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The Strangeness of Biblical Imagery

April 5, 2017


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.