Each painting in Willem DeKooning’s Woman series (1950-53) is actually hundreds of paintings one on top of the next. DeKooning layers feminine archetypes from Pre-historic cave drawing to the red lipstick of 50’s pin-up calendar girls. He believed that to really understand a woman you have to see beyond her bones and blood, hair and make-up. DeKooning wanted to paint the history of Woman. And like most histories it is haunting and captivating, elegant and ferocious. Woman picked the apple. Woman birthed the first humans in thatch huts. Then this Woman put on high heels and sold you a car.
Like DeKooning’s Woman, Blue explores the complicated history of Birds from Hebrew Culture to Modern Science . But it reads less like a Bible Commentary and more like a swirling poem, full of fantastic lists and short stories from cultures around the world and across time and space. Vultures were given god like status by the Ancient Egyptian, pigeons were skewered as food for the poor, and eagles rallied the Nazi’s in World War II. And these birds are also the flying around the Bible, sometimes minor characters, other times metaphors, and at least once God in disguise.
In the introduction Blue writes:
My hope in writing this book was to get myself and readers deeply paying attention to what flits by us on any given day, to the layers of meaning in sacred texts.
Layers of meaning is a complicated idea to most modern Bible readers. We have been trained to pay attention to one meaning…the original meaning. Pastors and professors have warned us that conflating modern symbology with the author’s original meaning is a fool’s errand fraught with perilous interpretations. An Old Testament professor once told me, “A Bible verse can never mean something that it didn’t mean to the original readers.”
And he’s not alone. If you pick up a traditional Bible Commentary and look up the word for Eagle you will find that the Hebrew word is nesher and it also means vulture. Then you will likely flip through page after page of how the vulture/eagle is used to describe God in other parts of the Bible. And (if it’s a good commentary) you’ll learn how vulture/eagles are defined in adjacent cultures in the Ancient World.
And while Blue does explores the original meaning and symbology of Biblical birds, she doesn’t stop there.
In my favorite chapter on Vultures she piles on layer after layer of meaning. She reminds us that “In 1973, a griffon vulture collided with a commercial airliner over Africa…at 37,900 feet.” And these are the same vultures that feast on carcasses and then urinate on their feet to kill the bacteria. She tells us the Mayans called Vultures death eaters, birds that eat rotting flesh and turn it into dirt to feed their crops.
For Blue all these definitions swirl around, adding to the life giving beauty of the Biblical text. It’s important to think of God as vulture that pees on his feet and turns death into life, even if that wasn’t what the author of Deuteronomy was getting at.
“It is difficult sometimes to see something from an angle that we are not used to, but it seems to me that love, generosity, the well-being of our life together on the planet rests on the possibility that we might do so.”
She reminds us of the legacy left by interpreters who chose to translate nesher as Eagle. Biblical scholars who believed the eagle was more a dignified choice. A more fitting metaphor for an all-powerful God. But Blue reminds of that the language of power comes at a cost. The Eagles have been the symbol war and oppression used by the Nazi’s, the Assyrians, and the Holy Roman Empire. And Blue reminds us that seeing God as a vulture might an important course correction.
A God who pees on his feet after eating death may be a startling image, but it is an image we need.
We desperately need to see beauty in places other than where we’ve been preprogrammed to see it. We need to expand the prescribed definitions, see outside the constricting, life sucking limits. We need to see what is lovely in what the world has declared ugly or loathsome.”
Blue teaches us to see God in unlikely places by considering the birds.
Considering a vulture God.
By the end of Consider the Birds the descriptions and stories of birds have piled up like paint on DeKooning’s canvas. The Birds of the Bible now telling a much deeper and wider story than you ever expected.