We remember the fish, which we did eat in Egypt freely; the cucumbers, and the melons, and the leeks, and the onions, and the garlick: Numbers 11:5
One way of looking at the second of the Ten Commandments is to consider the making and serving of graven images in opposition to eating manna, which God gives to the children of Israel for forty years in the wilderness. The Hebrew word manna literally means what is it?, and the Israelites often complain about this food provided by God and look back with longing to what they had enjoyed in Egypt in the midst of their enslavement, so much so that for this and other reasons such as unfounded fear in the face of enemies that God defeats for them they often desire to return into Egypt:
And they said one to another, Let us make a captain, and let us return into Egypt. Numbers 14:4
Manna together with quail, both provided from heaven, are God’s chosen foods for His people in the wilderness. They are not extravagant and varied, but are plain and simple foods, and the advantages they involve are that they provide freedom for the people to focus on communing with God and progressing to the Promised Land. The people do not recognize or appreciate what manna is—again the very word is a question: what is it? Their understanding and appreciation of manna or lack thereof is critical: manna is God’s gift, and through it they can find Him. As they turn away from manna and the wilderness sojourn it represents they turn away from God, and in this rejection and turning, the only alternative they see, and in reality the only alternative that exists is Egypt—the making of captains, return into Egypt, and the enslavement involved in that alternative.
Consideration and application of this story can lead to many questions, among which are: Is this an isolated, unconnected story from millennia ago, or is it a key element of the universal temple pattern and of everyday life in all times? And, does the desire for material things beyond a simple existence always involve making captains and entering into and imposing enslavement?
George Mason wrote the following in reference to slavery, a common and accepted practice of his day, which today is abhorrent to all but the most depraved moral segment of our world who continue to traffic and benefit from slavery in its different forms.
That slow poison is daily contaminating the minds and morals of our people. Every gentleman here is born a petty tyrant. George Mason
Slavery, literally and symbolically, is a manifestation of an ancient principle that occurs in every time in which evil exists from the beginning. Far before the time of the Exodus, in the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve are naked in the beginning, and the Hebrew word for naked may also mean ragged or poorly dressed, or poor in general. This poverty, as in the case of Adam and Eve in the Garden may also be symbolic of and indicate a spiritual condition of nakedness, as they are initially without knowledge of good and evil, and are thus vulnerable. This Hebrew word for naked shares the same root and is just slightly different from the Hebrew word for subtle used in the very next verse to describe the serpent in the Garden of Eden—a word that means to be crafty, shrewd, sly, calculating, manipulative, and in effect, to make others naked, or lacking, for the purpose of obtaining gain of whatever kind. The connection then is that someone who is subtle in the way that the Garden of Eden serpent is subtle makes others naked or poor and preys on and takes advantage of those who are naked or poor—in this case the man and the woman who are lacking in knowledge.
The following principles taught by Joseph Smith apply very well to the interaction between the serpent and the man and the woman in the Garden of Eden:
A man is saved no faster than he gets knowledge, for if he does not get knowledge, he will be brought into captivity by some evil power in the other world, as evil spirits will have more knowledge, and consequently more power than many men who are on the earth. Hence we need revelation to assist us, and give us knowledge of the things of God. Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, 217.
In addition to the serpent and the man and the woman these principles also involve God, and thus there are three categories represented both in the above quotation and in the Garden of Eden:
1. Evil with varying degrees of knowledge that carries power to make other beings naked or poor and bring them into captivity and eventual destruction and that can only be changed from evil through faith in and salvation from God.
2. Innocence, possessing little or no knowledge, resulting in a position of vulnerability, which will without faith in and salvation from God lead to nakedness, poverty, captivity, and destruction.
3. And, good represented by God possessing all knowledge and the power to save those who exercise faith in Him.
These categories of beings, together with the interactions they have, the directions they take, and their final state show a pattern here, which is repeated again and again, for example in the account of Cain and Abel and in the cultures of Babel and Egypt with their oppression of their respective masses, and is central to the ancient temple, which is the great universal pattern.
This ancient principle involving the continual relationship between vulnerability and oppression for gain is a key to understanding the second of the Ten Commandments. When individuals and cultures make unto themselves and serve graven images, it is always in one way or another, directly or indirectly, harmful to the vulnerable, and at the same time unavoidably harmful to the oppressors; it always involves a power structure and enslavement at all levels of that structure.
Every era has its practices and institutions of oppression and cruelty towards the vulnerable, many of which are clearly identifiable and condemnable in our current culture, as with the case of slavery, or with the case of human sacrifice. The question remains: What common and accepted practices and institutions in our own time and culture are slow poisons making us petty tyrants or captains as we accept, practice, benefit from, or ignore them?
Speaking of our time Nephi the prophet writes:
They wear stiff necks and high heads; yea, and because of pride, and wickedness, and abominations, and whoredoms, they have all gone astray save it be a few, who are the humble followers of Christ; nevertheless, they are led, that in many instances they do err because they are taught by the precepts of men. 2 Nephi 28:14
In any time and culture evil can be easily identifiable in many of its manifestations and yet be so subtle and insidious in other practices and institutions that each individual must pursue their own spiritual struggle to consider whether any beams exist in their own eye with genuine humility to the end of eradicating and moving beyond each slow poison or graven image accepted to any degree that leads to tyranny and enslavement.
Again, this is a spiritual struggle that each individual must engage in without leaning solely on even true practices and institutions in an attempt to bypass the individual struggle, as in the parable of the Ten Virgins in which all ten accept true practices and institutions with the difference being entirely the oil in their lamps, representing the strength of their individual conversion and association with God. Only in this way can an individual over time see more and more clearly truth, including what in each time and culture are graven images, tyranny, and enslavement to be rejected and moved past along the path into God’s presence.
Spiritually the oil and manna are one; they are a gift from God, a gift of God. For the children of Israel and in all other times what manna is, is freedom—freedom to become unburdened from the transitory and idolatrous and receive knowledge of God. In all times and cultures God’s children almost universally cling to graven images, even if it means taking true practices and institutions and conforming them to their own purposes and in this process keeping God at arm’s length.
Moses speaks with God, And when Aaron and all the children of Israel saw Moses, behold, the skin of his face shone; and they were afraid to come nigh him. Exodus 34:30 For this reason Moses at this time veils his face to speak to the people, unveiling it again when he goes before the Lord to speak with him.
When Christ teaches in John 6 that He is the true manna, the true bread of life, Many therefore of his disciples, when they had heard this, said, This is an hard saying; who can hear it? John 6:60
Christ’s gospel is simple, but it requires the capacity to sacrifice all things, and under this condition provides salvation in a way and to a degree that is otherwise impossible to receive, but which for those truly humble and faithful is beyond worldly comprehension:
But we speak the wisdom of God in a mystery, even the hidden wisdom, which God ordained before the world unto our glory:
Which none of the princes of this world knew: for had they known it, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory.
But as it is written, Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man, the things which God hath prepared for them that love him. 1 Corinthians 2:7-9