The recent conversations in America about Confederate statues have made me wonder: what does the Bible say about monuments?
Worship only God
On God’s ‘top ten’ list of things people should do, the top 2 are:
- “You shall have no other gods before Me.” (Exodus 20:3 ESV)
- “You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.” (Exodus 20:4 ESV)
Deuteronomy 5:8 leaves out the carved part, so just no image – leaving out any wiggle room. Leviticus 26:1 says “Look, just no idols. Period. Don’t even make a pillar, mate.”
Quite a lot of the Hebrew scriptures – Torah and prophetic writings – reinforce these two commandments, detailing how things went horribly wrong when the people did not adhere to them.
And while it is tempting to say therefore we should go around smashing all statues (like people did during the Reformation), it is interesting to note Paul’s response to the idols that he saw in Athens. Paul used the idols as educational props to point the people to the one real God that could not be captured fully in wood or stone, with the hopes that they would choose to destroy the idols themselves. (Acts 17:16-34). Paul argued, conversed, and occasionally name called, but he didn’t go around smashing idols up.
Monuments potentially teach the peoples’ story
Monuments – piles of stones – were used to mark places with history, to help the people tell the story of the lessons learned in that place. In Genesis 31:45, Jacob and his kinsmen created a monument to act as a witness to his agreement with Laban. In Joshua 4, twelve stones were taken from the River Jordan and placed in such a way for others to ask what the stones were for and then the story of how God helped them cross the river Jordan could be told. Monuments in the Bible are to teach lessons learned by our ancestors and to point to God’s ways of doing stuff. They aren’t for lifting anyone higher than anyone else.
However there is also the bronze serpent – an instrument for healing given by God that the people later turned into an idol. People started to worship the bronze serpent and forgot the God who healed. See Numbers 21:6-9 and 2 Kings 18:4. This can happen when a monument loses its sense of history. When the people walk by without any sense of why it is there or where it came from. When the story of the monument is lost, even a monument that once told an important story could become an idol (like the bronze serpent).
Beware! Monuments are sometimes used to intimidate and subjugate people
Of course, monuments are not always used positively. In the Bible, we read that monuments and statues were used by the various empires to intimidate the people of God and to try to get God’s people to abandon God and to worship the gods of the empires. See Daniel 3.
Also later after Daniel, it certainly was common practice within the Roman Empire to build statues to the god or goddess that was the protector of a particular Roman city. Also statues of the leaders, particularly the Emperor, often depicted with various items to ensure the people understood the emperor’s connection to the gods. Of course, eventually these emperors would be considered gods themselves throughout the Roman Empire.
The Jews and Christians refused to worship these idols and often got persecuted as a result. Anytime Rome lost a war or suffered an economic setback, the Jews and Christians were blamed.
This is not an exhaustive study. I’m sure you can think of some monumental stories I have left out. This is just a starting point to spark thought.
When thinking about statues that we have in the public square, I wonder:
- What does the statue encourage me to remember?
- What is the history behind the statue being erected in the first place?
- Are people free to reject the statue and its story or is it enforced by a government? If it is enforced, why? To what purpose?
- Does my honouring or valuing this statue supersede my honouring and valuing of God? (ie Is God still God to me? Is God still ‘first’ in my life?)