Debates surrounding atonement theology over the last several decades have centered on two terms, propitiation and expiation. Both of these terms describe the function of particular sacrificial rituals. There is not, of necessity, a conflict between the core meanings of these two terms. They have come, however, to be emblematic of entire theological positions regarding the atoning sacrifice of Christ. Clearing away the accumulated theological baggage from these terms, however, allows them to highlight two important elements of the sacrificial system described in the Hebrew scriptures which will, in turn, reveal elements of the Gospels’ portrayal of Christ’s atoning death. Rather than summarizing two incompatible views or options or theories regarding “how atonement works,” these elements, along with others, convey ways of speaking and understanding sacrifice which together produce a rich, full-orbed understanding of what our Lord Jesus Christ has done on our behalf.
Both propitiation and expiation in the scriptures view sin through an ontological lens. It is a thing which exists in the form of a taint, an impurity, similar to a deadly disease. Like a deadly infection, if left uncontrolled it will not only bring death, but will spread throughout the camp in the wilderness, the nation, and the world. While this is true of sin generally, the presence of Yahweh himself in the midst of his people in the tabernacle and later temple elevates this danger. The Day of Atonement ritual, for example, is instituted in Leviticus in response to the fate of Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron who entered into the tabernacle unworthily in their drunken sinfulness and were consumed by the fire of God’s holiness (Lev 10:1-2; 16:1-2).
In fact, the entirety of the commandments of the Torah is a means of dealing with sin and related contamination in order to allow Yahweh to remain in the midst of his people. The failure of Israel and then Judah to follow it results in the departure of Yahweh from the temple and the removal from the people from Yahweh’s land. The internecine debates within Second Temple Judaism primarily surround what must be done vis a vis the Torah and the way of life of the people to correct the resulting situation. The Christian proclamation within this debate is that Yahweh has visited his people in the person of Jesus Christ. Christ has fulfilled the commandments of the Torah (in filling them to overflowing) and accomplished what they, of themselves, could not. While the Torah prescribed a sort of sin management system, Christ has dealt with sin once and for all, so that the commandments of the Torah now function, empowered by the Holy Spirit, to cure the disease of sin and transform human persons into sons of God.
Within this overall system, sacrificial ritual occupies a central place and it is within the sacrificial system that we see principles of propitiation and expiation. Expiation, as a term related to atonement, refers to the removal of sin. The danger to the community posed by sin and its resulting corruption is remedied by the removal of sin from those so contaminated and ultimately its removal from the entire community. It has become popular, due to baggage loaded into the other term, propitiation, for some to argue for expiation as an alternative, meaning that expiation represents the entirety of the function of sacrifice. The direct connection of expiation to sacrificial ritual, however, is tenuous at best. It is not uncommon, for example, for people, even scholars, to shorthand sacrificial practice by saying that before the killing of an animal the priest would place the sins of the offerer, or the people as a whole, upon that animal and then kill it. Unfortunately, this is something which occurs nowhere in the sacrificial system as outlined in the Torah, nor anywhere in the pagan sacrificial rituals of the ancient world for that matter.
The one ritual in which such a thing occurs is within the ritual of the Day of Atonement (as first described in Leviticus 16). Within this ritual, two goats are set apart and lots are cast (v. 7-8). One of these goats is then taken and the high priest pronounces the sins of the people over it (v. 20-22). This goat is not the goat “for Yahweh.” This goat is not sacrificed. In fact, this goat cannot be sacrificed because, bearing the sins of the people upon it, it is now unclean and unfit to be presented as an offering. The goat is so unclean, in fact, that the one who leads it out into the wilderness is himself made unclean by contact with it (v. 26). The goat is sent into the wilderness, the region still controlled by evil spiritual powers as embodied in Azazel, such that sin is returned to the evil spiritual powers who were responsible for its production. This represents the primary enactment of the principle of expiation in Israel’s ritual life, though the principle is found throughout the Hebrew scriptures (eg. Ps 103:12). The New Testament authors see this element of atonement fulfilled in Christ as he bears the sins of the people and is driven outside of the city to die the death of an accursed criminal (as in Matt 27:27-44; Rom 8:3-4; Heb 13:12-13).
A much more widespread concept which falls under the category of expiation is that of purification, purgation, and washing from sin often associated with blood. This is not so much expiation enacted within sacrificial ritual as it is a result of sprinkling or smearing of blood which wipes away sin. This idea is at the core of the terms translated “atonement” in Hebrew itself. As part of the sacrificial offering of the other goat, the goat “for Yahweh,” its blood is drained and is used to purify the sanctuary, the altar, and the rest of the accouterment of the tabernacle (Lev 16:15-19). The annual Day of Atonement ritual takes place in addition to the regular cycle of sin and guilt offerings that take place throughout that year and has, as its key purpose, the cleansing of the sanctuary itself. While sin has been managed through these other offerings, it has left a resulting taint and corruption in the camp which is especially dangerous in the place in which Yahweh himself resides and so this must be purified. Once again, handling this blood which absorbs and removes sin renders the high priest himself contaminated and so he must purify himself before he goes on to offer the rest of the animal to Yahweh (v. 23-24). This element of washing and purification from sin is found throughout the Hebrew scriptures (eg. Ps 51:2, 7), forms much of the basis of the understanding of baptism beginning with that of St. John the Forerunner, and is applied to the operation of the blood of Christ by the New Testament authors (eg. Eph 1:7; Col 1:20; Heb 10:3-4, 19-22; 1 Pet 1:18-19; 1 John 1:7; Rev 1:5).
The term propitiation has been freighted with a great amount of theological baggage. Specifically, it has been used as a sort of synecdoche for the systematic view of penal substitutionary atonement. Many now take it to refer to the appeasement of God’s wrath through the punishment of a substitute for the sins of a person or people. Attempting to import this conceptual whole into the sacrificial system as established in the Torah is simply impossible. Much of the sacrificial does not even involve the killing of an animal. Offerings of the sacrificial system are always food. There is a sacrificial meal involved in which the offerer and those bringing the offering eat and/or drink a portion of the meal while a significant portion, the best, is offered to Yahweh. Animals which are going to be a portion of these offerings and meals are, of course, killed as they would be before being a part of any meal. But there is no attention paid to the mode of their killing by the text of the Torah. Precise details are laid out regarding how they are to be butchered and what is to be done with the various parts of the animal and the cuts of meat. But their killing is not even ritualized. This likewise means that some sort of punishment or suffering on the part of the sacrificial animal is no part of the ritual. Even in the case of whole burnt offerings in which the entirety of the animal is burned and thereby given to Yahweh, it is not immolated alive but is killed first, unceremonially.
Propitiation itself, however, has a much simpler meaning. Literally, of course, it means to render someone propitious, meaning favorably disposed. At its most simple level, it refers to an offering which is pleasing to God. Unlike pagan deities, Yahweh does not require care and sustenance in the form of food from human worshippers. There are, however, significant instances of his sharing of a meal in a literal sense (eg. Gen 18:4-8; Ex 24:9-11; and of course numerous meals shared by Christ in the Gospels). The more common language used in the scriptures for God’s appreciation for his portion of sacrificial meals is that these sacrifices are a pleasing aroma (as in Gen 8:21; Lev 1:9, 13; 2:2; 23:18). This same language is applied to the sacrifice of Christ in the New Testament (as in Eph 5:2 and the Father’s statement that in Christ he is “well pleased”). In the Greek translation of Numbers 10:10, the language of a memorial is used to describe the sin offering as its smoke rises to Yahweh. This language is applied to prayers and almsgiving elsewhere in the scriptures (Ps 141:2; Acts 10:4; Rev 5:8). The party who is being propitiated through atonement may be wrathful toward the one who makes the offering (as, for example, Jacob assumes in Gen 32:21 regarding Esau), but this is not necessitated by the language of propitiation as such.
Understanding the wrath of God as a function of his presence, of his justice and holiness, there is another element of propitiation which is directly relevant to wrath. This is the protective function which sacrificial blood and incense offerings serve in relation to Yahweh’s presence. Part of the Day of Atonement ritual is specifically oriented toward allowing Aaron to enter the most holy place without dying as had his sons (Lev 16:11-14). An obscuring cloud of smoke, as well as the blood of a bull to wipe away the sins of himself and his priestly family, are required because, on that day, Yahweh himself would appear, would make himself present, in that place (v. 2). The blood of the sacrificial lamb, which was utilized as a meal, at the Passover served a similar protective role (Ex 12:21-23). This is not protection from a loving God. Rather, it is a means provided by that loving God to allow sinful human persons to abide in the presence of his holiness. This same sort of protection language is utilized regarding the blood of Christ (eg. Rom 3:24-25; 5:9; Eph 2:13; Heb 10:19-22; Rev 12:11).
Propitiation and expiation, themselves being seen from a variety of perspectives, are inseparable elements of what atonement means in the scriptures. They, along with other elements already and still to be discussed, form the cohesive understanding of Christ’s own sacrifice on the cross. These are not abstract principles, theological rationales or arguments. They are not constructed ideas used to explain mechanisms by which salvation takes place. Rather, they are highlighted moments of experiential reality. The core of Israelite, Judahite, and Judean religion was sacrificial ritual which brought about states of being and consciousness in its participants and the world itself. Ancient people, the first Christians understood the self-offering death of Christ in terms of this lived experience. This post and the others in the present series seek to reestablish access to this experience of God through delineating the shape of that experience for our fathers in the faith.
The wrath of God is a topic unpopular in the present era. Much theological ink has been spilled in the modern period in an attempt to explain away or otherwise neutralize the idea, despite its clear presence in the scriptures and in the writings of the fathers. An entire fully developed complex of ideas in later Western theology, including not only God’s wrath but also a particular conception of his justice and of penal substitution, is seen by many modern commentators as an inextricably linked whole. This complex idea is then caricatured in various ways and rejected wholesale. To reject the teaching of the church at the foundation, however, along with the later erroneous edifice built upon it is to deform the Christian faith. Rather than, as many of St. Paul’s original hearers, seeking to justify themselves, post-modern thought demands that the faithful justify God in the face of a denuded sense of morality. This approach makes the concept of true repentance utterly unintelligible or at best a bland form of self-improvement. Worse, it makes the cross of Christ an embarrassment once again as it was to so many in the ancient world.
Though the wrath of God as a concept is expressed using words related to emotional anger, it is not intended to express a passionate or emotional state. This is an important distinction in breaking the popular caricature of the “wrathful God.” What is described by the terms relevant to the wrath of God is a particular experience of God by human persons and those who witness that experience. It is never used in the scriptures to portray God as fickle or intemperate. Quite the opposite. An oft-repeated theme of the Hebrew scriptures is that God is slow to anger (in Hebrew idiom, literally “long of nose”), describing the long period of patient mercy which precedes the experience of his wrath.
In order to understand the origin of the human experiences described as the wrath of God, two interlinked concepts need to be understood. The first of these is the concept of justice or righteousness. Both the Hebrew ‘mishpat’ and the Greek ‘dikaios’ describe the world as being in a rightly ordered state. Existence and non-existence and therefore Yahweh’s act of creation in Gen 1 are conceived in the scriptures as bringing order to chaos. Humanity was originally created to continue the work of creation in cooperation with Yahweh by bringing the order and beauty of Paradise with them to make the whole creation into Eden. Humanity, however, was expelled from Paradise into this present world of chaos and violence under the power of sin and death. The great promise of the Hebrew scriptures is that a day, most often called ‘the day Yahweh’ will come when he will establish perfect justice in the whole creation (Isa 13:6, 9; Jer 46:10; Ezek 13:5; 30:3; Joel 1:15; 2:1-31; 3:14; Amos 5:18, 20; Obad 1:15; Zeph 1:7-14; 14:1; Mal 4:1-5).
Though this is a promise, that on a final day Yahweh will bring his great work of creation to its completion in bringing it to perfect order, a casual perusal of the Old Testament passages above gives a rather horrifying description of that day. From these descriptions, however, certain motifs relating to the nature of God’s wrath as expressed on that day emerge. The first of these is fire. Specifically, a fire which tries and tests all things (eg. Mal 4:1-5). This fire has two effects on two different groups of people. For one group, this fire is destructive and consumes them utterly. For the other group, this fire is purgative and they emerge from the day of Yahweh purified like gold from the dross and stain of their sins and transgressions. This latter group are those who are justified, made righteous or made just. Rather than being consumed with their sins and wickedness they are purified from them by a burning away. This burning fire is rightly described by scripture and the fathers as God’s wrath.
Undergoing this fiery trial, with either result, is “judgment” in its Biblical sense. In the new covenant, this justification, being made righteous or just, being set in order as God’s creation, begins in this life in this world. In his prophetic ministry, St. John the Forerunner speaks of the wrath to come using this motif of cleansing fire (eg. Matt 3:7-12). He also, however, links this fire to the Holy Spirit, and specifically to baptism with the Holy Spirit (3:11). The phrase generally translated ‘baptize you with the Holy Spirit’ in English is directly parallel to St. John’s statement that he ‘baptize[s] you with water’ for repentance. It literally describes being immersed or submerged in the Holy Spirit and, as he here makes clear, fire. Repentance is therefore linked here to, and serves as the precondition for, the cleansing fire of the Spirit. Repentance is here not seen as self-improvement or growth, but as testing and trial by fire. It is bringing one’s self under judgment now in order to remove the fire of judgment on the day of the Lord (1 Cor 11:31).
The other major motif surrounding the day of Yahweh in the Hebrew prophets is that of distributive justice (eg. Obad 1:15). The state of this present world, as it is still God’s creation, still reflects his character. Humanity is still the image of God within it. It is therefore not abject chaos and destruction, but a broken order which requires the cleansing and purification described above. This distributive justice character of judgment sees the final completion of the ordering of creation as shoring up and repairing the order which still persists therein. It is a restoration of balance and order. This restoration will necessarily affect some positively and others negatively based upon their thoughts, words, and deeds (Rom 2:6; 2 Cor 5:10). Many scriptural categories describe the two poles of this experience of God, such as reward and punishment, blessing and curse, and vindication and wrath. Punishment, curse, and wrath are all ways of describing the experience of those who suffer loss in this restoration. This loss is not merely shame or embarrassment but is quite real. For the Egyptians, their massacre of the male children of God’s firstborn, Israel, was rebalanced by the death of their firstborn sons. For two hundred years of apostasy, the northern kingdom of Israel was scattered back into non-existence. For 490 years of ignoring the Sabbath year, the southern kingdom of Judah faced 70 years of exile in a foreign land. That this sort of massive upheaval is coming is a constant theme of Christ’s own preaching (eg. Matt 19:30; 20:16; Mark 10:31; Luke 13:30; 16:25).
The various punishments or consequences for sin in the Torah are grounded in this twofold understanding of the wrath of God. The Torah never imposes suffering or pain as a means of recompense for sin, though this is not uncommon in other ancient cultures. Sin in the Torah is handled either by death, corresponding to the consuming fire of wrath, or by restitution, the suffering of loss to restore the right order of justice. Restitution is, therefore, a critical and necessary element of repentance (Luke 19:8-9). This understanding gave rise to the concept of penance in the church. It is also a constitutive element to the church’s understanding of asceticism.
The second concept, linked with the understanding of the wrath of God as the experience of judgment and righteousness, is that the experience of God’s wrath stems from his presence. In Hebrew idiom, what is generally translated in English as being in God’s presence is actually to be “before his face,” which is itself a reference to seeing him. God is righteous. God is holy. God is surrounded by the fullness of his glory. These are not merely adjectives correctly applied to God as if he were being judged against some external standard. Rather, just as God is love, he is also righteousness, holiness, glory, etc. This is why for Moses, to see his glory would be to see God himself (Ex 33:18-20). This is why St. Paul can say that Christ is the righteousness of God (1 Cor 1:30-31). The experience of a sinful human person coming into the presence of God is dramatized in Isaiah’s prophetic call (Isa 6:1-13). The prophet experiences his own undoing in his experience of the righteousness, holiness, and glory of God (v. 5). In order for him to speak the words of God, his lips must be purified by fire (v. 6-7).
God’s coming to bring judgment upon the gods of Egypt and to vindicate his people is therefore referred to in the Torah as him visiting his people (Gen 50:24-25; Ex 4:31). The day of Yahweh is therefore also referred to as the day on which he will visit his people (Ex 32:34; Lev 26:16; Isa 23:27; 29:6; Jer 15:15; 27:22; 29:10; 32:5). In the prophetic timeline, the day of Yahweh would come first upon Judea, preceded by the coming of Elijah. Judgment would come upon God’s people first, through which a remnant would be refined by fire. After this would come a period, the last days, during which the nations would stream to Jerusalem to worship Yahweh, concluding in Yahweh’s judgment of the entire creation and the completion of his creative work.
Basic to the understanding of the New Testament authors is that this timeline was advanced in their day. Jesus Christ is Yahweh and he has come to his people in Judea. His very presence in their midst brought about judgment. Most were cut off through their rejection of Christ. A remnant, however, found repentance and justification in Christ. Following this, the Gentiles were added to this remnant, reconstituting the assembly of Israel, the church. The apostles bore witness to these events and attest to them in the scriptures. This means, as they attest, that we are now in the latter days during which Christ rules in the midst of his enemies. At the conclusion of this period, described by St. John figuratively as a thousand years in the Apocalypse, Christ will again visit his creation to complete the eighth creation day begun by incarnation and resurrection. Thus he will judge the living and the dead. The word “Parousia,” generally translated in English as “return,” more literally means “presence.” All of creation will be brought before the throne of Christ. All of creation will stand in his presence. All will see his face. This will bring all of creation to order and completion. Human persons will either themselves be justified, purified by fire, or will be purged, losing even what little they may presently possess. For the first, this experience will be reward and joy, but for the second punishment and wrath.
As a final note, this understanding of the presence of Christ is firmly embedded in the church’s understanding of the Eucharist. In the Eucharist, a human person receives Christ himself into his own person. The presence of Christ, as has already been seen, can bring either purification or destruction, forgiveness or wrath. St. Paul speaks of this when he describes the consequences of receiving the Eucharist in an unworthy manner (1 Cor 11:27-34). The priest’s prayers reference the purification of Isaiah described above (Isa 6:6-7). The prayer of St. Symeon the Translator after receiving the Eucharist is a profound meditation upon these themes. Repentance and the purification of our souls and bodies can be painful and difficult, but they prepare us to stand before the face of our Lord Jesus Christ and for the eternal righteousness, holiness, and glory of the world to come.
Over the next several weeks, posts will examine the Biblical concept of atonement from several angles in an attempt to synthesize the teaching of the scriptures on this topic. Before delving into the teaching of particular portions of the scriptures it is important to have a working definition of what “atonement” is in the first place and how the terms in the original languages of scripture which are translated by this English word are used in a general sense. There also needs to be a certain amount of disambiguation regarding common popular uses of the term in Western theology and popular Christian discussion. Many of these usages import concepts and theological notions which postdate the scriptures by centuries. The “reading in” of these much later theological notions to the text of scripture serves in some cases to merely cause confusion, but in others to create a sort of feedback loop based on confirmation bias. A particular piece of later teaching is read into a text and then the text is used as a proof for that same teaching. This post will serve to clear the ground before the positive presentation of forthcoming posts.
The English word “atonement” is a word created for the purposes of Biblical translation and has no earlier etymological history. Wycliffe used the phrase “at onement” in his own translations in the 14th century to indicate reconciliation to unity. In the 16th century, this was combined into the word “atonement.” Because the word is a coinage, it offers very little insight into the concept as it is employed in the scriptures. Some modern English translations have moved to the translation “reconciliation” in many instances in order to parallel Wycliffe’s original translation. In contemporary scholarly sources, the translation “purification” has become widely popular, with “purgation” as another alternative.
The origin of the term is in the Hebrew word group ‘kfr’. Hebrew words have three letter roots which can then be used to form related verbs and nouns which carry similar meaning. A form of this word creates the name for the holy day Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. The ‘kfr’ root appears to be derived from a parallel Akkadian word which formed the verb “to wipe.” In Hebrew, it is used to mean to wipe, to smear, or to cover. There is, in the Hebrew scriptures, deliberate wordplay in, for example, the description of the Day of Atonement ritual in Leviticus 16. Blood is wiped or smeared in the sanctuary which wipes away sin. Blood covers the objects in the tabernacle and sins are covered from the sight of God. Incense covers the appearance of God himself within the sanctuary on that die so that the high priest does not see him and die. This action is central to all of Israelite worship. The lid of the ark of the covenant is “the atonement cover” (though often translated “mercy seat” in English). The later temple is referred to as the “house of atonement” (eg. 1 Chron 28:20). Despite the centrality of the usage of the term in ritual contexts, it is also used throughout the Hebrew scriptures within the context of relationships between humans. It is used, for example, when Jacob is preparing to once again encounter his brother Esau after many years and he sends offerings ahead of himself in the hopes that they will “cover Esau’s face,” literally “atone his face” (Gen 32:20). The ‘kfr’ word group can then be seen to involve the restoration of relationships between persons and community in a general sense but also includes ritual elements aimed at removing or covering over the cause of estrangement.
In Greek translation of the Hebrew scriptures, the word “hilasmos” and other related words are used to translate the ‘kfr’ word group. This translation choice has some of the same difficulties found in the English “atonement” in providing additional information about the term’s meaning. Though similar concepts are discussed, there are no known pre-Christian, non-Jewish instances of the word “hilasmos” in Greek literature. For the first few centuries of its known usage, then, this term is simply a Greek substitute for ‘kfr’ words and carries only the meaning of the latter. The first known usages of the term in a pagan context come from the first century AD, parallel to the time of the composition of the New Testament, in Plutarch. In every case, Plutarch uses the term to refer to sacrificial offerings used to placate an angered or offended supernatural being, either a god or a deceased human’s spirit. This represents a narrower usage than ‘kfr’ words, though the translators of scripture and later Jewish authors such as Philo freely used “hilasmos” for cases involving both divine-human and human-human relationships. In Jewish and Christian thought, these are inseparable concepts.
In light of these general definitions based on usage, future posts in this series will describe in more detail the ways in which the concept of atonement is described in the scriptures. In light of these scriptural terms, the concept of the wrath of God, as described in scripture, will be further defined. The means by which the situation described by that wrath is ameliorated will then be discussed. Then, these understandings of atonement as it takes place within the context of sacrifice, in general, will be applied to the sacrifice of Christ in particular. Finally, the relationship between the atonement of Christ’s sacrifice and related concepts of redemption and salvation in their cosmic scope will be described.
Beyond the clarification of terminology, however, there are further preconceptions related to atonement, for the most part grounded in Western theology, which need to be cleared away. Much, if not all, of contemporary discussion regarding atonement in general, and Christ’s atoning sacrifice in particular, takes place surrounding various competing “theories of atonement.” These theories represent attempts which are to one degree or another systematic to explain how atonement, and specifically Christ’s sacrificial death on the cross, works. Sometimes, rather than “theory” the term “model” is used. Within Western theology, a shift occurred in the seventh and eighth centuries in the pursuit of establishing how certain teachings and doctrines fit together and how certain mysteries of the church work. This set a trajectory for Eucharistic theology which continued through the Reformation and to this very day. In the context of atonement, it represented a turn from describing what Christ accomplished on the cross to attempting to explain how he accomplished it and why he accomplished it in the particular way which he did. The most famous example of this turn and benchmark on this inquiry’s historical path is, of course, Anselm’s Cur Deus Homo. “Why the God-Man?” still bore the tissue of earlier theology in connecting the understanding of Christ’s atoning death to the incarnation, but also followed the new trajectory of attempting to explain the how and why. In our own day, scholar Simon Gathercole has reasserted one of these theories or models, penal substitutionary atonement, as superior to all of the other models because it is the only one which provides a “mechanism” by which atonement takes place.
This entire discussion is based on a series of presuppositions which collapse under even a small amount of scrutiny. There is, for example, no reason to believe that the mysteries of God operate according to “mechanisms” intelligible to the human mind. There is no reason to believe that any of the various metaphorical descriptions used by scripture and the fathers to describe Christ’s atoning sacrifice at the cross is intended to be describing precisely what happened there in an exhaustive and exclusive sense such that these descriptions represent “theories” which can be argued against one another. There is no reason to believe that the problems manifest within creation by human sin necessitates some particular response from God as a remedy as if there are some overarching rules or concept of justice to which God himself is subject.
Rather, the scriptures and the fathers understand Christ’s atoning death as the revelation of his divine glory. Atonement as it took place in the old covenant, as described in the Hebrew scriptures, represents a partial and preliminary revelation of the glory of Christ which comes to its fullness in his death on the cross. The scriptures and the fathers meditate on what is revealed about Christ in these events and on what he has accomplished for the sake of his creation, including ourselves, in these mighty acts. The purpose of this series of posts is to return to see the way in which this revelation of Christ is described in scripture. It is not to promote one of these “theories” over against others. The only critique which will here be offered of various models for the atonement will be the implied critique of their absence from the testimony of scripture. Such theories, merely because they have been advanced or even become popular, do not need to be disproven. Rather those who would seek to advance them must prove their legitimacy. More importantly, they must demonstrate the validity of the presuppositions which produced them in the first place. These presuppositions are shared by neither the scriptures or the fathers.
In our modern understanding of being, being is commonly opposed to nothingness. Something exists and by this we mean has some sort of material reality, it is a thing, or it does not exist, meaning that it is imaginary and has no real time space existence. The difficulty of discussing the existence of God as ‘a being’ within this paradigm is what has created most of the unprofitable discussion surrounding atheism in our society. This understanding was preceded for centuries, particularly in Western thought, by an understanding initiated by Plato and further elaborated by the Middle and Neo-Platonists. Platonism opposed being not with some concept of non-being that equated with non-existence, but with becoming. There are things which simply are. By virtue of this, they are superior to everything which is in motion or a process of change which is becoming something but is to whatever degree not yet that thing. This makes stasis, for Platonism, one of the highest virtues. When this conception was integrated into Christianity, it produced an understanding of being as a chain, at which the simple, immutable God stood at the top and the bare elements of creation lay at the bottom. All things, however, share being along a continuum. Aristotle’s particular variation on this understanding reveals to a certain extent the ancient view which preceded it. He speaks of potentiality and actuality. “Prime matter” consists entirely of potential. It can be formed into anything but is not yet anything. On the other end of the chain would be a being of pure actuality, unable to change, which is the language which Thomas applies to the Christian God. Once again, all created things and their creator are connected by being itself and are therefore related to one another by way of analogy.
In the most ancient understanding, however, which includes that of the scriptures, being is opposed not to non-existence or fiction. Neither is being as a stasis opposed to those things which are in a process of change or growth or flux. Rather, being is opposed to chaos. To exist is to exist within a web of relationships which create meaning and purpose. It is to be ordered and structured. When a tower collapses into rubble, all of the constituent material of the tower is still there in the form of the rubble. The tower, however, no longer exists. When an animal dies, its body dissolves into the earth, returning to its component elements, but the animal no longer exists. While people and their descendants may continue to exist after the collapse or destruction of a nation, the nation itself no longer exists following such an event.
That God brought all things from the nothingness into being is the clear teaching of the scriptures and the Orthodox Church. There are places within the scriptures, however, in which creation is described in other ways. In Genesis 1, the creation of the world is described as being from nothing, but that nothing is primordial chaos rather than a timeless, spaceless void if such a thing can even be conceived by human persons. Rather, the earth is formless and empty (Gen 1:2). This is further described as darkness above and the watery abyss below. Over the following sequence of days, God gives structure to the primal elements. Over the first three days, this takes the form of the organization of these elements to create spaces. The creation of time from timelessness is not described, but on the first day, structure is given to time beginning with the day itself, evening and morning. On the second day, the spaces of the heavens and the seas are created. On the third day, the space of the dry ground is created. These spaces are in neither ascending nor descending order. In ancient experience, the heavens are the dwelling place of divine beings and manifest a perfect order. The land is the realm to which humans attempt to establish order. The seas, where no human can exist, continues to represent chaos and death, the two of which are closely linked.
On days four through six, God proceeds to fill each of these spaces in turn, to solve the second problem, of emptiness. The heavens are filled with the sun, moon, and stars. The skies are filled with birds and the seas with fish and creeping things innumerable. The land is finally filled with animal life and finally humanity. Contained within the story of the creation of humanity, however, is the idea that God’s creating work is not complete. Humanity is created and commanded to fill the earth and subdue it (1:28). Human persons are created to continue this work of giving order to the creation and filling it with life. This ordering of the world forms the scriptural understanding of justice and expresses itself in the Torah in the form of commandments, through the keeping of which human life will bring that structure to the world as a whole. Sin as a force is opposed to this order and seeks to destroy it, reducing human life to chaos and death. It is only through these structures, however, that life can have meaning and purpose. Judgment, in Hebrew and Aramaic the same word as ‘justice,’ is the establishment or reestablishment of this order on earth. Justification is the setting of things or persons back into the proper order of things and the correct set of relationships with their creator and the rest of the creation. It represents a new creative act.
Therefore, what it means to “live” or even to “exist” is to participate in these correctly ordered relationships with other human persons, the rest of the creation, and preeminently with God, the Holy Trinity. “This, then, is eternal life, that they might know you, the one true God, and the one whom you have sent, Jesus Christ” (John 17:3). Because these relationships are definitional to life and existence, without them there can be no concept of purpose or meaning to brute material existence. Conceptually, these are inseparable. Therefore, the breaking of these relationships through sin, the disintegration of good order, or exile constitute death and non-existence. The wilderness, that part of the world to which order has not yet been applied, remains in this state of chaos and so is associated with non-being and death. It is ambiguous through the Torah as to whether being ‘cut off from among the people’ represents death or exile precisely because in context, these were the same thing. The sea continues to represent the same principles, which is why it ceases to exist in the new heavens and the new earth (Rev 21:1). Likewise, the darkness of night, the time of sin and violence, ceases to exist (cf. John 3:19; Rev 21:25).
These ancient concepts of life and death, being and non-existence, are critically important in order to understand what the scriptures teach regarding the state of eternal condemnation. While commonly still called ‘hell,’ that concept owes more to Anglo-Saxon paganism’s understanding of the netherworld than to ancient Christianity. At the expulsion from Paradise, God cut off humanity from the tree of life and allowed death to reign over him in order that humanity might not suffer the same fate as the rebellious heavenly powers (Gen 3:22-23). Having been gifted with freedom and immortality, when these powers chose in their turn to rebel against their creator they were left permanently in a state of death, corruption, and self-imposed exile from the kingdom. Material life in the still disordered world ending in death creates for human persons the opportunity for repentance and transformation with immortality being a gift granted to humanity by Christ, after the conclusion of his defeat of death after his final judgment has established order within the creation as a whole (Ecc 3:11; Wis 3:1-4; 1 Cor 15:23-26).
The core of scripture’s understanding of eternal condemnation for humanity, then, is that those who have failed to use this life for repentance and transformation through Christ will share in the fate of these rebellious spiritual beings after whom they have followed (Matt 25:41; Rev 20:14; 21:8). Reading the many horrifying descriptions in scripture of this eternal state against the background of modern understandings of existence and non-existence has frequently produced theological errors, even heresy. Some have read the imagery of death and destruction in a modern literal way and so argued for annihilationism, that the souls of those not destined for eternal life simply vanish like vapor. This literalism breaks down, amongst other places, once it is understood that the life of the soul, obviously, is not biological. Neither, therefore, can the death of the soul be conceived of as the cessation of biological life. Universalism operates from either a Platonic or modern understanding of these terms, likewise. From a Platonic conception, being is something which all things possess in degrees and constitutes not only a good, but a connection to God himself, the Good. This then is interpreted to impose a sort of obligation on God to redeem the good within all things. Origen took this universalist heresy to the ultimate conclusion that because the demonic powers exist, they too must be reconciled to God.
On the other hand, some followers of universalism see the eternal existence of saints and of the condemned as univocal. Because they are working from categories of existence and non-existence and reject annihilationism, the two states are seen as eternal good life and eternal bad life, with God as the agent who is actively blessing one group and actively torturing the other. With this flawed paradigm established, they rightly find the latter to be abhorrent in the portrayal which it gives of God. That God would save all of humanity, either immediately or eventually, is therefore their only possible conclusion in order to preserve the character of the Triune God as portrayed by scripture and the Orthodox Church. That this argument is based on flawed premises is clear in a number of ways, not least among them that in this conception, as in that of penal substitutionary atonement, God is seen to primarily save human persons from himself.
Once the ancient understandings of life and existence on the one hand and death and destruction on the other which underly the scriptures are understood, however, the Biblical language concerning the state of eternal condemnation, while still frighteningly terrible, comes into focus. To have eternal life in this age and the age to come, to live and to truly exist, to have meaning and purpose, is to come to know God in the person of Jesus Christ and so to be in right relationship with other human persons and the whole created order. This is not a stasis but an eternal movement toward God in which a human person will be established forever at the judgment seat of Christ in the day of his glorious appearing. In contrast, to die as Adam surely did in the day of which he ate of the tree, to be destroyed, is to alienate one’s self from Christ. It is to alienate one’s self from other human persons. It is to rebel against the order of God’s creation. This way of living in this age drains all meaning and purpose from life. It renders the world unintelligible chaos. It creates the truest form of self-imposed suffering. Those who pursue this path to the end of their life in this age find it also to be an eternal movement away from God in which they are established forever at the judgment seat of Christ in the day of his glorious appearing. Life, existence, meaning, and purpose are constitutive elements of what it means to be a human being (Gen 2:7; 1 Cor 15:45). To come to know God in Christ and to receive eternal life is to become truly human To eternally cut one’s self off from Christ and his kingdom, then, represents the ultimate diminution of humanity, to cease to exist in any meaningful or purposeful way as human.
The episode at the oak of Mamre, recorded in Genesis 18, is one of the strangest and most mysterious in the scriptures. It has long been depicted in Orthodox iconography as the Hospitality of Abraham. Beginning with Andrei Rublev, a detail of this scene has been the only approved Orthodox iconographic depiction of the Holy Trinity. This Trinity icon is used by some local Orthodox churches as the icon for the feast of Pentecost. The coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost marked the conclusion of the revelation of the Holy Trinity to humanity. The episode of the oak of Mamre, in many ways, represents the beginning of that revelation.
Genesis 18 begins by stating that Yahweh appeared to Abraham while he was camped at the oaks of Mamre. This is not the first time in the book of Genesis that Yahweh has appeared in bodily form. He walks in the garden, for example, in Genesis 3:8. It is, however, the first time that he appears as a man. It will also not be the last. This is despite clear teaching in the scriptures that no one can see God and live (eg. Ex 33:20; 1 Tim 6:16). The former text occurs in the same chapter in which Moses is said to have spoken with Yahweh face to face (Ex 33:11).
These early encounters with Yahweh the God of Israel later came to be understood, alongside other similar encounters, as multiple hypostases of Yahweh. In this context, an unseeable Father and a Son who appears to human persons in bodily form. Within the Hebrew Scriptures, this conception is most fully and completely elaborated in the vision of Daniel 7. St. John refers to this knowledge of God in the poetic prologue to his Gospel which lays out the eternal existence of the Logos and his incarnation. “No one has seen God at any time. The unique God who is in the bosom of the Father has declared him” (1:18). St. John is not here retconning large portions of the Old Testament, including Genesis 18 in which human persons are clearly described as seeing God. Rather, he is clearly identifying the Yahweh who appeared in former times to humans in bodily form as the Logos who became incarnate, Jesus Christ.
The revelation of the Holy Trinity does not only emerge when Yahweh’s appearance at the oaks of Mamre is compared to other passages, however. It emerges from the text itself. It is important to specify against a common misinterpretation that the three men whom Abraham encounters (Gen 18:2) are not the three persons of the Holy Trinity in visible form. In addition to plainly contradicting the other passages already named, when the figures split up, only one of them is identified as Yahweh (18:22). The other two are identified as being angels when they arrive at Sodom (19:1). This is one of several places in which angelic beings are described as having bodies. Indeed, Yahweh and the two angels share a meal with Abraham (18:8). St. Jude (7-8) compares the attempted crimes of the men of Sodom to the sin of the rebellious angels before the Flood in Genesis 6:1-2.
Yahweh and the two angels do, however, speak with one voice. ‘Elohim,’ generally translated as God, when used to indicate Yahweh, often takes plural verbs because it is grammatically plural. The name Yahweh, however, is grammatically singular. Nevertheless, throughout the discussion with Abraham, the pronoun ‘they’ is used to introduce Yahweh’s speech. The three can therefore be seen to be a visible representation, an icon, of the Holy Trinity. Further, within this text, Yahweh speaks to himself, taking his own counsel (Gen 18:17-19). We see this dynamic more fully developed in the prayers of Christ to his Father in the Gospels.
Perhaps the greatest significance of this passage, however, is what it reveals to us about the person of Jesus Christ. It is Christ with whom Abraham negotiates to seek mercy even for Sodom and Gomorrah. It is Christ who sends the two angels to rescue Lot and his family before the destruction. It is also, however, Christ who brings the fire from heaven to blot out those cities in their wickedness. He can speak of being even before Abraham (John 8:58). He can speak of the sins of Sodom from direct knowledge (Matt 10:15; 11:23-24; Luke 10:12). Christ is clear that the responsibility for judgment, for restoring justice to the created order, has been given to him (John 5:22). The destruction unleashed on Sodom and Gomorrah was a foretaste, an eschatological intrusion, of the final judgment at Christ’s return (Luke 17:28-30).
Throughout the history of the church, there have been attempts to disfigure the identity of Christ by detaching the Christ whom we encounter in the Gospels from the God of the Old Testament. The first known and perhaps most infamous attempt was made by Marcion, who argued at the beginning of the second century that Yahweh was a different God than the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, describing the former as violent and wrathful while the latter is loving and compassionate. Views of this sort are most often debunked by demonstrating the love and compassion of Yahweh in the Old Testament. The commands to love God and neighbor are drawn from the Torah, Leviticus and Deuteronomy. His mercy and compassions are continual themes in the Psalms. It can, however, be equally refuted in the opposite direction. The Christ who walked in the garden and cursed the serpent, who destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah, who led the people out of Egypt and commanded Joshua’s armies is the same Christ whom we encounter in the Gospel. The Christ of love and compassion and mercy whom we encounter in the Gospels and the teaching of the apostles which make up the rest of the New Testament is the same Christ whom we encounter in the judgment of Revelation as the avenger of innocent blood.
While true Marcionites are few and far between in our present world, a softer form of Marcionism is a constant and persistent threat. It takes the form of ignoring and allegorizing away the Old Testament presentation of God the Holy Trinity and the person of Jesus Christ. This is coupled with a one dimensional caricature of the person of Christ in the New Testament. It takes the form in some cases of denying, against the consistent testimony of scripture, the Fathers, and the liturgical tradition of the church that God has any wrath at all. It sometimes even goes so far as the heresy of universalism.
Against any such view, Hebrews tells us that Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever (13:8). His character has never changed and will never. He is the God who calls us to repentance through the certain knowledge of coming judgment and the God who pours forth his mercy and forgiveness when we turn from our sin to follow him. He is coming soon and his reward, for both righteousness and wickedness, is with him. Over the next four weeks, posts will discuss the nature of atonement in the scriptures, beginning with the nature of the wrath of God.
The feast of Christ’s Ascension represents one of the most important liturgical moments of the Christian year. It is, unfortunately, generally under-appreciated. Due to where it falls in the cycle of feasts, it is sometimes seen as a sort of epilogue to Pascha. In our modern life, it falls in the summer which has become a time for vacations, time off from work and school and even sometimes church. It falls in mid-week, which in the modern working world makes its participation more difficult for many people. For ancient people, however, the feast of the Ascension of Christ would have been intuitively the most important. The Ascension represents the culmination of the gospel which was proclaimed throughout the world by the apostles.
Key to understanding the importance of Christ’s Ascension is the understanding that this does not represent merely Christ flying into the sky or going away. Before the Ascension, Christ promises the exact opposite (Matt 28:20). While St. John’s Gospel uses the language of departing and going away, it is in the context of the coming of the Holy Spirit which will bring the apostles to know Christ and the Father even more intimately (cf. John 16:7ff). Rather, Christ’s Ascension is the feast of his enthronement in the heavens. As we will see, the basis of worship, of ritual, of proclamation, of sacred architecture, of iconography, and of sacrificial piety in the ancient world was the enthronement of God. This was true in ancient Judaism surrounding the temple and it was equally true in early Christianity.
Ancient Near Eastern myth followed a similar paradigm regardless of culture with strands of these ideas found in Egyptian and early Greek myth as well. The central story or epic cycle involved a divine rebellion against a previous most high god which represented the forces of chaos and death in the world. In this struggle, often as an accidental byproduct rather than a deliberate act, the world and humanity are created. Following a victory in this struggle, the winner, still conceived as the son of a divine father, was enthroned in a newly created palace temple generally within a garden and/or atop a mountain. This structure can be seen in the case of Baal, Marduk, Zeus, and many others. Individual temples are instantiations of that primary dwelling of the god. Within the worship of those pagan temples, the architecture and iconography were designed to retell this story. The story was told and sung directly. The story was reenacted and participated in by worshippers through ritual. The sacrificial meals were a victory feast, a celebration at the enthronement of the god as king of that city or empire.
Genesis 1-3 tells a parallel story regarding Yahweh the God of Israel, but with important corrections regarding his identity and the creation of the world. The first and most obvious is that while a rebellion is described in Genesis 3, it is not Yahweh rebelling against a previous god, but rather a failed attempt by a subordinate to rebel against Yahweh. All of the other elements, including those representing chaos (i.e. the waters) obey the commands of the God of Israel immediately and perfectly. Even in the case of the rebellion of Genesis 3, the devil is simply thrown down to the realm of the dead by a divine command with no struggle or battle necessary. While the imagery of Yahweh battling the monstrous forces of chaos is poetically referenced in the Old Testament (as in Psalm 74 and Isaiah 27 as but two examples), it is notably absent from Genesis 1-3. Genesis 1 describes Yahweh constructing the entire creation as his temple palace in which he will reign as king. The “resting” of the seventh day is Yahweh’s taking his throne to rule over the entirety of his created order. The final stage of the construction of an ancient temple was the placing of the image of the god within it. This is corrected in the description of the formation of human persons and their placement within the temple elaborated in Genesis 2 to serve as Yahweh’s image.
The tabernacle and the temple, then, were constructed as images of Paradise in particular, and the entire creation of which it is a microcosm. The structures, the iconography, and the worship of tabernacle and temple were constructed around telling this story of the enthronement of Yahweh over all creation. The central element of the inner temple was the two massive cherubim (over 15 feet high) who represented the throne of Yahweh. The story of Yahweh’s creation of all things in heaven and on earth and rule over them was retold through the worshippers’ surroundings, through psalms and hymns, through the direct telling of the story, and through ritual recreation and participation. This proclamation was against the reality that human and angelic rebellions against Yahweh, though futile, were still ongoing within the God of Israel’s creation (Ps 2). This proclamation ended with the prophetic promise that Yahweh would return to his creation in a new act to put an end to these rebellions and reestablish justice and peace.
Daniel 7 prophetically describes the solution that will come to these rebellions. Daniel saw in his visions terrifying embodiments of these spiritual and human rebellions against Yahweh and his rule. In describing their final end, Daniel 7 directly utilizes the imagery of the enthronement of Baal by his father El while again correcting it. In Daniel’s vision, Yahweh remains enthroned over all creation as the Most High God. Another figure is portrayed who is also Yahweh but appears as a human. This second hypostasis of Yahweh, the divine Son, is victorious over the rebellious powers and is enthroned with dominion over all of the creation given by his Father. Another cycle of victory and enthronement will take place through the person of God the Son.
The apostles repurposed the Greek word translated as gospel (evangelion) to make this understanding clear. In its extra-Biblical use, this word occurs almost entirely in the plural (evangelia). This term referred to the proclamation of the victories of a Roman general or emperor prior to his arrival at a city. The ‘gospel of God’ or the ‘gospel of Jesus Christ,’ then, is the recounting and proclamation of the story of Christ’s victory over the powers of sin, death, and Hades culminating in his enthronement over the entirety of the creation. St. Matthew’s Gospel ends with Christ being invested with all authority in heaven and on earth (Matt 28:18). The longer ending added to St. Mark’s Gospel ends with the proclamation of the gospel to all of the creation (Mark 16:15) and his subsequent enthronement (v. 19). Christ sits at the right hand of the Father because he is not a rebellious son who overthrows his father to seize power like the pagan gods. Rather, he is an obedient son who receives dominion from the Father as glorification for his victory (Phil 2:5-11). St. Luke’s Gospel concludes with Christ’s ascent into heaven (Luke 24:50-53). The Acts of the Apostles begins in the same place, adding the detail that Christ is taken to heaven on a cloud, directly connecting this event to the enthronement in Daniel 7 (Acts 1:9).
The apostolic proclamation of the gospel of Jesus Christ sees his ascension and enthronement as the climax of his victory (Acts 2:33-36, 5:31; 1 Cor 15:24-28; Eph 1:20-23). Church temples are constructed and adorned with iconography to retell the story of this victory before that place where Christ sits enthroned with the altar as his footstool. The story of this victory is retold through hymns, the reading of scripture, and direct proclamation. This victory is celebrated and participated in through ritual and the sacrifice of the Eucharist. Through the life of the church, the proclamation of the gospel, culminating in Christ’s ascension and enthronement is made to the entire world in preparation for that day on which the same Christ appears to judge the living and the dead establishing justice for eternity in a renewed and transfigured creation.
One piece of recent Orthodox history and continued current controversy that often strikes those first learning about the church as odd is the controversy between the old and new, or Julian and revised Julian, calendars. For those outside the church, and even some inside, this controversy may seem odd. The difference in celebrating the immovable feasts two weeks earlier or later may seem almost irrelevant. The tenacity with which people hold to one calendar or the other and the vehemence which the arguments between them can reach may seem strange or misplaced. The idea that it is one date for everyone else in the world and a different date at church in an old calendar parish may even seem fanciful and quaint. Alternatively, it may to others seem quite attractive in making one feel set apart from the world within the church.
This post is not an attempt to describe, let alone resolve this dispute. Rather, it is to discuss its lineage. The controversy of the 1920s was preceded by more than two millennia by an even larger, more bitter, and thus far at least more long-lasting dispute within Second Temple Judaism. Different approaches to the calendar were one of the primary reason for the split between the parties of the Pharisees and Sadducees. A different calendar was the inciting reason for the founders of the Qumran community to resign their priesthood in Jerusalem and go out into the desert to form that community. The way in which time was to be structured was a matter of crucial theological importance both in the ritual sphere and in the ordering of human life in the world.
There is some debate as to the basis of the earliest human calendars. The earliest calendars still extent are based in the agricultural cycle of planting and harvest. These calendars include the earliest religious festivals generally focused around these events. The earliest human settlements which have been excavated, however, feature megalithic architecture which makes it clear that these settlements were tracking the movements of the sun, moon, and stars in relation to particular times and seasons. These ritual sites suggest that the earliest permanent settlements were oriented toward ritual and worship, with the rise of agriculture coming as a practical necessity to support a permanent religious community. This has rendered the previously held assumption that astronomically based calendars superseded earlier agricultural calendars suspect. At the very least, there was an interplay between the cycle of planting and harvest on one hand and the observable movements of celestial bodies on the other in the earliest formations of human calendars.
By the time of Israel’s birth at the Exodus, the calendars used by major human civilizations in Mesopotamia, Egypt, and elsewhere were constructed based on two sets of astronomical observations. The year was divided into a series of months based on the lunar cycle. The year itself was known to be 364/5 days in length through observation of the solar cycle. The disparity between a 360-day lunar calendar and a 364/5-day solar calendar was reconciled in various places in various ways. In fact, our contemporary means of measuring time in seconds, minutes, and hours was developed in Babylon which utilized base-60 mathematics for much of ancient history. The movements of sun, moon, and stars were tracked by these ancient cultures because there were gods associated with these celestial bodies. These lights in the heavens were seen to be one of the bodies of those gods. The heavens were seen to operate in perfect order. By putting affairs on earth into an order which mirrored this celestial order justice and good order would be established and maintained on earth.
Second Temple Judaism did not contest these basic facts, but their interpretation. The gods animating the heavenly lights were angelic beings created by Yahweh, the God of Israel, not gods to be worshipped in their own right. They did not have power or control over human life. Rather, in the Jewish understanding, these being and these celestial bodies as servants of Yahweh were a means which he used to communicate with humanity. This allowed for the formation of a Jewish form of astrology on a different basis. This understanding of the celestial bodies as communicators on behalf of God is reflected in the story of their creation (Gen 1:14-15). Psalm 19:1-6 (18 in the Greek numbering) goes farther, paralleling the communication of the heavenly bodies with the Torah itself in the second half of the psalm. This conception of the role of the heavenly bodies lies behind the appearance of the star to the Magi at Christ’s birth as well as St. Paul’s teaching that all of the nations still had a testimony to the glory of God (Rom 1:19-20). St. Paul also quotes Psalm 19 in Romans 10:18 in order to argue that the whole world has, in some sense, heard the gospel and is responsible for their belief or rejection of it. For this reason, the early verses of Psalm 19 are used liturgically in the Orthodox church connected to the ministry of the apostles who are compared to the stars of heaven in their mission to proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ to the ends of the earth.
At the time of the Exodus and Israel’s birth, Israel was operating on a lunar calendar with a new year, Rosh Hashanah, based on the agricultural cycle. Part of the creation of Israel, however, is Yahweh’s setting of the nation in order through the Torah. This begins with the institution of the annual Passover feast, and the making of the month in which it falls the first of months, reckoning the event of the Passover as the beginning of the first of years (Ex 12:2-3). The creation of Israel began a new age and this idea was still current in Second Temple Judaism. So much so that during the brief success of the Bar Kohva rebellion, coins were minted dating it as the year ‘1’ of the messianic age. It is not coincidental that Bar Kochva means ‘son of a star.’ These Passover instructions and the way in which they ought to be reconciled with the instructions in Deuteronomy 16 along with the rest of the Israelite festal cycle became the origin of the calendar conflict between Pharisees and Sadducees.
While the specific dispute between these two parties can be reduced to the night on which the Passover was to be eaten, this detail was the result of a far more basic and substantive dispute. The Sadducees, on the one hand, believed in strict adherence to the Torah. On the other, however, they represented the educated class in Jerusalem and by the first century AD had come to hold almost all of the wealth and power available to non-Romans in Judea. Their calendar, therefore, was a direct synthesis of the festal cycle as commanded by the Torah and the Julian calendar which they had studied and seen to be based on superior astronomical observations. The Julian calendar, however, is pagan in origin. The Pharisees, therefore, based their calendar on the Torah and sought to reconcile it not based on learning (pagan or otherwise), but based on bodies of oral tradition in how particular elements of the lunar festal calendar ought to be reconciled to a solar year. The Sadducees rejected these traditions as invalid. In practicality, this made the Sadducees calendar far more functional as the Pharisees would periodically have to add a number of days, sometimes even a whole month, in order to stabilize their calendar over the years.
Throughout the world of Second Temple Judaism, in Palestine, Mesopotamia, and Egypt, sectarian groups formed around the rejection of both of these calendars. One of these is the community at Qumran which produced the Dead Sea scrolls. The founders of the Qumran community renounced their priesthood and left Jerusalem to form a pure remnant community in the Judean desert explicitly over the calendar issue. For these communities, the Sadducean calendar and therefore the temple rituals which followed it were tainted by paganism. The Pharisaic calendar, because of its constant need for correction, was clearly a calendar invented by men, not one revealed by Yahweh through the heavenly host. Within the Dead Sea scrolls collection, the text with the most manuscripts is the book of Genesis. A close second, however, is 1 Enoch. One major portion of 1 Enoch, known as the Book of (Heavenly) Luminaries, deals with the movement of the heavenly host and the calendar (1 Enoch 72-82).
Worship in Second Temple Judaism and early Christianity, to be true and rightly ordered, must mirror and participate in the worship of heaven. This is true not only in terms of ritual and ritual space (Heb 8:5) but also the cycle of feasts and the yearly calendar. Enoch as a figure is associated with the calendar in his earliest mention in the scriptures (Gen 5:21-24). Enoch is the seventh mentioned person after Adam in the Sethite genealogy (cf. Jude 14). In the Mesopotamian kings lists which parallel the genealogies of Genesis 4 and 5, the seventh figure is credited with the revelation of the solar calendar. It is not a coincidence, then, that Enoch is said to have lived 365 years before being taken to the presence of God. First Enoch then narrates the visions and experiences of Enoch while in the celestial realm. The Book of Luminaries reveals to him, in great detail, the movements of the angelic beings represented by the heavenly host and how this produces a calendar which is mathematically perfect. This calendar, also reflected in the Book of Jubilees, is based around four sets of three 30-day months, the four seasons. In between each of these four blocks, a single day is inserted at the solstices and equinoxes, producing a 364 day year. This calendar is considered perfect because, under it, the feasts of the annual cycle always fell on not only the same date but the same day of the week. For these sectarian groups, only such a closed, precise system could accurately reflect the perfect order of the heavens.
Early Christianity readily accepted the official Sadducean calendar based in the Julian calendar. As is made particularly clear in St. John’s Gospel, Christ himself celebrated the cycle of feasts in Jerusalem, at the temple, and on the Sadducean dates. This is true even of feasts that are not a part of the Torah such as Hannukah (John 10:22-23). St. Paul urged the early Christian communities to which he wrote not to get involved in intra-Jewish disputes such as those related to the calendar (Col 2:16; Titus 3:9). This calendar was celebrated as fulfilled in Christ down to specific feasts (Pascha/Passover, Pentecost, etc.) but the basic calendar was not the subject of change or dispute until the question of the dating of the new Passover, the celebration of the Resurrection was broached. The old Passover could, of course, fall on any day of the week while it was decided that the new Passover must be celebrated on the first day of the week, the Lord’s day. Rabbinic Judaism resolved this dispute by introducing a new calendar, first created c. 390 AD. Over the course of the next four centuries, the use of the new rabbinic calendar spread throughout the Jewish world.
What is reflected in all of these disputes and those which have taken place throughout Christian history even to this very day is the basic principle that human life in time, personal, familial, and communal, must be ordered by God in order to become a means of salvation. Time is not nebulous nor is it a ‘neutral’ resource to be ordered, spent, and wasted as humans see fit. Rather, it can be disciplined and structured in such a way that it becomes a means through which human persons come into contact with and participation in eternity. In the degree to which we allow our days to be ordered by the life of the church and thereby the Holy Spirit himself, we allow ourselves to be drawn into the life of God, the Holy Trinity.
In 1 Corinthians 5:7, St. Paul states that Christ our Passover has been sacrificed for us. Though St. Paul’s identification is incredibly clear and straightforward, the identification of Christ as Passover lamb and of his death and resurrection as a new Passover are ubiquitous in the scriptures. In Orthodox liturgical practice in English, we tend not to translate the word Pascha. Pascha is simply the Greek word for Passover wherever it occurs liturgically. Therefore, we call our festal celebration of Christ’s death and resurrection ‘Passover’ on a regular basis. The Old Testament establishes patterns of God’s working with humanity and in his creation, including our redemption. These patterns are then taken up and fulfilled, i.e. filled to overflowing, by Christ. Though Christ’s death and resurrection, in contemporary theological discussion in the West, are most commonly discussed with reference to atonement, it is the Passover which is the primary pattern which the scriptures and Christian liturgical tradition see these events in Christ’s life as filling with meaning and salvific power.
Besides St. Paul’s clear identification, Christ is clearly identified with the Passover in other ways. He is repeatedly identified as the ‘Lamb of God,’ especially by St. John the Forerunner and in the Apocalypse of St. John (John 1:29, 36; Rev 5:1-7; 21:14). Notably, the Day of Atonement ritual involved two goats, not a lamb. All four Gospels describe Christ coming to Jerusalem in order to suffer crucifixion and to rise again overlapping the Passover which fell on the day in which Christ rested in the tomb. In Exodus 12, when Yahweh the God of Israel announces the coming of the first Passover at the culmination of the plagues upon Egypt, he describes the way in which the festal, sacrificial commemoration of the event should be kept in the future before the event actually happens (Ex 12:14-20). In the same way, Christ institutes the Eucharist before his death and resurrection actually take place, and in the context of a meal related to the Passover celebration. St. Paul describes Christian baptism in terms of the crossing of the sea and the Christian life centered around the Eucharist in terms of the wandering in the wilderness, which are of course brought about subsequent to the Passover as a salvific event (1 Cor 10:1-4). Many more examples could be given.
The overarching theme of the Passover is manumission from slavery. It is quite obvious in the case of the first Passover that the Israelites were slaves in Egypt and that the Passover was the key event in their release from that slavery. But it may be assumed then that they were slaves, broadly, to the Egyptian people. This envisions the slavery under which they suffered as parallel to the slavery practiced by the Greeks and Romans or later chattel slavery in the Western world. This would then lead to an understanding that the plagues, culminating in the Passover, represent God’s wrath and judgment against the Egyptian people. This is not, however, the way in which the text of Exodus presents Israel’s deliverance. Yahweh, the God of Israel, is quite clear that he is executing judgment not against human persons, but against the gods of Egypt (Ex 12:12). Pharaoh considered himself to be one of these gods in bodily form (specifically Horus). The Biblical text does not dispute this, seeing Pharaoh as indeed being the embodiment of the spiritual powers of evil in Egypt. It is for this reason that the Paschal canon refers to Pharaoh as ‘the persecuting giant.’
The Israelites, and all of the Egyptians for that matter, have been enslaved to powers and principalities in the heavenly places who desire evil through being enslaved by and to Pharaoh as their agent. It is Pharaoh who was utilizing the Israelites as slave labor in building cities and monuments to his own greatness. The power by which these dark powers, acting through Pharaoh, carried out this enslavement was the power of death. Only Yahweh can create and give life. At the opening of the book of Exodus, creational language is used regarding the people of Israel. Their ‘becoming numerous’ utilizes the same verb used for the lives which teemed in the waters and the sky during the Genesis account of creation (Ex 1:7). God’s commandment to newly created humanity, reiterated after the expulsion from Paradise and again after the flood of Noah, was to be fruitful, multiply, and fill the earth. The Israelites are fulfilling this commandment faithfully, but are opposed by rebellious spiritual powers who stand behind Pharaoh. Pharaoh’s response is to use death to prolong and reinforce their enslavement. First, he orders all of the male Israelites to be aborted in the womb (Ex 1:16). When this plan fails to work because the Egyptian midwives won’t participate, he gives a blanket order for male Israelite children to be drowned in the Nile (1:22).
The Passover event, vis a vis the final plague, the death of the firstborn, responds to this along several trajectories. The first is simple distributive justice. Pharaoh has murdered the male children of the Israelites with the Egyptians as willing accomplices. Pharaoh and the Egyptians, therefore, experience the death of their firstborn sons as a balancing of the scales. All of the plagues including the 10th have exhibited the powerlessness of Pharaoh and the other gods of Egypt. Every one of the plagues has brought death. For a few of them, Egyptian magicians have been able to partially mimic the plague, bringing more death. But in no case have any of the gods of Egypt been able to, as they claimed to be able to, bring life to counter the plague and the death which it brought to Egypt. Pharaoh and the other gods do not have the power of life and death. Yahweh, the God of Israel, brings judgment and wrath upon the gods of Egypt, and out of it brings new life, the newborn nation of Israel.
While this describes what God is doing in the Passover event, there is also the question of the ritual, both at the original event and in its subsequent annual practice. It must be noted immediately that there is very clearly no element of substitution in the Passover ritual. There is no indication that the lamb is being killed instead of a firstborn human losing their life. This is clear for several reasons when the text is read carefully. No attention is paid by the ritual text to the killing of the lamb. This means that its death is incidental to, and not part of the ritual. Rather, all of the attention is paid to how the lamb is to be cooked and eaten (Ex 12:3-11). This is in keeping with the norm for sacrificial ritual. Many sacrifices, such as grain and drink offerings, did not involve killing anything. All of them, however, involve a meal. Further, the lambs are not apportioned according to the lives which are going to be spared. It is not ‘one lamb per firstborn male in a household’ such that some households would need to offer several lambs and others would not have to offer any. Rather, the lambs are apportioned one per household (Ex 12:3). Importantly, however, a very small household which cannot eat an entire lamb in one night can share that lamb with another small household (12:4). So the apportionment is according to what a given household is able to eat, not based on firstborn children’s lives spared.
Finally, any sort of substitution would assume that God in his judgment and wrath required the death of the firstborn not only of Pharaoh and the Egyptians but also of the Israelites. There is no indication that this was some sort of requirement, rather it was an action taken by Yahweh the God of Israel to publically defeat his enemies, the gods of Egypt, and free for himself a people. There is further no intimation that this plague was aimed at Israelite and Egyptian indiscriminately. A major part of the nature of this plague is the establishment of justice for the Hebrew children murdered by Pharaoh and his people. Yahweh taking the lives of more Hebrew children makes no sense in this context. The previous plagues fell upon the land of Egypt, but left the Israelites untouched (Ex 8:27; 9:4, 26; 10:23). Why would one assume that this one would fall indiscriminately? This is not only not implied by the text, but runs counter to what the text actually states.
Rather, Yahweh the God of Israel himself reveals what the ritual in its practice will do. To the contrary of the previous assumption, he states that the Passover ritual will make a distinction between Israel and Egypt (Ex 11:4-7). The previous plagues fell upon all the land of Egypt, but not upon the land of Goshen where the Israelites dwelt. But the distinction which Yahweh made was not based on the region in which people dwelt or upon ethnicity, but between his faithful people and those who wished to remain in slavery to the Egyptian gods. The Passover enacts this distinction through sacrificial ritual and through the marking with the blood of the lamb on the household’s door. Israel was constituted, and the people living in Egypt became Israelites, through worship and obedience to Yahweh’s command regardless of ethnicity. The faithless, regardless of ethnicity, became Egyptians that day. The faithful, regardless of ethnicity, became part of God’s people Israel on that day and in subsequent generations through participation in the Passover.
Christ’s death and resurrection fulfill, fill to overflowing, the first Passover. In the Passover, the people of Israel were set free from enslavement to spiritual powers of wickedness and from death in a provisional way on a small scale. Through Christ’s death and resurrection, the new Passover, those spiritual powers are defeated and thrown down once and for all and the power of death is made powerless. Just as to be an Israelite meant to participate through ritual and obedience in the first Passover, to be a Christian is to participate in the death and resurrection of Christ through sacramental worship and a life of obedience. “Today a sacred Passover is revealed to us, a new and holy Passover, a mystical Passover, a Passover worthy of veneration, a Passover which is Christ the Redeemer.”
Psalm 24 (23 in the Greek collection) is a Psalm deeply immersed in the religious world of ancient Israel. The Psalm represents a specific polemic against the pagan beliefs of her Canaanite, Phoenician, and Syrian neighbors. This Psalm mocks the pretensions of the demonic being whom they have chosen to worship directly and specifically. The means for understanding the context into which Psalm 24 was written and the beliefs against which it was directed lay buried in the sand in Lebanon for more than 3,000 years. Nevertheless, the original meaning of this Biblical text was maintained in the Orthodox Church until the present day through its liturgical usage. This text is, therefore, not only a prime example of the way in which ancient Israel understood and interacted with neighboring pagan beliefs, but also a prime example of the way in which Holy Tradition works in preserving and communicating the truths expressed in scripture.
As is apparent from even a cursory reading of the historical books of the Old Testament, the chief deity of Israel’s neighbors was Baal. Baal’s cult also emerges over and over again within Israel and even Judah as a rival to the worship of Yahweh, the God of Israel. Baal’s mythic narrative was discovered at Ugarit during its excavation between 1928 and 1970. The tablets containing its texts had been buried since the fall of the city c. 1180 BC. The narrative arc of the story of Baal is familiar within Mediterranean and Mesopotamian paganism, with Baal ascending to head the council of the gods through struggle and the overthrow of the previous high god. He, therefore, parallels Zeus, Marduk, and other similar figures. Due to the proximity of his worshippers, however, he was the figure most commonly referenced by the authors of scripture.
In the ancient world, it was common for official histories issued by kings to be heavily propagandized. One Pharaoh, for example, created a mural boasting of a great victory in which he lost tens of thousands of troops and a significant amount of territory. The Israelite understanding of the Baal cycle was very similar. It was interpreted as a propagandized document attempting to spin the devil’s defeat into a victory. In the Baal cycle, Baal first faces a conflict with Yam, the sea, who is currently the king reigning over the gods, and his head of the council, Nahar, the river, described as a prince. Baal rebels against the high god and his son who governs the divine council and in the Baal cycle is victorious. He follows his victory and ascending to the throne of the council as a prince with the construction of a massive palace to represent his greatness and power. Finally, as almost an epilogue, he has a final grudge match with Mot, or death, and once victorious establishes himself as the lord of the underworld and the dead as well. In Genesis 3, with the curse placed upon the serpent, and the parallel prophetic passages describing the fall of the devil in Isaiah 14 and Ezekiel 28, Israel understood that in actuality the devil had been a cherub or seraph who sought to seize the throne of God the Son at the head of the divine council and had been thrown down to the earth to become the lord of only the underworld, holding only the power of death. The Baal cycle can therefore easily be seen as a way for the devil to attempt to characterize his defeat as a series of victories in order to seek the worship of the nations. Baal was still identified with the devil well into the New Testament period (eg. Matt 10:25; 12:24-27; Mark 3:22; Luke 11:15-19).
Psalm 24 represents a riposte to this propaganda on the part of the worshippers of Baal. The Psalm begins by saying that the earth and everything in it belongs to Yahweh. This is so because he has founded it upon the seas (yam) and established it upon the rivers (nahar). Creation belongs to Yahweh as the one who created it. It still belongs to Yahweh because neither Baal nor anyone else is able to take it from him. It is Yahweh who has defeated chaos, as represented by these water powers, and brought forth order. The Psalm continues to describe who it is who is able to dwell on the mountain of Yahweh and stand in the holy place of his presence (v. 3). This is something which the devil can no longer do. Rather, this has been given to humans who have clean hands a pure heart. It belongs to those who are free from deceit and do not participate in false worship (v. 4). These will receive blessing, righteousness, and life from the God of Israel. They will receive these things in the future despite the current state of affairs. The first verse of Psalm 24 is prayed at the anointing of the body at an Orthodox funeral as a defiant statement to the devil and a reminder that he no longer has any claim over the departed.
The address to Baal, the lord of the dead, in this Psalm makes clear that it is speaking concerning the righteous dead. Due to the failure of his rebellion, all that has been left to the devil has been to claim those who sin and die. The righteous, however, do not belong to him and their destiny is to receive the place with God which the devil lost through envy. To that end, the remainder of the Psalm describes an assault by Yahweh himself upon Baal’s palace in the underworld to set them free.
Within the Baal cycle, there is a critical moment in Baal’s ascent to power. Baal has begun fomenting his rebellion among the gods and this includes trading missives with Yam and Nahar. As the conflict heads toward inevitable violence, messengers (lit. angels) arrive from Yam and Nahar to tell Baal and his minions to submit. As soon as they arrive, the other gods, sitting upon their thrones in the council, literally bend down and put their heads between their legs in submission. This causes Baal to give an impassioned motivational speech. The refrain within Baal’s speech is, “Lift up your heads, O you gods!” After the conclusion of this rousing speech, Baal proceeds to murder the messengers and go out to battle and kill Yam and Nahar (Baal, I.II.24-29).
In Psalm 24, as Yahweh’s assault upon the gates of Baal’s palace in the underworld begins, it begins with these words of Baal being used against him in mockery (v. 7, 9). These words which the devil claims he spoke as he began his rebellion are now thrown back in his face as Yahweh comes to take from him even that little power, that of death, which remains to him in the rescue of his righteous ones. Yahweh strong and might, Yahweh mighty in battle, Yahweh of military hosts has come to bring salvation to his righteous ones, to destroy the gates of Baal’s palace and take them to dwell with him upon his holy mountain of assembly.
Christianity has always seen the assault envisioned by Psalm 24 as having taken place in the death and resurrection of Christ. Among many of the Fathers, it is seen as the very reason for the incarnation. The Son of God became man so that he could die. He died so that he could be swallowed up by death as was Jonah and emerge victorious with the righteous dead from the whole human race. The harrowing of Hades is described in scripture (eg. Matt 12:29; Mark 3:27). It is depicted in iconography. It is a constant theme of the hymnography of the resurrection. Most importantly, however, it is ritually enacted and participated in by the Christian faithful in the Rush Service of Pascha. Just as the Jewish Passover celebration served as a ritual to bring future generations into the event of the Exodus, so also this ritual of the Christian Passover brings each generation of Christians through the experience of Yahweh, Christ our God’s raid on the devil’s palace in Hades. For 2000 years, Christians have lived and died after this event. But in its annual ritual celebration, they have entered into this event, participated in and experienced it in reality, by passing through darkness into light as Christ burst through the ancient gates. In the celebration of Pascha, every Christian comes to share the experience of the righteous dead from before the advent of Christ. We have passed from death to life.
In preparing his Latin translation of the scripture, St. Jerome translated the Greek word “diatheke” and the Hebrew word “berith” with the Latin “testamentum.” From the latter word, the English word “testament” is derived. The original Hebrew term, “berith,” refers most commonly to treaty documents, and in its usage in the Torah particularly refers to a particular type of treaty, that issued by a suzerain to a vassal at a king’s accession to the throne. This usage is in view in the New Testament in every instance of its usage but one. To convey this usage, the word is generally translated “covenant.” The translators of the Hebrew scriptures into Greek translated the word with the Greek “diatheke” which is likewise flexible, referring to a broad range of legal documents, but which includes the original usage. The Latin term “testamentum” means literally a “thing witnessed.” This term can likewise cover a broad range of legal documents, essentially anything to which the testimony of witnesses was attached. Deliberately or not, St. Jerome chose a term which conveyed both the idea of covenant and the Greek concept of “martyria.” or witness, especially important in its use for the two primary divisions of the scriptures, the “Vetus Testamentum” and the “Novum Testamentum.”
The English word “testament,” on the other hand, does not carry with it the larger understanding of “covenant.” Its most common usage is in the phrase “last will and testament” in which “testament” refers to the portion of the document in which the person disposes of their personal property after their death. Because of this, the King James translators, for example, maintained the headings of Old and New Testament for the divisions of the scriptures with the Latin term’s double meaning, but translated the word in the text of the scriptures as “covenant.” The English word “testament” has since found an entirely different use in regard to Biblical literature based on its English usage. There is a vast swathe of Jewish literature from the Second Temple period which falls under the genre of “testaments.” There are written testaments for a vast swathe of Biblical figures, the most important of which, for its apparent influence on the New Testament, is collectively called “The Testament of the Twelve Patriarchs.” This is actually a collection of texts, one testament for each of the sons of Jacob. These texts have been preserved by the Church at many ancient monastic foundations, particularly St. Catherine’s, Mar Saba, and Mt. Athos.
All of these testaments present the Biblical figure in question expressing his final words and wishes shortly before his death. In many cases, these words have a prophetic focus, describing future events. Several of them verge into apocalyptic. This genre is based on a particular Biblical text, Genesis 49. In this text, Jacob gathers his sons after they have been reunited in Egypt and speaks to them his final words from his deathbed before going to rest with his fathers. The text describes what he says to each of his sons as “a blessing” which is appropriate to them, though many are quite negative in their outlook. In most instances, they seem clearly directed toward the tribe which would descend from that patriarch, rather than the person of Jacob’s son. While it is sometimes obscured in modern translations, which render the phrase “sons of Israel” as “children of Israel,” this collective phrase when used for the nation of Israel is actually a reference to the unity of the 12 tribes. Referring to the nation as the “United States” has a similar resonance. Jacob had sons of his loins, but also each of the tribes was a son of Jacob, and collectively they were the “sons of Israel.”
While some of the blessings are brief, such as those upon Gad, Asher, and Naphtali (v. 19-21), others are significant. In reading the text of Genesis the turn taken by later Israelite history comes across as unexpected. This is one of the great pieces of evidence of the antiquity of the traditions here represented. While the narrative has certainly been shaped by later hands, it has not been accommodated to later history. The patriarchal narratives which begin in Genesis 12 follow a specific line of descent. The narrative follows the life of Abraham, then Isaac rather than Ishmael, and Jacob rather than Esau. The narrative then shifts, and roughly the last third of the book of Genesis then follows the life of Joseph. Joseph’s descendants, however, do not become a major focus of the Hebrew scriptures going forward, even in the remainder of the Torah. This is not because the Ephraimites, in particular, were not important to the later life of Israel. They were the largest and most numerous tribe in all of Israel and became the central and ruling tribe in the northern kingdom of Israel after the split with Judah. The northern kingdom is often referred to later in the Hebrew scriptures, in Psalms and prophecy, as Ephraim.
In Genesis 48, before his blessing on Joseph and his brothers, this was predicted in the scene in which Jacob blesses Joseph’s two oldest sons, Manassah and Ephraim. Though Ephraim is the younger, Jacob prophecies that he will be greater and more numerous (v. 13-17). It is worth noting that in giving this blessing, Jacob crossed his arms right over left. As a way of honoring Joseph, he adopts these two as his own sons to inherit alongside Joseph’s brothers (v. 5). It is for this reason that throughout the scriptures, even in the Revelation of St. John, Manassah and Ephraim are reckoned as tribes of Israel (Rev 7:6,8). Though his blessing on Joseph is effusive and positive (49:22-26), it comes to naught through the unbelief of Joseph’s descendants in parallel to the way in which the blessings of God were squandered by the northern kingdom of Israel, the kingdom which bore Jacob’s name.
Several of these “blessings” more resemble curses. As mentioned in last week’s post, this includes that spoken of the tribe of Dan, from which it was prophesied that a judge would come (v. 16), but that the tribe would be like the serpent (v. 17). Jacob’s vision of Dan’s future leads him to cry out to the Lord for salvation (v. 18). Likewise condemned, though he is the firstborn in order, is Reuben. Despite being the firstborn, Reuben had attempted what was known in the ancient world as family usurpation. He attempted to father a child with one of the wives of his father in order to make himself the head of the family (Gen 35:22). Because he was the firstborn, this act was especially treacherous. He was set to inherit as the heir anyway, and so it represents an attempt to sieze control of the family and its possessions from his father while his father was still alive. Other instances of this horrible crime were committed by Noah’s son Ham (Gen 9:21-23) and David’s son Absalom (2 Sam/2 Kgdms 16:21-22). Jacob curses Reuben for his crime and takes away his status as firstborn (Gen 49:3-4).
Symeon and Levi are likewise cursed, the second and third born sons respectively. Symeon and Levi had disobeyed their father in carrying out a massacre in Shechem through treachery to get revenge for what some of the men of the city had done to their sister Dinah (Gen 34). This jeopardized the whole family’s safety in the land, and so Jacob curses them with a lack of inheritance in that land (Gen 49:5-7). Through Moses and Aaron, Levi would come to hold the priesthood for Israel, but part of this priesthood was that they had no land inheritance of their own (Deut 10:9). Benjamin, somewhat surprisingly given his favored and special status in the patriarchal narrative as the second son of Rachel, is also spoken of in negative terms (v. 37). This statement is prophetic and likely related to the role of the Benjamites in the later Israelite civil war (Jdg 19:12-20:48) and Saul’s short-lived Benjamite monarchy which was seen as illegitimate.
The most important prophetic element of the Testament of Israel, however, is that concerning Judah (Gen 49:8-12). Judah was the firstborn son, and the disinheritance of Reuben, Simeon, and Levi made him the heir and granted him firstborn status. It is the line of Judah which will come to represent the believing, covenant line through the remainder of the history of the old covenant. It is therefore reasonable that the prophecy here describes the legitimate line of kings as coming from Judah (v. 8, 10, 11). This prophecy also shapes the hope given to Adam and Eve after the expulsion from Paradise, the seed of the woman (Gen 3: 15), into specifically Messianic promise. The word “Messiah” or in Greek “Christ” is a title for the anointed king. Judah’s kingship is prophesied to be immediate over the sons of Israel (Gen 49:8) but ultimately over all the nations and peoples of the world (v. 10). Judah becomes the focus of Biblical history because the purpose and goal of that history are to produce the seed of the woman, the seed of Abraham (Gen 22:18; Gal 3:16), the Christ.
The imagery used in the blessing of Judah by his father is further developed later in the scriptures as descriptors of the Messiah. The figure described with his purple garments is taken to be this singular individual, the Christ. The comparison of the Messiah to a lion, the lion of the tribe of Judah, led to the use of the lion as a symbol of the Davidic monarchy in Jerusalem throughout its history. St. John identifies Jesus as this lion in Revelation 5:5. The imagery of the king’s foal and donkey’s colt tied to a vine (Gen 49:11) is further developed by the prophet Zechariah (Zech 9:9-10). In what is clearly a Messianic prophecy, the Christ is described as coming to Jerusalem riding on these same animals. As narrated in all four Gospels, as Jesus makes his entry into Jerusalem, he quite literally fulfills these prophecies in detail (Matthew 21:1-11, Mark 11:1-11, Luke 19:28-44, and John 12:12-19). The animal which Christ rides is found tied to a plant. St. Matthew wishes this fulfillment to be so clear that he seems to imply that Christ rode two animals at the same time (Matt 21:7).
The final verse of Israel’s prophecy over Judah is later developed in Biblical imagery to refer to the death and resurrection of Christ. The Messiah’s eyes are said to be “dull” or “dark” from wine. Christ repeatedly describes his passion and death as drinking from a cup (eg. Matt 20:22-23; Mark 10:38-39; Luke 22:42). This depiction of dead eyes is, however, followed by a description of teeth white from milk, a description of new life as represented by a young infant. This more closely ties the figure of this prophecy to the figure prophesied against the devil in Genesis 3:15. Through the guile of the serpent, humanity has become subject to death. The defeat of the serpent comes after the seed of the woman has been struck by the power of death, and represents new, and ultimately eternal, life through readmission to the tree of life. As our Lord Jesus Christ rides into Jerusalem triumphantly on Palm Sunday, it represents both the fulfillment of prophecy, identiying him as the Messianic seed who was to come, and a prophecy itself. It is an assurance that he would soon be struck by death, but would emerge victorious on the other side, bringing new life to humankind.