The Idols of/for the LORD?

Judges is a weird book, especially to judge from later, Deuteronomistic standards, which is ironic given the Deuteronomistic editorializing that occurs throughout the book.  Some stories are simple, fun even (check out Ehud in Judges 3!), but there are others that are quite difficult, complex, or having perplexing elements in them.  One interesting element is the occasional recurrence of Israelite “idolatry,” but idolatry meant to honor YHWH.  For the sake of this post, I use idolatry as neutrally as possible: simply the use of sculpted or molded images in the worship of YHWH.  I want to point out a few:

I. Traditions in Judges

(1) Gideon’s Ephod (Judges 8)

Gideon typically is a perennial favorite among students – except this year – because he is an example of the lowest became great.  I find students like Jephthah for that same quality.  Gideon’s story is often also beloved among students because he is an example of questioning, even testing, God and God going along with it.  It is a complex story or set of stories.  Gideon has two names: Gideon and Jerubbaal (meaning something like “Baal makes Great” or “Baal is a Founder,” despite the folk etymology in Judges 6:32 [cf. Jerusalem]).  This, of course, could make sense, since his father was a Baal worshiper (6:25-32).  In the section after Gideon achieves his battle victory over the Ishmaelites, after Gideon refuses the kingship (or did he, since his son’s name is Abimelech, meaning “my father is king”), Gideon does something quite interesting: he makes an “ephod.”  In 8:24-28, takes all the golden earrings of his enemy, weighing 1700 shekels in gold.  Then he makes an “ephod” out of it.  Usually an ephod is part of the priestly garments in the Bible, but here it seems to be some sort of statue.  There is a characteristic Deuteronomistic editorial remark that, “all Israel prostituted themselves to it there, and it became a snare to Gideon and his family” (8:27).  While it seems Gideon has simply contradicted his earlier behavior of tearing down altars and objects of foreign Gods, perhaps it was simply a memorial to his military achievement.  But the use of a ritually-charged word, like “ephod,” suggests it had some sort of religious-divinatory purpose.  Moreover, there is no other indication that this “ephod” or statue leads to any particular problems, despite 8:27.  I would suggest that it is a ritual object, somehow used in the worship of YHWH.  If it were for Baal, I’m sure the Deuteronomistic editor would have pounced on that.  It seems, moreover, that statuary for YHWH was not completely unheard of among the tribes of Israel.

(2) The Danite Idol (Judges 17-18)

Judges 17-18 tells the story of Micah, who uses silver that his mother consecrated to the LORD to make a statue (“idol”) and shrine dedicated to YHWH.  This text is very clear that this idol is not for Baal, but for the God if Israel.  Micah also makes and “ephod” and “teraphim,” used for divination of the LORD, and installs his son as priest.  A Levite comes by and Micah makes him priest instead of his son.  The Danites eventually convince the Levite to take the idol, ephod, and teraphim and act as a priest for the people rather than just one family.  This shrine, moreover, eventually is ministered by Moses’ own descendants at Shiloh: “Jonathan son of Gershom, son of Moses, and his sons were priests to the tribe of the Danites until the time the land went into captivity.  So they maintained as their own Micah’s idol that he had made, as long as the house of God was at Shiloh” (Judges 18:30-31).  My notes indicate this verse is an editorial insertion to connect the story to the events in 1 Samuel.  Perhaps.  What I find interesting is that it connects the events to a major shrine in Israel in pre-Davidic times – the very shrine tied to the history of the ark and the rise of Samuel the prophet.  Moreover, aside from a clear Deuteronomistic addition in 17:6, there is not much in this story that having such a shrine with a statue in it was problematic.  Perhaps the statement from Micah in 18:24, referring to the image as “gods” is suggestive, but, for the most part, the possession of the idol, teraphim, and ephod do not lead to anyone’s downfall, or anything of the sort.  The story is told matter of factly.

II. Relevant Traditions outside of Judges

The purpose of Gideon’s ephod may be ambiguous, needing to be inferred from its context and related stories, whereas Micah’s idol is clearly meant to be for the worship of YHWH.  Other texts in the Bible also indicate Yahwistic worship was occasionally guided with physical images: the story of the Golden Calf, Jeroboam’s Bulls, and Solomon’s Cherubim.

(3) The Golden Calf (Exodus 32)

Gideon’s ephod can easily be compared to the golden calf incident in Exodus 32, but I will contend that so an an explicitly Yahwist form of idolatry as that found in Judges 17-18.  Both Gideon’s ephod and Aaron’s calf use golden earrings to create a statue, which is the major tie that binds here.  But there is so much more going on here.  Firstly, there is only ONE calf, but the text repeatedly uses the plural “gods” (32:1).  But this is simply a translation issue.  The word אלהים (elohim) is plural, but is repeatedly used in the Bible in the singular form for “God.”  Usually we can differentiate by the verb.  But here it is the object of the verb, and so the verb agrees with the subject (Aaron).  It is a translator’s choice to make it singular “God” as is used for “God of Israel” or plural “other gods.”  NRSV has chosen plural.  JPS chose the singular.  The same, by the way, is true of Judges 18:24.  So, what if we left it singular, “God.”  It seems to make more sense of there being one object – the calf or young bull – and what follows: after making the young bull, Aaron proclaims a “festival for YHWH.”  Clearly the Bull is not meant to be Baal or another God, but the LORD, YHWH, who led the Israelites out of Egypt, or represent YHWH in some way.  The plural translation, though, would make sense of the clearly plural subject in 32:4 and 8, where it says “these.”  But there is no “these” – there is only one young bull here.  It is weird, no?

In sum, Aaron makes one young bull, which is used in a festival for YHWH, likely identifying the Bull with YHWH in some way.  Otherwise, though, there is an intrusion of plurals “these are your gods,” despite there being one image.  This text clearly is “citing” a different text, in an inner biblical interpretation: Jeroboam’s bulls.

(4) Jeroboam’s Bulls (1 Kings 12:25-30)

If you read 1 Kings carefully, you realize that good, wise King Solomon was, well, a horrible guy.  I’m not talking about all the wives and concubines, but the overbearing workload he put upon the people.  No wonder the depiction of Solomon in 1 Kings bears a lot of similarities with Pharaoh in Exodus.  After Solomon dies, his son, Rehoboam becomes basically an intolerable exaggeration of his father.  So Jeroboam establishes a counter-kingdom, followed by all the northern tribes of Israel, ready to be rid of the tyranny of Solomon and Rehoboam.  Jeroboam also provides an alternative to the worship centered around Jerusalem, setting up two young bulls or calves of gold, putting one in Bethel and one in Dan.  And, moreover, “Here are your gods, O Israel, who brought you out of Egypt” (12:28).  Finally, a plural “gods” with a plural referent: the two statues.

Yet, if one has read the Pentateuch, especially Genesis, one realizes something weird.  Remember: the story of Jeroboam is being told by his political enemies – basically, the heirs to Rehoboam.  They are not going to paint a charitable or even unbiased view.  Here is the weird thing: Jerusalem’s shrine is really really new.  Jerusalem became a place of significance only under David (two generations back), and the temple was built under Solomon (one generation back).  It is a very new idea that one should worship God in Jerusalem at all.  Sure, people will try to tie it with Melchizedek in Genesis, but, even there, it is a Canaanite place of worship.  On the other hand, Bethel is strongly associated with Jacob.  It is, according to Genesis 28:19 that Jacob called Bethel “Bethel” – that is, “House of God” – and set it up as a place of worship.  “House of God” sounds like a good place for a temple, no?  And there is a story to back up its Israelite bona fides, being founded by the guy named “Israel” to begin with!  Moreover, the “Mighty One of Jacob” is the “Bull of Jacob” in Hebrew (Gen. 49:24; Ps. 132:2, 5; Is. 49:26; 60:16; cf. Hosea 8:5).  That is, Jacob is associated with Bethel; Jacob is associated with referring to God as “Bull,” as an image for might; Bethel is associated with a golden bull.  The circle here is pretty tight.

Archaeology has also shown YHWH with bovine qualities, as in the famous find in Kuntillet ‘Ajrud of a pottery sherd of “Yahweh and his Asherah.”  The point here is not to debate the Asherah reference, but just the point out the they all look kind of bovine in their appearance.

(5) Solomon’s Cherubim

Jeroboam, Jacob, and the Bull represents the northern tradition of Yahwistic representation.  Although there are bovine qualities to YHWH in the south – the altar has horns – Solomon and the south use a different animal to represent YHWH: the cherub.  The cherub is not the floating baby heads of the Renaissance – the stuff of nightmares if you ask me – but complex, multiform beasts, more like the Egyptian sphinx.  Just as Jeroboam puts two bulls – one in each temple he establishes – Solomon has two enormous cherubim made to be put in the holy of holies in temple (1 Kings 6:23-28), affecting the priestly reconstruction of the Tabernacle (Exodus 25).  God is the rider of the cherubim in some scattered Psalms and Ezekiel 1 and 10.

The cherubim, to be sure, form a “seat,” and are God’s throne.  The same is probably also true of the Bulls of Samaria.  On the other hand, God’s title as Bull/Mighty One and the archaeological evidence that God was regularly figurally represented with bovine features suggests another layer of tradition as well.

The north and the south seem to disagree about what beast one should use to represent YHWH, or, at the very least, what kind of beast was YHWH’s ride: a bull or cherub.


I am not concerned in this post about “who’s right” – was YHWH more properly depicted with/as a bull or with a cherub.  The point is that the stories of Judges are backed up by other parts in the Bible and in archaeology that I barely scratched the surface of here: YHWH was regularly worshiped with or as an animal that was sculpted or molded and placed in a shrine in ancient Israel.  Even if these are “rides,” they are sculpted “images,” that help guide one’s worship at a shrine or temple.


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