrued to Covid worship, and the most susceptible to this religion have, by and large, been among atheist intellectuals who consider religion to be an opiate for the masses. Ironically, those who already have strong religious faith have been far less likely to pay heed to pronouncements from terrestrial experts who claim to possess certainty.
When we are in the middle of such an event, we often lack clarity about what is going on. And while in theory hindsight is 20/20, we make similar errors when we try to understand the past. This is because our perspective often fails to understand how people made decisions in their own worlds, absent modern assumptions about the nature of the world.
Let’s start with primitive man, for whom all natural forces are deities of some kind. There are fertility gods, a sun god, and gods of luck and fortune. Indeed, people are also called gods – people who are more powerful than others are called gods, even in the Torah. “You will be to Pharaoh as gods.” (Ex. 4:16), and “The LORD replied to Moses, ‘See, I give you as a God to Pharaoh, with your brother Aaron as your prophet.’” (Ex. 7:1) In both these cases, G-d is explaining that to a normal person, having superior power makes you into a god in the eyes of the weaker person.
G-d Himself is willing to accommodate man’s need to acclaim power as its own justification. G-d tells Pharaoh, “I have spared you for this purpose: in order to show you My power, and in order that My fame may resound throughout the world.” (Ex. 9:16) The Ten Plagues on Egypt, followed with the Exodus, can be seen as a systemic attack on every prominent natural force that ancient peoples naturally worshipped: The Nile River, frogs, animals, dust, gods for healing, procreation and the pre-eminence of the first-born, the sun, the sea, the wind, storms and locust plagues. The plagues work through each force in turn, each deity in the pantheon, controlling each of them in turn. “I will mete out punishments to all the gods of Egypt, I the LORD.” (Ex. 12:12) Seen in this light, the entire story of the Exodus is G-d conducting a marketing campaign, creating his unique brand!
Why would He choose to do that? The answer is simple: mankind could not wrap their heads around the idea of a non-corporeal deity, a deity that cannot be found in a natural force, or a great man, or a powerful people. When first confronted with Moses’ demands, Pharoah’s words were “Who is this god that I am supposed to listen to him and let Israel go? I do not know this god.” In other words: there was no place in the pantheon of Egypt for any deity with the name of the Jewish god. G-d was literally unknown to the Egyptians. The Jewish G-d is not known to the Egyptians because He has no corporeal existence; a G-d who does not command His own natural force is a mere abstraction, not a god at all.
And so the entire branding campaign rolls out, with G-d pummeling the Egyptians and their deities. G-d has to best the other gods, making an irrefutable argument, making sure that nobody could ever again say, “The god of the Hebrews? Never heard of him.” Time after time, G-d repeats, “I am the Lord,” making the point. G-d very much wants mankind to grasp the concept of His existence. Moses tells Pharoah, “That you make know that there is none like the Lord our G-d.” (Ex. 8:6)
I doubt that Pharoah ever really gets there, though. For him, the demonstrations of power show that G-d is greater than the Egyptian gods, and can command nature – so G-d becomes the super-duper-powerful god of all nature. Or as Moses tells Pharaoh, “the earth is the Lord’s.” (Ex. 9:29) Pharoah’s advisers get it. “Are you not yet aware that Egypt is lost?” (Ex. 10:7) And Pharaoh eventually does, as well: “I stand guilty before the LORD your God” (Ex. 10:16). He surrenders, however fleetingly, to a superior force. As G-d puts it, “I know that the king of Egypt will let you go only because of a greater might.” (Ex. 3:19) But Pharoah does not ever really understand that the G-d of the Hebrews is somehow different (rather than merely more powerful) than other forces of nature.
The Jewish audience is given a distinctly different message. G-d is trying to explain to the Jewish people that the god of their forefathers is back in the scene – and He is FAR more powerful than he had ever showed them before. This culminates at the Song sung after the Egyptians are drowned in the waters: “Who is like you O Lord?” The Jews do not need to merely understand, as the Egyptians do, that G-d is powerful. They need to understand that there is a qualitative difference as well. The G-d of the Jews is not merely the master of nature; He is its creator, and service to Him is going to be different that the service to any of the pagan deities of the natural world.
Through the entire Exodus story, G-d is showing his power. He told of it in advance, to be sure, but people only believed what they actually saw and experienced. Even the Jewish people needed to be shown: “But when Moses told this to the Israelites, they would not listen to Moses, their spirits crushed by cruel bondage.” (Ex 6:9) Talk, after all, is cheap.
From our perspective, this seems foolish. When G-d Almighty tells you something, you had best believe it.
But here’s the kicker: G-d never told anyone before this point that He was Almighty! He never showed His power to mankind in Genesis (the Flood was the only exception, and even that only showed power over rain). G-d did not even tell anyone of it. Which is why, when G-d tells Avram and Sara that He can make an old woman fertile again, that they will have a son, they laugh at him! This only makes sense if they had no reason to think that G-d was all-powerful. G-d realizes that if Avram and Sara do not believe that G-d is powerful enough to override nature, then the rest of the world would prove to be an impossibly difficult audience. Indeed, Avram keeps asking how he can be sure that he will have a child (15:2 and 15:8) – G-d’s only advocate in the world is full of doubt, too!
At this point, G-d forges a new covenant (Gen 15) that Avraham’s descendants will be enslaved for 400 years, and then brought out through G-d’s force. It is here that the Exodus is forecast for the future, because G-d realizes that mankind will not recognize Him without a full and comprehensive demonstration of divine power.
Until the Exodus, G-d’s power is not specified. To our forefathers, He is essentially called a familial deity. Which is why Isaac calls G-d, “The G-d of my father,” and Jacob calls G-d, “The G-d of my fathers.” The tribal deity continues the conversation and the relationship through the generations, but neither the forefathers, nor their wives, nor their enemies, ever refer to G-d as somehow more powerful than “The G-d of my father/s.” (Gen 26:24, 28:13). When Jacob dreams and sees what he calls “the gates of heaven,” he exclaims, “Surely the LORD is present in this place, and I did not know it!” (Gen. 28:16). If G-d is in a certain place, then it suggests that G-d is not in every place. In other words, Jacob does not gain the understanding that G-d is all-powerful. Instead, he cuts a deal: “If I return safe to my father’s house—the LORD shall be my God.” (Gen. 28:21). G-d is one god among many, a choice on the menu.
This helps explain why Rachel does not destroy her father’s idols, breaking them before she left. Instead, she steals them because she wishes to have them herself.
Similarly, when Jacob plans to go visit G-d, the text tells us –
So Jacob said to his household and to all who were with him, “Rid yourselves of the alien gods in your midst, purify yourselves, and change your clothes. Come, let us go up to Bethel, and I will build an altar there to the God who answered me when I was in distress and who has been with me wherever I have gone.” (Gen. 35:2)
That all sounds fine, if a little odd. But what Jacob does next is more than odd, if the forefathers were monotheists:
They gave to Jacob all the alien gods that they had, and the rings that were in their ears, and Jacob buried them under the terebinth that was near Shechem.
Instead of breaking or burning or otherwise destroying the idols, Jacob buries them. Which is precisely what you do if you are keeping open the option of coming back and getting them later. Jacob is never told that G-d is all-powerful, nor is he ever commanded to not have other gods in the household. So he keeps the other idols, just in case.
Moses himself does not quite grasp the magnitude of G-d’s power, at least not when they first meet. G-d introduces Himself as “The God of the father, the God of Avraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” It is a good start, but it is not an argument for omnipotence.
G-d tells Moses to go talk to Pharoah, and Moses demurs, saying that he has a speech impediment. G-d replies, “‘Who hath made man’s mouth? or who maketh a man dumb, or deaf, or seeing, or blind? is it not I the LORD?’” (Ex. 4:11) Moses is unconvinced and unmoved; G-d loses the argument, and instead appoints Aaron to speak on Moses’ behalf. G-d knows that He is clearly not getting the respect He deserves. It is going to take a big demonstration to get there.
When Moses is first rebuffed in his attempts to free the people, G-d responds:
‘I am the LORD; and I appeared unto Abraham, unto Isaac, and unto Jacob, as ‘El Shaddai,’ but by My name YKVK I made Me not known to them.
In other words: “You are about to see a facet of me that the forefathers never saw.” That is the G-d of the Exodus, the almighty god of the whole world. Which means that the entire Exodus is G-d’s big reveal.
What is fascinating is that G-d does not even demand that the people worship Him exclusively until the Ten Commandments are given at Sinai! That event is often compared to a marriage between G-d and the people, and it makes sense that “forswearing all others” comes with the marriage ceremony. We are commanded to make and keep a clean break between worshipping G-d and even acknowledging the deities of others. Monotheism is introduced to the Jewish people at Sinai! From that point, we no longer bury idols; we destroy them.
Seen in this light, our forefathers quite reasonably could not be expected to know something that G-d had not told them. But they had, nevertheless, achieved a remarkable conceptual understanding: quantitatively the G-d of the Torah may be more powerful than natural forces, but his qualitative difference is that G-d has no corporeal form at all. This was the first realization that Avram has when he first hears a divine voice – that a deity need not be a force of nature at all, that there is power in the word and the thought and the idea, the “still small voice,” that can talk to each of us.
Writ large, this is a critical concept for the growth of humanity and civilization. It is easy to recognize and worship greater power, but true power lies in ideas and thoughts, the vehicles that bring us love and freedom and countless other ideals that make life meaningful and purposeful. All animals live in nature, but mankind gets to also live in the world of ideas – thanks to the understanding that G-d can be in the spaces between the forces of nature.
So the Torah forbids any physical representation of G-d for this reason: we must preserve that brilliant insight of our forefathers, that there can be no proxies for the divine, no corporeal stand-ins for a deity whose real power lies not in a storm or a mountain, but in our minds. “Thou shalt bow down to no other god.” (Ex. 34:14) Seen in this light, open miracles are deceptive about G-d’s essence: while power over nature is an attribute that G-d possesses, it is not His physical power that makes G-d, well, G-d. G-d is truly important because of what we cannot see, of the quiet thoughts and inspired ideals that give life constructive purpose and meaning. But understanding this does not come naturally, or easy, to mankind.
Our so-called modern world is regressing, walking backward into Genesis. Society is adding gods by the day: people worship celebrities and athletes, while the enlightened classes who are all far too smart to believe in anything as silly as religion, seek and deify Philosopher Kings like Obama and expert bureaucracies like the CDC or FDA. Above all, the gods of nature, Mother Earth and Sustainability in all its forms, have become the established religion of The West, with all the bells and whistles of classic idol-worship, including and especially the need to demonize mankind as despoilers of the natural world. We are adding all these other gods to the Monotheon because somehow, with all our technology and belief in reason, man is still no wiser than children.
America is founded on the counterfactual belief that “all men are created equal,” an open rejection of primitive religion and its belief that importance scales with power. Which puts America’s founding ideals at the pinnacle of human understanding from the dawn of time. We hold that “all men are created equal,” an assertion that the underlying value of a person is not found in their speed or strength or stamina – or even their ability to exert authority over others – but is instead found in their divinely-gifted souls. We do not worship power for its own sake. Might does not make right, and we reject coercion wherever we can, because intelligence and wisdom should not sort out who deserves freedom, and who does not. It is not physical force that creates a god; the real deity in the world has no physical manifestation at all, because the greatest power of all has no physical form: true power is found in words and ideas. That is why the Torah forms the heart of Western Civilization.
[An @iwe, @susanquinn, @blessedblacksmith @eliyahumasinter and @kidcoder collaboration – with kudos for the core insight to @iwe’s brother!]