The Strangeness of Biblical Imagery

 

Domenichino, The Virgin with the Unicorn (1605)
Domenichino, The Virgin with the Unicorn (1605)

One of the difficulties of accepting Christianity is that some of the things described in the Bible are just… weird. Within the first few pages, for example, you’ve got a talking snake. And even when you learn that this “snake” is actually a fallen angel, that realization doesn’t make the scene less strange. Immediately after this, we hear of “the Lord God walking in the garden in the cool of the day” (Genesis 3:8).

Quite understandably, many modern readers want to treat this whole Book as a work of fiction. But before rushing to that hasty conclusion, consider another apparently fantastical historical account, Marco Polo’s report of seeing unicorns in Ferlec (modern Indonesia):

There are wild elephants in the country, and numerous unicorns, which are very nearly as big. They have hair like that of a buffalo, feet like those of an elephant, and a horn in the middle of the forehead, which is black and very thick. They do no mischief, however, with the horn, but with the tongue alone; for this is covered all over with long and strong prickles [and when savage with any one they crush him under their knees and then rasp him with their tongue]. The head resembles that of a wild boar, and they carry it ever bent towards the ground. They delight much to abide in mire and mud. ‘Tis a passing ugly beast to look upon, and is not in the least like that which our stories tell of as being caught in the lap of a virgin; in fact, ’tis altogether different from what we fancied.

It would be tempting, like the modern atheist’s approach to Scripture, to write this whole thing off as a fairy tale. But it was no fairy tale. He really did see the “unicorns” that he’s describing: he just lacked the language to describe them.

The animal that Marco Polo encountered was probably a rhinoceros. But Europeans had never seen or heard of such an animal, and so they didn’t have a word for it. So what did he do? He took an existing word, “unicorn,” and explained the ways that the unicorns of Ferlec were unlike the unicorns of European imaginations. That’s a very good approach. The alternative approach would have been to make up a new name for the animal, like rhinoceros. But bear in mind that this name would have been mysterious, even meaningless, to his readers.

Marco Polo’s journeys strike me as an apt description of the Biblical situation. The Scriptures are describing to us realities – Eden, angels, Heaven, the Triune God – that are drastically more mysterious and foreign to us than China and Indonesia were to the Europeans of Marco Polo’s day. And so the realities being described in Scripture are, by definition, beyond the limits of language.

Human language exists to describe things that we’ve experienced. We don’t have words for ideas we’ve not conceived. And so when there’s something as radically Other as God, we simply lack the language to describe Him, or the spiritual realm, etc. So invariably, we are forced to do one of two things. Either we either use a word that we do have, but which doesn’t quite fit; or we make up a word, whose meaning is obscure. In other words, we either reach for “unicorn,” or we make up “rhinoceros.”

 

In theology, this is described as a threefold movement. First, there’s a via positiva, in which you describe God: He’s just, good, etc. Then there’s the via negativa, in which you trim away all of the ways that your descriptions fall short of the reality of God. For example, when we say God is “good,” we don’t mean He’s “well-behaved,” or that He follows some moral law imposed upon Him; and when we say that He’s “just,” we don’t mean that He pays what He owes, as if He’s indebted to anyone. In this way, we act like Marco Polo, who was quick to point out the various ways that the “unicorns” he was seeing were unlike the ordinary meaning of “unicorn.” The final way is the way of super-eminence:  to recognize that God’s goodness and justice are beyond ours, and the origin and source of ours.

That’s how it works when we’re applying a human word for God. The alternative is to create a special vocabulary to describe theological concepts or spiritual realities, and so we get words like “Cherubim” that tickle the imagination, but defy easy description. But these are our two options: it’s unicorn and rhinoceros, all over again.

The Scriptures themselves actually make this point in their own way. Although anthropomorphic language is often used (“the Hand of God” and the rest), the Jews were prohibited from ever representing God visually. He always IS that which is beyond depiction, beyond description, and Whose very Name is Mysterious. Any attempt to depict God – indeed, any attempt even to imagine Him – always falls impossibly short of His infinite reality.

St. Paul points out that “What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man conceived, what God has prepared for those who love him” (1 Corinthians 2:9). He’s telling us: these things that we’re talking about? They’re beyond what you’ve ever seen, or heard of, or even imagined. That’s a far cry from the angels-playing-harps-on-clouds image of Heaven that is associated with Christianity.

All of this is to say that if we’re getting caught up in an overly-literal reading of some of the descriptions (or if we’re writing the Book off as fiction because of an overly-literal reading of these parts), chances are good that we’ve missed the point. It may well be simply that a thing beyond description, a thing beyond our capacity to understand or imagine, is being described to us in simplified language that permits us to get a sliver of the truth.

And someday, God willing, we’ll be in that place where we can see the fullness of Glory, and look back with a chuckle on how comically incomplete our theological imaginations were, the way we chuckle today about Europeans mistaking rhinocerotes for unicorns.

10 Comments

  1. Agreed 100%. Further, it is worth noting that we do not want to read the Bible anachronistically. The Bible contains several genres. We have histories (in as much as histories existed, 1 and 2 Kings would be some of the **earliest** recorded histories we even have considering that there were more myths than actual history), poetry, songs, personal letters, etc. If we read a personal letter allegorically, or a song literally, we miss the whole point the author, through the Spirit, was intending to convey.

    Hence, we have to ask ourselves the question whether every aspect of Genesis was specifically intended to be interpreted as literal history–and, what basis in the text, or church history, would we have for this?

    Oftentimes, extrabiblical presuppositions impede an honest appraisal of the text.

    God bless,
    Craig

    1. “Hence, we have to ask ourselves the question whether every aspect of Genesis was specifically intended to be interpreted as literal history–and, what basis in the text, or church history, would we have for this?”

      To answer this question, you have to go beyond your bibliolatry and look outside the text, obviously (and back into the text). There is no “basis in the text” for any metaphorical reading; the metaphor or allegory is by definition not inside the text (in this particular case). As I said below, show me an early church father or medieval interpreter who didn’t think Genesis was literal, who said: “Oh, this is all a profitable myth by old Hebrews who couldn’t know better; it’s all poetry and metaphor, it didn’t really happen!” Thinking it is literal doesn’t exclude allegorical readings, and that’s what happened until a few centuries ago.

      “Oftentimes, extrabiblical presuppositions impede an honest appraisal of the text.”

      “Oftentimes, intrabiblical presuppositions impede an honest appraisal of the text.”

      For one, I hold that the “strangeness of Egyptian and Sumerian imagery” in their sapiential books opens a new, Gnostic nocturnal window to a star-filled sky of silence and contemplation.

      It’s all metaphor, don’t be misled by their strange imagery! One of the difficulties of accepting Egyptian paganism is that some of the things described in the hieroglyphs are just… weird. Quite understandably, many modern readers want to treat their books as works of fiction. But before rushing to that hasty conclusion, consider another apparently fantastical historical account, Marco Polo’s report of seeing unicorns…

  2. “The Scriptures are describing to us realities – Eden, angels, Heaven, the Triune God – that are drastically more mysterious and foreign to us than China and Indonesia were to the Europeans of Marco Polo’s day. And so the realities being described in Scripture are, by definition, beyond the limits of language.”

    Why not just consider that the writers/compilers/redactors of J/E (more than R and D) really thought that there was a real talking snake, a real garden, a real Yahweh who walked in this garden etc.?

    “if we’re getting caught up in an overly-literal reading of some of the descriptions (or if we’re writing the Book off as fiction because of an overly-literal reading of these parts), chances are good that we’ve missed the point. It may well be simply that a thing beyond description, a thing beyond our capacity to understand or imagine, is being described to us in simplified language that permits us to get a sliver of the truth.”

    This implies that, in order not to regard these stories as fiction, we must take them to be literary allegories, which is half-way fiction. If it were really “simplified language”, then we should be able to read it and understand. An Assyrian or Egyptian or Greek reading the same stories might just take them to be what they are: stories, legends, myths, and the like. This “sliver of the truth” wrapped up in cryptic allegory and metaphor would only be accessible if you have the “keys” to the interpretive realm of this texts. That is, “simplified language” is just the ad hoc interpretation of those allegories, and that, supposing that “simplified language” would not be available to the original public of those writings.

    I had already seen this theory before: “The language of the Bible is only the way God had to communicate with an ignorant people who did not have science. So, God had to talk in a way they would understand at that time, that’s why we don’t understand the Bible today. The story of Adam and Eve is not about two real persons, it’s about the first man and first women. The story of the creation is not physics, it’s just a poem for 6th century BCE Jews, who couldn’t know better. The story of Cain and Abel is not about two real brothers, but about jealousy and revenge. And on and on and on.” I’ve even seen priests preach this analogical interpretation over and over at mass. What matters is the “moral” of the story. The lessons we extract for our daily lives.

    Yet nothing guarantees that the allegorical way we understand the “Bible” is how their original authors and public understood it. According to your Marco Polo analogy, should we consider that the first public of these stories really think that they were real? If not, why didn’t the inspirer of these tales tell it straight away: “Hey, this is just a story, that Jonas tale about a whale, just an allegory. I really wanted to convey this and that message”. But no. He didn’t.

    Those weird prescriptions in Leviticus about purity, I’ve seen people explain them away as hygiene: “Don’t eat pork, we’re in an underdeveloped, hot land, it will be bad for your health”. That is, God cared for his people, and had to convince them not to be infested with protozoa and vermin. That is the lamest (and laziest) explanation ever. The religious practices of proto-Jews or their neighbors do not imply a care for biological health and well-being. Since when eating shrimp and rabbits is bad for health? People took those rules seriously. They thought something bad would happen to them, and it was not vermin. They thought the patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, were real people. They thought Noah really built an arch and that Moses really liberated them from Egypt. Just imagining that it was just an allegorical historical tale doesn’t match their practices.

    It just bothers me personally as which part of the Bible it to be taken literally today, and why. Catholics have a direction, but Protestants, if they scrap under the surface, will find out they’re really at a loss. Almost all “atheistic” literature in the US is from former Protestants. If you don’t believe the Bible is to be trusted at anything, you’re lost. Catholics don’t put so much trust in the Bible. When a Catholic goes beyond a literal interpretation of the Bible, you get the “it’s all historical allegories” exegesis-cum-preaching school.

    There is no evidence of Exodus. Much less for Abraham. No flood. No evidence of a great kingdom of Solomon or David (maybe a small, weak kingdom, that’s all). You can extend the post-Exodus narratives to say they’re just polemics against half-pagan (syncretic Yahwistic) kings, of which only one or two were really virtuous. Some stories are nice, some are gross, some are unbelievable, and some get you thinking that your Yahweh deity is a blood drunk demon, as per the various genocides and mass murders (allegorical, it seems) he ordered to be perpetrated.

    You can explain the prophets as providing a false solution (monolatry) for a real problem (occupation, famine, loss of property, violence, insecurity, slavery, exile etc.): return to your god and prosper, worship other gods and you won’t even have your land anymore. Things got weird when many people and the leaders really re-started a monolatrous cult that became hegemonic, but things didn’t get better even then, after the exile. Then some started thinking that things wouldn’t really get better in this life, only in the life to come.

    1. KO,

      There’s a lot in your comment to unpack, likely more than I will actually get around to unpacking (I think my response would be unbearably long otherwise). But maybe a few thoughts:

      1) The various (numerous and growing) redaction theories are incredibly speculative, and tend to draw big conclusions on scraps of evidence, and upon suspect interpretations of evidence. I find them uniformly unpersuasive. To use any of them as a basis for criticizing or disregarding the Biblical text strikes me as well beyond the glaring limitations of the theories themselves.

      2) You said that my post “implies that, in order not to regard these stories as fiction, we must take them to be literary allegories, which is half-way fiction.” That claim is both fascinating and wrong. I’m not saying everything is allegorical, and I don’t think that allegory is “half-way fiction.” I don’t really understand why you do think either of those things, so I’m not sure how better to respond, except to say that I think it would be a grave impoverishment of language to categorize everything be hyper-literal or false, and that such a binary would prohibit any but the most superficial readings of Scripture.

      3) You then suggest that these parts of Scripture maybe are supposed to be read in a superficial and hyper-literal way. But there’s no evidence of this, and it’s not how they were received. That’s not to deny that “Adam” and “Eve” refer our two original ancestors. But it is to say that the early Christians didn’t think that Genesis 1-3 was literal in the same way as, say, 1 and 2 Kings. So in terms of how the “public” understood the Old Testament, we have great evidence that they knew the different senses of Scripture. Look at the ways that the New Testament employs literal, allegorical, anagogical, and moral lenses of interpretation for different parts. (I can give examples of each, if you would like). The early Christians did this, too, and the Medievals invented a couplet to describe these different senses of Scripture.

      Hyper-literalism is mostly confined to post-19th century Fundamentalism, and those modern atheists/skeptics who are a priori convinced that their ancestors must have been morons.

      4) The prescriptions in the Mosaic Law are all about purity, in the ancient sense of the thing: animals that didn’t fit neatly into one category or another (like shrimp, which is neither a fish nor a land animal) were forbidden, as were mixed fabrics, etc. It was this seeming obsession with purity and distinctions that made the Jews preeminent in legal analysis, and which kept them from cultural annihilation.

      5) Your “no evidence” assertions are false, and confusingly so. The vast majority of people who have walked this earth didn’t leave behind DNA that we have today, so I’m not sure what you’re imagining by way of “evidence.” Most of the people we know about from antiquity, we know about from ancient texts – texts which (like all texts) are open to the charge of exaggeration or lying, etc.

      Let’s take Abraham as an example. He’s mentioned in each of the five books of the Torah, as well as Joshua, 1 and 2 Kings, 1 and 2 Chronicles, Nehemiah, Tobit, Judith, Esther, 1 and 2 Maccabees, the Psalms, Sirach, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Baruch, Ezekiel, Daniel, and Micah. That by itself is a list of 24 different ancient Jewish texts, written by several different authors over several centuries, all mentioning Abraham as an existing individual. These are the texts written by Abraham’s descendants about their ancestor. Without a doubt, this is rooted in prior oral tradition. How is that “no evidence”?

      Maybe you’ll want to discount each of these because these are Biblical texts. Why would you exclude that body of evidence? Would you try to understand ancient India without consulting the Upanishads? That would be a bad way of doing history. But even if you did that, you would still have the various extra-canonical Jewish texts that mention Abraham. And of course these are the only places we’re going to find evidence of Abraham. The man lived in a tent thousands of years ago: it’s not like he left behind a vast array of archeological artifacts. I’d add to this that the Jews were unanimous about having descended from Abraham. There was no counter-tradition of having come from somewhere or someone else.

      So I think the problem might just be that you’re expecting historical evidence to look like scientific evidence. More often than not, it doesn’t.

      I.X.,

      Joe

      1. Joe, I agree with most of your argument. In fact, I never expected historical evidence to look like scientific evidence, and neither do I think that a literal reading is the best reading of any literary work. I just don’t see why the bible uses “simpler language” in order to transmit truths. Maybe “simpler” here means “adapted to their audience, times and circumstance”. But then, any literary work is that, too, to a certain degree.

        Again, the question is what to consider allegorical and what to consider as factual, and how to interpret the allegorical parts. You said that early Christians saw Adam and Eve allegorically, but does that imply that they *also* regarded them as mere unhistorical figures?

        You say: “in terms of how the “public” understood the Old Testament, we have great evidence that they knew the different senses of Scripture.”

        Yes, I agree. But one sense *have to* exclude another: I’m not a specialist, but I seems that pre-modern Jews (and Christians!) thought that Adam, Eve, and Noah were real people. Is there any evidence of pre-modern Jews and Christians who thought that they were literary metaphors? All I see today is priests and pastors (the latter are usually less bold and don’t even discuss this issue, but maybe because I don’t have much contact with them) preaching it’s all metaphorical, or that it doesn’t matter if they were real people or not.

        Again, I’m not a specialist, but from what I could gather, the Documentary Hypothesis even features in some Catholic Bibles, and is even taught to some extent in parish Bible courses. I think it explains many issues regarding the composition of the books and how they came to be. Without this hypothesis, I would disregard the bible even more.

        As to the Abraham example, the number of times a character is cited throughout the centuries just proves that that people had a consistent set of beliefs about that character. Of course I can cite 24 or more Latin works, besides epigraphy and artworks, that are evidence that Romulus and Remus were the founders of Rome and that they were suckled by a she-wolf.

        Lastly, the question is not “Would you try to understand ancient India without consulting the Upanishads?”, but rather, “Do you have to believe (religiously) in the Upanishads to understand ancient India?” or “Are the Upanishads evidence of the existence of Krsna, Siva, Ganesha etc.?”

        1. “I just don’t see why the bible uses “simpler language” in order to transmit truths.”

          I think it’s possible that Divine spirituality is so complex in nature that simple metaphors such as snakes, staffs, wolves, lions, dragons, lambs, trees, harvests, fruits, shepherds, etc.. are used as a sort of ancient ‘oral shorthand’, whereby the same message might be adequately transmitted (replicated) over many generations of time, with little loss of meaning. If the message was transmitted in a complex form, such as is the ‘Summa Theologica’, then it would probably not have survived even one generation in an ancient oral culture or tradition, due to the lack of properly educated scholars, in every generation, that would be necessary to recite sophisticated teachings by oral means.

          So, this type of ancient oral history, which then became written history, makes a lot of practical sense. By understanding these sorts of ancient scholarly dilemmas, we might give the authors some credit for their wisdom, by which at least their teachings survived up to the present day. Otherwise, they would have been lost forever, as probably were many other teachings that were too complicated to be replicated orally in the ‘long run.’

          1. awlms,

            I get your argument — it is the same as I wrote before, ie, the argument that God had to use that language because of the Hebrews of the time. So what matters is that God created the world, not that the language through which he communicated this to the Hebrews was scientifically wrong.

            But what I mean is that even this language is not “simple language”. Not that it is not understandable — most of it is –, just that it is not “simple”. A collection of oral stories passed out hundreds of years before being written down ca. 500 bC might be simple, but once it’s written, specially compiled the way the Pentateuch was, from divergent sources, it is/was a) literally believed (as it was until the Enlightenment); b) metaphorically/allegorically/mystically believed; c) considered as myth and lore by other faiths (without conveying a moral message of any relevance); d) considered as myth and lore by other faiths and/or by the original faith(s), but conveying a moral message of some relevance.

            The real question is “how much is literal and how much is allegorical”. In many places, the allegorical reading has replaced an unacceptable literal meaning. In other places, even an allegorical reading doesn’t make weird, immoral, gory and absurd passages (according to our 19-20th c. morality) more palatable. So even if God’s plagues upon innocent animals and innocent children in Egypt is just fiction (I believe it is) and a “moral tale”, even then you see God killing people (or ordering them to be killed) in order to satisfy the ethnic vengeful and genocidal impulses (whether materialized or just imagined) of a people he himself had created. So I chose not to believe there is a moral tale there at all. Just like there is no moral meaning in the story of a god accepting Abel’s animal sacrifice and not Cain’s vegetable sacrifice.

            You can justify or explain those passages as a literary saga of the “survival of the fittest”, told from a theological perspective, in a tough regional environment in which the Hebrews, and afterwards the Israelites and Jews, were no better than their enemies or neighbors.

            Once one gets out of the biblical narrative, a sound historical and archaeological analysis yields surprisingly simple answers for these conundrums, such as the above.

          2. With the advent of Christ, as I state in my comment below, we have a powerful witness for the historical reality of various of the OT saints, i.e., Abraham, Moses, Jonas, etc… And, I think that if Moses or Abraham indeed did not exist, then Jesus would have noted this to His disciples, and rejected His own Jewish roots and customs during His years of teaching. For instance, the whole passover liturgy of the ancient Jews revolved around various covenents made between God and His chosen people. Moses was instrumental as one of the prophet’s of these covenants and laws. It was not just oral and written OT scriptures that were established, but liturgical rites such as circumcision and various of the cultural laws and mandated feast day celebrations. And when Jesus arrives, He intends that His disciples believe in this sacred history and liturgical custom, as He taught: ” I came not to abolish the Law but to fulfill it.”

            So, Jewish history can be believed on Christ’s witness alone. His personal witness is sufficient for faith in the OT ‘Law and the Prophets’. However, Christians of course will also include Christ’s revelations that adapt these OT teachings, which adaptations provide context and spiritual understanding to that OT history.

            This is why Christians are very fortunate to have faith in Christ, as we are given a perspective on Jewish history that even the Jews themselves do not comprehend.

            “How is it, though, that people believe Jesus?” one might ask.

            Because, as Christ said ‘I am the Good Shepherd. My sheep hear my voice and follow me, but strangers they follow not’.

            This, again, is metaphorical and symbolic language that is very simple but very profound and instructional also. A few words communicate a profound message. But maybe one needs to have a bit of experience with flocks of sheep to understand the metaphors more fully. In this sense, a teaching might appear indeed ‘simple’ on the surface; but at he same time very profound, complex, spiritually meaningful, and worthy of a lifetime of study and reflection.

            But I’m sure you already know all this.

            Best to you.

            – Al

    2. “There is no evidence of Exodus. Much less for Abraham.”

      This is why Jesus is so important. He proved Himself by His works (miracles) and power of speech, and is thus worthy of belief. He is the ultimate Teacher in things regarding ‘the Spirit’, and eternity. Therefore, because of Jesus, we have a critic and editor par excellence of the OT scriptures. And, hence, Jesus as a Teacher is very important for any man seeking wisdom to focus on.

      Regarding the OT prophets and Fathers, if Christ refers to them in His teachings it is obviously good for us to believe in them. But we must also accept His criticism and refined exegesis when He discusses scripture and tradition. He says, for instance, “The Sabbath was made for man and not man for the Sabbath”, which enlightens us on the true meaning of the 3rd Commandment. This is a very refined and wisdom filled teaching. He teaches also that there is no marriage in Heaven and Eternity, but that we shall be ‘as the angels’. This is another exquisite and refined teaching.

      So, Christ is the teacher and key to the Old Testament, and the depths of His teachings are so profound as to take a lifetime to comprehend them adequately. Even the Fathers of the Desert struggled for true comprehension, and with this the primary focus of their ascetic lives.

      There is also wisdom to be found in this strategy that God chose in transmitting the faith in the way He did. By reflecting for years on obscure sayings and teachings a person has time to mull over and over again the wisdom of the prophets and saints. This in itself, due to the longevity of time and effort, leads one away from evil thoughts, and there is always something new and marvelous discovered in the sacred writings. So, if Jesus describes a parable to us, we might ‘chew on’ that parable for decades. And, new angles of understanding are achieved at the varying stages of our life. So, there is wisdom in God’s use of mysterious teachings in religion. But we are also fortunate to have Christ the Lord to help refine our understanding through His teachings, even as He said:

      “…many prophets and kings have desired to see the things that you see, and have not seen them; and to hear the things that you hear, and have not heard them.” (Luke 10:24)

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