Dec 212013
 
Pagan Idol? Jer. 10:3-4

Well, if the Westboro protestors say so… (source)

A few years back I published what has turned out to be one of my more popular articles: The True Meaning of Christmas Trees: The Spiritual Abuse Connection. It’s a series of reflections inspired by seeing some well-intended but irate Christians quoting Old Testament scriptures, most commonly Jeremiah 10, to argue that Christmas trees are evil pagan idols.

Here’s what Jeremiah 10:1-5 says:

Hear what the Lord says to you, people of Israel. 2 This is what the Lord says:
“Do not learn the ways of the nations
or be terrified by signs in the heavens,
though the nations are terrified by them.
3 For the practices of the peoples are worthless;
they cut a tree out of the forest,
and a craftsman shapes it with his chisel.
4 They adorn it with silver and gold;
they fasten it with hammer and nails
so it will not totter.
5 Like a scarecrow in a cucumber field,
their idols cannot speak;
they must be carried
because they cannot walk.
Do not fear them;
they can do no harm
nor can they do any good.”

Does that sound like a Christmas tree to you? If so, does that prove that our Christmas trees today are pagan idols? In my earlier article I took for granted that it didn’t, going straight for the application (and you maybe should read that first, or at least right after this one). After all, in this translation, it’s talking about being “shaped with his chisel,” which doesn’t happen to Christmas trees.

But that led to some pushback in the comments when a person with the handle “NoRocketScience” was not convinced of my interpretation. The result was a lively dialogue that got us to look more closely at the scriptural text itself. What we found was quite interesting. Here’s a lightly edited version of our discussion — the reader’s comments in offset quotes, my responses in the main text.

Look Jeremiah 10 is really simple. Let’s start with verse 2: it says to be not dismayed by the “signs in the heavens” which refers to the winter solstice. Then it describes the cutting down of a tree. Look at it:

“For one cutteth a tree out of the forest, THE WORK OF THE HANDS OF THE WORKMAN WITH THE AXE.”
To me this is describing the man who chopped down the tree with an axe and not some chiseling into the tree. Where did chisel come from? Modern translations added that word to the text. If you look at older translations of the Bible they unanimously translate it as “axe.” There is no chisel in older translations of the Bible. Modern translations try to hide the real meaning of this verse. They are deceiving you.

“They deck it with silver and with gold”
This is another way of saying,”They decorate the tree”

“They fasten it with nails and with hammers that it move not”
Why would an idol need to be fastened as it could be made to be steadied on its own?

I could be wrong, though. if I am, then be critical of where I am wrong. Thanks for your time.

Hi NoRocketScience,

Thanks for your comment. There is more about Jeremiah 10 to consider, however. I think “winter solstice” is a poor reading for “signs in the heavens,” but even if we interpreted it that way, notice that the message is “Do not be dismayed” about it. The winter solstice is just the way God created the earth to move, nothing to be alarmed about or to think of as inherently pagan or evil. Also, the original Hebrew in verse 2 doesn’t mention an axe or a chisel; the word literally translated would be “a cutting.” (By extension, presumably, any tool that you use for cutting.)

2012-12-21 10.44.33

Jeremiah was describing the idol-worship of “the nations” (v. 2) around him at the time (think Ancient Near East c. 600 BC). If you look at pictures of idols from the time Jeremiah was writing — Here are some on Google — you’ll see that they were obviously made in several steps. First a tree was cut down, then a sculptor carved the wood into the shape of the idol, then a goldsmith plated it with gold, and so on. That’s the process Jeremiah was describing, not using trees as seasonal decorations.

Notice that some of the other descriptions Jeremiah gives don’t fit Christmas trees at all — for instance, “They must be carried, Because they cannot walk!” (v. 5). Idols were carried around in processions to be worshiped; Jeremiah points out that this shows they weren’t powerful enough to walk on their own. This makes no sense as a point against Christmas trees; who tries to make them walk?

Even if it was the case that Jeremiah was describing something like Christmas trees, though, look specifically at the conclusion that he draws about it: “Do not fear them; they can do no harm nor can they do any good.” (v. 5) He’s not saying “Avoid anything that could possibly fit this description, because it’s evil,” but “Don’t be afraid of them. They’re not harmful; they’re neutral objects.” That’s the point I make in my article on Christmas trees. Just because pagans may have wrongly worshiped something God made doesn’t turn it evil; as God told Peter in Acts 10:15, “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.”

I hope that explains a bit more why I’m critical! Thanks for taking the time to write.

 

Thanks Eric but I’m only partly convinced. I still have questions.
(1) Is there any possibility that “workman” could ever be translated as “lumberjack” or “woodcutter?”
(2) Doesn’t the phrase “the work of the hands of the workman” merely refer to the swinging of the axe?

A quick glance at the dictionary shows that the Hebrew word there is “charash,” which is defined as “a craftsman, carpenter, smith, or engraver.” That is, someone who takes raw material and shapes it into an object. In context, this would be the person who carves the wood, not the one who cuts down the tree. Thus “work of the hands of the workman” in this case is carving the wood into an idol. Christmas trees aren’t carved. Also, nobody worships them.

And again, notice in v.5 that even if this was referring to Christmas trees (which is not supported by the context), the conclusion Jeremiah gives is not “Anything matching any part of this description is evil!” but “Be not afraid of them; for they cannot do evil, neither also is it in them to do good.”

 

Thanks Eric, I really do appreciate your input. I honestly want to believe you and be beyond certain that Jeremiah is not talking about Christmas trees. I finally got the part of the workman being a craftsman. I see your point about verse 5 but from the start of Jeremiah, God did say,”Learn not the way of the heathen.” Does this mean we can’t decorate trees as pagans do? What exactly is the way of the heathen? Is it using things that pagans may have used? Or is there something more to it? By the way are Christmas Trees, Asherah poles? Thanks for your time.

You’re welcome!

The answer is that we need to look at the context. “Learn not the way of the heathen…” correlates in this passage with two other negative commandments: “…and be not dismayed at the signs of heaven; for the heathen are dismayed at them” (v.2) and “be not afraid of them [idols], for they cannot do evil.” (v.5) The “way of the heathen,” then, is to be dismayed and fearful about things God made, thinking that inanimate objects are evil. Heathenism is a very fear-centered mentality, the dismaying belief that if you don’t acknowledge all the false gods and evil spirits they might get you. There’s some huge irony here: The anti-Christmas-tree doctrine requires us to see trees and seasons as intrinsically evil pagan spiritual objects that we should be afraid of and dismayed about, but that view of them is itself the heathen way of looking at the world, not the Christian one. The way of the heathen is to see the tree as a god; the way of the Christian is to see that God made the tree.

Asherah poles were idols made specifically to be worshiped as a fertility goddess. Nobody worships Christmas trees.

Bah Humbug

Um Eric, sorry to bother you again, there is a website that says that “to connect the “THEY” from verse 5 to the “IT” in verse 4 would violate the grammatical context.” I met one particular site that says to connect verse 5 to verses 3 and 4, is incorrect. Is there any merit to this? Is there any evidence that Jeremiah is changing the topic after verse 4? Why do almost all older translations say “IT” with respect to 3 and 4 whereas verse 5 says “THEY?” Does that mean that verse 3 and 4 are talking about one thing and verse 5 another? What is your take on this. Thanks again.

No bother! Admittedly I’m not much of an authority on Hebrew, but my understanding is that their pronouns function quite differently from English ones. So my guess is that that site’s reading is, best-case scenario, superimposing English grammar on the original text. (If any actual Hebraists are reading this, feel free to chime in….)

In any event, to say “Jeremiah is changing the topic” seems like a big stretch to me. What else could he be talking about in context but the futility of idols? Notice that the opening of verse 5, “They are upright as the palm tree” (or “like a scarecrow in a cucumber patch”) is a direct callback to verse 3, “He cuts a tree from the forest.” I’d take that as a good indication that Jeremiah is still on the same subject. If “they” refers to anything else, then in context it would have to be the idolaters (cf. “they deck it with silver,” v. 4). I suppose someone could make that case, but that would make some extremely odd points out of the rest of the verse, such as “they must be carried” and “neither is it in them to do evil.” If we’re talking about idols that makes a lot of sense; if we’re talking about idol-worshipers, not so much.

Either way, though, the subject wouldn’t change — the topic, namely, that idols are powerless neutral objects, nothing for those who trust God to be afraid of.

 

Thanks Eric, one more thing: Would God ever do something that violates His principles? Anti-Christmas Christians will use that fact that since God decorates His trees during the winter with ice crystals and snowflakes, it is not not sinful when He does it but it is a sin when humans do it. In other words, the anti-Christmas Christians may say that it is okay for God to decorate His trees but sinful for humans to to so, therefore, Christians should not place objects on trees. Then the anti-Christmas Christian will claim absolute victory over me 🙁

Has anybody actually used that argument?! That’s a terrible argument.

In Scripture, “the law” is summed up in two commandments: love God and love your neighbor (see Romans 13:10, Galatians 5:14, etc.). Obviously it would be very unloving of me to kill my neighbor, for instance, since (unlike God) I’m not the one with authority over my neighbor’s life and death. And lying would betray my neighbor’s trust, and so on and so on.

Maybe in a certain context I’d need to avoid exercising my freedom (cf. Romans 14) to be more loving to my neighbor — if, say, my neighbors happened to be tree-worshiping Pagans who had never heard of Christmas trees, it wouldn’t be good to give them the wrong idea. But, as I said in my article, and as Jeremiah says too, to say that makes it always and completely evil is simply nonsense.

What is unloving toward God or my neighbor about making something beautiful in appreciation of God’s creation? Far from such a thing being condemned as sinful, the Bible says “God… richly gives us all things to enjoy” (1 Timothy 6:17). Nowhere does Scripture say that making decorations is inherently a sin. Quite the contrary — read Exodus 35 thru 37 for an account of ministers who were specifically commanded and anointed by God to make decorations out of wood and gold for His tabernacle. Likewise, in our culture, seeing a decorated pine tree will certainly remind many people of the fact that Christ was born for us. That’s why we call it a Christmas tree, after all, not “Piney the Pine God.”

The anti-Christmas crusader I spoke with, used that argument. I wonder if placing birdhouses, flower baskets and bird feeders are also a sin but such would be seen as decorating a tree. Exactly what constitutes tree decorating is the placement of foreign objects on a tree and since birdhouses are “foreign objects” that are “placed on a tree, they must be sinful too. By the same logic, we cannot hang swings on trees because it would be a case of placing a foreign object on trees, isn’t that so? Eric thanks for the help, will talk to you later 🙂

For further reading:

The True Meaning of Christmas Trees: The Spiritual Abuse Connection

Is Christmas Pagan? Putting the “Bug” Back in “Humbug”

  • NoRocketScience

    Hi Eric, I did more research on the whole “thou shalt not kill” thing. Turns out, God isn’t opposed to “killing” per se, since execution would involve the taking of human life, but murder, i.e. the unwarranted, invalid, mindless taking of another person’s life . In Genesis 9:6 God made the death penalty a capital punishment. Acts such as murder (Exodus 21:12), rape (Deuteronomy 22:25), causing a woman to miscarry a baby (Exodus 21:22-25), and kidnapping (Exodus 21:16) were to result in the offender being put to death. God does not contradict Himself, therefore that anti-Christmas crusader is making a false analogy. Everything God does is just, righteous, perfect and sinless. I would say the word translated as “kill” should be translated as “murder.” God would not say it is wrong to lie and then turn around and tell us lies. That would be blasphemous! Snow can very well be likened to tinsel and ice crystals, ornaments. By they way, snow DOES shimmer as does tinsel. The same person wanted to say that Nativity Scenes are idols. Apparently he doesn’t know what an idol is: it was like a walkie talkie where the worshipper talked to the deity and asked for what they wanted. Anyway, Happy Holidays and all the best in 2014.

    • That’s a much more coherent explanation than my off-the-cuff analogy the other day! Thanks again for commenting and a Merry Christmas to you as well.

  • Kristen Rosser

    Wait a minute. The Christmas tree as we know it developed in Europe (namely, Germany). There was no such practice in Israel in Jeremiah’s day. So how in the world could that have been what he was talking about?

    • Flash Clemmons

      The Yule tree (correct terminilogy) was originally from the Yule holiday that Pagans celebrate, it was later renamed as a christmas tree in Germany. Renaming it does not remove its Pagan origination, sorry.

      • I think the point would still stand that the 6th century BC near eastern text is very unlikely to be describing Germanic paganism either.

      • Jenny Islander

        Actually, the earliest reference in a primary source to a tree that is cut down, brought indoors, and decorated is in the script for a religious play intended for performance in or in front of Catholic churches (depending on weather and the size of the church) on Christmas Eve. The tree is symbolic of the Garden of Eden. My Norse ancestors used live trees outdoors in their religious rites, and my Celtic ancestors used swags of greenery indoors. There is also the old pagan tradition of the Maypole. But cutting whole trees in wintertime and hanging stuff on their branches is definitely a Christian thing.

        About the Christmas Eve play: This script dates from the century before the first written reference to a family Christmas tree. The ecclesiastically approved scripture readings for Christmas Eve were later changed so that the Old Testament passage was no longer about Eden and the Fall, and a new play had to be written. And within 50 years of that ruling, we have the oldest known primary source describing a decorated evergreen tree in a private residence.

        I think I can fill in the gap. The little children go with their parents to the church on Christmas Eve, eyes wide. They don’t understand all of the religious references, but they know that the prettiest songs (and don’t forget that a carol was originally a song you sang while dancing), the finest feasting, and candles making a brave show in the dark are just around the corner, and the first sign of all the marvels to come is the beautiful evergreen tree decorated with fake fruit and paper flowers, or perhaps with apples from the cellar. Perhaps, after the play they pretty much understand and the Latin Mass they pretty much don’t, they are looking forward to finding presents in their stockings or shoes, if that’s the local tradition. And there will be bells!

        And they go to the square in front of the church, or into the church itself, and there’s a –what? What is this? What is this eruption into the orderly traditions of a child’s little world? And one child after another, tearfully tugging at adult clothing, wails, “Mama, Papa, where’s the tree? Where’s the Christmas tree?”

        So if you want a religiously correct Christmas tree, make it green (real or fake) and deck it with representations of all the good things in your life, in as many colors as you can find, like a tree in Paradise. And let the kids help, because without them, there would be no Christmas trees.

        • Fantastic comment, Jenny! Thanks so much for stopping by.

  • Flash Clemmons

    Really the question concerning whether a xmas tree itself is of Pagan origin is mute since the entire holiday is of Pagan Origin and the birth date of a Pagan God… therefore the stolen holiday (- or adopted holiday to save argument) being xtianized has deceived all xtians that practice and observe such to partake in Pagan rituals and traditions inadvertently whether they realize and understand it or not. Many of the popular practiced traditions and decorations that are equated with Xmas are of Pagan origin and what they symbolize will curl the toes and turn the stomachs of the many uniformed xtian believers if they seek out the truth. It is totally beyond my comprehension why our Pagan holiday would be chosen to be christianized into their faith and to be used to celebrate the son of their God’s birth and honor their wrathful, vengeful God when he clearly abhors us heathens. It is supposed to be believed that it was chosen to take the focus off of our Pagan celebrations that occur during the entire month of December, but if I were a xtian I would be terrified that their God would smite me down on the spot since he hates all that it stands for. I’m just saying.

    • Thanks for the comment. I’d encourage you to read the two links at the end of this article where I discuss that viewpoint in more detail. In brief, the trees themselves predate any pagan or Christian beliefs, so it is unconvincing to say they are irrevocably associated with any particular set of symbols or practices. Christians believe that God made trees, thus it would not be a sin to appreciate what the Creator made. Merry Christmas!

  • Lalanya Love

    Your last quote on this page talking about bird feeders & swings – has it all wrong. See the bible talks of CUTTING the tree down out of the forest & bringing it to worship in ceremony by using a false stand (hammer & nails, etc) to stand the DEAD tree upright as if it is still alive & THEN decorate it with gold & silver as they did in pagan celebration of winter solstice – using the evergreen tree because the leaves would stay green throughout the winter & would stay green long after the tree was killed (cut down). THAT IS WHAT IS THE SIN. This is the ritual of pagan practice that the bible warns against & commands us not to follow in on. So, NO- decorating a living tree with a bird feeder would hardly be anything like that- in fact, it is in alignment with practicing the ways of God & the spirit of nature to do so.

    • Unfortunately your interpretation of the Scripture is eisegesis. You add many details that are simply not in the text— the text does not mention “evergreen trees,” it could just as easily be palm trees or oak trees. And you miss several details that are in the text— why is the tree “shaped with a chisel” before it is decorated? And why does it say “They must be carried because they cannot walk”? Who ever tried to make a Christmas tree walk?

      Most importantly, you miss the specific conclusion that Scripture draws about these carved trees: “Do not fear them; they can do no harm nor can they do any good” (Jeremiah 10:5). If the passage in Jeremiah is talking about Christmas trees, then according to Scripture, they are not harmful things and we should not fear them.

      • Lalanya Love

        anyway- YOU are the one who misses the whole point- but you want to change around what the bible clearly says – just so it can suit your needs to continue to practice a pagan ritual that does not act in accordance with God or the laws of nature.

        • Which point am I missing? The point that the exact Biblical passage we are talking about clearly says “Do not fear them; they can do no harm nor can they do any good” (Jeremiah 10:5)? The point that the Bible clearly says God, not pagan rituals, created all kinds of trees in accordance with the laws of nature (Genesis 1:11-12)?

          Forgive me, but it seems to me that to believe that a piece of nature that God created is harmful and pagan would be to change around what the Bible clearly says. If you want to prove that something was created by pagans you should not ignore the Scripture passage that says it was created by God; if you want to prove that something is harmful you should not appeal to a Scripture passage that says “they can do no harm.”

          In other words, your belief that trees are harmful idols is an unbiblical pagan belief; my belief that trees are nothing more than natural objects created by God for us to enjoy is exactly what the Bible says– and it says so specifically in the passage we’re discussing!