Do Catholics Worship Idols?
By Benedict Hodubar
I am the Lord your God who has brought you out of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. You shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make unto yourself ANY GRAVEN IMAGE, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water beneath the earth.
You shall not bow down yourself to them, nor serve them…”(Exodus 20: 2-5) Perhaps, about 70% of the Catholic faithful, stealthily agree with our protestant and Pentecostal brothers that by the presence of the holy images in the Church, Catholics are idolaters since the first Commandment rejects the worship of other gods who are represented by one image or the other. In this series, the essence of the holy images in the worship of God as revealed by the:
- a) The Old Testament;
- b) New Testament;
- c) Apostolic era and early centuries of Christianity.
This particular edition should look into what the Old Testament has to say about idols, idolatry and their isolation from divinely sanctified images; the likes that are seen in the Catholic Churches today. But before we go into details, we shall first look for the meanings of the word idol and idolatry.
According to Advanced Learner’s Dictionary, “an idol is a statue that is worshipped as a god.” And King James’ version of the Bible dictionary defines an idol as “an image form or a representation, usually of a man or animal marked as an object of worship, a pagan deity.” While Wikipedia says that “an idol is an image or any material objects representing a deity to which religious worship is addressed.”
From these definitions, it might be taken that an idol is an embodiment of a god; the act of assigning a physical form to deity since they are often invisible. In other words, an idol is an image, symbol or any representation that stands for a god. This implies that all gods are images but not all images are idols because only marked images are idols.
With this at the back of our minds, let us see what the Old Testament says about idols.
OLD TESTAMENT CONCEPTION OF IDOLS
Early in her history, Israel was forbidden to make any depiction of God because God had not revealed Himself in any form whatsoever until He showed Moses Himself in a burning bush (Exodus 3: 2-4). This was the earliest manifestation of God in a physical form; although He never wanted to take any form since nothing known can equate the Godhead.
But Israel had worshipped idols for more than four hundred years; the idol worship has gone right into the bone marrow of Jacob. It was therefore incredible to tell him to worship a God without form. Although they have seen, acknowledged and felt the mighty powers of the God of their forefathers, but it was quite absurd to follow an invisible God. Consequently, we have cause to believe that the Israelites had their household gods when they were leaving Egypt for good.
Therefore, Yahweh had a hard job turning the Jews to believe and follow an invisible God. This might explain the reason behind the Divine highhandedness on the Egyptians and their gods. “And the Egyptians shall know that I am the Lord,
when I stretch forth my hand upon Egypt and bring out the children of Israel from their mist.” (Exodus 7:5). God used the ten plagues as a manifestation of His mighty power over any god whatsoever. To prove to both Egypt and Israel that He is greater than any other god.
In fact, Exodus refers to the time when God made Himself obvious to the children of Israel. A remarkable miracle at the Red Sea proves an incredible deliverance from a threatening genocide and a miraculous destruction of the entire Egyptian army was enough conviction of the mighty powers of Yahweh to any cold hearted Jew.
Besides, the ever present glory of God in the pillar of cloud in the day and pillar of fire at night were enough to erase any lingering doubt in the heart of the Jews.
Yet, all these manifestations of Himself seem to meet with disappointment and unfaithfulness among the Jews. It was the same people who enjoyed the experience of a crushed pharaoh that shook with great fear at the approaching chariots of the Egyptian army. Three days after the deliverance
at the Red Sea, they mount a protest for water. When hunger descended on them a month later, they were on Moses’ neck; “ If only we had died by the Lord’s hand in Egypt. There we sat around pots of meat and eat all the food we wanted. But you have brought us out into this desert to starve this entire assembly to death.” (Exodus 16: 2 and Num. 20: 3-4).
Truly, Exodus 32 revealed the children of Israel at their worst. The people, who had just agreed solemnly to adhere to every word of the Covenant before the Lord, were the people who proceeded to melt down their gold jewelries and flout the first Commandment without delay. “Stiff neck” God branded them as He fumed in anger.
Only Moses’ timely intervention saved the Israelites from total destruction. So the history of the Jews as shown in Exodus ought to nail the coffin lid of unfaithfulness on the notion that the impressive display of God’s saving powers will guarantee faith for the Israelites. Perhaps their unfaithfulness had propelled Christ later to observe later that “If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.” (Luke 16: 31)
THE ARK OF THE COVENANT
Thus, Israel was neck deep in the use of idols and it would be a herculean task or very difficult to make them worship a God without a form. Perhaps, the Golden Calf indicates the obvious need for a physical existence of the God of Israel since all that God had done so far were not enough to give them all the needed confidence God wanted from them, it became necessary for God to enshrine Himself in the Ark.
Therefore, He instructed Moses saying, “let them make me a sanctuary that I will dwell among them. According to all that I show you, after the pattern of all the furnishings of it, even so shall you make it.” (Exodus 25: 8-9) In the next verse, God began to specify the pattern of the ark of covenant and in verse 18,
He ordered Moses to mount two cherubs whose wings will cover the mercy seat on top of the covenant box. “And you shall make two cherub of gold, of hammered work shall you make them on the two ends of the mercy seat” (Exodus 25:18-19). The hammered gold of the cherub are statues of angels in heaven.
Within the ark were three symbolic representations- golden censers containing manna; Aaron’s priestly staff that budded and the two tablets of stones on which the Ten Commandments were written. (Heb. 9:4).
These three items symbolizes Our Lord Jesus Christ; manna symbolizes Jesus the Bread of life; (John 6: 35); Aaron’s priestly staff symbolizes Jesus the everlasting priesthood; (Heb. 5:4) and the two tablets of stones that bore the ten commandments symbolizes Jesus the Incarnate Word of God (John 1:1)
So sacred was the ark that it was taken to heaven at the end of its existence here on earth. (Rev. 11: 19). Also, the New Immortal Israel has her own ark; this time no longer a sacred box but a quasi-divine mortal, the Blessed Mother who no longer bear the saviour’s symbol but Our Lord Jesus Himself. As well, at the end of her stay on earth, being more sacred than the old ark, was also taken to heaven.
When the temple was later built, the ark became the nucleus of the entire temple, occupying the holiest part of the temple; the holy of holies. So sacred was the ark that no human being enters there except the high priest who enters there once a year. And before entering, a strong rope must be tied round his waist in case he dies there. Before the ark, all the Jews worship and adore God without committing adultery.
THE BRONZE SERPENT
Another sanctified graven image in the Old Testament worth our fancy here is the bronze serpent. Snakes were sent among the children of Israel as a punishment for their sin. They were bitten and they died in great number. When they repented, God told Moses, “make you a fiery serpent and set it upon a pole and it shall come to pass, that every one that is bitten, when he looks upon it; shall live.” (Num. 21: 8).
Like the ark, the bronze serpent was ritually intended and mystifying. The serpent bore the healing spirit of God. Victims of the snake bite must “look up “to the bronze serpent to obtain their healing. Perhaps, the prototype of the bronze serpent was the healing spirit of Christ who later observed that, “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the son of man be lifted. That whosoever that believes in Him, should not perish but have eternal life.” (John 3: 14-15).
The bronze serpent has a very interesting lesson for our discussion here. It was sanctified and made holy by God. By this sanctification, the healing spirit of God becomes the prototype. Later on their own, the Israelites changed the prototype of the serpent to a deity and burn incense to it and gave the deity the name Nehushtan.
This went on for hundreds of years the time of King Hezekiah, king of Judea who took it upon himself to reform the religious status of the Israelites. “He removed the high places and broke the images and cut down the idol poles and broke in pieces the bronze serpent that Moses had made, for until those days, the children of Israel did burn incense to it which they called Nehushtan.”
This proves that the validity of an image is its prototype without which an image is valueless. This means to say that the prototype of St. Paul’s image is St. Paul and it is absolutely wrong to assign his image to a deity. You are the prototype of your own picture and it is as well very wrong to say that it is an idol. Therefore, all idols are images but all images are idols.
To be continued
Benedict Ilodubar writes from Umuokpu, Anambra State