Can you identify these four short excerpts? Each is found in the opening paragraph of a popular book.
“He was a big, beefy man with hardly any neck, although he did have a very large mustache. Mrs. Dursley was thin and blonde and had nearly twice the usual amount of neck…”
“His left arm was somewhat shorter than his right; when he stood or walked, the back of his hand was at right angles to his body, his thumb parallel to his thigh.”
“He wore a short jacket of brown corduroy, newer than the remainder of his suit, which was a fustian waist coat with white horn buttons, breeches of the same, tanned leggings and a straw hat overlaid with black glazed canvas.”
“Squinting at his surroundings he saw a plush Renaissance bedroom with Louis XVI furniture, hand-frescoed walls, and a colossal mahogany four-poster bed.”
Can you name each book? Actually, it doesn’t matter. As it happens the excerpts are from Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Mayor of Casterbridge and The Da Vinci Code. But I wasn’t really trying to give you a short quiz on 20th century popular fiction.
In fact, I wanted you to notice how important visual descriptions are in most books. Later in those four books, we discover how Professor Dumbledore looks and we find out how Atticus Finch, Michael Henchard and Robert Langdon look and dress. This is how most books are written. Such descriptions help the reader imagine the scenes and get to know the characters.
The conspicuous exception is the Bible. Do you have any idea of what Adam really looked like? Okay, Noah had a long white beard, right? But where did you get that idea? His facial description is not found in Genesis. The prophet Samuel wore a long purple robe? Actually, we have no idea. When he appeared before Pharaoh, Moses wore a pin-striped three-piece suit? Perhaps he did. We don’t have a clue. All I can tell you is that had the Bible been written by any of the authors I quoted above, we’d have been provided with detailed descriptions.
You might guess that the Bible is more concerned with inner truths and with the hearts and souls of its characters than with how they look. And you’d be right. That doesn’t mean that the Bible never mentions clothing or looks. When it does, the clothing or appearance has significance for the spiritual lessons that will emerge. Let’s look at five examples:
And the eyes of both of them were opened, and they knew that they were naked,
and they sewed fig leaves and made themselves coverings.
Rebecca took the valuable garments of Esau, her elder son,
which were with her in the house, and she dressed Jacob…
Leah’s eyes were tender, but Rachel had beautiful features
and a beautiful appearance….
And removing his signet ring from his hand, Pharaoh put it on Joseph’s hand; and he had him dressed in robes of fine linen, and put a gold chain about his neck.
And he sent and brought him [David], and he was reddish,
with beautiful eyes, and handsome appearance.
(I Samuel 16:12)
In each of the examples I offered, the clothing changes the status of the wearer. Adam and Eve betray their new erotic awareness; Jacob becomes Esau; Leah’s eyes relate to a prophecy and Rachel’s description reveals character traits ; The royal garments turn Joseph into someone his brothers cannot recognize. David is described in terms that predict his future triumphs as king and that link him to others similarly described, like Esau, Rachel and Esther.
It is worth paying special attention whenever Scripture provides a description of appearance or clothing. It’s never as simple as it seems and always points to a deep, inner truth.