In the celebration of the Feast of the Transfiguration in the Orthodox Church, much attention is paid to the revelation of Christ’s glory as uncreated light. This is fitting, as this element of the event and of the feast became critically important to later doctrinal disputes within the East and ultimately between East and West. There are, however, other important elements of the event and feast relating to the revelation of Jesus as not only Christ but as God which may be all too quickly passed over as a result of this emphasis. Certain liturgical elements of the feast and of scriptures telling of the event give clues to these other elements if they are followed through attentively.
One of these is the repeated quotation of Psalm 89:12 (88:12 in Greek translation), “Tabor and Hermon shall rejoice in thy name.” At first glance, this could be written off as just the utilization of a Psalm verse which happens to mention Tabor, the traditional site of the Transfiguration. It might then be noted, however, that the Synoptic Gospels never identify the mountain upon which the Transfiguration takes place, despite the strong and ancient tradition of its location. In fact, the placement of the event in the Synoptic Gospels rather implies a different location. St. Peter refers to this location as simply “the holy mountain” (2 Pet 1:18), connecting it to the larger tradition of the mountain which is God’s home, ‘har moad’ or ‘the mountain of assembly.’
The mountain on which Yahweh dwells in the Hebrew scriptures is known as ‘the mountain of assembly’ because it is not only his dwelling but also the place at which the divine council convenes. It is the place at which he is enthroned among the Cherubim, the Seraphim, the sons of God, and the rest of the angelic hosts. This dwelling and the meeting place of the council were depicted in the Ancient Near East as taking place in tents. The tabernacle built by Moses was seen to be an earthly copy of the heavenly sanctuary into which he entered atop Mt. Sinai (Acts 7:38-44; Heb 8:5). In addition to the uncreated glory of Christ which shines forth, Moses and Elijah, two humans who have joined the divine council, appear and take counsel with Christ on the mountain (Matt 17:3; Mark 9:4; Luke 9:30-31). It is this understanding that triggers St. Peter’s suggestion that tents be built for Christ and for Moses and for Elijah. That statement is also, however, a misunderstanding of the relationship between Christ’s identity, which St. Peter understands, and the work he is about to do, which as yet St. Peter does not, much as he misunderstood the need of the Messiah to die and rise again in the immediately preceding episode. Even in his later ministry, however, St. Peter understood this experience to be parallel to that of Moses, initiating he and his fellow apostles in a prophetic ministry (2 Pet 1:19-21).
While no location is given for the mountain in the Synoptic description of the event of the Transfiguration, St. Mark places this event immediately after St. Peter’s confession of Christ which takes place in the district of Caesarea Philippi. Ss. Matthew and Luke also follow this order. Mt. Tabor is not in this district. This might seem to cause a problem unless one understands the fourfold Gospel tradition. Eusebius of Caesarea, with regard to this question, cites Papias as saying that St. Mark set down the teaching of St. Peter regarding the Gospel of Jesus Christ, but not in order (Ecc. Hist. 3.39.15). It is for this reason that traditionally, in liturgical and other matters, the Orthodox Church has followed St. John’s three-year chronology of the Lord’s ministry as normative. Aside from the overall arc from Christ’s birth and baptism to his death and resurrection, the Synoptic Gospels arrange Christ’s teaching and the acts of his ministry in a theological way to connect particular teachings with particular events, bring certain pieces of teaching together or connect various events to each other. The Gospels, St. John’s included, are not attempting to present photographs or newsreel accounts of Christ’s ministry. Rather, they are painting portraits of Christ with differing emphases and theological points being made.
By describing this event immediately after St. Peter’s confession near Caesarea Philippi and not naming Mt. Tabor, St. Mark implies a connection between this event and the mountain in that region, Mt. Hermon. The name ‘Hermon’ for this mountain lacks its original resonance in English, in which it sounds like the much later derived name ‘Herman.’ It comes, however, from the Hebrew word ‘herem,’ the same root as the Arabic word ‘haraam.’ This word group means ‘banned,’ ‘forbidden,’ or ‘accursed.’ Located in Galilee, in the north, Mt. Hermon is known to have been a center for pagan worship for as long as the area has been inhabited by humans. It was considered to be the sacred mountain on which the council of the gods dwelt, presided over for much of the history of its usage by Baal. First Enoch 6 posits that the wickedness of this place goes back even farther, to before the flood, and posits this as the location where the rebel angelic beings who corrupted mankind and produced the giant clans descended and swore their oath to destroy the works of Yahweh.
The earliest references to the god who dwelt on this mountain, from which flowed the spring which forms a tributary of the Jordan river, are to Baal-Gad or Baal-Hermon. Connected with these Baal traditions, in addition to him and the council of gods dwelling atop the mountain, the cave from which the spring flowed was believed to be a gateway to Sheol, the underworld, which Baal was also thought to rule. After the conquest of Alexander the Great, the cave and its surroundings were rededicated as Panias, a place of worship to the god Pan and the water nymphs. Over time, the temple to Pan became a major religious attraction. Herod the Great expanded the temple at his own expense and his son Philip the Tetrarch built Caesarea Philippi there as his capital in 3 BC. It is known to this day by the Arabic name Banias. It is also worth noting that Christ’s response to St. Peter’s confession, regarding the gates of Hades being unable to prevail against the church, is spoken within view of this cave and temple complex (Matt 16:18).
By the literary technique here employed, the Synoptic Gospels bring together Tabor and Hermon in a subtle way, thereby directing us to Psalm 89 (88). The Orthodox Church’s liturgical use of this Psalm is based on following this interpretive trajectory. This Psalm moves through three phases which interpret the event of the Transfiguration. It begins by praising Yahweh as being greater than all other beings worshipped as gods, far above the rest of his heavenly council (v. 5-8). It continues by directly ascribing to Yahweh traditional language surrounding Baal. It is Yahweh who has defeated and subdued Yam, the chaotic seas (v. 8). He is said to have crushed Rahav, a primordial chaos monster (v. 10) and both the heavens and the underworld are said to belong to him (v. 11). It is in this context, that Baal is a mere pretender and Yahweh is God Most High, that it is said that both Tabor and Hermon shall rejoice in his name, Yahweh (v. 12).
The Psalm then turns to speak of the covenant with David which would produce the Messiah. It on one hand clearly speaks of David himself and his literal physical descendants (v. 19-20, 29-34). Within the same context, however, it also uses divine terminology to identify this Messianic figure as the Divine Son (v. 26). It speaks of him being seated upon an eternal throne (v. 29, 36-37; compare Dan 7:9-14). To further reinforce this divine enthronement imagery, it is said that the Messiah’s hand will be set on the sea (Yam) and his right hand on the rivers (Naharim), the two enemies defeated by Baal before his enthronement by his father El. As in Daniel, this Psalm sees El and Baal as pretenders to the true throne of Yahweh the Most High God and the Divine Son who is also Yahweh, and who will be enthroned following his own victory. This Psalm, among other texts, was understood in a vast swathe of Second Temple Jewish literature to indicate that the Son of Man, the second person of Yahweh, is also the Messiah, the son of David.
The final portion of Psalm 89 (88) describes a radical inversion of expectations, however. Rather than describing the victory which will be won by the Messiah leading to his enthronement forever, it instead described the crushing defeat, humiliation, and death of the Messiah (v. 38-51). Rather than the language of one chosen and exalted by Yahweh, all of the language of the Psalm reflects one who is under a curse and defeated. This defeat, however, is not the end of the story. The Psalm in its entirety returns from the end to the very beginning (v. 1-4), with the hopeful cry that the Messiah will be vindicated from this death and shame. It is after this seeming defeat that the Messiah emerges victorious and comes to sit upon the divine throne as the faithful witness in heaven (v. 37; Rev 1:5).
Within the event of the Transfiguration, therefore, Christ reveals not only his identity but his destiny. The Spirit had already revealed to St. Peter and he had confessed Jesus as Messiah. He had failed to understand, however, that the Messiah must suffer and die and only then enter into his glory. On the mountain, Christ is revealed to be the incarnate God the Son, the true Son of God, over against all false gods and rebellious sons in the spiritual realm. Through Psalm 89 (88) it can be seen that this identity also means that Jesus Christ will suffer and die and so it anticipates his crucifixion. It is also the moment at which Christ throws down the gauntlet to his enemies in the spiritual world, even as he prepares to go to Jerusalem to challenge the human authorities. As the Psalm prophecies, those enemies will mistakenly think that they have won a great victory (v. 42-45, 50-51), only to face utter destruction themselves (Col 2:15).