By RAYMOND DE SOUZA, KM
“I, the Lord, am your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, that place of slavery. You shall not have other gods besides me. You shall not carve idols for yourselves in the shape of anything in the sky above or on the earth below or in the waters beneath the earth; you shall not bow down before them or worship them. For I the Lord, your God, am a jealous God” (Exodus 20:2-5).
In this classical text, God our Lord begins by reminding the Hebrews who were gathered around Mount Sinai that He, God, had brought them out of the land of Egypt. And He adds a specific trait of that land: It was a place of slavery. But please note: not only physical, social slavery, but also spiritual, because the Hebrews had paganized themselves in Egypt. They were practicing ecumenism with the pagan idolatry of the Egyptians.
When we study the whole context in Scripture, we’ll see that God our Lord wanted Moses to take the Hebrews into the desert for three days, in order to offer proper sacrifices to Him. Yes, three days. Initially, it was not God’s plan to take them away into the Promised Land right away. They were going into the desert to offer sacrifices, to purify themselves, and eventually to go back to Egypt — to purify themselves from paganism and idolatry and eventually to convert the Egyptians. It was not a mere socio-political liberation; it was, first and foremost, a spiritual liberation.
Pharaoh asked Moses why the Hebrews could not offer sacrifice to their God in Egypt, instead of going into the desert. Why the need to go into the desert for three days? Moses replied that the Egyptians would not take it nicely if they saw the Hebrews killing the animals they adored . . . so Moses was going to kill calves (the god Apis of the Egyptians) and as sure as death and taxes, they would object to seeing their petty gods killed by a bunch of slaves. So, for the sake of public safety, it would be more prudent to make the sacrifices far way into the desert, away from the vigilant eyes of the Egyptians (Exodus 8:21-23).
But Pharaoh changed his mind several times, which led him into trouble. Then he suffered the plagues and witnessed the eventual flight of the Hebrews into Sinai. But idolatry was so ingrained among the Hebrews, after centuries of rubbing shoulders with the Egyptians, that they just could not do without a little idol to worship here and there: to be like everybody else in the land was a temptation difficult to resist.
It was comparatively easy for God to take Israel out of Egypt, but it was tough to take Egypt out of Israel. That stiff-necked people simply could not do without idolatry!
So God, after reminding them of their social and spiritual slavery in Egypt, laid down the law: “I, the Lord, am your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, that place of slavery. You shall not have other gods besides me.”
Let us note that God states that He is their God, and they should not have other gods besides Him. Which other “gods” existed then? Idols. All pagan gods were idols. The Hebrews were forbidden to have other gods — idols — besides the true, spiritual God of Israel.
The King James Version of the Bible reads, “For all the gods of the nations are idols: but the Lord made the heavens.” But the Catholic Douay-Rheims is more precise: “For all the gods of the Gentiles are devils: but the Lord made the heavens” (Psalm 96:5). Therefore, to worship idols meant to worship devils, and very naturally God made an explicit prohibition of it.
And, to make it even clearer and to avoid any shade of confusion, God explicitly mentions the “gods” they were forbidden to have:
“You shall not carve idols for yourselves in the shape of anything in the sky above or on the earth below or in the waters beneath the earth; you shall not bow down before them or worship them.”
Here is the clear prohibition: no carved “gods,” in the shape of anything: animals, birds, trees, nothing. They were forbidden both to carve them and to worship them.
It is interesting to remember that it was precisely the Egyptian “god” Apis, the golden calf that the Hebrews had carved to worship. And they paid dearly for it.
So, what did God Our Lord forbid? Idol-making for the purpose of adoration. He did not forbid artistic imagery!
Here are some parallel texts in Scripture, relating to the idolatry of the surrounding cultures — all of them explicitly forbid idol-making for the purpose of adoration, not image-making for the purpose of art or pious reminders of sacred realities:
“Do not make anything to rank with me; neither gods of silver or gold shall you make for yourselves” (Exodus 20:23). No Catholic statue was ever made to rank with God.
“You shall not make for yourselves molten gods” (34:17). No Catholic has ever believed that a statue of the Virgin Mary or St. Jude is a “god.”
“Do not turn aside to idols, do not make molten gods for yourselves. I, the Lord, am your God” (Lev. 19:4). Catholics know perfectly well that a statue is not a molten god.
“Take heed, therefore, lest forgetting the covenant which the Lord, your god, has made with you, you fashion for yourselves against his command an idol in any form whatsoever. For the Lord, your god, is a consuming fire, a jealous God” (Deut. 4:23-24). Notice how God forbids idols of any form whatsoever. This is of utmost importance, as we shall see later.
In Deuteronomy 27 Moses issued 12 curses, to which the people responded, Amen! Here is the first one: “Cursed be the man who makes a carved or molten idol — an abomination to the Lord, the product of a craftsman’s hands — and set it up in secret!” and all the people shall answer, “Amen!” (Deut. 27:15).
Therefore, if statue and idol were one and the same thing, anyone who carved one would be cursed, regardless of what was being depicted.
In the next article, the big surprise: The most sacred place in the world in the Old Testament, the Temple of Solomon, was crowded with statues, all commanded to be made by God Himself!
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(Raymond de Souza is director of the Evangelization and Apologetics Office of the Winona Diocese, Minn.; EWTN program host; regional coordinator for Portuguese-speaking countries for Human Life International [HLI], president of the Sacred Heart Institute and a member of the Sovereign, Military, and Hospitaller Order of the Knights of Malta. His web site is: www.RaymonddeSouza.com.)