By RAYMOND DE SOUZA, KM
The very same God who condemned idol-making actually commanded that statues be carved. He told the people to show more respect to them than any patriotic American would respect the Lincoln Memorial or any British subject would respect a statue of Queen Victoria.
The most sacred place in the world was the Temple sanctuary that lodged the Ark of the Covenant. The Ark was so sacred that nobody but the High Priest could touch it. It contained the tables of the Commandments.
The presence of the Ark brought God’s blessings to Holy of Holies; the Holy of Holies to the Holy; the Holy to the Temple; the Temple to Jerusalem; Jerusalem to Israel; and Israel to the whole world. Thus the Temple of Solomon was the most sacred place in the universe, where God Himself dwelt in a mysterious but real presence, as we see in Exodus 25:8: “They shall make a sanctuary for me, that I may dwell in their midst.”
The Ark was the place par excellence of God’s presence. The Hebrews even came to refer to the Ark as God Himself (Numb. 10:33-36) and God’s presence was seen between the cherubim placed above the Ark:
“So they marched from the mount of the Lord three days’ journey, and the Ark of the Covenant of the Lord went before them, for three days providing for a place for the camp. The cloud also of the Lord was over them by day when they marched. And when the Ark was lifted up, Moses said: ‘Arise, O Lord, and let thy enemies be scattered and let them that hate thee flee before thy face.’ And when it was set down, he said: ‘Return, O Lord, to the multitude of the host of Israel’.”
David echoed Moses’ liturgical acclamations to the Ark in Psalm 131:8: “Arise, O Lord, into thy resting place: thou and the Ark, which thou hast sanctified.”
Now, verses 10 to16 of Exodus 25 tell us about the Ark of the Covenant. In verses 17-21 God said, “You shall then make a propitiatory” (a cover, a lid, for the Ark, upon which the High Priest sprinkled blood on the feast of the Atonement) “a propitiatory of pure gold. . . . Make two cherubim of beaten gold for the two ends of the propitiatory, fastening them so that one cherub springs directly from each end.
“The cherubim shall have their wings spread out above, covering the propitiatory with them; they shall be turned towards each other, but with their faces looking towards the propitiatory. The propitiatory you shall then place on top of the Ark. In the ark itself you are to put the Commandments which I will give you.”
God Our Lord describes the material to be used for the statues, “gold,” the method of using it, “beaten,” the places where they were to be placed, “the two ends of the propitiatory,” the position of the wings, “spread out above, covering the propitiatory with them” and even the direction of their faces, “looking towards the propitiatory.”
Surely God cannot contradict Himself, condemning and commanding the same thing at the same time, in the same book, by the same prophet, to the same people!
He commanded that statues of cherubim be made, not idols of cherubim! Here we have the perfect distinction between one and the other: The cherubim had a specific purpose, having to do with art, piety, honor, and respect, but Moses and any half-decent Hebrew knew perfectly well that those statues were not idols — it took a few thousand years for people who claim to be followers of Christ to ignore the difference. . . .
More: It was between two statues that God spoke to His people: “There I will meet you and there, from above the propitiatory, between the two cherubim on the Ark of the Commandments, I will tell you the commands that I wish you to tell the Israelites” (verse 22).
When Solomon built the Temple, it was to fulfill a commandment of God to build a house for Himself, God, represented by the Ark. Look at 1 Kings, chapter 7 (or 1 Samuel). Nathan the prophet said: “Thus saith the Lord: shalt thou build Me a house to dwell in?”
When Solomon built the Temple — 3 Kings 6:22-35 or (1 Kings), “There was nothing in the Temple that was not covered with gold: the whole altar of the oracle he covered also with gold.” But not only the Ark with the two famous cherubim and the altar were covered in gold: God wanted two gigantic statues of cherubim to stand beside with their wings spread above the Ark of the Covenant:
“And he made in the oracle two cherubim of olive tree, of ten cubits in height . . . and he set the cherubim in the midst of the inner Temple: and the cherubim stretched forth their wings, and the wing of the one touched one wall, and the wing of the other cherub touched the other wall, and the other wings in the midst of the Temple touched one another. And he overlaid the cherubim with gold” — 16 feet in height! Much bigger than the statue of St. Peter in the Vatican!
“And all the walls of the Temple round about he carved with divers figures and carvings: and he made in them cherubim and palm trees, and divers representations, as it were standing out, and coming forth from the walls” (29-35).
The same cherubim and palm trees were carved on the doors of the oracle, which were overlaid with gold, and on the entrance of the Temple posts: all carvings were overlaid with gold. Even the famous large veil of the Temple had cherubim wrought in it, as you can read in 2 Paralipomenon 3:7 (or Chronicles in other versions).
Did God contradict Himself by forbidding the carving of idols and right thereafter commanding the carving of such a display of statues’ galore in the most sacred place of the world, where He called His own dwelling?
Or was He teaching the people about the difference between idols for adoration and statues for art and piety?
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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.)