We have been looking at how the early Church Fathers understood various Old Testament passages. A literal or historical reading often presented a portrait of God that contradicts the revelation of God presented in Jesus Christ, who is the “exact representation” of God (Hebrews 1:3). This creates a tremendous theological problem, and some early Christians, following the lead of Marcion, rejected the Old Testament altogether.
The early Church Fathers were well aware of the problem but were unwilling to resolve it by rejecting the Old Testament as Marcion had done. Instead, they read the Scriptures through the revelation of Christ and the gospel, as presented in the New Testament. It was Christ himself who said that the Old Testament Scriptures are about him. But Christ is not plainly presented in the Old Testament as he is in the New, so a plain reading simply will not do — it does not conform to the intended purpose of the Old Testament, which is to present Christ.
The Fathers, then, understood the Old Testament through metaphorical, symbolic and allegorical readings. Now we will look at a few more examples.
When the LORD your God brings you into the land you are entering to possess and drives out before you many nations — the Hittites, Girgashites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites, seven nations larger and stronger than you — and when the LORD your God has delivered them over to you and you have defeated them, then you must destroy them totally. Make no treaty with them, and show them no mercy.By a literal reading, this prescribes what sounds very much like a genocide — not just the defeat of an enemy but the total destruction of an entire people. No treaty, no quarter, no mercy. But is this how God is portrayed in Christ, or how Christ is portrayed in the New Testament? The Church Fathers certainly did not think so. John Cassian, in his Conferences, reads this passage in a figurative way and understands the seven nations not as seven actual nations to be annihilated but as vices to be completely eliminated.
These are the seven nations whose lands the Lord promised to give to the children of Israel when they left Egypt. We must accept the fact that, according to the apostle, all the things that happened to them in a figure were written for our instruction. The reason that they are said to be much more numerous is that there are more vices than virtues. Therefore in the list they are counted as seven nations, to be sure, but when it is a question of destroying them they are said to be innumerable. (Conference 5)Psalm 137:8-9
Daughter Babylon, doomed to destruction, happy is the one who repays you according to what you have done to us. Happy is the one who seizes your infants and dashes them against the rocks.By a literal reading, this sounds like God blesses the wanton and calloused destruction of Edom (the “daughter” of Edom) and even the brutal killing of infants (or children, or perhaps young men). But a literal reading contradicts what Christ teaches us: to love our enemies. So a literal reading was set aside by the early Church Fathers, who interpreted this text along these lines:
And David, pitying her, says, “O wretched daughter of Babylon.” Wretched indeed, as being the daughter of Babylon, when she ceased to be the daughter of Jerusalem. And yet he calls for a healer for her and says, “Blessed is he who shall take your little ones and dash them against the rock.” That is to say, shall dash all corrupt and filthy thoughts against Christ, who by his fear and his rebuke will break down all actions against reason, so as, if any one is seized by an adulterous love, to extinguish the fire, that he may by his zeal put away the love of a harlot and deny himself that he may gain Christ. (Ambrose, Concerning Repentance)Isaiah 63:1-6
For “the little ones” of Babylon (which signifies confusion) are those troublesome sinful thoughts that arise in the soul, and one who subdues them by striking, as it were, their heads against the firm and solid strength of reason and truth, is the person who “dashes the little ones against the stones”; and he is therefore truly blessed. God may therefore have commanded people to destroy all their vices utterly, even at their birth, without having enjoined anything contrary to the teaching of Christ. And he may himself have destroyed before the eyes of those who were “Jews inwardly” all the offspring of evil as his enemies. (Origen, Against Celsus)
Who is this coming from Edom, from Bozrah, with his garments stained crimson? Who is this, robed in splendor, striding forward in the greatness of his strength? “It is I, proclaiming victory, mighty to save.” Why are your garments red, like those of one treading the winepress? “I have trodden the winepress alone; from the nations no one was with me. I trampled them in my anger and trod them down in my wrath; their blood spattered my garments, and I stained all my clothing. It was for me the day of vengeance; the year for me to redeem had come. I looked, but there was no one to help, I was appalled that no one gave support; so my own arm achieved salvation for me, and my own wrath sustained me. I trampled the nations in my anger; in my wrath I made them drunk and poured their blood on the ground.”Again, by a literal reading, this sounds like God rejoicing to destroy Edom in a rage of revenge and blood-lust. But again, this is not at like God as portrayed by Christ and the gospel. But see how very differently the Fathers understood this passage by a Christ-shaped reading.
The only-begotten Word of God ascended in the heavens with his flesh united to him, and this was a new sight in the heavens. The multitude of holy angels was astounded seeing the king of glory and the Lord of hosts in a form similar to ours. And they said, “Who is this that comes from Edom [that is, from earth], in crimsoned garments, from Bosor.” But “Bosor” is to be interpreted as “flesh” or “anguish and affliction.” (Cyril of Alexandria, Letter 41)For the Fathers, this was not the blood of physical enemies but of Christ. This is the passion and humility of the cross; not Christ taking the life of the Edomites in a bloody rampage but Christ giving his own life, shedding his own blood for our sakes. Some also saw, in the opening lines, a depiction of Christ ascending into heaven, risen and victorious.
And does not also the Holy Spirit, speaking in Isaiah, testify the same thing concerning the passion of the Lord, saying, “Why are your vestments red and your garments as from treading the wine press full and well-trodden?” For can water make vestments red, or is it water that is trodden by the feet in the winepress or forced out by the press? The mention of wine is placed there, indeed, that in the wine the blood of the Lord may be known and that which was afterward manifested in the chalice of the Lord might be foretold by the prophets who announced it. The treading and pressing of the winepress are also spoken of, since wine cannot be prepared for drinking in any other way unless the cluster of grapes is first trodden and pressed. Thus, we could not drink the blood of Christ unless Christ had first been trodden on and pressed, and unless he had first drunk the chalice of which he should also give believers to drink. (Cyprian, Letter 63)
And, if they marvel and say, as in Isaiah’s drama, “Who is this that comes from Edom and from the things of the earth?” or “How are the garments red when he is without blood or body, as of one that treads in the full winepress?” — if they say this, then set forth the beauty of the array of the body that suffered, adorned by the passion and made splendid by the Godhead. Nothing can be lovelier or more beautiful than that. Will you think little of him because he humbled himself for your sake? Do you conceive of him as less because he girds himself with a towel and washes his disciples and shows that humiliation is the best road to exaltation? (Gregory of Nazianzus, On Holy Easter, Oration 45)
They call the red land “Edom,” and “Bosor” to the flesh; they were amazed at the ineffable beauty of the one wrapped in earthly and fleshly apparel, such as to drive those who looked to love. The blessed David is mindful of this beauty: “Fair and beautiful among the sons of humankind.” That Edom means flame-colored is affirmed in the Song of Songs by the bride, who cries, “My beloved is red and white.” Christ’s nature is twofold. Therefore, white means the inaccessible light of divinity, red the human appearance. For this is the time for these who were brazen to receive retribution and for those unjustly enslaved by them to get their freedom. He calls “arm” the power of righteousness, for he guarded spotless and free from sin the nature that he assumed. We who have benefited from this good work and have been delivered from that bitter slavery, let us sing praises to the author of these things. He was the one who underwent the battle and provided us with the gift of victory and peace. Let us hope that we can enjoy this victory until the end, by the grace of the one who has conquered. (Theodoret of Cyr, Commentary on Isaiah)
In order, however, that you might discover how anciently wine is used as a figure for blood, turn to Isaiah, who asks, “Who is this that comes from Edom, from Bosor with garments dyed in red, so glorious in his apparel, in the greatness of his might? Why are your garments red, and your clothing as his who comes from the treading of the full winepress?” The prophetic Spirit contemplates the Lord as if he were already on his way to his passion, clad in his fleshly nature; and as he was to suffer therein, he represents the bleeding condition of his flesh under the metaphor of garments dyed in red, as if reddened in the treading and crushing process of the winepress, from which the laborers descend reddened with the wine juice, like men stained in blood. (Tertullian, Against Marcion)
Of course, the Fathers were not infallible in their interpretations. But the point is that they were reading the Old Testament in ways that are consistent with Christ instead of in literal ways that contradict him.
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