Yet cannot these gods save themselves from rust and moth, though they be covered with purple raiment. They wipe their faces because of the dust of the temple, when there is much upon them. And he that cannot put to death one that offendeth him holdeth a scepter, as though he were a judge of the country. He hath also in his right hand a dagger and an axe: but cannot deliver himself from war and thieves. 16 Whereby they are known not to be gods: therefore fear them not.
They are as one of the beams of the temple, yet they say their hearts are gnawed upon by things creeping out of the earth; and when they eat them and their clothes, they feel it not. 21 Their faces are blacked through the smoke that cometh out of the temple. 22 Upon their bodies and heads sit bats, swallows, and birds, and the cats also. 23 By this ye may know that they are no gods: therefore fear them not.
I wonder if the practice described here is similar to what we see in some Catholic churches outside the United States, or in the Hindu religion of India. Adornment of flowers, jewelry and other offerings are placed upon statutes (idols) to show their outward love for the avatar the statute represent. If that’s the case, then the author of this letter has misinterpreted what they are seeing. The point isn’t that the avatar they represent will take care of idol by which man uses for their worship. Nor would man perceive the statues themselves as being the deity, but rather a representation by which they can illustrate their devotion to them.
The author of this letter clearly didn’t believe that the gods of other nations had any real exists beyond the imagination of it’s followers. Or if he did, he sought to diminish them through this letter. It’s not a bad strategy, but it only works as long as you can maintain an insular community. Once exposure gets out as to the truth of the devotion, choices start getting made based upon the perception of differences between deities and devotional practices.
Case in point: a lot of people are moving towards spiritual models that embrace the concept of ritual and mystery in favor of the loose “I believe” models. In fact, I’d say that it because traditions which call upon a more mystical experience that we have Word of Faith ministries, people embracing Catholic models of devotion and even a significant number of people leaving Christianity for Pagan traditions.
Christianity could pick up some ritualistic practices that are absolutely Abrahamic in nature by taking time to set up a space where they simply contemplate God on a regular basis, and pray. But it has to be set away from church in order for it to really take hold.
Anyway, I just thought it was an interesting point to make about the assumption of other religions. Even the assumption that is made about us. Where I do take issue with Catholic Mariology and Intercession of the Saints (a topic for another time), I can’t ignore that the lack of understanding what we are looking at is at the heart of addressing Mariology…I imagine it’s the same with this passage. A lack of truly understanding what the gentiles were engaging in, was part of the reason it was so difficult to combat.
I think if I was writing this letter, I’d have probably put more focus on the history of how previous prophets had proven God stood higher than any of the nations’ gods. Maybe made some points of how God is more virtuous by comparison, and encouraged the captives to keep the scripture in their heart.
But who am I to say that would have worked? I guess we all write in accordance with what sounds more convincing to us. How would you have addressed the captives if you were trying to encourage them to maintain the faith?