Hebrew pesel is variously translated as “graven image,” “idol,” or “statue.” Three‐dimensional sacred images of metal, stone, wood, or clay were ubiquitously venerated in antiquity.
The Bible misrepresents idolatry by ascribing to worshipers the naive belief that the image is the deity. Egyptians, Canaanites, and Mesopotamians believed a god's spirit inhabited a statue after consecration, causing it to move, speak, or sweat. While the statue was the god in many respects, the god was not limited to its image. The idol's purpose was to allow the mortal a vision of the divine and to help god and worshiper focus their attention on each other. A few idols had moving parts—such as a movable jaw or dribbling breast—enabling priests to generate “miraculous” divine responses.
Since almost all ancient gods, including Yahweh (Gen. 1.26–27; 5.1; Ezek. 1.26–27), resembled humans, most idols were anthropomorphic. Some, however, portrayed animals, and Egyptian divine images often combined human and animal aspects. While humanoid idols depicted the god him‐ or herself, the wholly or partly animal representations metaphorically expressed aspects of its nature: a lion for ferocity, a frog for fecundity, a ram for virility, a hawk for mobility, and so forth.
The Bible forbids idolatry to Israelites (Exod. 20.4–5, 23; 34.17; Deut. 4.15–18; 5.8; 27.15). In Roman times, this proscription prevented compliance with the state cult of worshiping the emperor's statue (Rev. 13.14–15; 14.9, 11; 15.2; 16.2; 19.20; 20.4; cf. Dan. 3). Although archaeologists have uncovered virtually no representations of male gods from Israelite times, female figurines, probably representing goddesses, are common. Some equate these statuettes with biblical Asherah or teraphim.
Prayers might be spoken before the idol or food set before it, later to be removed for consumption by priests and/or worshipers. Among Jews and Christians of the Roman period, such food was strictly forbidden (Acts 15.29; 21.25; 1 Cor. 8; 10.18, 28; Rev. 2.14, 20).
The avoidance of divine images is called aniconism. While there is no inevitable link between monotheism and aniconism, it cannot be coincidence that the first monotheist, Pharaoh Akhnaton (1363–1347 BCE), abolished idolatry. Apparently both he and the biblical authors believed figurative representations limited the divine to a particular conception and place or encouraged identification of the one true God with other nonexistent deities. But while Akhnaton's god, the sun, was visible to all in the sky, Yahweh was hidden in his fiery cloud (Exod. 24.17; Deut. 4.15).
Although there were few if any images of Yahweh, Israelite shrines featured statues, carvings, and embroidery depicting celestial beasts associated with Yahweh: cherubim (winged sphinxes) (Exod. 25.18–22; 26.1, 31; 36.8, 35; 37.7–9; Num. 7.89; 1 Kings 6.23–35; 7.29, 36; 8.6–7; Ezek. 41.18, 20, 25; 1 Chron. 28.18; 2 Chron. 3.7–14; 5.7–8), bull calves (Exod. 32; 1 Kings 7.29; 12.28–30; see Golden Calf), and perhaps seraphim (winged snakes) (2 Kings 18.4). The Bible preserves vestiges of a debate over their significance: Are the cherubim God's throne or canopy? Are the calves pedestals or depictions of God? Is Nehushtan (2 Kings 18.4) a seraph sheltering Yahweh (Isa. 6) or a venomous serpent (Num. 21.4–9; cf. Isa. 14.29; 30.6)?
Jewish ritual art, like Muslim art, has generally avoided human images, but the third‐century CE synagogue of Dura Europos features realistic illustrations of Bible scenes. Periodically, Christians have banned holy statues and pictures (iconoclasm), but they are still venerated in Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy.
William H. Propp