Include a dog in a formal family portrait? Most Africans would find it ludicrous. They view dogs and cats as utilitarian beasts who hunt both large game, and small—mice!
Endearing tales they tell, however, about animals display their appreciation and knowledge of furred and feathered creatures. The antics of Brer Rabbit and Brer Fox in stories we read by Uncle Remus originated long ago on the African continent. Evenings in an African village, seated around a crackling fire, beg for entertainment. Storytellers move to the limelight and delight us with hilarious accounts:
One day Goat, Sheep and Dog decide to visit their relatives in a far away village. They take a bush taxi and, arriving in the village, Goat jumps out without paying and runs into the bush. Sheep, an honest type, pays his fare. Dog also pays, but the taxi driver, not having the correct change, leaves without reimbursing him.
Today when you drive down the road, you need not fear hitting a goat because he will always run off quickly to the side, fearing you are after him to pay his fare. The dog will follow you and bark, demanding his change. But watch out for the sheep! He’ll not budge from the middle of the road even if you honk, for having paid his fare, he knows he owes you nothing!
These critters surprise us with their human characteristics. Indeed, the tale points to human foibles as well as strengths. We laugh at ourselves and then muse over the wise counsel embedded in the story. Stubborn as a mule. Sly as a fox. Proud as a peacock. Strong as an ox. Quiet as a mouse. Character traits expressed in English similes often involve animals: we call sheep dumb; lions, majestic; and beavers, busy. Such comparisons exist in many languages. The animals’ characteristics become models for human attributes all peoples can understand, creating a kind of universal language. Did God purposely create a variety of animals whose traits illustrate His message?
The Bible is full of these animal pictures:
Matthew 10:16 “I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves.”
Hosea 8:9 “For they have gone up to Assyria like a wild donkey wandering alone. Ephraim has sold herself to lovers.”
Psalm 32:9 “Do not be like the horse or the mule, which have no understanding but must be controlled by bit and bridle or they will not come to you.”
Obadiah 1:4 “Though you soar like the eagle and make your nest among the stars, from there I will bring you down," declares the LORD.”
Why does God, in His Word, use familiar traits of animals to describe man’s behavior? Many people understand Winston Churchill as a picture of strength and determination, or Gandhi, as one of patience and persistence. But not all peoples for all time will know the attributes of these men. The traits of ubiquitous animals fill the bill for our world village. You watch the animal and you understand its distinctive character.
Such characters are beautifully etched in a charming book, The Creatures’ Choir by Carmen Bernos de Gasztold (translated into English by Rumer Godden). The author, a French woman, gives voice to over twenty-five animals who pray to the Lord. Each song-poem reflects the animal’s character. Toad bemoans his ugliness and yet offers his melancholy chant, with love, to God. Bear tells how he loves honey and how good he is at climbing trees. He excuses his gruffness because men put him in a cage or make him dance. And so, he asks God’s protection from hunters.
Peacock struts, displaying his handsome plumage, but regrets his “discordant cry.” He wonders why the Creator did not give him the voice of a nightingale. He pleads, “Lord, / let a day come, / a heavenly day, / when my inner and outer selves / will be reconciled / in perfect harmony. / Amen.”
Indeed, in literature, animals display human characteristics. And people sometimes display animal traits. Lest this offend, note that since the second century, each of the four New Testament Evangelists was paired with a character, a symbol, some of which are animals. These symbols did not reflect the character of the writer, but of his writing. Ezekiel 1:10 provided the “four living symbols:”
Their faces looked like this: Each of the four had the face of a man, and on the right side each had the face of a lion, and on the left the face of an ox; each also had the face of an eagle (NIV).
Matthew’s symbol is a winged human being because his Gospel begins with the genealogy of Jesus. Mark’s symbol is a roaring lion for he writes of John the Baptist “the voice of one crying in the wilderness.” A winged ox symbolizes Luke as his Gospel begins with a sacrifice by Zechariah the priest. Eagles soar in the heavenlies, the very source of the “Word,” hence the eagle symbol for the Evangelist John. These symbols, tucked into corners of many ancient, beautiful paintings, identify the man.
Is there a special symbol that identifies each of our own lives? Something remarkable happens at every memorial service for departed friends. The pastor eulogizes, the best friend speaks, the spouse and the children share and the microphone is passed around to the guests. Amazingly, the joys and the trials of this beloved’s life melt down into one golden nugget of character, shining brighter than all the others.
One man is known for his cheerful smile and willing spirit to repair appliances. Another is known for his gentleman-like ways as he boldly pioneered in opening many countries to the work of Bible translation. A woman is the epitome of the thoughtful hostess. Surprisingly, it is not the grand achievements that are enumerated, but the sterling qualities of love, kindness and sweetness that touched hearts.
It makes you wonder—were each of us created to especially reflect one of God’s beautiful characteristics to the world? What little symbol would the painter tuck into the corner of a formal portrait of me?