God, the Bible, and Art, Part 2
In the first part of this article, we looked at God as the source of art and at man as the recipient of the gift of art. In this part, we want to look at a few specific places where artworks are discussed in Scripture to learn what we can about art and its relationship to godly testimony.
Art expression was important enough to God that He made it the subject of one of His Ten Commandments. Exodus 20:4-5 says, "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: Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them." On the surface, this command is negative; but as we look more deeply into it, the commandment does not prohibit art. Even taken alone, verse 4 still allows for nonfigurative art, both abstract and decorative. Neither naturalistic art that is not worshipped nor imaginary art is excluded by verses 4 and 5.
The word "graven" in the King James Version suggests sculpture as the forbidden art. But that is clearly not the meaning, since immediately after the command was given, God commanded Moses to have cherubim sculpted for the sides of the Ark of the Covenant (Exodus 25:18-20). Remember that these cherubim were to be located in the Holy of Holiesjust the place one would suspect idolatry. These figures were not there to be worshipped. They were probably not on top of the Ark, as they are portrayed in most illustrations. I imagine them kneeling in a more subservient position at the sides of the throne, in the position of servants. The fact that the mercy seat of the throne of God was empty is a visual testimony to the spiritual nature of God.
There is another specific example of sculpture commanded by God. When the people sinned and were punished by poisonous snakebites, God had Moses cast a serpent out of brass (Numbers 21:7-9). Such a cast would be relatively quick and practical in the desert, where damp sand would make an effective mold. The finished sculpture was to be elevated on a pole for the people to look up to. Again, this seems like an open invitation to idolatry. The brass serpent made use of the ability of art to lift a mundane object out of the realm of the ordinary and give it special meaning. That serpent was a symbol of their chronic dissatisfaction, and the act of looking at it brought them face- to-face with the cause of their suffering. When they looked at it that way, the serpent also became a symbol of God's power to forgive and remove judgment. Christ extends this specific metaphor to a universal one when He compares His own crucifixion to the brass serpent (John 3:14-15).
After a time, the content of the brass serpent was forgotten. The people named it Nehushtan (2 Kings 18:4). Naming the sculpture was far more significant than it seems. In its original state, its value was as an instrument to accomplish God's purpose. Once it was named, it took on an importance in its own right and began to be credited with its own power to heal. The very same artwork changed from an instrument of God into an idol. Its physical form didn't change, but its meaning did.
There is another example of the relationship between subject matter and content. While Moses was on Sinai receiving the law, Aaron succumbed to public pressure and cast a calf (Exodus 32:22-24). Perhaps in his own mind, he really believed that the form didn't matter as long as the name was right; he called it Jehovah. The people instinctively responded in ways that didn't please Jehovah at all, demonstrating their understanding that something more than a form had changed. When Aaron was confronted with his failure, he gave a fantastic excuse: " and there came out this calf."
Was there something about a sculpture of a calf that was evil? Not really, for a later example of the same subject illustrates a crucial difference. Solomon was commanded to make a brazen basin for the cleansing of the priests. It was to be supported on the hindquarters of twelve oxen (2 Chronicles 4:4). The animal is the same, but the meaning is quite different. Aaron's calf stood on its own pedestal with all attention focused on itself as an object of worship. The oxen serve as supports for the brazen sea: they are servants, helping to perform the Lord's work. The image was the same, but the content was the opposite.
For a Christian artist, it isn't mainly the subject matter or style that is primary: it is the meaning of the artwork that matters.
Caldecott, W. Shaw. "Tabernacle." International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, 1939 ed.
Schaeffer, Francis. Art and the Bible. Downers Grove, IL: Inter-Varsity Press, 1973.
Veith, Gene Edward. The Gift of Art. Downers Grove, IL: Inter-Varsity Press, 1983.
Wolterstorff, Nicholas. Art in Action. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1980.