Contemporary critical discourse doesn't seem to focus as much on essentialist definitions of beauty as it might have a century ago. This is the effect of the relativism that has taken hold of all theoretical discourse in the postmodern era. All is in the eye of the beholder. Contemporary critics are more likely to focus on the power dynamics underlying any given definition than what the meaning of the term itself is. Beauty thus becomes a matter of who decides what is beautiful and who or what holds power in a given society rather than what beauty actually might be, if there is such a thing at all. Beauty, thus, is considered to have no meaning outside of the power dynamics in which it is defined.
Discussions of the meaning of beauty, however, go back millenia to periods long before critics decided that there was no meaning outside of a given cultural moment. The discussion probably routes all the way back to the dawn of man--but certainly to at least the Greeks. A century ago, Leo Tolstoy defined beauty as an emotional response, as that which elicits feeling. Matthew Arnold equated beauty with truth when he stated the "truth is beauty." Plotinus, the Greek philosopher, felt that beauty rested in how closely a "form"--one of Plato's shadows in the cave--conformed to the perfection residing in the "One." For contemporaries, more used to Christian discourse, we might equate this Plotinusian ideal to how well a physical thing conforms to the spiritual, heavenly, or Godlike.
My own recent desire to explore the subject of beauty in more fullness stemmed from a sermon I heard about ten years ago. In that sermon the preacher, attempting to delineate false doctrine from true, referenced essentially the same definition that Matthew Arnold gave: truth is beauty. But Arnold's words are not the words of God. In fact, the Bible points to several instances where truth most certainly does not equate to beauty. Most prominent among these involves the Saviour himself. In Isaiah 53:2-3, prophecy refers to the Messiah as being one who "hath no form nor comeliness; and when we shall see him, there is no beauty that we should desire him. He is despised and rejected of men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief: and we hid as it were our faces him; he was despised, and we esteemed him not." Matthew 26:48 would seem to confirm that, so far as physical looks are concerned, Jesus Christ was not one who stood out from the crowd. Here, Judas had to provide a sign so that others would recognize Jesus: "Whomsoever I shall kiss, that same is he." Yet, even though Christ was not a man with movie-star good looks, scripture says he was "the truth" (John 14:6).
In sharp contrast to Christ's plainness, some beautiful things in the scripture are denoted as possessing the opposite of truth. Among these would be Satan himself. Ezekiel 28:12-15 and 17 describes a creature
perfect in beauty[, having] been in Eden the garden of God; every precious stone was [his] covering, the sardius, topaz, and the diamond, the beryl, the onyx, and the jasper, the sapphire, the emerald, and the carbuncle, and gold: the workmanship of [his] tabrets and of [his] pipes was prepared in [him] in the day that [he] wast created. [He is] the anointed cherub that covereth; and [God] set [him] so: [he] wast upon the holy mountain of God. . . . [He] wast perfect in [his] ways from the day that [he] wast created, till iniquity was found in [him]. . . . [His] heart was lifted up because of [his] beauty, [he] hast corrupted [his] wisdom by reason of [his] brightness.
This fallen cherub of the Garden of Eden was none other than Satan, "a liar, and the father of it" (John 8:44), who "is transformed into an angel of light" and whose "ministers also be transformed as the ministers of righteousness" (2 Cor. 11:14-15).
If beauty then can be deceitful and not necessarily align with truth, what exactly is the biblical definition of beauty? What might the Bible be able to teach us about aesthetics, and more specifically, about God's aesthetics? The answer, on some level, may be somewhat surprising, for the Bible does not relegate beauty to some wholly spiritual level. Rather, the Bible espouses chiefly a dual set of beauties, both posed as good gifts from God--one physical and temporal, the other spiritual and eternal.
Of particular importance to any discussion of the biblical usage of the term beauty is the fact that the term itself is English. The biblical usage is a translation from either Hebrew or Greek. In the New Testament the term has an almost one-to-one correspondence between English and Greek. The word beauty is almost always translated from one Greek term, and that one Greek term is, in turn, almost always translated to the English word beauty. The situation in the Old Testament, coming from the Hebrew, however, is much more complex. There, the English term translated beauty derives from a variety of Hebrew words, which in turn are translated into English variously by such terms as fair, comely, well-favoured, glory, goodly, bravery, honour, ornament, and countenance. Hence, to get a full grasp on the Bible's concept of "beauty," one must also look at the various Hebrew words from which the English translation derives, no matter the eventual English term used. One thing consistent among most of the Hebrew originals, however, is the preponderance of words relating to appearance. Thus it is safe to say that beauty chiefly relates to how something looks.
That said, scripture does occasionally use the term beauty to refer to things that do not directly relate to appearance. Sometimes beauty is used in conjunction with such concepts as age, wisdom, righteousness, or health. Proverbs 20:29, for example, talks of "the beauty of old men [being] the gray head," quite in contrast to most other scriptural references, which, as we shall see, ascribe physical beauty to the young. Proverbs 4:9 talks of wisdom giving one's head "an ornament of grace: a crown of glory," the term glory here coming from a Hebrew word often translated beauty. Proverbs 16:31 states that "[t]he hoary head is a crown of glory [i.e., beauty], if it be found in the way of righteousness." As for health, in Genesis 41, Pharaoh has a dream of "ill favoured" and "wellfavoured kine" (v. 2, 4, 18). Joseph translates these "wellfavoured kine" as a representation of seven years of plenty. The term "wellfavoured" comes from a Hebrew word often translated beauty. Similarly the English translation of Daniel 8:9 uses the term "pleasant"--again from a Hebrew word often translated beauty--to describe the holy land.
The vast majority of scriptures, however, use the term beauty--and the words from the Hebrew often translated as such--in reference to a superficial appearance. References to beautiful-looking people abound in the Bible, especially in the Old Testament. In Genesis 29:17, for example, Jacob's love interest Rachel is called "beautiful and wellfavoured." David is noted as having a "beautiful countenance" in 1 Samuel 16:12. So too is his future wife Abigail (1 Sam. 25:3). Another wife of David, Bathsheba, is described as being "very beautiful to look upon" (2 Sam. 11:2). Absalom, David's son, is "praised . . . for his beauty: [because] from the sole of his foot even to the crown of his head there was no blemish in him" (2 Sam. 14:25). In Esther 1:11, Ahasuerus calls Queen Vashti "to show the people and the princes her beauty: for she was fair to look on." Esther, the woman who replaces Vashti as queen, is also described as "fair and beautiful" (Esth. 2:7).
The tie between beauty and external appearance, however, is probably most clear in an example from the New Testament. In Matthew 23, Jesus Christ rails against the Pharisees for their various ill doings. One of those is hypocrisy. In verse 27, Christ makes the following accusation: "Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye are like unto white sepulchres, which indeed appear beautiful outward, but are within full of dead men's bones, and of all uncleanness." Here, a people's external beauty is contrasted with that same people's internal nature.
This concern with the external when referencing beauty is further emphasized in scriptural allusions to jewels or clothing. Many passages connect adornment to how beautiful a person or thing appears to others. This nice appearance often hints at the internal quality of the person or thing but often also stands in contrast to the internal aspects of such a person or thing. God purposely "garnishes" his temple--his "house"--for example, "with precious stones for beauty: and . . . gold" (2 Chron. 3:6). Even the priests who serve him are commanded to wear "holy garments . . . for glory and for beauty" (Ex. 28:2). People, too, can wear clothing or jewelrey that makes them appear more attractive on the outside and that also hints at an attractiveness on the inside. In Song of Solomon, for example, the fair woman at the center of the narrative is said to have "cheeks . . . comely with rows of jewels, [and a] neck with chains of gold" (Sol. 1:10).
But beautiful adornment need not hint at a high quality inside that which dons it. In Isaiah 3:18-20, God tells the people of Israel that he will "take away the bravery of their tinkling ornaments about their feet, and their cauls, and their round tires like the moon, The chains, and the bracelets, and the mufflers, The bonnets, and the ornaments of the legs, and the headbands, and the tablets, and the earrings." All these jewels that Israel wears, God says, are not deserved. The nation may appear beautiful to the others on the outside but inside is anything but. Note that the word ornament used here in Isaiah is translated as beauty in other scriptures. References to the adornment and corresponding beauty of Israel play an important role throughout the Old Testament. In fact, Israel's beauty is, in large part, credited to the outerwear that God provides the nation, as in Ezekiel 16:8-13:
Now when I passed by thee, and looked upon thee, behold, thy time was the time of love; and I spread my skirt over thee, and covered thy nakedness: yea, I sware unto thee, and entered into a covenant with thee, saith the Lord God, and thou becamest mine. Then washed I thee with water; yea, I thoroughly washed away this blood from thee, and I anointed thee with oil. I clothed thee also with broidered work, and shod thee with badgers' skin, and I girded thee about with fine linen, and I covered thee with silk. I decked thee also with ornaments, and I put bracelets upon thy hands, and a chain on thy neck. And I put a jewel on thy forehead, and earrings in thine ears, and a beautiful crown upon thine head. Thus wast thou decked with gold and silver; and thy raiment was of fine linen, and silk, and broidered work; and oil: and thou was exceeding beautiful, and thou didst prosper into a kingdom.
The fact that it was God who adorned Israel with such beauty raises an important point, namely, that throughout the Bible God himself is noted as being beautiful and as being the source of beauty for all physical things. Indeed, beauty is a gift from God. That God is beautiful is referenced throughout scripture. In Psalm 27:4, David requests to "behold the beauty of the Lord." Zechariah 9:17 notes "how great is [God's] beauty!" Multiple other scriptures talk of "the beauty of holiness," that essence of God in which people worship--see, for example, 1 Chronicles 16:29, 2 Chronicles 20:21, Psalm 29:2, and Psalm 96:9. Indeed, 1 Chronicles 29:11 states that God has "the greatness, and the power, and the glory, and the victory, and the majesty." These things are his, and one of these--glory--is, in fact, in other places in the Bible often translated beauty.
If beauty then belongs to God, it follows that anything proclaimed beautiful ultimately derives that quality from God. Job 40:9-10 states as much when God mocks Job by asking, "Hast thou an arm like God? or canst thou thunder with a voice like him? Deck thyself now with majesty and excellency; and array thyself with glory and beauty." Ecclesiastes 3:11 states that God "hath made every thing beautiful in his time." Psalm 96:6 says that "beauty [is] in [God's] sanctuary"--it belongs to him and is part of his domain. Hence, when Israel is described as beautiful in scripture, it owes that beauty to God. As God tells Israel in Ezekiel 16:14, "[T]hy renown went forth among the heathen for thy beauty: for it was perfect through my comeliness, which I had put upon thee."
The example of Israel, and the broader application of the term throughout scripture, shows that God's physical gift of beauty can be misused. The Bible is replete with references to people beautiful on the outside but rotten within. Proverbs 6:24-25, for instance, warns its readers to "keep [away] from the evil woman, from the flattery of the tongue of a strange woman. Lust not after her beauty in thine heart; neither let her take thee with her eyelids. For," as verse 26 makes plain, "by means of a whorish woman a man is brought to a piece of bread: and the adulteress will hunt for the precious life." A particularly apt example of this in practice appears in Judges 14-16, where the Israelite judge Samson is seduced multiple times by Philistine women who do not have his best interests at heart. In the end, Samson loses freedom, his sight, and ultimately his life.
Israel is also compared to a beautiful woman who uses her looks for wrong purposes, seducing others into her bed rather than her husband, God. In Jeremiah 11:16, God says that he once called Judah "[a] green olive tree, fair, and of goodly fruit." However, he accuses, "she hath wrought lewdness with many," and he asks, "What hath my beloved to do in mine house?" (v. 15). Ezekiel 16 plays with a similar trope. In verse 14, as already noted, God states that Israel's "renown went forth among the heathen for [her] beauty." However, verses 15 and 16 note disapprovingly what Israel did with that beauty: "But thou didst trust in thine own beauty, and playedst the harlot because of thy renown, and pouredst out thy fornications on every one that passed by; his it was. And of thy garments thou didst take, and deckedst thy high places with divers colours, and playedst the harlot thereupon." As a result, God notes in verse 25, Israel "hast made [her] beauty to be abhorred."
Just as beauty can be misused, because it is a gift from God, it can also be taken away. Throughout the Bible, physical beauty is stated to have specific period of time, and that period is fleeting. This is because beauty is "consume[d] in the grave," as noted in Psalm 49:14. Humankind's beauty, like humankind itself, "consume[s] away like a moth," says Psalm 39:11. These two scriptures serve in a sense as mirrors to one another. The term "beauty" in Psalm 39 is often translated from the Hebrew into English as desire. So while Psalm 49:14 talks of humans passing away, Psalm 39:11 in part is noting that even what those people admire passes away. For this reason, Solomon could write, in summing up the ideal woman in Proverbs 31:30, that "beauty is vain," especially in contrast to "fear[ing] the Lord," to character. So too, Israel's beauty is described as fleeting: "Woe to the crown of pride," writes Isaiah, "to the drunkards of Ephraim, whose glorious beauty is a fading flower. . . . And the glorious beauty, which is on the head of the fat valley, shall be a fading flower, and as the hasty fruit before the summer; which when he that looketh upon it seeth, while it is yet in his hand he eateth it up" (Is. 28:1, 4).
The fleeting nature of beauty for Israel, however, goes beyond the natural limitations of physical beauty, the wearing out of the physical body. For Israel, the removal of its beauty is also God's punishment for its misuse of God's gift. In Jeremiah 4:30, God asks Israel, "And when you art spoiled, what will thou do? Though thou clothest thyself with crimson, though thou deckest thee with ornaments of gold, though thou rentest thy face with painting, in vain shalt thou make thyself fair; thy lovers will despise thee, they will seek thy life." Here, Israel is compared to a person beyond prime; all the fancy clothing, jewelry, and makeup cannot hide the fact that beauty has passed away. Israel placed its trust in the wrong thing. In Ezekiel 16, we have seen how Israel was given its beauty by God, how it misused that beauty, and how Israel was to be abhorred for that misuse. Verse 39 of that same chapter talks of God's resulting punishment, expressed through a metaphor of removal of items used to make Israel beautiful: "[T]hey shall strip thee also of thy clothes, and shall take thy fair jewels, and leave thee naked and bare." Similar words are used in Ezekiel 7:20-21: "As for the beauty of his ornament, he set it in majesty: but they made the images of their abominations and of their detestable things therein: therefore have I set it far from them. And I will give it into the hands of the strangers for a prey, and to the wicked of the earth for a spoil; and they shall pollute it." Here, the beauty God gave Israel, which Israel misused, is taken away and given to others, who also misuse it. God replaces Israel's beauty with ugliness: "And it shall come to pass, that instead of sweet smell there shall be stink; and instead of a girdle a rent; and instead of well set hair baldness; and instead of a stomacher a girding of sackcloth; and burning instead of beauty" (Isa. 3:24).
And indeed, when Israel's, and more specifically Judah's, fall did occur, the same kind of language was used to express what had happened. The nation is compared to a woman who has lost her beauty and the ornaments that help to make her beautiful. "And from the daughter of Zion all her beauty is departed," Lamentations 1:6 reads. "How hath the Lord covered the daughter of Zion with a cloud in his anger, and cast down from heaven unto earth the beauty of Israel, and remembered not his footstool in the day of his anger!" says Lamentations 2:1. Verse 15 of the same chapter notes how bystanders mock Israel: "All that pass by clap their hands at thee; they hiss and wag their head at the daughter of Jerusalem, saying, Is this the city that men call The perfection of beauty, The joy of the whole earth?" Isaiah 64:11 talks of the destruction of the temple also as a removal of beauty: "Our holy and our beautiful house, where our fathers praised thee, is burned up with fire: and all our pleasant things are laid waste."
However, not only is God the giver of temporal, physical beauty, which can also be removed by him, he is also the source of a more lasting spiritual and eternal beauty, which he promises to all who follow him, indeed, ultimately to Israel--this time, spiritual Israel--itself. Many scriptures talk of this beauty that God promises to his followers. This beauty is rooted, however, not in how humans perceive beauty but in how God perceives it. "Look not on his countenance," God tells Samuel when choosing a king for Israel, "or on the height of his stature; because I have refused him: for the Lord seeth not as man seeth; for man looketh on the outward appearance, but the Lord looketh on the heart" (1 Sam. 16:7). God's concept of ultimate beauty then has to do with what's inside rather than what's outside, because God sees what men can't. One might say that God has a kind of X-ray vision that penetrates past the mere surface level: this same kind of vision, in turn, is ultimately given to his own people. In Isaiah 33:17, we learn that God himself appears beautiful to those that follow him. Speaking of Judah's ultimate redemption by the Messiah, it reads, "Thine eyes shall see the king in his beauty." That same beauty is imposed on God's people through his rulership: "In that day shall the Lord of hosts be for a crown of glory," says Isaiah 28:5, "and for a diadem of beauty, unto the residue of his people." The ruler's beauty, in turn, becomes the beauty of the people themselves. As Psalm 90:17 states, "[L]et the beauty of the Lord our God be upon us: and establish thou the work of our hands upon us; yea, the work of our hands establish thou it."
This beauty then is established through the people doing God's work and, as we read in Psalm 149:4, through God's bestowing on those people his salvation: "For the Lord taketh pleasure in his people: he will beautify the meek with salvation." Ephesians 2:8 shows that this salvation comes by God's grace: "For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God." This grace, says Hebrews 10:12 and 14, is made possible through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ: "But this man, after he had offered one sacrifice for sins for ever, sat down on the right hand of God; . . . For by one offering he hath perfected for ever them that are sanctified." Romans 5:18-19 shows that this sacrifice was a free gift: "Therefore as by the offence of one judgment came upon all men to condemnation; even so by the righteousness of one the free gift came upon all men unto justification of life. For as by one man's disobedience many were made sinners, so by the obedience of one shall many be made righteous." Ultimately, no matter how much work a person does, he cannot make him- or herself beautiful in God's sight--former disobedience has already besmirched the person in God's sight; rather, it is Christ's beauty that is placed on the person through God's grace that a given believer takes on. Hence, as with physical beauty, spiritual beauty is a gift from God.
Just as Israel received its physical beauty from God, misused it, and had it withdrawn, so too Israel will have its beauty restored, though this second time it will be a more lasting spiritual beauty. We have already seen how, in Isaiah 3:24, God replaced Israel's beauty with its antithesis because of Israel's misuse of the gift. Isaiah 61:1-3, however, takes the story one step further, showing how God plans to replace the antithesis again with beauty:
The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me; because the Lord has appointed me to preach good tidings unto the meek; he hath sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to them that are bound; To proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all that mourn; To appoint unto them that mourn in Zion, to give unto them beauty for ashes, the oil of joy for mourning, the garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness; that they might be called trees of righteousness, the planting of the Lord, that he might be glorified.
Note that in Luke 4:18-19, Christ showed that he was the fulfillment of Isaiah 61. He came to preach "good tidings" and to proclaim "liberty to the captives" and the "year of the Lord." But he stopped his recitation of the scripture in verse 2; the rest of that verse (the vengeance) and verse 3, the beautifying of Israel, was yet to come.
This beautifying of Israel God will achieve through redemption of the nation. "Sing, O ye heavens," notes Isaiah 44:23, "for the Lord hath done it: shout, ye lower parts of the earth: break forth into singing, ye mountains, O forest, and every tree therein: for the Lord hath redeemed Jacob, and glorified himself in Israel." The word "glorified" here is translated "beautified" elsewhere in the Bible, as with the word "glory" used in the scriptures referenced throughout the last section of this study. As God bestows salvation on people and makes them beautiful or gloriful, so he will for Israel.
Israel, redeemed, will thus take on God's glory, or beauty. Indeed, they will be God's glory. "I bring near my righteousness," God notes in Isaiah 46:13; "it shall not be far off, and my salvation shall not tarry: and I will place salvation in Zion for Israel my glory." Similarly, in Isaiah 62:3, God says of Israel, "Thou shalt also be a crown of glory in the hand of the Lord, and a royal diadem in the hand of thy God." Beautiful again, Israel will grow, and people will want again to have a part with it, and with its beauty. "Behold," says Isaiah 55:5, "thou shalt call a nation that thou knowest not, and nations that knew not thee shall run unto thee because of the Lord thy God, and for the Holy One of Israel; for he hath glorified thee." "I will be as the dew unto Israel," God says of the future nation: "he shall grow as the lily, and cast forth his roots as Lebanon. His branches shall spread, and his beauty shall be as the olive tree, and his smell as Lebanon" (Hos. 14:5-6).
What, however, will make this new spiritual beauty more lasting than the physical beauty originally given to Israel? Indeed, what will make it "everlasting"? Unlike before, Israel will finally understand where beauty truly resides. In visiting a restored temple, Ezekiel is told to "show the house to the house of Israel, that they may be ashamed of their iniquities: and let them measure the pattern. And if they be ashamed of all that they have done, show them the form of the house, and the fashion thereof, and the goings out thereof, and the comings in thereof, and all the ordinances thereof, and all the forms thereof, and all the laws thereof: and write it in their sight, that they may keep the whole form thereof, and all the ordinances thereof, and do them" (Ezek. 43:10-11). The word "form" in this passage comes from a word often translated as "beauty." Israel will see the beauty of God's temple. (Indeed, God's church is that temple, as 1 Corinthians 3:16-17 and Ephesians 2:21 state.) And that beauty is tied up, as Ezekiel shows, with God's law, which Israel will finally keep. Or, as Hebrews 10:16-17 states, God "will put [his] laws into their hearts, and in their minds . . . And their sins and iniquities will [he] remember no more." Through obedience to God's law and through God's forgiveness (and forgetting) of prior sins, Israel will be made perfect--made beautiful--in Christ. Isaiah 61:3 will fully come to pass.
In a sense, then, perhaps Plotinus and Arnold weren't far from the truth when they provided their definitions of beauty. If beauty lies in God, and lasting beauty rests in how closely one resembles God, and God, in Christ, is truth, then beauty is truth, and beauty is that which conforms to the image of the heavenly. What's missing in both Plotinus's and Arnold's definitions, however, is an acknowledgment of the concrete rendering of that beauty, that truth, that perfection in the "One." Without such concreteness, one can easily fall into the trap of perceiving a falsehood--something corruptible--as beauty or of misusing beauty. To fully apprehend beauty, we must fall back on the scriptures, where God explains who he is and what he expects us to be like if we are to be everlastingly beautiful in his eyes.