The Origin of Idolatry

by Vijay Chandra

The Origin of Idolatry: Genesis 1:26, 27, 28, 2:15,  3:1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6


Though Genesis 3 does not explicitly label Adam and Eve’s sin as ‘idolatry’, we must investigate further whether or not a concept of idolatry is present there. It would  be strange to find  the sin of idolatry often throughout the Old Testament but not in the first sin of Adam and Eve at the beginning of the history, which plunged the rest of humanity into iniquity (Rom 5:1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10). I will here try to show that when Adam stopped being committed to God and reflecting his image, he revered something else in the place of God and resembled his ‘new’ object of worship. Thus at the heart of Adam’s sin was turning from God and replacing reverence for God with a ‘new’ object of reverence to which Adam became conformed. Now the word ‘idol’ does not appear in the texts. But let us look anyway in these texts.


  1. Adam as the image and likeness of the Creator: 

    a. In order to explore the possibility of this idolatrous idea in Genesis 1-3, the purpose of Adam and Eve’s creation and placement in Eden needs a brief

Genesis 1:28 affirms that Adam was to subdue the entire earth:God blessed them;……  Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth, and subdue it, and rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky, and over every living thing that creeps on earth’. Genesis 1:27 provides the means by which the commission and goal of Genesis 1:28 was to be accomplished: humanity will fulfill  the commission by the means of being in God’s ‘image’. They were to reflect God’s kingship by being his vice-regents on earth.

b. Adam and Eve and their progeny were to be created in God’s image in order to reflect his character and glory and fill the earth with it (Genesis 1:27, 28).

c. What was Adam’s commission according to Genesis 1:27, 28?

  1. ‘to cultivate’ [with connotations of serving and ‘to guard’ (Genesis 2:15) as a priest King is probably part of the commission given in Genesis 1:27, 28. Hence, Genesis 2:15 continues the theme of subduing and filling the earth by humanity created in the divine image.
  2. This ‘ruling’ and ‘subduing’ over all the earth is plausibly part of a functional definition of the divine image in which Adam was made. Just as God, after his initial work of creation, subdued the chaos, ruled over it and further created and filled the earth with all kinds of animate life, so Adam and Eve, in their garden abode, were to reflect God’s activities in Genesis 1 by fulfilling the commission to ‘subdue’ and ‘rule’ over all the earth and to ‘be fruitful and multiply’ (Gen 1:26, 28).They were to reflect him by reflecting his activities in Genesis 1 of subduing—God’s subduing of the darkness and activities of ruling [God’s rule over creation  by his creative word], of multiplying [= God creating] and of resting.


Even the name of the tree—‘the tree of the knowledge of good and evil’—of which he was not to eat was suggestive of Adam’s magisterial duty—‘the discerning between good and evil’ is a Hebrew expression that refers to ‘kings or authoritative figures being able to ‘make judgments’ in carrying out justice. In the Scriptures the phrase usually refers to figures in a position of judging or ruling over others (2 Sam 14:17; 1 Kings 3:9; Is 7:15, 16). It is in this connection that Solomon prays to have ‘an understanding heart to judge’—- to discern between good and evil’ (1 Kings 3:9; cf. 1 Kings 3:28), not only reflects his great wisdom, but he would appear to echo “the tree of the knowledge [for discerning] of good and evil” (Gen 2:15), from which Adam and Eve were prohibited to eat (Gen 2:17, 3:5, 22).

Many commentators differ over  the meaning of this tree in Eden but the most promising  approach explains the tree by determining the use of ‘know/discern good and evil’ elsewhere in the Old Testament.

  1. In this light, the ‘tree’ in Eden seems to have functioned as a judgment tree, the place where Adam should have gone to ‘discern between good and evil’ and thus where he should have judged the serpent as “evil” and pronounced judgment on it, as it enters the Garden. Trees were also places where judgments were pronounced (Judges 4:5; 1 Sam 22:6, 19; cf. 1 Sam 14:2) so that trees were places that were symbolic of judgment, usually pronounced by a prophet. So Adam should have discerned that the serpent was evil and judged in the name of God at the place of the judgment tree.


The notion that Adam was set in a sanctuary as a ‘royal image’ of his God is an ancient concept found even outside Israel. Parallels from Assyrian and Egypt typically show that images of gods were placed in the god’s temple and that kings were viewed as living images of a god and thus reflections of that god.

The following examples of this show how natural it is that images of a god are placed in a temple after it has been constructed. Ashurbanipal II, 883-859  B.C. “created an icon of the golden Ishtar……from the finest stones, fine gold —[thus] making her great divinity resplendent,” and he “set up in [the temple] her dais [throne platform] [with the icon] for eternity”.

Pharaoh Seti the first [302-1290 B.C.] built for the underworld god Osiris a temple, like heaven;  its divine ennead are like stars in it, its radiance is in the faces [of men] like the horizon of Re [sun god] rising therein at early morning. The Egyptian believed that the sun god, Re, would empower other lesser  deities to enter stone images placed in the temple.  Accordingly, an inscription from the Pyramid Age affirms that the Creator Ptah “fashioned  the lesser god’s—He installed the god’s in their holy places——he equipped their holy places. He made likeness of their bodies—Then the god’s entered into their bodies of every wood and every metal idol. Ramese the 3rd [1195-1164 B.C.] said that in the temple of the sun god Re he fashioned the god’s in their mysterious forms of gold, silver, and every costly stone. Indeed, ‘the king is a sacred image, the most sacred of the sacred  images of the Great One. The Egyptian King is not merely a ‘sacred image’ of the deity, but he is a living image of the god. Other Egyptian texts say that the god Horus has acted on behalf of his spirit in you [the Pharaoh],  and one king is recorded  as saying, “I am the essence of a god, the son of a god, the messenger of a god.

  1. Adam an Image-Bearer was to Reflect the Character of God.a. Just as Adam’s son was in Adam’s likeness and ‘image’ (Gen 5:1, 2, 3, 4, 5) so as to resemble his human father in appearance and character, so Adam was a son of God who was to reflect his Father’s image.

    b. This means that the command for Adam to subdue, rule and fill the earth  includes uppermost that he is a king, filling the earth, not merely with progeny, but image-bearing progeny who will reflect God’s glory [“the chief end of men is to glorify God and to enjoy Him” (WCF)].

    c. As we have noted before through examples, ancient Near Eastern kings were considered to be ‘sons’ of their god and to represent the image of their god in their rule, especially reflecting the god’s glory and, accordingly, the manifestation of his presence. And the image of gods in Mesopotamia and Egypt were intended  to represent the god and manifest his presence.

    d. The Genesis portrayal of a human king created in the image of God and being placed in the sanctuary of Eden is even generally in line with the ancient Near Eastern practice in which images of god were placed in a ‘garden like temple’ and were to represent the likeness of and reflect the glory of the god. There is a fascinating parallel from Mesopotamia, where the creation, animation and installation of divine images followed a strictly specified set of rites. A series of rituals were acted out in the workshop of a craftsman, at a riverbank and finally in the temple. Through these actions the image of a god was born, brought to life, clothed and changed into a living manifestation of the god. Its image was  then installed in a temple.

    e. In the same manner God likewise did the following:

  1. God formed Adam in his workshop (Gen 2:7a), Adam was transmuted, a living person by God’s breath (Gen 2:7b), and was fully brought to life (Gen 2:2c).
  2. Next, he was installed into the Garden (Gen 2:15). Such a background suggests further that Adam was a living image of the true God not of a false pagan deity, and as such was placed into the Garden temple and as living image he was to reflect  God’s glory and likeness. These ancient Near Eastern similarities are only imperfect shadows of the genuine task described in Genesis 1-3.
  3. Adam in the Distorted Image and Likeness of the Creation:a.

    Genesis 3 recounts however, that Adam and Eve sinned and did not reflect God’s image.
    b. They violated God’s command not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Adam failed in the task he was commissioned to do, which included not permitting anything unclean and antagonistic to God to enter into the Garden temple.
    c. Though Gen 2-3 does not explicitly say that Adam’s ruling and subduing task was to guard the Garden from the satanic snake, the implication is there [Beale: The Temple and the Church’s Mission, pp 66-67], Adam did not guard the Garden but allowed a foul snake to enter, which brought sin, chaos, and disorder into the sanctuary and into Adam and Eve’s lives. He allowed the serpent to ‘rule over him and his family’ rather than ruling over it and casting it out of the Garden.
    d. Rather than extending the divine presence of the garden sanctuary by reflecting it as he and his progeny moved outward, Adam and Eve were expelled from it. Though it was to be only in the Eden temple where Adam and Eve were to reflect God’s rest, outside the Garden, where they were exiled, they could find only wearisome toil (Gen 3:19).They disobeyed God’s mandate in Gen 1:28, could no longer reflect God’s living image, as they were designed to do, and now would experience death (Gen 3:19). Instead of wanting to be near God to reflect him, Adam and his wife “hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the Garden” (Gen 3:8,  3:10).


There is no explicit vocabulary describing Adam’s sin as ‘idol worship’, but the idea appears to be bound up with his transgression. But how can we discern this? We may recall from Ex.20:1, 2 that God forbid idol worship. So what is idol worship? It is revering anything other than God. At least Adam’s allegiance shifted from God to himself (self-focused) and probably also to Satan, since he comes to resemble the serpent’s character in some ways.

  1. The serpent was a liar (Gen 3:4), and a deceiver (Gen 3:1, 13), and Adam does not answer God forthrightly when God confronted him: “Have you eaten from the tree of which I commanded not to eat?” (Gen 3:11). Adam answers God, “The woman who you gave to be with me, she gave me from the tree, and I ate” (Gen 3:12). He was deceptively blaming Eve for his sins which shifted accountability from him to his wife, in contrast to the biblical testimony that Adam was accountable for the ‘Fall’ and not Eve (Rom 5:12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19).
  2. Adam, like the serpent, does not trust the word of God (with respect to Adam, cf. Gen 2:16, 3:6; and with respect to the serpent, cf. Gen 3:1, 4, 5). Adam’s shift from trusting the serpent meant that he no longer reflected God’s image but must have begun to mirror the serpent’s image.
  3. Eve’s misquotation of God’s commandment in Gen 2:16, 17, mirrored the serpent’s intended change of the same command in Gen 3:4, “You surely will not die” which was already implied by the serpent’s question (in Gen 3:1). We need to remember that after God put Adam into the Garden in Gen 2:15 to ‘cultivate’ and ‘to guard’ the garden, Adam’s threefold statement to remember by which he would be helped to serve and guard in Gen 2:16, 17.

When confronted by the serpent, Eve failed to remember God’s word accurately or intentionally changed it for her own purpose.

  1. First, she minimized their privileges by saying merely ‘we may eat’, whereas God had said ‘you may freely eat’.
  2. Second: Eve minimized the judgment by saying ‘lest you die’, whereas God said, ‘you shall surely die’.
  3. Third: she maximized the prohibition by affirming, ‘ you shall—not touch it’ becoming the first legalistic in history [for God had originally said only that they ‘shall not eat’—it]. In effect, the serpent’s questioning of God’s word (Gen 3:1) and negation of God’s command (Gen 3:4) was a nullification of the truthful effect of God’s word. Eve’s changes to God’s command were a reflection of the serpent’s ungodly stance, which also represented a negation of the full truth of that command. She made changes to God’s Word from Gen 2 which shows that her reverence for God had subtly shifted from God to Satan and that she began to resemble the devil’s character, and it led to her ruin. As Adam had done, she deceptively shifted her own blamefulness to Satan.


There also seems to be an element of ‘self-worship’ [idol worshipping is ‘self worship’] in that Adam deceived himself to think that he knew what was better for him than God did, that he wanted to advance himself at all costs, and that he trusted himself, a created man, instead of in the Creator. He had likely heard the serpent’s tempting word to Eve (Gen 3:5, 22, 23).

On the one hand, Adam could only become like God and resemble him by trusting and obeying Him. But there was a way in which Adam had become like God that was not good; indeed, it was blasphemous. Adam had arrogated to himself the authority to make ethical law, but this is the prerogative of God and not the role of human beings. Knowing good and evil refers to making judgment. The tree, I contend, was a place of where Adam was to recognize either concurrence with or the breaking of God’s law. Accordingly, as a priest-king he was to pronounce judgment on anything not conforming to God’s righteous statutes. Adam, however, not only stood by while his covenantal ally, Eve, was deceived by the serpent, but he decided for himself that God’s word was wrong and the devil’s word was right. In fact, in doing what he did, Adam was reflecting another feature of the serpent who exalted his code of behavior over against the dictates of God’s righteous judgment standard.

I believe this is the origin of ‘idol’ which comes from Adam.

Christopher Wright says the following:

God accepts that humans have indeed breached the Creator-creature distinction. Not that humans have now ‘become god’s’, but they have chosen to act as though they were—defining and deciding for themselves  what they will regard as good and evil. Therein lies the root of all other forms of idolatry; we defy our capacities, and thereby make gods of ourselves and our choices and all their implications. God then shrinks in honor from the prospect of human immortality and eternal life in such a fallen state and prevents access to the ‘tree of life’.

At the root, then, all idolatry is human rejection of the Godness of God and the finality of God’s moral authority. The fruit of that basic rebellion is to be seen in many other ways in which idolatry blurs the distinction between God and creation, to the detriment of both [Mission of God].


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2 Responses to The Origin of Idolatry

  1. Gigi says:

    Ok, I already realize self over GOD is idolatry. I should have asked when did humans begin creating images of or to worship?

  2. Jerry says:

    Dear Gigi,

    The article to which you responded was written by my dear friend, Vijay Chandra, who passed away last July 24, 2019 in Fiji, where he had been a missionary for many years.

    But you ask a very interesting question. I have the resources here to find the answer to your question, so I will try to come back and give an authoritative answer to your question soon.

    Thank you for visiting my Real Bible Study site. Please feel free to post more questions or comments.

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