When Joshua became the prophet-leader of the Israelites and led them into the Promised Land, they were oft-times commanded to destroy cities completely, not even sparing women and children and animals. (“Thou shalt save alive nothing that breatheth” — Deuteronomy 20:16 .) The Israelite invaders were also commanded to destroy the idols they found.
Some say that the God of the Old Testament was a cruel and jealous God, and that with the ministry of Christcame a different God, the kind and loving God of the New Testament. Others says that God is the same always. The destructions that are prophesied to occur before the Second Coming of Christ will prove that the God of the New Testament is just as capable of destroying the wicked as He was in Old Testament times. However, the Lord is long-suffering, and He gives His children every chance to repent and choose life. God is perfect in His consistency.
One of the reasons the Israelites lingered in the wilderness so long was that the Canaanites were not yet ripe in iniquity, so the Lord was still tolerating their wickedness, and giving them a chance to repent. They were fully aware that a huge group of militant Israelites was sojourning in the wilderness. The Lord had taken many opportunities to prove to them that God was with these nomadic people and would fight their battles. But a society that is “ripened in iniquity” is thoroughly wicked — so much so that any child raised in the society will grow up in wickedness, and all the righteous have fled or have been cast out.
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. The Lord states over and over again in the scriptures that men tend to worship “the creations of their own hands.” In our day, in western civilization, our idols, the “workmanship of our own hands,” can be anything man-made — our houses, our art, our prestige and social connections, our celebrity, our college degrees, our cars, our political power. Man builds it and then makes it the center of his life. He sacrifices for it and serves it.
- “And they spake against the God of Jerusalem, as against the gods of the people of the earth, which were the work of the hands of man” (1 Chronicles 32:19).
- ” And they made a calf in those days, and offered sacrifice unto the idol, and rejoiced in the works of their own hands” (Acts 7:41).
- “And there ye shall serve gods, the work of men’s hands, wood and stone, which neither see, nor hear, nor eat, nor smell” (Deuteronomy 4:28).
- “Their land also is full of idols; they worship the work of their own hands, that which their own fingers have made…” (Isaiah 2:8).
- “And I will utter my judgments against them touching all their wickedness, who have forsaken me, and have burned incense unto other gods, and worshipped the works of their own hands” (Jeremiah 1:16).
- “Thy graven images also will I cut off, and thy standing images out of the midst of thee; and thou shalt no more worship the work of thine hands” (Micah 5:13).
- “And the rest of the men which were not killed by these plagues yet repented not of the works of their hands, that they should not worship devils, and idols of gold, and silver, and brass, and stone, and of wood: which neither can see, nor hear, nor walk…” (Revelation 9:20)
- “Their land is also full of idols; they worship the work of their own hands, that which their own fingers have made” (2 Nephi 12:8).
- “Thy graven images I will also cut off, and thy standing images out of the midst of thee, and thou shalt no more worship the works of thy hands” (3 Nephi 21:17).
The following scriptures don’t mention idol worship, but the meaning is the same:
- “Why do ye adorn yourselves with that which hath no life…” (Mormon 8:35)?
- “Why are ye ashamed to take upon you the name of Christ? Why do ye not think that greater is the value of an endless happiness than that misery which never dies—because of the praise of the world” (Mormon 8:38)?
- “And that which fell among thorns are they, which, when they have heard, go forth, and are choked with cares and riches and pleasures of this life, and bring no fruit to perfection” (Luke 8:14).
Even though Old Testament Israelites worshipped all the unseen idols that we do (power, prestige, precious possessions), they were most tempted by the idolatrous practices of their pagan neighbors. They were surrounded by pagan cultures whose citizens worshipped nature, the stars and planets, and dumb idols. The power of tradition and ritual made these religious practices attractive. Festivals and celebrations are always hooks in every culture:
“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.)
The pagan rituals included fornication (even orgies), adultery, drunkenness, and even human sacrifice. At their most innocent, as in families making cakes to offer to gods of the night sky, they had no power to save and were a complete distraction from the gospel that is the true source of eternal life. According to Mosaic law, 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.) This harsh punishment had to do partly with the abject wickedness of pagan Canaan and the corruptibility of the Israelites.
One of the dangers of worshipping the zodiac, as was common in Babylon, was that of astrology — predicting one’s future according to the movement of the planets and position of the stars. It destroyed free-agency and produced a fatalistic enslavement to the fortune-teller’s prophecies:
“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 . 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.)
“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….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 ).
The idea of “a little idolatry” addresses that which we hold back from the Lord. Those who call themselves Christians would all say of one accord that they are Christ’s, and yet they hold on to some other security instead of offering all to His cause. Said Brigham Young:
“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 Jesusthe 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.)
*Parts of this article are from the LDS Institute Old Testament manual.
Next: Reign of the Judges