Thursday, July 21, 2016

No, Jeremiah 10 isn’t a Christmas Tree

I’ve been asked before to comment on the popular claim made by the Hebrew roots movement that Jeremiah 10:1-5 is about a Christmas tree.

I’ve translated the passage here:
1. Heed the word that the Lord speaks to you, house of Israel
2. The Lord says this about the way of the nations: Don’t learn them, and do not be dismayed at the signs of heaven, for the nations are dismayed at them.
3. For the religion of the people is a crock! Since one cuts a tree from the forest, the work of the hands of a craftsman חרש with chisel.
4. They (lit.) beautify it in silver and in gold, with nails and hammers they fasten it so it will not move.
5. They are like scarecrows in a cucumber field, and they cannot speak. They have to be carried, because they cannot walk. Don’t be afraid of them, for they cannot harm, nor is it in them to help you.
Why this passage isn’t about a Christmas tree: 

First off, does it really make any sense to criticize a Christmas tree for not being able to speak, walk, harm you or bring good on you? Those are all criticisms which would make sense if what Jeremiah is describing here were an ancient Near Eastern idol. In the ancient Near East, idols were created by craftsmen and given certain rituals which would invite a deity to incarnate them so worshipers could barter with the god on earth. In short, the reason this passage can’t be referring to a Christmas tree is the word translated “craftsman” חרש in the third verse. We have 35 occurrences of this word in the Bible. Don’t take my word for it, read them all here. The word invokes a sense of skilled artistry, specifically things like jewelers, carpenters and blacksmiths. The real nail in the coffin is that this exact same word is used in other passages like Isaiah 40:19, 20 and Deut. 27:15 to also describe skilled idol makers. Compare:

Isaiah (ESV):
An idol! A craftsman חרש casts it, and a goldsmith overlays it with gold and casts for it silver chains. He who is too impoverished for an offering chooses wood that will not rot; he seeks out a skillful craftsman חרש to set up an idol that will not move.

Deuteronomy (ESV):
“Cursed be the man who makes a carved or cast metal image, an abomination to the LORD, a thing made by the hands of a craftsman חרש, and sets it up in secret.’ And all the people shall answer and say, ‘Amen.”

Jeremiah:
For the religion of the people is a crock! Since one cuts a tree from the forest, the work of the hands of a craftsman חרש with chisel.

A rant I’ve ranted many times before:

Does it really make sense to argue that Christians should not make use of symbols with pagan origins or associations when Christians are either: a) totally unaware of a symbol’s history, or b) using the symbol with no pagan (or completely different) intentions? My problem with the Hebrew roots movement is that the standard of purity it uses to beat up Christian holidays and symbols cannot even be applied to the Bible. I’ll give you some examples:

John uses a snake as a symbol for Jesus (John 3:14); it is well known that many of the Biblical proverbs have Egyptian origins and influences (If you don’t believe this you simply haven’t ever picked up an academic commentary on Proverbs.); psalm 104 is very reminiscent of an earlier hymn to Aten; psalm 29 seems to be modeled after Baal texts (for example); both Jesus and YHWH are given the Baal’s deity title “cloud-rider” in both testaments. (Here’s an M.A. thesis on this); or consider that the book of Revelation is crawling with Greco-Roman astrology. (Ever read Revelation 12?)

What examples like these show is that symbols are not magically evil. John uses a snake to represent Jesus and it’s totally kosher in his mind. We talk about Jesus “riding on the clouds” and it’s not an issue that this was a title that originally belonged to Baal. The history of a symbol or its uses in pagan contexts doesn’t make it evil or unusable by Christians, it’s the intention behind the symbol that makes it good or bad. I say this as someone who thinks the whole Santa thing is kinda dumb. Yes, little Billy, if you do good works a supernatural being dressed in the papal vestige is going to break into our house, drink a libation of milk and cookies, reward you with material possessions then fly back to Asgard on his magical flying chariot.