And if thou wilt make me an altar of stone, thou shalt not build it of hewn stone: for if thou lift up thy tool upon it, thou hast polluted it. Exodus 20:25
The Ten Commandments are beautiful in their structure, and in their simple yet comprehensive nature. For instance the first commandment is really all encompassing, however the second, third, and fourth commandments provide profound insights into how better to understand and live the first commandment in order to enable more meaningful worship and discipleship of God.
These three commandments are often not understood well in a modern context because of their reference to things that are not literally part of modern cultures and must be understood symbolically.
The second commandment reads as follows:
Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth; Exodus 20:4
It is easy to dismiss this commandment because graven images or idols as we normally think of them are not part of modern cultures or because the language itself is difficult to identify with and understand, but in understanding the commandment symbolically there is little that is more generally applicable to current times and cultures.
I believe that one of the great keys to understanding this verse lies in the definition of the word graven. Both in English and in Hebrew this word means carved, etched, sculpted, cut, or hewn into shape. In the context of this commandment it is taking something of God and changing or shaping it into a man-imagined, man-made version, distorted, watered down, stripped of truth and power, and, as is evident in its ties in the English, with the grave, representing death.
This principle and its tremendous importance is taught from the beginning. For example Genesis 11:3 reads:
And they said one to another, Go to, let us make brick, and burn them throughly. And they had brick for stone, and slime had they for morter.
Brick, which is designed, shaped, and colored by man is used here as a substitute for stone, which is a creation of God. The word for stone can be broken down into two shorter words—Father and Son, and stone is symbolic of those two beings and the salvation they provide, as, for instance, unhewn stones are specified as the materials required to build altars, and as Christ is referred to as the Rock. In the above verse referring to the building of the city and tower of Babel the word for brick can also be broken down into two words—heart and son, or in other words the heart of man.
It is fascinating that this word for brick also means white or purified, but that this whitening is done by a burning process that in the Hebrew involves the word Seraph, which is a burning one, an angel of God, but which depending upon the context may involve illusion or counterfeit of the Seraph--darkness appearing as light, as for instance when the serpent in the Garden of Eden appears as a bearer of light but inwardly is full of darkness and deceit. Similarly the Tower of Babel, the pyramids in Egypt, and other man-made edifices of power, wealth, and honor may appear brilliant, beautiful, and shapely but in reality are set up as substitutes for the one true God or in the language of Christ as whited sepulchers, which indeed appear beautiful outward, but are within full of dead men’s bones, and of all uncleanness. (Matthew 23:28)
The name Laban is related both to the Hebrew word for brick and to the process of whitening, and it is interesting symbolically in the Book of Mormon how Laban represents man-imagined, man-made forms, and their inevitable self-destruction: He is motivated by and represents power, money, honor, appearance, and reputation; as both keeper of the brass plates, which to him bring prestige and influence, and at the same time denier to others of their content, he is a counterfeit bearer of light—a false Seraph; he is evil to the point where he will commit murder to get gain; he is the natural man that must be killed in order for the spiritual man to progress in the temple journey into the wilderness towards the promised land.
Christ is the spiritual opposite of what Laban represents. Isaiah 53:1-3 reads:
Who hath believed our report? and to whom is the arm of the Lord revealed?
For he shall grow up before him as a tender plant, and as a root out of a dry ground: he hath no form nor comeliness; and when we shall see him, there is no beauty that we should desire him.
He is despised and rejected of men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief: and we hid as it were our faces from him; he was despised, and we esteemed him not.
Christ is unyielding to the culture, desires, and forms of man, and as an unhewn Stone, He lacks surface appeal and is continually offensive and dangerous to worldly man and worldly institutions. In the end there can be no compromise. One must make unto oneself any combination of graven images that can be imagined, formed, and made the center of one’s existence, identical in their true nature and the destruction they bring, or on the other hand one must more and more seek and follow the one true God.