Deuteronomy 4:12-19, 23-28 – Prohibition Against Figurative Art


Deuteronomy 4:12-19


Moses draws a connection from the non-figurative theophany at Sinai to instruct the Israelites not to make figurative art at all, and certainly not to make or worship idols.


Moses reasons that because the people did not behold any form at Horeb when God gave the people their commandments, they should not dare to make for themselves any carved image of a living thing. People, terrestrial animals, birds, creeping things, and aquatic life are all prohibited subjects. Moreover, the people were not to even contemplate worshiping the heavenly bodies of the sun, moon, or stars. 

Moses warned that he would die outside the Promised Land. In order for the people to avoid a similar fate, they should not make figurative art in any of the above listed forms. If any of their descendants did make a carved figure, and especially if they were to worship it, they would be removed from the land. 

Certainly, Jewish and Christian [and Muslim!] practices have included figurative and devotional art across the centuries. Almost all historians agree that the earliest practices of the church were to eschew figurative art, but production and veneration of icons became part of Christian practice in the first several hundred years of Christianity. Finally in the last of the first seven ecumenical councils, Nicaea II in 787 C.E., icon veneration was approved and protected. Tolerance of figurative art was a major issue during the Protestant Reformation, with serious and well-intentioned people disagreeing, at times violently, about whether passages that prevented image creation or carving were still binding on Christians, or whether exceptions were to be made for religious art.