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Second Commandment: Thou Shalt Not Make Graven Images

Analysis of the Second Commandment


The Second Commandment reads:

    Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth: Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them: for I the Lord thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me; And shewing mercy unto thousands of them that love me, and keep my commandments. (Exodus 20:4-6)

This is one of the longest commandments, although people don’t generally realize this because in most lists the vast majority is cut out. If people remember it at all they remember only the first phrase: “Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image,” but that alone is sufficient to cause controversy and disagreement. Some liberal theologians have even argued that this commandment originally consisted of only that nine word phrase.

It is believed by most theologians that this commandment was designed to underscore the radical difference between God as creator and God’s creation. It was common in various Near East religions to use representations of the gods to facilitate worship, but in ancient Judaism this was prohibited because no aspect of the creation could adequately stand in for God. Human beings come closest to sharing in the attributes of divinity, but other than them it simply isn’t possible for anything in creation to suffice.

Most scholars believe that the reference to “graven images” was a reference to idols of beings other than God. It does not say anything like “graven images of men” and the implication seems to be that if someone makes a graven image, it cannot possible be one of God. Thus, even if they think they have made an idol of God, in reality any idol is necessarily one of some other god. This is why this prohibition of graven images is normally regarded as being fundamentally connected to the prohibition of worshipping any other gods.

It seems likely that the aniconic tradition was adhered to consistently in ancient Israel. Thus far no definite idol of Yahweh has been identified in any Hebrew sanctuaries. The closest that archaeologists have come across are crude depictions of a god and consort at Kuntillat Ajrud. Some believe that these may be images of Yahweh and Asherah, but this interpretation is disputed and uncertain.

An aspect of this commandment that is often ignored is that of intergenerational guilt and punishment. According to this commandment, punishment for the crimes of one person will be placed on the heads of their children and children’s children down through four generations — or at least the crime of bowing down before the wrong god(s).

For the ancient Hebrews, this wouldn’t have seemed a strange situation. An intensely tribal society, everything was communal in nature — especially religious worship. People didn’t establish relationships with God on a personal level, they did so on a tribal level. Punishments, too, could be communal in nature, especially when the crimes involved communal acts. It was also common in Near East cultures that an entire family group would be punished for the crimes of an individual member.

This was no idle threat - Joshua 7 describes how Achan was executed alongside his sons and daughters after he was caught stealing things that God wanted for himself. All of this was done “before the Lord” and at God’s instigation; many soldiers had already died in battle because God was angry with the Israelites on account of one of them sinning. This, then, is was the nature of communal punishment — very real, very nasty, and very violent.

That was then, though, and society has moved on. Today it would be a grave crime in itself to punish children for the acts of their fathers. No civilized society would do it — not even half-way civilized societies do it. Any “justice” system that visited the “iniquity” of a person on their children and children’s children down to the fourth generation would be rightly condemned as immoral and unjust.

Should we not do the same for a government that suggests this is the right course of action? That, however, is exactly what we have when a government promotes the Ten Commandments as a proper foundation for either personal or public morality. Government representatives might try to defend their actions by leaving out this troubling portion, but in doing so they aren’t really promoting the Ten Commandments anymore, are they?

Picking and choosing what parts of the Ten Commandments they will endorse is just as insulting to believers as endorsing any of them is to nonbelievers. In the same way that the government has no authority to single out the Ten Commandments for endorsement, the government has no authority to creatively edit them in an effort to make the as palatable as possible to the widest possible audience.

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