Is It a Sin to Make Graven Images? Ex 20:4-5, 25:18, 37:7-8, Lev 26:1, Deut 5:8, 27:15

Some argue that the Bible is contradictory concerning whether it is a sin to make graven images. Exodus 20:4-5, Leviticus 26:1, Deuteronomy 5:8, 27:15 say it is a sin, but Exodus 25:18, 37:7-8 appear to permit it.
Bible "contradictions"
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Quick answer

The types of graven, or "carved," images that are sinful to make are ones that are made to be worshipped. The golden cherubin were not made to be worshipped, so they are not "images."

The argument

Some argue that the Bible is contradictory concerning whether it is a sin to make graven, or "carved," images. God says it is a sin, yet He also commands the making of golden cherubims, which appear to be carved images. Here are the relevant passages:

Should not make graven images

Exodus 20:4-5 - 4 “You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. 5 You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me.
Leviticus 26:1 - “You shall not make idols for yourselves or erect an image or pillar, and you shall not set up a figured stone in your land to bow down to it, for I am the Lord your God."
Deuteronomy 5:8 - "You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth."
Deuteronomy 27:15 - "‘Cursed be the man who makes a carved or cast metal image, an abomination to the Lord, a thing made by the hands of a craftsman, and sets it up in secret.’ And all the people shall answer and say, ‘Amen.’"

Make graven images

Exodus 25:18 - And you shall make two cherubim of gold; of hammered work shall you make them, on the two ends of the mercy seat.
Exodus 37:7-8 - 7 And he made two cherubim of gold. He made them of hammered work on the two ends of the mercy seat, 8 one cherub on the one end, and one cherub on the other end. Of one piece with the mercy seat he made the cherubim on its two ends.

The answer

The types of graven, or "carved," images that we should not make are ones that we worship

The phrase, "graven/carved image," has a specific definition. Specifically, it is something that a person worships or serves.

Exodus 20:4-5 says concerning these images, "You shall not bow down to them or serve them." So, we are not to make any image that we would worship or serve.

Similarly, Leviticus 26:1 says that we should not make a graven image "to bow down to it."

The golden cherubim were not worshipped or served

The golden cherubim that God commanded the Israelites to make were not used for worship or service, but were rather made to be a representation of heaven. Essentially, they were used as decoration and for worship, not to be worshipped.

Furthermore, the cherubim were located in the Holy of Holies in the temple by the mercy seat, which would not have been a public place of worship. So, Israelites would not have been tempted to worship these cherubim.

"I don't buy that explanation"

Some people have trouble accepting possible explanations to alleged contradictions in the Bible, especially ones that they consider a stretch. For example, Dan Barker, president of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, says this:

I have received numerous replies from Christians who think that these contradictions are either trivial or easily explained. Yet not a single "explanation" has been convincing.

Fact vs Opinion

The fact is that there are plausible explanations for every alleged contradiction in the Bible. That there is a plausible explanation for an alleged contradiction does not mean that it is definitely the correct explanation for the alleged contradiction.

However, as long as a possible explanation has been suggested, then it has been objectively demonstrated that there is no necessary contradiction regarding the Bible verses and passages brought up.

When people like Dan Barker say that they don't find a particular explanation for a contradiction "convincing," then that is merely their opinion. A plausible explanation has been suggested that eliminates the necessary alleged contradiction. They simply don't like it, which is not at all a relevant argument against the explanation.

Additional Resources

To read more about solutions to Bible contradictions and difficulties, check out Norman Geisler's The Big Book of Bible Difficulties: Clear and Concise Answers from Genesis to Revelation. While we do not agree with some of Geisler's theology, particularly concerning his view of predestination, this book is still an excellent resource. It is thorough and filled with research.

Another book to check out is Tim Chaffey's Demolishing Supposed Bible Contradictions: Exploring Forty Alleged Contraditions, which also answers many alleged contradictions in the Bible.

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