Idolatry is the attributing worship to any person or thing that is not the true God, the creator and sustainer of the universe. It is specifically seen in setting up an image to represent the unseen God to be worshiped.
In the first and second Commandments, God identifies himself as the one who exists (His Name being derived from the Hebrew verb meaning "To be") in a special relationship with those who he has chosen to rescue from a world that rejects Him.
Since God cannot be seen by mankind, men have sought to represent Him in forms that they can see. This may have been a part of the evil world before the Flood, but certainly came by the time of civilization in Ur of the Chaldees, for Terah, Abraham's father, "worshiped other gods".
The first idol mentioned in Scripture was the household image originally owned by Laben, the father to both Jacob's wives. These were images of his household "gods." Apparently the house of Terah continued in its pagan ways back in Panran Aram. In this case, Jacob's ignorance of Rachel's theft could have cost her her life, though it is doubtful if Laben would have taken advantage of Jacob's oath to have the thief among his household put to death.
Even as God was writing the Law on the tablets the first time, the people in the plain below Mount Sinai got restless. Forgetting the miracles by which they were delivered from bondage, they were thought that He was "busy" on the mountain with Moses. Perhaps they thought God was going to kill him. Whatever the case, they wanted to be able to see God, so they asked Aaron to build them a replica of a calf to represent the true God. With some of the loot from Egypt, a golden calf was made, and set up to worship. The worst part about it was the people treated the worship as a wild orgy — reminiscent of fertility cultists throughout the ages. Since Aaron had made the calf for the people, God used Levites to render judgment on about three thousand of the idolaters.
After the days of Joshua, Moses' successor, the tribes of Israel sought to assert themselves against the forces of the enemies of God left in the land. Without God's help they were helpless and none of the compromises they made with their neighbors did any good. At one point in the history of the judges, a man named Micah made many images of gold and silver, and went so far as to anoint his own son, of the tribe of Ephraim, to be his priest. When a true Levite came along, he hired him to replace his son in the position. This would not do for a band of men from the tribe of Dan, who hired the priest away from Micah. The idols went with him as he joined the murderous band to establish a Danite religion in the far north of the promised land.
Even the ark of the covenant was once used as an "idol" of sorts. The battle was not going good against the Philistines, so the king, Saul, had the priests, corrupt sons of the high priest Eli, to carry the ark into battle. Having left the tabernacle, the ark was captured and put in a pagan temple. The idol near it was destroyed as a lesson to the Philistines who quickly made a deal to send the ark back. The ark would never be inside the tabernacle made for Moses again.
Less than 40 years after the temple had been built, and the ark returned to the Holiest of holies, civil war broke out and the united kingdom was split. King Jeroboam of the new nation that presumptuously took the name "Israel" acted quickly to keep a drain of his people back to Jerusalem. This was accomplished by setting up images of the golden calf in two temples, one in Bethel and one in Dan. After that, no true religion was possible in the northern kingdom.
In the course of history, sacred relics can become idols to people who cherish them. The most notable of these was the snake of brass that Moses had erected as a focus point for prayer for salvation in a time of great distress. Though mentioned by Jesus as a symbol, it had been destroyed by Hezekiah along with other idols being worshiped in high places throughout Judah.
The most notable idol in the Old Testament was not set up in Israel, but in Babylon, during the captivity of the southern kingdom (Judah, and afterwards called "Jews"). After a remarkable dream about a statue made of many metals, the "head of gold" — Nebuchadnezzar — sought to be honored with a huge monument, possibly an obelisk, six cubits (9 feet) wide and sixty cubits (90 feet) tall. When he called for all the people, and especially his governmental leadership, to bow down to the image to show loyalty to his empire. Three of those officials were Jewish men trained in all things Babylonian. But they were also loyal to the Law of God. They chose punishment — death by fire — over this requirement. God was faithful to them, sending an angel (a 'son of God') — or quite possibly came Himself in the person of the preincarnate Son — to protect them.
In the New Testament, the Apostle Paul amused the Athenians with his preaching among a plaza filled with idols. This proved to be an advantage, for he pointed to an altar "To the Unknown God." Apparently there was no idol there, but that was because the Athenians had no idea what the missing deity might look like. And so, Paul took the opportunity to preach about the Creator, and they about the coming judgment by the very one who had been raised from the dead. For the most part, this did not go over well.
Though tempted into forms of idolatry, the early church did not face true "idols" until the Roman emperors began to demand worship to statues built in their honor. This problem is reflected in the Revelation to John, and is typical of the worship set up in the anti-Christian system(s) that were to follow. John is shown a world ruler, called "the beast" who would have a "false prophet." These evil agents of Satan are seen putting up an "image" that actually speaks. This is the "ultimate" idol.
Idolatry in the New Testament
Jesus would be worshiped even as an infant, and at that point his godly parents do not object. As Jesus would later remind Satan, worship is only for the One true God. After refusing to worship Satan, Jesus would call his apostles, only to have some of them worship him. In these cases, as with his earthly parents, there was no rebuke of the worshipers.
Paul and his companion were once mistaken as the "gods" Hermes (Mercury) and Zeus (Jupiter). They did not let this worship pass, going so far as to tear their garments (a sign of humility and fear before the true God), they confirmed their own mortality and pointed their pagan admirers to the Creator God who provides all good things to mankind.
As Paul began to reach out to the nations outside of "Israel" (also known as "the Gentiles"), he encountered first Jewish congregations. Some were coming to believe the the gospel. However, they still had a "problem" with those Gentiles that did not respect the Law of Moses. At the first general council of the leadership of the church (mostly the apostles, but led by James, brother of Jesus), it was decided that Gentiles that basically followed the existing requirements for Gentiles under Jewish law would suffice: abstain from meat that had been offered to idols, and from things strangled, and from fornication (sexual sin). These practices were quite common when it came to the pagan religions of that day.
The assembly at Corinth had problems with eating that meat offered to idols. Paul used the problem as a teaching opportunity. Those idols, he reminded them are worthless man-made objects with no power at all. The food offered to them is good, but only if it is not offensive to a fellow believer. Idols are hard to abandon, and anything that reminds someone of former idols can distract from obedience to God. For this reason, Jesus had promised to send the Holy Spirit to live among believers, to be an ever-present Comforter to struggling believers. There is not room for "idols" and their temples when the temple of God is both in individual Christians and among the collected body which is the world-wide church.
Throughout the early church's history, from Paul's earliest epistle (in which idolatry is listed between sexual sin and "witchcraft" (pharmakeia: drug related activity!) as a "work of the flesh") to the end of the Revelation of Jesus to John (listed again as being a sin against God), idolatry remained a big problem. And no wonder, for Paul tells the Colossians that "covetousness" is the same as idolatry!! It is not without significance that the tenth commandment lists "your neighbor's wife" as the second only to his house as temptations to sin. The ancient connection between idolatry and sexual sin is still alive over three millennia from the time those words were inscribed upon the stones.
- ↑ Joshua 24:2 (Link)
- ↑ Genesis 31:30-35 (Link)
- ↑ Exodus 32:1-6, 26-28 (Link)
- ↑ Judges 17—18 (Link)
- ↑ 1 Samuel 4—6 (Link)
- ↑ 1 Kings 12:28-29 (Link)
- ↑ Numbers 21:8 (Link)
- ↑ John 3:14 (Link)
- ↑ 2 Kings 18:4 (Link)
- ↑ Daniel 2:38 (Link)
- ↑ Daniel 3:14-25 (Link)
- ↑ Acts 17:13-34 (Link)
- ↑ Revelation 13:12-15 (Link)
- ↑ Matthew 2:2 (Link)
- ↑ Matthew 4:9-10; Luke 4:7-8 (Link)
- ↑ Luke 5:8; John 20:28 (Link)
- ↑ Acts 14:12-18 (Link)
- ↑ Acts 15:20-29 (Link)
- ↑ 1 Corinthians 8:1-10 (Link)
- ↑ 1 Corinthians 6:16-20 (Link)
- ↑ 1 Corinthians 3:16-17. (Link)
- ↑ Galatians 5:20 (Link)
- ↑ Revelation 22:15 (Link)
- ↑ Colossians 3:5 (Link)
- ↑ Exodus 20:17 (Link)