Second Commandment

Warner Sallman's Head of ChristGod is so hard to fathom, at times. In Exodus 20:4, He tells us, in rather certain terms:

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.

That is “any” as in any. The usual exegesis for this passage is that God has forbidden us to create anything that might become an object for our worship, not that we are forbidden from making graven images per se.

So much for ignoring black letter law, but I digress. Consider the Jesus depicted in this post. It is a famous (infamous?) image; Warner Sallman’s “Head of Christ”; a well-scrubbed, WASPy Jesus, bearing absolutely no resemblance to what a first century Jew might have looked like. Now, I don’t have a time machine, so I really can’t say with any certitude what, precisely, Jesus might have looked like. Let’s just say that for the time and place, Jesus would have most likely been dark-complected with what we would call Semitic features.

In very few words, he would have not been at all out of place in first century Jerusalem. Could he have had blond hair and blue eyes? Of course it’s possible; God, after all, supplied what we now know to be (at least) half of Jesus’ human DNA. And there is that “root of Jesse” thing going on; King David was “fair” or “ruddy;” some Jewish traditions have David with Red hair and blue eyes.

Surely the Great Designer could have shifted a few genomes and given Jesus any physical feature at all. But God is also rational, and for Jesus to serve His purpose, this would have made little sense — except to a latter-day racist.

But the thing to keep in mind is that Jesus was very much human, and human at a particular point in history. Jesus was also a man of the people. Not in the populist, Huey Long sense. But in the best meaning of that term: Jesus was also the “salt of the earth,” someone in whom all who encountered him could see themselves and therefore see that salvation, albeit from Zion, was for everybody.

Perhaps because I’m conservative in the sense of attempting to conserve the original intent of Scripture, I find portraits of Jesus that deny his Jewishness to be problematic. Not to mention that there is more than a whiff of antisemitism, especially when such portraits are accompanied by statements I heard with some regularity while growing up in the Bronx to the effect that Jesus Christ was a Roman Catholic.

Jesus the man was a Jew.  He was not African.  He was  not  Chinese.  He certainly wasn’t  an Aryan.  My net assessment?  Perhaps it’s best to take the Second Commandment at its word, and not create images that purport to show Jesus.  Or are some of you bowing down before graven images?

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One comment

  1. Excellent. I feel the same way about these pictures, but go so far as to not have any of these in my home. We never had them to begin with, but I became much more “intentional” about it around fifteen years ago. I find it interesting in this last week’s parsha that Moses says (and I’m paraphrasing) that when G-d appeared at Mt. Sinai he purposefully didn’t show himself or any likeness so that the people would not be tempted to create an image of Him and fall into idolatry. We are such weak creatures. It makes perfect sense that we do not have any pictures/statues of Jesus (to my knowledge) because the Jews typically did not make such things because of their faith at that time. I do get curious at times, though.

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