Christian Platonism

Rediscovering Ancient Wisdom

Philo and Origen on the Allegorical Meaning of Pharaoh

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Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld, Oppression of the Israelites (1860)

FOR Philo and Origen, Pharaoh symbolizes what St. Paul later called the carnal mind, i.e., that which strives within our soul against spiritual mindedness (see e.g., Rom.7:14−25, 8:1−7; Galatians 5:17). Our souls are weighed down and oppressed by the demands of worldly desires and concerns.  Our exodus to the Promised Land is accomplished by practice of virtue and elevation of mind, heart and spirit.  Philo associates the mortar and bricks in Exodus 1:14 with the similar figure in the Tower of Babel story, producing an interesting phenomenological analysis of human thought in the fallen condition of folly, hubris and impiousness.

Exodus 1

[7] And the children of Israel were fruitful, and increased abundantly, and multiplied, and waxed exceeding mighty; and the land was filled with them.

[8] Now there arose up a new king over Egypt, which knew not Joseph.

[9] And he said unto his people, Behold, the people of the children of Israel are more and mightier than we:

[11] Therefore they did set over them taskmasters to afflict them with their burdens. And they built for Pharaoh treasure cities, Pithom and Raamses.

[14] And they made their lives bitter with hard bondage, in morter, and in brick, and in all manner of service in the field: all their service, wherein they made them serve, was with rigour.

Philo, On the Confusion of Tongues

XVIII. (83) Now the wicked man wishes to display his unity of voice and speech through fellowship in unjust deeds rather than in actual words, and therefore begins to build a city and a tower which will serve for the hold of vice, as a citadel for a despot. He exhorts all those who form his company to take their share in the work, but first to prepare the suitable material.

(84) “Come,” he says, “let us make bricks and bake them with fire” [Gen. 11: 3]. The meaning of this is as follows. At present we have all the contents of the soul in inextricable confusion, so that no clear form of any particular kind is discernible.

(85) Our right course is to take the passion and vice, which at present is a substance devoid of form and quality, and divide it by continuous analysis into the proper categories and the subdivisions in regular descending order till we reach the ultimate; thus we shall obtain both a clearer apprehension of them and that experienced use and enjoyment which is calculated to multiply our pleasure and delight.

(86) Forward then, come as senators to the council-hall of the soul, all you reasonings which are ranged together for the destruction of righteousness and every virtue, and let us carefully consider how our attack may succeed.

(87) The firmest foundations for such success will be to give form to the formless by assigning them definite shapes and figures and to distinguish them in each case by separate limitations, not with the uncertain equilibrium of the halting, but firmly planted, assimilated to the nature of the square — that most stable of figures — and thus rooted brick-like in unwavering equilibrium they will form a secure support for the superstructure.

XIX. (88) Every mind that sets itself up against God, the mind which we call “King of Egypt,” that is of the body, proves to be a maker of such structures. For Moses describes Pharaoh as rejoicing in buildings constructed of brick.

(89) This is natural, for when the workman has taken the two substances of earth and water, one solid and the other liquid, but both in the process of dissolution or destruction, and by mixing them has produced a third on the boundary line between the two, called clay, he divides it up into portions and without interruption gives each of the sections its proper shape. He wishes thus to make them firmer and more manageable since this, he knows, is the easiest way to secure the completion of the building.

(90) This process is copied by the naturally depraved, when they first mix the unreasoning and exuberant impulses of passion with the gravest vices, and then divide the mixture into its kinds, sense into sight and hearing, and again into taste and smell and touch; passion into pleasure and lust, and fear and grief; vices in general into folly, profligacy, cowardice, injustice, and the other members of that fraternity and family — the materials which moulded and shaped, to the misery and sorrow of their builders, will form the fort which towers aloft to menace the soul.

Source: Colson, F. H.; Whitaker, G. H. (Trs.). Philo: On the Confusion of Tongues. In: Philo (10 volumes and 2 supplements), vol. 4. Loeb Classical Library. L261. Harvard, 1932. (pp. 55−59).

____________

Origen, Homilies on Exodus 1.5

BUT let us see what is added subsequently. (5) “But another king arose in Egypt,” the text says, “who did not know Joseph. And he said to his people, ‘Behold, the race of the sons of Israel is a great multitude and is stronger than us.'” [Ex 1.8−9]

First of all I wish to investigate who the king [i.e., pharaoh] is in Egypt who knows Joseph and who he is who does not know him. For while the king who knew Joseph reigned, the sons of Israel are not reported to have been afflicted nor exhausted “by mud and brick.” [Ex 1.14] … But when the other king — who did not know Joseph — arose and began to reign, then all these things are reported to have happened. Let us see, therefore, who that other king is.

If the Lord guides us, then our understanding, illuminated by the Lord, always remembers Christ — just as Paul writes to Timothy: “Remember that Christ Jesus has arisen from the dead” [2 Tm 2.8],

As long as it remembers these things in Egypt — that is in our flesh — our spirit holds the kingdom with justice and does not exhaust the sons of Israel, whom we said above to be the rational senses or virtues of the soul, “by mud and brick,” nor does it weaken them with earthly cares and troubles.

But if our understanding should lose the memory of these things — if it should turn away from God, if it should become ignorant of Christ — then the wisdom of the flesh which is hostile to God [cf. Rom 8.7] succeeds to the royal power and addresses its own people, bodily pleasures. When the leaders of the vices have been called together for consultation, deliberation is undertaken against the sons of Israel. They discuss how the sons of Israel may be distressed, how they may be oppressed. Their goal is to afflict the sons of Israel “by mud and bricks“; to expose the males and raise the females; to build the cities of Egypt and “fortified cities.” [cf. Ex 1.10-16]

These words were not written to instruct us in history, nor must we think that the divine books narrate the acts of the Egyptians. What has been written “has been written for our instruction and admonition.” [1 Cor 10.11] Its purpose is that you, who hear these words, who perhaps have already received the grace of baptism and have been numbered among the sons of Israel and received God as king in yourself and later you wish to turn away and do the works of the world, to do deeds of the earth and muddy services, may know and recognize that “another king has arisen in you who knows not Joseph,” [Ex 1.8] a king of Egypt, and that he is compelling you to his works and is making you labor in bricks and mud for himself.

It is this king of Egypt who leads you by whips and blows to worldly works with magistrates and supervisors put over you that you may build cities for him. It is he who makes you run about through the world to disturb the elements of sea and earth for lust. It is he who makes you agitate the forum with lawsuits and weary your neighbors with altercations for a little piece of land, to say nothing about lying in ambush for chastity, to deceive innocence, to commit foul things at home, cruel things abroad, shameful things within your conscience. When, therefore, you see yourself acting in these ways, know that you are a soldier for the king of Egypt, which is to be led by the spirit of this world..

Source: Origen, Homilies on Exodus 1.5 (Tr. Ronald Heine, Origen: Homilies on Genesis and Exodus, Father of the Church 71, pp. 233 f., 1982) Note: edited slightly by JU.

 

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