Guide for the Perplexed, by Moses Maimonides, Friedländer tr. , at sacred-texts.com
I SHALL explain to you, when speaking on the attributes of God, in what sense we can say that a particular thing pleases Him, or excites His anger and His wrath, and in reference to certain persons that God was pleased with them, was angry with them, or was in wrath against them. This is not the subject of the present chapter; I intend to explain in it what I am now going to say. You must know, that in examining the Law and the books of the Prophets, you will not find the expressions "burning anger," "provocation," or "jealousy" applied to God except in reference to idolatry; and that none but the idolater called "enemy," "adversary," or "hater of the Lord." Comp. "And ye serve other gods, . . . and then the Lord's wrath will be kindled against you" (Deut. xi. 16, 17); "Lest the anger of the Lord thy God be kindled against thee." etc. (ib. vi. 15); "To provoke him to anger through the work of your hands" (ib. xxxi. 29); "They have moved
me to jealousy with that which is not God; they have provoked me to anger with their vanities" (ib. xxxii. 21); "For the Lord thy God is a jealous God" (ib. vi. 15); "Why have they provoked me to anger with their graven images, and with strange vanities?" (Jer. viii. 19); "Because of the provoking of his sons and of his daughters" (Deut. xxxii. 19); "For a fire is kindled in mine anger" (ib. 22); "The Lord will take vengeance on His adversaries, and he reserveth wrath for his enemies" (Nah. i. 2); "And repayeth them that hate Him" (Deut. vii. 10); "Until He hath driven out His enemies from before Him" (Num. xxxii. 2 1); "Which the Lord thy God hateth" (Deut. xvi. 22); "For every abomination to the Lord, which He hateth, have they done unto their gods" (ib. xii. 31). Instances like these are innumerable; and if you examine all the examples met with in the holy writings, you will find that they confirm our view.
The Prophets in their writings laid special stress on this, because it concerns errors in reference to God, i.e., it concerns idolatry. For if any one believes that, e.g., Zaid is standing, while in fact he is sitting, he does not deviate from truth so much as one who believes that fire is under the air, or that water is under the earth, or that the earth is a plane, or things similar to these. The latter does not deviate so much from truth as one who believes that the sun consists of fire, or that the heavens form a hemisphere, and similar things: in the third instance the deviation from truth is less than the deviation of a man who believes that angels eat and drink, and the like. The latter again deviates less from truth than one who believes that something besides God is to be worshipped; for ignorance and error concerning a great thing, i.e., a thing which has a high position in the universe, are of greater importance than those which refer to a thing which occupies a lower place:--by "error" I mean the belief that a thing is different from what it really is: by "ignorance," the want of knowledge respecting things the knowledge of which can be obtained.
If a person does not know the measure of the cone, or the sphericity of the sun, it is not so important as not to know whether God exists, or whether the world exists without a God; and if a man assumes that the cone is half (of the cylinder), or that the sun is a circle, it is not so injurious as to believe that God is more than One. You must know that idolaters when worshipping idols do not believe that there is no God besides them: and no idolater ever did assume that any image made of metal, stone, or wood has created the heavens and the earth, and still governs them. Idolatry is founded on the idea that a particular form represents the agent between God and His creatures. This is plainly said in passages like the following: "Who would not fear thee, O king of nations?" (Jer. x. 7); "And in every place incense is offered unto my name" (Mal. i. 11); by "my name" allusion is made to the Being which is called by them [i.e., the idolaters] "the First Cause." We have already explained this in our larger work (Mishneh Torah, I. On Idolatry, chap. i.), and none of our co-religionists can doubt it.
The infidels, however, though believing in the existence of the Creator, attack the exclusive prerogative of God, namely, the service and worship which was commanded, in order that the belief of the people in His existence should be firmly established, in the words, "And you shall serve the Lord," etc. (Exod. xxiii. 25). By transferring that prerogative to other beings, they
cause the people, who only notice the rites, without comprehending their meaning or the true character of the being which is worshipped, to renounce their belief in the existence of God. They were therefore punished with death: comp. "Thou shalt save alive nothing that breatheth" (Deut. xx. 16). The object of this commandment, as is distinctly stated, is to extirpate that false opinion, in order that other men should not be corrupted by it any more: in the words of the Bible "that they teach you not," etc. (ib. is). They are called "enemies," "foes," "adversaries"; by worshipping idols they are said to provoke God to jealousy, anger, and wrath. How great, then, must be the offence of him who has a wrong opinion of God Himself, and believes Him to be different from what He truly is, i.e., assumes that He does not exist, that He consists of two elements, that He is corporeal, that He is subject to external influence, or ascribes to Him any defect whatever. Such a person is undoubtedly worse than he who worships idols in the belief that they, as agents, can do good or evil.
Therefore bear in mind that by the belief in the corporeality or in anything connected with corporeality, you would provoke God to jealousy and wrath, kindle His fire and anger, become His foe, His enemy, and His adversary in a higher degree than by the worship of idols. If you think that there is an excuse for those who believe in the corporeality of God on the ground of their training, their ignorance or their defective comprehension, you must make the same concession to the worshippers of idols: their worship is due to ignorance, or to early training, "they continue in the custom of their fathers." (TḄ. Ḥullin, 13a) You will perhaps say that the literal interpretation of the Bible causes men to fall into that doubt, but you must know that idolaters were likewise brought to their belief by false imaginations and ideas. There is no excuse whatever for those who, being unable to think for themselves, do not accept [the doctrine of the incorporeality of God] from the true philosophers. I do not consider those men as infidels who are unable to prove the incorporeality, but I hold those to be so Who do not believe it, especially when they see that Onkelos and Jonathan avoid [in reference to God] expressions implying corporeality as much as possible. This is all I intended to say in this chapter.