Image vs. Word I

This is the first in a set of four posts discussing concept of the biblical relationship between Word and Image, as presented in Jacques Ellul’s inscrutable book Humiliation of the Word (which is not a how-to manual — as a visual artist friend of mine was disappointed to learn — but somewhat of a Cassandraic Jeremiad). I had mentioned before that I was going to read this book. Well I haven’t yet. I’ve read 86 pages — into the middle of chapter two (which is almost certainly more than you have!) The book is dense, to say the least, as well as being translated from French, but I have gotten a lot out of it, and I heartily recommend it to anyone who can power through it.

I will skip over chapter one, which is a fascinating, but rather subjective and speculative analysis of the relative epistemology of Image and Word, classifying the former as in the realm of Reality, and the latter in the realm of Truth. If you want to read only a lttle bit of Ellul, I recommend you read this chapter, because chapter two you can get in distilled form from me right here! But who knows, maybe chapter three will be even better!

Chapter two, on Idolatry (abuse of Image) conducts a survey of scripture that deals with relationship to God via Image or Word. I was so inspired by his analysis that I prepared a short version of it as a campfire devotion for all our friends on our recent camping trip (and had to shorten it further to only about a dozen verses).

The reason this is divided into four posts is because I see Ellul’s treatment as falling naturally into four phases of redemptive history, tracking changes in the nature of the Image/Word relationship. The first phase, naturally enough, is the Old Covenant.

Gen 1:5 — “God said, ‘Let there be light‘”. Right “in the beginning” we have the Word which God said, and the medium of Image, which is light. Because everything is dependent on the creative power of God’s Word, God demonstrates that his Word is preeminent above everything — in particular here over Image.

Gen 15:1 (and Gen 46:2, and I Sam 3) — God appears to Abram (and Jacob, and Samuel) in a ‘vision’, but of what does the vision actually consist? It is not actually a vision of God, but “the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision.” Later, God shows Abram the stars, darkness, and a torch passing between parts of animal carcasses that God had instructed Abram to prepare in an apparently non-visionary intermission. Yet none of these visual elements of the vision are images of God himself, but only instruments which God uses to illustrate his covenant. So even when God chooses to communicate to man through a ‘vision’, he expresses himself primarily through Word.

Ps 119:105 — “God’s word is a lamp unto my feet and a light to my path.” We must rely on his Word to provide us with vision, in this case spritual direction.

Deut 8:3 — Which Jesus quotes in the wilderness (Mat 4:4), illustrates again how we are dependent (and required to be dependent) on God’s Word.

Ex 20:4-6 — In the second commandment, prohibiting idolatry, it is pretty obvious what God thinks of man’s use of Image to try to approach him. But if that isn’t clear enough, God spells it out extra clearly in…

Deut 4:15-18 — “Since you saw no form on the day that the LORD spoke to you at Horeb out of the midst of the fire, beware lest you act corruptly by making a carved image for yourselves” of anything in God’s creation, thinking you can worship God (or any other god) using it. Interestingly, in v. 28, part of the threat of punishment is that idolatrous Israel would be driven out of the promised land, and forced to “serve gods of wood and stone, the work of human hands, that neither see, nor hear, nor eat, nor smell.” Idolatry is its own punishment!

Ex 33:11 — “Thus the LORD used to speak to Moses face to face, as a man speaks to his friend.” At first glance, this seems to imply that God and Moses were in the habit of looking each other in the eye, but it is really just figurative for the way they related to each other via Word, as is made clear later in the same chapter:

Ex 33:18-23 — This is worth an extended quote:

Moses said, “Please show me your glory.” And he said, “I will make all my goodness pass before you and will proclaim before you my name ‘The LORD.’ And I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy. But,” he said, “you cannot see my face, for man shall not see me and live.” And the LORD said, “Behold, there is a place by me where you shall stand on the rock, and while my glory passes by I will put you in a cleft of the rock, and I will cover you with my hand until I have passed by. Then I will take away my hand, and you shall see my back, but my face shall not be seen.”

Moses requests to see not God himself, but his glory (it is arguable whether there is a distinction to be made there), and God declines (or assents?) by offering to speak his own name. And after explaining that it is not possible for man to experience the Image of God’s face, he grants Moses the highest honor (given to no other man?) of being able to see his back. Whatever that means.

So through all of these verses we can see that God is quite clear that his Word is vitally important, and it is the primary medium of our relationship to him (and him to us). There are also some problematic passages that fall under the old covenant, however. Make of these what you wish; I will try to briefly explain Ellul’s rationalizations of how these fit into his schema.

Ex 24:9-11 — This is a bizarre little passage that I had never known existed! Ellul says that ‘beheld’ maybe should be translated ‘feared’, but in any case, what the passage actually describes is merely God’s footstool, not his Image.

Job 42:5 — “I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you.” I don’t think there is any indication in the previous 4 chapters of God’s monologue that he did anything but speak, so Job is probably just using a figure of speech.

Is 6:5 — Even though Isaiah claims “my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!”, the surrounding description is quite absent of any visual details of what he looked like, except that he is sitting. So maybe Isaiah didn’t really see him, and is just speaking figuratively, or if he did see him, the inspiration of the Holy Spirit prevented him from including a visual description in scripture. The sight is so traumatic that God’s direct intervention is required to cleanse his sin, lest he be destroyed.

Next phase: Incarnation.


6 Responses

  1. This stuff fascinates me, R. and it always has, but my head is stuffed full of Qur’anic exegesis at the moment and I only have room for so much. The Ellul I have read has been exceedingly dense indeed, unlike, say, Neil Postman, who secularlizes and applies some of his concepts. I’ll let you do the penetrating and simplifying for me on this!

  2. I hope you enjoy it! Stay tuned…

  3. I know what a Jeremiad is, but what is Cassandraic?

  4. Like Cassandra: a prophet who is cursed to be ignored

  5. […] Well, the whole Image vs. Word series has not generated the response I was hoping for. So instead of the originally planned four, I will cap off the Old Covenant and Incarnation phases with just one more post. But that’s OK, because the final two phases are basically reiterations of the first two phases anyways, so there’s less new to discuss. […]

  6. […] (If you haven’t read it yet, back up and read the previous post) […]

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