“4 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. 5 You shall not bow down to them or serve them…” (Exod 20:4-5).
What is the scope of this prohibition?
i) V4 is stated in blanket terms. If, however, we take it without further qualification, it contradicts the representational art which God commanded to decorate the tabernacle.
If, therefore, we honor the inspiration of Scripture, then the force of v4 must be modified in some respect.
ii) The logical way to harmonize v4 with the representational art in the tabernacle is to view v5 as a qualification on the generic statement in v4.
iii) On that view, v4 is not an absolute prohibition. Rather, the intended scope of v4 is delimited by the specifications in v5. And that concerns the motives of the worshiper.
iv) That, in turn, raises the question of how we are meant to construe the force of v5. And this involves the function of idols in idolatry. What purpose did they serve?
To my knowledge, idols were fashioned to make the gods accessible to the worshiper. The idol mediated the presence of the god it depicted. That was a way of reaching the gods and even manipulating the gods. It was a two-way conduit, by which the worshiper could interact with the god, and vice versa.
On a related note, if you brought offerings to the idol, then the corresponding god would be compelled to return the favor.
v) The Pentateuchal prohibition against divine images would therefore apply to any analogous use of divine images. Does a modern-day worshiper use a divine image to facilitate contact with God? If so, then that is idolatrous. That is forbidden.
vi) This is not the only potential problem with divine images. As I’ve noted before, since Yahweh is invisible, we cannot know what he is like apart from his self-disclosure.
vii) What about, say, a statue of the virgin Mary? Is that idolatrous? Mary is not a goddess, so an artistic depiction of Mary is not inherently idolatrous.
But that also depends on the use to which the statue is put. In Catholic theology, Mary is, herself, a way of making God available to the worshiper. And a statue of Mary is a way of focusing one’s prayers to and through Mary to God.
In that respect, a statue of Mary is idolatrous twice over.