Idols, Ancient and Modern


Timothy D Padgett

We don’t worship idols, do we? We’d sure like to think that, but, despite our postmodern pretensions to the contrary, our false worldviews, ideologies, and reigning paradigms serve the same idolatrous purpose and impart the same corrosive moral effects as any graven image of yesteryear.

When you read through the Bible, it doesn’t take very long to discover that idols were kind of a big deal back in the day. To greater or lesser degrees, these dubious deities are plot points all across the Scriptures. Sometimes, like in the Torah, they’re more in the background than up front, but they’re still a ubiquitous fact of life for the biblical world. In the historical books and the prophets, idols become the fundamental temptation for the people of God as well as the key reason they were driven into the Exile.

One thing to keep in mind, though, is that the idols in the Bible are not all of a kind. This is particularly so if we broaden our working definition of “idols” to include false worship of any kind and not just statues. How we divide these up is a judgment call, but we can talk about such idolatry as comprising four different sorts of false worship.

The first and simplest kind is what you see briefly in Genesis 31 & 35 and Judges and would have been encountered by the New Testament Christians: household gods. These are objects of worship that are not necessarily connected to any formal cult with a temple and priesthood and could even be less a matter of supernatural beings so much as ancestors watching over the living. Gods like this were the patron spirits of a family, a trade, or perhaps even a geographic location.

They weren’t the sort of beings you’d go to for ultimate meaning for the universe, but they gave you a sense of identity and feeling of belonging. More personal than the more professional religions, to betray fidelity to the household gods was to turn your back on family. The problem here was the elevation of otherwise important things like family and work to the level of deity.

High Places were a little bit different since there was no “graven image” involved, nor was it necessarily about a false god. However, these were often spoken of in the Bible in similar terms as idolatry. Defining a High Place is a bit tricky. As the name suggests, this was when people would go high on a mountain or hill and worship. Now, we do see times where people such as Abraham and a few others do something like this, and they’re not critiqued for it. But, later on, after Moses received the instructions for the Tabernacle and accompanying sacrificial system, any such out-of-bounds worship was frowned upon if not condemned. Sometimes God did meet His people in these places, but at other times, the Bible praises the godly kings who destroyed them.

Likely the difference is between going into the mountains to pray (legitimate) and establishing a sacred space which supposedly grants you access to God (not legitimate). The fact that pre-Israelite society used High Places for their worship indicates that for the people of God to use them involved a syncretistic accommodation to human-based religion rather than coming to God on His terms.

The Golden Calf is one of the most famous idols of the biblical era. Its most notable example is during Israel’s time at Mt. Sinai in the book of Exodus. There we see the newly freed Hebrew slaves creating their own image of God, seemingly as soon as Moses’ back was turned. Most interestingly, while this was certainly an idol, it wasn’t exactly a false god. When Aaron “threw” the gold in the fire, the calf that just happened to come out was not Baal, Ra, or Marduk. This was, so claimed Israel, Yahweh, the God who had brought them up out of Egypt. Later, when Jeroboam established a rival cult and rival pair of temples for his new kingdom of Israel, he, too, looked to the Golden Calf as the liberator of the Hebrews.

In this case, what we see is a two-fold problem. One is the constant issue with idolatry where they limited the Eternal God of the Universe to the confines of their own cultural prescriptions. The other is that rather than worshiping the God who truly was according to His own self-disclosure, they praised only the product of their imaginations.

Finally, we come to full-on idolatry – the worship of a graven image of a false god. These figures of metal, stone, or wood were thought either to be a mere representation of an otherworldly being or to be a special manifestation of its presence. Aside from incidental times, Israelite worship of idols in this sense was associated most prominently with Baal, a somewhat general name for one of several indigenous Canaanite deities, who, along with Asherah and El, were primary members of their local culture’s pantheon.

It was the worship of these gods that so enraged the God of the Bible. Like many polytheistic divinities, these each represented or maintained control over a given facet of nature, stealing God’s rightful glory. And, like many such false religions, worshiping in this manner lead to abominations like child sacrifice and cultic prostitution. By the time of the Exile, Judah’s moral behavior had so devolved that God declared that they were as bad as the pagan nations they’d replaced in the time of Joshua. Divorcing themselves from the God of their fathers, they became, if anything, worse than these gods of their neighbors.

As with the Golden Calf, we’re faced with a dual problem, and this problem extends to all forms of false worship. We see here the adoption of human cultural desires and projections in place of the true worship of the True God. But, in addition to this, we have radical moral implications of false religion. Small gods make for small ethics. The smallness of these limited gods led to a diminishing of Israelite morality. When we worship anything less than the true God as revealed in the Bible, we inevitably put ourselves on the road to inadequate religion and radically insufficient morality.

So, what does this have to do with us? Are we idolaters? I suppose that’d depend on what you mean, wouldn’t it? Many of us toss the term “idol” in a figurative sense, but few do much more than that. What is likely upsetting to our feelings of chronological snobbery is that we’re not as far removed from our ancient ancestors as we’d like. The same drives and impulses leading our more “ignorant” forebears to bow down to wood and stone, push us to create our own little gods that are equally unable to save.

We’ve got things like the TV show “American Idol,” and we very often speak of a sports or media idol. But, in these cases we mean only a metaphorical idol. We mean that someone is so celebrated that it is as though our hero is our idol. The attention and praise which we devote to some of these demi-gods makes for an apt analogy for idolatry.

The more spiritually minded among us may extend this metaphor a bit and speak of the way that people idolize this or that thing in their lives. We talk about those who worship their career or their children. We tut-tut at the folks who come to church regularly . . . so long as it doesn’t interfere with an afternoon game or junior’s practice schedule. We tease our friends who can’t stop talking about their newest car or have a strange fixation with lawn care, but, with most of these, we still speak of their “idols” in jest.

But what about more realistic understandings of idolatry? For most of us, we’d dismiss the idea out of hand. At the most basic level, such as talking about worshiping a physical statue as a deity, this something our contemporary minds find repulsive. Idols are for primitive tribes out in the jungle somewhere or maybe for ancient peoples of long-gone ages who weren’t as advanced as we are. We seem them as the crude representations of the transcendent unknown which fade from history as we advance into the future.

Aside from books, movies, and museums, about the only place we encounter such things in our world is in “ethnic” restaurants, where we may see a small figure with offerings of food or money. Even then, we look on it condescendingly as a throwback to an older culture which will, with the march of “progress,” become no more significant to us than the days of week being Tiu’s-day, Woden’s-day, Thor’s-day, and Frigga’s-day. Idols, in this literal sense, are to us the archaic remnants of rudimentary religion, pale shadows of an unenlightened period of human history.

As disconnected from our daily lives as such things might seem to be, these primitive impulses of bygone faiths are not quite as distant as we’d like to think. Once we wipe away the shallow veneer of surface impressions, the underlying motivations of ancient idolatry have a lot more in common with our contemporary practices than our sophisticated self-impressions would suggest. And, what is more, the warnings in the God’s word about their dangers apply just as much to us as they did to our older brothers and sisters in the Faith.

We are just as capable as they were of creating gods in our own image. We’re just as likely to put our family or job in the place of God. We’re just as apt to try to meet God on our own terms, to take our personal and cultural desires and live as though these are the ways to reach out to God. We are just as willing to listen to the clamoring of surrounding culture and pretend as though these are the whispers of divine guidance. These otherwise good gifts of God become, instead, substitute deities, blinding us to the truth of the true God’s self-revelation.

We’re also just as likely as our “primitive” ancestors to find our ethics corrupted because we’ve put our ultimate hope in a limited thing. They called it “god,” but we call it ideology, identity, or progress. The effect is the same. We have placed our hope and seek our meaning in finite goods then wonder why our frail gods fail us.

We worship our autonomy then are shocked that abortion, infanticide, and euthanasia “suddenly” become palatable to the wider culture. We exalt sexual expression above all other goods then are puzzled that yesterday’s common sense ethic is today seen as the vilest bigotry and hatred. We treat gender and ethnic identities as the most important thing about us then we are amazed that our social fabric frays more each day. We disdain any understanding of God that violates our own desires, then we wonder that this “god” becomes a plaything for our worst impulses rather than the Creator of all. Our gods are too small.

We most often think of the dangers of idolatry in terms of disloyalty and infidelity, and this is true, but along with these failings come the inevitable destructive effects that our little gods have on our lives. Whenever we limit God to our personal, cultural, or ideological imaginations, He ceases to be the God of Heaven and becomes instead merely the projection of our passions and desires. When we put our political agendas, national patriotism, or even our otherwise good works at the center of our understanding, then these demi-gods will not lift us up to the skies but bring us down to our lowest level. A god bound by the limitations of our preferences and confined by our judgments will only deify our already corrupted desires.

Timothy D. Padgett, PhD, is the Managing Editor of BreakPoint and the author of Swords and Plowshares: American Evangelicals on War, 1937-1973


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