Christian Platonism

Rediscovering Ancient Wisdom

Allegorical Interpretation: For a fire has gone out of Heshbon (Num 21:28)

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Philo on Vain Opinion and Conflagration of the Mind

Num 25:31
25. And Israel took all these cities: and Israel dwelt in all the cities of the Amorites, in Heshbon, and in all the villages thereof.

26. For Heshbon [was] the city of Sihon the king of the Amorites, who had fought against the former king of Moab, and taken all his land out of his hand, even unto Arnon.

27. Wherefore they that speak in proverbs say, Come into Heshbon, let the city of Sihon be built and prepared:

28. For there is a fire gone out of Heshbon, a flame from the city of Sihon: it hath consumed Ar of Moab, [and] the lords of the high places of Arnon.

29. Woe to thee, Moab! thou art undone, O people of Chemosh: he hath given his sons that escaped, and his daughters, into captivity unto Sihon king of the Amorites.

30. We have shot at them; Heshbon is perished even unto Dibon, and we have laid them waste even unto Nophah, which [reacheth] unto Medeba.

31. Thus Israel dwelt in the land of the Amorites.

Philo of Alexandria Allegorical Interpretation 3.222-235

LXXIX. (222) Let us now see what account Moses gives of the mind itself, when it is set in motion in a way contrary to right reason. And God said unto Adam, “Because thou hast listened to the voice of thy wife, and hast eaten of the tree of which I commanded thee not to eat, because thou hast eaten of it, cursed is the earth in thy Actions.”{113}{#ge 3:17.} It is a most mischievous thing, therefore, for the mind to be swayed by the outward senses, but not for the outward senses to be guided by the mind. For it is at all times proper that that which is better should rule, and that that which is worse should be ruled.

(223) And the mind is better than the outward senses. As, therefore, when the charioteer has his horses under command and guides the animals with the rein, the chariot is guided wherever he pleases; but if they become restiff, and get the better of the charioteer, he is often dragged out of his road, and sometimes it even happens that the beasts themselves are borne by the impetuosity of their course into a pit, and everything is carried away in a ruinous manner. And, as a ship holds on her right course when the pilot has the helm in his hand and steers her, and she is obedient to her rudder, but the vessel is upset when some contrary wind descends upon the waves and the whole sea is occupied by billows;

(224) so when the mind, which is the charioteer or pilot of the soul, retains the mastery over the entire animal, as a ruler does over a city, the life of the man proceeds rightly. But when the outward sense, which is devoid of reason, obtains the supremacy, then a terrible confusion overtakes the man, as might happen if a household of slaves were to conspire and to set upon their master. For then, if one must tell the truth, the mind is set fire to and burnt, the outward senses handling the flame and placing the objects of their operation beneath, as fuel.

LXXX. And Moses, indeed, speaks of and describes such a conflagration of the mind as this which arises in consequence of the operation of the outward senses, when he says,

Gustave Dore illustration - Destruction of the Amorites (Joshua 10:11)

Gustave Doré 1866 - Destruction of the Army of the Amorites (Josh 10:11)

(225) “And the women still burnt additional fires in Moab.”{114}{#nu 21:27.} For this expression being interpreted means, from the father, because the mind is our father. “For then,” says Moses, “the expounders of riddles will say, Come to Heshbon, that the city of Sihon may be built and furnished. Because fire has gone forth out of Heshbon, and a flame out of the city of Sihon, and has devoured as far as Moab, and has consumed the high places of Arnon. Woe unto thee, Moab, Chemosh is destroyed: their sons who had sought to escape have been given up, and their daughters have become captive to Sihon, king of the Amorites. And the seed of them shall perish, from Heshbon even to Dibon. Moreover, the women still burnt additional fire in Moab.”

(226) Heshbon being interpreted means reasonings; and these must here mean enigmas, full of indistinctness. Behold the reasoning of the physician:–“I will purge the sick man, I will nourish him, I will heal him with medicines and with diet, I will extirpate his diseased parts, I will cauterise him.” But very often nature has healed the man without these remedies; and very often too has suffered him to die though they were applied: so that the reasonings of the physician have been utterly found out to be dreams, full of all indistinctness and of riddles. Again, the husbandman says,

(227) I will scatter seed, I will plant; the plants shall grow, they shall bear fruit, which shall not only be useful for necessary enjoyment, but which shall also be abundant for superfluity; and then, on a sudden, fire, or a storm, or continued rains, have destroyed everything. But at times man has brought his labours to their due accomplishment, and yet he who formed all these plans has derived no advantage from their being accomplished, but has died before they were accomplished, and has in vain promised himself the enjoyment of the fruits of his labours.

LXXXI. (228) It is best, therefore, to trust in God, and not in uncertain reasonings, or unsure conjectures. “Abraham trusted in the Lord, and it was counted to him for Righteousness.”{115}{#ge 15:6.} And Moses governed the people, being testified to that he was faithful with his whole house. But if we distrust our own reason, we shall prepare and build ourselves a city of the mind which will destroy the truth. For Sihon, being interpreted means destroying.

(229) In reference to which he who had dreamed, waking up, found that all the motions and all the advances of the foolish man are merely dreams that have no portion of truth in them, for the very mind is found to be a dream; and the only true doctrine is to believe in God, and to trust to vain reasonings is a mere delusion. But irrational impulse goes forth and proceeds to each extremity, while both the reasonings and the mind corrupt the truth. On which account, Moses says that “fire went out of Heshbon, and flame out of the city of Sihon.” So absurd is it to trust either to plausible reasonings, or to the mind which corrupts the truth.

LXXXII. (230) “And it devours even as far as Moab;” that is to say, as far as the mind. For what other creature, except the miserable mind, can a false opinion deceive? It devours and consumes, and, in truth, it swallows up the pillars in it; that is to say, all the particular notions which are engraved and impressed upon it, as upon a pillar. But the pillars are Arnon, which, being interpreted, means the light of Arnon, since every one of these facts is made clear by reasoning.

(231) Accordingly, Moses beings presently to lament over the self-satisfied and arrogant mind in this manner: “Woe unto thee, O city of Moab!” For, if you give attention to the riddles which arise out of the perception of what is probable, you have destroyed the truth by so doing. “The people of Chemosh,” that is to say, thy people and thy power, have been found to be mutilated and blinded. For Chemosh, being interpreted, means feeling with the hand. And this action is the especial characteristic of one who does not see.

(232) Now, their sons are particular reasonings-exiles; and their opinions are in the place of daughters, being captives to the king of the Amorites, that is to say, of those who converse with the sophist. For the name Amorites, being interpreted, means talkers, being a symbol of the people who talk much; and their guide and leader is the sophist, and he who is skilful in reasoning and clever in investigating arts; a man by whom all those are deceived who once overpass the boundary of truth.

LXXXIII. (233) Sihon, then, who destroys the sound rule of truth, and his seed also, shall both perish; and so shall Heshbon, namely, the sophistical riddles, as far as Debon; which, being interpreted, means adjudication. And very consistently with nature shall this be. For what is probable and plausible has not a positive knowledge respecting truth, but only a trial and controversy and a litigious contest and strife, and all such things as these. (234) But it was not sufficient for the mind to have its own peculiar evils, which were perceptible only to the intellect; but still the women burnt additional fire, that is to say, the outward senses excited a great conflagration to have an effect upon it. See, now, what the meaning is of what is here said. We who very often by night desist from energizing according to any one of the outward senses, receive absurd impressions respecting many different things, since our souls exist in a state of perpetual motion and are capable of an infinite variety of changes. There were, therefore, things quite sufficient for its destruction which it brought forth out of itself.

(235) But now, as it is, the multitude of the outward senses has brought against it a most incalculable multitude of evils, partly from objects of sight and partly from sounds; and besides that, from flavours and from such essences as affect the sense of smell. And one may almost say that the flavour which arises from them has a more pernicious influence on the disposition of the soul than that which is engendered in the soul itself, without any co-operation or agency of the organs of sense.

Philo of AlexandriaOn the Migrations of Abraham 95-100

XVII. (95) I also admire Leah, that woman endued with all virtue, who, at the birth of Asher, who is the symbol of that bastard wealth, which is perceptible by the outward senses, says, “Blessed am I, because all women shall call me Happy.”{48}{#ge 30:13.} For she sees plainly that she will have a favourable reputation, thinking that she deserves to be praised, not only by those reasonings which are really masculine and manly, which have a nature free from all spot and stain, and which honour that which is really honest and incorrupt, but also by those more feminine reasonings which are in every respect overcome by those things which are visible, and which are unable to comprehend any object of contemplation which is beyond them.

(96) But it is the part of a perfect soul to set up a claim, not only to be, but to also appear to be, and, to labour earnestly not merely to have a good reputation in the houses of the men, but also in the secret chambers of the women.

(97) On which account Moses also committed the preparation of the sacred works of the tabernacle not only to men, but also to women, who were to aid in making them; for all “the woven works of hyacinthine colour, and of purple and of scarlet work, and of fine linen, and of goats’ hair, do the women make;” and they also contribute their own ornaments without hesitation, “seals, and ear-rings, and finger-rings, and armlets, and tablets, all jewels of gold,”49–everything, in short, of which gold was the material, gladly giving up the ornaments of their person in exchange for piety;

(98) and, moreover, carrying their zeal to a still higher degree, they likewise consecrated even their mirrors, that a laver might be made of Them,”{50}{#ex 38:8.} in order that those who were about to assist at the sacrifices, washing their hands and their feet, that is to say, those works about which the mind is occupied and on which it is fixed, may have a view of themselves in a mirror according to the recollection of those mirrors of which the laver was made; for in this way they will never permit anything disgraceful to remain in any portion of the soul. And now they will dedicate the offering of fasting and patience, the most beautiful and sacred, and perfect of offerings.

(99) But these real citizens and virtuous women are really as it were the outward senses, by whom Leah, that is virtue, desires to be honoured. But they who kindle an additional fire against the miserable mind are destitute of any city. For we read in the scripture that even, “women still burnt additional fire to Moab.”{51}{#nu 21:30.}

(100) But may we not in this way say that so each of the outward senses of the foolish man when set on fire by the appropriate objects of outward sense, does also set fire to the mind, spreading over it an exceeding and interminable flame with irresistible vigour and impetuosity. At all events it is best to propitiate the array of women, that is to say, of the outward senses in the soul, just as it is desirable to do so with respect to the men, that is to say, with respect to the particular reasonings. For in this manner we shall arrange a more excellent system of life in a very beautiful manner.


Written by John Uebersax

March 20, 2010 at 4:26 pm

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