The Making of Unreality

“The beast had four wings of a bird. . . and four heads.” – Daniel 7:6

“I saw in the night, and behold, a man riding on a red horse!” – Zechariah 1:8

“The earth came the help of the woman, and the earth opened its mouth and swallowed the river that the dragon had poured from his mouth.” – Revelation 12:16

We need to begin with some definitions.  Writing in the Bible occupies the same continuum as all literature in the following regard.  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 — literature with imaginary creatures and places, surreal images and supernatural occurrences.

On the one hand, the world of the Bible is realistic, full of recognizable detail, but it is also permeated with unlifelike writing that transports us to a world merely imagined.  Realism and fantasy coexist throughout the pages of the Old and New Testaments, and we call the pervasive strand of fantasy material “visionary writing.”

It is not irreverent to speak of fantasy in the Bible, or of the writers as creating unreality.  This is not to question that the writers are writing about real beings and events.  It is rather that the literary way in which these characters and events and settings are presented is unlifelike.  Satan really exists, but not as a dragon with a tail large enough to sweep down a third of the stars of heaven (Revelation 12:3-4).  God does judge people who steal and lie, but not by means of flying scroll that burns their houses (Zechariah 5:1-4).  And so forth.

In keeping with an idea stated early in this course that you will deal with the literary parts of the Bible better if you let similar writing in literature at large guide what you see in parallel genres of the Bible, you can profitably think of fantasy writing with which you are familiar.  The Narnia stories of C. S. Lewis, for example, are a helpful lens through which to read the book of Revelation.  Qualities that those two texts have in common are fantastic settings, imaginary creatures (including animals as characters), and events that do not happen in real life.  These same features appear in visionary writings throughout 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).

We need to say again that while the mode of presentation is unrealistic and fantastic, it is not in doubt that real events and characters are being portrayed by means of this vehicle.

Visionary writing is a literature of wonder. It requires a childlike willingness to be awed by the power of fantasy.  Instead of holding back, we need to let our imaginations soar.

One more point of definition is that while visionary fantasy can and does show up anywhere in the Bible, there are two main repositories.  One is prophecy, which usually uses the techniques of fantasy to portray the present and future (both imminent and stretching beyond that).  The other branch of visionary writing is known as apocalyptic and eschatological writing, dealing with the “end times” at the very end of history.