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)
The text, as translated in the King James Version of the Bible, is actually a
collection of three separate commandments. They read:
|3: "Thou shalt have no other gods before me."|
|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. |
|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.|
|6: "And shewing mercy unto thousands of them that love me, and keep my commandments."|
This is a complex commandment for two reasons:
|The "graven image" phrase is interpreted in many
|The "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.|
About this passage:
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:
Roman Catholics and some Lutherans consider verses 3 to 6 to
be the First Commandment
consider verses 3 to 6 to be the Second Commandment.
|Ancient Judaism, most Protestants & Eastern Orthodox churches
consider verses 4 to 6 to be the Second Commandment. |
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.
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.
Most religious liberals accept the
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."
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
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.
The Westminster Larger Catechism of 1649
CE interprets this Commandment broadly to
include a number of "sins." One is "toleration
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.
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.
Other Protestants and Roman Catholics do not follow a strict
interpretation of this verse which would prohibit them from:
Wearing a cross or crucifix
Erecting nativity scenes at Christmas.
Hanging religious art in their churches.
Allowing wedding photographers into the sanctuary.
Installing stained glass windows in their buildings that
include images of people and animals.
Using children's Bibles which are decorated with pictures.
Using various educational aids like felt cut-outs in Sunday
Maintaining web sites which contain pictures of humans,
other animals, buildings, etc.
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
Internal contradictions within the Hebrew Scriptures about
The Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament) contain many references to
carved images of heavenly creatures, flowers, trees, and animals which
contradict this Commandment:
Exodus 25 describes the orders of God to create the
Verses 10-21 describe the creation of an ark and the
mounting of two cherubims -- heavenly creatures -- on it.
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."
Exodus 26 describes how ten Temple curtains (Verse 1) and a vail (Verse 31) are to be decorated with images of cherubims.
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.
1 Kings 6:23-28 describes how King Solomon
constructed the temple and decorated it with statues of cherubims.
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."
1 Kings 6:32 and 35 describe similar carvings in the
doors of the Temple.
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:
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
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.
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"
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:
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
Related essays on this topic:
The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above
essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.
- Alan M. Dershowitz, "Ten Commandments Aren't Gun Control Politics:
Religion isn't a constitutionally acceptable alternative," Los Angeles Times,
- The Westminster Larger Catechism (1649): Questions 1 to 97 are at:
http://www.reformed.org/. Questions 98 to 196 are
- "The Ten Commandments," Wikipedia at
- Harry Binswanger, "The Ten Commandments vs. America,"
Courier-Journal, Louisville, KY, 2005-MAR-02, at:
Copyright © 2005 to 2007 by Ontario
Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Latest update: 2007-AUG-21
Author: B.A. Robinson