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A Breath of the Freshest Air

January 24, 2017

Last December the pollution in Beijing got so bad that the authorities declared a five day ‘red alert’, the highest level of warning. Schools were closed, thousands of vehicles were ordered off the road. People were told to stay indoors. Industries that produce pollution such as steel plants were ordered to either stop or significantly slow down their operations. Many other cities in China followed suit.

 

There are people literally choking or gasping for breath because of pollution. High incidences of asthma. Children hospitalised.

 

Fresh air. What a blessing it is to breathe in fresh air, to fill your lungs with it.

 

The breath of life. A person is struggling in the water. The lifeguard drags her in and lays her unconscious body on the beach. “Is she still breathing?” we wonder. Perhaps desperate measures are required. The lifeguard breathes into her. Suddenly, she gasps and begins to breathe for herself. A breathing, living person.

 

What about that first inanimate person? Someone breathed into him and he became a living, breathing being. We find the description of that near the very beginning of the Bible: “the LORD God formed the man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being” (Genesis 2:7).

 

I don’t know what processes God used in creating homo sapiens, people like ourselves in contrast to any other homonids that have walked the earth. I’m no scientist. There are those Christians who have the notion that if a video recording of that first creation of people had been made then it would look precisely as it is described. I’m not so sure. But what we do know, or should know, is that ancient people would have had an entirely different understanding of what is being described in that statement from Genesis 2.

 

It all stems from the way people are described in Genesis 1. There we are told that we are created “in the image of God.” The Hebrew word used for “image” is selem. This is the very same word that is used on other occasions in the Bible to describe the images, the idols, that ancient people would manufacture and worship.

 

It is precisely at this point that we have to get our heads around something that would not occur to a secular person living in the West. Ancient people believed that their images, their idols, were living beings, BREATHING beings.

 

It’s not hard for modern secular humanists to think that such a belief is codswallop. But in the ancient world it was very difficult not to believe this. Because, as the Bible indicates, this was precisely what most people did believe. And if we have learned anything from history then it is that people are sheep. We see the world the way we have been enculturated and socialised to do so, including the ‘free thinkers’ of our own time.

 

Prophets were people who exposed the absurdity of prevalent beliefs in their own times. This is what the prophet Habakkuk has to say: “Of what value is an idol carved by a craftsman? Or an image that teaches lies? For the one who makes it trusts in his own creation; he makes idols that cannot speak. Woe to him who says to wood, ‘Come to life!’ Or to lifeless stone, ‘Wake up!’ Can it give guidance? It is covered with gold and silver; there is no breath in it” (Habakkuk 2:18-19).

 

There’d be no point in Habakkuk saying such a thing if everybody responded by thinking: “Of course he’s right! How stupid of us to think that our idols have life and have breath!”

 

In the same way, Jeremiah was largely talking to a brick wall when he said, “Everyone is senseless and without knowledge; every goldsmith is shamed by his idols. His images are a fraud; they have no breath in them” (Jeremiah 10:14; 51:17). He had to voice these counter-cultural words because the reality was that his contemporaries actually did believe that idols have breath in them.

 

This view, by the way, is not as ancient as you might think. I’ve been to a Hindu temple in Sydney and watched the way the Brahmin priest treats an idol as though it was a living thing, washing it and clothing it. That is the traditional way in which Hindus do think about their idols, even today. Oh, I know, that educated Hindus, influenced by Western thought and especially Protestant Christian critique, might tell you that the murti, the ‘idol’ is only a representation of the deity concerned and not to be thought of as the god himself or the goddess herself. Don’t be sucked in. In Hindu temples right throughout India and even in the West there is a ceremony being carried out that says quite the opposite.

 

I’m talking about the special ceremony called Prana Pratishtha. It’s a pretty elaborate set of rituals, including special prayers, and the reciting of hymns and mantras. But at the centre of it all is this: the deity is invited to be a resident guest, to infuse his or her ‘breath’ into the murti, the idol, the image. The priest will bathe and cleanse the deity. There are temples in which this living, ‘breathing idol is put to bed at night. The next morning he or she is woken up, given a wash, provided with fresh clothes and served with a breakfast.

 

It so happens that we have texts from the ancient world showing very similar ceremonies performed in Mesopotamia and Egypt. The Mesopotamians had a ceremony called Mis-pi, which means “washing of the mouth.” The whole point of the rituals involved in this ceremony was to get the deity to infuse his spirit or breath into a newly manufactured idol. The mouth, eyes and ears of the idol were touched with magical instruments as part of the process of ensuring that the idol would thereby become a living, breathing being. The Egyptians had very similar ceremonies. We have textual evidence of a priest beginning the day by addressing an idol with the words, “Wake in joy!”  just as Hindu Brahmin priests are still doing to this very day. Similarly, in Babylonia idols would be woken up in the morning, then washed, provided with breakfast and so on.

 

All such ‘images’ are fakes because despite what people believed there was no divine spirit or breath in them. Isaiah launches a blistering attack on the worship of idols, ridiculing the whole idea of treating an idol as though it can see or understand like a person (Isaiah 44).

 

What we must grasp is that when the early chapters of Genesis were written they were written for people who lived in a world, the ancient Near East, where it was believed that an image, an idol, did not merely represent the deity concerned. People believed that the deity’s breath or fluid was also present in the image. It is precisely in this context that the man and the woman whom God created are said to be made “in the image (selem) of God.” And it is also in this very context that we read that God infused his breath into Adam (Genesis 2:7).

 

 

Take a deep breath, reflecting on the fact that our life is not a product of merely natural processes, By whatever means and processes God chooses to use, all animate life is a gift of God and it is impossible for any scientist, no matter how well they understand such processes, to ever explain the reality of life itself. Why is our world bristling with life and why is the universe not simply filled with inanimate objects? When I breathe in as a human being, and not merely as an animal, I do so recognising that it is God’s intent that I should be infused and animated by his breath, his Spirit, so that in me the ruined Image of God might be restored, as I am transformed, by that very same indwelling Spirit, into the likeness of Christ (2 Corinthians 3:18).

 

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