Review of E. Meadors, Idolatry and the Hardening of the Heart

Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 11 (2011) - Review

Meadors, Edward P., Idolatry and the Hardening of the Heart: A Study in Biblical Theology (London: T & T Clark, 2006). Pp. 224. Hardback. £22.99. ISBN 978-0-567-02573-9.

Resonating with the prophet's theological struggle, Meadors ranges across both Old and New Testaments as he seeks “to provide a biblical, theological answer to Isaiah's question, ‘Why, O Lord, do you cause us to stray from your ways, and harden our heart from fearing you’ (Isa 63:17a)?” (Preface; italics original). Meadors's concern is that this divine action “appears on the surface to contradict the doctrine of God's love and the whole enterprise of Christian evangelism” (56). His thesis is that “the biblical answer” is clear and pervasive: “The hardening of the heart is most often quite simply God's disciplinary punishment for the specific sin of idolatry” (Preface).

The argument consists of a clear and detailed examination of a wide range of biblical texts, following a straightforward outline. The first two chapters introduce the book's central ideas. Chapter 1 walks through the foundational texts from which the thesis emerges: Pss 115:4–8; 135:15–18; Deut 28–29; Exod 20:2–6; Lev 26; Isa 6:9–11; and Jer 5:19–22. Chapter 2 examines the vocabulary and concepts of idolatry and the heart.

From chapter 3, Meadors carefully works through the biblical material. Chapters 3–5 cover the Old Testament, with one chapter each devoted to Pharaoh, the Joshua–Kings and the Chronicles histories, and the latter prophets (including Daniel). Chapters 6–11 examine the New Testament with chapters on the gospels, Acts, Rom 1–2, Rom 9, Rom 10–11, and Revelation. The former material is naturally of more interest to readers of this journal and is the focus of this review, but Meadors also works in depth with the NT's use of the OT material.

The book closes with a chapter of conclusions and contemporary applications. The conclusions nicely reflect back on the three theological questions that motivated Meadors from the beginning: Does God harden hearts arbitrarily, unconditionally, or indiscriminately? Why does God harden hearts? Is salvation possible for the hardened? He finally turns his attention to forms of idolatry he finds to be serious threats within the contemporary church—personal pride, theological error, and excessive focus on worship form and style.

The value and persuasiveness of the book hinges on the acceptance of Meadors's methodology for developing “biblical theology,” a notoriously difficult area. Unfortunately, he nowhere explicitly presents his method or argues for it against its alternatives. It is left to the reader to discern the coherence and strength of the argument. His approach begins with ostensibly clear biblical statements, from which he constructs an apparently rigid rule for the parameters of divine activity. This rule, variously termed a “paradigm,” “theological axiom,” or “pattern,” is then pressed upon a wide range of texts in order to confirm its overarching validity. This forced alignment requires flexibility both in adapting the rule to the texts and the texts to the rule. After having thus confirmed that the pattern is pervasively followed throughout the Bible, Meadors can conclude that it represents a biblical, theological truth.

A closer examination of this process illuminates some important ways this method works itself out. First, it is important to realize that the phenomena Meadors seeks to understand are not fundamentally textual. His interest consists not in rhetorical patterns, literary portrayals, or thematic developments within the biblical literature as such. Rather, he seeks to describe the dynamics of the objective reality described by and lying behind the biblical text. This enables him, for example, to count Pharaoh as an idolater. Meadors writes, “Ancient Egyptians and their kings believed that amulets and spells could provide help and protection both in this life and in the afterlife. Hence, it is historically valid to incorporate Exodus into our study of idolatry and the hardening of the heart” (18). “As a practitioner of amulets, Pharaoh represents the premier biblical example of the fate that awaits those who place trust in pagan deities and idols. A devotee of amuletic idols and a patron and priest of idol laden temples, he thus suffered the hardening of his inner will” (35). This logic reflects a reconstruction of the historical Pharaoh rather than an exploration of the way the text represents him. So Pharaoh's presumed idolatry upstages the Bible's own portrayal. With this approach, Meadors discerns connections between idolatry and the hardening of the heart even where the textual linkage is quite weak or non-existent. Of course, in terms of historical reconstructions of the periods in question, nearly the entire world—both outside and even inside Israel—could be labelled idolatrous and used as evidence for the proposed thesis.

Second, once Meadors has articulated his axiom—that God hardens the hearts of idolaters—he is willing to be quite flexible in his definitions of both idolatry and hardening in order to identify the presence of these phenomena. This is most evident in regards to idolatry. He begins with a narrow definition: the worship of created things (2). Taking up Yehezkel Kaufmann's definition, idolatry is “the belief that divine and magical powers inhere in certain natural or manmade objects and that man can activate these powers through fixed rituals” (2). This definition is quite confining, so Meadors later expands it to include worship of other gods, worship of created objects, and syncretism with paganism (13). But in the course of the argument, many other sins also gain the label of idolatry. For example, Hophni and Phinehas are idolaters because they “replaced obedient worship with disobedient worthlessness” (42). Other cases of idolatry emerge from a literalistic reading of idolatry rhetoric. Saul is an idolater because Samuel says, “[R]ebellion is as the sin of divination, and insubordination is as iniquity and idolatry” (1 Sam 15:23) (44). Covenantal apostasy and moral corruption are idolatry because the Bible likens idolatry to adultery and prostitution (57–58). External religiosity is idolatry because of Isa 66:3 (63). Meadors also expands the range of offenses that come under the umbrella of idolatry through the common theological generalization that idolatry consists in substituting something less than God for God. So, when citing another author's list of offenses that bring on obduracy in Isaiah (arrogance, immorality, idolatry, injustice, and false prophecy), Meadors labels them all idolatry “in the sense that each involves a substitute for God—pride, immoral appetites, selfish-ambition, and self-seeking prophecy” (74 n. 25). In the end, Meadors expands “idolatry” in his idolatry-hardening axiom to include generalized notions of “volitional rebellion against God” and “defy[ing] his covenant plan” (173–74). Or, in another place, idolatry means “stand[ing] in the way of the progress of the covenant and its promises” rather than being “committed to Yahweh alone” (39).

Now idolatry is undoubtedly a malleable and complex concept within the biblical literature as it moves smoothly between literal and metaphorical references. Idolatry often functions rhetorically to sharpen critiques of a wide range of offenses. Within the Bible, idolatry characterizes offenses in realms as disparate as personal morality and national foreign policy. A methodological difficulty with the present volume is that the author's own flexible use of the concept of idolatry compounds these biblical complexities rather than clarifying the concept and its usage. When Meadors claims that heart hardening follows from idolatry, it is almost impossible to distinguish this from a claim that hardening follows from sin. In fact, Meadors reformulates the axiom in this way himself: “Sin caused hardening is evident throughout the OT” (173).

Not unexpectedly, similar techniques are used at the other pole of the axiom: the hardening of the heart. Sometimes this reflects the explicit language of the Bible, as in the case of Pharaoh. But in most of Meadors's study he equates the hardened heart with “sensory depletion,” an idea drawn from G. K. Beale, who argues that idolaters become like their idols through what he calls “sensory-organ malfunction” (cf. Ps 115:4–8; 135:15–18). Meadors adopts this perspective with enthusiasm and then largely ceases to distinguish between the two phenomena. For example, in his conclusion, Meadors writes, “[H]ardening and sensory depletion are symptoms that diagnose the presence of idolatrous sin,” and “[H]ardening and sensory depletion are forms of chastisement that aim to provoke repentance and destroy pride” (174, 175). Once the concept is transformed in this way, there is considerable room for spiritualized figuration. For example, for those so “hardened,” their “spiritual understanding grows dull, so that sinners lead misinformed, degenerate lives” (9). As with the broadening of idolatry to encompass nearly all sin, the idea of the hardened heart is broadened to mean “disobedience.” This appears most explicitly when Meadors interprets the Hebrew idiom “did not listen”—meaning “did not obey”—as a case of “sensory malfunction” (e.g. in Judg 2:17, 19–22 [40]). By broadening the definitions in this way, the thesis that idolatry leads to hardened hearts nearly becomes a tautology: sinners are disobedient.

A third significant methodological move is the way Meadors appeals to context in order to claim the presence of idolatry where it is otherwise absent. While admitting that “idolatry is not the only cause of hardening in the Bible,” Meadors maintains that “idolatry is rarely distant in context” (3). Since idolatry has a substantial presence in much biblical material, this is likely true overall. But the particular reasoning is sometimes questionable. For example, Meadors understands Eli to have experienced “the reversal of fortune that Moses promised would characterize those who forsake Yahweh for idols.” But where is Eli's idolatry to be found? Meadors reasons that Samuel's threat of Eli's downfall is described as something that will make people's ears tingle (1 Sam 3:11), a phrase which only appears elsewhere in relation to judgment against idolaters (2 Kgs 21:12; Jer 19:3) (42).

The book's argument proceeds by articulating a dynamic pattern derived from one set of biblical texts and then providing detailed readings of a wide variety of other texts as viewed through that particular lens. It is somewhat ironic that Meadors seems to step at least partially into one of the modern theological idolatries that he identifies. He faults theologians for “[p]rioritizing select passages that on the surface seem to substantiate their preexisting systems” and then “turn[ing] their prioritized texts into governing hermeneutical keys for interpreting the entire Bible” (185–86). Of course, the practice of positing patterns as analytical tools is a necessary mainstay of biblical scholarship. The complexity of the texts demands it. Each proposal must, however, be evaluated based on its analytical power, that is, its ability to enrich the subsequent reading of each of the texts in their particularly. Alternatively, if the goal is the construction of “biblical theology,” the test is not only whether the proposed theological truth has significant support from the biblical texts (within a particular hermeneutical framework), but also whether the claimed pattern—in this case, the idolatry-hardening pattern along with all of its malleability—is sharp enough in the end to be a useful theological tool. In any case, Meadors is to be complimented for grappling with the extremely difficult subject of idolatry in the Bible and providing a collection of passages and readings that will be of use to anyone interested in the topic.[1]

Rob Barrett, University of Göttingen

[1] As a postscript, two observations that appeared subsequent to Meadors's book might be of interest to readers. First, G. K. Beale, in his full work on the “idolaters become like idols” theme (We Become What We Worship: A Biblical Theology of Idolatry [Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 2008]) refers to the present volume and notes that one cannot find in the Bible the image of an idolater's heart becoming stone-hard like the heart of an idol (Beale, 21). Such an image, if present, would strengthen Meadors's argument considerably. Second, since Meadors relies upon Egyptian historical background in his discussion of Pharaoh's heart hardening, an observation of Othmar Keel on the Egyptian Cult of the Dead should be noted: in an inversion of Ezek 36:26, a hardened heart is seen as advantageous, as the perishable heart of flesh is replaced with a more enduring heart of stone (Die Geschichte Jerusalems und die Entstehung des Monotheismus, [Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2007], 2:886–87).reference