Two ends of a spectrum: My father is getting close to completing one of his long term goals, hiking every mile of the Appalachian Trail. One of my sons has just started walking. For those two and in honor of walking in general, I thought I would post a longish quotation from Gregory of Nyssa. It needs a bit of introduction however. Gregory was a patristic theologian who lived in the fourth century. This quotation comes from his The Life of Moses, which is an example of his mature theology and an illustration of an ancient form of biblical exegesis. Gregory is looking to Moses as a moral and mystical example of the Christian life, an example worth imitating. But how do we imitate someone like Moses? Do we need to move to Egypt, spend time on the river in a basket, herd sheep, live in a tent, lead people around the wilderness . . . ? Gregory says ‘no’ and divides his reading of Moses’s life into two categories: first, a historical outline of his life (historia) and, second, a corresponding spiritual interpretation (theoria). Here is an excerpt of his spiritual interpretation (theoria) of Exodus 12 and the institution of the first Passover celebration:
“What follows agrees with the spiritual understanding of the text [Ex. 12]. . . . The demeanor of those eating this food was to be intense and earnest, not like that of those who enjoy themselves at banquets, whose hands are relaxed and whose clothes are loose and whose feet are unprepared for travel. But everything was the opposite. Their feet were covered with sandals, a belt bound the clothing at the waist, and the staff to repel dogs was held in hand. . . .
From all this it is evident that the letter [or the literal sense of the text] looks to some higher understanding, since the Law does not instruct us how to eat. . . . For what does it matter to virtue or vice to eat your food this way or that, to have your belt loose or tight, to have your feet bare or covered with shoes, to have your staff in your hand or laid aside?
It is clear what the traveler’s equipment figuratively stands for: It commands us explicitly to recognize that our present life is transient. Already at birth we are driven by the very nature of things toward our departure, for which we must carefully prepare our hands, feet, and the rest.
So that the thorns of this life may not hurt our naked and unprotected feet, let us cover them with shoes. The shoes are the self-controlled and austere life which breaks and crushes the points of the thorns and prevents sin from slipping inside unnoticed” (pp. 78-9).
Gregory’s reading of this part of Scripture is interesting on both historical and devotional levels. It’s also worth contemplating as we grapple with how to read the First Testament. Maybe Gregory’s example of Moses also can help us read some of the ‘unsavory’ parts of Scripture.