Isaiah on Idols: Wood Then, Oil Now

Rabbi Arthur Waskow *, 3/15/2005

When the Rabbis chose what haftarah — what Prophetic passage — to assign for synagogue reading on the Shabbat when the community begins its reading of Leviticus, the book of priestly offerings, they chose Isaiah 43: 21 through 44: 22.

Isaiah invokes a powerful image to ridicule idolatry. Indeed, what he ridicules can help us understand what "idolatry" is:

"A carpenter cuts down cedars; or s/he chooses a holm tree or an oak and lets it grow strong among the trees of the forest; s/he plants a cedar and the rain nourishes it.

"Then it becomes fuel for a human being ["adam," "human," not "ish," "man"; s/he takes a part of it and warms himself, s/he kindles a fire and bakes bread; also s/he makes a god and worships it, s/he makes it a graven image and falls down before it.

"Half of it s/he burns in the fire; over the half s/he eats flesh, s/he roasts meat and is satisfied; also s/he warms herself and says, "Aha, I am warm, I have seen the fire!"

"And the rest of it s/he makes into a god, his idol; and falls down to it and worships it; s/he prays to it and says, 'Save me, for you are my God!'

"T hey don't give thought, they lack the knowledge or discernment to say, 'Half of it I burned in the fire, I also baked bread on its coals, I roasted flesh and have eaten; and shall I make the residue of it an abomination? Shall I bow down before a block of wood?'

Notice that Isaiah and God see nothing wrong with caring for the wood that warms the body and the food. It is turning that useful part of the universe into something of Ultimate value, to be worshipped, that he calls abominable.

For, he says, "All who make idols are nothing, and the things they cherish do nothing to help them. Their 'witnesses' neither see nor know. For if they did, those who make them might be put to shame."

God, the Breath of Life that infuses all the universe with mystery and meaning, is a witness to what we do and how we act. The universe not only speaks; it listens. It responds.

When we take one small part of that universe, a part that is useful as a tool of our nurture, and make it Absolute, that dead instrument, that tool, cannot act as Witness to our souls and actions.

It is useful but not meaningful. It is dead, and those who make it meaningless lose their own intrinsic meaning. The idol is dead, and those who have made it an idol are deadened.

Think of an example today. For ancient Israel, firewood was a crucial source of energy. Small wonder it became an idol too.

Today it is another substance that gives us energy and warmth: Oil.

Used in moderation, it is a useful tool.

But when we make it Absolute, when we kill and die for it, when we go to war in order to control it and let it twist and scorch the climate of our earth rather than turn to other sources of energy, then we make this useful oil into an Idol.

We have become addicted.

And just as it was kings and pharaohs that led the Israelites into idolatry, just as it is Drug Lords who use their power to support addictions, so it is with the Oiloholic Society:

We must reduce oil from an idol to an instrument, we must shake off the power of the Drug Lords of Big Oil, we must reconnect with that flow of sacred energy that is YHWH, the Breath of Life.

Is our situation hopeless? Not according to Isaiah:

"Turn back to Me, for I redeem you.
Shout, O heavens, for the Breath of Life has acted.
Shout aloud for joy, O depths of earth.
Shout for joy, O mountains, O forests filled with trees.
For YHWH, the Breath of Life, redeems each heel downtrodden,
And through Godwrestling gives new beauty to what is God and human."
Rabbi Arthur Waskow is director of The Shalom Center
author of Godwrestling — Round 2;
and co-author with Rabbi Phyllis Berman of A Time for Every Purpose Under Heaven: The Jewish Life-Spiral as a Spiritual journey.

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