No Graven Image? West Semitic Aniconic (Reading T.N.D. Mettinger)


Apparently, everything we thought is wrong, especially all highfalutin talk about icons, aniconism, and “representation.” I’ll say so on the authority of Tryggve N.D. Mettinger., whose  No Graven Image? Israelite Aniconism in Its Ancient Near Eastern Context I just recently read. Trying to get a handle on the so-called idolatry problem, one comes suddenly and even rudely to learn that the ancient Israelites were not the only western Semitic people who developed aniconic cults. Examples are drawn from Egyptian, Mesopotamian, Nabatean, Arabic and Phoenician. Sources including coins, reliefs, archaeological, and literary evidence suggest more than strongly that the worship of a god or God without using images was not unique to biblical religion. Also of interest is the claim that some form of aniconism is not a late development, but is “as old as ancient Israel itself.”

Of particular interest are the masseboth, or rock columns and stone pillars, found at open air sanctuaries. These early cultic forms reflect what Mettinger calls “material aniconism.” The “presentation” is material, but non-anthropomorphic. Alongside material aniconism is what Mettinger calls “empty space aniconism.” This latter aniconism is reflected in the form and image of empty thrones and the like, which are conducive to epiphanic rituals in which the deity appears.

Regarding theo-politics, one notes that, according to Mettinger, the form of material aniconicism is suggested to be more common to nomadic peoples (consider in this light, Vedic rituals in which the cult is aniconic) while the fixed form of an icon in a permanent ritual place is more characteristic of the high culture of town life and theological-politics that build upon unequal human power dynamics (pp.28-9).

With, as it were, its moral nose stuck up in the metaphysical air, modern Jewish philosophy tends to depend overmuch on the notion that ancient Israelite religion was abstract and spiritual in comparison to the more pagan material religious forms of the surrounding “pagan” cultures. We could follow the trope back to Kant. Aside from this not being true (i.e. not unique to Israel, aniconic cults were spread across the region at around the same time), an important point made by Mettinger for Jewish philosophy and continental theory of religion to consider is that the lack of an image does not represent a more abstract, spiritual type of theology (pp.20, 22, 38). Mettinger separates the relation between sign and referent, in this case the relation being the one between aniconic iconography and aniconic theology. With an eye on anthropomorphic theology, also of note is the claim that empty space aniconism generates a “remarkable mental sort of iconography” (p.20).

In this and probably most other respects, ancient Israelite society and religion was no worse and no better than any other. That different theological and ritual rules developed there had more to do with larger political and social dynamics than anything else. The only thing that would distinguishes ancient Israel in this regard is the programmatic form of aniconism, which Metttinger calls “intolerant,” following Assmann and others.

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics.
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