The Combustion Economy as Idolatrous
Rev. Dr. Douglas Olds
Transactional Failure: The Negative Ethic of (Stipulation Against) Idolatry
It is sometimes implied (Moe-Lobeda 2013; 2017; Jenkins 2013, 2-8; 2014, Jenkins, et al. 2018) that there is no direct Biblical message or historical analogy to apply to the issue of Global Warming and Climate Change so that secular ethical foundations must be developed. A canonical approach to the theological condemnation of idolatry in Deutero-Isaiah may offer a productive pastoral and proclamatory approach. Isaiah 44.9-20 is centrally occupied with the use of combustible resources--the unbounded and unsustainable scale of exploitation of which is at the root of the Greenhouse Effect. In my research, I have yet to find this passage linked with Global Climate Change. Yet, in the parodic account of Deutero-Isaiah (Watts 2005, Holter 1995, Baltzer 2001), the idol maker is charged with diverting combustible resources away from their existential, intended function--instrumental sufficiency for personal warming and cooking--toward the creation of idols in the vain pursuit of self-created transcendence.
Isaiah 44.9 All who make idols are nothing, and the things they delight in do not profit; their witnesses neither see nor know. And so they will be put to shame. 10 Who would fashion a god or cast an image that can do no good? 11 Look, all its devotees shall be put to shame; the artisans too are merely human. Let them all assemble, let them stand up; they shall be terrified, they shall all be put to shame.
12 The ironsmith fashions it and works it over the coals, shaping it with hammers, and forging it with his strong arm; he becomes hungry and his strength fails, he drinks no water and is faint. 13 The carpenter stretches a line, marks it out with a stylus, fashions it with planes, and marks it with a compass; he makes it in human form, with human beauty, to be set up in a shrine. 14 He cuts down cedars or chooses a holm tree or an oak and lets it grow strong among the trees of the forest. He plants a cedar and the rain nourishes it. 15 Then it can be used as fuel. Part of it he takes and warms himself; he kindles a fire and bakes bread. Then he makes a god and worships it, makes it a carved image and bows down before it. 16 Half of it he burns in the fire; over this half he roasts meat, eats it and is satisfied. He also warms himself and says, “Ah, I am warm, I can feel the fire!” 17 The rest of it he makes into a god, his idol, bows down to it and worships it; he prays to it and says, “Save me, for you are my god!”
18 They do not know, nor do they comprehend; for their eyes are shut, so that they cannot see, and their minds as well, so that they cannot understand. 19 No one considers, nor is there knowledge or discernment to say, “Half of it I burned in the fire; I also baked bread on its coals, I roasted meat and have eaten. Now shall I make the rest of it an abomination? Shall I fall down before a block of wood?” 20 He feeds on ashes; a deluded mind has led him astray, and he cannot save himself or say, “Is not this thing in my right hand a fraud?”
The fabricators of idols become conformed to them (Ps. 115.8), taking on their unhearing, unseeing, senseless impotence (vv. 5-7). In addition to parodying vanity in idol fabricators’ death-dealing frauds during Isaiah’s time, Isa. 44.9-20, interpreted with contrition, suggests that feeding on ashes is foreshadowing--an ironically proleptic metaphor for--the Anthropocene political economy of combustion heedless of Creation’s limits. In the idolater’s identification with wood, he craves association with physical fire. On fire, the idolater structures his “life” (βίος: means of subsistence) beyond warming and cooking, accelerating his vain (empty תֹ֙הוּ֙ ) pursuit of self-creation and -determination in materialism.
While I am proposing a heuristic, reconstructive alternative reading of this text, I discern in this passage the diversion of carbon combustible resources from subsistence needs into an idol-making process applicable to the ethical and Biblical evaluation of the contemporary carbon combustion-intensive political economy.
Because God’s primary commandment (Exod. 20:3) and protological curse (Deut. 27:15) concern idolatry, and because Deutero-Isaiah 45 involves a creation account set inside a critique of empire, a theological foundation of concern for nature affected by the misuse of carbon combustible resources may derive from the ethic of trusteeship promoted earlier. If the charge of idolatry holds, a society heedless of the misuse of combustible fuels might be recognized as engaging in a foundational sin against the Creator, one that assaults God’s atmospheric mover (Gen.1:2), the רוּחַ rûaḥ.
Trusteeship of nature by humanity requires something to motivate the execution of its fiduciary duties. To that end, we turn to God’s judgment of idolatry.
Canonical Arc of Condemnation of Idolatry from Prophets to Revelation 18
Deutero-Isaiah’s condemnation of idolatry arose during the Persian period of Israel's exile; it was applied, in part, to calling for the return to Jerusalem of the offspring of exiled Judahites who were continuing to find employment and residence in Babylon. Many of these were craftsmen employed in the Babylon religious establishment. Yet the context of (Deutero-) Isaiah 40-55 may include more general condemnation of Babylonian society than the particular (esp. Isa. 47.8ff). Read intertextually with Revelation 17-19, the entire Babylonian economy may have been seen by early Christian readers as by “Persian Isaiah” as idolatrous, and the prophet’s charge of idol fabrication might be applied to all exiled Judahites participating in the Babylonian economy, whatever their occupation or sector.
Other prophets condemn Israel’s idolatry, which they characterize as “adultery,” the fundamental disloyalty of Israel to its partner YHWH. Hosea (4:12-13), Jeremiah (9:2), and Ezekiel (16:36) join Isaiah (57:7-8) in naming idolatry as adultery. This characterization is significant because the charge of adultery is applied to encompass Babylon’s society in Revelation 18. That charge of adultery is linked to and envisions a political economy idolatrous in the production and conspicuous accumulation of luxuries, a diversion of resources from subsistence needs to the vanities of the rich:
Rev. 18:1 After this I saw another angel coming down from heaven, having great authority; and the earth was made bright with his splendor. 2 He called out with a mighty voice,
“Fallen, fallen is Babylon the great!
It has become a dwelling place of demons,
a haunt of every foul spirit,
a haunt of every foul bird,
a haunt of every foul and hateful beast.
3For all the nations have drunk
of the wine of the wrath of her fornication,
and the kings of the earth have committed fornication with her,
and the merchants of the earth have grown rich from the power of her luxury…
9 And the kings of the earth, who committed fornication and lived in luxury with her, will weep and wail over her when they see the smoke of her burning; 10 they will stand far off, in fear of her torment, and say,
“Alas, alas, the great city,
Babylon, the mighty city!
For in one hour your judgment has come.”
11 And the merchants of the earth weep and mourn for her, since no one buys their cargo anymore, 12 cargo of gold, silver, jewels and pearls, fine linen, purple, silk and scarlet, all kinds of scented wood, all articles of ivory, all articles of costly wood, bronze, iron, and marble, 13 cinnamon, spice, incense, myrrh, frankincense, wine, olive oil, choice flour and wheat, cattle and sheep, horses and chariots, slaves—and human lives.
14“The fruit for which your soul longed
has gone from you,
and all your dainties and your splendor
are lost to you,
never to be found again!”
15 The merchants of these wares, who gained wealth from her, will stand far off, in fear of her torment, weeping and mourning aloud,
16“Alas, alas, the great city,
clothed in fine linen,
in purple and scarlet,
adorned with gold,
with jewels, and with pearls!
17For in one hour all this wealth has been laid waste!”
And all shipmasters and seafarers, sailors and all whose trade is on the sea, stood far off 18 and cried out as they saw the smoke of her burning,
“What city was like the great city?”
19And they threw dust on their heads, as they wept and mourned, crying out,
“Alas, alas, the great city,
where all who had ships at sea
grew rich by her wealth!
For in one hour she has been laid waste.
20Rejoice over her, O heaven,
you saints and apostles and prophets!
For God has given judgment for you against her.”
Adultery is linked in this passage with the luxury production by idol fabricators. This vision, which is meant to be applied to Rome of New Testament times, picks up on the Old Testament’s condemnation of Babylon’s society during the exile of Judah there during the time of Deutero-Isaiah. This condemnation of the resource-diverting—especially combustible resource-diverting—economic society has ready application to this day and age when a carbon-intensive economy degrades the atmosphere and does not provide sufficient subsistence opportunities to the poor, future generations, and other species.
--This essay is excerpted from “" which also includes the bibliographic citations noted.
 “As philosopher Hans Jonas puts it, ‘the qualitatively novel nature of certain of our actions has opened up a whole new dimension of ethical relevance for which there is no precedent in the standards and canons of ethics…’ Ethics seems overwhelmed by climate change. None of our inherited moral traditions anticipate practical responsibilities for managing the sky, nor construct institutions of justice to discipline power across cultures and generations, nor imagine harming and loving neighbors through diffuse ecological flows. Adequate responses to climate change elude us in part because atmospheric powers outstrip the capacities of our inherited traditions for interpreting them.” (Jenkins 2013).
 Prov. 30.15b-16 on the rapacity and insatiability of economies of fire and the appetites it stimulates, both of which never say “enough.” “Ashes” is metonymy for the idolatrous appetite for physical fire, including the vain wish for vaporous oblivion, in contrast with the Created desire for the Burning Bush that is not consumed.
Illustrating its vain political economy and fraudulent spirit, European settlers of pre-Colonial New England, in addition to other resource-extractive practices that altered the terrain, cleared forests, setting the fallen timber ablaze with no instrumental purpose other than stoking huge bonfires (Cronon 2003) in rituals of domination of the land and the festive production of ashes. Their market economy and Lockean ideas of property intruding into Native American ecosystems forced the acceleration of ecological degradation absent the virtues of thrift and self-restraint and the responsibilities of trusteeship. They mistook temporal gifts of nature for an eschatological, eternal bounty in their conceit of a new promised land. They actualized this religious conceit by rolling depletion and expanding into the putative, boundless frontier. ''And in the long run, that was impossible…the [fanatics] of plenty were a people of waste" (ibid.).
Ironically, idolatry has become limited not by combustible stocks, but by the capacity of the atmosphere to act as a sink for the scale of carbon dumped into it (see Ch. 1), human idolatry overflowing Creation’s limits. Not all humanity may be complicit.
For a 2nd Temple textual tradition that links combustible elements with idol worship, cf. Pseudo-philo, On Samson and on Jonah, 52. 6-7:
The Ninevites too were once infertile in piety; they did not know the fruit of Divine Justice and gave the honor of the Creator to this world. But now they do not give thanks to the fruits of labor and do not worship the heating elements [glossator: “their handmade idols”], but they confess to honor the Fruit giver instead of the fruits and have started to worship the Craftsman instead of the world (Muradyan and Topchyan 2013, emph. added.).
Muradyan, G., & Topchyan, A. (2013). Pseudo-philo, on Samson and on Jonah. In L. H. Feldman, J. L. Kugel, & L. H. Schiffman (Eds.), Outside the Bible: Ancient Jewish Writings Related to Scripture: Translation (Vol. 1, p. 800). Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society.
This verse prophesies that idolatrous societies exemplified by Babylonian arrogance and materialism will suffer ironic reversal: shame, insecurity and material privation. They “will experience widowhood and barrenness. To be a widow meant to be without any material provision, and to have neither legal rights nor protection. To be childless counted as shameful. It too was a threat to a woman’s material security and protection... In ‘the city as mother,’ the loss of children can also mean the loss of ‘daughter’ or satellite cities. In a polytheistic environment, ‘widowhood’ means that a city’s tutelary god has left [been removed from] the goddess representing the city” (Baltzer 2001, 276).
 “Merchants are [in Rev. 18] mourning the fall of Babylon. We have oracles against Babylon in 18:1–19:8, and the OT allusions are not only to prophecies against Babylon but also to prophecies against Tyre in Ezek 26–28. Tyre also was portrayed as a prostitute in Isa 23:15–17” (Keener 2016).