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It is said that the Eskimos have many words for snow and that the Arabs have many words for sand. In other words, if something is important in a particular culture, that culture will use many words to express various aspects of that thing.
Idolatry is an important issue in the Bible, as is indicated in part by the fact that 13 Hebrew words are translated as “idol” or “idolatry” in our English versions. From Genesis to Revelation, the Scriptures depict human beings engaging in idolatrous practices—including God’s covenant people. Time and time again, they succumb to this pervasive sin.
Two types of idolatry are addressed in the Old Testament. The first is the worship of gods other than Yahweh. The second is the worship of Yahweh by means of carved images.
The first type is condemned by the first commandment—”You shall have no other gods before Me” (Ex. 20:3). Nonetheless, it was common in Israel. In Joshua’s rehearsal of Israel’s history, he said that the generations before Abraham “served other gods” (24:2), and God directed Abraham to leave Mesopotamia partly to separate him from the common idolatry and to direct him to the worship of Yahweh alone. But Numbers 25 tells how the Israelites fell under judgment because “Israel was joined to Baal of Peor” (v. 3). Later, Amos charged that Israel in the wilderness engaged in more idolatry than is described in the Pentateuch: “Did you offer Me sacrifices and offerings in the wilderness forty years, O house of Israel? You also carried Sikkuth your king and Chiun, your idols, the star of your gods, which you made for yourselves” (Amos 5:25–26).
In the period of the judges, such idolatry was common in Israel, as is attested by the story of Micah and his Levite, which idolatry was adopted by the tribe of Dan (Judg. 17–18). This is further confirmed by the testimony of Psalm 106:35–36: “But they mingled with the Gentiles and learned their works; they served their idols, which became a snare to them.”
There is abundant evidence of idolatrous practices among the Israelites in the period of the monarchy. The most memorable event was the challenge of Elijah to the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel (1 Kings 18). Though worship of Baal occurred in other periods of Israel’s history, as noted above, it appears that the form of Baal worship that Elijah opposed had been introduced by Jezebel, who was from Tyre, an ancient center of the worship of Baal. It is probably also the case that under the rule of Ahab and Jezebel, the worship of Baal became the official state religion in the northern kingdom.
However, idolatry during the period of the monarchy did not begin with Ahab and Jezebel. Rather, it was sanctioned by Solomon when he built altars to foreign gods, having been led astray by his foreign wives (1 Kings 11:1–8). Among other transgressions, he is said to have “built a high place for Chemosh the abomination of Moab” (1 Kings 11:7).
Such high places remained a constant through most of the period of the monarchy. In the reign of Solomon’s son Rehoboam, for example, we are told, “For they also built for themselves high places, sacred pillars, and wooden images on every high hill and under every green tree” (1 Kings 14:23). Scripture testifies that King Asa “removed all the idols that his fathers had made … but the high places were not removed” (1 Kings 15:12–14a). Other kings receive similar testimonies, while only Hezekiah (2 Kings 18) and Josiah (2 Kings 23) are said to have removed the high places.
The idolatry sanctioned by Manasseh, however, earned the final, irrevocable word of judgment from the Lord. Manasseh’s systematic and thorough introduction of idolatry into Israel is recounted in 2 Kings 21:1–7, with the condemnation coming in verses 10 and following. The sort of syncretistic worship patterns that resulted are described most eloquently by the writer of 2 Kings, when, in speaking of the area of the northern kingdom after it had been resettled by the Assyrians, he says, “They feared the Lord, yet served their own gods” (2 Kings 17:33).
This type of idolatry was regularly condemned by the prophets in both the southern and northern kingdoms. Hosea, speaking to the northern kingdom, said, “My people ask counsel from their wooden idols…they offer sacrifices on the mountaintops” (4:12–13a). Ezekiel, in the waning days of the southern kingdom described the gross idolatry of the people as he saw it in his temple vision: “So I went in and saw, and there—every sort of creeping thing, abominable beasts, and all the idols of the house of Israel, portrayed all around on the walls” (8:10). But the most extended denunciation of idolatry is found in Isaiah 44 and 46. In the former chapter, Isaiah mockingly describes the man who makes an idol and firewood from the same log, too spiritually dull to see the silliness of what he does. In the latter chapter, Isaiah vividly contrasts the impotence of idols with the omnipotence of Yahweh.
The second type of idolatry is condemned in the second commandment—”You shall not make for yourself a carved image…you shall not bow down to them nor serve them” (Ex. 20:4–5a).
That this command refers primarily to the worship of Yahweh by means of images is indicated by two considerations. First, the worship of other gods is already condemned in the first commandment. Second, on occasion, images were made that were intended to depict Yahweh, and these were condemned.
The first occasion was the making of the golden calf (Ex. 32). When presenting the idol to the people, Aaron announced, “This is your god, O Israel, that brought you out of the land of Egypt” and “Tomorrow is a feast to the Lord [Yahweh]” (Ex. 32:4, 5). A second occasion is found in 1 Kings 12, when Jeroboam presented the golden calves; virtually quoting Aaron, he said, “Here are your gods, O Israel, which brought you up from the land of Egypt” (v. 28). It seems clear that, to Jeroboam, these images were intended to represent Yahweh, not some other deity. This form of idolatry became known as the “sin of Jeroboam,” and all subsequent rulers of the northern kingdom were found guilty of it.
The aniconic (“no icon,” that is, “no image”) worship of Yahweh is also explicitly addressed in Deuteronomy 4:15–16a. It says, “Take careful heed to yourselves, for you saw no form when the Lord spoke to you at Horeb out of the midst of the fire, lest you act corruptly and make for yourselves a carved image in the form of any figure.”
It is probably also the case that many of the high places were used, not for the worship of other gods, but for the worship of Yahweh. This was clearly so in the period before the building of the temple at Jerusalem, for 1 Kings 3:2 says, “Meanwhile the people sacrificed at the high places, because there was no house built for the name of the Lord until those days.” The very next verse, speaking of Solomon’s own practice, says, “Solomon loved the Lord, walking in the statutes of his father David, except that he sacrificed and burned incense at the high places.” These high places were not authorized by Yahweh, hence the worship carried out there was essentially idolatrous. A final text indicating that many of the high places were dedicated to the worship of Yahweh is Isaiah 36:7, where the Rabshakeh said, “But if you say to me, ‘We trust in the Lord our God,’ is it not He whose high places and whose altars Hezekiah has taken away?”
The New Testament world was as filled with images of deities as was the Old Testament world. Acts 17:16 testifies of Athens “that the city was given over to idols.” That is, the city was filled with images of multitudes of deities. Gentile believers in the early church came out of this context, so apostolic warnings against idolatry are frequent.
In that first-century context, the danger of idolatry was twofold. First, there was the danger of the Christian lapsing into the worship of other gods. Second, there was the danger of the Christian importing the use of images into his worship of the one true God. Most of the warnings in the New Testament seem to be directed against the first type of idolatry, but some may be directed at the second. For example, 1 John 5:21 says, “Little children, keep yourselves from idols.” Though this may be a warning against lapsing into the worship of other gods, the context, which focuses on knowing the true God through His Son, Jesus Christ, may make this a warning against a false worship of the true God by means of man-made images. Likewise, 1 Corinthians 10:14—”Therefore, my beloved, flee from idolatry”—comes in the context of Paul speaking of the idolatry of the Israelites in the golden calf episode.
Idolatry is endemic to the human race. In our sinful rejection of the true God, we turn to images made to our own standards. Or, in worshiping the true God, we seek to re-create Him in our own image. These are the dangers facing us. We have the warning of the judgment that fell on the Old Testament church, and we have the letters to the seven churches in Revelation, which also warn against idolatry. Will we heed the warnings?