Here is the promised second half of my paper.
Despite the unresolved issues concerning the nature of the cult statue, the evidence seems to imply that understanding the cult statue as merely a reminder of the god is insufficient. The form and content of the mis pi and pit pi ceremonies suggest that the cult statue, at the very least, played a mediatory role as a point of intersection between human and divine space. The cult image was more than a symbol which pointed to the reality of the god in the heavenly realm; it was a means by which the deity was made manifest on earth. In the Mesopotamian mind, the universe consisted of three basic levels. The earth was conceived of as a round disc which rested on fresh waters (Wightman 2007:19). Below the earth lay the primeval waters of chaos; above the earth rested the heavens where the gods lived. The heavens and the earth were two distinct, yet overlapping realms.
The various ways in which ancient Mesopotamian peoples understood the relationship between these two realms is apparent in how they built their temples. Temples were often built on tall ziggurats, massive architectural feats that elevated people nearer to the world of the gods. Mountains were also viewed as a means to reach this divine space, for they literally raised the earth into the heavens. Through these channels, the gods, though not confined to their temples or to their cult statues, were able to be made accessible to the people.
What should be gleaned from this discussion of the Mesopotamian concept of existence is that they were not dualists in a Western, post-Platonic sense which views the earth (the human realm) as a kind of copy of the reality in the heavens (the divine realm). Rather, human and divine space were both part of the realm of the actual and through cult statues, rituals and other forms of representation, humans and gods were able to exist in the same reality.
With reference to the cult statue, this merging of human and divine space was achieved through mouth-cleansing (mis pi) and mouth-opening (pit pi) rituals which were performed on the statue to make it into an image that properly represented the deity. These rites of purification had to be performed on the cult statue before it could take up residence in the holy of holies. A stone tablet dating from the thirty-first year of Nabu-apla-innida (ca 887-855 BCE) tells of one such fashioning of a new cult statue and its ritual dedication. It claims that this “image of Samas, the great lord” was prepared by the king through the skill of various gods (Dick 1996:113). The king washed the statue’s mouth with rites of purification before Samas in the temple E-kar-sagina. “Then he (the statue/Samas) took up his dwelling” (Dick 1996:113). In order for the statue to be able to function as a god, its mouth not only had to be washed, but opened through the pit pi ritual. The “washing of the mouth” purified the cult image from any human contamination and the “opening of the mouth” enabled the statue to do things like eat, drink water or smell incense (Walker and Dick 2001:14).
Although scholars disagree on this point, there is a good deal of evidence to suggest that the cleansing, activation and installment of the cult statue was understood by Mesopotamians to be, in a very real sense, the birth of a god. One of the purposes of the mis pi was, as Angelika Berlejung puts it, to annihilate traces of human craftsmanship and consolidate the supernatural origin of the image (Berlejung 1997:76). During the mis pi ritual, the artisans who had crafted the image had their hands “cut off” with a wooden tamarisk sword while swearing that they had not made the image, but that their respective craft deities had (Dick 1996:114). In this way, ritually denying the fact that the statue was the work of human hands magically nullified it (Jacobsen 1987: 24). Through the mis pi ritual the god, as Berljung puts it, “sheds its terrestrial origin” (1997:70).
Several scholars have used the analogy of the Roman Catholic Theology of the “Eucharistic Presence” to explain the theology of the ancient Near Eastern cult image and what was supposed to happen to the statue through the mis pi ritual. Christopher Walker and Michael Dick explain it this way:
To…Roman Catholics the bread and wine during the Eucharistic ritual become the real presence of the Divine Jesus, while still subsisting under the appearance of bread and wine. Obviously the Eucharistic species are not coterminous with Jesus, so that the Eucharistic Presence can be found simultaneously in Churches throughout the world. (Walker and Dick 2001:7).
In a similar way, the mis pi ritual was supposed to transform the physical materials which human craftsman had used to make the cult statue into the real presence of the deity. The deity was not limited to the cult statue and could be present through the statue in many temples, just as the Eucharistic Presence is not limited to one church.
It is apparent from both textual and archeological evidence that, whatever ancient Mesopotamian peoples believed about the actual nature of the cult statue, they treated these divine images as living beings with bodily needs and functions that had to be maintained. Through the mis pi and other rituals, these statues were, in a sense, brought to life and were placed in the temple to be cared for and honored as gods. Whether or not the image itself mystically was the god, the way in which the cult image was treated as a god shows that its function was not analogous to that of an icon in a church which merely pointed beyond the picture to the reality of the deity. Rather, what was done to the statue was in some way done to the god; the action was mediated through the image. As Zainab Bahrani points out, the concept of image, or salmu in Akkadian, in the ancient Near East should not be conceived of in terms of Western, post-Platonic metaphysical thinking which holds that a representation is a copy of the real (2003:142), just as a portrait is a copy of a real person (2003:125) or an icon is a copy of God or a real saint. Bahrani writes:
Rather than being a copy of something in reality, the image itself was seen as a real thing. It was not considered to resemble an original reality that was present elsewhere but to contain the reality in itself. Therefore, instead of being a means of signifying an original real thing, it was seen as ontologically equivalent to it, existing in the same register of reality. (Bahrani 2003:127)
If Bahrani is correct in identifying images in the ancient Near East not as signifiers pointing to the reality beyond the representation, but as somehow a part of that reality, how might the images of YHWH be understood? If human beings are images of YHWH in a similar way that cult statues were images of other ancient Near Eastern deities, they must not be thought of as “copies” of God, mere pictures that point to a divine reality, but as actual participants in that divine reality.
How then, are humans representations of God? Just as it is unclear precisely how Mesopotamian cult statues represented their deities, so it is uncertain how humans are thought to represent God. While it may be unwise to assume a one-to-one correspondence between cult statues of Mesopotamian deities and humans as the proverbial “cult images” of YHWH, it appears that humans in some way function as mediators between God and the rest of the world. What was done to the cult image was done to the deity and communication from the god to the people, and vice versa, took place through the ritually enlivened statue. Further, to follow Bahrani’s argument about the image “existing in the same register of reality” as the thing it represented, it may be that humans should be viewed as mediators of the actual presence of YHWH God who in some way manifest Him and exist the same sphere of reality.
I would like to relate the Mesopotamian material we have discussed to the Bible by reading a creative interpretation of the Genesis Creation story. There are numerous Psalms and other poetic descriptions in the Bible that portray the heavens and the earth as a kind of cosmic temple (Psalm 104 and Isa. 66:1). I believe this is what the biblical authors are doing in Genesis 1-3: showing that God created the universe as a cosmic temple. After fashioning the universe, God fashions an image, Adam, and breathes His Spirit into him and Adam becomes a living being. From Adam’s rib, God creates another image, Eve. Like the Mesopotamian cult statue, the images of YHWH must be “enlivened” by the spirit of the Deity. God sets His images in the “Holy of Holies” (the Garden of Eden) and commands His images to multiply, fill the earth and subdue it. In essence: they are to push the sacred space of the Garden out to the rest of the world. They are to be their Father’s bodily presence to the rest of the world, exercising His rule over the whole of Creation, just as the Mesopotamian cult statue exercised the rule of its deity from the holy of holies in the temple.
To help you wrap your mind around these parallels, let me read to you my interpretation of the Genesis Creation story.
In the beginning, YHWH God built a temple. Now the stones with which YHWH wished to build His temple were scattered and broken and there were no hands to set the stones together, and the Breath of YHWH hovered over the stones. And the Breath of YHWH blew upon the stones and separated air from stone and ordered the stones into walls. Within the walls, YHWH built more walls, rooms within rooms. Yet there was no life in the temple. And so YHWH God fashioned a statue of Himself out of mud, and the Breath entered its lungs and it became a living image. One day while the image was sleeping, YHWH pulled a rib from its side and with it fashioned another living image.
Now YHWH placed these two enlivened statues in the innermost part of the temple, the Holy of Holies, and commanded them saying, “Multiply, fill the whole temple with images, spread the divine space of the Holy of Holies to the whole of the temple until there is no more division between holy and unholy space, between chaos and order, between being and non being. Fill the whole temple with My bodily Presence.” YHWH gave His images charge over the temple storehouses also, saying, “Eat from all the food in the storehouses and feed the other inhabitants of the temple, making certain that every creature has what it needs. Yet do not eat of the Bread of the Knowledge of Holiness and Unholiness, for in the day that you do, you shall surely cease to be my images.”
Yet there were enemies lurking at the outer walls of the temple courts who did not wish YHWH to be the God of the temple, and they despised the statues whose senses He had enlivened. And so the enemies broke into the Holy of Holies and lied to the images of YHWH saying, “YHWH has deceived you. He knows that if you eat of the Bread of the Knowledge of Holiness and Unholiness, you will become as divine as He and try to overthrow Him. In that day, your eyes will be opened and you will be like God, and you will no longer need His Breath in order to live in divine space.”
And so the two images believed the words of the enemies and ate of the forbidden bread, declaring to YHWH, “We do not wish to be your images any longer! We shall represent only our selves, our own divinity! We shall be our own holiness! Take away the Breath of your Presence!” No sooner had the images eaten the bread and uttered the words when YHWH’s Breath left His images and they died, for there was nothing to enliven them. They fell from the altar bench to the ground, for there was no more Breath in their lungs. The enemies plundered the statues and carried them away from the temple, stripping them of the precious metals and jewels with which they were adorned. The enemies cast the images out into a razed field outside the temple walls and left them to rot within the earth.
Outside the entrance to the Holy of Holies, YHWH placed a guardian deity with a flaming sword, lest anything unholy try to enter it again. In the outer courts of the temple, all the inhabitants mourned, for the keepers of the temple storehouses had died. Who would care for the temple and who would fill it with holiness? Who would be YHWH’s bodily presence to sustain all that lived within the temple and who would protect them from the wild unholy things that lurked outside the Holy of Holies?
By the end of Genesis 3, God’s cosmic temple has been ransacked and His images have been proverbially stripped bare and abandoned just outside of its walls. Unlike the abandoned Mesopotamian cult images, Adam and Eve have not yet physically died and, in some sense, are still the images of God, but not in the same way. All is not right with the world; the Garden has been ravaged by evil creatures and humanity (instead of subduing evil), has been subdued by evil. Because of their sin, the humans and the whole of creation have been put under a curse of toil and death. Even though they may have the breath of life in their nostrils, Adam and Eve will eventually die – they will not live eternally in God’s cosmic temple. One of the driving questions of the entire Old Testament narrative is: Where is God? If His images are broken and seemingly abandoned, how can YHWH God be present on the earth? If His images are not ruling from their seat in the holy of holies of God’s temple, God must not be the God of gods. If the humanity is dead or dying, it must mean that their God is dead.
In order for broken Mesopotamian cult images to be restored, they had to be repaired, ritually cleansed, enlivened and installed in the temple once more. Similarly, humans as the fallen images of God must be restored and undergo cleansing and enlivening in order to be reinstalled as God’s representatives on the earth. In order to be a proper dwelling for God, their impurities, their sins must be removed and they must be resurrected, God once again breathing the spirit of life into their nostrils.
The concept of “image” which I have spoken about tonight has numerous implications, many more than can be discussed in a single lecture. There is not time enough here to relate the Mesopotamian material adequately to the New Testament or to discuss how we might conceive of the Apostle Paul’s references to the Church as the “Body of Christ” and the “Temple of the Holy Spirit.” Nor is there opportunity to draw parallels between Mesopotamian ideas of existence to Martin Buber’s philosophy of dialogical relation. However, I would like to highlight what I think are the two most important ideas I have discussed.
Regardless of whether humans should be viewed as icons of God or as images that manifest the real presence of God, the argument that the earthly, human image reflects the heavenly reality of God still holds water. When humanity is thriving and reigning on the earth in submission to God, it is a sign that God is reigning in His “temple” of the heavens and this heavenly rule of God extends to the earth through His images. In light of this, followers of YHWH God have the responsibility to work toward the full restoration and redemption of humanity. Remember, even though the Mesopotamian cult image was fashioned by human craftsmen, the entire process of the image’s proverbial “birth” was viewed as a work of the gods. In a similar way, Christians must participate in the redemptive work of God and at the same time recognize that the entire process of human redemption is an act of God. This will have great bearing on how Christians treat other humans as images of God. What is done to the image is done to the deity. One of the primary ways in which a person can love God is by loving His image.
The second point I would like to emphasize is this: If an iconic understanding of the “Image of God” is insufficient, this knowledge should influence our perspective on the nature of human relation. We are not icons in the sense that people look at Christians and are pointed to Christ who is the heavens. Rather, when we encounter people, Christ is mystically present through us, though he also exists corporeally in the heavens. This is a rather bold claim, but it is one that I think we ought to be willing, at least, to explore. If this concept of “Image of God” is correct, then we are not “copies” of God who – as creatures of earth – cannot partake of heavenly reality. Rather, through God’s transcendent Spirit, we are able to actually encounter one another and be God’s mediatory presence to the whole of Creation. Jesus said to Nicodemus, “You must be born from above,” (Jn. 3) and yet this “heavenly birth” of which He spoke is not one that draws humans away from the material earth into some Platonic heaven. Rather, through the Spirit of God who indwells and transforms human beings, the reality of heaven has come to the reality of the earth in order to renew it. In the Scriptures, Adam is referred to as a “son of God,” and this is at the core of what it means to be human: to be children of God; creatures of divine origin.
In closing, let me tell you what I am not saying. (Stephen W. Sykes once said that the problem with theology is that you have to say everything all the time or someone will think you don’t believe in something.) I am not saying that humans are equivalent to God or that they are “gods” who have any life or power in and of themselves. Just as it was deemed heresy by the Church to say that Jesus was only of similar substance to God the Father, rather than being of the same substance, so it would be heretical to say that any human other than Jesus is of the same substance as the Father. Rather, I am saying that humans occupy a unique role as God’s living images who in some way partake of divine substance. The image participates in the life of the deity of it represents. In fact, the image has no life of its own; it is only through the deity that the image exists and the identity of the image is based solely in its relationship to the deity. As we can see from the Fall of humankind in Genesis, when images pursue an identity apart from their God, the result is death for in so doing, they deny the fundamentals of their very existence.
The relationship of the Mesopotamian cult statue’s relationship to the deity continues to be the subject of debate and it would be foolish to think that what I have presented here tonight is the final word on divine representation in the ANE or biblical anthropology. Rather, I hope that the questions I have raised in the process of trying to understand divine representation in Mesopotamia have also evoked good questions about what the biblical writers might have meant when they wrote that humans were made according to the image of YHWH God. As further information is uncovered about divine representation in the ancient Near East, a greater knowledge of the biblical understanding of humanity will be developed.
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