The 10 Commandments: Where the Medium Was the Message

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.

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John Dyer

In my day job, I work at Dallas Theological Seminary, and at night I write Bible software for countries whose leaders could be called "overlords." This one time, I wrote a book about technology and Christian faith. You can find out more about what I'm up to at http://j.hn/.

14 thoughts on “The 10 Commandments: Where the Medium Was the Message”

  1. John,
    Great insight.

    Do you see ramifications for the ‘forms of worship’ in today’s church? This seems to advocate a more austere service than I see in some mega churches.

    Would love to hear your thoughts.

    1. God also spends much of the Pentateuch giving blueprints for various elements of worship. The point, I think, is that each elements have meaning. They aren’t just used because they are interesting or pretty or relevant – they all communicate something about God.

      So I think the conclusion we want to draw is that the criteria for our media usage should involve their meaning not just their interestingness.

      1. John,
        I’m looking forward to that post. It seems to me that Jesus’ coming was, in one way, the transcending of the second commandment—the God who is wholly other came near by taking on human form. In that sense, images of Jesus would seem to be an entirely different issue than the second commandment, in that they are images of an “earthly tent” like ours.

        It caught my attention when you said, “if they had used images to represent Yahweh then it might have appeared that he was like every other God.” Very true. In contrast, when God because flesh, He actually became like us.

        Admittedly, I am not at all familiar with the debates on this issue in the early church (which is one of the reasons I am anticipating your post), but I wonder if some of our discomfort with images of Jesus might result from our discomfort with God’s shocking, unprecedented act of emptying and humbling Himself (Phil 2).

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