Back: The First Commandment
Imagine you were to get people off the street and get them to begin writing a list of the most important things to avoid in life. You could likely fill a stadium before someone suggested that a 3D caricature of something from a story is the second most likely thing to ruin your life. Bizarrely, a layman’s understanding of the Second Commandment recommends exactly this. On top of that the traditional King James Bible wording of the Commandment is technical in its description. “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. Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them: for I the Lord thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me” The full commandment from the King James Bible does need to be addressed. How could something this technical even be up for interpretation? I will argue in this writing that the current cultural interpretation of this Commandment is fundamentally wrong when considering the Commandment as written.
If we take a cursory view of how the Second Commandment currently manifests then it seems to be an odd request as even major Abrahamic sects don’t seem to know what to make of it. The Catholics build statues while claiming they aren’t technically the objects of worship but instead the conduits of the idea of the divine. The Orthodox paint flat caricatures which aren’t idols, but icons. Then proudly point to the defeat of the iconoclasts and claim that the representations of the divine allow glimpses into the kingdom of heaven and so act educationally rather than as the object of worship. Jewish minds have somehow managed to keep a very conservative interpretation of this commandment despite the apparent hypocrisy of god immediately telling Moses to rip down an acacia tree, call it the Ark of the Covenant, and then slap some symbolic angels on top of it. Even the Sunni Muslims, who have traveled so far theologically from the Exodus, are opposed to even non-believers representing their prophet. Despite the real-world actions associated with this belief, it is hard to stand under the light of the Blue Mosque and deny that this mindset produces transcendent beauty. So what is there to interpret from a note from thousands of years ago, when the people who claim to genuinely care about it create such wildly different manifestations of the same passage. Surely my result of engaging with this information would result in further division, which is the last thing that the world needs.
Because of the apparent dissociative nature of the thing it could be easy to disregard this Commandment, and therefore the whole set. From a cynical point of view the existential point of this commandment seems to be to ‘other’ the religions of others through their symbology. It especially makes sense given the significant number of icons and symbols found in pagan theology. The tragic thing is that this has been the thought process for a significant number of believers: the First Commandment is the assertion that the ideas are legitimate because they ‘are’ and then the Second Commandment gives theological casus belli against anyone who has a different set of icons to you. This is an illegitimate way to write off the Second Commandment because it requires the integration of church and state and would presume that the legitimacy of the second commandment comes from force. The Second Commandment cannot be written off like it is the justification of a king because it has lasted much longer than a casus belli and therefore must be categorically different. If the Second Commandment has value it must produce it separate from any supportive force found in reality, and value must apply to all people regardless of their position in space or time. To derive the meaning from the Second Commandment we must treat it similarly to the First Commandment. Under what justification could an ideal entity tell you that the second most important thing to never do is create and serve an image of anything you see?
To make the argument clearly regarding this commandment, I will need you, the reader, to accept that you will not be able to integrate the Second Commandment properly until you realize that you probably have done to the Second Commandment exactly what it has warned against. Because of this I will be addressing specifically what is written in the King James Bible, and I request that you, the reader, fully abandon any ideas tied to the Commandment of golden calves, chanting, or finding the most comfortable rock to go prostrate on. This commandment does have tremendous value and it is specifically relevant to acting properly in the modern world. I am going to argue that the Second Commandment is not specifically about the creation of religious symbols. It is instead, firstly, the acceptance that objects exist in space, and to interact with that object we must have a set of ideas about the object, and then, secondly, and more importantly, that the mental model of an object must be as true to the object as possible. The Second Commandment then clarifies that failing to have an honest relationship with the objects that construct reality, and instead seeing them as images of things that they are not, will result in the same blindness transferring to your progeny.
“Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image”
The reference to ‘graven image’ is now definitionally tied to the idea of an idol for worship. However, the specific meaning of ‘graven’ is the past participle of grave, a dug hole. And an ‘image’ is definitionally an object which is a representation of an external entity. Graven images are a class of objects that include everything from bas reliefs to statues to, most importantly, writing, qualified by the cuneiform writing technique which was in use for the period that these commandments were written. However, the call against graven images is qualified with “not make unto thee,” (make towards the self) this requires a mental engagement with the object with reference to oneself. Without this qualifier then according to the Second Commandment even leaving a footprint would be damaging to oneself. It is also notable that it is not ‘make any graven image’, but ‘make unto thee’; therefore the Commandment doesn’t take issue with the creation of a three-dimensional object but in the creation of a mental relationship between an object and oneself.
So these first nine words can be read like this: Do not create a technical relationship between oneself and a definable object found in 3D space.
“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.”
The reason why ‘graven image’ must refer to the written word, through the then relevant cuneiform, is because there are four categories defined in the commandment; graven images, and the likeness of things in the heaven above, the earth beneath, or the water under. Any carving one could make must be in the likeness of things from the sky, earth, or water, therefore the reference of graven images must refer to something outside those categories. I would argue that the Commandment includes written idea sets in the set of objects it covers. It is hard for me to view religious history or even the events of the 20th century without noticing that people can serve things ideas like the Bible or the Communist Manifesto without engaging with the actual ideas presented.
An important detail is in the word “likeness,” because it must also be qualified by the “make unto thee.” With the word “likeness” the meaning of the commandment begins to take shape as it recommends against integrated relationships with something like a fish sculpture, but an integrated relationship with a real fish is still allowed.
With these two sections we have a meaning like this: Do not create a mental relationship with an object if the object in your mind is not accurate to the object that it is mapped to. What we could call a false relationship.
“Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them”
The most important part of this section is that it appears late in the commandment. If this were a commandment against idolatry then the Commandment would start with this section, stating that one should not serve graven images. However, it comes later, as if it is prescriptively an action that will follow if the first half is broken. From this we can start to see how the failure to follow this commandment manifests in life.
I own some glassware which I bought at an important time in my life. The glassware is of low quality and use of it will damage it further. I have also moved several times since purchasing these glasses and each time I must carefully pack them and find a new home for them in my next house. I have these 3D objects, in this glassware, which represent an image of a memory to me. I have allowed this image to take hold I am now compelled to serve this glassware, despite getting no use from it. These are not the only objects that I wish I had the strength to throw out.
With the integration of this line into the commandment we can now develop a meaning like, do not form a false relationship with an object or else you will be compelled to serve a relationship that provides little value.
“For I the Lord thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me”
With this final line, the risk of not following the Second Commandment is laid bare. It’s not hard to find famous stories online where a successful magnate in some industry dies, and so begins a long grueling legal battle. Almost always the result is the lawyers taking everything that the family had fractured over.
By understanding the Second Commandment we can fully empathize with how these cases occur. An individual becomes successful and becomes financially rewarded because of it. That individual creates a relationship with their money that is not accurate to what the money is. The individual is put in a position of extreme power and understands that their job is to support their children. Then through the power dynamic the children stay symbolically as children in the mind of the individual. The individual now isn’t dealing with a bank account and people but images of wealth and progeny. These images are then handed to the children and the children begin to respond to their status and their siblings not as they are, but as if they are the images that have been mapped onto the objects. Then once the individual dies, all their children have are the images of their siblings and a power vacuum in the estate. The failure of communication around all these ideas turns otherwise good men into rabid automatons trying to sustain a lie that they have lived their entire life. This failure of the individual to properly engage with their status and who their children were results in a family that is fundamentally shattered at the core, and will be for four generations. Only when their children are grandparents might their great-grandchildren be able to see over the fog that they allowed to roll in.
With this we can see the full integrated meaning. If you create relationships with objects in reality that are representative of something other than the technical object then you will be compelled to serve the relationship you have built, to your loss. If this is sustained then you will compel your entire family to live in the wake of your lie and it will wreak havoc until you and the memory of your lie can is forgotten.
We can find numerous examples of convenient lies that have caused entire peoples to suffer for generations if the lie is large enough the entire world can suffer. For example, Otto Von Bismarck forged Germany in 1871 which caused a series of events which finally resolved in 1990 with the fall of the Berlin wall. This lie based on the idea of German unity despite the unresolved question of Catholic Austria being opposed to the idea while also being history’s most influential German state. One could also think to the 114 years between the first Spanish colony in the Americas in 1493 and the first British colony in America in 1607 which, tied to the physical object that we call The Americas, was the false belief that there were empty lands to the west. This idea destroyed incredibly complex civilizations as Spain conducted a century-long, continent-wide vivisection. Granted these examples are cherry-picked, but it is funny how easy it is to cherry-pick cases that match the description. In its most extreme, tying false ideas from real-world objects has resulted in suffering that defines the entire following course of history.
The value in understanding the Second Commandment is in the relationship one has to all objects that constitute reality. In an ideal sense we could consider someone to be closest to God if they were able to integrate everything in reality to their person. An ideal individual would be a master of every craft and have access to complete knowledge of reality. No problem would be above them and they would be the closest a man could get to being a god. If one were to set a metaphorical path between their current state and the ideal state described, then the act of approaching that state could be considered following the path of God, which would be a kind of worship. Therefore the worship of such an entity would be intentional and purposeful self-improvement along all the lines of body, mind, and spirit. To be able to master reality one must have an unclouded vision of reality. Therefore the act of applying additional meaning to an object (therefore turning it into an image), is to blind oneself. This can only be antithetical to the purpose of worship.
This is consistent across all domains and skills. If the aim is to become a better fisherman, one would not achieve that by carving a fish, believing that the carved fish will attract fish; to become a better sportsman, one cannot just buy the jersey of a better sportsman, and to become a better person one cannot allow themselves to hold a book or belief that abdicates their responsibility for self-improvement. Emotionally holding onto these imitations of aspiration masks the inadequacy one feels so that they may not realize they have no fish, no action, or no self-worth.
To properly observe this commandment one must sense exactly how objects are currently presenting, rather than using a shorthand symbol associated with the item. In effect if something walks like a duck and talks like a duck then it is spiritually lazy to say “it is a duck” when it smells like petrol.
Removing the cultural symbols associated with the world opens one up to the natural beauty of their perspective. A clear sky is not blue; it is a blue gradient that just before sunset will become green along the horizon with a red-yellow streak on the horizon with the setting sun which leads into the deep black of night specked with the numerous patterns of white dots that you have never taken the time to fully keep track of. Why does the sky appear this way? The act of discovery is worship. Observation of the Second Commandment is to abandon the models that one has been given by their culture that are to be mapped to each of the items encountered, remove the “likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth” and see the objects as what they are.
This goes far further than mapped ideas to stone or wood, but also to the flesh. One can be married not to their wife, but the idea of their wife. One can fail to raise a child, by speaking only to the idea of the child, and one can even fail to live a life, by instead living the idea of a life. Removing the symbols that you have attached to people is the only way you can empathize with them. Additionally, relationships between do not fail because people disagree, but because reality becomes so far removed from the image you were serving that the lie could no longer sustain itself. The choice then becomes rejecting the image of the person or the presented reality of the person.
With this understanding we can see that the second commandment is not referring to the specific worship of the symbols of other deities, which is the common understanding of the Commandment within the culture. Instead the Second Commandment, with a clear reference to the relationship between image and oneself, warns about the symbols that one naturally attaches to objects and urges one to overcome the desire to see the world in simple terms. Paired with the First Commandment; before you can take the correct action, firstly you must ensure that the basis of your judgement is coming from the highest values you have, and secondly ensure that you are interpreting the reality around you as clearly as possible before acting. One cannot take positive action in the world without first ensuring these two things. Therefore we begin to build the case that the Ten Commandments are building a mechanism by which one can act properly in the world.
It is completely understandable as to why this would not be followed, sometimes a beautiful moment can be caught, and then by mapping it to an object the moment can seem to be saved. By living a life this way every object will become a memory of beauty and then, like any memory, the meaning will fade, and the colours will fade, and the edges turn to static. To live in such a way is to blind oneself to reality for the sake of the service of the pleasant past. To do so is to cut oneself off from both their present and future. All the sound judgement in the world won’t matter if the only action one can take is to remember.
Onwards: The Third Commandment