What Is the Meaning of Idolatry in the Bible?

The Ten Commandments warn against the worship of idols.
... Photos.com/Photos.com/Getty Images

The sinful nature of idolatry is a major theme in the Bible. Idols were carved images of gods. The Ten Commandments, God's instructions to the people of Israel, began with a strict prohibition against idol worship, and were delivered by Moses to the people after they built a golden calf and made sacrifices to it. The short version of the first commandment states, "You shall have no other gods before me," and the second says, "You shall not make idols." Idolatry was believed to be a gateway that could lead to the Israelites adopting the customs of the people outside their group.

1 Identity Matters

In the Bible, the Israelites were considered God's chosen people, and the people who were not Jewish were called Gentiles. God wanted the Israelites to be completely different from the Gentiles, who were also called heathens. According to Brian Rosner, senior lecturer in New Testament and Ethics at Moore College in Sydney, Australia, "Idolatry is a defining feature of the heathen." Rosner's article on Theology Network, "The Concept of Idolatry," explains that the strong stance against idol worship sought to "draw a boundary" around the Israelites, demonstrating who they were by first saying who they were not – the Gentiles.

2 Idols: Beyond the Graven Image

The nations surrounding Israel practiced idol worship as a part of religious ceremonies that also included prostitution and riotous sexual behavior, so idolatry was associated with sexual immorality and greed. The Bible often uses the imagery of husband and wife to describe God's relationship with Israel. When Israel worshipped other gods or even made treaties with other nations, the Israelites were described as unfaithful, like a wife cheating on her husband. Anything that came between God and the Israelites was idolatry, even their request for a king to lead them, for God wanted to be their one and only king. "Idolatry as a concept was an attack on God's exclusive right to our love, trust and obedience," Rosner says. Idolatry refers to putting anything ahead of God as well as the worship of graven or carved images.

3 Idolatry in the New Testament

The theme of the dangerousness of idolatry is carried into the New Testament, where greed is defined as idolatry, according to Rosner. Christians are commanded to "put to death" their greedy nature in Colossians 3:5 and warned in Ephesians 5:5 that the greedy have no inheritance in the kingdom of God. In Matthew 6:24, the Jesus himself compares greed with idol worship, stating, "No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money."

4 Crime and Punishment

"In the Bible there is no more serious charge than that of idolatry," Rosner says. The punishments bare witness to his theory. Idolatry was to the Israelites a state offense and high treason, according to BibleStudyTools.com. People found guilty of idolatry were to be stoned. Their families were duty-bound to turn them over to the authorities and to deliver the first blows with their hands before the condemned were stoned to death. Enticing other people to engage in idolatry was an equally serious crime.

Janet Clark has written professionally since 2001. She writes about education, careers, culture, parenting, gardening and social justice issues. Clark graduated from Buena Vista University with a degree in education. She has written two novels, "Blind Faith" and "Under the Influence." Clark has received several awards from the Iowa Press Women for her work.