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The Ten Commandments are sacred to many, annoying to others, irrelevant to those who prefer a different source for their morality or who have no such source. One problem with taking any of them out of context is that the meaning can become lost.

Case in point: that pesky “graven image” commandment. Specifically, Exodus 20:4 (using the King James Version, ’cause we’ve all heard of that evil “graven image”):

“Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.”

Now, for those who think that every single word of the Bible is God’s unalterable and unanswerable law, no interpretation, thank you. That would surely mean that even a photo of your aunt Mildred is evil. Dogs playing poker rendered in black velvet? Fuggedaboudit. Elvis might be ok…

Just kidding about the King. The problem, as with much of Scripture, is that it usually isn’t sufficient to just look at the literal meaning of a single verse. It is pretty clear that God had no intention of not letting us paint, sculpt, or, for that matter, take photos of dear Auntie. This is clarified in the very next verse of Exodus 20, verse 5: “Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them…”

“Them” being those graven images. The injunction is against the worship of idols, of any thing that is less than God. Not against works of art. In a sense, we humans are caretakers of God’s creation, and as part of that stewardship, it is hardly surprising that we attempt to imitate God by creating things of beauty.

So, to those who use the commandments as a bludgeon against the less pure, and to those who use them as a “gotcha” to show how confused believers are, perhaps you might read the context before firing both barrels.

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  1. The Un-Apologetic Atheist · · Reply

    How did the photo of dear Auntie, or the Elvis fuzzy, become “graven images?” I refer to carved (graven – sculpted or carved; engraved) objects like the David statues, the Venus de Milo, etc. Both the early Jewish people and the early Catholic church had prohibitions against this form of iconography, as they would supposedly take away from the worship of the Lord. Later, of course, as anyone who has been to a modern cathedral can tell you, the Catholics reversed their position.

    Other verses, in Numbers, even instructed the Israelites to destroy every carved object of those they invaded, even to burn the ones that were idols. But again, I was pointing to this as an “American issue”– we are certainly entitled, as one measure of our national freedom, to set up any number of idols I wish, and worship them as I choose. For instance, my sister is a Pagan, and I think she should be able to set up a statue of Baal on her own front porch and worship it if she wishes, in direct conflict with the 10 C’s. Ain’t freedom grand? My point remains quite solid– that the majority of the Commandments are against everything we stand for as Americans. Do you not agree?

  2. breakerslion · · Reply

    From the very Acts 17 that you referenced in a previous commentary:

    Now while Paul waited for them at Athens, his spirit was stirred in him, when he saw the city wholly given to idolatry.

    Attributed to Paul himself:

    “Forasmuch then as we are the offspring of God, we ought not to think that the Godhead is like unto gold, or silver, or stone, graven by art and man’s device. And the times of this ignorance God winked at; but now commandeth all men every where to repent:”

    Seems clear enough as to what Paul believed Moses was saying.

  3. breakerslion · · Reply

    I wonder what Paul would say if he could see St. Paul’s Cathedral?

  4. John Luke · · Reply

    Breakerslion, I did not cite Acts 17; it was cited by commenter Chad. And the context wasn’t graven images, it was Paul’s use of reason in attempting to sway those in the synagogue to his belief in Christ.

    As for Acts 17:29, Paul’s concern was not to disallow the arts. It was to ensure that the objects portraying God, etc., were not worshipped in place of God – as was common in the Greco-Roman culture when Acts was written.

    More on your comment re: St. Paul’s Cathedral in a new post.

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