The most prevalent form of idolatry in biblical times was the worship of images or idols that represented or were thought to embody various pagan deities.
The Old Testament . From the beginning the threat of idolatry was in the midst of Israel. The forefathers were idolaters and, while Abraham was called out of a polytheistic background (Joshua 24:2
), some persons brought their gods with them (Genesis 35:2-4
). Israel's sojourn in Egypt placed them under the influence of the Egyptian religion, but God's sovereignty was manifest by his judgment upon the gods of Egypt (Exodus 12:12
; Numbers 33:4
). Israel, however, quickly succumbed to idolatry by worshiping a golden calf at Mount Sinai (Exodus 32 ).
In Canaan Israel was influenced to worship Baal and other deities. Perhaps it was the fact that the Canaanites, who controlled all of the fertile valleys, offered their fertility cult religion as an explanation for greater productivity to the Hebrews, who had to settle for the less productive hills, or it may have been the emphasis upon sexuality that eventually seduced Israel to the worship of idols. Other reasons included materialism (Deuteronomy 31:20
), intermarriage (1 Kings 11:2-4
), political persuasion (1 Kings 12:28
), environmental factors (1 Kings 20:23
), the conquest of other nations (2 Chronicles 25:14
), and power (2 Chronicles 28:23
The erection of two golden calves at northern cult centers by Jeroboam testifies to the syncretistic worship of Yahweh and idols that marked the remainder of the Old Testament period as Israel increasingly came under the influence of the Assyrian and Babylonian religions. Toward the end of the divided monarchy idolatry became so rampant that Jeremiah remarked that every town (2:28; 11:13) and all members of the family (7:18) were tainted.
Israel's calling was to the worship of the one true God. God's election separated the people from unholiness and to himself as his special possession. The covenant provided legal parameters for this unique relationship, and the limitation of exclusive worship was a significant part of the covenant. God had chosen Israel and they were to worship and serve him only. They were not to forget God—a process evidenced by disobedience and progressive apostasy to idols (Deuteronomy 8:19
; 11:16 ). This relationship with God and subsequent legislation by him made idolatry anathema for Israel.
The first commandment is to have no gods before God (Exodus 20:3
; Deuteronomy 5:7
). In addition, the construction of any images (Exodus 20:23
) or even the mention of the names of gods (Exodus 23:13
) was forbidden. Invoking the name of a god was an acknowledgment of its existence and gave credence to its power. By swearing in the name of another god (1 Kings 19:2
; 20:10 ), the people would 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 was parallel to adultery; hence the frequent use of negative sexual imagery for idolatry, especially by the prophets. Both intermarriage and formal treaties were prohibited because of necessary affiliation with pagan gods (Exodus 23:32-33
), leading to eventual fellowship (Exodus 34:15
) and worship of idols (Numbers 25:2-3
Among the most severe commands were the instructions to destroy the inhabitants of Canaan because they served idols (Deuteronomy 7:16
). Included was the destruction and desecration of their idols (Deuteronomy 7:25
) and all cultic paraphernalia (Deuteronomy 12:2
). Insightful are the verbs employed for the destruction of idols. Eradication included cutting and pulling down, smashing, grinding, breaking, burning, and similar physical actions—all reminders of the inability of idols to protect themselves.
Beyond destruction, desecration by scattering the corpses and bones of slain idol worshipers upon centers of idolatry, underlined the degree of impurity idolatry caused (Leviticus 26:30
). Destruction was to be so extensive that their names (memory) would be eliminated from the cult site (Deuteronomy 12:3
The testimony of Scripture is that God alone is worthy of worship. Active acknowledgment of idols by prostration, sacrifice, or other means of exaltation is not only a misdirection of allegiance; it robs God of the glory and honor that is rightfully his (Isaiah 42:8
). God even placed limits of philosophical inquiry upon his people, indicating that they were not to seek the method of pagan worship because of associated evil practices (Deuteronomy 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 was felt 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 pagan theophoric elements in the naming of children. Economically it took the produce of the land and many hours of labor from the worker who brought the fruit of his labor to the priest who officiated over the pagan rituals. The harshest economic contribution were children themselves. Politically the leaders were deeply involved—from the elder who sat at the city gate (Ezekiel 8:11
) to the king as final authority. Neither priest, prophet, nor prince were exempt from the corruption of idolatry (Jeremiah 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 all of the immorality of the Canaanite fertility cult like the male and female prostitutes at cult sanctuaries. Religious corruption pervaded every area of Israel's life, especially since little distinction was made between spiritual or religious spheres and other areas of life. Priests offered sacrifices to Baal and Yahweh and idols were erected in the temple itself (2 Chronicles 15:16
; Jeremiah 32:34
; Ezekiel 8:5-11
). Places of historic value that testified to the power and presence of God, like Bethel, were turned into cultic shrines (Amos 4:4
). As time progressed 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 highest accolades 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 own heart, are three examples.
Theologically the reason given for prohibiting idols is that God is unique and unrepresentable. 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. Failure to acknowledge God as sovereign Creator opens the door to idolatry and spiritual blindness ( Isaiah 42:5-9
). Making images of foreign gods and attempting to represent the Lord were both forbidden as contradictions of the monotheistic revelation of God.
Scripture views idols as impotent. They are powerless to save (Isaiah 45:20
). When Israel called upon idols there was no response. Israel was even told, with the voice of irony, to call upon idols for help (Deuteronomy 32:28
; Judges 10:14
; Jeremiah 11:12
) but the gods could not even save their own people (2 Chronicles 25:15
). Idols are nothing (Jeremiah 51:17-18
) and lifeless (Psalm 106:28
Reference to the construction of idols in Scripture is more prevalent than might be expected. From the selection of materials to the final embellishment of eye paint the process is most effectively portrayed in the great prophetic parodies of Isaiah 44:6-20
and Jeremiah 10:1-16
. This attraction for many to worship an idol—its tangible nature—is also its greatest weakness. Fabricated by human hands, idols cannot see, hear, smell, walk, or talk (Deuteronomy 4:28
; Psalm 115:5-7
; Habakkuk 2:18-19
). Idols are not to be feared since they can do neither harm nor good (Jeremiah 10:5
). What makes the polemic against idols so significant is that other religions condoned the making of images—the Lord did not!
Recorded in Scripture are the results of idolatry for both humankind and God. Those who venerate images are said to be deceived (Isaiah 44:20
), shamed (Isaiah 44:11
), and foolish (Jeremiah 10:8
), eventually imitating the worthless idols they worship (2 Kings 17:15
; Hosea 9:10
). The inevitable 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 his person and his love for his people it is viewed in terms of God being jealous (a consuming zeal for what was rightfully his) and impugns his very name (Exodus 34:14
). That God did not destroy Israel because of their idolatry is clear evidence of his mercy and faithfulness. In the end God promises to destroy all the gods of the nations (Zephaniah 2:11
) and looks forward to the day when the people will throw away their idols and return to him (Isaiah 30:22
The New Testament . Following the exile and subsequent intertestamental struggles, the Jews no longer fell prey to physical idolatry. This is why idolatry is rarely mentioned in the Gospels. As the gospel message spread it encountered various forms of 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 to idolatry in Paul's Epistles. Teaching about foods offered to idols is an excellent example of the struggle of maturing Christians with idolatry. The fact that idolatry would continue to be a threat to the church is underscored by the many references to the worship of the image of the beast in Revelation.
The New Testament stresses the exceeding sinfulness of idolatry. Frequent listing of sins includes idolatry (1 Corinthians 6:9-10
; Galatians 5:20
; Ephesians 5:5
; Colossians 3:5
; 1 Peter 4:3
; Revelation 21:8
) and Paul instructs believers not to associate with idolaters (1 Corinthians 5:11
; 10:14 ). Distortion brought about by idolatry is emphatically set forth in Romans 1:18-32
, where image worship is seen as a downward spiral away from the true God.
The Bible understands that idolatry extends beyond the worship of images and false gods. It is a matter of the heart, associated with pride, self-centeredness, greed, gluttony (Philippians 3:19
), and a love for possessions (Matthew 6:24
Idolatry is a major theme of the Bible. It challenges God's sovereignty and attempts to offer an alternate explanation to the issues of life. But Scripture not only records people's failures; it also records the hope of repentance. In his mercy God raised up men and women who challenged the faulty theology of the community. Admonitions are laced with appeals for repentance, reform, and restoration, one indication being the elimination of idolatry. To serve other gods is to forsake God; to eliminate idolatry is a sign of return. Paul's commendation to the Thessalonian believers emphasized their turning from the service of idols "to serve the living and true God" (1Thess1:9
Robert D. Spender
See also Divination ; Gods and Goddesses, Pagan
Bibliography . F. BŸchsel, TDNT, 2:375-80; F. M. Cross, Canaanite Myth 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 Beginning to the Babylonian Exile ; W. Mundle, NIDNTT, 2:284-86; T. Overholt, JTS 16 (1965): 1-12; H. D. Preuss, TDOT, 2:1-5.