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THE TEN COMMANDMENTS (A.K.A. THE DECALOGUE)

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 three separate commandments. They read:

bullet3: "Thou shalt have no other gods before me."
bullet4: "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.
bullet5: "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.
bullet6: "And shewing mercy unto thousands of them that love me, and keep my commandments."

This is a complex commandment for two reasons:

bulletThe "graven image" phrase is interpreted in many conflicting ways within Christianity.
bulletThe "visiting the iniquity" clause has been affirmed as part of the Word of God by most religious conservatives, and rejected as profoundly immoral by many religious liberals and secularists.

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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:

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

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

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

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Most religious conservatives believe that the Ten Commandments were written by God in Hebrew. It was recorded 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.

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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. Being a follower of a religion from Asatru to Zoroastrianism would result in severe punishment.

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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.

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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.

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

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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."

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

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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."

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

bullet

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

There are at least three methods of harmonizing these passages and the apparently conflicting Commandment prohibiting graven images and likenesses:

bullet

One can assume that the image of the fiery serpent and all of the temple graven image decorations were directly ordered by God, and thus superseded the order to make no likenesses of items in heaven, on earth or in the seas under the earth.

bullet

One might interpret Exodus 20:4's references to "not make unto thee any graven image" -- i.e. to not carve an image in stone or cast one in metal -- does not actually refer to the making or displaying of a graven image. The prohibition really relates to the bowing down before these images and worshiping the objects themselves.

bullet

Some mainline and most liberal theologians accept the Documentary Hypothesis: that the Pentateuch was a mixture of documents from four anonymous sources, referred to as J, E, P, and D. They agree that Exodus 20 was written by "E." The passages in Exodus and Numbers that refer to graven images may have been written by "P." Naturally, the passages would disagree because "E" and "P" had different agendas. The references in 1 Kings and Ezekiel would be related to "P's" writing.

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Concerning verse 5: "visiting the iniquity:"

The phrase "visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children" raises some serious ethical concerns.

Faced with the immorality of transferring the responsibility of sin from the guilty to the innocent, many denominations have abandoned the literal interpretation of this Commandment. Some have interpreted the phrase as implying that when a person deviates from the proper orthodox theological or philosophical teachings, that their children will often tend to follow suit and believe the same heresy. It is natural for children to emulate the beliefs of their parents. Thus the children, grandchildren, great grandchildren and great great grandchildren will not actually be punished for the beliefs of the parents, as the commandment literally says. They will be punished for holding heretical beliefs themselves which were taught to them by their parents.

They note, for example, that an alcoholic father might pass on his disease to his children -- and beyond -- either genetically or by example. Thus, they interpret this commandment as implying that God does not take revenge directly on succeeding generations. However, the sin of the father would be transmitted by purely natural processes to his children, grand children, great grandchildren and great-great-grandchildren. This interpretation certainly offers a meaning of the commandment that is more acceptable. However, other Christians and Jews would point out that the meaning of the text is obvious. It quite clearly has God talking, and stating that he would personally visit "the iniquity of the fathers upon the children..." There is no indication that the descendents of a heretic would avoid punishment even if they were to abandon their parent's heresy and adopt orthodox beliefs.

Thus, the apparent meaning of the commandment is that sin is to be transferred from a guilty person (the parent) to innocent parties (four generations of descendents). This is considered immoral by most contemporary ethical systems -- both secular and religious. A person is held responsible only for their own actions. If a man robs a bank, we do not arrest and punish his grand-daughter or his father. Today, it is generally seen as profoundly immoral to punish a person for the sins or criminal activities of others. But this biblical verse, literally interpreted, holds a person's daughters and sons, his grand-children, great-grandchildren and perhaps even great-great-grandchildren accountable for their ancestor's behavior.

There are many examples of this principle of transferring sin from the guilty party to one or more innocent parties in the Bible. For example:

bullet

Christianity traditionally taught that the entire human race inherited original sin as a result of Adam and Eve's sin in the Garden of Eden. (Some faith groups have rejected the traditional concept of direct transfer of original sin from the first parents to succeeding generation; they teach that sin entered the world as a result of Adam and Eve's misbehavior and that this permanently changed the character of the universe.)

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God created the great flood which drowned the entire human race, except for Noah and his family. This was done to punish the other human adults for their actions. But the children, infants and newborn also died for their parent's sins.

bullet

Ham's committed an unexplained indiscretion with his father Noah. Ham was not punished. His son, Canaan, and all of Canaan's descendents were cursed to be slaves forever.

bullet

Achan was found to be solely responsible for a sinful act during wartime. He, his wife and children were all stoned to death for the father's sin.

bullet

King David committed the sin of adultery with Bathsheba who was the property of another man: Uriah the Hittite. In punishment, David and Bathsheba's child died in infancy.

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Historical Christianity has taught the concept of the Atonement whereby all of the sins and guilt of certain individuals -- past, present and future -- were transferred to Jesus, the innocent and sinless Son of God, during his execution.

Harry Binswanger a professor at the Ayn Rand Institute's Objectivist Graduate Center takes a very dim view of this commandment. He suggests:

"This primitive conception of law and morality flatly contradicts American values. Inherited guilt is an impossible and degrading concept. How can you be guilty for something you didn't do? In philosophic terms, it represents the doctrine of determinism, the idea that your choices count for nothing, that factors beyond your control govern your 'destiny.' This is the denial of free will and therefore of self-responsibility. The nation of the self-made man cannot be squared with the ugly notion that you are to be punished for the 'sin' of your great-grandfather." 4

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Scope of the law:

Jews have historically regarded the three Exodus Decalogue and the remaining 613 Mosaic Laws as being binding only on fellow Jews. They regard the Decalogues as important but not as a complete set of commandments for the guidance of one's behavior. The full Law of Moses, which is composed of 623 commands and prohibitions, are needed to cover all aspects of life.

Many Christians have rejected almost all of the 623 Mosaic Laws as being not applicable to present-day Christians. They generally do recognize that the Ten Commandments, those laws opposing homosexuality, other laws regarding sexual behavior, and a few others as still being binding today.

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Related essays on this topic:

bullet

Analysis of Commandments 1 to 5 

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Analysis of Commandments 6 to 10

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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. See:
    http://www.latimes.com:80/
  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 2007 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Latest update: 2007-AUG-21
Author: B.A. Robinson

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