Idolatry, strictly speaking, denotes the worship of deity in a visible form, whether the images to which homage is paid are symbolical representations of the true God or of the false divinities which have been made the objects of worship in his stead.
I. History of idolatry among the Jews.—The first undoubted allusion to idolatry or idolatrous customs in the Bible is in the account of Rachel’s stealing her father’s teraphim. Gen. 31:19. During their long residence in Egypt the Israelites defiled themselves with the idols of the land, and it was long before the taint was removed. Josh. 24:14; Ezek. 20:7. In the wilderness they clamored for some visible shape in which they might worship the God who had brought them out of Egypt, Ex. 32, until Aaron made the calf, the embodiment of Apis and emblem of the productive power of nature. During the lives of Joshua and the elders who outlived him they kept true to their allegiance; but the generation following, who knew not Jehovah nor the works he had done for Israel, swerved from the plain path of their fathers, and were caught in the toils of the foreigner. Judges 2. From this time forth their history becomes little more than a chronicle of the inevitable sequence of offence and punishment. Judges 2:12, 14. By turns each conquering nation strove to establish the worship of its national god. In later times the practice of secret idolatry was carried to greater lengths. Images were set up on the corn-floors, in the wine-vats, and behind the doors of private houses, Isa. 57:8; Hos. 9:1, 2; and to check this tendency the statute in Deut. 27:15 was originally promulgated. Under Samuel’s administration idolatry was publicly renounced, 1 Sam. 7:3-6; but in the reign of Solomon all this was forgotten, even Solomon’s own heart being turned after other gods. 1 Kings 11:14. Rehoboam perpetuated the worst features of Solomon’s idolatry, 1 Kings 14:22-24, erected golden calves at Bethel and at Dan, and by this crafty state policy severed forever the kingdoms of Judah and Israel. 1 Kings 12:26-33. The successors of Jeroboam followed in his steps, till Ahab. The conquest of the ten tribes by Shalmaneser was for them the last scene of the drama of abominations which had been enacted uninterruptedly for upwards of 250 years. Under Hezekiah a great reform was inaugurated, that was not confined to Judah and Benjamin, but spread throughout Ephraim and Manasseh, 2 Chron. 31:1, and to all external appearance idolatry was extirpated. But the reform extended little below the surface. Isa. 29:13. With the death of Josiah ended the last effort to revive among the people a purer ritual, if not a purer faith. The lamp of David, which had long shed but a struggling ray, flickered for a while and then went out in the darkness of Babylonian captivity. Though the conquests of Alexander caused Greek influence to be felt, yet after the captivity a better condition of things prevailed, and the Jews never again fell into idolatry. The erection of synagogues has been assigned as a reason for the comparative purity of the Jewish worship after the captivity, while another cause has been discovered in the hatred for images acquired by the Jews in their intercourse with the Persians.
II. Objects of idolatry.—The sun and moon were early selected as outward symbols of all-pervading power, and the worship of the heavenly bodies was not only the most ancient but the most prevalent system of idolatry. Taking its rise in the plains of Chaldea, it spread through Egypt, Greece, Scythia, and even Mexico and Ceylon. Comp. Deut. 4:19; 17:3; Job 31:20-28. In the later times of the monarchy, the planets or the zodiacal signs received, next to the sun and moon, their share of popular adoration. 2 Kings 23:5. Beast-worship, as exemplified in the calves of Jeroboam, has already been alluded to. Of pure hero-worship among the Semitic races we find no trace. The singular reverence with which trees have been honored is not without example in the history of the Hebrews. The terebinth (oak) at Mamre, beneath which Abraham built an altar, Gen. 12:7; 13:18, and the memorial grove planted by him at Beersheba, Gen. 21:33, were intimately connected with patriarchal worship. Mountains and high places were chosen spots for offering sacrifice and incense to idols, 1 Kings 11:7; 14:23; and the retirement of gardens and the thick shade of woods offered great attractions to their worshippers. 2 Kings 16:4; Isa. 1:29; Hos. 4:13. The host of heaven was worshipped on the house-top. 2 Kings 23:12; Jer. 19:3; 32:29; Zeph. 1:5. (The modern objects of idolatry are less gross than the ancient, but are none the less idols. Whatever of wealth or honor or pleasure is loved and sought before God and righteousness becomes an object of idolatry.—Ed.)
III. Punishment of idolatry.—Idolatry to an Israelite was a state offence, 1 Sam. 15:23, a political crime of the greatest character, high treason against the majesty of his king. The first and second commandments are directed against idolatry of every form. Individuals and communities were equally amenable to the rigorous code. The individual offender was devoted to destruction, Ex. 22:20; his nearest relatives were not only bound to denounce him and deliver him up to punishment, Deut. 13:2-10, but their hands were to strike the first blow, when, on the evidence of two witnesses at least, he was stoned. Deut. 17:2-5. To attempt to seduce others to false worship was a crime of equal enormity. Deut. 13:6-10.
(IV. Attractions of idolatry.—Many have wondered why the Israelites were so easily led away from the true God, into the worship of idols. (1) Visible, outward signs, with shows, pageants, parades, have an attraction to the natural heart, which often fails to perceive the unseen spiritual realities. (2) But the greatest attraction seems to have been in licentious revelries and obscene orgies with which the worship of the Oriental idols was observed. This worship, appealing to every sensual passion, joined with the attractions of wealth and fashion and luxury, naturally was a great temptation to a simple, restrained, agricultural people, whose worship and laws demanded the greatest purity of heart and of life.—Ed.)
The Hindoo Idol Pulliar.