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It’s clear from the Bible and our knowledge of ancient history that idolatry was rampant among primitive man all throughout the world. What did our ancestors see in it? Was it all just nonsense?
It’s clear from the Bible and our knowledge of ancient history that idolatry was rampant among primitive man all throughout the world, roughly till it began to be replaced by Christianity in Roman times. What did our ancestors see in it? Was it all just nonsense or did the ancients derive some actual benefit from it?
Thank you for raising the fundamental issue. You are right that the drive for idolatry was virtually universal in ancient times. Societies the world over had their religious beliefs and practices, and their (often state-sanctioned) priests and temples. Most of the great architecture of the ancient world was devoted to early man’s perceived spiritual needs – such as temples to their gods or burial chambers for their leaders. Even the most unnatural and unthinkable of practices, such as child sacrifice and self-flagellation, were rampant.
Likewise, the Children of Israel were almost constantly straying after idolatry. As many times as the Torah warned against it and the Prophets railed about it, nothing seems to have been able to stem Israel’s voracious appetite for Ba’al and the other idols of its neighbors. The northern Kingdom of Israel was officially idolatrous, and in the south, idolatry was a constant enticement. Even some of the most righteous kings were not able to uproot the private altars (forbidden even when offering sacrifices to God) which appear to have been ubiquitous throughout the land. (See for example I Kings 22:44 and II Kings 12:4.) The Jewish nation seems to have been absolutely driven to offer sacrifices and to serve – whether God or their idols – and in manners almost entirely foreign to us today.
Then, almost as mysteriously, the drive for idol-worship almost entirely vanished. The highly complex and developed hierarchy of gods and powers of the ancient Roman world was virtually forgotten as Christianity spread throughout the empire. Today we are practically dumbfounded attempting to understand the burning drive the ancients had for idolatry. It seems incomprehensible to us that such seemingly nonsensical and often horrific practices, such as human sacrifice, were near impossible to uproot for so much of man’s early history.
There is a fascinating episode in the Talmud (Sanhedrin 64a) which holds the key to understanding this topic. In the early Second Temple, the great sages of Israel realized that the drive for idolatry was just too strong for Israel. It had destroyed the First Temple and was still there, “dancing” among them, ready to again lure them to sin. The sages fasted and prayed for three days, begging God to remove man’s drive for idolatry. God accepted their prayers. As the Talmud describes it, a lion cub made of fire, representing man’s drive for idolatry, burst forth from the Holy of Holies of the Temple. The sages were able to capture it and contain it so it would no longer affect mankind.
As an interesting aside, the Talmud there teaches that the sages of the time likewise attempted to annul man’s drive for sex, feeling that that too was more than we could handle. They actually did so for three days but realized that the world requires it. They did, however, annul the desire for one’s close relatives.
The Talmud (Sanhedrin 102b) contains another passage germane to our discussion. One time Rav Ashi, one of the great scholars of the Talmud, was studying with his students the topic of the wicked kings of Israel, and he referred to them irreverently as “our friends.” King Manasseh (who too was wicked but who later repented) appeared to him in a dream that night, criticizing him for the disrespect, as well as demonstrating his great Torah knowledge. Rav Ashi asked him: If you were such a Torah scholar, why were you so devoted to idol worship? The king responded: Believe me, had you lived in those days you would have lifted the hem of your robe to run as fast as you possibly could after idols!
There are several important messages from the above episodes. First of all, the ancient world really did possess a drive which we do not have today. At one time, until the final centuries before the Common Era, man had a burning, inner desire for idolatry – not so different from the drive we have for sex today. (In fact, Kabbalistically, the sex drive is comparable, on a physical plane, to the ancient spiritual urge for idol worship. This is why the Torah often depicts sinners as going “a whoring” after idols, e.g. Exodus 34:15-16, Leviticus 20:5, Deut. 31:16.)
Modern religious thinkers and sociologists attempt to explain the rationale behind idolatry and its universal appeal – based on man’s need to make sense of the inexplicable, find meaning in life, invoke powers to help him succeed, etc. But today we can at best offer logical explanations. We cannot truly relate to the past drive and the enormous challenge it posed to Israel and all mankind. As one of my teachers explained it years ago, it would the equivalent of explaining to a small child man’s drive for sex. It can be described logically that certain acts are pleasurable and alluring. But a child would only be able to accept such matters on faith. It wouldn’t really mean anything to him.
The second fascinating message is that just about when we know historically idolatry lost its hold on mankind, the Talmud teaches that the sages of Israel had annulled man’s drive for it. The Talmud likewise states that nowadays most non-Jews are not considered to really be attached to their pagan practices. They only follow them because “the custom of their fathers is in their hands” (Hullin 13b).
A final important observation is that the loss of the drive for idolatry was not only a gain for mankind. For as all human drives, it could have been used both for the good and the evil. The drive for idolatry, if properly utilized, should have been a powerful drive leading man to God and to spirituality.
Ancient man had an overpowering, deep-seated urge to connect to the infinite. They could not be satisfied living in this world alone. They should have directed that drive towards God and true spiritual growth. But for most people, God was too demanding. Idolatry gave them a sense of connecting to something beyond this world but without the strings attached, where they could live wickedly and immorally (as did the Greek gods themselves) and yet still feel spiritual.
This was the great challenge ancient man had, and which we were deemed not worthy of today. Today idolatry is meaningless to us, but concomitantly, we have that much less of a drive to connect to God.
As a final footnote, it is possible that some of the ancients did tap in to certain spiritual forces and gained something practical from their pagan practices. Their desire to transcend the physical world does not necessarily mean they embraced inane, pointless acts in order to feel religious. They may have accessed real forces – just as ancient magicians were aware of some of the forbidden metaphysical forces God placed in the universe. One of the early Jewish philosophers compares it to an ignoramus wandering into a pharmacy and helping himself to dangerous drugs. He may by chance take a medicine which is good for him and gives him additional strength or abilities (Kuzari I 79). Perhaps part of the ancients’ devotion to idolatry was based on such.