by Dario Barolin
“Living God…” Our theme begins as a prayer that comes from the need to be transformed. It is a crying out which is born from our awareness that only through being dislocated in our understandings and our lifestyles can we be renewed, as also the whole of God’s creation.
This prayer is born in the deep need and full awareness of the suffering which the majority of humanity and God’s creation experience, subsumed, beaten, squeezed. This prayer rises to the only one who hears and acts. It’s not a cry into emptiness as it searches destination (Exodus 2:23), rather it has a concrete direction, the living God.
This adjectival use applied to God, as alive or living is not unique to our passage, it can be found numerous times in both the Old and the New Testaments. Deuteronomy 5:26, Psalm 42:3, Daniel 6:20, Hosea 1:10 (repeated in Romans 9:26), Matthew 16:16, 2 Corinthians 6:16 and 1 Timothy 4:10 are just a few examples.
Jeremiah 10:1-16 and its context
Jeremiah 10:1-16 invites us to think the living God is in conflict with idolatry and the communal and individual practices that stem from this.
As a way of introduction we must recognize this passage is part of a larger unit (8:4-10:25) in which a succession of poems warn of the consequences of death that the options chosen and the way forward of the community have brought upon themselves (8:4-7). The people of God ignore the ways of the Lord (8:7), they have upset God’s law (8:8) and have rejected God’s word (8:9). As a result the covenant that linked Israel with its people in a unique and special way (Exodus 19:5-6) has collapsed.
For these reasons Jeremiah concludes his accusations affirming that circumcision, which was the sign of this covenant between God and the people, is now only an empty ritual which does not nourish, which does not integrate the people, who have become “uncircumcised in heart” (9:26). From this point on and until the end of the section, the poem addresses this same mistaken walk, which comes from following the mistaken trend, which is that of idolatry.
The same way that faith in the Lord is firmly based on a social organization, to follow other gods also includes a particular social, cultural and political organization. Western modernity tends to separate one thing from the other, though the biblical text has a much richer and complex understanding than the one we currently have. The biblical vision shows an indelible and undeniable relation between faith in Yahweh and social structure. The covenant between God and the people after liberation from slavery is based on the commitment of adhering to the God who liberated from oppression (Exodus 20:2) and at the same time to a social structure directed towards justice (Exodus 19-24).
The rejection of the social structure that stems from such a covenant inevitably leads to idolatry. In the same way, and in reverse, the worshiping of other gods leads to a new social structure and new scale of values.
The emptiness of idols
Our passage begins with the prophetic formula as a way of introduction: “Hear the word that the Lord speaks” (10:1) and this marks an inclusion with the new prophetic discourse which is introduced by this same formula in 10:18. The central calling of the prophetic utterance is found in verse 2:
Do not learn the way of the nations,
or be dismayed at the signs of the heavens;
for the nations are dismayed by them.
The verses that follow bring out the constant contrast between Yahweh, the living God, and idols and in this way justify the prophetic warning. As a matter of fact verses 3-16 systematically intersperse opposition of idols and Yahweh.
Idols: verses 3-5
Yahweh: verses 6-7
Idols: verses 8-9
Yahweh: verses 10
Idols: verse 11
Yahweh: verses 12-13
Idols: verses 14-15
Yahweh: verse 16
Idols are characterized especially by what they cannot do: they don’t move (4), they cannot speak or walk, they do neither evil nor good (5). But above all else they are a lie and have no breath in them (14) because they are the work of human labour (3, 14). What characterizes them, and the culture that they generate is “vanity” (3, 8, 15). We find similar expressions in the Psalms 115:4-7 and 135:15-17.
Finally, but in no way least, the text actually dedicates quite a large portion to inform how these idols are fabricated: gold and silver (4, 9), purple and blue (9). To adore these idols is to adore the materials from which they have been fabricated; it is the divinization of such commodities.
Though, while even the prophet puts a lot of effort into pointing out all they cannot do, their “non-existence,” he cannot deny that there is something that they do manage to do, as they generate and they uphold customs and laws (4) and they create instruction (8). Truly they are contrary to Yahweh and are at the same time empty, but they are there as a powerful attraction for the people of God and they have the strange power to numb those who follow them (14).
The temptation of following the ways of the nations is not new in the history of Israel. In 1 Samuel 8 we find the same temptation in the leaders of the people and the prophetic warning about the consequences in the life of the people. In our passage, this call does not come from nowhere; rather it is part of the narrative of the fall of the kingdom of Judah at the hands of the Babylonians. This does not make seduction any the less, the empire with the power it has and its gods seem stronger than Yahweh. Isn’t this what the ruins of Jerusalem and exile seem to show?
The prophet puts great effort into demonstrating that the present ruin is not the result of the lack of power in Yahweh, but rather the disobedience of Israel. Their path, so far from justice, has brought this upon them. Faced with this scenario, to follow their gods, their customs (3) and their instruction (8) is not an option.
Yahweh the living God
Contrary to them, Yahweh appears. If the idols are characterized by their non-power, Yahweh is presented with power and wisdom. The chosen path is to point to God as creator (12), while the idols are created (9). Yahweh is presented in wisdom and creative understanding (12), which contrasts with the stupidity and foolishness of the idols (8). These do not utter words (5) while Yahweh’s voice creates storms (13).
Yet Yahweh’s power is not confined to creative actions of the past. Yahweh is not a Deus ex machina, Yahweh is capable of giving all creation its form (16). Yahweh is acting in history as the nations can experience power that comes from Yahweh (10). The image of the creator God does not ignore history but rather understands it as part of the creative and transformative actions of God. In the same way, in Isaiah 40-55 the image of God the creator inspires new opportunities of liberation for a people in exile.
It is precisely this reality which leads the prophet to affirm, contrary to the emptiness of the idols, that “Yahweh is true Lord, the living God and the everlasting King” (10). And as such in conflict with all idols or power which pretends to become equivalent to God (cf. Ezekiel 28:1-10).
The decisive conflict is found in verse 11. This verse, different from all others written in Hebrew, is written in Aramaic and is structured in a beautifully poetic way, in a concentric form. In a graphic way it can be shown as:
did not make
from the earth
and under the heaven
Living God vs. idols
We have just pointed out the narrative context of Jeremiah 10:1-16. This emerges in the situation of oppression that the Babylonian empire has imposed on the small kingdom of Judah. Faced with this, the prophet desperately seeks to convince the people of the validity of Yahweh and above all about the efficiency of the promise. The prophet needs to demonstrate that his God, the God of the oppressed and the exiled, is more than the idols of the empire. If not there will be no hope. Worshiping the gods of the empire means the destruction of the people themselves.
This vital situation which feeds into the understanding and the invocation of the living God in conflict with idolatry is often misunderstood when power structures or the empire try to use it to domesticate the gods of the oppressed. Latin America and Africa have experienced in blood and fire the religious justification of military and economic power. It is impossible to find in this god of conquest the living God present in Jeremiah and shaped by Jesus Christ. The living God is life; the actions that come from the living God bring life and can never be justification for death and oppression.
Now then, the emphasis of Jeremiah is not that the other peoples have other gods, though he certainly ridicules their religion; rather he dwells on the people of Israel themselves who feel tempted by the power of such gods and are ready to follow them (2). Even when they continue to offer sacrifice in the temple and invoke the name of Yahweh their actions are far from Yahweh. With their lips they call on Yahweh, but their heart and their ideology run behind other gods, with other values and a different culture.
This unveils a second aspect of idolatry. It refers to the mental images of God we build up and transmit. Very often these have very little to do with the living God. It is true that for human beings it is impossible to capture the totality of divinity and necessarily, the urge to understand God and relate to God, makes us emphasize, reduce or limit God. But we should be aware of this necessary mental operation and avoid turning our reduced and limited visions of God into the true God. These inevitable images of God which we form, for our history, our culture and our life should be fragile enough to surrender to the glory of the living God. We should be humble enough so that on each encounter with the living God, we can claim “there is none like you, O Lord; you are great and your name is great might” (Jeremiah 10:6).
A third aspect which often goes unnoticed concerns the human constructions which are turned into gods, with the same power as the ones that Jeremiah denounces. They are capable of creating culture, values and even of demanding sacrifices for themselves. In this brief commentary we draw your attention to the fabric with which these idols are constructed. This produces a sort of synergy between the representation of the divinity for which the most valuable materials have been used, and the divinization of such materials. Gold, silver, purple, blue (4, 9); this emphasizes the value of the represented god, but at the same time these materials begin to be divinized for themselves and as such lead to stupidity (14) in such a way that they become gods and as such direct and govern our decisions, our values and our culture.
This is made starkly clear in Colossians 3:5 when greed is referred to as idolatry. The idolatry mentioned is not the one of worshiping other gods, but rather that of making wealth the ultimate goal of our existence, turning it into a god of our lives, directing our decisions, emptying the sense of life in our society. These false gods demand sacrifices and even life itself, while promising salvation and fullness of life.
In this same line of thought, the Accra Confession in paragraph 10 refers to neoliberalism as a modern god with the same pretence:
This is an ideology that claims to be without alternative, demanding an endless flow of sacrifices from the poor and creation. It makes the false promise that it can save the world through the creation of wealth and prosperity, claiming sovereignty over life and demanding total allegiance, which amounts to idolatry.
This form of idolatry is the most complex and challenging for the “secularized” humanity of the XXI century.
Confessing the living God
The passage of Jeremiah 10:1-16 helps us understand the intrinsic relation between our social practice and the faith we proclaim. The prophet exposes the pretention of the whole empire to impose its own gods, which legitimizes its power and the oppression of all those it subjugates. Contradictorily, these idols of human creation seem to have the power of seduction and deceit.
Calling out to the living God in such times is to affirm God’s power to give life. It is to recognize that other false gods seek to displace God and claim our worship and adoration. We know they don’t exist, that they do neither evil nor good, that they are human creations. In spite of this, they are there, powerful, perverting the communion between human beings, with creation and with God. They are there, dragging God’s creation to its death, subjecting the large majority of our people to poverty, creating suffering and exalting the vast wealth of a minority as “divine prosperity.”
Minds numbed by consumerism, the contemporary elixir, humanity dangerously draws near to self-destruction. For this reason we need to lift our eyes and cry out to the true God, living and eternal, capable of transforming and renewing us to a communion of justice.
To confess the living God also means recognizing our patriarchal, racist, anthropocentric and discriminating categorizations as evident signals of an “uncircumcised heart” which must bow before the true, living and eternal God and be transformed so as to be liberated from such a nightmare and be transformed and renewed to live in fullness, harmony and communion with the living God.
Walter Brueggemann, A Commentary on Jeremiah. Exile and Homecoming, Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 1998.
E. Ray Clendenen, “Discourses strategies in Jeremiah 10:1-16,” JBL (106/3), 1987), pp 401-408
José Comblin, “El Dios de la vida” (2014) http://teologianordeste.net/index.php/publicacoes/jose-comblin/66-el-dios-de-la-vida (accessed 15 January 2016)
José Severino Croatto, “La destrucción de los símbolos de los dominados,” RIBLA 11, (1992), pp. 37-48.
1 A detail that shows the relevance of this verse is found in the poetic play of words between to do and to disappear, which in Aramaic sound nearly identical.