From the Pastor's Study
From the Pastor’s Study
Mouth Opening Ceremony
Feb 8, 2023
I enjoy watching ventriloquists perform, and there are a lot of good acts on Youtube. (Some, however, are quite immoral, a sad waste of good talent, in my opinion.) The ventriloquist dummies, when properly manipulated, seem human. Their facial expressions are quite well crafted, and it’s almost as if they have a personality. They aren’t real persons, but they seem as if they are.
Similarly, animated characters, such as cartoon characters, take on personality. We know that they are not real, but we talk as if they are. I date myself when I mention Bugs Bunny or Foghorn Leghorn, but if you spent a few hours in front of the TV, we together could describe the personalities of these characters, and someone listening who is unfamiliar with the concept of cartoons would come to believe that they really do exist.
A ventriloquist dummy and a cartoon character are not a whole lot different from the idols that we find in the Old Testament. Idols were often quite artistic, and if properly made, could almost seem real. Of course, they were completely inanimate (unlike the ventriloquist dummy or the cartoon character), for they didn’t move at all. We might wonder how people back then could put their trust in an idol. It doesn’t make sense.
People who worshipped idols were not as ignorant as we make them out to be. When the craftsman finished his work, he sent the equivalent of an email, informing his client that his idol was ready, the client went to the shop, paid the craftsman, picked up the idol, put it in the back of his pickup and drove home. The client was well aware that the idol was nothing more than block of wood cleverly carved and overlaid with gold. And everyone in his household knew what it was well.
To overcome this problem, the owner of the idol would hold what was called a mouth-opening ceremony. There were three parts to the ceremony. First, the idol was purified, and that was done by giving it a good scrubbing and polishing to make it shine. The idol, after all, was meant to be a connection between the owner and the god it represented. It had to be “made holy,” as it were. When the purification was completed, a mouth-opening ceremony began. In Egypt, it appears, they actually had tools to open the mouth of the idol, but most often this mouth-opening ceremony was merely symbolic, and it included more than just working on the mouth. If appropriate, the household would clothe the idol and perhaps give it jewelry to wear. In this way, the idol became almost human. It gained a kind of personality, much as a ventriloquists’ dummy or a cartoon character seem to have personality. Through the mouth-opening ceremony, the idol was transformed from being a block of wood into becoming something that could speak and see and hear, at least in the minds of those watching the ceremony. Finally, as the third part of the ceremony, the idol was enthroned. In other words, it was put into a proper setting, one where it could oversee whatever it was supposed to be useful for. One place where idols were set was in the corner of a field so they could see if the crop needed rain or sun.
Even with all of this, at no time, we can be sure, did anyone actually believe that the block of wood could do anything, even when it looked like it could. The idol was meant to be a conduit between the world of the gods and the people. It was through the idol that the gods saw the world and it was through the idol that the gods became aware of the needs of the people. The mouth-opening ceremony, in a way, opened up that conduit.
Those who have studied this ceremony have concluded that the language of the mouth-opening ceremony is found in the Bible, particularly among the prophets. Repeatedly in Isaiah, we read the words, “For the mouth of the LORD has spoken.” This is language associated with the mouth-opening ceremony, but we notice that God speaks on his own initiative. There is nothing that needs to be done to open God’s mouth, to create a conduit between heaven and earth. But the language of the mouth-opening ceremony is not limited to God. Ezekiel 3:27, for example, shows us the prophet being bound and unable to move or speak, but then God opens his mouth, and he is able to bring the word of the Lord to the people. Ezekiel, thus, becomes the conduit by which God makes himself present to the people. This kind of thing should not surprise us, for we are created in God’s image, in a similar way that the people believed their idols were created in the image of their gods.
What is strikingly different, however, is the direction of action. With idols, it was people who opened the mouth of the idols. The people were responsible to open the conduit between the world and the realm of the gods. With the Lord, the action is in the other direction as God takes the initiative and provides the conduit between himself and the world either speaking himself or speaking through someone else. This says something about our God in comparison to the other gods. The other gods had to be accessed by the people, and the people had to take initiative. The Lord God, on the other hand, takes the initiative and he accesses the world, as it were.
This idea is further played out in Jesus Christ who is the Word of God (John 1:1ff.) Jesus, known as the Word of God made flesh, becomes the conduit between God and this world. Again, because he was sent from God the direction is from God to us, not the other way around. In Colossians 1:15ff. Paul sells us that Jesus is the image of the invisible God, it is through him that this world holds together, and it through him that God reconciles this world to himself. God takes the initiative, and we don’t have to open his mouth. Our only task is to respond.
We don’t have idols today, at least not in the traditional sense of the word. We are too smart, or so we think, to be fooled into thinking that cartoon characters and ventriloquist dummies actually have personality. We’re not as ignorant as those people from long ago, or so we think. Yet, as was noted at our church council meeting last Monday, there is an increasing focus on the supernatural in the entertainment industry. Moreover, we see more and more advertisements for “spiritists” of various sorts who many hope can give them a sense of what the future holds so that they can be prepared. In all of these supernatural or spiritual practices, it is we who are required to access the spirit world, and the spiritists simply give us a means to do so. What is happening today is very little different from what happened in the OT, although the mediums may be different.
We need to be reminded that God does not need to be accessed by us. We do not need to have a “mouth-opening ceremony” so that we can open a conduit to him. God has already taken the initiative, most completely through Jesus, and we simply need to listen and receive.