Visionary writing pervades both the Old and New Testaments. While initially bewildering, it is, in fact, one of the most fascinating genres of biblical literature.
Prophecy and Apocalypse
Visionary writing is often confused with the biblical genres of prophecy and apocalypse, but visionary writing can appear in any genre. In the Bible, prophets often use visionary writing, but just as often write realistically. Apocalypse portrays the coming judgment and end of the end of human history, and it, too, can employ visionary techniques.
The Making of Unreality
“The beast had four wings of a bird. . . and four heads.” (Daniel 7:6)
“I will make the sun go down at noon.” (Amos 8:9)
“The stars will fall from heaven.” (Matthew 24:29)
Biblical writings occupy the same continuum as all literature. At one end of the literary spectrum is realism — settings, events, and characters that we recognize from our own world. At the other end, we find fantasy — wildly imaginary creatures and places, surreal images and supernatural occurrences.
The world of the Bible is realistic, full of recognizable detail, but it is also permeated with the supernatural — with angels, miraculous events, and, most significantly, God. Realism and fantasy coexist throughout the pages of the Old and New Testaments, and we call the pervasive strand of fantasy material “visionary writing.”
To get a feel for visionary writing in the Bible, read these selections now:
- Ezekiel 19 (pages 1249-1250 in The Harper Collins Study Bible)
- Revelation 8 (pages 2319-2320)
As you read the passages, consider what literary elements make this material fantastic. When you are finished, continue with the lesson.
Think of the fantasy writing you know and love, works like Alice in Wonderland, C. S. Lewis’ “Narnia” stories or The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien. What qualities set them apart from realistic stories? The elements may include:
- Fantastic settings
- Imaginary creatures
- Events that could never occur in real life
These same features appear in the visionary writings of the Bible. For example:
- Zechariah 6:2 envisions “four chariots coming out from between two . . . mountains of bronze.” Suffice to say, real mountains are not made of bronze.
- In Ezekiel’s vision of a celestial chariot, the prophet sees “four living creatures” that have “a human form,” but with a difference — “each had four faces, and each of them had four wings.” (Ezekiel 1:5-6)
- In the last book of the Bible, we are told of a great red dragon whose “tail swept down a third of the stars of heaven and threw them to the earth.” (Revelation 12:4)
This literature is supernatural, presupposing a level of reality beyond the visible world around us. Since this is the Bible, these visions have religious significance. Taking a literary — rather than theological — approach to the Bible, however, we only need to be receptive to the visions themselves. Visionary writing is a literature of wonder. It requires a childlike willingness to be awed by the power of fantasy.
Before we ask what all of this fantasy means, we should look at the specific types of unreal elements that appear in the Bible’s visionary writing.
J.R.R. Tolkien on Fantasy
One of the best introductions to visionary writing is J.R.R. Tolkien’s essay “On Fairy-Stories.” Fantasy, writes Tolkien, “starts out with an advantage: arresting strangeness.” To enjoy this type of writing requires an “appetite for marvels.” The effect of fantasy writing is to defamiliarize what has become a cliché — “to clean our windows from the drab blur of triteness or familiarity.”
How does visionary writing in the Bible portray the fantastic? One frequent method is to paint a picture of future events that overturn the current status quo, predicting total upheaval of nations or rulers who are currently in power and prosperity. Case in point: At the very time that Tyre was a prosperous city-state, Ezekiel describes its complete downfall. (Ezekiel 26-27)
Visionary writing uses setting to establish an otherworldly quality. At times, events occur in a supernatural realm that transcends earthly reality (such as heaven and hell). At other times, we are given a vision of our world such as we have never seen it. In the Book of Revelation, for example, we shuttle back and forth between heaven and earth, but the earthly scenes are painted with surreal details, such as a black sun, a blood-like moon, and every mountain and island “removed from its place.” (Revelation 6:12, 14)
If the settings are fantastic, so are the characters within them. In Daniel 7:4, we find the spectacle of a “beast” that is “like a lion” but that has “eagles’ wings” and is “made to stand on two feet like a human being.” Often in biblical visionary writing, inanimate objects and forces of nature become actors in story, such as when a goat’s horn grows into the sky and throws stars to the ground. (Daniel 8:9-10)
The events that occur in visionary writing often are as fantastic as the scenes and characters. A flying scroll can destroy wood and stone houses (Zechariah 5:1-4), or the earth can miraculously open its mouth and swallow a river that a dragon spit out to attack a fleeing woman. (Revelation 12:15-16)
In this type of writing, anything can happen. The only limit is the human imagination. Once we allow the strange world of visionary writing to move us on its own terms, we are ready to ask what kind of truth or reality such literature represents.
Symbolism is universal in literature. Poetry, for example, is intrinsically symbolic: God is not really a shepherd or rock or fortress. Even narrative storytelling has an incipient symbolism. There is something representative about Adam and Eve and David (we all lose our Edens and potentially slay our Goliaths).
Interpreting Biblical Symbolism
Flying scrolls. Red dragons. Why would the Bible’s writers want to fill our minds with such fantastical things? Obviously, these vivid images stand for something in reality. They are symbols — concrete details that represent something else. Visionary writers construct a world of symbols, a symbolic reality that we must interpret.
But how can we interpret these strange and elusive symbols? If you are familiar with the content of the Bible, you have an obvious advantage. If you are unfamiliar with it, you need to look for help from biblical scholarship, such as the footnotes in The Harper Collins Study Bible or other sources. (Bear in mind, of course, that biblical experts disagree among themselves about biblical symbolism.)
As we try to interpret these writings, we must look for the referent of the symbols — the thing to which the specific images refer. In general, biblical symbols refer to either (1) historical persons and events, or (2) theological doctrine (such as the belief that God created the world, that the world will come to an end, that a great battle exists between good and evil, and so on).
Most of the visionary writing in the Bible refers to historical persons and events. By contrast, eschatological or apocalyptic writing refers to events yet to happen, such as the end of days and the last judgment.
Ezekiel 19 (pages 1249-1250 in The Harper Collins Study Bible) is a good example of a symbolic tale referring to specific historical events. This fantastic story concerns a lioness that is identified as the mother of princes. Halfway through the chapter, the lioness transforms into a vine, and the vine is transplanted into the wilderness, where fire emanates from one of its branches, consuming the entire vine. As the footnotes in The Harper Collins Study Bible point out, these symbols tell the story of a sordid era in the biblical nation of Israel’s history.
But visionary writing can also represent theological doctrine as well as historical events. For example, let’s return to Zechariah 5. What does the fantastic flying scroll stand for? As is often the case in visionary writing, the text gives us clues as to what the details symbolize. The flying scroll destroys the wood and stone houses of people who lie and steal — a vivid portrait of the theological doctrine that God will judge liars and thieves. The vision encapsulates the eighth and ninth commandments of the Decalogue: You shall not lie; you shall not steal.
In future-oriented, eschatological visions (such as the Book of Revelation), symbolic details often align directly with prophetic doctrinal teaching elsewhere in the Bible. Consider the famous “four horsemen” vision of Revelation 6:1-8 (page 2317). It is a figurative (rather than literal) image of what Jesus’ prediction of the end of days in the Gospel of Matthew: “Nation will arise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom, and there will be famines and earthquakes in various places.” (Matthew 24:7).
Even if you don’t recognize the religious prophecy to which the symbolic horsemen refer, it is obvious that they represent a swift, destructive force on earth, sent as a judgment from God against wicked humanity.
Interpretation clearly is in the eye of the beholder. In a sense, you can read the Bible’s visionary writing at whatever level you wish. With some research, you can find the specific historical or theological referents for the symbolism. Otherwise, it is possible to discern the ideas embedded in the fantastic images, such as the eternal conflict between good and evil, God’s control of history, and the abiding power of God’s judgment.
The major themes at work in visionary writing also flow through the rest of biblical writing. In our final lesson, we will examine these themes and other elements that make the Bible a unified work of literature.
Assignment: Visionary Writing
Read Chapter 11, entitled “Visionary Literature,” in How to Read the Bible as Literature, pages 165-176.