Transformations? In the Bible?
by Sister Samantha Christian aka Raven Blackmane
For thousands of years, myths and legends of creatures being transformed from one thing into another have been part of human culture all over the world. From the werewolves of Europe to the Navajo skinwalkers and the kitsune of Japan, the idea of humans or animals being changed into something else seems to be as old as civilization itself.
Many of these legends have a strong religious component to them, appearing in the 'holy' texts of many false faiths. The Greek myths of Arachne, Actaeon and Lycaon are directly tied to the activities of their numerous gods and goddesses. Hindu legends tell of the nagas, snake-spirits that could take human form, and vidhyadharas, heavenly magicians who could transform themselves at will. Even the relatively young religion of Islam carries a belief in transformations: several ancient commentaries on the Koran contain references to people who displeased Allah and were transformed into monkeys, pigs or other beasts as a punishment for their wickedness (e.g., see Sunan Abu Dawud 27/3786 and Bukhari 7/494B).
Believers may not find it unusual that such fantastic stories are found among the false religions of the world. Some of these stories may simply be parables used to teach an important lesson, and would not be considered true even by the followers of those religions. But even if the stories do claim to be true, it should not surprise us very much; after all, these religions ultimately come from the devil, whom our Lord tells us "is a liar and the father of lies" (John 8:44, NIV). Stories of 'real' transformations deserve little regard when they come from such a disreputable source.
For we in the First Church of Christ, Theriomorph, however, it may seem depressing that all the really 'good' transformation stories come from blatantly fictional or obviously false sources. Those believers who dream of running with wolves or flying with eagles might wonder if there is any hope that transformation is anything more than an empty human fantasy.
Fear not, brothers and sisters: while the Christian faith is not home to the frivolous tales of Greek or Hindu mythology, there is yet some hope within the pages of God's Word that these bodies of ours will not remain permanently immutable!
The Madness of King Nebuchadnezzar
One of the most striking accounts of transformation in the Bible comes not as a reward, but as a judgment. In the fourth chapter of the Book of Daniel, the prophet records a letter written by Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, to his subjects. At this point in history the Jewish people were in exile within the Babylonian Empire, which had conquered Judah when Daniel was only a young man. As a member of the nobility, Daniel was taken and trained by the Babylonians according to their own customs, in hopes of making him into a faithful servant of the empire. Daniel kept his faith in God but still rose quickly through the ranks of Nebuchadnezzar's court, for God had given him the gift of prophecy and his skill in interpreting dreams and visions was highly valuable to the Babylonian king.
In chapter 4, Nebuchadnezzar describes one such dream that Daniel had interpreted, a warning from the Most High God that Nebuchadnezzar would be humbled if he failed to renounce his wickedness and his oppression of his subjects. Nebuchadnezzar seemingly gave little heed to the warning, as the story picks up a year later:
Twelve months later, as the king was walking on the roof of the royal palace in Babylon, he said, "Is this not the great Babylon that I have built as the royal residence, by my mighty power and for the glory of my majesty?"
The words were still on his lips when a voice came from heaven: "This is what is decreed for you, King Nebuchadnezzar: Your royal authority has been taken from you. You will be driven away from people and will live with the wild animals; you will eat grass like cattle. Seven times will pass by for you until you acknowledge that the Most High is sovereign over the kingdoms of men and gives them to anyone he wishes."
Immediately what had been said about Nebuchadnezzar was fulfilled. He was driven away from people and ate grass like cattle. His body was drenched with the dew of heaven until his hair grew like the feathers of an eagle and his nails like the claws of a bird.
At the end of that time, I, Nebuchadnezzar, raised by eyes toward heaven, and my sanity was restored. Then I praised the Most High; I honored and glorified him who lives forever.
... At the same time that my sanity was restored, my honor and splendor were returned to me for the glory of my kingdom. My advisors and nobles sought me out, and I was restored to my throne and became even greater than before. Now I, Nebuchadnezzar, praise and exalt and glorify the King of heaven, because everything he does is right and all his ways are just. And those who walk in pride he is able to humble. (Daniel 4:29-34b, 36-37, NIV)
At first glance, this story might seem to be nothing more than an account of temporary insanity -- an impressive judgment on a powerful king, no doubt, but not a compelling case of physical transformation. What is interesting here, though, is the account that Nebuchadnezzar "ate grass like cattle" (v. 33). It is well-known that human beings are physically incapable of living on grass: we cannot digest the cellulose that makes up most of its tissue, and the large amount of silica (sand) found in the leaves is actually harmful to us. For Nebuchadnezzar to actually survive eating grass for seven "times" (whether this refers to months or years is unclear), God would have to have physically altered his digestive system, making it more like the bodies of cattle or sheep. The reference to Nebuchadnezzar growing "nails like the claws of a bird" further reinforces the image that God had changed him into something truly bestial.
For theriomorphic believers, of course, this is hardly a flattering image. We would certainly hope that any transformation we might someday undergo will be a reward or a blessing, rather than the act of judgment experienced by Nebuchadnezzar. Fortunately, the New Testament gives us hints of another transformation to come -- the greatest transformation of them all.
"The Likeness of the Man from Heaven"
One truth that is reaffirmed throughout the New Testament is that the bodies we enjoy in the eternal life to come will not be the same as the bodies we have in our mortal life on this earth. In his last week in Jerusalem before his crucifixion, Jesus told the Sadducees,
"The people of this age marry and are given in marriage. But those who are considered worthy of taking part in that age and in the resurrection from the dead will neither marry nor be given in marriage, and they can no longer die; for they are like the angels. They are God's children, since they are children of the resurrection." (Luke 20:34-36, NIV)
Likewise, Paul reassures the Corinthians about the nature of the life to come:
But someone may ask, "How are the dead raised? With what kind of body will they come?" ... All flesh is not the same: Men have one kind of flesh, animals have another, birds another and fish another. There are also heavenly bodies and there are earthly bodies; but the splendor of the heavenly bodies is one kind, and the splendor of the earthly bodies is another...
If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual body. So it is written: "The first man Adam became a living being": the last Adam, a life-giving spirit... As was the earthly man, so are those who are of the earth; and as is the man from heaven, so also are those who are of heaven. And just as we have borne the likeness of the earthly man, so shall we bear the likeness of the man from heaven. (1 Corinthians 15:33, 39-40, 44b-45, 48-49)
So we have two promises here: our heavenly bodies will be like the angels, and they will also be like the resurrected body of Christ, whom Paul calls the "last Adam" and "the man from heaven". What does this mean? What special abilities and features do these "heavenly bodies" possess?
The first, and most obvious, trait of these bodies is that they are eternal and undying. This is certainly the greatest promise we have to look forward to, for the resurrected believer need never fear death again. We will find in our heavenly bodies a fulfillment and satisfaction that we have been longing for all our lives: "For while we are in this tent [that is, our mortal bodies] , we groan and are burdened, because we do not wish to be unclothed [that is, a bodiless spirit] but to be clothed with our heavenly dwelling [that is, our heavenly bodies], so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life" (2 Corinthians 5:4, NIV).
A second trait is hinted at in Jesus' remark that the resurrected saints will neither marry nor be given in marriage, "for they are like the angels". Our best understanding is that angels are not bound to either male or female identities when they are in Heaven, but they assume whatever appearance is best suited to the missions for which they are sent to earth. Here we find hope for our brothers and sisters who "groan and are burdened" with the terrible weight of gender dysphoria, the feeling of having been born to the wrong sex; for in Heaven, it seems that they will be able to take on male or female form as they desire, finding peace at last between their inner selves and their outward appearance.
Indeed, we can see in the Bible that the appearance of angels is far more mutable than we might have dreamed. Consider the following visions of angels recorded by a number of prophets throughout history:
In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord seated on a throne, high and exalted, and the train of his robe filled the temple. Above him were seraphs, each with six wings: With two wings they covered their faces, and with two they covered their feet, and with two they were flying. (Isaiah 6:1-2, NIV)
...and in the fire was what looked like four living creatures. In appearance their form was that of a man, but each of them had four faces and four wings. Their legs were straight; their feet were like those of a calf and gleamed like burnished bronze. Under their wings on their four sides they had the hands of a man. All four of them had faces and wings, and their wings touched one another. Each one went straight ahead; they did not turn as they moved. 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. (Ezekiel 1:5-10, NIV)
I looked up and there before me was a man dressed in linen, with a belt of the finest gold around his waist. His body was like chrysolite, his face like lightning, his eyes like flaming torches, his arms and legs like the gleam of burnished bronze, and his voice like the sound of a multitude. (Daniel 10:5-6, NIV)
In the center, around the throne, were four living creatures, and they were covered with eyes, in front and in back. The first living creature was like a lion, the second was like an ox, the third had a face like a man, and the fourth was like a flying eagle. Each of the four living creatures had six wings and was covered with eyes all around, even under his wings. (Revelation 4:6b-8a, NIV)
We can also see that there is mutability in the form of the resurrected Christ himself, for in Revelation the apostle John sees him in the form of a Man (1:12-18) and a Lamb (5:6), and he is also referred to by the angels as "the Lion of the tribe of Judah" (5:5).
If our heavenly bodies are going to be like those of the angels and the risen Christ, imagine the wonders that await us! Imagine how easily we will be able to take on new forms with which to explore the "new heaven and a new earth" (Revelation 21:1) that God is creating for us. We have a promise that the storytellers of ancient Greece and India could not have dreamed of: physical bodies that transcend physical laws, flesh unbound by the strictures of sex or species and freed from the lingering curse of death. How truly did Paul say that "our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us" (Romans 8:18, NIV)! Let us therefore, brothers and sisters, be confident in following Paul's example:
Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal. (2 Corinthians 4:16-18, NIV)
And what is unseen is the fulfillment of God's promise -- the greatest transformation of them all.