one preparing for a voyage and about to traverse the wild waves
cries out to wood more
unsound than the boat that bears him.
COMMENTARY: This refers to the idol on
the sacrificial altar aboard Pagan ships of the time. The altar itself (according to a recent
archaeological find) in at least one case was terracotta, and looks a lot like
a bird-bath, for receiving the blood of a sacrifice. Considering that this was found in a
shipwreck, I’m guessing that it didn’t work.
the urge for profits devised this latter,
and Wisdom the artisan
COMMENTARY: It was better to rely on the
practicalities of the ship’s construction, for the shipwright whose boats had a
reputation for sinking wouldn’t stay in business very long. But an idol-maker whose idols didn’t deliver
could always blame the vagaries of competing gods.
3) But your
providence, O Father! guides it,
for you have furnished
even in the sea a road,
and through the waves a
COMMENTARY: Except for King Solomon’s
merchant marines, Jewish states didn’t really have fleets, controlling no ports
throughout most of their history (which was why capturing Joppa was such a big
deal, as you’ll remember from our studies of 1 and 2 Maccabees.) They did have fishing boats on the Sea of Galilee,
but not large-scale vessels, except for the legendary Ship of Oniyahu. There were a few Jewish pirate ships, but
these wouldn’t be people known for their piety.
However, the international market had expanded, which meant a lot more Jews
boarded ships as passengers, most of them riding on Pagan vessels. They would see the sacrifices being made
during storms, and fear of the storm could easily tempt them to pray in their
hearts to the same deity as the sailors.
For this reason the writer takes care to admonish her readers to rely on
the God of their ancestors rather than foreign imports.
that you can save from any danger,
so that even one without
skill may embark.
COMMENTARY: That would refer to the
Jewish passengers, not the seasoned crew.
you will that the products of your Wisdom be not idle;
therefore people trust
their lives even to most frail wood,
and were safe crossing the
waves on a raft.
COMMENTARY: Jewish culture prizes hard
work and enterprise, not only for its own sake but also as a protection in
times of invasion or persecution. They’ve
had more than their share, throughout history, of times where they had to pull
themselves back up by their bootstraps after devastation.
To rebuild financially often required courage and taking risks, including the
risk of setting foot on something as unfamiliar and alarming as a ship and
braving real perils to get to the other side of a sea. Consider a desert-dweller boarding a ship for
the first time—it moves constantly underfoot, and creaks ominously every few
minutes, all while suspended on the surface of waters well-known to have drowned
countless sailors. The alien nature of
the experience would make the Jewish traveler far more vulnerable to the
temptation of idolatry than usual, especially when he sees the crew, in the
midst of a storm, sacrificing to their deities.
of old, when the proud giants were being destroyed,
the hope of the universe,
who took refuge on a raft,
left to the world a future
for the human family, under the guidance of your hand.
COMMENTARY: The “raft” referred to would
be Noah’s ark. Many have been confused,
thousands of years after the writing of the Bible, by its references to “giants”
and the “sons of angels” (a polite translation, avoiding the even more controversial
“sons of gods”) But kings from time
immemorial have taken on god-status in the arrogance of their tyranny, and
their children (raised in narcissistic privilege by being renowned for their
parentage, rather than any deeds of their own) were often dramatically taller
than those of lower caste, primarily from enjoying a better diet, although the
Persian Kings did choose tall queens and concubines in order to breed tall
princes (thus adding a special horror to being conquered by the diminutive
Alexander the Great!)
Have I mentioned before the Neolithic flood that wiped out most of Eastern
European/Middle-Eastern humanity and created the Black Sea? Short explanation if I haven’t: When an ice age ended, a glacier the size of
multiple nations started to melt from the inside out, creating a gigantic
ice-bowl holding an entire sea, the wall of that bowl growing progressively
thinner, till finally all it took was a prolonged warm rain to break it wide
open. Similar floods happened all over
the world, but this was probably the one commemorated as Noah’s flood. Remains of Neolithic villages rest on the
floor of the Black Sea to this day.
It wiped out entire budding civilizations, run by brutal tyrants. Evidence in the bones shows that Neolithic peasants
starved on a seasonal basis that periodically halted their growth in their
formative years, creating a significant gap between their height and that of their
elites. Paleolithic hold-outs not yet
enslaved were even taller.
Yes, civilization was
founded on slavery. This, I think, is
why survivors of the time of floods could see God’s hand wiping out an
oppressive system to give humanity a fresh start—what they had before the
deluge was even worse.
7) For blest is the wood through which righteousness
COMMENTARY: This verse has been seen by
Catholics as also referring to the wood of the cross, connecting it to the
saving wood of the ark.
8) but the handmade idol is accursed, and its maker as
he for having produced it,
and the corruptible thing, because it was termed a god.
COMMENTARY: I used to live in a house
with many roommates—a deeply enjoyable experience, by the way—and I noticed
something peculiar. Whenever somebody
moved out, whoever moved in would initially take on some of the mood of the
last person to have that room, as if their presence left something of
themselves in the walls.
And one of those roommates had a knack for touching an object and knowing
something of the person who had touched it before. In the most dramatic example, I had been
cooking when I got hot pepper-juice into my eyes. While I screamed in pain, my husband had to
rush in and push my face under the faucet’s blast; when that didn’t work he
actually had to soap my eyes and rinse again before I could get any relief,
then help me upstairs to bed, because I was wiped out by the experience. Well, this roommate came home an hour later,
reached for the same faucet to get herself a drink of water, and as soon as she
touched it she cried out in horror, “What
happened to Dolores?”
My point being, I do believe that objects can absorb something of those in
regular contact with it, something which we don’t yet have the means to record,
measure or study, but which may come into scientific scrutiny in the
future. And if this is the case, objects
subjected to bloody rites could pick up on some essence of those rites, and
become as unwholesome to have around as a smallpox-infested blanket.
9) Equally odious to God are the evildoer and the evil
the thing made will be punished with its maker.
upon even the idols of the nations shall a judgment come,
since they became
abominable among God’s works,
Snares for human souls
and a trap for the feet of
COMMENTARY: In this messed-up, poisoned
world it’s a comforting thought that the end results of sins will be undone. For it’s not just idols that snare human
the source of wantonness is the devising of idols;
and their invention, a
corruption of life.
COMMENTARY: At first glance this seems
to contradict Jesus saying that “Love of money is the root of all evil.” But when you love money, be it a disk of
metalm slip of paper or an electronic record, isn’t that idolatry? To love that which cannot kiss back, that
which can neither rejoice in your good luck nor commiserate with your
misfortune? Doesn’t all evil begin with
prizing something soulless over someone soulful?
in the beginning they were not,
nor can they ever
COMMENTARY: God didn’t make a world with
idols in it. We invented that,
from human emptiness they came into the world,
and therefore a sudden end
is devised for them.
COMMENTARY: An interesting insight. A recent theory of addiction is that the
addict forms a relationship with a numbing-agent rather than with fellow human
beings, and restoring human relationships can help the addict let go of the
empty obsession that never satisfies. It
looks like this writer had insight on this thousands of years ago.
15) For a father,
afflicted with untimely mourning,
made an image of the child
so quickly taken from him,
And now honored as a god
what once was dead
and handed down to his
household mysteries and sacrifices.
in the course of time, the impious practice gained strength and was observed as
and graven things were
worshiped by royal decrees.
COMMENTARY: This is a surprisingly
compassionate description of one way that idolatry would start: out of balance
grief taken to an extreme.
Understandable, pathetic—and toxic.
And it fits with Israeli history. For there was no ban on idolatry before
Egypt. But that country worshiped more
than its more well-known pantheon, Egyptians also owned household ancestral
deities, which needed daily feeding, washing, and changing—too much trouble for
the family itself to attend to, so these duties fell to the already-overworked
slaves (including Hebrew slaves) who could expect a beating for omitting the
slightest detail of care for these inanimate objects. No wonder they left Egypt bitterly opposed to
It seems we needn’t fear
falling into this today—or can we? For
isn’t it tempting to idolize the memory of a dead child, who now can do nothing
to besmirch the myth that a grieving parent might weave around him, to the
neglect of living children who can never hope to measure up to this ghost? The same goes for the living spouse who can
never live up to the memory of a dead spouse, or worse, the memory of a dead
parent. And what about living citizens
who, no matter how heroic their sacrifices, never get credit for them because
they’re not dead soldiers? It is proper
and decent to mourn the dead for a time, and to respect their memory thereafter,
but not to fetishize them at the expense of the living.
who lived so far away that they could not honor him in his presence
copied the appearance of
the distant king
And made a public image of
him they wished to honor,
out of zeal to flatter the
absent one as though present.
COMMENTARY: So now we come to another
source of idolatry that the Jews had to endure in Egypt: the cult of royalty.
to promote this observance among those to whom it was strange,
the artisan’s ambition
provided a stimulus.
COMMENTARY: This takes aim directly at
those in the Jewish community who embraced foreign deities, especially those
whose cults gave them political advantage.
he, perhaps in his determination to please the ruler,
labored over the likeness
to the best of his skill;
COMMENTARY: Flattered him
unrecognizably, in other words.
20) And the masses, drawn by the charm of the workmanship,
soon took as an object of
worship the one who shortly before was honored as a human being.
COMMENTARY: Drawing the line between
respecting your leaders and worshiping them.
A line which perhaps needs redrawn today.
21) And this became a snare for the world,
that people enslaved to
either grief or tyranny
incommunicable Name on stones and wood.
COMMENTARY: The writer doesn’t try to
make idolaters out to be incomprehensible monsters, but shows the pitiable steps
by which they fall. These days we’re all
too ready to demonize our enemies—if we don’t see them as human, we feel no
need to guard against becoming like them.
it was not enough for them to err in their knowledge of God;
but even though they live
in a great war resulting from ignorance,
they call such evils
COMMENTARY: Honest ignorance is not a
sin, but fiercely defending ignorance is.
One rationalizes in the name of finding peace, but it leads to mounting
anxiety, battling down one’s conscience.
23) For while they practice either child sacrifices or
or frenzied carousing in
COMMENTARY: Child sacrifice was chiefly
a Phoenician import. “Occult mysteries”
refers to rituals held in absolute darkness.
(Occult meaning hidden.) These
became so notorious for exploitation (rape, molestation and theft, chiefly)
that eventually the Roman empire banned them.
Frenzied carousing refers to the maenidic rites of Bacchus—a fairly
recent innovation to the Jewish community, hence “exotic”.
24) They no longer respect either lives or purity of
but they either waylay and
kill each other, or aggrieve each other by adultery.
COMMENTARY: To allow such things in
sacred rites makes it easier to rationalize them in mundane life. We see the same thing in law today: for
instance, whenever a state institutes or brings back the death penalty, murders
25) And all is confusion—blood and murder, theft and
COMMENTARY: To murder or commit violence
is to prize something more than human life—pride or vengeance, for
instance. Theft and guile is to want a
thing more than one respects someone else’s efforts to earn it. Corruption is to want bribes or favors more
than one’s own honor. Faithlessness,
turmoil and perjury come from valuing some short-term gain over truth. All of these are idolatry.
of good people, neglect of gratitude,
besmirching of souls,
disorder in marriage,
adultery and shamelessness.
COMMENTARY: Inconsideration of others is
to idolize your own gratification at the expense of your fellow human
beings. Pursuing the idols in your life
means not being thankful for what you already have. “Besmirching of souls” means loving a thing
to which you sacrifice your conscience in order to obtain it. “Unnatural lust” objectifies the desired one
rather than cherishing him or her—to turn this other into an idol, not
respecting the human being—which naturally leads us into disorder in marriage,
adultery and shamelessness.
the worship of infamous idols
is the reason and source
and extreme of all evil.p
COMMENTARY: Loving what has no soul at
the expense of the ensouled is an out of balanced way to live.
they either go mad with enjoyment, or prophesy lies,
or live lawlessly or
lightly perjure themselves.
COMMENTARY: Many here might think going
mad with enjoyment isn’t such a bad fate!
But the Dionysian Maenads would get drunk on drugged wine and go into
frenzies where they would tear beasts apart with their bare hands, plus the
occasional human being who got in the way (or who got tricked into going to the
wrong place at the wrong time, by those with something to gain from it) and
they’d get away with it by saying that the god made them do it.
When Cassander took over Macedonia after the fall of Alexander the Great, he
initially couldn’t dislodge Olympias from power—no soldier of his wanted to
kill Alexander’s mother! So instead he
gathered together the families of all those who had died at the old Maenad’s
hands, left her in their midst, and walked away. And they tore her apart.
as their trust is in lifeless idols,
they expect no harm when
they have sworn falsely.
COMMENTARY: This would particularly
apply to Jews with no faith in the idols, knowingly vowing on a deity who
couldn’t blast them for breaking the vow, as a loophole to wriggle out of it
on both counts justice shall overtake them:
because they thought
perversely of God by devoting themselves to idols,
and because they
deliberately swore false oaths, despising piety.
it is not the might of those by whom they swear,
but the just retribution
that ever follows upon the
transgression of the wicked.
COMMENTARY: God considers all vows binding, whether sworn
upon him or not.