Glossary of Terms

Idol and idolatry


Harper’s Bible Dictionary

edited by Paul J. Achtemier (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1985)

You are strongly recommended to add to your library the excellent revised edition of Harper's Bible Dictionary titled, The Harper Collins Bible Dictionary, Revised Edition [book review], edited by Paul J. Achtemeier, with the Society of Biblical Literature (NY: Harper Collins, 1996). It is currently the best one-volume Bible dictionary in English, and it is available at Border's Books, Christian Science Reading Rooms,, or

idol, an image or statue of a deity fashioned to be an object of worship. The English word, which has a pejorative meaning, reflects several different Hebrew words. Some of these are neutral terms describing the manufacture, e.g., pasil or pesel, ‘(carved) image,’ and masseka, ‘(cast) image.’ For these the pejorative ‘idol’ is not always appropriate; ‘image’ or ‘statue’ is sometimes better. Other Hebrew words for statues of deities are intentionally contemptuous and therefore are appropriately translated ‘idols,’ e.g., Õelilim, ‘powerless ones,’ gillulim, ‘pellets of dung,’ and shiqqutsim, ‘shameful things.’

Statues of deities are a common feature of ancient Near Eastern religions. Exactly how the ancients imagined their gods to be present in the statues is not easy to discern. Sometimes they treated the image itself as if it were the god; they bathed, clothed, and fed it. One may not conclude from this practice that they believed the image itself was the god. It seems rather that they believed the image imitated, however sketchily and impressionistically, the heavenly reality; the likeness made it possible for the god to encounter the worshiper. Statues are but one instance of the general religious phenomenon of earthly imitations of heavenly realities. Temples, for example, reproduce the heavenly palaces of the gods; their rites and liturgies imitate the elaborate ceremonies of the heavenly court and enable the earthly worshiper to participate in the honoring of the god. Israel was not prohibited from adapting this feature of Near Eastern religion. The Temple in Jerusalem was the center of worship where God ‘placed his name’ and met the people; it is contrasted in some texts with heaven where he ‘dwelt’ (e.g., 1 Kings 8:27-53). The predecessor of the Temple, the desert tabernacle, was constructed according to the pattern that was shown to Moses on Sinai; it is a copy of the heavenly tent dwelling (Exod. 25:9).

Prohibition Against Idols: Statues of God, however, were strictly forbidden to Israel according to the Bible, a prohibition that sets Israel apart from its neighbors. The aniconic tradition appears to be ancient and effective. No male image that has been certainly identified as Yahweh has so far been found at an Israelite site. The second commandment, generally considered to be early, connects the prohibition against images with monotheism: ‘You shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself a graven image…for I the Lord your God am a jealous God…’ (Exod. 20:3-5; cf. Deut. 5:7-9; Roman Catholics and Lutherans count the prohibition as the first commandment; other traditions see in them two commands). The phrase ‘no other gods before me’ was originally at home in the ancient Near Eastern sanctuary where images of different deities confronted worshipers. In contrast, the Bible imagines God as reigning invisibly upon a single visible throne in the Holy of Holies.

The prohibition against idols is most decisively stated in the book of Exodus, in which God liberates the Hebrews from bondage to Pharaoh in Egypt and makes them his people at his mountain, Sinai. Israel agrees to worship him alone (Exod. 19-24, esp. 19:1-8). The people’s apostasy from their fundamental commitment is depicted as worship of the golden calf (Exod. 32), which the text interprets as an idol (32:8). 1 Kings 12:28 relates Jeroboam’s founding of countershrines outside Jerusalem to that original apostasy. Many scholars believe that the calf in the Exodus passage originally meant the animal as the throne of the deity rather than the deity itself. Statues have been excavated from West Semitic sites, some of which show the god astride an animal and some of which show the animal only. In the latter, the god was imagined as invisibly enthroned upon the animal. The Exodus and Kings passages may have interpreted the animal as a god rather than a throne in order to make the point that the worship was false.

Joshua, in his great speech, eloquently exhorts all Israel, which has just received its land, to ‘put away the gods which your fathers served beyond the River, and in Egypt, and serve the Lord’ (Josh. 24:14). Much of the power of biblical preaching from Moses to the time of the Exile comes from its stark either-or choice between Yahweh and the ‘other gods.’ The great ninth-century b.c. contest at Carmel in 1 Kings 18 between Yahweh and Baal regarding control of the rain, hence of deity, contains the challenge of Elijah: ‘If the Lord is God, follow him, but if Baal, then follow him’ (v. 21). To choose the other gods would have meant embracing an idol. In the great period of apostasy in Judah under Manasseh in the seventh century, 2 Kings 21:7 mentions a graven Asherah, a sacred pole by the altar, which the king put up in the sanctuary.

In the Exile and After: The Exile of the sixth century b.c. seems to mark a turning point in the biblical attitude toward idols, a result perhaps of the Babylonian Jewish community’s ability to distance itself from the utterly strange Babylonian culture and worship system. Second Isaiah several times parodies the idols of Babylon (40:18-20; 41:5-7, 21-29; 44:6-20; 46; cf. Jer. 10:1-16; Pss. 115; 135). In his eyes the idols represented the deities only too well. A passive and inert statue cannot move itself, nor can it hear, speak, or act; the god is correspondingly lifeless and helpless. Made by humans of earthly material, the image shows forth nothing divine. The prophet’s chief interest in the idols is to contrast them with Israel, which by its faithful action truly images forth, and witnesses to, the vitality of its God, Yahweh. Another text from the same period, Gen. 1:26-27, speaks of humans in their divinely ordained activity as the image and likeness of God. From perhaps the same period, Deut. 4:15-18 shows a similarly reflective awareness of the relationship between the statue and God: ‘Since you saw no form on the day that the Lord spoke to you at Horeb out of the midst of the fire, beware lest you act corruptly by making a graven image for yourselves.’ With the Exile, the theoretical foundation of monotheism seems sure; postexilic literature does not show the same urgent concern with idolatry as do the earlier, pre-exilic sources.

Early Christianity likewise does not inveigh strenuously against idolatry, to judge from the teachings of Jesus. Paul does, it is true, forbid Christians to take part in rites honoring other gods; civic feasts in the Roman Empire could be so interpreted (1 Cor. 10:14). Pauline theology’s radical devaluation of the present age in view of the coming of the new age led it to brand excessive concern with the wealth of this age as idolatry (Col. 3:5).

See also "Idolatry" (web article on what the earliest Christians did not do & discouraged) at


Topical index of terms
Edited for by Robert Nguyen Cramer
Top of page