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Bridgeway Bible Dictionary

Idol, Idolatry

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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; Judges 10:6; 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; 2 Chronicles 34:4). 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; Isaiah 41:6-7; 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; Romans 14:13-23).

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).


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Bibliography Information
Fleming, Don. Entry for 'Idol, Idolatry'. Bridgeway Bible Dictionary. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/bbd/i/idol-idolatry.html. 2004.

Lectionary Calendar
Thursday, November 21st, 2019
the Week of Proper 28 / Ordinary 33
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