Tuesday, March 14, 2017

The Foolishness of the Egyptians

"Israel they recognized for God's children only when the first-born died."
After the Canticle of Canticles, one moves into the books St. Jerome preferred be left out of the biblical canon. The Book of Wisdom is the first of these, and though it is written in the person of King Solomon, most commentators agree that it was written by another hand, and probably much later. Indeed, the sapiential style here more closely resembles that of Ecclesiasticus (Sirach) than Proverbs and Ecclesiastes, being far more broad-ranging than Solomon's narrower considerations of court politics and personal responsibility.

Nonetheless, Wisdom is notable for its prophecy of Christ's Passion (ch. 2), its promotion of celibacy (ch. 3-4), and a universal condemnation of pagan idolatry through the example of the Egyptians (ch. 12ff.). This discourse on idolatry should be read carefully by everyone tempted to doubt the doctrine of Original Sin. The book ends abruptly after accusing Egypt of worse sins than Sodom, and of being more worthy of destruction (ch. 19), and I have to wonder if originally there was more to the manuscript.

(As an aside, the following passage seems to be one of the source texts for those who claim the sin of Sodom was not primarily one of, well, sodomy, but of inhospitality: "Did not their [the Egyptians'] own wickedness deserve the pains they suffered, a race even more inhospitable than the men of Sodom before them? These did but refuse a welcome when strangers came to their doors; the Egyptians condemned their own guests, their own benefactors, to slavery.")

Platonic philosophy may have influenced the writer, as in the following passages: "So well the Lord loved him, from a corrupt world he would grant him swift release" (ch. 4); "Ever the soul is weighed down by a mortal body, earth-bound cell that clogs the manifold activity of its thought" (ch. 9); "The power that created an ordered world out of dark chaos" (ch. 11); "What excellence must be his, the Author of all Beauty" (ch. 13). The four cardinal virtues, a categorization lifted from the Aristotelian school, are listed as well: "Temperance and prudence she teaches, justice and fortitude, and what in life avails man more?" (ch. 8). All this lends credence to a composition by a Greek-influenced author.

There is also a terrifying passage, applied to the Incarnation of the Son of God by the Church at Christmastide, but which in context refers to the descent of the avenging angel against the Egyptians at the first Passover:
Against those earlier plagues, sorcery had hardened their hearts; Israel they recognized for God's children only when the first-born died. There was a hush of silence all around, and night had but finished half her swift journey, when from thy heavenly throne, Lord, down leaped thy word omnipotent. Never lighted sterner warrior on a doomed land; never was sword so sharp, errand so unmistakable; thy word that could spread death everywhere, that trod earth, yet reached up to heaven. All at once came terror in their dreams; phantoms dismayed, and sudden alarms overtook them; and when they lay a-dying, each fallen where fall he must, they confessed what fault it was they expiated; all was foretold by the dreams that so disquieted them; they were not suffered to perish ignorant of their offence. (ch. 18)
One might read Wisdom also as a theodicy and a justification of God's punishments. No corner or cave does the inspired author give to sinners who seek to flee God's all-seeing eye. "It is the wicked that... court death, and melt away in its embrace" (ch. 1); "Since the devil's envy brought death into the world, they make him their model that take him for their master" (ch. 2); "Thou knewest well that theirs was a worthless breed... an accursed race" (ch. 12); "Sinner and sin, God hates both" (ch. 14); "Over [the Egyptians] this heavy curtain of night was spread, image of the darkness that should be their next abode" (ch. 17); "They were not suffered to perish ignorant of their offence" (ch. 18); and so forth. A worthy meditation for Lent, I suppose.

1 comment:

  1. "Since the devil's envy brought death into the world, they make him their model that take him for their master"

    Why is the Knox translation so awful?

    "But by the envy of the devil, death came into the world: And they follow him that are of his side."