Physical or material image or form representing a reality or being considered divine and thus an object of worship. In the Bible various terms are used to refer to idols or idolatry: “image,” either graven (carved) or cast, “statue,” “abomination.” Both Testaments condemn idols, but with idols the OT expresses more concern than the NT, probably reflecting the fact that the threat of idolatry was more pronounced for the people of the OT.
The ancient Hebrews lived in a world filled with idols. Egyptians represented their deities in various human animals forms. Similarly, the various Mesopotamian cultures used idol representations of their deities, as did the Hittites in ancient Asia Minor. More of a threat to Hebrew worship were the Canaanite Baal and Asherah fertility images, some of which are commonly found in excavations. Use of idols in worship continued to be commonplace in Greek and Roman religion.
One of the prominent distinguishing features of biblical religion is its ideal of “imageless” worship. Clearly expressed in the Decalogue is the command: “You shall not make for yourself an idol. . . you shall not worship them or serve them” (Exod 20:4-5 NASB). This is usually interpreted to be a negative statement concerning idols but with positive implications toward the spiritual worship desired by God.
Idols were a problem of long standing. One of the first acts of rebellion of the Hebrews centered around the golden calf made under Aaron’s leadership in the wilderness (Exodus 32). The bronze serpent illustrates the Hebrews’ propensity for idol worship. Moses set it us in the wilderness to allay a plague of serpents (Numbers 21), but Israel retained it and made it an object of worship (2 Kings 18:4).
Joshua called on the people to put away the gods their fathers had served in Mesopotamia and in Egypt (Joshua 24:14). Perhaps a misguided King Jeroboam intended to represent Yahweh by the gold calves set up in his temples at Bethel and Dan when he led the northern tribes to secede from the kingdom inherited by Rehoboam (1 Kings 12:28-33).
Biblical writers often denounced idolatry. None is more graphic and devastation than that is Isaiah 44:9-20. The idol is made by a workman but is powerless to sustain the workman to complete his task. Further, the idol begins as a leftover piece of a tree from which a person makes a god. He then worships no more than a block of wood.
Many scholars believe that the threat of idolatry was much less in the Jewish community after the Babylonian exile and that it continued to be diminished though still present throughout NT times. The most noted problem in the NT concerns the propriety of eating meat that has previously been offered to an idol (1 Cor 8-10). Paul seemingly broadened the scope of idolatry for Christianity when he identified covetousness with idolatry (Col 3:5).