Greek eidōlon originally meant "image" or "fantasy." By the time of the Septuagint the term was used for images of gods. "Idolatry" is literally "image worship." To grasp the character of image worship in biblical literature one must first realize that the Bible describes the worship of all "strange gods" as idolatry, or the worship of "wood and stone." In addition, one must distinguish the biblical polemics against these gods from the opposition to the use of certain images in the service of Yahweh. At times the use of these images is equated with the service of other gods. It should also be borne in mind that there is no necessary connection between aniconism (opposition to images) and monotheism. On the one hand, a monotheistic religion, Roman Catholicism for example, can make use of images. On the other hand, there is evidence of aniconism in polytheistic religions among Israel's neighbors in biblical times (Mettinger).
IN THE BIBLE
ILLICIT GODS IN ISRAEL
Although the books of the Bible are in agreement that Israelites are required to worship Yahweh (also known as El, Adonai, Elohim, El Shaddai) exclusively, they are likewise in agreement that what Morton Smith called the "Yahweh-alone" party was in the minority for centuries. Although Yahweh was the national god to whom every Israelite owed allegiance, biblical and extra-biblical evidence demonstrate that the worship of additional gods had strong popular support. According to the Bible, the worship of these gods was often promoted by kings and members of the royal court. Sometimes the biblical writers attribute illicit worship to the initiative of foreign queens (Maacah, Jezebel, and her daughter Athaliah and Solomon's numerous wives). The nature of the foreign cult is not always clear. It is not always possible to determine, with any degree of certainty, whether a particular cult was wholly "foreign," syncretistic, or just a form of the worship of Yahweh that the particular biblical writer deemed corrupt. The most popular cults among the Hebrews were of Canaanitic origin, such as those of *Baal, *Asherah, and *Ashtoreth. The Book of Judges (2:11ff.; 3:7; 8:33; 10:10) and I Samuel (12:10) attribute the setbacks of Israel to the worship of Baal (im) and Ashtaroth. The popularity of Baal worship is attested by the strong reaction of the people against Gideon (Judg. 6:29ff.) for destroying (at God's command) the altar of Baal (Judg. 6:25). Samuel had to exhort the people before facing the enemy in battle to cast away "the foreign gods," i.e., "the Baals" (I Sam. 7:3–4). At the end of Solomon's reign there were erected altars to Chemosh, *Moloch, and Ashtoreth (I Kings 11:5–7), for his foreign wives. Abijam, probably at the insistence of his mother Maacah (who was half Aramean), continued the practice of foreign cults (I Kings 15:1–3). The cult of Baal, as well as other foreign cults, gained prominence in the North during the reign of Ahab who built an altar to Baal and worshiped at it in public (I Kings 16:31). Four hundred and fifty priests of Baal and 400 priests of Asherah were in the entourage of Queen Jezebel (I Kings 18:19). Her missionary work seems to have been very successful. According to the testimony of the Bible, 7,000 people had abstained from bowing
IMAGES ASSOCIATED WITH THE WORSHIP OF YAHWEH IN ISRAEL
The erection of pillars, maẓẓevot (pl. of maẓẓevah), in the Israelite cult (not to be confused with the commemorative maẓẓevot, such as in Gen. 31:45–52; Ex. 24:4; Josh. 4:4–9) was considered legitimate by some biblical writers. Jacob erected a maẓẓevah in Beth-El to be used in the service of the divine (Gen. 28:18, 22; 35:14). In contrast, this mode of worship is proscribed by Deuteronomy (16:22) and the Prophets (Ezek. 26:11; Hos. 3:4; 10:1–3; Micah 5:12). Likewise the planting of a tree for the service of "Yahweh the Eternal God" was practiced by Abraham (Gen. 21:33). This form of worship too is proscribed by Deuteronomy (16:21). The use of maẓẓevot and the planting of trees for the cult of God was widely in use during the time of the Monarchy (I Kings 14:15, 23; II Kings 17:10; 23:14). The "brazen serpent" seems also to fall in this group (see II Kings 18:4).
The *golden calf worshiped in the sanctuaries of Dan and Beth-El (Ex. 32:1–8; I Kings 12:28; II Kings 10:29; Ps. 106:13–20; Neh. 9:18; II Chron. 13:8) falls into the same category of disputed cultic objects. There was nothing inherently wrong with using bovine imagery to describe Yahweh (Gen. 49:24; Isa. 1:24), and 12 oxen supported Solomon's Sea of Bronze in the temple (I Kings 7:25). But because of the prominence of the calves in Northern tradition the golden calf was transformed into an idol by polemical Judahite writers, who traced its origins to the misdeeds of the people at the foot of Mt. Sinai (Ex. 32:1–8). In the Southern narrative retelling of an ancient Northern cult legend, the people of Israel wanted to "make" a god ("Make for us a god"; Ex. 32:1). The narrative (Ex. 32:4) describes how the calf was consecrated and makes use of the plural to compound the enormity: "These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you out of the land of Egypt." In other words, the Judahite writers distorted the Northern conception by which the calf stood for Yahweh's pedestal, and misrepresented it as a substitution of Yahweh's worship by the worship of other gods. The rabbinic report (Hizkuni a.l.) that the golden calf was made as a replica of the bull in the divine throne corresponds to the religious ideas current in the ancient Near East. Reference to the "heavenly bull" is found in very ancient Egyptian sources. The bull was considered to be the seat of different gods in Egypt, Babylonia, and Aram (Wainwright, in bibl.). Micaiah (Jud. 17–18) made an image of Yahweh. Gideon made a golden *ephod, possibly an image (Judg. 8:27). The eighth-century prophet *Hosea (Hos. 8:6), but not his ninth-century predecessors *Elijah and *Elisha, denounced the images worshiped in the Northern sanctuaries as idols. This form of worship, iconic worship of Yahweh, accounts for most of the denunciation of image worship in biblical literature (see Kaufmann, Religion, 133ff.).
Not all images were proscribed in the biblical cult. The figures of the cherubim (*cherub) were embroidered in the curtains (Ex. 26:1; 36:8) and in the parokhet, "veil," of the Tabernacle (Ex. 26:31; 36:35) and the Temple (II Chron. 3:14); they were carved upon the walls (I Kings 6:29; II Chron. 3:7; cf. Ezek. 41:18, 20, 25) and doors (I Kings 6:32, 35) and in the mekhonot, "molten sea" (I Kings 7:29, 36) of the Temple. There were two golden cherubim in the Tabernacle (Ex. 25:18–22; 37:7–9) and in the Temple (I Kings 6:23–28; 8:6–7; II Chron. 3:10–13). The cherubim seem to represent the cherubim of the heavenly chariot (see Ezek. 1:5–14; 9–11; cf. II Sam. 22:11; Ps. 18:11). The Lord "sits on the cherubim" of the Sanctuary (I Sam. 4:4; II Sam. 6:2; II Kings 19:15; Isa. 37:16; Ps. 80:2; 99:1; I Chron. 13:6). In considering the biblical view of idolatry one must examine the ground upon which a distinction between permitted and illicit iconolatry is possible. U. Cassuto (Perush al Sefer Shemot (1952), 285) was of the opinion that the distinction between illicit images and the cherubim was based on the character of the images: illicit images represented actual beings, whereas the cherubim did not represent actual beings. This view is too vague and too subtle. The
The Biblical Injunction Against Idolatry
The biblical injunction against idolatry comprises three more or less separate matters: the worship of idols, the worship of Yahweh with pagan rites, and the making of idols. The biblical injunction against idol worship includes (1) idol worship conforming to the pagan rituals (Ex. 20:5; Deut. 12:30; cf. Sanh. 61b); (2) bowing down (Ex. 34:14); (3) offering a sacrifice to another god (i.e., to idols, Ex. 22:19), which, according to the rabbis, includes the performance of any of the rituals that form part of the cult prescribed for the service of the Lord (e.g., the actual slaughtering of the sacrifice, the offering of incense, the offering of libation), although that particular ritual is not generally used in the service of the idol (Sanh. 7:6; cf. Sanh. 60b); (4) paying homage to an idol (Ex. 20:5) – according to the rabbis this prohibition refers to the veneration of an image, even if there is no intention of worshiping, such as kissing the idol or caressing it (Sanh. 7:6; cf. Sanh. 63a). The actual worship of superhuman beings, such as angels, is not explicitly proscribed in the Bible (cf. Judg. 13:16). Indeed, in the earlier sections of the Bible there is considerable fluidity between angels and Yahweh (Judg. 6:1–24). The rabbis, however, consider the worship of angels idolatry (Tosef., Hul. 2:18). In many instances (e.g. Deut. 12:31) biblical writers defame Israelite practices of which they disapprove by associating those practices with the gentiles.
Making idols is explicitly prohibited (Ex. 20:4, 23 ). According to the rabbis this prohibition applies both to one who makes an idol to worship it himself or for others to worship (see Sifra 7:1 end).
THE BIBLICAL POLEMIC AGAINST IDOLATRY
The Bible attacks idolatry on two independent grounds: it violates the Covenant, and it is useless. Since idolatry is specifically forbidden (cf. Ex. 20:4ff.), its practice constitutes a violation of the Covenant (Deut. 31:16, 20; Jer. 11:10). The second argument can be properly understood in light of the belief held by gentiles and many Israelites as well that phenomena such as fertility, rain, health, and so on may be controlled by recourse to other gods than Yahweh, or by worship of their images (Hos. 2:7–14). Since, according to the Bible, God is in control of these phenomena, idolatry is useless (cf. Isa. 41:23–24; 44:6–21; Jer. 10:1–5). Furthermore, as Maimonides observed (Guide, 3:30), the Bible emphasizes that since idolatry is a violation of the Covenant, it produces negative results; as a punishment God will turn nature against the idolaters (cf. Deut. 11:13–18; 28).
Idolatry in Near Eastern Religions
In order to determine the character of idolatry in the religions of the Near East, and in order to have a clear understanding of the biblical attitude towards it, two interrelated matters must be examined in light of the ancient Near Eastern sources: the question of whether the images were conceived as dead matter that represented some superhuman power, or what wouldlater be called natural phenomena, or whether they were conceived as "living idols," and the question of how the image became fit for worship.
"LIVING IDOLS" IN PAGAN RELIGIONS
An idol, in the pagan mind, was a living and feeling being. The idol was not necessarily equivalent to the god; the god had a separate (though not independent) existence from the idol. The god's spirit dwelt within the idol and was identified with it. The god was not confined to a single idol or a single shape; rather his spirit dwelt within many idols of varied shapes. The god perceived and sensed whatever happened to its idol (see Oppenheim, 48–49, 54; van Buren, 75ff.). The prayers, ceremonies, and cult offered to the idol were fully sensed by the god. Since the god identified fully with its idol, the images were "living idols" (see van Buren, 81; Blackman (1924), 55, 57). In Egypt and Mesopotamia the ceremony of washing and dressing the idol was practiced (see Erman, 273ff.; Moret; Oppenheim, 188–92). The idol also ate, drawing from the food offered to it the energy needed for its subsistence and the execution of its numerous activities (see Blackman and Fairman, 84; Oppenheim, 191–2). The idol felt, saw, heard, and spoke (Blackman and Fairman, ibid.; Maspéro). The cult opened the mouth, eyes, and ears of the idol (see van Buren, 81; Blackman (1924), 55, 57; Berlejung). At night the idol slept and in the morning the sunlight would awaken it and it would speak (see Blackman and Fairman, 84). The idol made its will known by influencing the lots that were cast in its presence, through prophecy, and through a variety of signs. The will of the idol was a divine imperative not only in religious matters but also in the political affairs of the state and the private affairs of the individual (see Blackman (1925), 249–258; (1926), 83–95; (1941), 136–190). Since the god fully identified with its idol, whoever controlled the idol also controlled the god. When the king of Elam saw that he was about to be defeated by Sennacherib, he took his idols
THE MAKING OF AN IDOL
The identification of the god with the idol was effected by a special ceremony of consecration known as the "washing or cleaning of the mouth." Egyptian and Babylonian records dating from the biblical period give minute details concerning the rite of consecration by which the image is transformed into a living idol (Schiaparelli; Budge; Blackman (1924), 42–59; Baly, 173–86; Smith, 37–60). By virtue of this ritual the gods also identified with the reliefs that were in the walls of the temples: the pictures of the gods were able to eat and drink the sacrifices and libations that were offered during the services, and thus acquire the necessary energy to be and act as living gods (Blackman (1935), 6–7; Blackman and Fairman, 84ff.). The ceremony by which an image is consecrated and thereby made into a god is recorded in Daniel (3:2, 3).
[Jose Faur /
S. David Sperling (2nd ed.)]
The View of Kaufmann
The polytheistic religions of the ancient Near East were highly developed, sophisticated systems. Theogonies told of the creation of the various deities. Other myths discussed the rule of the gods over physical phenomena and over the lives of individuals or nations. Sexual qualities and benevolent and malevolent personalities were attributed to these gods. Artistic representations of the deity were symbolic of its cosmic power and formed the center both for elaborate temple cults and for simpler home ceremonies. Kaufmann maintains that the Bible shows no knowledge or understanding of this kind of paganism. It tells of national gods – Baal, Chemosh, Ashtoreth – but there is no hint of their mythological qualities. The gods are not understood to be living beings or mythological persons symbolized by their images. The biblical writers usually conceive of image worship in the Bible as nothing more than fetishism (Deut. 4:28; Isa. 44: 9–20 are characteristic). Kaufmann is correct in his description of the biblical characterization of the worship of other gods than Yahweh, but the biblical description is not objectively descriptive. Instead, it is polemical and disingenuous. In contrast to Kaufmann's claim that polytheism perished in Israel's earliest times, it is now clear that monotheism, or better, mono-Yahwism, took centuries to win the day, and that its adherents employed the rhetoric of "wood and stone" to discredit Yahweh's rivals. Indeed, several passages in the Bible permit the inference that some biblical writers considered the gods of the nations to be living gods (e.g., Ex. 12:12; Num. 21:29; 33:4; Judg. 11:24). It was just they were inferior to Yahweh and should not be worshipped by Israelites.
[Gershon Bacon /
S. David Sperling (2nd ed.)]
In the Talmud
Idolatry is considered by the rabbis as one of the three cardinal sins, which one is enjoined to suffer martyrdom rather than transgress (the other two are incest and murder ("the shedding of blood": Sanh. 74a)). Various aspects of the prohibitions concerning idolatry and related practices are dealt with at length in tractate Sanhedrin, while an entire tractate, *Avodah Zarah, is devoted to the practical problems of social contact and economic interaction with idolatry and idolaters. The abstention from it is "equivalent to the fulfillment of all the commandments of the Torah" (Hor. 8a), and Daniel 3:12, "There are certain Jews…" is interpreted to teach that "he who denies idols is called a Jew" (Meg. 13a). Contrariwise, "he who recognizes idols denies the whole Torah" (Sif. Deut. 54). Despite this fact, the possibility of Jews practicing idolatry is largely discounted by the rabbis. Together with circumcision, it is cited as an example of those precepts which "because Israel submitted to death at the time of the royal decree [i.e. one of the times of persecution of Judaism], it is still firmly adhered to" (Shab. 130a). The lessened stress on the danger of succumbing to idolatry as compared with immorality is strikingly expressed in a passage of the Midrash: "God created two evil inclinations in the world, that toward idolatry and the other toward incest; the former has already been uprooted; the latter still holds sway" (Song R. 7:8; cf. Yoma 69b). The passage goes on to discuss whether this "uprooting of the evil inclination toward idolatry," which was so marked a characteristic of the religious
That idolatry was regarded as a "theoretical" and not a practical danger is also borne out by the fact that it is almost a commonplace of the rabbis to stress the gravity of social and ethical failings by stating that he who is guilty of them is "as though he were guilty of idolatry," whether "saying one's prayers while intoxicated" (Ber. 31b), or giving way to excessive anger (Shab. 105b), or not practicing charity (Ket. 68a), succumbing to evil inclinations (TJ, Ned. 9:1, 41b), breaking a promise, or even leaving crumbs on the table (Sanh. 92a). Although idolatry is prohibited in the Seven *Noachide Laws which according to the rabbis are binding upon all mankind, and its transgression involves the death penalty, the rabbis on the whole took a tolerant attitude toward idolatry on the part of gentiles. Idolaters are preferable to sectarians, since whereas the latter have knowledge of God and deny Him, the former act out of ignorance (TJ, Shab. 16:9, 15c). When a philosopher asked Rabban Gamaliel how he came to bathe in the bath of Aphrodite in Acre in view of the prohibition against any contact with idols (Deut. 13:17), he answered: "I did not come within her boundaries; she came within mine" (Av. Zar. 3:4). It was permitted to mock at idolaters, which is the only mockery permitted (Meg. 25b), and it was the custom to refer to them by derogatory names which were a distortion of their real names (Sif. Deut. 61; cf. also *Euphemism). The violent reaction of the Jews against the Roman legions displaying the Roman eagle on their standards, as well as their determined resistance to statues of the emperor being set up in Palestine, had, of course, definite political undertones.
In general it was forbidden to have any dealings with gentiles during their festivals and for three days prior to them and to sell them anything which was obviously part of their idolatrous worship (Av. Zar. 1:5). Included in the prohibition were a number of superstitious practices given the general name of "the ways of the Amorites" (Tosef. Shab. 6, 7). It was naturally forbidden to harbor in one's house any images which were worshiped. A special prohibition was the use of libation wine, and it was treated so seriously that the prohibition was extended as a precautionary measure to all gentile wine (setam yayin). The regulations with regard to this extend over half of chapter 4 and the whole of chapter 5 of the tractate Avodah Zarah (see *Wine). It was forbidden to use concoctions prepared for idolatrous rites for purposes of healing (Pes. 25a; Ex. R. 16:2). The rabbis had a remarkably comprehensive knowledge of every kind and form of idolatry practiced in the East. "If the names of all the idols were to be enumerated, all the donkeys in the world would not suffice to carry them" (Sif. Deut. 43, ed. by L. Finkelstein (1939), 97). They included astral bodies, mountains and hills, marshes, sources of rivers, the dust of the feet, standing corn, fire and water, vapor, winds and clouds, trees, eggs, doves, animals, reflections, and all kinds of statues and images. Specific mention is made of Peor, the worship of which was said to consist of uncovering oneself and defecating in front of the idol (Sif. Num. 131; Sanh. 7:6; TJ, 10:2, 28d), and of Mercurius, Aphrodite, the Saturnalia, and slaughtering over seas and rivers to the "Prince of the Sea" (Poseidon: Ḥul. 2:9, 41b). Certain idolatrous rites mentioned are not known from any other sources. They include a circular incision in the hearts of animals (Av. Zar. 2:3) which was apparently connected with the mysteries of the worship of Demeter and Attis. The reference in Sanhedrin 7:6 to sweeping, besprinkling, washing, and clothing an idol apparently refers to some Egyptian cult.
In the Tosefta (Av. Zar. 6:8) there is a reference to three places in Ereẓ Israel where the worship of the Asherah was still practiced at that time. Although there are references to obscene rites connected with idolatry (Sif. Num. 131) there is in the talmudic literature no reference to the formulas of heathen rites. A special prayer, "Blessed be He Who hath uprooted idolatry from the land," had to be recited when seeing a place where idol worship had been formerly practiced (Ber. 9:1).
[Louis Isaac Rabinowitz]
P. Scholz, Goetzendienst und Zauberwesen bei den alten Hebraeern (1877); G. d'Alviella, in: RHR, 12 (1885), 1–25; E. Schiaparelli, Libro dei Funerali, 1–3 (1882–90); H. Zimmern, Beitraege zur Kenntnis der babylonischen Religion (1894); A. Erman, Life in Ancient Egypt (1894), 259–305; Ch. Fossey, La Magie Assyrienne (1902); A. Moret, Le Rituel du Culte Journalier en Egypte (1902); G. Maspéro, Causeries d'Egypte (1907); E.A.W. Budge, The Book of Opening of the Mouth, 1–2 (1909); A.M. Blackman, in: Journal of Egyptian Archaeology, 10 (1924), 47–59; 11 (1925), 249–58; 12 (1926), 176–85; 21 (1935), 6–7; 27 (1941), 136–90; T.J.C. Baly, ibid., 16 (1930), 173–86; G.A. Wainwright, ibid., 19 (1933), 160–2; H.W. Fairman, ibid., 32 (1946), 84ff.; Kaufmann Y., Toledot, 1 (1937); Kaufmann Y., Religion; H. Junker, Die Goetterlehre von Memphis (1940); E.D. Van Buren, in: Orientalia, 10 (1941), 65–92; J.A. Wilson, in: H. Frankfurt et al. (eds.), The Intellectual Adventure of Ancient Man (1946), 62–71; R. Follet, in: Recherches de science religieuse, 38 (1951/54), 189–208; A.L. Oppenheim, Ancient Mesopotamia (1964), 171–227; J. Faur, in: Tradition, 9 (1968), 47–48; Y. Kaufmann, in: JBL, 70 (1951), 179–97. IN THE TALMUD: S. Lieberman, Hellenism in Jewish Palestine (1950), 115–38; idem, in: JQR, 37 (1946/47), 42–53. ADDITIONAL BIBLIOGRAPHY: M. Smith, Palestinian Parties and Politics that Shaped the Old Testament (1971); A. Berlejung, in: K. van der Toorn (ed.), The Image and the Book (1997), 45–72; C. Uehlinger, in: ibid., 123–28; T. Mettinger, in: ibid., 173–204; M. Greenberg, in: ibid., Studies in the Bible and Jewish Thought (1995), 175–88; S.D. Sperling, The Original Torah (1998), 94–112; idem, in: D. Snell (ed.), A Companion to the Ancient Near East (2005), 408–20. G.J. Blidstein, PAAJR, 41–42 (1973–1974), 1–44; idem, JSJ 5 (1974) 154–61; L.H. Schiffman, in: L.M. Hopfe (ed.), Uncovering Ancient Stones (1994), 159–75; M. Halbertal, in: G.N. Stanton,
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