“Thou Shalt Not Make Unto Thee Any Graven Image”: The Distance Dependence of Representation

Authored by: Elinor Amit , Daniel Algom , Yaacov Trope , Nira Liberman

Handbook of Imagination and Mental Simulation

Print publication date:  December  2008
Online publication date:  September  2012

Print ISBN: 9781841698878
eBook ISBN: 9780203809846
Adobe ISBN: 9781136678103


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The prohibition in the Bible against pictorial representations of God is as famous as it is poorly understood. After all, why is it forbidden to depict God in pictures, but it is not forbidden to depict God in words (cf. Halbertal & Margalit, 1992)? God has been richly represented in written or oral narratives in and out of the Bible. If so, why is it permitted to write about God's hand or face, while it is strictly forbidden to provide a drawing of the hand or the face? In a similar vein, God can be heard, but not seen “for man may not see Me and live” (Exodus, 33:20). Again, it is the visual image that is banned. Portrayals in words are not only endorsed, but actively sought. One can listen to (indeed, should follow) God's words and one is encouraged to sing/write God's virtues. In the tradition of Islam, the prohibition against pictorial representation extends beyond God to such a major prophet as Muhammad. The ban on pictorial depiction also is common in the political realm. Kings of Persia would speak to their subjects from behind a screen and were never seen. The reverse asymmetry is also well known in modern politics: Pictures of the king/dictator are distributed everywhere, but one is discouraged to write/talk about the ruler (beyond the simplest banalities) (again, see Halbertal & Margalit, 1992, for a discussion of the biblical prohibition).

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