The story of Tanakh (Old Testament) religion could be told for the most part in terms of a tension between a spiritual conception of Elohim (God) and worship, the hallmark of the genuine emunah (faith) of Israel, and various pressures, such as idolatry, which attempted to debase and materialise the national religious consciousness and practice. We do not find, in the Tanakh (Old Testament), an ascending from idolatry to the pure worship of Yahweh, but rather a people possessing a pure worship, and a spiritual theology, constantly fighting, through the medium of divinely raised spiritual leaders, religious seductions which, nevertheless, often claimed the mass of the people. Idolatry is a declension from the norm, not an earlier stage gradually and with difficulty superceded.
An 'idol' is usually some sort of physical representation of a deity, the word being used to translate a number of words in the Tanakh (Old Testament), most commonly the Hebrew 'elilim, gillűlim, 'asabbim (and in one variant, 'oseb), pesel and the related pesilim. It can also be used to translate the Hebrew semel (otherwise rendered as 'image' or 'figure'), masséka and the less common nesek (otherwise rendered as 'molten' or 'cast image'), terapim (otherwise transliterated as 'teraphim' or translated as 'household gods'), siqqus (otherwise translated as 'detetesable thing' or 'abomination'), 'awen (otherwise a more abstract noun meaning 'idolatry' or more generally 'wickedness'), and hevel (also a more abstract noun meaning that which is evanescent or unsubstantial). In the Messianic Scriptures (New Testament) 'idol' translates the Greek eidolon.
These terms differ somewhat in their specificities, e.g. semel refers generally to some sort of statue or free-standing image (2 Chr.33:7,15; Dt.4:16); pesel/pesilim also refer to a free-standing statue carved from wood or stone (Dt.7:5; Is.44:15,17; 45:20) or cast of metal (Judg.17:3-4; Hab.2:18; 2 Chr.34:7); gillűlim likewise can refer to a wood, stone, or metal statue (e.g. Dt.29:17), but when the material used to make 'asabbim is identified, it is always metal (Hos.8:4; 13:2; Ps.115:4). Some terms for 'idol' have implicit within them a value judgment: to speak of 'elilim, a term which comes from a root meaning 'weak' or 'insignificant', is to offer a negative opinion about the worthlessness of idols; the more general meanings of 'wickedness' for 'awen and 'unsubstantial' for 'hevel also indicate that a pejorative judgment is being made when these terms mean 'idol'. The Greek eidolon which means both 'image' and 'phantom', conveys a pejorative sense as well.
If we consider the broad sweep of evidence for patriarchal religion we find it to be a religion of the altar and of prayer, but not of idols. There are certain events, all associated with Jacob, which might appear to show patriarchal idolatry. For example, Rachel stole her father's teraphim (Gen.31:19). By itself, this, of course, need prove nothing more than that Jacob's wife had failed to free herself from her Mesopotamian religious environment (cp. Josh.24:15). However, a more likely explanation suggested by archaeology is that these objects were of legal as well as religious significance: the possessor of them held the right of succession to the family property. This accords well with the anxiety of Laban (who does not appear otherwise as a religious man) to recover them, and his care, when he fails to find them, to exclude Jacob from Mesopotamia by a carefully-worded treaty (Gen.31:45ff.). A third possible explanation is that Rachel stole the teraphim so that Laban would not be able to locate Jacob's caravan, which had departed secretly, the demons associated with the idols no longer being available to Laban for consultation and divination.
Likewise, it has been suggested by liberals that Jacob's pillars (Gen.28:18; 31:13,45; 35:14,20) are the same as the idolatrous stones with which Canaan was familiar. The interpretation is not inescapable. The pillar at Bethel is associated with Jacob's vow (Gen.31:13) and could more easily belong to the category of memorial pillars (e.g. Gen.35:20; Josh.24:27; 1 Sam.7:12; 2 Sam.18:18). Finally, the evidence of Genesis 35:4, often used by liberals to show patriarchal idolatry, actually points to the recognised incompatibility of idols with the Elohim (God) of Bethel. Jacob must dispose of the unacceptable objects before he stands before this Elohim (God). That Jacob 'hid' them is surely not to be construed as indicating that he feared to destroy them for reasons of superstitious reverence. They were metal objects, and possibly best disposed of in this way.
The weight of evidence for the Mosaic period is the same. The whole narrative of the golden calf (Ex.32) reveals the extent of the contrast between the religion which stemmed from Mt.Sinai and the form of religion congenial to the unregenerate heart. These religions, we learn, are incomparable. The religion of Sinai is emphatically aniconic. Moses warned the people (Dt.4:12) that the revelation of Yahweh vouchsafed to them there contained no 'form', lest they corrupt themselves with images. This is the essential Mosaic position, as recorded in the Decalogue (Ex.20:4) and the so-called 'ritual Decalogue' (Ex.34:17), both of which are widely recognised as Mosaic by those who would dispute the Mosaic date of Deuteronomy. The second mitzvah (commandment) was unique in the world of its day, and the failure of archaeology to unearth a figure of Yahweh (while idols abounded in every other religion) shows its fundamental place in Israel's religion from Mosaic days.
The historical record of Judges, Samuel and Kings tells the same story of the lapse of the nation from the spiritual forms proper to their religion. The Book of Judges, at least from chapter 17 onwards, deliberately sets out to picture for us a time of general Torahlessness (lawlessness) (cp. 17:6; 18:1; 19:1; 21:25). We would not dream of seeing in the events of chapter 19 the norm of Israelite morality. It is candidly a story of a degraded society. We have as little reason for seeing the story of Micah (Judg.17-18) as displaying a lawful but primitive stage in Israel's religion. Significantly, the historian comments on the lawlessness of the days as he records Micah's idolatrous worship (17:5-6) and his superstitious 'consecration' of the Levite (17:13 = 18:1).
We are not told in what form the images of Micah were made. It has been suggested that since they subsequently found a home in the northern Danite sanctuary, they were in the calf or bull form. This is likely enough, for it is a most significant thing that when Israel turned to idolatry it was always necessary to borrow the outward trappings from the pagan environment, thus suggesting that there was something in the very nature of Yahwism which prevented the growth of indigenous idolatrous forms. The golden calves made by Jeroboam (1 Ki.12:28) were well-known Canaanite symbols, and in the same way, whenever the kings of Israel and Judah lapsed into idolatry, it was by means of borrowing and syncretism. Such evidences of idolatry as exist after Moses are therefore to be explained by either the impulse to syncretism or by the tendency for customs eradicated in one generation to reappear in the next (cp. Jer.44). To which may be added the tendency to corrupt the use of something which in itself was lawful: the superstitious use of the ephod (Judg.8:27) and the cult of the serpent (2 Ki.18:4).
The main forms of idolatry into which Israel fell were the use of graven and molten images, pillars, the asherah ('groves') and teraphim. The molten image was was made by casting metal in a mould and shaping it with a tool (Ex.32:4,24). There is some doubt if this figure, and the later calves made by Jeroboam, were intended to represent Yahweh, or were thought of as a pedestal over which He was enthroned. The analogy of the cherubim (cp. 2 Sam.6:2, NRSV) suggests the latter, which also receives the support of archaeology, However, while the cherubim were concealed within the temple, it is likely that the calves were fully visible (as at Sinai) and were popularly identified with Yahweh (as they had been at Sinai too).
The pillars and the asherah were both forbidden to Israel (cp. Dt.12:3; 16:21-22). In Ba'al sanctuaries the pillar of Ba'al (cp. 2 Ki.10:27) and the pole of the Asherah stood beside the altar. The pillar was thought of as a stylised representation of the presence of the god at the shrine. It was the object of great veneration: sometimes it was hollowed in part so as to receive the blood of sacrifice, and sometimes, as appears from its polished surface, it was kissed by its devotees. The asharah was wooden, as we learn from its usual destruction by burning (Dt.12:3; 2 Ki.23:6), and probably originated from the sacred evergreen, the symbol of life. The association of these with Canaanite fertility practice sufficed to make them abominable to Yahweh.
The Tanakh (Old Testament) polemic against idolatry, carried on chiefly by nevi'im (prophets) and psalmists, recognises the same two truths which Paul was later to affirm: that the idol was nothing, but that nevertheless there was a demonic spiritual force to be reckoned with, and that the idol therefore constituted a positive spiritual menace (1 Cor.8:4; 10:19-20). Thus the idol is nothing at all: man made it (Is.2:8); its very composition and construction proclaims its futility (Is.40:18-20; 41:6-7; 44:9-20); its helpless bulk invites derision (Is.46:1-2); it has nothing but the bare appearance of life (Ps.115:4-7). The nevi'im (prophets) derisively named them gillulim, literally meaning (in the opinion of Köhler) 'dung-pellets' (Ezek.6:4, and at least 38 other times in Ezekiel) and 'elilim ('godlets').
But, though entirely subject to Yahweh (e.g. Ps.95:3), there are spiritual forces of evil, and the practice of idolatry brings men into deadly contact with these 'gods' (see, for example, Hinduism and Roman Catholicism). Isaiah, who is usually said to bring the ironic scorning of idols to its peak, is well aware of the spiritual evil. He knows that there is only one Elohim (God) (Is.44:8), but even so no-one can touch an idol, though it be 'nothing', and come away unscathed. Man's contact with the false god infects him with a deadly spiritual blindness of heart and mind (Is.54:18). Though what he worships is mere 'ashes', yet it is full of the poison of spiritual delusion (Is.54:20). Those who worship idols become like them (Ps.115:8; Jer.2:5; Hos.9:10). Because of the reality of evil power behind the idol, it is an abomination (to'eba) to Yahweh (Dt.29:17), and it is the gravest sin, spiritual adultery, to follow idols (Dt.31:16; Judg.2:17; Hos.1:2 see Deliverance).
Nevertheless there is only one Elohim (God), and the contrast between Yahweh and the idols is to be drawn in terms of chayim (life), activity, and government. The idol cannot predict and bring to pass, but Yahweh can (Is.41:26-27; 44:7); the idol is a helpless piece of flotsam on the river of history, only wise after the event and helpless in the face of it (Is.41:5-7; 46:1-2), but Yahweh is Sovereign and Controller of history (Is.40:22-25; 41:1-2,25; 43:14-15, etc.).
The Messianic Scriptures (New Testament) reinforce and amplify the Tanakh (Old Testament) teaching. Its recognition that idols are both non-entities and dangerous spiritual potencies has been noted above. In addition, Romans 1 expresses the Tanakh (Old Testament) view that idolatry is a decline from true spirituality, and not a stage on the way to a pure knowledge of Elohim (God) as taught by the occult. The Messianic Scriptures (New Testament) recognise, however, that the peril of idolatry exists even where material idols are not fashioned: the association of idolatry with sexual sins in Galatians 5:19-20 ought to be linked with the equating of covetousness with idolatry (1 Cor.5:11; Eph.5:5; Col.3:5), for by covetousness Paul certainly means sexual covetousness (cp. Eph.4:19; 5:3; 1 Thes.4:6; 1 Cor.10:7,14). John, having urged the finality and fullness of revelation in Yah'shua the Messiah (Jesus Christ), warns that any deviation is idolatry
(1 Jn.5:19-21). The idol is whatever claims that loyalty which belongs to Elohim (God) alone (Is.42:8).