We moderns tend to think that the people of Bible times were idiotic enough to believe that they could create their own gods by melting a bunch of gold together and bowing down before it. But this kind of thinking makes no sense for people of any time. If ancient people thought they were slaves to the gods, how could they build a god? Wouldn’t that make them superior to the god they had just created? Furthermore, who in their right mind would look at a statue and decide to give their lives to serving it?
“Well they’re ancient people,” we might say. “That’s just the way they thought back then.”
But that logic continues to fall flat, especially when we look at the Israelites, whose chief sin throughout the ages was to turn away from the one true God and go on to serve the false gods over and over and over again. They watched their God save them by sending plagues on their captors; He split the sea for them to walk through; He guided them through the wilderness as a pillar of fire. They saw God tangibly in front of them in these ways and more. So how on earth could they be stupid enough to worship a golden statue they had built?
My question fits given our modern perspective of such statues being nothing more than statues. However, this was not the perspective of ancient-minded people. After building such a statue, certain rituals would be performed in attempts to install a divine essence of sorts into the object. The statue was to become something like a storage locker for a spiritual entity to be found in—an anchor that brought the deity out of heaven and to the earth. These physical statues were thought to be the earthly bodies of spiritual entities (See Walton, John H. The Lost World of Adam and Eve: Genesis 2-3 and the Human Origins Debate (p. 195). Downer’s Grove, InterVarsity Press, 2015, p. 195 (Kindle Edition).
Though this did not restrict the spiritual being to the statue. As Gay Robins points out, “the non-corporeal essence of a deity was unlimited by time and space, and could manifest in all its ‘bodies,’ in all locations, all at one time.” (Gay Robins, “Cult Statues in Ancient Egypt,” Cult Image and Divine Representation in the Ancient Near East. Edited by Neal H. Walls. Boston, American Schools of Oriental Research, 2005, pp. 1–2.)
Likewise, destroying one of these statues did not destroy the being inside—it simply destroyed the object it was thought to be held in.
This is a very different kind of thinking than ours. To us, these statues are nothing more than gold and the like and we think that ancient people thought that way too. But to the ancients, such statues were representative of the deity itself. When you gazed upon the statue, you were gazing upon, not the god per se, but a physical representation of it. And this physical representation was typically placed within the temple of the deity.