The first two of the Ten Commandments the Lord gave the children of Israel were “Thou shalt have no other gods before me,” and “Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.” (Ex. 20:3–4.)
Idolatry, or the worship of false gods, has always plagued mankind. Adam and Eve’s son Cain, it is recorded, “loved Satan more than God.” (Moses 5:18.) Abraham was nearly the victim of an idolatrous human sacrifice (see Abr. 1:1–17), and Moses was set upon by the adversary, who cried, “I am the Only Begotten, worship me” (Moses 1:19; see also Moses 1:12; Moses 6:49).
The term idolatry usually refers to the worship of a fetish, a graven image, or an imagined, unseen deity. But idolatry may exist on many levels: some create images to represent a deity, some idolize other humans, and some “worship” material possessions or achievements. In essence, the practice of idolatry means putting worldly things ahead of God.
The Old Testament records many instances in Israel’s struggle to choose between the true, living God and the usurpers of the claim to deity. Isaac commanded his son Jacob not to marry a Canaanite woman (see Gen. 28:1) because of the Canaanites’ idolatry. (See Ps. 106:38.) Jacob’s posterity, when freed from Egyptian bondage, soon turned to the worship of an Egyptian idol. (See Ex. 32:1–6.) Later, the Israelites were enticed in the promised land by the idol worship that had been the region’s religion before they arrived.
Moses warned the children of Israel about the idolators in their new homeland: “Thou shalt make no covenant with them, nor with their gods. … for if thou serve their gods, it will surely be a snare unto thee.” (Ex. 23:32–33.) Of the false gods themselves, the Lord said, “Thou shalt not bow down to [them], nor serve them, nor do after their works: but thou shalt utterly overthrow them, and quite break down their images.” (Ex. 23:24.)
Joshua also counseled Israel to forsake false gods: “Choose you this day whom ye will serve; whether the gods which your fathers served that were on the other side of the flood, or the gods of the Amorites, in whose lands ye dwell: but as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.
“And the people answered and said, God forbid that we should forsake the Lord, to serve other gods.” (Josh. 24:15–16.)
Despite this hope, idolatry was one of the Israelites’ most prevalent problems—and it eventually led to Israel’s downfall as a political kingdom when Solomon, Israel’s anointed ruler, adopted idol worship from neighboring kingdoms. (See 1 Kgs. 11:1–8.)
The word most often associated with idolatry in the Old Testament is Baal. The gods of a people—in the plural—may be referred to as Baalim, as in 1 Kings 18:18. [1 Kgs. 11:1–8] Thus, Baalism refers to the worship of anything or anyone other than the true and living God.
To actually worship the false “host of heaven” (2 Kgs. 21:3), watch the “signs of heaven” (Jer. 10:2), burn incense to the “sun, and to the moon, and to the planets” (2 Kgs. 23:5—the word for planets here is mazzaroth, or, more precisely, the twelve signs of the zodiac), and to count months or be “observing times” (Lev. 19:26) were all forms of idolatry. In the manner that these practices were followed, they supplanted the true God and his prophets with oracles, imagined signs, and other false significations. In Babylon, idolatrous Israelites worshiped a “queen of heaven.” (Jer. 44:17–19.) On this subject, Isaiah wrote: “Let now the astrologers, the stargazers, the monthly prognosticators, stand up, and save thee from these things that shall come upon thee. Behold, they shall be as stubble; the fire shall burn them; they shall not deliver themselves from the power of the flame.” (Isa. 47:13–14.)
Prophets and patriarchs often communed with the Lord in high places (such as Sinai and Beth-el) and Israel had a “high place” in Gibeon for performing sacrifices. (see 1 Kgs. 3:4.) But idolators soon made high places their sanctuaries of abominations. (See Lev. 26:30; Num. 22:41; Deut. 12:2–3.)
The idols worshipped in these high places were, for the most part, not of the Israelites’ own imagining. Israel “followed other gods, of the gods of the people that were round about them.” (Judg. 2:12.) The golden calf was probably erected to imitate what the Israelites had seen in Egypt (User-Hapi and Apis-Atum, for example). Baal-peor was a Midianite influence from Moab. (See Num. 25:3.)
Chemosh was also a Moabite deity, and Molech was brought into Israel from Ammon. (See 1 Kgs. 11:7.) In some cases, the children of Israel tried to practice idolatry and worship the true and living God—but, as the Lord states in the first commandment, such a practice is unacceptable to him.
Israel’s acceptance of “strange gods” may have been politically motivated. For example, Solomon tolerated and even promoted idol worship in order to placate political factions inside Israel’s expanding borders. In most cases, however, the children of Israel, influenced by their neighbors’ sinful ways, probably saw in the worship of false gods a sensuality and a simplicity that was tempting and appealing.
The worship of these false gods sometimes involved human sacrifice—as in the case of Molech; more often, the worship of a fertility god or goddess involved immorality committed with “priests” or “priestesses” of a cult. Common in Greek and Roman religions, such practices were also part of the Assyrian and Babylonian religions. The story of Phinehas (see Num. 25:6–15) indicates that part of the evil of associating with the idolatrous peoples of the promised land was concupiscence: “And Israel abode in Shittim, and the people began to commit whoredom with the daughters of Moab. And they called the people unto the sacrifices of their gods.” (Num. 25:1–2.)
Jeremiah wrote that the Lord said Israel had “gone up upon every high mountain [high place] and under every green tree [Asherah], and there hath played the harlot” (Jer. 3:6)—an allusion both to the immoral practices of the idolatrous cults and to the infidelity of Israel as a bride espoused to the Bridegroom, Jehovah. (See Isa. 62:5; Jer. 2:2; Jer. 5:7; Ezek. 16:28; Hosea 2:16; Rev. 21:9–10.)
The Old Testament contains seemingly innumerable instances in which the Lord’s prophets—including Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel—denounced idolatry. (See Isa. 44:6–10; Jer. 2; Jer. 3:6; Jer. 5:7; Ezek. 6:2–9; Ezek. 8:6–17; Ezek. 14.) The Lord compared himself to a bridegroom (see Isa. 54:5–7) and Israel to his bride: “for I am married unto you.” (Jer. 3:14.) But Israel “went a whoring after other gods.” (Judg. 2:17.) And so the Lord told the Israelites of Hosea’s day, “I will visit upon her [Israel] the days of Baalim, wherein she burned incense to them, and she decked herself with her earrings and her jewels, and she went after her lovers, and forgat me, saith the Lord.” (Hosea 2:13.) In fact, it was because of the sins of idolatry that the Lord said of Israel, his covenant people, “They have sown the wind, and they shall reap the whirlwind.” (Hosea 8:7.)
Two other accounts clearly elucidate the patterns of idolatry in the Old Testament. The first is of Manasseh, the wicked boy king who reigned over Israel in 697 B.C. He set up “high places” in which to worship idols, built altars to Baal, and made a grove—an asherah—in which to worship idols, especially the female idol Ashtoreth. He was involved in astrology and also put pagan altars in the temple of Jerusalem. Manasseh even sacrificed his own son to Molech—burning him alive. Manasseh’s story (see 2 Kgs. 21) capsulizes nearly all the facets of idolatry in Israel’s history.
In contrast with that account of wickedness is the record of Elijah’s contest on Mount Carmel with the priests of Baal. Baal—the storm god, the sun god, and the rain god, who existed only in the imaginations of the people—could not cause the rain to fall that was needed for the people’s crops. So Elijah challenged the priests to ask Baal to send down fire from heaven. Of course, Baal could send neither rain nor fire, but Jehovah sent down fire to burn water, wood, bullock, stone, and earth. Sufficiently impressed, the people shouted, “The Lord, he is the God; the Lord, he is the God.” (1 Kgs. 18:39.) Elijah’s name, rendered in English, means “The Lord, he is God.”
The Lord warned Israel against idolatry again and again. And because of Israel’s disobedience to the Lord’s laws, they were led into captivity. (See Jer. 5:19.)
We, too, are of the house of Israel, and the Ten Commandments are just as valid for us today as they were for the Israelites in earlier days. Though we may not go to high places to worship Baalim or to groves to worship Ashtoreth, or sacrifice our children to Molech, we may practice other forms of idolatry. In our own day, the Lord has condemned those who “seek not the Lord to establish his righteousness, but every man walketh in his own way, and after the image of his own God, whose image is in the likeness of the world, and whose substance is that of an idol.” (D&C 1:16.)
On this subject, modern prophets have echoed the Lord’s earlier warnings. President Spencer W. Kimball said that “We are, on the whole, an idolatrous people.” (Ensign, June 1976, p. 6.) What gods do we worship? He enumerated some of them: “Modern idols or false gods can take such forms as clothes, homes, businesses, machines, automobiles, pleasure boats, and numerous other material deflectors from the path to godhood. …
“Intangible things make just as ready gods. Degrees and letters and titles can become idols. …
“Many people build and furnish a home and buy the automobile first—and then find they ‘cannot afford’ to pay tithing. Whom do they worship? Certainly not the Lord of heaven and earth, for we serve whom we love and give consideration to the object of our affection and desire. Young married couples who postpone parenthood until their degrees are attained might be shocked if their expressed preference were labeled idolatry. … Whom do they love and worship—themselves or God?” (The Miracle of Forgiveness, Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1969, pp. 40–41.)
To worship the Lord is to put him foremost in our hearts and minds, above all other relationships and before all other things. There is no god but God, and we are to worship him only.
The following are some of the most common false gods worshipped by the peoples of the Old Testament:
Asherah—is often translated in the King James Version as “groves.” It refers to fertility idols made from trees. (See Deut. 16:21a; 1 Kgs. 15:13; Topical Guide, s.v., grove. It may also indicate “probably an idol or image of some kind. … It is also probable that there was a connection between this symbol or image, whatever it was, and the sacred symbolic tree.” (F. N. Peloubet, ed., Peloubet’s Bible Dictionary, Philadelphia: John C. Winston Co., 1947, p. 229.) The symbol of the tree of life may be at the root of this usage, with the worship of the sacred tree a corruption of the true symbol.
Abraham planted a grove in Beer-sheba (see Gen. 21:33), but in this instance the word grove is translated from the Hebrew word meaning “tamarisk,” Not from asherah. Most other references to groves (see Deut. 16:21; 1 Kgs. 15:13; 2 Kgs. 17:16; and 2 Chr. 15:16—there are more than forty such references in the Old Testament) refer to places of idolatrous worship. In many instances the form of worship at the groves included prostitution, both male and female. (See Lev. 20:5–6.)
Ashtoreth—meaning “a wife,” refers to the Canaanite and Phoenician goddess of fertility corresponding to Astarte, who was worshipped in connection with Baal worship. Her cult was prevalent at the time of the judges, when Israel “forsook the Lord, and served Baal and Ashtaroth.” (Judg. 2:13; Ashtaroth is the plural form of Ashtoreth.) Baal was the male fertility symbol, Ashtoreth the female. She is associated with the moon and with Venus. Solomon built “high places”—places of worship—for Ashtoreth in Jerusalem. (See 2 Kgs. 23:13.) She was the goddess of the Zidonians, as mentioned in 1 Kings 11:33. [1 Kgs. 11:33] (See also Judg. 10:6; 1 Sam. 7:3–4; 1 Sam. 12:10.)
Baal—a term meaning “Lord” or “master”, appears fifty-one times in the Old Testament. It sometimes refers to a certain god—a rival of Jehovah. But ba’al may also mean “possessor,” “inhabitant,” or “controller.” (See James Hastings, ed., et al., Dictionary of the Bible, New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1952, p. 78.) Most commonly, it means “lord.” (See Robert Young, Analytical Concordance to the Bible, New York: American Book Exchange, 1881, p. 65; see also Bible Dictionary, s.v., Baal.) It can be used as part of a name, such as Baal-peor (“lord of Peor”—see Num. 25:3a) or Baal-zebub (“lord of the fly”—see 2 Kgs. 1:2). The Amorite god Hadad was known specifically as Baal, and the Canaanites had a myth of Baal’s victory over the unruly waters and his assumption of kingship. (See Hastings, Dictionary of the Bible, p. 78.) Saul named one of his sons Eshbaal (“man of Baal”; see 1 Chr. 9:39). This son is later referred to as Ishbosheth (“man of shame”). Israel later changed many names containing the word baal to contain bosh or bosheth instead—replacing the term “Baal” with the term for “shame.” In most instances, Baal is a fertility deity representing the male element, strength, and the sun—the same role Zeus plays in Greek mythology. The Babylonians’ chief deity, Bel, may be the same as Baal. (See Bible Dictionary, s.v., Bel; Isa. 46:1; Jer. 50:2; Jer. 51:44.)
Chemosh—meaning “subduer,” was a god in the tradition of the Roman god Mars. Chemosh is mentioned as a lower god of the Moabites, the Amorites, and the Edomites.” (See Judg. 11:24; 1 Kgs. 11:33.) Solomon built a temple of worship to Chemosh in Jerusalem. (See 1 Kgs. 11:7.)
Molech—meaning “king,” the term comes from the same Hebrew root as Melchizedek, “king of Salem” and “king of righteousness,” and Mulek, “son of King Zedekiah.” Molech was the fire god of the Ammonites. The Baal of Elijah’s contest may have been Molech; we know that he was the same as the Moabite god Chemish, and that his priests were called chemarims. (See Zeph. 1:4b.) The worship of Molech was particularly heinous; it required human sacrifice—usually of a small child, often the firstborn son. The brass statue of Molech was hollow, and it was used to burn victims alive. (See Peloubet, Peloubet’s Bible Dictionary, p. 416.) References to giving one’s seed to Molech (see Lev. 20:2–5) or to passing a child through fire (see 2 Kgs. 16:3; 2 Kgs. 21:6; 2 Kgs. 23:10) refer to human sacrifice by fire.