An Enochian memorial?

The following prayer occurs in the Litany for the Departed, an Eastern Orthodox memorial service:

O God of spirits and of all flesh, who hast trampled down death and made powerless the devil and given life to thy world: Do thou, thyself O Lord, give rest to the souls of thy departed servants, NN, in a place of brightness, a place of verdure, a place of repose, whence all sickness, sorrow and sighing have fled away.
Translation: The Liturgikon (Antakya Press, 1994)

Two things in this short passage of the litany always bring to mind the book of First Enoch, and I wonder if there’s any direct connection.

The first is the phrase “God of spirits and of all flesh.” This is similar to the title “Lord of Spirits” which is very common in First Enoch, particularly in the Book of Similitudes (or Parables) section, chapters 37 through 71.

The second is the requested place of rest for the departed: “a place of brightness, a place of verdure, a place of repose, whence all sickness, sorrow and sighing have fled away.” This brings to my mind First Enoch 22.9: “And this has been separated for the spirits of the righteous, where the bright fountain of water is” (from the Nickelsburg/VanderKam translation).

Neither of the parallels are particularly close, but I find the combination of these two somewhat distant allusions suggestive, indeed I found them striking when I first heard them. Whether the writing of the litany, the origin of which is lost to the mists of time, was influenced by First Enoch or not, there is another, more interesting and striking parallel. This is the shared understanding of the author of First Enoch and the author(s) of the litany (and hence also of Eastern Orthodox Christian believers for whom this litany is a canonical statement of our beliefs) concerning the intermediate state, between death and resurrection, as a state in which one receives a foretaste of one’s eternal reward, whether good or bad, based upon one’s life.

To love Thee human-eyed

‘Launch out into the deep,’ Christ spake of old
      To Peter: and he launched into the deep;
      Strengthened should tempest wake which lay asleep,
Strengthened to suffer heat or suffer cold.

Thus, in Christ’s Prescience: patient to behold
      A fall, a rise, a scaling Heaven’s high steep;
      Prescience of Love, which deigned to overleap
The mire of human errors manifold.

Lord, Lover of Thy Peter, and of him
   Beloved with craving of a humbled heart
      Which eighteen hundred years have satisfied;
Hath he his throne among Thy Seraphim
   Who love? or sits he on a throne apart,
      Unique, near Thee, to love Thee human-eyed?

Christina Georgina Rossetti
before 1893

Fishers of Men

At that time, as Jesus walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon who is called Peter and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea; for they were fishermen. And he said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.” Immediately they left their nets and followed him. And going on from there he saw two other brothers, James the son of Zebedee and John his brother, in the boat with Zebedee their father, mending their nets, and he called them. Immediately they left their boat and their father, and followed him. And he went about all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and preaching the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and every infirmity among the people.

Matthew 4.18-23, today’s reading in the Greek Orthodox lectionary.

Once I got home today, I happened to see a nice travel show about the Cinque Terra region of Italy, five little towns hugging the coast in the northwest of the country, their multistoried pastel buildings seeming to tumble eagerly down the slopes to the sea. One interesting thing that they showed, which took on new importance to me having heard today’s Gospel reading, was the anchovy fishing of Vernazza, one of the five towns.

First, you should know that the inhabitants of these towns number in the hundreds, not thousands, and their families date back centuries, and some families or groups have developed specialties through the centuries. So, I don’t know if it’s one family that does the anchovy fishing or several, but it’s an organized cooperative effort of a small group of men in Vernazza.

Anchovy fishing is done at night, when everyone else is asleep. There are several small boats used, each with a light at the bow. The small boats, with their lights, row hither and thither, seemingly aimlessly, attracting schools of anchovies with their lights. Then, slowly but surely, the small boats head together toward one spot, leading all the schools of anchovies together, and attracting even more when their several bow lights brought together into one spot become one bright light. While the small boats are attracting the anchovies, a larger boat has spread a net, and once all the small boats have gathered all the anchovies into one area, the large boat starts to close the net, and then everyone scoops up anchovies with other nets into the boats.

Amazing, isn’t it? And there’s precisely a lesson in there related to the Gospel for today, wherein the Lord told Peter and Andrew, “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.” See, we do manage to collect a few souls as individuals by our light, the holiness imparted by the grace of God in our lives. But the real success comes when these lights are combined in the Church which, particularly when we are working together as we should, is a shining beacon which draws the souls looking for light to it while the rest of the world is asleep, enjoying the darkness. Christ Himself gathers those souls in His great net of love and salvation.

So, just remember that the next time you think, “Anchovies? Ech!”

Now get fishing!

Father Zosima on Prayer

Young man, do not forget to pray. Each time you pray, if you do so sincerely, there will be the flash of a new feeling in it, and a new thought as well, one you did not know before, which will give you fresh courage; and you will understand that prayer is education. Remember also: every day and whenever you can, repeat within yourself: “Lord, have mercy upon all who come before you today.” For every hour and every moment thousands of people leave their life on this earth, and their souls come before the Lord

It’s all canonical fun!

John Hobbins of Ancient Hebrew Poetry has made an initial post in a long series on the Biblical Canon, an initial full text version of which he’s sent to various bloggers. In it he brings up something that I always try to bring forward whenever we start to talk about “the Biblical canon”: there’s not just one Christian canon now, there has never been just one Christian one, and there didn’t used to be just one Jewish one. And while I think the de facto result of the history of the canon has led to the evidently universal recognition of the 27 books of the New Testament being agreed, the differences between the Hebrew Bible and Christian Old Testaments (yes, plural) defies reduction. It’s a great subject, and I think John has taken it in a good direction, one which it seldom goes, recognizing canonical multiplicity as a fact, and not necessarily a bad one, while also recognizing a core of texts that are implicitly recognized by all the traditions as perhaps the canonical core, based upon preserved ancient quotation, allusion, and homilies. It’s fascinating stuff.

Meeting God in prayer

Many years ago a man came to see me. He asked me to show him God. I told him I could not but I added that even if I could, he would not be able to see Him, because I thought—and I do think—that to meet God one must have something in common with Him, something that gives you eyes to see, perceptiveness to perceive. He asked me then why I thought as I did, and I suggested he should think a few moments and tell me whether there was any passage in the Gospel that moved him particularly, to see what was the connection between him and God. He said ‘Yes, in the eighth chapter of the Gospel according to John, the passage concerning the woman taken in adultery.’ I said, ‘Good, this is one of the most beautiful and moving passages. Now sit back and ask yourself, who are you in the scene which is described? Are you the Lord, or at least on his side, full of mercy, of understanding and full of faith in this woman who can repent and become a new creature? Are you the woman taken in adultery? Are you one of the older men who walk out at once because they are aware of their own sins, or one of the younger ones who wait?’ He thought for a few minutes then said ‘No, I feel I am the only Jew who would not have walked out but who would have stoned the woman.’ I said ‘Thank God that He does not allow you to meet Him face to face.’

Metropolitan Anthony Bloom of Sourozh.
Beginning to Pray, pp 27-28.

Biblical Studies Carnival XVIII

Danny Zacharias at deinde has posted Biblical Studies Carnival XVIII, covering posts on subjects related to the field of academic Biblical Studies made throughout the month of May 2007.

After a month of my being too busy to keep up with the interplay between the various blogs, and my focus increasingly moving elsewhere, I find these carnivals a useful way to catch up on what the online gang is up to. So, if you’re interested, go check it out!

Akathist Hymn to the Most Holy Theotokos

The Akathist (“not sitting” — none in the church are to sit while it is being chanted) Hymn to the Most Holy Theotokos may be one of many works ascribed to St Romanos the Melodist, who died around 560 AD. Traditionally, it’s taken to have been first sung in 626 to avert an attack of the Avars on Constantinople. It’s an acrostic hymn, each kontakion and oikos beginning with a subsequent letter of the Greek alphabet. This is a work of combined simplicity of expression and depth of theological instruction, and is thus excellently suited for instruction in the faith. The Theotokos, Mary the Ever-Virgin, is accorded such honor because of her voluntary and humble submission to the will of God, and she is recognized as responsible for bringing salvation to the world in the birth of Jesus Christ through that act of submission. Mariology is really only Christology when properly understood. This hymn is treasured among the Orthodox, and rightly so. The translation below is from The Great Horologion (Boston: Holy Transfiguration Monastery, 1997).


Original Kontakion, Plagal of Fourth Tone
When the bodiless one learned the secret command, in haste he came and stood before Joseph’s dwelling, and spake unto the Maiden who knew not wedlock: The One Who hath bowed the Heavens by His descent is held and contained unchanging wholly in thee. Seeing Him receiving the form of a servant in thy womb, I stand in awe and cry to thee:

Rejoice, thou Bride unwedded.

Kontakion, Plagal of Fourth Tone
To thee, the Champion Leader, we thy flock dedicate a feast of victory and of thanksgiving, as ones rescued out of sufferings, O Theotokos. But as thou art one with might which is invincible, from all dangers that can be do thou deliver us, that we may cry to thee:

Rejoice, thou Bride unwedded.


An Angel, and the chiefest among them, was sent from Heaven to cry: Rejoice! to the Mother of God. And beholding Thee, O Lord, taking bodily form, he stood in awe, and with his bodiless voice he cried aloud to her such things as these:
Rejoice, thou through whom joy shall shine forth.
    Rejoice, thou through whom the curse shall be blotted out.
Rejoice, thou the Restoration of fallen Adam.
    Rejoice, thou the Redemption of the tears of Eve.
Rejoice, Height hard to climb for human thought.
    Rejoice, Depth hard to explore, even for the eyes of Angels.
Rejoice, for thou art the Throne of the King.
    Rejoice, for thou sustainest the Sustainer of all.
Rejoice, Star that causest the Sun to appear.
    Rejoice, Womb of the divine Incarnation.
Rejoice, thou through whom creation is renewed.
    Rejoice, thou through whom the Creator becometh a babe.
Rejoice, thou Bride unwedded.

Continue reading “Akathist Hymn to the Most Holy Theotokos”

The Shihor of Egypt

One of the interesting things that has been clarified by James Hoffmeier’s (et alia) North Sinai excavations around Tel Hebua is the nature of the Shihor, the “Waters of Horus” described in various Egyptian texts alternately as a channel or a basin of water connected to the Mediterranean. It turns out to be both: the easternmost branch of the Nile in the Eastern Delta which emptied into a lagoon or estuary which in turn opened onto the Mediterranean up until the late second millennium or early first millennium BC. See Hoffmeier’s Ancient Israel in Sinai: The Evidence for the Authenticiy of the Wilderness Tradition, particularly chapter 4, “The Geography of the Exodus: Ramesses to the Sea,” and Figures 3-6, 10, and 19 for topographical and geological maps of the area in question in the Eastern Nile Delta. This branch of the Nile began a bit south and west of Avaris/Pi-Ramesses and continued in a northeasterly direction until debouching into the aformentioned lagoon adjacent to Tjaru/Silu/Sile, the great border fortress of Egypt, located at Tel Hebua I and II (the fortress comprised two large buildings, one on either side of the channel, connected by a bridge). It is generally recognized that this Shihor actually defined the border of Egypt. On the western bank was Egypt, on the eastern bank, “the East.” For its entire length, the Shihor channel is paralleled by the “Way of Horus” the road leading from Avaris/Pi-Ramesses to Canaan.

The references within the Bible to this particular body of water are Jos 13.3; 1Chr 13.5; Isa 23.3; Jer 2.18. (There is also mention of a Shihor-Libnath, near Mount Carmel, in Jos 19.26, but this appears to be a Canaanite town or regional name interestingly based on a combination of the Semitic roots for “black” שחר and “white” לבן whatever the meaning may have been.) Nadav Naʾaman in two articles, “The Brook of Egypt and Assyrian Policy on the Border of Egypt” and “The Shihor of Egypt and Shur That is Before Egypt” (reprinted in Ancient Israel and Its Neighbors: Interaction and Counteraction. Collected Essays volume 1. pages 238-264 and 265-278 respectively) conveniently provides summaries of the scholarship on the subject of the Shihor, describing the various agreements and disagreements over the referents of the Shihor in these Biblical passages. The former article has become the classic statement on the subject, it seems. To summarize reactions to the Biblical use of Shihor, the Isaiah and Jeremiah references are unanimously recognized as referring to the Nile, but the Joshua and Chronicles passages are not. Some (like Naʾaman himself) would equate Shihor in the Joshua and Chronicles references to the Wadi Besor (so Naʾaman argues) as the “Brook of Egypt” rather than the Nile itself, though this “Brook of Egypt” is typically placed further south, at the Wadi el-Arish. Generally, the Joshua and Chronicles Shihor usage is denied as referring to the Nile because the Shihor is elsewhere not described as the border of Canaan or the Promised Land, while the “Brook of Egypt” is. One is forced to ask, however, “Is it necessarily objective to change the referent of a geographical name depending upon equivocal contexts?” Is that actually treating the text fairly, or is it rather attempting to force the text to fit our own theoretical understanding? In this case, it is clearly the latter.

Firstly, there is not necessarily any “Brook of Egypt” which is separate from the “River of Egypt” which is the Nile, particularly in these cases—the easternmost branch in the Delta which was called the Shihor in the second millennium BC, and, much later, the Pelusiac. There is no particular difference in the Hebrew נהר and נחל such that the former means “river” and the latter means “brook” which would justify the tendentious translation “Brook of Egypt.” They are synonyms for a lengthy, flowing body of water of whatever size, large or small. The fascinating information that Naʾaman provides from the Assyrian texts (in “The Brook of Egypt…” article noted above) is still equivocal, and the article has the overall feel of a tour de force rather than an objective, rational investigation. It’s interesting, but forced in its fitting of the evidence to a hypothetical border placed close to Gaza.

Secondly, the Joshua 13.3 and 1 Chronicles 13.5 usages are not so anomalous as we would be led to believe. The former relates a boundary of the territory of the land still to be taken by the Israelites near the end of Joshua’s life, obviously from the actual border of Egypt up to Ekron, not from some unimportant wadi. Interestingly, the “Wadi of Egypt” (as the NRSV puts it) is also mentioned to be the southern border of the promised land in both Numbers 34.5 and Joshua 15.4. Importantly, in Isaiah 27.12, the “Wadi of Egypt” is put in apposition with the Euphrates, just as in Isaiah 23.3, the Shihor is. This seems rather to suggest that no matter the period involved, the Shihor and the “Wadi of Egypt” were understood by the Biblical writers as identical, and as the theoretical or ideal, if not actual, border between Egypt and Israel. That the Egyptians considered the Shihor their border is well known and unanimously acknowledged. That the Israelites, producing the only other body of material to elaborate on this border, indeed to even mention the Egyptian name of this border feature, claimed to share this border with the Egyptians either ideally or actually should not surprise us. Theirs was a vibrant culture immediately to the north of Egypt, with a cultural territory of larger extent than any of the Canaanite or Philistine city-states, and with a literary tradition of astonishing richness which is still appreciated to this day, aside from anyone’s conception of the workings of God in their history. Such things do not indicate the Israelites to have been an inconsiderable cultural force in the region. Control by such a cultural force, to a greater or lesser degree, over the unclaimed lands to the east of Egypt should actually be expected. The incidental usage of Nile/Shihor/River of Egypt in parallel with the Euphrates as indicating the maximal extent of Israelite influence, and Canaanite before that, through several centuries of writing by the Israelites, whether it was ideal or actualized (as it seems to have been at times), should not be denied because it doesn’t fit hypothetical models of Israelite borders based on other, more equivocal and less objectively determinative factors. To do so is clearly an injustice to all the evidence, and this theory of a “Wadi of Egypt” at Wadi Besor or Wadi el-Arish should be abandoned by scholarship.

Of course, we needn’t expect anything to really change on that front, for, as they say, “Denial ain’t just a river in Egypt.”