The Theological Basis For The Prohibition Of Images In The Old Testament -- By: Edward M. Curtis

Journal: Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society
Volume: JETS 28:3 (Sep 1985)
Article: The Theological Basis For The Prohibition Of Images In The Old Testament
Author: Edward M. Curtis


The Theological Basis For The Prohibition Of
Images In The Old Testament

Edward M. Curtis*

As one examines the Biblical data concerning images, he encounters a consistent emphasis on the absolute prohibition of images. The prohibition1 is found as a part of the Ten Commandments in Exod 20:4: “You shall not make for yourselves an image (pesel), or any likeness (tĕmûnâ) of that which is in heaven above or of that which is on the earth below or of that which is in the waters beneath the earth.” This commandment appears to be a primary basis for the evaluations of the kings of Judah and Israel in the historical books2 and for the pronouncements by the prophets that Israel and Judah have violated the covenant with Yahweh by following other gods and worshiping idols.3

The prohibition of images most likely forms a significant basis for the contempt with which the prophets viewed images. This contempt is reflected in numerous descriptions of images similar to that of Jer 10:3b–5a: “It is wood cut from the forest, a work made by hands of a craftsman with a cutting tool. They decorate it with silver and gold; with nails and hammers they secure them so that they will not totter. They are like a scarecrow in a cucumber field; they do not speak; they must indeed be carried, because they cannot walk.” This ridicule of images frequently emphasizes the fact that the image was made by a craftsman, and since it is the work of man’s hands it is not God.4 Many passages also emphasize the fact that unlike Yahweh the images are impotent and lifeless; they cannot hear; they cannot stand; they cannot come to help in

*Edward Curtis is associate professor of Biblical studies at Biola University in La Mirada, California·

response to the cries for help from their people.5

The strongly negative attitude toward images throughout the Hebrew Bible is also reflected in several of the words used to describe images. Many of the words used for images (such as pesel, massēkâ, nesek, ʾāṣāb, etc.) appear to be simply descriptive of the physical nature of the image.6 Several words used to describe images show the extremely negative attitude of the Biblical ...

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