The Ten Commandments mention a 'graven image.' What is a graven image?

The words "graven image" are first found in Exodus 20:4 of the King James Version of the Bible: "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, or that is in the water under the earth." It is a phrase that literally refers to an idol, whether made of wood, stone, metal, silver, gold, or other items.

Such images or idols were common in ancient culture, particularly in the nations surrounding Israel during its wilderness journey. In Egypt, for example, the Israelites would have been aware of many idols that were worshiped by the Egyptians. In contrast, God commanded His people to worship only the one, true God of Israel (Deuteronomy 6:4-5).

In the King James Version of the Bible, graven images are specifically mentioned more than forty times, always condemning the practice of making or worshiping them. Leviticus 26:1 commands, "Ye shall make you no idols nor graven image, neither rear you up a standing image, neither shall ye set up any image of stone in your land, to bow down unto it: for I am the Lord your God." Again, the reason for commands against graven images is because only the Lord is to be worshiped.

Judges 18:14 makes a distinction between a graven image and a molten image. The difference appears to be that a graven image is a carved idol whereas a molten image is an idol molded out of a substance such as silver or gold. In terms of function, however, both were specifically considered idol worship and were forbidden throughout Scripture.

Is there any sense in which people continue to worship graven images today? First, there are still many cultures in which people literally worship idols. This is a practice the Bible clearly prohibits for those who follow Christ (1 Corinthians 10:7; Galatians 5:20). First Peter 4:3 also states, "For the time that is past suffices for doing what the Gentiles want to do, living in sensuality, passions, drunkenness, orgies, drinking parties, and lawless idolatry."

Second, giving sin priority over God in our lives is called idolatry. In Colossians 3:5 we find, "Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry." Judgment would result from such practices (v. 6) and these were practices of life before Christ (v. 7). Christians are called to flee from these sins that serve as idols in our lives and pursue godly living (vv. 12-17).

God condemns creating and worshiping idols. In addition, various sinful practices are also forms of idolatry that must be avoided and replaced with habits that honor God. Even good things, when worshipped above God, can become idols. We are to avoid any involvement with graven images.

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