God’s Response to Idolaters
Reader: Please define in Hebrew, Isaiah 40:22. It tells us that the Creator is the one, “who sits on the circumference of the Earth, with its inhabitants like grasshoppers, who spreads the heavens like a thin curtain, and stretches them like a tent to dwell in.”
Can you explain the Hebrew verse
in English for me? Sincerely, Linette
Mesora: This verse comes on the heels of the prophet Isaiah exposing the foolishness of those who create idols. They “overlay gold and silver” and they “seek wood that won’t rot.” Meaning, they use wisdom to design enduring statues shielded from the elements; metals that don’t rust, and woods that don’t rot. But they don’t apply wisdom to the overall picture. These fools are then reminded by Isaiah of a truth that they should have “heard of and known”. Meaning, they fabricate idols assuming they are of help. Instead, they should have used their minds to recognize the overabundance of evidence that God exists. Thus, the prophet says (40:21), “Do you not realize, have you not heard? Has it not been told to you from the beginning? Have you not contemplated the foundations of the Earth?” The rebuke is that they use their minds on seeking out their fantasies, but they are blind to apparent truths! What is more apparent is overlooked, as they favor their internal world of fantasy and build idols with imagined powers. Let us understand each part of the prophet’s rebuke:
[40:21] “Do you not realize, have you not heard?”
The Rabbis teach that man should have realized that God exists. But if he didn’t, he should have “heard” about it by reading books.
“Has it not been told to you from the beginning?”
If these first two avenues of knowledge have not taught him anything, then he should have heard it from others, through normal transmission.
“Have you not contemplated the foundations of the Earth?”
Finally, one is accused for not using his own understanding.
Isaiah continues: God is the one “who sits on the circumference of the Earth, with its inhabitants like grasshoppers, who spreads the heavens like a thin curtain, and stretches them like a tent to dwell in.”
He first teaches that God created the Earth. This is the primary mistake of these idolaters: they don’t eve think that the universe requires an explanation. They are so submerged in their miniscule, personal worlds; that they cannot look past the self and ‘hear’ the universe almost scream out to them: “Who created me?”
Isaiah then teaches that man is so small, and he mentions this because these idolaters’ second problem is their myopic view centered on themselves to the exclusion of all else. They cannot see past themselves and their insecurities. But in truth, man is but a grasshopper, a small insect in comparison to the universe. If only man would recognize his small place, he would be attracted to the larger picture, and eventuate at knowledge of God. He would leave off being self-absorbed, and even find great delight pondering all else outside of himself.
Next, Isaiah teaches that God’s capabilities are most impressive; He created the heavens. This is intended to emphasize to these fools that God’s power is unmatched and amazingly great: He created the heavens! This is intended to attack the idolaters’ fantasy that small wooden idols have power. Perhaps the stark contrast between their frail, assembled gods, to God’s lofty heavens will strike a chord.
Finally, Isaiah teaches that God created the heavens for man’s own good. This is intended to counter the idolatrous notion that idols care for man and protect him, while it is just the opposite: idols are powerless, and it is in fact God that created a universe for man to dwell.
Idolatry and idols have at its center the alluring illusion that there is some good and protection gained by idol worship. This is why people serve idols; they imagine their gods will grant them some good, security, wealth, health and the like. “If I worship this idol, it will protect me.” Meaning, idolaters believe there to be a reciprocal, and mutually beneficial relationship. Idolaters feel they bestow some benefit on the idol or their gods, and therefore they will be rewarded. But in truth, the true God gains nothing from man and in fact, created the heavens “as a tent” for man. Meaning it is the exact opposite: God does good for “us”, whereas we can do nothing for Him.
This last idea is alien to the idolater. He feels he gives something to the gods by his worship. Some Jews today feel that they do some good for God when they keep Judaism! How absurd, that we can benefit He that has no needs! In fact, our sacrifices are salted, dry matza and no honey are brought with it, demonstrating our conviction that God does not “consume” sacrifices, nor can we benefit God with them. We bring nothing edible before God, lest we fuel the heresy that God benefits from our actions. We sacrifice, but only to inculcate ideas into ourselves – this and all practices cannot benefit God.
Isaiah again teaches that each of God’s divinely inspired verses contains deep ideas, and only through patient study may we be fortunate enough to see them. The prophet exposes absolute truths, communicated to him by God. When we see such profound wisdom, we appreciate the gift of the Torah even more.