The 2nd Commandment
“You must not make for yourself (for the purposes of worship), either a carved image, or a representation of anything in the sky above, or the earth beneath, or the waters under the earth. You must neither bow down nor offer service to them, because I, Yahweh your God, am a jealous God, extending retribution for parents’ wrongdoings to children of the third and fourth generations of those who reject me, but unfailingly showing kindness up to the thousandth generation of those who love me and obey my commandments.”
The commandment says ‘don’t make a representation of God’ and, unlike the word for ‘carved image’, the word for ‘representation’ includes mental images, in other words, pictures or concepts arising from the human imagination. One of the key statements, for me, in the Bible, is “God is spirit”. Whatever ‘spirit’ is, it is invisible and intangible – you cannot see it, hear it or touch it. You cannot therefore picture it, or make any authoritative statements about it. You can formulate ‘beliefs’, if you wish, but can’t claim to have ‘knowledge’. It does seem to me that some ‘representations’ that have been made, would have been better left unmade.
A favourite story of mine is of the priest and scholar, Thomas Aquinas, who had almost finished a massive book about God. One day, however, he had such an overwhelming ‘experience of God’ that he said, “such things have been revealed to me, that all that I have written seems to me as so much straw.” He wrote nothing more for the last year or so of his life, and left his book unfinished. Perhaps If more people had some such indescribable ‘experience of God’, and if less people wrote and uttered so many authoritative (and sometimes authoritarian) words ‘about God’, there might be in our world, fewer arguments and conflicts, greater humility and tolerance, and more peace and mutual respect.
One reason for care in making statements about God, is the contradictory ‘images’ we find in the Bible. Even in this 2nd commandment, he’s pictured as being faithfully loving, and yet equally as being extremely “jealous” – caring more than he ought to about his personal prestige (‘I can’t have my people preferring other gods to me’). On the one hand, he bears grudges for up to four generations, punishing children for the wrongdoings of their parents. Yet, on the other hand, he’s capable of showing love for up to a thousand generations. Jekyll and Hyde come to mind.
Should you and I choose to disobey this commandment, and make a ‘representation’ of God, which might it be? A kindly benefactor who takes a personal interest in us, and surrounds us with constant and loving care, or an unmerciful dictator who insists his every word be obeyed, and who inflicts punishment on whoever puts a foot wrong, not to mention their children and children’s children?
The Old Testament, in spite of its many inconsistencies, contradictions, and not a few boring and irrelevant pages, nonetheless contains some of the world’s most colourful, dramatic, amusing, provocative and sometimes shocking pages. As long as we think about, and filter, what we read, we’ll be given plenty to inspire us, to challenge us and, above all, to profit from. Much of our western culture, after all, is derived from this inimitable library of books.