The use of images to represent Yahweh was absolutely prohibited by the Mosiac Law (Exod. 20:4, 5; Deut. 5:8, 9; Lev. 26:1) and reinforced by the prophets (Amos 5:26; Hos. 13:2; Isa. 2:8; 40:18-26). Many objects such as the ark of the covenant, the oxen that supported the bronze sea, and the cherubim in the Holy of Holies were employed to assist worship, but they were never considered objects of worship. The bronze serpent (Num. 21:8, 9) was venerated with incense for a period, but this was abolished by Hezekiah. The illegitimate use of images is epitomized in the use of the golden calves in Israel by Jeroboam I. Although they were intended as symbols for the presence of God, they soon deteriorated into objects of worship. The syncretism of Baal worship and Yahwehism brought a flood of images into both the northern and southern kingdoms. Even with the reforms of Hezekiah and Josiah, this idolatry continued until the exilic period (587-537 b.c.). After this period, the prohibition was intensified.

During the Roman occupation, the observers of the law, at the risk of death, elicited promises from the procurators and governors not to bring the standard adorned with the emporer's image into the holy city or through Jewish territory. Soon after the establishment of the early church, the use of images arose and was later justified by such leaders as Augustine and Ambrose. Opposition did arise and precipitated the Iconoclastic Controversy* of the eighth and ninth centuries. The Second Nicean Council ruled that honor paid to an image passes on to its prototype and that he who worships an image worships the reality of him who is painted in it.

Icons became an integral part of worship in the Orthodox Churches, and veneration of images was later strengthened by Thomas Aquinas in the Western Church. The use of images was strongly opposed by some of the Reformers, especially Calvin, Zwingli, and the Puritans. Following this lead, most Protestant churches continue to oppose the use of images.

See also Icon.

Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, III, i; W. Palmer, An Introduction to Early Christian Symbolism (1885); E. Bevan, Holy Images (1940); a.d. Lee and C.H. Pickar, New Catholic Encyclopedia, vol. 7, pp. 370-72 (1967).

International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915)

(tselem; eikon):

1. Definition

2. Origin

3. Historical Beginnings and Early Developments

4. Bible References and Palestinian Customs

5. Most Important Technical Terms

(1) Matstsebhah ("pillar")

(2) ’Asherah ("grove")

(3) Chamman ("sun-image")

6. Obscure Bible References

(1) Golden Calf

Jeroboam’s Calves

(2) Brazen Serpent

(3) Teraphim

(4) Image of Jealousy

(5) Chambers of Imagery

(6) ’Ephod


1. Definition:

Images, as used here, are visible representations of supposedly supernatural or divine beings or powers. They may be

(1) themselves objects of worship,

(2) pictures, embodiments or dwelling-places (temple, ark, pillar, priests) of deities worshipped,

(3) empowered instruments (amulets, charms, etc.) of object or objects worshipped,

(4) pictures or symbols of deities reverenced though not worshipped.

These images may be shapeless blocks, or symmetrically carved figures, or objects of Nature, such as animals, sun, moon, stars, etc. These visible objects may sometimes be considered, especially by the uninstructed, as deities, while by others in the small community they are thought of as instruments or symbolizations of deity. Even when they are thought of as deities, this does not exclude a sense and apprehension of a spiritual godhead, since visible corporeal beings may have invisible souls and spiritual attributes, and even the stars may be thought of as "seats of celestial spirits." An idol is usually considered as either the deity itself or his permanent tenement; a fetish is an object which has been given a magical or divine power, either because of its having been the temporary home of the deity, or because it has been formed or handled or otherwise spiritually influenced by such deity. The idol is generally communal, the fetish private; the idol is protective, the fetish is usually not for the common good. (See Jevons, Idea of Cod in Early Religions, 1910.) Relics and symbolic figures do not become "images" in the objectionable sense until reverence changes to worship. Until comparatively recent times, the Hebrews seem to have offered no religious objection to "artistic" images, as is proved not only from the description of Solomon’s temple, but also from the discoveries of the highly decorated temple of Yahweh at Syene dating from the 6th century BC, and from ruins of synagogues dating from the pre-Christian and early Christian periods (PEF, January, 1908; The Expositor, December, 1907; Expository Times, January and February, 1908). The Second Commandment was not an attack upon artists and sculptors but upon idolaters. Decoration by means of graven figures was not in ancient times condemned, though, as Josephus shows, by the time of the Seleucids all plastic art was regarded with suspicion. The brazen serpent was probably destroyed in Hezekiah’s time because it had ceased to be an ancient artistic relic and had become an object of worship (see below). So the destruction of the ark and altar and temple, which for so long a time had been the means of holy worship, became at last a prophetic hope (Isa 6:7; Jer 3:6; Am 5:25; Ho 6:6; compare Zec 14:20). While the temple is not naturally thought of as an "image," it was as truly so as any Bethel. An idol was the temple in miniature--a dwelling-place of the god. When an image became the object of worship or a means by which a false god was worshipped, it became antagonistic to the First and Second Commandments respectively.

2. Origin:

The learned author of the article on "Image Worship" in the Encyclopedia Biblica (11th edition) disposes too easily of this question when he suggests that image-worship is "a continuance by adults of their childish games with dolls. .... Idolatrous cults repose largely on make-believe."

Compare the similar statement made from a very different standpoint by the author of Great Is Diana of the Ephesians, or the Original of Idolatry (1695): "All Superstitions are to the People but like several sports to children, which varying in their several seasons yield them pretty entertainment," etc.

No universal institution or custom is founded wholly on superstition. If it does not answer to some real human need, and "if its foundations are not laid broad and deep in the nature of things, it must perish" (J.G. Fraser, Psyche’s Task, 1909, 103; compare Salomon Reinach, Revue des etudes grecques, 1906, 324). Image-worship is too widespread and too natural to humanity, as is proved in modern centuries as well as in the cruder earlier times, to have its basis and source in any mere external and accidental circumstances. All modern research tends to corroborate our belief that this is psychological rather than ecclesiastical in its origin. It is not imposed externally; it comes from within, and naturally accompanies the organic unfoldment of the human animal in his struggle toward self-expression. This is now generally acknowledged to be true of religious feeling and instinct (see especially Rudolf Eueken, Christianity and the New Idealism, 1909, chapter i; I. King, The Development of Religion, 1910); it ought to be counted equally true of religious expression. Neither can the origin of image-worship or even of magical rites be fully explained, as Fraser thinks, by the ordinary laws of association. These associations only become significant because the devoted worshipper already has a body of beliefs and generalizations which make him attentive to the associations which seem to him religiously or magically important. (Jastrow, Aspects of Rel. Belief and Practice in Babylonia and Assyria; compare James H. Leuba, Psychological Origin and Nature of Religion, 1909; Study of Religions, 1911). So animism must be regarded as a philosophy rather than as an original religious faith, since it is based on an "explanation of phenomena rather than an attitude of mind toward the cause of these phenomena" (EB, 11th edition, article "Animism," and compare Hoffding, Philosophy of Religion, 1906, 138). In whatever ways the various image-worshipping cults arose historically--whether from a primitive demonology or from the apotheosis of natural objects, or from symbolism, or a false connection of cause with effect--in any case it had some human need behind it and human nature beneath it. The presence of the image testifies to faith in the supernatural being represented by the image and to a desire to keep the object of worship near. Prayer is easier when the worshipper can see his god or some sacred thing the god has honored (compare M. L’abbe E. Van Drival, De l’origine et des sources de l’idolatrie, Paris, 1860).

3. Historical Beginnings and Early Development:

The first man was not born with a totem-pole in his fist, nor did the earliest historic men possess images. They lacked temples and altars and ephods and idols, as they lacked the fire-stick and potter’s wheel. Religion, which showed itself so strong in the next stage of human life, must have had very firm beginnings in the prehistoric period; but what were its external expressions we do not yet certainly know, except in the methods of burying and caring for the dead. It seems probable that primitive historic man saw in everything that moved an active soul, and that he saw in every extraordinary thing in earth or heaven the expression of a supernatural power. Yet reflective thinking began earlier than Tylor and all the older scientific anthropologists supposed. Those earlier investigators were without extended chronological data, and although ingenuity was exercised in systematizing the beliefs and customs of modern savages, it was necessarily impossible always to determine in this way which were the most primitive cults. Excavations in Babylonia, Egypt and elsewhere have enabled us for the first time to trace with some chronological certainty the religious expressions of earliest historic man. That primitive man was so stupid that he could not tell the difference between men and things, and that therefore totemism or fetishism or a low form of animism was necessarily the first expression of religious thought is a theory which can no longer be held very buoyantly in the face of the new and striking knowledge, material and religious, which is now seen to be incorporated in some of the most ancient myths of mankind. (See e.g. Winekler, Die jungsten Kampfe wider den Panbabylonismus, 1907; Jeremias, The Old Testament in the Light of the Ancient East, 2 volumes, 1911.) The pan-Bab theory, which makes so much use of these texts, is not certain, but the facts upon which theory depends are clear. It is a suggestive fact that among the earliest known deities or symbols of deities mentioned in the most ancient inscriptions are to be found the sun, moon, stars and other great forces of Nature. Out of these conceptions and the mystery of life--which seems to have affected early mankind even more powerfully than ourselves--sprang the earliest known religious language, the myth, which antedated by eons our oldest written texts, since some of these myths appear fully formed in the oldest texts. Rough figures of these solar and stellar deities are found from very early times in Babylonia. So in the earliest Egyptian texts the sun appears as divine and the moon as "the bull among the stars," and rough figures of the gods were carved in human or animal form, or these are represented pictorially by diadems or horns or ostrich feathers, as far back as the IInd Dynasty, while even earlier than this stakes and pillars and heaps of stones are sacred. (See further, HDB, 5th vol, 176 ff; Erman, A Handbook of Egyptian Rel.; Steindorf, Rel. of the Ancient Egyptians, 1905.) These rude and unshaped objects do not testify, as was once supposed, to a lower form of religious development than when sculptured images are found. The shapeless fetish, which not long ago was generally accepted as the earliest form of image, really represents a more advanced stage and higher form of religious expression than the worship of a beautifully or horribly carved image. It has been generally conceded since the days of Robertson Smith that it takes at least as much imagination and reflection to see an expression of deity in imageless matter as in the carved forms. Rude objects untouched by human hand, even in the most highly developed worships, have been most prized. The earliest images were probably natural objects which, because of their peculiar shapes or functions, were thought of either as divine or as made sacred by the touch of deity. Multiplied copies of these objects would naturally be made when worshippers increased or migrations occurred. While images may have been used in the most early cults, yet the highest development of image-worship has occurred among the most civilized peoples. Both deities and idols are less numerous in the early than in the later days of a religion. This is true in India, Assyria, Babylonia, and Egypt, as all experts now agree. Idols are not found among uncivilized peoples, such as the Bushmen, Fuegians, Eskimos, etc. (See e.g. Allen Menzies, History of Rel., 1895.) Images of the gods presuppose a power of discrimination that could only be the result of reflection. The earliest idols known among the Semites were rude stone pillars or unshapen blocks. These, as the fetish, were probably adored, not for themselves, but for the spirit that was supposed to be in them or to have touched them. Deities and idols are multiplied easily, not only by philological, geographical and social causes, but through intertribal and international associations. One thing absolutely proved by recent excavations has been the extent to which the representations of local deities have been modified by the symbolic art of surrounding nations. Babylonia, for example, was influenced by the Syro-Hittite religious art at least as much as by that of Egypt (William Hayes Ward, Cylinders and Other Ancient Oriental Seals, 1909; Clay, Amurru, 1910). Even in adjacent localities the same deity varied greatly in its pictorial representation. See Palestine Exploration, and Revue biblique, XIV, 315-48. With the possible exception of one reign in Egypt, during which Ikhnaton refused to allow any deities to be worshipped except the sun discovered and himself, idolatry outside of the Hebrew kingdom was never made a crime against the state until the days of Constantine. Theodosius (392 AD) not only placed sacrifices and divination among the capital crimes, but placed a penalty upon anyone who entered a heathen temple.

4. Bible References and Palestinian Customs:

5. Most Important Technical Terms:

(1) Matstsebhah ("pillar"):

(2) ’Asherah ("grove"):

’asherah: Perhaps a goddess (see Asherah), but as ordinarily used in the Old Testament, a sacred tree or stump of a tree planted in the earth (De 16:21) or a pole made of wood and set up near the altar (Jud 6:26; 1Ki 16:33; Isa 17:8).

It has been supposed that these were primarily symbols of a goddess Asherah or Ashtoreth (Kuenen, Baethgen), and they were certainly in primitive thought connected with the tree cult and the sacred groves so universally honored by the Semites (see especially W.R. Smith, Religion of the Semites, 169, 437; Stade, Geschichte, 160 ff; Fraser, Golden Bough, II, 56-117; John O’Neill, Night of the Gods, II, 57); but the tree of life is closely connected in texts and pictures with the human organ of generation, and there can be no doubt that there is a phallic meaning connected with this sacred stake or pole, as with the matstsebhoth described above. See references in HDB under "Asherah," and compare Transactions of the Victoria Institute, XXXIX, 234; Winckler, Keilinschriftliches Textbuch zum AT. As these wooden posts from earliest times represented the ideas of fertility and were connected with the mystery of life, they naturally became the signs and symbols in many lands of the local gods and goddesses of fertility.

Astarte was by far the most popular deity of ancient Palestine. See Ashtoreth. The figures of Astarte from the 12th to the 9th century BC, as found at Gezer, have large hips, disclosing an exaggerated idea of fecundity. In close connection with the Astarte sanctuaries in Palestine were found numberless bodies of little children, none over a week old, undoubtedly representing the sacrifice of the firstborn by these Canaanites (R.A.S. Macalister, Excavation of Gezer, 3 vols). These Asherim were erected at the most sacred Hebrew sanctuaries, at Samaria (2Ki 13:6), Bethel (2Ki 23:15), and even in the Temple of Jerusalem (2Ki 23:6). The crowning act of King Josiah’s reformation was to break down these images (2Ki 23:14). As the astrological symbol of Baal was the sun, Astarte is often thought of as the moon-goddess, but her symbol was really Venus. She was, however, sometimes called "Queen of Heaven" (Jer 7:18; 44:17,19; but see Zeitschrift fur alttestamentliche Wissenschaft, VI, 123-30).

(3) Chamman ("sun-image"):

6. Obscure Bible References:

(1) Golden Calf and Jeroboam’s Calves:

See nodetitle.

(2) Brazen Serpent:

Brazen Serpent (Nu 21:4-9; 2Ki 4).--The serpent, because of its strange, lightning-like power of poisonous attack, its power to shed its skin, and to paralyze its prey, has been the most universally revered of all creatures. Living serpents were kept in Babylonian temples. So the cobra was the guardian of royalty in Egypt, symbolizing the kingly power of life and death. In mythology, the serpent was not always considered a bad demon, enemy of the Creator, but often appears as the emblem of wisdom, especially in connection with health-giving and life-giving gods, such as Ea, savior of mankind from the flood, and special "god of the physicians" in Babylon; Thoth, the god of wisdom in Egypt, who healed the eye of Horus and brought Osiris to life again; Apollo, the embodiment of physical perfection, and his son, Aeseulapius, most famous giver of physical and moral health and curer of disease among the Greeks. Among the Hebrews also a seal (1500-1000 BC) shows a worshipper before a horned serpent raised on a pole (Wm. Hayes Ward). In Phoenician mythology the serpent is also connected with wisdom and long life, and it is found on the oldest Hebrew seals and on late Jewish talismans (Revue biblique internationale, July, 1908, 382-94); at Gezer, in Palestine, a small "brazen serpent" (a cobra) was found in the "cave of oracles," and in early Christian art Jesus the Lord of Life is often represented standing triumphantly upon the serpent or holding it in His fist. In the Hebrew narrative found in Nu 21, the serpent evidently appears as a well-known symbol representing the Divine ability to cure disease, being erected before the eyes of the Israelites to encourage faith and stop the plague. It was not a totem, for the totem belongs to a single family and is never set up for the veneration of other families (Ramsay, Cities of Paul, 39). Hezekiah destroyed it because it was receiving idolatrous worship (2Ki 18:4), though there is no hint that such worship was ever a part of the official temple cult (Benzinger); for if this had been done, the earlier prophets could hardly have remained silent. The above explanation seems preferable to the one formerly offered that the serpent was merely a copy of the disease-bearer, as the images offered by the Philistines were copies of the ulcers that plagued them (1Sa 6:4).

See further NEHUSHTAN.

(3) Teraphim:

(4) Image of Jealousy:

Image of jealousy (cemel).--It is not certain what this statue was which was set up by the door of the inner gate of the Jerusalem temple (Eze 8:3). It was no doubt some idol, perhaps the image of the Asherah (2Ki 21:7; 23:6), which certainly. had previously been set up in the temple and may have been there again in this day of apostasy. "Jealousy" is not the name of the idol, but it was probably called "image of jealousy" because in a peculiar manner this particular image seems to have been drawing the people from the worship of Yahweh and therefore provoking Him to jealousy.

(5) Chambers of Imagery:

Chambers of imagery (chadhre maskitho).--Does Ezekiel mean that in his heart every man in his chambers of imagery was an idol-worshipper, or does this refer to actual wall decorations in the Jerusalem Temple (Eze 8:11,12)? Most expositors take it literally. W.R. Smith has been followed almost if not quite universally in his supposition that a debased form of vermin-worship is described in the "creeping things and abominable beasts" (Eze 8:10). But while this low and ignorant worship was an ancient cult, it had been banished for centuries from respectable heathen worship, and it seems inconceivable that these Israelites who were of the highest class could have fallen to these depths, or if they had done so that the Tammuz and sun-worship should have been considered so much worse (Eze 8:13,14). To the writer it seems more probable that the references are to Egyptian or Greek mysteries which would be described by a Hebrew just as Ezekiel describes this secret chamber. It is now known that the Greek mysteries experienced a revival at exactly this era, and it was probably this revival which was making itself felt in Jerusalem, for Greek influence was at this time greatly affecting Palestine (see Duruy, Hist of Greece, II, 126-80, 374; Cobern, Commentary on Ezekiel and Daniel, 80-83, 280-82; and separate articles, CHAMBERS OF IMAGERY; IMAGERY).

(6) Ephod:

Kautzsch’s view that the ephod meant primarily the garment used to clothe Divine image, which afterward gave its name to the image itself, is a guess unsustained by the Scriptures quoted or, I think, by any archaeological parallel. We conclude that there is no certain proof that this was an image of Yahweh, though was used ritualistically in receiving the oracles of Yahweh (compare Kuenen, Religion of Israel, I, 100; Kittel, Hist of the Hebrews, II, 42; Konig, Die Hauptprobleme, 59-63).



See especially W.R. Smith, Religion of the Semites; E. B. Tylor, Primitive Culture; J. G. Frazer, Golden Bough (3 vols); Baethgen, Beitrage zur sem. Rel.-Gesch.; Kittel, Hist of the Hebrews; Nowack, Hebrew Arch., II; Baudissin, Studien z. sem. Rel.-Gesch. For recent excavations, L.P.H. Vincent, Canaan d’apres l’expl. recente, 1907; R.A.S. Macalister, The Excavation of Gezer (1912); William Hayes Ward, Cylinders and Other Ancient Oriental Seals, 1909.

Camden M. Cobern