Making God into This or That:
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:
Exodus 20:4 represents a more ancient or original teaching, namely that physical images of God should not be manufactured – whereas verses 5 and 6:
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.
are a later understood meaning of verse 4 added as a commentary to the text.
Thus, the general prohibition on manufacturing images in verse 4 [when read with this understanding in mind] applies only to Jehovah. And it was only later that this prohibition was extended to include images of any other gods.
This makes sense in light of verses 2-3, where Jehovah disposes of all other gods outright, from the start:
I am the Lord thy God, which have brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. Thou shalt have no other gods before me.
Israel was simply not to have them – and so a later prohibition on making images of other gods would obviously have been unnecessary. So it appears that God’s concern was with people making images of Him.
Idolatry of the Ancients:
Often, it is thought that ancient people identified their god with the physical idol. This is seen in the Old Testament, where the prophets use a bit of rhetorical hyperbole in their judgments against idolatry, as though the worshipers actually thought their god was the idol — getting a bit of a chuckle out of the reading audience.
They that make a graven image are all of them vanity; … and they are their own witnesses; they see not, nor know; that they may be ashamed. Who hath formed a god, or molten a graven image that is profitable for nothing? …
The carpenter stretcheth out his rule; he marketh it out with a line; he fitteth it with planes, and he marketh it out with the compass, and maketh it after the figure of a man, according to the beauty of a man; that it may remain in the house. He heweth him down [trees] … : he planteth an ash, and the rain doth nourish it.
Then shall it be for a man to burn: for he will take thereof, and warm himself; yea, … and baketh bread; yea, he maketh a god, and worshippeth it; he maketh it a graven image, and falleth down thereto.
He burneth part thereof in the fire; with part thereof he eateth [meat] … and is satisfied: yea, he warmeth himself, and saith, ‘Aha, I am warm, I have seen the fire:’ And the residue thereof he maketh a god, even his graven image: he falleth down unto it, and worshippeth it, and prayeth unto it, and saith, ‘Deliver me; for thou art my god.’ …
And none considereth in his heart, neither is there knowledge nor understanding to say, I have burned part of it in the fire; yea, also I have baked bread upon the coals thereof; I have roasted flesh, and eaten it: and shall I make the residue thereof an abomination? shall I fall down to the stock of a tree?
What profiteth the graven image that the maker thereof hath graven it; the molten image, and a teacher of lies, that the maker of his work trusteth therein, to make dumb idols? Woe unto him that saith to the wood, ‘Awake’; to the dumb stone, ‘Arise, it shall teach!’ Behold, it is laid over with gold and silver, and there is no breath at all in the midst of it.
And that which cometh into your mind shall not be at all, that ye say, ‘We will be as the heathen, as the families of the countries, to serve wood and stone.’
The ancients didn’t see the carving of wood or the molten stone as their very god – actually sitting there on a mantle or alter. To them, the idol was similar to a voodoo doll – a tangible talisman that could be used as a means to control their god or affect his or her behavior.
For them to “worship” the piece of wood was not a manifestation of them thinking that the piece of wood itself could bless them with something – but that by serving an image of a god, the very god would be constrained to respond.
This was how the ancients used their images of gods. To them, the idols were the ideals — the personification of an aspect of character that one could “serve” in an attempt to become it.
What Jehovah was Saying:
God is saying in Exodus 20:4 that He cannot be so controlled. He is saying that Israel should not attempt to personify or encapsulate Him into an image of this-or-that thing – as though by so doing, they could attempt to control how He responds to them.
The implication of this being that to respond towards God from the left-brain-mind – as though God were this “out-there” elderly figure seated on a throne somewhere in the universe, to whom we speak out-loud to in prayer – is a form of “making unto thee a graven image” of Him. It’s reducing God to this-thing that must respond to what I do in that-way.
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