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Reference: Idolatry


image-worship or divine honour paid to any created object. Paul describes the origin of idolatry in Ro 1:21-25: men forsook God, and sank into ignorance and moral corruption (Ro 1:28).

The forms of idolatry are, (1.) Fetishism, or the worship of trees, rivers, hills, stones, etc.

(2.) Nature worship, the worship of the sun, moon, and stars, as the supposed powers of nature.

(3.) Hero worship, the worship of deceased ancestors, or of heroes.

In Scripture, idolatry is regarded as of heathen origin, and as being imported among the Hebrews through contact with heathen nations. The first allusion to idolatry is in the account of Rachel stealing her father's teraphim (Ge 31:19), which were the relics of the worship of other gods by Laban's progenitors "on the other side of the river in old time" (Jos 24:2). During their long residence in Egypt the Hebrews fell into idolatry, and it was long before they were delivered from it (Jos 24:14; Eze 20:7). Many a token of God's displeasure fell upon them because of this sin.

The idolatry learned in Egypt was probably rooted out from among the people during the forty years' wanderings; but when the Jews entered Palestine, they came into contact with the monuments and associations of the idolatry of the old Canaanitish races, and showed a constant tendency to depart from the living God and follow the idolatrous practices of those heathen nations. It was their great national sin, which was only effectually rebuked by the Babylonian exile. That exile finally purified the Jews of all idolatrous tendencies.

The first and second commandments are directed against idolatry of every form. Individuals and communities were equally amenable to the rigorous code. The individual offender was devoted to destruction (Ex 22:20). His nearest relatives were not only bound to denounce him and deliver him up to punishment (De 13:10-18), but their hands were to strike the first blow when, on the evidence of two witnesses at least, he was stoned (De 17:2-7). To attempt to seduce others to false worship was a crime of equal enormity (De 13:6-10). An idolatrous nation shared the same fate. No facts are more strongly declared in the Old Testament than that the extermination of the Canaanites was the punishment of their idolatry (Ex 34:15-16; De 7; 12:29-31; 20:17), and that the calamities of the Israelites were due to the same cause (Jer 2:17). "A city guilty of idolatry was looked upon as a cancer in the state; it was considered to be in rebellion, and treated according to the laws of war. Its inhabitants and all their cattle were put to death." Jehovah was the theocratic King of Israel, the civil Head of the commonwealth, and therefore to an Israelite idolatry was a state offence (1Sa 15:23), high treason. On taking possession of the land, the Jews were commanded to destroy all traces of every kind of the existing idolatry of the Canaanites (Ex 23:24,32; 34:13; De 7:5,25; 12:1-3).

In the New Testament the term idolatry is used to designate covetousness (Mt 6:24; Lu 16:13; Col 3:5; Eph 5:5).

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(See IDOL.)


Hebrew religion is represented as beginning with Abraham, who forsook the idolatry, as well as the home, of his ancestors (Ge 12:1; Jos 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.

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The worship of idols

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strictly speaking denotes the worship of deity in a visible form, whether the images to which homage is paid are symbolical representations of the true God or of the false divinities which have been made the objects of worship in his stead. I. History of idolatry among the Jews. --The first undoubted allusion to idolatry or idolatrous customs in the Bible is in the account of Rachel's stealing her father's teraphim.

Ge 31:19

During their long residence in Egypt the Israelites defiled themselves with the idols of the land, and it was long before the taint was removed.

Jos 24:14; Eze 20:7

In the wilderness they clamored for some visible shape in which they might worship the God who had brought them out of Egypt.

Ex 32:1

... until Aaron made the calf, the embodiment of Apis and emblem of the productive power of nature. During the lives of Joshua and the elders who outlived him they kept true to their allegiance; but the generation following who knew not Jehovah nor the works he had done for Israel, swerved from the plain path of their fathers and were caught in the toils of the foreigner.

Jg 2:1

... From this time forth their history becomes little more than a chronicle of the inevitable sequence of offence and punishment.

Jg 2:12,14

By turns each conquering nation strove to establish the worship of its national God. In later times the practice of secret idolatry was carried to greater lengths. Images were set up on the corn-floors, in the wine-vats, and behind the doors of private houses,

Isa 57:8; Ho 9:1-2

and to check this tendency the statute in

De 27:15

was originally promulgated. Under Samuel's administration idolatry was publicly renounced,

1Sa 7:3-6

but in the reign of Solomon all this was forgotten, even Solomon's own heart being turned after other gods.

1Ki 11:14

Rehoboam perpetuated the worst features of Solomon's idolatry.

1Ki 14:22-24

erected golden calves at Beth-el and at Dan, and by this crafty state' policy severed forever the kingdoms of Judah and Israel.

1Ki 12:26-33

The successors of Jeroboam followed in his steps, till Ahab. The conquest of the ten tribes by Shalmaneser was for them the last scene Of the drama of abominations which had been enacted uninterruptedly for upwards of 250 years. Under Hezekiah a great reform was inaugurated, that was not confined to Judah and Benjamin, but spread throughout Ephraim and Manasseh.

2Ch 31:1

and to all external appearances idolatry was extirpated. But the reform extended little below the surface.

Isa 29:13

With the death of Josiah ended the last effort to revive among the people a purer ritual. If not a purer faith. The lamp of David, which had long shed but a struggling ray, flickered for a while and then went out in the darkness of Babylonian Captivity. Though the conquests of Alexander caused Greek influence to be felt, yet after the captivity better condition of things prevailed, and the Jews never again fell into idolatry. The erection of synagogues had been assigned as a reason for the comparative purity of the Jewish worship after the captivity, while another cause has been discovered in the hatred for images acquired by the Jews in their intercourse with the Persians. II. Objects of idolatry.--The sun and moon were early selected as outward symbols of all-pervading power, and the worship of the heavenly bodies was not only the most ancient but the most prevalent system of idolatry. Taking its rise in the plains of Chaldea, it spread through Egypt, Greece, Scythia, and even Mexico and Ceylon. Comp.

De 4:19; 17:3; Job 31:20-28

In the later times of the monarchy, the planets or the zodiacal signs received, next to the sun and moon, their share of popular adoration.

2Ki 23:5

Beast-worship, as exemplified in the calves of Jeroboam, has already been alluded to of pure hero-worship among the Semitic races we find no trace. The singular reverence with which trees have been honored is not without example in the history of the Hebrew. The terebinth (oak) at Mamre, beneath which Abraham built an altar,

Ge 12:7; 13:18

and the memorial grove planted by him at Beersheba,

Ge 21:33

were intimately connected with patriarchal worship. Mountains and high places were chosen spots for offering sacrifice and incense to idols,

1Ki 11:7; 14:23

and the retirement of gardens and the thick shade of woods offered great attractions to their worshippers.

2Ki 16:4; Isa 1:29; Ho 4:13

The host of heaven was worshipped on the house-top.

2Ki 23:12; Jer 19:3; 32:29; Zep 1:5

(The modern objects of idolatry are less gross than the ancient, but are none the less idols. Whatever of wealth or honor or pleasure is loved and sought before God and righteousness becomes an object of idolatry. --ED.) III. Punishment of idolatry. --Idolatry to an Israelite was a state offence,

1Sa 15:23

a political crime of the greatest character, high treason against the majesty of his king. The first and second commandments are directed against idolatry of every form. Individuals and communities were equally amenable to the rigorous code. The individual offender was devoted to destruction,

Ex 22:20

his nearest relatives were not only bound to denounce him and deliver him up to punishment,

De 13:2-10

but their hands were to strike the first blow, when, on the evidence of two witnesses at least, he was stoned.

De 17:2-5

To attempt to seduce others to false worship was a crime of equal enormity.

De 13:6-10

IV. Attractions of idolatry. --Many have wondered why the Israelites were so easily led away from the true God, into the worship of idols. (1) Visible, outward signs, with shows, pageants, parades, have an attraction to the natural heart, which often fail to perceive the unseen spiritual realities. (2) But the greatest attraction seems to have been in licentious revelries and obscene orgies with which the worship of the Oriental idols was observed. This worship, appealing to every sensual passion, joined with the attractions of wealth and fashion and luxury, naturally was a great temptation to a simple, restrained, agricultural people, whose worship and law demands the greatest purity of heart and of life.--ED.)

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IDOLATRY, from ?????????????, composed of ?????, image, and ?????????, to serve, the worship and adoration of false gods; or the giving those honours to creatures, or the works of man's hands, which are only due to God. Several have written of the origin and causes of idolatry; among the rest, Vossius, Selden, Godwyn, Tenison, and Faber; but it is still a doubt who was the first author of it. It is generally allowed, however, that it had not its beginning till after the deluge; and many are of opinion, that Belus, who is supposed to be the same with Nimrod, was the first man that was deified. But whether they had not paid divine honours to the heavenly bodies before that time, cannot be determined; our acquaintance with those remote times being extremely slender. The first mention we find made of idolatry is where Rachel is said to have taken the idols of her father; for though the meaning of the Hebrew word ?????, be disputed, yet it is pretty evident they were idols. Laban calls them his gods, and Jacob calls them strange gods, and looks on them as abominations. The original idolatry by image worship is by many attributed to the age of Eber, B.C. 2247, about a hundred and one years after the deluge, according to the Hebrew chronology; four hundred and one years according to the Samaritan; and five hundred and thirty-one years according to the Septuagint; though most of the fathers place it no higher than that of Serug; which seems to be the more probable opinion, considering that for the first hundred and thirty-four years of Eber's life all mankind dwelt in a body together; during which time it is not reasonable to suppose that idolatry broke in upon them; then some time must be allowed after the dispersion of the several nations, which were but small at the beginning, to increase and settle themselves; so that if idolatry was introduced in Eber's time, it must have been toward the end of his life, and could not well have prevailed so universally, and with that obstinacy which some authors have imagined. Terah, the father of Abraham, who lived at Ur, in Chaldea, about B.C. 2000, was unquestionably an idolater; for he is expressly said in Scripture to have served other gods. The authors of the Universal History think, that the origin and progress of idolatry are plainly pointed out to us in the account which Moses gives of Laban's and Jacob's parting, Ge 31:44, &c. From the custom once introduced of erecting monuments in memory of any solemn covenants, the transition was easy into the notion, that some deity took its residence in them, in order to punish the first aggressors; and this might be soon improved by an ignorant and degenerate world, till not only birds, beasts, stocks, and stones, but sun, moon, and stars, were called into the same office; though used, perhaps, at first, by the designing part of mankind, as scare-crows, to overawe the ignorant.

Sanchoniathon, who wrote his "Phenician Antiquities" apparently with a view to apologize for idolatry, traces its origin to the descendants of Cain, the elder branch, who began with the worship of the sun, and afterward added a variety of other methods of idolatrous worship: proceeding to deify the several parts of nature, and men after their death; and even to consecrate the plants shooting out of the earth, which the first men judged to be gods, and worshipped as those that sustained the lives of themselves and of their posterity. The Chaldean priests, in process of time, being by their situation early addicted to celestial observations, instead of conceiving as they ought to have done concerning the omnipotence of the Creator and Mover of the heavenly bodies, fell into the impious error of esteeming them as gods, and the immediate governors of the world, in subordination, however, to the Deity, who was invisible except by his works, and the effects of his power. Concluding that God created the stars and great luminaries for the government of the world, partakers with himself and as his ministers, they thought it but just and natural that they should be honoured and extolled, and that it was the will of God they should be magnified and worshipped. Accordingly, they erected temples, or sacella, to the stars, in which they sacrificed and bowed down before them, esteeming them as a kind of mediators between God and man. Impostors afterward arose, who gave out, that they had received express orders from God himself concerning the manner in which particular heavenly bodies should be represented, and the nature and ceremonies of the worship which was to be paid them. When they proceeded to worship wood, stone, or metal, formed and fashioned by their own hands, they were led to apprehend, that these images had been, in some way or other, animated or informed with a supernatural power by supernatural means; though Dr. Prideaux imagines, that, being at a loss to know how to address themselves to the planets when they were below the horizon, and invisible, they recurred to the use of images. But it will be sufficient to suppose, that they were persuaded that each star or planet was actuated by an intelligence; and that the virtues of the heavenly body were infused into the image that represented it. It is certain, that the sentient nature and divinity of the sun, moon, and stars, was strenuously asserted by the philosophers, particularly by Pythagoras and his followers, and by the Stoics, as well as believed by the common people, and was, indeed, the very foundation of the Pagan idolatry. The heavenly bodies were the first deities of all the idolatrous nations, were esteemed eternal, sovereign, and supreme; and distinguished by the title of the natural gods. Thus we find that the primary gods of the Heathens in general were Saturn, Jupiter, Mars, Apollo, Mercury, Venus, and Diana; by which we can understand no other than the sun and moon, and the five greatest luminaries next to these. Plutarch expressly censures the Epicureans for asserting that the sun and moon, whom all men worshipped, are void of intelligence.

Sanchoniathon represents the most ancient nations, particularly the Phenicians and Egyptians, as acknowledging only the natural gods, the sun, moon, planets, and elements; and Plato declares it as his opinion, that the first Grecians likewise held these only to be gods, as many of the barbarians did in his time. Beside these natural gods, the Heathens believed that there were certain spirits who held a middle rank between the gods and men on earth, and carried on all intercourse between them; conveying the addresses of men to the gods, and the divine benefits to men. These spirits were called demons. From the imaginary office ascribed to them, they became the grand objects of the religious hopes and fears of the Pagans, of immediate dependence and divine worship. In the most learned nations, they did not so properly share, as engross, the public devotion. To these alone sacrifices were offered, while the celestial gods were worshipped only with a pure mind, or with hymns and praises. As to the nature of these demons, it has been generally believed, that they were spirits of a higher origin than the human race; and, in support of this opinion, it has been alleged, that the supreme deity of the Pagans is called the greatest demon; that the demons are described as beings placed between the gods and men; and that demons are expressly distinguished from heroes, who were the departed souls of men. Some, however, have combated this opinion, and maintained, on the contrary, that by demons, such as were the more immediate objects of the established worship among the ancient nations, particularly the Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans, we are to understand beings of an earthly origin, or such departed human souls as were believed to become demons.

Although the Hindoo inhabitants of the East Indies deny the charge of idolatry, using the same description of arguments as are so inconclusively urged by superstitious Europeans in defence of image worship, it is still evident that the mass of the Hindoos are addicted to gross idolatry. The gods of Rome were even less numerous, certainly less whimsical and monstrous, than tho

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