In this article the terms “Bible” and “biblical” refer only to the Hebrew Bible, or “Old Testament.”


The name YHWH, usually translated “the Lord,” is the four-letter name of the God of Israel, never pronounced and of uncertain vocalization.


This wooden translation follows the Masoretic punctuation of the verse and reflects the way the Rabbis understood it. A more accurate translation, taking into account the true poetic structure of the verse, would be: “You shall not make with me gods of silver, nor shall you make for yourselves gods of gold.” Such a translation is found in the KJV.



1 Kings 6:23–28; 2 Chronicles 3:10–13.


For the problem of the date of the Decalogue, see Henry H. Rowley, “Moses and the Decalogue,” in Men of God. Studies in Old Testament History and Prophecy (London: Thomas Nelson and Sons, 1963), pps. 1–36; Moshe Greenberg, “The Decalogue Tradition Critically Examined,” in Ben-Zion Segal, ed., The Ten Commandments as Reflected in Tradition and Literature Throughout the Ages (in Hebrew) (Jerusalem: Magnes, 1985), pps. 67–94, esp. 87–88; and in the same work, Moshe Weinfeld, “The Uniqueness of the Decalogue and Its Place in Jewish Tradition,” pps. 1–34, esp. pp. 2–3.


According to the King James Version, the name of the priest is Jonathan, son of Gershom, son of Menasseh. Other versions, such as the Revised Standard Version and the New English Bible, record him as Jonathan, son of Gershom, son of Moses. A look at the Hebrew text reveals the reason for the discrepancy. The priest’s grandfather’s name is written mem-nun-shin-heh, i.e. Menasseh, but the nun is slightly raised. If it is removed, what remains is the name Moshe (Moses). It seems as if the original reading was Moshe, but out of respect for the great founder of Israelite religion, the ancestry of the wayward priest was effaced by the addition of the nun.


See Deuteronomy 5:6–21.


The Priestly source is one of the four literary strata from which the Pentateuch is composed, Most scholars date this stratum to the Exilic or post-Exilic period, although several scholars, especially in Israel, have dated it somewhat earlier.


See R.W.L. Moberly, At the Mountain of God: Story and Theology in Exodus 32–34, Journal for the Study of the Old Testament (JSOT) Supplement Series 22 (Sheffield, UK: JSOT, 1983), pps. 162–171; Moses Aberbach and Leivy Smolar, “Aaron, Jeroboam, and the Golden Calves,” Journal of Biblical Literature 86 (1967), pps. 129–140; Avigdor (Victor) Hurowitz, “The Calf and the Tabernacle” (in Hebrew), Shnaton La-Miqra ul-Heqer ha-Mizrah ha-Qadum 7–8 (1984), pp. 51–59.


See Shemaryahu Talmon, “The Cult and Calendar Reform of Jeroboam I,” in King, Cult and Calendar in Ancient Israel. Collected Studies (Jerusalem: Magnes, 1986), pps. 113–139.


See James B. Pritchard, The Ancient Near East in Pictures Relating to the Old Testament (ANEP), (Princeton: Princeton University, 2nd ed., 1969), no. 469.


See ANEP 129–130. Interestingly, although Amos (3:15 and 6:4) rails against the “houses of ivory” in Bethel, and those who recline on couches of ivory (apparently in Samaria), he does not criticize the sculpture that adorned the ivory. Ivory is condemned as a sign of conspicuous consumption, but the engravings that decorated it were not an object of Amos’s contempt. A sample of the types of art found in the land of Israel from the biblical period is provided by Treasures of the Holy Land: Ancient Art from the Israel Museum (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1986), pps. 136–190. Hershel Shanks’s review of this book (“Ancient Israelite Art Sparse in Impressive Show at Met,” BAR 12:06, pps. 64–68, esp. p. 66) calls attention to the relative scarcity of art in ancient Israel. Is this related to the religious opposition to human forms?


See for a few examples Ruth Hestrin, Michal Dayagi-Mendels, Seals from the Time of the First Temple: Hebrew, Ammonite, Moabite, Phoenician and Aramaic (in Hebrew) (Jerusalem: The Israel Museum, 1975), nos. 3, 5, 6, 34, 36, 37, 39, 40–48, 50.


See Ya’akov Meshorer, Ancient Jewish Coinage. Volume I: Persian Period Through Hasmonaeans (Dix Hills, NY: Amphora, 1982), pp, 21–26, for detailed discussion.


See Ephraim Stern, “Pesel, Passalut” (“sculpture, sculpturing,” in Hebrew) Encyclopedia Miqra’it, vol. 6 (Jerusalem: Mosad Bialik, 1971), cols. 526–525.


For a synopsis of Jewish attitudes toward images during this period, see the learned and beautifully written treatment by Carl Hermann Kraeling, The Synagogue, Excavations at Dura-Europos, Final Report VII, pt. 1 (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1956; reprinted, New York: Ktav, 1979), pps. 340–346.


See Josephus, Jewish War 1.33.2–3; Antiquities of the Jews 17.6.2–8.3.


Antiquities of the Jews 8.7.5.


See Joseph Gutmann, “The ‘Second Commandment’ and the Image in Judaism,” Hebrew Union College Annual 32 (1961), pp. 161–174.


See Y. Meshorer, Jewish Coins of the Second Temple Period (trans. I.H. Levine) (Tel Aviv: Am Hasseser and Massada, 1967).


See Kraeling, The Synagogue.


See Lee I. Levine, ed. Ancient Synagogues Revealed, (Jerusalem: Israel Exploration Society, 1981), passim.


Dan Urman, “Jewish Inscriptions from the Village of Dabbura in the Golan,” in Ancient Synagogues Revealed, pps. 154–156.


Rabbinic opinion is divided concerning bas-relief and engraving.


In the following discussion, I refer to Exodus 20:3–5 as the “second commandment.” This follows Mekhilta de-Rabbi Ishmael Massekta de-bahodesh, para. 8. All or half of what is considered by several traditions to be the “first commandment” is included in the “second commandment,” and the statement “I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the Land of Egypt, from the house of bondage,” is the first commandment, rather than an introductory statement. For various, methods by which the commandments have been divided, see Moshe Greenberg, “The Decalogue Tradition Critically Examined,” esp. p. 77ff., and Moshe Weinfeld, “The Uniqueness of the Decalogue and Its Place in Jewish Tradition,” esp. p. 5, note 20.


I speak here of Islamic and Christian traditions only in the most general and abstract sense. These two great religions underwent dynamic historical development and their religious attitudes and practices were subject to change at various times and places.


The basic Rabbinic interpretations are set down in J.Z. Lauterbach, Mekilta de-Rabbi Ishmael (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1949), vol. 2, pps. 276–283; Mishnah, Avodah Zarah 3; Babylonian Talmud, Avodah Zarah 3.


See Rabbenu Moshe ben Maimon, Sefer Ha-Mitzvot (Hebrew trans. Yosef Kapah) (Jerusalem: Mosad Ha-Rav Kook, 1966), pps. 169–173, negative commandments 1–7.


But it is implied in Deuteronomy 4:15–19, where we read: “For your own sake, therefore, be most careful—since you saw no shape when the Lord your God spoke to you at Horeb out of the fire—not to act wickedly and make yourselves a sculptured image in any likeness whatever: the form of a man or a woman, the form of a beast on earth, the form of any winged bird that flies in the sky, the form of anything that creeps on the ground, the form of any fish that is in the waters below the earth…” (translation NJPS). A similar, chronologically older prohibition appears in Exodus 20:19–20 (20:22–23 in the KJV); the passage from Deuteronomy just cited is probably an expansion of it: “The Lord said to Moses: Thus shall you say to the Israelite: You yourselves saw that I spoke to you from the very heavens. With Me, therefore, you shall not make any gods of silver, nor shall you make for yourselves any gods of gold.” Since Israel has seen with their own eyes that YHWH has no form or shape, He cannot be represented legitimately by a corporal object.


See Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Hamada’, Avodat Kokabim 3, 10.


We should note that by using only cherubim, Solomon’s designers are quite restrictive even in the use of non-objectionable mythological images. Mesopotamian kings, in contrast, outfitted their temples and palaces with a whole array of anthropomorphic, zoomorphic and winged creatures with names such as lahmu, mushhushu, aladlammu, lamassu, shedu, and even karibu (cherubim). So even in breaking the taboo on images, Solomon practiced great moderation.