You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments” Exodus 20:4-6.
Symbolism is powerful. If there is one thing that has consistently shown up throughout ages and across cultures, it is the use of and response to symbols. Symbols have been used to represent ideas and concepts. Symbols are used to communicate values and incite emotion. In the ancient world, all of nature served as symbols to people of things bigger than they. Symbols can be created as well. Humans create, shape, and form things to symbolize qualities and remind them of something important.
The second commandment found in Exodus twenty is a commandment that guides a follower’s understanding of relationship with God. The ancient Hebrews lived in a world that was fraught with opportunities to worship heavenly beings. In a world where separation of religion and state did not exist, the worship of gods, primary, secondary and others, filled the world. Not only did the King of any nation rule with authority from a god, but each household built connections to particular gods and goddesses. Divine beings held answers for people—how to be successful in love, in wealth, in family, in friendship, in business, in politics, etc. And, so the ancient people became adept at manipulating the gods by containing divine beings in small idols. These “graven images” were hand crafted, and archaeology has produced examples that could easily fit into a purse or on a nightstand. Ancient people thought that when they showed honor to the god inside the idol, that they could receive, in return, favors. So, this was a common practice.
People often try to contain God, imagining God to exist only within the confines of a certain building or a particular country. The truth is that God cannot be contained, in fact the second commandment warns against attempting to contain our concept of God within anything among creation.
The Hebrew people were the first to worship Yahweh, the LORD God of Israel. They had to learn what it meant to worship and be in relationship with both God and others who worship God. This was no easy thing. God demanded things of the people that were very different from the ways they had known. One of the things God commanded was to avoid having any image of God that is like anything known to humanity. This was a tall order: ancient people imagined that divine beings inhabited everything in nature. Each star represented a god; the ocean, with its power to give and to take, represented a god. But, this God, the LORD God of Israel, could not be contained by anything; moreover, God was the creator of everything, and the godself could not be created or contained within a human creation.
How does this apply today? It has been a long while since I have seen a shrine dedicated to a particular god or goddess; although, this is a practice held by people today in many countries. But, what about for those who choose to follow God, as the ancient Hebrew people did; how does this commandment instruct?
While it is common for modern believers to wear, carry and display symbols that represent God, these symbols don’t always represent a person’s desire to manipulate God. A symbol, such as a cross or a crown, may serve as a reminder of God’s love or character. There is danger when God becomes imagined to be held within an image. In this way, any human construct can become a graven image. People often try to contain God, imagining God to exist only within the confines of a certain building or a particular country. The truth is that God cannot be contained, in fact the second commandment warns against attempting to contain our concept of God within anything among creation.
There is a distinct difference between looking to something as a symbol of God and believing God to be contained within a thing. The distinction is when a person begins to believe that the honor of an object will bring a desired result from God. The truth is that God is not confined to any particular church, culture, image or human reality. It is us who are finite, limited beings, held within God’s creation with limited access to conceptualizing God. It is humanity’s highest display of trust to never attempt to contain God.