Roland Boer offers some interesting thoughts on the critique of idolatry found in Isaiah 44:9-20. He suggests that, after a fashion, the monotheistic critique of empty idols is hoisted on its own petard. The monotheist, like the atheist, attacks the idol-making polytheist by suggesting that this bit of wood or stone that is being worshipped is nothing more than a bit of wood or stone. It doesn’t walk or talk or act or speak, and it is consequently silly to worship it. The monotheist therefore determines that the symbolic connection that the idol represents must be severed.
But what kind of symbolic connection are we talking about? Boer suggests that “[the] idol worshipper does not think of this stature [sic] or that icon as the god itself; no, it is a finger pointing to the deity.” I’ll grant the possibility that the idolater does not believe that the statue or icon is, in and of itself, the deity but a representation of that deity. But what of this notion of the idol as “a finger,” or a kind of sign designed to point the deity? Is this really what an idol does? Or, to put the point differently, is this what is being forbidden in the first and second commandments? Let me quote Boer again:
These two commandments are not discrete items, for they flow into one another: one should have neither other gods nor idols, for they are intimately connected. In other words, there is a signifying link between god and idol, deity and representation, and the one who shows reverence for the idol does so in order to honour his or her god the [sic] whom the idol directs one’s attention.
Boer then goes on to suggest that in order to be consistent the monotheist must be an iconoclast, forbidding or destroying any symbolic representation whatsoever that might point to God. If signifying links are idolatrous then all signifying links must be severed. Boer rightly points out that such a commandment is exceedingly difficult, nigh on impossible, to follow. Jews and Christians have always had signifying links to God, from the Ark of the Covenant to the various trappings of the Temple (to say nothing of the Temple itself), to the menorahs and crucifixes and scriptures that Boer notes specifically. Boer doesn’t quite drive the point home, but the consequence is fairly obvious. Humans need signifiers to enable worship. We need sign-posts to direct us, to enable us to engage with what a theist would call the Divine and an atheist would call the social/psychological experience we call the Divine. And so the anti-idol monotheist is in a bind. The first and second commandments, which Boer rightly notes are tightly linked, demand that there be no symbols to point one to the Divine, but symbols are needed in order to point one to the Divine.
But what if there is a difference in quality between idols as symbols and other kinds of symbols? This is where Boer’s argument breaks down for me. Though I do accept that idols are a kind of pointer, I don’t accept that they are the same kind of pointer as a cross or a menorah. The idol is a representation of the deity. It is meant to capture and depict the god him/herself. But a cross or a menorah is meant to depict the act of a god. The first and second commandments are not, I would contend, a demand that there be no symbols that point to the Divine, but a command that there be no symbols that represent or capture the Divine. There must be symbols to point to the Divine. Even if there are no symbols made by human hands the Theist will still suggest that there are symbols that point to the Divine (“The heavens declare…” says the psalmist). But those symbols cannot represent the Divine. They are signs, not models. They suggest something about God’s character, but do not claim to offer an accurate representation of who God is. No such representation can be given because God is beyond such representation…thus the prohibition against representational images.
So the author of Isaiah 44 is not suggesting that there can be no symbolic pointer to direct our attention to God. He is suggesting, instead, that no symbol can capture and represent God. And if it could what kind of god would that be? A god of wood and stone, deaf, dumb, and blind.
The monotheist does not say to the idolater “that piece of wood points to nothing, for there is no god to whom it refers,” but “that piece of wood points to nothing, for there is no (worthy) god whom it could represent.”