What’s the Real Meaning of “No Idols”?

Written by Jim Staley
What’s the Real Meaning of “No Idols”?

DOES THE SECOND COMMANDMENT MEAN OUR CHILDREN CAN’T PLAY WITH TOYS?
 

I was asked recently whether or not it was permissible for children to play with dolls since pagans used dolls in their worship practices. Does this break the second commandment? Let’s take a closer look.

 
Exodus 20:4 

“You shall not make for yourself a carved image – 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; 5you shall not bow down to them nor serve them. For I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God...” 

Messianics love to dive into the deep end of Scripture. But sometimes we take it a bit too far. In this case – like with all good questions – the original intent is key. Messianics are good Bible students who love to try to interpret the scriptures and look for truth. However, many have never been trained in the art and science of biblical interpretation and don’t understand that all interpretation starts with original intent. Once you pass that up, all bets are off and there’s no telling what types of conclusions will be drawn. 

In this case, the hermeneutical principle of historical/cultural context saves the day. In the early Israelite period, it was common for the surrounding pagan cultures to have terephim (household idols) for each of their gods. These idols were hand-sized, made of wood, hand-painted, may have been covered in gold or silver, and were kept in a certain place in the home for worship. People would even carry some in their pockets like good luck charms. Their purpose was to mediate between man and the gods. The worshipper knew he could not address the gods personally so the idols became the go-between. The worshipper gave “weight/honor” (in Hebrew kavodor “glory”) to that particular god through the terephim. Yahweh knew this practice and understood that His people were used to observing it within the Egyptian culture from which they came and so forbade it. 

The instruction in Exodus 20 is given with this context in mind. It cannot be removed from that cultural setting or a new intent is created and the original commandment obliterated unintentionally. All gods of antiquity had images attached to them, but the Elohim of Israel was an invisible God that had no image as a representative figure. He was omnipresent, and this was a totally new concept for the pagan cultures that were dependent on identifying each god by the image associated with it. Yahweh wanted to be so separate from all that He created that He forbade His people from ever creating an image to connect with Him. No birds, no animals, nothing. He wanted to be known as the God that was far above all gods and all creation. He was the invisible God OF creation.

It’s also important to remember that at the time this commandment was given, the Israelites had just made the golden calf. Moses was the one who was interacting with Yahweh. So in the minds of the Israelites, he became the mediator, the terephim, if you will. When they thought they had lost him on the mountain, they simply defaulted to what they knew best: they created a new mediator, an idol to replace Moses. Their intention was not to worship the idol but to use it to access Yahweh as they had been taught to do for 400 years in Egypt. This is why Aaron says in Exodus 32:5 that “‘Tomorrow is a feast to Yahweh.’” The people thought they were worshipping Yahweh, but from Yahweh’s viewpoint they were in idolatry, not because their hearts were in the wrong place, but because they were trying to use pagan methods in connection with the One true God of Israel, something He would not tolerate. 

As you can see, the original intent said nothing about kids’ toys, dolls, or children’s figurines. They are not evil and do not need to be avoided. I can promise you that Yahweh isn’t jealous of a child playing with a doll. The commandment is directly connected to the cultural context from which it sprang. Although there can be no doubt that there were pagan cultures that used dolls and figurines in their religious rituals, this fact alone does not foil all future children’s toys, nor does it break the commandment. The commandment is one cannot use those items in connection with worshipping Yahweh. That spot would be reserved for the only One who could properly represent Him and mediate on His behalf: His Son Yeshua. 

Furthermore, archeologists have uncovered artifacts of children’s figurines that are thousands of years old. Children have probably been playing army with hand-carved soldiers for as long as man has been alive. This doesn’t break the second commandment in any way. Some of you may be wondering how this relates to the pagan tradition of the Christmas tree. For those who want to know the difference between it and this subject, observe the following principle. First of all, the Christmas tree originated in pagan cultures and was directly connected to the worship of pagan sun gods that were worshipped on the winter solstice at the end of December. Christianity simply adopted the practice from the Romans in the fourth century when they made December 25ththe day of Christ’s birth. Today it’s used in direct connection with the worship celebrations of the King of kings. 

For those concerned with whether or not a picture or a child’s toy is permissible under the same principle, as long as the toy isn’t being used in connection to Yahweh, it’s not breaking the commandment. Even a pagan inventing a doll thousands of years ago for pagan worship does not preclude someone from reinventing it thousands of years later for completely different purposes. (For example, children learning to nurture a baby by having a baby doll is a beautiful thing.) If the standard was to avoid everything once used in pagan worship we couldn’t eat any meats, use tables, chairs, candles, utensils, live in houses, or worship in worship centers. The list would be endless. The fact that the pagans invented using the evergreen tree in worship rituals does not prevent us from using it for firewood or for building today. The principle isn’t about the object but about similar purpose. We’re not allowed to have mediators or to create images that would reduce the invisible God to something of His creation. 

I hope this helps those of you who’ve been struggling with this topic. Remember, keep it simple. The commandments aren’t complicated once you discover their original intent. Once you see WHY He gave an instruction to begin with, you can see His heart motive. From there, common sense will take over and biblical interpretation gets a whole lot easier. Get to His heart and the heart of the matter becomes clear. 

Shalom! 

Jim Staley

July 2018