13 Also he removed Maachah his grandmother from being queen mother,
because she had made an obscene image of 5Asherah. And Asa cut down her
obscene image and oburned it by the Brook Kidron. 14 pBut the high
places were not removed. Nevertheless Asa’s qheart was loyal to the Lord all
his days. 15 He also brought into the house of the Lord the things which his
father rhad dedicated, and the things which he himself had dedicated: silver
and gold and utensils."
1 Ki 15:13
New Bible Dictionary (96 occurrences in 62 articles)
IDOLATRY. The story of OT religion could be told for the most part in terms of a tension between a spiritual conception of God and worship, the hallmark of the genuine faith of Israel, and various pressures, such as idolatry, which attempted to debase and materialize the national religious consciousness and practice. We do not find, in the OT, an ascending from idolatry to the pure worship of God, but rather a people possessing a pure worship and a spiritual theology, constantly fighting, through the medium of divinely-raised spiritual leaders, religious seductions which, nevertheless, often claimed the mass of the people. Idolatry is a declension from the norm, not an earlier stage gradually and with difficulty superseded.
If we consider the broad sweep of evidence for patriarchal religion we find it to be a religion of the altar and of prayer, but not of idols. There are certain events, all associated with Jacob, which might appear to show patriarchal idolatry. For example, Rachel stole her father’s *teraphim (Gn. 31:19). By itself, this, of course, need prove nothing more than that Jacob’s wife had failed to free herself from her Mesopotamian religious environment (cf. Jos. 24:15). If these objects were of legal as well as religious significance, the possessor of them would hold the right of succession to the family property (*Nuzi). This accords well with the anxiety of Laban, who does not appear otherwise as a religious man, to recover them, and his care, when he fails to find them, to exclude Jacob from Mesopotamia by a carefully-worded treaty (Gn. 31:45ff.). Again, it is urged that Jacob’s pillars (Gn. 28:18; 31:13, 45; 35:14, 20) are the same as the idolatrous stones with which Canaan was familiar. The interpretation is not inescapable. The pillar at Bethel is associated with Jacob’s vow (see Gn. 31:13), and could more easily belong to the category of memorial pillars (e.g. Gn. 35:20; Jos. 24:27; 1 Sa. 7:12; 2 Sa. 18:18). Finally, the evidence of Gn. 35:4, often used to show patriarchal idolatry, actually points to the recognized incompatibility of idols with the God of Bethel. Jacob must dispose of the unacceptable objects before he stands before this God. That Jacob ‘hid’ them is surely not to be construed as indicating that he feared to destroy them for reasons of superstitious reverence. It is allowing suspicion to govern exegesis if we do more than assume that this was the simplest as well as the most effective way of disposing of noncombustible objects.
The weight of evidence for the Mosaic period is the same. The whole narrative of the golden calf (Ex. 32) reveals the extent of the contrast between the religion which stemmed from Mt Sinai and the form of religion congenial to the unregenerate heart. These religions, we learn, are incompatible. The religion of Sinai is emphatically aniconic. Moses warned the people (Dt. 4:12) that the revelation of God vouchsafed to them there contained no ‘form’, lest they corrupt themselves with images. This is the essential Mosaic position, as recorded in the Decalogue (Ex. 20:4; cf. Ex. 34:17). The prohibition in Dt. 4:12 is in the realm of religion, it should be noted, not of theology. It is correct to speak of a ‘form’ of the Lord and Dt. 4:12 and Nu. 12:8 have the word temûnâ (‘form’) in common. But for Israel to carry this over into religious practice could only involve corruption of truth and life. This is a striking testimony to the aniconic nature of Israel’s worship. The second commandment was unique in the world of its day, and the failure of archaeology to unearth a figure of Yahweh (while idols abounded in every other religion) shows its fundamental place in Israel’s religion from Mosaic days.
The historical record of Judges, Samuel and Kings tells the same story of the lapse of the nation from the spiritual forms proper to their religion. The book of Judges, at least from ch. 17 onwards, deliberately sets out to picture for us a time of general lawlessness (cf. 17:6; 18:1; 19:1; 21:25). We should not dream of seeing in the events of ch. 19 the norm of Israelite morality. It is candidly a story of a degraded society and we have as little reason for seeing the story of Micah (Jdg. 17–18) as displaying a lawful but primitive stage in Israel’s religion. The same comment from the author of Judges points in turn to the religious corruption (17:1–13; see v. 6), social unrest and lawlessness (18:1–31; see v. 1) and moral declension (19:1ff.) of the day.
We are not told in what form the images of Micah were made. It has been suggested that, since they subsequently found a home in the N Danite sanctuary, they were in the calf or bull form. This is likely enough, for it is a most significant thing that when Israel turned to idolatry it was always necessary to borrow the outward trappings from the pagan environment, thus suggesting that there was something in the very nature of Yahwism which prevented the growth of indigenous idolatrous forms. The golden calves made by Jeroboam (1 Ki. 12:28) were well-known Canaanite symbols, and in the same way, whenever the kings of Israel and Judah lapsed into idolatry, it was by means of borrowing and syncretism. H. H. Rowley (Faith of Israel, pp. 77f.) urges that such evidences of idolatry as exist after Moses are to be explained either by the impulse to syncretism or by the tendency for customs eradicated in one generation to reappear in the next (cf. Je. 44). We might add to these the tendency to corrupt the use of something which in itself was lawful: the superstitious use of the ephod (Jdg. 8:27) and the cult of the serpent (2 Ki. 18:4).
The main forms of idolatry into which Israel fell were the use of graven and molten *images, pillars, the *asherah and *teraphim. The massēḵâ, or molten image, was made by casting metal in a mould and shaping it with a tool (Ex. 32:4, 24). There is some doubt whether this figure, and the later calves made by Jeroboam, were intended to represent Yahweh, or were thought of as a pedestal over which he was enthroned. The analogy of the cherubim (cf. 2 Sa. 6:2) suggests the latter, which also receives the support of archaeology (cf. G. E. Wright, Biblical Archaeology, p. 148, for an illustration of the god Hadad riding upon a bull). The cherubim were, however, concealed from view and were at any rate ‘unearthly’ in appearance. They could not point to any unacceptable affiliation of the enthroned God with earthly parallels. The bulls, on the contrary, were not (as far as the narrative suggests) concealed from view and could not but point to an involvement of Yahweh in fertility religion and theology.
The pillars and the asherah were both forbidden to Israel (cf. Dt. 12:3; 16:21–22). In Baal sanctuaries the pillar of Baal (cf. 2 Ki. 10:27) and the pole of the Asherah stood beside the altar. The pillar was thought of as a stylized representation of the presence of the god at the shrine. It was the object of great veneration: sometimes it was hollowed in part so as to receive the blood of sacrifice, and sometimes, as appears from its polished surface, it was kissed by its devotees. The asherah was wooden, as we learn from its usual destruction by burning (Dt. 12:3; 2 Ki. 23:6), and probably originated from the sacred evergreen, the symbol of life. The association of these with Canaanite fertility practice sufficed to make them abominable to Yahweh.
The OT polemic against idolatry, carried on chiefly by prophets and psalmists, recognizes the same two truths which Paul was later to affirm: that the idol was nothing, but that nevertheless there was a demonic spiritual force to be reckoned with, and that the idol therefore constituted a positive spiritual menace (Is. 44:6–20; 1 Cor. 8:4; 10:19–20). Thus, the idol is nothing at all: man made it (Is. 2:8); its very composition and construction proclaims its futility (Is. 40:18–20; 41:6–7; 44:9–20); its helpless bulk invites derision (Is. 46:1–2); it has nothing but the bare appearance of life (Ps. 115:4–7). The prophets derisively named them gillûlı̂m (Ezk. 6:4, and at least 38 other times in Ezekiel) or ‘dung pellets’ (Koehler’s Lexicon), and ’elı̂lı̂m, ‘godlets’.
But, though entirely subject to Yahweh (e.g. Ps. 95:3), there are spiritual forces of evil, and the practice of idolatry brings men into deadly contact with these ‘gods’. Isaiah, who is usually said to bring the ironic scorning of idols to its peak, is well aware of this spiritual evil. He knows that there is only one God (44:8), but even so no-one can touch an idol, though it be ‘nothing’, and come away unscathed. Man’s contact with the false god infects him with a deadly spiritual blindness of heart and mind (44:18). Though what he worships is mere ‘ashes’, yet it is full of the poison of spiritual delusion (44:20). Those who worship idols become like them (Ps. 115:8; Je. 2:5; Ho. 9:10). Because of the reality of evil power behind the idol, it is an *abomination (tô‘ēḇâ) to Yahweh (Dt. 7:25), a detested thing (šiqqûṣ) (Dt. 29:17), and it is the gravest sin, spiritual adultery, to follow idols (Dt. 31:16; Jdg. 2:17; Ho. 1:2). Nevertheless, there is only one God, and the contrast between Yahweh and idols is to be drawn in terms of life, activity and government. The idol cannot predict and bring to pass, but Yahweh can (Is. 41:26–27; 44:7); the idol is a helpless piece of flotsam on the river of history, only wise after the event and helpless in the face of it (Is. 41:5–7; 46:1–2), but Yahweh is Lord and controller of history (Is. 40:22–25; 41:1–2, 25; 43:14–15, etc.).
The NT reinforces and amplifies the OT teaching. Its recognition that idols are both nonentities and dangerous spiritual potencies has been noted above. In addition, Rom. 1 expresses the OT view that idolatry is a decline from true spirituality, and not a stage on the way to a pure knowledge of God. The NT recognizes, however, that the peril of idolatry exists even where material idols are not fashioned: the association of idolatry with sexual sins in Gal. 5:19–20 ought to be linked with the equating of covetousness with idolatry (1 Cor. 5:11; Eph. 5:5; Col. 3:5), for by covetousness Paul certainly includes and stresses sexual covetousness (cf. Eph. 4:19; 5:3; 1 Thes. 4:6, Gk.; 1 Cor. 10:7, 14). John, having urged the finality and fullness of revelation in Christ, warns that any deviation is idolatry (1 Jn. 5:19–21). The idol is whatever claims that loyalty which belongs to God alone (Is. 42:8).
The bearing of the biblical teaching on idols on its monotheistic doctrine of God cannot be overlooked. In its recognition of the magnetism of idolatrous religion for Israel and also in such seeming recognition of ‘other gods’ as, e.g., Ps. 95:3, the OT acknowledges not the real existence of the ‘gods’ but the real existence of the threat to Israel, the menace of alternative cults and claims. It thus constantly holds its monotheism (as indeed the NT also does) in the setting of the religion and religious environment of the people of God.
Bibliography. H. H. Rowley, Faith of Israel, 1956, pp. 74ff.; A. Lods, ‘Images and Idols, Hebrew and Canaanite’, ERE; ‘Idol’, in J.-J. von Allmen, Vocabulary of the Bible, 1958; J. Pedersen, Israel, 3–4, 1926, pp. 220ff., passim; J. B. Payne, The Theology of the Older Testament, 1962; Y. Kaufmann, The Religion of Israel, 1961; ‘Image’, NIDNTT 2, pp. 284–293; J. M. Sasson, The Worship of the Golden Calf, Ancient & Occident, 1973, pp. 151ff. j.a.m.
IDOLS, MEATS OFFERED TO. Among the questions submitted by the Corinthians for the apostle’s ruling was the matter of ‘food offered to idols’, a phrase which represents one Gk. term, eidōlothyta. Paul handles this subject in 1 Cor. 8:1–13 and 10:14–33. The background of the Corinthians’ query may first be sketched.
I. The background
In the ancient system of sacrifice, which was the centre not only of the religious life of the Graeco-Roman world in the 1st century but also of the domestic and social life, only part of the sacrifice was presented to the god in the temple. The sacrifice was followed by a cultic meal, when the remainder of the consecrated food was eaten either in the precincts of the temple or at home. Sometimes the remaining food was sent to the market to be sold (1 Cor. 10:25).
Evidence for the practice of a meal in the temple is found in the following well-known Oxyrhynchus papyrus which Lietzmann regards as ‘a striking parallel’ to the reference in 1 Cor. 10:27: ‘Chaeremon invites you to dinner at the table of the lord Serapis (the name of the deity) in the Serapeum tomorrow the 15th at the 9th hour’ (= 3 p.m.) (quoted and discussed in Chan-Hie Kim’s essay, ‘The Papyrus Invitation’, JBL 94, 1975, pp. 391–402). An invitation to a meal of this character, whether in the temple or in a private house, would be commonplace in the social life of the city of Corinth, and would pose a thorny question for the believer who was so invited. Other aspects of life in such a cosmopolitan centre would be affected by the Christian’s attitude to idol-meats. Attendance at the public festivals, which opened with pagan adoration and sacrifice, would have to be considered. Membership of a trade guild, and therefore one’s commercial standing, and public-spiritedness were also involved, as such membership would entail sitting ‘at table in an idol’s temple’ (1 Cor. 8:10). Even daily shopping in the market would present a problem to the thoughtful Christian in Corinth. As much of the meat would be passed on from the temple-officials to the meat-dealers and by them exposed for sale, the question arose: was the Christian housewife at liberty to purchase this meat which, coming from sacrificial animals which had to be free from blemish, might well be the best meat in the market? Moreover, there were gratuitous banquets in the temple precincts which were a real boon to the poor. If 1 Cor. 1:26 means that some of the Corinthian church members belonged to the poorer classes, the question of whether they were free or not to avail themselves of such meals would have been a practical issue.
II. Different reactions
Conviction in the church was sharply divided. One group, in the name of Christian liberty (6:12; 10:23; cf. 8:9) and on the basis of a supposed superior knowledge (gnōsis, 8:1–2), could see no harm in accepting an invitation to a cultic meal and no possible reason why food, formerly dedicated in the temple, should not be bought and eaten.
The justification for such an attitude of religious syncretism was, first, that the meal in the temple precincts was just a social occasion. They claimed that it had no religious significance at all. And, secondly, they appear to have stated that in any case the pagan gods are nonentities. ‘An idol has no real existence’ and ‘there is no God but one’ was their plea of defence (8:4; cited probably from the Corinthians’ own letter to Paul).
On the other hand, the ‘weak’ group (8:9; cf. Rom. 15:1) viewed the situation differently. With abhorrence of the least suspicion of idolatry, they believed that the demons behind the idols still exerted malign influence on the food and ‘contaminated’ it, thus rendering it unfit for consumption by believers (8:7; cf. Acts 10:14).
III. Paul’s answer
Paul begins his answer to the church’s inquiry by expressing agreement with the proposition, ‘There is no God but one’ (8:4). But he immediately qualifies this explicit confession of his monotheism by reminding his readers that there are so-called gods and lords which exert demonic influence in the world. He concedes the point, however, that ‘for us’ who acknowledge one God and one Lord, the power of these demons has been overcome by the cross, so that the Corinthians ought no longer to be in bondage to them (cf. Col. 2:15–16; Gal. 4:3, 8–9). Not all the Corinthian believers have found that freedom in Christ, and their case must be remembered and their weak conscience not outraged by indiscreet action (8:7–13). The apostle has a more serious word to say on this matter, which he takes up after a digression in ch. 9.
He comes to grips with the menace of idolatry in 10:14ff. These verses are an exposition of the inner meaning of the Lord’s Table in the light of communion in the body and blood of Christ (10:16); the unity of the church as the body of Christ (10:17); the spell cast by demons over their worshippers at idol-feasts which led actually to a compact with the demons (10:20); and the impossibility of a double allegiance represented by trying to share both the table of the Lord and the table of demons (10:21–22). (*Lord’s Supper.)
The apostle in this section, therefore, takes a serious attitude to the implications of attendance at idolatrous banquets (cf. 10:14). In line with rabbinical teaching which was later codified in the Mishnah tractate ‘Abodah Zarah (‘Strange Worship’), he forbids absolutely the use of food and drink in an idol-temple (10:19–20; cf. Rev. 2:14) on the ground no doubt that, as the rabbis said, ‘as a dead body defiles by overshadowing, so also an idolatrous sacrifice causes defilement by overshadowing’, i.e. by having been brought under a pagan roof, and by this contact becomes ritually unclean. See the Mishnah in Danby’s edition, p. 649, n. 3.
But, in regard to food which has formerly been offered in the temple and is afterwards made available for consumption, Paul says that it is permitted on the basis of Ps. 24:1 (1 Cor. 10:25ff.). Although such food has been dedicated in the temple and is exposed for sale in the meat-market, it may be eaten by virtue of being God’s creation (1 Tim. 4:4–5). This is a distinct departure from the rabbinical ceremonial rules (and, indeed, from the apostolic decree of Acts 15:28–29), and is the practical application of the Lord’s word in Mk. 7:19, ‘Thus he declared all foods clean’; cf. Acts 10:15). The only qualification is that the ‘law of love’ (TDNT 2, pp. 379) must be observed, and a Christian’s own freedom to eat such food must be waived if the conscience of the ‘weaker’ believer is likely to be damaged and he is thereby caused to stumble (10:28–32), or if a Gentile is scandalized by this practice (10:32). The situation envisaged by these verses is a Christian’s acceptance of an invitation to a meal in a private house (10:27). In such a circumstance the believer is free to eat the food set before him, making no inquiries as to its ‘past history’, i.e. where it comes from or whether it has been dedicated in an idol shrine. If, however, a pagan, at the meal, draws attention to the food and says, ‘This has been offered in sacrifice’—-using the pagan term hierothyton—then the food must be refused, not because it is ‘infected’ or unfit for consumption, but because it ‘places the eater in a false position, and confuses the conscience of others’ (Robertson-Plummer, I Corinthians, p. 219), notably his heathen neighbour (10:29). This reading differs from the suggestion of Robertson-Plummer, where they take the speaker in v. 28 to be a Gentile Christian using the terminology of his pre-Christian days; it is better, however, to regard this speaker as ‘one of them that believe not’ in v. 27; and then the apostle’s word links up with the altruism of the rabbis, who taught that a devout Jew will not countenance idolatry lest he should encourage his Gentile neighbour in error, for which he would then be responsible (Aboth 5. 18; Sanhedrin 7. 4, 10).
IMAGE. The term denotes a material representation, usually of a deity. Unlike
the term ‘idol’, which has a pejorative overtone, ‘image’ is objectively
descriptive. Throughout the ancient Near East numerous images of various deities
were to be found in temples and other holy places, such as open-air shrines;
many private houses also contained a niche where the image of the protective
deity of the household stood. Images were commonly anthropomorphic (in human
form), though theriomorphic images (in animal form) were also widely used,
especially in Egypt.
The form of the image, especially of the theriomorphic examples, frequently represented some prominent characteristic of the particular deity; thus an image of a bull (e.g. of El in Cannann) portrayed the god’s power and fertility. The image was not primarily intended as a visual representation of the deity, but as a dwelling-place of the spirit of the deity enabling the god to be physically present in many different places simultaneously. A worshipper praying before an image would not necessarily accept that his prayers were being offered to the figure of wood or metal itself, but would probably have regarded the image as a ‘projection’ or embodiment of the deity. Of course, those in Israel who denied any reality to the deity represented by the image maintained that the worshippers of foreign deities were paying homage to mere wood and stone (*Idolatry).
Wood, D. R. W., & Marshall, I. H. (1996). New Bible dictionary (3rd ed. /). Leicester, England; Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press.