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How to read the Bible

Some suggestions from the Fathers of the Church

by Peter Brooke

'It is an easy matter for a Bishop to triumph over Paine's attack, but it is not so easy for one who loves the Bible'

William Blake, annotation in the margin of his copy of Bishop Watson's Apology for the Bible, in reply to Tom Paine's Age of Reason


The Bible and the Christian tradition
On "Authority' in the Church
The Psalms, manifesto of the ascetic life
Origen's Philokalia
Augustine and the allegorical method
The merits of a literal interpretation
The cruelty of God: Saul, Samuel and Agag
The sin of Adam
The politics of good and evil



I was prompted to want to give this talk by the various exchanges that took place in the letters pages of The Guardian and The Independent after the publication of Richard Dawkins' book The God Delusion. (1) These took a rather ritualistic form. An atheist would point to some apparently ridiculous or malevolent aspect of religious doctrine and declare that only an idiot would believe in it. A religious believer would reply that this was a hurtful and offensive thing to say and anyway they didn't believe what the atheist said they believed.

One exchange in particular struck me. In it, the atheist declared that the Book of Genesis was nonsense because light appeared on the first day but the sun and moon only appeared on the fourth day. This was obviously the product of a very primitive society that did not know that light proceeds from the sun.

A reply was published the next day from an Anglican clergyman who declared that he had found the atheist's letter hysterically funny. He himself had noticed this discrepancy while he was a child in Sunday School. His Sunday School teacher had explained to him that this was obviously the product of a very primitive society that did not know that light proceeds from the sun. Since then he has gone on to become a clergyman and this is how he explains it to his own Sunday School classes.

Of course it is difficult to develop an argument in the space of a letter and it may be that that does not represent the whole of what this clergyman would have liked to have said about the Bible or this particular part of it. It is possible that, given the space, he might have ended up with a position similar to the one I hope to develop here but as it stands this struck me as a very inadequate reply, and very offensive in relation to the overall Christian tradition.

He was effectively accusing the atheist of having said something that is self-evidently obvious, namely, that the first chapter of Genesis was the product of a very primitive - meaning inferior - civilisation. But while mocking the atheist for stating the obvious he is at the same time mocking nearly two thousand years of Christian thought (not to mention a longer period of Jewish thought) which has somehow failed to notice this obvious fact - the discrepancy between the light on the first day and the sun on the third day or (since there is in fact an enormous literature on this subject) failed to find the adequate explanation - the inferiority of the civilisation that produced the text.

The Bible here is being treated as an ordinary, humanly created text which can be analysed and judged like any other human production. But this stands in opposition to the traditional Jewish and Christian idea that the whole book is written under divine inspiration (in the Christian case specifically under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, third Person of the Holy Trinity) and therefore that it has authority and therefore, though it may need interpretation, we cannot sit in judgment over it as we would an ordinary book. Nothing in it can be dismissed as simply wrong, the mere product of a primitive imagination. It demands much more than the respect that is due to something that is really very impressive, even, perhaps, sublime, considering the ignorance of the people who wrote it.

I want to discuss this question largely on the basis of my own experience of the Bible, very much structured by the way it is used in the Orthodox Church, both in the Liturgy and in the writings of the Church Fathers, the authoritative theologians of the Church (and I hope to explain what I mean by that).

I will argue that this clergyman was cutting off his nose to spite his face. He does not want to be saddled with the need to defend the absurdities, inconsistencies, scientific inaccuracies, cruelties, immoralities that have been ascribed to the Bible, so he dismisses any difficulties he encounters as a simple manifestation of human weakness - of which, of course, he himself then becomes the judge. In this way he deprives himself of a great treasure, a great resource, both in terms of understanding the World - a term which, I shall argue, effectively means our state of separation from God - and (what I assume is his desire as one who aspires to being a Christian clergyman) the practical work of bringing about a reconciliation with God.

As a Christian, I see the Jewish Bible (the 'Old Testament') as the book of our separation from God; and the New Testament, or Gospel, as the book of our reconciliation with God.

I am saying that the Bible should be read as a single work written for all times and all peoples under the inspiration of a single - divine - source, not as a patchwork of texts that can best be understood in relation to the specific, varied circumstances in which they appeared. But this does not rule out the study of the likely historical circumstances in which the different parts were conceived, transmitted, collated. It simply asserts that that human process was itself 'guided' and that the books in question have meanings that transcend those particular circumstances and perhaps (the question is open to discussion depending on how we think divine inspiration operates) the knowledge and intentions of the writers. The reconstruction of historical circumstances can only yield a very speculative hypothesis, very limited in scope and not necessarily very relevant to the needs of our own time.

I hope that the argument I shall develop is Orthodox but of course other Orthodox Christians may have their disagreements; it is certainly not to be taken as an authoritative statement of Orthodox doctrine.



It may be useful to begin with this question of 'authority'. I am saying that the Bible is authoritative, the work of the Holy Spirit, whatever might have been the historical circumstances under which it was written. But who can be said to have been writing under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit?

Theologically one of the marks that distinguishes the Orthodox Church from the different Western traditions is the doctrine of theosis. 'Blessed are the pure in heart' says Jesus 'for they shall see God' (Matt 5.8) and he shows us by His life and teaching something of what purity of heart is and how it can be obtained. The Orthodox Church teaches that there are people who, through the grace of God, have attained it. In the Jewish Bible they are called 'prophets', in the Christian age they are called 'saints' - holy men and women. The holy icons show them with haloes which indicate that their human nature has been transfigured through union with the light of God.

The saints speak with authority not because they have a particular role -priest, bishop, patriarch - in the administration of the Church (they might or might not); nor because they are great philosophers or scholars (they might or might not; usually they aren't) but because they have experienced theosis - 'deification', union with God. They have, in a sense, become God. So God speaks through them: 'If you are a theologian, you will pray truly. And if you pray truly, you are a theologian.'(2) Theology is not a matter of people thinking or talking about God; in theology understood in this way it is God Himself Who is speaking. So the authority of the deified saints comes from the same source as the authority of the Bible. The Creed of Nicaea-Constantinople tells us of the Holy Spirit that 'He spoke by the prophets'. The Holy Spirit also speaks by the saints.

And many of the saints have written. We designate them by the term 'Fathers of the Church'. (3) In Western historiography the term 'Fathers of the Church' is a term used to designate the earliest Christian writers. They are 'Fathers' in the sense that they come first. The 'patristic age' covers a distinct period, broadly the first to the sixth centuries of the Christian era. But in Orthodoxy the tradition of the Fathers is continuous to the present day. There is an important collection of writings by the Fathers called The Philokalia. It is a collection of miscellaneous texts stretching from around the fourth century (about the time of the conversion of the Roman Empire) to about the fourteenth (the eve of the fall of Constantinople). Four volumes have been published in English translation and a fifth is in preparation which will presumably take the story further. The collection was originally put together by the Saints Nicodemus of the Holy Mountain and Makarios of Corinth, whose own writings continue the tradition into the seventeenth century. Such figures as Saints Ignatius (Brianchaninov) and Theophan the Recluse continue it into the nineteenth century and perhaps Saint Silouan of the Holy Mountain and the Serb theologian Justin Popovic can be cited as twentieth century examples.

Generally speaking this literature is concerned with practical matters - how to live according to the commandments of Christ, the royal way to achieving that purity of heart that enables us to see God. But the commandments of Christ are difficult. Apart from a radical renunciation of personal possessions they also call for a renunciation of many of those aspects of our emotional life that appear to many of us to be the very stuff of what it is to be human - the sense of personal dignity, sexual attraction, love of family and of nation, resistance to the evil activities of other people - the stuff, in other words, of the literature and poetry, theatre and films, not to mention advertising jingles, that define our unredeemed spiritual life.

We are, of course, talking about the 'ascetic' tradition. The word askesis in Greek means 'practice' or 'exercise' - the sort of training that athletes or soldiers undergo. The ascetic life is experienced and understood as a state of warfare, and its key textbook - one might almost say its manifesto - is the Psalms of David.



I first became aware of this before I started moving in Orthodox circles when I was staying in a Benedictine monastery in the North of France. Coming myself from an Ulster Protestant background I had had little acquaintance with the monastic life and I experienced one of those moments when something one has long known as a simple fact suddenly reveals itself as being a really very remarkable and important fact.

I realised that the offices the monks were singing mainly consisted of recitals of the Psalms and that in the course of the week they recited the whole Book of the Psalms. And that they had been doing this, every week, week after week, for something like 1500 years since the time of St Benedict - indeed longer, since the rule of St Benedict says this is a concession to weakness from a time when the whole collection would be recited daily.

The Psalms are traditionally ascribed to King David and if we read David's life in the Book of Samuel, and indeed if we read the Psalms themselves, we are shown a strong, passionate warrior king leading a turbulent, violent life with all the vices and the virtues we would recognise from the great epics and sagas of ancient peoples throughout the world. As an 'anthropological type' he seems to be at the opposite end of the spectrum from the monks, whom we tend to imagine as gentle, docile creatures. Yet the core spiritual nourishment of the monks is this book that is full of the elation of victory, despair in defeat, longing for revenge.

It seems that they have an understanding of the Psalms that is different from its obvious surface meaning. And indeed throughout the ascetic literature we find that the whole Jewish Bible, the Christian Old Testament, is always understood in terms of Christ's 'one thing needful' - the often emotionally violent struggle against the internal forces that obstruct our passage towards purity of heart, the promised Land.

These writers are not questioning the accuracy of the events described in the Bible, but that is not where their interest lies. The events described are always applied to present circumstances and struggles, always understood as internal, spiritual. The monk's cell has been called 'the furnace of Babylon' and the great political dramas of the Bible become what we might call 'psychological' dramas of the soul in its longing for Paradise, which was created for it but which it has lost.



The theory of this approach was worked out in another book also, confusingly, called the Philokalia (which means 'Love of the Good' or of the 'Beautiful'), a compilation of writings of Origen, who lived in the early part of the third century, before the conversion of the Empire. (4)

Origen was the first Christian to write extensive commentaries on the books of the Bible but his is a dangerous name to evoke in this context. He is not Saint Origen. After a controversy of around 2 or 300 years which involved many of the major figures in church history, some of his doctrines were finally condemned as heretical. But if he himself does not have the authority of a recognised saint of the Church, the Philokalia itself was compiled out of his writings in the late fourth century by Saints Basil the Great and Gregory the Theologian, known (together with Saint Gregory of Nyssa, Basil's brother, who somehow escaped censure though he shared Origen's best known heretical belief that all creation, including the Devil and his followers, would eventually be saved) as the 'Cappadocian Fathers'.

Basil and Gregory are highly authoritative figures, most especially in the Orthodox Church where they are recognised as having achieved deification, but also in Roman Catholicism and even among the more historically aware Protestants. The Philokalia was a selection of those parts of Origen's writings which they considered to be nourishing and therefore Orthodox.

The book begins with a discussion of the principles to be used in interpreting Scripture.

Origen is often reproached with over-emphasising possible 'spiritual' or 'allegorical' interpretations of Scripture as against the 'literal' interpretations, and we do often feel that his interpretations are strained or too clever by half. Yet in his hands we also experience the Bible as a wonderful mine full of precious stones that nonetheless have to be worked and polished before they can be revealed in all their beauty - and we understand that it is the very process of the working, the long struggle for and against the often intractable material of the Bible - that yields the treasure.

The patriarch Jacob was renamed 'Israel' after passing the night in a long hand-to-hand combat with an 'angel'. 'Israel' can mean 'he struggled with God' and this element of struggle, for and against - a relationship often expressed in violent terms - is essential throughout the Jewish Bible.

Origen argues that the very difficulties, inconsistencies, apparent absurdities that might occur in the text should be read simply as incentives to dig deeper:

'16. If the use of the Law had been everywhere made perfectly clear, and strict historical sequence had been preserved, we should not have believed that the Scriptures could be understood in any other than the obvious sense. The Word of God therefore arranged for certain stumbling-blocks and offences and impossibilities to be embedded in the Law and the historical portion, so that we may not be drawn hither and thither by the mere attractiveness of the style, and thus either forsake the doctrinal part because we receive no instruction worthy of God, or cleave to the letter and learn nothing more Divine. And this we ought to know, that the chief purpose being to show the spiritual connection both in past occurrences and in things to be done, wherever the Word found historical events capable of adaptation to these mystic truths, He made use of them, but concealed the deeper sense from the many; but where in setting forth the sequence of things spiritual there was no actual event related for the sake of the more mystic meaning, Scripture interweaves the imaginative with the historical, sometimes introducing what is utterly impossible, sometimes what is possible but never occurred


'17. Anyway, will any man of sense suppose that there was a first day, and a second, and a third, evening and morning, without sun and moon and stars? and the first, as it were, even without a heaven? And who is so silly as to imagine that God, like a husbandman, planted a garden in Eden eastward, and put in it a tree of life, which could be seen and felt, so that whoever tasted of the fruit with his bodily teeth received the gift of life, and further that any one as he masticated the fruit of this tree partook of good and evil? And if God is also said to walk in the garden in the evening, and Adam to hide himself under the tree, I do not suppose that any one will doubt that these passages by means of seeming history, though the incidents never occurred, figuratively reveal certain mysteries. Moreover, Cain's coming out from the presence of God, if we give heed, is a distinct inducement to inquire what is meant by "the presence of God," and by a man's "coming out from" it. Why say more? They who are not quite blind can collect countless similar instances of things recorded as actual occurrences, though not literally true. [....]

'18. And if we come also to the Mosaic code, many of the laws, so far as regards their bare observance, seem unreasonable, and others impossible. [....]

He sums it up by saying:

27. [....] Let us consider then whether the obvious in Scripture, its superficial and easy meaning, is not like a field covered with all sorts of growths; while the secret things, not seen by all, but as it were buried beneath the things that are seen, are the hidden treasures of wisdom and knowledge: which the Spirit by the mouth of Esaias calls "dark," "invisible," "concealed." They must be found out, though God alone can break in pieces the gates of brass which hide them, and shatter the iron bars upon the doors [....]'


He is emphatically opposed to the idea that any part, even the slightest detail, of the Bible is useless:

28. [....] And it is fitting to believe that not a single tittle of the sacred Scriptures is without something of the wisdom of God; for He Who gave me a mere man the command, "Thou shalt not appear before me empty," how much more will He not speak anything "empty." When the Prophets speak, it is after receiving of His fulness; and so everything breathes what comes of His fulness; and there is nothing in Prophecy, or Law, or Gospel, or Apostle, which is not of His fulness. And just because it is of His fulness, it breathes His fulness to those who have eyes to see the things of that fulness, and ears to hear the things of that fulness, and a faculty to perceive the sweet odour of the things of that fulness. [....]'



Origen wrote commentaries and also a series of homilies on the Book of Genesis and I remember the excitement I felt on my first encounter with this way of looking at things. Another figure well known for his allegorical interpretations, much better known in the West though his status as a saint is disputed in the Orthodox tradition, is Augustine, fifth century Bishop of Hippo in North Africa. Perhaps the easiest way to give an idea of it is to give the headings of his commentary on the first chapter of Genesis from Book XIII of The Confessions:

'The light which God created on the first day is the spiritual creation, which became light by the reflection of God's glory - The darkness, which God divided from the light, represents the soul still without God's light.

'The firmament which separates the waters above from the waters below is a figure of the Scriptures, which are like a shield held above us for our protection - Above it are the angels, safe in the presence of God.

'On the third day the waters of earth were gathered together to form the sea, and God commanded the dry land to appear - the 'sea' means the human race, embittered by estrangement from God, and the 'dry land' which stands out from the sea represents the good soul - The dry land produces plants and trees which bear fruit in worlds of mercy and charity.

'The lights which God set to shine in the firmament on the fourth day are wisdom and knowledge given to men so that those who possess them also shine like lights in the world.

'On the fifth day God commanded the waters to bring forth moving creatures, that is, signs and sacraments by which men are convinced of the truth and are helped to overcome the temptations of the world - The winged things, which the waters were also commanded to produce, are the teachers who bring God's message to man.

'On the sixth day the earth was told to produce the living soul, that is, the soul which lives because it has faith and keeps itself intact from the love of the world - Man was made in the likeness of God in that he was given the gift of reason by which he might understand God's truth - His rule over the animals is a symbol of this and of the power of spiritual judgement given to the Church - The plants given to man for his food represent works of charity which nourish the soul.

'On the seventh day God rested, as we too shall rest in eternity when our work in the world is done.' (5)

Augustine's interpretations are often very different from Origen's. For example, he interprets the sun and moon that appear on the fourth day as wisdom and knowledge whereas Origen interprets them as Christ and the Church. As the moon borrows her light from the sun so the Church borrows her light from Christ. The reptiles and flying creatures that appear on the fifth day are understood by Augustine in an entirely positive light, relating the waters out of which they emerge to the waters of baptism, while Origen sees them as both good (the flying creatures) and bad (the reptiles) thoughts, posing the question as to why God should declare them all to be 'good':

'because, for the saints, those beings that are hostile to them are good since they can overcome them and that victory brings them a greater glory in God's eyes ...' (6)

But differences of this sort are not necessarily mutually exclusive. To use an old Marxist phrase they can be seen as 'non-antagonistic contradictions.' Both Augustine and Origen say to their readers 'This is what I've found - you go ahead and see what you can do.' The truth does not lie on the page waiting to be transferred into the head of the reader, it appears in the interaction between the reader and the text. The Bible is nourishing food and we are like the body which has to mash it up and digest it so that it will be transformed into healthy blood and bones and nerves.



But the 'allegorical' approach does not exclude a much more purely 'literal' interpretation. Under the literal interpretation the words are taken to mean just what they appear to mean; no allegorical meaning is ascribed to them. The narrative is treated as if it is a succession of real historical facts, much in the way in which we read a novel, accepting the story as a real account of real events. The difference being that in the case of the novel we know that it is a human writer who is playing in this way, for whatever reason, with our feelings, our sympathies, our affections. In the Bible we know that it is God, and that His reasons for doing it are to guide us on the path towards an eternal wellbeing.

It is no part of my argument to insist that what the Bible tells us actually is real historical fact. It may or may not be. My own academic formation, such as it is, is as a historian. I did not specialise either in ancient history or pre-history and I have little in the way of firm opinions on these matters, but if I were studying the period covered by the Bible I would follow what I assume is the present normal practise of treating the Bible as a historical source to be evaluated like any other historical source. I would not expect the historical facts to fit into the mould of the Biblical account. I would assume that, in the different political conflicts that are portrayed, there would, if one were living at the time, have been other possible points of view, other factors to be taken into account to get an overall rounded understanding.

As a Christian I might get some small satisfaction if the truth of the stories was confirmed by evidence from other sources. But it would be a very small satisfaction. Even if everything was proved - if the remains of the Ark were found on Mount Arafat; if a new method of dating rocks were to show that the Earth couldn't be older than a few thousand years before Christ - I hope I would have the strength of mind not to see that as proof that the Scriptures were written under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. I have published some books and articles with historical facts in them and I hope that these in general are accurate. But they certainly weren't written under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.

I do believe that the Bible is one authoritative means by which we can come to understand more about the relations between God and man. But that belief does not oblige me to believe that the creation of the world took place in seven (or four if we date it from the appearance of the sun and moon) 24-hour periods of time; or that all humankind is descended from a couple who lived in a garden in or near modern Iraq; or that all animal species were fitted into a boat to be rescued from a universal flood.

Which poses the question of what use is the purely literal reading of the Bible.

Origen's Philokalia speaks of the 'charm' of the Bible, meaning the effect it has on us whether we understand it or not. The German esoteric philosopher Jacob Boehme speaks well of how we should read the Book of Revelation. We shouldn't worry about the precise meaning of particular images - why for example there should be twenty four elders sitting round the throne or 144,000 sealed servants of God, no more, no less. We should submit ourselves to it as we would to a piece of music.

The whole of the Old Testament read 'innocently' in this manner is an emotional roller coaster. Sometimes we are delighted, sometimes we are appalled, but the shocks and upsets and, often, feelings of sheer horror, are part of a whole experience of engagement with something that is, clearly, beyond anything a novel could offer, greater than ourselves. The purely allegorical or spiritual interpretation runs the risk of smoothing that experience out, of softening its intensity. Even worse is a reading that simply excludes any difficulties, or unpleasantness, dismissing them as not being inspired, merely part of the flawed human contribution to the volume.

I recently came across an example of this, in my view the worst way of reading the Bible, in an eighteenth century poem 'addressed to a libertine' recommending a better style of life. In addition to such manly activities as fox hunting, the poet recommends reading the Bible, but accompanies this with a warning:

'And first you must the Scriptures read
But let it be with cautious heed:
Observe the precepts plainly prest,
And practise these, and drop the rest;

For God will no account demand
Of what we cannot understand.'



One passage the anonymous author of this poem might think his libertine friend should avoid is the description of God's quarrel with Saul in the Book of Samuel - a rather crucial passage since it explains why Saul was replaced in God's favour by David, whose Psalms play such a central role in the Christian tradition.

Essentially God reproaches Saul with having disobeyed His command in failing to massacre all the Amalekites, including their king and all their animals. Saul had spared the king and allowed the people to retain some of the animals for the purpose of sacrificing them to God.

The passage reads as follows:

'17 And Samuel said, "Though you are little in your own eyes, are you not the head of the tribes of Israel? The LORD anointed you king over Israel.
18 And the LORD sent you on a mission, and said, 'Go, utterly destroy the sinners, the Amal'ekites, and fight against them until they are consumed.'
19 Why then did you not obey the voice of the LORD? Why did you swoop on the spoil, and do what was evil in the sight of the LORD?"
20 And Saul said to Samuel, "I have obeyed the voice of the LORD, I have gone on the mission on which the LORD sent me, I have brought Agag the king of Am'alek, and I have utterly destroyed the Amal'ekites.
21 But the people took of the spoil, sheep and oxen, the best of the things devoted to destruction, to sacrifice to the LORD your God in Gilgal."
22 And Samuel said,

"Has the LORD as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices,
as in obeying the voice of the LORD?
Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice,
and to hearken than the fat of rams.
23 For rebellion is as the sin of divination,
and stubbornness is as iniquity and idolatry.
Because you have rejected the word of the LORD,
he has also rejected you from being king."

24 And Saul said to Samuel, "I have sinned; for I have transgressed the commandment of the LORD and your words, because I feared the people and obeyed their voice.
25 Now therefore, I pray, pardon my sin, and return with me, that I may worship the LORD."
26 And Samuel said to Saul, "I will not return with you; for you have rejected the word of the LORD, and the LORD has rejected you from being king over Israel."
27 As Samuel turned to go away, Saul laid hold upon the skirt of his robe, and it tore.
28 And Samuel said to him, "The LORD has torn the kingdom of Israel from you this day, and has given it to a neighbor of yours, who is better than you.
29 And also the Glory of Israel will not lie or repent; for he is not a man, that he should repent."
30 Then he said, "I have sinned; yet honor me now before the elders of my people and before Israel, and return with me, that I may worship the LORD your God."
31 So Samuel turned back after Saul; and Saul worshipped the LORD.

32 Then Samuel said, "Bring here to me Agag the king of the Amal'ekites." And Agag came to him cheerfully. Agag said, "Surely the bitterness of death is past."
33 And Samuel said, "As your sword has made women childless, so shall your mother be childless among women." And Samuel hewed Agag in pieces before the LORD in Gilgal.'

There is an allegorical interpretation of this passage in the Second Century on Theology by St Maximos the Confessor, writing in the seventh century:

'53. Saul is the natural law originally established by the Lord to rule over nature. But Saul was disobedient: he spared Agag, king of Amalek [cf. 1 Sam 15. 8 - 16, 13], that is, the body, and slipped downward into the sphere of the passions. He was therefore deposed so that David might take over Israel. David is the law of the Spirit - the law engendering that peace which so excellently builds for God the temple of contemplation.

54. Samuel signifies obedience to God. So long as the principle of obedience exercises its priestlike office within us, even though Saul spares Agag - that is, the earthly will - yet that principle in its zeal will put him to death [cf. 1 Sam 15. 33]: it strikes the sin-incited intellect and puts it to shame for having transgressed the divine ordinances.

55. When the intellect scorns the teaching which purifies it from the passions, and ceases to examine what should be done and what should not be done, it will through ignorance inevitably be overcome by the passions. As the intellect gradually comes to be separated from God, it is more and more involved in difficulties not of its own choosing. Obeying the demons, it makes a god of the belly and tries to find relief there from what oppresses it. Let Saul convince you of the truth of this: because he did not take Samuel for an adviser in all things he inevitably turned to idolatry, putting his trust in a ventriloquist and consulting her as if she were a god [cf. 1 Sam 28. 7-20].' (9)

The last paragraph refers to the deeply moving story of the death of Saul. Saul is faced with an overwhelmingly strong Philistine army. He can get no word out of God as to what he should do so he asks a witch to raise up the spirit of the dead Samuel to seek advice. Saul himself has suppressed all witchcraft and the woman, who initially fails to recognise him, is very reluctant to do what he wants. But eventually she agrees. When Samuel appears however he gives him no comfort: 'tomorrow you and your sons shall be with me' (ie dead, in Sheol - before the resurrection of Christ Heaven was not yet open) 'the Lord will give the army of Israel into the hand of the Philistines.'

Saul collapses in a combination of fear and hunger since he has been fasting all day. The woman takes pity on him and insists, against his initial reluctance, on feeding him. The witch has pity where God is pitiless, not the only occasion in the Old Testament where one might feel man has scored a moral victory over God (the Book of Job is the most obvious example).

St Maximos lived the ascetic struggle in all its intensity. He knew the extremes of poverty and hunger. Because of his opposition to the official theology of his day he had his tongue pulled out. So his allegorical interpretation of the story of Saul and Agag cannot be described as an evasion of unpleasant realities. Maximos' status as a saint gives it authority and it is the only interpretation I know of that leaves us with the feeling that the behaviour of God is tolerable.

Those of us, however, who are not seriously engaged in an ascetic struggle of this sort, may read his explanation as an effort to soften the difficulties of a story that in its raw form is hard to take. Instead of seeing it as Maximos saw it - an allegorical account of similarly raw and hard spiritual realities - we might read Maximos' account and conclude that after all it is 'only' an allegory and therefore perfectly harmless. In this way we would get less benefit from it than we would from a purely literal reading. The purely literal reading leaves us with those feelings of pity and terror which Aristotle identifies as the essence of tragedy, the feeling of helplessness, of alienation from the spiritual order which, in the overall context of the Biblical story is part of the great drama of the consequences of the sin of Adam. Like the best tragedy it brings us face to face with the enormity of our separation from God.



I want to say a word about Adam's sin, which is the starting point of the whole divine-human drama as understood by Christians. Without it, without the drama of the Fall, the drama of salvation - the life of Christ, the Resurrection - makes no sense.

The story portrays Man (this is the meaning of the Hebrew word 'Adam') living in 'Paradise' (a word that means 'delight' or 'pleasure') in harmony with God. It is a state in which he (and she. A commentary by Saint Ambrose explains that the creation of Eve from Adam's rib indicates that Man and Woman constitute a single original being (10)) can see God, they possess purity of heart.

But this state is lost. How is it lost? Because they ate an apple? Did God punish us all with eternal damnation because Adam offended His dignity by eating an apple?

The thought is ludicrous and it is not what the Book of Genesis says. In Genesis 2.17 God says to Adam: 'of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die.'

As the Greek theologian Alexander Kalomiros has pointed out He says 'you shall die'; He does not say 'I shall kill you.' (11) It is a warning not a threat, as one might say to a child if you walk into the fire you will get burnt. And the whole point of the story surely lies in the phrase 'the knowledge of good and evil.'

This seems to me to be one of the most important concepts of the Bible yet I've rarely seen it discussed in anything like an adequate way. One person who I think did understand it was St Gregory of Nyssa, brother of St Basil the Great and St Macrina. Gregory wrote an account of the Creation of Man which was intended as a continuation of Basil's commentary on the six days of creation, the Hexaemeron. Commenting on the nature of Adam's sin, Gregory says:

'What is this tree in which are mingled the knowledge of good and that of evil and in which the pleasures of the senses flower?... I find here a distinction which is common in Scripture, between 'knowledge' and 'discernment'. To be able wisely to discern between good and evil belongs, the Apostle says, to ... the exercise of a moral sense ... As for the word 'Knowledge', it does not always refer to science but to a disposition which draws us towards what we find agreeable ... as when He Who knows everything says to the damned 'Depart from me. I never knew you.'

'So the tree whose fruit is the mixed knowledge of good and evil is forbidden ... Perhaps the reason for this is that evil never appears to us in its nakedness, in its true nature. Vice would have no effect on us if it did not assume the form of some beauty capable of exercising desire in the man it wishes to deceive. In reality there is a mixture in the nature of evil. In its depths perdition lies concealed like a trap but the surface is deceptive since it offers some sort of appearance of good. The love of money paints money in lovely colours; but the love of money is the root of all evil ...

'Neither absolute evil, since it is decked on the outside with good; nor the purity of the good, because evil is hidden in it, that, says Scripture, is the fruit of the forbidden tree which will bring about the death of anyone who touches it ...'

Adam, then, exchanged the unmixed good that we may identify with purity of heart for a good that is mixed with evil. He exchanged intimacy with God for ... the pleasure of eating a ham sandwich. The pleasure of eating a ham sandwich is good; the process by which the ham got into the sandwich is not so good. It is good to be able to travel from Brecon to Cardiff in an hour. But the process by which the petrol we use to do it got into the car is not so good. Everything we experience as good has a greater or lesser degree of evil built into it. Hence Gregory's conclusion:

'When the deadly poison has produced its effect on human life, then Man, noble creature, great name, image of the divine nature, becomes, as the prophet says, 'like a breath ... like a passing shadow [Ps 144.4].' (12)



The eating of the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil is followed in the Biblical account by the degeneration of the world into a logic of violence beginning with the first murder, when Cain kills Abel - and it is noticeable that the descendants of Cain are described as artisans, builders, inventors, the makers of a civilisation. Civilisation is the very embodiment of the mixed fruit of the knowledge of good and evil, its peace and prosperity reliant throughout all ages up to the present time on an underpinning of violence and war. And this, the development of a political society inseparable from war, is the great drama of the people of Israel.

The story starts - in Genesis - with a family that grows into a stateless tribe, that conquers a territory and forms a state, that divides into two rival states both riven by civil war; both are destroyed by neighbouring great powers; one of them is restored but under conditions of colonial dependency; they twice engage in revolt against their imperial masters, the first time with some degree of success but the second - though the story is outside the scope of the Bible as such - with a devastating failure. Placed where they were on the East coast of the Mediterranean their story involves all the great peoples of early Western (West of the Indus valley) history - Egyptians, Sumerians, Babylonians, Persians, Greeks, Romans, and, in the story of Abraham's son Ishmael, father of the Arabs, it includes the beginnings of Islam.

It is a huge compendium of political and historical experience. When through Christianity the Bible was spread through the world all the peoples who received it could find in it a mirror of their own experience. Gildas, writing his De Excidio Britanniae (The Fall of Britain) in Wales in the sixth century could castigate the quarrels of the Welsh princelings of his day in terms drawn from the Book of Kings. Almost the whole of European political theory up until the eighteenth century took the form of a reflection on the process by which the states of Israel and Judah were founded and fell apart. Rastafarians in Jamaica can see their experience as the descendants of slaves reflected in the experience of the people of Israel captive in Babylon and dreaming of a return to Zion.

Thus whether or not the Bible is true in the sense that things happened exactly as they are described, it is certainly true to our human nature as it has been constituted by the historical events experienced by all the different peoples of the world.

I give an example from my own small experience.

I was deeply shaken by the war on Iraq in 1990/91 when so many nations united behind the United States which had resolved on using the invasion of Kuwait as a pretext for destroying the physical infrastructure of a country, 'bombing it back to the stone age'.

After some fifteen years engaged in politics in Northern Ireland I had gone to France thinking I had put politics behind me. I became involved with the Baha'i World Faith and I remain deeply grateful to the Baha'is I knew for launching me back on a path of religious belief and also helping me through what was a difficult period in my life. But despite their own experience of intense persecution under different Muslim regimes but especially in Iran, I could find nothing in the Baha'i scriptures that corresponded to the depths of the horror that was opening in front of me. The scriptures that did correspond were the prophetic books of the Bible, especially those of Hosea and Isaiah, written as the kingdom of Judah was coming up against the irresistible might of Babylon, a confrontation that would eventually end in the destruction of Jerusalem.

The difference between this and any powerful or deeply moving work of fiction is twofold:

1) If we believe that the Bible is the work of the Holy Spirit then the engagement with the words becomes an engagement with God, as He manifests Himself in many different forms, from the terrifying to the tender (the book of Hosea is a declaration of desperate, constantly spurned, love. As for the Song of Solomon ...), all structured by the fundamental separation that was brought about by the Fall.

2) Speaking from a specifically Christian point of view, all that turbulence and mystery is understood in the light of the final resolution of the problem in Christ. The problem is not resolved in earthly, political terms - the logic of the Old Testament, of our alienation from God, continues to apply in political matters. It is resolved through the opening up of a much vaster context - the context of Eternal Life, a context that is only indicated vaguely and tangentially in the Old Testament but which is the very heart of the New.

Thus the Bible holds a 'truth' that is not reducible to words, either in their literal sense or in their allegorical sense, which is not expressible through commentary. How do we recognise this truth? How do we know when we are approaching it? I want to end with some words by one of the great Fathers of the ascetic life, Isaac the Syrian, telling us what the Bible can offer to us if we simply open our hearts to it, if we listen to its music:

'57. Read the two Testaments which God has constituted for the knowledge of the whole world, so that by the power of his Divine Economy, [the world] may be provided with food in every generation, and be enveloped in wonder.

'58. Readings such as these are very useful for this purpose. Let your reading be done in complete stillness, when you are freed from excessive care of the body and the tumult of affairs. Then [the reading] will give your soul a delightful taste of sweet understandings, beyond the senses, that the soul perceives within by being constant in the readings. [....]

'59. This will be the sign for you when you have drawn near to entering into that region [of truth]. When grace has begun to open your eyes to perceive an exact vision of these things, then your eyes will begin to shed tears until your cheeks are washed by their abundance, and the fervor of the senses will be slowed that they may profitably be restrained within you. If there is one who teaches you other than this do not believe him. But you are not permitted to seek another indication from the body besides tears as a manifest sign of the perception of truth [....]' (13)


(1) I have myself published a review of The God Delusion in the online journal, the Dublin Review of Books, Back
(2) Evagrius: On Prayer § 61 in Palmer, Sherrard and Ware (trans): The Philokalia, vol 1, London (Faber and Faber), 1979 p.62 Back
(3) There were also Mothers of the Church but in general they did not write. See Laura Swan: The Forgotten Desert Mothers, Paulist Press, New York, 2001. I shall be talking later about St Gregory of Nyssa. Some of his books are written in the form of Platonic dialogues with his sister, Saint Macrina. In these it is Macrina who plays the role of his 'teacher'. Back
(4) The Philocalia of Origen - a compilation of selected passages from  Origen's works made by St. Gregory of Nazianzus and St. Basil of Caesarea, translated into English by the Rev. George Lewis, Edinburgh, T. & T. Clark, 1911. Available on the internet at Back
(5) Taken from the Penguin edition translated by R.S.Pine-Coffin, 1969 ed, p.8. Augustine also wrote three commentaries on the literal meaning of the Book of Genesis, see Edmund Hill (trans): Augustine on Genesis, New City Press, New York, 2002 Back
(6) Homélies sur la Genèse, Paris, Les Editions du Cerf, 1985, p. 49. My translation from the French. Back
(7) The Ulster Miscellany, 1753, p.214 Back
(8) 1 Samuel 15. 17-33. (RSV) Back
(9) Palmer, Sherrard and Ware (trans): The Philokalia, vol 2, London (Faber and Faber), 1990 ed, p.150 Back
(10) It is quoted in Fr Seraphim Rose: Genesis, Creation and Early Man, Saint Herman of Alaska Brotherhood, Platina, Cal, 2000, p.182. The name 'Eve' is derived from the Hebrew word indicating 'life'. Back
(11) Alexander Kalomiros: The River of Fire, substance of a talk given in 1980, St Nectarios Press, N. Seattle. I have also produced it, without annotations, as a little pamphlet, Politics and Theology, 2002 Back
(12) Grégoire de Nysse: La Création de l'Homme, Desclée de Brouwer, Paris 1982. My translation from the French. Back
(13) St Isaac of Nineveh: On Ascetical Life, St Vladimir's Seminary Press, New York, 1998, p.71.