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The Ten Commandment (a.k.a. The Decalogue)

Part 1 of two parts:
Implications of the Second Commandment

(Referred to as the First Commandment
by Roman Catholics and some Lutherans)

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Exodus 20:3-6:

The text, as translated in the King James Version of the Bible, is actually a collection of four Bible verses that discuss the belief that only one deity exists, Yahweh, and that he alone is to be worshipped. The verses read

bullet 3: "Thou shalt have no other gods before me."

bullet 4: "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.

bullet 5: "Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them: for I the LORD thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me.

bullet 6: "And shewing mercy unto thousands of them that love me, and keep my commandments."

This is a complex commandment for two reasons:

bullet The "graven image" phrase has been interpreted in many conflicting ways.

bullet The "visiting the iniquity" clause has been affirmed as part of the Word of God by most religious conservatives. But it is rejected as profoundly immoral by many religious liberals and secularists because it transfers the guilt and punishment of a guilty person to many generations of that person's innocent descendents.

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About this passage:

bullet

The Exodus version of the Ten Commandments actually consists of about two dozen instructions for human conduct. Various faith groups have chosen different ways of combining them into ten commands. For the passage being discussed here:

bullet

Roman Catholics and some Lutherans consider verses 3 to 6 to be the First Commandment.

bullet

Modern-day Jews consider verses 3 to 6 to be the Second Commandment.

bullet Ancient Judaism, most Protestants & Eastern Orthodox churches consider verses 4 to 6 to be the Second Commandment.

bullet

Many liberal theologians believe that the original commandment consisted only of the opening nine-word phrase: "Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image." The rest was added later by an unknown author to expand the nature of the prohibitions.

bullet

Most religious conservatives believe that the Ten Commandments were written in stone by God in Hebrew. It was later incorporated by Moses, along with the rest of the first five books in the Bible -- the Pentateuch -- without error. It was later accurately translated into English and other languages.

bullet

Most religious liberals accept the "Documentary Hypothesis" concerning the origin of the Pentateuch. They believe that Exodus version of the Ten Commandments was written by an anonymous author from the northern kingdom of Israel, circa 922 to 722 BCE. He is generally referred to as "E" because he referred to God by the name "Elohim." Other authors and editors of the Pentateuch are referred to as "J," "P," "D," and "R."

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Concerning verse 4: Prohibition of any "graven image:"

Today's faith groups often violate the literal interpretation of this Commandment. It is very difficult to find a church in North America that does not display some object which is a likeness of a crucifix, dove, host, cross, burning bush, lamb, saint, member of the Holy Family, or some other entity found in heaven, earth, or under the earth. "...our churches are filled with them, from crosses to crucifixes to tabernacles to ambreys to icons to stations of the cross." 1

bullet

The Amish and some other conservative and Old Order Mennonites interpret this commandment literally. They prohibit the taking of photographs, because they view them as a "likeness" of some existing living entity or object.

 
bullet

The Westminster Larger Catechism of 1649 CE interprets this Commandment broadly to include a number of "sins." One is "toleration of a false religion." i.e. people should not be allowed to follow religious beliefs and practices which differ from orthodox Christianity. If the Catechism were adopted by governments today, then a wide range of religious belief and practice would be criminalized, as they often were during America's colonial era. In those days, being a follower of a

bullet

Another sin listed by the Westminster Larger Catechism is to place a painting of Jesus on the wall of a home or church -- a current practice by many Christians today. 2 Presbyterians and other denominations from the Reform wing of Protestantism based their beliefs on the Westminster Confession of Faith and the Shorter and Larger Westminster Catechisms. Most of them no longer accept the latter's broad interpretation of this Commandment.

bullet

Other Protestants and Roman Catholics do not follow a strict interpretation of this verse which would prohibit them from:
bullet

Wearing a cross or crucifix.

bullet

Erecting nativity scenes at Christmas.

bullet

Hanging religious art in their churches.

bullet

Allowing wedding photographers into the sanctuary.

bullet

Installing stained glass windows in their buildings that include images of people and animals.

bullet

Using children's Bibles which are decorated with pictures.

bullet

Using various educational aids like felt cut-outs in Sunday School instruction.

bullet

Maintaining web sites which contain pictures of humans, other animals, buildings, etc.

bullet

Roman Catholics make extensive use of statutes of Jesus, Mary, and the other saints. Many wear crucifixes showing Jesus being tortured to death on the cross. Eastern Orthodox churches make extensive use of icons. The Roman Catholic church interprets this Commandment as prohibiting only the worship of statues and images, not their display.

"Catholic teaching distinguishes between veneration (dulia) -- which is paying honor to God through contemplation of objects such as paintings and statues, and adoration (latria) -- which is properly given to God alone." 3

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Internal contradictions within the Hebrew Scriptures about graven images:

The Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament) contain many references to carved images of heavenly creatures, flowers, trees, and animals which contradict this Commandment:

bullet

Exodus 25 describes the orders of God to the Hebrews when they built the original Temple:
bullet

Verses 10-21 describe the creation of an ark and the mounting of two cherubims -- heavenly creatures -- on it.

bullet

Verse 34 orders the construction of a menorah which includes "Three bowls made like unto almonds, with a knop and a flower in one branch; and three bowls made like almonds in the other branch, with a knop and a flower."

bullet

Exodus 26 describes how ten Temple curtains (Verse 1) and a vail (Verse 31) are to be decorated with images of cherubims.

bullet

Numbers 21:5 describes how God "sent fiery serpents among the people" to commit mass killing as a punishment. Many were bitten and died. Verses 8-9 explains that God ordered Moses to make an image of one of these serpents and mount it on a pole. It had magical powers. Anyone who was bitten by a real poisonous serpent would not die if they gazed on the image.

bullet

1 Kings 6:23-28 describes how King Solomon constructed the temple and decorated it with statues of cherubims.

bullet

1 Kings 6:29 states that Solomon had the walls of the Temple carved with "figures of cherubims and palm trees and open flowers, within and without."

bullet

1 Kings 6:32 and 35 describe similar carvings on the doors of the Temple.

bullet

Ezekiel 41:17-25 also describes the images of two-faced cherubims -- with both human and lion faces.

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This topic is continued in the next essay.

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References used:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. Alan M. Dershowitz, "Ten Commandments Aren't Gun Control Politics: Religion isn't a constitutionally acceptable alternative," Los Angeles Times, 1999-JUN-20.It was once on the Los Angeles Times web site, and in many dozens of other locations on the Internet, but has been deleted from all of them.
  2. The Westminster Larger Catechism (1649): Questions 1 to 97 are at: http://www.reformed.org/. Questions 98 to 196 are at:  http://www.reformed.org/
  3. "The Ten Commandments," Wikipedia at http://en.wikipedia.org/
  4. Harry Binswanger, "The Ten Commandments vs. America," Courier-Journal, Louisville, KY, 2005-MAR-02, at: http://www.courier-journal.com/

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Copyright © 2005 to 2016 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Latest update: 20
16-MAY-29
Author: B.A. Robinson
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