In my seminary Hebrew courses, we had to read the laws of several ancient near eastern societies and compare them to the 10 commandments of the Bible. Interestingly, most of them contain laws about not killing, stealing, or taking another man’s wife.
However, the the 10 commandments do have 2 commands which are unique among all other ethical systems. The first is the rejection of the pantheon of Canaanite, Egyptian, and Sumerian gods in religions and the demand for exclusive monotheistic devotion to Yahweh which we find in the first commandment:
1. You shall have no other gods before me. (Exodus 20:3)
The second commandment is also profoundly different than anything found in ancient documents when it forbids the creation of any graven images.
You shall not make for yourself a carved image … You shall not bow down to them or serve them… (Exodus 20:4-5)
Technology scholar Niel Postman (who was himself of Jewish origin) wrote,
“It is a strange injunction to include as part of any ethical system [instructions on how they were to symbolize, or not symbolize, their experience] unless its author assumed a connection between forms of human communication and the quality of a culture.” (Amusing Ourselves to Death, p. 9. Emphasis in the original.)
The Israelites might have argued that the technological means they used to approach God didn’t matter as long as they were devoted to him and him alone. But God begged to differ, because he knew that the instruments we use for worship always reinforce certain beliefs.
In the case of Israel, if they had used images to represent Yahweh then it might have appeared that he was like every other God. Instead, by forbidding images of himself, God was reinforcing his identity as wholly other. He is not an idol among idols or an image among images – He is the one, true God.
This means that the second commandment is a technological reinforcement of the first. The medium – or lack thereof in this case – was the message.