Dead Men’s Gods


Rabbi Michael Bernstein


Full victory over the Canaanites will not come, Moses tells the people, when they defeat the defending armies on the battlefield. The ultimate battle will not be fought until afterward (12:30-31). Watch yourself lest you become drawn to them after they have been destroyed before you, and lest you seek out their gods, saying, ‘How did these nations worship their gods? I, too, will do the same.’ You shall not do so to God your Lord, for everything that is an abomination to God, that He hates, they have done for their gods; for they have even burned their sons and daughters in the fire for their gods.


These verses reveal the great seductive power of idolatry. Consider the situation. The Jewish people have just conquered the land. With God’s help, they have destroyed the indigenous defenders and completely exposed the impotence of their gods. God’s power is manifest; the pagan’s imaginary deities are discredited. Incredibly, at this moment of Jewish triumph, the Torah warns the victors not to be drawn to the gods of the vanquished. Why would they be drawn to these dead men’s gods or find their cults attractive? What is at the root of this strange seductive power?


In actuality, idolatry is much more apt to arise out of the psychological needs of idol worshippers than from an intellectual mistake. Idolatry allows its adherents to create and observe, in the guise of a religion, a system of rituals and practices that satisfy their primitive urges and address their insecurities. Even when these pagan religions call upon their adherents to make sacrifices, there is a simultaneous satisfaction of deep primitive urges. Often this attraction is so subtle that the worshippers, unaccustomed to self-examination, are unaware of its insidious nature.


The Jewish people entering the Holy Land, although victorious on the battlefield, would not be immune to the drives and character flaws that draw people to idolatry. It was quite possible they would turn in that direction as they contended with the psychological pressures of their daily lives. However, having no direct experience with idolatrous cults, they might be intrigued by the vestiges of the destroyed cults all around them, sensing their psychological appeal. And they would ask, “How did these nations worship their gods? I, too, will do the same.” The Torah forbids them to do this and warns them (12:31) that, in the end, such practices can even lead their followers to throw their children into the fire.

Ironically, the practice of child immolation, from a psychological perspective, reflects selfishness rather than altruistically intended, though misguided, religious fervor. The practitioners may tell themselves they are sacrificing their beloved children selflessly, but the exact opposite is true. These supposedly religious people are tremendously narcissistic, full of undeflected self-love. Attached to the physical reality and fearful of their own mortality, they are prepared to make the penultimate sacrifice of a relatively expendable part of themselves, namely their children, in order to protect that which is most important, namely themselves.