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In the Ten Commandments, the First Commandment prohibits having false gods:

You shall have no other gods before Me. (Exod. 20:3; Deut 5:7, NKJV)

The Second Commandment prohibits making carved images:

You shall not make for yourself a carved 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; you shall not bow down to them nor serve them. For I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and fourth generations of those who hate Me, but showing mercy to thousands, to those who love Me and keep My commandments. (Exod. 20:4-6, NKJV)

Is the problem with carved images that they can be worshiped? If so, would that make the Second Commandment redundant? Does the Second Commandment prohibit anything not already forbidden by the First Commandment?

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    In the sacramental tradition (Catholic, Lutheran, etc.) the first two commandments are: 1) You shall no other gods before me. 2) You shall not take the Lord's name in vain.
    – Jess
    Aug 28, 2022 at 21:53
  • @Jess That could clarify a potential discrepancy. Of course, I believe they also separate the command not to covet into two commandments, which could arguably feel somewhat forced. I'm open to an alternative model, though.
    – The Editor
    Aug 28, 2022 at 22:21
  • The Orthodox Church delineates the 1st commandment and 2nd commandments as the OP indicates (see, e.g. Longer Catechism of the Orthodox Church by Met. Philaret). I didn't realize that we even disagreed here.
    – user33515
    Aug 30, 2022 at 18:25

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Many have suggested that the second commandment is redundant for exactly the reasons stated by the OP. However, there is a good reason for the second commandment.

One of the greatest characteristics of the true God of the Hebrews was that He is the creator God of heaven and earth who is invisible, Deut 4:15, 1 Tim 1:17, Col 1:15, Heb 11:27, etc. Thus, the second commandment forbids making images of the true God because no image of the invisible can be produced! (There is an important exception to this to be discussed below.)

Thus, if a person were to (incorrectly) reason that I will make an image of the true God, when I worship in from of that I am worshiping the true God of heaven and thus not breaking the first commandment.

However, the second commandment closes that loophole!

There is another reason for prohibiting images of God and that is found in

Heb 11:6 - And without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who approaches Him must believe that He exists and that He rewards those who earnestly seek Him.

We worship and serve the true God by faith because God is invisible - making an image, even of the true God denies that reality.

EXCEPTION - Image of the Invisible

It is almost as if Paul alludes to the second commandment when he writes:

Col 1:15 - He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation

John reinforces this same point in John 1:18 -

No one has ever yet seen God. The only begotten God, the One being in the bosom of the Father, He has made Him known/revealed Him.

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  • Thank you for your reply. The Second Commandment seems to directly list more than just images of the true God, prohibiting even images "of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth" (Ex. 20:4, NKJV). Some believe that making statues are prohibited by this verse, even if not used for worship. Would such people be correct? If making images of things on heaven or on earth is only wrong if you worship them, then listing all those examples seems to be redundant in light of the First Commandment. What do you think?
    – The Editor
    Aug 28, 2022 at 22:25
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    @TheEditor - it is true that making images is only forbidden if they are worshiped. Note the many images that were made for the sanctuary itself, but none of those was worshiped. I also agree that the restriction not to make any images of false God's is somewhat redundant; however, the experience of making a golden calf (Ex 32) shows that they even used the calf as an image of the LORD (Ex 32:5). the second commandment is a "let there be no doubt" reinforcement of the first.
    – Dottard
    Aug 28, 2022 at 22:43
  • Ah, I hadn't thought of that! The Ark of the Covenant, for example, had images of the cherubim, didn't it? What sources show any other images that were made for the sanctuary?
    – The Editor
    Aug 28, 2022 at 22:47
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    @TheEditor - Look at the description of the temple in 2 Chron 3 & 4 which included images of angels, fruit, palm trees, bulls, cherubim, etc. Lots of them!
    – Dottard
    Aug 28, 2022 at 23:00
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    Also the bronze serpent that Moses made. 2 Kings 18:4 It was not made for the sanctuary but is reported to have been kept there. Aug 29, 2022 at 0:01
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Since the Ten Commandments (or in Hebrew Ten Statements) are situated in a long passage in both Exodus (cap. 20) and Deutronomy (cap. 5) but not delimited or numbered (that is, separated in the text itself), they must be semantically extracted by the reader. As such, there have come down, in the Christian tradition at least, two main ways of numbering them. One that considers having other gods and having idols as one and the same Commandment, and one that considers coveting one's wife and coveting one's neighbour's property, separate, and the other that the commandment against idolatry and against making idols specifically are actually two separate but related commandments, but blend the coveting commandments into one instead. But both views take liberties (as it were) with how they instantiate the coveting commandment (and others).1

Here is 'the whole first commandment,' according to the first view:

I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt from the house of servitude. You shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourselves any graven image or any likeness of anything in heaven above or on earth below, or in the waters beneath the earth. You shall not bow before them or serve them: for I the Lord, your God, am jealous God, bringing the iniquity of the fathers upon the sons, down to the third and the forth generation of those that hate me: but showing kindness to thousands of those that love me, and keep my ordinances.

Only the bold portion is considered a separate commandment, and the rest is surrounding explanation.

According to the second view, there are two separate commandments:

I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt from the house of servitude. You shall have no other gods before me.

You shall not make for yourselves any graven image or any likeness of anything in heaven above or on earth below, or in the waters beneath the earth. You shall not bow before them or serve them: for I the Lord, your God, am jealous God, bringing the iniquity of the fathers upon the sons, down to the third and the forth generation of those that hate me: but showing kindness to thousands of those that love me, and keep my ordinances.

The first view is, for example, the Catholic view, and the second view is taken by Protestants, for example.

For me personally, it does inescapably seem to be redundant if taken as a separate commandment; but both lists also imply the alternative list, so enither are invalid as such. The point is no list is given, only a passage. While the text declares that the list is that of ten commandments, it doesn't tell us what constitutes each or its limits. And even then, we still summarize in different ways, such as, according to the second view, merging the things coveted into coveting in general. Or in both views, bearing false witness against your neighbour, to bearing false witness generally. Further than this most Christians will extrapolate from the prohibition of adultery, per the words of Jesus Himself, that all fornication of any kind is forbidden by the spirit of this commandment (if not the letter).


1 Some commit the fallacy of who have only one commandment for coveting of making wives out to be yet another form of property along with cattle. But this is fallacious, it assumes that because both spouses and property are "had" ("my wife" "my husband" "my property"), this means they are had in the same sense or valued equally. Both wives and property are indeed coveted, but this doesn't mean they are the same thing!

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    Thanks for your reply. I upvoted it as well as the other answers. I can see how the "Catholic version" helps to avoid the redundancy of the "Protestant version," but I can also see how it leads to potential redundancy of its own, having one command to not covet A and a separate command not to covet B. Both attempts at dividing the commands into ten seem somewhat difficult. Do you know how the Jews divide the list?
    – The Editor
    Aug 29, 2022 at 17:25
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It isn't redundant.

The first commandment requires that people regard only God as god.

But people can believe God is their only god and still attribute supernatural qualities to physical objects, mistakenly thinking they are somehow linked to God.

A lucky rabbit's foot, or crossed fingers, or a picture depicting Jesus, or knocking on wood aren't putting any god before God, but they are imposing indirection between us and God. The true God doesn't need or want this level of indirection. If we need God's help, we should ask him directly, not rely on physical things to represent him or his power, things that in reality are powerless.

Paganism: Thou shalt have no other gods before me.
The world has many gods, in many forms, with many powers. But if you follow the Lord, the only god you need to know, you shall be free of the influence of all other spiritual powers, real or imaginary. You'll be free of fear of all other gods and supernatural beings.

Idolatry: 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, ... .
People attribute magical and spiritual powers to physical objects and ritual behaviour. Following God's way means that if you accept God as the direct source of all power, you shall be freed from any other magical powers, real or imaginary. You'll be free of fear of, and have no need for, any supernatural objects or rituals.
— From my The Ten Freedoms

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The second Commandment is not redundant but instead is more of an extension of the first.

Exodus 20:3 explicitly states there are to be "no other gods". Worship of the one true god, Jehovah, is the only one to be tolerated by him.

Verse 4 goes on to expand on the worship aspect by limiting said worship by means of eliminating physical objects of worship.

A point of note is the fact that as Jehovah God is giving the Ten Commandments to Moses, the Israelites are in the midst of making a golden calf for venerating. (Exodus 32:1-10) These same Israelites had known about physical objects of worship because they saw this done during their captivity in Egypt.

The nation of Israel was still in its infancy as to become God's chosen people. They had a lot to learn as to what was required of them to worship the one true God.

The apostle Paul makes this clear centuries later when writing Hebrews 11:6:

But without faith it is impossible to please Him, for he who comes to God must believe that He is, and that He is a rewarder of those who diligently seek Him. (NKJV) [emphasis mine]

Paul here reminds them that faith is required; not the veneration of physical objects. A few verses earlier, Paul defined what faith is by saying:

Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen. (NKJV) [emphasis mine]

As noted in other answers, the tabernacle and temple both had representations of angels, fruit, and animals, but these were decorations and not to be used for worship. Jehovah God wanted the Israelites to put faith in him as the one true God. Jehovah God had performed several miracles and wonderous works as a means to prove that he was their savior. These were the beginning foundations of what was to be the Jewish faith and later that of Christianity.

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