Introducing ‘A Lamp for Today’

I love the Bible. I am growing to love the Church. I love to be in intense discussion about something that matters to me and to my interlocutor(s). And I love to read and write! One thing that I do not like about written words is that they can be somewhat disembodied. However, it is also true that part of who we are can be attached to written words: I have never met C. S. Lewis, George Herbert, Fr. Georges Florovsky, or Fr. Alexander Schmemann, but I feel sure that when I see them in the resurrection we will know each other, because they introduced themselves to me through their godly writings. I am sorry that I cannot see all the faces of those who may be interested in this blog: but no doubt we shall also meet one day, and already we are joined in Christ, whose work reconciles everything in heaven and in earth.

I am actually paid to do something that I love: to teach the New Testament. That is a wonderful thing, along with being an amateur musician (piano, oboe and choir), wife to an careful editor who corrects me daily, a mother of three spunky and devout young women, a grateful mother-in-law to three energetic and honourable [yes, there is a “u” there, as I was born in Canada] sons-in-law, and grandmother to five girls and four boys. In my work, I have determined never to teach the NT without reference to the entire collection of Biblical writings, for the early Church claimed the Old Testament as its Scriptures, and Marcion’s denigration of those older books was rejected in the early centuries. Besides, what a fascinating assortment of literature is found there—irresistible to someone like me who had originally planned to teach English literature!

Biblical illiteracy is a real curse, even in the Church, in our generation. People think they know the Bible, but they do not. Think back to WWII, when things were clearly different. In 1940 the British Expeditionary Force found itself isolated on the beaches of Dunkirk. The commander of the force sent a simple three-word message back to the home office—“But if not.” That three-word message was not only understood by home office, but when broadcast publically, was the catalyst for citizens, who launched across the channel every craft that could float. The day was saved! The British people knew their Scripture, and recognized the echo of Dan. 3:17-18, where Daniel defied a godless king, assured them that God could deliver him, and said “but if not,” we will not bow to your idol. The commander was not going to give in, and they were determined to help.

Alas, very few of my seminary students are at the same level of the general public of 75 years ago. In the Orthodox Church, we are enriched by wonderful traditional hymns and prayers that echo and dwell in the Old Testament. Because of this, we might not recognize “but if not”, but we do know about the three youths in the furnace. We do not, however, read the OT very often liturgically, except for the Psalms. It is up to us to find other methods, then, to enrich our understanding, for the Gospels and epistles are chock-full of quotations, allusions and echoes of the OT, which the apostle Peter called “a lamp that must be heeded until the Day [of Jesus’ return] dawns” (2 Peter 1:19).

Who knows what Jesus is echoing when he says, “Take my yoke upon you”? Does it matter that there is a difference between the Sadducees and the Pharisees? To which scripture(s) is Jesus referring when he asks, “Where is it written that the Son of Man must suffer?” Why does Jesus speak about “angels ascending and descending upon the Son of Man”?   Why does Matthew connect Hosea’s prophecy about Israel, “Out of Israel I have called my son,” with Jesus? What on earth is the book of Hebrews up to when it speaks about Melchizedek? Having an intimate knowledge of the Old Testament Scriptures, as Jesus and the apostles (and the fathers!) did, will help us to understand more and more of the gospels, in which we see Jesus, and the epistles, which show us how to live in Christ.

Some people find the idea of reading the OT daunting. But there is so much to explore—it is a whole world, replete with treasures and refreshment. As St. John Chrysostom put it, it is both like a fountain and a treasure, and it is there for us to read together. Please join me as I meditate upon the readings for Divine Liturgy twice a month, helped by our fathers in Christ, and exploring those parts of the Old Testament that will make these New Testament readings come to life. And shoot me a comment, question, disagreement or note, if you like—because here is one way in which written words can become more than symbols on a page, or vehicles for ideas. Though I am a longtime NT specialist and academic, I am fairly new member of the Orthodox Church (coming up to 6 years, though I have been a friend of the Orthodox for almost 20 years), and so I would certainly love to learn from my more experienced readers! God the Holy Spirit has given us this bracing collection of writings to read together, with the Church past and present, and I suspect that the reading will not only help us to see our Lord more clearly, but may draw Christian brother and sister together as well. Lamps not only show the way, but also are a rallying point for those who otherwise would remain in darkness.


  1. Dear Prof Humphrey,

    Hello, I’d really welcome your thoughts on what can be a stumbling block for would be believers. I refer to the violence in the Old Testament, where people are murdered and wiped out on Gods command. Is this a correct analysis or are these tales to be interpreted spiritually rather than literally ? Thanks. Keith

    1. Hello, Keith. It may be that this topic will arise naturally by means of one or more of our readings from Divine Liturgy, but I will attempt a quick response here to a VERY difficult topic. You have given two options: God actually commanded murder OR this is a symbolic tale with a spiritual meaning. Indeed, there are at least four possible ways of responding to these stories, which we find very difficult, given Jesus’ command to “turn the other cheek.” The stories of the conquest are sometimes read as wholly symbolic, and only intending to impart spiritual truths—in this case, the enemies are moral failings or sins that we are to “wipe out” and so enter into the inheritance that God has for us. Or, the stories are read as INTENDED literally by the human authors, who mistook God’s character and so thought that they were commanded to remove ungodly inhabitants by violence and killing from the land. Or, the stories are understood as God actually commanding these things, and we should not question such matters since God is absolute and what he does is always right. Or, the stories are understood as God commanding these actions, but doing so as a concession to the harshness as a time, and because if He enters into history, he therefore enters into human action and “gets hands dirty,” so to speak. In the latter case, the event occurred, and God acted that way, but as a matter of concession and not as what would be his first choice. His direct and first will about violence we know, because he did not approve Cain’s action in killing his brother Abel.

      In arbitrating between these views, we should think first about how it is that we are to read various books of the Bible. Most of the Church fathers did not dismiss the natural, or “literal” meaning, that is, the one that we reach by means of putting a text in its natural historical, literary, and grammatical contexts. There are cues or intimations given in a text if its FIRST or natural meaning is to be taken in a symbolic way–for example, when the “trees clap their hands”, in the Psalter, we know that this is poetic (unless we are pagans who believe in Dryads, that is tree nymphs. Secondly, the holy fathers did not canonize works such as the Epistle of Barnabas, which suggested that the first meaning of the Old Testament law was completely allegorical: that letter, not included in the NT, said that God did NOT give directions regarding the architecture of the Temple, the keeping of a literal Sabbath, food regulations, and circumcision. St. Paul, however, and the best (in my view) of the fathers did not read this way, but said that the commands of TORAH had been fulfilled, in Christ, and NO LONGER needed to be kept literally. The fathers read these commandments as actual instructions given by God for an infant people that would grow to understand him better, commands intended to mark them out as being in a special covenant relationship with Him.

      Now, because God’s nature has been revealed to us as loving and merciful (as it was also in the Old Testament), some Christian theologians (e.g. Origen) have thought that the literal meaning of these texts is impossible—God could NEVER have ordered the violent conquest, because it is absurd to think it. However, the problem with such a reading is that it puts our opinions in judgment over the Bible. It helps to remember that Rahab, for example, the woman who let the spies escape from Canaan, is treated wholly historically—first in Hebrews, who mentions her faithfulness alongside other clearly historical figures, but then also in the genealogy of Matthew, as a foremother (surprise! A Gentile!) of Jesus our Lord. So it would seem to go against the New Testament to read the story of the Conquest as a whole as allegorical. It seems to me, then, that we have to contend with one of the two last options—the conquest took place, and it was either erroneously ascribed to the will of God, or it took place and was truly commanded by Him. Before we answer quickly, we need to remember that other violent acts are ascribed to God in the Bible, such as the invasion of Israel and Judah by the Assyrians and the Babylonians, so that God’s people were punished and taken to exile, and even (harder to fathom) the instant deaths of Ananias and Sapphira for “lying to the Holy Spirit.” God is throughout the Bible described both as loving humankind and as the judge who is impartial, and who says that death is the natural result of sin (though this can be reversed due to the resurrection!)

      I am sometimes tempted to think that perhaps the third option might be followed, for in other places of the Scripture, we have a story of judgment, where the David’s temptation to act in pride is attributed in one place to God (2 Sam 24) and in another to Satan (1 chronicles 21). These two competing stories seem to suggest that reality is complex, and that from one perspective, temptation and disaster may be seen as coming from the Lord, and from another perspective, from the enemy. Then we have James who says that temptation comes from within the human heart. However, in both versions of the story, the judgment for sin comes from the Lord: the question is, where does temptation come from. If God allows it, are we really saying he sends it? This however, is not the same as God commanding that people be killed. And we have no competing story to that of the conquest in the Old Testament—everywhere Joshua is celebrated as the one who heeded the Lord, and conquered Jericho, and nowhere is it suggested that this was not at God’s initiative.

      It is better, then, I think, to understand the command to put whole peoples “under the ban” as harsh measures for a hard time, and a response to cultures that were so far gone God could not change them—they practiced making their children “go through the fire,” and were thoroughly idolatrous and immoral. It is important, then, to distinguish between murder and other kinds of killing, though death is always a tragedy. In this case, it was the corporate judgment of an entire people, which the Old Testament books explain would become a snare to the Hebrews, whom God had called to be separate. It seems to me that the real problem here is not that God takes life (for this happens whenever we die, as a consequence of the fall), but that He commanded people to be involved in that killing—did they not risk being brutalized? Certainly they might have been, and so steps were taken to prevent that: for example, they were not allowed to keep the spoils of war, they were to pray and prepare beforehand, and so on.

      All this being said, these stories are difficult, and cannot be read without a shudder! We are not to take such actions lightly or as a matter of course, and are to see them as exceptional and indicative of the heinousness of idolatry and our sin, before a holy God whose usual response to us is forbearance, mercy and longsuffering patience. It is also helpful to remember, that these are stories, not commands for us today. God does not commend conquest as a normal mode of living, but rather even instructed the Hebrew people to be kind to those who were strangers around them: as Jesus says, “he makes his rain to fall on the just and the unjust.” Then, when he came in the flesh to be among us, he took suffering and death to himself to conquer it. We cannot even assume that the Canaanites who died in the conquest were removed from that great eternal mercy of the Incarnation, Crucifixion, and Resurrection, for He is good and loves all humankind.

      And it is this fuller picture of God that we are called to mirror: “be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father in heaven is perfect.” Today, then, when we read these narratives, we may know that the harsher historical moment is over, and that our God has called us to a different path—but we are to be uncompromising in meeting our enemy, who is not flesh and blood, but who attacks our spirit and our body. It is here that the spiritual meaning comes in. Without denying the long and difficult history of Israel, Jesus and the Church, we can see these stories as speaking immediately to our own human compromised condition, and allow the Holy Spirit to show us how to conquer our spiritual enemies, and so die to self.

      This has been much longer than I expected! No doubt it is too long an answer for a non-Christian. The easiest response to that inquirer would be, “That is a difficult question, and it is true that there are things in the Bible that are complicated. However, that story is about something that happened before Jesus came, but now we have the life and actions of Jesus to show us more clearly that God is both holy and loving. Christians don’t use those stories as an indication of how to live, and we know that God cares deeply for every human being. To know the character of God, we should look at Jesus himself, who said, ‘He who has seen me has seen the Father.’” Redirecting inquirers towards the CENTER of the story will, I think, be best, for it is as we look at Jesus, mysteries and conundrums fall into place.

      1. Dear Edith,

        Thank you so much for taking time with your reply. You have given me much to consider and I will read and re-read it. Gratefully, Keith

        1. Keith, you are quite welcome. This is, of course, my opinion, and not every Orthodox theologian/scholar is in agreement on this difficult topic.

      2. Dear Mrs. Humphrey,

        A very educational answer. This type of question was being discussed in another blog on Ancient Faith, by the way.

        I have a question, if I may. How does Christ’s raising everyone out of Hades affect this question? I have always thought, in my simple mind, that this is one of the keys to understanding not only the violence but everything that took place in the Old Testament.

        1. Salaam, I am not quite sure what you have in mind here. The Harrowing of Hades, however, does speak to the scope of the salvation that comes through Jesus, and its potential benefit for everyone, in every time and place. Certainly it tells us that God cares for all those who came before Jesus was born, and that God the Son has assumed humanity to himself. I think that it cannot be taken as an automatic assurance of the salvation of everyone, but on the other hand, I am unwilling to rule that out as a possible outcome, given God’s character, power and eternal energies on our behalf. We may hope for the salvation of all, but not proclaim it, as this goes beyond what we can know. Jesus’ descent further lets us see that there is really ONE great story, not two separate stories, and that God the Son is the foundation and cornerstone of the whole of God’s people. Just as God is one, his people are also one.

          1. Hello Edith,

            In our Ethiopian Orthodox tradition, what I’ve been taught is that everyone in Hades was saved by Christ at his resurrection, save for Judas. However, _after_ His resurrection, it is as you say, there is no assurance of universal salvation.

            That is why I asked the question. If it is true that all the Old Testament characters were saved in the end, then does that not affect the way we see the ‘violence’ in the OldTestament?

          2. Salaam, I thought this was your suggestion. I wonder if it is really the case that the Ethiopian tradition teaches this as dogma, or whether it is suggested by some as a theologoumenon (pious opinion). I am investigating, since I do not know enough about that tradition. What I will say, however, is that while Orthodox theologians and fathers have differed in their friendliness towards the hope of eternal salvation for all (not the confident assertion of it, simply the hope and prayers for it), it would go beyond the tradition as a whole to make a claim that all who came before Christ (even excepting Judas) were automatically saved by the descent to Hades. Logically, this would seem either to require running roughshod over human choice, or giving a special exemption to a certain human demographic. As a way out of the conundrum of those who have been the victims of violence in the conquest, etc, this seems very shaky! I think it would be Orthodox to say, though, that the destruction of the Canaanites as an historical people is not an indication of the personal eternal state of any one of their number. The problem still remains a problem, however. The appeal to a supposed universal salvation as a way out seems to me to suggest a God who is wholly arbitrary–he can order judgment on the historical plane, but then capriciously and inexplicably save those who were so judged simply because of the time in which this happened. I won’t go so far as to say that any sort of universalism was condemned in the fifth ecumenical council, because the actual intent of that council’s deliberations of the doctrine of “recapitulation” is a matter of scholarly debate. However, the suggestion that anyone prior to the coming of Christ is automatically redeemed would be against the teaching of many Church fathers.

  2. Edith ,

    Awesome, I am very excited just reading your first post. And I’m a Canadian, eh! Thanks for sharing with us like this. Looking forward to your post. I love your “But if not” illustration.

    God bless!

    Verner Drost

  3. Difficult – 5 times difficult. But the TNK is full of life. I will look forward to your posts. One question running through my mind these days is why does Jesus choose Jonah as his sign and not Job? Maybe these are parts of TNK that will arise as the conversation continues.

    1. Quick reply, but I am sure that this will come up. Jonah is an apt sign for resurrection, while Job is one for restoration. Also, Jonah is a symbol who stands for Israel, and was given the task Israel was meant to take up–to be a light to the world. Though resistant, in the end he fulfills that sign. Jesus fulfills it willingly, and with infinite success: Jonah saved a city, through their repentant response; Jesus saves the world, indeed, the cosmos.

  4. Dear Professor Edith,

    I am just thrilled that you are going to be sharing your studies with us on this blog. I am of the opinion that we need more concentration on biblical studies and I look forward to following your writings. Please greet Fr. Demetrios for me.

    Fr. P.

    1. Dear Fr. Pat–Thanks so much for your encouragement, which continues your constant care for me! I am grateful for everything that you do for us, and for me in particular. I will certainly convey your greetings!
      Asking your blessing,

      1. Dear Edith,

        I have been accused of worse but I am afraid you have me confused with our mutual friend Fr. Reardon. I am another Father Patrick serving an Antiochian Parish in Virginia. But I can say I share your sentiments about Fr. Pat and I’m sure we are both looking forward to reading your posts.

        Bless you,
        Fr. Patrick Cardine

        1. Oops! Thank you. But now I see that Fr. Pat Reardon has gallantly stepped in, as well. Glad to hear from both of you, and I hope our paths will cross sometime, Fr. Patrick Cardine! (I actually meant that the response to the question on the conquest was MY going where angels fear to tread!)

  5. Dr. Humphrey remarks,

    “Alas, very few of my seminary students are at the same level of the general public of 75 years ago. ”

    Now if I made that statement, my birth certificate would back it up. In the case of Dr. Humphrey, it is pure conjecture.

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