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If the first commandment, "Thou shalt have no other gods before me" means that God, and God alone is to be worshipped, why do we have the Second Commandment?

Aren't idols covered in the First Commandment? Worshiping an idol would be "having another god" before the Lord, and we don't have extra commandments covering lust (just the one general one on adultery) so why the extra commandment?

Note: I've answered this myself from a Protestant/Reformed view, but I'd love to hear what other traditions have to say and my answer is by no means an exhaustive one

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FYI Catholics and Protestants number the commandments differently. –  Affable Geek Mar 30 '12 at 2:33
    
@AffableGeek I was not aware of that! i'm looking up the differences now and i'll edit my question if need be –  Thomas Shields Mar 30 '12 at 2:34
    
well, I was wondering how Catholics explained the second commandment... maybe this warrants a separate question. leaving it unedited as the question stands on its own, hopefully I can still get some alternate traditions's views on this one. –  Thomas Shields Mar 30 '12 at 2:37
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I asked a related question. –  Jon Ericson Mar 30 '12 at 6:38
    
[if] you must want an image then read Rom 8:29 thats about the only image in likeness anyone should follow.....If the first commandment, "Thou shalt have no other gods before me" means that God, and God alone is to be worshipped, why do we have the Second Commandment? Aren't idols covered in the First Commandment? Worshiping an idol would be "having another god" before the Lord, and we don't have extra commandments covering lust (just the one general one on adultery) so why the extra commandment? –  user3483 Nov 19 '12 at 7:37
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6 Answers 6

up vote 7 down vote accepted

"Aren't idols covered in the first commandment?"

Yes and no. The thing is, our use of the English word 'idol' is broad enough that there can be two kinds of idolatry: one, worshipping any god that isn't our own, which the first commandment prohibits, and two, worshipping a man-made image (or "graven image") of any deity, which the second commandment prohibits. God here is specific and prohibits both separately.

So the first commandment, saying there should be no other gods before Him, doesn't rule out worship of other gods that doesn't require man-made images.

And as Thomas pointed out in his answer, the second-commandment prohibition against creating or serving man-made images is not just about other gods, but also refers to man-made images intending to represent God himself.

So one could break the first commandment and keep the second commandment by (for example) worshipping trees, the sun, or a sacred animal, without creating any images.

And one could break the second commandment and keep the first by creating an image intended to represent God, and directing one's worship and service to it.

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Not a satisfying answer. According to your explanation the only way the 2nd commandment could be broken while keeping the 1st is if someone attempted to make an image of God, however the 2nd commandment strongly implies making images of creation. (likeness in heaven, earth and sea) –  Truth Mar 16 '13 at 1:11
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The First Commandment covers who to worship, but the Second Commandment covers how.

Often when the Israelites worshiped idols they were actually trying to worship Yahweh[citation needed] and were going about it all wrong. In the Second Commandment, God was giving a clear explanation on what kind of worship was acceptable, and idolatrous worship was out.

From a reformed protestant point of view, I understand this to be forbidding prayer to or worship of images of God or Jesus.

Neil Postman, author of Amusing Ourselves to Death (and also Jewish, I believe) comments:

I wondered...why the God of these people would have included instructions on how they were to symbolize, or not symbolize, their experience. It is a strange injunction to include as part of an ethical system unless its author assumed a connection between forms of human communication and the quality of a culture. We may hazard a guess that a people who are being asked to embrace an abstract, universal deity would be rendered unfit to do so by the habit of drawing pictures or making statues or depicting their ideas in any concrete, iconographic forms. The God of the Jews was to exist in the Word and through the Word, an unprecedented conception required the highest order of abstract thinking.

While Postman is using this as example of how different media affect their cultures, it's interesting to think about it in light of the New Testament and Paul's statements about faith and sight.

For we walk by faith, not by sight. - 2. Cor. 5:7

and also

For in this hope we were saved. But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what they already have? - Romans 8:24

The idea seems to be that we are to walk by faith, trusting in the Word of God and not in the tangible images we might construct. We are to worship God by faith, not by sight.

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I know JWs use the second commandment to partly explain why they do not salute the flag, which i sometimes appreciate although am a baptist. There are many small forms of worships we have indulged ourselves in which might be very wrong before God. I agree with Thomas yet let me add this. "...likeness of any thing that is in heaven above...'' We have on our flags the moon, star, sun. ''...that is in the earth beneath...'' On countries coat of arms we see eagles, lions. horses etc. ''...or that is in the water under the earth:" On coat of arms we see sea horses on both sides of the shield, you could cite a few more yourself. So it was very relevant that God added the second, and even with that we do not see that we are worshiping other things alongside our Jesus Christ. Drawings and carvings of Jesus, Mary which we bow before in church are all part of it. Think of it, those times they saw how Jesus looked like but the disciples or anybody never bow before a carving of Christ after he had left. it was purely by faith and belief. We need to be careful about these.

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The Catholic perspective as I understand it:

An idol can refer to a graven image, but it can also refer to a person, thing or pursuit that one places higher than God. If you place higher value on a hobby, money, career, or even family, then by definition you are worshiping that thing more than God.

This is a kind of idolatry, and the kind we are more susceptible to these modern days, in which graven image worship of any kind is fairly unknown in the developed world. This is distinct from worshiping another being that sets itself up as a deity, whether or not it is a physical being, as other answers have pointed out.

Thomas Aquinas formulated this in Summa Theologica Q. 94 (Objection 4 and Reply to Objection 4) as "worshipped and served the creature rather than the Creator", which I have seen generalized to "...the creation rather than the Creator".

As regards statues, pictures, and the like, as long as the thing itself is not worshiped, venerated or addressed, but rather what it represents or points to, then it does not fall afoul of idolatry. From the Council of Trent:

An essential difference exists between idolatry and the veneration of images practised in the Catholic Church, viz., that while the idolater credits the image he reverences with Divinity or Divine powers, the Catholic knows "that in images there is no divinity or virtue on account of which they are to be worshipped, that no petitions can be addressed to them, and that no trust is to be placed in them. . . that the honour which is given to them is referred to the objects (prototypa) which they represent, so that through the images which we kiss, and before which we uncover our heads and kneel, we adore Christ and venerate the Saints whose likenesses they are" (Conc. Trid., Sess. XXV, "de invocatione Sanctorum").

In fact, a few chapters after the idolatry commandment, in Exodus 25, God describes the creation of the Ark, which has images of cherubim in gold, and does not see any contradiction. And in a more common sense example, we never make the mistake of loving pictures of our families instead of the families themselves; we are capable of making the distinction. But it was an important distinction to make in the context of ancient Israel, surrounded by idolatrous cultures, which DID worship physical objects and creatures.

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thanks for explaining that view; I disagree, but that's no reason not to +1 :) –  Thomas Shields Mar 30 '12 at 22:49
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The first commandment and the second commandment are completely different

Here is my translation, on Wikisource

I am Yahweh your God, who took you out of the land of Egypt, from the slave-house. You will have no other Gods in my presence.

You will make for yourself no statue and no image of that in the skies above and that in the land below, and that in the water underneath the land. You will not bow to them, and you will not worship them, because I, Yahweh your God, am a jealous god, commanding blight, from fathers to sons to the third generation and the fourth generation, to my detesters. And I will have kindness on the thousands, to those that love me, and that keep my commandments.

The first commandment states that you will not worship other Gods. The second commandment requires the Jews to abolish any figurative art, even that which is dedicated to Yahweh, or just secular art. So no scenes of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, no pictures of Noah's ark, no statues of Moses, no paintings of Jewish Kings, no coins with representations of Jews, nothing. This law essentially made ancient Judea and Samaria the most barren of wastelands for figurative art in the entire ancient world.

The second commandment has been interpreted in different ways:

  • Jewish/Muslim: no representational art whatsoever (at the very least, no religious art)
  • Christian: Worship is not to be directed at objects, nor to any Earthly representation, but to the Heavenly realm. A figurative statue is not a problem.

I should point out in this context that it is a monotheistic smear that Pagans generally believe that statues are alive and respond to prayers. Generally, the statues are representations of the Gods, and only serve as an Earthly work in which to present a heavenly form. So Pagan worship is generally not as ridiculous as Jews, Christians, and Muslims make it out to be.

But the original phrasing of the injunction is against figurative art. Good visual artists in particular, are able to embue their work with spirituality and virtual life, and their spiritual message is often in conflict with the established orthodoxy, in all times. So this injunction is designed to prevent challenge to the priesthood from artists, by prohibiting figurative art entirely.

It should be noted that the Cherubs on the "Ark of the Covenant" (the crate of the testimony) are Griffin-like creatures, they violate this commandment. But they are hidden behind a curtain, so that only the priests see them. I suppose these are allowed because God commanded they be made.

On a personal note, I do not respect the second commandment. I think it is criminal in the original interpretation (see Buddhas of Bamiyan for why). The Christian intepretation thankfully renders it harmless.

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The 2nd commandment is referring to the making of idols of God's creation, not making idols of God.

"... any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth... " - part of the second commandment

This is clearly referring to created objects. It appears that the this commandment, unlike the 1st, is needed as a added deterrent in order to prevent people from worshiping other than God.

You can also see proof of this in Jewish texts. Here is a section of the Talmud discussing images

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