Friday, May 19, 2017

Theological Bestiary, Part 2: Eagles

The eagle has a high place in Christian symbolism, emblematic of Christ himself, of baptismal regeneration, and of John the disciple of the Lord (particularly in his office as author of the fourth gospel). But before we get to a consideration of those meanings, here are a few interesting facts about the greatest of the raptors:

- Bald Eagles, used as the symbol of the United States, are usually taken to connote the ideas of majesty, power, and nobility. However, bald eagles really aren't all that noble. Given the opportunity, they'll often choose to get their food by scavenging or by way of piracy (stealing fish from ospreys) rather than by hunting for it themselves. For this reason, Benjamin Franklin famously thought it better to have the turkey, rather than the bald eagle, selected as the national symbol of the USA.  Nonetheless, anyone who has seen a bald eagle in flight or on its perch can attest to the fierce elegance and self-assured majesty with which it bears itself.

- Eagles have remarkable eyesight. Almost all birds can see better than we poor earthbound creatures, but eagles are one of the foremost examples of this. While most birds can see two to three times more sharply than humans, many eagles have the ability to clearly see small prey from more than a mile away! Birds can also see more colors than we can--they have more cones in their eyes, allowing greater color perception, and can see into the ultraviolet spectrum, which is invisible to us. (This means that, in the case of certain species, birds look different to each other than they do to us.) Because of the shape of birds' retinas, they also have a wider field of clear focus in their view. Further, eagles have specialized features to their eyes that help to reduce glare. In fishing-eagles, this enables them to fly high in bright sunlight and still see fish swimming under the surface of the water many hundreds of feet below them. 

- Many eagles (and other raptors) exhibit a rare trait called reversed sexual size dimorphism, which means that the females are larger than the males. But that isn't even the most interesting thing about their size. Eagles are big--a bald eagle can have a wingspan of nearly seven feet, well taller than the vast majority of humans. And yet its weight is a mere ten pounds. For all its size, it's as light as a month-old baby.

- Eagles and other raptors are masters of two specialized forms of flying--thermal-riding and hunting stoops. In the former method, they can ride for many miles on rising columns of warm air without ever having to flap their wings. In hunting stoops, they fly extraordinarily high, then tuck their wings and fall straight downward, gaining velocity until they are within striking distance of their prey, at which point they put out their wings and talons, catch their target, and ascend once more.

- Long before an eagle was the symbol of the United States, eagles were used as the universally-recognized emblem of the Roman Empire. This was true well into the Christian era, so that by the Middle Ages the eagle was recognized as the symbol not only of the Romans, but of Christendom as a whole: in Dante's words, it is "the bird of God" (Paradiso 6:5).

Now for its Christian symbolism. The eagle is often spoken of in Scripture, especially in the Old Testament. Its most common appearance is as an image of strong flight, and particularly of the way that God "carries" his people, like an eagle's wings that allow it to soar across the skies (Ex. 19:4; Isa. 40:31; Rev. 12:14). Just as an eagle can ride along the rising air currents without flapping its wings, so also God's watchcare over us lifts us, grants us freedom, and carries us to places of his peace.

As an aside, you may have heard the old sermon illustration, derived from Scripture (Deut. 32:11), which says that eagles will carry their young on their backs (or at least catch them on their backs) in order to train them to fly. As nice an image as this is, it turns out be largely untrue. There are a few pieces of anecdotal evidence to suggest that this may, in very rare circumstances, have been seen to happen, but any ornithologist would tell you that it is definitely not normal eagle behavior. This need not threaten our belief in the inspiration of Scripture; the character of Moses in this passage used the metaphors that were present in his culture in order to make a point about God. The point of Deut. 32:11 is not to assert a scientific fact about eagle behavior (no more than Jesus' intent in telling his disciples that faith could move mountains was in order to introduce a more effective means of strip mining), but rather to use a well-known cultural metaphor to impress on God's people the nature of his loving care toward them. For that purpose, the image serves perfectly. Intriguingly, though, there are birds who will occasionally try to perch on the backs of eagles in flight--crows, who are bold enough and canny enough to carry out the maneuver without danger, and who seem to enjoy being a persistent irritant to the eagles in their area. It may be that the ancient legend about eagles carrying their young had its origin in ancient people seeing crows riding on the backs of eagles. If that was the case, as seems plausible, then the use of this metaphor in Deut. 32 appears to be something of a sly inside joke that God slipped into Scripture for the pleasure of ornithologists--that while he certainly did love, care for, and nurture his people Israel during their desert wanderings, like an eagle cares for its eaglets, the Israelites also harassed him to no end with their petulant, stubborn disrespect, just like a crow hitching a ride on an eagle. So this verse may carry a clever double-meaning, in which both parts are true of God's relationship with Israel.

The other main aspect of eagles in Scripture is that of judgment. If their habit of soaring is the context for their symbolism of God's uplifting care, then their habit of performing hunting stoops is the context for their use as symbols of God's judgment. Prophetic oracles often used the imagery of an eagle swooping down on its prey as a metaphor for the swift advent of divine wrath (Deut. 28:49; Jer. 4:13; 49:22; Lam. 4:19; Hos. 8:1). If anyone has seen the startling swiftness of an eagle's dive, this should remind them of the fierce holiness of God, and of the dangerous waters they swim in when they choose the course of sin.

One of the most intriguing symbolic meanings of the eagle is also based on Scripture, and was then expanded in later Christian tradition. Psalm 103:5 says, "[God] satisfies your desires with good things so that your youth is renewed like an eagle's." Once again, Scripture is using a popular, well-known ancient legend to make a point about God's life-giving care over us. The ancient belief was that an eagle would begin by flying up high toward the sun, then swoop down and plunge into the water, and when it came up, it would be young again--an image of new life through a plunge into the water. This legend, of course, is not actually true of eagles' powers of regeneration (and, once again, let's remember that Scripture was only using that belief as an illustration, not as a statement of scientific fact). But the image itself is based on actual eagle behavior: fish-eagles will do just that--a hunting-stoop down into the water--and ospreys, who might be a sub-family related to eagles, actually plunge entirely down into the water, sometimes completely submerging themselves before flying back up again. Thus, with this image in mind, eagles became a symbol of baptism in Christian tradition: a plunge into the water which gives new life.

In later Christian symbolism, the eagle took on other meanings as well. It is sometimes used as a symbol of Christ himself--since eagles were thought to fly the highest of any created thing, it became a symbol of the incarnation of the Son of God--of a a being that seems to be made of both earth and heaven, two natures united in one body. It was also a symbol of angelic messengers (as in Ezek. 1:10; 10:14; and Rev. 8:13), as well as of the apostle John, author of the fourth gospel (paralleling the fourth of the cherubim described in heaven in Rev. 4:7). 

The power and majesty of eagles are mirrors in miniature of their Creator: He, powerful and majestic, watches over us with all the keenness of an eagle's gaze, bearing up his children, and ready to do the swift, stern work of justice against the evil of this world.

So in the words of the British poet William Blake: "When thou seest an eagle, thou seest a portion of genius; lift up thy head!"

(Images - Top and Middle Inset Right: Bald Eagles at Campobello Island, NB, by Matthew Burden, 2016; Upper Inset Left: "Aquila Pomarina," from Naumann's Natural History of the Birds of Europe, 1905; Middle Inset Left: "Sea Eagle's Nest," by Bruno Liljefors, 1907; Lower Inset Right: "Sea Eagles Hunting an Eider," by Bruno Liljefors, 1924; Lower Inset Left: "Saint John the Evangelist," by Frans Hals, c.1625)