My Reformed ancestors were iconoclasts, an established fact that became existentially real to me when my family and I moved to the city of Groningen, the Netherlands, in 1975. Rising above all the other buildings at the city center was the majestic Martinikerk, a cathedral-like church begun in the 13th century and named after Saint Martin of Tours. Undergoing a major renovation, it had been closed to visitors for a number of years. Friends of ours knew the custodian who lived in a house embedded in one corner of the cathedral. On a Saturday morning, the custodian gave us a private tour. Among other things, he explained how the Protestants assumed control of the church in the 16th century and whitewashed all the frescoes on the walls and the vaulted ceiling.
Unknown to the iconoclasts, the whitewash contained a chemical that leeched into the frescoes and sealed them. Rather than destroying the artwork, the whitewash preserved them for future generations to enjoy. After the conservators meticulously flaked off the white coating, the veiled frescoes reappeared after four hundred years. I remember the custodian telling this story with relish and gesturing towards the beautiful biblical scenes all around us. He took delight in the dramatic reversal: whitewash that was intended for the frescoes’ elimination became the means of their preservation.
The Reformers were afraid that a beautiful fresco, painting, or sculpture would elicit powerful emotions in viewers. Once aroused, these emotions could lead people to attach themselves to the artwork itself and to believe that images mediated sacred power. Such emotional attachments were dangerous because corrupt leaders could control the images and manipulate people for their personal gain. The Reformers argued that it was precisely to guard against this kind of corruption that God warned the people in the second commandment not to make any graven images, and Moses reminded them before entering the Promised Land: “The Lord spoke to you out of the fire. You heard the sound of words but saw no form; there was only a voice” (Deuteronomy 4:12).
Only a voice
Reformed Christians have taken the words of Moses very seriously and have grown accustomed over the years to setting the word against the image, the ear against the eye, the prophet against the priest. In a collection of essays on Old Testament themes, the influential biblical theologian Walter Brueggemann betrays his iconoclasm when he describes the development of Israel’s understanding of God. He reduces the variety and complexity of Israel’s religious affections to a conflict between the liberating words of the prophets and the manipulating images of the priests. He tries to uphold the integrity of both prophets and priests in some essays, but ultimately cannot hide his objection to the latter and their religious rituals: “Israel knows images in religion accompany inequities of social power in society, which inevitably result in disproportions of social goods and social access. The location of God in a place or object proposes that the power of life can be identified and located and, therefore, controlled and administered¼. Images in heaven warrant monopolies on earth” (Old Testament Theology, 1992, 124).
The location of God in a “place or object” can lead to the manipulation of believers and the corruption of the church, as Brueggemann fears. We need only to remember all the examples of how the church, Catholic and Protestant, has told believers that it had the keys to the Kingdom of Heaven and how passage could be bought for either money or absolute loyalty. But iconoclasm can also be carried to an extreme, making it difficult for believers to imagine how the Spirit of God can ever be manifest in the forms and objects of the material world and draining the life out of worship itself.
In the Reformed tradition, worship is an encounter with the living God, who, through the power of the Holy Spirit, speaks to congregants through the preaching of the word and communes with them in the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Without the location of God in a place or object, without encountering God in word and sacrament, how can a believer’s restless longing for communion with God ever be satisfied? And when this longing goes unsatisfied, when believers no longer experience leaning on the everlasting arms, what prevents them from succumbing to the beguilements of flag-waving and card-carrying authoritarian nationalism or the blandishments of an ambitious, self-proclaimed messianic leader?
Obviously, we cannot make the Holy Spirit come down and enliven our worship; we cannot carry God around in a box to do our bidding like the ancient Israelites tried to do with the Ark of the Covenant (I Samuel 4-7, a narrative composed to warn the Israelites of locating God in an object). But we long to experience the presence of God in the rituals of worship, and we long to know that we are caught up in something larger than ourselves—namely, God’s redeeming work in the world.
The location of God in a place or object can lead to the corruption of the church and the creation of unjust social systems, as Brueggemann and others fear, but it can also be the means of real encounter with the living God. An inordinate fear of the former can lead to the loss of the latter. We need to get the balance right.
Images on the pages of Scripture
Since my walk around at Martinikerk in Groningen, it has often crossed my mind that the Reformers not only whitewashed images on the walls of churches, they also whitewashed images on the pages of scripture. In my exploration of biblical passages, I have been surprised to find how often they offer intriguing images of God’s nature and presence in the world and how little play these images have had on the Reformed imagination. I suspect that a residual iconoclasm has covered these images over and hidden their colors and contours, and I suspect as well that this biblical iconoclasm has dispirited our reading of scripture and contributed to our current indifference—the odd state of affairs in which Reformed believers today claim a high view of scripture but spend little time actually engaging it.
In what follows, I will offer a specific example of what I mean by whitewashing images in scripture, and I will try to show how uncovering these images can enliven not only our encounter with scripture but also our encounter with God. The example I have in mind is found in Genesis 28, the narrative of Jacob’s flight to Haran after deceiving his brother Esau.
Biblical narratives are difficult to categorize because the chasm between the biblical and modern world is great and nearly unbridgeable. A careful analysis of their literary form shows that they are both historical and kerygmatic; that is, they portray moments in the lives of Israel’s ancestors, but do so not to document the past but to preach it, to unveil the presence and purposes of God in history. To this end, they are dramatic in their structure. The dramas take a common shape: In an early scene, an ancestor, the protagonist, is conflicted—perhaps sick, threatened, empty, or foolish; in the middle scenes the conflict intensifies; in the final scenes it is resolved. The resolution of the conflict shows how a ubiquitous God, often working behind the scenes, bestows health, safety, abundance, or wisdom and offers guidance and hope to the gathered faithful. Dramatic narratives were not composed as historical documents to be stored in temple archives; they were composed to be performed in temple worship.
The opening scenes of this narrative depict Jacob as empty in every way imaginable, and the subsequent scenes show how God affords him an abundant life. In this drama Jacob moves:
a. from darkness to light;
b. from a barren place to the gate of heaven;
c. from being alone to the company of God and the angels;
d. from a homeless, prodigal son to a homemaking father.
Jacob’s movement from emptiness to abundance is punctuated and validated by three corresponding images in the narrative: angels on a stairway ascending and descending; the offspring/seed of Jacob spreading to the west, east, north, and south; and oil flowing down an upraised stone.
Angels on a stairway
The Reformed tradition has tended to value the abstract and propositional word above the embodied and imaged word. Walter Brueggemann says this about the angels and stairway in Jacob’s dream:
“In such encounters as this one (vv. 12-15), there are often two elements, the visual and the auditory. While the former may fascinate us, the point of exposition must be the speech. It is the speech of God which changes things. Other gods may appear. This one makes self-binding promises…. Our interpretation must not linger too long on the visual elements” (Genesis: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching, 1982, 242-43).
The distinction Brueggemann makes between the visual and auditory is artificial and misleading. The vision of the angels ascending and descending is not an alluring sideshow in this narrative; it is an image of what the people of Israel understood to be the origin and development of the forces governing their world, their cosmology. Found not only here but throughout Scripture, this image depicts God as a Sovereign who sits on a throne, and deliberates over the affairs of the world with a council of angels. After deliberating, God makes a judgment and commissions the angels to descend the stairway and carry God’s word of judgment to the world. These are the powerful words that both created and sustained the world (cf. “let there be” in Genesis 1; cf. “all things were made through [the Word]” in John 1; cf. “[my word] shall not return to me empty” in Isaiah 55:10-11). The people of Israel instantiated this image of the divine council in the tabernacle and later the temple, where they would celebrate God as the source of all power and angels as the means by which this power expanded and created the world.
This biblical cosmology has intriguing similarities to modern ones. Roger Penrose and Stephen W. Hawking (and others) have carefully peeled back the layers of the universe and have concluded that it began with a “singularity,” an unimaginably small and intense concentration of energy beyond our experience of space and time, which flared forth in what is now called the “big bang.” As this energy flared and expanded, it cooled and all the fundamental particles, elements, compounds, and ever-increasing complex systems that constitute our universe congealed over billions of years, including the systems that brought the fullness of life to planet Earth.
Rather than seeing Jacob’s vision as a distraction or an ancient cosmology that we must abandon, we could perhaps offer a more sympathetic reading of it, one that looks for common ground between the ancient and modern cosmologies, one that might help the church overcome its historic bias against science and scientists. Jacob sees what a host of people with their microscopes and telescopes are yearning to see: the unfolding of the cosmos. He sees the fiery words of God, the elemental powers of the universe, all flaring forth from the glorious singularity that is God and forming the interdependent systems of the universe as they expand and cool.
In the biblical cosmology, angels figure prominently. The people of Israel understood angels to be children of God. They drew on the relationship between parents and children to explain the mysterious relationship between God and angels. In the same way that children are distinct yet embody the being and spirit of their parents, so angels are distinct and yet embody the being and Spirit of God. They proceeded from God and carried the glorious power of God into the world. Unlike people today who see power as a material force, the people of Israel saw it as a personal force; power had an angelic face—a feature of biblical cosmology that is dissimilar to the modern one in interesting ways and warrants further discussion.
With the image of angels ascending and descending from the divine council, the people of Israel were inspired to say things like: the glory of God fills the earth (Ps. 72:19; Isaiah 6:3) or the earth is full of the steadfast love of God (Psalm 33: 5; 119:64). Power was a manifestation of God’s presence and participation in the affairs of the world. So when Jacob sees that angels fill the whole world, even the barren wilderness where he sleeps with his head on a stone pillow, he knows that he is never far from God. His vision validates God’s words of assurance, “I am with you.”
Jacob’s vision of angels validates not only God’s assurance that “I will be with you,” but also this promise:
Your offspring (literally “seed”) shall be like the dust of the earth, and you shall spread abroad to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south; and all the families of the earth shall be blessed in you and in your offspring (seed) (28:14).
Many commentators focus on the words of God in this narrative and ignore the image of God, as if the visual would distract from the verbal. But the image that Jacob sees amplifies the significance of the promise that he hears. The amplification has to do with children. Just as God’s angelic children fly from God to the whole world, so Jacob’s children will spread in every direction on earth. Jacob’s life aligns with God’s life, and this alignment of the divine and human is how God works in the world and brings a blessing to all the nations.
Oil flowing down the stone
At the end of this narrative, Jacob awakens a changed person. He has found the gate of heaven, has stood in the presence of God, and has aligned his life with God’s. He cannot just walk away. The occasion demands that he do something to mark this place so that he and others can find it and return:
“So Jacob rose early in the morning, and he took the stone that he had put under his head and set it up for a pillar and poured oil on the top (literally “head”) of it…. Then Jacob made a vow, saying…’this stone, which I have set up for a pillar shall be God’s house.'” (18-22)
Most commentators ignore the importance of the oiled stone in this narrative. This is not so surprising, for not only is it a visual image, it is a sexual image. A stone with oil flowing from its head is a phallic symbol, and Jacob sets it up to mark the truth of what he has just seen and heard in this place.
We have three corresponding images in this narrative: angelic children proceeding from God; offspring proceeding from Jacob; and oil flowing down an upraised stone. This narrative concerns the fertility of God as well as the promised fertility of Jacob.
The phrase “fertility of God” is a jarring one to Western Christians. We are reticent to explore the relationship between the creative and the procreative powers of God. But fruitfulness and the multiplication of life are manifestation of the love of God, and the Bible speaks frequently of God blessing humans and transferring life-giving power to them. The text that is pivotal for exploring the relationship between God and sexuality, and the text that also lies behind the promise made to Jacob in his dream, is Genesis 1:28: “God blessed them, and God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply (that is, have sex), and fill the earth and subdue it.’” With these words, God passes on procreative power to humans. According to the blessing in Genesis 1:28 and the promise in Genesis 28:13-14, human sexuality completes the work of creation. Human beings are to fill the earth, and Jacob’s seed is to spread forth to the west, east, north, and south. Not to destroy or conquer, as we have so perversely interpreted the texts, but to bless all the families of the earth. The oiled stone which is so strange and somewhat embarrassing to us is a symbol of the life-giving power which God has shared with humanity.
The stone and cosmic redemption
The pilgrimage of the stone is another fascinating piece of this narrative. The stone has very humble beginnings; it is but one of many stones strewn in a place that has no name or significance. Jacob’s presence and needs, however, change its status. For whatever unnamed qualities it might possess, Jacob chooses it above all the others to become his pillow. He then sets it up and anoints it be a sign of the promise and eventually the cornerstone for the temple at Bethel (Genesis 35).
The pilgrimage of the stone hints at cosmic redemption. The blessings of God are not just for all the families of the land, but for the land itself. This particular stone’s journey will end when it becomes part of the temple of Bethel. The stone achieves its true purpose when it leaves behind the randomness and brokenness of its existence and is joined together with others to create a place of worship. In this journey the stone stands for the whole world which also longs to be the temple that God fills with glory.
Like many of my generation, I was trained to take a biblical text and transpose it into three points and three applications. My sermons were declarative and imperative, propositional and moralistic. Such an approach whitewashes the color of the text and covers over its imagery. When I left this approach behind and began to play with the imagery of Genesis 28, I discovered that my emerging wonderment was best captured in a poem.
I wrote the following poem over a period of days. I struggled a bit in writing it. Certain words interrupt the flow of meaning, certain lines are forced, and certain rhymes put a strain on the verse. Many are called, but few are chosen to write poetry. Yet, I found that writing this poem brought me deeper into the narrative and opened up possible meanings in a way that more traditional forms of interpretation did not.
Somewhere between Beersheba and Haran,
alone before a dying sun,
a drifter walked a trail of broken trust
and sought a bed in stone and dust.
One stone among all others round
he pressed to leave familiar ground,
to hold his head until the light
to be less massive this one night.
And tenderly the stone would meet
both anxious face and angel feet.
For at that place the spheres were riven,
on earth appeared the gate of heaven.
A promise came while fast asleep:
the ground below his seed would keep,
children of dust the earth to fly,
blown by angels from the sky.
Upon awakening the sun down shone
on bed of dust and pillow of stone.
Always to remember the celestial stair,
the stone he raised and oiled there.
One journey ended, one began
between Beersheba and Haran.
A stone took leave the rocky seam;
a man arrived in awesome dream.
Yet hear the stones, a whole creation groaning
in the throes of random sprawl,
for the hands and mortar moaning
to make of all a single cathedral.