Idolatry is usually defined as worship of any cult image, idea, or object, as opposed to the worship of a monotheistic God. It is considered a major sin in the Abrahamic religions whereas in religions where such activity is not considered as sin, the term "idolatry" itself is absent. Which images, ideas, and objects, constitute idolatry, and which constitute reasonable worship, is a matter of contention with some religious authorities and groups using the term to describe certain other religions apart from their own (sometimes resulting in iconoclasm).
The word idolatry comes (by haplology) from the Greek word eidololatria, a compound of eidolon, "image" or "figure", and latreia, "worship". Although the Greek appears to be a loan translation of the Hebrew phrase avodat elilim, which is attested in rabbinic literature (e.g., bChul., 13b, Bar.), the Greek term itself is not found in the Septuagint, Philo, Josephus, or in other Hellenistic Jewish writings. It is also not found in Greek literature. In the New Testament, the Greek word is found only in the letters of Paul, 1 Peter, 1 John, and Revelation, where it has a derogatory meaning. Hebrew terms for idolatry include avodah zarah (foreign worship) and avodat kochavim umazalot (worship of planets and constellations). In today's context, idolatry is not limited to religious concepts, however, and considered more of a social phenomenon where false perceptions are created and worshipped, or even used as a term in the entertainment industry.
Idolatry in the Bible
According to the Bible, idolatry originated in the age of Eber, though some interpret the text to mean in the time of Serug; traditional Jewish lore traces it back to Enos, the second generation after Adam. Image worship existed in the time of Jacob, from the account of Rachel taking images along with her on leaving her father's house, which is given in the Book of Genesis. According to the midrash Genesis Rabba, Abraham's father, Terah, was both an idol manufacturer and worshipper. It is recounted in both traditional Jewish texts and in the Quran that when Abraham discovered the true God, he destroyed his father's idols.
The commandments in the Hebrew Bible against idolatry forbade the adoption of the beliefs and practices of the pagans who lived amongst the Israelites at the time, especially the religions of ancient Akkad, Mesopotamia, and Egypt.
By and large, the [Bible] has succeeded in its task [of uprooting idolatry]. The Jewish People abandoned paganism and heralded monotheism. Through Judaism's offshoots of Christianity and Islam, much of the world has come to reject paganism and polytheism, and to believe in the One God.1
Some of these pagan religions, it is claimed in the Bible, had a set of practices which were prohibited under Jewish law, such as sex rites, cultic male and female prostitution, passing a child through a fire to Molech, and child sacrifice.
There is no one section that clearly defines idolatry; rather there are a number of commandments on this subject spread through the books of the Hebrew Bible, some of which were written in different historical eras, in response to different issues. Taking these verses together, idolatry in the Hebrew Bible is defined as either:
- the worship of idols (or images)
- the worship of polytheistic gods by use of idols (or images)
- the worship of animals or people
- the use of idols in the worship of God.
In a number of places the Hebrew Bible makes clear that God has no shape or form, and is utterly incomparable; thus no idol, image, idea, or anything comparable to creation could ever capture God's essence. For example, when the Israelites are visited by God in Deut. 4:15, they see no shape or form. Many verses in the Bible use anthropomorphisms to describe God, (e.g. God's mighty hand, God's finger, etc.) but these verses have always been understood as poetic images rather than literal descriptions. This is reflected in Hosea 12:10 which says, “And I have spoken unto the prophets, and I have multiplied visions, and by the hand of the prophets I use similes.”
The Bible records a struggle between the prophet's attempt to spread pure monotheism, and the tendency of some people, especially rulers such as Ahab, to accept or to encourage others into polytheistic or idolatrous beliefs. The patriarch Abraham was called to spread the true knowledge of God, but the prophetic books still reflect a continuing struggle against idolatry. For example, the Biblical prophet Jeremiah complains: "According to the number of thy cities are thy gods, O Judah" (2:28).
The Bible has many terms for idolatry, and their usage represents the horror with which they filled the writers of the Bible [Adherents of Jewish faith maintain that the Torah is the literal and eternally binding word of God]. Thus idols are stigmatized "non-God" (Deut. 32:17, 21 ; Jer. 2:11 ), "things of naught" (Lev. 19:4 et passim ), "vanity" (Deut. 32), "iniquity" (1 Sam. 15:23  ), "wind and confusion" (Isa. 41:29 ), "the dead" (Ps. 106:28 ), "carcasses" (Lev. 26:30; Jer. 16:18), "a lie" (Isa. 44:20 et passim ), and similar epithets.
Pagan idols are described as being made of gold, silver, wood, and stone. They are described as being only the work of men's hands, unable to speak, see, hear, smell, eat, grasp, or feel, and powerless either to injure or to benefit. (Ps. 135:15-18)
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 said to have been were placed upon pedestals, and fastened with chains of silver or nails of iron lest they should fall over or be carried off (Isa. 40:19, 41:7; Jer. 10:14; Wisdom 13:15), and they were also clothed and colored (Jer. 10:9; Ezek. 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 (Isa. 10:10-11, 36:19, 46:1; Jer. 48:7, 49:3; Hosea 10:5; Dan. 11:8), and a similar custom is frequently mentioned in the cuneiform texts.