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Biblical Beasts: Eagle

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

The image of an eagle in flight is one that strikes us with both its power and its gracefulness: there is a certain sense of effortless superiority. The significance of this image has not been lost on the many peoples of the world for whom the eagle was a symbol of power and authority: not only the Romans and their European successors, but also the Persians, Egyptians and Ottomans used it as a symbol of political or military power.

In the Old Testament, too, we frequently find the eagle used as an image. It symbolises speed and suddenness (e.g Lam 4: 1; Job 9: 26; Deut 28: 49), but also safety and freedom from persecution: the eagle is seen as being free from predators because it can fly higher than anything that might attack it or its young. This is the image we find in the well-known passage in Deuteronomy, where we hear of the Lord’s care for his people Israel: ‘Like an eagle that stirs up its nest, that flutters over its young, spreading out its wings, catching them, bearing them on its pinions the Lord alone did lead him’ (Deut 32: 11-12).

Thus, for the people of Israel, too, as for the Romans and others, the eagle is a symbol of power; however, it does not represent any kind of human power, to which there will always be limits. Rather, the seemingly limitless height of the eagle’s flight, its grace combined with its great strength, pointed them to the Lord their God.

The image of an eagle is also found in the apocalyptic prophecies of Ezekiel (e.g. 1: 10), Daniel (e.g. 7: 4) and the Apocalypse (e.g. 4: 7), as one of the four faces of the living creatures shown to them: these visions have been applied in Christian tradition to the four evangelists who mediate the Word of God, and it is striking that in this context too it is the unbounded flight of the eagle which is significant. For the eagle is associated with St John, whose Gospel, like the soaring flight of the eagle, points our minds heavenward, to the mystery of God himself.

Gregory Pearson OP


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