Friday, January 18, 2013

Snow: a Biblical Perspective

Those of us who do not live in the middle east may be surprised by the frequent biblical references to the white powdery stuff most associated with cold northern climates. We do not tend to automatically associate snow with hot, desert environments.

Such a perspective, of course, lacks an appreciation of the influence of the mountain ranges in and around Palestine, as well as the temperature fluctuations throughout the year.

An early incidence of a biblical snow story involves Benaiah, one of King David's mighty men. Snow days were presumably as rare in Judah as they are now in southern England, resulting in people taking days off work to engage in other recreational pursuits. In the case of Benaiah, to whom Facebook was not available, we are told that he
"went down into a pit on a snowy day and killed a lion"

This made a change from the warrior's more usual pursuits of striking down Moab's two mightiest warriors or dispatching a "huge Egyptian" by attacking him with a club and spear.

Four of the references to snow in the Hebrew Bible occur in the book of Job, where the term symbolises the unreliability of people (6:15), the temporary nature of human life (24:18), the power of God to command the weather (37:6) and the inappropriateness of mankind in challenging the justice or sovereignty of God (38:21):

Surely you know, for you were already born!
    You have lived so many years!
 “Have you entered the storehouses of the snow
    or seen the storehouses of the hail, 
  which I reserve for times of trouble?"

These twin uses of the word continue through the wisdom literature and the prophetic books. Snow is referred to both symbolically and literally. Symbolically, it represents the thoroughness of the cleansing from sin sought by David as he confesses to God his sins of adultery and murder (Psalm 51:7). This same image is mirrored in God's promise through Isaiah that though the sins of Israel are "like scarlet", they shall through repentance and forgiveness be made "like snow." (1:18).

A reliable messenger is like a "snow-cooled drink in harvest time", refreshing the spirit of the one who sent him (Proverbs 25:13). The incongruity of snow at harvest is used differently elsewhere in the Book of Proverbs to illustrate the inappropriateness of giving honour to a fool (26:1)

Snow is often cited as revealing the majesty and power of God in his creation. 

"He spreads the snow like wool, and scatters the frost like ashes" (Psalm 147:16)

It is but one of the elements of the weather ruled by Almighty God:

"lightening and hail, snow and clouds, stormy winds that do his bidding." (148:8)

The moisturising effect of snow is compared with the effect of God's word by Isaiah; both of them accomplish the purpose for which they were sent forth (55:9).

As the Hebrew Bible concludes, snow is employed as a metaphor for the indescribable glory of God himself, a theme which is picked up by Christian writers centuries later. Although, like his predecessor Benaiah, the prophet Daniel also encountered a lion in a pit, in the latter case it did not take place on a snowy day. Babylon may or may not have experienced snow during Daniel's exile there, or he may have had a childhood memory of snow-capped peaks from Judah. Whatever the visual association, the prophet's vision of God is extraordinary by any measure. Daniel describes the Ancient of Days in his heavenly glory as seated on a flaming throne and wearing clothing "as white as snow." (7:9)

Matthew the gospel writer uses similar imagery when recounting the events surrounding the resurrection of Jesus Christ, an experience witnessed first hand by two of his female disciples. On arriving at the tomb where Jesus had been buried on the previous Friday, the two Marys witnessed:
"a violent earthquake, for an angel of the Lord came down from heaven and, going to the tomb, rolled back the stone and sat on it. His appearance was like lightning, and his clothes were white as snow." (28:3)

Continuing the motif of snow representing the transcendent glory of God in heaven, the final book of the Bible sees the combined use of both fire and snow to attempt to convey an idea of what the glory of God looked and felt like to John as he was captured up in his remarkable vision. When reading this highly symbolic language, I am reminded of the words of Bruce Milne when he said that, in attempting to describe the divine essence, "human language is inevitably placed under considerable strain."

Let's leave John with the final words on this snowy day, focused on the Son of God:

I turned around to see the voice that was speaking to me. And when I turned I saw seven golden lamp stands, and among the lamp stands was someone like a son of man, dressed in a robe reaching down to his feet and with a golden sash around his chest. The hair on his head was white like wool, as white as snow, and his eyes were like blazing fire. His feet were like bronze glowing in a furnace, and his voice was like the sound of rushing waters. (Revelation 1:12-14)

Photo credit thisreidwrites 

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