Christian Platonism

Rediscovering Ancient Wisdom

Philo of Alexandria – Passover symbolism (Part 1)

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Philo of Alexandria – Passover symbolism (Part 1)

In several of his works, Philo of Alexandria allegorically interprets the passover rituals of Exodus.

Following are excerpts from the well-known Charles Duke Yonge translation, available online at Early Jewish Writings and elsewhere:

The Special Laws II (Spec. 2.145-2.147)

XXVII. (145) And after the feast of the new moon comes the fourth festival, that of the passover, which the Hebrews call pascha, on which the whole people offer sacrifice, beginning at noonday and continuing till evening. (146) And this festival is instituted in remembrance of, and as giving thanks for, their great migration which they made from Egypt, with many myriads of people, in accordance with the commands of God given to them; leaving then, as it seems, a country full of all inhumanity and practising every kind of inhospitality, and (what was worst of all) giving the honour due to God to brute beasts; and, therefore, they sacrificed at that time themselves out of their exceeding joy, without waiting for priests. And what was then done the law enjoined to be repeated once every year, as a memorial of the gratitude due for their deliverance. These things are thus related in accordance with the ancient historic accounts. (147) But those who are in the habit of turning plain stories into allegory, argue that the passover figuratively represents the purification of the soul; for they say that the lover of wisdom is never practising anything else except a passing over from the body and the passions. [Note: Philo would likely count himself as among those who argue for allegorical meaning.]

Who Is the Heir of Divine Things (Her. 192)

XL. (192) And we may find something very much resembling this equality, according to analogy in the case of the festival which is called the passover; and the passover is when the soul is anxious to unlearn its subjection to the irrational passions, and willingly submits itself to a reasonable mastery over them. (193) For it is expressly said, “If there be few that are in thy house so as not to be sufficient in number for a sheep, then thou shalt take thy nearest neighbour in addition, according to the number of Souls,”{64}{#ex 12:16.} so that each person may receive a sufficient share in proportion to the number of his family, being such as he is found to be worthy of and to have need of. (194) But when, as if it were some country, he wishes to divide out virtue among its inhabitants, he then allows the more numerous body to have more, and the less numerous to have less, thinking it reasonable not to allot a larger share to a smaller number, nor a smaller share to a larger number; for in such a case they would neither of them be suited to their respective portions.

On the Migration of Abraham (Migr. 25)

(25) And he exhorts men very vigorously to quit that which is called the mother of every thing that is absurd, without any delay or sluggishness, but rather using exceeding swiftness; for he says that men “must sacrifice the pascha, in Haste,”{16}{#ex 12:12.} and the word pascha, being interpreted, means a “passing over,” in order that the mind, exerting its reasonings without any doubt, and also an energetic willingness and promptness, may, without ever turning back make a passing over from the passions, to gratitude to God the Saviour, who has led it forth beyond all its expectations to freedom.

On the Sacrifices of Abel and Cain (Sacr. 112)

XVII. (63) Let us then, with reference to our gratitude to and honouring of the omnipotent God, be active and ready, deprecating all sluggishness and delay; for those who are passing over from obedience to the passions to the contemplation of virtue, are enjoined to keep the passover with their loins girded up, being ready to do service, and binding up the burden of the flesh, or, as it is expressed, their shoes, “standing upright, and firmly on their feet, and having in their hands a Staff,”{31}{#ex 12:11.} that is to say education, with the object of succeeding without any failure in all the affairs of life; and lastly, “to eat the passover in haste.” For, by the passover, is signified the crossing over of the created and perishable being to God:–and very appropriately; for there is no single good thing which does not belong to God, and which is not divine. (64) Seek it therefore, quickly, O my soul! as did that practiser of contemplation, Jacob, who, when his father asked him, “How found you this so quickly, I my Son?”{32}{#ge 27:20.} answered, with a doctrine concealed underneath his words, “The Lord God brought it before me.” For he, being well skilled in many matters, knew that whatever creation bestows on the soul is confirmed by long time, as those men know who give to their pupils arts, and lessons in arts: for their case is not like that of men who pour water into a vessel, they are not in a moment able to fill their minds with the lessons which have been brought before them. But when the fountain of wisdom, that is to say, God, gives knowledge of the sciences to the race of mankind, he gives it to them without any limitation of time. But they, as being disciples of the only wise Being, and being competent by nature, quickly accomplish the discovery of the things which they seek to understand.

On Mating with the Preliminary Studies (Congr. 102-109)

XIX. (102) Very appropriately, therefore, in the case of sacrifices also, the tenth part of the measure of fine wheat flour will be brought upon the altar, together with the victims. But the number of nine, which is what is left of the number ten, will remain among us. (103) And the daily sacrifice of the priests corresponds also to these facts. For it is expressly commanded to them to offer every day the tenth part of an Ephah{22}{#ex 10:20.} of fine wheat flour. For, passing over the ninth number, the god who was only discernible by the outward senses and by opinion, they learnt to worship the tenth, who is the only living and true God. (104) For the world had nine portions assigned to it, eight in heaven, namely the portion of the fixed stars and the seven planets which are all borne forward in the same arrangement, and the ninth being the earth in conjunction with the air and water. For of these things there is only one bond and connection, though they admit all kinds of various changes and alterations. (105) Therefore men in general have paid honours to these nine portions, and to the world which is compounded of them. But the perfect man honours only that being who is above the nine, and who is their creator, being the tenth portion, namely God. For having examined into the whole of his works, he has felt a love for the creator of them, and he has become anxious to be his suppliant and servant. On this account the priest offers up a tenth every day to the tenth, the only and everlasting God. (106) This is, to speak properly, the spiritual passover of the soul, the passing over of all the passions and of every object of the outward senses to the tenth, which is the proper object of the intellect, and which is divine. For it is said in the scripture: “On the tenth day of this month let each of them take a sheep according to his house; {23}{#ex 12:3.} in order that from the tenth, there may be consecrated to the tenth, that is to God, the sacrifices which have been preserved in the soul, which is illuminated in two portions out of the three, until it is entirely changed in every part, and becomes a heavenly brilliancy like a full moon, at the height of its increase at the end of the second week, and so is able not only to guard, but even to sacrifice uninjured and faultless improvements, that is to say, propitiations. (107) For this propitiation also is established in the tenth day of the month, when the soul addresses its supplications to the tenth portion, namely to God, and has learnt, by its own sagacity and acuteness, the insignificance and nothingness of the creature, and also the excessive perfection and pre-eminent excellence in all good things of the uncreated God. Therefore God becomes at once propitious, and propitious too, even without any supplications being addressed to him, to those who abase and humble themselves, and who are not puffed up with vain arrogance and self-opinion. (108) This is remission and deliverance, this is complete freedom of the soul, shaking off the wanderings in which it wandered, and fleeing for a secure anchorage to the one nature which cannot wander, and which rises up to return to the lot which it formerly received when it had brilliant aspirations, and when it vigorously toiled in labours which had virtuous ends for their object. For then admiring it for its exertions, the holy scripture honoured it, giving it a most especial honour, and immortal inheritance, a place namely in the imperishable race. (109) This is what the wise Abraham supplicates for, when that which in word indeed is the land of Sodom, but in real fact is the soul made barren of all good things and blinded as to its reason, is about to be burnt up, in order that if the memorial of justice, namely the Tenth{24}{#ge 18:32.} part be found in it, it may obtain a short of amnesty. Therefore he begins his supplication with a prayer for pardon, connected with the number fifty, and terminates with the number ten, the lowest number for whose deliverance he can dare to entreat.


Written by John Uebersax

April 9, 2009 at 10:51 pm

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