Images & The Gagging Of God

By Joe Hellerman Feb. 22, 2012 9:01 a.m. Ethics, Old Testament, Theology

As part of a 16-week overview of the Story of Scripture, I am preaching on the Ten Commandments this Sunday at church. The Second Commandment, in particular, has generated a variety of explanations:

“You shall not make for yourself an idol in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below” (Exodus 20:4).

Why no images? Explanations vary, and they are not necessarily mutually exclusive. Here are just a few:

MATERIAL versus IMMATERIAL — The issue here is ontological. God is spirit. To worship a tangible object made of some material substance betrays this reality. [Paul did say something rather negative about worshipping the creation, rather than the Creator, did he not?] Ontological issues like this seem a bit removed, however, from the intention of the Decalogue, so interpreters have been reticent to buy into this explanation.

A PART versus THE WHOLE — You may be more familiar with this understanding of the Second Commandment, which claims that we necessarily limit God by conceiving of him in a tangible, visible way. So, for example, a picture of Jesus holding a little lamb fairly pictures the compassion of our Lord, but it leaves other attributes of God completely out of the picture.  The problem with this view is that the Bible is full of images of God (e.g., Judge, Father, Shepherd, King) that variously help us grasp one or more aspects of God’s character. Granted, these images are not physical in nature. But each of these images is inevitably incomplete. None communicates the whole of what God is all about. It is as if God knows that finite human beings need these necessarily limiting images of God even to begin to conceive of our Creator—we need to grasp “the parts” before we can even begin to get our arms around “the whole.” So this explanation of the prohibition of idols seems somehow to miss the mark, as well.

MEDIATION versus NON-MEDIATION — Ancient Near Eastern parallels have more recently encouraged interpreters to see in the Second Commandment the prohibition of the establishment of some kind of tangible, mediating entity between Israel and Yahweh, a practice common among the surrounding nations.  But mediation—whether via an Old Covenant priest or the New Covenant Priest—has always characterized the worship of Yahweh. Now it may be the case that a different kind of mediation is in view in the prohibition, but I find myself more attracted to our fourth and final option:

LIFELESS versus LIVING — It is interesting to note that the OT prophets who go after idolatry don’t seem to emphasize any of the above dichotomies. Rather, they consistently underscore the fact that, compared to Yahweh—the Living God—idols are lifeless. They “cannot speak,” they “have no breath in them,” they can do neither “harm” nor “good,” and they cannot foretell the future (Jeremiah 10:5, 14; Isaiah 48:5, 14).

To worship an idol, then, is to turn the living God into a lifeless, impotent statue. And this has profound implications for social justice and the relational integrity of God’s people. Christopher Wright explains:

“As the speaking God, Yahweh reveals, addresses, promises, challenges, confronts, demands. Any attempt to turn Yahweh into a voiceless statue effectively gags God. Idolatry is therefore fundamentally an escape from the living voice and commands of the living God….Let no statue stifle the voice of the God who speaks. It is hardly surprising that the twin dominant themes of the prophets, as the voice of Yahweh, are idolatry and social injustice.”

Paul reinforces this truth in Romans 1:18-32, where he argues that exchanging the worship of the living God for the worship of the creation inevitably cashes out in relational chaos among human beings.

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