Biblical definition of idolatry

1. Dictionary definition

The Merriam Webster online dictionary gives the following double definition of the word “Idolatry”:

1 : the worship of a physical object as a god

2 : immoderate attachment or devotion to something

The fact that the author(s) of this entry had to split it in two underlines the difficulty of using a word whose meaning has shifted in our language and is therefore no longer precise nor easily understood. In the following, I shall endeavour to show that only the first meaning is Biblical while the second is a relatively recent addition which has arisen in our language largely because most of us have lost track of the original Biblical notion.

2. Biblical Definition – Old Testament

The clearest and most complete definition of Idolatry in the early part of the Bible is found in the book of Exodus, not far from the passages stating the ten commandments:

Exodus 20:3 “You shall have no other gods before me.” [First Commandment]

Exodus 20:23 “You shall not make gods of silver to be with me, nor shall you make for yourselves gods of gold.”

Exodus 23:24 “you shall not bow down to their gods nor serve them, nor do as they do […]”

The first verse above is a general prohibition against Polytheism. The two other verses make this prohibition more precise by specifically addressing the issue of Idolatry (which is distinct from Polytheism; you can be a non-idolatrous polytheist). I have highlighted several phrases and words in these two verses: “make”, “bow down”, “serve” and “do”. As this last word shows, Idolatry in the Biblical sense is primarily a practice, an action; something that you do. Nowhere in the Pentateuch is anything said about the state of mind which may or may not go with Idolatry. The other three phrases make it clear what kind of practice Idolatry is:

“make” = Idolatry is directed at manufactured objects.

“bow down” = Idolatry involves making symbolic gestures which honour the thing they are directed to.

“serve” = Idolatry is like serving someone (a master, a King).

The last two notions above are in fact related to something wider than just Idolatry. They are what defines the Biblical meaning of the word “worship” (another of those words whose meaning has become somewhat hazy in our modern language). To further illustrates the fact that what is meant when the word “worship” is uses in the Bible are the actions to “bow down and serve” and not a particular state of mind, we may notice that the same two notions are used when describing the worship due to God himself:

2 Chronicles 29:30 “And Hezekiah the king and the officials commanded the Levites to sing praises to the Lord with the words of David and of Asaph the seer. And they sang praises with gladness, and they bowed down and worshiped.”

Psalms 2:11 “Serve the Lord with fear, and rejoice with trembling.”

In the first verse above, the idea of bowing down is linked to that of praise, which reveals its deeper meaning in that context, and which we find in many other verses of the Old Testament such as this ons:

Psalms 22:3 “Yet you are holy, enthroned on the praises of Israel.”

Therefore:- Biblical definition of “worship”: actions performed in order to praise and to serve.

Biblical definition of “Idolatry”: worship of a manufactured object.

3. Idolatry in the Prophets – the “whoring” metaphor.

We have just seen that the Old Testament defines Idolatry as an action and not a state of mind. But this does not mean that Biblical authors were unconcerned with the state of mind which may accompany idolatry. The prophets, in particular, have dealt at length with this subject. One theme we find throughout the Old Testament but most characteristically in the prophet Ezekiel is the metaphor of idolatry as prostitution:

Leviticus 20:5 “then I will set my face against that man and against his clan and will cut them off from among their people, him and all who follow him in whoring after Molech.”

Jeremiah 13:27 “I have seen your abominations, your adulteries and neighing, your lewd whorings, on the hills in the field. Woe to you, O Jerusalem! How long will it be before you are made clean?”

Ezekiel 6:9 “then those of you who escape will remember me among the nations where they are carried captive, how I have been broken over their whoring heart that has departed from me and over their eyes that go whoring after their idols. And they will be loathsome in their own sight for the evils that they have committed, for all their abominations.”

This is of course very striking to us and actually quite different from the state of mind we usually associate with the idea of idolatry. While we tend to imagine the idolater as slavishly devoted to the object of his worship, the “whoring” metaphor tends to paint him as cynically hoping for some gain, like a woman ready to sell her body for money.

One probable reason of this difference is that the ancient Hebrews were still conscious, because they were witnesses to far cruder and blatant forms of idolatry than we are, that the idolater is always at bottom preoccupied with himself and his own gain. An indication of this is the use of the same “whoring” metaphor to describe superstitious practices where personal gain is clearly the motive:

Leviticus 20:6 “If a person turns to mediums and  necromancers, whoring after them, I will set my face against that person and will cut him off from among his people.”

2 Kings 9:22 “And when Joram saw Jehu, he said, “Is it peace, Jehu?” He answered, “What peace can there be, so long as the whorings and the sorceries of your mother Jezebel are so many?””

Another potential reason is that they identified the role that idolatry played in political maneuvering, again probably because much less efforts were made to hide it at the time:

Ezekiel 23:1 “The word of the Lord came to me: 2 “Son of man, there were two women, the daughters of one mother. 3 They played the whore in Egypt; they played the whore in their youth; there their breasts were pressed and their virgin bosoms handled. 4 Oholah was the name of the elder and Oholibah the name of her sister. They became mine, and they bore sons and daughters. As for their names, Oholah is Samaria, and Oholibah is Jerusalem.

5 “Oholah played the whore while she was mine, and she lusted after her lovers the Assyrians, warriors 6 clothed in purple, governors and commanders, all of them desirable young men, horsemen riding on horses. 7 She bestowed her whoring upon them, the choicest men of Assyria all of them, and she defiled herself with all the idols of everyone after whom she lusted. 8 She did not give up her whoring that she had begun in Egypt; for in her youth men had lain with her and handled her virgin bosom and poured out their whoring lust upon her. 9 Therefore I delivered her into the hands of her lovers, into the hands of the Assyrians, after whom she lusted. […]

14 But she carried her whoring further. She saw men portrayed on the wall, the images of the Chaldeans portrayed in vermilion, 15 wearing belts on their waists, with flowing turbans on their heads, all of them having the appearance of officers, a likeness of Babylonians whose native land was Chaldea. […]

22 Therefore, O Oholibah, thus says the Lord God: “Behold, I will stir up against you your lovers from whom you turned in disgust, and I will bring them against you from every side: 23 the Babylonians and all the Chaldeans, Pekod and Shoa and Koa, and all the Assyrians with them, desirable young men, governors and commanders all of them, officers and men of renown, all of them riding on horses.”

In the Middle-East of the first millennium BC, submitting to a political entity meant formally submitting to the patron gods of that entity. In the passage above, the highlighted names are those of all the major political forces present in the region at the time of Ezekiel or immediately before: Assyria, Egypt and the neo-Babylonian Chaldean Empire.

4. Idolatry in the New Testament – the “Weaker Brother”

Following in the footsteps of the prophets, the New Testament is also preoccupied with the state of the mind, which accompany or motivate idolatry. Again, it is from another point of view than our own. Most of the passages of the NT dealing with Idolatry occur in the Epistles, such as this one:

1 Corinthians 10:5 “Nevertheless, with most of them God was not pleased, for they were overthrown in the wilderness. 6 Now these things took place as examples for us, that we might not desire evil as they did. 7 Do not be idolaters as some of them were; as it is written, “The people sat down to eat and drink and rose up to play.”[…] 11 Now these things happened to them as an example, but they were written down for our instruction, on whom the end of the ages has come. […] 14 Therefore, my beloved, flee from idolatry.”

The main concern of Paul throughout the epistle seems to be that idolatrous behavior (here again, idolatry is viewed primarily as an act) might be understood by a “weaker brother” as an endorsement of non-Christian religious beliefs, even if this was not the intention of the one behaving in such a way:

1 Corinthians 10:19 “What do I imply then? That food offered to idols is anything, or that an idol is anything? 20 No, I imply that what pagans sacrifice they offer to demons and not to God. I do not want you to be participants with demons. 21 You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons. You cannot partake of the table of the Lord and the table of demons. 22 Shall we provoke the Lord to jealousy? Are we stronger than he?”

1 Corinthians 10:27 “If one of the unbelievers invites you to dinner and you are disposed to go, eat whatever is set before you without raising any question on the ground of conscience. 28 But if someone says to you, “This has been offered in sacrifice,” then do not eat it, for the sake of the one who informed you, and for the sake of conscience— 29 I do not mean your conscience, but his.”

1 Corinthians 8:4 “Therefore, as to the eating of food offered to idols, we know that “an idol has no real existence,” and that “there is no God but one.” 5 For although there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth—as indeed there are many “gods” and many “lords”— 6 yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist.

7 However, not all possess this knowledge. However, some, through former association with idols, eat food as really offered to an idol, and their conscience, being weak, is defiled. 8 Food will not commend us to God. We are no worse off if we do not eat, and no better, off if we do. 9 But take care that this right of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak. 10 For if anyone sees you who have knowledge eating in an idol’s temple, will he not be encouraged, if his conscience is weak, to eat food offered to idols? 11 And so by your knowledge this weak person is destroyed, the brother for whom Christ died. 12 Thus, sinning against your brothers 13 Therefore, if food makes my brother stumble, I will never eat meat, lest I make my brother stumble. and wounding their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ. ”

The understanding of idolatry which is displayed in this passage is very deep. In essence, it says the following:

Idols are empty things, but :-

Idolatrous behaviour is a means of communication. It works between a “broadcaster” (the one performing the symbolically loaded idolatrous acts) and several potential “receivers”.

The “receivers” are likely to understand the message as an endorsement of beliefs and therefore become more likely to adopt them.

The “receiver” is weaker.

The “broadcaster” may be cynical or simply careless. Therefore, it is worth being extra-careful, lest you be found to have bordered on the cynical.

Eventually, one last missing piece to this “theory of Idolatry” is provided in another Pauline epistle:

Colossians 3:5 “Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: […], passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry.”

The underlying psychological motivation of Idolatry is eventually revealed as a form of “evil desire”. In the light of what we said previously, we are thus finally able to conclude that Idolatry, as viewed by the New Testament, is motivated by a form of contagious evil desire that spreads from oblivious or cynical broadcasters to weak, covetous receivers.

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