You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness. (Exodus 20:4)
We may not fashion our own golden calves today, but the second commandment’s prohibition of “carved images” remains surprisingly relevant to how we approach God in our daily lives and in our weekly corporate worship.
Very little time passed between Israel receiving the “Ten Words” at Mount Sinai and then flamboyantly breaking the second commandment. In Exodus, we find God’s people not only stumbling right out of the gate — grumbling shockingly soon (Exodus 15:24) after their dramatic deliverance, through the Red Sea (Exodus 14–15) — but then, immediately on the heels of receiving God’s law, they replay the fall of humanity by breaking the covenant almost as soon as it was inaugurated.
The first and second “words,” or commandments, of Exodus 20 form a pair: (1) no other gods and (2) no carved images. The first deals with whom we worship (the true God alone), while the second concerns how: not in our own preferred way, nor by adopting the practices of surrounding, unbelieving peoples. Rather, it says, worship God in the ways he has revealed — ways that are often countercultural and sometimes uncomfortable, both then and today.
How Will They Worship?
After the giving of the ten in Exodus 20:1–21, which all the people heard, Moses receives laws about altars, slaves, restitution, Sabbaths, and festivals in 20:22–23:33. In Exodus 24, the people confirm the covenant, with the shedding of sacrificial blood, confessing, “All that the Lord has spoken we will do, and we will be obedient” (Exodus 24:7). Moses then goes up to the mountain to receive instructions about the tabernacle, its furniture, and the priesthood in Exodus 25–31 — how the nation will worship him. He is gone for forty days.
In the meantime, Moses’s long absence wears on the nation. They tire of lockdown and are ready to move on with their lives, toward the Promised Land, saying to Aaron, “Up, make us gods who shall go before us. As for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him” (Exodus 32:1). Aaron, in perhaps the Bible’s quintessential display of sympathy-gone-wrong, gives in.
However confused the people may have been as to whether they were turning to “other gods” or were just too impatient to wait for God’s instructions for worship (chapters 25–31), Aaron, for his part, is clear that God (Yahweh) is not being replaced. Aaron fashions the golden calf (singular) and declares it to be the God “who brought you up out of the land of Egypt” (Exodus 32:4). He makes a proclamation, “Tomorrow shall be a feast to the Lord” (Exodus 32:5).
In other words, the breach here is not of the first commandment, but the second. Aaron declares “the Lord” (Yahweh) to be the one whom they will worship (confirmed by the retelling in Nehemiah 9:18), but he and the people have chosen their own way, rather than God’s, to worship him. Like the surrounding nations, they will worship (through) a carved image, rather than wait for Yahweh to tell them how to worship.
When Moses returns, hot with anger, he says three times that the people have committed “a great sin” (Exodus 32:21, 30, 31), which he summarizes in the terms of the second commandment: “They have made for themselves . . .” (Exodus 32:31), as in “you shall not make for yourself a carved image” (Exodus 20:4).
Underneath the Great Sin
Why is this such a “great sin” if the people still intend to worship Yahweh (and not “other gods”)? In other words, why isn’t the first commandment enough? Why would God not only provide the who of his people’s worship but also the how? Is there an underlying logic to the second commandment that makes its breaking so severe?
To begin with, the second word speaks to us about the true God. He is not the God of our making or imagination, or even of our own discovery. Rather, he is the God who reveals himself to us not only in his world but in his word. He takes the initiative to speak to his people and reveal the truth about who he is, who we are, why the world exists, and how sin has corrupted it. It would be inconsistent with the nature of God, who speaks and takes initiative, to leave it to his people to dream up (or adopt from unbelieving nations) how to worship him.
The second word, however, also speaks, perhaps surprisingly, about us as humans. Breaking the second commandment is not only rebellion against the Creator but also indignifying of his human creatures. We might even say the rebellion comes precisely through this self-indignifying.
Two key words in Exodus 20:4 are image and likeness: “You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness.” This is not the first time this pair appears in the Bible — nor are the associations diffuse. This is the language of the creation of man. Image appears in Genesis 1:26–27; 5:3; and 9:6 — “God made man in his own image.” And likeness? Only in Genesis 1:26 and 5:1–3: “When God created man, he made him in the likeness of God.”
What about image and likeness together? Other than Exodus 20:4, we have only Genesis 1 and 5, Deuteronomy 5:8 (which repeats the second commandment), and Deuteronomy 4:16, which forges the connection with the “great sin” of the golden calf: “Beware lest you act corruptly by making a carved image for yourselves, in the form of any figure, the likeness of male or female.”
In other words, the connections are striking between humans being “made in God’s image” and the second commandment. We will not deeply understand the second commandment without recalling the creation of man in God’s image and likeness. And in making the link, we see that to break the second commandment is not only to reject the revealing, initiating nature of God, but also to turn our own selves upside down.
God made man in his image to display, reflect, and visibly represent the invisible God in his created world. Yet the very nature of sin is that his creatures rejected this high calling by instead seeking to “make for themselves” an image of God (Romans 1:22–23). What was so tragically wrong about the golden calf was not that the invisible God does not choose to manifest himself in images in the world but that his people are “made in his image.” To make our own images of God for worship is to reject our calling and dignity as his imagers. They made an image for themselves instead of embracing that they themselves were made in God’s image.