Images, Biblical Prohibition of

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Not only metal statues or plaques (Ex 34.17) or gold or silver images (Ex 20.23) representing pagan gods, but images of Yahweh were prohibited by the Mosaic Law (Ex 20.45; Dt 5.89; Lv 26.1). The OT offers several reasons for this prohibition; e.g., according to Dt 4.1519 images of Yahweh were forbidden because on Mt. Sinai God did not permit the Israelites to see Him in any form or figure; in Is 40.1826 the point is made that no image of a creature can depict Yahweh, the Creator of the universe. From various Biblical accounts it is evident that the true worship of God was devoid of images: the ark of the covenant, the cherubim above it, and the oxen that supported the bronze sea (1 Kgs 7.23-25) were never considered objects of worship by the Israelites. For a time the bronze serpent (Nm 21.89) was venerated with incense, but eventually it, too, was removed from the Temple (2 Kgs 18.4). All other objects, such as the Ephod and the Theraphim (teraphim), found in certain sanctuaries of God were never considered to be objects of divine worship in themselves.

Images, however, occurred in the illegitimate worship of Yahweh, e.g., in that of the Danites (Jgs 17.45, 13; 18.24, 30). Although the golden calves of King Jeroboam I of Israel served originally as pedestals upon which the invisible God Yahweh was enthroned, the Israelites later worshiped these as the God (or gods) who liberated them from Egypt (1 Kgs 12.28; Hos 8.5; 13.2; cf. Exodus ch. 32). Eventually Yahweh was reduced to the status of a nature god like baal, and these images were stigmatized as foreign gods [1 Kgs 14.9; Ps 105 (106).1922; 2 Chr 11.1315; 13.811]. The deuteronomic reforms of King Josiah of Judah (2 Kgs 23.420) purified Israel of all form of idolatry, but illegitimate acts of worship continued until the Fall of Jerusalem (587 b.c.). After the Babylonian Exile images of Yahweh and of strange gods disappeared almost completely among the Jews (Josephus, Ant. 18.3.1; 6.2.8).

In the NT, too, the worship of alien gods and idols is prohibited (Acts 15.20, 29; 21.25; Rom 2.22; 1 Cor5.10; 10.14, 28; 2 Cor 6.16; 1 Thes 1.9; Rev. 9.20). In Christian as in Jewish literature idolatry is a common term of abuse for pagan worship, even though for the pagan the idol was often regarded merely as a symbol of a god and not the god itself and, therefore, not divine.

Bibliography: j. haspecker, Lexikon für Theologie und Kirche, j. hofer and k. rahner, eds. (Freiburg 195765) 2:459460. g. von rad and g. kittel, Theologisches Wörterbuch zum Neuen Testament (Stuttgart 1935) 2:378386. b. gemser, Die Religion in Geschichte und Gegenwart (Tubingen 195765) 1:127173. j. b. frey, "La Question des images chez les juifs a la lumière des récentes découvertes," Biblica 15 (1934) 265300.

[c. h. pickar]