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ICONOCLASM in the OLD AND NEW TESTAMENTS Peter Goldman Westminster State College ofSalt Lake City Acentral problem for any monotheistic religion is distinguishing worship of the one true God from idolatry in all its forms. René Girard's pioneering interpretation ofthe Judeo-Christian scriptures clarifies this distinction by recourse to an ethical conception ofthe sacrificial: False religion or idolatry is essentially sacrificial, while the Judeo-Christian tradition opposes the sacrificial in all its myriad forms. As Girard explains, the Passion narrative makes clear that the sacrificial or scapegoat victim, Christ, is innocent. The violence inflicted upon Christ is human, not divine. The Gospels thus reveal the violence that hides behind the sacred. Religious practices that further sacrificial violence are idolatrous, worshiping violence in the guise ofthe sacred.1 The ethical simplicity of the Girardian distinction between true faith and idolatry is complicated, however, by the issue of representation. According to the Old Testament, the one true God cannot be represented by images or figures of any kind, while idols typically take figurai form. From a biblical perspective, therefore, the question ofform is central to an understanding of idolatry. The Old Testament ban on images has never been investigated from a Girardian perspective. In this essay I apply Rene Girard's anthropological insights to the subject oficonoclasm in the Old and New Testaments. More specifically I address the second command-ment, the famous ban on "graven images," and the problem of representing God. From the per- ' For a fuller treatment ofGirard's interpretation ofChristianity in relation to the sacrificial, see his Things Hidden since the Foundation ofthe World 84Peter Goldman spective ofGirard's "fundamental anthropology" there are two basic issues in this regard. The first is the ethical function of the ban on images; how does the second commandment function ethically to preserve the human community in the Bible? Second, is the ban on images sacrificial as understood in Girardian terms? Or is it anti-sacrificial and therefore ethically progressive? The second commandment reads: "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: for I the Lord thy God am a jealous God" (KJV, Exod. 20.4-5). At first glance, this commandment might appear as an expression ofthe most primitive form ofreligious taboo. A specific cultural activity is arbitrarily forbidden under threat of punishment . The taboo on images, unlike the law against murder for example, has no obvious moral dimension. Images of any kind must be violently expelled —sacrificed, as it were—for no immediate reason. According to the second commandment, any attempt to represent God or his creation by images is a profane violation of his "jealous" nature; the second commandment therefore often finds expression in the violent destruction ofsocalled idolatrous images. Acts oficonoclasm directed againstthe images of foreign gods are quite common in the Old Testament. Nevertheless, I argue here thatthe second commandment is in practical terms ethically progressive and anti-sacrificial. It actually questions and underminesthe whole sacred-profane dichotomy. Indeed, the ban on images is ultimately a secularizing influence crucial for the development of modernity. I also address the Christian acceptance of divine images, which has often been understood as a reversal of the Judaic ban on figurai representations . In the interpretation of iconoclasm that I am proposing here, however, the image ofChrist on the cross can be seen as a logical development of the second commandment rather than its contradiction. I. The second commandment in context In the Old Testament, the giving of the second commandment is associated with the Exodus from Egypt and the Hebrew rejection of Egyptian religion and culture. In Herbert Schneidau's book Sacred Discontent, he argues persuasively that Hebrew monotheism is first of all a reaction against pagan polytheism. Schneidau writes, "The JudeoChristian tradition defines itselfas opposed to a pagan world which it sees Iconoclasm in the Old and New Testaments85 as essentialIy mythological"(12). Further, "TheHebrews habitually defined themselves negatively, by their differences from their neighbors" (51). Schneidau explains: We find...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1930-1200
Print ISSN
1075-7201
Pages
pp. 83-94
Launched on MUSE
2011-01-26
Open Access
No
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