Graven Images: Do Statues Violate the 2nd Commandment?

By Matt1618

Some Protestants will often look askance at images and statues . They will often say that Catholics violate the 2nd commandment. They will say that the Catholics do away with a commandment to validate what it calls idolatry, with the erection of statues and so forth. Do Catholics violate God's command? In this paper I will take a look at this.

The Catholics number the Commandments differently from many Protestants. From Exodus 20, I shall number the way that the Catholics number the commandments, and then number the way some Protestants number the commandments (most often those are the ones accusing Catholics of committing idolatry). I will italicize the commandments in the short form. Of course some commandments have more elaboration on them, and that will be left in to give context. This is the commandments as given by God to Moses. Now the numbering of those commandments vary. There are 14 imperatives within God’s charge, including three charges, underlined below, that are not considered commandments, neither by Catholic nor Protestant. Since the Book of Exodus does not tell us 'This is the first commandment', 'This is the second commandment' etc., judgment by humans must be given in their numbering. Any way it is numbered, there are 4 charges that are under the rubric of other commandments. However, in synopsis form, we usually get a quick one line phrase for each commandment by both Catholic and Protestant. I put the Protestant numbering in green and the Catholic numbering in brown (Lutherans do as well) and I italicize the commandments often given in short form for those who memorize those commandments, Exodus 20:2-17. This italicization will include the ones that Protestants and Catholics do and do not itemize as separate commandments:

2: "I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.
1 1 "You shall have no other gods before me.
2 "You shall not make for yourself a graven image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth; 5: you shall not bow down to them or serve them; for I the LORD your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me, 6: but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments.
3 2 "You shall not take the name of the LORD your God in vain; for the LORD will not hold him guiltless who takes his name in vain.
4 3 "Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy. 9: Six days you shall labor, and do all your work; 10: but the seventh day is a sabbath to the LORD your God; in it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, your manservant, or your maidservant, or your cattle, or the sojourner who is within your gates; 11: for in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested the seventh day; therefore the LORD blessed the sabbath day and hallowed it.
5 4 "Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long in the land which the LORD your God gives you.
6 5 "You shall not kill.
7 6 "You shall not commit adultery.
8 7 "You shall not steal.
9 8 "You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.
10 9 "You shall not covet your neighbor's house; 10 You shall not covet your neighbor's wife, or his manservant, or his maidservant, or his ox, or his ass, or anything that is your neighbor's."

Catholics have Exodus 20:4 in their Bibles and do not hide from it. The Protestant critics of the Church on this issue have the not making graven images as its own commandment, separate from the 1st commandment to worship no other God. It must be recognized that not all Protestants who number the commandments differently from Catholics, make the charge of Catholics violating what they call the commandment to not make graven images, because they recognize that even in making graven images, it is condemning idolatry, which the Catholic Church also condemns. Nonetheless, in addressing the critics, a reading of the passage in context shows that the commandment to not make graven images is not isolated from that first commandment, but a part of it. Verses 2-6 are all related to the same thing. He lays the foundation of the first commandment of verse 3 by saying he is the Lord your God in verse 2. God then says in Verse 3 ‘have no other gods before me’. Verse 4 says immediately after that to not make a graven image. Verse 5 gives further elaboration by saying to not bow down or serve those images because God is jealous of other gods. Who? The other gods who God spoke of not to worship in verse 3. One must have love and have God as their only God, and He will bless those who keep his commandments in V. 6. There is one big flow of the whole first commandment. To say the 2nd commandment is given in verse 4, as separate from the prior 2 verses, (such as to not kill and to not steal in verses 13-14 are separate commandments), breaks the whole flow of thought in verses 2-6. The anti-Catholic who says that this commandment about making graven images is separate, gives us a more disoriented reading of Exodus 20:2-6. This view has Verses 2 and 3 to be about one thing - worshipping only the one God. That is thus the end of the commandment. Verse 4 according to this view is a totally different commandment about graven images. Just making graven images is idolatry. Then, he has God going back to elaborating on the reasons why to have no other gods, in verses 5 & 6, while he spoke of having no gods back in verses 2 and 3. This breaks the continuity of thought. The Catholic view is the more reasonable idea that verse 4 is in mid-flow of the whole first commandment to not worship other gods. Why not make graven images? Because if you bow down or serve graven images in place of God, you are violating the commandment to worship no other gods, and iniquities will be visited upon you, because God is a jealous god (v. 5, 6). The Catholic, and in my opinion more reasonable view is that God’s concentration is not the graven images per se, but if one makes those graven images, and serves those graven images, one is making those graven images god. That is idolatry and a worshipping of other gods, thus violating the first commandment. In other words, if graven images become gods, then God condemns that. The Catholic Church condemns idolatry precisely because it condemns the violation of the first commandment. The Catholic Church has never taught that graven images are god.

As an aside, the numbering of the commandments differ based on the Protestant making the making of graven images the second commandment, whereas the Catholic view is that this directive is only a part of the first commandment. The Protestants thus combine v. 17, which says to not covet another's goods, and covet another's wife as the 10th commandment. This numbering makes no distinction in coveting property and people. The Catholic view is that the coveting of somebody’s goods in the 9th commandment is separate from and a different type of coveting than when one covets somebody's wife, and marks that as the 10th commandment. But of course that is for a different discussion.

Now, is the Catholic explanation of the commandment in dispute a convenient way to get around the commandment to not make graven images? No. We see an example of the breaking of this commandment in the account in Exodus 32 when God condemned the Israelites making the golden calf by abandoning God for that false god. Was it the making of graven images in itself idolatry (the anti-Catholic view) or making the graven images to become their god the idolatry (the Catholic view)?

Let us take a look at Exodus 32:2-4, 24:

2: And Aaron said to them, "Take off the rings of gold which are in the ears of your wives, your sons, and your daughters, and bring them to me." 3: So all the people took off the rings of gold which were in their ears, and brought them to Aaron. 4: And he received the gold at their hand, and fashioned it with a graving tool, and made a molten calf; and they said, "These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!"
22: And Aaron said, "Let not the anger of my lord burn hot; you know the people, that they are set on evil. 23: For they said to me, `Make us gods, who shall go before us; as for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.' 24: And I said to them, `Let any who have gold take it off'; so they gave it to me, and I threw it into the fire, and there came out this calf."

Now look at what the idolatrous Israelites proclaimed to Aaron, ‘These are your gods’, v. 4. The calf their god, who they gave credit for taking them out of Egypt. Aaron caved in and molded the gold into a calf. He played down his complicity to Moses, but he recognized what he was doing was making the gold into a god. Israel went into worshipping that golden calf. Now God condemned the people due to their lack of faithfulness, and though he relented from destroying all of Israel because of Moses’ intercession (Ex. 32:11-14), God still commanded the slaying of the idolaters (Ex. 32:27-28). The reason that God condemned them was because the Israelites had made the graven image of a calf to become their god. The idol became god to the Israelites. That is them breaking the prohibition of the Exodus 20:3 commandment of worshipping of a false god, through the making of graven images, because they gave the status of god to the golden calf. And they bowed down and worshipped a false god. It wasn’t bowing down per se, it was ascribing deity to that golden calf. The Catholic Church does not do what the Israelites are condemned by God for doing: Ascribing divinity to that graven image. The Church condemns such idolatry. The Catholic Church does not teach that its statuary is god, as the Israelites did with their golden calf.

If the anti-Catholic is right, and just making graven images for religious purposes is a violation of the 2nd commandment, then making graven images in any context is a violation of the 2nd commandment. Why is that? Because going back to verse 4, it says: 'You shall not make for yourself a graven image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth'. It says any type of likeness of anything is condemned. Even a picture of a mountain would be condemned. Any sculpture that represents that would be condemned. Even having a picture of someone would be a violation of that commandment. However, most Protestants ‘violate’ that commandment by carrying pictures of family members. But most critics of the Catholic Church do not condemn those types of images for some reason. Also, they usually have no problems visiting the Lincoln monument or monuments to war heroes. If they say making graven images is sinful in and of itself, why do they visit such places?

They will then say, ‘well, it only means graven images in a religious context.’ However, Scripture show that this view of the commandment creates a God who contradicts himself in the very same book of Exodus where that commandment is given! Why is that? Let us look between Exodus 20 where the commandment is given, and Exodus 32 where the Israelites break that commandment of worshipping no other gods and are killed for idolatry. In fact, God commands Moses to make graven images: Exodus 25:16-20, 26:1, 31:

16 And you shall put into the ark the testimony which I shall give you. 17: Then you shall make a mercy seat of pure gold; two cubits and a half shall be its length, and a cubit and a half its breadth. 18: And you shall make two cherubim of gold; of hammered work shall you make them, on the two ends of the mercy seat. 19: Make one cherub on the one end, and one cherub on the other end; of one piece with the mercy seat shall you make the cherubim on its two ends. 20: The cherubim shall spread out their wings above, overshadowing the mercy seat with their wings, their faces one to another; toward the mercy seat shall the faces of the cherubim be.

26:1 1: "Moreover you shall make the tabernacle with ten curtains of fine twined linen and blue and purple and scarlet stuff; with cherubim skillfully worked shall you make them….31: "And you shall make a veil of blue and purple and scarlet stuff and fine twined linen; in skilled work shall it be made, with cherubim;

God commands Moses to make a graven image with cherubim. Thus, he commands them in the very ark of the covenant in which God himself resided. Even the ark itself is gold that is refined, cut to adorn a place where God would reside in a special manner. There is a mercy seat of pure gold. That in and of itself is a graven image. Plus, it is purely done in a religious context and the making of these images was to bring more Glory to God himself. Notice also that God wants those cherubim to be skillfully made (vv. 1, 31). Why would he want them to be skillfully made if it was a sin to make such cherubim? God doesn’t want somebody to haphazardly mold something together, but he desires someone to skillfully mold those cherubim, as well as the mercy seat. It is important to God, that man does his best in molding that graven image. He wants it to look good. God recognizes that images can help us in the worship of God himself.

It is the Catholic view that can look at both the commandment to have no other God besides him, and not ascribe divinity to graven images, but also shows that skillful adornment of images can also be put to use to bring more honor and glory to God with such statuary.

We see elsewhere that images are commanded by God to be made to even save people from death!! Numbers 21:7-9:

7: And the people came to Moses, and said, "We have sinned, for we have spoken against the LORD and against you; pray to the LORD, that he take away the serpents from us." So Moses prayed for the people. 8: And the LORD said to Moses, "Make a fiery serpent, and set it on a pole; and every one who is bitten, when he sees it, shall live." , 9: So Moses made a bronze serpent, and set it on a pole; and if a serpent bit any man, he would look at the bronze serpent and live.

Moses makes a bronze serpent, a graven image. The anti-Catholic does not think a graven image should be made at all in a religious context. The anti-Catholic during Moses’ time would have ended up dead, because he would have refused to acknowledge the goodness of the serpent in the graven image. In fact the only way that people avoid death is by taking a look at the graven image of a serpent. Again, God mandates a graven image to be made and people can only be given the chance to live if they look at the image. The anti-Catholic would have been a dead anti-Catholic.

Jesus himself even speaks of this episode in Number 21 in reference to how he brings salvation: John 3:13-15

13: No one has ascended into heaven but he who descended from heaven, the Son of man. 14: And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of man be lifted up, 15: that whoever believes in him may have eternal life."

Jesus specifically uses the image of Moses creating and using that graven image as a means to heal and even save people. He doesn’t put that in a negative light. He commends it so much that he thus uses that event to point to how salvation comes in Jesus Christ. Just as only those who looked at the graven image of a serpent were saved from death, those who look to Jesus who will be crucified and raised will have eternal life. We must believe in Jesus. Why would Jesus make a comparison, if making the graven image of the serpent was a sin?

Now, that should settle the issue, but there is more evidence given in Scripture that God approves of making graven images for religious purposes. Now David wanted to make a temple for God. However, God told David that he would not make a temple, but his son Solomon would make the temple. David would receive instructions from God on what the temple would consist of. The ark of the covenant, which already consisted of graven images, would be surrounded with much other statuary.

1 Chronicles 28:11, 17-19:

11: Then David gave Solomon his son the plan of the vestibule of the temple, and of its houses, its treasuries, its upper rooms, and its inner chambers, and of the room for the mercy seat;… 17 and pure gold for the forks, the basins, and the cups; for the golden bowls and the weight of each; for the silver bowls and the weight of each; 18: for the altar of incense made of refined gold, and its weight; also his plan for the golden chariot of the cherubim that spread their wings and covered the ark of the covenant of the LORD. 19: All this he made clear by the writing from the hand of the LORD concerning it, all the work to be done according to the plan.

Look at all the statuary surrounding the ark of the covenant. Gold is everywhere, and notice that what he was writing was coming from ‘the hand of the Lord.’ So this carefully constructed temple and statuary had not only the approval of God, but came from God himself.

Let us see when it was actually done by Solomon when he put this into practice, 1 King 6:22-29:

22: And he overlaid the whole house with gold, until all the house was finished. Also the whole altar that belonged to the inner sanctuary he overlaid with gold. 23: In the inner sanctuary he made two cherubim of olivewood, each ten cubits high. 24: Five cubits was the length of one wing of the cherub, and five cubits the length of the other wing of the cherub; it was ten cubits from the tip of one wing to the tip of the other. 25: The other cherub also measured ten cubits; both cherubim had the same measure and the same form. 26: The height of one cherub was ten cubits, and so was that of the other cherub. 27: He put the cherubim in the innermost part of the house; and the wings of the cherubim were spread out so that a wing of one touched the one wall, and a wing of the other cherub touched the other wall; their other wings touched each other in the middle of the house. 28: And he overlaid the cherubim with gold. 29: He carved all the walls of the house round about with carved figures of cherubim and palm trees and open flowers, in the inner and outer rooms.

Cherubim, or graven images are constructed all over the place in the temple of God. The temple as we know was centrally tied into the worshipping of God. All through 1 Kings 6 & 7 we see Solomon having made lots of graven images with cherubim. This is making images for religious purposes.

What was God’s response to this? Did he condemn the construction of the temple because it was adorned with all this cherubim? Let us look at God’s response to Solomon when the job was finished:

1 Kings 9:1-3:

1: When Solomon had finished building the house of the LORD and the king's house and all that Solomon desired to build, 2: the LORD appeared to Solomon a second time, as he had appeared to him at Gibeon. 3: And the LORD said to him, "I have heard your prayer and your supplication, which you have made before me; I have consecrated this house which you have built, and put my name there for ever; my eyes and my heart will be there for all time.

God saw of course everything that Solomon had built. He saw all those graven images of all the cherubim, that apparently were skillfully made. However, He not only did not condemn Solomon for making that statuary, but said, He ‘consecrates this house which you have built’, and promises that He would be there for all time!!!! How can God be there for all time if He condemns graven images!!!! Because that statuary was meant not to detract from God’s glory, but helped in the worship of God Himself.

We see that for religious purposes in Exodus 25, Numbers 21, 1 Kings 6&7, statuary can be made that will not detract from God, but even give Him more glory. We also see this in a much later time in Ezekiel 41:17-19, which included images of cherubim and man. What Catholicism does is the same in its statuary is not to detract from God or to replace God as the Israelites did in Exodus 32. God recognized that such images are good for people and as people have senses, these images can help people in their worship of Him. The Church likewise gives us statues whose goal is to bring God’s glory. It helps us to bring to mind the heavenly realities of God’s presence to us. Thus, statuary and images, if made in a way to not make them as a god, helps to bring to our senses heavenly realities to our mind. We can see that God not only commends, but even commanded the making of statuary, from Moses to Ezekiel.

The images of cherubim are commended by God in the Old Testament. One may say, ‘well, that is true, but you Catholics have all these statues and icons of Jesus and all the saints. There is nothing about statuary of people commended or commanded by God, so maybe that is what God is condemning in Exodus 20:4. ’ Well, one thing to note that in Ezekiel 41:18-19 there is a mention of making statuaries of men:

18And it was made with cherubim and palm trees, a palm tree between cherub and cherub. Each cherub had two faces, 19so that the face of a man was toward a palm tree on one side, and the face of a young lion toward a palm tree on the other side; thus it was made throughout the temple all around.

So it was permissible even in the Old Testament to make an image of a man. However, it is agreed that the cherubim, who represent the angels who lived in heaven with God were the ones represented in most of the works commended by God. There could be no pictures of Jesus in the Old Testament because Jesus had not yet revealed himself to his people. The Word did not become flesh until the New Covenant. In fact, the Word, Jesus, did become flesh (Jn 1:14). Even though Jesus existed from the beginning (Jn 1:1, 8:58), God’s people did not know Him as of yet. When He became flesh, the incarnation changed the whole world around in this area. Christ deigned to become man for our salvation. No image could be made of someone who is pure Spirit, but in the incarnation, Jesus became man, enabling us to have an image of Him. Hebrews 1:3 says: 'Who being the brightness of his glory, and the express image of his person'. Statues help us to bring to mind, and meditate on Jesus (and brings to our minds the reality of the incarnation) precisely because He became flesh for us. It also it brings to mind that Jesus intercedes now for us in heaven (Heb. 7:25). It is permissible for His followers to make images of Him to bring Him Glory. Catholics know that statues that reflect Christ's image, is not a god.

When Jesus came into the world and was resurrected, those who were in Sheol, were now released, and the Old Testament saints could now go to heaven. So as heaven was opened up, to not only the Old Testament saints, but also the saints that would arise in the New Covenant. In the New Covenant they became those who also live in His presence in heaven. Since statues of heavenly beings were ok in the Old Covenant, now in the New Covenant, those heavenly beings now include the saints who are now in heaven. And now in the new covenant, God enjoys not only company with the angels of heaven (as signified by the ‘skillful works’ of images of cherubim by Moses, Solomon, and Ezekiel), but also the saints of heaven also reside in the presence of God. The statues of the saints help us to visualize the people who though having a body of flesh just as us, did great things in the service of God. Seeing those statues of saints help us to visualize and model our lives after those saints who strove for holiness. They also give us a visual reminder of the fact that these people are in heaven, and they pray for us. We are told in Hebrews that we come to the spirits of just men made perfect, Heb. 12:1, 22-24:

1: Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, 22: But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering,…23: and to the assembly of the first-born who are enrolled in heaven, and to a judge who is God of all, and to the spirits of just men made perfect, 24: and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks more graciously than the blood of Abel.

The Bible says that we are surrounded by these witnesses in heaven as noted in Hebrews 12:1. It also says that we come to the spirits of just men made perfect. It is interesting that this is noted precisely while the Bible speaks to Jesus as the mediator of the new covenant. This does not detract us from God, but brings us closer to Him. They pray for us. Statues help to bring to our mind this heavenly reality.

I do want to close with some comments given by St. John of Damascus, (675-749 AD), in his battle against those who rejected images, and those who rejected the tradition of the Church, he gives us some reasoning on the issue, On the Divine Images, 1:16-17:

16. In former times God, who is without form or body, could never be depicted. But now when God is seen in the flesh conversing with men, I make an image of the God whom I see. I do not worship matter; I worship the Creator of matter who became matter for my sake, who willed to take His abode in matter; who worked out my salvation through matter. Never will I cease honoring the matter which wrought my salvation! I honor it, but not as God. How could God be born out of things which have no existence in themselves? God’s body is God because it is joined to His person by a union which shall never pass away. The divine nature remains the same; the flesh created in time is quickened by a reason-endowed soul. Because of this I salute all remaining matter with reverence, because God has filled it with His grace and power. Through it my salvation has come to me. Was not the thrice-happy and thrice-blessed wood of the cross matter? Was not the holy and exalted mountain of Calvary matter? What of the life-bearing rock, the holy and life-giving tomb, the fountain of our resurrection, was it not matter? Is not the ink in the most holy Gospel book matter? Is not the life-giving altar made of matter? From it we receive the bread of life! Are not gold and silver matter? From them we make crosses, patens, chalices! And over and above all these things, is not the Body and Blood of our Lord matter? Either do away with the honor and veneration these things deserve, or accept the tradition of the Church and the veneration of images. Reverence God and His friends; follow the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Do not despise matter, for it is not despicable. God has made nothing despicable. To think such things is Manichaeism. Only that which does not have its source in God is despicable – that which is our own invention, our willful choice to disregard the law of God – namely, sin. If you despise and abhor the command to make images because they are material things, consider the words of Scripture: "And the Lord said to Moses: See, I have called by name Bezalel the son of Uri, son of Aur, of the tribe of Judah, and I have filled him with the spirit of God with ability and intelligence, with knowledge and all craftsmanship to devise artistic designs, to work in gold, silver and bronze, in cutting stones for setting and in carving wood, for work of every craft. And behold, I have appointed with him Oholiab, the son of Ahisamach, of the tribe of Dan, and I have given ability to all able men, that they may make all that I have commanded you." (Ex. 31:1-6)

17. We use all our senses to produce worthy images of Him, and we sanctify the noblest of the senses, which is that of sight. For just as words edify the ear, so also the image stimulates the eye. What the book is to the literate, the image is to the illiterate. Just as words speak to the ear, so the image speaks to the sight; it brings us understanding. For this reason God ordered the ark to be constructed of wood which would not decay, and to be gilded outside and in, and for the tablets to be placed inside, with Aaron’s staff and the golden urn containing the manna, in order to provide a remembrance of the past, and an image of the future. Who can say that these were not images, heralds sounding from far off? They were not placed aside in the meeting-tent, but were brought forth in the sight of all the people, who gazed upon them and used them to offer praise and worship to God. Obviously they were not adored for their own sake, but through them the people were led to remember the wonders of old and to worship God, the worker of wonders. They were images serving as memorials; they were not divine, but led to the remembrance of divine power.

I get the above from here:

What he shows is that the incarnation is tied into the issue. The Manicheans, who battled St. Augustine on some issues, taught that matter was bad, and that grace and good could not come out of material things. As the Word became Flesh, he took upon matter. And it was good. The Protestant too often sees material things as bad, and that is why they refer to the Catholic way of using material means to reflect God as idolatrous. That in part explains the rejection of many Protestants of things such as water being a means of grace through baptism, and the rejection of the Eucharist as the true presence of Christ. This view of material as ‘bad’ and ‘Spiritual’ as good unfortunately gives a stilted view of how God works in the world. He notes as well in Exodus 31 that God made the people skilled in making those carved images that he commanded Moses to have done in Exodus 25. He also notes that images bring into our mind the realization of divine remembrances, which help us to worship God better.

In closing, a very good defense of the use of images, with a comprehensive biblical look at the issue can be found written by St. John of Damascus. He gives a biblical rationale for the use of images and draws upon sacred tradition as well to show that the use of images is in concert with the Bible, and also by the Fathers of the Church as well. He also makes a distinction between the adoration that is only given to God, called Latria, and other measures of honor which are given to the saints, which he uses the term ‘worship’, but explains what he means by that is not the adoration that is given only to God. Now when we use the term ‘worship’ we think of adoration, but when he uses the term ‘worship’ of images, he does not mean ‘adoration’. The writing is called ‘Apologia Against Those Who Decry Holy Images’. He deals with objections similar to those used by some Protestants now. He also details the tradition of the Fathers of the Church on the issue. That is available here:

To all Visitors, Grace of Christ to You

©2005, " Graven Images: Do Statues Violate the 2nd Commandment?", written by Matt1618. This text may be downloaded or printed out for private reading, but it may not be uploaded to another Internet site or published, electronically or otherwise, without express written permission from the author.

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