Leviticus 26 provides rich sources of further study. Immediately the “sister chapter” Deuteronomy 28 comes to mind for parallel texts. Also, the book of Ezekiel provides much overlap with the curses in Lev 26. We can also compare other Ancient Near Eastern law codes—such as that of Hammurabi—to help further our understanding of how covenants blessed and cursed.
But what caught my attention most of all were the many words used in Lev 26 used for the concept of idolatry. The chapter begins, “You shall not make idols for yourselves or erect an image or pillar, and you shall not set up a figured stone in your land to bow down to it, for I am the LORD your God” (ESV). ESV does a good job delineating the four different Hebrew words with four different English words.
First, “idols” translates the Hebrew word elilim. You might notice how similar this looks to “Elohim,” the Hebrew word for “God.” This word was chosen because it purposefully resembles Elohim, yet it derives from a Hebrew root meaning “nothing, nobody.” We might translate it, “little nothing gods.” It’s not exactly the most honorific title!
Second, “image” translates the Hebrew word pesel. This comes from a root meaning, “to carve, hew out of stone” (NIDOTTE V3, pg. 644). These images could be carved from any material, of stone, wood, or precious metal (ibid., 645).
Third, “pillar” translates the Hebrew word matsevah. This word derives from a root meaning “to stand,” and refers specifically to stones set up on top of each other to form a pillar. These pillars became sacred places, some being built as high as 10 feet, and were prominent in both Egypt and Canaan (ibid., 134-5).
The meaning of the fourth word, translated “figured stone,” is more difficult to determine. It translates a Hebrew phrase, even masceet, found only here in the Bible. Some believe it refers to a stone with an engraving of a deity or a symbolical representation of that deity upon it (Hartley, Leviticus, WBC 450). It may have been thought to have some magical qualities, possibly translated “wishing stone” (Schnittjer, The Torah Story, 356). Others think it refers to a stone placed on the ground—possibly in a doorway—decorated with symbols of gods. The worshiper would bow down, perhaps kissing it, hoping to have his or her wish granted (Gane, Leviticus, Numbers, 451-2).
The fifth word used in Lev 26 comes in verse 30. It is translated “idols” by the ESV, similarly to verse 1, but it is a different Hebrew word, gillum. This is an extremely derogatory term poking fun at the nature of idolatry. The term is derived from the root meaning “to roll,” but vocalized in line with the Hebrew word for “detested thing.” It is a favorite word of Ezekiel’s for idols, and scholar Daniel Block, in his NICOT V1 commentary on Ezekiel, summarizes well the nature of this word: “The adoption of this word as a designation for idols may have been prompted by the natural pellet-like shape and size of sheep feces or, less likely, the cylindrical shape of human excrement. The name has nothing to do with the shape of idols, but it expresses Ezekiel’s/Yahweh’s disposition towards them. Modern sensitivities prevent translators from rendering this expression as Ezekiel intended it to be heard, but had he been preaching today, he would probably have identified these idols with a four-letter word for excrement” (226).
The variety of words used for “idolatry” aptly capture both the propensity of Israel’s heart to go astray towards them and the prophets’/God’s dim view of them.