Idol Worship

The Bible talks a lot about idol worship, and how foolish it is to pray to a piece of wood or stone that someone else carved. However, there are groups today, like Hindus and Orthodox Christians, who use, uh, visual aids to prayer, but they say that of course they don’t worship the actual objects, these things just help them focus when they pray to their real, immaterial God. So, my question is, was this what ancient idol worshipers were doing, but they were the victims of a Biblical disinformation campaign, or were people really once dumb enough to worship a block of wood?


Love Poems -

Wooden yew like to know? The god enters the idol,it is actually there.There are spirits ,demigods and even gods in all sorts of things.

Well, I know my God is real. I carved him myself!


“I hope life isn’t a big joke, because I don’t get it,” Jack Handy

coffeecat writes:

Oh, sure, that’s what they say they’re doing. :slight_smile:
Quite seriously, the possibility that the worshipper is using the image simply as a focus is generally acknowledged. Those who oppose such use, however, point out that it’s a very slippery slope from, “This image is merely an aid”, to, “This image is a superior aid”, to, “This image is so superior that it partakes of the divine essence”, to, “This image really is god!”.
For a bit of the reasoning behind both sides, read up on the conflicts between “iconoclasts” and “iconodules” in 8th and 9th century Byzantium.

“Kings die, and leave their crowns to their sons. Shmuel HaKatan took all the treasures in the world, and went away.”

Uh oh , every body get set for a ride to GD. come on ,akat, coffee didn’t want to start a debate, he didn’t ask about that, it was just an idol question.

The Biblical text is fairly clear:

  • Exodus 20:3 “You shall have no other gods besides me.” The Hebrew word translated as “have” is actually a form of “to be”, implies a relationship (same word is used in marriage vows).

  • Exodus 20:4 “You shall not make for yourself a sculptured image or any likeness of what is in the heavens above or on the earth below or in the waters under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them.” This precludes any material representation of divinity.

The ancient Greeks, for example, would never have confused the statue of Zeus with Zeus himself. The biblical text condemns both the worship of Zeus and the creation of an image of Zeus. Is that what you were asking?

I asked this very question when I was in catholic school. Got me into quite a bit of trouble, I must say.
They tell you the old “focus” story, but I didn’t buy it. Too many statues, rosaries, medals etc.
You even pray to saints, for interventions they claim.
I’m still recovering. :frowning:

My understanding of the pagan societies in the Old Testament was, if they carved a god out of a log or a stone, and somebody came along and swiped it or destroyed it, then the worshipper was SOL until he manufactured another god, because the object was, literally, his god. The Hebrews, on the other hand, had no need of a representation of God, and were forbidden to make them anyway.

As for the Catholic and Orthodox use of crucifixes and statues, they are reminders, nothing more. They are not God, any more than the framed picture of your wife that sits on your desk at work is actually your wife; it is a reminder, nothing more.

Mosaic law completely forbade ALL attempts to depict or portray God in any form, and Mohammed followed suit. In fact, Moslems went further, and forbade any depiction of Mohammed (some years back, there was a film biography of Mohammed that studiously avoided showing the Prophet himself- though it showed many scenes from Mohammed’s viewpoint).

Moses forbade using any visual aids, even when Jews were ostensibly worshipping Yahweh. The most famous idol of all, the Golden Calf, was not a PAGAN idol at all. Rather, the Israelites were having a hard time worshipping a god they couldn’t see or even visualize. They asked Aaron to give them a god they could actually see! Aaron gave in, and created the golden calf, which was SUPPOSED to represent Yahweh (the image was actually supposed to be flattering to Yahweh; the idea was that Yahweh was “strong as a young bull”).

When Moses saw the calf, he was furious. TO him, it was irrelevant that the calf was supposed to represent Yahweh- to Moses, ANY attempt to create a visual image of God was wrong, for many reasons. Chiefly:

  1. ANY image puts limits on a limitless god.
  2. ANY image is the first step on a slippery slope back to paganism.

Now, as a Catholic, I have fewer objections to icons and religious art and the like than Moses had (and current fundamentalists still have). Still, the dangers Moses saw are real enough. When one looks at art devoted to the Virgin Mary, in particular, an unmistakeably pagan element frequently shines out. In general, however, my objection to traditional Catholic icons and the like is not that they’re pagan, but that they’re rather cheesy and tacky!

Got no wives, jobs or gods. Ergo, no problema. Wee-e-e-lll, maybe just a few.

Ray (mostly idle)

Let me see if i can pull this from what I refer to as my memory.There was a tribe near by(or a civilization?)(Phoenicians?) that worshiped a bull god. It was a fertility ‘cult’ with all the rampant sexuality usually associated with that. in the spring they worshiped the god in his manifestation of a calf. Moses WAS reacting to a bit more than the graven image?
dex the greeks knew the difference, but Zuess was THERE, he might not always be “in” that particular statue, you might have to pray to get his attention, but it was a lot more than a ‘reminder’ or ‘focal point’.There is a greek term that I forget meaning ‘the god IS not HERE’, it was used by the priests in reply to impossible prayers, especially from political foes. (which is why it survived in slightly diferent but usually political situations) they did not say 'the god DOES not HEAR.
pickman, You would swipe the god and it became your god. an additional god. So the other guys would go to war to get it and yours back.So they make a new one and then go to war now they got three.A sense of this comes down in the importance of captured battle colors. And possibly after all the wars and panic the PTB said ‘It’s just a symbol,not really the god.’

Fair enough, Mr John, I was generalizing. The pagan priests and the religious leaders would not have confused the statue with the god, but many worshippers might have.

The Old Testament clearly rejects both concepts. You cannot worship any other god, and you cannot make images to worship, as per the lines from Exodus I cited in the prior post.

It is certainly easier to worship a deity when you have a visual representation. It helps focus, helps to tell stories about that deity to children, etc.

The Old Testament rejects that. The Old Testament does not tell stories about God, it tells stories about people. It’s anotgher break, another way that the Old Testatment is different from the pagan mythologies. Pagan mythologies tell stories about how gods copulate with women, take part in wars, disguise themselves as bulls, change water to wine, walk on water, etc etc.

OK, sarcasm aside, that is one of the reasons that Christianity and Judaism took diverse paths. Judaism utterly rejects the notion of God becoming man or having a human form or any other form, for that matter. Central to Christianity is God-become-man and taking on human shape.

Astorian: The interpretation you cite of the golden calf is based on Aaron not being punished for complicity: that he was trying to make an image of God to give the people a focus, he was not creating an idol to worship. The Hebrew text is ambiguous, so that interpretation is possible. The alternate interpretation, that he was simply creating an idol, is also possible.


I don’t mean to quibble on your posts, especially since you so spot-on explained the Biblical concept of idolatry to the original poster(s), but…

Ahem…Genesis 1?

Chaim Mattis Keller

“Sherlock Holmes once said that once you have eliminated the
impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be
the answer. I, however, do not like to eliminate the impossible.
The impossible often has a kind of integrity to it that the merely improbable lacks.”
– Douglas Adams’s Dirk Gently, Holistic Detective

I think you’re all missing coffeecat’s question, which was not about today’s religions, but about way back when:

Simple answer: In Jewish belief, yes, they really were.

The Midrash, a Jewish collection of stories and interprations of the Bible, whose authority ranks up there with the Talmud, has the following story about Abraham, and his father Terach:

Terach ran a store where he sold idols. Maybe manufactured them too, I’m not sure. One day he had to take care of something, so he left Abraham in charge. Abraham was exploring his theories about idolatry and monotheism at the time. He took an object (hammer? axe? don’t remember) and wrecked one of the idols, and then put that weapon in the hands of a nearby idol which was larger than the one Abraham broke.

When Terach returned and saw the damage, he asked his son what happened. Abraham answered that the two idols got into a fight, and the bigger one won. Terach screamed “That’s ridiculous! They can’t do anything!”. Abraham answered, “Listen to yourself! Why do you worship them if they can’t do anything?” So Terach disowned his son and threw him out of the house.

To me, and to this forum, it is significant that Terach did not answer, “It is just a symbol.” Rather, he really believed those idols to be gods, despite the contradiction that his son pointed out.

In the Jewish view, the veneration of objects as gods has been pretty effectively wiped out, to the point where we cannot fathom how otherwise intelligent individuals ever fell for it. But they did indeed.

(It seems to me that they even got a physical pleasure from doing so, such as we get from eating or from sex, which is very different from the emotional and intellecual pleasures which people get from religion nowadays. It was a whole different world, and I don’t understand it one bit.)

Me: << The Old Testament does not tell stories about God, it tells stories about people. <<

CMKeller: << I don’t mean to quibble … Ahem…Genesis 1? >>

That’s a quibble. Genesis 1 is about the world, creation of. It’s not a story about God. Compare to Greek creation stories about Zeus, how he is born, how he rebels against his father Cronus, how he overcomes the Titans to set himself up as chief sky-god, marrying his sister Hera, etc. The same is true of other pagan mythologies: the creation stories are stories about the gods, how they came to be, how they fight with each other, how they copulate with each other, etc.

In comparison, Genesis says nothing about God: who is He? Where did he come from? What was before Him? You can find responses to those questions in rabbinic commentary (or you can find avoidance of them in rabbinic commentary), but you can’t find them addressed in Genesis.

That was my point.

In the books of Samuel and Kings, the nations of Isreal and Judah many times fell back to the worship of idols instead of Yavhehism. In Chronicles the author shows all the bad times of the kingdom as coming from the worship of these instead of Yehveh. It breaks the kingdom down by King and tells a bit of their reign and their beliefs and then tells whether good or bad happened during their reign(often exagerating). The fall of Isreal is often blamed on their falling away from true Yahvehism.
This shows that there was obviously some evidence that the people would worship the idols as Gods. Also many Gods were only present in temples as statues that were worshipped. While it can be argued that these people were worshipping a God rather than a statue it is hard to believe.