Health & Spirit

Idolatry In The Modern Age

By The Three Wise Guys on

We hear the word "idol" -- in one of its forms -- all the time. Today it's usually used in secular settings, but it has ancient roots in religious thinking. Where does the idea of idolatry come from? We'll look at both its ancient usage in religion and also what we might mean in the modern context.

Rev: It's right there, very early on in the Ten Commandments; sometimes it is even translated in this way: "You shall not make for yourself an idol ..." I'm wondering, Rabbi, is Judaism the first religion to prohibit the use of idols?

Rabbi: From the perspective of Judaism, we believe we are the first group of people to come together and reject the idea of idolatry. However, some may argue with us about that. What was meant by "idolatry" is the worship of some sort of material artifact or symbol. The problem was the idea of paying ultimate tribute and obedience to a physical object. And we need to understand that the transition in Judaism from worship of idols to the nonphysical, "one God" understanding took hundreds or maybe thousands of years. It was not immediate. This was a revolutionary idea in the world at that time.

Imam: In the Quran, God speaks about the time between Adam and Noah and says that the practice was monotheism. However, after the time of Noah there arose five individuals who began as religious adherents, but eventually became revered and worshipped. They made shapes to resemble them, and these became the first presence of idols in the world from the understanding of Islam. This was understood as being a major problem.

Rev: It's really clear that not practicing idolatry is a central theme in all three of the Abrahamic faith traditions. Jesus was clearly a follower of the traditions of his faith, Judaism, and would have been staunchly opposed to any idol worship. And the Apostle Paul took an opportunity when in Athens, as recorded in the book of Acts, to use the Athenian altar to "An Unknown God" to proclaim God as being the one God of monotheism central to both Judaism and Christianity.

Rabbi: In early Judaism, people were giving their ultimate obedience to a piece of stone or wood or some other material object. The belief was that if you were not completely obedient to that object, it would bring punishment on you in some way. With monotheism, and a spiritual (not physical) God, there was a shift in thinking. Worship of an invisible God, the one God, was not about the idea of some sort of blind obedience but rather that we are to go out and make the world better. The purpose of the one God of Israel was the purpose of justice and compassion and righteousness.

Imam: In ancient Mesopotamia -- Iraq today -- there were parts of the civilization that began practices of wearing the heads of animals and carving stone figures. Idolatrous practice was commonplace in that part of the world. We are told that the prophet Abraham had to deal with his own father, who was in fact an idol maker and would put the idols in places of worship. Abraham challenged his father and destroyed his father's idols, which led to his father disowning him. It was at this moment that we understand Abraham as having to leave Ur and go to the holy land.

Rev: In regard to Christianity, there is often a great deal of criticism about the use of statues in some of our traditions, as well as pictures and artwork. The critique is regarding the Second Commandment prohibition of graven images. Christianity would argue that these are not any attempt to create something to worship but rather are windows into the faith tradition that lead us to a closer relationship with the spiritual understanding of the one God. It probably comes, somewhat, from Christianity stepping away from some of the traditional understandings of Judaism. But there was a great debate about this throughout the early centuries of Christianity.


Rabbi: The greatest fear of Moses when he died was the fear that the people would turn back to idolatry. They were surrounded everywhere by people who practiced idol worship. And in whatever way one may think about God, or the ultimate source of life, there are many idols today in our modern world to attract and distract us. The mission of repairing the world can be difficult when one is being wooed by idols, whatever they may be.

Imam: I think there is much temptation today toward idols and idol worship, though we may think of them differently in our time. But certainly, there are people who set their greatest affections on money, power, self-importance, another person or some other material reality. They place a sense of duty and relationship to that material reality above any idea of God, or as you said, Rabbi, making the world a better place. It seems like this is a good time for all of us to check our priorities to make sure we're not practicing some kind of modern idolatry, because it ends up being pretty meaningless, ultimately.


The Rev. Bryan Fulwider, Rabbi Steven Engel and Imam Muhammad Musri are The Three Wise Guys. Their website is at You can email them at

(c) 2019 Rabbi Steven Engel, Imam Muhammad Musri and Rev. Bryan Fulwider

Distributed by King Features Syndicate


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