Israel’s sanctuaries were dramatically different from those of other nations. There was no image of Yahweh. The priests maintained Yahweh’s house, but His presence was either invisible or so intense that it was unapproachable. The aniconic worship of Israel was a standing reminder that their God is a different sort of God. What does that mean? What kind of God forbids us to worship Him in images?
In Deuteronomy 4, Moses reinforces this commandment by reminding Israel that they didn’t see any form on Mount Sinai. They heard a voice. The Second Word is founded on a contrast between sight and hearing.
That contrast is evident elsewhere too. When Yahweh tells Moses to carve a new set of tablets to replace the ones he broke, He uses the verb form of the word for “graven image” (Exodus 34:1). He tells Him to “grave” a set of tablets. But the tablets don’t contain pictures. The tablets are full of words. Yahweh speaks. Yahweh declares. Yahweh commands. Yahweh writes on the tablets, but He does not show Himself. He is the unseen God who speaks. God is Word.
That helps us see the depth of the Second Word. It’s prohibiting liturgical idolatry, using images and icons to commune with God. More generally it warns us against putting images at the center of life, warning us to instead put word at the center of life. The Second Word teaches us that we live by hearing and not by sight.
In Scripture, eyes are organs of judgment. God sees and judges the creation good. Adam and Eve eat the tree of knowledge and their eyes are opened. With our eyes, we scrutinize and judge. We are over the things we see, in command and in control. This is one of the deep reasons we don’t worship God through images: He is not in our control; we do not judge Him, but He us.
Hearing has a very different phenomenology. Hearing in Scripture is virtually identical to obedience. To hear is to be open to instruction, command. Hearing opens up a future: Someone says “I love you,” and the world shifts beneath your feet. Hearing is receptive, not commanding. Hearing puts us in the position of being evaluated and judged, rather than in the position of judging.
Someday we will see God, and we will be like Him when we see Him. And God has been seen. Jesus said that seeing Him was seeing the Father. But Jesus has ascended and sent His Spirit to be with us. He is not present in the flesh, not present in visible form. Now He comes to us by His Spirit, the wind that blows where He will, who works through the Word and sacramental rites. To live by the eye, to put the image at the center of our lives, is to reach ahead of where we are in history. It immanentizes the eschaton.The God who prohibits us from making and using images is the God who has already made His own image. The creation account resembles the construction of a great cosmic temple. Yahweh first forms earth into three zones – heaven, earth, and sea – which resemble the three zones of the temple – most holy place, holy place, and courtyard. Then He fills the house with things – plants, heavenly bodies, fish and birds, land animals. These are the worshipers and vessels of the cosmic temple, the instruments for carrying out the cosmic liturgy.
At the climax of the creation week, Yahweh deliberates: “Let us make man in our image, according to our likeness” (Genesis 1:26-28). Later we learn that Yahweh works in the ground like a potter in the ground, forms Adam, and then breathes into His nostrils the breath of life. An ancient temple-builder would have formed the shell of the temple, filled it with the tools of worship, and then, at the climax, made and placed an image in the temple. The image was a sign of the presence of the god, and the god’s claim on the territory.
That is what Yahweh is doing: Adam and Eve are signs of the Creator’s presence, even mediators of His lordship over the creation, and they represent Yahweh’s claim to the whole creation, as they fill and rule the earth and subdue it.
Human beings are made as images of God. When we worship images, we’re not just exchanging the glory of God for the glory of creation. We’re giving up our own glory. We’re alienating ourselves from our own vocation.
The prophets warn again and again that idolatry dehumanizes and leads to injustice, oppression, the shedding of innocent blood. Idolatry is inherently dehumanizing because it substitutes blocks of wood or stone or metal for the living human person, who is to be the object of our homage, veneration, and service.
We keep the Second Word when we obey Jesus’ second great commandment, when we do homage to God’s image in our brothers, when we love and serve God in serving and loving our neighbors, when we perform the apt sacrifices of giving alms, doing good, sharing, showing hospitality (Hebrews 13:16). Nowhere does the Bible endorse kissing images or icons. But we are commanded to greet one another with a reverential kiss of peace.