I understand that some worshippers use icons to 'lift up their minds from earthly things to the heavenly things'? I am not interested about those using them as stage-props for a play (in comparison), but in those who do it from a religious sense, of helping them in prayer or worship.

Did the Jews ever do this?

  • 3
    Wouldn't they have considered that idolatry? Also, if it still exists would this be a better fit at the Judaism.se site? Jun 24, 2012 at 5:04
  • 3
    They have no reason to. It was God who had huge statues of cherubim made for this purpose in the Temple. Idolatry is worship of other-than-god. Not using other-than-god to help you worship God. Sep 1, 2017 at 17:36
  • 2
    I'm voting to close this question as off-topic because it is about Judaism, not about Christianity. Feb 11, 2018 at 19:28
  • Link.
    – user46876
    Oct 16, 2019 at 15:23

6 Answers 6


The remains of an ancient Jewish Synagogue have been found at a site known as Dura-Europos. Inside this Jewish Synagogue, all the walls are covered in frescoes of scenes from the Tanakh, which date to about 250 AD.

  • 1
    Welcome to the site. This is interesting information. However, depicting scenes from the Bible and using icons and images to worship are not necessarily the same thing. Is there evidence that they used these frescoes in the same way the catholics use their icons?
    – user3961
    Dec 22, 2013 at 16:47
  • 1
    @fredsbend: The depictions in question, just like the golden cherubim from the tabernacle (Exodus 26:1), were situated on the wall facing the worshipers, as opposed to the ones placed sideways or to their back; so whenever the community prayed, knelt, or bowed during worship, it was literally towards (or in the direction of) these representations. (A similar reasoning could be applied to Exodus 25:18-22 with regards to Moses). As for prayer, feel free to consult this scholarly article on the subject.
    – user46876
    Oct 16, 2019 at 15:08

As others pointed out Synagogue had painting in them as early as 250 A.D.

But Catholics and Orthodox Justify having statues because God did not forbid Jews the religious usage of statues; He forbade the worship of statues.

  • God commanded Jews to make statues, “You shall make two cherubim of gold, make them of hammered work at the two ends of the mercy seat.” [Exodus 25:18-20]
  • Moses made a statue and used it to get Gods Help, “So Moses made a serpent of bronze, and put it upon a pole; and whenever a serpent bit someone, that person would look at the serpent of bronze and live.” [Numbers 21:9]
  • In I Kings 6:23-36; 7:27-39; 8:6-67 - Solomon's temple contains statues of cherubim and images of cherubim, oxen and lions. God did not condemn these images that were used in worship.

From these we know for a fact at-least in the very beginning Jews used images to help them in prayer or worship.

  • sorry your answers are usually pretty good but you seem naive about Jewish history and so is not well researched answer. apart from those instruments specifically designed by God for use in temple worship Jews were generally opposed to any use of images more so than any Christian sect that I know of.
    – Mike
    Dec 22, 2013 at 8:54
  • @Mike Can you please tell me when God approved lions, oxen and cherubim to be carved in worship place? If God never told, then how could Jews dare to engrave them (not just paint, but engrave) in their temple walls. (BTW God did not stop them from engraving lions and oxen in their temple walls) My guess is that Jews became adamantly against usage of Icons in worship in later period. Dec 22, 2013 at 13:59
  • @Mike, your answer seems to imply that they never ever used icons in their worship. Which is not true. The question asked was in past tense. They had at-least in the very beginning used engraven images on the arc of the covenant and temple walls. Whether approved by God or not is out of question. They used and that was my point. At some point they stopped using it. But it is inaccurate to say that they never used it. I hope I am clear. Please correct me if I am wrong. Dec 22, 2013 at 14:03

In the Biblical sense, "icon" and "image" are synonymous. The word icon comes directly from the Greek εἰκών (eikōn). In the Septuagint, it represents the Hebrew word צלמ (Masoretic צֶ֫לֶם; ṣě·lěm), as in Genesis 1:26:

And God said, Let us make man in our image [eikōn], after our likeness

The Law of Moses explicitly required use of representations in worship:

Exodus 25:18-19

And thou shalt make two cherubims of gold, of beaten work shalt thou make them, in the two ends of the mercy seat. And make one cherub on the one end, and the other cherub on the other end: even of the mercy seat shall ye make the cherubims on the two ends thereof. And the cherubims shall stretch forth their wings on high, covering the mercy seat with their wings, and their faces shall look one to another; toward the mercy seat shall the faces of the cherubims be. And thou shalt put the mercy seat above upon the ark; and in the ark thou shalt put the testimony that I shall give thee. And there I will meet with thee, and I will commune with thee from above the mercy seat, from between the two cherubims which are upon the ark of the testimony, of all things which I will give thee in commandment unto the children of Israel.

I'm not sure if one would characterize this as something that simply "helped" the Jews to worship, though. The purpose, as the text states, was to provide a physical point where God would meet and commune with them.

The Jews were given another command to create an image of a serpent, though not specifically for worship:

Numbers 21:8-9

And the Lord said unto Moses, Make thee a fiery serpent, and set it upon a pole: and it shall come to pass, that every one that is bitten, when he looketh upon it, shall live. And Moses made a serpent of brass, and put it upon a pole, and it came to pass, that if a serpent had bitten any man, when he beheld the serpent of brass, he lived.

This passage is also relevant to the discussion (see below), however, since the question could be understood to insinuate that the use of images in worship is somehow "non-Biblical".

Excursus on iconoclasm

In what follows, I would like to address what I think is a faulty premise in the question: that for the Orthodox, icons serve as nothing more than something to 'lift up their minds from earthly things to the heavenly things'. Their purpose is actually much more profound than that. I cannot speak for Roman Catholics, though the sources which I cite below are also considered Church Fathers by the Roman Catholic Church and all date to before the Schism of 1054, when the Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholics mutually separated.

The iconoclasts of the 8th and 9th centuries, as well as the neo-iconoclasts of today, frequently cite Exodus 20:4 as grounds from excluding any and all images from worship:

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

Interestingly, the Hebrew word translated as image in this verse is not the same Hebrew word that appears in Genesis 1:26. Here, פֶּ֫סֶל (pě·sěl), not צֶ֫לֶם (ṣě·lěm) is used. Many English translations translate the pě·sěl as "graven image" (KJV) or "formed image" (ESV), but some actually use the word that appears in the Septuagint: idol (Gr. εἴδωλον - eidōlon).

The arguments employed by the iconoclasts of the first millennium were much more sophisticated than those offered by the neo-iconoclasts of today, who generally simply parrot Exodus 20:4, maintaining that it is some kind of self-evident "proof text". Theodore the Studite (759-826) dismisses this argument early on in his treatise, On the Holy Icons (and then moves on to more substantive objections in the remaining 150 sections):

"The erection of images is completely forbidden," the heretics say, "in the Scripture; for it says, You shall not make an idol for yourself, nor any likeness of whatever is in the heaven above or on the earth below or in the heavens above or on the earth below or in the waters under the earth. You shall not venerate them, nor shall you worship them, for I am the Lord your God."

When and to whom were these words spoken? Before the age of grace, and to those who were confined under the Law,1 and were being taught the monarchy of one divine person; when God had not yet been revealed in the flesh, and the men of antiquity were being protected against foreign idols. This law had to be made for those who through their forefather Abraham had formed a chosen people and fled the abyss of polytheism, because there is one God and Lord of all, whom no man has ever seen or can see2, as it is written. For Him there is no designation, no likeness, no circumspection, no definition, nothing at all of what comes within the comprehension of the human mind. The words of the prophet make this very clear: To whom did you liken the Lord, or with what likeness did you compare Him?3 I pass over the fact that what was utterly forbidden in the case of God was not utterly forbidden in every case. For He who had given the prohibition to the hierophant Moses immediately commanded him: You shall make two cherubim of gold, of hammered works, on the two ends of the mercy seat ...4

Theodore then puts the serpent of Moses into context:

And in the book of Leviticus, the Lord says to Moses, Make a serpent for yourself, and set it on a pole ... Now you see the whole teaching of Scripture; although the angels are not solid like us; and although the serpent differs from us by its reptilian shape, nevertheless it was received figuratively as a symbol of Christ.5 If God formerly condescended to be symbolized as a serpent in order to heal those who were bitten, how could it not be pleasing to Him and appropriate to set up the image of the bodily from which has been His since He became man? And if the symbol in animal form cured those who had been bitten by its sight alone, how could the holy representation of Christ's very form do otherwise than hallow those who see it?5

Iconoclasm arose during the first millennium in part due to the influence of Islam. By the 9th century, the geographical territory of three of the five ancient Sees of the Church - Jerusalem, Alexandria, and Antioch - were under the control of Muslims. This reversal in political fortune after several centuries of expansion led some Byzantine emperors to introspection as to what might be going wrong. The strict Muslim prohibition against holy images was one aspect that they considered. Was this Muslim doctrine somehow placing Muslims in more favor with God than Christians? Ironically, it was in areas under Muslim control where Christians had the most freedom to write in defense of icons. Iconoclasm, though previously condemned by Church Fathers such as John of Damascus (676-749) and Theodore the Studite, was finally and definitively condemned at the 7th Ecumenical Council at Nicaea in 787, which declared:

We define that the holy icons, whether in colour, mosaic, or some other material, should be exhibited in the holy churches of God, on the sacred vessels and liturgical vestments, on the walls, furnishings, and in houses and along the roads, namely the icons of our Lord God and Saviour Jesus Christ, that of our Lady the Theotokos, those of the venerable angels and those of all saintly people. Whenever these representations are contemplated, they will cause those who look at them to commemorate and love their prototype. We define also that they should be kissed and that they are an object of veneration and honour, but not of real worship, which is reserved for Him Who is the subject of our faith and is proper for the divine nature. The veneration accorded to an icon is in effect transmitted to the prototype; he who venerates the icon, venerated in it the reality for which it stands.

Despite the affirmation of the 7th Ecumenical Council, a remnant of iconoclasm survived within part of the Byzantine Empire. As a result, the then Patriarch of Constantinople summoned a Synod in Constantinople in 843. This Synod resulted in the issue of a number of anathemas against iconoclasts. These anathemas are proclaimed each year at all Eastern Orthodox parishes in the world during the first Sunday of Great Lent, known as the Sunday of Orthodoxy:

To those who scorn the venerable and holy ecumenical Councils, and who despise even more their dogmatic and canonical traditions; and to those who say that all things were not perfectly defined and delivered by the councils, but that they left the greater part mysterious, unclear, and untaught, ANATHEMA.

To those who hold in contempt the sacred and divine canons of our blessed fathers, which, by sustaining the holy Church of God and adorning the whole Christian Church, guide to divine reverence, ANATHEMA.

To all things innovated and enacted contrary to the Church tradition, teaching, and institution of the holy and ever-memorable fathers, or to anything hence-forth so enacted, ANATHEMA.

To those who accept the visions of the prophets, albeit unwillingly, and who do not – O wonder! – accept the images seen by the prophets even before the incarnation of the Word, but who babble that the intangible and invisible essence was seen by the prophets, and who, even when they concede that images and types and forms were truly revealed to the prophets, still cannot endure to depict in icons the Word become man and His sufferings for our sake, ANATHEMA.

To those who hear the Lord’s words: “Had ye believed Moses, ye would have believed Me” and so forth, and who understand Moses when he says, “The Lord our God will raise up to you a prophet of your brethren, like me,” and who then say that they accept the Prophet, yet they do not permit the grace and universal salvation of the Prophet to be depicted in icons, how He was seen, how He lived with mankind, how He worked healings of incurable passions and diseases, how He was crucified, was buried, and arose, in short, all that He both suffered and wrought for us; to those, therefore, who cannot endure to gaze upon these universal and saving deeds in icons, neither honor nor worship them, ANATHEMA.

To those who persist in the heresy of denying icons, or rather the apostasy of denying Christ, and who are not counseled by the Mosaic law to be led to their salvation, nor convinced to return to piety by the apostolic teachings, nor induced by patristic exhortations and explanations to abandon their deception, nor persuaded by the agreement of the Churches of God throughout the whole world, but who have once and for all joined themselves to the portion of the Jews and Greeks: for the blasphemies cast by the Jews and Greeks at the prototype, have been shamelessly used by the former to insult through His icon Him that is depicted therein; therefore, to those who are incorrigibly possessed by this deception and have their ears covered towards every divine word and spiritual teaching, since they are already putrefied members, having cut themselves off from the common body of the Church, ANATHEMA.

To those who do not confess that the Word and Son of God was begotten without change from the Father before the ages, and that in these latter times, out of His abundant loving kindness, He was incarnate of the immaculate Theotokos Mary and became man for our salvation, taking upon Himself all that pertains to us save sin; and to those who do not partake of His holy and immortal Mysteries with fear, since they consider them to be mere bread and common wine rather than the very flesh of the Master and His holy and precious blood shed for the life of the world; to such men be, ANATHEMA.

To those who do not worship the Cross of our Lord and God and Savior Jesus Christ as the salvation and glory of the whole world, as that which annulled and utterly destroyed the machinations and weapons of the enemy and redeemed creation from the idols and manifested victory to the world, but who consider the Cross to be a tyrannical weapon; to such men be, ANATHEMA.

To those who attack the Church of Christ by teaching that Christ’s Church is divided into so‑called “branches” which differ in doctrine and way of life, or that the Church does not exist visibly, but will be formed in the future when all “branches” or sects or denominations, and even religions will be united into one body; and who do not distinguish the priesthood and mysteries of the Church from those of the heretics, but say that the baptism and Eucharist of heretics is effectual for salvation; therefore, to those who knowingly have communion with these aforementioned heretics or who advocate, disseminate, or defend their new heresy of Ecumenism under the pretext of brotherly love or the supposed unification of separated Christians, ANATHEMA.

1. Galatians 3:23
2. 1 Timothy 6:16
3. Isaiah 40:18
4. On the Holy Icons (tr. from Greek, St. Vladimir's Seminary Press,1981), p.24
5. Ibid., p.25


Early Rabbinic sources have a very ‘hard line’ against all kinds of images, or pictorial representations on coins, or whatever other form. Not only for using them in gross idolatry, through aids in worship, but in various seemingly legitimate activities. This is why even the possession of a coin, for example, with Caesars image on it, could constitute idolatry. In this case the image was idolatrous as the coin has an inscription that identified Caesar as God. This may have partly underpinned the dilemma over paying taxes to Caesar. Not only did the tribute to Rome offend the Zealots, but even the conflict of conscience over the coins themselves may have attributed to the ‘tricky question’ asked of Jesus: “Is it right to pay taxes to Caesar or not?”

Jesus avoided the tricky question by saying:

“You hypocrites, why are you trying to trap me? 19 Show me the coin used for paying the tax.” They brought him a denarius, 20 and he asked them, “Whose portrait is this? And whose inscription?” 21 “Caesar’s,” they replied. Then he said to them, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s. (Matthew 22: 18-21)

In trying to control the sin of idolatry, by uses of images, they made distinctions over ‘having such pictorial representations’, buying/selling them fro profit’, ‘making them’ or ‘finding them’. (Alfred Edersheim, Rabbinic Views as To The Lawfulness Of Images, Pictorial Representations On Coins, Etc.)

Although there was a ‘hard line view’ about all representations of human beings, the Talmud seems to allow representations of human beings for ornament under certain conditions. However, the Mishnah forbids any image of a person that carries “in their hand some symbol of power, such as a staff, bird, globe, or as the Talmud adds, a sword, or even a signet-ring”. (The Talmudic Tractate Abhodah Zorah, on Idolatry. 3. 1).

We can really understand the idea of ‘pictorial power’ being hotly opposed by any Jew. ‘Any image’, that ‘in any way’ indicated that’ any man’ could be somehow ‘elevated’ into ‘any kind of worship’ -- was gross idolatry and could result in stoning. For example: “the law as regarded signet-rings, that it was forbidden to have raised work on them, and only such figures were allowed as were sunk beneath the surface, although even then they were not to be used for sealing”. (The Talmudic Tractate Abhodah Zorah, on Idolatry. 43 b).

Given this very scrupulous way that the Jews avoided all kinds of images and icons, it seems obvious that using icons and images to help them worship would never be allowed unless the second commandment were to be removed:

“You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or 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. (Exodus 20:4)

  • 2
    Ha...it seems obvious to me that this question and answer is an obvious attempt to volley and spike an anti-Catholic/Orthodox condemnation "tract" against the use of images within the ancient context of liturgical worship. Your answers are usually good...but this one is a false bias dichotomy.
    – user5286
    Dec 22, 2013 at 10:28
  • @CharlesAlsobrook - yes and no. Just because the Jews interpreted something one way does not mean it was the right way. but when I read my answer it does seem to assume that it was the right way. I must have been in a certain mood ha ha. Actually the question is very good but the accepted answer is not that great. If I get some time I should offer a better answer.
    – Mike
    Dec 22, 2013 at 23:02
  • "it seems obvious that using icons and images to help them worship would never be allowed unless the second commandment were to be removed" Why the second commandment? The second commandment is against idolatry, not using a statue in the context of worship (i.e. using tem to meditate whil epraying): hence "you shall not bow down to them and worship them." Not 'you shall not make statues or images.' God Himself inspired the sense of the heavenly presence in the Temple by having huge statues made of the cherubim. Sep 1, 2017 at 17:32
  • The main issue with this otherwise quite informative response would be its perhaps intentional confusion between rabbinic Judaism and Judaism itself, the latter being far more diverse than the former.
    – user46876
    Oct 16, 2019 at 15:16

I picked up on this old Question etc in prepping to ask one that is related tangentially. But I can't leave without answering, as I am not sure there was a direct answer linked directly to the very simple question the poster posted.

The answer is Yes.

Repeatedly, early/often, in every generation at least through the apocalypse of 70AD. YHWH was offended and spoke through His prophets and faithful ones, generation after generation, as He judged them for idolatry etc. What had been foreseen as a threat going all the way back to the fathers came to pass, as they picked up the veneration of images/objects and the demon "gods" behind them from the other cultures they came in contact with. They did also periodically mingle the idol cults with the YHWH cultus syncretistically.

A partial sample of scriptures addressing the Question and my answer: Leviticus 26:30

I will destroy your high places...heap your dead bodies on the lifeless bodies of your idols; I will reject you.

Deuteronomy 4:16-25

...not to act corruptly and make an idol for yourselves in the shape of any figure: a male or female form…

Deuteronomy 5:8

Do not make an idol for yourself in the shape of anything in the heavens above or on the earth below or in the waters under the earth.

Similar scriptural references abound: Deuteronomy 17:2-7, Deuteronomy 32:21, Judges Ch. 18, 1 Kings 11:5-7, 1 Kings 12:28-33, 1 Kings chapters 15, 16, 21. 2 Chronicles 15:8; 24:18; 33:7. Psalms 31:6 and 106:36-38. Isaiah 10:10-11; 30:22, 31:7; 42:17. Jeremiah 2:5-8; 4:1; 18:15. Ezekiel Chapters 6 & 8; 14:3-7 [note that one], Ch. 20; & many more in Ezekiel. Zechariah 10 & 13

  • Edit was for format, to break up the wall of text presentation. May 9, 2019 at 12:17

The sanctuary ordinance entrusted to Israel have objects in the place of worship.

These objects are not the "object of worship" rather they are the furniture that are required to perform the rituals. Moreover, these furniture have ornaments. Ornaments are neither the "object of worship" They are just there to portray art and its purposes of expressing aesthetic value.

The problem is when people idolize art and makes out of an object an exercise of veneration. That's why God made a transcript of His eternal Law understandable in human language in giving the 2nd commandment listed in the covenant AS A REMINDER. God is not against art but He does acknowledge the danger that comes with art.

For example, the Jews venerated their temple to an extent that they make it the source of their dignity instead of making God the only reason for their existence and integrity.

SO IN ESSENCE THEY WORSHIP THE TEMPLE INSTEAD OF GOD. AND THIS IS CONVEYED THROUGH THE CHARACTER OF THEIR PRACTICE OF RELIGION WHICH GOD, AS WE SEE FROM THE BIBLE, HAS DECLARED TO BE ISRAEL'S APOSTASY. They use the temple as the source of their national pride thinking God will never favor any nation besides them. SO THE WHOLE TEMPLE AND ITS ORDINANCE BECAME THEIR "IDOL WORSHIP" AS PERCEIVED IN THE TRUE ESSENCE OF THEIR PRACTICE. This is how Jesus in a large sense condemned the hypocrisy of the Jewish religious leaders leading the whole nation in an apostasy with the worst and most subtle kind of idolatry that people hardly perceived it. THEY HAVE MISREPRESENTED THE PURPOSES AND MEANING OF THE TEMPLE AND ITS SANCTUARY ORDINANCE.

God declared their apostasy has filled His cup of righteous wrath in rejecting the very object of the Temple ordinance in the person of Jesus. GOD DESTROYED THEIR IDOL IN A.D. 70 AND THE EARTHLY TEMPLE IS DECLARED NO LONGER TO RISE.

In the case of Christians, they have no need for images to represent God and have no need for their patrons and patronesses. This is but the essential blending of pagan practices with the Christian movement. With the images, come the doctrine of IMMORTALITY OF THE SOUL, thus we find some Christians praying to a person who has passed away and having that person represented by a sculpted or painted image provided that person is declared to be a saint and is therefore residing in heaven with God. The alleged doctrine simply violates Scriptural testimony on the state of the dead and method of salvation. The Scriptures essentially declare these views as heresies.

These sincere Christians technically do not worship the image, but essentially practice idolatry according to its principles. Moreover, others are led into cult worships of the same images according to the beliefs they have connected with it. STILL THIS IS AN OPEN FORM OF IDOLATRY. The deception is to rationalize that representations of the images do not make the practice idolatrous, but finding the origins of this form of worship leads us back to the practice of idol worship of the ANC cultures (ANC- Ancient Near East).

The metallic serpent that Moses was instructed to put up is an isolated case. IT HAS A DEFINITE PURPOSE AND WAS NOT INTENDED FOR WORSHIP. It was an instrument used for a certain TEST that only the Hebrews at the time were privileged to participate. And that test was a test of faith and obedience. However we find that the idolatrous inclinations of the Hebrew people prevailed as their apostasy increased and eventually they are found VENERATING AND WORSHIPING THE METALLIC SERPENT AND GIVING THEIR OFFERINGS TO IT. Thus the faithful act of Hezekiah is justified to DESTROY all objects that people attempted to venerate in worship.

Again, the objects at the Tabernacle of the Sanctuary and Temple of the Sanctuary are NOT THE OBJECT OF WORSHIP although they have purposes that represented the methods of salvation that God is going to fulfill according to His blueprint for the redemption plan. The temple of Jerusalem has served its purpose upon the fulfillment of Christ's sacrificial offering on a cross and therefore its ordinances have come to cease. But the Jews idolized the temple more than they have obeyed God in its rituals that foreshadowed the fulfillment of Christ's mission on earth and ministry in heaven for the salvation of repentant sinners, THUS THE DESTRUCTION OF THE TEMPLE IN A.D. 70. It is divinely ordained that the instruments of God's purposes in fulfilling His plans when taken to a distorted use MUST BE DESTROYED to protect and redeem His faithful people from idolatry.

(Pardon me for my CAPS, they are only intended for emphasis. Thank you.)

  • 1
    welcome to the site. suggest you read the FAQ if you have not already. cheers
    – Mike
    Aug 9, 2014 at 6:21
  • 1
    just some advise. i would scrap the caps and find a reference from a published work or two... there can be a lot of sense of accomplishment to make high quality answers here... better then a lot of other hobbies 😜
    – Mike
    Aug 9, 2014 at 6:23
  • 1
    Learnt to use the markdown formatting instead of capitals. It's very easy to add italics or bold.
    – curiousdannii
    Aug 9, 2014 at 7:24

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .