The 1.5 Commandment

The tricky thing about the commandments is figuring out how to break them up. Astute readers of Scripture and Catholic catechetical materials will notice that there are actually different ways of breaking up the Ten Commandments. The original Hebrew text refers to them as (pedantry alert!) the “Ten Words” but doesn’t do all that tidy stuff with the tablets and the Roman numerals clearly delineating where one commandment leaves off and another starts. As a result, you have to make a judgment call about whether you will (as some Protestants do) break apart the 1.0 and 1.5 commandments (the ones about worshipping God alone and not worshipping graven images) and squish together the ninth and tenth commandments (about coveting your neighbor’s wife and your neighbor’s stuff) or vice versa. Some of our more conspiracy-minded separated brethren have dark visions of Catholics tunneling under their houses because of all this , but a brief glance at the Catechism of the Catholic Church or any Catholic Bible would dispel the notion that anything has gotten deleted. It’s all there, safe and sound. The trick is just figuring out how to break up the text so it all works out to be Ten, not Eleven, Commandments.

For our purposes, I’m going to eschew the “Traditional Catechetical Formula” the Catechism mentions and go with breaking apart the first commandment so that we can look at Commandment 1.5, the prohibition against graven images. That’s because the paranoia of conspiracy theorists like the guy above deserves to be addressed, if only because many Catholics find themselves stumped by the apparent contradiction between the commandment and their lived experience as Catholics. If Scripture bids us as follows:

You shall not make for yourself a 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. (Exodus 20:4)

…then what’s up with that Mary statue or that crucifix?

It’s a reasonable question, but it’s also worth noting that critics of the Faith expend almost all their cries of “This breaks the Commandment!” solely on the Mary statue and the crucifix, while paying no attention whatsoever to their own bowling trophies, IXOYE fish bumper stickers, family photo albums, Christmas tree angels and children’s drawings of the house with the smiling sun up in the corner that they stuck to the fridge this afternoon. All these things are likenesses of things in heaven above, earth beneath, and water under the earth too. Some of them, like the bowling trophy, are even genyoowine graven images. But these images don’t count because they are either not churchy images or they are the right kind of churchy images, acceptable in Evangelical or Fundamentalist circles.

Also overlooked in all this inconsistent hubbub about supposed Catholic violations of the commandment is the fact that God himself, just a few chapters after he gives the prohibition against images, tells Moses:

And you shall make two cherubim of gold; of hammered work shall you make them, on the two ends of the mercy seat. Make one cherub on the one end, and one cherub on the other end; of one piece with the mercy seat shall you make the cherubim on its two ends. The cherubim shall spread out their wings above, overshadowing the mercy seat with their wings, their faces one to another; toward the mercy seat shall the faces of the cherubim be. (Exodus 25:18-20)

In other words, the God who (seemingly) forbade images almost immediately commanded the Israelites to make an image. What gives?

What gives is the prohibition of idolatry. Old Testament piety is absolute in barring Israel from acting like pagans and worshipping creatures—including the amazingly easy-to-worship work of one’s own hands. (Indeed, as pagan myths like Pygmalion and modern phenomena like workaholism show, it is amazingly easy to fall in love with and give your life over to the service of the work of your own hands.) The constant temptation of paganism was to confuse things which remind us of God with God Himself. And so a whole host of creatures was worshiped by pagan antiquity (and by modern post-Christian paganism). But as the images of the cherubim eloquently attest, it is quite possible to have images which are not the object of worship but which instead point us to him who alone must be worshipped. That was the silent message of the cherubim as they faced one another on the Mercy Seat atop the Ark of the Covenant, bowing in adoration of the Invisible God. It was a sharp but undeniable foreshadow of what was to come when God himself took flesh and became an image himself.

That is why Catholics can have statues or icons in our Church while retaining this commandment in our Bible. C.S. Lewis remarks of Israel that it was the destiny of that nation to be turned from the likeness to the Reality. And so, all short cuts (like physical images) were denied them by this commandment, because they were being prepared not for the revelation of a God without an image, but for the revelation of Jesus, who is the true “image of the invisible God” (Col 1:15). When that image came and God stamped his likeness on the human face of Jesus, the prohibition was transfigured. It is still true that no creaturely image can be adored as a god. But it is even truer that images are now a participation in the light of God, shining through the Incarnate God who is Jesus Christ. Saints, who are members of his body, are now windows into God, not barriers to his light or cheap Brand X substitutes for his glory. Therefore, in honoring their images (not worshipping them), we honor (not worship) the saints they represent and in honoring the saints, we honor their Lord, who is the True Image of God.

Mark Shea


Mark P. Shea is a popular Catholic writer and speaker. The author of numerous books, his most recent work is The Work of Mercy (Servant) and The Heart of Catholic Prayer (Our Sunday Visitor). Mark contributes numerous articles to many magazines, including his popular column “Connecting the Dots” for the National Catholic Register. Mark is known nationally for his one minute “Words of Encouragement” on Catholic radio. He also maintains the Catholic and Enjoying It blog and regularly blogs for National Catholic Register. He lives in Washington state with his wife, Janet, and their four sons.

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  • stbosco

    When that image came and God stamped his likeness on the human face of Jesus, the prohibition was transfigured. It is still true that no creaturely image can be adored as a god. But it is even truer that images are now a participation in the light of God, shining through the Incarnate God who is Jesus Christ…..Hi bro Mark, you really get around. So, the prohibition was transfigured? Is that fancy talk for the commandment is null? I see folks use the cherubims as justification for idols galore. How come you dont mention to your fathfull readers that the people couldnt go in and see the Ark? You would die i you went in and looked at it. Only the bigshot priest could go in, and at that only once in a while.The faithfull couldnt file by it and kiss it and bow to it and place clothes and crowns on it. God forbid that under punishment of death. Thanks for your time

  • No, the prohibition against making idols is not null. It still stands. Also the prohibition against idolatry still stands. As the Catechism makes clear — you ought to read it.

    The point is that it was not a prohibition against making IMAGES per se, even religious images; it was a prohibition against making IDOLS and not all images are idols. As for the fact that the cherubs were only seen by the priest — well, all the other graven and molten and embroidered images associated with the tabernacle and later with the temple WERE seen by all the people.

  • stbosco

    Hi Mary, forgive me, but im trying to understand the logic or mindset, if you will, of the idols/no idols controversy. So if Solomans temple had images of peoples or creatures it ok for us to have them, religious images that is. Using Uncle Bens picture on the rice box isnt justification , at least in my book it isnt. Im willing to bet that there were no idols/images of animal or man in the early temple. The guys who ran the temple were pretty good at observing the law. I ask myself,….. self, who are you going to believe? men or the word of God? I think its in Ezekiel where God himself says that when he appeared to the Israelis in the desert, that he showed them no form of himself lest the people make an image and defile themselves. Tell me, can God be anymore clear than that? The other example folks use is the bronze snake on a stick. See, Moses made an idol, so lets pack our churches with statues and put clothes on them and a gold crown on the heads. The spiritual advisors that tell you that leave out the rest of the story, on purpose. The snake on a stick was kept around after it did its thing(healing,which catholic statues cant do). Then the people started to “venerate” the object. God instructed the guy in charge of it to melt it down or just get rid of it cause people were venerating an object and God really hates that. God states for the record that he doesnt change. That means he hasnt come off his idol/image stance. All these statues do is take your mind off Christ. This saint and that saint.They are just men, they have o power to help you. I have a question; now that the Pope has or is going to wave his magic wand and declare 900 more saints, where are you going to put all thier statues/idols? You wont be able to get in the door of your church anymore by reason of the statues/idols

  • Stbosco, I am sorry. I mistook for you for an honest inquirer. Please go troll around somewhere else.

  • stbosco

    Hi Mary, im sorry you feel that way.All the info i gave is verifiable.The bible stories i gave are in the book and probably you know them.