What was so evil about idolatry that would cause the Lord to be so severe in His punishment of those who practiced it? Why did the Lord tell the Israelites of Joshua’s day to destroy all of the Hittites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites, and Jebusites? Why did the Lord command them, “Thou shalt save alive nothing that breatheth”? (Deuteronomy 20:16.) They were also commanded to make a heap of all the images and all but certain designated possessions and burn them (see Deuteronomy 7:24–26; 12:2–3). Why such severe treatment? Why was the Lord so severe with all Israel when Achan kept things that were forbidden? (see Joshua 7). Why, indeed, must mankind be strictly confined by commandment to the worship of only the one true God? Perhaps the real question is, Why would anyone want to worship any but the true God?
After Saul fell from the favor of the Lord, David was anointed to sit on the throne of Israel and to establish the royal family that would produce the King of Kings. Probably no king of Israel was more free than David was of any idolatrous inclinations or practices. From his day on, the writers of the Old Testament used David as the standard of excellence in measuring the loyalty of their kings to Jehovah. This use of David as a standard almost makes it look as if a king could be forgiven any offense more easily than even the slightest dabbling in idolatry.
The first two commandments in the Decalogue (the Ten Commandments) forbade the sin of idolatry (see Exodus 20:25). Thus, the Lord announced the error and sin of having false gods, tangible or intangible, as objects of worship. (This commandment does not refer to decorations on or in temples, tabernacles, or chapels. The same Lord who gave the Ten Commandments also instructed the Israelites in the decoration of the ark of the covenant with graven cherubim. Simply having these cherubim there as art objects was not idolatry. It is when the image becomes an object of or an integral part of worship or obeisance that its manufacture and use become idolatrous.)
It is very important to understand that the worship of a false god that is intangible is just as evil and just as disastrous to the idolater as the worship of a graven image. Some false god may be associated with nature or be the worship of nature itself, meaning the laws or powers seen in nature. Idolatry of nature-related gods has included the worship of various animals, plants, the weather, volcanoes, the sun, the moon, the stars, the planets, and so on. For instance, the Baal of the Old Testament was a god of nature. He was associated with rain and fertility of the soil, and he was also worshiped as a sun god. The myths surrounding him say that he was supposed to be a real entity who dwelt on a mountain somewhere north of Israel and was involved in all sorts of heroic but sinful pursuits. He even was supposed to have been killed by Mot, the god of death, and later resurrected. This episode was supposed to explain a great drought in the Middle East and its later alleviation (see Roth, Encyclopaedia Judaica, s.v. “Baal worship,” 4:10–11).
Though in the Old Testament idolatry is associated with the worship of actual images, true idolatry goes far beyond the practice of bowing down to images and appeasing angry idols. The Lord has made it clear in all ages that whenever men place their full trust in such things as other men, nations, treaties, treasuries, precious minerals, armies, or armaments, their actions are a form of idolatry because such actions reveal a lack of trust in Jehovah. To be totally free of idolatry one must put complete trust in the true God.
The most pronounced and consistent of Israel’s departures from the covenant relationship with Jehovah involved idolatry. Old Testament history is filled with accounts of Israel’s turning to false gods, the Lord’s warnings against doing so, and prophets’ warnings about what would happen if Israel did not repent. The following excerpts briefly summarize idolatry in the Old Testament.
“Idolatry was the most heinous offense against the Mosaic law, which is most particular in defining the acts which constitute the crime, and severe in apportioning the punishment. Thus, it is forbidden to make any image of a strange God; to prostrate oneself before such an image, or before those natural objects which were also worshiped without images as the sun and moon [Deuteronomy 4:19]; to suffer the altars, images, or groves or idols to stand [Exodus 34:13]; or to keep the gold and silver of which their images were made and to suffer it to enter the house [Deuteronomy 7:25–26]; to sacrifice to idols, most especially to offer human sacrifices; to eat of the victims offered to idols by others; to prophesy in the name of a strange god; and to adopt any of the rites used in idolatrous worship, and to transfer them to the worship of the Lord [Deuteronomy 12:30–31]. As for punishment, the law orders that if an individual committed idolatry he should be stoned to death [Deuteronomy 17:2–5]; that if a town was guilty of this sin, its inhabitants and cattle should be slain, and its spoils burnt together with the town itself [Deuteronomy 13:12–18].” (Fallows, Bible Encyclopedia, s.v. “idolatry,” 2:850.)
“The sun and moon were early selected as outward symbols of all-pervading power, and the worship of the heavenly bodies was not only the most ancient but the most prevalent system of idolatry. Taking its rise in the plains of Chaldea, it spread through Egypt, Greece, Seythia, and even Mexico and Ceylon. Comp. Deut. 4:19; 17:3; Job 31:20–28. In the later times of the monarchy, the planets or the zodiacal signs received, next to the sun and moon, their share of popular adoration. 2 Kings 23:5. Beast-worship, as exemplified in the calves of Jeroboam, has already been alluded to. Of pure hero-worship among the Semitic races we find no trace. The singular reverence with which trees have been honored is not without example in the history of the Hebrews. The terebinth (oak) at Mamre, beneath which Abraham built an altar, Gen. 12:7; 13–18, and the memorial grove planted by him at Beersheba, Gen. 21:33, were intimately connected with patriarchal worship. Mountains and high places were chosen spots for offering sacrifice and incense to idols, 1 Kings 11:7; 14:23; and the retirement of gardens and the thick shade of woods offered great attractions to their worshippers. 2 Kings 16:4; Isa. 1:29; Hos. 4:13. The host of heaven was worshipped on the house-top. 2 Kings 23:12; [Jeremiah 19:13; 32:29]; Zeph. 1:5. (The modern objects of idolatry are less gross than the ancient, but are none the less idols. Whatever of wealth or honor or pleasure is loved and sought before God and righteousness becomes an object of idolatry.)” (Smith, Dictionary of the Bible, s.v. “idolatry,” pp. 263–64.)
“The general rites of idolatrous worship consist in burning incense; in offering bloodless sacrifices, as the dough-cakes and libations in [Jeremiah 7:18], and the raisin-cake in [Hosea 3:1]: in sacrificing victims [1 Kings 18:26]; and especially in human sacrifices. … These offerings were made on high places, hills, and roofs of houses, or in shady groves and valleys. Some forms of idolatrous worship had libidinous orgies. … Divinations, oracles [2 Kings 1:2], and rabdomancy [Hosea 4:12] form a part of many of these false religions. The priesthood was generally a numerous body; and where persons of both sexes were attached to the service of any god (like that of Ashtoreth), that service was infamously immoral.” (Fallows, Bible Encyclopedia, s.v. “idolatry,” 2:850.)
Ashtoreth. “This is the name of Astarte, goddess of the Zidonians [1 Kings 11:5, 33], and also of the Philistines [1 Samuel 31:10], whose worship was introduced among the Israelites during the period of the judges [Judges 2:13; 1 Samuel 7:4], and was celebrated by Solomon himself [1 Kings 11:5], and was finally put down by Josiah [2 Kings 23:13]. She is frequently mentioned in connection with Baal, as the corresponding female divinity [Judges 2:13]; and from the addition of the words ‘and all the hosts of heaven,’ in [2 Kings 23:4] … it is probable that she represented one of the celestial bodies. …
“… The most prominent part of her worship, consisted of those libidinous orgies which Augustine, who was an eye witness of their horrors in Carthage, describes with such indignation. … Her priests were eunuchs in women’s attire and women … prostitutes [Hosea 4:14], … who, like the Bayaderes of India, prostituted themselves to enrich the temple of this goddess.” (Fallows, Bible Encyclopedia, s.v. “Ashtoreth,” 1:168.)
Baal. “The supreme male divinity of the Phoenician and Canaanitish nations, as Ashtoreth was their supreme female divinity. Some suppose Baal to correspond to the sun and Ashtoreth to the moon; others that Baal was Jupiter and Ashtoreth Venus. There can be no doubt of the very high antiquity of the worship of Baal. It prevailed in the time of Moses among the Moabites and Midianites, Num. 22:41, and through them spread to the Israelites. Num. 25:3–18; Deut. 4:3. In the times of the kings it became the religion of the court and people of the ten tribes, 1 Kings 16:31–33; 18:19, 22, and appears never to have been permanently abolished among them. 2 Kings 17:16. Temples were erected to Baal in Judah, 1 Kings 16:32, and he was worshipped with much ceremony. 1 Kings 18:19, 26–28; 2 Kings 10:22. The attractiveness of this worship to the Jews undoubtedly grew out of its licentious character. We find this worship also in Phoenician colonies. The religion of the ancient British islands much resembled this ancient worship of Baal, and may have been derived from it. Nor need we hesitate to regard the Babylonian Bel, Isa. 46:1, or Belus, as essentially identical with Baal, though perhaps under some modified form. The plural, Baalim, is found frequently, showing that he was probably worshipped under different compounds, among which appear—
Baal-zebub (lord of the fly), and worshipped at Ekron. 2 Kings 1:2, 3, 16.
Baal-hanan. a. The name of one of the early kings of Edom. Gen. 36:38, 39; 1 Chron. 1:49, 50. b. The name of one of David’s officers, who had the superintendence of his olive and sycamore plantations. 1 Chron. 27:28.
Baal-peor (lord of the opening, i.e. for others to join in the worship). We have already referred to the worship of this god. The narrative (Num. 25) seems clearly to show that this form of Baal-worship was connected with licentious rites.” (Smith, Dictionary of the Bible, s.v. “Baal,” p. 70.)
Dagon. “The God of the Philistines (Judg. 16:23; 1 Sam. 5:2; 1 Macc. 10:84; 12:2). There were temples of Dagon at Gaza and Ashdod. … His image was in the form partly of a man and partly of a fish. Some recent writers, however, question whether Dagon was really a fish-god, and connect the name with dagan, ‘grain.’” (Bible Dictionary, s.v. “Dagon”.)
Molech. “The worship of Moloch is generally cited as an example of the cruelest and most abhorrent idolatry known to man. Moloch, called also Molech, Malcham, Milcom, Baal-melech, etc., was an Ammonite idol: it is mentioned in scripture in connection with its cruel rites (Lev. 18:21; 20:2–5; see also I Kings 11:5, 7, 33; 2 Kings 23:10, 13; Amos 5:26; Zeph. 1:5; Jer. 32:35). Keil and Delitzsch describe the idol as being ‘represented by a brazen statue which was hollow, and capable of being heated, and formed with a bull’s head, and with arms stretched out to receive the children to be sacrificed.’ While the worship of this idol did not invariably include human sacrifice, it is certain that such hideous rites were characteristic of this abominable shrine. The authors last quoted say: ‘From the time of Ahaz, children were slain at Jerusalem in the valley of Ben-Hinnom, and then sacrificed by being laid in the heated arms and burned’ (2 Kings 23:10; 16:3; 17:17; 21:6; Jer. 32:35; Ezek. 16:20, 21; 20:31; compare Ps. 106:37, 38). Many authorities state that the sacrifice of children to this hideous monster long antedated the time of Ahaz. ‘The offering of living victims was probably the climax of enormity in connection with this system, and it is said that Tophet, where it was to be witnessed, was so named from the beating of drums to drown the shrieks and groans of those who were burned to death. The same place was called the Valley of Hinnom, and the horrible associations connected with it led to both Tophet and Gehenna (‘valley of Hinnom’) being adopted as names and symbols of future torment.’” (Talmage, Articles of Faith, p. 464.)
“Many have wondered why the Israelites were so easily led away from the true God, into the worship of idols. (1) Visible, outward signs, with shows, pageants, parades, have an attraction to the natural heart, which often fails to perceive the unseen spiritual realities. (2) But the greatest attraction seems to have been in licentious revelries and obscene orgies with which the worship of the Oriental idols was observed. This worship, appealing to every sensual passion, joined with the attractions of wealth and fashion and luxury, naturally was a great temptation to a simple, restrained, agricultural people, whose worship and laws demanded the greatest purity of heart and of life.” (Smith, Dictionary of the Bible, s.v. “idolatry,” p. 264.)
A person’s god is the thing or being in which he trusts and which he believes has the greatest power. It is the thing to which he looks for whatever salvation he believes is available. All other beliefs and actions are affected by that belief or object of his worship. When this idea is fully grasped one can understand why the Lord would issue an edict to destroy all the people and their possessions in an idolatrous city. Not to destroy their goods would be to demonstrate a lack of faith that the Lord would provide. Similarly, if a Latter-day Saint will not tithe, is it not because he centers his trust in worldly things and the system that produces them instead of in the providence of the Lord? In that sense, then, the things of the world become a god to him, for he trusts more in them than in God’s power. Paul said, “Covetousness … is idolatry” (Colossians 3:5) and a “covetous man … is an idolater” (Ephesians 5:5). Is not the failure to pay tithing a form of covetousness? Those who do not pay tithing would likely be shocked to think they were guilty of idolatry just as the ancient Israelites were guilty of idolatry. The form differs, but the sin is the same.
Often modern prophets have warned against making idols of money, automobiles, houses, and other material objects (see Reading 11-4 for President Spencer W. Kimball’s statement on modern idolatry). The worship of these things, of course, is symptomatic of the trust some have in natural law instead of God and His laws. They see the world as a place where the creature fares according to his genius (see Alma 30:17). Hence, they look upon all they gain as their own, not as the Lord’s. They forget that they are only stewards of the Lord’s goods.
A Zion people can come into being only through obedience to the gospel, commencing with a true knowledge of the true God. There cannot be any compromise. You cannot serve God and mammon (see Luke 16:13). True worship, like liberty, is not divisible. You cannot get away with a little idolatry; once started, the destruction follows unless sincere repentance occurs (see Exodus 34:10–17; Deuteronomy 7; Joshua 23:6–16; 1 Kings 9:9; 2 Kings 17:7–23; Psalm 106:34–43; Jeremiah 16:11–21; John 2:11–23).
When the Lord put a blessing and a cursing upon the children of Israel and their land, the conditions were very strict (see Deuteronomy 28; Leviticus 26). The Israelites failed because they would not put their complete trust in their one true God. So they were delivered up to the consequences of trying to love both the world and the Lord at the same time.
Brigham Young called upon modern Saints to examine their own hearts in this regard:
“Again, I can charge you with what you will all plead guilty of, if you would confess the truth, viz., you dare not quite give up all your hearts to God, and become sanctified throughout, and be led by the Holy Ghost from morning until evening, and from one year’s end to another. I know this is so, and yet few will acknowledge it. I know this feeling is in your hearts, as well as I know the sun shines.
“We will examine it a little closer. Many of you have fearful forebodings that all is not right in the organization of this kingdom. You shiver and shake in your feelings, and tremble in your spirit; you cannot put your trust in God, in men, nor in yourself. This arises from the power of evil that is so prevalent upon the face of the whole earth. It was given to you by your father and mother; it was mingled with your conception in the womb, and it has ripened in your flesh, in your blood, and in your bones, so that it has become riveted in your very nature. If I were to ask you individually, if you wished to be sanctified throughout, and become as pure and holy as you possibly could live, every person would say yes; yet if the Lord Almighty should give a revelation instructing you to be given wholly up to Him, and to His cause, you would shrink, saying, ‘I am afraid he will take away some of my darlings.’ That is the difficulty with the majority of this people.
“It is for you and I to wage war with that principle until it is overcome in us, then we shall not entail it upon our children. It is for us to lay a foundation so that everything our children have to do with, will bring them to Mount Zion, and unto the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to an innumerable company of angels, to the general assembly and church of the first-born, which are written in heaven, and to God the Judge of all, and to the spirits of just men made perfect, and to Jesus the mediator of the new covenant, and to the blood of sprinkling that speaketh better things than the blood of Abel. If we lay such a foundation with all good conscience, and labor as faithfully as we can, it will be well with us and our children in time and in eternity.” (In Journal of Discourses, 2:134.)