I am not ready to start a longer term reading project. So I am reading some online articles. I am struck by the quality of some of what is available online.
Today I am linking to this one. It is “The Veto on Images and the aniconic God in Ancient Israel” By Trygve Mettinger.
Mettinger has done a lot of work on the concept of aniconism, the avoidance of images to represent God. Aniconism, he shows, was a feature of several religious cultures and not just Israel. Mettinger studied in detail the use of standing stones as non-graven images to represent, but not envision, the presence of deity. This is what he calls material aniconism.
He has also developed the concept of empty space aniconism. This means there is a space for the deity like the space above the cherubim in the Jerusalem Temple. He found several examples of this even in pagan religious cultures. These concepts are fleshed out in his book No Graven Image? Israelite Aniconism in Its Ancient Near Eastern Context.
The present article asks when the command to avoid graven images arose in Israel. Taken at face value, the Bible makes this command a part of the law given by Moses. But there are reasons to think that the Deuteronomist read the prohibition back into earlier times.
In the time of the Judges there seemed to be no problem for Gideon to have an ephod (8:27). And Micah’s silver image was dedicated to YHWH (17:3). The Deuteromomist has edited in negative comments on these uses of images that the contemporaries did not see.
Mettinger argues that the empty space aniconism in Israel arose in connection with the ark of the covenant as something like the footstool or resting place of God. He cites Moses.
And when the ark traveled, Moses would say, “Rise up, O Lord! May your enemies be scattered, and may those who hate you flee before you!” And when it came to rest he would say, “Return, O Lord, to the many thousands of Israel!” (Num. 10:35-36 NET Bible)
He apparently sees this text as representing an old understanding. This empty space aniconism applied to the shrine at Shiloh as well. David brought it to Jerusalem and used it to promote the unifying Jerusalem religious culture.
When the kingdom split, Jeroboam had the practical problem of offering the northern Israelites an alternative to the Jerusalem religious culture. His bull at Bethel probably was also an example empty space aniconism. The bull was related to the idea of YHWH as the rider of a powerful animal. It was not supposed to be a deity. This is confirmed by Jehu’s coup, when Jehu targeted Baal worship, but left the Bethel cult alone (2 Kings 10:25).
Mettinger puts Hosea at the beginning of the attack on the Bethel symbols. Thereafter the polemic against the bull shrine at Bethel became a way of promoting the Jerusalem temple. In the light of Josiah’s reform and the centralizing of all worship at Jerusalem, the Bethel shrine gets condemned. This involved some rewriting of history, though. Originally the Bethel shrine also avoided images of God and merely provided an empty space above the bull for the deity.
The commandment against graven images then would have arisen sometime after Jehu and Elijah’s sons of the prophets and Hosea. If we know this for sure, it would give us more of a clue about the time of the composition of the Pentateuch sources. There was a theological development concerning the meaning of aniconism. I was particularly struck by his brief commentary on Deuteronomy 4.
Deuteronomy 4:12 says,
“Then the Lord spoke to you from the middle of the fire; you heard speech but you could not see anything – only a voice was heard (NET Bible).”
God’s word as the means by which he revealed himself at Horeb precludes images.
Then in vs. 15-19 the people are commanded not to make images of anything in all creation and the language (male and female, things that creep upon the earth) very much recalls the priestly account of creation in Genesis 1. I had not seen that before. But yes, D seems to draw upon P here!
The taboo against graven images affirms the transcendence of God over the things he has created.
Mettinger sums up stating his
insight that the prohibition of images was probably formulated quite late, but that the official cult was early aniconic: over the cherub throne and the ark, the God of Israel was enthroned in unseen majesty. The place usually occupied by the image is empty. There is thus in Israelite religion a vacuum, a vacuum which tends to be filled. The roles played by the word of God, the name of God, and man as the of God in the O.T. should be studied in this larger perspective as functions in a structure of which the notion of the aniconic god is the very centre.