IDOLATRY IN THE OLD TESTAMENT.
The people of Israel in the Old Testament constantly had their problems with idolatry. In Exodus, while Moses is on the mountain receiving God’s Ten Commandments, the people grow tired of waiting for Moses to return and they coerce Aaron into making an idol – a golden calf. Nothing could be more ironic and tragic!
The first two of those Ten Commandments speak about idolatry:
You shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments. Exodus 20:3–6
When Israel finally entered the promised land, they failed to rid the land of all the pagans who where there. Consequently, over time, the people of Israel compromised with pagan cultures and intermarried with pagans. When they did, they often adopted the cultural idols to worship, despite God’s prohibition in the first commandment that they should never have any other gods nor worship them other than Jahweh himself.
Read the book of Judges and see the chaos that idol worship brought to Israel in the land. Ultimately, Canaanite idolatry brought the Northern Kingdom of Israel to destruction by God himself through the hands of the Assyrians. Failing to learn from their Northern brother, the Southern Kingdom, Judah, continued to tolerate and practice idolatry.
The prophets Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and many others warned the people against idolatry, but to no avail. Psalm 115:4–8 reminds us that we always conform to what we worship. Speaking of idols, verse 8 says
“those who make them will become like them.”
Idolaters resemble the idols they worship. God made us in his image to reflect him. If we do not commit ourselves to him we will reflect something else other than God in his creation.
Isaiah 57:3–ff. has some potent words about idols. Idolatry destroys morality. Idolatry mocks God. Idolatry disobeys God’s word. Idolatry prostitutes God’s worship.
Listen to the indictment God brings against his people Judah through Jeremiah:
“As a thief is shamed when caught, so the house of Israel shall be shamed: they, their kings, their officials, their priests, and their prophets, who say to a tree, ‘You are my father,’ and to a stone, ‘You gave me birth.’ For they have turned their back to me, and not their face.”
Finally, God scattered them in his judgment when they were carried away into captivity by the Babylonian empire. It was only after this debacle some seventy years later when the people returned to the land of Israel that they were cured of their idolatry.
There are some interesting Hebrew words for idolatry in the Old Testament. One word in its noun form can mean “pellets of dung” or “shapeless, loggy things.” There is probably some double entendre going on here. An idol is a detestable thing.[i] Another word used for idols is hebel meaning “emptiness, vanity.” Still another word for idol in Hebrew is mipleṣet meaning “a thing of horror or shuddering.”
God is clear: He hates idolatry.
[i] Ludwig Koehler and Walter Baumgartner, The Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament, 3rd ed. (Leiden: Brill, 2001), pp. 192–94.