Idolatry: To Each His Own

Originally published on May 19, 2014 at Modern Mormon Men

Photo credit: Reid’s iPhone 

When I saw this gypsum wall panel from the Ancient Assyria exhibit at the British Museum last year I was absolutely blown away. How could you not love this guy? He's got the full package including a flawless fauxhawk, perfectly man-scaped facial hair, exaggerated upper body musculature and a steely-eyed stare that would intimidate anyone and everything.  Even his accessories are spot-on: custom robes, choker, wrist bands, biceps bands, and a pair of sweet daggers.

I've read several theories about who this guy was, but the best one says this is an image of Nisroch. Nisroch was the deity that King Sennacherib of Assyria worshipped [1] after running rough-shod over the Kingdom of Judah.[2] But I didn't need to know any of those details to be an instant fan and immediately make this image the home screen on my phone.

Call it a personal character flaw if you like, but there really is something innate that makes humans easily awed. We are highly visual creatures, and iconography is therefore very powerful. It’s not difficult to see how an Assyrian peasant or soldier would readily count Nisroch among the gods that he worshipped. Ancient Israel was just as easily impressed: the first of  the ten commandments starts with “thou shalt have no other gods before me” and the second goes on to forbid any graven images. The Israelites were expressly forbidden to “bow down thyself to them, [or] serve them.”


It seems that idolatry was the great Achilles’ heel of ancient Israel. The Old Testament reads like a lengthy chronicle of the Lord trying to pull His people back from the brink of destruction brought on by this idolatry. Yet  idolatry is as prevalent now as it was in the past. The Lord was speaking about the modern era when He warned that idolatry was carrying us closer to the brink.

They seek not the Lord to establish his righteousness, but every man walketh in his own way, and after the image of his own god, whose image is in the likeness of the world, and whose substance is that of an idol, which waxeth old and shall perish in Babylon, even Babylon the great, which shall fall. (D&C 1:16)

The rituals of worship and the pantheon of gods that are being worshipped have changed over the millennia. But whether it’s Nisroch, or our latest iteration of a god created in our own image, modern idols still receive a lot  of mankind’s resources, time, energy, and veneration.  If idols insert themselves before God on our list of priorities, it doesn’t really matter if they are base idols (greed, lust, power, hedonism) or noble ones (health, education, family, etc). [3]

It is argued all the time that our God has a great inferiority complex in demanding primacy in our devotion and worship. I don’t see it that way, but instead see the simple inability of the gods of the modern pantheon to save us. In this regard, things haven’t changed at all since Assyrian times. In spite of the awesome power of the Assyrian army, the siege of Jerusalem somehow failed and 185,000 Assyrians woke up dead. Sennacherib was forced back to Ninevah to invoke his gods in ornate temples adorned with the loot of his conquests. It is intriguing to wonder about the splendor of the icon that loomed over Sennacherib in the Temple of Nisroch, when his sons interrupted his worship to kill him (2 Kings 19:37Isaiah 37:38). Though Nisroch didn’t come through in the end for King Sennacherib, his image still makes a cool home screen for your phone.


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[1] There are accounts in 2 Kings and Isaiah that also refer to Nisroch.  Philological arguments link Nisroch to Nusku, Assyrian god of fire that served as the messenger of Ashur. Ashur was one of the principle Assyrian deities and also had an eagle-man form. Nusku was said to be the god appointed by Ashur to aide the Assyrian king in overthrowing his enemies. This likely explains why Sennacherib was in the temple of Nisroch rather than the temple of Ashur when he met his well-deserved demise.
[2] The Taylor Prism gives Sennacherib's own account of his spoils in this war (here).
[3] This GC talk by Dallin H. Oaks that speaks to this issue. C. S. Lewis also wrote extensively on modern iterations of the age-old problem of idolatry:

“Brass is mistaken for gold more easily than clay is.” – C. S. Lewis, The Great Divorce

“It's not out of bad mice or bad fleas you make demons, but out of bad archangels. The false religion of lust is baser than the false religion of mother-love, or patriotism, or art: but lust is less likely to be made into a religion.” – C. S. Lewis, The Great Divorce

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