Animism in the Bible? part 1 of 2

Posted: April 15, 2013 in Animism, Bible Study, Missions
Tags: , ,

In a follow-up to the ethnographic study of Poland, where some animistic ideas were revealed, I wanted to look at animism in the Bible and Christianity.

Animistic practices occur frequently in the Bible. Some have seen a latent animism in Judaism and Christianity; however, “in Biblical teaching, nature is good, but it is not a god. It is merely a creature. The Bible stands firmly against any deification of the creation. The Biblical doctrine of creation rules out all this.”[1]

Andrew, a poster from Project Reason (www.projectreason.org) would argue that we can see animism promoted in the Bible in such passages as Genesis 12:6-8, where we find Abram traveling to Shechem to visit the “oak (or evergreen) of Mamre,” supposedly a tree already ancient and revered by the time that Abram arrived.

It was on this spot that Yahweh appeared to Abram, in consequence of which he built an altar. The connection between a specific and well-known sacred tree, and the appearance of Yahweh, can’t be missed. . . The same must be said about the terebinth (evergreen) of Mamre . . . in Hebron—where Yahweh again appeared to (newly renamed) Abraham, who built another altar (Exodus 13:18 and 18:1). . . In Genesis 35:4, Jacob buries the “strange gods” he has rejected in order to worship Yahweh under the tree in Shechem, mentioned above…thus assuring that the “strange gods”, now watched over by a more powerful deity, couldn’t harm him. . . In Judges 9:6, the Shechem tree is again mentioned as the location of Abimelech’s coronation—-presumably to have divine witness to the event. (http://www.project-reason.org/forum/viewthread/13774/)

            Although the tree in Shechem (Mamre) may certainly have been worshipped by those who came before Abraham, there is no indication of God promoting a worship of the tree. And Andrew’s assumption that Jacob buried his idols below the tree because Yahweh, “the tree god,” was stronger, is reading something totally foreign back into the text. The burning bush from Exodus 3:2-5 and Deuteronomy 33:16 are mentioned as referring to an animistic fact that God dwelt in a bush. 2 Samuel 5:23-24 is also interpreted as God indwelling the trees as a sign for David to attack the Philistines. In both cases – if we understand God to have “indwelt” these inanimate objects, and not simply speaking poetically about making them burn or rustle – God’s indwelling is temporary, and neither the bush nor the trees are meant to be objects of worship or special power. God is the source of the power that temporarily “animates” the bush and the trees. “God does not inhabit the world the way a dryad inhabits a tree; He is not the personalization of natural forces. He is not the world’s “soul”; He is its Creator”[2]

Animism is probably seen in the story of the stone that Jacob slept on when he dreamed about a ladder leading to heaven in Genesis 28:11-22. Andrew claims that Jacob believed a spirit in the stone was the source of his dream, and thus he made a pillar out of the stone, anointed it with oil, and named it Beth-el (House of God). Although Andrew is repeating the debunked “Documentary Hypothesis” of comparative religion, “this stone was actually a cult object, somewhat like the sacred Black Stone of the Kaabah in Mecca. Stone worship must also lie behind the account of the cairn erected by Jacob and Laban in Gilead (Gen. 31:47).”[3]  Even the Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church sees this as an echo of animism.[4] Although Jacob’s understanding and practice may have been flawed, he still saw God as the source of the dream, and God as the object of worship – a God who was not confined to the stone.

Some also see the “cloud by day, pillar of fire by night” as an evidence of an animistic God. Again, though, when God refers to Himself, He is not confined to a tree, stone, cloud or pillar, although He may temporarily animate them. Of course, many “lesser deities” are referred to, including Baal, Ashtarte, Moloch, Dagon and other gods. These are invariably mentioned as false gods, and their worship is condemned. One exception is a short, vague reference to Lilith in Isaiah 34:15. She was “a female goddess known as a night demon who haunts the desolate places of Edom.”[5] However, there is uncertainty as to the meaning of Lilith (could be some kind of an owl – which may also then have animistic ideas), and Isaiah could be using Edomite ideas to emphasize his message.

In part 2, we will look at some further examples of animistic practice in the Bible.
What is Animism? First part in this series


[1] N. Pearcey & C. B. Thaxton, The Soul of Science: Christian Faith and Natural Philosophy, Turning Point Christian Worldview Series, Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1994, p. 23.

[2] Ibid., p. 24

[3] G. Archer, Jr. A survey of Old Testament introduction (3rd. ed.), Chicago: Moody Press, 1994, p. 151.

[4] F. L. Cross & E. A. Livingstone, The Oxford dictionary of the Christian Church (3rd ed. rev.),  Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2005, p. 71

[5] W. C. Kaiser, in R. L. Harris, G. L. Archer, Jr. & B. K. Waltke (Eds.), Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, Chicago: Moody Press, 1999, p. 479.

Comments
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  2. […] is Animism? Animism in the Bible? Part 1 Animism in the Bible? Part 2 Animism in Christianity? Folk Christianity Animism in Christianity? […]

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