The Lion, the Spider, and the Image of God
by Mike Clifford
Given the second commandment, not to make an idol in the form of any creature, it is perhaps surprising that throughout the Bible, a metaphorical menagerie of creatures is used to describe characteristics of God. We are probably familiar with references to the Lion of Judah (Revelation 5:5), and to the Lamb of God (John 1:29), but God is also likened to an eagle (Deut 32:11), to a mother bear (Hosea 13:8), to a hen (Matthew 23:37), to a wild ox (Numbers 23:22), to a lurking leopard (Hosea 13:7), and even to a moth (Hosea 5:12). It is difficult to imagine how these surprisingly divergent metaphors could describe anyone, apart perhaps from an indescribable God.
The multi-faceted nature of God is reflected in the splendor and diversity of creation. God’s portfolio, marvelously outlined in Job 38-41, contains creatures of beauty, creatures of strength, creatures with cunning, creatures with wisdom, creatures that express joy and laughter, and creatures that are truly terrifying. Some of these attributes are comforting and find ample expression in the lyrics of contemporary worship song writers. Other characteristics scan less well, but are essential to ponder if we are to catch a glimpse of the image of God.
As an engineer, my interaction with the natural world has been somewhat limited, but recently I have been involved in two projects with animals at their heart. The first came about through a chance meeting with a colleague from Biological Science who is passionate about spiders. To avoid any embarrassment, I won’t name her, but between you and me, she even looks a bit like an arachnid, with long, thin, jointed limbs and wide-open shiny eyes (although to reassure readers, she does only possess half of a spider’s two pairs of eyes!) Her enthusiasm for these creatures bubbles out into many spider stories, like the diving bell spider that trap bubbles of air in diving bell webs. These webs are semi-permeable and allow oxygen to diffuse into the bell from the surrounding water, whereas carbon dioxide diffuses outwards. Then there’s the spider that will allow a certain type of ant to escape from its web rather than try to eat it, because ant vs spider is a 50/50 duel to the death, so trying to eat these ants isn’t worth the risk. No one knows how this behaviour is passed on to future generations. The project I have been involved with has been in testing the mechanical strength of the silk spun by spiders, specifically tarantulas. It’s an often repeated claim that some spider silks are stronger than steel (per unit mass), with a much higher strain to failure, but to date most tests have been carried out on silk from the orb weaver spider, hence the interest in tarantula silk. Results to date have been encouraging, and we also have some impressive images of the silk under an electron microscope.
The second project to mention is one I came across on a recent visit to Zambia, where I had a meeting with David Youldon from an organisation called “Lion Alert” whose aim is to reintroduce lions into the wild across several African countries. My interest in the project was in the means by which Lion Alert are trying to persuading villagers to set aside areas of the forest for the wildlife. Currently the villagers collect firewood from the area where the lions are hopefully to be resettled, but David is working with the local community to introduce fuel-efficient stoves which require less firewood than cooking on open “three-stone” traditional campfires. So, if all goes to plan, the villagers will get safer, fuel-efficient stoves, which enables women and children to spend less time collecting firewood and the lions will get a place of their own.
I’d hoped to have seen some lions on my visit, but when I called by, they were being taken for a walk by their handlers. As I talked with David, my attention was diverted by the arrival of two wild elephants who wandered through the compound at will. The excitement and uncertainty of encountering animals in the wild can be like our relationship with God - a sentiment expressed by C.S. Lewis in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe when speaking of Aslan: “He'll be coming and going" he had said. "One day you'll see him and another you won't. He doesn't like being tied down—and of course he has other countries to attend to. It's quite all right. He'll often drop in. Only you mustn't press him. He's wild, you know. Not like a tame lion.”
Mike Clifford is an Associate Professor in the Faculty of Engineering at the University of Nottingham. His research interests are in combustion, biomass briquetting, cookstove design and other appropriate technologies. He has published over 80 refereed conference and journal publications and has contributed chapters to books on composites processing and on appropriate and sustainable technologies.
In 2009, he was voted "engineering lecturer of the year" by the Higher Education Academy's Engineering Subject Centre for his innovative teaching methods involving costume, drama, poetry and storytelling.