Idolatry: from the Old Testament to the 21st century

With this year’s exams written and some time to go before exam results are released, I took the opportunity to revisit some of the themes from the first course I did, Introduction to the Old Testament. Old Testament (or the Hebrew Bible) studies can easily take a lifetime of study even if one focuses on a particular subject or theme, but for this post I chose to focus on one of the most central “problems” in the Old Testament, namely the problem of idolatry. If there is one position that really unites Judaism, Christianity and Islam in addition to the insistent belief in One, it is their aversion to and rejection of idolatry.

The Hebrew prophets spoke and fought against idolatry incessantly, one of the most memorable verses on the subject being Isaiah 44:16-17:

Half of the wood he burns in the fire; over it he prepares his meal, he roasts his meat and eats his fill. He also warms himself and says, “Ah! I am warm; I see the fire.” From the rest he makes a god, his idol; he bows down to it and worships. He prays to it and says, “Save me! You are my god!”

Here the genius of the prophet is to describe the essence of idolatry in such a way that it is impossible but to laugh at the actions of the ancient idolaters, who burn half of the wood to cook a meal and make a “god” from the other half.  But what exactly do we mean by idolatry and does it exist in our post-everything western society?

Of course we will not find many people nowadays who bow down and worship an idol they have just made from wood. I do however think we live in a deeply idolatrous society, despite the constant struggle of the Abrahamic traditions to demonstrate the absurdity of idolatry for the last 2,500 years. To try and explain what I mean it’s useful to look at the entry for idolatry in the Oxford English Dictionary:

1. The worship of idols or images ‘made with hands’; more generally, the paying or offering of divine honours to any created object.

2. Immoderate attachment to or veneration for any person or thing; admiration savouring of adoration.

If it is possible to distill and summarise these two definitions in one sentence perhaps it would be “Inappropriate or excessive regard of created things or concepts”, often things we ourselves have created or invented.


A modern idol?

So defined it is now clear how easy it is to be an idolater in the 21st century, especially when governments, the business and the media are hard at work peddling their particular “idols”, that may range from laudable ideals such as as democracy and freedom of trade, to physical beauty and individualism, to iPhones and football. Needless to say, there is nothing wrong with any of these in their proper context and purpose; however blow them out of proportion, promote them without regard to other things, make them your primary or only occupation and you have perfect modern (or should we say, post-modern) idols.

Unlike ancient idols, however, the modern concept-idols often live in the minds and hearts of people (often educated and intelligent people) and are not made of wood. The list of the modern idols can be very long indeed, but what describes them is their ultimate futility, relativity and limitations – which is not a problem if you see them for what they are, but becomes a problem when you attach excessive role, significance or adoration to them.

From our society’s obsession with physical appearance at the expense of inner value, to misplaced belief that our understanding of democracy is the right answer to all questions everywhere, we have no shortage of idols we ourselves have created.

All-About-MeThe most dangerous idolatry however is our widespread idolatry of ourselves, where “I” has literally taken the central place in our relations with those around us and is seen as the ultimate lawgiver and judge, the alpha and omega. Everyone and everything is seen as ultimately, if implicitly, subservient to the ways and purposes of this “I”, from the way we behave in relationships to the way we like to be governed. If what matters is the short-term satisfaction of the often confused and contradictory desires of “I”, what place is there for long-term government planning or long-term interpersonal relationships?

It seems to me the work of the prophets is not finished but is taking on new meanings; and if ancients had wooden idols to battle, we have our concept-idols and exaggerated selves to fight – but perhaps we can take some lessons and courage from those who were there before us…

Edgar is studying for a Bachelor of Divinity with the University of London International Programmes, with academic direction from Heythrop College.

7 Responses to Idolatry: from the Old Testament to the 21st century

  1. Achmed Kariem says:

    Edgar, I have to disagree with your statement: “If there is one position that really unites Judaism, Christianity and Islam in addition to the insistent belief in One, it is their aversion to and rejection of idolatry.
    ISLAM IS AN IDOLATROUS RELIGION. I say that as an exmuslim who has found faith in Jesus Christ.

  2. Christopher Lennon says:

    Only if you change the meaning of the word, Achmed, as I would say Edgar has too, in his post, which actually conflates materialism with idolatry.

  3. radians says:

    to achmed kariem

    Perhaps you’re one of those few rare fellows who can’t understand a thing even if its blown in their face as much explicitly as it possibly can be. If you read the Quran with even a little bit of attention you would realize that every other verse says that God is one, He is the only one worthy of being worshipped, those who claim there are other gods besides him are merely following their own whims and desires and following their forefathers blindly even when they were wrong and they had no evidence revealed by God to support their idolatrous claims(ie that God had not sent down any revelation approving of the godliness of anyone else besides Him)…To the extent that Quran declares even Christians to be idolaters since they believe in the concept of trinity, God the father, god the son and god the holy ghost, whereas we as Muslims reject that Jesus had said anything even remotely close to this concept. He was sent down just to do what every other Prophet of God was sent down to do, proclaim the absolute oneness of God to mankind and to make them worship him. And Jesus (peace be upon him) was the Messenger and a Prophet of God like Moses, Abraham, Jacob, Mohammed, and all the others. Read the translation of some verses about Jesus Christ, who is called Esa and the son of Marry in the Quran:

    “Oh People of the Book! Commit no excesses in your religion, nor say of God anything but the truth. Christ Jesus, the son of Mary, was (no more than) a messenger of God, and His Word which He bestowed on Mary, and a spirit proceeding from Him. So believe in God and His messengers. Say not, ‘Trinity.’ Desist! It will be better for you, for God is One God, Glory be to Him! (Far exalted is He) above having a son. To Him belong all things in the heavens and on earth. And enough is God as a Disposer of affairs” (4:171).

    “The Jews call ‘Uzair a son of God, and the Christians call Christ the son of God. That is but a saying from their mouth; (in this) they but imitate what the unbelievers of old used to say. God’s curse be on them; how they are deluded away from the Truth! They take their priests and their anchorites to be their lords in derogation of God, and (they take as their Lord) Christ the son of Mary. Yet they were commanded to worship but One God: there is no god but He. Praise and glory to Him! (Far is He) from having the partners they associate (with Him)” (9:30-31)

    “And (appoint him) a messenger to the Children of Israel, (with this message): “I have come to you, with a Sign from your Lord, in that I make for you out of clay, as it were, the figure of a bird, and breathe into it, and it becomes a bird by Allah’s leave: And I heal those born blind, and the lepers, and I quicken the dead, by Allah’s leave; and I declare to you what ye eat, and what ye store in your houses. Surely therein is a Sign for you if ye did believe.”(3:49 )

    “They do blaspheme who say: “Allah is Christ the son of Mary.” But said Christ: “O Children of Israel! worship Allah, my Lord and your Lord.” Whoever joins other gods with Allah,- Allah will forbid him the garden, and the Fire will be his abode.”(5:72 )

    “The Messiah, son of Mary, was no other than a messenger, messengers (the like of whom) had passed away before him. And his mother was a saintly woman. And they both used to eat (earthly) food. See how We make the revelations clear for them, and see how they are turned away!”(5:75)

    “And (remember) when Allah will say (on the Day of Resurrection): “O ‘Iesa (Jesus), son of Maryam (Mary)! Did you say unto men: ‘Worship me and my mother as two gods besides Allah?’ ” He will say: “Glory be to You! It was not for me to say what I had no right (to say). Had I said such a thing, You would surely have known it. You know what is in my inner-self though I do not know what is in Yours, truly, You, only You, are the All-Knower of all that is hidden and unseen.”(5:116)

    Much of an idolatrous religion, then?

  4. sheba says:

    Good Lord, that was amazing… just opened my mind Edgar

  5. Wills says:

    to Radian,

    Please tell me why Muslims say their prayers while bowing down towards the sun daily.?

    also tell me what is inside kabar that Muslim pilgrims turn round yearly in mecca ?

    then while at Mecca what do they do around the tomb of the prophet ?

    As for the Trinity, it is beyond human understanding, just as the existence of the Only One God is beyond our understanding.

    Lets think of it, we believe God that He is who He said He is, but when don’t need to see Him physically before we believed Him. So also we cannot reason out the Mistry of Trinity (He is One God manifesting in three forms).

  6. to wills,

    1-muslims bow down to sun daily? buddy you really need to get your information from reliable sources…we are prohibited to even pray while sun is rising, at noon, and while its just setting, just to avoid similitude to sun worshippers who used to prostrate and bow down to the sun in these times…we dont bow down to sun.

    2-inside the kaba is nothing, its empty. there used to be idols 1400 years ago in it and they were broken down. Our Lord has asked us to prostrate to him in prayer(the only humanly possible physical form which shows utter subservience, obedience and absolute humility towards anything)… …just to signify unity all muslims turn towards a single direction while prostrating…towards the kaba. the muslims living in the west therefore turn towards the east, and the muslims living in the east turn towards west. and the muslims sitting just besides the kaba then ofcourse turn towards it.

    3-they send blessings and prayers and show their admiration towards him, thats all.

    4- as for trinity, no its not. its beyond human understanding because its a logical contradiction(as i, being a common man, see it). and the existence of God is beyond our understanding only when it comes to his attributes which are outside of human experience, such as timelessness(whereas we experience events in time), being without beginning and without end and so forth(none of which entail a genuine logical contradiction)…as for his being only and absolutely one, without a co sharer its completely understandable, i seriously doubt anyone can claim that they don’t understand how God can be one, or that there is a logical contradiction in him being one. but see, you yourself call trinity a ‘mystery’.

  7. Wills says:

    to Mohammedmanzar

    my brother,

    1 – why can’t we worship our Lord facing other directions (since He is everywhere at the same time) ? why must it be towards this particular direction “as the similitude of the sun worshipers” ?

    2 – why is it that its the same place and edifices that used to be house for idols 1400 years ago and still covered in the same manner that has been chosen to worship The One True God ( who can’t share His Glory with anyone else) ?

    3- As for the blessing and admiration around the tomb of the prophet, that sound humanly acceptable

    4 -Trinity may not be logical to human sense. Same as the existence of God ( Creator of Heaven and Earth) is not to logical or reasonable to most clever people of all time. I tell you this (my friend), if you want to reason out or apply logic to the Personality of the Almighty God ( who is Self Existence), we will have a lot of unanswered questions. The first thing is faith in Him and ask Him sincerely for His revelation.

    God is not human,

    Anyways, its good that you believed in God

    thanks for the correct word “mystery”

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