Yahweh’s Cult Statues

In the beginning, Yahweh God built a temple. Now the stones with which Yahweh wished to build His temple were scattered and broken and there were no hands to set the stones together, and the Breath of Yahweh hovered over the stones. And the Breath of Yahweh blew upon the stones and separated air from stone and ordered the stones into walls. Within the walls, Yahweh built more walls, rooms within rooms. Yet there was no life in the temple. And so Yahweh God fashioned a statue of Himself out of mud, and the Breath entered its lungs and it became a living image. One day while the image was sleeping, Yahweh pulled a rib from its side and with it fashioned another living image.

Now Yahweh placed these two enlivened statues in the innermost part of the temple, the Holy of Holies, and commanded them saying, “Multiply, fill the whole temple with images, spread the divine space of the Holy of Holies to the whole of the temple until there is no more division between holy and unholy space, between chaos and order, between being and non being. Fill the whole temple with My bodily Presence.” Yahweh gave His images charge over the temple storehouses also, saying, “Eat from all the food in the storehouses and feed the other inhabitants of the temple, making certain that every creature has what it needs. Yet do not eat of the Bread of the Knowledge of Holiness and Unholiness, for in the day that you do, you shall surely cease to be my images.”

Yet there were enemies lurking within the outer walls of the temple courts who did not wish Yahweh to be the God of the temple, and they despised the statues whose senses He had enlivened. And so the enemies broke into the Holy of Holies and lied to the images of Yahweh saying, “Yahweh has deceived you. He knows that if you eat of the Bread of the Knowledge of Holiness and Unholiness, you will become as divine as He and try to overthrow Him. In that day, your eyes will be opened and you will be like God, and you will no longer need His Breath in order to live in divine space.”

And so the two images believed the words of the enemies and ate of the forbidden bread, declaring to Yahweh, “We do not wish to be your images any longer! We shall represent only our selves, our own divinity! We shall be our own holiness! Take away the Breath of your Presence!” No sooner had the images eaten the bread and uttered the words when Yahweh’s Breath left His images and they died, for there was nothing to enliven them. They fell from the altar bench to the ground, for there was no more Breath in their lungs. The enemies plundered the statues and carried them away from the temple, stripping them of the precious metals and jewels with which they were adorned. The enemies cast the images out into a razed field outside the temple walls and left them to rot within the earth.

Outside the entrance to the Holy of Holies, Yahweh placed a guardian deity with a flaming sword, lest anything unholy try to enter it again. In the outer courts of the temple, all the inhabitants mourned, for the keepers of the temple storehouses had died. Who would care for the temple and who would fill it with holiness? Who would be Yahweh’s bodily presence to sustain all that lived within the temple and who would protect them from the wild unholy things that lurked outside the Holy of Holies?*


After spending a semester studying ancient Near Eastern mythology and the spatial layout of ANE temples, it is well-nigh impossible for me to think of the Gospel of Jesus Christ without thinking about Mesopotamian cult statues. “What do cult statues have to do with the Gospel?” you may rightly ask. If you’ve grown up in a Christian family or been at all immersed in Christian sub-culture, you’ve probably heard people say that human beings are created in the “image of God” – and that is what the Biblical account in Genesis says. In the beginning, God speaks into the chaos and starts building the universe and filling it with living creatures. When God sets about creating humanity, He says, “Let us make humans in our image, after our likeness.” But what exactly does it mean to be created “in the image of God”?

Later on in the Biblical narrative, Yahweh God commands His people, Israel, not to make any graven images or any sort of anthropomorphic statues in an attempt to represent Him. This command against graven images stands in sharp contrast to the surrounding peoples of Mesopotamia who had oodles and oodles of images of varying kinds to represent their many deities. As W.W. Hallo has noted, because human beings were already the image of God, Yahweh’s command against making graven images was, “presumably intended to discourage all experimentation to arrive at a more precision depiction of the deity.”

If humanity is created in the image of Yahweh, then…humans are Yahweh’s cult statues?

I decided to pursue the connection further. I thought that an understanding of how these cult images were mean to represent their pagan deities might shed some light on humanity’s function and identity as Yahweh’s image. As aforementioned, there were many kinds of images and divine representation of ANE deities, however, these cult statues seemed to have a special function because of their placement in Mesopotamian temples and the specific rituals the images had to undergo in order for the spirit of the deity to take up residence in the image. But before I tell you about that, let me discuss what the temple meant for people in the ANE.

To the Mesopotamian mind, the destiny of humanity was inextricably linked to the will and destiny of the gods. The temple was not just a place for humans to offer sacrifice and make requests to a deity who lodged elsewhere – the temple was thought of as the divine residence of the god. The presence of the god was needed in order for the community to thrive. If the nation was to function as it ought, you needed to gods to move into the neighborhood. Without the gods, the crops would fail, the animals would languish, and you wouldn’t have success in battle, so you wanted the gods to live among you as members of the community. But no one would expect a god to take up residence in an unholy house or live in the community with the proper treatment. So the people must build a house fit for…well…a god. And so grand temples were built on mountains or atop tall ziggurats in order to bring humans closer to the divine space of the heavens, in hopes that the gods would condescend to dwell among humans. The high places were the meeting point between human and divine space.

The spatial layout of the temple determined where the god would reside. There was a good deal of diversity and complexity within ANE temples, but usually the holiest, most sacred space was deep within the heart of the temple. There were sometimes outer courts where any temple functionary or worshipper could go, but travel a little deeper into the temple and you would find holy places that only certain officiates and priests could enter. The holiest place was the cella or holy of holies, which might be thought of as the throne room of the god. This was where the image of the god lived.

While there is some debate on how precisely the cult image was supposed to represent its deity, the majority of scholars own that the image did not function like an icon in a church. In the Eastern Orthodox tradition, icons are pictures that remind the viewer of the saint or Christ who is beyond the icon. An icon is like a window through which one speaks to the person depicted, yet the reality of the person is elsewhere. Mesopotamian cult statues are a different kind of image. It was supposed that, through ritual cleansing, the spirit of the deity actually became present in the statue. (And, some postulate, the statue simultaneously was and was not the god itself – I’ll discuss this in greater detail later.) Through ceremonial washing, the image became the living presence of the deity.

However, even if a cult statue was crafted, this did not guarantee the presence of the god within the image. The image had to undergo several ceremonies, the mis pi (mouth-cleansing) and pit pi (mouth-opening). As part of the mouth-washing ceremony, the human craftsmen who had fashioned the image had their hands ceremonially “cut off” with a wooden tamarisk sword while swearing that they had not made the image; that it was in fact a god “born of the heavens.” The lips of the statue were cleansed at least fourteen times in order to make it a proper abode in which the deity might dwell. After this, the statue’s mouth was ritually opened, which meant that its senses were activated in order that it might it might smell incense and hear and eat food, etc. In essence, it became a living being and was treated as one (the image was often clothed, adorned and given food and incense by the temple officiates who cared for the images). After this “activation,” the statue was escorted to its residence in the holy of holies.

So how does this shed light on the idea of human beings as the “image of God”? I think this “temple action” in the pagan temples of Mesopotamian parallels what’s going on with the earth and humanity in Genesis 1-3. There are numerous Psalms and other poetic descriptions in the Bible that portray the heavens and the earth as a kind of cosmic temple (Psalm 104 is one example that comes to mind). The heavens are Yahweh’s throne and the earth is his footstool (Isa. 66:1). Even the apostle Paul in his speech in the Areopagus says that, “the God who made the world does not dwell in temples made by hands, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything” (Acts 17:24-25). Yahweh is not like other gods who live in temples and must be served food and drink by human hands. Yahweh does not create humans to serve Him in that sense, as if He needed anything, but it is He who formed the temple of the world and sustains it by the Breath of His Presence. After fashioning the world, God fashions an image, Adam, and breathes His Spirit into him and Adam becomes a living being. From Adam’s rib, God creates another image, Eve. God sets His images in the Holy of Holies (the Garden of Eden) and commands His images to, in essence, push the sacred space of the Garden out to the rest of the world. They are to be their Father’s bodily presence to the rest of the world.

In Mesopotamian temples, if the cult image of the deity was in the holy of holies, it meant that all was well with the world, for the god was in his earthly home. If the image was alive, it meant that the deity it represented was also alive. Sometimes, however, foreign invaders would ravage the city and steal the temple images. Once the statues were thus desecrated, it was believed that the spirit of the deity had abandoned the image because of its unholiness. In order for the statue to once again become the living presence of the deity, it had to be repaired and ceremonially cleansed, activated, and installed in the temple in order for the deity to return to the temple and dwell within its image once again. A time of mourning took place while the statue was being repaired, for the death of the image meant that the god, too, had died. When the statue was brought back to the temple, a time of rejoicing took place, for the resurrection of the image meant the resurrection of the deity.

By the end of Genesis 3, we have God’s images stripped bare and abandoned just outside of the temple. Obviously, there is not a one-to-one correspondence between Mesopotamian cult statues and humanity and all these comparisons must be taken with a grain of salt. Unlike the abandoned cult images, Adam and Eve are still alive and, in some sense, are still the images of God, but not in the old way. All is not right with the world; the Garden has been ravaged by evil creatures and humanity (instead of subduing evil), has been subdued by evil.

So where does the Gospel of Jesus Christ come in? In my next post, I will discuss Jesus as both the image of the Deity and the Deity Himself and also address in greater detail the relationship between the image and the deity in ancient Mesopotamia (there’s this recurring theme that what is done to the image is done to the deity). I will also discuss the idea of the Eucharistic Presence and what being Yahweh’s image might entail in the context of the covenant community.

– Rebekah

*As you can see, I have taken a good deal of poetic liberty in my rendition of the Creation story. It is not meant to be a theologically precise account, but a creative interpretation to provoke thought and dialogue.

About Rebekah

I am married to a delightful Canadian composer whose thirst for learning is unparalleled. I have a deep interest in critical Biblical scholarship, philosophies of education, ancient Near Eastern religion and the poet Wordsworth. I am particularly fond of reading the works of Martin Buber, Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Zainab Bahrani.
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14 Responses to Yahweh’s Cult Statues

  1. nick says:

    Thanks very much. That was especially apt, as I live in a culture where idols live in temples and in homes, are fed, clothed, washed… And yes, their accompanying spirits do exist, and they generally hate the true God quite passionately. Keep it coming. I’d love to actually talk about this a bit; I was just marinating on something Bonhoeffer said about the second commandment – it is generally moralized these days, i.e. “don’t worship money, or make an idol of sweets and candy”, but really it is “don’t carve any carved images of anything in the heavens or on earth or under the earth.” Just that. Simple and concrete. Living here, I’m starting to get it. It needs to be taken literally.

    • Rebekah says:

      Nick, it’s interesting that you should mention Bonhoeffer – I was planning on discussing him a bit later on when I discuss “image” in the Christian community. His concept of the “I-Thou” relationship with Christ as the transcendant Other has bearing on how we might understand the role of individual “images” in the body of Christ as a whole.

      With reference to carved images – I think the command has more to do with recognizing the place and function of an image than with simply eliminating carved images. There are other kinds of symbols and images in the Israelite tabernacle (the cherubim above the Ark of the Covenant, for example). In the Eastern Orthodox tradition, no images are made of God the Father, only of Christ (who was seen by the human eye) and the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove (who was also seen by the human eye). These images are not supposed to function as idols but as reminders of God and conduits for prayer.

      If humans are Yahweh’s cult statues, we must still be careful to make sure we relate to humans in accordance with who they are (i.e., images, not God). You won’t find most ANE scholars referring to cult statues as “idols” because ANE peoples did not consider their images to be idols. In their minds, the image was a true image of a true deity. The image was distinct from the god (although, in some cases, the statue was thought to be mystically the god and *not* the god at the same time – more on this later). I think the reason the Biblical prophets refer to them as idols and false gods is, at least in part, because the gods they represented *were* false – Yahweh is the only true God. They are false images because their god is false. We are true images because our God is true.

  2. v02468 says:

    Very superb illustration of the garden of eden – love it.

    I did have two questions / comments in regard to the second section.

    Do you think Hallo is correct noting that the command against making graven images was to discourage a more precise image of YHVH? I had figured that the primary reason (and based on when the commandment first occurs) was to discourage personalizing YHVH to themselves, and reducing YHVH to the manner other God’s were viewed.

    Also, the ziggurats (especially based on their names) I had considered to be not to house God at the peak, but to provide a stepping stone so God could descend from the heavens to commune with the people (or consume their sacrifices…).

    I haven’t done extensive reading in the topic as you have, but if you had any comments I’d appreciate it.

    There also seems to be a theology of harlotry/marriage that identifies YHVH’s distaste with idols because He has already declared the boundaries of what their covenant should look like (with its distinguishing marks and manner of expressing love). By becoming involved with idols – and seeing their covenant as a marriage covenant – they were effectively pursuing other men and losing what distinguished them as YHVH’s lover. To have them for YHVH alone necessitated them acting within their marriage covenant as YHVH had described through the law.

  3. Rebekah says:

    Thanks for your comments, Andrew. While I think Hallo is correct, he may not be complete in his explanation. If you are right in saying that the primary reason for the second commandment is to keep the Israelites from personalizing YHWH to themselves, mightn’t it also be said that this is accomplished in making humanity the image of YHWH? YHWH can’t be personalized to the Israelites because He is the God of humanity and all of humanity is made in His image. He can’t be reduced to the level of other gods whose images are made of dead wood and stone. YHWH is a living God whose images are truly alive.

    You’re partially right about the ziggurats. The point is not to ascend all the way to the heavens, but to get just a little closer to the realm of the gods. The gods have to come down and live among human beings, which may be why there’s such a problem with the tower of Babel. (In that instance, the people aren’t asking God to come down, but trying to ursurp divine space.) The temple on the mountain or ziggurat was the earthly dwelling of the god, which did not mean he was limited to that temple alone or that he was not also present elsewhere (in the heavens, perhaps). However, it is somewhat difficult to develop a precise theology of Mesopotamian gods because of the polytheism and constant assimilation of gods and goddeses from different regions. From the frequent theological inconsistencies in their myths, it does not seem as though ancient Mesopotamians were really striving to form a distinct theology about each of their gods.

  4. Andrew Vogel says:

    I know that in Mesoamerica, some of the ziggurats they built had temples at the bottom of them. Do you know if this was common in Mesopotamia as well?

  5. Andrew Vogel says:

    bottom = base

  6. Rebekah says:

    I’ve never come across temples at the base of ziggurats in my reading, but that doesn’t mean Mesopotamians didn’t build temples at the base. I don’t know.

  7. thinkhardthinkwell says:

    I am fascinated by the “mouth-cleansing” ceremony. It is obviously cultically significant that the image not be considered man-made.

    This reminds me of some research I did once in Ephesians 2 (which would make a good article some day). Paul refers to Jews as “those circumcised in flesh with hands.” He uses the term χειροποιητος (“hand-made”), which is used in the LXX to translate these words:

    * אלילם (“images;” Lev. 26:1, Isa. 2:18, 10:11, 31:7, etc.)
    * אלהים (“gods;” Isa. 21:9)
    * במה (“high place”/”altar;” Lev. 26:30)
    * Aramaic אֱלָהּ (“god;” Dan. 5:4, 23, 6:28)

    At least for the Jews who translated the LXX, the ideas of “idols” and “hand-made” were linked and used polemically against the nations. In the second half of Ephesians 2, Paul then turns this polemic back on the Jews whom he feels place undue emphasis on physical circumcision rather than circumcision of the heart.

    – Benj

  8. Pingback: Presentation on November 4 « think hard, think well

  9. Pingback: YHWH’s Cult Statues: Further Study of the ‘Image of God’ in an ANE Context « The Primary Word

  10. Eva says:

    Clever and readable alternate version of the creation myth, reducing the world in a temple, and inhabitants into statues. But why?

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  12. Pingback: Discussion #3: Cult Statues and the Image of God | Out of Exile

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