Monday, May 16, 2016

That Wacky Old Testament (4)

Bible Babble’s atheist webmaster appears confused by the second commandment:

“People seem to think the second commandment says you aren’t supposed to make a graven image of God, and that’s it. But you are not to make any graven images of anything in heaven, in the earth, or in the water. This would include no graven images of fish, moles, worms, birds, shrimp, ants, and all sorts of things. One must wonder why God was so worried about these things that he felt the need to put these ahead of murder and stealing.”

The apostle Paul saw it as his job (and the job of those he travelled and taught with) to demolish “every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God”.

You know, I think this just may qualify …

Here’s the second commandment as we find it in Exodus:
“You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments.”
Hmm. Okay, “carved images”.

Historical Interpretation Issues

Now, admittedly there has been some difficulty in the past couple thousand years among both Jews and Christians in working out precisely what this means (a difficulty that I will shortly demonstrate did not exist for the original audience at Mount Sinai). Wikipedia’s page on the subject (particularly the section on Protestant criticism) is interesting because its numerous missing citations suggest that not only is there little agreement about what sorts of images should be accepted or prohibited, but there is also little agreement about what has been argued on the subject and by whom. Only the Amish go so far as to forbid the use of images in secular life but others have concluded that God forbade all representational art in Israel that had as its subject living things and some, especially Protestants, infer that he frowns on such representational expressions in churches today.

But Exodus doesn’t say that. Not at all.

Ask the Author and the Audience

You and I weren’t there when the second commandment was given. Since I don’t speak Hebrew, understanding what God intended by it requires us to do a little digging. If we wanted to, we could analyze the Hebrew word for “carved image” to see if it has a specific, consistent connotation in scripture. Or we could point out that the context suggests what is forbidden is not just any old sculpture, but a carved image made specifically for the purpose of being worshipped (“You shall not bow down to them or serve them”). Either way would work.

But it’s so much easier to simply ask ourselves how Israel understood the second commandment at the time. Later passages in Israel’s law clarify things for us: God was not offended by the simple carving of an artistic image of something earthly or heavenly — even for religious purposes. In fact, on several occasions he specifically ordered it:
  • the carved cherubim on the Ark of the Covenant were there in accordance with God’s explicit instructions;
  • the veil of the tabernacle had “cherubim skillfully worked into it”, again at God’s direction;
  • an image of a serpent in bronze was created at God’s specific direction and raised on a pole so that Israelites dying from snakebite could look at it and be miraculously healed (it survived intact for hundreds of years until Hezekiah destroyed it, but only because people had begun to worship it); and
  • the twelve bronze bulls that supported the “sea” in Solomon’s temple, while not created at God’s specific behest, demonstrate that pious Israelites hundreds of years after the law was given did not perceive such images to be in violation of the second commandment.
Idols, Not Art

Since both the second commandment and the rest of the law originated with Jehovah, it should be evident that the words “carved images” refer only to objects created specifically to be worshipped as rivals to Jehovah. The aforementioned twelve bronze bulls were not a violation of the second commandment but the golden calf, created as a rival to Jehovah, most certainly was.

What may we conclude then? That the law of Moses, correctly understood, does not ban representations of living beings in secular or religious settings. It bans idols, not art. Its original audience understood it that way, and to understand it any other way is to accuse the Author of the Law of incoherence, something I’d rather not do.

Asking for Trouble

That said, the tendency of Israel prior to their Babylonian captivity to worship any and every graven image they could get their hands on, including the serpent image that Hezekiah prudently destroyed, is evidence that introducing such imagery unnecessarily into a religious environment may be asking for trouble. The characteristic Protestant reluctance to admit representational art in places they gather to worship may have arisen from recognition of this tendency.

But the webmaster at Bible Babble raises a further question that demands a response: Why did God consider the command about not making carved images to be worshiped so important that he put it ahead of murder and stealing?

There are really two answers to this:

The ‘Important’ Commandments

The first answer is that beyond the first commandment, we have no indication the remaining nine are listed in order of importance in the eyes of God; no evidence Commandment Two is supposed to trump Commandments Six and Eight. It’s possible, sure, but God never says so. In my limited human wisdom I too would tend to rank murder as worse than both coveting (which follows it on the list) and failing to keep the Sabbath (which precedes it), so I’m glad nobody has asked me. Since the commandments originate with God and not with men, it is unlikely that men have ever been best equipped to judge which of them are the most and least important. Better to just obey them all, I suspect.

Still, the ‘Bible Babbler’ is not the first man to pass judgment on the law. Men are always doing it. A lawyer (what a surprise) once asked the Lord Jesus which of the commandments was the greatest, and the Lord replied as follows:
“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.”
In so saying, the Lord implies that genuine love for God and neighbor make the rest of the law mere detail (“On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets”). Love, by its very nature, fulfills the law. A neighbor-loving person does not murder. A God-loving person does not worship a carved image instead of his Creator.

The law, though made up of many individual commands, is of a piece. Those who attempt to set its clauses against one another are not wise.

The Number One Priority

The second answer also turns on Jesus Christ’s interpretation of the law and its essential integrity.

Why would God be so concerned about idolatry? Because when men turn away from the Creator God and replace him with a god in their own image or in the image of a created being, every other evil may and will eventually result. Idolatry, Paul says, is man suppressing the truth about God that he knows in his heart. Once you exchange the truth of God for a lie and start worshipping the creature instead of the Creator, this is what results:
“They were filled with all manner of unrighteousness, evil, covetousness, malice. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, maliciousness. They are gossips, slanderers, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless.”
Did you catch that, Bible Babbler? All your other evils — the things men do to one another — are a direct consequence of the rejection of the knowledge of God and the choice to worship other things instead.

Thus the number one priority of man is to love God. Do that, and everything else good follows. Fail to do that, and no amount of human effort will prevent the inevitable descent into the moral abyss.

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