Idolatry in the Bible

In recent months I have noticed the concept of idolatry being quite frequently used in Christian (and maybe post-Christian) contexts. Sometimes it struck me as a bit odd, because sometimes what people were accusing as idolatry and therefore as wrong did not seem to me to be judged negatively in the Bible. It seems that generally the concept of idolatry was used to describe a state of giving allegiance, worship and ultimate importance to something which should not be given such ultimate importance. Matters that were considered idolatrous were family and marriage, the Bible, a supernatural and personal god, wealth, and fame.

Since I thought that idolatry was essentially a Biblical concept, I decided I’d better look at what the Bible says about it.

Most people would see the clearest form of a Biblical statement on idolatry in the second commandment of the ten commandments. So that’s where I started as well.
Exodus 20:4-6 and Deuteronomy 5:8-10 say:

“You shall not make for yourself an idol in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments.” (NIV)

But that’s not exactly what it says in the Hebrew. Rather Exodus 20:4 reads:

Do not make for yourself a carving (idol) [פֶסֶל ]or any likeness [תְּמוּנָה ] whether in the skies above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below the earth. (own translation).

The verb פָּסַל , which is from the same root as the noun, is also used, for example, for the process employed by Moses to carve the words of the ten commandments into stone (Exodus 34:1+4). Similarly it is used to describe the action of the craftsmen working the wood and stone for the temple (1 Kings 5:18; Hebrew 1 Kings 5:32). A carving (idol) [פֶסֶל ]is therefore a three-dimensional, probably often wooden, statue that somehow resembles aspects of the natural world, but probably refers to something beyond it.
Maybe it was a bit like this figurine, even though this one is from the later Persian Period:

The latest version of the NIV has recognised the inaccuracy of the word “idol” and replaced it with the word “image”. For through the word “idol” a lot of meaning gets imputed into the text, which it does not carry.

But how is this word “carving” [פֶסֶל ] otherwise used in the Old Testament?
One of the essential passages is Deuteronomy 4:15-20. Deuteronomy 4:-15-16:

And guard your life very carefully for you did not see any likeness [תְּמוּנָה ] on the day that the LORD spoke to you at the Horeb from the fire, so that you do not become corrupt and make for yourselves a carving [פֶסֶל ], a likeness [תְּמוּנָה ] of any image [סָמֶל ] of a male or female form. (own translation).

The injunction continues to add other creatures, which should not be made into an image. The people should not bow down to them nor serve them. It is clear that these images will cut off the relationship between the LORD and his people. Whether they are separate gods or just a way to worship the LORD, is not entirely clear. Even though the prohibition of making carvings is related to only having one God, it is not the same thing. Maybe it is my protestant heritage, but I would see the practices of having certain saintly images in Catholicism or even the icons in Orthodox Christianity as something that is more akin to the practices that are addressed in the second commandment.

The close association between serving other gods and carvings is also clear from Leviticus 26:1, which nevertheless sees a slight difference between them:

Do not make for yourself gods [אֱלִילִם ]or a carving (idol) [פֶסֶל ] or a standing stone [מַצֵּבָה ] and do not set up for yourself a stone with an image and put it into your land to bow down before it, because I am the LORD your God.

In Deutero-Isaiah the idea of worshipping an image is mocked:

To whom, then, will you compare God? What image [דְּמוּת ] will you compare him to?
As for a carving (idol) [פֶסֶל ] a craftsman casts it and a goldsmith overlays it with gold and beats refined silver.
Someone too poor to present such an offering selects wood that will not rot. He looks for a skilled craftsman to set up a carving (idol) [פֶסֶל ] that will not topple. (own translation) Isaiah 40:18-20

The greatness of God is compared to the worthless carvings. Here, the idea that they are just images, just carvings is important. The desire of humans to have an image to worship is criticized and contrasted with the God who sustains and directs all creation. For Deutero-Isaiah there is just one god, and all the other images or idols humans worship are just human needs and wishes transferred onto a carving.

The relationship between foreign gods and the carvings is still maintained in Nahum 1:14:

The LORD has given a command concerning you [Nineveh]: there will not be sown from your name or from the house of your god [אֱלֹהִים]; I will destroy the carving [פֶּסֶל] and the covering; I will prepare your grave, for you are vile. (own translation)

It seems then that in the Old Testament carvings / idols [פֶסֶל ] are images with some divine aspects attributed to them. They may be understood as some divine aspect of the LORD, or as some lesser powers of the heavenly realm, or as the manifestation of other gods, including the gods of other nations. But the image aspect is the one that is very clear and also clearly described throughout the Old Testament.

So how do we get from these carvings or images to idols?
Well, one of the steps is probably the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament. The second commandment in Exodus 20:4 and Deuteronomy 5:8 contains the word idol:

Do not make for youself an idol [εἴδωλον ] or any likeness [ὁμοίωμα ] whether in the sky above or on the earth below or in the waters below the earth. (own translation)

What is interesting is that only once more does the Septuagint translate carving [פֶסֶל ] as idol [εἴδωλον ]. Otherwise the Hebrew word carving [פֶסֶל ] is always translated as carving [γλυπτὸν].
For example, Nahum 1:14 reads:

The LORD has decreed over you lest you sow from your name or from the house of your god [θεός].I will annihilate the carvings [γλυπτὰ ] and its molten metal; I will place your grave, so that it reaches quickly. (own translation)

I am not sure why the Septuagint uses idol [εἴδωλον ] for the second commandment. But through it, it has shaped the interpretation of the Old Testament.

The Septuagint has affected the New Testament, not least in the Greek language, phrases and vocabulary its authors used. It is interesting that the New Testament does not use the word carving [γλυπτὸν], but the word “idol” [εἴδωλον ]. The words “idolatry” and “idolater” are frequently used.

What we do find in the New Testament is an understanding of idols and idolatry that is quite similar to that expressed in Isaiah. The New Testament book that deals most specifically with the issue of idols is the First Letter to the Corinthians. I’ll quote the entire chapter 8 of 1 Corinthians:

1 Now about food sacrificed to idols: We know that “We all possess knowledge.” But knowledge puffs up while love builds up. 2 Those who think they know something do not yet know as they ought to know. 3 But whoever loves God is known by God.
4 So then, about eating food sacrificed to idols: We know that “An idol is nothing at all in the world” and that “There is no God but one.” 5 For even if there are so-called gods, whether in heaven or on earth (as indeed there are many “gods” and many “lords”), 6 yet for us there is but one God, the Father, from whom all things came and for whom we live; and there is but one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom all things came and through whom we live.
7 But not everyone possesses this knowledge. Some people are still so accustomed to idols that when they eat sacrificial food they think of it as having been sacrificed to a god, and since their conscience is weak, it is defiled. 8 But food does not bring us near to God; we are no worse if we do not eat, and no better if we do.
9 Be careful, however, that the exercise of your rights does not become a stumbling block to the weak. 10 For if someone with a weak conscience sees you, with all your knowledge, eating in an idol’s temple, won’t that person be emboldened to eat what is sacrificed to idols? 11 So this weak brother or sister, for whom Christ died, is destroyed by your knowledge. 12 When you sin against them in this way and wound their weak conscience, you sin against Christ. 13 Therefore, if what I eat causes my brother or sister to fall into sin, I will never eat meat again, so that I will not cause them to fall. (NIV)

Here idols and foreign gods are linked. But they are essentially nothing. They cannot be God, because there is only one God. And yet, idols can draw people away from God. It seems that the aspect of the image was not quite as strong any more, instead the concept of other gods, who really are not God, comes more to the fore. Maybe the New Testament also belittles other gods by calling them just idols, just vain images, rather than other powers over against the one true God.

The Council of Jerusalem was not quite as philosophical about idols. When the leaders of the fledgling church decided that circumcision was not required for non-Jewish converts, they nevertheless added:

Instead we should write to them, telling them to abstain from food polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, from the meat of strangled animals and from blood. Acts 15:20 (NIV)

Christians, then, are not to be involved in idolatry, but they need not fear idols, because they know that they are nothing. Nevertheless, Paul warns that associating with idols also means associating with demons (1 Corinthians 10), with something that is against God, even if it is not in any sense an opponent of God, because it is not God.

We need to mention another aspect of idols in the New Testament. In the New Testament idolatry is considered a moral failing, along with other moral failings to which people of this world succumb.
Let’s start with 1 Corinthians again:

I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people— not at all meaning the people of this world who are immoral, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters. In that case you would have to leave this world. But now I am writing to you that you must not associate with anyone who claims to be a brother or sister but is sexually immoral or greedy, an idolater or slanderer, a drunkard or swindler. Do not even eat with such people. 1 Corinthians 5:9-11 (NIV)

Galations 5:19-21 is similar:

The acts of the flesh are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God. (NIV)

Here idolatry is part of the list of sins, which are expressions of our sinful nature. But it is not seen as the fundamental attitude from which such sins spring. Rather, idolatry is one of the many. These are contrasted with the fruits of the Spirit. The moral failing that idolatry is most often connected with in the New Testament is sexual immorality. Time and again, the New Testament warns against these dangers and expressions of humanity’s sinful nature. While images of gods no doubt were also prevalent during the time of the New Testament, one particular issue was the consumption of food offered to idols.

Overall, idolatry according to the Bible is the depiction in graphic form of something as divine. It is also the participation and reveling in a cult towards these false aspects of the divine. And it often expresses itself together with other actions that are against God’s commandments, particularly sexual immorality.

According to the Bible, therefore, idolatry is not “giving undue worship and importance to something that should not receive such worship and importance”. That is a later abstraction, an abstraction, that has been helped by vocabulary.

But there is a text in the New Testament, which does seem to connect the concepts somewhat. That is Matthew 6:24:

No one can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and Mammon.

Here is a personified opponent of God in the form of wealth. And from the context it is clear that the texts asks us not give more importance to something other than God. But we should not take the personification aspect too far. Mammon is not the name of a deity or demon, but rather just an Aramaic word for wealth. It is therefore not really appropriate to see these verses in the context of idolatry. Rather, they are about placing our trust, about finding our security, in false promises and not in God. I don’t think that the Bible would see wealth as idolatry, but rather as misplaced trust and therefore, like idols, something that takes us away from God.

Some modern concepts of idolatry have very little connection to any Biblical concept of idolatry and even less to the second commandment. We need to recognize that difference and also challenge people who use the language of idolatry to clarify what concept they are referring to.

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