The use of Scripture in many of the Orthodox Church Fathers puzzles many modern readers. We tend to see reading as something that can be done in two modes: literal or figurative. In addition, we tend to equate literal with “true” and figurative as “not real and thus somehow not quite true.” It’s actually a very limited way of reading reducing meaning to two poor choices. Indeed, there is a “privileging” of the literal – by equating it with “real.” The model is literal equals historical equals objective equals true. It is, if you will, a very “flat-footed” reading that makes many assumptions about the world – most of which would support the notion of the world as a “secular realm.” In this model the question would be: “Are the Scriptures as true as the New York Times?” You can think about that question after you quit laughing.
First off, for the Fathers, “true” means “eschatological.” Things are true as measured by the end of all things. Creation has an end and a goal both of which already reside in the created order. All that exists is moving towards its end and the fulfillment of the truth of its existence. Thus, to be modern and flat-footed, the only “literal” truth has not yet been fully manifest. We live in a world of shadows, icons, hints, and signposts. Thus the Fathers tend to read things looking for something that isn’t always apparent. They are looking for the truth, but often having to look beyond the immediate presentation to find the end of the matter. Comparisons and echoes between two events are key moments in interpretation. This is especially true when the key moment echoes the life, death, resurrection, etc., of Christ – who is the End of all things.
William, one of our readers and a frequent commentator, posted a comment this morning that offered a marvelous example of this Patristic style of interpretation. His example came from St. Ephrem of Syria – one of the greatest hymn writers in the early Church. Parenthetically, it should be noted that a number of the better interpreters of Scripture in the early Church used poetry and hymn-writing as a major means of expression. It’s almost a way of saying that the world exists more like poetry than prose.
St. Ephrem finds a comparison between the story of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah (in the book of Genesis) and the story of the sparing of the city of Ninevah (in the book of the Prophet Jonah). He also sees a comparison between the attitude of Abraham (who asked for God’s mercy on Sodom) and the Prophet Jonah (who was angry because God spared Ninevah).
The saint is not particularly concerned with any question of “did this really happen?” or other concerns that drive modern literal interpretations. The truth of the destruction of Sodom and the sparing of Ninevah is to be found in the Eschaton, when Christ will come to judge all things. And the point of that judgment is, St. Ephrem affirms, to be found in the mercy of God. It is the common teaching of the Orthodox fathers that God is merciful towards all (“not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance”). However not all desire God’s mercy. Christ said:
And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil. For every one who does evil hates the light, and does not come to the light, lest his deeds should be exposed (John 3:19-20).
Thus Ephrem sees the same mercy (light) coming to Ninevah and to Sodom. One is glad to receive mercy, but the other hated mercy (the Sodomites surely showed no mercy to their visitors) and found God’s mercy to be as fire and brimstone.
Of course any move away from modern literalism frightens some people for fear that claims for the reality of Christ’s atoning death and resurrection might be weakened. Although the Church sees the written account of the Gospels as “doctrinally shaped” narratives – nonetheless we stand on the ground of a certain literalism in the Gospels. For the Truth Himself, the Alpha and Omega, is among us in the gospel and all that happens around Him is being brought to its “literal” truth. The blind receive their sight because darkness is not the truth. The lame walk and the dead are raised because brokenness and death are not the truth of our existence. Where Christ is judgment has come. Judgment that gives sight and causes to walk. Judgment that raises the dead. But also judgment that reveals traitors and hypocrites and unmasks the false power of the princes of this world.
Thus St. Ephrem’s poetry reveals. As William noted:
…the Ninevites were faced with the same threat that Sodom and Gomorrah faced, but their hearts were different. Ephrem describes the Ninevites’ ashes and sackcloth as being like blood money and an offering that made reconciliation. The tears that flowed from their eyes were met with mercy flowing from heaven, Ephrem writes. God always meets repentance with mercy. Anyway, this describes God’s wrath as something whose very purpose is mercy:
“Give thanks to the One Who sent His anger to Nineveh
that His anger might be a merchant of mercy.
For two treasures His anger opens:
the treasure of the deep and the treasure of the height.
Urgently the fruit [repentance] went up from below to the height.
Urgently mercy rained from above to the deep.
Urgently the blood money went up to the height.
Urgently pity came down from above to the deep.”
It seems that God’s visitation on Sodom and Gomorrah that was a shower of brimstone on unrepentant souls was no different from his visitation on Nineveh that was a shower of mercy on the repentant. Abraham’s prayer didn’t change God, nor did the Ninevites’ sackcloth, because God’s will is always mercy on the repentant. Abraham’s prayer for mercy toward the righteous is in conformity with God’s eternal intent.
Here is another quote from St. Ephrem comparing Jonah with Abraham. It doesn’t necessarily answer any questions, but it’s interesting, and it suggests the difference between Sodom and Nineveh and between a merciful man and an unmerciful one:
“That Sodom not be overthrown Abraham prayed.
That Nineveh be overthrown Jonah hoped.
That man prayed for a city that abused watchers [angels]
This man was angry at a city that made the watchers rejoice.”
“Tears moistened her (Nineveh); mercy shone on her;
weeping rained in her; pity sprouted in her
The King of the height saw and desired
the fruit that a flow of tears grew.
The High One hungered very much for her tears,
since He tasted remorse in her fruits.
He came down and opened the treasury of mercy
to purchase by His mercy the fruits of His servants.”
Thank you William. Thank you St. Ephrem. Thanks be to God.