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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).




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 down to Baal (I Kings 19:18). A strong attack against Baal worship, especially against its promotion by the royalty (i.e., foreign queens), was launched by Jehu. He put to death Queen Jezebel (II Kings 9:33), destroyed the sanctuaries that she had built, and killed the priests and followers of Baal (II Kings 10:18ff.). The cult of Baal in Judah (at least its promotion by the royalty) seems to have been introduced by Queen Athaliah (Jezebel's daughter). It came to an end with the uprising engineered by Jehoiada the priest (II Kings 11:17). According to the Bible, the most thorough cultic purge in the history of Israel took place in Judah, during King *Hezekiah's reign. The purge was directed primarily at long-standing native practices, including the brazen serpent whose origin was traced back to Moses. A strong criticism against the cult of Baal is voiced by Hosea (1–3; 11:2; 13:1) and Jeremiah (2:4ff.; 9:13; 11:13, 17; 12:16; 19:5; 23:13, 17, 27; 32:29). The biblical writers attribute the most enthusiastic support of illicit cults to the son of Hezekiah, King Manasseh. The boldness of King Manasseh's reform can be measured by the fact that instead of building sanctuaries to the foreign deities outside the Temple, as Queens Jezebel and Athaliah had done, King Manasseh transformed the very Temple of Jerusalem into a pantheon (II Kings 21) where Yahweh was served along with other gods. The practices that were in vogue during King Manasseh's reign were described by Ezekiel (8–11; 16:17; 20; 23). Later generations attributed the fall of Judah in 586 to the lasting effects of Manasseh's sins (II Kings 23:26–27; Jer. 11:9ff: 15:4). Other cults, illicit by prophetic standards but popular in Israel, were child sacrifice to Yahweh (Jer. 7:31; cf. Ezek. 20:25); to Moloch (II Kings 23:10; Jer. 32:35); to Baal (Jer. 19:5; 32:35); the institution of kadesh (I Kings 14:24; II Kings 23:70) and kedeshah (Deut. 23:18; Hos. 4:14c–15; the traditional understanding of these last as references to cultic *prostitution has been challenged in recent years), and the cult of *Tammuz (Ezek. 8:14). Astral worship seems to have been widespread. The sun and the moon, known as the "Queen of Heaven" (i.e., Ishtar), are referred to throughout biblical literature as objects of worship (cf. Amos 5:26). Ezekiel (8:10) mentions also the worship of animal images.


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.).

Legitimate Images

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 actual form of the cherubim of the Temple is unknown. According to rabbinic tradition (Suk. 5b; Ḥag. 13b) the cherubim were in the form of young children. Moreover, even if one concedes that the form of the cherubim did not correspond to any actual being, one can not help wondering whether this subtlety is at all relative to the religious values and criteria of the ancient Near East and the Bible. In contrast, Jewish medieval authors, Karaites (Jacob al-Kirkisānī, Kitāb al-Anwār, ed. L. Nemoy (1938), 6) and Rabbanites (Judah Halevi, The Kuzari, 1:96) expressed the view that the distinction between permitted and illicit iconolatry is fundamentally arbitrary: certain images were prescribed by the Law and others were proscribed. This view involves standards of values that fully agree with the basic theology of the Bible: the one God must be worshiped only as prescribed by the Law. The difference between the biblical ceremonies and their counterparts is not intrinsic but simply the fact that the former are prescribed by the Law while the latter are not. In the Bible, to worship the only God with rites that are not prescribed by the Law is an act of idolatry (more precisely, avodah zarah, "nonprescribed cult," which is the Hebrew equivalent of "idolatry"). This conception of religion is grounded on the belief in the absolute omnipotence of God. (see Faur, in bibl., 47–48).

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 [20]). 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 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.


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 and fled in order that they should not fall captive (Luckenbill, Records, 1 (1926), 242; 2 (1926), 350). The custom of taking captive the idols of the vanquished was ancient and widespread (Luckenbill, Records, 1 (1926), 222, 223, 231, 232, 310; 2 (1926), 341, 518, 520, 521, 530, 532, 538, 580, 804; Uehlinger). In light of this practice the incident with Rab-Shakeh (Isa. 36:18ff.) is quite clear. Rab-Shakeh wanted to impress upon the people of Judah the fact that the gods of the neighboring nations failed to protect them from the armies of Sennacherib (Isa. 36:18–20; 37:10–12). The reply of King Hezekiah is to the point: the God of Israel alone is truly a "living God" and no comparison should be drawn between Him and the idols of the neighboring nations (Isa. 37:4, 16–20; cf. 10:5–19; 37:23–29). Tiglath-Pileser (Luckenbill, Records, 1 (1926), 230), and Adad-Nirari II (ibid., 380) offered the idols of the vanquished to their own idols. This practice was well known to the biblical writers (see Isa. 46:2; Jer. 43:12; 48:7; Hos. 10:6 (cf. 8:6); Dan. 11:8). When in enemies' hands, the power of the idol vanished. The vanquished kings would come and beg for the return of the idols (Luckenbill, ibid., 518, 536, 538, 731); to return an idol to his temple was considered an act of mercy (ibid., 507, 659). Because of his fear of the enemy, the god would leave the idol (ibid., 2 (1926), 295, 513, 528) "and fly to the heavens" (ibid., 649, 659, 662; Jer. 50:1–3 makes reference to this belief). Elijah's ridicule of Baal (I Kings 18:27) and Isaiah's mocking of the idols (Isa. 44:9–21) were designed to shake the widespread belief in "living idols." The argument offered by the Psalmist (Ps. 106:36; 115:9), "they have eyes but they do not see" should be taken literally. It attempts to disprove the belief that the idols were in possession of sensory faculties. The biblical description of idolatry as "sacrifices to the dead" (Ps. 106:28) and of idols as "wood and stone" (Deut. 28:36, 64), and similar descriptions, challenge the pagan claim that the images they worshiped were in fact "living idols."


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).


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, G.G. Stroumsa (eds.), Tolerance and Intolerance in Early Judaism and Christianity (1998), 159–72; N. Zohar, Sidra, 17 (2001–2002), 63–77; E. Friedheim, Be-Khol Derakhekha Da'ehu, 10 (2000), 63–78; idem, Tarbiz, 69 (2000), 167–75; idem, World Congress of Jewish Studies, 12:2 (2000), 21–44; idem, Tarbiz, 70 (2001), 403–15; idem, Be-Khol Derakhekha Da'ehu, 14 (2004), 47–72.

Sources: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2007 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.