This is a terrific book and is well summarized by its title. The intersecting concepts of idolatry and worship are examined in this large scale biblical theological study. Beale's core claim, "What we revere, we will resemble either
for our ruin or for our restoration," aptly captures the central biblical insight about idolatry. As creatures of the Living God, we are made to worship our Creator, and in a tragic reversal, we turn instead to worship the "dead" idols that we have created with our own hands. The question is not whether we will worship but rather what we will worship. Beale's earlier work, The Temple and the Church's Mission: A Biblical Theology of the Dwelling Place of God (InterVarsity Press, 2004), provided much of the biblical framework of worship underlying this latter project on idolatry. Though each book stands on its own, the volumes can be read with greater benefit in tandem with each other.
In this volume on idolatry, Beale traces in meticulous detail the biblical accounts of idolatry right through the entire canon. He provides a slow and careful exegesis of the major passages dealing with idolatry. Following him will require much effort on the part of the reader, but is worth every bit of effort given. It is by painstaking efforts of this sort that the theological unity of the Scriptures can be sustained and our own theological impositions avoided. Beale's labors give ample testimony that it is not fundamentally we who interpret Scripture but Scripture that interprets us.
Beale starts with the foundational text of Isaiah 6 and then proceeds backward through Exodus 32 (the golden calf episode at Mt. Sinai) all the way to Genesis 1-3. The problem of the prophetic materials, as evidenced by Isaiah 6, is Israel's persistent sin across many generations. As God's chosen nation, the prophets wrestle with the irony of Israel's apparent disloyalty to the God who is so faithful to them. The language of the blinding of the eyes and the deafening of the ears is applied to Israel both corporately and individually. Beale traces this language of sensory malfunctioning to the covenantal indictment on idolatry. As Israel has worshipped idols, so they have become like the idols, having eyes but not seeing and having ears but not hearing. The contrast is made all the more sharp by comparing the Living God with the lifeless idols fashioned from wood and stone. By following the idols, Israel has become spiritually lifeless in reflecting the very idols they have made with their own hands.
Part of the Divine judgment on idolatry was to put Israel into exile. The Promised Land was the place of God's unique redemptive presence. As such, the judgment announced in the prophets was a recapitulation of the original exile in Genesis 3 when Adam and Eve were exiled from the garden of God's sustaining presence. Drawing upon abundant evidence from the Ancient Near East, Beale argues (as he did in the earlier volume) that images were set up in sacred temples as representatives of divine rule over the region. So Adam and later Israel were to reflect God's character over their respective regions. Israel functioned as a kind of corporate Adam, and its disobedience was reflected in the idols it worshipped and in the fact that it reflected the idols it worshipped. The archetypal episode of idolatry in the Old Testament is found in Exodus 32 where Moses described Israel as stiff-necked and hardhearted, just like the golden calf they had created. This paradigm of idolatry then "echoes" across the rest of the Scriptures as the most apt way to describe unbelief.
The New Testament picks up this recurring theme of idolatry though often more implicitly than the Old Testament books. Beale makes the exegetical argument that the striking reality presented in the Gospels and then more fully explained in the Epistles is that God sovereignly reverses that which had early been reversed by sin, viz., turning idol worshippers into renewed image bearers. This process is enacted by the Holy Spirit and mediated through the true image of the Living God, Jesus Christ. What idolatry had corrupted is now restored by Divine grace. We were originally created to worship the Living God, and then in sin we worshipped the dead idols, and finally in Jesus Christ we are recreated into God's image. This is the tale written across the meganarrative of Scripture and in which the gospel gains traction in our lives.
Beale's work will prove an invaluable resource for pastors committed to expository preaching as they wrestle with the large number of scriptural passages that relate to idolatry, not merely in Old Testament prophetic materials but also scattered throughout the entire New Testament. It will also be beneficial for Christians of every vocation as they think more clearly about the conceptual patterns of idolatry that echo across the breadth of Scriptures into our own contemporary experiences. Beale has done the church an enormous service in bringing to life the significance of this theme for our present considerations. He has also drawn us closer to the life-giving Scriptures, which warn us against the ever-encroaching temptations of the idols.
Richard Lints is professor of theology and apologetics at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary (South Hamilton, Massachusetts) and author of The Fabric of Theology (Eerdmans, 1993). He is an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church in America.
Issue: "The Imitation of Christ" March/April 2009 Vol. 18 No. 2 Page number(s): 41-42
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