In the course of the comments on a previous post (link to post), I had asked:
What about the prohibition on picturing God? -- Why does that prohibition not apply to pictures of Jesus?
The response I got from one of my Eastern Orthodox readers was this:
"Because on Sinai we saw no image. In the Incarnation, we did."
This is sort of a standard response from the Eastern Orthodox, and I had tried to anticipate it somewhat in the post, although I wasn't dealing with an Eastern Orthodox person in the post. There are several responses:
1) There were theophanies before the Incarnation.
There were theophanies, appearances of God, prior to the Incarnation. Those theophanies were around both before Moses (see where the Lord visits Abraham in Genesis 18), and after Moses (see where the Lord appears in the fiery furnace with Daniel's three friends in Daniel 3).
So, the significance of the absence of the image on Sinai is not that no one ever saw God in a form before the Incarnation. There was no form shown to the people of Israel on Sinai, but there were other forms shown. Even closer to Moses, both Jacob (wrestled with the Lord in Genesis 32) and Joshua (who met with the Lord, see Joshua 5) saw God in human form.
2) We have not seen Jesus.
Jesus is presently in heaven. The apostles, other disciples, and even the unbelieving Jews saw Jesus. We did not. There are no detailed explanations of what Jesus looked like in the Scriptures, and while some Eastern Orthodox seem to think they have access to some kind of authentic tradition of what Jesus looked like, those stories are not credible.
3) There is greater significance to "for ye saw no manner of similitude on the day that the LORD spake unto you in Horeb out of the midst of the fire" than just that they did not know what God looked like
I am referring specifically to this:
Take ye therefore good heed unto yourselves; for ye saw no manner of similitude on the day that the LORD spake unto you in Horeb out of the midst of the fire: lest ye corrupt yourselves, and make you a graven image, the similitude of any figure, the likeness of male or female, the likeness of any beast that is on the earth, the likeness of any winged fowl that flieth in the air, the likeness of any thing that creepeth on the ground, the likeness of any fish that is in the waters beneath the earth: and lest thou lift up thine eyes unto heaven, and when thou seest the sun, and the moon, and the stars, even all the host of heaven, shouldest be driven to worship them, and serve them, which the LORD thy God hath divided unto all nations under the whole heaven.
Notice that there are two things prohibited - making something that is supposed to be a likeness of God, and worshiping/serving anything other than God (even the sun, moon, and stars).
I'd like to suggest that the point about not seeing God's form, is that what is significant is that there was no form seen when God was explaining how He is to be honored. Thus, creating a form of God would be an example of something that adds to the law of God.
There are two Sola Scriptura verses in Deuteronomy that specifically provide for a limitation on innovation.
Deuteronomy 4:2 Ye shall not add unto the word which I command you, neither shall ye diminish ought from it, that ye may keep the commandments of the LORD your God which I command you.
Deuteronomy 12:32 What thing soever I command you, observe to do it: thou shalt not add thereto, nor diminish from it.
Keep in mind that the context of each of those passages supports the point I'm making.
In the first instance:
Now therefore hearken, O Israel, unto the statutes and unto the judgments, which I teach you, for to do them, that ye may live, and go in and possess the land which the LORD God of your fathers giveth you. Ye shall not add unto the word which I command you, neither shall ye diminish ought from it, that ye may keep the commandments of the LORD your God which I command you. Your eyes have seen what the LORD did because of Baalpeor: for all the men that followed Baalpeor, the LORD thy God hath destroyed them from among you. But ye that did cleave unto the LORD your God are alive every one of you this day. Behold, I have taught you statutes and judgments, even as the LORD my God commanded me, that ye should do so in the land whither ye go to possess it. Keep therefore and do them; for this is your wisdom and your understanding in the sight of the nations, which shall hear all these statutes, and say, Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people. For what nation is there so great, who hath God so nigh unto them, as the LORD our God is in all things that we call upon him for? And what nation is there so great, that hath statutes and judgments so righteous as all this law, which I set before you this day?
Basically, in context, God is saying "do exactly what I say, neither more nor less." Furthermore, Deuteronomy 4:2 is in the context of the prohibition on images that we're discussing. Specifically, the linking verses are verses 9-14:
Only take heed to thyself, and keep thy soul diligently, lest thou forget the things which thine eyes have seen, and lest they depart from thy heart all the days of thy life: but teach them thy sons, and thy sons' sons; specially the day that thou stoodest before the LORD thy God in Horeb, when the LORD said unto me, Gather me the people together, and I will make them hear my words, that they may learn to fear me all the days that they shall live upon the earth, and that they may teach their children. And ye came near and stood under the mountain; and the mountain burned with fire unto the midst of heaven, with darkness, clouds, and thick darkness. And the LORD spake unto you out of the midst of the fire: ye heard the voice of the words, but saw no similitude; only ye heard a voice. And he declared unto you his covenant, which he commanded you to perform, even ten commandments; and he wrote them upon two tables of stone. And the LORD commanded me at that time to teach you statutes and judgments, that ye might do them in the land whither ye go over to possess it.
Notice that in this context, of solemnly insisting that the people keep God's law, God reminds them of the particular day on which the law was given. That day is the day that is then referred to when it comes to the question of making representations of God.
Just as there was no image of God shown to the people so that they would have a pattern after which to illustrate him on the day of Horeb, so also we are not given an image of God (of any person of the Godhead) that is to serve as an illustration so that we may try to show a likeness of God today.
We see no similitude, only words, just as the people of Israel saw no similitude, they only received words.
The same sort of thing is true with respect to the other passage from Deuteronomy 12.
Observe and hear all these words which I command thee, that it may go well with thee, and with thy children after thee for ever, when thou doest that which is good and right in the sight of the LORD thy God. When the LORD thy God shall cut off the nations from before thee, whither thou goest to possess them, and thou succeedest them, and dwellest in their land; take heed to thyself that thou be not snared by following them, after that they be destroyed from before thee; and that thou enquire not after their gods, saying, How did these nations serve their gods? even so will I do likewise. Thou shalt not do so unto the LORD thy God: for every abomination to the LORD, which he hateth, have they done unto their gods; for even their sons and their daughters they have burnt in the fire to their gods. What thing soever I command you, observe to do it: thou shalt not add thereto, nor diminish from it.
Again, God is commanding that people do exactly what he commands, not adding to it or taking away from it. In particular, here, he forbids innovation in the form syncretism or borrowing. In other words, God explicitly tells people not to model their religious life after that of the nations around them, but simply to follow the word of God.
We are not given a portrait of Jesus in the Bible, just as the Jews were not given an image of God on the day the law was given. The same principle that applied then, applies now, notwithstanding the Incarnation.