Yahweh’s Cult Statues (Part II)

Recently, a friend and I traveled to St Clare’s monastery in order to speak with some nuns about Roman Catholicism. Sister Jean told us a little about their order and the story of St Francis of Assisi and St Clare. Sister Jean invited us to join the nuns in the chapel for prayer whenever we wished. Towards the end of our conversation, I asked her how she viewed Protestants. “I know Eastern Orthodox Christians view us as brothers, but sort of ‘brothers in error’,” I said. “Is that how you think of Protestants?”

Sister Jean shook her head. “No, I wouldn’t say that. I just think that what we have to offer is more…” she trailed off for a moment. After a pause, she began again, “I think one of the primary distinction between Protestants and Catholics is our belief of the presence of Christ in the Eucharist.” It was time for prayers, so I didn’t get to chat with her more, but I told Sister Jean I wanted to discuss the Eucharist with her in further detail.

Despite different understandings of the Eucharistic Presence, both Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox Christians place considerable emphasis on the presence of Christ in the Eucharist. As members of Christ’s Body come together to feed on Christ’s Body and Blood, Christ is somehow present there.

What does this have to do with Mesopotamian cult statues? In a previous post, I discussed the Mesoptamian mouth-cleansing (mis pi) and mouth-opening (pit pi) rituals which were performed on cult images in order to transform these statues into the purified image of the deity. Without these, the image was essentially dead or, at least, not yet cleansed or “enlivened.” It is clear that these ceremonies were the means by which the statue became the proper image of the deity and was installed in the temple of the god. The issue on the table is this: what precisely did Mesopotamians believe happened to the cult image through these ceremonies? What was the nature of the image’s transformation and in what way did it represent its deity?

As I said in my other post on cult statues, some think the images functioned as icons in a church, pointing beyond the images to the reality of the deity elsewhere. The main proponent of this view is R.E. Friedman, however, Friedman gives virtually no support for this view. The majority of mis pi scholars believe that either the deity was in some way present in the image, or the image was imbued with the essence of the deity or that – in some mystical way – the statue simultaneously was and was not the deity. The main idea here is that the image is not simply a conduit for communication with the deity. The image in some way bears the reality or substance of the deity.

Interestly enough, several scholars have used the example of the Catholic theology of the Eucharistic Presence to describe what was supposed to have happened through the mis pi and pit pi. In their book, The Induction of the Cult Image in Ancient Mesopotamia, Christopher Walker and Michael Dick use this analogy to explain how the physical substance of the cult statue was transformed into the actual presence of the deity while maintaining the appearance of the cult image:

To Orthodox and Roman Catholics the bread and wine during the Eucharistic ritual become the real presence of the Divine Jesus, while still subsisting under the appearance of bread and wine. Obviously the Eucharistic species are not coterminous with Jesus, so that the Eucharistic Presence can be found simultaneously in Churches throughout the world. (2001:7)

In this view on the mis pi, the ritual allegedly transformed the physical materials which human craftsmen had used to make the cult statue into the real presence of the deity. The deity was not limited to the cult statue and could be present through the statue in many temples, just as the Eucharistic Presence is not limited to one church.

Again, it may not be wise to simply assume a one-to-one correspondence between the relationship of the Mesopotamian cult image to its deity and the relationship of humanity to Yahweh God as His “image.” However, it seems significant that the identity and life of the Mesopotamian image is directly linked with the presence of the deity. Apart from its relationship to the deity, the image is proverbially dead. To relate this back to the Eucharistic Presence: while Catholics, Eastern Orthodox and Protestants may disagree about the Divine Presence with relation to the elements of bread and wine, they do not disagree that the church is Christ’s Body or that Christ is somehow present when members of His Body meet with one another. While a specific understanding of what is meant by the Divine Presence among Christians may vary from community to community, none would contend against the idea that when “two or three are gathered together” in the name of Christ, Christ is present.

If this Mesopotamian understanding of a cult image carries over into our understanding of humanity as God’s image, it may mean that humans (at least, ritually cleansed and “enlivened” humans) are in some way the substance or reality of God. This seems like it might line up with Adam’s role in Genesis pre-Fall, for an “image and likeness” connotes sonship. In the beginning, Adam and Eve are children of God. Not the same as God or coterminous with God, but godlings, so to speak (and therefore of the same substance or reality, perhaps?), who are to extend the rule of their Father to the rest of creation.

This is where I begin to have questions about the nature of Christ as the God-Human, particularly with reference to Hebrews and Colossians. I am not questioning the deity of Christ, rather, I wonder if any of the distinctions we tend to assign to his deity are not, in fact, aspects of his human role as an image/son of God. When Colossians 2 says that the fullness of the Deity dwells in Christ in bodily form, might this be referring to his role as the perfect human being, the whole image – the statue that has no need of ritual cleansing because he is already the perfect reality of God his Father?

The idea of that the Mesopotamian cult image simultaneously was and was not the god it represented also raises questions about the presence of Christ in the community of God. Christ was resurrected in a single physical body and ascended to the heavens. It seems reasonable to think that he still exists as this physical body, yet somehow the Church is also Christ’s Body. Paul speaks about the covenant community as the Body of Christ and those bodies (collectively?) as a temple of the Holy Spirit (i.e., the divine residence of the Deity). Just as the Mesopotamian god was present in both his image and temple yet still remained distinct from these and was not limited to these, Christ is both present and absent in the Church Body. Through the Eucharist, we celebrate Christ’s presence among us and also look forward to Christ’s return. In a sense, as the people of God, we are Christ and we are not Christ – simultaneously God and not God.

Any thoughts? I did a short thesis on this topic, but it mostly just raised questions for further study. I am not quite sure what to think of my own thoughts on the subject. It could be argued, I suppose, that the Church makes up the humanity of Christ rather than his deity, however, this seems contradictory to the doctrine of the hypostatic union.

In a future post, I want to discuss how Mesopotamians treated the cult image in light of its relationship to the deity and how this might have bearing on how we treat human beings as images of God (whether ritually cleansed or not). Yes, Bonhoeffer will be incorporated into the discussion at some point.

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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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4 Responses to Yahweh’s Cult Statues (Part II)

  1. v02468 says:

    my thought is i think you would thoroughly enjoy walton’s latest book ‘the lost world of genesis one’. he goes through many of the issues you just wrote about and does it very well i think. (you did well too!)

  2. Matthew Baddorf says:

    Hi Rebecca! It’s good to see some more of your research on this-and not just because it reminds me of happy times last spring.

    I obviously don’t know much about the ANE world, but I have studies Trinitarian theology, and I would caution you on that front. The difficulty with associating Christ’s deity merely with perfection as a human image is the doctrine that ‘there was never a time when he was not’-i.e. what John says at the beginning of his Gospel: the Word was God.

    So I think that ancient images can help us understand what it meant for Christ to be God’s image as human, but we also need to retain an idea of Christ, God’s image as God.

    Of course, the two concepts are probably linked: it seems to me that we were likely originally created with the eternal Son as the ‘pattern’ as it were. He is eternally begotten as the Father’s Image and Word, filled with the fullness of the Spirit of God. We were created as lesser images who speak the word of God to creation and each other, filled with the same Spirit of power, as befits lesser heirs of glory.

    I eager to here more on this subject!

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

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

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