What Does the Bible Say about Idolatry in the Old and New Testaments?
- Rev. Kyle Norman Crosswalk.com Contributing Writer
- Updated Apr 09, 2021
The Bible is not just a compilation of ancient texts. The lives of God’s people in the past mirror our lives today. The trials and tribulations we see in Scripture illustrate that dynamics we must contend with in our faith lives. As Paul writes “these things are written for our learning, so that by steadfastness and by the encouragement of the scriptures we might have hope” (Romans 15:4). The Bible addresses us. No truer is this the case than when Scripture deals with the chief threat to our faithful devotion: Idolatry.
Idolatry in the Old Testament: Baal, Molek, and Other Idol-gods
Israel constantly struggled in their faithful allegiance to Yahweh. Despite the Lord acting powerfully for them, Israel regularly flirted with foreign deities. The temptation was to adopt the religious and spiritual practices of the neighboring nations. Time and again, God reminded Israel of the unique identity of God for them, exhorting the people to remain faithful. For example, the Ten Commandments begin with the call to remember the identity of God, followed by a specific commandment against idolatry: “I am the Lord your God who brought you up out of Egypt. You shall have no other Gods but me” (Exodus 20:1). The rest of the commandments necessarily flow from this primary one. From their journey through the desert through the time of the prophets, the Lord continually reminded Israel of the dangers of idolatry.
The most common threat to Israel’s faithfulness was the idol Baal. Baal, and his divine consort Asherah, were the fertility gods of the Canaanite nation. Obviously, for desert-dwelling people, the notion of a god of lush fertility would be both attractive and tempting. Israel gives in to this temptation in the debacle of the golden calf, in Exodus 32. The calf (or bull) was the symbol of Baal. Having grown impatient with Moses’ absence, Israel demands that Aaron make an idol for them. Aaron casts the golden calf and declares it to be Israel’s god. With the new idol before them, Israel dives fully into idolatrous practice. They dance around the golden calf and engage in ecstatic revelry. In response, God declares that Israel had acted “perversely” and abandoned the way of the Lord (vs 7). God’s anger is kindled against Israel and the nation experiences the harsh consequence of their idolatry.
Unfortunately, it is not just Baal that is a problem for Israel. Connected to Baal was the Ammonite god Molek. Molek was a particularly heinous god. Molek demanded that children be sacrificed upon an altar known as a “high place”. The first mention of Molek occurs in Leviticus, as the Lord instructs Israel to “not give any of your children to be sacrificed to Molek, for you must not profane the name of your God” (Leviticus 18:21). Centuries later, Jeremiah calls out Israel for making these sacrifices. God charges Israel with setting up “high places for Baal in the Valley of Ben Hinnom to sacrifice their sons and daughters to Molek, though I never commanded—nor did it enter my mind—that they should do such a detestable thing and so make Judah sin” (Jeremiah 32:35). This idolatry is one of the main factors contributing to Israel’s exile. Israel’s idolatry does not simply destroy their relationship with God, it destroys the nation as well.
Throughout the Old Testament, we see references to these idol-gods. Chemosh, Dagon, Asherah, and others, are frequently mentioned as temptations to Israel’s faithfulness. In each instance, these idols threaten the single-hearted devotion that God requires of God’s people. And yet, despite these times of idolatry, the Lord remains faithful. God keeps his covenant with Israel again and again.
Idolatry in the New Testament: Greco-Roman gods, Caesar, and Mammon
When we think of idolatry we often think of the idols of the Old Testament, as it has been described above. Yet the threat of idolatry did not diminish as the years went by. The same temptations occur in the New Testament, although less explicitly. The Greco-Roman world had a tapestry of gods, from Jupiter to Venus. The spread of the Christian faith, through the proclamation of the apostles, occurred against this polytheistic backdrop. We see this most poignantly in Paul’s visit to Athens. Here, Paul observes the various altars dedicated to this multiplicity of deities. Paul even spies an altar set up for “an unknown God” (Acts 17:23). Paul uses this as an opportunity to preach the gospel, and the unique salvation offered by Christ.
Within the Roman empire, the chief idol of the day was Caesar himself. For the Romans, Caesar held divine status. In fact, the creed of the Romans was “Caesar is Lord.” This was both a political statement as well as a spiritual one. It was for this reason that the Christian proclamation that “Jesus is Lord” was considered so problematic, and counter-cultural. Not only did it undercut Caesar’s political role, but it also denied his divine status. One could not believe in Jesus and, at the same time, ascribe to the “lordship” of Caesar.
Perhaps the idol that most threatens devout faithfulness in the New Testament is Mammon. Mammon is the word Jesus used for money or wealth. While there is no indication that Mammon was understood to be any type of national god, Jesus clearly saw money to be of the same spiritual threat. In the same way that people could worship the gods of foreign nations, Jesus says one could worship wealth. Jesus sets up money as a rival god, declaring: “You cannot serve two masters . . . you cannot serve God and Mammon” (Matthew 6:24). The spiritual devotion that one is to have before the Lord can easily be co-opted by the pursuit of wealth. Paul will say that the love (devotion) of money is the root of all evil (1 Timothy 6:10). In the New Testament, Mammon becomes a rival deity that volleys for a person’s soul. Giving our spiritual attention and service to the pursuit of monetary wealth becomes the same as bowing down to Caesar or any one of the Greco-Roman gods.
Idolatry Today: Money, Popularity, and Nationalism among Others
If it is true that the number one threat to faithfulness in both the Old and New Testament is idolatry, then the question is: where do we see idolatry today? Are there still false gods that tempt the people of faith? Given what we have just seen about the threat of idolatry in Scripture, it would be foolish to believe otherwise.
The first idol that we must contend with is the same idol that Jesus spoke of. In fact, one might say that the worship of money has become an even bigger threat in today’s world. For some, money is not a tool to be used for the economic reality of life, but an indicator of one’s status, identity, and worth. In a spiritual sense, on bows before “the almighty dollar.” Bigger equals better, we say. Even within the church, this idol threatens. There is an idolatrous theology that states that the blessings of god are directly tied to one’s financial and material gain. Bigger equals blessed, they say.
Yet the worship of money is directly contradicted in Scripture. If our life with God is to be modeled after the life of Jesus, what do material riches have to do with it? Jesus did not reside in the gilded halls of the rich and powerful. He dined with the down and out. He sat on a borrowed donkey and was placed in a borrowed tomb. Furthermore, Jesus specifically calls his disciples to shun all desire for earthly riches “where thieves can break in and steal and moths can destroy” (Matthew 6:19). Devotion to an endless pursuit of earthly riches is clearly a departure from the way of Jesus. Like an idol of the past, money can easily tempt us away from the God of our salvation.
Another idol we face today is the idol of popularity. Some bow before the god of fame believing eternal satisfaction is linked to the metrics of likes and followers. We might think that this is a temptation only for the younger generations, but fame tempts everyone. The cultural language behind leaving a “legacy”, or making one’s “mark” upon the world, is simply a reworking of the idolatrous notion that earthly popularity is translated to eternal salvation. Just consider the theme song to the popular show of the 1980’s “Fame”:
Fame! I'm gonna live forever.
I'm gonna learn how to fly,
High! I feel it coming together,
People will see me and cry.
Fame! I'm going to make it to heaven,
Light up the sky like a flame, Fame!
Although “Fame” was popular nearly 30 years ago, the theme song articulates a temptation that has become deeply ingrained in our culture. The idol “fame”, and its consort “popularity” are given spiritual significance. Fame tempts us to believe that it alone can bring us to heaven.
But again, when we look at Jesus, we see something different. Jesus was not a man of popular renown. While he did have a following, in the end, all deserted him. He was despised, rejected, and crucified. What is more, Jesus never considered his divine lordship as something to be wielded for his own fame of popularity. Instead, he gave of himself for the blessing of others. Indeed, Jesus came to serve rather than be served (Matthew 20:28). To believe that our popularity or fame will secure our spot in heaven is to have clearly departed from the gospel of grace and forgiveness. We have effectively stepped outside the Christian faith.
It is easy to think that the threat of idolatry is something of the past. Thus, it can be easy to criticize the Israelites of the Old Testament or the people of the new and believe that we have somehow evolved beyond this particular temptation. The truth is, this is not the case. Idolatry occurs whenever we view our salvation as dependent upon anything other than the Lord. Whether it be fame, money, or aggressive nationalism, whenever we begin to view our eternal life as dependent upon an earthly reality, we are flirting with an idol.
It was in light of the multiplicity of nation-gods that Israel was told “You shall have no other God before me” (Exodus 20:1). It was against the backdrop of a pluralistic empire that the disciples declared that “there is no other name under heaven by which people might be saved” (Acts 4:12). It is against the idols of today that Christians are called to remain steadfast in their conviction that forgiveness and salvation are uniquely found in the person of Jesus. It takes a certain amount of holy stubbornness to remain steadfast in faithfulness. Christians must shun all rival idols and remain committed to the Lord as the only source of eternal life or forgiveness. This is the call for all people of faith, back then, and today.
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The Reverend Dr. Kyle Norman is the Rector of St. Paul’s Cathedral, located in Kamloops BC, Canada. He holds a doctorate in Spiritual formation and is a sought-after writer, speaker, and retreat leader. His writing can be found at Christianity.com, crosswalk.com, ibelieve.com, Renovare Canada, and many others. He also maintains his own blog revkylenorman.ca. He has 20 years of pastoral experience, and his ministry focuses on helping people overcome times of spiritual discouragement.
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