Idols and images: Exodus 20:1-5.

I continue blogging the decalogue with Exodus 20:1-5:

  וַיְדַבֵּר אֱלֹהִים, אֵת כָּל-הַדְּבָרִים הָאֵלֶּה לֵאמֹר

  אָנֹכִי יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ, אֲשֶׁר הוֹצֵאתִיךָ מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם מִבֵּית עֲבָדִים

  לֹא-יִהְיֶה לְךָ אֱלֹהִים אֲחֵרִים, עַל-פָּנָי

  לֹא-תַעֲשֶׂה לְךָ פֶסֶל, וְכָל-תְּמוּנָה, אֲשֶׁר בַּשָּׁמַיִם מִמַּעַל, וַאֲשֶׁר בָּאָרֶץ מִתָּחַת–וַאֲשֶׁר בַּמַּיִם, מִתַּחַת לָאָרֶץ

:ה לֹא-תִשְׁתַּחֲוֶה לָהֶם, וְלֹא תָעָבְדֵם:  כִּי אָנֹכִי יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ, אֵל קַנָּא–פֹּקֵד עֲו‍ֹן אָבֹת עַל-בָּנִים עַל-שִׁלֵּשִׁים וְעַל-רִבֵּעִים, לְשֹׂנְאָי

My translation:

1 And God spoke all these words, saying:

2 I am the Lord your god, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, from the house of slaves.

3 Do not have other gods before my face.

4 Do not make an idol of any form which is in the heavens above, on the earth beneath, or in the seas under the land.

5 Do not bow down to them and do not serve them, for I am the Lord your god, a jealous god, appointing the sins of the fathers onto the sons, onto the third and the fourth generation of those who despise me.

This famous passage of the Bible graces many a church (and courthouse) with its presence.  Breaking my usual pattern of looking at 2-3 words or phrases, today’s post will focus entirely on the nuances of עַל-פָּנָי (ʿal-pānāy).

An Israelite's worst nightmare.  Source:

An Israelite’s worst nightmare. Source:

I have written before about the metaphorical usage of various body parts in biblical Hebrew literature.  Literally, this text says to have “no other gods before my face.”  What does this mean?  Most translators render this “before me” (NRSV, NIV) or “besides me” (NAB) or “beside me” (Alter).  They translate the idiom “before my face” into more literal, non-metaphorical language: you cannot worship anything other than Yahweh.  I can’t help but think something is lost in translation.  William Propp comments:

If Yahweh inhabited an idol or stone, the command would simply be not to display other images in his cella [temple sanctuary], as was done around Allah, for example, in pre-Islamic Mecca.  So one possible meaning is that no other deities may be worshipped in Yahweh-shrines. (167)

Monotheism was not pulled out of a hat.  It went through an intermediate stage of henotheism: allegiance to one deity, not denying the existence of other gods but their efficacy and power.  Similarly, it’s possible that Israel’s aniconism (no images!) did not emerge overnight either.  If there were statues of Yahweh, then “before my face” could point to something much more concrete and un-metaphorical than “besides me.”  It may point to another meaning of Alter’s translation “beside me.”  Alter uses a spatial term that carries the same ambiguity as “before my face,” although his notes make it clear he intends it in the idiomatic sense only.

Ancient translators also veered between the literal and the idiomatic in translating this phrase.  The Septugaint renders it “πλὴν ἐμοῦ”: “except me.”  But the Vulgate renders it “coram me”: “in my presence.”  Deuteronomy 5:7, despite being identical to Exodus 20:3, gets translated differently in the same translations!  The Septuagint renders it “πρὸ προσώπου μου” and the Vulgate “in conspectu meo.”  Both preserve the Hebrew idiom.  Still, it raises a question: didn’t the translators of the Septuagint and the Vulgate notice they were translating the same passage twice?

So we are left with two readings.  The first reading takes ʿal-pānāy only in the idiomatic sense: “I shall be your only god.”  Other translators preserve a possible henotheistic, iconographic sense to the idiom.  Perhaps there were images of Yahweh that had faces and shrines.  Pastors often take an entirely different route: an idol is anything that we put before God.  The Oxford Bible Commentary notes that this is not part of the original meaning of an idol (pesel).  So whatever you believe about “before my face” or “besides me,” know that the idols spoken of here are Ba’al and Asherah, not sex and money.

4 thoughts on “Idols and images: Exodus 20:1-5.

  1. Brian

    Ah, interesting. So does this mean that other gods, at one point, may have been recognized or worshipped, as long as it occurred away from Yahweh’s shrines?

    1. Post author

      This is one speculation – and not even just away from Yahweh’s shrines, but perhaps in them! Some scholars believe that Yahweh once had a female companion, Asherah. The Bible mentions her frequently – as an idol not to be worshipped, of course.

  2. Pingback: The Good, the Bad, and the Preaching of Christ: Philippians 1:15-20. | Linguae Antiquitatum

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