The distinctive imposition of the second commandment notwithstanding, the Hebrew Bible has a great deal to say about art. Moreover, it promotes poetry and has been a source of inspiration for all the arts in Western culture to a degree surpassed only by the New Testament.
TENSION IN TEXT AND COMMENTARY
While Jewish artists from patriarchal times observed careful scruples where the human image (closely associated with the divinity, Gen 1:26–7) was concerned, the actual term used by the text of Exodus (20:4) makes it clear that “graven image” (from the Hebrew pāsal, “to carve from wood or stone”) refers specifically to three-dimensional rather than two-dimensional images. Typically, these three-dimensional images were used as idols. That there is no ban on other forms of representational imagery is clear from the same book of Exodus, in which the Lord reveals to Moses that he has called Bezalel of the tribe of Judah, filling him “with divine spirit, ability, intelligence, and knowledge of every kind of craft, to devise artistic designs, to work in gold, silver, bronze, and in cutting stones for setting, woodcarving and every kind of craft” (31:1–5). The artistic provisions for the beauty of the Tabernacle are intensified when Solomon deputizes Hiram of the tribe of Naphtali to be the master artisan for the far more elaborate artwork of the Temple (1 Kgs 7:13–51). There, not only carved candlesticks and cherubim but also bas relief and sculpted gold pomegranates, lilies, lions, oxen, wheels, and palm trees were all arranged in splendor. The association of Solomon's wisdom with the beauty of artistic endeavor, moreover, was embedded in the very term for the artist: the artist is “filled with divine spirit” and wisdom. Indeed, the characteristic trait of the artist is to be ḥăkam-lēb (“wise-hearted”; Exod 31:2–6, 35:30–6; 1 Kgs 7:14, etc.). Ezekiel speaks comparably of “the beauty of wisdom” (28:7). After the Babylonian captivity, God commands Cyrus to rebuild the Temple using beautiful materials (Ezra 1:2), and two hundred singers go back to the ruins of Jerusalem to provide choral accompaniment for Temple worship (Ezra 2:65). It is impossible to read the text of the Hebrew Bible for long without appreciating the deep affection for artistic expression in its pages.