Image worship existed in the time of Jacob, from the account of Rachel taking images along with her on leaving her father’s house, which is given in the Book of Genesis. According to the midrash Genesis Rabba, Abraham‘s father, Terah, was both an idol manufacturer and worshipper. It is recounted in both traditional Jewish texts and in the Quran that when Abraham discovered the true God, he destroyed his father’s idols.
The commandments in the Hebrew Bible against idolatry forbade the adoption of the beliefs and practices of the pagans who lived amongst the Israelites at the time, especially the religions of ancient Akkad, Mesopotamia, and Egypt.
Mostly the Bible has succeeded in its task [of uprooting idolatry. The Jewish People abandoned paganism and heralded monotheism. Through Judaism’s offshoots of Christianity and Islam, much of the world has come to reject paganism and polytheism, and to believe in the One God.
Some of these pagan religions, it is claimed in the Bible, had a set of practices which were prohibited under Jewish law, such as sex rites, cultic male and female prostitution, passing a child through a fire to Molech, and child sacrifice.
There is no one section that clearly defines idolatry; rather there are a number of commandments on this subject spread through the books of the Hebrew Bible, some of which were written in different historical eras, in response to different issues. Taking these verses together, idolatry in the Hebrew Bible is defined as either:
the worship of idols (or images)
the worship of polytheistic gods by use of idols (or images)
the worship of animals or people
the use of idols in the worship of God.
In a number of places, the Hebrew Bible makes clear that God has no shape or form, and is utterly incomparable; thus no idol, image, idea, or anything comparable to creation could ever capture God’s essence. For example, when the Israelites are visited by God in Dt 4:15, they see no shape or form. Many verses in the Bible use anthropomorphisms to describe God, (e.g. God’s mighty hand, God’s finger, etc.) but these verses have always been understood as poetic images rather than literal descriptions. This is reflected in Ho 12:10 which says, “And I have spoken unto the prophets, and I have multiplied visions, and by the hand of the prophets I use similes.”
The Bible records a struggle between the prophet’s attempt to spread pure monotheism, and the tendency of some people, especially rulers such as Ahab, to accept or to encourage others into polytheistic or idolatrous beliefs. The patriarch Abraham was called to spread the true knowledge of God, but the prophetic books still reflect a continuing struggle against idolatry. For example, the Biblical prophet Jeremiah complains: “According to the number of thy cities are thy gods, O Judah” (Jeremiah 2:28).
The Bible has many terms for idolatry, and their usage represents the horror with which they filled the writers of the Bible [adherents of Jewish faith maintain that the Torah is the eternally binding word of God]. Thus idols are stigmatized “non-God” (Dt 32:17–21; Je 2:11), “things of naught” (Lv 19:4 et passim), “vanity” (Dt 32), “iniquity” (1 Samuel 15:23), “wind and confusion” (Is 41:29), “the dead” (Ps 106:28), “carcasses” (Lv 26:30; Je 16:18, “a lie” (Is 44:20 et passim), and similar epithets.
Pagan idols are described as being made of gold, silver, wood, and stone. They are described as being only the work of men’s hands, unable to speak, see, hear, smell, eat, grasp, or feel, and powerless either to injure or to benefit (Ps 135:15–18)
Idols were either designated in Hebrew by a term of general significance, or were named according to their material or the manner in which they were made. They were said to have been placed upon pedestals and fastened with chains of silver or nails of iron, lest they should fall over or be carried off (Is 40:19, 41:7; Je 10:14; Ws 13:15), and they were also clothed and coloured (Je 10:9; Ez 16:18;Ws 15:4).
At first the gods and their images were conceived of as identical; but in later times a distinction was drawn between the god and the image. Nevertheless it was customary to take away the gods of the vanquished (Is 10:10–11, 36:19, 46:1; Je 48:7, 49:3; Ho 10:5; Dn 11:8), and a similar custom is frequently mentioned in the cuneiform texts.
Idolatry as a negative stereotyping process
Yehezkel Kaufman (1960) has suggested that when God gave commandments regarding idolatry he meant it to be understood in its most literal form: according to the Bible, most idolaters really believed that their idols were gods, and Kaufman holds that this is an error in assuming that all idolatry was of this type, when in some cases, idols may have only been representations of gods. Kaufman writes that “We may perhaps say that the Bible sees in paganism only its lowest level, the level of manna-beliefs…the prophets ignore what we know to be authentic paganism (i.e., its elaborate mythology about the origin and exploits of the gods and their ultimate subjection to a meta-divine reservoir of impersonal power representing Fate or Necessity.) Their [the Biblical author’s] whole condemnation revolves around the taunt of fetishism.”
However, Kaufman holds that in some places idolaters worshipped gods and spirits that existed independently of idols, and not the forms of the idols themselves. For instance, in a passage in 1 Kings 18:27, the Hebrew prophet Elijah challenges the priests of Baal atop of Mount Carmel to persuade their god to perform a miracle, after they had begun to try to persuade the Jews to take up idolatry. The pagan priests beseeched their god without the use of an idol, which in Kaufman’s view, indicates that Baal was not an idol, but rather one of the polytheistic gods that merely could be worshipped through the use of an idol.
Orestes Brownson asserts that the pagans in the Hebrew Bible did not literally worship the objects themselves, so that the issue of idolatry is really concerned with whether one is pursuing a “false god” or “the true God“. Brownson may have been correct, but some claim Brownson’s theory contradicts the understanding of the Ancient Hebrews, whose culture was contemporary with others that practised “idol worship.” The opponents claim that the Book of Daniel, Chapter 14, illustrates the Hebrew understanding of idols, but this chapter is rejected as apocryphal by Protestants and is not included in most contemporary translations of the Bible. In Daniel 14, Cyrus, king of the Persians, worships two deities, a deity named Bel and a dragon. Daniel 14 characterizes the king and some of the Babylonians as believing, literally, that Bel and the dragon are living gods:
Now the Babylons had an idol, called Bel, and there were spent upon him every day twelve great measures of fine flour, and forty sheep, and six vessels of wine. And the king worshipped it and went daily to adore it: but Daniel worshipped his own God. And the king said unto him, Why dost not thou worship Bel? Who answered and said, Because I may not worship idols made with hands, but the living God, who hath created the heaven and the earth, and hath sovereignty over all flesh. Then said the king unto him, Thinkest thou not that Bel is a living God? seest thou not how much he eateth and drinketh every day?…