Symbolic Imagery

Sunday next before Lent, Fr Neil Traynor

The image on our service sheet this morning is one of those glorious Dutch flower paintings, so beloved of greetings cards manufacturers.  They’re a delight of detail; the sort of picture one can meditate on for years and still find something new.  This genre of work is packed full of symbolism – some of which we know, but others are lost.  We know that there is some symbolism there, but it’s not something that we can easily interpret or understand.  Dutch flower paintings aren’t just pretty pictures (though they are that in part); they open up another world, much of which we can only guess at.

Something similar is true with this morning’s readings.  It’s clear that there is a consistent message here, but there is much that is hidden – veiled even, one might say – and which we can only gradually begin to unpick.  It’s worth remembering though that there is always more than we can understand.

Our Old Testament reading talks of Moses encountering God veiled – and that’s not a bad analogy for what I’m hoping to do today.  To take away some of the veils that are between us, the text and God, and to explore some different understandings of what we’re being told.  It’s a little like trying to understand some of the symbolism in the flower paintings.

This morning’s Old Testament reading of Moses coming down from the holy mountain with a shining face was taken from the New Revised Standard Version, and is consistent with modern understandings of the text.  There is, though, one huge and glaring anomaly in the translations, and which explains some of the depictions of Moses we see in churches (in St John’s the best example is in the altar in the Lady Chapel).  There are very many images of Moses, like in St John’s or in Sir Joshua Reynolds windows at New College in Oxford, showing him with horns. 

A little background here might help.  St Jerome, one of the four Doctors of the Church (again, at St John’s on the pulpit) translated the Greek version of the Old Testament, known as the Septuagint, into Latin so that it could be more widely understood. 

So, we have an oral tradition in Hebrew, which is eventually written, which is translated into Greek, then into Latin – you can begin to understand why some of the subtleties are lost over time.

St Jerome, almost alone in his translation, says that Moses, on his return from the mountain, was horned after encountering God face to face.  Some have used this as a deeply anti-Semitic tactic to demonise (and I use the word advisedly) the Jews.  To depict the Jews as beasts, and make them less than human.  Its not a reading supported by the text, nor is there any text which suggests that Jews – apart from Moses -  are horned in any way.

It’s a very odd thing of Jerome to do, especially as he translates the same Greek phrase differently elsewhere in the Vulgate.  Which begs the question, why should he do this?  Is it deliberate?  Is there something here, in the very oddness, that Jerome is trying to draw our attention to?  Like looking at the Dutch flower painting, is there something that we can see whose significance we fail to grasp?

Admittedly, I’m fairly certain that this isn’t a problem which keeps many of you up at night, but as you’ve probably guessed, intrigues me.

As some of you know, I went on retreat recently, and manged to get quite a lot of reading done.  I took a variety of books, some serious, some not so, and amongst them was a collection of essays given at a symposium on kingship and the divine.  I’d come across one of the essays in the book elsewhere, and thought that the rest of the collection looked interesting.  One of the essays I hadn’t seen was about Assyria and their semi-divine kings. 

By now, you’re probably wondering when the nice men in white coats are coming to take me away for a long rest, as I’ve clearly lost the plot.  Bear with me, because there is a connection; and for me quite a profound one.

The connection is all to do with divinity – and one might suggest theophany – the appearance of  God to mortals.

Many ancient peoples (and one might even include the cultures of China and Japan in this) have considered their rulers to be divine.  Not, as Charles I might have understood it, being divinely chosen, appointed and anointed, but as divine themselves. 

One thing that we have lost with our monotheism is the sense that there are different gradations of Gods – while there are many gods, not all are God, so to speak.  This is particularly true for those cultures which have deified their rulers.  The Egyptians saw their Pharoah as a God.  Romans declared some of the Emperors and members of the imperial family ‘divi’.  Within living memory for some, Emperor Hirohito declared that he was not an “arahitogami”, i.e., an incarnate divinity.  The same was true of the ancient Assyrians, with whom many of us are not quite so familiar.

Another of the things we have lost is the sense of a hierarchy of daemons/divinities/Gods, which even the Psalmist acknowledges (eg Ps 77.13  “who is so great a god as our God”).  Whilst the God of the Jewish nation – Yahweh or Elohim or “I am who I am” – might be the supreme God, the Old Testament does not deny the existence of other, lesser deities; of the gods of other nations and peoples.  That would just have been too shocking for their times, and too provocative for their neighbours.  Each town, city or nation had its god(s) who protected them.

We have also lost some of the symbols that tell us about them.  In our own culture we have today the Crown which symbolises the Queen – but also the monarchy, and much else beside.  Less frequently now we see the ‘broad arrow’ mark – still used by the Ordnance Survey and the military, and why we might think of prisoners in grey suits with arrows on them.  The symbolism is there but not quite so obvious.  So, when we think of the Pharaoh, the image that springs to mind might be of the death mask of Tutankhamun with its cobra, or the red and white double crown of Egypt – the symbol points to an image of kingship and power, and to their inherent divinity in a way in which the present crown or broad arrow do not.

The image of the divine Assyrian kings – those who communed daily with their gods – is less familiar.  The sign of divinity and kingship for them was a horned diadem.  By being a god, and meeting with their gods, the Assyrian rulers took upon them horns as a sign of their divinity.

And to return to Jerome?  He, almost alone, describes Moses, after meeting and talking with God as being horned, and with his face shining.  We may well here have two different cultures represented to make the point that God is greater than either.  The horns are symbolic of Assyrian divinity.  And the shining face?  Think of that face mask of Tutankhamun – solid gold.  A god, even in death, shining.

Through the use of symbolic imagery, the author(s) of Exodus are telling us not just that Moses was touched by God and altered by God, but that this God was greater than the gods of Egypt or Assyria.  This God, the God of the peoples of Israel, is THE God- the most powerful, the most generous and the omnipotent one.  It is Israel whom God is interested in, and for whom God shows special care.

And these themes are carried forward into the Gospel.  Jesus, the divine one, shows and declares his godhead to those around him, with his face shining like the sun.  This time, instead of horns, Jesus’ clothes are dazzling white.  Perhaps, one might understand this as a move away from Assyria being a dominant power, to Rome, whose citizens wore white.

And yet more symbolic terms come in with references to veils.  Moses veiled; on his way to the cross Jesus’ face being wiped by Veronia, creating a veil bearing Jesus’ image; at the crucifixion the veil of the temple – between the Holy of Holies and the inner most court, and representing through its colours and fabric the creation of the whole world - being torn in two.  The barriers between God and man are being continually broken down, and Christ is the one who connects us directly with God through is very being. 

I could go on through other aspects, too.

The symbolism of the texts is rich and complex.  Just as rich and complex as a Dutch flower painting, and no less so than our own lives.  It behoves us not just to be aware that these texts are probably just as, if not more, symbolic than literal; but also to be prepared to look deep into what they might mean.  Taking them at a superficial and literal level is what has led some to demonise Moses and the Jews.  It’s what we must always be aware of in the text if we’re to treat with proper respect what has been handed down to us.  Look for the odd and out of place – it might just be trying to tell us something important.

Fr Neil Traynor