The Second Commandment

Have you ever wondered how big the camera would have to be for God to take a selfie?

Sadly, the question is nonsensical since God prohibited images of himself in the second commandment. But since we live in a world packed full of images, I have often wondered at the logic behind this commandment. Neil Postman, the Jewish media-ecologist, claimed that God prohibits images because they are too simplistic. After all, many of God’s attributes are very abstract and “blocks of stone and paint are just insufficient to convey … holiness, mercy, self-existence, eternality, sovereignty, omniscience, omnipotence, and omnipresence.” 1)Arthur W. Hunt, Surviving Technopolis: Essays on Finding Balance in Our New Man-Made Environments (2013), Kindle Location, 636. But, Postman argues that “writing is the perfect medium because … the written word is a symbol system of a symbol system, twice removed from reality and perfect for describing a God who is also far removed from reality.” 2)Camille Paglia, “She Wants Her TV! He Wants His Book! – Interview with Neil Postman,” Harpers 282, no. March (1991). Available from: (subscription required).

A Picture is Worth A Thousand Emotions…

As moderns, we feel that suppressing images is both unhelpful and harsh! Couldn’t some images help people understand God? Perhaps, but the problem is with the medium itself, because images “make us feel rather than think. They can pin the logical side of your brain to the back of your skull…images don’t invite you to argue; they give you an experience. In contrast, the printed word makes us think and question.” 3)Shane Hipps, Flickering Pixels: How Technology Shapes Your Faith (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 2009), 76. But wait, what about the old saying about how a picture is worth a thousand words? As the above history of advertizing demonstrates, “It would seem a picture is actually worth a thousand emotions.” 4)Ibid..

9663345203_959c0b91c6_oSo God gives the command to abstain from idols in order to protect his people from being carried away by their emotions? Partly, but it is more accurate to say that “God’s command is protective.” 5)T. Reinke and C.J. Mahaney, Lit!: A Christian Guide to Reading Books (Good News Pub, 2011), Kindle Location, 636. It protects because it “prevents people from worshiping God as a visible deity.” 6)Hunt, 871. God didn’t want his message to get lost in the medium. Images only communicate so much. And no visible representation of God could expand a divine attribute without simultaneously limiting humanity’s knowledge of that attribute. Simply put, “a culture that must express its gods in visual images cannot know God accurately.7)Reinke, Kindle Location, 636. Images just can’t convey truth with the same precision words can (which, by the way, is why the book is almost always better than the movie). 

A Unique Command:

It is worth highlighting how unique the command to suppress images was in the ancient world. It actually “would have sounded absurd to people in the Ancient Near East. In fact, this ban distinguished Israel from the other nations.8)Reinke, Kindle Location, 638. One tangible spin-off in Jewish culture was that “the Hebrews were the only people in antiquity to attempt to teach everyone how to read.9)“Although the Hebrews have a strong oral tradition, literacy underpinned memory because these people were charged with being the stewards of Scripture. Not only were the priests and scribes capable of reading and writing, but epigraphic discoveries—texts, public inscriptions on buildings, letter seals, personal notes on potsherds—show that the average Israelite was functionally literate as early as the period of the judges.” Hunt, Kindle Location, 877-880. By contrast, the Egyptians restricted writing to a privileged class, while “the common Egyptian lived and moved among images. For example, Ramses II scattered his personal likeness all over Egypt so no one would doubt he was the big dog of the desert.” 10)Ibid., Kindle Location, 883-884.

Fundamentally, Israel could never permit images of God because of Genesis 1-3. Man himself was made in God’s image, meaning that all other images would just be poor substitutes for God’s handiwork. However, “in surrounding cultures such as Egypt and Mesopotamia, the king or others of royal blood might be called the ‘image of God’; but … that rarefied term ‘was not applied to the canal digger or to the mason who worked on the ziggurat. . . . [But Genesis chapter 1 uses] royal language to describe simply ‘man.’ In God’s eyes all of mankind is royal. The Bible democratizes the royalistic and exclusivistic concepts of the nations that surrounded Israel.’” 11)Victor Hamilton, quoted by Timothy Keller, Every Good Endeavour: Connecting Your Work to God’s Plan for the World (Hodder & Stoughton, 2012), Kindle Location, 540. Thus, Israel was unique in the ancient world for praising the imageless God. 12)This remained true until the second century, for as Juvenal reported: Jews seem to “worship nothing but clouds and a kind of unseen God in the heavens.” Juvenal, Satires, XIV, 96. Available from: Or as Postman humorously put it: “Moses was the first person who ever said, more or less, ‘Don’t watch TV; go do your homework.'” 13)Paglia.

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This post is part 2 of a multi-part series on the history and differences between a word-based culture and an image-based culture, and how this affects discipleship and preaching. See top of page for links to other posts in the series.
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Why Isn’t God Photogenic? Reflections on the Second Commandment

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