An idol is a figure or image worshiped as the representation of a deity. Idols normally take the form of figures in the round or in relief. Strictly prohibited in the Bible, idolatry was widely practiced in the religions of the ancient Near East. Because of their popular appeal, idols became the frequent object of attack in biblical literature.
More than ten different Hebrew words in the Bible designate various types of idols. Some are distinguished according to the method of their construction: “carved image” of stone, clay, wood, or metal; “cast idol” of metal; “pillar,” usually an unhewn stone set erect. Other terms have a more general meaning of “shape, form,” and thus “representation.” The few with a distinctly pejorative sense are not technical names but terms conveying contempt for idolatry: “abominations,” “dung‐pellets,” or “worthless things.”
In the religions of ancient Israel's neighbors, idolatry constituted a primary component of public and private piety, and archaeological excavations throughout the region have recovered examples from earliest times onward. These range from crude to elaborate artistic productions of figures in human or animal form, or a mixture of both. Unworked pieces, such as a meteorite rock or a simple wood pillar, could also serve as idols. Egyptian idols, normally kept in temples, were cultically awakened at daybreak, nourished through sacrifices, dressed and adorned with jewels, and carried about on festive occasions. In Babylonia, idols could also serve as oracles and were placed at the entrances of homes to guard against witches and evil spirits. The Canaanites, as did others, formed some of their idols with explicit sexual features, consistent with their fertility cult's concern to ensure the fruitfulness of the land and the womb.
It is not always easy to determine how idols were interpreted in the various religions. In an Egyptian text known as “The Theology of Memphis,” the high god Ptah is said to have created not only all other gods but also the idols in which they were to live. This notion—that the idols are not themselves the gods but rather represent them or house them—was probably present in many religions, though such a distinction may not have been made by all believers, as the various cultic practices of caring for the idols seem to suggest. Several later Greek and Roman thinkers wrote polemically to the effect that weak and ignorant people need idols to help them imagine their gods, maintain faith in them, and have the magical means for securing blessing and avoiding disaster.
Strict prohibition of idolatry is one of the most distinctive features of Israelite religion: Yahweh, the God of Israel, could not be represented in physical form and would not tolerate the idols of any other gods. This aniconic principle is articulated in the Ten Commandments: “You shall not make for yourself an idol, or any likeness of anything…; you shall not bow down to them or serve them” (Exod. 20.4–5 [RSV]; see also 20.23–25 and Deut. 4.15–18, 23, 28). Historically, it is uncertain when and why this prohibition first arose. Probably it is early and is directly connected to the demand for exclusive worship of Yahweh alone. Monolatry, while implicitly recognizing the existence of other gods, did not allow for worshiping them (Exod. 20.3; 22.20), and this perhaps led to banning idolatry altogether in the official cult of Israel.
Nonetheless, there are records of the presence of idols throughout Israel's history. Rachel's cunning theft of her father's household gods (Gen. 31.19) is perhaps less an instance of idolatry than of the usurping of the father's traditional cultic and legal powers in the family. The golden calves erected first by Aaron in the wilderness (Exod. 32.1–6) and later by Jeroboam I at Dan and Bethel (1 Kings 12.28–29) were, on the other hand, regarded as flagrant violations, at least in some Judean circles. Idolatry occurred also in later periods of the monarchy (e.g., the Asherah mentioned in 1 Kings 16.33; 2 Kings 21.3) and became the object of reforms by King Hezekiah (2 Kings 18.4) and King Josiah (2 Kings 23.4–15). With the impending fall of Jerusalem, Ezekiel reported that the people again reverted to idols in hope of escaping destruction (7.20; 8.10). In biting sarcasm, both Jeremiah (10.3–5) and Second Isaiah (40.18–20; 41.7; 44.9–20; 46.1–2, 5–7; cf. Ps. 115.4–8; 135.15–18) exposed the futility of worshiping the products of human hands.
The line between idol representations and permissible cultic objects may at points seem unclear; the ark, with its gold cherubim, was not considered an idol but a manifestation of God's presence (see Exod. 25.17–22; Num. 10.33–36; 1 Sam. 4–6; 2 Sam. 6.6–7); similarly ambiguous were the teraphim (compare Judg. 17–18 with Zech. 10.2); the ephod (compare Exod. 28 with Judg. 8.24–27), the Nehushtan or bronze serpent (compare Num. 21.8–9 with 2 Kings 18.4), and the oxen supporting the molten sea in Solomon's Temple (1 Kings 7.25). The criterion for illicit use of such cultic objects apparently lay in whether they were worshiped directly as manipulable substitutes for Yahweh. Theologically, aniconism became a means for insisting that Yahweh cannot—by virtue of the chasm between creator and creation—be rendered adequately in any physical form. The nature of Israel's God must be reflected not in an image but in all aspects of the people's socioeconomic, political, legal, and domestic life. The prohibition of idolatry was thus coupled with commands for alternate types of religious and moral behavior.
The New Testament polemic against idolatry was primarily related to the opposition to Greco‐Roman gods (Acts 7.43; 15.20; 17.29; Rom. 1.23). The “desolating sacrilege” in Mark 13.14 may be an allusion to the Roman emperor cult. Paul discussed at some length the problem of whether Christians should eat meat sacrificed to idols (1 Cor. 8; 10.14–22; cf. Rev. 2.14, 20), and he concluded that, while such food was untainted because the idols represented nonexistent gods, Christians should be cautious not to let this practice undermine weaker believers. Figuratively, idolatry designated a shifting of reverence to worldly things, including covetousness (Col. 3.5; Eph. 5.5) and gluttony (Phil. 3.19).
The prohibition against representation of divine or human beings has been observed in synagogue ornamentation in most periods, and is strictly complied with in Islamic religious architecture as well. In Christianity, strict observance of the prohibition has surfaced in such movements as iconoclasm and Puritanism, and there are significant differences in practice between Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches, on the one hand, and some Protestant churches, on the other.
Douglas A. Knight