Let's begin by unpacking what the second commandment actually says. When looking at Exodus 20:4, we are confronted with two sets of English translations. Older versions, including the King James Version and the RSV, tend to stay close to the words of the Hebrew text. More recent versions, including the NIV and NRSV, focus instead on its intended meaning.

The key difference between these two sets rests on the translation of the Hebrew word pesel, coming from the root word pasal, meaning "to carve wood or stone." This meaning gave rise to the translation "graven image" in the first set of translations. Yet in Scripture, the term is never used for a two-dimensional image, but always for three-dimensional objects carved or chiseled out of wood or stone, with or without a gold or silver covering.

The key point is that the objects were always associated with idolatrous or superstitious practices. That is why almost all new translations have replaced the term "graven image" with "idol." This meaning is supported by the surrounding verses: "You shall have no other gods before me" (v. 3), and "You shall not bow down to them or worship them" (v. 5). Idols could be small and portable, such as the household gods that Rachel stole from her father (Gen. 31:17-21), or large and lifesize, such as the statue Michal used to trick Saul's men into believing David was asleep in his bed (1 Sam. 19:13). Either way, God's prohibition against idols was both pertinent and necessary. Although the use of idols typified pagan cultures, many of God's people still clung to them.

In light of a better understanding of pesel and the second commandment's wider context, it should be clear that the injunction is not a blanket ban on representational imagery, as ...

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