Why Jews Don’t Worship Statues of God

Rejecting idolatry is one of the main pillars of Judaism, but it wasn’t always so. How did a people who once worshipped idols come to abhor religious imagery?

Ariel David
Ariel David
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Benediction of God the Father, circa 1565, Luca Cambiaso  (1527–1585)
Benediction of God the Father, circa 1565, Luca Cambiaso (1527–1585) Credit: Daderot, Wikimedia Commons
Ariel David
Ariel David

Throughout history, Jews are said to have chosen violence and death over bowing down to a pagan idol.

The festival of Hanukkah marked in December celebrates the anti-Hellenistic revolt of the Maccabees that was supposedly sparked when one priest, Mattathias, refused to sacrifice to an idol. Similarly, many Jews were prepared to die in the mass protests successfully staged, around 40 C.E., against the decision by the Roman emperor Caligula to erect a statue of himself in the Temple in Jerusalem. And many did die when the Bar-Kochba revolt exploded in 132 C.E. after the emperor Hadrian built a shrine to Jupiter on the ruins of that same Temple.

Perhaps some of these martyrs of the faith would have been surprised to learn that, centuries before, their forefathers would have seen nothing improper in worshipping religious images and may have even bowed down to a statue of Yahweh himself in the First Temple.

Most researchers today agree that the biblical ban on making graven images did not yet exist as we know it in the First Temple period. This taboo’s transformation into a central pillar of Judaism was apparently not the result of a sudden revelation but of slow conceptual change that happened over centuries or even millennia.

In our own image

Archaeologists and biblical scholars have long known that during the Iron Age – that is, when the First Temple was in existence – the Israelites were not particularly monotheistic and worshipped other deities alongside Yahweh, including a goddess called Asherah, believed to be God’s wife.

They also did not shy away from making images, as shown for example by the thousands of figurines found within the borders of the kingdoms of Israel and Judah. These statuettes depicted animals, horses and riders as well as naked women. While their meaning and function are still a source of much debate among experts, these figurines would seem to be in clear contradiction with the Bible’s repeated admonitions against making graven images, the most famed of which is the second of the Ten Commandments: “Thou shalt have no other gods before me.  Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing 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.” (Exodus 20:3-4)

Figurine of a horse that once had a rider, found at MotzaCredit: Clara Amit, Israel Antiquities Authority

But we must remember that, according to most scholars, the Bible was first put in writing, at the earliest, at the end of the First Temple period, and underwent centuries of edits and additions following the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians and the Temple in 586 B.C.E.

In other words, some of the ideas and norms that are closely associated with Judaism today would have looked completely alien to the ancient Israelites since they only developed and were added to the texts ultimately finalized as the Hebrew Bible as we know it at a later time.

This however does not mean that the taboo of making images just sprang out of nowhere after the destruction of the First Temple. It likely evolved from cultic practices of that period, particularly those related to the way the ancient Israelites worshipped and depicted their main deity – Yahweh.

In the Bible, God is depicted as having anthropomorphic features: he makes humankind “in his own image” (Gen. 1:27); he brings Israel out of Egypt “with a strong hand and a stretched out arm” (Psalms 136:12); he “sitteth upon the throne of his holiness” (Psalms 47:8); he has a face (Gen. 19:13), nostrils and a mouth (2 Samuel 22:9). The contradictory concept that God has “no form” (for example in Deut. 4:12) and is an invisible, ubiquitous presence is most probably a later addition to the biblical text, meant to enforce a theological and conceptual about-face, experts posit.

Pottery pedestal for the figure of a deity, Taanach, Iron Age II, 9th century B.C.E.Credit: Israel Museum / Ardon Bar Hama

But originally, when they thought of their god, the ancient Hebrews were clearly very much in step with the religious conceptions of neighboring peoples, explains Professor Tallay Ornan, a Hebrew University expert on Near East religious imagery. “Throughout the region, gods were believed to have human shape, with the main difference being that they were immortal and larger than humans,” Ornan says.

In fact, many scholars believe it is likely that in the holy of holies of the First Temple there was an anthropomorphic statue of Yahweh seated on his throne, she notes. There are clues to this in the Bible, in accounts of people worshipping in the Temple, such as the prophet Isaiah, who “saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up, and his train [of his robe] filled the Temple.” (Isaiah 6:1)

The lion, the scarab and the sun disk

Such a statue has never been found, and probably will never be because digging on the Temple Mount is impossible and in any case the Babylonians would have likely carried away and melted down such a precious trophy. Still, we do have evidence that the ancient Israelites definitely did depict Yahweh outside the Temple as well, but they did so mostly symbolically rather than anthropomorphically, Ornan explains.

These representations borrowed heavily from the religious iconography of the predominant neighboring cultures, especially the Egyptians and Mesopotamians, and are found on seal impressions and other material remains unearthed by archaeologists in the lands of the Iron Age kingdoms of Israel and Judah. Throughout the First Temple period, Yahweh is represented by divine symbols common in the ancient Near East: a scarab, a winged disk or a sun. In one 8th century B.C.E. seal impression found in Jerusalem, he appears as a winged disk, an Assyrian symbol of divinity, mounted on an empty throne, an Egyptian motif which was also adopted by the Phoenicians, in today’s Lebanon.

Yahweh is also thought to appear on a 10th century B.C.E. cultic stand found at Ta’anach, today in the northern West Bank, notes Thomas Römer, an expert in the Hebrew Bible and professor at the College de France and the University of Lausanne. Here, he appears as a solar disk above a stylized tree and a naked goddess, both of which could be representations of Asherah, Römer says.

Another way of worshipping Yahweh and his wife was through “massebot” – standing stones – which was also a common method of representing gods throughout the ancient Levant, Römer says.

The practice of depicting Yahweh through symbolic imagery continued even after the destruction of the First Temple. A study published this month by Ornan and Tel Aviv University archaeologist Prof. Oded Lipschits focused on the lions depicted on stamped jar handles in Judah during Babylonian rule and the subsequent Early Persian period (sixth-fifth centuries B.C.E.) Here too, the authors argue that the lion was a stand-in for Yahweh, borrowed from the dominant Babylonian culture. Near Eastern gods often appeared mounted on animals, but in the later stages of the Iron Age the beast became a solo stand-in for the deity. For example, a procession of striding lions representing Ishtar appears on the Ishtar Gate built in Babylon by Nebuchadnezzar, the conqueror of Jerusalem. Ironically, the roaring “Lion of Judah” is still considered a Jewish national symbol today and decorates the emblem of the city of Jerusalem.

The procession of lions at the Ishtar gate in Babylon. The Judahites may have adopted the symbol of Ishtar as a stand-in for YahwehCredit: Josep Renalias, Wikimedia Commons

Now you see him, now you don’t

It’s important to note that the reluctance to depict Yahweh as a human figure was not a red herring in the theological atmosphere in which the ancient Israelites lived. During the Iron Age, especially in Mesopotamia, anthropomorphic representations of gods become rare and were usually confined to the holy of holies of temples, while outside the sacred precincts the same deities were represented through symbols: stars, animals and so on, Ornan explains.

This progressive abstraction of divine representation began already in the Bronze Age, she says. In fact, the higher the position of a god within a local pantheon, the less likely it was for it to be depicted in human form.

“Anu and Enlil, the heads of the Mesopotamian pantheon, are almost never represented as anthropomorphic figures,” Ornan notes. “This doesn’t mean there was no human-shaped statue in the holy of holies of their temples. But these cultic statues didn’t survive, probably because they were made of wood and plated with various metals.”

God Enlil, seated. The clenched left fist holds an object (now lost). From the Scribal Quarter at Nippur, Iraq. 1800-1600 BCECredit: Osama SM Amin FRCP(Glasg), Wikimedia Commons

Given the strong influence of Mesopotamian culture in the Levant, it would have made sense for Yahweh, the head of the Israelite pantheon, to mirror this iconographic pattern: an anthropomorphic statue in the inner sanctum of the Temple, and abstract symbols used to represent him in the secular world.

The spread of this partial aniconism in the Near East may have served to enhance and preserve the mystique of the most powerful deities – as what you can’t see is often more awesome and mysterious than what you do, Ornan notes.

Or, more practically, such traditions may have been encouraged to increase the power and income of local elites, whether in Babylon or in Jerusalem. “It may have been a political or economic strategy to maintain the exclusivity of temples – only there you get to see the ‘real thing’ while outside you see the god in another form,” Ornan says.

We lost, but God won

Similarly, what we call today the second commandment may have been originally a way to heighten the importance of the Temple in Jerusalem and dedicate it exclusively to the worship of a single deity, the most important in Judah.

The Creation of Adam, 1511, MichelangeloCredit: Wikimedia Commons

Römer suspects that back in the First Temple period, the text of the second commandment was much shorter than the version we know today. It didn’t mention, he believes, anything about not making graven images, “or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth” but consisted of only the opening verse: “You shall have no other gods before Me.”

That commandment was probably intended as a very literal injunction to place no images of other deities “in front of Yahweh,” that is, in his Temple in Jerusalem, Römer says.

In other words, the law was meant to reserve that specific shrine for one specific god. It said nothing about making images of other deities, or of Yahweh himself, and worshipping them elsewhere – which explains the plethora of gods and effigies in ancient Israelite culture.

The rest of what we know today as the second commandment was added in various stages, probably in the Persian period, first to prohibit the representation of Yahweh and finally all images, Römer says.

Phoenician drachma, 4th century BCE, showing seated deity labeled either "YHW" (Yahu) or "YHD" (Judea), found in Gaza, on exhibit in the British MuseumCredit: Eickenberg, Wikimedia Commons

This theological revolution is linked to the destruction of the First Temple and the rise of monotheism, he explains. The Judahite elites, exiled in Babylon, had to explain Jerusalem’s defeat and the loss of the Temple.

Normally in antiquity, such a cataclysmic event would have led to the recognition by the vanquished people of the superiority of the victor’s gods over their own tutelary deity. But with the Israelites, something rather unique happened. Out of the jaws of defeat they snatched a conceptual triumph: monotheism. There were in fact no other gods, the exiled Hebrews reasoned, and Yahweh was not just a national god of Israel, he was the sole, supreme ruler of creation, who had simply used the Babylonians for his own purposes, to punish his chosen people for their sins. And what sin were they being punished for? None other than making idols of Yahweh himself and of the other deities they once mistakenly worshipped. After all, the destruction of the Temple and the loss of its sacred artifacts (including the hypothesized statue of Yahweh) lent itself well to this explanation and to the idea of an invisible, omnipresent universal god who could be worshipped anywhere.

From then on, the biblical redactors would pour opprobrium on any representations of the divine. This is the origin, for example, of the prophecy in Deuteronomy warning that, should the people of Israel “act corruptly and make a carved image in the form of anything” they shall “utterly perish from the land.” (Deut. 4: 25-26)

However, the concept of a formless god and the complete rejection of images – both divine and terrestrial – were not accepted overnight by nascent Judaism in the Second Temple period, Römer notes. Witness, for example, that after the return from the Babylonian exile, the now Persian-dominated province of Judah minted a coin showing a deity seated on a winged wheel – believed by many scholars to be the only known anthropomorphic representation of Yahweh.

Even when mainstream Judaism settled on a less human-shaped symbolism for the divine, it still used a material stand-in for God, the menorah, Römer tells Haaretz. This is clear from the vision of Yahweh that the Second Temple period prophet Zecharaiah experiences, the biblical scholar says. Where his predecessor Isaiah saw God in the Temple as an outsize human figure, Zechariah saw the seven-branched lampstand, which is presented as “the Lord of the whole earth.” (Zechariah 4:14). “The menorah was a way to indicate the presence of the God of Israel in the [Second] Temple of Jerusalem,” Römer says. “This shows that even a ‘strict aniconism’ still needs some kind of representation.”

The sun god returns

In the following centuries the iconographic pendulum swung wildly. In the Hellenistic and Roman periods, the rejection of pagan idols became a rallying call for Jewish resistance against pagan invaders from the revolt of the Maccabees onward.

On the other hand, after the destruction of the Temple in 70 C.E. and the failure of the Bar Kochba Revolt, a more Hellenized stream of Judaism prevailed in late antiquity, decorating synagogues with mosaics depicting animals, humans and even pagan themes like the zodiac and the image of the sun god.

With the spread of Christianity and the increase in persecutions, things changed again. Hellenistic Judaism disappeared and Rabbinical Judaism, which had inherited the Second Temple period’s opposition to images, became the religion’s mainstream. Even then, it took a few more centuries until Jewish thinkers completely rejected the idea that God had some human or material features, Ornan says. This final leap into an abstract faith occurred only in the 10th century with the writings of the Jewish scholar Saadia Gaon, who was strongly influenced by Islamic thought, and with the works of the 12th century philosopher Maimonides, she says.

Only then, probably more than 2,000 years after the First Temple was built, was this tortuous theological and conceptual evolution, shaped by the triumphs and tragedies of Jewish history, finally completed; and Judaism became the religion we know today.

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