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The Old Testament
A Byzantine Perspective
|Wisdom||Wisdom of Solomon|
|Baruch Chapters 1-5||Baruch|
|Baruch Chapter 6||Letter of Jeremiah|
|Esther (10:4-16:24)||Additions to Esther|
|I Maccabees||I Maccabees|
|II Maccabees||II Maccabees|
|Daniel Chapter 3:24-90||The Prayer of Azariah|
|Daniel Chapter 13||Susanna|
|Daniel Chapter 14||Bel and the Dragon|
|3 Maccabees||3 Maccabees (placed in the Pseudepigrapha)|
|The Prayer of Manasseh||The Prayer of Manasseh|
|1 Esdras (also called 2nd Ezra or 3rd Ezra if the book of Nehimiah is labeled 1 Ezra)||1 Esdras (also called 2nd Ezra or 3rd Ezra if the book of Nehimiah is labeled 1 Ezra)|
|2 Esdras (also called 3ird Ezra if the book of Nehimiah is labeled 1 Ezra)||2 Esdras (also called 3ird Ezra if the book of Nehimiah is labeled 1 Ezra)|
|All of the following are universally not accepted as scripture. Protestant's refer to this collection as the Pseudepigrapha|
|Apocalypse of Abraham||Life of Adam and Eve|
|Apocalypse of Adam||Ahiqar|
|Testament of Adam||Letter of Aristeas|
|2 Baruch||Aristeas the Exegete|
|3 Baruch||4 Baruch|
|Apocalypse of Daniel||Aristobulus|
|Apocalypse of Elijah||Artapanus|
|1 Enoch||Cleodemus Malchus|
|2 Enoch||More Psalms of David|
|3 Enoch||Demetrius the Chronographer|
|Apocryphon of Ezekiel||Eldad and Modad|
|Greek Apocalypse of Ezra||Eupolemus|
|Questions of Ezra||Pseudo-Eupolemus|
|Revelation of Ezra||Ezekiel the Tragedian|
|Vision of Ezra||Fragments of Pseudo-Greek Poets|
|Testament of Job||Pseudo-Hecataeus|
|Testament of Moses||Hellenistic Synagogal Prayers|
|Apocalypse of Sedrach||Martyrdom and Ascension of Isaiah|
|Treatis of Shem||Ladder of Jacob|
|Sibylline Oracles||Prayer of Jacob|
|Testament of Solomon||Jannes and Jambres|
|Testaments of the Three Patriarchs||Joseph and Aseneth|
|Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs||History of Joseph|
|Apocalypse of Ephaniah||Prayer of Joseph|
|Philo the Epic Poet|
|The lives of the Prophets|
|History of the Rechabites|
|Odes of Solomon|
|Psalms of Solomon|
The heavens declare the glory of God ;
and the firmament proclaims the work of his hands.
Christians and Jews accept this scripture in common yet have very different faith expressions from these writings. How one interprets the stories, images and prophecy greatly influences ones conclusion. Many people can attend the same event and each will have their own spin on what occurred and the meaning of the event. Scripture amplifies these differences by the very fact that the images and stories are old and the language is not clear and concise.
This lack of clarity is ironically the reason for the texts timeless value. When we read clear and concise histories from the same period they do not hold the same possibilities to our times as the timeless images of scripture. In a sense the vagueness is the timeless value in the message.
The most common way Christians read the Old Testament is with an eye to prophecy fulfillment. We look to the stories of old to see the signs that point to Jesus and his mission among us. When we apply these stories and prophecies in the Old Testament to Jesus we should be aware that this interpretation is neither automatic nor self evident. The Muslims and the Jews read these same texts and come to different conclusions. Ours is a matter of faith and our understanding of Christ, not a simple fact to be memorized.
We should also note that most of the prophecies we apply to Jesus have another explanation, often one in the very same book that we take the prophecy from. The Church interprets prophecy in the context of what Christ did and said during his ministry and how the apostles saw things when moved by the Spirit. We need to be sure our own readings of these prophecies are guided by the accumulated wisdom of the church on their true meaning.
Christians also read the Old Testament with an eye to seeing "types" of Christ in the revelation from God of old. We see many parallels with the life of Christ and key figures in the history of Israel. Typology has and element of prophecy. But the reference is oblique and more poetic. Typology finds patterns in events and people in the Old Testament brought to perfection in the New Testament.
For example, Moses is seen as a prefiguring type for Jesus. In the nativity passages in the Gospels we see numerous parallels between the birth of Moses and the birth of Jesus. Moses leads his people out of slavery in Egypt. Jesus leads us out of the slavery of sin. Moses is the law giver in the Old Testament. Jesus gives us the law of love in the New Testaments.
Byzantine tradition sees many other types for figures in the New Testament in the old. The temple and the ark of the covenant are seen as types for Mary the mother of God. Just as the temple and ark carry the presence of God in the Old testament Mary is God bearer in the new. Adam and Eve are seen as types for Jesus and Mary.
The story of creation and the fall in Genesis shows the current human condition as imperfect. Throughout the rest of the Old Testament we see humanities attempts to re-create to a more perfect likeness of God. The story of Noah and the flood renews the earth after a long period of corruption as a re-creation act of God.
The Byzantine Church took this theme of re-creation to the coming of Christ. Christ renews all creation with his resurrection. The Day of resurrection is referred to as the eighth day, the first day of the new creation in Christ.
Another lens for interpretation in the Old Testament is the concept of a remnant of the chosen people. The remnant are the few people who kept the faith in spite of the fact that most of the people have abandoned the ways of God.
When the nation abandoned the way of the covenant God punished the people by allowing their neighbors to conquer them. Since the promise of the covenant is the occupation of the promised land we needed to explain why Israel was not in control of the promised land. We see the remnant as a way to keep alive the promises of God. If a small community can live the covenant than the love of God for his people can be revived. By demonstrating a faith in God's promise and living the law the remnant can revive the fortunes of Israel and rebuild the nation.
This is the scenario that plays out during the Babalonian exile with the return of the faithful remnant to Jerusalem by the decree of Cyrus the Persian king. Christians also see this as the model of how the Church was built. The remnant of Jews that built the Christian church kept the promise alive while the temple was destroyed and the nation of Israel put under occupation.
The Byzantine Church saw types of crucifixion and resurrection in the history of Israel. They looked to events in the past and found parallels to the ultimate saving event for Christians, the death and resurrection of Jesus.
When Moses led the people into the desert they began to complain bitterly about their situation. God grew angry at their ingratitude and sent a scourge of snakes among them. The snakes bit the people and made them ill. Moses was then instructed to raise up the image of a snake on a staff and those that looked upon this would be saved.
Here the church finds a type for the crucifixion. Jesus is lifted up on the cross and those who come to him and look upon him are saved from their sins. We come to the image of our sins being destroyed and start a new life with Christ.
Jonah is cast into the sea and swallowed to live in the belly of the fish for three days. He comes to see his role in God's plan. The fish releases him to his new life in the service of God's word.
The Church sees a type of resurrection in this story. Jesus descends into the abyss for three days and returns to life, just like Jonah in the belly of the whale. We read this story during vespers on Good Friday.
Allegory is a popular literary device even today. Scripture is full of allegorical interpretations of the human condition. Allegory helps us view life from multiple, often contradictory angles and find the truth. Allegory smoothes over the differences in point of view brings the mind many things to contemplate at the same time.
Allegory in literature during the time of the composition of scripture was quite popular. Many secular writers used allegory in many other fields. Much of the scientific literature of the time was composed in this fashion as a didactic device. Many historians used allegory to relate the history of their nations to the popular myths of the time.
Philo was a contemporary of Jesus who wrote in defense of Jewish beliefs for the popular audience in the Roman empire. His works on the scriptures are largely allegorical and many carry this very word in their title.
Philo was primarily concerned with reconciling the scientific knowledge of his day with the facts and stories laid out in scripture. His arguments over the creation stories with contemporary scientists in the first century are telling for us facing the same problem today.
Philo wrote "An Allegorical Interpretation of Genesis" to explain how the creation stories are fully in line with science. Today we find many of his tortured arguments to align Genesis with science we now know to be wrong amusing. But his extensive use of allegory to reconcile the differences are a window in the mind of the authors of the New Testament explaining what Christ means to the Old testament.
Paul was a very well educated man and thoroughly steeped in the Jewish traditions. He would isolate quotations from the Old testament and interpret them allegorically to his audience in his writings. "Do not muzzle the Ox as he treads the grain" enjoins Deuteronomy 25:4. Paul sees a call for Christians to pay their preachers a living wage.
As a Pharisee Paul was well versed in the Law of the Old Testament. But he also knew the call of the Prophets to bring those outside Israel to the one true God. Allegorical interpretation of the Law allows both to occur. We become circumcised in our hearts instead of our flesh. We become spiritual children of Abraham instead of physical ones. We become parts in the body of Christ.
Paul's letters become the bridge connecting the Old Testament with the New.
When the Byzantine Church used allegory they were doing the same thing with Scripture that the other major sects of Jews were doing at that time. This mode of thought is not an aberration or a perversion of Scripture, but a legitimate way to add texture and dimension to the stories we read. Allegory also makes the main point of the story more relevant to current readers.
Allegorical interpretation is backward looking. We know the result of salvation history is the coming of Jesus to die on the cross and rise again on the third day. Allegorical interpretation of the Old Testament looks for analogies that bring us to this revelation. The Byzantine Church has identified several major themes to this end.
The Patristic writers saw many of the major events and people in the life of Christ allegorically in the stories of the Old Testament. Many times a scene in the Old Testament is replayed on a new and better level in the New Testament by this mode of interpretation.
The story about the three angels who come to visit Abraham at the Mambre is a prefiguring of the trinity. The New Testament scene of the Baptism of Jesus in the Jordan becomes the fuller more perfect revelation.
Many of the Patristic writers found the souls journey to God as a rich meditation on events from the Old Testament. Seeing in the Old Testament very personal opportunities for spiritual enlightenment and growth they related events to our own Theosis (becoming one with God).
The same scene of Abraham with the visiting angels at Mambre becomes for Origen a rich example for our own conduct with strangers. Our soul must recognize the divine around us on our journey to God. We are called to a faith in community and God often approaches us from unexpected angles with unexpected news.
When reading the Old Testament allegorically Christians can relate events to our own souls personal growth in the Spirit and how that affects the life of the church community. We see in the events of the Old Testament an example of how our own life and community should be.
The Song of Songs describes in beautiful terms the growth of love between Solomon and Shulamit. This growth of love is seen allegorically as the souls growth in love of God. The growth in love of God is our increase in the spiritual life.
The Exodus journey out of slavery and into the promised land is another allegory for the souls journey from sinfulness to God. The Exodus experience gets worked out from practically all the possible types of interpretation due to the central nature of this event in the history of Israel.
Devotion to Mary found a powerful image in the revelation of God to Moses in the Burning Bush. The fire of God is all powerful and destroys all that dare even to look upon it, much less touch the fire. But the Bush is spared harm by the fire and Moses is granted the sight of this miracle. The fire of God's Holy Spirit comes upon Mary and joins with her to create Jesus both God and man. Yet Mary is not consumed by the fire, just like the Bush is not consumed by the flame.
This image of Mary as the burning bush has been cast into countless hymns and liturgical services in the church.
Blessed is he whose helper is the God of Jacob,
whose hope is in the Lord his God;
Who made heaven, and earth, the sea, and all things in them.
Genesis is one of the first five books of the Bible known as the Torah (Law) to the Jewish faithful. They are also referred to as the Pentateuch, meaning five books in Greek. The other four are: Exodus, Deuteronomy, Leviticus and Numbers. These are the bedrock of Scripture in the Old Testament. Just as Christians look to the Gospels to place all the other books in the New Testament into context the Hebrews look to the Torah to define the rest of the Old Testament.
Genesis details the beginnings of all things and how humanity came to have a special relationship to God. Genesis is constructed as a history text starting at the very beginning of creation through the establishment of the chosen people as the means to re-introduce God to humanity.
Genesis if filled with many stories and countless characters but God is the main protagonist. In Genesis we see God is the God of history. Nothing in all of history happens without God's consent. Even when people think they are in control God is ultimately in charge and knows their every move even before they do.
This omniscient God in control is often difficult for modern readers to relate to. Many philosophers have struggled with the problem of the existence of evil if God is indeed all good, all powerful and in control. Many others find difficulty with the apparent lack of free will with this type of God of history.
This image of God from Genesis gives fruit for mediation. We can find comfort in this God that knows our very thoughts and understands why we are who we are. We can flow with the free will of God and faith to an acceptance of things we cannot change. We can see our lives as furthering the will of God for those around us if we choose to assist in God's plan.
Our creation and our faith place us in the family of God. Genesis tells us our family history. The story is told broadly in two parts: Chapters 1-11 deal with the creation and evolution of the human family while from chapter 12 on focuses on the special chosen family of Abraham. Throughout the New Testament Christians claim to be children Abraham. We are not physically descended from this family but are children of Abraham spiritually by adoption and how we live out our lives.
The Byzantine Church also finds parallels between Christ and Mary with Adam and Eve in our family history. The Gospel becomes are repeat performance of Genesis with the New Adam and the New Eve being faithful to the will of God.
Beyond the family story, Genesis reveals that God has a plan for humanity. We are created Good but chose to sever ourselves from God. Genesis outlines how God continually planned to bring humanity back into communion with God. We see the special relationship of God with the children of Adam and Eve. We see humanity starting over after the flood with good intentions. Finally, we see God's patient plan to have us grow closer over generations by building a long relationship with a particular family in Abraham.
Christians see this plan come to fulfillment in the fullness of time with the coming of Christ. The epistle to the Hebrews that we read on the Sunday before the Nativity recaps for us the stories of faith in the Old Testament: "While all these (figures in the Old Testament) were approved because of their faith they were not to be made perfect. God had a better plan, a plan which included us, for without us they were not to be made perfect."
The very word Genesis is synonymous with Creation. The story of Creation in Genesis is well known and accepted by Muslims, Jews and Christians today but most of the world did not see the Divine as a source of creation in ancient times. God as the creator of all things visible and invisible was a radically different view from the rest of the world. Only the small now defunct Zorastorians held this same world view.
God as our creator is a rich source of meditation for our existence. The Byzantine Church saw creation in Genesis as a rich treasure to connect to events in Jesus' ministry, and his very mission and existence.
The three most solemn commemorations during the liturgical year all have connections to the creation stories in Genesis. Each of these events are seen as a new beginning, or creation, in salvation history. We read the Genesis stories during the vesper services for all these feasts.
Byzantine liturgical services for Pascha refer to this new age as the "eighth day". Christ's resurrection from the dead destroys the power of death. Death came into the world after the fall in original creation in seven days. The resurrection begins a new creation on the eighth day.
Theophany begins the public ministry of Jesus. We see a more perfect revelation of the Trinity that is only hinted at in the creation story of Genesis. In Genesis, God creates by his word with the spirit over the water. At the Theophany, God as trinity is explicitly revealed as the Tropar of the feast proclaims:
At your baptism in the Jordan, O Lord, worship of the Trinity was revealed, for the Father's voice bore witness to You, calling You His 'beloved Son', and the Spirit in the form of a dove confirmed the truth of these words. O Christ God, Who appeared and enlightened the world, glory be to You!
Nativity starts our salvation. Here all of creation contributes to the revelation that Christ is born. Vespers from the feast proclaim:
Every creature that has its being from You gives thanks to You: the angels offer hymns of praise, the heavens give a star; the Magi present their gifts and the shepherds, their wonder; the earth provides a cave and the desert a manger. As for us, we offer a Virgin Mother.
From the first readings of Genesis by other communities the Jews were forced to defend the text based on the science of the day. Genesis is not concerned with science but with metaphysics and eternal truth. While Genesis was written with the assumptions of the science of it's day they are not the message for the faithful. Genesis sees the world as a flat land that has a solid dome for a sky. Above the dome is a mass of water being held back keeping the earth dry. The Dome has gates that open periodically and let some of that water fall in the form of rain. Pillars on each end of the earth hold this dome firmly in place.
Philo of Alexandria, mentioned above, spent a great deal of time harmonizing the images of Genesis with the best science the ancient Greek world had to offer. Reading these works today can provide a chuckle to even a grade schooler with a modern science education.
Obviously, modern science and space travel show this image to be outdated and absurd. We need not defend Genesis against perceived attacks from science. The message of Genesis is one of our relationship to God and our call on how to live our lives.
God speaks the word and creation occurs. The Byzantine tradition sees both Jesus the word of God and the spirit of God as present in this very first scenes of the Bible. Jesus is the creative word of God that calls all things into being. The Spirit is the wind over the water energizing creation with the gift of life.
The gospel of John brings this connection of Jesus the word to creation into poetry that we read at the Divine Liturgy on Pascha. "In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God."
The six days of creation is not a scientific enumeration of chronology. Rather the listing of creation defines the relative importance of all creation and places things in the order of all creation. This is a timing and order for spiritual reflection not scientific investigation.
We see two distinct stories of creation in Genesis. The first starts with the general creation of the earth and ends with humanity establishing the overall hierarchy of creation. The second goes further in detail to show the relationship of humanity to other living creatures and each other as male and female.
Both stories of creation make clear the special role of humanity in the created order of God. Creation is a pyramid with humanity at the pinnacle. Creation is made and presented to humanity to name all the creatures.
Naming a person implied a ownership and control of that person in the ancient world. By giving Adam the authority to name all the creatures God is implicitly giving the very life of these creatures to Adam. Adam is the steward for all creation.
Stewardship over creation is a rich area for meditation for us today. How are we using these God given resources. Are we furthering the entire creation or being selfish for our own wants and desires. Genesis calls us to care for all of creation the same way that Christ calls us to care for our fellow human beings.
Each creative act in Genesis is followed by the pronouncement that the creation is good. The material world is all good as created by God. This philosophy stood in stark contrast to the Greek philosophers of the time that looked on the material word as corrupt or bad and the spiritual realities alone as good. We need not renounce the material world to be good in the sight of God.
Evil enters the world by the free will choices of God's creatures. God creates everything good, not neutral, not evil but good. Only by the perversion of the good things of God can evil come into the world.
Humanity is created more than just good. We are created in the image and likeness of God. We share in the Divine image and are called to be like God in all our actions. The Patristic writers distinguish between the image of God which is indelible and cannot be lost with the likeness that we must grow in every day.
Adam and Eve were setup in paradise where they were in the perfect environment to grow in likeness to God. Tending the garden and experiencing God's creation as it was meant to be they would becomes "partakers of the Divine nature" as the epistle from Peter puts it.
We are called to become more like God with each passing day. The Patristic writers called this process of growing in the likeness of God, Theosis or Divinization. Athanasius says that "God became man so that man might become God." As we grow in the spiritual life we come closer to that relationship to God enjoyed by the first humans, Adam and Eve.
The expulsion of Adam and Eve from paradise marks the loss of our special relationship to God. The sin of Adam and Eve is a rejection of God's plan in favor of the deception of a quick fix. The serpent promised that the apple would make them like God. But God's plan for humanity was to bring us up in Theosis to be one with God. Temptation is a deception that leads us away from the true goal while promising to be doing the opposite.
The wages of sin is death. Death is not a punishment by God for disobedience but the natural result of turning away from the author of life. The separation of humanity from God guarantees that death will enter our lives.
When Adam and Eve leave paradise they bring this dysfunctional relationship to God into the human condition. We inherit this condition of original sin from our primordial parents. The Byzantine Church describes this as a disease that the physician of souls and body must heal. By our baptism and efforts in the spiritual life we can overcome this affliction and grow to be one with God.
Genesis also chronicles the rise of civilization in these same chapters. This culminates in the building of the tower of Babel. The ultimate sin of pride is manifest in this attempt to equal God through architecture. The author clearly had the large pyramid like towers of Babylon, the Ziggurats in mind. When the people try to rival God with the building of the tower God confuses their language and scatters them all over the face of the earth. The Byzantine tradition sees the curse of this confused tongues healed at Pentecost.
The removal of Adam and Eve from paradise begin the long downward spiral of the human race in Genesis. As if the sin of Adam and Eve were not bad enough Cain kills his brother. The world descends into ten generations worth of depravity that culminate in the entire human race being labeled evil and corrupt by God at the time of Noah.
God notices the righteousness of Noah in a depraved and evil age. We can almost see the frustration of God as the human race rejects all the wonderful and joyful things God has to offer. We see the need for a new creation effort that will be led by the only good family left on the earth.
The flood restores the earth to the original state. Just like the first creation story water covers the entire earth then land appears and all the animals and humans return. We begin our journey to the likeness of God with a clean slate and a new creation. After the cataclysm God promises not to visit such a wholesale destruction on his creation again. The story ends will all the same orders as the first creation, be fruitful and multiply, subdue the earth.
The Byzantine Church sees a type of baptism in the flood. In baptism we die to our sinful nature in water and are pulled through to the new creation and life in Christ.
The prophets promised Israel a new creation from God. Throughout the history of Israel the people sinned against God. Their punishment was forced submission to their neighbors. The prophets reminded people of their responsibilities to God and promised that God would be with them.
A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you, and I will remove from your body the heart of stone, and give you a heart of flesh. I will put my spirit within you, and make you follow my statutes, and be careful to observe my ordinances. Then you shall live in the land that I gave to your fathers; and you shall be my people, and I will be your God.
Every nation, including Israel, had a national God who was seen as the power behind their armies and the reason for their victories. When Israel was over run by their neighbors they had to explain why their God appeared to be less powerful than their neighbors God. Israel claimed that if they remained faithful they would ultimately triumph militarily over their neighbors. History tells us this never happened. (This is why the creation of the state of Israel in 1946 created such a stir with literal bible interpreters. The powerful modern state of Israel could be the fulfillment of these prophecies.)
The Byzantine Church sees this new creation replacing our hearts of stones as being the result of faith in Christ and our baptism. We no longer look for a military victory over our neighbors but a spiritual victory over our sins.
The entire hymography of the resurrection points out the parallels of the sin of Adam with the resurrection of Christ. Through the tree sin enters the world and from the tree of the cross we are redeemed.
We were banished once, O Lord, from Paradise through eating from the tree, but you have led us back again, O my God and Savior, through your cross and passion.
Matins, Cheesefare Sunday
Christ also lays claim to the new creation announced by the prophets. When reading Isaiah in the synagogue at Nazareth he announces the fulfillment of this prophecy in himself:
The Lord has anointed me to bring glad tidings to the lowly, to heal the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives and to release the prisoners.
Jesus is the fulfillment of all the prophets promises of the restored Israel. This restoration is seen as the heavenly Jerusalem rather than an earthly one. We see in the heavenly Jerusalem an even more perfect paradise than the earthly one in the garden. Once again, the New Testament recreates the promises of the Old Testament in an even more perfect form.
When Israel came forth from Egypt,
the house of Jacob from a people of alien tongue.
Judea became his sanctuary and Israel his dominion.
The sea saw and fled; the Jordan was turned back.
Genesis tells us the story of the family of Abraham. Abraham receives the promise from God to be the father of many nations and possess a land for his own. These promises have not yet been fulfilled. Exodus continues the story of the promises and how God keeps his word to Abraham.
We leave the story of Abrahams family in a great position of power and influence in Egypt. Joseph has placed his entire family in the protection of the land of Egypt during the great famine. From that time on they prosper in the land until a pharaoh rises in Egypt that places them into slavery.
Exodus tells the story of the redemption of these people by God and the final fulfillment of the promise by the award of the promised land to the people of Israel.
Exodus reveals to us for the first time the name for God. With Moses God becomes more personal. He speaks to Moses face to face like a friend. Moses is blessed with this dialog and an understanding of God's will.
The central promise made to Abraham was a land of his own for his descendants to live in. Exodus makes this promise real. We leave the land of Egypt as slaves and enter the promised land as a conquering people with the hand of God on our side. The idea of God as an ally in battle and the source of military victory is prevalent in this time period. Exodus presents the Israel version of this common theme.
The major gift of God to the people of Israel in the Exodus is the Law. God reveals himself to the people on Mount Sinai and gives them their law from above. This law is to bind all future generations to the joy of God's company. This law is what Christ comes to fulfill and to teach us in our new generation.
The Exodus events being with a personal call to Moses from a God who reveals his name for the first time. Moses is granted the ability to speak with God like a friend. He is even so bold as to ask for God's name during his encounter with the burning bush. In the ancient world knowing a persons name granted you power over that person. Names were not demanded by lesser people of their greater. Moses shows great courage in asking God for his name. In answering the request God begins a new era with his people.
The name given by God in Hebrew is a cryptic reference to self existence. "I am who I am." The four consonants of the Hebrew word are used to represent the name from this point on, YHWH. This practice is not unusual since most writings of this time eliminated vowels anyway and often even the spaces between words. But the name of God was held in such high regard and protection that it was never spelled out even in other circumstances. This reflects the strong urge to protect the name of God from being taken in vain which is explicitly forbidden by the covenant.
The Greek translation in Septuagint of God's name is rendered ho'on. This has the meaning of being essence of existence. This shows a strong influence of Greek philosophical concepts and does not accurately reflect the Semitic understanding. The method used to show deference to the name of God is to replace the YHWH with the words "the Lord" in the Greek translation. This preserves the Jewish desire to never utter the name of God.
The name of God was connected to Christ in iconography by placing the Greek letters for ho'on in the halo surrounding Jesus' image. Patristic writers associate the name of God with Jesus because no one has seen God but Jesus and anyone who has seen Jesus has seen the Father.
When Moses goes to Egypt to free his people the struggle with Pharaoh takes on cosmic proportions. Pharaoh IS a God for his people and Moses represents YHWH. Pharaoh rejects the power of God and Egypt suffers the ten plagues as a result of his arrogance.
Pharaoh's hard heart is all part of God's plan to demonstrate his power and ultimate authority. Israel is a small nomadic community yet their God is the one true God who can bring the powerful nations of the day to shame.
The powerful conflict is setup between Moses and the magicians of Egypt. Moses is the agent for YHWH and the magicians the agent for the "God" Pharaoh. Moses is matched by the magicians in the beginning, but by the third plague they are no longer able to keep up. Ultimately the power of God prevails and the Israelites are set free.
The Passover is the central festival for Israel, even today. The saving events that are commemorated are central Israel's status as a chosen people. In the most powerful way possible God demonstrates that the people of Israel are special. God creates a plague that specifically does not affect them. But God requires that they make a statement of faith. They must mark their doors plainly with the blood of the lamb and proclaim themselves to be followers of the one God. Blood is the seat of life. Blood belongs to God alone. By marking the door posts with blood God is laying claim to the house and all who dwell in it.
The meal is constructed to remember the haste of the first Passover. They eat unleavened bread so they do not need to wait for the dough to rise. They are to eat dressed for travel and ready to leave. The children are to ask the questions about why all these things are done so the adults can teach them the ways of God.
During the life of Jesus Passover was a great pilgrimage feast. Whoever had the means would come to Jerusalem to participate in the festival at the Temple of God. During the Roman control of Israel these pilgrimage feasts were often times of strife and discord. With the great crowds in the capital for a religious festival leaders would call people to the ways of their ancestors. These calls would often be accompanied by defiance of Roman rule. They called for Israel to throw off the yoke of Roman rule just as their ancestors did the Philistines.
Charging Jesus with claiming the title "King of the Jews" during this great festival was very serious to those in charge of Roman rule. Revolts and sedition were real possibilities in these times.
Against this backdrop of political turmoil and religious pilgrimage, Jesus' entry into Jerusalem occurs on Palm Sunday. The people see a holy man for the most holy season of Passover. The chief priests and the Sanhedrien see trouble brewing. The Sanhedrien knows that Israel is on rocky ground with their Roman masters already. Too much trouble will cause the destruction of all they hold dear. In fact, they are correct. By 70 AD the Romans destroy the temple of God in Jerusalem. After further provocation they drive all Jewish worshipers from the city and build a pagan temple on the temple mount in 135 AD. The concern of the Chief priests and the Sanhedrien are valid and their worst fears do come to pass.
In this environment Jesus chooses to give us the New covenant. Just as the Covenant of Moses followed the Passover the New covenant is given with new Passover. The gospels paint a tapestry of parallels between the Passover in Exodus and the events of Holy Week.
Central to this parallel is Jesus as the Passover lamb. The Passover lamb was sacrificed to save the people of Israel. The blood of the lamb redeems the people as a possession of God. The lamb is the food for the journey to the covenant at Sinai. The lamb is perfect and without blemish or stain. The entire Passover event is relived by the person of Jesus in a more perfect way.
The prophecy of Isaiah contains several songs of the suffering servant. Christians immediately saw a description of Jesus. The songs are further connected to Jesus' role as the paschal lamb. These sections of Isaiah are unique in scripture as they have no clear fulfillment in ancient Israel.
The content of the scriptural books on the prophets was assembled and established long after their lives. In fact, many of the prophets did not enjoy high esteem with the people during their own life. Consequently, when assembling the books of the prophets the sayings that had direct fulfillment or relevance were included in scripture. These suffering servant songs have not clear fulfillment. Jewish scholars most often equate the suffering servant with the entire nation of Israel, but the original songs are clearly written about a single individual.
During the proskomedia (preparation ritual for Divine Liturgy) the suffering servant songs are connected to Christ. The seal on the bread for communion is cut from the loaf and referred to as the lamb. This lies in the center of the diskos and represents Christ. We relive all the events of Jesus' life at the Divine Liturgy. Starting with his birth, by placing the star over the lamb on the discos, to his resurrection at the reception of communion. The entire sequence ties in closely to the feast of Passover.
The Old Testament thus fulfilled in symbol what Christ has now ordained in actual fact. There was for example, the Passover, the sacrifice of the lamb, in remembrance of the slaying of the sheep whose blood preserved the lives of the first-born of the Hebrews in Egypt. This then is the purpose of the commemoration.
Nicholas Cabasilas 14th Century commentary on the Divine Liturgy
The many miracles of the Exodus and wanderings in the desert were fruitful images for the Patristic writers. The enormity of the task moving and entire nation of people across the desert boggles even our modern minds. God was truly guiding and guarding their every step. The very beginning of the trek brings the final chapter of the story of Egypt. Pharaoh pursues the Hebrews to their camp by the side of the sea.
The Hebrews have their backs to the sea and no real army to protect them. This crisis of faith finds many of the people lacking and wanting to return to captivity. Here is a clear message to keep the faith even when appearances are dire.
God provides the avenue of escape by parting the waters of the sea. Israel passes through as if on dry land but the waters rush back in to consume their pursuers. The people full of joy express their confidence in God in song led by Moses.
Let us sing to the Lord, for he has been very greatly glorified: the horse and rider has he cast into the sea. He was to me a helper and protector for salvation: this is my God, and I will exalt him. The Lord bringing wars to naught, the Lord is his name. He has cast the chariots of Pharaoh and his host into the sear, the chosen mounted captains they were swallowed up in the Red Sea....but the children of Israel walked through dry land in the midst of the sea.
This hymn found high favor with early Christians expressing our faith in the services of the Church. This became the basis for the first ode of every canon in Matins, the morning service of the church. The passing through the Red Sea became an image for baptism, death and resurrection. The hymns of the funeral services find much fruitful meditation here.
As Moses leads the people through the desert each new trial brings God forth with a new miracle. God leads them by a column day and night to demonstrate his presence for the people. God speaks to Moses "face to face" like a friend building a special relationship with his people.
The law of the Lord is perfect, converting souls:
The testimony of the Lord is faithful, instructing babes.
The ordinances of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart.
Covenant agreements were solemn and important events in ancient times. Usually undertaken by two very powerful parties, tribes or countries they invoked the name of the God's over the agreement and split a goat in two down the middle to seal the deal. The splitting of the goat symbolized what would happen to the party that broke the covenant.
This is the type of agreement God offered his people. A strong agreement sealed in blood and promises.
When Moses ascended the mountain the people saw God's presence descending on the peaks in the form of clouds and thunder. God prepared the people to believe in his law by signs and wonders visible to human sight. Moses prepared to receive the law by fasting for forty days in solitude on the mountain.
Even with the great signs at the mountain and the mighty deeds performed during the Exodus the people still grew impatient and fell away from God during Moses fast. We can see ourselves today in this same position. While Jesus is gone in the ascension we hear the siren's song of the God's of the world and drift from the truth.
But Moses does return with the law, the tablets of the ten commandments (Exodus 20). He delivers God's message to the people and calls them back to the truth. Chapter 21 of Exodus immediately starts applying the general law to specific cultural norms in Israel.
The book of Leviticus makes even further expansions of Torah for the guidance of the people. Deuteronomy is a mediation on the law of God and the farewell of Moses from the community as they enter the promised land.
Jewish scholars over the centuries have identified over 600 specific laws (Halachai) in the Torah. Torah is central to the relationship of Israel to God. Torah guides one to understand the will of God for our lives.
The whole Torah can be summed up by the Shema, the daily prayer of devout Jews throughout the world. "Hear, O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One. You shall love the Lord with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might."
While the children of Israel promise to follow the law of God, God promises to give the people the promised land. The land flowing with milk and honey and to protect and preserve them from their enemies.
Almost immediately Israel ran into trouble with keeping the law of the Lord. Their inability to follow God caused the forty year wandering in the desert. But even after the occupation of the Holy Land neighboring people beat Israel in battle and subdued the chosen people of God. The culmination of these affairs was the defeat and deportation to Babylon of the entire city of Jerusalem in the sixth century BC.
Living in exile in Babylon became analogous to life in Egypt under the Pharaoh. When Babylon was conquered by the Persians and King Cyrus allowed the Jew's to return to their home in Jerusalem a new Exodus occurred.
The prophets in exile compare their captors the Egyptians. They recall the miracles of the wanderings in the desert and promise a highway of God through the desert back to Jerusalem. They recall the law of the Lord and commit the people to live up to their word.
Despite the unfaithfulness of the people, which deserves punishment like the goat cut in two at the covenant, God creates a new covenant with the people. The terms of the Law of Sinai are too difficult for the people, so God relents.
The people know that God is true to his word so the failure of Israel to win the promised land must be their own. St. Paul would later declare the terms of the covenant at Sinai to be impossible for mere humans to live out. That is why Jesus must come to save us.
The prophets call the people to change. They must transform their lives to the ways of God. To assist them God sends down his Spirit upon them and turns their hearts of stone into hearts of flesh.
The descent of the Spirit on all the people is hinted at when Moses is leading the people in the desert. God asks Moses to select seventy people to assist in the tasks. God then sends down his Spirit upon them. But the Spirit of God goes to the camp and descends on two more people who begin to proclaim God. Aaron tells Moses to stop them because they are not elected. Moses refuses and wishes that the Spirit of God could come on all the people. (Numbers 11)
This is the event we celebrate on Pentecost. Fifty days after the resurrection the Spirit descends on all the people, just as Moses asked. Pentecost was the Jewish celebration of the giving of the Law on Sinai after the Exodus. Jesus rose from the dead during Passover and the coming of the Spirit is the perfection of the giving of the Law.
The Gospel of Matthew clearly shows Christ as the new lawgiver. The comparison of Christ and Moses continues with the sermon on the mount. Just as Moses gave the law on a mountain, Christ delivers the principles of the moral life on the mount. Jesus preaches while seated, the position of authority. The content of the sermon emphasizes the personal moral responsibility. The content flows from all that is required of the covenant on Sinai, but the divine lawgiver will give his life to redeem our faults.
Jesus first summarizes the new law in the Beatitudes. He then goes on to elaborate on the ten commandments and their true meaning in our lives. Implicit to this method is Jesus' authority to expand and elaborate on the law of Moses. Jesus is greater than Moses. But at the same time he points out the continuity of his teaching and that the law is fulfilled, not broken, in his words.
They cried to the Lord in their afflictions, and He saved them out of their distresses.
He sent his word, and healed them, and delivered them out of their destruction's.
The prophet spoke for God to the people because God's word came to them directly. The same word that created the world re-creates the world through the voice of the prophets. This experience of the word was a powerful force in their lives and not always a welcome one.
Former prophets are those from the historical books rather than books named after the prophet themselves. These are Samuel, Nathan, Elijah and Elisha. They are remembered more for their historical roles and deeds than their words. Their stories are told in the books of Samuel and Kings.
The biggest problem facing Israel in this period is Idol worship. The first entry into the promised land surrounded the people with strange Gods. Many succumbed to the temptation to worship Baal, the pagan God of the land since long before their arrival These former prophets remind the people that the Lord is one.
The Major prophets are so called just due to the length of their surviving writings. These are Isaiah, Jerimiah, Ezekial and Daniel. These are from before, during and after the exile to Babylon. In fact, Isaiah includes material from all three of these periods spanning almost a hundred years.
The Minor prophets preserve shorter works for us and are Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obediah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habbacuc, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah and Malachi. These are also thematically diverse and from a variety of time periods.
Poetry and analogous stories are the language of prophecy. These stories are a rich mine for prayer in the Byzantine tradition. We see different aspects of God and by example how we should act towards others.
A major theme of the prophets is God's fidelity despite our sinfulness. Again and again we are reminded that God need not forgive us but he does. A prime example of this is the prophet Hosea tells the long and sad story of an unfaithful wife that the prophet continues to forgive and love with all his heart. Christ is the bridegroom in Byzantine prayer and the Church is the bride of Christ. Our sins are our unfaithfulness.
The prophets are filled with these images for our reflection.
God is the God in control of all history. The events in the nation are revelation about the will of God. The building of the nation after the Exodus was God's reward for Israel's faithfulness. The losses to her enemies over the years were punishment for straying from the truth.
When Israel first occupied the promised land God was the King and the people were ruled by judges that God selected. But the people insisted on having an earthly king like their neighbors. God protested but relented and established Saul as the first human king of Israel. God predicted that things would not go well and they did not.
When David became king God still controlled our history by using the very vehicle we demanded to save us. He appointed the house of David to be king forever. Then in the fullness of time Jesus was born into this house and became our king establishing the house of David forever.
But immediately after this new promise the kingdom divides into two fighting among themselves. The northern kingdom is conquered and removed becoming the lost tribes of Israel. The southern persists in unfaithfulness and is exiled to Babylon. The plan of the God of history does not appear to be going well.
But even when we are unfaithful and choose the wrong and hard road God is still in command and can help us arrive successfully.
The word of the Lord visiting the prophets was a hard and painful experience. Imagine being selected by God from among the more common people and being asked to tell those in power and authority what they have been doing wrong in a very public forum. Imagine having the gift of vision to see the terror and horrible things about to happen to your own country. This is the vocation of prophet.
A prophet is never acknowledged in their own land. We know them to be of ordinary estate and we are so close to our own behavior we cannot see the problems. Prophets are the gadfly of society to force us to face our own problems and insecurities.
The themes in prophecy change over time. The great demarcation in the history of Israel is the Babylonian exile. When the nation is taken into exile we see new threads of understanding that culminate in the message of Jesus for the Christian church.
The temptation to worship the God of their neighbors often overcame the people of Israel. This was a prominent theme in the pre-exile prophets. Living in close proximity to other worship allowed people to see and interact with other nations. Often they intermarried with worshipers of Baal. The personal contact with people allowed them to learn of their religion and practice the faith of others.
In America we have this same temptation. We are surrounded not only by other types of Christians but other religions as well. Much of what they offer is good for the soul and helpful for their faithful. But we must have faith in our own God and the ways we have learned. Our own revelation from God is deep and rich and fulfilling if we take the time to grow in it.
The other idol we fight with in America is materialism. God can easily take a back sest in our culture to power, possessions and influence. The prophets warn us to keep our heart fixed on God in all that we do and be good stewards of our earthly things. We must own our possessions and not the other way around is the message of Job.
God promised justice for his people. The prophets decried the treatment of the poor by the wealthy. Deuteronomy promised that the poor would not exist in Israel. But the word for poor (anawim) became synonymous with righteous as the wealthy fell more and more into the sin of injustice.
The growth of the monarchy and international trade made Israel a crossroads of commerce. Their location was perfect for participating in the economic engines of their time. This activity increased the wealth and power of the ruling class. This power, in contact with false Gods corrupts the wealthy.
The messages for us in this are clear. Justice in our society is a religious responsibility. We are responsible to act with justice in our own affairs and insist on justice in our civil affairs.
The prophets warn of impending destruction if the current state of affairs continues and call the nation to conversion. They promise that God will relent and save them if they forsake their sinful ways. The pleas are ignored and both kingdoms warring against each other, North and South, fall to invaders.
For us the parallels are clear. Every year at the great fast we are reminded to come to God in repentance. To acknowledge our failures and recommit ourselves to being better.
The Babylonian exile is a pivotal affair in the history of Israel. For centuries God has been patient with his chosen people. God has visited minor calamities on them in punishment for their sins but he has allowed them to keep their foothold in the promised land. With the Babylonian exile the Jews are removed from the promised land and find themselves in the same situation as they were in Egypt six hundred years before.
They find themselves starting over from scratch. No longer are the prophets warning about the consequences of breaking the covenant. The consequences are real and in their life in the exile. Instead, the prophets call the people to renewal in order to woo back the covenant of god.
A new concept developed during the exile to describe the faithful portion of the chosen people, the remnant. The remnant were those who still kept the law of God while the rest of the people did not. Looking back into the history of Israel Noah and his family were seen as a remnant of the faithful as were the clan of Abraham. The true children of Abraham will keep the word of the Lord and will be saved.
This concept was very popular in Judaism at the time of Christ. The Zealots rising to overthrow the Romans claimed to be God's holy remnant. The Essene community that lived the ascetic life in the desert claimed this title as well. Christ alludes to his followers being the holy remnant in the gospels of Luke (12) and John (17).
The renewal of the covenant with God was seen as a new Exodus and return to the promised land. Israel would renew their vows to the Lord and God would renew his commitment to the people. The promised land would once again be theirs.
A significant development was the referral to the Persian King Cyrus as the instrument of God, the anointed one or messiah. This title was normally given to the house of David or other Kings in Israel. For a foreigner to be the messiah was unheard of in prior years. King Cyrus was known for his religious tolerance in his empire. Much to the dismay of many of his councilors he allowed the local religions to flourish after his conquest. He would support and insert himself where ever possible in the religious affairs of conquered peoples in order to preserve the peace.
In the case of Israel he authorized and subsidized the rebuilding of the destroyed temple. Isaiah then tells the people that the temple will become a house of prayer for all peoples. We see this fulfilled in it's fullness with the canticle of Simeon at the presentation of our Lord in the temple.
Now you shall dismiss your servant O Lord, according to your word in peace. Because my eyes have seen your salvation which you prepared before the face of all people. The light to the revelation of the Gentiles and the Glory of your people Israel.
Canticle of Simeon Vespers
Another image of renewal is mother Zion receiving children in the prophecy of Isaiah (62,66). Here the church sees a direct parallel to Mary the mother of God embracing the Christian faithful.
The Lord shall send out a rod of power for thee out of Sion;
rule thou in the midst of thine enemies.
With you is dominion in the day of your power,
in the splendors of your saints.
Coming out of the Babylonian exile the views of Judaism towards the anointed one (messiah) made a significant change. They began to see the coming of a future Messiah as the ultimate saving grace from God. This is the view that the Christian church is built on in Christ. This view was also held by other groups in Israel at that time. Looking to the scriptures they saw that the promises of God for a powerful anointed leader were not fulfilled. Knowing that God does not lie we look for the fulfillment of those promises.
Ultimately, Judaism would go the way of the Pharisees rather than the way of the Messiah. This was the point at which our paths diverged. Christians look to the Old Testament to see future oriented pronouncements of our Messiah. Judaism sees pronouncements to a people calling them to live a better God filled life. The same pronouncements that we interpret as messianic prophecy were issued to call people back to God. Where we see prophecy fulfilled in Jesus they see the future perfect kingdom of God in the heavenly Jerusalem.
Messiah from the Hebrew or Christ from the Greek means "anointed one". Anointing was the method of setting someone apart for a special task, or a reward for some outstanding job well done. Athletes were anointed with oil in victory and the prophets in scripture anointed the Kings of Israel.
In the Byzantine tradition we are all anointed with the oil of gladness at our baptism. We are anointed with the Holy Chrism immediately after Baptism to our role in the church of God. And every holy day we come forward to be anointed in our participation in the feast.
After the Babylonian exile there were three major ways the Messiah was seen in Israel. Some expected a King that would restore the monarchy. They would gather around this person and be the loyal people of Israel for him. They fought the ruling oppressors as a military occupation force. People of this mind were responsible for the two major uprisings against Roman rule in 70 and 135 and countless smaller acts of defiance.
The second major view saw the need for repentance and a return to the law of God as being the method to prepare for the coming of a Messiah. They took to the desert in imitation of the forty year pilgrimage to the Holy land. The Essenes and the followers of John the Baptist are examples of this trend.
The third view is that of the Christian community. Jesus was the messiah as king but he ruled in the next world not this one. This combination of the king in the here and now with the future kingdom of heaven is unique to Christian Jews.
Mainstream Judaism ultimately rejected all of these views of Messiah.
The reading of Scripture finds two major types of messiah, the Royal and the Priestly. The Royal Messiah concentrates on the promise to David to rule the house of Israel forever. Temple worship and the sacrificial relationship to God in this worship gave rise to the Priestly Messiah passages. King David was not from the tribe of Levi, where all priests must be from. So traditional Jewish interpretation sees these as two people. Christians see both roles taken on by Jesus because of his Divine nature and his special transformation of the priestly role by his saving death.
Christians lay claim to the Royal messiah title through Jesus' descent from the house of David. The genealogies are presented in the gospels. We further demonstrate that Jesus' life and acts fulfill the necessary prophecies referring to the Royal Messiah. The summation of the Christian view is found in the prophecy:
The Lord said to my Lord,
'Sit at my right hand till I make your enemies your footstool.'
The Lord will wield from Zion your scepter of power:
'Rule in the midst of your foes.
A prince from the day of your birth on the holy mountain,
before the daystar, like the dew have I begotten you.'
The Lord has sworn and he will not repent:
'You are a priest forever, according to the order of Melchizedek'
The Royal Messiah was seen as a ruling King by everyone else. The promised reign of King David extended forever with the Lord's glory and power shining forth from his people. The messianic hopes are pinned to many verses of power and conquest for the ruling King. The other messianic groups wanted this ruler to come and either prepared the way by prayer and right living or military action.
The victory of the Royal Messiah would bring peace to the land at last. Not just the peace of victory at war but the 'Shalom' of inner peace with God. We see a Messiah ruling in peace that has no need of war horses or chariots but rides on a donkey which is only good for transportation not war.
Christians claim this same peace in Jesus' gift to the apostles at the mystical supper. We see the fulfillment of the prophecy in the entrance to Jerusalem on Palm Sunday.
The Old Testament tells us the story of Moses and Aaron. The leader of the people and the priest. We see two roles, two figures and two different people in them from this point forward. The priestly class is responsible for the peoples relationship to God. They offer the thanksgiving and sacrifice that reminds everyone of their need for God. The leader of the priestly class, the High Priest in Jerusalem, was also anointed to their job. The hope of the Priestly Messiah was one of perfect connection to God for the people. Keeping the people in the right state before God and without guilt of sin.
The longing for a spiritual Messiah in the Priestly restoration of temple worship is created when the nation returns from Babylon. With the restoration of the people to the city of Jerusalem and the reconstruction of the temple the leadership role is divided between the King and the High Priest.
There are very little direct prophecies regarding the Priestly Messiah (Zechariah 3-4 Ezekiels 40-47). But the central place of temple worship to the religious life in Israel gave strength to these few images. Even those that fought the Romans so the Royal Messiah could rule saw a central place for temple worship in the restored kingdom.
The Essenes and other desert communities looked to the coming of a 'Teacher of Righteousness' who would restore the true practice of Torah in the nation. By separating themselves from the popular culture and living the true life of Torah in the name of God they prepared for the coming of this Messiah.
While Jesus is the perfect God and perfect man he still is not completely separate from us. Even though the High Priests of old kept their distance from the people and lorded their position over the common people Jesus is different.
Since in Jesus, the Son of God, we have the supreme high priest who has gone through to the highest heaven, we must never let go of the faith that we have professed. For it is not as if we had a high priest who was incapable of feeling our weaknesses with us; but we have one who has been tempted in every way that we are, though hi is without sin. Let us be confident, then, in approaching the throne of grace, that we shall have mercy from him and find grace when we are in need of help.
As our Priestly Messiah he ordains us all to the priesthood:
But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, consecrated nation, a people set apart to sing the praises of God who called you out of the darkness into his wonderful light.
1 Peter 2:9-10
Christians see the role of High Priest taken on by Christ. Jesus is not only the High Priest but also the sacrifice offered by the priest for the people. In Jesus we see the convergence of ALL the hopes and expectations that God has foretold. Jesus takes the sacrifice of the Passover and the worship at the temple and gives us the Mystical supper.
In the section on Exodus we discussed the powerful connection between the suffering servant and the sacrificial lamb of the Passover. These acts are fulfilled in the saving death and resurrection of Jesus. This image of the suffering servant also extends the picture of Jesus as the Priestly Messiah.
Jesus is perfect human offering the perfect sacrifice (the suffering servant, himself) to the perfect God (of whom is a part).
Apocalyptic writings are a dead literary genre. This once popular form of writing has long since disappeared. Apocalyptic writing was addressed to an oppressed people looking for relief for their situation. The stories told promised this relief. They spoke of the times changing for the better for the oppressed people.
Often these pronouncments of better times coming were veiled in stories about the past. When a you are a conquered people you must take care not to make your situation worse. You could not openly say that the oppressors will soon be overthrown. Instead, the loss of power by the oppressor is expressed by analogy to events in the past. We often find "newly discovered" writings of old prophets that speak to events that have happened in the past. The events have obvious parallels to the current situation and tell of the relief that will soon arrive.
The "newly discovered" writings might also predict events in the present. This helps take the onus of the prediction off the current people and place it in the past. You could tell the oppressing rulers, we are not really rebelling this is just a very old prophecy that somebody found.
Apochalyptic literature is characterized by heavenly revelation. Some other worldly being reveals the truth to the author. The events of oppression in the current time are linked to cosmic and heavenly conflicts beyond time. The faithful remnant find a place in the cosmic battle on the side of God.
Images of these heavenly battles or terrible events that are about to occur are common. The genre is ultimately struggling with the age old problem of why the good suffer. By linking the good of this life with those in heaven we can expect the reward for the good and ultimate punishment of the evil. The apochalyptic liturature describe how the wicked will be punished and the just that suffer vindicated.
The apocalypse sees definate periods of history under the direct control of God. These movements of history include in God's plan the current situation of oppression but also include the soon to come relief with a cataclysmic end of the world to the benefit of the elect.
A heavenly mediator reveals all these coming events to the person writing the apocalypse. The author is usually a very famous person from the past adding credance to the writings. The author serves as a mediator for the coming kingdom of God, a "messiah" for the elect. Once the elect are restored to there proper place in the world, the end is near.
There are elements of both wisdom and prohecy in these writings. Wisdom literature must be interpreted by the sages, just as the angelic prophecies are explained by the author. Prophecies call the people to repentance and foretell future events. The apocalypse performs the same function on a cosmic scale, involving both heaven and earth.
The elect are urged to stay true to God for the long awaited relief is soon at hand.
The angel of the Lord will come and setup camp
around those who fear the Lord and help them.
Taste and see how good the Lord is;
Blessed is the one who hopes in him.
Ketuvim is that which is neither Torah (Law) nor Nevi'im (Prophets). This takes in a wide variety of literature that is difficult to classify neatly. There are some commonalities. The Ketuvim were collected to transmit knowledge of God and how that should affect our lives. The culture that produced these works needed to communicate this knowledge of God orally for the most part. These works were collected in writing to preserve them for the few who were literate. All of this material existed in the oral tradition first, was then collected and arranged from various sources then commited to writing.
Story tellers are beloved in all ages but in the culture of the middle east they are highly prized and important people. We love a good story and will remember the lessons of a story far easier and longer than the separated intellectual knowledge. Ketuvim are these kinds of stories. They are not history in the modern sense of the word but historical stories with a lesson for us.
In addition to stories, Ketuvim is filled with "one-liners". We all learn as children that "curiosity killed the cat", the Ketuvim provides these easy to remember and snappy lessons as well.
These stories and proverbs main purpose was to teach. Before the advent of modern education institutions and process learning took place at home and in the village square. The Ketuvim are the lesson plans for the important life skills in the community. Torah is the backbone education, Nevi'im is the call and reminder to live the Torah, Ketuvim is the practical daily wisdom for life in the street.
I like to picture in my mind the wise old story teller spinning the tale to the children seated at their feet when I read these books. This could also be your mother recalling favorite stories as you was the dishes and clear the table. Or your grandfather at the family picnic acting out the great adventures of long ago.
When these works were collected into individual books and ultimately into the scriptures as we know them they are choosen based on their abillity to teach the ways of God to the people. The delightful part is they can teach the ways of God without overt or dry commentary but by simple example.
The Ketuvim encompase many types of books. We have the Psalms and Proverbs that provide short strong statements of truth. We have the Song of Songs as a long poem of love. We have the story of Job presenting the problem of evil in the world. We have histories of the people of God in Ezra, Nehemiah, Chronicles and Macabees. Wisdom in Ecclesiastes, apocalypse in Daniel and wonderful stories in Ruth and Esther.
The range of literature is wide. The content is rich in fruit for meditation.
The primary teacher is wisdom pesonified as a woman.
The Lord made me (Wisdom) the beginning of his ways for his works. He established me before time was in the beginning, before he made the earth: even before he made the depths; ...When he prepared the heaven, I was present with him; and when he prepared his throne upon the winds: and when he strengthened the clouds above; and when he secured the foundations of the earth ... For he rejoiced when he had completed the world, and rejoiced among the children of men. Now then, my son, hear me: blessed is the man who shall hearken to me and the mortal who shall keep my ways."
Wisdom comes from God to teach us the right ways of the Lord. We see her created as the first creature giving her a role during the creation of humanity. The Byzantine church has thus connected her to Christ, the Divine wisdom. In wisdom we see an inviting and warm figure that spreads a table and recieves us in her home for instruction.
She longs for our return and laments when we are ignorant.
Wisdom is portrayed as an angel and can be seen as closely related to the concept of our guardian angel in the christian tradition. This messenger from God (angelos=messenger in Greek), reminds us of the right ways and instructs us right ways of living. Giving wisdom a tangible form makes her more personal and real to us a human beings. We can more easily listen to and debate with a person than a concept.
Wisdom literature found its way into the early christian community as well. Writings from the Apolstolic fathers include examples of the genre. The epsitle of Barnabas and the Didache (wisdom of the twelve Apostles) are prime examples.
There are two ways of teaching authority: that of light and that of darkness. And there is a great difference between the two ways. For over the one are appointed light bearing angels of God, but over the other angels of Satan. And the former is Lord from everlasting to everlasting, but the later is ruler of the present time of lawlessness.
Note the similarities with the book of Proverbs:
For I teach you the ways of wisdom; and I cause you to go in the right paths. ...Go not in the ways of the ungodly, neither covet the ways of transgressors...for they cannot sleep unless they have done evil: their sleep is taken away and they rest not. But the ways of the righteous shine like light; they go on and shine, until the day fully comes. But the ways of the ungodly are dark; they know not how they stumble.
This genre provides the example and basis for Christian Catechesis from the very begining of the Church. Even in modern times we here church educators calling us back to the use of stories for education. Even with all our modern knowledge and techniques the methods of the ancients still prove to be among the best.
The Byzantine Vesper services during the Great Fast read the entire book of Proverbs. The Great Fast is the ancient period to prepare people to enter the church through Baptism, Chrismation and Communion on Holy Saturday. Wisdom in the proverbs plays an important role in the catechesis for these people. We also read the entire book of Genesis from the Torah and the book of Isaiah during the sixth hour service from the Nevi'im. Together these three books provide a solid foundation for building our faith in Christ. These readings provide the renewal and reminder for those already recieved into the Church.
Psalms are the foundation of prayer in the Byantine Church just as it was in Jewish services on which they are based. We sing entire Psalms during Vespers (103,140,141,129 & 116) and Matins (3, 37, 62, 87, 102, 142, 134, 135, 50148, 149, & 150). Additional Psalms grace our other litergical services, while the Psalms punctuate our services as Prokimenion before scripture readings and antiphons at the start of the Divine Liturgy. Many of the Psalms begin with instructions for the choir master at the Jewish temple.
Some Psalms speak for the nation of believers as a whole and others are more personal reflections on the authors experience with God. The Church selects the Psalms mentioned above to set the mood for the services and call to mind the major themes for our reflection as a people of God.
In addition to these routine and rotating Psalms in our worship the entire book of Psalms is read in part during the services of Matins and Vespers in the full practice of the Divine Office. A prayer Psalter collects the Psalms into groups for reading in twenty parts called Kathismata. The entire Psalter is read in a week by dividing the these between Vespers and Matins (twice a week during the Great Fast).
Psalms are poetry. Poetry written originally in Hebrew, translated to Greek and from the Septuagint to Slavonic and English for our use. Translation is an art and the translation of Poetry is especially difficult. This can be even more complicated by the lack of cultural understanding. I could write a poem on love that says "I burn for you like Romeo". Without a common understanding of who Romeo is the full meaning of the line is lost. We do see some of this in the Psalms.
They provolked Moses in the camp and Aaron the holy one of the Lord.
The earth opened ans swallowed up Dathan,
and closed upon the congregation of Abiron.
We must know the story of the Exodus to fully appreciate what Psalm 115 is telling us.
In addition to people and events other methods used in the Psalms can be obscured in translation. A popular type of Semitic poetry uses the device of the letters of the alphebet to begin each line. To capture the same image in English each successive version would begin with a, b, c, d...this is difficult to force in translation and it is made impossible when one considers that Hebrew has 22 letters and Greek 24. A technique in poetry that does translate well if the Hebrew pencant for parallelism or repeating themes in paired verses as this pair from Psalm 50 illustrates.
Have mercy on me, O God in Your goodness
In the greatness of Your mercy wipe out my offence.
Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity
And cleanse me of my sins.
Psalms are written as prayer. They are a call to personal prayer and meditation for us. They are rich in the history of Israel and full of prophecy about Jesus' coming. They speak to our daily behavior and they rest in the joy of what God has done for us. The Psalms build character and our relationship to God.
The early Church saw the Psalms as so important that Bishops are required by decree of council to have memorized the Psalms prior to their elevation. Some have argued that this requirement was instituted to be sure our leaders we steeped in sound theology to avoid errors in teaching that had led many priests and bishops into heresy. But the monastics remind us that prayer cleanses the soul and brings us closer to God. And one can not memorize the Psalms without be touched by the power of God in this prayer. The word seeps into the mind and soul and becomes part of one's being.
In the Psalms we have prayers for all occations petition (87), thanksgiving (102), repentance (50), and complaint (108).