Troublesome Topic: The Power of Images

Think for a moment about these historic events (I will start with ones the younger generations may recall):

  • The Mythbusters blowing something up
  • The Dude perfect guys celebrating
  • The piano guys “playing” a piano
  • 9-11
  • The Oklahoma City bombing
  • The Berlin wall comes down
  • The challenger explosion
  • The funeral of Princes Diana
  • Slow-speed chase of O.J. Simpson
  • “One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”

Not all of them will be remembered by every reader, but think about those that did ring a bell. Did you think about facts, or did you see images? We know the facts about these events, but it is the images that have the power.

How about the phrase “the thrill of victory, the agony of defeat?” If you are a young pup this will not bring any image to your mind, but for others among us, the images are still clear (one in particular, right?). Or maybe I could use this phrase from a song, “the eye of the _________.” See, you can finish it for me. And I imagine that it brings a mental picture to mind as well.

This has probably happened to you just as it has happened to me, at least before the era of Facebook. You have a relative with children whom you have not seen for some time. You know the kids are growing, and you have been told that they are growing fast. But your mental image of them has not changed since the last time you saw them. So the next time you see them, what do you say? “Look how much you’ve grown!” Your knowledge of the fact that they had grown was not enough to change your mental picture. In very key ways your mental picture has more influence on you than the facts you were told. While you know in your head that they have grown, the power of the mental image, frozen in time, makes you be amazed to actually see how much they have grown.

For that reason, God used imagery in the Bible quite a bit. The Jewish people thrived on expressing deep truths through symbols, images, and word pictures (in this App I use those three terms interchangeably).

My dad learned an important lesson about the power of images when he was in the army in the mid-1940s (he ended up going to Japan in the occupation force at the tail end of WWII). He has told us of an incident that took place during his training. The recruits were told to study the silhouettes of enemy ships and planes. Then they were taken to a darkened room of some kind and the silhouettes of those ships and planes were flashed on the screen one at a time at 1/50th of a second each, with a sizable pause between them. None of them could catch which ship or plane it was. They began to complain, saying that it was impossible to discern the difference at 1/50th of a second. Their superiors told them that it was indeed possible, and they would prove it to them. Next, they flashed a picture of the most popular pin-up girl of that era on the screen and everyone knew immediately who it was. Then the recruits were informed that the picture of the girl had been on the screen only 1/500th of a second, not 1/50th of a second. The lesson was obvious: “When you get to know the silhouettes of enemy ships and planes as well as you know the pin-up girls, 1/50th of a second will be no problem for you.”

The point applies to us as well. What are we filling our minds with? How well do we know Scripture as compared to how well we know movie stars, popular singers, or professional athletes?

In every-day life we mix word pictures and literal meaning in our speech. It is not just one or the other, it is both mixed together. Because we know our culture, we know when someone is using symbolic language. But someone from another culture has to ask, “What does that mean?” This is similar to jokes and puns. They must be explained to small children or foreigners because the meaning is not the sum of the words used.

The Power of Symbolism in Biblical Times

The number 3 was commonly seen in all of the ancient cultures of that region as a symbol of perfection or completeness, possibly because those cultures thought that a god and a goddess could have a child who would also be a god. Judaism did not make as big a deal about the symbolism of the number three as they did with seven, but we think they did understand it. The number 4 was also a symbol of perfection and completeness, derived most likely from a father, mother, son and daughter. “Forty” represented completeness due to its relationship to “four.” What is 3+4? Seven. That is why “seven” represented completeness or perfection. “Fourteen” is a double seven, making it another symbol for completeness. What is 3×4? Twelve. That is why the number twelve was also a picture of completeness, or “all.”

The last paragraph was about the use of symbolism; now let me show the power of symbolism with the following question:

Question:   How many tribes of Israel were there?  

If you answered “twelve” you are among the majority, but you are wrong.

Allow me to list all the tribes of Israel for you in alphabetical order and organized in groups of four. If there were twelve tribes we should have three groups of four.

  • Asher, Benjamin, Dan, Ephraim
  • Gad, Issachar, Judah, Levi
  • Manasseh, Naphtali, Reuben, Simeon
  • Zebulon

There were thirteen tribes, not twelve!

So why did the Israelites never say, “the thirteen tribes of Israel?”  Why did they contrive various schemes in order to leave out one tribe and get the number down to twelve? The answer is quite revealing:For them, the symbol was more powerful than reality!

They could say “all the tribes of Israel” by saying “the thirteen tribes of Israel,” or they could state the same thing by saying “the twelve tribes of Israel” (since twelve means “all”). But they always chose the number twelve, placing the symbol over reality. Another influencing factor was that the number thirteen had a negative meaning, giving them two reasons to prefer the symbol twelve over the reality of thirteen. Even so, it is hard for us to imagine giving imagery more power than reality. Our culture prides itself on being scientific, precise, and accurate, so we think reality should always take precedent over imagery. This demonstrates how far removed our culture is from theirs.

Other Examples of the Power of Symbolism

The following examples give further testimony to how powerful images and symbols were for the Israelites.

Consider the two genealogies of Jesus, one found in Matthew and the other in Luke. The genealogy in Matthew (Mt 1:1-17) has three groups of fourteen. The one in Luke 3 includes seventy-seven names. If you consider it from a numerical and symbolic point of view, both of these genealogies are saying the same thing—Jesus is perfect. He must be the one we have been waiting for, even His genealogies show perfection.

Or consider Amos 1:3–2:6. Here the Lord pronounced punishment on several nations for their sinfulness. The wording for each nation starts the same way: “For three crimes, even for four, I will not relent from punishing.” But in no case do the crimes listed add up to either three or four. For Damascus, one sin was listed; for Gaza, one; Tyre, one; Edom, two; Ammon, one; Moab, one; Judah, two; and Israel, six. By saying, “for three crimes, even four” the Lord is saying for all their sins, since three and four both mean “all.” Another way for God to have said it would be, “The sins of these people are now full and complete, they have passed the limit and have filled the cup of my wrath; punishment cannot be avoided.” It was more powerful to say three or four than to say six. The numbers three and four meant “all” more powerfully than listing all the sins being judged.

Psalm 119:164 says: “Seven times a day I praise you for your righteous judgments.” Seven times a day means “all day long.” We would probably say it just the way we mean it, “all day long,” but the psalmist preferred to use symbolism.

The next lesson is: Interpret Apocalyptic Images in Light of Bible History