What Is a Graven Image?

Though it may not be the gods of wood or stone common in the Old Testament, Christians must be careful not to make their jobs, money, families, reputations, or anything else the center of their affections. For there is only One God.

What Is a Graven Image?

Unless you grew up reading the King James Bible, the term “graven image” probably sounds a bit old-fashioned. Changes in language aside, the concept is actually very important. It gets to the heart of a classic temptation that every human faces: the temptation to worship and glorify something other than God.

What Is a Graven Image according to the Bible?

The phrase comes from Exodus 20:4, which in the King James translation reads, “Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.”

This is one of the 10 Commandments that God gave to Moses on Mount Sinai, depending on your Bible translation or tradition its order may change. Generally, Protestants refer to it as the second commandment, building on the commandment “you shall have no other gods before me” (Exodus 20:3). The command is reiterated in Leviticus 26:1, which says, “You shall not make idols for yourselves or erect an image or pillar, and you shall not set up a figured stone in your land to bow down to it, for I am the Lord your God.”

Some fundamentalist groups over the centuries have taken this to mean that people should not make artwork of any kind. However, Biblical scholars have generally agreed that the phrase refers to “household idols,” statues that pagans made as personal gods to worship and pray to. Isaiah 44:13-20 describes this action with the story of a carpenter who cuts down a tree and uses half the wood to cook food and the other half to make an idol. So, the point is not that God has a problem with creating images in and of itself; he has a problem with idolatry.

What Is the History of Idolatry in the Bible?

Isaiah 44’s story of the carpenter making a wooden idol is one of the numerous verses in the Old and New Testament that reference idolatry. Perhaps the classic example of people making an idol comes while God was giving Moses the 10 Commandments and other laws on Mount Sinai. The Israelites got impatient, and Moses’ brother Aaron melted down gold to make an idol in the form of a calf for the people to worship (Exodus 32:1-4). Moses was enraged when he came down the mountain and saw what was going on and threw down the two tablets inscribed with the commandments.

A good lawyer might have tried getting the Israelites off by pointing out to Moses that the golden calf was a molten image, not a graven image (which has to be carved or sculpted). However, the way the idol is made is not the point. People committed idolatry in a variety of ways, from setting up pagan altars at special locations to hold sacrifices to worshipping plants or animals or worshipping human beings. The mistake of worshipping people comes up in a dramatic way in Acts 14 when Paul and Barnabas heal a crippled man in Lystra. The locals assumed they were the Greek gods Zeus and Hermes in human form and tried to offer sacrifices to them.

Frequently when the Bible talks about idols, it contrasts how artificial idols are with how strong and real God is. When the Philistines captured the ark of the covenant and put it in their temple, God struck down a statue of their god Dagon, which was found with its limbs broken lying down in front of the ark (Samuel 5:4). Paul explicitly makes this point in Acts 17 when he speaks to the pagan philosophers in Athens. After emphasizing how each human is made by God, he says, Therefore since we are God's offspring, we should not think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone – an image made by human design and skill” (Acts 17:29).

The Bible also frequently describes harsh punishments for idolatry. Time and time again, the Israelites fall into idolatry and are punished by God sending illnesses or snakes. Sometimes God simply warns a leader to repent and strikes that leader down for leading his people astray. Sometimes he simply withdraws his protection and lets things take their natural course, such as when the Babylonians invade Israel. While many of these punishments are tied to the fact that Israel had a particular arrangement with God, a binding contract that required obedience in many areas from tithing to diet. Even granting the fact that God doesn’t send these kinds of punishment to everyone who commits idolatry, it’s clear that God doesn’t like it.

Why Is Idolatry Taken so Seriously in the Bible?

Idolatry presents many problems. In cultures where military heroes or leaders are made into gods, the culture glorifies human attributes those leaders have, traits that are limited and cannot satisfy or sustain people in the long run. Ancient countries often had national idols (“the gods of Babylon” and so forth”), which means wars were pitched in terms of one side’s gods against the other’s gods. This understanding of gods as being limited national guardians doesn’t fit the all-powerful, universe-maintaining God over all creation that the Bible describes.

Christopher J. Wright describes two particularly important reasons that idolatry is bad in his book Here are Your Gods:

Idol worship may be demon worship. Wright gives several examples of where the Bible associates worshipping idols with worshipping demons. In Deuteronomy 32, Moses speaks a poem that describes idolatry that Israelites had committed, first mentioning idols and then demons: “They made him jealous with their foreign golds and angered him with their detestable idols. They sacrificed to demons, which are not God – gods they had not known, gods that recently appeared, gods your fathers did not fear” (Deuteronomy 32:16-17).

Psalm 106 gives an overview of God’s interactions with Israel and mentions how when they first came to Canaan they disobeyed God’s command to destroy all the nations within it. As a result, they adopted idols from those nations and fell into a trap: “They did not destroy the peoples as the Lord had commanded them, but they mingled their customs and adopted their customs. They worshipped their idols, which became a snare to them. They sacrificed their sons and their daughters to demons” (Psalm 106:34-37).

Wright notes that this way of talking about idols continues into the New Testament, for example in 1 Corinthians 10. There, Paul warns Christians to “flee from idolatry” (10:14) and affirms that idols are nothing compared to God, but “the sacrifices of pagans are offered to demons, not to God, and I do not want you to be participants with demons” (10:20).

Idol worship gives glory to created things, not to the Creator. Even if particular idols are not linked to particular demons, worshipping idols is still wrong because idols are created things. Whether we’re taken about actual graven images or molten images or contemporary items (money, sex, power, etc.), idolatry is treating something created in a way reserved for God. As Wright puts it, “when people worship creation instead of the Creator, everything is turned upside down.”

Basically, God takes idolatry seriously because it is an act of worshipping something other than him. Only the creator, who made the world ex nihilo (“out of nothing”), deserves such glory and honor.

What Should We Know about Graven Images Today?

Odds are that if we live in the Western hemisphere, we won’t see anyone literally making a household idol to worship. However, idolatry is something we can all fall prey to when we place things in our lives above God. We can become so concerned with being successful (which is not a bad thing in its proper context) that we can’t imagine living if we don’t meet our career goals. We can pursue unhealthy relationships or habits, refusing to give them up because we’ve become so used to having them around.

We can even fall into idolatry doing jobs designed to honor God. Over the last 20 years or so, discussions about “ministry burnout” have become common, with many Christian organizations admitting how many of their staff go through crises. Various researchers and observers have found a common problem is a sort of “ghost dads for Jesus” attitude, people becoming so focused on doing “work for God” that they neglect being there for their families. This attitude not only misses the fact that the Bible doesn’t neatly break things into “secular jobs” versus “sacred jobs,” it also elevates working for God above caring for one’s family, something the Bible commands leaders to do (1 Timothy 3:5).

Any time we put our confidence in something other than God, we run the risk of making that thing into a “graven image.”

Photo Credit: ©iStock/Getty Images Plus/underworld111

Connor SalterG. Connor Salter is a writer and editor, with a Bachelor of Science in Professional Writing from Taylor University. In 2020, he won First Prize for Best Feature Story in a regional contest by the Colorado Press Association Network. He has contributed over 1,000 articles to various publications, including interviews for Christian Communicator and book reviews for The Evangelical Church Library Association. Find out more about his work here.