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Bible Encyclopedias

Kitto's Popular Cyclopedia of Biblial Literature

Idolatry

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In giving a summary view of the forms of idolatry which are mentioned in the Bible, it is expedient to exclude all notice of those illegal images which were indeed designed to bear some symbolical reference to the worship of the true God, but which partook of the nature of idolatry; such, for example, as the golden calf of Aaron (cf. ); those of Jeroboam; the singular ephods of Gideon and Micah (; ); and the Teraphim.

Idolatry was the most heinous offence against the Mosaic law, which is most particular in defining the acts that constitute the crime, and severe in apportioning the punishment. Thus, it is forbidden to make any image of a strange god to prostrate oneself before such an image, or before those natural objects which were also worshipped without images, as the sun and moon (); to suffer the altars, images, or groves of idols to stand (); or to keep the gold and silver of which their images were made, and to suffer it to enter the house (); to sacrifice to idols, most especially to offer human sacrifices; to eat of the victims offered to idols by others; to prophesy in the name of a strange god; and to adopt any of the rites used in idolatrous worship, and to transfer them to the worship of the Lord (). As for punishment, the law orders that if an individual committed idolatry he should be stoned to death (); that if a town was guilty of this sin, its inhabitants and cattle should be slain, and its spoils burnt together with the town itself (). To what degree also the whole spirit of the Old Testament is abhorrent from idolatry, is evident (besides legal prohibitions, prophetic denunciations, and energetic appeals like that in ) from the literal sense of the terms which are used as synonyms for idols and their worship. Thus idols are called the inane (); vanities (; ); nothing (); abominations (); and their worship is called whoredom.

The early existence of idolatry is evinced by , where it is stated that Abram and his immediate ancestors dwelling in Mesopotamia 'served other gods.' The terms in , and particularly the plural form of the verb, seem to show that some members of Terah's family had each different gods. From , and , we learn that the Israelites, during their sojourn in Egypt, were seduced to worship the idols of that country; although we possess no particular account of their transgression. In , and , it is stated that they committed idolatry in their journey through the wilderness; and in , sq., that they worshipped the Moabite idol Baal-peor at Shittim. After the Israelites had obtained possession of the Promised Land, we find that they were continually tempted to adopt the idolatries of the Canaanite nations with which they came in contact. The book of Judges enumerates several successive relapses into this sin. The gods which they served during this period were Baal and Ashtoreth, and their modifications; and Syria, Sidon, Moab, Ammon, and Philistia, are named in , as the sources from which they derived their idolatries. Then Samuel appears to have exercised a beneficial influence in weaning the people from this folly (1 Samuel 7); and the worship of the Lord acquired a gradually increasing hold on the nation until the time of Solomon, who was induced in his old age to permit the establishment of idolatry at Jerusalem. On the division of the nation, the kingdom of Israel (besides adhering to the sin of Jeroboam to the last) was specially devoted to the worship of Baal, which Ahab had renewed and carried to an unprecedented height; and although the energetic measures adopted by Jehu, and afterwards by the priest Jehoiada, to suppress this idolatry, may have been the cause why there is no later express mention of Baal, yet it is evident from ; , that the worship of Asherah continued until the deportation of the ten tribes. This event also introduced the peculiar idolatries of the Assyrian colonists into Samaria. In the kingdom of Judah, on the other hand, idolatry continued during the two succeeding reigns; was suppressed for a time by Asa (); was revived in consequence of Joram marrying into the family of Ahab; was continued by Ahaz; received a check from Hezekiah; broke out again more violently under Manasseh; until Josiah made the most vigorous attempt to suppress it. But even Josiah's efforts to restore the worship of the Lord were ineffectual; for the later prophets, Zephaniah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel, still continue to utter reproofs against idolatry. Nor did the capture of Jerusalem under Jehoiachim awaken this peculiarly sensual people; for Ezekiel (1 Kings 8) shows that those who were left in Jerusalem under the government of Zedekiah had given themselves up to many kinds of idolatry; and Jeremiah () charges those inhabitants of Judah who had found an asylum in Egypt, with having turned to serve the gods of that country. On the restoration of the Jews after the Babylonian captivity, they appear, for the first time in their history, to have been permanently impressed with a sense of the degree to which their former idolatries had been an insult to God, and a degradation of their own understanding—an advance in the culture of the nation which may in part be ascribed to the influence of the Persian abhorrence of images, as well as to the effects of the exile as a chastisement. In this state they continued until Antiochus Epiphanes made the last and fruitless attempt to establish the Greek idolatry in Palestine (1 Maccabees 1).

The particular forms of idolatry into which the Israelites fell are described under the names of the different gods which they worshipped [ASHTORETH, BAAL, etc.]: the general features of their idolatry require a brief notice here. According to Movers, the religion of all the idolatrous Syro-Arabian nations was a deification of the powers and laws of nature, an adoration of those objects in which these powers are considered to abide, and by which they act. The deity is thus the invisible power in nature itself, that power which manifests itself as the generator, sustainer, and destroyer of its works. This view admits of two modifications: either the separate powers of nature are regarded as so many different gods, and the objects by which these powers are manifested—as the sun, moon, etc.—are regarded as their images and supporters; or the power of nature is considered to be one and indivisible, and only to differ as to the forms under which it manifests itself. Both views coexist in almost all religions. The most simple and ancient notion, however, is that which conceives the deity to be in a human form, as male and female, and which considers the male sex to be the type of its active, generative, and destructive power; while that passive power of nature whose function is to conceive and bring forth, is embodied under the female form. The human form and the diversity of sex lead naturally to the different ages of life—to the old man and the youth, the matron and the virgin—according to the modifications of the conception; and the myths which represent the influences, the changes, the laws, and the relations of these natural powers under the sacred histories of such gods, constitute a harmonious development of such a religious system.

Those who saw the deity manifested by, or conceived him as resident in, any natural objects, could not fail to regard the sun and moon as the potent rulers of day and night, and the sources of those influences on which all animated nature depends. Hence star-worship forms a prominent feature in all the false religions mentioned in the Bible. Of this character chiefly were the Egyptian, the Canaanite, the Chaldean, and the Persian religions. The Persian form of astrolatry, however, deserves to be distinguished from the others; for it allowed no images nor temples of the god, but worshipped him in his purest symbol, fire. It is understood that this form is alluded to in most of those passages which mention the worship of the sun, moon, and heavenly host, by incense, on heights (; ; ). The other form of astrolatry, in which the idea of the sun, moon, and planets is blended with the worship of the god in the form of an idol, and with the addition of a mythology (as may be seen in the relations of Baal and his cognates to the sun), easily degenerates into lasciviousness and cruel rites.

The images of the gods were, as to material, of stone, wood, silver, and gold. Those of metal had a trunk or stock of wood, and were covered with plates of silver or gold (); or were cast. The general rites of idolatrous worship consist in burning incense; in offering bloodless sacrifices, as the dough-cakes and libations in , and the raisin-cakes in ; in sacrificing victims (), and especially in human sacrifices [MOLOCH]. These offerings were made on high places, hills, and roofs of houses, or in shady groves and valleys. Some forms of idolatrous worship had libidinous orgies [ASHTORETH]. Divinations, oracles (), and rabdomancy () form a part of many of these false religions. The priesthood was generally a numerous body; and where persons of both sexes were attached to the service of any god, that service was infamously immoral. It is remarkable that the Pentateuch makes no mention of any temple of idols; afterwards we read often of such.

 

 

 

 


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Bibliography Information
Kitto, John, ed. Entry for 'Idolatry'. "Kitto's Popular Cyclopedia of Biblial Literature". https://www.studylight.org/encyclopedias/kbe/i/idolatry.html.

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