The Production of Divine Images in the Ancient World and the “Image-Ethics” of the Decalogue

This paper takes a comparative approach to biblical conception of the “image of God” in relation to the ANE conceptions of the cultic images, with a special focus on the Decalogue. This new thesis builds on the work of Dick et al. (1999), Walls et al. (2005), Middleton (2005), Middlemas (2014), McDowell (2015), and Peterson (2016).

Mesopotamian and Egyptian texts contain descriptions of the rituals governing fabrication, consecration, daily care, and refurbishment/destruction of divine images (idols). These rituals reveal something about the common understanding of the deity-image relationship that should inform the reading of not just Genesis 1-3 but many other OT texts, as well.

Each of the Ten Commandments in some way relates to one or more of four human capacities or activities as image-bearers of YHWH: 1) The fabrication and enlivening of new images (sexuality); 2) The destruction of images (violence) as tantamount to an attack on the deity; 3) The relationship of the “mouth opening” and “mouth washing” ceremonies to the verbal capacity of the image, which also relates to moral agency (words); and 4) Kingship: the projection of the deity’s authority into the world using the image (human stewardship/ownership).

This image-of-God-based lens has the further potential to explain the relationship between the moral law as epitomized in the Decalogue, and the ceremonial dimensions of the Mosaic Law. Ritually impure human images freshly carry marks of their sexual behavior (capacity to generate more human images) or death (destruction of images), and must not enter the presence of YHWH God, lest his uniqueness as the Creator be overshadowed.

Leave a Comment