What does Idol, Idolatry mean in the Bible?

Dictionary

Baker's Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology - Idol, Idolatry
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.
CARM Theological Dictionary - Idol, Idolatry
An idol is a representation of something in the heavens or on the earth. It is used in worship and is often worshiped. It is an abomination to God (Exodus 20:4). Idolatry is bowing down before such an idol in adoration, prayer, or worship. In a loose sense, idolatry does not necessitate a material image or a religious system. It can be anything that takes the place of God: a car, a job, money, a person, a desire, etc. Idolatry is denounced by God at the beginning of the Ten Commandments and is considered a form of spiritual fornication.
American Tract Society Bible Dictionary - Idol, Idolatry
The word idol signifies literally a representation or figure. It is always employed in Scripture in a bad sense, for representations of heathen deities of what nature soever. God forbids all sorts of idols, or figures and representations of creatures, formed or set up with intention of paying superstitious worship to them, Exodus 20:3,4 34:13 Deuteronomy 4:16-19 7:25,26 . He also forbids all attempts to represent him by any visible form, Exodus 32:4,5 Deuteronomy 4:15 Nehemiah 9:18 .
The heathen had idols of all sorts-paintings, bas-reliefs, and all varieties of sculpture-and these of many kinds of materials, as gold, silver, brass, stone, wood, potters earth, etc. Stars, spirits, men, animals, rivers, plants, and elements were the subjects of them. Scarcely an object or power in nature, scarcely a faculty of the soul, a virtue, a vice, or a condition of human life, has not received idolatrous worship. See STARS. Some nations worshipped a rough stone. Such is the black stone of the ancient Arabs, retained by Mohammed, and now kept in the Caaba at Mecca.
It is impossible to ascertain the period at which the worship of false gods and idols was introduced. No mentioned is made of such worship before the deluge; though from the silence of Scripture we cannot argue that it did not exist. Josephus and many of the fathers were of opinion, that soon after the deluge idolatry became prevalent; and certainly, whenever we turn our eyes after the time of Abraham, we see only a false worship. That patriarch's forefathers, and even he himself, were implicated in it, as is evident from Joshua 24:2,14 .
The Hebrews had no peculiar form of idolatry; they imitated the superstitions of others, but do not appear to have been the inventors of any. When they were in Egypt, many of them worshipped Egyptians deities, Ezekiel 20:8 ; in the wilderness, they worshipped those of the Canaaites, Egyptians, Ammonites, and Moabites; in Judea, those of the Phoenicians, Syrians, and other people around them, Numbers 25:1-18 Judges 10:6 Amos 5:25 Acts 7:42 . Rachel, it may be, had adored idols at her father Laban's, since she carried off his teraphim, Genesis 31:30 . Jacob after his return from Mesopotamia, required his people to reject the strange gods from among them and also the superstitious pendants worn by them in their ears, which he hid under a terebinth near Shechem. He preserved his family in the worship of God while he lived.
Under the government of the judges, "the children of Israel did evil in the sight of the Lord, and served Baalim. They forsook the Lord God of their fathers, and served Baal and Ashtaroth," Judges 2:11,12 . Gideon, after he had been favored by God with a miraculous deliverance, made an ephod, which ensnared the Israelites in unlawful worship, Judges 8:27 . Micah's teraphim also were the objects of idolatrous worship, even till the captivity of Israel in Babylon, Judges 17:5 18:30,31 . See TERAPHIM .
During the times of Samuel, Saul, and David, the worship of God seems to have been preserved pure in Israel. There was corruption and irregularity of manners, but little or no idolatry. Solomon, seduced by complaisance to his strange wives, caused temples to be erected in honor of Ashtoreth goddess of the Phoenicians, Moloch god of the Ammonites, and Chemosh god of the Moabites. Jeroboam, who succeeded Solomon, set up golden calves at Dan and Bethel, and made Israel to sin. The people, no longer restrained by royal authority, worshipped not only these golden calves, but many other idols, particularly Baal and Ashtoreth. Under the reign of Ahab, idolatry reached its height. The impious Jezebel endeavored to extinguish the worship of the Lord, by persecuting his prophets, (who, as a barrier, still retained some of the people in the true religion,) till God, incensed at their idolatry, abandoned Israel to the kings of Assyria and Chaldea, who transplanted them beyond the Euphrates. Judah was almost equally corrupted. The descriptions given by the prophets of their irregularities and idolatries, of their abominations and lasciviousness on the high places and in woods consecrated to idols, and of their human sacrifices, fill us with dismay, and unveil the awful corruption of the heart of man. See MOLOCH. After the return from Babylon, we do not find the Jews any more reproached with idolatry. They expressed much zeal for the worship of God, and except some transgressor under Antichus Epiphanes, the people kept themselves clear from this sin.
As the maintenance of the worship of the only true God was one of the fundamental objects of the Mosaic polity, and as God was regarded as the king of the Israelitish nation, so we find idolatry, that is, the worship of other gods, occupying, in the Mosaic law, the first place in the list of crimes. It was indeed a crime, not merely against God, but also against the fundamental law of the state, and thus a sort of high treason. The only living and true God was also the civil legislator and ruler of Israel, and accepted by them as their king; and hence idolatry was a crime against the state, and therefore just as deservedly punished with death, as high treason is in modern times. By the Jewish law, an idolatrous city must be wholly destroyed, with all it contained, Deuteronomy 13:12-18 17:2,5 .
At the present day, idolatry, prevails over a great portion of the earth, and is practiced by about 600,000,000 of the human race. Almost all the heathen nations, as the Chinese, the Hindoos, the South Sea islanders, etc., have their images, to which they bow down and worship. In some lands professedly Christians, it is to be feared that the adoration of crucifixes and paintings is nothing more nor less than idol-worship. But when we regard idolatry in a moral point of view, as consisting not merely in the external worship of false gods, but in the preference of, and devotion to something else than the Most High, how many Christians must then fall under this charge. Whoever loves this world, or the pursuits of wealth or honor ambition, or selfishness in any form, and for these forgets or neglects God and Christ, such a one is an idolater in as bad sense at least as the ancient Israelites, and cannot hope to escape an awful condemnation, Colossians 3:5 .
Bridgeway Bible Dictionary - Idol, Idolatry
God’s law-code given to Israel expresses in writing the timeless truth that Yahweh alone is God; there is no other. No image of any sort should be an object of worship, whether used as a symbol of the true God or as the representative of some other (false) god (Exodus 20:4-5; Exodus 34:17; Isaiah 42:8).
Since images of human creation can be true representations of God, such images cannot possibly lead to an increased appreciation of God (Isaiah 40:18; Isaiah 55:8-9). They dishonour God through hiding his glory, and mislead people through giving them wrong ideas of God (Deuteronomy 4:15-18; Romans 1:21-23).
Idolatry in Israel
Abraham, the father of Israel, came from a land of idol worshippers, but he renounced idols when he came to know the one true God (Joshua 24:2; Joshua 24:15). Some of Abraham’s relatives, however, who did not share Abraham’s faith, continued to have private household gods (Genesis 31:19).
The penalty that Israelite law laid down for idol worship was death (Exodus 22:20; Deuteronomy 13:2-5; Deuteronomy 17:2-5). Yet the people of Israel repeatedly fell into idolatry through copying the practices of the people around them (Judges 2:12; Isaiah 41:6-7; Judges 17:3-6; Jeremiah 44:15-19). Because they did not know what Yahweh looked like, they copied the forms of the gods of other religions (Exodus 32:4; Deuteronomy 4:12; 1 Kings 12:28; Hosea 13:2). The form of idolatry that Israel most frequently fell into was Baalism (2 Kings 17:15-16; see BAAL). In addition the people sometimes took objects that had played an important part in God’s dealings with Israel and wrongfully made them into objects of worship (Judges 8:27; 2 Kings 18:4).
At different times the kings of Judah carried out reforms in which they destroyed all the idols in the land (2 Chronicles 31:1; Romans 14:13-23). But idolatrous tendencies were so deeply rooted in the lives of the people that they were never entirely removed. In the end they were the reason why God destroyed the nation and sent the people into captivity (2 Kings 17:7-18; 2 Kings 21:10-15). The period of captivity broke the people’s association with the idols of Canaan, and when the Jews later returned from captivity, idolatry ceased to be a major problem (Ezekiel 36:22-29; Ezekiel 37:23; Hosea 2:16-19).
Idolatry in other nations
God’s messengers condemned idolatry not only among Israelites, but also among Gentiles. As people observed the created world they should have recognized that there was a Creator, and responded by offering him thankful worship. Instead they turned away from the Creator and made created things their idols (Romans 1:19-23). God’s prophets mocked these lifeless idols and denounced both those who made them and those who worshipped them (Psalms 115:4-8; Isaiah 2:8; Isaiah 40:18-20; Judges 10:6; Isaiah 44:9-20; Isaiah 46:1-2; Isaiah 46:5-7).
The reason for the prophets’ condemnation of idols was not just that idols were lifeless pieces of wood or stone, but that behind the idols were demonic forces. Idols were enemies of God and were disgusting and hateful in his sight (Deuteronomy 7:25; Deuteronomy 29:17; Deuteronomy 32:16-17; Ezekiel 36:17-18; 1 Corinthians 8:4; 1 Corinthians 10:19-20).
Warnings to Christians
When people turn to believe in the true and living God, they automatically turns away from their idols (1 Thessalonians 1:9). Any refusal to turn from their idols shows that they have not really repented (Revelation 9:20).
A common tendency among those who worship idols is a feeling that they are free to practise all kinds of sins, since a lifeless idol is unable to punish them (Romans 1:23-32; Ephesians 4:17-19). The self-satisfaction that comes from performing some act of idol worship produces a moral laziness and a relaxing of control over lustful desires. This is no doubt why the Bible often links idolatry with immorality (1 Corinthians 5:11; 1 Corinthians 10:7-8; Galatians 5:19-20; Revelation 9:20-21; Revelation 21:8; Revelation 22:15; cf. Numbers 25:1-2) and because immorality is a form of covetousness, idolatry is linked with covetousness (1 Corinthians 5:11; Ephesians 5:3; Ephesians 5:5). People may give so much attention to what they covet that the coveted thing takes the place of God and so becomes an idol (Colossians 3:5; see COVET).
Idolatry is linked also with wrong beliefs concerning Christ. Jesus Christ, the Son of God who died for sinners, is the true God who gives believers eternal life. The substitutes invented by false teachers are false gods, and therefore believers must keep away from them (1 John 5:20-21).
Food offered to idols
In a society where the worship of idols is widespread, Christians sometimes face the problem of whether to eat food that others have previously offered to idols. This concerns food eaten in feasts at an idolatrous temple and food eaten in meals at home.
Some Christians may feel free to eat such food, for they know that the idol is only a piece of wood or stone and that it cannot in any way change the food. Others, having once worshipped idols as if they really had life, feel it would be wrong for them to eat such food. They could easily be led into sin through doing what they believe to be wrong. Christians who feel they have the right to eat idol food should therefore limit their personal freedom, so that they do not risk damaging another believer’s life (1 Corinthians 8; 1 Corinthians 10:23-24; 1 Corinthians 10:31-33; cf. Acts 15:20; Acts 15:29; 2 Chronicles 34:4).
Another consideration is that eating together signifies fellowship. In the Lord’s Supper, those who eat the bread and drink the wine are united together with Christ, spiritually sharing in him. Similarly, those who join in idol feasts are having fellowship with the idol or, worse still, with the evil spirit behind the idol (1 Corinthians 10:14-22; cf. Exodus 32:4-6; Daniel 5:1; Daniel 5:4).
The refusal of Christians to take part in idol feasts is because of this element of fellowship, not because the food itself is changed. When they buy food at the market or eat at the house of pagan friends, they have no need to ask whether the food has been offered to idols. If the food has no obvious idolatrous associations, they should eat it and be thankful to God for it (1 Corinthians 10:25-27). If, however, someone tells them the food has been offered to idols, they should not eat, because others might misunderstand and, thinking Christians may join in idol worship, fall into sin (1 Corinthians 10:28-30).
Towards the end of the first century AD, certain false teachers actually encouraged Christians to eat food that they knew had been offered to idols. They claimed this demonstrated the Christian’s freedom from rules and regulations, but in practice it led to immorality (Revelation 2:14; Revelation 2:20). God promises a special reward to those who overcome such temptations (Revelation 2:17; Revelation 2:26-28).

Sentence search

Calf-Idol - See Idol, Idolatry ...
...
Images - See Idol, Idolatry ...
...
Medium - See Divination ; Idol, Idolatry ; Necromancy ...
...
Idolatry - Idol, Idolatry...
These things have been generally confined to the idea of the worshipping of creatures or images, but, in fact, may be properly applied to every thing which men set up in their hearts to regard, and which tend to the lessening their reverence for the Lord
Divination - Michael Hagan...
See also Idol, Idolatry ; Revelation, Idea of ...
Bibliography
Necromancy - Michael Hagan...
See also Divination ; Idol, Idolatry ; Gods and Goddesses, Pagan ...
Bibliography
Prostitution - ...
See also Gods and Goddesses, Pagan ; Idol, Idolatry ; Immorality, Sexual ...
...
Food - This created difficulties for Christians when food at such meals had previously been offered to idols (1 Corinthians 8:1-8; 1 Corinthians 10:14-21; see Idol, Idolatry)
Magic - Chavalas...
See also Divination ; Idol, Idolatry ...
Bibliography
God - In addition, it forbids the use of anything in nature or anything made by human hands as a physical image of God, for such things can lead only to wrong ideas about God (Exodus 20:4-5; Deuteronomy 4:15-19; see Idol, Idolatry)
Gods And Goddesses, Pagan - Finley...
See also Idol, Idolatry ...
Bibliography