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Plowing through History from the Aleph to the Tav

Topics Hebrew Word Studies

Hebrew Words for "Image"

By Jeff A. Benner


There are four different Hebrew words that can be translated as image or likeness; צלם (tselem as in Genesis 1:26), דמות (demut as in Genesis 1:26), פסל (pesel as in Exodus 20:4) and תמונה (temunah as in Exodus 20:4)



צלם (tselem)

This word is derived from the parent root צל (tsal) meaning a shadow. Tselem is the outline or shape of a shadow.



דמות (demut)

The parent root דם (dam) is blood. One descended from the "blood" of another often resembles the one descended from. Derived from the parent root דם the child root דמה (damah) meaning "to resemble" The word דמות (demut) means a resemblance or to be like something else in action or appearance.



פסל (pesel)

This word comes from the root פסל (pasal) meaning "to carve" and is usually used in the context of carving out a statue. A pesel is a carved image, usually something that is worshiped.



תמונה (temunah)

This word comes from the root מין (miyn) meaning a species. Because all animals of the same species look alike the word temunah, derived from miyn, means a likeness.

You shall not make for yourself a graven image [pesel], or any likeness [temunah] of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth; (Exodus 20:4, RSV)

Does this command prohibit the making of statues, paintings, figurines, photographs, etc.? If so, how could God instruct Moses to make an image of a serpent (Numbers 21:8) or Cherubiym (Exodus 25:18) on the cover of the ark? The key is the next verse which does not prohibit the forming of the images but forming them and bowing down and serving them.

you shall not bow down to them or serve them; for I the LORD your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me (Exodus 20:5, RSV)




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