The expression “(s)he has clay feet”, although perhaps not so well recognized as it used to be, is still understood to refer to someone who, under the appearance of glamour, glitz, control, wealth, power, etc., has some serious flaws, usually kept as hidden as possible.
Every normal person knows they are flawed. Looking in the mirror in the morning can show that easily enough at one level. But the delusion is much more problematic when it comes to the more serious matters of character and psyche. We can shield our physical shortcomings when we doctor our faces, perfume our bodies, get plastic surgery, and hide ourselves inside some clothing. The other flaws will sooner or later jump out of our mouths and flash into view in our behaviour, despite our best attempts to repress them.
Having clay feet is actually one of those sayings based on Biblical imagery that has somehow lingered in the language and culture despite the alienation of our society and culture from its long-time Biblical underpinnings. Kudos to anyone who actually knows what Biblical story it stems from! (I’ll add that tidbit at the end of this article in case you don’t know or remember.)
Incidentally, even if you don’t hold the Bible in any great esteem as a holy book, it’s still an amazing source of imagery and insight into fundamental human nature, not to mention history and some incredibly good stories which have provided fodder and inspiration for millennia to writers and thinkers across the world. To the objection that the less well-informed often make that it is not a reliable source for history and is full of super-inflated legends and myths that have been used to deceive and oppress people, they simply don’t know the book at all. My suggestion to anyone in that boat is, “Try reading it for a while, just as literature, setting aside your ideological bias, and then criticize it with a modicum of civility and balance.”
Now back to the clay feet idea.
The truth about the “legendary” and “mythological” heroes and heroines in the Bible is that they just don’t measure up to the standard notions of hagiography. Biblical saints are very human, and sometimes not very likable. They certainly did not walk around in a cloud of radiance and haloed goodness. A few examples will suffice to demonstrate this.
Abraham is held up in both the Hebrew and Greek Scriptures as the great model of unshakeable faith and upright character to be emulated by true disciples. He is the founder of the “Chosen People” of Israel, and the great example of faith-based salvation in the New Testament Apostolic writings. But Abraham had “clay feet”. He lied about his (first) wife – twice!! – and let two monarchs add her to their harems because of fear that the King would kill him to have her. Perhaps ashamed of his previous treatment of Sarah, he gave in to her and disowned his first son by her maid and his concubine when Sarah became jealous of he own maid and the status of her surrogate son, Ishmael, above her own son, Isaac, miraculously born long after menopause.
Jacob, Abraham’s grandson through Isaac and father of the twelve “Patriarchs”, was a liar, deceiver, and conniver who cheated his brother Esau out of his birthright and a good part of his inheritance. (Seems as if the internal family rivalries were passed from generation to generation.)
King David, slayer of the nasty giant Goliath, the great model of “a man after God’s own heart”, writer of half the Book of Psalms, was an adulterer, murderer, absentee and rather poor father, and a multiple polygamist who disregarded the admonitions about Israel’s King not amassing wives and wealth or relying on massive military power.
King Solomon, David’s heir, builder of the First (magnificent) Temple to Yahweh, and the reputed “wisest and richest man in the world” in his time, exponentially exceeded his father in amassing excess wives, horses, chariots, and splendid displays of his prowess as a ruler. He taxed his people into poverty, and reintroduced idolatry and various other forbidden occult practices into Israel. He compounded all this by murdering most of his half-brothers to consolidate his throne and doing away with another batch of David’s former foes, sometimes in obedience to David’s (so much for David`s vaunted clemency in his lifetime!) death-bed wishes.
In the New Testament, we find some pretty glaring weaknesses among the disciples of Jesus. Two examples of the most prominent will suffice. Peter suffered from “foot-in-mouth” disease and a tendency to try to play both sides of the road in his leadership, thus creating ambivalence in settling some pretty important questions among early believers. Paul, the greatest evangelist among the Apostles and certainly the first and greatest theologian among them, had a fiery temper and quarrelsome disposition mixed with a fanatical streak which held on from his days as an uber-Pharisee. He was also an accessory to murder in his pre-Christian days.
This is a very short list of such examples. Of course, I am only citing negative examples of things these people did. Obviously, they also did enormously important positive things or they would not be part of the story of God reaching out to the human race to bring restoration, reconciliation, and ultimate redemption.
The point is that the Bible is unlike any other sacred literature. The forty or so human writers who contributed to it did not edit out all the nasty bits about our ancestors in faith so we would have only a rarefied, superhuman portrait of them. We are intended to see them “warts and all” so that we can realize that, if they are “saints” despite all that stuff, so can we be and, if we are in relationship with God through Jesus, the ultimate answer to our human brokenness, we already are saints. “Saint” just means set apart to God, for God, for the Creator to mold into a true image-bearer and to participate in the bringing and building of the Kingdom of God here and now, in preparation for what it finally will be, without all the warts and failures.
It is really a message and picture of great hope we are seeing, not a depressing tale of inevitable human sin and failure. Destiny and Fate are not what we face, as per the hopeless picture given in ancient paganism and even some modern religious and philosophical ideologies.
As the Apostle Paul, a certainly “clay-footed” man Jesus chose anyway do more church-planting and Kingdom-building than anyone else of that time, put it, “Oh, Death, where is you victory? Oh, Death, where is your sting? Death has been swallowed up in victory,” because of and through the resurrection of Yeshua/Jesus!
Oh, yes! That allusion to clay feet is in the Book of Daniel Chapter 2, verses 31-45. The story refers to a dream of King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon in which an enormous statue with a head of gold, shoulders and arms of silver, belly and thighs of bronze, legs of iron, and feet a mixture of iron and clay, appeared to the King. Daniel explains the meaning of this vision to Nebuchadnezzar. Over time, the statue could not stand on feet of this weak and flawed admixture. I will leave it to the reader to look up the complete story and its interpretation by Daniel.
In conclusion, we do well to be aware of our own clay feet before we go declaiming about all the things which bring others down. Jesus put it another way, “Before you go taking the splinter out of someone else’s eye, remove the speck from your own.”
We all walk on clay feet. We all need to seek and trust in God’s grace and mercy – for ourselves and for those others we see so many faults in.