Continued from part 1, exegeting the second commandment
Let me quickly summarize some key findings from my previous post, because they become important toward the end of this article:
- Based on the chiastic structure of the second commandment, we can summarize its meaning as don’t make images to worship and don’t worship images you make.
- Thus, what is being forbidden is not the creation of any images, but the creation of images to worship (eg Exodus 32:4), or the worship of existing images (eg 2 Kings 18:4).
- The Hebrew term pesel refers to carved or sculpted (graven) images, and not (necessarily) to paintings or drawings.
This last point gives us a hint about the larger religious context of the second commandment. Often, people raised in the Christianized West are baffled at ancient religious practices. We wonder, for instance, why would God even need to give the second commandment? What the heck were ancient people thinking—why would they worship a piece of carved rock that they themselves had made?
It seems so irrational and nonsensical that it’s just weird. And here, I’d like to echo Semitic scholar Michael Heiser, whose key contention in his forthcoming book, Unseen Realm, is:
If it’s weird, it’s important.
Why would any sane person make, let alone worship, an idol?
Let me give you a couple of related generalizations about the underlying principles of ancient thinking:
- Monism: the ancients believed that the divine, human, and natural realms were, broadly speaking, identical with each other. They were all reflections or expressions of the same ultimate reality.
- Sympathetic representation: the ancients believed that because everything was ultimately one, representation was the key to influencing reality. By representing some element of the world in a controllable way, you could control that element itself.
Let me give you a concrete example that will illustrate why this is important for understanding the second commandment: in the land of Canaan, seasonal rains were critical for the cultivation of crops and thus the survival of the people living there. Controlling (or at least influencing) these rains was crucial for having some assurance that their communities would live to see another year.
But how to control storms and rain?
Well, the answer is simple: storms and rain can be personified in the deity who controls and represents them: Baʿal. And Baʿal can in turn be represented by a carving—of a bull, say, because bulls are powerful, virile beasts. Now, since everything is ultimately one, if you represent Baʿal using a statue of a bull, the statue actually becomes Baʿal in some sense. The statue and Baʿal are continuous; you could say Baʿal inhabits the statue, although this is probably a little crude to the ancient way of thinking. In any case, if you can perform the correct rituals with the statue, you will influence and control Baʿal himself. And since Baʿal and the rains are also ultimately one, by doing so you are actually controlling the rains as well.
You notice that this is not irrational, absurd or incomprehensible. Given the underlying assumption of monism, this concept of sympathetic representation is actually very logical. The ancients were not stupid; they were simply wrong about the fundamental nature of reality.
Of course, there is also an element of homage in creating a statue. While representation was the primary function of an idol, homage to the god it represented was also implicit in its existence.
As you are almost certainly aware, the Bible makes a big deal out of the distinction between creation and creator, and who is worthy of worship. It continually emphasizes the vast and categorical difference between God, and the things God has made. And now you know why: in the ancient world, this was an extremely strange and foreign concept.
How this affects our understanding of the prohibition on idols
Knowing why ancient peoples made idols gives us an accurate context for interpreting the second commandment. The function of an idol is integral to the reasons why God’s people were not to create them.
It is not that God was opposed to having aids to worship. Nor is it that God was opposed to depictions of deities. He may have been opposed to both, but that is not the point of the commandment. The point is that God does not want the Israelites trying to influence or pay homage to the natural or divine realms using sympathetic representation, based on this faulty, false idea of monism.
He does not want them trying to influence other deities; and he especially does not want them trying to influence him.
That is surely the exact reason that, in Deuteronomy 4, he emphasizes how they saw no form at Horeb. Not because he cannot be depicted in any sense—obviously he can, since he has even appeared in various forms—but because monism is false. He is not like the deities of the Canaanites and others, who can not only be depicted but are actually continuous with the storm clouds, the sun, the moon, the river, the air, the earth and so on. God is not one and the same thing as a natural object or phenomenon:
So you must be very careful for yourselves, because you did not see any form on the day Yahweh spoke to you at Horeb from the midst of the fire, so that you do not ruin yourselves and make for yourselves a divine image in a form of any image, a replica of male or female, a replica of any animal that is upon the earth, a replica of any winged bird that flies in the air, a replica of any creeping thing on the ground, a replica of any fish that is in the water below the earth. And do this so that you do not lift your eyes toward heaven and observe the sun and the moon and the stars, all the host of the heaven, and be led astray and bow down to them and serve them, things that Yahweh your God has allotted to all of the peoples under all of the heaven. But Yahweh has taken you and brought you out from the furnace of iron, from Egypt, to be a people of inheritance to him, as it is this day. Deuteronomy 4:15-20
Notice also the phrase “host of heaven” in this passage, and “allotted to all of the peoples”. God is not just emphasizing that monism is false; but also that the divine beings worshiped by other nations are at least sometimes real, and not to be worshiped by Israel. He has allotted them to the other nations as gods—but Israel is his (cf Deuteronomy 32:8; Genesis 11:8). Israel alone will worship the true God, because he has chosen them; and so they are certainly not to turn aside to created beings to worship them instead.
So the point of the commandment, as glossed by Deuteronomy 4, seems to be twofold:
- Israel is not to believe, or act as if, the divine and created realms are continuous with one another—which means no sympathetic representation, which means no idols;
- Israel is not to put their trust in, or treat as worthy of worship, created beings who are inferior to God—which means no depictions of created things as a form of homage, which means no idols.
Now, if the ten commandments are summaries of the larger law—as I think most people agree they are—then the second commandment is a summary or reminder of this twofold point. In other words:
Idolatry entails (1) treating God and his creation as continuous, as through sympathetic representation; and/or (2) putting one’s faith in a divine being other than God.*
But if that is so, deploying the second commandment against the question of pictures of Jesus is misguided at best, and hopelessly inept at worst. You have to fundamentally misunderstand what an idol was to think that a picture of Jesus would qualify:
- In terms of monism, a picture of Jesus is never—in evangelical circles—intended to “channel” or “center” Jesus or his power through something like sympathetic representation. (The same cannot be said for many Roman Catholic contexts.)
- In terms of misdirected worship, given that God has superseded Horeb where he had no form, with Bethlehem where he explicitly gave us the “exact imprint of his nature” in the form of the man Jesus, it is hard to see how a picture of Jesus could be idolatrous. It is not paying homage to a created being, and it is not representing God as a created being. It is paying homage to Jesus himself, and it is representing God in a way intended to depict the way he represented himself.
There is still more to be said. Especially with regards (ii), I think it is fruitful to examine the logic of the neo-Puritan view in a more principled, theoretical way. But doing so is almost redundant; it simply illustrates or confirms the exegetical and contextual groundwork we’ve now laid.
To be continued…
* Incidentally, this explains why the only time the Bible uses the word “idolatry” to refer to something other than worship of divine beings, it is to refer to the love of money. Trusting in money is functionally equivalent to casting aside faith in God; it effectively makes money a deity. This slightly attenuates my comments in “What is idolatry?” although not very much, since I would still contend that simply desiring money more than God is not itself idolatry; one must actually be, as it were, putting one’s faith in money.