Back To Basics: The First Commandment

This part of the First Commandment proscribes against representations of God by the hand of man. The God who revealed himself to Israel is absolutely transcendent. He is the all, and at the same time he is greater than all of his works.

In Deuteronomy God says, “Since you saw no form on the day that the Lord spoke to you at Horeb out of the midst of the fire, beware lest you act corruptly by making a graven image for yourselves, in the form of any figure…” (Deuteronomy 4:15-16) Nevertheless, there are Old Testament examples of God ordaining or permitting the making of images if they symbolically pointed toward the salvation that would come through Jesus. There is the bronze serpent in Numbers 21:4-9 and Wisdom 16:5-14. And there is the ark of the covenant and the cherubim which are described in Exodus 25:10-22 and 1 Kings 6:23-28.

Christians, in making beautiful works of art that honor God are not worshipping an image. Since no one has seen God, making an image of him is impossible in any case. Therefore, when a Christian artist makes a painting, or sculpts an image of God it is understood as a symbol only. For example, Michelangelo’s famous image of God creating Adam painted on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, with their fingers about to touch, is a symbolic representation of a moment that no human being had witnessed. It is understood to be a symbolic portrayal whose purpose is to point the viewer beyond itself and toward the transcendent God. It does not pretend to be the image of God. Such a work of art, or paintings and sculptures of Jesus are not to be seen as graven images. They are intended to lift and to draw the mind and the soul of the viewer toward the Holy, the transcendent that the image only represents. There is no worship directed toward the images, precisely because they are only things. They are intended not to be ends in and of themselves, but to move us to go beyond the images themselves toward that which is beyond description. A good example of this would be a person wearing the image of the cross. If he or she wears it to remember the ultimate sacrifice of Jesus to free us from the slavery of sin and death, to remind him or herself of the depth of God’s love, he or she is not worshipping an idol. It is not a “graven” image, but a means to keep his or her mind and heart focused on the God who did this for us out of his unconditional love for each one of us personally.

To worship a “thing,” in and of itself, is idolatry. This part of the First Commandment is clearly there to remind us of this, for, as we see on many occasions in the Old Testament, the Jewish people, and by extension, we ourselves, are quite capable of falling into the trap of doing such things. When we fall into the error of making and worshipping graven images, it is a matter of foolishness. It most often arises out of our fears and a lack of faith in the transcendent God. At its worst, it is demonic to give worship to a thing, rather than to God.

Lord, you have given us hearts and minds that are eager to worship you and you alone. Keep us from making the mistake of focusing only on the beauty of mere things, rather than on you who are the author of beauty. We pray this in the name of Jesus. Amen!

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Dan Doyle is a husband, father, grandfather, Vietnam veteran, and retired professor of Humanities at Seattle University. He taught 13 years at the high school level and 22 years at the university level. He spends his time now babysitting his granddaughter. He is a poet and a blogger as well. Dan holds an AA degree in English Literature, a BA in Comparative Literature, and an MA in Theology, and writes regularly for The Veterans Site blog.