Baphomet vs. the modern-day Nehushtan

Baphomet vs. the modern-day Nehushtan August 19, 2018

The merry pranksters of the Satanic Temple have countered Arkansas’ new state-established sectarian Ten Commandments monument with a sectarian religious display of their own. Headline writers at Huffington Post had some fun with this story: “Satanic Temple’s Baphomet Raises Hell Over Religious Freedom in Arkansas.”

Members and supporters of the Satanic Temple wheeled a statue of winged, goat-headed creature Baphomet onto the grounds of the Arkansas state capitol on Thursday to horn in on a battle over religious freedom.

The Baphomet rally protested a Ten Commandments monument installed last year outside the state capitol after lawmakers approved it in 2015. In May, the American Civil Liberties Union sued on behalf of four Arkansas women to remove the monument, saying it violates the First Amendment’s guarantee of religious liberty for all.

Lucien Greaves, spokesman and co-founder of the Satanic Temple, characterized the event as a rally for “all people who hold sacred the founding constitutional principles of religious freedom and free expression” in a statement to HuffPost.

“What we are asking for is only that the public square … remain an area where free speech, religious liberty and equality under the law be respected by the holders of public office who swore to uphold those values,” Greaves told a crowd at the rally on Thursday.

Greaves told NPR that the statue “is a symbol of pluralism, legal equality, tolerance and reconciliation.”

NPR’s headline played it straight: “Satanic Temple Protests Ten Commandments Monument With Goat-Headed Statue.” That was a better course than other outlets took, inadvertently inserting their own unsupported theological assumptions and assertions into the story with a variety of inaccurate headlines.

McClatchy’s report characterized and categorized the statue in explicitly theological terms: “Satanists have wheeled a demonic goat statue onto the lawn of the Arkansas Capitol.” So did the headline from The Washington Post: “A satanic idol goes to the Arkansas Capitol building.”

Giovanni Fantoni’s statue of Nehushtan stands on Mount Nebo in Jordan. The original, we’re told, was destroyed by Hezekiah. (Wikimedia photo by Jerzy Strzelecki)

Both of those headlines are theologically fraught and theologically misleading. Baphomet is neither a demon nor an idol. He’s a literary creation — one uniquely suited to stand as “a symbol of pluralism, legal equality, tolerance and reconciliation.” Which is to say as a defiant symbol of the opposite of everything this figure was originally invented to convey.

Wikipedia has a pretty good rundown of the origins and functions of Baphomet as he was originally concocted by the sanctimonious witch-sniffers of the Inquisition. They wanted to accuse their political enemies of heresies and blasphemies, so they invented an imaginary blaphemous “demon” or “idol” to accuse them of worshipping. (Confessions of such demon-worship to be collected after-the-fact by the usual methods.) He is, in other words, the embodiment of false accusations, of the persecution of religious minorities — one part caricature, one part mondegreen, three-parts projection of the nightmarish self-righteousness possessing the inquisitors themselves.

Baphomet was the symbol with which the inquisitors declared that anyone who challenged their rule was a Satanic baby-killer.

The Satanic Temple knows this, which is why they’ve reclaimed that symbol as a tool for their puckish opposition to the would-be heirs of the Inquisition.

So McClatchy’s “demonic” headline is inaccurate — bad theology and bad history. The Post’s characterization of the statue as an “idol” is even worse on both counts, but it’s at least inaccurate in a thought-provoking way. It asks us to consider what it is that makes any given graven image into an “idol.” Think on that for a bit and you’ll find that the Satanic Temple’s Baphomet statue does not qualify, but Arkansas’ Ten Commandments idol probably does.

I’m reminded again of the scene some 15 years ago, when Roy Moore’s Ten Commandments idol was being removed from the Alabama Judicial Building in Montgomery and one of the molester-judge’s fans screamed “Get your hands off our God!” That was such a theologically revealing demonstration of the idolatry of white/Christian nationalism that I’m disappointed I couldn’t find the original CNN video, only this techno-remix from the pro-Moore/pro-Nehushtan protest.

The name “Nehushtan” there comes from one of my favorite parenthetical biblical stories, which is just kind of tossed-off in a single sentence in 2 Kings 18 as we’re introduced to King Hezekiah:

He did what was right in the sight of the Lord just as his ancestor David had done. He removed the high places, broke down the pillars, and cut down the sacred pole. He broke in pieces the bronze serpent that Moses had made, for until those days the people of Israel had made offerings to it; it was called Nehushtan.

The original story of that bronze serpent (from Numbers 21:1-9) is strange, but the basic outline was that this statue was something that God had commanded Moses himself to make in order to save the people from the consequences of their sin. It was, originally, a good thing, a life-giving thing, and something directly ordained and created as a gift of God. Fast-forward a few centuries, and that divine gift has replaced God, becoming itself an object of worship — an idol.

That’s more or less the same thing that the devout Christian nationalists of Arkansas have done with the Ten Commandments. They have become an “idol” and something “demonic” — even if headline-writers never choose to acknowledge that.


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