Interpretations of some verses of the Hebrew Bible, commonplace ideas about the attitude of Judaism to art, and scarcity of archaeological findings engender assumption that the Hebrew Bible prohibits art. Furthermore, in spite of the numerous representatives of Jewish art in our times, it is often considered that the Jewish art appeared in the recent centuries. This paper will show that such a viewpoint is incorrect and biased. The Hebrew Bible does not contain any verses that directly or indirectly prohibit art although it does impose certain restrictions. Moreover, the Bible mentions artistic artifacts created and used by the ancient Jews.
Art in Ancient Israel
First, one should clearly understand that prohibiting art in general would mean prohibiting all kinds of creative activity, which would be impossible. Arts like music, dancing, literature, in particular poetry, were developed in the ancient Israel and loved and practiced by Jews. David, one of the most famous kings of Israel, was a “skillful harpist” (1 Sa. 16:18). Psalm 150 describes worshipping God with music, dancing and singing, “Praise him with fanfare of trumpet, praise him with harp and lyre, praise him with tambourines and dancing, praise him with strings and pipes, praise him with the clamour of cymbals, praise him with triumphant cymbals“ (Ps. 150:3-5). Psalms attributed to King David, and the Song of Songs attributed to his son King Solomon stand among the most beautiful pieces of poetry. Meanwhile, there is a certain predicament for interpreting the Hebrew Bible in respect to visual arts, such as painting and sculpture. Therefore, the statement about general prohibition of art in the Hebrew Bible is incorrect.
Second, in the theocratic state like ancient Israel, all art served God, and all manifestations of art were regulated by the priesthood. Thus, there is almost no information in the Hebrew Bible about secular art, and most mentions of art refer to religious objects and procedures.
Prohibition of the Image of God
The seeming contradiction about the visual arts roots in the Second Commandment, “You shall not carve idols for yourselves in the shape of anything in the sky above or on the earth below or in the waters beneath the earth” (Ex. 20:4). This directive is extended in Deuteronomy 4 16-18, “You saw no form at all on the day the LORD spoke to you at Horeb from the midst of the fire. Be strictly on your guard, therefore, not to degrade yourselves by fashioning an idol to represent any figure, whether it be the form of a man or a woman, of any animal on the earth or of any bird that flies in the sky, of anything that crawls on the ground or of any fish in the waters under the earth.” It is clear from these two passages that prohibition concerns idolatry (Schaeffer 2007, p. 20). Worshipping idols was widespread in the ingenious pagan tribes that populated Palestine, and in Israeli tribes before the Law of Moses. Therefore, it was necessary to separate the idea of almighty, omnipresent and invisible God from a concrete material image. It was also necessary to draw the line between the way of worshipping practiced by the surrounding pagans and the one required by Yahweh (Bonfiglio n.d.). Hence, the prohibition on images is not universal but conditioned by the religious and objective reality. Indeed, there are no artifacts with the image of God, and few with human images, while there are plenty of them with animal, floral and geometrical motifs. According to Bonfiglio (n.d.), most scientists consider that severe prohibition of images developed in the course of time and was not characteristic of early Judaism.
Works of Art Mentioned in the Bible
As mentioned above, the Hebrew Bible contains a clear prohibition on the imagery of God and warning for other images since they might be used for improper worshipping. However, the Hebrew Bible mentions many cases of visual arts of religious and some of secular destination. Moreover, in many cases, the directive for creation of such visual objects was obtained from God.
Simultaneously with giving the Ten Commandments, God told Moses to construct a Tabernacle to the pattern shown by him (Ex. 25:9). The interior of the Tabernacle involved “almost every form of representational art” (Schaeffer 2007, p. 20). Furthermore, the Lord gave detailed instructions to Moses about decorating the arc, “Make two cherubim of beaten gold for the two ends of the propitiatory… The cherubim shall have their wings spread out above, covering the propitiatory with them; they shall be turned toward each other, but with their faces looking toward the propitiatory” (Exo.25:18-20). While the Arc bears the images of angels, the golden lampstands outside the Holy of Holies are ornate with almond blossom, which is a natural motif (Ex. 25:31-33; Schaeffer 2007, p. 23). The Bible preserved the name of the first Jewish artist who constructed the Tabernacle in accordance with God’s directions: Bezalel (Ex. 31:2; Brockman n.d.)
The Hebrew Bible also mentions other visual images approved or directly commanded by God. For example, the Lord told Moses to make a bronze serpent (Nu. 21:8). The garments of the priests were decorated with “pomegranates, woven of violet, purple and scarlet yarn and fine linen twined, with gold bells between them; first a gold bell, then a pomegranate, and thus alternating all around the hem of the rob” (Ex. 28: 33-34). Cherubim of olive wood overlaid with gold decorated Solomon’s temple (1 Ki. 6:23-28). Prophet Ezekiel describes the heavenly temple that served as an example for the second temple in Jerusalem as follows, “As high as the lintel of the door, even into the interior part of the temple as well as outside, on every wall on every side in both the inner and outer rooms were carved the figures of cherubim and palmtrees: a palmtree between every two cherubim. Each cherub had two faces: a man’s face looking at a palmtree on one side, and a lion’s face looking at a palmtree on the other; thus they were figured on every side throughout the whole temple. From the ground to the lintel of the door the cherubim and palmtrees were carved on the walls” (Ez. 41:17-20). The example of secular art can be found in the detailed description of King Solomon’s throne with the figures of lions on each step (1 Ki. 10:16-20).
The information contained in the Hebrew Bible about visual arts allows assuming that the most spread forms of the visual arts were carving, relief and sculpture. The images used in decoration of religious objects were the figures of angels, faces, animals, fruits, and flowers; secular objects were decorated with animal and floral motifs. However, the restrictions imposed upon images that could bear likelihood to God detained the development of figurative art and painting (Amishai-Maisels 2008).
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The Biblical studies should be carried out in historical context and with a thorough analysis of the texts. The analysis of the Hebrew Bible proves that it did not prohibit arts. Moreover, such forms of arts as music, dance, poetry, carving, and sculpture were highly developed in Ancient Israel. The image-ban was obviously conditioned by the danger of idolatry that was widely practiced by the surrounding ingenious tribes and by the Jews themselves before the acquisition of the Law of Moses. The ban limited the development of figurative and facial representations, but the existence of the ancient Jewish art is a doubtless fact confirmed by the sacred texts and archaeological findings.