“You are to have no other gods before me. You are not to make for yourselves a carved image or any kind of representation of anything in heaven above, on the earth beneath or in the water below the shoreline. You are not to bow down to them or serve them; for I, Adonai your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sins of the parents to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but displaying grace to the thousandth generation of those who love me and obey my mitzvot. (Exodus 20:3-6)
I learned several things from the writings of Tom Bradford regarding the twentieth chapter of Exodus. For instance, of all of the words listed in this chapter, this is probably the most important. It is also the one that most of us consistently violate! I say this because idolatry shows up in ways we rarely expect. According to the verses above, there are five instructions we are to follow:
- we are not to have other gods
- we are not to make images or symbols that reflect our God
- we are not to worship images or symbols
- if we violate the instructions above, we will be punished and if will go beyond you and affect your children, and even your grandchilden
- However, instead of punishment, if we obey the instructions, we and our descendants, will receive grace!
Now, when the Lord told Israel they were not to have no other gods, it wasn’t some quaint little saying. During this period, the Hebrew people believed there were other gods in the world. Gods that were the gods for other nations and circumstances. Gods for the weather; gods for war; gods for relationships. Each nation had their own god (or more correctly, gods. Plural, many gods). So, when the Lord gave these words, Israel believed what Yahweh meant was that He was to be the only god that they were permitted to worship.
The important thing to understand here is that while they were forbidden to make any carved images and representations of any Deity, this also includes making any representations of the God of Israel! Frankly, there is nothing that could capture Yahweh’s image! He isn‘t a part of this creation, He is the Creator, and He is above it all; He is beyond and infinitely above any other being, or entity, or thing. So, if you try to make some type of representation of Him, it is pure folly, inaccurate, and, He forbids it.
However, there are a couple of church traditions that have beautiful pieces of art — what they refer to as Icons — or “Windows into Heaven” — which supposedly allows someone who is praying to the person depicted in the icon, to directly connect with that person.
Now, if I am stepping on your toes, I am sorry, but we are told right here in the twentieth chapter of Exodus not to worship or even create such a thing. When I see them, I see beautiful pieces of art, and nothing more. Plus, the only one you are to pray to is Yahweh, not some image that a man created.
Now, just so you know that this isn‘t about just you, this “Word” slaps me in the face and in some ways, I wish it didn‘t. But we are plainly told, with no wiggle room at all, not to make any representation of Him that incorporates a depiction of anything in the heavens, anything that lives on the dry earth, or anything that lives beneath the sea.
As I alluded to, this might hit us where we live, but during the period this was given, it was a revolutionary concept, and the Hebrews didn‘t know what to make of these instructions. Every known god from the time Mankind turned corrupt, right on up to the time of the Exodus, had some type of familiar visible representation — and in fact demanded such a representation — based on some creature or object that occurred in nature.
Sometimes a star, or the sun, or the crescent moon, or an animal of some kind — and in many cases, it was a human form or a hybrid animal-and-human form. To the way they saw it, if you didn‘t have a visible figure to worship, how could you worship at all? Although many times the animal or object chosen to represent a particular god was what the people actually envisioned that god looked like, as often as not it was that the form simply represented some attribute or ability of that god. A bull represented strength. A frog represented the life-giving qualities of water. An eagle represented lofty majesty. Often if a god had multiple attributes several different symbols would be used for the same deity. Symbols for the same god could even vary from region to region and they might change over time and tended to reflect a society‘s cultural traditions. But for the first time, here is a god, Yahweh, that demanded that they did not create a representation, a symbol, of any kind.
Humans have proven to be better copycats than creators. Most of the time one culture simply adopts a symbol from another or earlier culture, perhaps making a minor change in a symbol so as to make it his or her own, and then attaches a new meaning to it. Time passes and pretty soon the new user of that old symbol loses any idea of where it came from in the first place or that it is by no means their culture‘s unique invention. Such is how it is with symbols, which for some reason mankind simply can‘t seem to do without. Men are visually oriented creatures.
Ishtar was the goddess of fertility (BTW, she is also, sadly, the source of the name and several traditions for Easter). She had many symbols but the most predominant one was the rabbit. In general, those who worshiped Ishtar never believed that she was or looked like, a cute little bunny rabbit. No, for obvious reasons, the rabbit was simply an appropriate symbol of Ishtar‘s primary attribute: fertility.
The Scriptures show us that this imaginary bunny-god Ashtoreth was a constant problem for Israel because quite often, the Hebrews would take up Ashtoreth worship and naturally Yehoveh condemned the practice (and Israel for worshiping her). Now, I doubt anyone would argue against this being a prime example of what God is talking about here.
Oh, my. Hang with me because we just got started on this Second Commandment; this second word. I will get deeper into the topic and I guarantee that I may be stepping on some of your toes.
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