You cannot read very far in the Old Testament without encountering idols. Idolatry ranks as far and away the most common topic in the entire Bible. A nagging question haunts the pages of the Old Testament: Why did the Jews keep deserting the God who had delivered them from Egypt for the sake of carved tree trunks and bronze statues? What was the big attraction?

I gained insight into this issue on a visit to India, where idol worship flourishes. The four-star attractions in most Indian cities are temples erected to any of a thousand gods: monkey gods, elephant gods, erotic gods, snake gods—even a smallpox goddess. There, I observed that idolatry tends to produce two contradictory results: magic and triviality. For the devout, idolatry adds a dimension of magic to life. Hindus believe the gods control all events, including such natural disasters as monsoons, floods, diseases, and accidents. These powerful gods must be pleased at all costs. But what pleases a god depends on the god’s character, and gods can be fearsome and violent. Calcutta, India’s largest city, has adopted the murderous goddess Kali, who wears a garland of gruesome heads around her waist. Devotion to such gods can easily lead to a paralyzing fear and virtual slavery to the gods’ whims.

Other Hindus, less devout, take a different approach. They treat their gods as trivialities, almost like good-luck charms. A taxi driver mounts a tiny statue of a monkey god, draped with flowers, on the dashboard of his car. If you ask, he’ll say he prays to the god for safety—but you know about the traffic in India, he adds with a laugh.

Both these modern responses to idolatry illustrate what so alarmed the prophets of Israel. On the one hand, the taxi driver shows how idolatry ...

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