The Bible is often full of symbolic actions that serve as a metaphor for something God considers important. Isaiah named several of his children as a reminder of the prophecy he spoke to Ahaz. Many events are later immortalized by such rituals and become symbols themselves. For example, the Jews during the Passover were in such a hurry to leave, that their bread didn’t have time to leaven, so Passover became institutionalized with unleavened bread.
This tradition continues with the New Testament and the early Church Fathers. One theme that was interesting enough was the general resurrection of all people. In 1 Clement, Clement of Rome uses an interesting example to support this idea and not just to symbolize the resurrection. In chapter 25, he write:
Let us consider that wonderful sign [of the resurrection] which takes place in Eastern lands, that is, in Arabia and the countries round about. There is a certain bird which is called a phoenix. This is the only one of its kind, and lives five hundred years. And when the time of its dissolution draws near that it must die, it builds itself a nest of frankincense, and myrrh, and other spices, into which, when the time is fulfilled, it enters and dies. But as the flesh decays a certain kind of worm is produced, which, being nourished by the juices of the dead bird, brings forth feathers. Then, when it has acquired strength, it takes up that nest in which are the bones of its parent, and bearing these it passes from the land of Arabia into Egypt, to the city called Heliopolis. And, in open day, flying in the sight of all men, it places them on the altar of the sun, and having done this, hastens back to its former abode. The priests then inspect the registers of the dates, and find that it has returned exactly as the five hundredth year was completed.
Certainly Clement couldn’t have overlooked the parallel of “frankincense, myrrh, and other spices” to Jesus’ nativity (cf. Matt. 2:11). Interestingly enough, he tells us that this happened in front of all men. We know this bird is a mythical creature, but I’ve always felt that the Bible itself used a quite common (and real!) occurrence that all of us experience – the same term used for death: sleep. After all, when a person falls asleep, they wake up.
Of course, the parallel between sleep and death doesn’t need to mean that anywhere it’s mentioned, a resurrection was in mind. A sleeping person behaves almost identically to a dead one overall, and it’s a little better to use the euphemism; no implication of a dead person’s awakening needed. However, there’s a few places in the Bible where the euphemism is connected to rising from the dead. In the Old Testament the connection is found in Daniel 12:2. In the New Testament, there’s an interesting case in one of the miracles of Jesus – Jairus’ daughter. When Jesus arrives at the synagogue leader’s house, he tells the people to leave because the girl isn’t dead, but is only sleeping (Matt. 9:24), and then proceeds to resuscitate her! She certainly was dead (Matt. 9:18//Mark 5:35), but Jesus’ typical metaphorical language expressed the fact that this was as temporary as sleep.
Jesus also uses the healing of a blind man to compare the Pharisees’ spiritual blindness in John 9 (particularly vv.40-41). Another interesting example is the boy Eutychus. In Acts 20:7-12, Luke tells us of a young boy who falls asleep by a window and falls from the third story. He is then resuscitated by Paul.
The fact is, scientists don’t know why we (and animals) sleep. While it is lethal to go without sleep for a prolonged period of time, it doesn’t have to be – sleep isn’t necessary, really, and it doesn’t have to be required for any functions. The various cases such as that of Al Herpin, Paul Kern, and Thái Ngọc prove this. And if humans can somehow be structured to survive without sleep, then so can animals. So is it possible that God made it as a symbol and/or reminder?