Hearing, Seeing, and History
God is Word, not picture. He speaks, but He is not visible in Himself. Thus, God initiates history through language. He speaks the world into existence, and speaks to us to bring us out of formlessness and emptiness into the fullness of being His Bride. Similarly, we speak words that direct our lives and our children after us. Thus, language initiates history.
Sight, by way of contrast, comes at the end. We can “look back” over what we have experienced and understand it, while we often don’t understand what God is doing to us as we go through His course of instruction. Reason, therefore, comes at the end, not at the beginning.
To say, “In the beginning was the Reason,” the notion of Gordon Clark, is completely wrong. Rather, “In the beginning was the Language, the Spoken Word.” This is the alpha of history. “At the end will be Reason, Understanding.” That is the omega of history.
Reason is the sight of the mind. Jesus said to the High Priest, “Hereafter you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of Power, coming on the clouds of heaven” (Matthew 26:64). Caiaphas did not see this with his physical eyes, but he was made to understand it by the events that followed.
We respond to language by faith, for we cannot see at the beginning how things will turn out at the end. Thus, we submit to God’s Word by faith. Because of this, reason is not the right tool to make men Christians. Reason only comes afterwards. As Augustine rightly said, “I believe in order to understand.”
Similarly, at the end we shall see Him. We do not see Him in the beginning; rather, we hear Him. There was nothing to see at Mount Sinai but dark clouds. Ezekiel and Daniel saw something like the form of a man. The disciples actually saw God in the flesh, but then Jesus went to heaven, out of their sight as Acts 1:9 explicitly says. The new Kingdom set up by Jesus is a new creation, a new start, a new initiation. The completed Bible is the Language, the Word, that starts the world anew. Once again there is nothing to see. Sight will come only at the end.
It is true that since the Bible has been completed, there is a place for reason to look back over it. The Bible begins with law and ends with the Pauline epistles, which contain much reasoned argument from history. Similarly, the more we progress in history, the more we shall understand, and the greater role reason will play. But we must never lose the foundation of law and command. We shall not understand it all in this world, and so must always be grounded in faith in God’s Word.
Thus, sight does not move us forward in history and maturation and sanctification and development. Rather, it is the Law-Word of God that always provokes historical development. We are told to resist the tendency to end history by living and worshipping in terms of sight. And indeed, wherever sight has taken over, as in Eastern Orthodoxy most obviously, history is regarded as ended. For the Orthodox, the so-called Seven Ecumenical Councils, of which the demand for iconolatrous worship was the last, are regarded as ending all that needs to be accomplished by the Church.
The Second Word
With these prefatory remarks out of the way, let us now consider precisely what is stated in the Second Word. This commandment is often misinterpreted as stating that no picture of God can be made. This is not what it says. What is says is that no image of anything can be set up as an avenue of worship to God and the court of heaven.
You shall not make for yourself a carving, and any similitude of what is in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters under the earth: You shall not prostrate to them and you shall not serve them;
For I, Yahweh your God, am a Jealous God,
Visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and fourth of those who hate Me,
But showing lovingkindness to thousands, to those who love Me and guard My orders.
It is impossible to separate the command “You shall not prostrate to them” from what precedes. If it were an additional, coordinate thought, it would begin with “and.” Thus, it is wrong to isolate the first command and say that God forbad the Israelites to make any images of any created thing, period. After all, the Tabernacle and Temple were full of images. The focus of the command is on prostrating to and serving images.
The simplest read of the Hebrew is as I have given it above, and as it is found in English Bibles. Based on the meaning of the commandment and a possible parallel to the Fourth Word, I should like to suggest an alternate read of the first part:
You shall not make for yourself a carving.
Indeed, any similitude of what is in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters under the earth: You shall not prostrate to them and you shall not serve them.
The Fourth Word begins with a short command, which is then expanded into a longer command, and followed by an explanation. I suggest that the same structure is intended for the Second Word.
I also suggest this because of the meaning of the word “carving” in the first phrase. “Making a carving” is explained by prostrating and serving any manmade similitude of a created thing. This emerges from the fact that there is another “carving” or pesel in the book of Exodus: the Ten Words, which God carved with His own finger. The verb “hew out” in Exodus 34:1 & 4 and Deuteronomy 10:1 & 3 is the verbal form of same word.
Thus, the idea is not that of a “graven” image as opposed to a “molten” image or a “painted” image. The idea is that of a manmade graven object versus the God-made graven Word. The opposition is between God’s content-filled graven Words and man’s silent graven images. The opposition of God’s verbal covenant and man’s graven images is set out in greater detail in Deuteronomy 4:15-31, which we shall take up below.
These passages are virtually the only places where this Hebrew word is used in the Pentateuch, and almost the only places it is used in the whole Hebrew Bible. In only a few places are “graven” images set next to “molten” images. In the passages we are considering, the opposition is man’s engraving versus God’s.
For this reason, it seems to me that the essential command is: You shall not make for yourself a pesel. The second section of the commandment serves to amplify and explain this basic command.
God’s pesel, His covenant Word, is how He relates to us and we relate to Him. That relationship is verbal because it is personal. It is God-initiated.
When men set up a pesel it is always man-initiated. Thus, all three iconolatrous churches (Rome, Orthodoxy, Anglo-Catholicism) are essentially Pelagian. They start with man. Man makes the move toward God. Original Sin is downplayed. Man’s works “merit the merit of Christ.” Man engages in ascetic exercises to lift himself up to God. This is the essence of paganism. Augustinians within these traditions seek to explain these Pelagian trends and to put a good face on them, but the Pelagian tendency always wins out and is never fully rejected.
The worship of man’s pesel is not a conversation with God, but prostration before a manmade object, such as the communion elements or the cross.
The word I have translated “form,” often rendered “likeness,” is the Hebrew word tmunah. It is not the normal word for likeness, as can be seen from Deuteronomy 4:16, which uses both words. Tmunah only occurs nine times in the Hebrew Bible. An examination of these passages will help locate the general nuance and meaning of this term and why it is used in the Second Word.
In Numbers 12:8, Moses is said to see the form of God. This refers to Exodus 33:23, where God said that Moses cannot see His “face” but only His “back.” When, however, God passed by Moses, God proclaimed His name (Exodus 34:6-7). It seems that this long descriptive name is the “back” of God’s name, for which the “face” is the overwhelming “I Am That I Am.” However the case may be, we cannot fail to notice that the emphasis shifts from seeing to hearing. God had already made just this point in Exodus 33:18-20, for when Moses initially asked to see God’s glory, He responded by saying that He would make His goodness pass before Moses and would proclaim His name.
Back to Numbers 12:6-8, we find that the entire passage concerns verbal revelation:
If there is a prophet [who speaks for] Yahweh among you,
I shall make Myself known to him in a vision.
I shall speak with him in a dream.
Not so with My servant Moses:
He is faithful in all My household.
With him I speak mouth to mouth,
Even openly, and not in dark sayings,
And he beholds the form of Yahweh.
The contrast is that Moses hears God “mouth to mouth,” while the later prophets will hear God in visions and dreams and dark sayings. Then God says that Moses beholds Yahweh’s form. It seems pretty clear that beholding Yahweh’s form means having a clear revelation from God. In a sense, the completion of the Bible means that the form of God has been revealed to us, for as long as the Bible was incomplete it was somewhat of a “dark saying.”
We have seen from Exodus 33-34 that Moses did not see God’s face, and surely if seeing God’s form meant something visual, it would mean looking directly at God. Thus, when Numbers 12 says that Moses does see God’s form, and explicates this in terms of verbal revelation, we should understand it verbally. That is, Moses did not see God’s form visually, but he beheld it with the eyes of faith in God’s spoken Word.
The word tmunah occurs five times in Deuteronomy 4 (vv. 12, 15, 16, 23, 25). In verses 12-13, the contrast the visual and the verbal is very strongly expressed:
Then Yahweh spoke to you from the midst of the fire;
You heard the sound of words,
But you saw no form, only a voice.
So He declared to you His covenant,
Which He commanded you to perform,
The Ten Words,
And He wrote them on two tablets of stone.
Verses 15-16 begin to expose the motivation for the production of icons: “So watch yourselves carefully, since you did not see any form on the day Yahweh spoke to you at Horeb from the midst of the fire; lest you act corruptly and make a pesel for yourselves in the likeness of any figure, the likeness of male or female, etc.” Somehow the motivation for setting up a graven image is related to the invisibility of God. We don’t want an invisible God. And once again, the contrast is between the God who spoke at Horeb and the creation of silent images.
Notice what this verse does not say. It does not say, “Do not make an image of God, since you saw no form of God at Horeb.” This command is not directly a prohibition on depictions of God Himself. Rather, what is prohibited is the creation of a contact-point with God in the likeness of other creatures.
This is important. Nowhere in the Hebrew Bible do we find people falling into a sin of making images of God Himself. Rather, they make images of creatures and set these up as mediators to God. If the Second Word forbad worshipping images of God, it would be prohibiting something the Israelites were evidently not tempted to do. When they rejected God, of course, they worshipped other gods, and set up images to them; but when they paid lip service to God, they did not set up any images of Him. The images are designed as mediating agents to the invisible God.
The contrasts are clear. God initiates the mediation between Himself and us, and He controls it. The idolater seeks to initiate mediation between himself and God, which he can control. God’s mediation is verbal and usually invisible, the Word of God, ultimately the Incarnate Word. Manmade mediators are visual and silent. God’s mediation is His pesel, the Word. Manmade mediators are images.
Seeing God’s Form in the Resurrection
Will we ever see God? In some sense, yes. The last use of tmunah in the Bible speaks of it. Psalm 17:15 reads, “As for me, I shall behold Your face in righteousness; I shall be satisfied with Your form when I awake.” That is, in the resurrection we shall behold God’s form with our new eyes.
This introduces a new consideration that is most important for understanding the Second Word. It is that seeing God is a good thing, but it is not for now. God tells us not to try and do it until He is ready to let us. We find exactly the same thing in Genesis 1-3, where God said that every tree would be for Adam and Eve to eat, and every tree in the garden is said to be good for food. Thus, the prohibition on the Tree of Knowledge was temporary. Adam and Eve were to develop patience by responding to God’s “NO.” By eating the fruit, they rejected God’s plan for growth and development, and became corrupt. Similarly, sex is good, but we are not to indulge in it until we are married.
Now, seeing God face to face is a good thing, and if we are faithful, we shall enjoy the “beatific vision” in the resurrection. But God has clearly and unmistakably said that we are not to attempt to see Him in this world. Jesus said, “It is good for you that I go away.” We cannot see God now, and the attempt to do so is a replication of Original Sin.
God strictly forbids any attempt to make a “form” that connects us to Him visually. God will let us see Him when He is ready, and when we are. To set up an icon and say that this gives us a visual revelation of God or of some dimension of God’s heavenly existence, is to jump the gun. It is the same as seizing the forbidden fruit. It is the same as having sex before marriage. It is fornication and adultery.
We are to be satisfied with the Word, because the Word is ultimate. God is Word, but He is not visible. What we shall see is God’s voluntary self-presentation, not God Himself. But God’s Word is not just His voluntary self-presentation; it is God Himself. Thus, the visual is always secondary. To insist on the visual is to despise God’s Word, and thus to despise God. Accordingly, those who set up images are said to “hate” God.
We develop patience as we respond to the “no”s of life, and patience is of the essence of faith (Hebrews 6:12-15). Adam and Eve, by seizing what they were not yet given, rejected personal maturity and destroyed the possibility of historical maturation for their posterity. Similarly, those who break the Second Word by indulging in visual worship have proven impatient. They have rejected personal maturity, and have destroyed their posterity. By the third and fourth generation, their seed will have become so corrupt that some kind of new Flood will be necessary. Thus, there can be no personal or cultural maturity apart from the strict keeping of the Second Word.
There was never any excuse for Israel to set up other mediators, because God was near at hand. They were without excuse, but the fact is that they did not want God as Mediator because God was not under their control. Unfortunately, some parts of the Church similarly violate the Second Word and rejoice in doing so. They are not satisfied with Christ as Mediator, and insist on having heavenly saints as mediators as well. Icons are set up to mediate to the saints. All of these practices reveal a dissatisfaction with God, for if we have God, why do we want all these other things?
(to be continued)
James Jordan is scholar-in-residence at Theopolis. This article originally appeared at Biblical Horizons.