Grace and Wrath in the Orthodox Tradition

Uzzah Touches the Ark, by Giulio Quaglio the Younger (From Wikimedia Commons)
Uzzah Touches the Ark, by Giulio Quaglio the Younger
(From Wikimedia Commons)

Eric Jobe’s recent series on justification (Part I, Part II, Part III) has spurred some discussion regarding the role of divine wrath in Orthodoxy. To simplify: Some readers seemed to believe that there was no place in Orthodoxy to speak of the wrath of God at all. Our salvation, to them, has nothing to do with deliverance from God’s wrath.

Rather than comment directly regarding this recent series on justification, I would like to focus on this related issue of divine grace and wrath. What follows here is a cursory exploration of the relationship between—and union of—grace and wrath in Orthodox theology. With an eye toward the actual experience of these realities, rather than a merely academic discussion, I hope, however briefly and inadequately, to end by addressing the existential side as well.

Terms

First of all: grace, which can alternatively be translated “favor.” The Greek charis is etymologically related chara (joy) and eucharistos (thanksgiving). The latter is literally a combination of eu, meaning good, and charis, grace. Lastly, the word is also related to charitas, the Latin equivalent to agape, the highest form of love.

Second: wrath. The Greek orge basically indicates what we might think of, extreme anger, though it is also used to speak of the wrath of pagan gods as well as that of the Lord in the Greek Old Testament. As for the idea of divine wrath, I think that the German philosopher Rudolf Otto may be helpful:

Anyone who is accustomed to think of deity only by its rational attributes must see in this “wrath” mere caprice and willful passion. But such a view would have been emphatically rejected by the religious men of the Old Covenant, for to them the Wrath of God, so far from being a diminution of His Godhead, appears as a natural expression of it, an element of “holiness” itself, and a quite indispensable one. And in this they are entirely right…. It cannot be doubted that, despite the protest of Schleiermacher and Rischl, Christianity also has something to teach of the “wrath of God.”

I find this helpful for several reasons, of which I will focus on two:

First, Otto, a Lutheran, here criticizes those who find the concept strange, in his day at least, for being overly rationalistic. In addition to and distinct from those rationalists, he also associates the denial of divine wrath with the thought of Friedrich Schleiermacher, who while insightful is typically understood to be far from traditional in his conception of the Christian faith. Thus, it may be just as “Protestant” to deny divine wrath as to affirm it—this is not a simple matter of Protestant vs. Orthodox or East vs. West.

Second, Otto links divine wrath not with “mere caprice and willful passion” but with the holiness of God. Holiness is distinct from, though related to, righteousness. Before being a moral category, it indicates the mysterious, unsearchable, and otherworldly—the numinous (a term Otto coined)—which though beyond understanding can yet be experienced and, thus, described and even evoked.

It is this idea of holiness, I think, that Fr. Schmemann meant when he wrote,

“Holy” is the real name of God, of the God “not of scholars and philosophers,” but of the living God of faith. The knowledge about God results in definitions and distinctions. The knowledge of God leads to this one, incomprehensible, yet obvious and inescapable word: holy. And in this word we express both that God is the Absolutely Other, the One about whom we know nothing, and that He is the end of all our hunger, all our desires, the inaccessible One who mobilizes our wills, the mysterious treasure that attracts us, and there is really nothing to know but Him. “Holy” is the word, the song, the “reaction” of the Church as it enters into heaven, as it stands before the heavenly glory of God.

In the context of the life in Christ, what otherwise would evoke terror instead inspires worship, even love: “the end of all our hunger, all our desires.” So how might we reconcile this?

We could, with Schleiermacher, deny that the wrath of God has any place in Christianity at all. In this view, grace and wrath are opposed and irreconcilable. One must be denied in order to have the other.

Or we could, with the innovative Puritan Jonathan Edwards, claim,

The God that holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider, or some loathsome insect over the fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked: his wrath towards you burns like fire; he looks upon you as worthy of nothing else, but to be cast into the fire; he is of purer eyes than to bear to have you in his sight; you are ten thousand times more abominable in his eyes, than the most hateful venomous serpent is in ours.

While Edwards does have a place for divine grace and love, to him God firstly “abhors you.” No doubt it is this sort of conception of God’s wrath, as an expression of divine abhorrence and hatred, that some of Jobe’s readers were worried about. Inasmuch as he would not go this far, both he and his readers probably stand on common ground in viewing this latter view as extreme and heterodox.

But what about the first? If we would not go all the way with Jonathan Edwards, how far does Orthodoxy go? Is Schleiermacher our only alternative?

Theology

St. Maximos the Confessor offers a helpful place to begin:

God, it is said, is the Sun of righteousness (cf. Mal. 4:2), and the rays of His supernal goodness shine down on all men alike. The soul is wax if it cleaves to God, but clay if it cleaves to matter. Which it does depends upon its own will and purpose. Clay hardens in the sun, while wax grows soft. Similarly, every soul that, despite God’s admonitions, deliberately cleaves to the material world, hardens like clay and drives itself to destruction, just as Pharaoh did (cf. Exod. 7:13). But every soul that cleaves to God is softened like wax and, receiving the impress and stamp of divine realities, it becomes “in spirit the dwelling-place of God” (Eph. 2:22).

The hinge, according to St. Maximos, is our own disposition. His view is not Pelagian, however, because the divine energia are clearly primary: remove the warmth of the sun and neither will wax soften nor will clay harden. In both cases, the reality behind the experience of grace and the experience of wrath is really one and the same: “the rays of [God’s] supernal goodness.” As Vladimir Lossky put it, “At the second coming of Christ … [t]he love of God will be an intolerable torment for those who have not acquired it within themselves.”

Here we see the role of righteousness and sin (and by extension, justification). And I would add, it is not just a matter of “the second coming of Christ” but also a present reality. As St. Ambrose wrote, “The wicked man is a punishment to himself, but the upright man is a grace to himself—and to either, whether good or bad, the reward of his deeds is paid in his own person.” Or, as C.S. Lewis put it in The Great Divorce, “[A]t the end of all things … the Blessed will say, ‘We have never lived anywhere except in Heaven,’ and the Lost, ‘We were always in Hell.’ And both will speak truly.”

So the divine light, the love of God, to the righteous is grace and to the wicked is wrath. As such, the idea of divine wrath has an important place in Orthodoxy as indicating the experience of those who actively work against the energia of God’s gracious love. This view offers a third option between Edwards on the one hand and Schleiermacher on the other. But, one might wonder, is there any biblical precedence for this? While Holy Tradition is broader than the Scriptures, it would be odd if such a fundamental subject were completely absent in them.

The Scriptures

I cannot here offer a thorough survey of the Scriptures on the subject, and surely they have more to say than I can explore, but I think they do, in fact, contain this same theology.

That there is an idea of wrath as a terrible experience, even in the New Testament, is clear enough from Hebrews 10:31: “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.” In context, the passage is speaking about God’s vengeance against those who defied him during the Exodus, which is meant to serve as a warning for Christian readers. In addition, the concept of divine wrath is mentioned in nearly every chapter of Romans, including the concern to be “saved from wrath” (5:9).

We can see grace and wrath come together as I have outlined above, depending on one’s disposition, in St. Paul’s teaching on the Eucharist: “[H]e who eats and drinks in an unworthy manner eats and drinks judgment to himself, not discerning the Lord’s body. For this reason many are weak and sick among you, and many sleep” (1 Corinthians 11:29-30). Thus, whether one approaches the altar worthily or unworthily, the same reality results in different experiences. What is a gift of eternal life and the forgiveness of sins to one is “judgment” to another. Notably, this is not just a future experience but a present one, including infirmity, sickness, and death.

As recipients of God’s grace in the mysteries of the Church, we ought to be vehicles of that grace to the world. But, yet again, the effect is twofold: “[W]e are to God the fragrance of Christ among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing,” writes St. Paul. “To the one we are the aroma of death leading to death, and to the other the aroma of life leading to life” (2 Corinthians 2:15-16). Similarly, we might think of the proverb:

If your enemy is hungry, give him bread to eat;
And if he is thirsty, give him water to drink;
For so you will heap coals of fire on his head,
And the Lord will reward you. (Proverbs 25:21-22)

So long as we assume the proverb isn’t recommending some sort of passive-aggressive works of kindness—and I’d say that’s a safe assumption—what makes the difference here is that the other person chooses to be “your enemy,” not that one should mean to hurt such a person. It is the disposition of hatred in their hearts that makes one’s enemies unreceptive to love. Such love, to echo Lossky, is “an intolerable torment” to those consumed by envy.

Application

For fear that this essay, if concluded here, would still be too abstract, consider the miracle of the great catch of fish recorded in the Gospel According to St. Luke:

When [Jesus] had stopped speaking, He said to Simon, “Launch out into the deep and let down your nets for a catch.”

But Simon answered and said to Him, “Master, we have toiled all night and caught nothing; nevertheless at Your word I will let down the net.” And when they had done this, they caught a great number of fish, and their net was breaking. So they signaled to their partners in the other boat to come and help them. And they came and filled both the boats, so that they began to sink. When Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord!” (Luke 5:4-8)

In the presence of the holy, St. Peter finds himself terrified, crying out, “Depart from me!” He is conscious that Jesus is no mere man but “Lord,” and furthermore he becomes aware of his own moral unworthiness (“I am a sinful man”). Jesus did not approach him in anger or malice, but the experience of supernatural love is more akin to wrath than grace for St. Peter.

Puritans like Jonathan Edwards believed that one must first experience God’s wrath in order to be reborn of God’s grace. Regrettable as his rhetoric is, Edwards really did hope his hearers would then experience God’s grace. From an Orthodox point of view, this is wrongheaded in divorcing regeneration from baptism. He also fails, however, to see the unity of these two in the light of divine love, coming down far too heavy-handedly.

From the Orthodox perspective outlined herein, however, we can reframe the experience of God’s wrath with a stronger emphasis on hope. The Gospel story above ends with Jesus saying, “Do not be afraid!” (5:10) and inviting St. Peter and his friends to follow him.

There is something terrible about the hidden and unsearchable aspect of God, but that is not all. There is also something equally unpredictably and mysteriously good: grace—a comfort and joy that transcends all the suffering, chaos, evil, and sin in this world and in our hearts. And to experience the former in hope really can open our eyes to the latter. To weep at the sight of Christ crucified for us can open to us the reality that there he spreads out his arms to embrace us. There, though sinners we may be, we see in the crucified hands of God a love of unsearchable, unfathomable, and even terrible depths. It is a love, to quote the Song of Songs, that is “as strong as death” (8:6) and even stronger, transfiguring the source of our deepest fear into joy.

16 comments:

  1. This reminds me of a lecture given by His Eminence Metropolitan Kallistos Ware and other material on the same subject. It seems to me what the Church teaches is that the experience of divine love and wrath are the reactions of a single force, the uncreated energies of God, the divine grace, the light of Tabor, colliding with the the human soul. Theosis consists of aligning oneself to receive these energies as divine love and thus obtain salvation and become sons of God through adoption; by grace what He is by nature. On the other hand, those who give themselves over to the passions and wallow in the mire of worldliness and evil, doing cruel things to others in business to get ahead, committing crimes, or just being callous and self centered in dealings with people, in order to obtain maximum pleasure, are misalignment themselves and at risk of encountering the uncreated energy of God not as love and grace but as a consuming fire; Satan, having misaligned himself against God from the beginning, delights with his fallen angels in tempting people with the passions so that they may suffer with him; this sounds inconceivably perverse but is the logical consequence of slinging oneself completely against God. In either case, our choice whether to turn towards the wind so to speak and along ourselves with God through Theosis or turn against the wind and experience the wrath of God, the “lake of fire”, is only part of the equation, because it is ultimately the uncreated energy of God that either saves and deifies or condemns and burns us.

    In any case, the unknowable essence of God lies at the heart, and Kallistos Ware said for those who align themselves with God, the future might consist of an eternal progression towards the infinite and incomprehensible perfection that lies in the unknowable essence of the Holy and Undivided Trinity, which is known only through its energies. Am I correct in this summary?

    Also, it seems to me that in many respects Ayn Rand and the Objectivist school of thought, in promoting selfishness and self centered behavior, is the antithesis of Orthodoxy, which is perhaps why the atheist counterculturalist Anton LaVey used them as the basis for his Church of Satan. And tragically even though he or the followers of his mock-religion don’t really believe it, or so they claim, they, and other followers of Rand, are misaligning themselves and imperiling their souls. I have a colleague in the IT industry who is a Satanist and another good friend who is an atheist objectivist, and I pray that God will have mercy on them, fearing for their salvation. But what do you think about the idea of Objectivism as anti-Orthodoxy? Ayn Rand, being a Russian Jew, might well have reacted against the very similiar ethical and moral teachings of Orthodox Judaism and Orthodox Christianity, which are admittedly and unashamedly authoritarian religions, but in a good way, but combined with her distaste with authoritarianism in government in Russia and even the US, which is generally bad, she was driven into this radical mindset based on extrapolations from economics theory going back to Adam Smith, of embracing selfishness. What do you think?

    1. Your summary of Met. Kallistos sounds fair to me.

      As for Rand, I’ve read very little. I tried reading Atlas Shrugged once and put it down after ten pages; it just didn’t catch my interest like Vonnegut, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Knowles, Salinger, et al. at the time.

      To the extent that she really did believe that selfishness is a virtue, she is at odds with every Father and Mother of the Church I’ve ever read, and I have criticized her for this particular doctrine elsewhere: http://ethikapolitika.org/2015/01/12/monk-merchant-economic-wisdom-desert-hermit/

      That said, I guess it would depend on what a person claims to be getting from Rand. The Fathers, on rare occasions, will even quote Epicurus with favor (though I’d prefer him to Rand any day). Even a stopped clock is right twice a day, I suppose. Furthermore, issues of public policy are matters of prudence as well as principle: that is, they do not simply come down to having the right ideas but involve trying to live out those principles in the light of less-than-ideal, real-world options. To be charitable, it may be that the person or persons you’ve encountered find something she said insightful as a help to a prudential judgment without accepting all or any of her philosophical principles.

  2. “Aslan is a lion- the Lion, the great Lion.” “Ooh” said Susan. “I’d thought he was a man. Is he-quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion”…”Safe?” said Mr Beaver …”Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.”

    1. You know we wind up quoting CS Lewis so much it seems to me he’s bound someday to wind up an Orthodox Saint in spite of being Anglican, in the manner of St. Isaac the Syrian, who was (against his will) briefly a bishop in the Assyrian Church of the East; everyone including the Oriental Orthodox who had no common ground with the Nestorian Assyrians embraced him as a saint. Off topic I realize but it seems to me like his writings have become as essential to Anglophone Orthodoxy as translations of Dostoevsky.

      Dylan, did what I post accurately reflect what you were trying to say? And is it Orthodox to say that the wrath and love are in no respects separate energies from God, the one sent to punish sin and the other to reward evil, but rather reactions when the human soul encounters the uncreated energy of God? So someone who embraces sin will react on contact with divine energy producing the experience of wrath, like gasoline hitting fire, whereas someone in the Church practicing the virtues and pursuing Theosis on encountering divine energy will experience it as love and grace? So essentially through sin we make ourselves allergic to divine grace and experience wrath, whereas through the Holy Sacraments of the Church, fasting, prayer and charity, and the other virtues, if we control our passions, we can rid ourselves of this allergy. Does this seem a reasonable interpretation of what you’re saying?

  3. Like!

    St. Isaac the Syrian was my source for confirmation of this perspective of God’s “wrath” and is the reason I am Orthodox. My succinct way of summarizing this is to say, “Sin is its own punishment and love is its own reward.” Doubtless, those words are not original with me, but I don’t know who else may have said them.

  4. Dylan,

    Might we say that grace and wrath are counterparts akin to “bigger” and “smaller”–the bigger something gets, it follows that it becomes less small. Orthodox salvation is a process–theosis. The greater degree of repentance i experience, the degree to which i experience sin as wrath is lessened–is that right?

    –guy

    1. Maybe. You hit on an important aspect. For most of us, I presume, we are somewhere in between. “Christ Jesus came to save sinners, of whom I am first,” certainly remains a “faithful saying” to me.

      I might put it this way: the refiner’s fire purifies gold. Imagining this gold is sentient (okay, maybe it’s a bad metaphor), while pure gold would be unharmed, anything less—so, all of us—would be facing a great deal of pain to get there.

      That’s just the “glass-is-half-empty” way of putting it, though. One could also say that in the meantime all that dross really cramps one’s style, and the pain to get rid of it is nothing compared to the weight of keeping it.

  5. Dylan,

    Thank you for this. I come from an evangelical Protestant background and this understanding of God’s wrath is very important to keep in mind when discussing subjects like justification about which Protestants have a distinctive understanding. I find that I can never hear it repeated often enough, since otherwise I tend to slip back into hearing talk of God’s wrath through an Edwardsian lens. I just finished re-re-rereading Mere Christianity and noticed Lewis’ confirmation of this understanding as he repeatedly states that the difference between saint and sinner is not simply that God decides to treat them differently.

    How would you read biblical texts (such as in the books of prophecy, the gospels, or Revelation) that do seem to describe wrath in these terms?

    1. Well, that’s where I might fall back on my statement that the Scriptures “have more to say than I can explore” in this essay. But that might be a bit of a balk. I guess I would say this: To the extent that those passages can be harmonized with the view outlined here, which I have argued has biblical, patristic, and modern theological bases, I would do so with preference to it, since it is clear, traditional, comprehensible, and paints a far more naturally appealing picture of God, which I take to be important, though not ultimate.

      I can give one (extrabiblical) example of how some of these passages might be harmonized with my thesis in this essay. Have you ever read the Apocalypse of Peter? It contains a vision of the punishments of the wicked. Now, one could argue that these should be taken literally, but they remind me far more of Greek and Roman mythology like the story of Tantalus, for example, who steals the food of the gods and is punished in Tartarus by being placed in a pool of water with fruit dangled just out of his reach and the water always receding before he can take a drink. The point is that his impious desire itself was his torment.

      Similarly, the Apocalypse of Peter describes, for example, “false witnesses” who are “gnawing their tongues and having flaming fire in their mouths.” Should we take this literally? (Or better, *how* are we to take this literally? If the intent is metaphorical, then that would be the correct *literal* reading.) Does God decree such macabre punishments? Maybe, though unless this is after the resurrection, we might wonder what tongues disembodied spirits could be gnawing. A better reading, I think, is that to sin with one’s tongue is to make it the instrument of one’s own torment, because sin is anti-natural and thus works against our ultimate peace and flourishing. Thus, St. Ambrose’s adage would apply here as well: “The wicked man is a punishment to himself.”

  6. Thank you Dylan for this article. Do you have more on this subject? I’ve desperately needed something to set me straight. I’m a convert (10 years ago) and to my own shame i still struggle with the goodness of God.
    I read the book Blessed Augustine, and the Augustinian-Anselmian theology contained in it both confuses me, (and since it’s something I was brought up with in Protestantism), has held me back from truly giving myself to a God that I can’t seem to trust. Intellectually I know it’s not true, but my heart, 18″ inches away from my brain, doesn’t get it.
    Yes, anti-Orthodox viewpoint perhaps, but I believe this to be a bigger struggle out there in the rubber-hits-the-road everyday beliefs of ordinary orthodox (and others) than many realize.
    Thanks again.

    1. Well, I’ve actually been mulling over a post on Anslem, but I haven’t quite crystalized my thesis. I can at least give you a bit of what I have so far in answer to your concerns:

      I’m not sure to what extent St. Augustine’s understanding of the atonement, for example, really fits with Anslem. From what I’ve read of St. Augustine, he seems to repeat the same victory over sin, death, and the devil sort of imagery of other fathers rather than Anselm’s focus on divine honor.

      I’m also not sure to what extent Anslem’s view would be outside the boundaries of the fathers—I can think of at least one medieval and one modern Orthodox saint who seem to basically follow him—but it is, at least, important to say that there is significant distance between Anselm and the likes of, say, John Calvin, Jonathan Edwards, and John Piper.

      That said, I would also say that Anselm’s view never really sat right with me (nor, for that matter, did it with many of his Western contemporaries). For Anslem, the Fall brings a divine dilemma centered on the satisfaction of God’s honor (notice it is not, or at least not quite, about his wrath).

      In any case, I much prefer St. Athanasius:

      “It was unworthy of the goodness of God that creatures made by Him should be brought to nothing through the deceit wrought upon man by the devil; and it was supremely unfitting that the work of God in mankind should disappear, either through their own negligence or through the deceit of evil spirits.”

      For St. Athanasius, the divine dilemma centers on God’s goodness: “what then was God, being Good, to do?” The problem is not that God is offended so much as it is that we had become subject to corruption, and God, who is goodness itself, created us for incorruption. Since he is good, he could not just leave us like that and so he himself took on our corruption, that we might “put on incorruption” (1 Corinthians 15:53).

      On the one hand, the difference between the two may simply be rhetorical. On the other hand, rhetoric matters. The portrayal of God in St. Athanasius’s “On the Incarnation” connects with me far better than that in Anselm’s “Cur Deus Homo.” St. Athanasius’s picture of God is one eminently worthy of trust and devotion.

      If what you’re looking for is a more palatable portrayal of why God became man, suffered, died, and rose again, I would highly recommend reading “On the Incarnation.” In my experience, people tend to find it refreshingly accessible and clear. You can find it online here: http://www.ccel.org/ccel/athanasius/incarnation

  7. Dylan,

    I am curious about the “the wrath” in the Old Testament. I agree that what we are dealing with, in the Bible, is the extreme holiness or purity manifested against sin or impurity – i.e., not the sinner per se – like the death of Uzzah.

    Still, Baruch Levine, John Geyer, and Jacob Milgrom also speak of cases where “the wrath” in the Bible is hypostatized into an angelic mode or, perhaps, is fully a creature of God (a minor deity, or angel), unleashed by God to execute judgment, like the angel of death. In these cases, Levine spoke of how the angel of destruction, or wrath, once unleashed, acted somewhat autonomously and so needed to be counteracted by God himself through human agents or the cult (like David in Chronicles or Aaron at the rebellion of Qorah) – not unlike what is seen in the Sumerian flood stories where the gods unleash a flood judgment they cannot control and must limit in some other way.

    “In the account, as we have it, the identities of YHWH and the ‘mashit,’ a destructive force, are sometimes muddled, but it is clear, nevertheless, that the ‘mashit’ was conceived as distinct force which, once unleashed, was not controllable, even by YHWH himself.” (Levine, In the Presence of the Lord, pg. 75)

    “YHWH’s kabod appeared, announcing the intention of the Deity to wipe out the entire people. A plague commences, and Aaron barely saves the people from extinction by the apotropaic utilization of incense. Here incense was being used against the demonic wrath of YHWH himself or…against a demonic plague unleashed by YHWH, which then became uncontrollable.” (pg. 71)

    “[Footnote 55, pg. 75]: ‘Cf. the dictum of the Sages: ‘Once leave has been granted to the ‘destructive force’ (mashit), he no longer discriminates between the righteous and the wicked.’ Mekilta, ed. Friedman 1870, 11b, s.v. Bo, par. 11, s.v. we’attem lo’ tese’u”

    “Sdd means ‘destroyer’ or ‘Destroyer.’ Historical criticism will try to think of an invading force…But in a mythological milieu, the word might more properly be translated…as ‘demon’ or something like ‘angel of destruction’…” (John Geyer, Mythology and Lament: Studies in the Oracles About the Nations, pg. 5)

    This also raises a disturbing question for Christians I was wondering if you could address. Sometimes, though not always, this avenging figure is called (like in Chronicles) “the Angel of the Lord.” Elsewhere, like in the Burning Bush scene, this “Angel of the Lord” figure seems to a divine hypostasis – associated with the Logos. Surely this wouldn’t imply that the Logos/Word of the pre-incarnate Christ is responsible for the events in the Book of Chronicles or the Tenth Plague? On the one hand, I can understand assigning such judgments to the Destroyer, distancing these actions from God himself (I believe Philo made such a move in associating this Angel figure with his Logos) but does “Angel of the Lord” always imply the same figure rather than a class of beings – thus making the Destroyer executing divine judgment the same figure as the Word-Logos elsewhere? Could “Angel of the Lord” simply be a title of any high-ranking angel as well as the hypostatic figure?

    Thanks.

    1. Excellent question, really! This is (1) where a proper mythological interpretation of these elements in the OT comes in handy rather than a literalist reading, and (2) where an iconological interpretation leads us to a better theology. Mythology in the OT can be understood as the raw materials for icons, verbal or “thought” icons, which permeate the OT and provide an opportunity for us to see the logos/Logos of it. Angels in (painted) iconography can often be used to indicate the uncreated energies of God. So you will often see (especially in Russian iconography) icons of Agape and Sophia, which are sort of “hypostatic” (though not like the persons of the Holy Trinity) portrayals of God in terms of his energetic grace. In the terms used by the iconographer Vladislav Andrejev, they would be eidos icons of the uncreated energies of God, much like the dove is an eidos icon of the Holy Spirit. So, the mashit or shoded is a sort of eidos icon for the uncreated energy which we might call “wrath” qua the holiness of God directed at eradicating sin. A similar icon might be the lance with which St. George and St. Michael pierce the dragon – that is illustrating a particular action of God (or a saint) by use of some rather violent imagery.

      The mythology (as you rightly bring up) allows us to extract this from a literalist reading of the narrative. In other words, we understand this to be more of an ancient Near Eastern mythological trope rather than a bare report of an historical event. As such, we are then more readily able to theologize it.

      This is admittedly a more layered reading of scripture, acknowledging that the “literal” reading of the OT narratives containing this angelic destroyer do in fact represent YHWH in a more capricious and angry deity much like the pagan gods of the ANE. Rather than try to jump through hoops to explain it all away, we can simply acknowledge it, then move from it to an iconological interpretation confessing through it that the real truth and nature of God is to be found in what the icon points to as a symbol rather than the literalist reading of the image itself.

      I hope that makes sense.

  8. Dear At Alcuin’s Bench,

    For some reason I failed to properly “reply” so my response is down here.

    Forgive the length of the following:

    These are excellent questions. Unfortunately, while I have studied Hebrew, the Old Testament, and even some Ancient Near Eastern (ANE) mythology, I am far from an expert in them.

    This is the best I can offer:

    While Levine et al. are excellent scholars, they are also writing from within their own tradition(s). Modern Christianity and Judaism have common roots, but they parted ways nearly 2000 years ago, with polemics and intentional distancing on both sides. As an Orthodox Christian, I would defer first to the Church fathers before, say, the Talmud.

    In the instances you mention, I would not be surprised to find in the fathers some sort of allegory being stressed over, if not at the exclusion of, the literal/historical. (See, e.g., Origen on Joshua’s conquest of Canaan and the God-ordained slaughter of women and children.)

    This would not be true in all cases, however, and for ancient Christian readings with a more Semitic flavor I would commend exploring some of the Syriac fathers, such as St. Ephrem the Syrian. I am often surprised how Hebraisms claimed to be newly rediscovered by modern scholarship can be found there. For example, if I recall correctly, St. Ephrem mentions how “the Spirit of God” in Genesis 1 could just as well be an idiom for “a mighty wind” than a reference to the Holy Spirit.

    As for the Tenth Plague, am I mistaken to say that the angel there is referred to as “the angel of death” and not precisely as “the angel of the Lord”? If so, the text may lend itself to distinguishing the two. I have heard, for example, that there is a tradition that the angel of death is actually the archangel Gabriel, but I unfortunately have no source to offer for that tradition.

    To get back to my original point, however, while it is insightful and important to put these texts in their ANE context, the Orthodox Christian cannot stop there. Indeed, it is well accepted that the Torah is compiled and edited by one or many people from several sources. What those original sources may have been can be insightful, but at the end of the day we do not have them; what we have is the Torah.

    Similarly, we do not only have the Torah, but the whole Old Testament. And Christians, contra Marcion, retained those Scriptures because they believed that they found their fulfillment in the Gospel, and their interpretive tradition from the beginning is colored by this conviction. Thus, while on some level it may be right that an original author or editor meant to express some agent of the Lord or even an unruly and evil or amoral force or spirit that at times escaped his control, other editors, compilers, and interpreters read these passages differently and included them for their own reasons.

    The best I can say, then, is that being relatively traditional—whether Christian or Jew, for that matter—does not necessarily require originalism. In fact, I would argue that it all but makes it impossible. I’m rusty on my terms, but I think this would also be the difference between a purely historical-critical interpretive method (which has its merits) and a canonical method.

    If this sounds like a balk, well, it sort of is. I’ll clumsily attempt to do a little better:

    In the case of Korah’s rebellion, I would note the microcosmic nature of humanity (body made from the earth, spirit breathed in by God) and how, by consequence of failing to submit to heaven, he is swallowed by the earth, having lived in such a manner that prioritized the earthly over the heavenly within him.

    The Tenth Plague/Passover is much harder, however. Again, I can fall back on “the Scriptures have more to say than I could explore” in this essay, but that doesn’t say much; in fact, that seems to have been your point. Of course, the rescuing of Israel has been understood in terms of the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ traditionally, but I don’t know, off hand, what one is to do with the firstborn of the Egyptians who were slain by the angel of death.

    I would incline toward a reading similar to that of the imprecatory psalm, “By the rivers of Babylon,” etc., which includes the hope that the infants of Babylon would be dashed against the rocks. Among the Church fathers, this is often taken to indicate the beginnings of sinful thoughts/passions within us which should be dashed against the rock of Christ. Similarly, we may say that as Egypt is the kingdom of Israel’s captivity, so too its firstborn represent our first fetters chaining us to sin, death, and the devil. By the death and resurrection of Christ, our debt to death is cancelled, just as what was the destruction to the firstborn of the Egyptians was the salvation of Israel.

    I’m not sure the Egyptians would be satisfied with that reading, however, as it all but leaves the problem of the literal behind.

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