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The Insanity of Idolatry

Idolatry in Isaiah

Stupid. Feeble minded. Fanaticism bordering on mental illness. Isaiah’s taunts can engender derision against those who worship idols. Isaiah offers unflattering observations about the artisan who makes images of deities.

Half of it he burns in the fire, over this half of it he roasts meat for eating and he is satisfied … The remainder of it he makes into the image of a god, and he bows down and worships it and prays to it, saying, “Rescue me, for you are my god” (Isa 44:16, 17).[1]

Pious laity ancient and modern wonder at the folly of misplaced devotion. Bafflement easily ferments into scorn and arrogance.

Isaiah’s reoccurring polemic magnifies the holy one of Israel by mocking idolatry not in the abstract but within his presentation of the new exodus. Isaiah’s repeated taunts find their home within the context of the prophetic word of return. If idolaters create and carry images, Yahweh creates Israel and carries his people. If idols are something which signifies nothing, Yahweh is someone who acts in accord with his sovereign decrees. The shameful insults against false worship make sense within Isaiah’s presentation of the great redemptive work of the one true God of Israel. Pausing to apprehend the prophet’s not-so-subtle irony can help set up the function of the disparagement in its context.


What would a people in the distant future make of present-day culture if all they had were cultural artifacts? Why did many citizens of the early twenty-first century gather to celebrate mutant heroes, imagined as human flying rodents, minerals, insects, or spiders? Will future scholars pity the cognitive deficiencies of superstitious consumers of ritual popped grain treated with churned dairy byproducts and granular sodium, sitting in darkened temples? Will they propose impairments that motivated them to repeatedly watch imaginary victories of their rodent heroes delivering industrial cities from gigantic evil creatures?

Isaiah’s over-the-top criticism against false worship may foster overconfident interpretation among a readership who does not take the time to apprehend irony. Treating irony as literal discourse produces misinterpretation.[2] Readers who smugly snort and look down on a bunch of idol-worshipping ancients may not be Isaiah’s endgame. Responsible exegesis of satire includes the perquisite of “getting it.”

Modern citizens bristle when someone mocks the culture or faith heritage of the other. Such insensitivity often leads to indictments of the high crime of bullying in digital courtrooms. The powerful pushback against bullies seldom, if ever, takes into account the merits of the mocker’s arguments. Today’s wisdom says anyone who wants to say something needs to say it nicely. At the same time ridicule remains the staple of nighttime programming. Today’s entertainment frequently takes the form of humiliating parodies, comedic sarcasm, and entire satirical scenario comedy series so viewers can laugh at devout believers and organized religion. Isaiah taunts devotion to rival gods but not like a digital media scoffer or an entertainer of the night.

Without mercy, he speaks in parody of those who worship the works of their own hands. Ancient religious writings do not identify the images of the gods as the gods themselves.[3] The significance of mouth opening ceremonies may be contested but points toward gods dwelling with their material icons in a special way rather than the icons becoming the gods themselves.[4] Ancient myths speak of the gods in the celestial realm or the underworld even while the images stood in temples. The substantial market for household gods which represent the god whose image resides in the temple underlines the point. The recognition of the shift from representing Mesopotamian deities as anthropomorphic personifications to emblems—like mascots—in the first half of the first millennium BCE reveals several gaps in simplistic views like “the image is the god.”[5]

But scholars who recognize the function of images in ancient religious practice may disdain Isaiah’s polemic for other reasons. Judgments of Isaiah’s polemic against idolatry range from “conscious distortion” to mistaken misconstrual because he “is overcome by the literalism of it all.”[6] Whether based on ignorance or vindictiveness, to conclude that the polemic “comes down to politics and control, while judgments of superiority amount to nothing more than chauvinism” seems to badly mishandle the scriptural evidence.[7]

Attending to the ethical questions of ancient religious ridicule may be important but runs the risk of skewing attention away from prophetic pronouncements in their collective contexts to something merely personal. Isaiah did not attack the idol industry because of sadistic impulse or offensive patriotic ideology. He spoke for his God to a people facing humiliating exile. Isaiah did not attack the idol industry because of sadistic impulse or offensive patriotic ideology. He spoke for his God to a people facing humiliating exile. Click To Tweet The point at hand does not require that the “correct theology” of ancient Mesopotamian worship be sorted out. The present approach seeks to identify the function of Isaiah’s polemic against idolatry within its scriptural context. Ancient Mesopotamian polemic against the God of Judah offers a useful template for evaluating Isaiah’s polemic.

The Rebshakeh—high military diplomat empowered to speak for his sovereign lord the king—mocks the patron deity of Judah based on evidence.

Do not allow Hezekiah to deceive you, saying, “Yahweh shall rescue us.” Has the god of any of the nations rescued their lands from the hand of the king of Assyria?!? Where are the gods of Hamath and Arpad? Where are the gods of Sepharvaim? Have they even been able to rescue Samaria from my hand? Who among all the gods of these lands has rescued their land from my hand, that Yahweh might rescue Jerusalem from my hand? (36:18-20)

The currency of the Rebshakeh’s ironic scorn is evidence. He ridicules the faith of the Judeans based on what the mighty king of Assyria had accomplished. He points to facts. His goals include provoking decisions based on the evidence. The Rebshakeh’s mocking message aims beyond mere insult; he seeks the surrender of Jerusalem in the face of certain doom. The Rebshakeh’s polemic invites consideration of Isaiah’s taunts in terms of evidence and aims.


The reoccurring taunt against idolatry appears across Isaiah’s expectation of a new exodus (Isa. 40-55). Determining the message and function of this rich segment of the book of Isaiah attracts many competing approaches. A leading commentator speaks of “prophetic narrative” as a way to get at thematic development within the basic unity of this segment.[8] The metaphor of narrative or story line does well to get at dynamic unity but does not adequately connote the nature of the thematic development. The frequent interchange between a series of themes seems much more lyrical and akin to a symphony than a traditional narrative. The point at hand has nothing to do with finding the correct metaphorical analogy, but to identify the manifold interleaving of leading themes within the prophetic message. The following lists are representative, not exhaustive. First, consider selected interweaved running themes in Isaiah 40-55:

creator of the cosmos, 40:12, 21-22, 26, 28; 41:20; 42:5; 44:24; 45:7-10, 12, 18; 48:13; 51:13-14, 16; 54:16

creator of Israel, 43:1-2, 7, 15-17, 21; 44:2, 21, 24; 45:11; 51:9-11; 54:5

enduring word of God, 40:8, 21; 41:4, 26-27; 42:9; 44:26; 45:19, 21, 23; 46:10; 48:3, 16; 52:6; 55:11

incomparable God, 40:25; 44:6-8; 45:5-6, 14, 22; 46:5, 9 (cf. contra 47:8, 10)

“servant songs,”[9] 42:1-4; 49:1-6; 50:4-9; 52:13-53:12; also see brief reference to servant(s), 41:8-9; 42:18-21; 43:10; 44:1-2, 21, 26; 45:5; 48:20; 49:7; 50:10; 54:17

setting free prisoners and leading them, 42:6-7, 16; 43:5-6, 19; 49:9-11, 21; 49:22; 51:9-11, 14; 52:1-2, 11-12

taunt against idolatry, 40:18-20; 41:7, 22-24, 28-29; 42:17; 43:9; 44:9-20; 45:16, 20; 46:1-2, 6-7; 48:5, 14

Isaiah’s polemic against idolatry stands as one of several reoccurring interrelated themes which naturally interconnect within the mutually enriching habitat of Isaiah’s new exodus. The function of the reoccurring polemic against idolatry needs to be evaluated by its relation to the use of scripture in Isaiah’s new exodus in order to identify its basis upon evidence.

In an earlier prophetic message, Isaiah presents the figural relationship of the exodus old and new by means of poetic analogy. He uses one of the standard literary signals of analogy to connect divine actions—“as” or “like” in Isaiah 11:15-16.[10] Isaiah compares the former exodus from Egypt to the upcoming return from Mesopotamian exile. The prophet retains the figural relationship between the exodus new and old as the central image of his great prophetic message of hope in Isaiah 40-55.

Isaiah innovates the new exodus by adjusting and augmenting the programmatic expectation set out by Moses in several ways. Isaiah’s most important innovations stem from speaking directly of Yahweh’s action in place of an intermediary. Below, the underlined text represents an explicit figural relationship, while the italicized and bold text marks innovative developments of subject and means.

I am sending a delegate in front of you, to guard you on the way and to bring you to the place that I have prepared (Exod. 23:20).

There will be a highway for the remnant of his people who remain in Assyria like that which was for Israel in the day they came up from the land of Egypt (Isa. 11:16).

A voice crying out, “In the wilderness clear the way of Yahweh, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low, the rugged shall become level, and the rough places a plain” (40:3-4).

The progressive revelation of divine redemption does not end with Isaiah’s prophetic innovations of Moses’ programmatic promise. The post-exilic prophet Malachi reverses the imagery and warns the rebels of Jerusalem of “my delegate” who comes before the judgment of Yahweh (Mal. 3:1). Each of the evangelists uses Isaiah’s new exodus as the substructure of his gospel narrative (e.g., Mark 1:2-3). While it may be tempting to regard Mark as the inventor of the gospel narrative genre, it might be better to see it as a collaborative effort by Moses, Isaiah, and Mark. Deciding how these innovative scriptural uses of scripture should be sorted out needs to be set aside to identify two ways that Isaiah’s new exodus bears on the intermittent idol production parody.

The reoccurring polemic against idolatry interrelates naturally within the prophetic vision of Isaiah. First, Yahweh creates Israel by means of redemption from Egypt—itself a figural play on the creation of the cosmos—so too the artisan fashions a god from wood.[11]

Second, Yahweh carries Israel even as subjects of the gods need to carry their idols. Note selected highlights from extensive running contrasts between the interleaved polemic against idols and redemptive themes of the new exodus (bold marks verbal parallels and italics synonyms).[12]

[Yahweh says] “To whom will you compare me? … Those who lavish gold from a purse, and weigh out silver on a scale, they hire a smelter and he makes it into a god. They bow down and worship it. They lift it up upon their shoulder and carry it” (Isa 46:5a-6, 7a).

“I am Yahweh, your holy one, creator of Israel, your king.” Thus says Yahweh, the one who made a way in the sea, a pathway in the mighty waters, “… the people whom I formed for myself, that they would announce my praise” (43:15-16, 21).

[Yahweh says] “Until you are old, I am he, until you turn gray I, even I shall carry you, I, even I who made you, I, even I will lift you up, and I, even I shall carry you and I shall rescue you” (46:4; cf. 40:11).

The polemic against idolatry can only be reduced to mere derision by extracting it from its native habitat in the new exodus.[13]

The taunt against idols cannot be swept aside as mere hate words of the exiles’ prophet. Isaiah’s claims are grounded in evidence. Isaiah invites his congregation to confidence because their God has proven himself faithful in the same situation long ago. Yahweh’s fidelity to his people extends from creating them by exodus from slavery to recreating them by return from exile.

Isaiah gives voice to Yahweh’s persistent claim that he has said these things all along since the beginning—as in Torah so too in Isaiah. Yahweh makes bold claims: “the words which come forth from my mouth do not return empty but accomplish that which I have intended” (55:11). This stands in sharp contrast to the taunt that “even when someone cries out to it [the image of a god], it cannot answer” (46:7).

Yahweh stakes his reputation on his fidelity to uphold his word. Everything turns on this. He does not merely say what he will do. He has done what he will do. Yahweh stakes his reputation on his fidelity to uphold his word. Everything turns on this. He does not merely say what he will do. He has done what he will do. Click To Tweet Isaiah’s innovative use of Torah may be the cardiovascular system of the new exodus. Isaiah says Yahweh shall create you again, carry you, and bring you back. The figural use of Torah carries with it the evidence to establish his prophetic word and his polemic against idolatry. Israel need only look back to when their God created them and cared for them in the wilderness. The old exodus and all that goes with it serve as evidence of Yahweh’s fidelity to establish the basis of the prophet’s taunt.


Those who hear the prophet mock idolatry and smirk before going about the business of serving themselves badly distort the message by tearing the taunt from its context. The polemic against idolatry does not come as a standalone satire to be enjoyed with a knowing smile. The prophet’s derision of those who seek power, wealth, and safety from the creations of their own hands comes interwoven in the new exodus by design. The significance of the taunt against idolatry being at home within the new exodus excludes accepting pride and self-indulgence as appropriate responses. Those who approach these teachings atomistically may be more prone to miss the ironic undercurrent of the polemic against idolatry.

Images of the gods signify nothing. Who taunts nothing? The God of Isaiah mocks idolatry based on something. The evidence of Yahweh’s fidelity can be seen in his great redemptive work which serves as the figural basis for the new exodus.

The evidence which sustains Isaiah’s merciless ridicule of those who make images of their gods and prostrate themselves before them does even more than this. The evidence which supports the enduring word of God requires submission. Yahweh says, “I am God and there is no other. By myself I swear, a righteous word goes forth from my mouth that shall not return, ‘Every knee shall bow to me, and every tongue shall swear’” (45:22b-23).


[1] All translations mine from BHS.

[2] See helpful discussion on detecting and interpreting irony in G. K. Beale, Handbook on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2012), 92-93.

[3] David Aaron says, “Although the cultic statue was not identical to the god, it received the physical and ritual treatment that would be accorded a god who actually appeared in a room with a human” (Biblical Ambiguities: Metaphor, Semantics, and Divine Imagery [Boston/Leiden: Brill Academic Publishers, 2002], 192, and see 126-27).

[4] The mouth opening ceremony may be described as having a “transubstantiation” moment wherein the image represents the god’s presence in a special sense. Still, the evidence does not support the image becoming identified as the god itself. See Herman Vanstiphout, “How and Why Did the Sumerians Create Their Gods?,” in Barbara Nevling Porter, ed., What Is a God?: Anthropomorphic and Non-Anthropomorphic Aspects of Deity in Ancient Mesopotamia (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 2009), 26 [15-40].

[5] Sometimes the emblem and anthropomorphic depiction of the deity appear together which further complicates their representational function. For helpful extensive discussion of the relationship of deities represented by emblems versus anthropomorphic images and evaluating the reasons for transition from anthropomorphic to emblematic representation in first millennium bce Mesopotamia (overlapping with the days of Isaiah), including numerous pictures, see Tallay Ornan, “In the Likeness of Man,” in What Is a God?, 93-151, esp. 122, 142-43, 147-48, 151.

[6] Michael B. Dick, “Prophetic Parodies of Making the Cult Image,” in Michael B. Dick, ed., Born in Heaven, Made on Earth: The Making of Cult Image in the Ancient Near East (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 1999), 45 [1-53]; Aaron, Biblical Ambiguities, 192. For a more cautious assessment, see John H. Walton, Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament: Introducing the Conceptual World of the Old Testament, 2d ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2018), 75-76.

[7] Aaron, Biblical Ambiguities, 192. Aaron’s conclusion seems surprising since he recognizes the polemic against idolatry in Isaiah as satire (127) but then goes on to treat it as mistaken literalism (192). This categorical (“binary-oriented”) conclusion seems especially odd in a subtle book promoting a “gradient-oriented” approach to metaphor. That Isaiah’s readers sometimes treat the polemic against idolatry too literally—as though he had not written a satire—seems to better fit the evidence.

[8] See Brevard S. Childs, Isaiah, Old Testament Library (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001), 382, 385, et passim.

[9] The much contested identification of “servant songs,” among other references to the servant(s), overlaps genre discussion more than simply listing theological themes such as those assembled in this table. For a list of reoccurring and interleaved literary genre components identified in Isaiah 40-55 (oracle of salvation; proclamation of salvation; trial speech; disputation), see J. M. Waard, “Isaiah,” Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible: Supplementary Volume, ed. Keith Crim (Nashville: Abington, 1976), 460.

[10] The preposition “like, as” (כְּ) can be prefixed to the relative pronoun “which, that, who” (אֲשֶׁר, thus כַּאֲשֶׁר) as it is in Isaiah 11:16 with the comparative force of “like, as” (GKC, §161b).

[11] For details of Isaiah 43 blending elements of Exodus 14-15 and Genesis 1-2 based on the connectivity already present in these Torah contexts, see Gary Edward Schnittjer, “Genesis-shaping of Exodus,” in Torah Story Video Lectures (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2017), 11-2 [DVD/streaming, see].

[12] The terms derived from “create” (ברא) of Genesis 1 are preserved for use with Yahweh as subject, though the roots for “make” (עשׂה) of Gen 1, 2 and “form” (יצר) of Genesis 2 is used of both Yahweh and the idol makers in this section of Isaiah.

[13] The polemic against idolatry interconnects, by means of contrasts, with the broader context of Isaiah 40-55. Other polemics against idolatry typically build contrasts into the polemics themselves (see Jer 10:1-16; Ps 115, esp. vv. 3-8; Wis 13-15; Ep Jer).

Gary Edward Schnittjer

Gary Edward Schnittjer (PhD, Dallas Theological Seminary) teaches biblical Hebrew and Old Testament for the School of Divinity at Cairn University. He is author of The Torah Story and Old Testament Use of Old Testament. Schnittjer offers a free subscription service of verses from the Hebrew Bible daily at Schnittjer’s articles appear in Bibliotheca Sacra, Credo Magazine, Journal of Biblical and Theological Studies, Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, and Westminster Theological Journal.

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