Thursday, May 19, 2016

Stump the Priest: The Prophet Elisha and the She-Bears

Relief from the Arch of Titus

Question: "What’s going on with the she-bears Elisha called up when he cursed the 42 “youths” (more likely young adults) in 2 Kings 2:23-25? Why was it two she-bears?"

It is correct that the impression that these were toddlers is a false impression, and it should be noted that the Prophet Elisha is not said to have called for the bears to attack the children, but rather to curse them. And it may well be that he was pronouncing the curses of the Covenant for those who disobey:
"And if ye walk contrary unto me, and will not hearken unto me; I will bring seven times more plagues upon you according to your sins. I will also send wild beasts among you, which shall rob you of your children, and destroy your cattle, and make you few in number; and your high ways shall be desolate" (Leviticus 26:21-22).
For more on the background of this story, see "Question...wasn't Elisha very cruel when he sent those bears against those little kids who were teasing him about being bald?"

But to answer the question regarding the meaning of the two she-bears, St. Caesarius of Arles has a very interesting explanation:
"Now according to the letter, dearly beloved, we are to believe, as mentioned above, that blessed Elisha was aroused with God's zeal to correct the people, rather than moved by unwholesome anger, when he permitted the Jewish children to be torn to pieces. His purpose was not revenge but their amendment, and in this fact, too, the passion of our Lord and Savior was plainly prefigured. Just as those undisciplined children shouted to blessed Elisha, "Go up, you baldhead; go up, you baldhead," so at the time of the passion the insane Jews with impious words shouted to Christ the true Elisha, "Crucify him! Crucify him!" What does "Go up, you baldhead" mean except: Ascend the cross on the site of Calvary? Notice further, brothers, that just as under Elisha forty-two boys were killed, so forty-two years after the passion of our Lord two bears came, Vespasian and Titus, and besieged Jerusalem. Also consider, brothers, that the siege of Jerusalem took place on the Paschal solemnity. Thus, by the just judgment of God the Jews who had assembled from all the provinces suffered the punishment they deserved, on the very days on which they had hung the true Elisha, our Lord and Savior, on the cross. Indeed, at that time, that is, in the forty-second year after the passion of our Lord, the Jews as if driven by the hand of God assembled in Jerusalem according to their custom to celebrate the Passover. We read in history that three million Jews were gathered in Jerusalem; eleven hundred thousand of them are read to have been destroyed by the sword of hunger, and one hundred thousand young men were led to Rome in triumph. For two years that city was besieged, and so great was the number of the dead who were cast out of the city that their bodies equaled the height of the walls. This destruction was prefigured by those two bears that are said to have torn to pieces forty-two boys for deriding blessed Elisha. Then was fulfilled what the prophet had said, "The boar from the forest lays it waste, and the beasts of the field feed on it [Psalm 79:14 [80:13]],"for as was indicated, after forty-two years that wicked nation received what it deserved from the two bears, Vespasian and Titus" (Sermon 127:2)  quoted in Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture: Old Testament, Vol. V: 1-2 Kings, 1-2 Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther, Marco Conti, ed. (Downers Grove, IL: Intervasity Press, 2008) p. 149f).

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Stump the Priest: "The Handwriting Against Us"

Question: "What is the “handwriting against us” in Colossians 2:11-15? Is it our sins or the Law or both or neither?" 

The text, as we have it in the King James Version is as follows:
"In whom also ye are circumcised with the circumcision made without hands, in putting off the body of the sins of the flesh by the circumcision of Christ: buried with him in baptism, wherein also ye are risen with him through the faith of the operation of God, who hath raised him from the dead. And you, being dead in your sins and the uncircumcision of your flesh, hath he quickened together with him, having forgiven you all trespasses; blotting out the handwriting of ordinances that was against us, which was contrary to us, and took it out of the way, nailing it to his cross; and having spoiled principalities and powers, he made a shew of them openly, triumphing over them in it."
The key word to consider here is the word translated as "ordinances." Some have tried to use this text as if this word refered to the Old Testament Law, and then to suggest that Christ blotted out the Law, however the word in question in Greek is "δογμασιν" (the dative plural of δογμα (dogma)) from which the English word "dogma" is derived -- however, that connection with the word "dogma" is somewhat misleading. The word is used by both Philo and Josephus in reference to both philosophical principles and imperial decrees (Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, 2:231). The sense of "decree" is the sense we find this verse taken in both the Fathers and the Services of the Church. It is the handwriting of the decree that was against us, i.e. the righteous sentence of God due to us for our sins which are blotted out, and nailed to the Cross. By extrapolation, some texts speak of it more generally as the debt of our sin, but this is focusing on the penalty of the sentence against us.

St. Irenaeus: “He destroyed the handwriting of our debt and fastened it to the Cross, so that as by means of a tree we were made debtors to God, so also by means of a tree we may obtain remission of the debt.” (Against Heresies, 5:17:3).

St. John Chrysostom: "See to it that we do not again become debtors to the old contract. Christ came once; he found the certificate of our ancestral indebtedness which Adam wrote and signed. Adam contracted the debt; by our subsequent sins we increased the amount owed. In this contract are written a curse, and sin, and death and the condemnation of the law. Christ took all these away and pardoned them. St. Paul cries out and says: "The decree of our sins which was against us, he has taken it completely away, nailing it to the cross." He did not say "erasing the decree,' nor did he say "blotting it out," but "nailing it to the cross," so that no trace of it might remain. This is why he did not erase it, but tore it to pieces" (Baptismal Instructions 3:21, quoted in Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture: New Testament, Vol. IX, Peter Gorday, ed. (Downers Grove, IL: Intervasity Press, 2000) p. 33

St. Ambrose of Milan: "But Christ was sold because he took our condition upon himself, not our sins themselves; he is not held to the price of sin, because he himself did not commit sin. And so he made a contract at a price for our debt, not for money for himself; he took away the debtor's bond, set aside the moneylender, freed the debtor. He alone paid what was owed by all. We ourselves were not permitted to escape from bondage. He undertook this on our behalf, so that he might drive away the slavery of the world, restore the liberty of paradise and grant new grace through the honor we received by his sharing of our nature. This by way of a mystery" (Joseph 4:19, quoted in Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture: New Testament, Vol. IX, Peter Gorday, ed. (Downers Grove, IL: Intervasity Press, 2000) p. 34).

Ambrosiaster: "Having defeated the princes and powers by the death of Christ, God annulled the sentence which had been decreed against us by the sin of Adam, for just as the names of those who act well are in the book of life, so also the names of sinners are in the book of death. Therefore God annulled the sentence by which we were guilty of death both by our own sin and by that of our ancestor, having conquered death in Christ and triumphed over the devil and his puppets in his own flesh" (Ancient Christian Texts: Commentaries on Galatians -- Philemon, Ambrosiaster, translated and edited by Gerald L. Bray (Downers Grove, IL: Intervasity Press, 2009) p. 89).

St. Ephrem the Syrian: “At the birth of the Son the King was enrolling all men for the tribute money, that they might be debtors to Him; the King came forth to us Who blotted out our bills and wrote another bill in His own Name that He might be our debtor” (Hymns on the Nativity, 4).

St. John Cassian: "At the sixth hour the spotless victim, our Lord and Savior, was offered to the Father, and mounting the cross for the salvation of the whole world he destroyed the sins of the human race. "Despoiling principalities and powers, he delivered them over publicly [Colossians 2:15]," and he freed all of us who were subject to and burdened by the record of our unpayable debt, removing it from our midst and fixing it to the trophy of his cross [Colossians 2:14] (The Institutes, 3:3:3, trans. Boniface Ramsey, O.P. (New York, NY: The Newman Press, 2000), p. 60).

St. Gregory Palamas: "For this reason the Lord patiently endured for our sake a death He was not obliged to undergo, to redeem us, who were obliged to suffer death, from servitude to the devil and death, by which I mean death both of the soul and of the body, temporary and eternal. Since He gave His blood, which was sinless and therefore guiltless, as a ransom for us who were liable to punishment because of our sins, He redeemed us from our guilt. He forgave us our sins, tore up the record of them on the Cross and delivered us from the Devil's tyranny (cf. Col 2:14-15)" (Christopher Veniamin, trans. Saint Gregory Palamas: The Homilies (Waymart, PA: Mount Thabor Publishing, 2009) p. 128f)."

"Thou hast not imitated the Harlot, O my wretched soul, who took the alabaster jar of myrrh and with tears anointed the feet of the Savior and wiped them with her hair. For this, He tore up the handwriting of her sins" (from the 9th Ode of the Great Canon).

"O God and Lord of Hosts, and Maker of all Creation, Who by the tender compassion of Thy mercy which transcendeth comprehension, didst send down Thine only-begotten Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, for the salvation of our race, and by His precious Cross didst tear asunder the handwriting of our sins, and thereby didst triumph over the principalities and powers of darkness: Do Thou Thyself, O Master, Lover of mankind, accept also from us sinners these prayers of thanksgiving and entreaty, and deliver us from every destructive and dark transgression, and from all enemies, both visible and invisible, that seek to do us evil. Nail down our flesh with the fear of Thee, and incline not our hearts unto words or thoughts of evil, but pierce our souls with longing for Thee, so that ever looking to Thee, and being guided by Thy Light as we behold Thee, the unapproachable and everlasting Light, we may send up unceasing praise and thanksgiving unto Thee, the Unoriginate Father, with Thine Only-begotten Son, and Thine All-holy and good and life-creating Spirit, now and ever, and unto the ages of ages" (The prayer at the Sixth Hour).

"O Thou who on the sixth day and in the sixth hour didst nail to the Cross Adam’s daring sin in Paradise, tear asunder also the handwriting of our sins, O Christ God, and save us" (Troparion at the Sixth Lenten Hour).

Friday, May 06, 2016

Stump the Priest: The New Israel, New Jerusalem

Olive Trees

Question: "Is the Church the new Israel? I heard this idea disparaged as "Replacement Theology." Also, how are we to understand the the term "New Jerusalem"? Is it Heaven? The Church? A literal city? All three?"

St. Paul's teaching in Romans 11 is clear that those Jews who rejected Christ are like branches cut off from the olive tree, which represents the people of God -- and that gentile converts are like wild olive branches that have been grafted on to that same tree. The Church is the Israel of God (Galatians 6:16), the Israelites formed the Church of the Old Testament, but the New Testament Church is in continuity with the old. However, Romans 11 is equally clear that there is still a future in God's providence for those who are the physical descendants of the Old Testament Israel, who rejected Christ and so have been cut off from the Church, but who will one day be saved. And so we do speak of the Church as the new Israel, but this does not mean there is no sense in which we can still speak of the Israel according to the flesh.

We do not accept the notion of some Protestants that teach that there is still a separate covenant for the Jews, and that they may be saved by the Old Covenant, while Christians are saved by the New. Nor do we believe that the descendants of those who rejected Christ have some special claim on the Holy Land that entitles them to steal land from Arab speaking Christians, many of whom are no doubt descended from those Jews that embraced Christ. Christians are children of Abraham in the truest sense, and as such are the true heirs of God's promise to him:
"Know ye therefore that they which are of faith, the same are the children of Abraham. And the scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the heathen through faith, preached before the gospel unto Abraham, saying, In thee shall all nations be blessed. So then they which be of faith are blessed with faithful Abraham" (Galatians 3:7-9).
Because we do not equate the modern state of Israel with the Israel of the Old Testament, some Protestants attempt to argue that this constitutes antisemitism, but we reject this claim. Furthermore, I would argue that this abuse of the label of antisemitism in an attempt to defend even the most indefensible actions of the state of Israel only cheapens the term, and has the effect of providing greater credibility for real antisemitic voices.

As for the term "New Jerusalem," we find this phrase in Revelation 21:2:

Here are examples of what the Fathers say this phrase means:
"The heavenly Jerusalem is the multitude of the saints who will come with the Lord, even as Zechariah said: "Behold my Lord God will come, and all his saints with him [Zechariah 14:5 LXX]" (Apringius of Beja, Tractate on the Apocalypse 21:2, quoted in Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture: New Testament, Vol. XII, William C Weinrich, ed. (Downers Grove, IL: Intervasity Press, 2005) p. 355).
"By Jerusalem he symbolized the blessed destiny and dwelling of the saints, which he figurately calls Jerusalem both here and in the following passages (Oecumenius, Commentary on the Apocalypse, 20:13-21:2, quoted in Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture: New Testament, Vol. XII, William C Weinrich, ed. (Downers Grove, IL: Intervasity Press, 2005) p. 355).
"The city is constructed of the saints concerning whom it is written, "Holy stones are rolled upon the land, [Zechariah 9:16 LXX]" and it has Christ as it cornerstone. It is called a "city," since it is the dwelling place of the kingly Trinity -- for [the Trinity] dwells in it and walks in it, as he promised -- and it is called "bride," since it is joined to the Lord and is united with him in the highest, inseparable conjunction" (St. Andrew of CaesareaCommentary on the Apocalypse, 21:2, quoted in Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture: New Testament, Vol. XII, William C Weinrich, ed. (Downers Grove, IL: Intervasity Press, 2005) p. 356).
We find something similar in Hebrews 12:22 ("But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem"), as well as Galatians 4:26 ("But Jerusalem which is above is free, which is the mother of us all"). In context, both of these passages are contrasting the heavenly Jerusalem with the Old Covenant and those refusing to embrace the New Covenant.

And so, from these passages, and from what the Fathers say about them, I think we can say that the New Jerusalem refers to the Church, to all the saints in heaven, and to heaven itself.

See Also: Stump the Priest: Antisemitism in the Holy Week Services?