Throughout this summer we’re throwing it back old school, we’re reconnecting with the 10 Commandments. Each week we’re taking a look at one of the 10, identifying what it meant for the people of Israel to whom the commandment was first offered, and then gleaning how each commandment is still applicable in our lives today.
I have been asking people over the past couple weeks if they could name the 10. Yet, even in asking this question, there is a challenge for the responder. The first clarifying question you should ask is, “The 10 according to who?” The 10 according to the Catholics and Lutherans, or the 10 according to the Jewish community and much of the rest of the protestant denominations?
Yes, you heard me right, these differing groups of Christian believers define the 10 Commandments differently from one another. We all include the same laws, taken directly from Exodus and Deuteronomy, but we distinguish them differently. The Catholics and Lutherans lump the first two into one commandment, “Have no gods before me, and do not make for yourself an idol.” One the whole, the rest of Christianity divides these first two statements into two separate commandments. To balance out and still maintain 10, the Catholics and Lutherans split the final statements into two commandments. “Do not covet thy neighbor’s wife” is held independently from “Do not covet thy neighbor’s possessions.”
Splitting the final two could be seen as an attempt to not lump one’s wife into a broader category of one’s possessions. A valid and important distinction to make, for sure. However, as we will discuss on the final Sunday of this series, the emphasis in the final command is not so much about the object that is coveted as much as it is on the act of coveting. So putting the two clauses together makes sense, and is an accepted practice by the majority of the reformed and protestant faith communities.
On the other hand, lumping the first two together makes the first commandment all about a right focus of worship, putting God at the center of our devotion and allegiance: “have no other gods and make no idols.” However, as I will try to articulate today, placing another god before the One True God, and creating for oneself an idol are really two separate issues. Worshipping other gods and using images to try to define God are really two different phenomena. Looking back at their original meaning in the context of the Israelites wandering in the wilderness, seeking freedom from the Egyptians and a new life in the promised land, sheds a great deal of light on what was meant by “making idols,” and can be quite helpful in understanding how this commandment applies to our lives today. So, let’s look at the second commandment, “You shall not make for yourself an idol.”
First and foremost, we must correct our language. So much of the foundational tenants of our faith are lost in translation, literally. The second commandment has been said, through our translated language, to be a prohibition around creating idols. When we use the word idol today, it often carries one of two meanings: 1) “a person or thing that is greatly admired, loved, or revered.”[i] You can associate this understanding with shows like American Idol, where America is invited to name which singer they ‘idolize’ most. This understanding is used when asking children what they want to be when they grow up. “Who do you want to be like?” “Who is your idol?”
The second meaning used today is, “an image or representation of a god used as an object of worship.” In this definition, we start to get at what the second commandment is teaching, but we’re still lacking when it comes to the original intent of the Hebrew word translated idol. At its most basic translation, the original Hebrew text is perhaps best understood and translated using the word image, rather than idol. So, properly read from the Hebrew text, the second commandment would read, “You shall not make for yourself an image,” meaning, an image of God.
As we covered last week, the ten commandments were originally offered in a day and age when the question ancient cultures faced wasn’t “will we worship a god,” it was, “which god will we worship?” Because the presence of other gods was not to be debated, the first commandment was given to restrict the focus and worship of the Israelites to The Lord God alone.
Along with the presence of the multitude of gods, it was common for these many other gods to have statues, drawings, and busts made in their likeness. The presence of three-dimensional representations of gods was an attempt to bring the power of the deity close to the person.[ii] These ancient cultures also felt that having these created representations of their gods gave them some power over the god. They were treated like voodoo dolls, manhandled as if the person holding the likeness would gain control to manipulate the god. No doubt, to try and maintain cultural equality, the Israelites had explored creating images that would represent the Lord God. The second commandment is offered as a direct restriction against the creation of such images.
This commandment, while speaking directly against the normal practices of the time addresses some crucial points that distinguish the Lord God from the many other gods. First, throughout the historical Hebrew text of the Old Testament, God doesn’t allow himself to be seen. No form of God has ever been seen. In Moses’ call story, Moses stood before a burning bush and heard the voice of God, but in the fire there was no physical shape. In our Deuteronomy passage this morning, we hear the same outcome experienced by the full community of the Israelites. The people are reminded how they once stood before the Lord God at Mount Horeb. Gathered there in the presence of God, the Lord spoke to them. The passage says they came to the mountain, which was set ablaze on fire, surrounded in a dark cloud, and the Lord spoke. Verse 12 then says, “You heard the sound of words but saw no form; there was only a voice.”
Picking back up in verse 15 and 16, we read, “Since you saw no form when the Lord spoke to you at Horeb out of the fire, take care to watch yourselves closely, so that you do not act corruptly by making an idol – or making an image – for yourselves, in the form of any figure – the likeness of male or female.”
The first prohibition of idol making rests on an understanding that the Lord does not appear in any concrete visible form. “[The Lord God] cannot be pictured in any physical representation because he has no physical shape, or perhaps even if he has such a shape, he does not choose to reveal it.”[iii]
The second crucial point in understanding the historical implementation of this commandment underlies the issue of control we seek over God. The purpose of creating images of gods at the time was to offer a concrete definition of the god, and thus, to have power over the god. “To make an image is indeed an effort to domesticate God, to take the fire and control it.”[iv] Here we find the crucial distinction between the first two commandments, and the reason they must be understood independently from one another. To be faithful to the first commandment, to have no gods before The Lord God, is all about correctly identifying our source of power. However, to create no image in the likeness of God moves beyond the first command and acknowledges there is only one God worth imaging. It then speaks more about the character of the divine being we worship; no image we create will ever fully capture the true image of God.[v] To seek to capture God’s being in an artistic re-creation – be it two or three-dimensional – is to horribly fail to understand God. It is indeed a violation of our relationship with God to try and fit God into some mold that we can create through human artistic efforts.
Through the passage of time, the idea that there were other gods seemed to fade away, and the use of idols had also come to be seen as a less-important concern. Throughout Isaiah, the Psalms and the Proverbs, the use of idols to define one’s god was used to disqualify the god as a true god. Other cultures were mocked in scripture for their use of idols. Idols were transportable, you could carry them and have control over them. But The Lord God carried the people – the Lord God took care of us, the created ones, instead of needing us to take care of him. So, the concern around idol-making had significantly diminished from the days of Moses.
Perhaps that is the fault of humanity that makes the second commandment all that much more important for us today. The issue of the time of Moses was to clearly define and set apart the True God from all other gods. The issue of idolatry was that it was a corrupt attempt to have control over God. Our problems with idolatry, while similar in nature, take on different forms. Given the tenure of time passed, what we find corrupting our churches, our communities, our countries, and our individual lives is that instead of trying to create a representative image of God, our form of ‘idolatry’ is the worshipping of “a human substitute for the true and living God.”[vi]
Today, the form of idolatry that must be given some repentative attention, is the claiming that anything that is human made could be worth just as much devotion as the one, true, absolute God. But how did we get here? Where did our focus go wrong?
It seems the reason we struggle with this commandment is that it forces us to accept that which we cannot see. One commentary offers this critique, “The mystery frustrates and defies us. To worship God, it seems, is to worship nothing. There is no security. Belief in a God we cannot know seems to leave us stranded on an island of insecurities. God is not like the tangible things we can have faith in, not like our idols. … Idols appear, when we worship them, to give us what we want. It is easier to have idols. It is harder to trust in the unknown, in the darkness, in the voice answering Moses’ request for revelation with the words, “I AM WHO I AM.”[vii]
And giving up on that which we can no see, we create for ourselves idols over which we still have control. Yet, such idolatry today is hard to see. We often try to claim that another’s life is built around the practice of idolatry, that easy. Yet, naming such seems to be a form of manipulation that allows us to retain some kind of moral high ground. Identifying where idolatry is pervading our lives, using the concept of idolatry in self-criticism, may be a more wholesome approach than using it as a stick to beat others. But, hold on, that means we have to be willing to criticize ourselves and to be honest about the ways in which we have given up on an intangible God. We have to be willing to look seriously at our own lives and name where we have tried to replace God with man-made objects of devotion.
If we can take the humbling step toward self-identifying, if we can take a step toward acknowledging the places in our lives where we have substituted another entity for God, if we can name the things we turn to for security and hope before and above God, then we are on the right path to correctly applying the second commandment in our lives today.
But this is going to be hard work.
The reality is that we “depend on our idols to give us order and meaning. We depend on our idols to define our place in the world. Idols give us a world that appears logical and coherent. Idols free us from moral choice. Idols determine right and wrong. Idols render judgment. [And] we follow [them]. We conform [to them].”[viii]
These idols present themselves in many different ways. They can be race, class, nationality, religion, ethnicity, gender identity or sexual orientation. They can be our identification as democrats, republicans, or libertarians. They can be our country clubs or our gun clubs. They can be our family, our neighborhood, or our school zone. We make false covenants with those who look like us and think like us. Surrounding ourselves with such like-minded and like-demographic persons makes us feel welcome. It makes us feel secure. And without even knowing it, we form these unspoken pacts of idolatry with our affinity groups because it gives us a place to belong, a place of security, a feeling of confident expectation for the future. If everyone around me thinks and dreams like I think and dream, then I give myself this false sense of hope that the world’s going to be alright. That is the definition of idolatry.
When we give in to this idolatry, we start to worship a false-hope for our own lives. “[We believe] that if we are happy, if we are entertained and feel good, then the rest of the world will take care of itself. Others should find a way to feel good with us. We abandon our mentally ill to sleep on city heating gates, leave children in urban ghettos functionally illiterate, scuttle our public transportation system, … and scrap controls on coal-burning power plants that poison the air and water supply. We fail to examine what is done in our name in countries such as Iraq and Nigeria. We go along with the flow, deadened to the pain of others, seeking our own emotional transcendence. [Thinking the whole time,] the world will take care of itself.”[ix]
Perhaps it is best said that our idolatry today is not defined by creating false images of God, it’s defined by creating false images of the world God has created – a world that at it’s creation, God called good. Is the world so good today? This false imaging today looks a lot like #brexit supporters telling foreigners to go back to war-torn nations. It’s nationalists and extremists saying there is no place for lost, abandoned, and exhausted refugees to find comfort. It’s the privileged mandating laws and gerrymandering to ensure they never lose power.
You shall not make for yourself an idol; you shall not make for yourself anything that seeks to falsely define the love and will of God.
If you’re wondering, with no image of God provided in the Old Testament text, how are we to know God? If not in person, how then does God reveal himself? Going back to verse 12, we read again, “You head the sound of words … there was only a voice.” In multiple scriptural passages, in the Old and New Testaments, we are assured, the Word of God reveals God’s self to us. God speaks to us. We are reminded in the Gospel of John, that just as in the beginning the Word was God, we are given the Word of God in the incarnate One – in Christ Jesus. We never need to fear being unable to imagine the representation of God on earth, for God made God’s self visible, tangible even, in the life of Jesus Christ. If any image we present forth today as being hopeful, truthful, or life-giving doesn’t match the life, death, and resurrection of Christ – it’s probably a false image of God. It probably breaks the second commandment. Thanks be to God who gives us life, new life, true life in the Word – and not in man-made images that will only ever fail. Thanks be to God. Amen.