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Idolatry

IDOLATRY

i-dol'-a-tri (teraphim, "household idols," "idolatry"; eidololatreia):

There is ever in the human mind a craving for visible forms to express religious conceptions, and this tendency does not disappear with the acceptance, or even with the constant recognition, of pure spiritual truths (see IMAGES). Idolatry originally meant the worship of idols, or the worship of false gods by means of idols, but came to mean among the Old Testament Hebrews any worship of false gods, whether by images or otherwise, and finally the worship of Yahweh through visible symbols (Hosea 8:5,6; 10:5); and ultimately in the New Testament idolatry came to mean, not only the giving to any creature or human creation the honor or devotion which belonged to God alone, but the giving to any human desire a precedence over God's will (1 Corinthians 10:14; Galatians 5:20; Colossians 3:5; 1 Peter 4:3). The neighboring gods of Phoenicia, Canaan, Moab--Baal, Melkart, Astarte, Chemosh, Moloch, etc.--were particularly attractive to Jerusalem, while the old Semitic calf-worship seriously affected the state religion of the Northern Kingdom (see GOLDEN CALF). As early as the Assyrian and Babylonian periods (8th and 7th centuries BC), various deities from the Tigris and Euphrates had intruded themselves--the worship of Tammuz becoming a little later the most popular and seductive of all (Ezekiel 8:14)--while the worship of the sun, moon, stars and signs of the Zodiac became so intensely fascinating that these were introduced even into the temple itself (2 Kings 17:16; 21:3-7; 23:4,12; Jeremiah 19:13; Ezekiel 8:16; Amos 5:26).

The special enticements to idolatry as offered by these various cults were found in their deification of natural forces and their appeal to primitive human desires, especially the sexual; also through associations produced by intermarriage and through the appeal to patriotism, when the help of some cruel deity was sought in time of war. Baal and Astarte worship, which was especially attractive, was closely associated with fornication and drunkenness (Amos 2:7,8; compare 1 Kings 14:23), and also appealed greatly to magic and soothsaying (e.g. Isaiah 2:6; 3:2; 8:19).

Sacrifices to the idols were offered by fire (Hosea 4:13); libations were poured out (Isaiah 57:6; Jeremiah 7:18); the first-fruits of the earth and tithes were presented (Hosea 2:8); tables of food were set before them (Isaiah 65:11); the worshippers kissed the idols or threw them kisses (1 Kings 19:18; Hosea 13:2; Job 31:27); stretched out their hands in adoration (Isaiah 44:20); knelt or prostrated themselves before them and sometimes danced about the altar, gashing themselves with knives (1 Kings 18:26,28; for a fuller summary see EB).

Even earlier than the Babylonian exile the Hebrew prophets taught that Yahweh was not only superior to all other gods, but reigned alone as God, other deities being nonentities (Leviticus 19:4; Isaiah 2:8,18,20; 19:1,3; 31:7; 44:9-20). The severe satire of this period proves that the former fear of living demons supposed to inhabit the idols had disappeared. These prophets also taught that the temple, ark and sacrifices were not essential to true spiritual worship (e.g. Jeremiah 3:16; Amos 5:21-25). These prophecies produced a strong reaction against the previously popular idol-worship, though later indications of this worship are not infrequent (Ezekiel 14:1-8; Isaiah 42:17). The Maccabean epoch placed national heroism plainly on the side of the one God, Yahweh; and although Greek and Egyptian idols were worshipped in Gaza and Ascalon and other half-heathen communities clear down to the 5th or 6th century of the Christian era, yet in orthodox centers like Jerusalem these were despised and repudiated utterly from the 2nd century BC onward.

See also GOLDEN CALF; GODS; IMAGES; TERAPHIM.

LITERATURE.

Wm. Wake, A Discourse concerning the Nature of Idolatry, 1688; W.R. Smith, Lectures on the Religion of the Semites; E.B. Tylor, Primitive Culture; J.G. Frazer, Golden Bough (3 vols); L.R. Farnell, Evolution of Religion, 1905; Baudissin, Studien zur semitischen Religionsgeschichte; Beathgen, Der Gott Israels u. die Gotter der Heiden, 1888.

Camden M. Cobern


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Bibliography Information
Orr, James, M.A., D.D. General Editor. "Entry for 'IDOLATRY'". "International Standard Bible Encyclopedia". 1915.