A Biblical Crux

An anonymous ninth-century Irish poet described a monk at work on a textual problem in parallel with his cat (a monastery feline named Pangur Bán or perhaps “white fuller” in the sense of launderer) stalking a mouse, which is translated here by Seamus Heaney).

Pangur Bán and I at work,

Adepts, equals, cat and clerk:

His whole instinct is to hunt,

Mine to free the meaning pent.

More than loud acclaim, I love

Books, silence, thought, my alcove.

Happy for me, Pangur Bán

Child-plays round some mouse’s den.

Truth to tell, just being here,

Housed alone, housed together,

Adds up to its own reward:

Concentration, stealthy art.

Next thing an unwary mouse

Bares his flank: Pangur pounces.

Next thing lines that held and held

Meaning back begin to yield.

All the while, his round bright eye

Fixes on the wall, while I

Focus my less piercing gaze

On the challenge of the page.

With his unsheathed, perfect nails

Pangur springs, exults and kills.

When the longed-for, difficult

Answers come, I too exult.

So it goes. To each his own.

No vying. No vexation.

Taking pleasure, taking pains,

Kindred spirits, veterans.

Day and night, soft purr, soft pad,

Pangur Bán has learned his trade.

Day and night, my own hard work

Solves the cruxes, makes a mark.

In medieval studies, a crux (from the Latin term for Cross) as mentioned in the poem is a textual passage that elicits puzzlement and perhaps metaphorical suffering on the part of the reader, who may pounce, like the cat in the poem on its prey, in seeking to find an answer.

In prayerful Orthodox study of the Bible, such a crux becomes a small reminder of the Cross as a living and real symbol of self-sacrifice in Christ rather than self-assertion. That’s because in Orthodoxy biblical “hermeneutics” it is considered normal to 1) first pray before study; 2) seek guidance from the Church Fathers and a spiritual father or other experienced Orthodox Christian in the Holy Tradition of the Church; 3) consider it normal to approach such a passage with the contemplative humble view “it’s a mystery”; and 4) to accept in faith both literal and symbolic explanations together. The mystery of such a passage itself can convict us as readers of pride; it asks us (myself the most) to unpack meaning to exemplify in our lives, however unworthily, rather than to engage speculative abstract assertions to which us modern secular academics can be prone.

One such Biblical passage, Joshua 5:13-15 came up for discussion in our mission parish’s coffee hour, while our regular Bible Study was on temporary hiatus between finishing Job and starting Exodus this summer.

One participant mentioned that he had seen online discussion calling out the Orthodox Study Bible footnote to the passage as wrong for explaining the “chief captain of the host of the Lord” to be the Holy Archangel Michael according to tradition, rather than a theophany of our Lord Jesus Christ, as understood elsewhere in the Old Testament by Church Fathers. Along those lines, another in our informal coffee-hour discussion noted textual evidence in the translation that the “Lord of Hosts” as a name for God seemed equivalent to the description of the figure as “chief captain”; that the Orthodox Study Bible capitalizes “Master” in the address by Joshua to the figure, as if referencing God; and that the figure tells Joshua, just as the theophany of Christ told the Holy Prophet Moses according to tradition, to “Lose the shoe from your feet for the place on which you stand is holy.” A third at the coffee table asked whether it wasn’t unusual for a theophany of Christ to be described as holding a sword, the latter associated with the Holy Archangel Michael in iconography of the Church. Also, it could be added, that in the earlier opening of the Book of Joshua, God is described directly as speaking to Joshua, as God, rather than an angel, and whether that might provide context, too.

Here is one unworthy attempt to gather insights from the Fathers on this passage. Additions and corrections welcome!

The Brenton translation from the Septuagint:

And it came to pass when Joshua was in Jericho, that he looked up with his eyes and saw a man standing before him, and there was a drawn sword in his hand; and Joshua drew near and said to him, Art thou for us or on the side of our enemies? And he said to him, I am now come, the chief captain of the host of the Lord. And Joshua fell on his face upon the earth, and said to him, Lord, what commandest thou thy servant? And the captain of the Lord’s host said to Joshua, Loose thy shoe off thy feet, for the place whereon thou now standest is holy.

First, the Orthodox Study Bible note indeed cites “the tradition” of the figure being the Holy Archangel Michael, but without citation.

The biblical language in the Greek Septuagint includes a term for the figure αρχιστράτηγος, translatable from the Septuagint Greek as “commander in chief,” and indeed he is addressed as Lord or Master, in a way that could be taken either as a superior of some kind or indicative of God. Angel means messenger in Greek, related to Evangelist. The Greek indicates that Joshua fell on his face before the figure but does not have a more specific verb with regard to the reverence.

An Orthodox compiler of exegesis from the Fathers, Johanna Manley, includes in her Wisdom Let Us Attend: Job, The Fathers, and the Old Testament (out of print but hopefully available through libraries) a short section on the Book of Joshua, which quotes from the twentieth-century St. Nikolai Velimirovich’s compilation the Prologue of Ochrid on the passage:

Let me ponder on the miraculous appearing of the archangel to the son of Nun when he set out to conquer Jericho:
1. How the chief captain of the heavenly host appeared to Joshua with a drawn sword in his hand.
2. How he told Joshua to put off his shoes.
3. How we, in the battle of life, must not rely on our own feet and our own equipment, but on Him who fights for us.

The Catena App included this short passage from St. John of Damascus’ On Divine Images 1.8, from the first millennium:

Joshua, the son of Nun, and Daniel bowed in veneration before an angel of God, but they did not adore him. For adoration is one thing, and that which is offered in order to honor something of great excellence is another.

I found some online references to Saints Augustine and Jerome having called the figure the Holy Archangel Michael, but have not gotten to actual citations yet.

In the Holman Ancient Faith Bible (which does not follow the Septuagint but has a lot of helpful well-cited commentary from the ancient Church Fathers), there are a couple citations from other early Christian writers indicating that this figure was a theophany of Christ, or of “Divine Providence” in a less specified way. Eusebius of Caesarea, a famous fourth-century Church historian, writes that the Word of God appeared to Joshua “with an unseen sword and with divine power, the fellow soldier and fellow combatant of his people. wherefore he gives himself the name of Chief and Captain of the Lord to suit the occasion” (Proof of the Gospel, 5.19). Suspected of Arian sympathies, Bishop Eusebius was never made a saint of the Orthodox Church, however.

St. Isaac of Nineveh wrote, in his Ascetical Homilies 5.31-21:

Divine Providence surrounds all persons at all times, but it is not visible except to those who have purified their souls of sin and think about God at all times. To these it is luminously revealed at that time, because when they have undergone great temptations for the sake of truth, then they receive the faculty to perceive sensibly as if with eyes of flesh also when necessary, even palpably, according to the kind and cause of the temptation, as if for great encouragement.So it was with Jacob and Joshua son of Nun, Hannaniah and his companions, Peter and others to whom the form of a man appeared to encourage them to console their faith.

This would indicate that the figure expressed the Divine, and the examples of Jacob and Hannaniah would suggest a theophany of Christ, although not so much the example of the Apostle Peter.

St. Jerome notes that Joshua, whose name parallels that of Jesus, is a type of Christ, who in arriving at the Promised Land by parting the waters of Jordan, thus surpassed Moses who symbolized “the Law.” “When, therefore, we enter into the kingdom of heaven, we shall have no need of sandals or for protection against this world, but–to give you a new thought–we shall follow the Lamb that has been slain for us” (Homily on the Exodus, 91).

As Joshua has arrived in the Promised Land (which Moses has not reached) he is told he is on holy ground, the ground of the Holy Land of Israel, which itself becomes a type fulfilled by our Lord God’s Church in the New Testament. So there is a typology of Christ at work as well in Joshua, according to the Fathers, which intersects with the literal meaning, and perhaps complicates the symbolism of the encounter with the mysterious figure.

Again, Orthodox Christians read the Bible both literally and symbolically. In Joshua 5 the combination of both points to a mystery relating the typology of Christ to experience of a message from God. Contemplation of this crux can lead the Orthodox Christian reader unworthily to find a model for synergy of grace and virtue in the figure of the Holy Prophet Joshua. By God’s grace, loosing the shoes from our feet as we stand unworthily at the entry vista of the promised land in His Holy Church, may we gird ourselves for spiritual warfare, through the prayers of our Holy Fathers, Lord Jesus Christ our God have mercy on us!


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