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The 1901 Jewish Encyclopedia
All idolatrous cults are condemned by the Biblical insistence on worship of Yhwh only. The Decalogue begins with the command to reverence the one true God and to recognize no other deities. On this theme the Pentateuch dilates from every point of view, and the efforts of the Prophets were chiefly directed against idolatry and against the immorality connected with it. To recognize the true God meant also to act according to His will, and consequently to live a moral life. The thunderings of the Prophets against idolatry show, however, that the cults of other deities were deeply rooted in the heart of the Israelitish people, and they do not appear to have been thoroughly suppressed until after the return from the Babylonian exile. There is, therefore, no doubt that Jewish monotheism was preceded by a period of idolatry; the only problem is that which concerns the nature of the cults (comp. the articles see ADRAMMELECH; ANAMMELECH; ASHERAH; ASS-WORSHIP; ASTARTE WORSHIP AMONG THE HEBREWS; ATARGATIS; BA'AL AND BA'AL-WORSHIP; BAAL-PEOR; BAAL-ZEBUB; BAAL-ZEPHON; BAMAH; CALF, GOLDEN; CALF-WORSHIP; CHEMOSH; DAGON; HIGH PLACE; Moloch; STAR-WORSHIP; STONE AND STONE-WORSHIP; TAMMUZ (2); TERAPHIM; and WITCHCRAFT).
Origin, Extent, Name.
- Biblical Data: The narratives in Genesis presuppose monotheism as the original religion. After its decline Abraham was called to spread the true knowledge of God (Genesis 12; Joshua 24), but the prophetical books still reflect the struggle against idols and idolatry. Even Jeremiah, who lived to see the end of the Jewish state, complains: "According to the number of thy cities are thy gods, O Judah" (2:28). The various terms, sometimes expressive of scorn and disdain, which were applied to idols and idolatry are indicative of the wide diffusion of polytheistic cults and of the horror with which they filled the Biblical writers. Thus idols are stigmatized "non-God" (Deuteronomy 32:17,21; Jeremiah 2:11), "things of naught" (Leviticus 19:4 et passim), "vanity" (, Deuteronomy 32:21 et passim; frequently in Jer.), "iniquity" (, 1 Samuel 15:23 et passim), "wind and confusion" (Isaiah 41:29), "the dead" (Psalms 106:28), "carcasses" (Leviticus 26:30; Jeremiah 16:18), "a lie" (Isaiah 44:20 et passim), and similar epithets. They are made of gold, silver, wood, and stone, and are graven images, unshapen clods, and, being the work of men's hands, unable to speak, see, hear, smell, eat, grasp, or feel, and powerless either to injure or to benefit (Scholz, Götzendienst und Zauberwesen," pp. 45 et seq.).Idols were either designated in Hebrew by a term of general significance, or were named according to their material or the manner in which they were made. They were placed upon pedestals, and fastened with chains of silver or nails of iron lest they should fall over or be carried off (Isa. 19, 41:7; Jeremiah 10:14; Wisdom 13:15), and they were also clothed and colored (Jeremiah 10:9; Ezekiel 16:18; Wisdom 15:4). At first the gods and their images were conceived of as identical; but in later times a distinction was drawn between the god and the image. Nevertheless it was customary to take away the gods of the vanquished (Isaiah 10:10 et seq., 36:19, 46:1; Jeremiah 48:7, 49:3; Hosea 10:5; Daniel 11:8), and a similar custom is frequently mentioned in the cuneiform texts.
Forms of Idol-Worship.
Temples, altars, and statues were erected to the gods, and figures of oxen and of other animals are also mentioned (Ezekiel 8:10 et seq.). In Israel the worship of high places was a favorite form of polytheistic cult, as is shown by the Book of Kings, where the reign of each monarch is judged chiefly from the standpoint of his participation in the worship of idols, so that the words "but the high places were not removed" form a stereotyped phrase. Prayer was offered to the gods (Exodus 20:5, 23:24, et passim), the hands were stretched out to them (Psalms 44:21 [A. V. 20]), they were invoked by name (1 Kings 18 et seq., ), their names were praised (Joshua 23:7), knees were bent before them (1 Kings 19:18), incense was burned in their honor (1 Kings 11:8 et passim), they were invoked in the taking of oaths, and sacrifices were immolated to them (Jeremiah 7:18; Exodus 34:15), the victims including even human beings, such as the offerings made to Moloch. The custom of worshiping stars and idols by throwing kisses to them is mentioned in Job 31:13. The exchange of clothes, by which men put on women's clothes and women donned men's garments, was an idolatrous custom, and was consequently forbidden (Deuteronomy 22:5). Human hair also served as a sacrifice, and the prohibition against shaving the head or having writing burned into one's body (Leviticus 19:18,27; 21:5; comp. Jeremiah 9:26, 25:23, 49:32) was recognized by the Talmud (Mak. 3:6) and by Maimonides ("Moreh," 3:37; "Yad," 'Ab. Zarah 12:5) as connected with idol-worship. There were, moreover, many other forms of worship, and numerous commandments of the Pentateuch, even though they omit the term "abomination" as a synonym of idolatry, refer to polytheistic worship; foridolatry was deeply rooted in the national character, as is shown by the many proper names compounded with names of idols, so that it became necessary to make every effort for its eradication.
Survivals in Talmudic Times.
- Post-Biblical Period: It is generally supposed that idolatry was completely crushed in Israel after the return from the Exile. This assertion is somewhat exaggerated, however, as is evident from the continual warnings against idols and idolatry both in the Apocrypha (Kautzsch, "Apokryphen," Index, s. "Götzen") and in Jewish tradition. The Talmud has a special treatise on idolatry (see 'Abodah Zarah), and also discusses the subject elsewhere in many passages, so that its data concerning this matter would fill a volume. The gods of the Greco-Roman epoch, especially those of the Oriental world, appear in its pages in variegated profusion. "If one wished to write all the names of idols, all the skins [parchment scrolls] would be insufficient" (Sifre, Deut. 43). The monotheism of the masses, it is true, wasnot endangered, for when it was threatened by the Syrians and Romans, the Jews revolted, refusing to permit Roman troops to enter their territory with flags; they even detected idols in the portraits of the Cæsars stamped on coins, and this was not unjustifiable, in view of the divine worship paid the emperors (see Zealots). Despite this fear of idols and images, the danger of inroads among the Jews by idolatrous customs and usages, which permeated the whole ancient world around them, was so great that the scholars could not invent too many "fences." They accordingly aimed at making intimate association with the heathen impossible, and thereby succeeded in protecting the Jewish people from the evil which threatened them.The ancient world regarded the Jews as atheists because of their refusal to worship visible gods. "Whosoever denies idols is called a Jew" (Meg. 13a, b). To statements such as this the Jew responded: "Whosoever recognizes idols has denied the entire Torah; and whosoever denies idols has recognized the entire Torah" (Sifre, Deut. 54 and parallel passages). "As soon as one departs from the words of the Torah, it is as though he attached himself to the worship of idols" (Sifre, Num. 43).
Attitude of Jews Toward Idolatry.
Although the Jews were forbidden in general to mock at anything holy, it was a merit to deride idols (Meg. 25b), and Akiba decreed that the names of the gods be changed into derogatory names (Sifre, Deut. 61, end, et passim). Thus, Baal-zebub (2 Kings 1:2,6) is called Beel-zebul ( = "dominus stercoris") in Matthew 12:24,27, and elsewhere, and the word with which the Talmud designates sacrifice to idols (; Yer. Ber. 13b) literally means "to manure." The Hellenistic Jews also observed this custom, so that they applied the term εἰδωλόϑυτος to what the Gentiles called ἱερίϑυτος (Deissmann, "Die Hellenisierung des Semitischen Monotheismus," p. 5, Leipsic, 1903). It was forbidden to look upon images (Tosef., Shab. 17:1 [ed. Zuckermandel, p. 136] and parallels), and even thinking of idolatrous worship was prohibited (Ber. 12b); if one saw a place where an idol had once stood, he was commanded to utter a special prayer (Ber. 61a). Sacrifice to an idol or anything which in any way might be associated with idolatry was forbidden. It was even insufficient to reduce an idol to powder and scatter it to the winds, since it would fall to earth and become a fertilizer; but the image must be sunk in the Dead Sea, whence it could never emerge ('Ab. Zarah 3:3); nor might the wood of the "asherah" be used for purposes of healing (Pes. 25a; MAGIC). Among the three cardinal sins for which the penalty was death, idolatry stood first (Pes. 25a and parallels). "Dust of idolatry" is a technical expression for the prohibition of anything related to idol-worship ("'abodah zarah").
To prevent any possible inducement to idolatry, all association of Jews with Gentiles was rendered difficult. For three days before a Gentile feast-day no Jew might have any commercial dealings with the idolaters ('Ab. Zarah 1:1), and it was forbidden to attend the fairs connected with such festivals, or even to go on a road which led to the image of a deity, or to arrange a meeting in the vicinity of such a statue. No cattle might be housed in the stalls ('Ab. Zarah 2:1). The Jews were driven to this intolerance partly through the wickedness and immorality of the Gentiles.
Survivals of Idol-Worship.
- Post-Talmudic Period: In the century between the return from the Exile and the termination of the Babylonian Talmud, the Jews were thoroughly weaned from all belief in idols, although superstition itself can never be wholly eradicated. Through mysticism and magic many polytheistic ideas and customs again found their way among the people, and the Talmud confirms the fact that idolatrous worship is seductive (Sanh. 102b). The fight for a pure belief in one God and worship of Him was waged by the religious philosophers, while the authorities on rabbinical law strove for purity of worship. Philosophy and law were united by Maimonides, who in his philosophical "Moreh Nebukim" and in his legal "Yad ha-Ḥazaḳah" devoted separate sections to idolatry and thoroughly exposed its teachings. The Shulḥan 'Aruk, Yoreh De'ah, also has a separate section on idolatry.
- See, in general, works on the history of Israel and on Biblical theology. Special works of this nature are: Baudissin, Studien zur Semitischen Religionsgeschichte, -, Leipsic, 1876-78;
- Dillmann, Alttestamentliche Theologie, ib. 1895;
- Hastings, Dict. Bible, 2:445-448;
- Cheyne and Black, Encyc. Bibl. 2:2146-2158;
- Hamburger, R. B. T. 1:460-465;
- Herzog-Hauck, Real-Encyc. 6:750-757 (gives extensive bibliography and special treatment of idolatry in the N. T.;
- ib. 3:217-221, on idolatry in the O. T);
- Scholz, Götzendienst und Zauberwesen bei den Alten Hebräern, Regensburg, 1877;
- Smend, Alttestamentliche Religionsgeschichte, 2d ed., Freiburg-im-Breisgau, 1899;
- Stade, Geschichte des Volkes Israel, Berlin, 1887;
- F. Weber, Jüdische Theologie, 2d ed., Leipsic, 1897, Index, s. Götzendienst;
- Wellhausen, I. J. G. 4th ed., Berlin, 1901;
- Winer, B. R. 3d ed., 1:433-436;
- Bousset, Religion des Judenthums im Neutestamentlichen Zeitalter, Berlin, 1903.
These files are public domain.
Singer, Isidore, Ph.D, Projector and Managing Editor. Entry for 'Worship, Idol'. 1901 The Jewish Encyclopedia. https://www.studylight.org/encyclopedias/eng/tje/w/worship-idol.html. 1901.
the Week of Proper 8 / Ordinary 13