Tired of seeing ads while studying? Now you can enjoy an "Ads Free" version of the site for as little as 10¢ a day.

Bible Dictionaries

Hastings' Dictionary of the Bible


Additional Links

IDOLATRY . Hebrew religion is represented as beginning with Abraham, who forsook the idolatry, as well as the home, of his ancestors ( Genesis 12:1 , Joshua 24:2 ); but it was specially through the influence of Moses that Jehovah was recognized as Israel’s God. The whole subsequent history up to the Exile is marked by frequent lapses into idolatry. We should therefore consider (1) the causes of Hebrew idolatry, (2) its nature, (3) the opposition it evoked, and (4) the teaching of NT. The subject is not free from difficulty, but in the light of modern Biblical study, the main outlines are clear.

1. Causes of Hebrew idolatry . (1) When, after the Exodus, the Israelites settled in Canaan among idolatrous peoples, they were far from having a pure monotheism (cf. Judges 11:24 ). Their faith was crude. ( a ) Thus the idea that their neighbours’ gods had real existence, with rights of proprietorship in the invaded land, would expose them to risk of contamination. This would be the more likely because as yet they were not a united people. The tribes had at first to act independently, and in some cases were unable to dislodge the Canaanites ( Judges 1:1-36 ). ( b ) Their environment was thus perilous, and the danger was intensified by intermarriage with idolaters. Particularly after the monarchy was established did this become a snare. Solomon and Ahab by their marriage alliances introduced and promoted idol cults. It is significant that post-exilic legislation had this danger in view, and secured that exclusiveness so characteristic of mature Judaism ( Ezra 10:2 f.). ( c ) The political relations with the great world-powers, Egypt and Assyria, would also tend to influence religious thought. This might account for the great heathen reaction under Manasseh.

(2) But, specially, certain ideas characteristic of Semitic religion generally had a strong influence. ( a ) Thus, on Israel’s settling in Canaan, the existing shrines, whether natural (hills, trees, wells each understood to have its own tutelary baal or lord) or artificial (altars, stone pillars, wooden poles), would be quite innocently used for the worship of J″ [Note: Jahweh.] . ( b ) Idols, too, were used in domestic worship ( Judges 17:5; cf. Genesis 31:19 , 1 Samuel 19:13 ). ( c ) A darker feature, inimical to Jehovism, was the sanction of sexual impurity, cruelty and lust for blood (see below, § 2 ( 1 )).

Here then was all the apparatus for either the inappropriate worship of the true God, or the appropriate worship of false gods. That was why, later on in the eighth and seventh centuries b.c., when the earlier Jehovism was changing into typical Judaism, all such apparatus was felt to be wrong, and was attacked with increasing violence by prophets and reformers, as their conception of God became more clear and spiritual.

2. Its nature . (1) Common to all Canaanite religions, apparently, was the worship of Baal as representing the male principle in nature. Each nation, however, had its own provincial Baal with a specific name or title Chemosh of Moab, Molech of Ammon, Dagon of Philistia, Hadad-Rimmon of Syria. Associated with Baalism was the worship of Ashtoreth (Astarte), representing the female principle in nature. Two features of these religions were prostitution [of both sexes] (cf. Numbers 25:1 f., Deuteronomy 23:17 f., 1 Kings 14:24 , Hosea 4:13 , Amos 2:7 , Bar 6:43 ) and human sacrifice (cf. 2 Kings 17:17 , Jeremiah 7:31 , and art. Topheth). Baalism was the chief Israelite idolatry, and sometimes, e.g. under Jezebel, it quite displaced Jehovism as the established religion.

(2) The underlying principle of all such religion was nature-worship. This helps to explain the calf-worship, represented as first introduced by Aaron, and at a later period established by Jeroboam i. In Egypt which also exercised a sinister influence on the Hebrews religion was largely of this type; but living animals, and not merely images of them, were there venerated. Connected with this idolatry is totemism , so widely traced even to-day. Some find a survival of early Semitic totemism in Ezekiel 8:10 .

(3) Another form of Hebrew nature-worship, astrolatry , was apparently of foreign extraction, and not earlier than the seventh cent. b.c. There is a striking allusion to this idolatry in Job 31:26-28 . There were sun-images ( 2 Chronicles 34:4 ), horses and chariots dedicated to the sun ( 2 Kings 23:11 ); an eastward position was adopted in sun-worship ( Ezekiel 8:16 ). The expression ‘queen of heaven’ in Jeremiah 7:18; Jeremiah 44:19 is obscure; but it probably points to this class of idolatry. In the heathen reaction under Manasseh the worship of the ‘host of heaven’ is prominent ( 2 Kings 17:16 ). Gad and Meni ( Isaiah 65:11 ) were possibly star-gods. Related to such nature-worship perhaps was the mourning for Tammuz [Adonis] ( Ezekiel 8:14 , Isaiah 17:10 RVm [Note: Revised Version margin.] ). Nature-worship of all kinds is by implication rebuked with amazing force and dignity in Genesis 1:1-31 , where the word God as Creator is written ‘in big letters over the face of creation.’ Stars and animals and all things, it is insisted, are created things, not creators, and not self-existent.

(4) There are no clear traces of ancestor-worship in OT, but some find them in the teraphim (household gods) and in the reverence for tombs ( e.g. Machpelah); in Isaiah 65:4 the context suggests idolatry.

(5) A curious mixture of idolatry and Jehovism existed in Samaria after the destruction of the Northern Kingdom. The foreign colonists brought with them the worship of various deities, and added that of J″ [Note: Jahweh.] (2 Kings 17:24-41 ). These gods cannot be identified with certainty. By this mixed race and religion the Jews of the Return were seriously hindered, and there resulted the Samaritan schism which, in an attenuated form, still exists.

3. Opposition to idolatry . While fully allowing for the facts alluded to in § 1 , it is impossible to account not for mere temporary lapses, but for the marked persistence of idolatry among the Hebrews, unless we recognize the growth which characterizes their laws and polity from the simple beginning up to the finished product. Laws do but express the highest sense of the community however deeply that sense may be quickened by Divine revelation whether those laws are viewed from the ethical or from the utilitarian standpoint. If the legislation embodied in the Pentateuch had all along been an acknowledged, even though a neglected, code, such a complete neglect of it during long periods, taken with the total silence about its distinctive features in the sayings and writings of the most enlightened and devoted men, would present phenomena quite inexplicable. It is needful, therefore, to observe that the true development from original Mosaism, though perhaps never quite neglected by the leaders of the nation, does not appear distinctly in any legislation until the closing decades of the 7th cent. b.c. This development continued through and beyond the Exile. Until the Deuteronomic epoch began, the enactments of Mosaism in regard to idolatry were clearly of the slenderest proportions. There is good reason for thinking that the Second of the Ten Commandments is not in its earliest form; and it is probable that Exodus 34:10-28 (from the document J [Note: Jahwist.] , i.e. c [Note: circa, about.] . b.c. 850) contains an earlier Decalogue, embodying such traditional Mosaic legislation as actually permitted the use of simple images (distinct from molten cultus-idols, Exodus 34:17 ). Such development accounts for the phenomena presented by the history of idolatry in Israel. For example, Samuel sacrifices in one of those ‘high places’ ( 1 Samuel 9:12 ff.) which Hezekiah removed as idolatrous ( 2 Kings 18:4 ). Elijah, the stern foe of Baalism, does not denounce the calf-worship attacked later on by Hosea. Even Isaiah can anticipate the erection in Egypt of a pillar ( Isaiah 19:19 ) like those which Josiah in the next century destroyed ( 2 Kings 23:14 ). As with reforming prophets, so with reforming kings. Jehu in Israel extirpates Baalism, but leaves the calf-worship alone ( 2 Kings 10:28 f.). In Judah, where heathenism went to greater lengths, but where wholesome reaction was equally strong, Asa, an iconoclastic reformer, tolerates ‘high places’ ( 1 Kings 15:12-14; cf. Jehoshaphat’s attitude, 1 Kings 22:43 ). It was the work of the 8th cent. prophets that prepared the way for the remarkable reformation under Josiah ( 2 Kings 22:1-20; 2 Kings 23:1-37 ). Josiah’s reign was epoch-making in everything connected with Hebrew religious thought and practice. To this period must be assigned that Deuteronomic legislation which completed the earlier attempts at reformation. This legislation aims at the complete destruction of everything suggestive of idolatry. A code, otherwise humane, is on this point extremely severe: idolatry was punishable by death ( Deuteronomy 17:2-7; cf. Deuteronomy 6:15; Deuteronomy 8:19; Deuteronomy 13:6-10 etc.). Such a view of idolatry exhibits in its correct perspective the teaching of Jeremiah and Ezekiel, the elaborate Levitical enactments, the exilic and post-exilic literature. Distinctive Judaism has succeeded to Jehovism, monotheism has replaced henotheism, racial and religious exclusiveness has supplanted the earlier eclecticism. The Exile marks practically the end of Hebrew idolatry. The lesson has been learned by heart.

A striking proof of the great change is given by the Maccabæan war, caused by the attempt of Antiochus Epiphanes to force idolatry on the very nation which in an earlier period had been only too prone to accept it. Relations with Rome in the 1 JJames 2:1-26 nd centuries a.d. illustrate the same temper. Had not Caligula’s death so soon followed his insane proposal to erect his statue in the Temple, the Jews would assuredly have offered the most determined resistance; a century later they did actively resist Rome when Hadrian desecrated the site of the ruined Temple.

4. Teaching of the NT . As idolatry was thus nonexistent in Judaism in the time of Christ, it is not surprising that He does not allude to it. St. Paul, however, came into direct conflict with it. The word itself ( eidôlolatreia ) occurs first in his writings; we have his illuminating teaching on the subject in Romans 1:18-32 , Acts 17:22-31 , 1 Corinthians 8:1-13 etc. But idolatry in Christian doctrine has a wider significance than the service of material idols. Anything that interferes between the soul and its God is idolatrous, and is to be shunned (cf. Ephesians 5:5 , Philippians 3:19 , 1 John 5:20 f., and the context of Galatians 5:20 etc.). See also art. Images.

H. F. B. Compston.

Copyright Statement
These files are public domain.
Text Courtesy of Used by Permission.

Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Idolatry'. Hastings' Dictionary of the Bible. 1909.

Search for…
Enter query in the box below:
Choose a letter to browse:
Prev Entry
Next Entry