They have mouths, but do not speak; eyes, but do not see.

So wrote an anonymous Hebrew poet, probably in the 7th c. BCE, speaking of what he would have called 'elilim, “idols.”

Of course he misses the point.

As anyone who actually lives with idols (for want of a better word) can tell you, they actually do speak and they do see; their interaction with their—um, worshipers—is subtle but undeniable. But perhaps that's a little too conceptually non-literal for your average dyspeptic 7th century Yahwist.

Likewise beyond his comprehension was the fact that the idol's obvious limitations are precisely part of the shining truth that it embodies.

Take your average statue of a god. It's a statue. It may look human, but it obviously isn't: it's a statue. By its very existence, it says: yes but no. While it embodies the god, it also says, quite honestly: I am not the god. The average idol does its job perfectly well: it acts as a locus of relationship, a medium of encounter.


No, as history suggests all too well, it's not your average statue-worshiper that's the problem. The worst idolaters of all are the bibliolaters, the book-worshipers. Talk about your idols that neither see nor hear. Books are the worst idols of all: all they can do is talk.

And the worst thing is, they never shut up.

Words and ideas are idols, too: loci of relationship, media of encounter. That they don't embody their own limitations in the same way that say, statues, do, only makes them all that much more dangerous. Their very intangibility makes them all the easier to mistake for Something Else.

So, there are idols and idols.

It's just that some idols do a better job than others.