Ordained Servant Online
We Become What We Worship
We Become What We Worship: A Biblical Theology of Idolatry, by G. K. Beale. Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 2008, 341 pages, $17.16
We Become What We Worship is G. K. Beale's recent treatment of Isaiah 6 and idolatry. In this book, Beale weaves in and out of the Old and New Testaments using Isaiah 6:9-13 as his key text. The structure of the book is straightforward: from Isaiah 6, Beale goes back in the OT then forward to the NT to discuss idolatry. He also takes a few helpful sidesteps to discuss several ancient Near Eastern parallels as well as idolatry in Judaism.
The thesis of the book is simple: people become like what they worship (hence the title; cf. Ps. 115:8). One interesting point about this book is that he deduces his thesis specifically from Isaiah 6:9-13. This is interesting because, as Beale himself notes, there are virtually no scholars who interpret this passage as describing punishment for idolatry (38). The first chapter is devoted to Isaiah 6:9-13 and Beale's exegesis and interpretation showing his thesis.
More interestingly, Beale uses his debateable intepretation of Isaiah 6:9-13 as a heremeneutical lens to evaluate earlier and subsequent texts that cite or allude to Isaiah 6:9-13. Beale submits that his thesis led him to isolate other passages in Scripture where he believes the thesis is present: "At times this thesis becomes a lens through which to see some passages in a way not otherwise seen. This lens may also cause me to see things in a passage that are not there. Therefore eisegesis may happen in this book, but I have tried to be aware" of it and avoid it (33). In my opinion, his thesis does indeed drive him too far in his interpretation of other passages, down to the very contextual fiber of allusions. The careful reader will note countless "ifs" and "probablys" and "possibles" on which Beale bases his subsequent arguments.
Concerning intertextuality or allusion, Beale is correctthere are citations and allusions to Isaiah 6:9-13 in both the OT and NT. Beale also notes that finding allusions is based on probability, possibility, guesswork, and is more of an art than a precise science (25, 31). This should give the interpreter great reason to be extremely careful in the art of finding allusions. Beale says he is a maximalist in this area (he finds and utilizes allusions readily), and it shows throughout the book as he finds his idolatry thesis from Isaiah 6 under many idolatry passages throughout Scripture. This sometimes leads him to discuss an allusion of Isaiah 6 elsewhere in Scripture, which leads him to another allusion of the alluded text. More simply put, in a way similar to "cross referencing," he "cross-alludes," and in the cross allusions, he finds his thesis. If I may define his categories a bit more precisely, Beale is a super-confident maximalist while others who generally agree with him might be cautious maximalists in this area of finding allusions. In my opinion, while Beale did note that finding allusions was an art, he treated it like a science.
One more area that left me wondering was the subtitle of this book, A Biblical Theology of Idolatry. I'm not quite sure it is that. Though Beale does note in the introduction that he discusses the theme utilizing Isaiah 6 primarily, he also makes sweeping statements like "Israel's sin was essentially idol worship," and "Paul sees idolatry as the essence of sin" (36, 203). I believe this aspect of idolatry (becoming what we worship) is more like one strand of several concerning idolatry in Scripture. Were it a thorough biblical theology of idolatry, one would expect to find themes such as idols and witness (Isa. 44:8-9), idolatry as spiritual prostitution (Ezek. 16), more discussion of the second commandment, and emphasis on how idols originate in the heart, and so forth. In this book, Beale's thesis becomes a hermeneutical Great White that swallows other important themes. Beale's biblical theology tiptoes on the edge of systematic theology, though he uses allusions and citations instead of proof texts to remain narrower in his scope and goal.
The book is indeed worth owning and studying. It is helpful to consider this thread of the idolatry theme in Scripture, and Beale draws out many conclusions well. However, the reader should pause and consider well the methodological bent of the book and take care not to overstate interpretations based on probable allusions. This type of biblical theology has its strengths, but it must be noted that this is not the Vosian type of biblical theology many readers of Ordained Servant are perhaps familiar with.
Finally, the book is not for the average layperson. The cross-allusions and detailed word studies are lengthy, detailed, and complex. We Become What We Worship is not the definitive work on idolatry, and I probably would not put it on my "hermeneutical shelf," but it should be on the shelf next to other such works on the second commandment and related themes.
United Reformed Church
Ordained Servant, February 2009.