You shall not make for yourself any graven image, or any likeness of what is in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the water under the earth. You shall not worship them or serve them [i.e., the graven images]; for I, Yahweh your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children, on the third and the fourth generations of those who hate Me, but showing lovingkindness to thousands, to those who love Me and keep My commandments.” (Exodus 20:4-6, adapted from the NASV)

The Problem

The second of the ten commandments presents the thoughtful Christian with a difficulty; he cannot help but be bothered by it. This commandment seems to forbid Israel from representing Yahweh with a symbol. Is God serious?

Humans rely on symbolism; it is an inherent aspect of our abilities to reason and to use language. What can possibly be so wrong about symbolizing Yahweh? Am I not making a symbol of Yahweh—a graven image—every time I write the word, G-O-D? If, however, it is not inappropriate to represent God symbolically with a word, G-O-D, then why not with something else? What is so inappropriate about inventing a pictogram, an image, or anything else to symbolize the living God? What was God thinking when He gave Israel this second commandment? To understand how this commandment is not just petty and trivial is a real difficulty.

It is tempting to solve this difficulty by understanding the second commandment—like the first—to be a prohibition against idolatry. Under this interpretation, the second commandment did not forbid Israel to symbolize Yahweh; rather, it forbid them to worship other gods. They were commanded not to worship graven images representing other gods, not graven images of Yahweh.

In Deuteronomy, however, Moses makes clear that God’s commandment was intended to forbid Israel from making graven images of Yahweh Himself:

So watch yourselves carefully, since you did not see any form on the day Yahweh spoke to you at Horeb [i.e., Mt. Sinai] from the midst of the fire; lest you act corruptly and make a graven image for yourselves in the form of any figure, the likeness of male or female, the likeness of any animal that is on the earth, the likeness of any winged bird that flies in the sky, the likeness of anything that creeps on the ground, the likeness of any fish that is in the water below the earth. (Deut. 4: 15-18, adapted from NASV)

Moses links the prohibition to make a graven image to the fact that God, at Sinai, did not show himself to them in any form. Clearly, Moses understands the prohibition to forbid Israel’s making any graven image of Yahweh Himself. So the difficulty remains. Why is God so insistent on prohibiting what would appear to be a very trivial matter—representing God by means of a symbol?

Ancient Polytheism

To solve this difficulty, we must better understand the nature and structure of ancient Near-Eastern polytheism; for polytheism was the religious context into which God spoke the ten commandments. Although I do not pretend to be an expert on ancient Near-Eastern religions, I have enough knowledge to attempt a reasonable analysis of the philosophical worldview and assumptions upon which the polytheistic beliefs and practices were founded.

Life is full of events that are mysterious and inexplicable in terms of forces and reasons which we can see. If two people with virtually identical resumes apply for a job, one gets chosen; the other does not. Why? We cannot reasonably explain the outcome in terms of their qualifications, experience, personality, or any other manifest reality, for we posited that they were virtually identical. How, then, do we explain the outcome? If I roll a die, it turns up one number rather than another. Why? Nothing I can see or know can explain the outcome. So I explain the outcome by attributing the result to a god—the god “Chance.”

The philosophy behind ancient polytheism begins with this insight: nothing that occurs in our lives is explainable simply in terms of reasons that are known to us. How, then, can we explain the events of human experience and understand them so as to control them? Ancient polytheism has its roots in an attempt to answer this question from the standpoint of a philosophical theory based on two important distinctions:

First, the theory posits that there are both visible and invisible causes. There exist not only readily observable visible causes, but also invisible forces that one cannot readily observe.

Second, polytheism distinguishes between natural causes and personal causes. Most certainly the ancients understood (if they did not articulate) the concept of natural law. They knew that water was essential to plant life, that water ran downhill, and that day follows night. It was simply in the nature of things. At a commonsensical level, the ancient Near-Eastern world believed in natural laws just as surely as anyone who came after them. Natural laws were automatic and predictable; you could count on them. If you dropped an object, it would predictably drop to the ground. If you withheld water from a plant, it would predictably die.

Natural causes, however, are not the only forces which shape our reality. The actions of other human beings—what we might call personal causes—are very significant in determining the outcome of the events of our lives. Other humans can kill us, steal from us, lie to us. . . Indeed, people are perhaps more important determiners of the events of our lives than anything in impersonal nature.

People, however, are a very different sort of cause from natural causes. People are not orderly, predictable, and mechanical. They are quixotic, full of surprises, and hard to control. One minute they may like you; the next minute they do not. One day they may lie to you; the next minute they tell the truth. They are driven by varied and conflicting desires that seem to roam free through their souls, not subject to any orderly or rational pattern. Unlike a natural cause, one cannot readily predict what a person is going to do. Although we can exercise some control over people—by trying to stay in their good favors, for example, and thereby expecting to be treated with kindness rather than harm—understanding and controlling the behavior of a person is so much more difficult than knowing and controlling the behavior of any inanimate, impersonal object.

With these two distinctions in mind—(1) visible and invisible causes and (2) natural and personal causes—the philosophical worldview of ancient polytheism comes to this: Two separate and distinct realms exist—the visible realm and the invisible realm. In the visible realm lie all those forces I can observe: (1) natural causes (impersonal objects), whose nature I can know and whose behavior I can predict; and (2) personal causes—humans, whose behavior is so much more difficult to predict and whose actions are wild, free, and not altogether controllable. In the invisible realm lie all those forces I cannot see. But what sort of forces exist in the invisible realm: natural forces, analogous to the impersonal objects in the visible realm, or personal forces, analogous to the free and unshackled choices of human beings? The ancient polytheist believed that the invisible realm was “peopled” by personal forces analogous to the free choices of human personalities. These invisible forces were fundamentally more like people than they were like water, fire, air, earth, or plants. The forces in the invisible realm were wild, free, and ultimately unpredictable rather than forces which slavishly obeyed their simple nature like the parts of a machine. (Note 1)

What better way to represent such forces, then, than by representing them as personal beings—that is, as anthropomorphic “gods.” Often their gods were represented as humans, but even when they were not—as, for example, when they were represented as dragons—they were nonetheless understood to be persons with very human-like motives, thoughts, intents, desires, and so forth.

Why would the ancients assume the invisible realm to be peopled by personal causes rather than natural causes? Sometimes the rain came in the spring; sometimes it did not. They could not predict when it would rain, when there would be drought. Accordingly, were the forces which control the rain more like natural laws that operated mechanically to produce an outcome, or were they more like personal forces which acted as if they were free-will persons? Surely, one can understand how reasonable the latter answer would be. So, in the ancients’ worldview, the coming of the rain was determined by personal forces, that is, “gods,” who operated invisibly in a realm of reality beyond the ancients’ knowledge; gods who acted freely—and largely (but not wholly) unpredictably—to bring about whatever they desired in the visible realm in which people lived.

For our purposes, the crucial thing to understand about polytheism is this: there were many such “gods” whose actions impinged upon the ancients’ lives. Each of them was limited and finite, and they were all working at cross-purposes to one another. The society of the gods was conceived by analogy to human society, as a community of roughly equal beings, each of whom had his own purposes. Accordingly, the purpose of one god might work at cross-purposes to that of another. Some gods were stronger, some weaker; but all were seeking to bring their own will and purpose to fruition. The outcome in human affairs was the net result of all the activities of all these gods seeking to accomplish their purposes in the visible realm. Such an outcome, therefore, was hopelessly unpredictable. A human being could only try to remain in the favor of as many of the most powerful gods as he could, so that they might do him good rather than harm.

In polytheism, a “god” is nothing more and nothing less than a powerful force in the invisible realm of reality that potentially affects the outcome of human affairs. It is not invincible. It can be defeated or nullified by the purposes of other “gods,” and it can even be outmaneuvered by human ingenuity. Furthermore, it is not above and outside the cosmos; it is part of the cosmos—just one part among many.

Given what I’ve said above, one might ask, “Didn’t the Egyptians worship the sun, an impersonal, natural object?” This question, however, indicates a misunderstanding of polytheism. How are we to understand the Egyptians’ claim that the sun was Ammon-Re? It is unthinkable that Ammon-Re, represented in all of Egyptian mythology as a personal being with a mind and will of his own, was just the impersonal celestial object we call the sun. Rather, Ammon-Re, like all the other gods, was visibly represented in this realm by a particular token, the sun. The Egyptians surely knew that the impersonal sun was not in the least capable of doing the things attributed to Ammon-Re. Ammon-Re was not the sun per se; he was the force working invisibly behind the scenes in a wholly other realm. The sun was an apt token, for the sun’s nature and character accurately represented to the Egyptians something of Ammon-Re’s personality and nature. Ammon-Re was finite. He was not represented by everything; he was like one thing and not like another. He was like the sun; not the dew. When the Egyptians worshipped the sun, therefore, they were not worshipping the celestial object per se. They were worshipping the supremely powerful personal force in the invisible realm of cosmic reality—Ammon-Re—who put the sun in the sky as his token.

Much more could be said about the philosophy of ancient polytheism, but enough has been said to make sense of the second commandment.

The Commandment’s Meaning

When God commands Israel not to make and worship a graven image of Himself, here, I think, is what He is commanding:

Do not conceive of Me like the rest of the nations conceive of their supreme god: the most powerful of all the invisible forces to be reckoned with, yet finite, limited, and just one of many influences in their lives. Their god can be aptly represented by just one aspect of the visible order because his nature is so limited and finite. Do not think of Me in such a way. I am not limited and finite. I am not one of many influences in your life; I am the one and only influence. When seen in the light of My all-controlling will, nothing else is a cause at all. There is nothing I cannot do. Nothing can thwart me in my purpose. No other forces in reality exist that are even relevant compared to me. I determine everything, control everything, create everything, cause everything.

Furthermore, nothing in the visible realm can adequately capture who I am and what I am like. In one sense, every visible thing reflects My nature and wisdom; for all of it is my handiwork. But in another sense, nothing in the visible realm is like Me; nothing can adequately represent who I am. I am too big to be understood in terms of any finite thing in the natural order. Do not, therefore, conceive of me as a God who can be represented in terms of one finite image. If you do so, then it will not be Me, Yahweh, you worship; it will be some other god of your own imagination. I am a jealous God. I, Yahweh, the all-powerful, transcendent God, am the One you must worship. You must not worship the shrunken deity of your imagination.

The purpose of the commandment, therefore, is not to dictate how we must represent God—forbidding us to use symbols to represent Him—rather, it is to dictate whom we are to worship and serve. In the context of Moses’ time, when polytheism was the philosophy of the day, God was commanding Israel to have a radically different conception of God. They were to know and to love a wholly transcendent God who was the only cause of anything and everything that happens. God couldn’t care less how we represent Him to ourselves. (We can use a symbol to represent Him. Indeed, how can we represent Him any other way?) His concern is simply that we worship Him as He truly is—the wholly transcendent author of all that is and all that happens. If our symbol represents the author of all that is, then we are not in violation of the second commandment to worship Him via that symbol. But if we forego symbols entirely, yet we worship and serve a shrunken god, then—for all our supercilious observance of the second commandment—we are, in fact, in violation of it.

The Contemporary Import

Does the second commandment have any relevance today? Indeed it does. Modern Christian culture has largely shifted its allegiance away from the God of Sinai. Far too often we worship an imaginary shrunken deity. He is the supreme being, the most powerful force in reality; but he is not the transcendent cause of everything. He can be thwarted. Satan, demons, human free-will—any or all of these realities can do substantial work at cross-purposes to this god. To the extent that we conceive of God in this way, we have made ourselves polytheists and have failed to obey the second commandment.

As it did to Israel, the second commandment is commanding us to radically alter our conception of God. If we do not come to see Him in the full light of His transcendence and utterly unchallengeable sovereignty, then we worship a false god and must heed the warning attached to the commandment: “…I, Yahweh your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children, on the third and fourth generations of those who hate Me, but showing lovingkindness to thousands, to those who love Me and keep My commandments.” Implicit in this warning is a very frightening suggestion: to fail to acknowledge the unchallengeable sovereignty of the God who really is, is tantamount to hating Him; and hating God is something we dare not do.


(1) Here pre-Socratic philosophy made a decisive break with ancient polytheism. The pre-Socratic Greek philosophers answered, instead, that the invisible forces in the invisible realm were fundamentally more like water, fire, earth, and air—i.e., they were forces which obeyed mechanically the laws of their nature—and were not like people who acted out of a will that was fundamentally free. (Back to text)