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Is there evidence that the commandment against idolatry was in effect before the Ten Commandments?

The second commandment describes a prohibition against idolatry. In Exodus 20:4-5, God presents the instruction to Moses, “You shall not make for yourself a carved image—any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth; you shall not bow down to them nor serve them. For I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children to the third and fourth generations of those who hate Me, but showing mercy to thousands, to those who love Me and keep My commandments.’”

Since God presented this commandment in an explicit way following the Exodus of Israel out of Egypt, does it mean that it began to take effect at that moment? Or was the commandment in effect before that time? The answer to the question of its existence prior to the proclamation of the Ten Commandments is clearly affirmative, as shown by the evidence in the Bible.

Before beginning to cite evidence for the existence of the commandment against idolatry, it is important to clarify the scope of what it means. There is a clear admonition against creating anything that is a physical representation of the true God, or other false gods. It includes the prohibition of using idols in the purported worship of the true God. The creation and use of the golden calf, the cross or the Christmas tree in the “worship” of God are prime examples of this kind of “syncretism”—mixing true worship with pagan elements. For more information, please read our free booklet, “Don’t Keep Christmas.” In addition, we might think today of pictures purportedly representing the Father or Jesus Christ. To create such pictures is clearly in violation of the second commandment. Also, the creation and worship of statues allegedly representing dead “saints” or the “Virgin Mary” break the second commandment as well.

However, the notion of idolatry expands beyond the narrow concept of prohibiting physical representations. An important aspect of the second commandment also involves worship and the way things are served. For example, if any material possession consumes our attention, such that it becomes more important to us than our relationship with God, it is a form of idolatry. An idol doesn’t need to be a physical object either. If we have a habit or activity in our lives that diminishes the importance of God in our lives and we choose to dedicate ourselves to something else, it is a form of idolatry. For example, a hobby or a job can become an idol if it becomes more important in our lives than God. A person can become an idol as well, if serving him or her gets in the way of serving God. Clearly, this commandment goes further in its application than what it seems on the surface.

Quoting from a recent Q&A, we provide an explanation that covetousness is also a form of idolatry:

“The apostle Paul tells us that we are to put to death covetousness which is idolatry (Colossians 3:5). Therefore, the tenth commandment is linked to the second commandment. If we covet anything belonging to another person, we are making an idol of what we covet. This would include our neighbor’s spouse, car, house, job, holiday, etc. We would be coveting something that God says is not ours to have because it is someone else’s possession.

“From this we see that an idol is not just a religious symbol or image, but it can be any object, person or animal or even profession for which we have a wrong desire. In fact, anything we put before God basically becomes our idol.”

In the same Q&A, we explain how we can have idols in our minds:

“[I]dols can relate to physical objects and the desire for the possessions of others, but they can also include the belief in things like charms, divination or astrology. They can even pertain to our reliance on our own self-righteousness and integrity. As we read in Ezekiel 14:3-4, idols can indeed be in our minds. And any idol, whether an object or a wrong thought pattern or concept, can lead us away from obeying God and can cloud our understanding as to what and who He is.”

Knowing how to identify idolatry allows us to detect evidence for the fact that it has always been a sin, and a violation of God’s eternal, spiritual law. Idols can take the shape of physical representations of gods, as well as any other object, person, activity, or idea that turn us away from God. The examples in the Bible primarily focus on physical representations of other gods used in false worship as well as their use in the proposed worship of the true God, but as we will see, a broad sense of idolatry is also expressed.

A key Scripture providing evidence that the commandment against idolatry was in effect prior to the reception of the ten commandments can be found when God instructs Jacob to go to Bethel and build an altar to God (Genesis 35:1). In response to this instruction, Jacob hides the idols that he knows are among his people. “And Jacob said to his household and to all who were with him, ‘Put away the foreign gods that are among you, purify yourselves, and change your garments. Then let us arise and go up to Bethel; and I will make an altar there to God, who answered me in the day of my distress and has been with me in the way which I have gone.’ So they gave Jacob all the foreign gods which were in their hands, and the earrings which were in their ears; and Jacob hid them under the terebinth tree which was by Shechem”(Genesis 35:2-4). Not only does this show that idols for foreign gods existed at that time, but it also shows that Jacob knew they were wrong to possess to be used for the worship of false gods or even the true God.

Since Jacob knew that he would go to Bethel to build an altar to God and dwell there, it is apparent that he also knew that it was time to remove the idols that were present in his camp. It is therefore clear that idol worship was understood as being wrong, giving us evidence that the second commandment was in effect before it was presented to Moses.

The Bible expresses another example of the presence of idolatry prior to the presentation of the Ten Commandments and the fact that it was always a violation of God’s commandment when Joshua confronts the same problem and provides the historical context and condemnation of idol worship in describing the behavior of Abraham’s ancestors. “And Joshua said to all the people, ‘Thus says the LORD God of Israel: “Your fathers, including Terah, the father of Abraham and the father of Nahor, dwelt on the other side of the River in old times; and they served other gods”’” (Joshua 24:2).

This shows that other gods were served in a way that expresses wrongdoing. Joshua goes on to describe the ways in which they served other gods. “‘Now therefore, fear the LORD, serve Him in sincerity and in truth, and put away the gods which your fathers served on the other side of the River and in Egypt. Serve the LORD!’” (Joshua 24:14). The ancestors of Israel, going back before Abraham and including ancestors in Egypt, served other gods with idols. This behavior of the ancestors is condemned because it was wrong then, just as it was at Joshua’s time. The reference to the kinds of idols served is not explicit in its description, but as we understand, an idol can be anything that is served in a way that takes away from the true worship of God.

We see an additional historic reference to the violation of the commandment against idolatry when Ezekiel describes the context of preparing to bring Israel out of Egypt. “‘Say to them, “Thus says the LORD God: ‘On the day when I chose Israel and raised My hand in an oath to the descendants of the house of Jacob, and made Myself known to them in the land of Egypt, I raised My hand in an oath to them, saying, “I am the LORD your God.”   On that day I raised My hand in an oath to them, to bring them out of the land of Egypt into a land that I had searched out for them, “flowing with milk and honey,” the glory of all lands. Then I said to them, “Each of you, throw away the abominations which are before his eyes, and do not defile yourselves with the idols of Egypt. I am the LORD your God”’”’” (Ezekiel 20:5-7). From here we see that there was idol worship in Egypt and among the Israelites before the Exodus, and before God presented the Ten Commandments to Moses. The clear instruction is to remove their idols, which God declares as abominations, at the time when God revealed His intentions. God expected the Israelites to clean up their act by ceasing to serve idols, especially those made for other gods and even the true God, and not to use them in worship of false gods or the purported worship of the true God.

The spiritual law of God against idol worship was clearly in effect prior to the time when God presented the Ten Commandments to Moses. Idolatry was a problem since the very early history of mankind, and it was always considered to be sinful, as the evidence in the Bible clearly shows.

Lead Writer: Eric Rank