The Second Commandment offers us both what we shouldn’t do and why we shouldn’t do it—and then, it is followed by a divine threat of sorts. In the first part, we are forbidden to make or fashion any sort of idol and, once it’s created, to venerate it in any way. An idol is something we create to be an image of a god or deity that then serves as a representative of that god. An idol isn’t particularly a god; it is a representative. Contrastingly, an icon, which is a representative image of Judeo-Christianity (or other “approved of religion”), is meant to serve as only a reminder but it isn’t meant to require particular veneration. Of course, it might be difficult to know when we’re doing it when one may be encouraged to pray to a statue of Mary or rub the feet of a beloved Saint in hopes that doing so might enable a miracle to occur.
It was common in the time of Moses for practitioners of various cults and religions to create and carve images of deities and gods to have in one’s possession. These idols served to remind the followers of their responsibilities to the gods they represented. They were also required to venerate, or honor with a ritual act of devotion, them. Often in homes, the idols would be placed in a place where candles and incense would surround the idols and fill the homes with the aromas and remind the senses of the gods.
To the Jewish followers, Yahweh was a different sort of god. Looking at Yahweh in a monotheistic sense, meaning that there is no other god that exists but Yahweh, then having an idol meant that the follower was admitting that there were other gods and thereby circumventing one of the major tenets of the uniqueness of the Jewish theology.
Yahweh also wanted the Israelites to understand that not only were there to be no graven images of other gods, but that they weren’t even to have graven images of Yahweh. Modern scholars and biblical archaeologists note that even to this day that no idols of Yahweh have ever been found or excavated.
The second part of this commandment explains to the followers an anthropomorphic reason as to why Yahweh didn’t want the Israelites worshiping other gods. Yahweh was a jealous God. Jealousy typically refers to the thoughts, feelings, and behaviors that occur when a person believes a valued relationship is being threatened by a rival. In simple terms, jealousy is a feeling of protective resentment towards one who threatens a relationship. In our post-modernity or evolved faith tradition, it is tough to see God as being threatened or so insecure as to be jealous—and yet, it isn’t hard to rationalize that if the Israelites had more than one God to worship, then a person’s commitment would be compromised.
The third part of this commandment offers us an even greater reason to follow this commandment: if you do it, God will not only punish you but will continue to do so both to you, to your children and even their children. This is one powerful threat as well as a way to understand just how important this commandment is to God.
So then, given the seriousness of this commandment, why does the church have graven (or painted or statued) images in the church? Here is a case in point. During the First Council of Nicea in 325, it was determined that Jesus was not just a part of God but was wholly God and wholly man. If Jesus is indeed God (and I do believe he is), then having any image of him would be breaking the 2nd Commandment, wouldn’t it? I do not want to disparage my Catholic brothers and sisters on this point, but would having a crucifix be breaking the commandment as well? In the basement of the church here, we have what I call our “Sammy Davis Jesus” due to the uncanny resemblance of the late crooner Sammy Davis, Jr. We all love that portrait.
What about all the stained glass there are in churches across the country with Jesus in them standing at the door knocking? We have several stained glass images adorning our windows all around the church. Is having Jesus merely in them breaking this commandment?
We can justify a lot of things and I do believe we have done so in this regard. In this respect, I don’t know of anyone who actually venerates the stained glass or prays to it. They are simply illustrations. One can look in the Old Testament where even Moses himself sanctioned the angelic cherubic above the mercy seat. What many of our churches do and what folks in the Old Testament did was simply make illustrations. This is how the describe what Michelangelo did when painting the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. What the commandment forbade was the worship of God under a material form. Or at least, this is the justification for why we do what we do. If we are to have no images of God and no images of angels or animals or anything as described in the Decalogue, then are we violating this commandment? Before I answer this, I’d like to offer one more example.
Let me ask you a question. When we make a representation of something we value and then honor that something in ways that may supersede how we venerate God, then would that be breaking the second commandment? As I look around, the one representative something that we hold such high honor to is none other than the American flag. Ol’ Glory. The Red, White, and Blue. Stars and Stripes. To us, it represents all the good of USAmerica as well as all the sacrifices that have been made to ensure our particular freedoms. To most Americans, the American flag represents anyone and everyone who has given their lives defending our country (or invading others).
We honor our American flag so highly that laws have been created to manage its care and, God forbid, should it ever touch the ground (even by accident) it is to be destroyed. We have been taught since childhood to pay homage to it with our hands over our hearts (or saluting, for those in the military) while reciting a promise of allegiance to it and our country. The Pledge of Allegiance has been altered a few times since it was first used in 1892. Then, the pledge simply said,
I pledge allegiance to my Flag and to the Republic for which it stands: one Nation indivisible, with
In 1954, the allegiance came to its final form with these words:
I pledge allegiance to the Flag of the
Our patriotism, ingrained early in our lives (and me having spent 12 years in the USAF) might ask, “Who in their right mind can say anything against this pledge?” Well, what is a pledge? Is it not a promise and a veneration? Is this veneration of something made with human hands not breaking the Second Commandment? Does this pledge not only venerate the flag but also our country? And our pursuit of liberty and justice for all?
One thing that makes me wonder about our veneration of the American flag and our patriotism can be revealed when we look at those who are not citizens of USAmerica and how we treat immigrants from such places as
I have often spoken with friends when we ask how an immigrant might feel coming into our churches and seeing the American flag standing or waving in our sanctuaries. One friend even captured a photograph on the Internet of it waving over the entrance to the church. Have we so embraced our patriotism that it has become an icon or idol in our churches? When one thinks of Christianity, does one also think of
Contrast our American flag in our church with the Christian flag that is often displayed next to, in the opposite corner, or the other side of the church. Do we venerate that flag with the same pledges of allegiance? Do we look at it and think of what it represents? Does it honor all the martyrs and saints of heaven who've died defending the Cross of Christ? Not hardly.
Personally, and so as to not stir too much ire, I believe I am very patriotic. I have served my country well and honorably as my father did before me. I served in support of the Gulf War and the Bosnian Conflict. I have many ribbons and medals. When I made rank, I made it swiftly and deliberately. Event today, whenever I hear the national anthem, I come to a stop, I put my hand over my heart, and often I my eyes water up at the climax to the song. I know what the song and my patriotism represent and I am proud to have both served my country and to continue to support and defend my country, if only intellectually, financially, and spiritually.
And yet, I also know that there comes a place where my patriotism needs to stop short of. It cannot impinge upon my faith, nor can it keep me from engaging and participating in Jesus’ kingdom. My faith is about reaching out and helping the oppressed, the helpless, the marginalized, and the faithful. When my country and its leaders tell me or threaten me not to do what Jesus tells me to do, then my patriotism ends and my faith takes over.
When, I ask you, does one’s veneration of an object or an ideal break the Second Commandment? I think we’ve broken it more often than we’ve admitted or realize. And, this is one more example that while we may say we believe and follow the Ten Commandments, in reality many of us simply do not or, more probable, we have justified our actions so as to deceive ourselves into thinking we don’t break them when in reality we do it all the time.