Biblical Studies Idol/Idolatry (HB/OT)
Aaron Tugendhaft
  • LAST REVIEWED: 08 February 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 31 March 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195393361-0218


The Hebrew Bible has often been characterized as concerned with the problem of idolatry. The term itself is of Greek origin—meaning “worship of images”—and no simple equivalent exists in Biblical Hebrew. Later Hebrew uses the term avodah zarah, often translated into English as “idolatry,” but the root semantics of the two are quite different. Whereas the term “idolatry” implies a specific concern with images, avodah zarah (“strange worship”) refers more generally to religious practices deemed wrong or foreign. (Unlike English, German nicely captures the ambiguity of the Hebrew because Fremd can mean both “strange” and “foreign.”) Part of the challenge of studying idols and idolatry lies in determining precisely what to explore using these terms. This article focuses on the role that images and the opposition to them played in the world of ancient Israel and in the Hebrew Bible. Because the historiography on idolatry has often used the term in the more capacious sense, however, the study of idols and idolatry necessarily bleeds into broader questions about the nature of Israelite (and early Jewish) religion at different stages of its history. This article, therefore, provides some guidance in these matters as well.

General Overviews

Kaufmann 1960 depicts the history of ancient Israelite religion as a struggle against idolatry, as the author understood it. Faur 1978 offers a challenge to Kaufmann’s position. Jacobsen 1987 is a classic essay by a foremost Assyriologist. Curtis 1992 and Uehlinger 2004 are useful overviews of the topic, laying out the chief evidence pertaining to idols and idolatry in the Hebrew Bible and as known from Levantine archaeology. Greenspahn 2004 is a thoughtful consideration of problems involved with using the term “idolatry” in biblical studies. Kugel 2003 provides an introduction to the biblical opposition to images aimed at a general audience. Barbu 2011 provides a helpful account of how the ancient Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible was instrumental in forming the notion of idolatry.

  • Barbu, Daniel Olivier. “Idole, idôlatre, idôlatrie.” In Les représentations des dieux des autres. Edited by Corinne Bonnet, Amandine Declercq, and Iwo Slobodzianek, 37–55. Supplemento a Mythos 2. Caltanissetta, Italy: Salvatore Sciascia Editore, 2011.

    Although taking his title from the article on idolatry that Voltaire wrote for the Encyclopédie, Barbu nevertheless focuses less on idolatry in the Enlightenment than in Late Antiquity. He provides a helpful genealogy of the early history of the concept, concentrating on the instrumental role of the Septuagint translation of the Hebrew Bible into Greek and the writings of early Christian thinkers.

  • Curtis, Edward. “Idol, Idolatry.” In The Anchor Bible Dictionary. Vol. 3. Edited by David Noel Freedman, 376–381. New York: Doubleday, 1992.

    A solid overview of the use of images as objects of worship in the ancient Near East and Israel. Provides references to the major biblical passages pertaining to the subject.

  • Faur, José. “The Biblical Idea of Idolatry.” Jewish Quarterly Review 69 (1978): 1–15.

    DOI: 10.2307/1453972

    A synthetic statement on the biblical idea of idolatry, which Faur takes to be best understood in the context of monolatry. The essay includes an extensive critique of Kaufmann’s position (Kaufmann 1960).

  • Greenspahn, Frederick E. “Syncretism and Idolatry in the Bible.” Vetus Testamentum 54 (2004): 480–494.

    DOI: 10.1163/1568533042650868

    Greenspahn does a good job of laying out the methodological challenges involved in using the term “idolatry” in biblical studies. He also considers its relation to the notion of syncretism and the way in which a distinction between these two terms has too often been blurred.

  • Jacobsen, Thorkild. “The Graven Image.” In Ancient Israelite Religion: Essays in Honor of Frank Moore Cross. Edited by P. Miller Jr., P. D. Hanson, and S. D. McBride, 15–32. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1987.

    A concise treatment by a foremost Assyriologist that provides a lucid account of how cult statues would have been understood by their ancient Mesopotamian makers and worshippers.

  • Kaufmann, Yeḥezkel. The Religion of Israel: From Its Beginning to the Babylonian Exile. Translated by Moshe Greenberg. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1960.

    Kaufmann considered idolatry to be the basic problem of Israelite religion. Although highly polemical and now quite dated, his account of the religion of ancient Israel remains provocative. This edition is a translation and abridgement of Kaufmann’s original Hebrew work.

  • Kugel, James. The God of Old: Inside the Lost World of the Bible. New York: Free Press, 2003.

    Chapter 4 of this book is devoted to the theme “No Graven Images” and explores the meaning of the biblical prohibition of images in the context of how the divine was understood in ancient Israel. Good for undergraduates.

  • Uehlinger, Christoph. “Visual Representations: Israel.” In Religions of the Ancient World: A Guide. Edited by Sarah Iles Johnston, 608–610. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2004.

    A short, up-to-date account of the chief issues pertaining to ancient Israelite attitudes about the representation of the divine. Good for undergraduates.

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