The most prevalent form of idolatry in biblical times was the worship of images or idolsthat represented or were thought to embody various pagan deities.
The Old Testament. From the beginning the threat of idolatry was in the midst ofIsrael. The forefathers were idolaters and, while Abraham was called out of a polytheisticbackground ( Joshua24:2 ), some persons brought their gods with them ( Gen 35:2-4 ).Israel's sojourn in Egypt placed them under the influence of the Egyptian religion, butGod's sovereignty was manifest by his judgment upon the gods of Egypt ( Exod 12:12 ; Num 33:4 ). Israel,however, quickly succumbed to idolatry by worshiping a golden calf at Mount Sinai ( Exod 32 ).
In Canaan Israel was influenced to worship Baal and other deities. Perhaps it was thefact that the Canaanites, who controlled all of the fertile valleys, offered theirfertility cult religion as an explanation for greater productivity to the Hebrews, who hadto settle for the less productive hills, or it may have been the emphasis upon sexualitythat eventually seduced Israel to the worship of idols. Other reasons included materialism( Deut 31:20 ),intermarriage ( 1Kings 11:2-4 ), political persuasion ( 1 Kings 12:28 ),environmental factors ( 1 Kings 20:23 ),the conquest of other nations ( 2 Chron 25:14 ),and power ( 2 Chron28:23 ).
The erection of two golden calves at northern cult centers by Jeroboam testifies to thesyncretistic worship of Yahweh and idols that marked the remainder of the Old Testamentperiod as Israel increasingly came under the influence of the Assyrian and Babylonianreligions. Toward the end of the divided monarchy idolatry became so rampant that Jeremiahremarked that every town ( 2:28 ; 11:13 ) and allmembers of the family ( 7:18 ) were tainted.
Israel's calling was to the worship of the one true God. God's election separated thepeople from unholiness and to himself as his special possession. The covenant providedlegal parameters for this unique relationship, and the limitation of exclusive worship wasa significant part of the covenant. God had chosen Israel and they were to worship andserve him only. They were not to forget Goda process evidenced by disobedience andprogressive apostasy to idols ( Deut 8:19 ; 11:16 ). Thisrelationship with God and subsequent legislation by him made idolatry anathema for Israel.
The first commandment is to have no gods before God ( Exod 20:3 ; Deut 5:7 ). Inaddition, the construction of any images ( Exod 20:23 ) or eventhe mention of the names of gods ( Exod 23:13 ) wasforbidden. Invoking the name of a god was an acknowledgment of its existence and gavecredence to its power. By swearing in the name of another god ( 1 Kings 19:2 ; 20:10 ), the peoplewould be binding themselves to an allegiance other than God ( Joshua 23:7 ).
Since idolatry substituted another for God it violated the people's holiness and wasparallel to adultery; hence the frequent use of negative sexual imagery for idolatry,especially by the prophets. Both intermarriage and formal treaties were prohibited becauseof necessary affiliation with pagan gods ( Exod 23:32-33 ),leading to eventual fellowship ( Exod 34:15 ) andworship of idols ( Num25:2-3 ).
Among the most severe commands were the instructions to destroy the inhabitants ofCanaan because they served idols ( Deut 7:16 ). Includedwas the destruction and desecration of their idols ( Deut 7:25 ) and allcultic paraphernalia ( Deut12:2 ). Insightful are the verbs employed for the destruction of idols. Eradicationincluded cutting and pulling down, smashing, grinding, breaking, burning, and similarphysical actionsall reminders of the inability of idols to protect themselves.
Beyond destruction, desecration by scattering the corpses and bones of slain idolworshipers upon centers of idolatry, underlined the degree of impurity idolatry caused ( Lev 26:30 ).Destruction was to be so extensive that their names (memory) would be eliminated from thecult site ( Deut 12:3 ).
The testimony of Scripture is that God alone is worthy of worship. Activeacknowledgment of idols by prostration, sacrifice, or other means of exaltation is notonly a misdirection of allegiance; it robs God of the glory and honor that is rightfullyhis ( Isa 42:8 ).God even placed limits of philosophical inquiry upon his people, indicating that they werenot to seek the method of pagan worship because of associated evil practices ( Deut 12:30-31 ).The sense of Scripture was to destroy idolatry or be destroyed by it.
Since idolatry presented an alternative worldview the pressure to worship idols wasfelt in all aspects of life. Socially idolatry became a family affair, involving cities,towns, clans, and tribes. Both external documents and the Bible itself testify to pagantheophoric elements in the naming of children. Economically it took the produce of theland and many hours of labor from the worker who brought the fruit of his labor to thepriest who officiated over the pagan rituals. The harshest economic contribution werechildren themselves. Politically the leaders were deeply involvedfrom the elder whosat at the city gate ( Eze 8:11 ) to theking as final authority. Neither priest, prophet, nor prince were exempt from thecorruption of idolatry ( Jer 32:32-35 ).Leadership was harshly condemned for leading the people astray.
Moral degradation was most pronounced in the act of child sacrifice, but included allof the immorality of the Canaanite fertility cult like the male and female prostitutes atcult sanctuaries. Religious corruption pervaded every area of Israel's life, especiallysince little distinction was made between spiritual or religious spheres and other areasof life. Priests offered sacrifices to Baal and Yahweh and idols were erected in thetemple itself ( 2Chron 15:16 ; Jer32:34 ; Ezek8:5-11 ). Places of historic value that testified to the power and presence of God,like Bethel, were turned into cultic shrines ( Amos 4:4 ). As timeprogressed the people even began to explain their past actions in terms of idols.
In contrast to such a bleak picture it is interesting to note that some of the highestaccolades of Scripture are reserved for those individuals who shunned idolatry: Abraham,the friend of God; Moses, to whom God spoke face to face; and David, a man after God's ownheart, are three examples.
Theologically the reason given for prohibiting idols is that God is unique andunrepresentable. Deuteronomy 4:15-19 states that Israel saw no form of God at Sinai;therefore they were not to make any images of him or any other object of creation. Failureto acknowledge God as sovereign Creator opens the door to idolatry and spiritual blindness( Isa 42:5-9 ).Making images of foreign gods and attempting to represent the Lord were both forbidden ascontradictions of the monotheistic revelation of God.
Scripture views idols as impotent. They are powerless to save ( Isa 45:20 ). WhenIsrael called upon idols there was no response. Israel was even told, with the voice ofirony, to call upon idols for help ( Deut 32:28 ; Judges 10:14 ; Jer 11:12 ) but thegods could not even save their own people ( 2 Chron 25:15 ).Idols are nothing ( Jer 51:17-18 )and lifeless ( Psalm106:28 ).
Reference to the construction of idols in Scripture is more prevalent than might beexpected. From the selection of materials to the final embellishment of eye paint theprocess is most effectively portrayed in the great prophetic parodies of Isaiah 44:6-20and Jeremiah 10:1-16. This attraction for many to worship an idolits tangiblenatureis also its greatest weakness. Fabricated by human hands, idols cannot see,hear, smell, walk, or talk ( Deut 4:28 ; Psalm 115:5-7 ; Hab 2:18-19 ).Idols are not to be feared since they can do neither harm nor good ( Jer 10:5 ). Whatmakes the polemic against idols so significant is that other religions condoned the makingof imagesthe Lord did not!
Recorded in Scripture are the results of idolatry for both humankind and God. Those whovenerate images are said to be deceived ( Isa 44:20 ), shamed( Isa 44:11 ),and foolish ( Jer10:8 ), eventually imitating the worthless idols they worship ( 2 Kings 17:15 ; Hosea 9:10 ). Theinevitable outcome is destruction, death, and the judgment of God ( Jonah 2:8 ).
God's first and foremost reaction to idolatry is anger. Because idolatry challenges hisperson and his love for his people it is viewed in terms of God being jealous (a consumingzeal for what was rightfully his) and impugns his very name ( Exod 34:14 ). ThatGod did not destroy Israel because of their idolatry is clear evidence of his mercy andfaithfulness. In the end God promises to destroy all the gods of the nations ( Zep 2:11 ) and looksforward to the day when the people will throw away their idols and return to him ( Isa 30:22 ).
The New Testament. Following the exile and subsequent intertestamentalstruggles, the Jews no longer fell prey to physical idolatry. This is why idolatry israrely mentioned in the Gospels. As the gospel message spread it encountered various formsof idolatry in the pagan world as attested in Acts, especially Paul's encounters at Athens( 17:16-31 )and Ephesus ( 19:23-34 ).
The pressure of idolatry on Gentile believers explains the numerous references toidolatry in Paul's Epistles. Teaching about foods offered to idols is an excellent exampleof the struggle of maturing Christians with idolatry. The fact that idolatry wouldcontinue to be a threat to the church is underscored by the many references to the worshipof the image of the beast in Revelation.
The New Testament stresses the exceeding sinfulness of idolatry. Frequent listing ofsins includes idolatry ( 1 Cor 6:9-10 ; Gal 5:20 ; Eph 5:5 ; Col 3:5 ; 1 Peter 4:3 ; Rev 21:8 ) and Paulinstructs believers not to associate with idolaters ( 1 Cor 5:11 ; 10:14 ). Distortionbrought about by idolatry is emphatically set forth in Romans 1:18-32, where image worshipis seen as a downward spiral away from the true God.
The Bible understands that idolatry extends beyond the worship of images and falsegods. It is a matter of the heart, associated with pride, self-centeredness, greed,gluttony ( Php 3:19 ),and a love for possessions ( Matt 6:24 ).
Idolatry is a major theme of the Bible. It challenges God's sovereignty and attempts tooffer an alternate explanation to the issues of life. But Scripture not only recordspeople's failures; it also records the hope of repentance. In his mercy God raised up menand women who challenged the faulty theology of the community. Admonitions are laced withappeals for repentance, reform, and restoration, one indication being the elimination ofidolatry. To serve other gods is to forsake God; to eliminate idolatry is a sign ofreturn. Paul's commendation to the Thessalonian believers emphasized their turning fromthe service of idols "to serve the living and true God" ( 1 Thess1:9 ).
Robert D. Spender
Bibliography. F. Bchsel, TDNT, 2:375-80; F. M. Cross, CanaaniteMyth and Hebrew Epic; D. N. Freedman, Int 21 (1967): 32-49; J. A. Gileadi, ed.,Israel's Apostasy and Restoration: Essays in Honor of Roland K. Harrison; R. L.Harris, TWOT, 1:353-54; Y. Kaufmann, The Religion of Israel from Its Beginningto the Babylonian Exile; W. Mundle, NIDNTT, 2:284-86; T. Overholt, JTS 16(1965): 1-12; H. D. Preuss, TDOT, 2:1-5.
Copyright © 1996 by Walter A. Elwell. Published by Baker Books, a division of
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Bibliography InformationElwell, Walter A. "Entry for 'Idol, Idolatry'". "Evangelical Dictionary of Theology".