Monday, April 14, 2008

The Fathers on Reading Scripture, X

Today we celebrate the memory of the Elder Barsanuphius of Optina (+1913). In the journal of the Elder Nikon of Optina we read the following entry from December 28, 1908:
Once Fr Barsanuphius spoke to me about how, in the Bible, in addition to its outward side, there is an inward one – that is, beside the bare facts there is a profound prototypical meaning to these same facts. This meaning is revealed according to the measure of the purification of a man's mind.

"For example, the crossing of the Red Sea by the Hebrews served as a prototype of the New Testament Baptism, without which no one may enter into the Kingdom of Heaven. This is a fact – the crossing of the Red Sea actually happened. This is how it was: The Hebrews came up to the sea. Pharaoh and his army were pursuing them. On either side was the desert – perhaps there was a passage there, but it would be through savage tribes, which would present no small danger. In a word, the Hebrews were in a very tight spot. What were they to do? Where could they go? And then Moses received a communication from God (we do not know how he received it) to strike the sea with his staff. He struck it as though inscribing a straight line vertically. The sea parted at the bottom, and the Hebrews began to go across the bottom as if across dry land, between two walls of water. I don't know how many miles they walked across the bottom of the sea, but in any case their crossing lasted, not for one or two hours, but for a more prolonged time. And so, the Hebrews first went down to the bottom of the sea and then began to climb out onto the other shore. Pharaoh and his army decided to pursue them across the bottom of the sea. Thus, the Egyptian army began to go down into the sea, while the Hebrews had already begun to emerge. Finally, all the Hebrews had emerged, and the Egyptians had all gone down. Then Moses again received an order from God to strike the sea with his staff. He struck it this way: he took the staff with both hands and, holding it is a horizontal position, struck the waters, commanding them with this movement to come together. And, in fact, the waters came together, and the whole Egyptian army with Pharaoh perished in the waters, and there remained not so much as one of them (Exodus 14:28).

"Now all of this happened and comprises the outward side of the fact. But the inner meaning is this: the first movement of Moses' staff traced a vertical line, and the second, a horizontal line. Both lines together make a cross.

"Did Moses, who fulfilled God's command exactly, understand this? One must assume that he did understand it. He is the only man of all those in the Old Testament who would. The whole of this event, as I have already said, served as a prototype of the Mystery of Baptism. At Baptism a man is immersed in water and leaves all the sinfulness behind in the font, for which the Red Sea was the prototype. He emerges from it totally pure and holy. Thus Pharaoh and his army signify sin, which constrains a man, and the power of the devil; for before Baptism, that is, before Christ's redemption of man, everyone was under the power of the devil, irrespective of the righteousness of his life.

"Through Baptism a man is freed from all this, as the Israelites were delivered from Pharaoh, emerging from the sea safe from pursuit..."
Excerpted from Elder Barsanuphius of Optina, by Victor Afanasiev, pp. 725 to 726. For more posts on St Barsanuphius see here and here.

1 comment:

Jacob said...

And then Moses received a communication from God (we do not know how he received it) to strike the sea with his staff. He struck it as though inscribing a straight line vertically.... Then Moses again received an order from God to strike the sea with his staff. He struck it this way: he took the staff with both hands and, holding it is a horizontal position, struck the waters, commanding them with this movement to come together....

"Now all of this happened and comprises the outward side of the fact. But the inner meaning is this: the first movement of Moses' staff traced a vertical line, and the second, a horizontal line. Both lines together make a cross.


I do not find this in either the Hebrew or the Greek text of the chapter in Exodus. Moses did not strike the water with his staff; he stretched his hand and/or his staff over the water. Nor is any mention made of the position he held his hands, or the direction in which he moved his arms or his staff.

How can Barsanuphius claim that this is the meaning of the passage when there is no support in the text for this? How is this considered to be a good example of how to read Scripture?