Graven Images

I have photos of family members, some who have passed away. Are these considered "graven images"? I have them framed and on the wall.

Asked By: 
John
Family photos are not the same as idols.

No! I think what you are describing is very different from what the commandment is talking about when it forbids "graven images" (as they were called in older English translations of the Bible). That commandment in Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5 is describing idols -- human-made things like sculptures of deities or powers that people might have been inclined to worship instead of the Lord God. The commandment asserts that no one or nothing other than God deserves worship, and it helped set ancient Israel and its worship practices apart from neighboring nations.

So, you're fine, as long as you aren't worshiping the photos!

In all seriousness, the Bible is not against remembering or honoring our friends and relatives, even after they have passed on. For example, in some cases remembering those who have gone before us (even without photographs!) can be one way we remember the roots our own faith and identity, or a way we give thanks for the faithful legacy of others, as when the book Second Timothy expresses thanks for the faith of Timothy's grandmother (Lois) and mother (Eunice).

Author: Matthew L. Skinner
Respect and love does not equal worship.
You can respect people, and love them, without worshiping them. Also: a ‘graven image’ can be a physical object, but can also be an idea or a goal or a self-image. The commandment can be understood as saying: “Don’t worship the limited, the particular, that which you can possess, control or hang on the wall or place on a pedestal or put in a bank account or on your Facebook page.. Worship God—which means, worship the infinite task of living a Godly life.”
 
Author: Roger S. Gottlieb
On Graven Images
In the most literal reading of the second commandment, the pictures of your loved ones are not an issue, even though they’re “images.” The graven images that are being talked about in the Bible are the carved images of the pagan gods that surrounded ancient Israel. That’s the most literal interpretation, but there are others. The second commandment should be seen as connected to the first. In fact, the Lutherans and the Roman Catholics consider them to be just one commandment rather than two, and seeing them together can help us see the bigger picture so that we can identify the things that become idols for us today.
 
An idol, in its largest sense, is a false god, not really an image per se. But in biblical times, the gods of the surrounding nations were carved into wood and stone; and so after the first commandment warns against having no other gods, the second commandment gives a bit more detail. You could paraphrase the first two commandments together as saying, “Don’t give anything else the priority and worship that is due to me alone. You see the other nations around you and their carved gods that they put in their homes and worship. That’s not me. I’m the living God who brought you out of Egypt, not some thing that a person carved into stone. Don’t do what they do.” The third commandment can then be tacked on to complete the thought by saying, in essence,  “if you do start worshipping something other than me, you will have called yourself my people (i.e. taken God’s name) in vain.
 
There’s one other biblical reference for you to consider as you think about the commandment not to make a graven image. In Numbers 21, God actually commands Moses to make a carved image. In that case Moses is told to make a bronze serpent and put it on a pole and have people come to it for healing if they are bitten by poisonous snakes. Moses makes the thing and people are indeed healed. But as time goes by, people start to think it is the bronze serpent itself that is healing them rather than the God whose power stands behind it. By the time you get to 2 Kings 18, King Hezekiah has to destroy it because the Israelites had been burning incense to it. The carved image that God literally instructed Moses to make started out as a powerful tool for healing. It ended up becoming an idol and had to be destroyed.
 
An idol refers to how something functions in our lives, not to what it technically is. Let’s say an archaeologist digs up a carved fertility goddess from an ancient culture and puts it on her shelf at home. Is that an idol? Not unless she worships it. If it functions as a symbol of an ancient culture and motivates her to continue to study that culture and learn from it, there is no problem. If she builds a shrine for it, worships it, and consults it as a guide for her life, then it is functioning as an idol for her and she is in violation of the Commandment.
 
In that broader sense of false gods, there is a way that the photos—or anything else—could become an idol for you. Anything important in our lives can become an idol if we don’t keep watch, and the test for that is what Jesus gave us in the Great Commandment. You may remember that in Matthew 22:36-40 Jesus is asked which commandment is the greatest. He doesn’t pick any of the Ten Commandments. Instead he picks two from other parts of the Old Testament. The first is from Deuteronomy 6:5 to love God with all your heart, soul, and strength and the second is from Leviticus 19:18 to love your neighbor as yourself. Jesus then says, "All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”
 
Love of God, neighbor, and self is the test we can use to see if anything in our lives has taken God’s place as our top priority and become a false god. Am I so attached to this other thing that I would act in an unloving way in order to protect it? Then we’re in the danger zone. So in the case of your photos, for example, if another family member came to your home and said, “You know, seeing those photos brings up too much pain and grief for me. Would you put them away when I come?” the loving response would be to grant the request. If instead you insisted that they stay where they were, no matter what the consequences for others, you would be failing the test of the Great Commandment and the photos would be taking on god-like priority.
 
That can also be true if the pictures, or any other object, came to be more of a magical object for you instead of just an important reminder. I had a cross necklace in my teen years that really was more of an idol than a symbol of my faith. I wore it 24/7 and became almost afraid to take it off—like something bad would happen to me if I didn’t wear it, even to take a shower. I was defensive of it in a way that was unhealthy. When objects start to control us instead of the other way around, they are pushing for idol status.
 
Going even further, idols in that broader sense don’t have to be physical objects at all. They can be other people or even abstract things like an ideology. Here in the United States, many Americans have made partisan politics into an idol. When any person, idea, or thing becomes so important to us that we violate the Great Commandment to love God, neighbor, and self in order to protect it, we have created an idol and thus have broken the first two of the Ten Commandments.
 
So as you consider your photos, ask yourself a few questions. How do I interact with these pictures? Do they ground me in the heritage of my family history and help me be a better person? Or, do they keep me stuck in the past and prevent me from moving on to live my own life in the here and now? When others see them do they help me bring those people into my life or do they build a wall that keeps others out? If the pictures were threatened in some way, would I violate any of my core values to protect them? Am I the one in charge of whether they stay or go or do they in some way control me?
 
Those questions, whether about those pictures or anything else, will help you see whether an otherwise good and wonderful thing has inched its way up to the top priority for you—a place that only God should have.
 
-- Rev. Anne Robertson

 


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