Approaches to the odd images in Scripture

Some of my students are reading the book of Revelation, and the rest of them are reading Ezekiel. This makes for a double barrel shot of striking an odd images: men with swords coming out of their mouths; wheels “as it were inside wheels” with a hundred eyes on the rim; a white-haired Jesus; creatures that look like men and have hooves, wings, four faces, and hands under their wings, etc. Our first attempt to figure out what was going on was to try to translate each of the striking features of the image into something more mundane, or at least more coherent: the students brainstormed that the four faces might be the four Gospel writers, the sword coming out of the mouth might be the Gospel, etc. One upside of this approach is that the texts themselves interpret their own images at times (…and the seven candlesticks were the seven churches, etc.) and so one can never wholly do away with this sort of interpretation. But there is also something particularly unsatisfying about this approach. In explaining the image in this way one more or less explains it away, and, worst of all, one fails to explain the very oddness of the image that provokes us to question what it means. It goes too far to say that the oddness should just be explained away, or that it was nothing other than a ploy to pique our interest.

We also considered that it might be out-of-place to question what these revelations mean. They are simply things seen, and things seen do not “mean” something. If I’m looking out the window and watching the traffic go by, it is not an occasion for asking what that scene “means”. This does not mean the scene is not meaningful but simply that it does not signify something else.  This option was satisfying in certain ways too, but it had the obvious drawback that Scripture often does interpret the things given in visions.

Another line of interpretation came from comparing the vision to a dream. Everyone is familiar with the sort of dream logic where we, say, are in our old middle school but we know that it is really our own house. Within the consciousness of the one dreaming, this image makes perfect sense, but in relating it to another it can become contradictory or even monstrous. This opened the door to the idea that these visions are attempts to articulate a fundamentally different sort of experience which is not limited either to merely signifying or simply seeing something.


  1. Gagdad Bob said,

    May 10, 2011 at 9:20 am

    What you say about Revelation reminds me of an aphorism: A work of art has, properly speaking, not meaning but power.

  2. Alan Wostenberg said,

    May 10, 2011 at 7:37 pm

    A third line of interpretation is in Chapter 16 of CS Lewis’ novel _peralandra_ in which we read of these unsettling “wheels within wheels”. Here they are one of the three attempts of the Oyarsa (angels) to take on forms comprehensible to humans.

    • May 11, 2011 at 3:57 am

      Right, I think this is what the “dream” interpretation of the last paragraph comes to. The experience transcends the proper objects of human reason, and so can seem monstrous when expressed within the limits of such experience.

      • Kristor said,

        May 18, 2011 at 4:43 pm

        Why should we expect to have an easier time visualizing a seraph than an electron? One of the discoveries almost everyone makes when they begin thinking philosophically is that it is very difficult to know exactly what one means even in referring to everyday objects like chairs – very difficult to specify exactly what chairs are like.

        This is part of the reason I am leery of religions that hang together rather straightforwardly, and do not require that we radically reform our ways of thought in order to “get” them.

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