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  • Writer's pictureEthan Hardin

Ancient Irony: Self Idolatry

Updated: Mar 10, 2022

This discussion guide interacts with the corresponding devotional video, Death and All of His Friends Session 2 - Image Corruption. Use this post to facilitate discussion and interaction with the Scriptures as you seek God together through his Word.

Let’s backtrack a bit in the narrative of Genesis. There is an important foundation for human identity that sheds light on the nature of sin and its prolific consequences that occurs in the opening chapter. The image of God.

Genesis 1: 26 Then God said, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.”
27 So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.

This text is likely very familiar and wonderfully inspiring. But what does it really mean? What does this word-pair, image and likeness, draw to mind?

I find Dr. Catherine McDowell's work particularly helpful in understanding these two keywords here in the beginning of Genesis. She probes the ancient Near Eastern (ANE) literary and cultural context, the thought world of Israel’s neighbors, to find some refreshing insights. Thus, the metaphor of “image and likeness” could be defined as such.

Representative Statue: We are living representatives of the one true and living God (Hebrew tselem, image, most often referring to an idol statue)

Kinship Language: We are children of God (see Genesis 5:3 where Adam and Seth are described with the same word-pair, a father-son relationship)

Royal Title: We are kings and queens in God’s eyes (in all other ANE cultures only kings where seen as the images of God)

While these insights are each worthy of their own meditation and commentary, our focus in this series is the developing narrative and reality of sin. There’s a really fascinating connection that Dr. McDowell makes with the first association, an idol statue, and the consequence described by the first human sin, the opening of the eyes. Let’s return to Genesis 3, where Eve and the Serpent continue their conversation...

Genesis 3:5 “For God knows that when you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”
6 When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it. She also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it. 7 Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they realized they were naked; so they sewed fig leaves together and made coverings for themselves.

So, what’s the deal with the opened eyes? It seems like this portrayed as a bad thing, right? Well, yes, the author wants to signify something related to idol-making! Follow me out here… In other ANE cultures, idols were made to represent the gods. These statues, tselemim, were fashioned, installed in a garden temple, and given food to eat. Once the rituals would be completed, the statues eyes were described as opened and they were acknowledged as living embodiments of their respective deities. A bit weird, right? These idol-makers believed that once the eyes of these statues were opened, their deities were fully represented.

Okay, let’s return to Genesis. Eve and Adam, at the prompting of the Serpent, take and eat the forbidden fruit, choosing then and there to define their own good (moral autonomy) and so become their own moral center (their own god, so to speak) and in doing so… become their own idols. The opening of the eyes motif in Genesis 3 is a parody, an allusion to the practice of idol-making, as humans attempted to be their own god rather than remaining content as being made in the image of their true One. The irony: Rather than self-actualize as divine beings and becoming gods, they actually forfeit or at least compromise God’s original identity for them. That's what sin does. Let’s read Dr. McDowell’s summary here:

Adam and Eve dwelt in the divine presence at creation, having been placed and perhaps installed in the garden of Eden, which may have been a temple-type of Yahweh. Fruit was provided in abundance, and they may have been "crowned" with the very glory of Yahweh himself. All this was lost, however, when their eyes were opened…(Referring here to idol-making) By the end of each rite, the statues were considered divine manifestations… (Returning to Genesis 3) When he (Adam) rebelled, not only was his position as caretaker and watchman of the garden forfeit, but his life was as well. By the end of the story he and his wife are no longer royal figures in the garden of God but mortals, now in decay, void of glory, forced to live out their days in pain and toil isolated from the divine presence.

- Catherine McDowell, The Image of God in the Garden of Eden

It’s needless to say that we gave up a lot become our own idols. But that’s one way of seeing the origin of the Fall, the beginning point of sin - self-idolatry. Humans aren’t all that great at deeming the good and rejecting the evil on their own, at being "gods". Look at the patterns in human history of war, genocide, poor stewardship of creation, and manmade crises, to name a few. But we don’t have to look that far out, do we? What do you do that you know isn't good, or at least good for you, but you do anyway?

You see, the vast human ability for evil is the inversion of the vast human potential for good. As Jon Foreman sings, “The shadow proves the sunshine.” Tolkien observes this through the voice of Frodo as he surveys Mordor, “The Shadow… can only mock, it cannot make.” If you are appalled by human sin, remember that it is the inversion, the shadow, the corruption of the image of God. Like a cancer that could never exist without its healthy host, sin seeks to take captive the beautiful identity of humanity as representatives, family members, and co-regents of God and hijack it in the name of self-interest.

Here’s a two-part exercise for discussion or journaling as a way to invite reflection on the nature of sin when considering the image of God and the opening of the eyes in ANE thought.

1. In what ways do we make ourselves or others into idols?

2. How does Jesus invite us away from self-idolatry into a recovery of the image of God?

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