Thou Shalt Not Make Any Graven Image
The Hebrew word for “image” referred to fashioned idols used in worship and the image was thought to contain the “deity’s essence” (Walton et al. 2000, 29). Images were also seen to denote representation of the deity. However, God was not made with human hands, and is spirit in essence, and to fashion something after His likeness was to believe some part of Him was in the idol. A calf was shaped by Aaron in Exodus 32:4 so that it could “go before” the people and lead them into the Promised Land (32:1 NIV) because was Moses took too long on the mountain with God. Most likely, this was a wooden figure overlaid with pliable gold in the shape of a calf (Walton, 115). The image is given credit for delivering Israel from their bondage in Egypt (32:4) and results in cultic festivities. Like their neighbors, Israel entertains the celebration with a feast, burnt and peace offerings, and probably dancing and sexual acts associated with pagan fertility feasts (Walton, 115). As a result, God’s anger burns against them to destroy all of them (32:10) but Moses intercedes and saves the majority. He pleads that God remember his promises of the past and succeeds (32:12-14). Moses then descends the mountain and breaks the tablets of the covenant. The breaking of the tablets (32:19) symbolized a destruction of the covenant in ancient Near Eastern times (Walton, 116). For Israel, God is breaking his covenant with them because of their disobedience. In response, Moses takes significant action. He burns the calf with fire, grinds it into powder, and makes the Israelites drink it (32:20). The importance of this destruction and drinking of the powdered gold cannot be over-estimated. Destroying the idol (as well as any future idol of the pagan nations in 34:13) took great faith because this was considered very offensive to the represented god (Walton, 117). Likewise, Moses commands Israel to drink the remains of the destroyed image. This symbolized the irreversibility of the destruction of the idol and that it was completely renounced, and a full commitment to I AM (Walton, 117). The narrative concludes with Israel being warned not to intermingle with the nations it will encounter (34:12-15). They should not covenant with them (34:12), should not worship their gods but should smash their idols (34:13-14), and should not even intermarry with them (34:15). Complete separation from them is required.
As far as the images, they had many forms in the ancient Near East. The bull was common to Canaanite religion and Egypt had a wide range of animal gods (McConville 2002, 126). This is probably the reason for the sweeping prohibition of Deut. 5:8. Also, the deities of surrounding cultures had their needs met through the image (Walton 2006, 156) which was the manner in which the deity showed itself (Walton et al. 2000, 95). God was unique in comparison to these gods. He was not represented by any graven image.
Verse 9 gives reasons for not making any image of a god. It speaks of I AM as a “jealous” God who visits the “iniquities of the fathers on the children” to the third and fourth generations (5:9). This mention of multi-generational households is significant because of the close nature of families within the community (McConville, 126). For one to worship “any” image (5:8) was to introduce the family and community to possible successive judgments.
-In 1 John we read: "Little children, guard yourselves from idols." What practices or beliefs are we importing into an image of God?
-Hamilton, Victor P. The Book of Genesis Chapters 1-17. Grand Rapids: MI: William B Eerdmanns Publishing Company, 1990.
-McConville, J.G. Deuteronomy. Downers Grove: IL: InterVarsity Press, 2002.
-Walton, John H. Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament: Introducing the Conceptual World of the Hebrew Bible. Grand Rapids: MI: Baker Academic, 2006.
-Walton, John H, Victor H. Matthews, and Mark W. Chavalas. The IVP Bible Background Commentary: Old Testament. Downers Grove: IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000.