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The Bible and Iconography

Over the last few decades there has been an increased interest in visual images and that is things that you might uncover in archaeology, everything from small objects to large objects.  And what scholars are really discovering is that these items can add…can really shed light on the biblical text. And the premise is this: that every time we read the biblical text, we are engaging in a cross-cultural experience.  And so, in order to enter into that and sort of appreciate and respect the distance between our culture and the culture in which the Bible was written, we have to try and find as many different pieces of, as many different artifacts and as much evidence as we can to help us enter into the way in which they thought about the world. 

And so, the iconography and the visual images can give us just yet another window into how they imagined the world, how they imagined the things that they were afraid of, the things that they thought could help them, the things that threatened them; and so the iconography can help us in that level.

A story that we are very familiar with is the story of David and Goliath. And as part of David’s attempts to convince Saul that he would be “the guy” to take out Goliath, David says, well, I was a shepherd and in my role as a shepherd I would kill bears and lions, which would come, of course, to threaten the flock.  And we might look at that and say well, that, of course, makes perfect sense that a shepherd would have to kill lions; but what we may not realize apart from the, if we didn’t know about the iconography, is that the killing of a lion is a distinctly royal act.  It’s something that is often associated with the violence of kings and their fulfilling of their role to stave off chaos and to keep their people protected.  So, that is one example of how the iconography really sheds light on the biblical text and in many ways, we can read that reference in 1Sam 17 as foreshadowing of David’s future role as the king of Israel. 

  • Michael J. Chan

    Michael Chan is Assistant Professor of Old Testament at Luther Seminary in Saint Paul, MN. He is a graduate of Pacific Lutheran University (BA), Luther Seminary (MA in Old Testament), and Emory University (PhD). In addition to many articles and essays, Chan is also the author of The Wealth of Nations: A Tradition-Historical Study (2017) and coauthor of Exploring the Bible (2016).