Easton's Bible Dictionary
Image-worship or divine honour paid to any created object.
Paul describes the origin of idolatry in Romans 1:21 - 25 : men forsook God, and
sank into ignorance and moral corruption ( Romans 1:28 ).
The forms of idolatry are,
| (1) Fetishism, or the worship of trees, rivers, hills,
(2) Nature worship, the worship of the sun, moon, and stars, as the supposed powers
(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 ( Genesis
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" ( Joshua 24:2 ). During their long
residence in Egypt the Hebrews fell into idolatry, and it was long before they
were delivered from it ( Joshua 24:14 ; Ezekiel 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 ( Exodus 22:20 ). His nearest relatives were
not only bound to denounce him and deliver him up to punishment ( Deuteronomy
13:20 - 10 ), but their hands were to strike the first blow when, on the evidence
of two witnesses at least, he was stoned ( Deuteronomy 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 ( Exodus 34:15 , 34:16 ; Deuteronomy 7 ; 12:29 - 31 ; 20:17
), and that the calamities of the Israelites were due to the same cause ( Jeremiah
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 Samuel 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 ( Exodus 23:24 , 23:32 ; 34:13 ; Deuteronomy
7:5 , 7:25 ; 12:1 - 3 ).
In the New Testament the term idolatry is used to designate covetousness ( Matthew
6:24 ; Luke 16:13 ; Colossians 3:5 ; Ephesians 5:5 ).
Hitchcock's Dictionary of Bible Names
Smith's Bible Dictionary
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 Rachels stealing her fathers 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 Judges 2:14
) 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 , 9:2 ) and to check this tendency
the statute in ( Deuteronomy 27:15 ) was originally promulgated. Under Samuels
administration idolatry was publicly renounced, ( 1 Samuel 7:3-6 ) but in the
reign of Solomon all this was forgotten, even Solomons own heart being turned
after other gods. ( 1 Kings 11:14 ) Rehoboam perpetuated the worst features of
Solomons idolatry. ( 1 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. ( 1 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.
( 2 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. ( Deuteronomy
4:19 ; 17:3 ; 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. ( 2 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 ; 13:18 ) 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, ( 1 Kings 11:7 ; 14:23 ) and the retirement of gardens and the
thick shade of woods offered great attractions to their worshippers. ( 2 Kings
16:4 ; Isaiah 1:29 ; Hosea 4:13 ) The host of heaven was worshipped on the house-top.
( 2 Kings 23:12 ; Jeremiah 19:3 ; 32:29 ; 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, ( 1 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, ( Deuteronomy 13:2 - 10
) but their hands were to strike the first blow, when, on the evidence of two
witnesses at least, he was stoned. ( Deuteronomy 17:2 - 5 ) To attempt to seduce
others to false worship was a crime of equal enormity. ( Deuteronomy 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
(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.)
International Standard Bible Encyclopedia
i-dol'-a-tri (teraphim, "household idols," "idolatry";
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 ;
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.
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
bible commentary, bible reference, bible study, covetousness, define, forms of idolatry, history of idolatry, idolatry, objects of idolatry