image-worship or divine honour paid to any created object. Paul describes the origin of idolatry in Rom. 1:21-25: men forsook God, and sank into ignorance and moral corruption (1:28).
The forms of idolatry are, (1.) Fetishism, or the worship of trees, rivers, hills, stones, etc.
(2.) Nature worship, the worship of the sun, moon, and stars, as the supposed powers of nature.
(3.) Hero worship, the worship of deceased ancestors, or of heroes.
In Scripture, idolatry is regarded as of heathen origin, and as being imported among the Hebrews through contact with heathen nations. The first allusion to idolatry is in the account of Rachel stealing her father's teraphim (Gen. 31:19), which were the relics of the worship of other gods by Laban's progenitors "on the other side of the river in old time" (Josh. 24:2). During their long residence in Egypt the Hebrews fell into idolatry, and it was long before they were delivered from it (Josh. 24:14; Ezek. 20:7). Many a token of God's displeasure fell upon them because of this sin.
The idolatry learned in Egypt was probably rooted out from among the people during the forty years' wanderings; but when the Jews entered Palestine, they came into contact with the monuments and associations of the idolatry of the old Canaanitish races, and showed a constant tendency to depart from the living God and follow the idolatrous practices of those heathen nations. It was their great national sin, which was only effectually rebuked by the Babylonian exile. That exile finally purified the Jews of all idolatrous tendencies.
The first and second commandments are directed against idolatry of every form. Individuals and communities were equally amenable to the rigorous code. The individual offender was devoted to destruction (Ex. 22:20). His nearest relatives were not only bound to denounce him and deliver him up to punishment (Deut. 13:20-10), but their hands were to strike the first blow when, on the evidence of two witnesses at least, he was stoned (Deut. 17:2-7). To attempt to seduce others to false worship was a crime of equal enormity (13:6-10). An idolatrous nation shared the same fate. No facts are more strongly declared in the Old Testament than that the extermination of the Canaanites was the punishment of their idolatry (Ex. 34:15, 16; Deut. 7; 12:29-31; 20:17), and that the calamities of the Israelites were due to the same cause (Jer. 2:17). "A city guilty of idolatry was looked upon as a cancer in the state; it was considered to be in rebellion, and treated according to the laws of war. Its inhabitants and all their cattle were put to death." Jehovah was the theocratic King of Israel, the civil Head of the commonwealth, and therefore to an Israelite idolatry was a state offence (1 Sam. 15:23), high treason. On taking possession of the land, the Jews were commanded to destroy all traces of every kind of the existing idolatry of the Canaanites (Ex. 23:24, 32; 34:13; Deut. 7:5, 25; 12:1-3).
In the New Testament the term idolatry is used to designate covetousness (Matt. 6:24; Luke 16:13; Col. 3:5; Eph. 5:5).
strictly speaking denotes the worship of deity in a visible form, whether the images to which homage is paid are symbolical representations of the true God or of the false divinities which have been made the objects of worship in his stead. I. History of idolatry among the Jews.
--The first undoubted allusion to idolatry or idolatrous customs in the Bible is in the account of Rachel?s stealing her father?s teraphim. (Genesis 31:19
) During their long residence in Egypt the Israelites defiled themselves with the idols of the land, and it was long before the taint was removed. (Joshua 24:14
; Ezekiel 20:7
) In the wilderness they clamored for some visible shape in which they might worship the God who had brought them out of Egypt. (Exodus 32:1
) ... until Aaron made the calf, the embodiment of Apis and emblem of the productive power of nature. During the lives of Joshua and the elders who outlived him they kept true to their allegiance; but the generation following who knew not Jehovah nor the works he had done for Israel, swerved from the plain path of their fathers and were caught in the toils of the foreigner. (Judges 2:1
) ... From this time forth their history becomes little more than a chronicle of the inevitable sequence of offence and punishment. (Judges 2:12,14
) By turns each conquering nation strove to establish the worship of its national God. In later times the practice of secret idolatry was carried to greater lengths. Images were set up on the corn-floors, in the wine-vats, and behind the doors of private houses, (Isaiah 57:8
; Hosea 9:1,2
) and to check this tendency the statute in (27:15
) was originally promulgated. Under Samuel?s administration idolatry was publicly renounced, (1Â Samuel 7:3-6
) but in the reign of Solomon all this was forgotten, even Solomon?s own heart being turned after other gods. (1Â Kings 11:14
) Rehoboam perpetuated the worst features of Solomon?s idolatry. (1Â Kings 14:22-24
) erected golden calves at Beth-el and at Dan, and by this crafty state? policy severed forever the kingdoms of Judah and Israel. (1Â Kings 12:26-33
) The successors of Jeroboam followed in his steps, till Ahab. The conquest of the ten tribes by Shalmaneser was for them the last scene Of the drama of abominations which had been enacted uninterruptedly for upwards of 250 years. Under Hezekiah a great reform was inaugurated, that was not confined to Judah and Benjamin, but spread throughout Ephraim and Manasseh. (2Â Chronicles 31:1
) and to all external appearances idolatry was extirpated. But the reform extended little below the surface. (Isaiah 29:13
) With the death of Josiah ended the last effort to revive among the people a purer ritual. If not a purer faith. The lamp of David, which had long shed but a struggling ray, flickered for a while and then went out in the darkness of Babylonian Captivity. Though the conquests of Alexander caused Greek influence to be felt, yet after the captivity better condition of things prevailed, and the Jews never again fell into idolatry. The erection of synagogues had been assigned as a reason for the comparative purity of the Jewish worship after the captivity, while another cause has been discovered in the hatred for images acquired by the Jews in their intercourse with the Persians. II. Objects of idolatry
.--The sun and moon were early selected as outward symbols of all-pervading power, and the worship of the heavenly bodies was not only the most ancient but the most prevalent system of idolatry. Taking its rise in the plains of Chaldea, it spread through Egypt, Greece, Scythia, and even Mexico and Ceylon. Comp. (4:19
; Job 31:20-28
) In the later times of the monarchy, the planets or the zodiacal signs received, next to the sun and moon, their share of popular adoration. (2Â Kings 23:5
) Beast-worship, as exemplified in the calves of Jeroboam, has already been alluded to of pure hero-worship among the Semitic races we find no trace. The singular reverence with which trees have been honored is not without example in the history of the Hebrew. The terebinth (oak) at Mamre, beneath which Abraham built an altar, (Genesis 12:7
) and the memorial grove planted by him at Beersheba, (Genesis 21:33
) were intimately connected with patriarchal worship. Mountains and high places were chosen spots for offering sacrifice and incense to idols, (1Â Kings 11:7
) and the retirement of gardens and the thick shade of woods offered great attractions to their worshippers. (2Â Kings 16:4
; Isaiah 1:29
; Hosea 4:13
) The host of heaven was worshipped on the house-top. (2Â Kings 23:12
; Jeremiah 19:3
; Zephaniah 1:5
) (The modern objects of idolatry are less gross than the ancient, but are none the less idols. Whatever of wealth or honor or pleasure is loved and sought before God and righteousness becomes an object of idolatry. --ED.) III. Punishment of idolatry
. --Idolatry to an Israelite was a state offence, (1Â Samuel 15:23
) a political crime of the greatest character, high treason against the majesty of his king. The first and second commandments are directed against idolatry of every form. Individuals and communities were equally amenable to the rigorous code. The individual offender was devoted to destruction, (Exodus 22:20
) his nearest relatives were not only bound to denounce him and deliver him up to punishment, (13:2-10
) but their hands were to strike the first blow, when, on the evidence of two witnesses at least, he was stoned. (17:2-5
) To attempt to seduce others to false worship was a crime of equal enormity. (13:6-10
) IV. Attractions of idolatry
. --Many have wondered why the Israelites were so easily led away from the true God, into the worship of idols. (1) Visible, outward signs, with shows, pageants, parades, have an attraction to the natural heart, which often fail to perceive the unseen spiritual realities. (2) But the greatest attraction seems to have been in licentious revelries and obscene orgies with which the worship of the Oriental idols was observed. This worship, appealing to every sensual passion, joined with the attractions of wealth and fashion and luxury, naturally was a great temptation to a simple, restrained, agricultural people, whose worship and law demands the greatest purity of heart and of life.--ED.)
- 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 (Hos 8:5,6
); 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 Cor 10:14
; Gal 5:20
; Col 3:5
; 1 Pet 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 (Ezek 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 Ki 17:16
; 23:4,12; Jer 19:13
; Ezek 8:16
; Am 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 (Am 2:7,8; compare 1 Ki 14:23 f), and also appealed greatly to magic and soothsaying (e.g. Isa 2:6; 3:2; 8:19).
Sacrifices to the idols were offered by fire (Hos 4:13); libations were poured out (Isa 57:6; Jer 7:18); the first-fruits of the earth and tithes were presented (Hos 2:8); tables of food were set before them (Isa 65:11); the worshippers kissed the idols or threw them kisses (1 Ki 19:18; Hos 13:2; Job 31:27); stretched out their hands in adoration (Isa 44:20); knelt or prostrated themselves before them and sometimes danced about the altar, gashing themselves with knives (1 Ki 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 (Lev 19:4; Isa 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. Jer 3:16; Am 5:21-25). These prophecies produced a strong reaction against the previously popular idol-worship, though later indications of this worship are not infrequent (Ezek 14:1-8; Isa 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.
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