“Don’t Deny God” – Mis-stating the commandment against idolatry

I’ve seen it too many times broadcast on places talking about the Seven Laws, and I think it’s about time I at least stuck my oar in. Why? Well, I do enjoy thinking about and writing about the Seven Commandments. But I also like it when there is some clarity as to what they are talking about.

Oh yeah, what am I talking about?

I’ll show you a representation of the Seven Commandments as given by the Jewish Virtual Library.

The seven Noachide laws, as traditionally enumerated are:
1. Do Not Deny God
2. Do Not Blaspheme God
3. Do Not Murder
4. Do Not Engage in Incestuous, Adulterous or Homosexual Relationships.
5. Do Not Steal
6. Do Not Eat of a Live Animal
7. Establish Courts/Legal System to Ensure Law Obedience

(Jewish Concepts: The Seven Noachide Laws – https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/Judaism/The_Seven_Noahide_Laws.html)

As you can see the command that they choose to list first is presented as “don’t deny God.” I would like to interrogate that way of representing that prohibition to see whether it accurately and properly portrays that command.

[ASIDE: It can also be noted that the fourth, sixth and seventh commandments listed also have some problems with them. The fourth lists incestuous, adulterous and homosexual relationships but misses out bestiality. If they were trying to cover everything, then they should cover everything. It would have been better to just give a summary of sex crimes and detail it further later. The sixth command “do not eat of live animal” just seems to be a grammatical error as it doesn’t state what of a live animal shouldn’t be eaten. The seventh listed says “to ensure law obedience” but doesn’t specify which “law,” as some people think that it’s meant to make people obey the law of the secular government, whose laws normally contradict the seven.]

What’s the difference between “avodah zarah” and “denying God?”

What does it mean to “deny God?” It means to say no to him, to refuse him. This is where God approaches a person in one way or another, or God is presented to a person in one way or another, and that person says “no!” especially in the way that person lives. When I apply concrete examples to this formulation, that’s where it’s failings become apparent with regards to the actual details of this particular law.

So let’s imagine God commanded a person not to steal and that person steals. That person has denied God. God has commanded that the person not steal and the person, through his action, refuses to comply. That’s denial.

If God demands that we not murder and an individual murders, then that person has denied God. God tells a person to avoid the act of murder and that person has refused. That’s denying God.

The breaking of any command is a denial of God. Yet that would make the command “don’t deny God” fundamentally redundant as it is covered by all the other commands.

The command should be formulated, written out, in a way that distinguishes it from the other six commands.

And originally it was formulated in such a distinct way. Its original form and the proper translation into English is stated in a way that makes it different to the other six commandments.

It’s just been badly translated, mistranslated if you would.

How so?

The Hebrew term in the Talmud and in other sources for this command sounds like “avodah zarah.” The Hebrew term “avodah” means “service” or “worship.” The Hebrew term “zarah” means “strange” or “foreign.” So it means “strange worship” or “foreign worship.” It is generally understood by Jews as “idolatry.” You want evidence, right? At least I should give it.

The Jewish Encyclopaedia article about this Hebrew term shows how it is translated because it is titled as follows: “ABODAH ZARAH (“Idolatrous Worship”)” (http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/348-abodah-zarah). In the body of the article, it says,

As indicated by the name, it treats of the laws regulating the conduct of the Jews toward idolatry and idolaters.

The Soncino edition of the Babylonian Talmud, in folio 56a of tractate Sanhedrin translates the seven laws as follows:

Our Rabbis taught: seven precepts were the sons of Noah commanded: social laws; to refrain from blasphemy, idolatry; adultery; bloodshed; robbery; and eating flesh cut from a living animal. (http://halakhah.com/sanhedrin/sanhedrin_56.html)

You’ll see nothing said here about “denying God,” but rather the term “avodah zarah” is translated as “idolatry.”

What about how the Schottenstein edition of the Talmud in exactly the same place? What does that say?

The Rabbis taught in a Baraisa: Seven commandments were given to the Noahites: civil law, “blessing” the Name, idolatry, sexual transgressions, and murder, and theft, and eating a limb torn from a live animal.

Again, it is called idolatry.

I check my other books, like The Rainbow Covenant, The Divine Code, The Seven Colours of the Rainbow, Guide for the Noahide, Secular by Design, Faith of Israel, … No matter where I look, the term is understood is “idolatry” and describes worshipping other gods.

Maybe I’m missing something in the content of the law itself. What is the main act commanded or forbidden in this law?

The main prohibition against idol worship is not to serve one of the creations, be it an angel, a spiritual power, a constellation, a star or a planet, one of the fundamentals of the physical creation, a person, an animal, a tree, or any other created thing. Even if one knows that the Master of the universe is God, and he only serves a lofty creation and only in the mistaken manner that Enosh and his generation did (Gen. 4:26, as will be explained below in topic 4), this is still idol worship. (Rabbi Moshe Weiner, The Divine Code, pg 135)

Not to worship any created thing (which thereby becomes an idol), be it material or spiritual, live or inanimate, mundane or celestial. This includes any human being, however holy one may believe him to be, such as the ancient kings of Egypt or Jesus. This entails performing one of the four classical devotions of (a) prostrating, (b) lighting incense, (c) pouring out a libation, or (d) sacrificing to an idol. It also entails praying to the idol or practicing any special prescribed rite of religious devotion for it. (Book of Knowledge, Laws of Idolatry 2:1, 3:1-6) (Mori Michael Shelomo bar-Ron, Guide for the Noahide, Kindle edition, section called “Idolatry”)

Halacha 2
A gentile who worships false gods is liable provided he worships them in an accepted manner.

A gentile is executed for every type of foreign worship which a Jewish court would consider worthy of capital punishment. However, a gentile is not executed for a type of foreign worship which a Jewish court would not deem worthy of capital punishment. Nevertheless, even though a gentile will not be executed for these forms of worship, he is forbidden to engage in all of them. (Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Laws of Kings and their Wars, chapter 9, halakhah 2, http://m.chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/1188354/jewish/Melachim-uMilchamot-Chapter-9.htm)

What can be seen is that the main act that is forbidden is giving divine worship or service to something other than the one true God. So the actual act that is forbidden is not the vague, over-generalizing “denying God,” something that covers any act of disobedience to God whatsoever. It is doing specific acts with the intention of worshipping divinity, except that this divinity is not the one true God.

What is the issue?

I know what some may be thinking based on some of the more negative comments my articles receive. “What’s the problem with this, David? What’s the issue? Aren’t you just …” now what were his words? … ah, that’s it … “Aren’t you just making an argument for the sake of it?”

I just want you to think about this with me. Even if you think this is essentially nothing, I hope you’ll “read” me out! (Kinda like “hear me out” but you can’t actually hear me, so …)

Rambam, in his Mishneh Torah, in the section called “Laws of Kings and their Wars,” chapter 10, halakhah 9, stated the following which I am very careful about.

The general principle governing these matters is: They are not to be allowed to originate a new religion or create mitzvot for themselves based on their own decisions. They may either become righteous converts and accept all the mitzvot or retain their statutes without adding or detracting from them. (http://m.chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/1188355/jewish/Melachim-uMilchamot-Chapter-10.htm)

I believe strongly, based on the advice of rabbis like rabbis Yoel Schwartz and Moshe Weiner, and from books like “Torah for Gentiles” by Elisheva Barre and “Guide for the Noahide” and “Secular by Design,” that this general principle applies to all non-Jews, even those who call themselves “noahides” or even the group that calls itself “ger.” I don’t believe that people in general, Gentile or Jew, have the permission to add to or detract from our respective bodies of divine law, just like we don’t have permission to originate new religions or create divine commandments for ourselves based on our own decisions. A Jew shouldn’t alter his Torah. A Gentile shouldn’t alter his Torah.

What the rewording and mistranslation of this command does is actually change the command. If I am told “don’t worship idols or aspects of creation,” I get a certain simple understanding of what I should avoid; I don’t worship trees or humans as gods. But when I am told “don’t deny God,” I get a totally different notion and one much wider in scope because I’m essentially being told not to reject God, not to say no to God, not to refuse God. It has no concrete act attached to it per se. To believe that God doesn’t exist does not break the legal details of the law of avodah zarah or “don’t worship idols.” There’s no physical act of worship involved. Even to say such a belief doesn’t break the core law against idolatry.

[ASIDE: I know this makes some people uncomfortable as many of us can agree that acknowledging God is very important. But this knowledge and this conviction doesn’t become God’s commandment. Yes, the knowledge of God brings great reward. But again, that doesn’t make it God’s commandment.]

So the actual command doesn’t impact an person who doesn’t think God exists, or who expresses that belief. But what about this reworded “don’t deny God?” Well, a great way to “deny God” is to deny that he even exists. So now a person who was innocent according to the actual command against idolatry becomes guilty by this new law against denying God.

Now I personally detest atheism as a philosophy, belief or worldview. And I’m not into defending atheists based on their acceptance of that belief. But I’m not going to claim that God’s seven commandments make them guilty when it doesn’t. And it doesn’t.

But this distorted version of the commandments gets shared by Jews – I haven’t seen it done by Gentiles yet but I wouldn’t be surprised if some of us do – and it’s shared as if it’s a nice easy way for people to learn about the seven laws. And this article is not a wholesale shooting down of this attempt to spread the knowledge, just my observation about the misinformation it contains.

Other people just copy-paste that list without explanation about that command. But even the encyclopedia entry from Jewish Virtual Library that I quoted at the start of this article explains it better below the list, but that explanation is lacking from many other places.

The prohibition of idolatry provides that the non-Jew does not have to “know God” but must disregard false gods. This law refers only to actual idolatrous acts … (Jewish Concepts: The Seven Noachide Laws – https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/Judaism/The_Seven_Noahide_Laws.html)

But where this altered list is shared, too many times the command is stated glibly as “don’t deny God.” As I’ve shown before, and also by looking at this explanation by the Jewish Virtual Library, it is specifically about idolatry or giving divine worship to aspects of creation and not simply “denying God.”

But how or why was the command reworded?

This is just my speculation. I think Torah-faithful Jews and people who have been conditioned by the manmade religions of this world, such as Muslims and christians, even ex-christians, have a hard time grasping the fact that there is no positive command in the core seven laws to know or worship God. This concept is hard for certain Jews and certain “noahides.” So I believe the intention is to smuggle in some of that conditioning, and, for Jews, that culture bleed.

And how?

By changing the command that only prohibits the worship of any aspect of creation into a prohibition against denying God, something not explicitly or halakhically commanded in the seven, a certain concept gets added to the core laws.

Think about it!

If the prohibition was really “don’t deny God,” it is much easier to come to the conclusion that one way of denying God is to be an atheist and also to not worship him. Whereas the original command did not condemn the atheist at all, and did not command a person to worship God as can be seen by Rambam’s formulation of that law in ibid. chapter 9, halakhah 2,

Halacha 2
A gentile who worships false gods is liable provided he worships them in an accepted manner.

but the altered commandment of “don’t deny God” suits the well-intentioned, God loving “smuggler.”

Bear with me.

So if the command really is “don’t deny God,” then the Jew immersed in Jewish law and culture that demands the importance of knowing and acknowledging God, but who struggles with the absence of that in the Gentile Torah law, that Jew is satisfied. Why? The command now includes the concept of worshipping and acknowledging God. The Gentile who has been conditioned by the manmade religions like christianity and islam to see the worship of God as so highly important that it must be commanded, that Gentile also is satisfied.

What’s the problem with that, David? Surely it’s a good thing to know God.

Well the problem is that it is not the actual seven commandments that satisfies these people. The prohibition is simply against serving other gods, against avodah zarah. Unfortunately that’s not enough for some.

Sure it’s a good thing to know God. It’s beneficial. It’s important. But to make it a command is just a lie and a terrible mistake. It’s never wise to put words in the mouth of God; just ask Eve. As Proverbs 30 states, doing such a thing will just make a liar out of such people and can lead to deceiving others.

So that’s my point of view, the reason I don’t like this reconfiguration of God’s commandment.

For anyone who reads this, whether you agree or not, thank you for your time.

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4 Comments

  1. DP

    Since you mentioned atheists and atheism here, obviously they won’t be into pagan practices. However, without at least some sort of agnoticism, what can prevent them from slipping into modern idolatry, which can happen and has happened time and again?

    Like with the shittuf argument for non-aware Gentiles, what is modern idolatry for the Jew and what is modern idolatry for the Gentile?

    • Practically, there is no such thing as agnosticism. Either a person is actively a theist, they observe the commands or example of a deity with the acknowledgement of that deity, or they are actively an atheist, they don’t acknowledge deity when they do what they do.

      What can prevent an atheist from slipping into modern idolatry? Education. If they choose not to be educated or reject the principles that come from God, then they may be more likely to commit acts of idolatry, but only if they are convinced of another religion. If they do a form of idol worship but it is obvious that they have no respect or honour for the deity, then there may be grounds to say that they are not liable. As is stated in the Path of the Righteous Gentile and confirmed in the Divine Code, taken from Rambam “13. If a person serves an idol in the manner of one of the four forms of service used in the Holy Temple in Jerusalem ‑prostrating, sacrificing, sprinkling sacrificial blood, pouring libations ‑ and serves the idol with love and fear, but without accepting it as a god, he is held harmless” (the chapter called “Idolatry”). So essentially an atheist has to really stop being an atheist to commit idolatry.

      I’m not sure what you’re referring to with “the shittuf argument.” I have an article that shares my view on the issue of shittuf (https://hesedyahu.wordpress.com/2013/04/25/the-shituf-excuse-preserving-madness-because-its-permissible/). The practical definition of avodah zarah, of idolatry, remains the same as it did, and as I described it in the article that you’re commenting on. So if a person worships something that is not God as if it were a god, then that is idolatry. That still happens today in sects of Christianity, in Hinduism and in other belief systems.

  2. DP

    Nobody literally prostrates, sacrifices, sprinkes sacrificial blood, or pours out libations to money, to personal materialism, to nationalism, to celebrities, or even to the self. You yourself mentioned another form of modern idolatry, in the form of excessive affection for a constitution.

    I mentioned shittuf as a means of comparison. If shittuf is a no-go for a Jew but perhaps OK for a non-aware Gentile, then what is modern idolatry for a Jew but not a Gentile atheist?

    • You’re right. Nobody literally prostrates to those things. So in the “legal” sense of the seven laws, they are not idolatry. They are only “idolatry” in the philosophical sense. So they wouldn’t be judged in a court as idolators. But looking deeper at the command, looking to ideals and not just legality, such devotion that doesn’t have the external actions can be deemed wrong. In the same way, worship of the constitution is wrong and philosophically idolatry, but not legally according to the seven. This is not modern idolatry as these distorted devotions have existed for a very long time. So “modern idolatry” is a wrong term.

      Shittuf is wrong for both Jews and Gentiles. There is no “perhaps ok.” For both Jew and Gentile, both the “legal” application applies: if either actively worship something that is not God as if it were a god, they both break the legal aspect of the command. If a non-Jew only holds the concept of shituf but only actively worships God, legally he won’t be punished by a righteous court. But it is not ok. It’s not good.

      It is a shame that people hold the view that if something is not covered by legality it is therefore ok. I’m using your word “ok,” a very blanket term and usage. There’s no specificity to it. Just imagine, I don’t steal but I tell a lot of lies. Now because there is no legal punishment for lying in general (not every lie, but in general) in both human laws and divine laws, that does not make lying “ok.” The legal aspect of the seven laws is a base, a foundation. Looking at their details, it is still a fairly high standard, but it is still a foundation of communal and individual morality for this life. The legal aspect is not the be-all-and-end-all for everything that is ok.

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