Christian Platonism

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Philo: The Allegorical Meaning of the Serpents of Moses and Pharaoh’s Magicians

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Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld, Aaron’s Rod Changed into a Serpent. Charles Foster, Bible Pictures and What They Teach Us (1860).

ONE of the most memorable sections in Exodus is where, in his confrontation with Pharaoh, Moses throws down Aaron’s rod and it becomes a serpent that devours the serpents of the court magicians. Philo mentions this incident in On the Migrations of Abraham while discussing God’s command to Abraham (at this point named Abram) to leave his father’s home and begin journeying. Philo interprets this command to mean that the righteous man should leave his native land of the carnal mind and travel to the condition of spiritual mindedness.

Philo notes five promises God makes associated with this command.  The third promise is I will bless thee. In the Greek Septuagint Philo used, the word for bless is εὐλογήσω (eulogeso), which he interprets as “excellence of logos.” According to Philo this gift of superior logos has two aspects — mental and spoken — symbolized by Moses and Aaron.  The two operate in combination and, in a broad sense, jointly subsume heavenly inspirations, right reason, and speech that expresses right reason.

For Philo, Egypt symbolizes the carnal mind, which holds our spiritual nature, or Israel, in bondage. Moses’ rod and serpent symbolize pure reasonings applied to counter the rationalizations which the carnal mind raises to resist ones directing ones mind to God and divine contemplations.

The swallowing of the magicians’ serpents by Moses’ serpent symbolizes how our inspired right reasons prevail completely over the specious reasonings of the carnal mind.  Moses’ serpent doesn’t merely bite and kill the others: it devours them, so that no trace remains.  The idea is that inspired right reason doesn’t just win an argument with carnal-minded sophistries, but utterly destroys them by revealing their hollowness and baselessness.

To summarize: To the righteous man (Abram) who leaves his home country (of the senses and material concerns) to travel to the promised land (mental ascent), God promises to send divine intuitions, right reason and true speech (Moses and Aaron). These combat and destroy the specious arguments of ones pleasure-loving inner sophists (Pharaoh’s magicians and their rods/serpents).

Philo’s allegorical interpretation of Moses and Aaron here involves some important principles of transcendental cognitive psychology. His discussion suggests three steps:

(1) receipt of a subtle, inspired intuition that is preverbal in nature;

(2) forming the insight inwardly into words (i.e., as with self-talk); and

(3) outward expression of the idea in the act of speech.

The spiritually-minded religious practitioner can observe these processes by introspection and verify their existence. The three steps are, in Philo’s scheme, allocated to two figures, Moses and Aaron. Hence there’s some ambiguity as to which brother step (2) is assigned; arguably it goes naturally with (3) and hence is part of ones ‘inner Aaron.’

Exodus 7 (KJV)

[8] And the LORD spake unto Moses and unto Aaron, saying,

[9] When Pharaoh shall speak unto you, saying, Shew a miracle for you: then thou shalt say unto Aaron, Take thy rod, and cast it before Pharaoh, and it shall become a serpent.

[10] And Moses and Aaron went in unto Pharaoh, and they did so as the LORD had commanded: and Aaron cast down his rod before Pharaoh, and before his servants, and it became a serpent.

[11] Then Pharaoh also called the wise men and the sorcerers: now the magicians of Egypt, they also did in like manner with their enchantments.

[12] For they cast down every man his rod, and they became serpents: but Aaron’s rod swallowed up their rods.

[13] And he hardened Pharaoh’s heart, that he hearkened not unto them; as the LORD had said.

Genesis 12 (KJV)

[1] Now the LORD had said unto Abram, Get thee out of thy country, and from thy kindred, and from thy father’s house, unto a land that I will shew thee:

[2] And I will make of thee a great nation, and I will bless thee, and make thy name great; and thou shalt be a blessing:

[3] And I will bless them that bless thee, and curse him that curseth thee: and in thee shall all families of the earth be blessed.

Philo, On the Migrations of Abraham

XIV.  […] (77) WHEN, therefore, the mind walks abroad among the affairs of the ruler of the universe, it requires nothing further as an object of contemplation, since the mind [νους; nous] alone is the most piercing of all eyes as applied to the objects of the intellect; but when it is directed towards those things which are properly objects of the outward senses, or to any passion, or substance, of which the land of Egypt is the emblem, then it will have need of skill and power in argument.

(78) On which account Moses is directed also to take Aaron with him as an addition, Aaron being the symbol of uttered speech [logos in utterance], Behold, says God, is not Aaron thy brother? [Exod. 4:14] For one rational nature being the mother of them both, it follows of course that the offspring are brothers, I know that he will speak. For it is the office of the mind to comprehend, and of utterance to speak. He, says God, will speak for thee. For the mind not being able to give an adequate exposition of the part which is assigned to it, uses its neighbour speech as an interpreter, for the purpose of explaining what it feels.

(79) Presently he further adds, Behold he will come to meet thee, since in truth speech when it meets the conceptions, and embodies them in words, and names stamps what had before no impression on it, so as to make it current coin. And further on he says, And when he seeth thee he will rejoice in himself; for speech rejoices and exults when the conception is not indistinct, because it being clear and evident employs speech as an unerring and fluent expositor of itself, having a full supply of appropriate and felicitous expressions full of abundant distinctness and intelligibility.

XV. (80) AT ALL events when the conceptions are at all indistinct and ambiguous, speech is the treading as it were on empty air, and often stumbles and meets with a severe fall, so as never to be able to rise again. And thou shalt speak to him, and thou shalt give my words into his mouth, which is equivalent to, Thou shalt suggest to him conceptions which are in no respect different from divine language and divine arguments.

(81) For without some one to offer suggestions, speech will not speak; and the mind is what suggests to speech, as God suggests to the mind. And he shall speak for thee to the people, and he shall be thy mouth, and thou shalt be to him as God. And there is a most emphatic meaning in the expression, He shall speak for thee, that is to say, He shall interpret thy conceptions, and He shall be thy mouth. For the stream of speech being borne through the tongue and mouth conveys the conceptions abroad. But speech is the interpreter of the mind [διάνοια; dianoia] to men, while again mind is by means of speech the interpreter to God; but these thoughts are those of which God alone is the overseer.

(82) Therefore it is necessary for any one who is about to enter into a contest of sophistry, to pay attention to all his words with such vigorous earnestness, that he may not only be able to escape from the maneuvers of his adversaries, but may also in his turn attack them, and get the better of them, both in skill and in power.

(83) Do you not see that conjurors and enchanters, who attempting to contend against the divine word with their sophistries, and who daring to endeavor to do other things of a similar kind, labour not so much to display their own knowledge, as to tear to pieces and turn into ridicule what was done? For they even transform their rods into the nature of serpents [Exod. 7:12], and change water into the complexion of blood, [Exod.7:22] and by their incantations they attract the remainder of the frogs to the land, [Exod.8:7] and, like miserable men as they are, they increase everything for their own destruction, and while thinking to deceive others they are deceived themselves.

(84) And how was it possible for Moses to encounter such men as these unless he had prepared speech, the interpreter of his mind, namely Aaron? who now indeed is called his mouth; but in a subsequent passage we shall find that he is called a prophet, when also the mind, being under the influence of divine inspiration, is called God. For, says God, I give thee as a God to Pharaoh, and Aaron they brother shall be thy Prophet. [Exod. 7:1] O the harmonious and well-organised consequence! For that which interprets the will of God is the prophetical race, being under the influence of divine possession and frenzy.

(85) Therefore the rod of Aaron swallowed up their rods, [Exod. 7:12] as the holy scripture tells us. For all sophistical reasons are swallowed up and destroyed by the varied skilfulness of nature; so that they are forced to confess that what is done is the finger of God, [Exod. 8:19] an expression equivalent to confessing the truth of the divine scripture which asserts that sophistry is always subdued by wisdom.



Source:  Philo, On the Migrations of Abraham.  In: David M. Scholer (editor) and Charles Duke Yonge (translator), The Works of Philo, New updated edition (ebook edition), Peabody, MA, Hedrickson Publishers, 2013. (Original Yonge edition 1854−1855, Bohn’s Classical Library.)

John Uebersax
First draft, March 31, 2018


Nothing Further Can Be Found in Man: St. Athanasius on Interpretation of the Psalms

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ONE of the finest Patristic works on Psalms is the letter of St. Athanasius of Alexandria to his friend, Marcellinus, Ad Marcellinum.  Ostensibly relaying what he learned from an “old man” — perhaps a saintly desert ascetic — St. Athanasius exhorts us not only to read the Psalms, but to read them “intelligently.”  He also affirms the benefits of singing the Psalms, by which means a uniting and harmonization all one’s faculties and powers occurs.

The letter is not long, and all who are drawn to Psalms and wish to profit from them are encouraged to read it in its entirety (links in Bibliography).  Some passages of special interest are supplied below.

(Note: square brackets indicate sections as enumerated in the Migne edition; translation is by Anonymous 1953/1998).

To Marcellinus

All the books of Scripture, both Old Testament and New, are inspired by God and useful for instruction (2 Tim 3:16), as it is written; but to those who really study it, the Psalter yields especial treasure. … Each of these books, you see, is like a garden which grows one special kind of fruit; by contrast, the Psalter is a garden which, besides its special fruit, grows also some those of all the rest. [2]

And herein is yet another strange thing about the Psalms. In the other books of Scripture we read or hear the words of holy men as belonging only to those who spoke them, not at all as though they were our own … [however with] Psalms it is as though it were one’s own words that one read; and anyone who hears them is moved at heart, as though they voiced for him his deepest thoughts. [11]

[T]he Psalms thus serve him who sings them as a mirror, wherein he sees himself and his own soul … [12]

Just as in a mirror, the movements of our own souls are reflected in them and the words are indeed our very own, given us to serve both as a reminder of our changes of condition and as a pattern and model for the amendment of our lives. [13]

The whole divine Scripture is the teacher of virtue and true faith, but the Psalter gives a picture [more particularly] of the spiritual life. [14]

It is possible for us …  to find in the Psalter not only the reflection of our own soul’s state, together with precept and example for all possible conditions, but also a fit form of words wherewith to please the Lord on each of life’s occasions …  [15]

unifying effect which chanting the Psalms has upon the singer. For to sing the Psalms demands such concentration of a man’s whole being on them that, in doing it, his usual disharmony of mind and corresponding bodily confusion is resolved, just as the notes of several flutes are brought by harmony to one effect; and he is thus no longer to be found thinking good and doing evil. [27]

When, therefore, the Psalms are chanted, it is not from any mere desire for sweet music but as the outward expression of the inward harmony obtaining in the soul, because such harmonious recitation is in itself the index of a peaceful and well-ordered heart. To praise God tunefully upon an instrument, such as well-tuned cymbals, cithara, or ten-stringed psaltery, is, as we know, an outward token that the members of the body and the thoughts of the heart are, like the instruments themselves, in proper order and control, all of them together living and moving by the Spirit’s cry and breath. … he who sings well puts his soul in tune, correcting by degrees its faulty rhythm so that at last, being truly natural and integrated, it has fear of nothing, but in peaceful freedom from all vain imaginings may apply itself with greater longing to the good things to come. For a soul rightly ordered by chanting the sacred words forgets its own afflictions and contemplates with joy the things of Christ alone. [29]

For I think that in the words of this book all human life is covered, with all its states and thoughts, and that nothing further can be found in Man. [30]


English translations

Anonymous (tr.). Letter to Marcellinus on the Interpretation of the Psalms. In: Anonymous (tr.), Athanasius: On the Incarnation. St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1998. (Appendix; pp. 97−119; ‘Letter’ orig. publ. 1953). [online version]

Elowsky, Joel C. (tr.), Athanasius: Letter to Marcellinus on the Psalms. New Haven, CT: ICCS Press, 2017.

Gregg, Robert C. (tr.). Athanasius: The Life of Antony and the Letter to Marcellinus, Paulist Press, 1980. (pp. 101−129).

Greek and Latin text

Epistula ad Marcellinum de interpretatione Psalmorum. [Greek text, digital].

Migne, Jacques-Paul (ed.). Patrologia Graeca 27, 1857. (cols. 11−46). [Greek text with Latin translation.]

Secondary sources

Kolbet, Paul R. Athanasius, the Psalms, and the Reformation of the Self. The Harvard Theological Review, vol. 99, no. 1, 2006, pp. 85–101.