The phrase “graven image” comes from the King James Version and is first found in Exodus 20:4 in the first of the Ten Commandments. The Hebrew word translated “graven image” means literally an idol. A graven image is an image carved out of stone, wood, or metal. It could be a statue of a person or animal, or a relief carving in a wall or pole. It is differentiated from a molten image which is melted metal poured into a cast. Abstract Asherah poles, carved wooden Baals covered in gold leaf, and etchings of gods accompanying Egyptian hieroglyphics are all graven images.
The progression of idolatry in a pagan religion generally starts with the acknowledgement of a power that controls natural forces. The presence of the force is then thought to indwell an object, like a stone, or a place, like a mountain. The next step is altering a naturally-occurring object, like a standing stone, a deliberately planted tree, or a carved Asherah pole, and asking the force to indwell it. When the idolatrous culture has had time to contemplate the personality of the god, they then make corresponding physical images—a statue that looks like a woman or a relief carving that looks like an animal. Graven images can be either of the last two steps.
The spiritual progression is similar. People start with wanting something (Ephesians 5:5; Colossians 3:5), often children or prosperity or good crops. They observe the circumstances (circumstances some acknowledge are God-ordained, and others think are independent) that lead to these things and begin to ascribe the causal forces using human characteristics—thus creating gods. Places are set aside to commune with these false gods. For convenience sake, smaller items, thought to hold the power or the communication line of the gods, are brought into homes. Before long, the people are ensnared by the compulsion to give homage to a thing of their own definition instead of the God of the universe.
The second commandment, recorded in Exodus 20:4-5, reads, “You shall not make for yourself an idol, or any likeness of what is in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the water under the earth. You shall not worship them or serve them…” Likely, this refers back to the first commandment, “You shall have no other gods before Me,” and specifically forbids the creation of idols. But it is equally dangerous to create an image of God Himself. God has given us reminders enough of His power and glory (Romans 1:20) without man attempting to use created things to represent the Creator.
Functionally, there is no difference between a “graven” image (Deuteronomy 4:16) and a “molten” image (Exodus 34:17). Both are man’s attempt to define and confine the power of God who works over creation. Both are the result of greed and covetousness, along with the fear that God does not have the worshipers’ best interests at heart. Graven images, whether an idol, a crystal, or a charm, are attempts to limit the power of God and reduce it to a small package which we can control. As with any kind of worship, the object of adoration inevitably controls us.