I AM THE LORD YOUR GOD, YOU SHALL NOT HAVE STRANGE GODS BEFORE ME. YOU SHALL NOT MAKE FOR YOURSELF A GRAVEN IMAGE OR ANY LIKENESS OF ANYTHING THAT IS IN THE HEAVEN ABOVE, OR THAT IS IN THE EARTH BENEATH, OR THAT IS IN THE WATER UNDER THE EARTH, YOU SHALL NOT BOW DOWN TO THEM OR SERVE THEM; FOR I THE LORD YOUR GOD AM A JEALOUS GOD (EXODUS 20:2-4)
There are many similarities between the code of laws by which the people of Israel lived and those by which their neighbours lived. One striking difference, however, is the absolute prohibition of any attempt to make an image of Yahweh, the God of Israel.
The reason for this is that Yahweh wished to enter into a direct and living relationship with His people. The central reality of the Old Testament is not some mysterious statue in a temple, but is rather the "covenant" or "agreement" established between God and His people. "I want to be your God and I want you to be my people."
The Bible also teaches that the best image of God to be found in the world is the human being. This is the climax of the account of creation in the first chapter of the Book of Genesis: 'Let us make the human being in our image and after our own likeness'.
To try to make an image of this God using some material taken from the natural world is, then, an insult both to God who remains free of all such representations, and to ourselves who are the living images of God.
Of course there were statues and images used to decorate the Temple in Jerusalem, but none of these was of God. In the Holy of Holies, above the Ark of the Covenant, the outstretched wings of two golden angels supported – an empty space! This was regarded by the Hebrews as the best physical representation of Yahweh's presence with his people. Like the angels on the Ark of the Covenant, the human heart, human life, is 'open', waiting, looking for its fulfilment from beyond itself, in the relationship of love which God has established with us.
The first commandment comes to us in the form of law, a rule as to how we should behave. But in this case, the lawgiver, and his relationship to his people, can never be forgotten. The lawgiver loves his people. The judge is also the father of his people. Moses knew this better than most.
The Lord was tempted to disown his people when they disobeyed the first commandment and worshipped a golden calf as if it were their god. He said to Moses, 'your people whom you brought out of Egypt, have apostatised'. But Moses knew that this was not the reality, and he reminded God of this: 'Lord, why should your wrath blaze out against this people of yours whom you brought out of the land of Egypt'. Moses reminded God of the covenant, of the promises to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, promises which God had made 'by his own self'. Faced with this, God relented.
It is an extraordinary episode. No appeal could be made on the basis of the law, since the people were obviously not obeying the law. Moses appealed to the Father and lover of his people, to the covenant which he had made with them, to the way in which Yahweh had committed himself to his people – and faithful to Himself, Yahweh relented.
How could such a God be represented by stone or metal or wood? It is only in his dealings with his people in his mercy and compassion, in his patience and tenderness, that Yahweh, the God of Israel, the Father of Jesus, is 'seen'.
Jesus' story of the Prodigal Son is a powerful representation of what our God is like. No statue, no picture, could capture this God who is 'prodigal' and infinitely generous with his mercy and forgiveness. It is Jesus Christ who is the most perfect image or ikon of God, turning the Father's heart towards his children to reveal God's love, turning the hearts of men and women towards their Father. Our God is who He is and there is no image of Him save the relationship of love which the Father, in his Son, has established also with us. It is an image that is tenderly human, infinitely kind: Jesus Christ who came to show us the eternal King, the undying, invisible and only God.