Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 16 (2016) - Review
This slim monograph explores, as the title suggests, the polemic against idols as found in the prophetic literature. The book falls into five chapters. The first chapter introduces the reader to the concept of aniconism, i.e., the worship of a deity in which no kind of image representing the deity is used. Middlemas surveys previous research on the prohibitions against iconographic representations of YHWH as found in the Hebrew Bible. What theological message did the ban of idols convey and what were the origin(s) of aniconic thought in the first place? Moreover, did the prohibition against idols appear gradually, given that some texts refer to what seems to have been acceptable iconographic representations of the deity (e.g., the Ark and the Nehustan)? Finally, did some texts (but not others) promote this prohibition? Middlemas then turns to the prophetic material and surveys past research on especially the books of Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel. She asks pertinently whether the prophetic material depended on the thoughts expressed in the legal material or rather whether the prophetic literature inspired later legal traditions. Furthermore, are the thoughts on aniconism in both sets of texts compatible with and complementary to one another, or do they reveal significant contradictions in terms of their understanding of visual representations of YHWH? Despite the wealth of previous research, however, there is according to Middlemas more to be done in terms of understanding the rhetorical strategies employed by the prophetic literature. In particular, there is a need to explore in greater detail the relationship between the thoughts on aniconism and the thoughts on anthropomorphic language. For instance, to what extent do speech formulas about YHWH's body parts constitute an image which enables the audience to visualize YHWH's physical form? Put succinctly, is a text really aniconic if, at the same time, its rhetoric is blatantly anthropomorphic?
The second chapter surveys and evaluates past research on the well-known topic of idol polemic. The first part of the chapter looks anew at the so-called polemic against idol passages which are located primarily in Isa 4048 but also in Jer 10; 51; and Hab 2. Middlemas highlights that much of the research done on these passages has served the ulterior motive of exploring the notion of monotheism or, alternatively, investigating what these texts can tell us about their Sitz im Leben and Sitz in der Literatur. Inevitably, other aspects have been neglected, such as how and to what extent the prophetic literature employs this type of polemic in order to further the notion of aniconism. In Middlemas's view, this polemic serves to undercut the ancient Near Eastern idea of idols as images, showing that such images are unstable, easily destroyed, and thus of limited lifespan. Moreover, as created objects, they impinge on YHWH's sole position as Creator and accordingly are to be condemned. Middlemas sums up by stating that there is iconoclasm (programmatic aniconism) through and through these passages (p. 36).
The rest of the chapter discusses the rhetorical structures by which these and other passages in the prophetic literature reinforce the idea that deitieswhen appearing in statued formsdo not represent real deities. YHWH is the only living and acting God and cannot be compared with lifeless idols. Middlemas concludes the chapter with a discussion of the vexed question as to what extent the Israelite prophets fully understood the representative function of idols in ancient Near Eastern beliefs. Middlemas sidetracks the issue somewhat by claiming thatnotwithstanding the likelihood that the Israelite authors did have a good understanding of this issuethe prophetic literature conveys a clear and mocking satire of this type of belief. The aim of their polemic, however, was to dissuade the audience from the making and the veneration of images.
The third chapter turns to a different set of structures in the prophetic literature which aims to resist or even to reject iconoclasm. Middlemas stresses the consistent use of language that distances the worship of YHWH from any kind of physical imagery and that refrains from conveying the impression that any kind of cultic symbol is devoted to him. Middlemas discusses the drive to distance the divine from concrete forms. She looks at how select polemics in Hosea (e.g., Hos 13:13) target bull iconography, thus stressing that worship of an object in fact equals worship of Baal. In contrast, YHWH must be worshiped without any cultic symbols. Turning to the motif of the cherubim throne in Ezekiel, Middlemas argues that the lack of any reference to it in the final vision in Ezek 4048 is a sign of Ezekiel's full-blown aniconism. Although the image in itself represents YHWH's presence rather than his form, it nevertheless conjures up the image of a (physical) deity sitting on a throne. The transformation of the ark of the covenant from being YHWH's footstool in the temple into being the container of the tablets of the law, as well as its vanishing from biblical records, points in the same direction. This strategy, argues Middlemas, results in the disappearance of any stable, fixed, and anthropomorphic image of YHWH. Instead, it reveals a consciously unstable image of the deity which, in turn, serves as a deterrent to conceptualize YHWH in physical terms.
The fourth chapter continues with this thought as it explores how the prophetic literature employs a wide range of metaphors which further seek to destabilize a set image of YHWH. These metaphors serve to diversify the way in which YHWH is imagined and thus increase the sense of his incomparability. Middlemas begins by discussing those passages which emphasize that none is like YHWH (e.g., Isa 40:18, 25; 44:7; 46:5) and argues that this polemic underscores the contrast between the dead and ineffective idols and the living and acting YHWH. Middlemas then turns to the use of metaphors and demonstrates that the depictions of YHWH as a shepherd, a soldier, a woman in labor, etc. in Isa 4055 create new ways of conceptualizing YHWH as well as emphasize that he is all and none of these things. He can take on a role, but he has no physical body. The book of Ezekiel employs a comparable strategy, as it likens YHWH with a human being, fire, and the rainbow. These images suggest concepts such as hope, presence, judgement, etc., but none of them conveys corporeality. Finally, the book of Hosea testifies to the widest range of images, whereby the descriptions of YHWH range from husband, father, physician, fowler, lion, leopard, she-bear, the dew, the dawn, the rain, a cypress, a moth, and finally also decay (5:12).
The fifth chapter turns to Gen 1:2628; 5:13; and 9:6 and looks anew at these well-known aniconic passages through the lens of the ideas discovered in the prophetic material. In short, how can we understand the statements that claim that humanity is made in God's image? Middlemas argues that these passages have a lot in common with the aforementioned prophetic texts. First, while the texts in Genesis explicitly equate God's form with that of humanity, the prophetic texts in especially Isa 4055 implicitly connect them by using human metaphors (warrior, shepherd, woman in childbirth, etc.). Thus, YHWH ultimately has human form. The same is generally true also for the book of Ezekiel, where God, when likened to a specific form (i.e., not to fire or to the rainbow), is likened to a man. At the same time, there are marked differences. Significantly, while the prophetic literature shows a distinct aversion to concretizing the divine form, the priestly writer chooses a different tactic by likening humanity to God. In conclusion, Middlemas proposes that the priestly writer stands in the traditions of both Isa 4055 and Ezekiel as it conflates the two. In his view, God has human form, but it is neither male nor female, and it is not fixed and should not be understood as physical. Furthermore, this human form is associated with human actions. God is a God who acts: he creates and exercises dominion over his creation. In the same way, for P, humanity is given the task to oversee and care for God's creation.
This is a good and thought-provoking book that raises many questions. It is not always an easy read, given the density of its style, but it is ultimately rewarding. In my view, the second and the third chapter contain the most important and also novel ideas. In particular, the use of metaphors as a way of not only describing God's character but also to emphasize his incomparability is a very interesting thought that deserves full attention.