Body Parts in the Bible

By JIM NICHOLS

For a biologist, one of the most rewarding aspects of the Bible is to find an illustration that fits our discipline of science. Clearly, the Bible is not a science book, but many of the images used have an obvious parallel. Written centuries ago, they are not sophisticated science, but are common language metaphors that make perfect sense even to a modern reader. 

Depending on how many sermons you have heard in your life, you have probably not escaped at least one based on Paul’s use of body parts in I Corinthians. In this perfectly reasonable picture, Paul makes the powerful point that the well-functioning community of Christ followers resembles a body of different parts with different responsibilities. No one part is more important than any other; they all depend on each other. Eyes cannot say to hands or feet, “I have no need of you.”

The body parts never really seem to get ranked, as such, with some preferable to others. However, there are comments on individual parts that are particularly instructive.

The “tongue” gets a lot of pointed emphasis. Various writers note that speech has power that is unexpectedly strong. Words we use can bless others or harm them. Particularly in the New Testament book of James, the emphasis on the tongue merits many comments. This passage is the focus of teachings that, as you and I know firsthand, contain descriptions of speech traps that we fall into daily. James’ famous illustration of ill-chosen words resembling sparks starting a forest fire needs no further elaboration. The Old Testament, especially Proverbs, also contains multiple references to the power of the tongue.

The anatomy part that has my particular attention today is an unlikely one, the feet. Certainly not glamourous despite pedicures, they are as functional as functional can be. Even though we cover them with shoes, they have a basic role of carrying us from one place to another. Scripture, as often happens however, gives feet a spiritual role in addition.

Early in Israel’s history Isaiah anticipates Christ’s redemption story by noting “. . . how beautiful are the feet of the messenger who announces peace, good news, and salvation.” Our introduction to John the Baptist includes his description that there was one coming after him (Jesus) who would bring blessings and responsibilities greater than his own. John says he is not even worthy to untie the sandals on Jesus’ feet. 

Sandals are open to the dust of the roads. Because of that, washing of feet was a physical necessity. Again, something physically simple was given a spiritual value. The physical act became an act of appreciation, of honor, even of reverence. 

In anticipation of Christ’s crucifixion and burial, Luke records an episode of a woman anointing his feet with a costly ointment and washing them with her tears and drying them with her own hair. Jesus takes this opportunity for a powerful lesson on forgiveness. Those others at the table remark that Jesus seems to have the authority even to forgive sins.

At what we call the Last Supper, a centerpiece of the activity is Jesus washing the feet of the disciples and using it as an object lesson as to how they should subject themselves to one another. As is his nature, the apostle Peter expresses reluctance to this teaching and is mildly rebuked by Jesus.

Most striking to me from a practical point of view, however, is the plethora of scripture speaking of the necessity of feet for stability. On face value they are speaking of physical stability, but spiritual stability is clearly taught. Beginning in the early books, there are repeated requests to God to give the writer a “. . . wide place for my steps so I do not slip.” There are requests for a “wide place” to set my feet, a “broad place or rock” to allow me to stand so I do not stumble. The idea of “slipping feet” seems a teachable item for the early readers and remains for us. More than once, the writer asks for the “feet of a deer” so that stumbling can be avoided.

Apparently, the spiritual rocks around us are slippery. We have received many cautions to make sure where our feet are planted and what direction they are taking us.

Jim Nichols is a retired Abilene Christian University biology professor and current medical chaplain

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