The message I heard growing up was that if I merely stayed away from dabbling in "different religions" (including certain denominations) then I was safe from modern forms of idolatry. When I was younger and did not have a firm grasp on the concept of idolatry, this made sense. God forbids his people from creating or using idols which are connected to the religious rituals and worship of the surrounding cultures. Since then, I've learned a great deal about idolatry and how deeply we can be involved in idolatry without ever creating a statue of a god or picking up another religion's text.
What is an idol?
An idol is a statue of a god used for worship in a temple or shrine. Y2Q2 Lamplighters Material, Page 2, Green Question
At its base meaning, an idol is exactly what you might imagine. It is a stone, wood, or metal sculpture that is used for religious practices. The Bible often makes fun of idolaters. Prophets regularly ridicule people who seem like they are praying to a statue or doll.
The blacksmith takes a tool and labors over the coals;
he fashions an idol with hammers
and forges it with his strong arms.
Yet he grows hungry and his strength fails;
he fails to drink water and grows faint.
The woodworker extends a measuring line;
he marks it out with a stylus;
he shapes it with chisels
and outlines it with a compass.
He fashions it in the likeness of man,
like man in all his glory,
that it may dwell in a shrine.
He cuts down cedars
or retrieves a cypress or oak.
He lets it grow strong among the trees of the forest.
He plants a laurel, and the rain makes it grow.
It serves as fuel for man.
He takes some of it to warm himself,
and he kindles a fire
and bakes his bread;
he even fashions it into a god and worships it;
he makes an idol and bows down to it.
He burns half of it in the fire,
and he roasts meat on that half.
He eats the roast and is satisfied.
Indeed, he warms himself and says,
“Ah! I am warm;
I see the fire.”
From the rest he makes a god, his graven image.
He bows down to it and worships;
he prays to it and says,
“Save me, for you are my god.” Isaiah 44:9-17
These caricatures of idolaters are fun to read, and it is easy to dismiss idolatry as antiquated for even the Israelite, who knew better. Unfortunately, there is a more subtle and nefarious way idolatry creeps into our hearts. Idolatry in theological terms is elevating good things to ultimate things. Let's look at an example. Sports are good things. Especially as a child, learning to coordinate your body and mind and improve at an athletic skill while learning to work with other humans is incredibly beneficial and valuable.
Growing up, I spent a lot of time "kicking against the wall," as my dad called it. The idea was to go out to a solid wall and practice soccer for 30-60 minutes a day, practicing trapping, kicking, and better 'touches' on the ball had a monumental impact on my skill, especially when I would consistently practice. As I got better at soccer, more and more opportunities to play, practice, and participate in soccer activities became available. It would have been easy to elevate soccer to the 'ultimate position' of my life and give more and more of my time and energy towards it.
Theologically, we must ask ourselves, "What is worth giving our lives to?"
The Bible spends a lot of time considering and testing this question. The prophets make fun of idols because they embody chasing after things that are not God. We can consider soccer again here, but first, let's look at the ancient context of idolatry. If I lived in the first millennium BC (1000-1 BC), then I would have likely reinforced my loves and habits with embodied worship practices. What does that mean? It means that if I cared about something deeply, then I would try to figure out which god was in charge of that thing, and then seek out the favor of that god.
This concept sounds foreign to us, but try to stick with me. If everything is controlled by unseen forces, then I need to make every effort to act on my own to pursue my ultimate value, but simultaneously seek out the favor of these unseen forces as well. So this would mean seeking out priests or representatives for the gods to figure out how to win their favor.
Let's bring this home, now. Let's say I figured out which god was the soccer god. The priest of the soccer god (who also happens to run the local soccer league) tells me that to gain the favor of the soccer god, I must:
Elevate his shrine in my own house above the other shrines I have.
I have to get up and pray and meditate on the soccer god playing perfect games of soccer.
I then must go out and practice for an hour at the holiest of sports on my own.
After that, I need to go to practice on my team for another hour and a half.
The soccer god wants more acolytes, so I will need to sign up to referee some kid's soccer games.
He also wants me to tell everyone about the local soccer league that the priest leads.
He wants sacrifices. If I don't have any goats, I can pay with cash, credit, or debit card (no personal checks).
This is humorous, to be sure, but hopefully you can see the parallels. When we take things and elevate them beyond their proper place, they will continue to demand more and more of us. Unlike following after our own God who promises a burden that is light, other gods are fickle and demanding. They put more and more burdens until you break. And then they blame you for lacking the strength to carry the heavy load.
If idols are good things that are turned into ultimate things, what are some common idols you see others following after?
What idols are you in danger of elevating in your own life?
What does it look like to reorder these good things to their appropriate places and elevate God as our only God and master?
Let's say you started following the advice of the Soccer Priest. Daily you set out to worship the soccer God.
Would going through these embodied actions make you a better soccer player?
Would there be good things that resulted from these efforts?
Would the Soccer Priest demand more or less of you as you got better?
What is going on with idols, though? Why did people own them and why were the Israelites so tempted by them? I don't think I've ever saw a golden statue or doll and been tempted to bring it into my house, set up a shrine and make sacrifices to it... have you?
Ultimately idolatry is about control.
Did ancient people believe their idols were gods?
No. Most people thought their gods would go into their idols if they worshipped them right. Then they could then pray, talk to, and bargain with their gods. Y2Q2 Lamplighters Material, Page 2, Yellow Question
Idolaters believe that they can bring gods or even the God (see Exodus 32) into an idol on their own terms. Basically they want to localize their god to be able to tap into his/her power and control their circumstances. The primary concern of Aaron and the Israelites in Exodus 32 is that they are going to harness the power of their new God to,
"Go before us" Exodus 32:1
This whole episode is very complex, but the central mistake that Aaron and the Israelites fall into is that they believe that their covenant with God is similar to agreements they know about with other gods. They believe that gods need an idol to live in/on and once localized, he will bargain with them, give them his commands, and help them when they are in need.
You probably thought that Aaron was violating the first commandment, but according to the story, it appears that he believes he has made a 'throne' of some sort for their God which will guarantee them victory in their upcoming battles to enter Canaan.
The story does not distinguish between worshipping the thing and the god that is supposed to inhabit the thing. Other writers in the Old Testament do not distinguish between these two ideas either. I wonder, then, why do we? We tend to ignore the idea of idolatry because we don't make golden calves. This usually means that our desires and loves are shown more through our embodied actions. Where and how we spend our time says a lot more about where our fealty is than any statues in our homes.
Read the story of the golden calf in Exodus 32 and try to notice some of the details that you hadn't before. What things do you notice that are a bit off?
If idolatry is about control, then what does God require of us?
Why is it so difficult to properly order the good things in our life in submission to God?
Imagine your children thought they had to capture you "home-alone" style and then keep you in place in order to negotiate and ask for a vacation to Disneyland. After recovering from your various injuries, you ask them what they were thinking.
They tell you that they were afraid they'd never get to go to Disneyland without your full attention.
They heard that the best way to get adults attention is with 90's movie reenactments.
They thought that asking wouldn't be enough, so they just wanted to take more control.
The Idol in the Garden
After God set the world in order as a habitable place to live in Genesis Chapter 1, he created a garden "in the East" and put his special creature, human, into the garden to work it in Chapter 2.
This creature was created "in the image of God." For us, especially if we have been raised in the church, we might attach all sorts of different meanings to that phrase. One of the base meanings, however, is that God made an image (or idol) of himself and placed it within his temple.
Have you ever heard of the hanging gardens of Babylon? In the Ancient Near East, cultures all had similar ideas about the residence of the gods. Gods, in their minds would inhabit a great mountain, and it would be full of food (fruit and/or game) and it would be worked and maintained by humans. It was a garden because a garden is a place of ordered chaos. The temple was also the place where the god (or gods) inhabited. Just like we see in Genesis 3, gods were depicted as living and walking among the servants of the temple. Rivers and waters served the garden and made life abundant within them. Check out this excellent blog post for even more convincing evidence that the Garden of Eden was a temple.
So if man is the image that God set into his own temple, this has some implications for all of humankind.
What was unique about Judaism and idols?
1. Idols were prohibited.
2. God made all people as his images (Gen 1:27).
3. They were commanded to make more image bearers (people) instead of making idols. Y2Q2 Lamplighters Material, Page 2, Red Question
God prohibits idols because he has already made the ultimate image. Choosing another image is disrespectful to God and it devalues the images he made. Part of the fun that Jewish Prophets have when ridiculing idols is the absurdity of those idols matching up to the ones God made in Eden. In the Jewish mind, a creature making another creation and calling it an idol is a sham. On the other hand, God gave us a way to make more images. He tells his creatures immediately after their creation to make more of themselves! Part of being an imager is making more imagers.
The other two primary parts of being an image bearer are laid out in the verses 27 and 28:
27 So God created mankind in his own image,
in the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them.
28 God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.” Genesis 1:27-28
The first point to consider is that being made in God's image means that we reflect his character and nature. This does not mean that all we do reflects these things, but when we align ourselves with God's will, we mirror his essence in our world.
The second part of being an image bearer is to rule over the earth. This part may seem strange to us, but in nearby cultures, they were told that their kings or the ruling class were the only ones made in the image of their god. Being an image-bearer gave you the right to rule over others. You were more valuable and closer to the gods. Your will must be more tightly aligned with the divine. But for Jews, this was not the case. God bestowed his image on every single human regardless of race, lineage, sex, or beliefs.
Ruling in this sense was not about being domineering or destructive, but a good, orderly creator like our God. The image of a garden is appropriate because gardens don't eliminate the Earth, but there is a large difference between an acre of forest and someone's garden. Gardeners bend chaos into order. Humans were created for this purpose. We are to take the raw and chaotic power of the Earth and to turn it into something even better. Like a garden.
What does it mean to be created in God's image?
Are there ways of living that exemplify living in the image of God?
What does it look like to live in ways that are not aligned with the image of God?
How is this related to eating from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil?