1. Whether any families are to be found in the period from Noah to Abraham whose members lived according to God’s will
IF it is asked whether the progress of the holy City can be traced in a continuous line after the Flood, or was so interrupted by intervening periods of irreligion that there are times when not one man emerges as a worshipper of the one true God, it is difficult to find an answer to the question from any clear statement of Scripture. In fact from the time of Noah, who with his wife and his three sons and their wives was found worthy to be rescued from the devastation of the Flood by means of the ark, we do not find, until the time of Abraham, anyone whose devotion is proclaimed by any statement in the inspired Scriptures – except for the fact that Noah commends his sons Shem and Japheth in his prophetic benediction, since he knew, by prophetic insight, what was to happen in the far-distant future. Hence it was that he also cursed his middle son, that is the one younger than the first-born and older than the last, because he had sinned against his father. He did not curse him in his own person, but in the person of his son, Noah’s grandson; and he used those words: ‘A curse on Canaan! He shall be a slave, a servant to his brothers.’1 Now Canaan was the son of Ham, who had not covered the nakedness of his sleeping father, but instead had called attention to it. This is also why Noah went on to add a blessing on his two sons, the eldest and the youngest, saying, ‘Blessed be the Lord God of Shem, and Canaan shall be his slave; may God enlarge Japheth, and may he dwell in the houses of Shem.’2 In the same way the vineyard planted by Noah, the drunkenness resulting from its fruit, the nakedness of the sleeping Noah, and all the other events recorded in this story, were laden with prophetic meanings and covered with prophetic veils.3
2. The prophetic symbolism of Noah’s sons
But now that the historical fulfilment of these prophecies has come about in the posterity of these sons, the things which were concealed have been abundantly revealed. For no careful and intelligent observer can fail to recognize their fulfilment in Christ. The name Shem, as we know, means ‘named’; and it was of Shem’s line that Christ was born in the flesh. And what ‘name’ is of more renown than the name of Christ, the name that by now is fragrant everywhere, so much so that in the Song of Songs it is compared, in prophetic anticipation, with ointment poured out?4 The name Japheth means ‘enlargement’ and ‘in the houses’ of Christ, that is, in the churches, the ‘enlargement’ of the nations dwells. Again, the name Ham means ‘hot’;5 and Noah’s middle son, separating himself, as it were, from both the others, and keeping his position between them, is included neither in the first-fruits of Israel nor in the full harvest of the Gentiles, and he can only stand for the hot breed of heretics. They are hot, because they are on fire not with the spirit of wisdom, but with the spirit of impatience; for that is the characteristic fervour in the hearts of heretics; that is what makes them disturb the peace of the saints. And yet the effect of their activities is to assist the progress of the faithful, in accordance with the saying of the Apostle, ‘Heresies are necessary, to show which of you are in a sound condition.’6 The same idea is expressed in the scriptural statement that ‘the well-instructed son will be wise; he will employ the fool as his servant.’7 For we can see that many matters of importance to the Catholic faith are canvassed by the feverish restlessness of heretics, and the result is that they are more carefully examined, more clearly understood, and more earnestly propounded, with a view to defending them against heretical attack, and thus an argument aroused by an adversary turns out to be an opportunity for instruction. Nevertheless it is possible and reasonable to regard Noah’s middle son as typifying not only those in open schism from the Church, but also those who boast the name of Christian and yet live scandalous lives. For it is certain that such people proclaim Christ’s passion, symbolized by Noah’s nakedness, in their professions, while they dishonour it by their evil actions. It was of such people that we read in Scripture, ‘You will recognize them by their fruits.’8
That is why Ham was cursed in the person of his son, in his fruit, as it were, that is, in his activities. Hence it is suitable that the son’s name, Canaan, means ‘their movement’,9 which is surely the same as ‘their activities’. In contrast, Shem and Japheth, representing circumcision and uncircumcision, or Jews and Greeks, in the Apostle’s terminology (but with reference only to those called and justified) when they somehow learned of their father’s nakedness (symbolizing the Saviour’s passion) took a garment, held it over their backs, and entered, facing the other way, and hid their father’s nakedness without looking on what they reverently covered.10 Now in the passion of Christ we may be said to honour what was done on our behalf while at the same time we turn our backs on the crime of the Jews. The garment stands for a mystery; the backs symbolize the memory of past events; for this, we may be sure, is now the time when ‘Japheth lives in the houses of Shem’ and the wicked brother lives between them,11 and the Church now celebrates Christ’s passion as an accomplished fact, and no longer looks for it in the future.
The evil brother, however, in the person of his son – that is, through his actions – is the slave, the servant, of the good brothers, when the good make skilful use of the wicked for their own training in endurance or for their own development in wisdom. For as the Apostle bears witness, there are those who preach Christ with impure motives; but, he says, ‘whether speciously or genuinely, let Christ be preached.’12 Now Christ himself planted a vineyard about which the prophet says, ‘The vineyard of the Lord of Hosts is the house of Israel,’13 and he drinks of its wine. And the wine may be interpreted with reference to that cup which he speaks of when he says, ‘Are you able to drink the cup which I am going to drink?’14 and, ‘Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass me by’,15 where it obviously means his passion. Or, since wine is the product of the vineyard, we may prefer this meaning, that from the vineyard itself, that is, from the race of the Israelites, was derived the flesh which he assumed for our sake, and the blood, so that he might suffer his passion. ‘He was drunk’ – that is, he suffered – and ‘he was naked’; for then his weakness was laid bare, that is, was made evident. As the Apostle says, ‘He was crucified through his weakness.’16 And that is why he also says, ‘The weakness of God is stronger than men and the foolishness of God is wiser than men.’17 Moreover, after saying ‘he was naked’ the Scripture adds ‘in his own house’,18 thus ingeniously indicating that Christ was destined to endure the cross, and death, at the hands of a people of his own flesh and blood, members of his own family, namely the Jews.
It is only externally, only by the sounds they utter, that wicked men preach this passion of Christ; for they do not understand what they are preaching, whereas the upright have this great mystery in their inner selves, and inwardly in their heart they honour the weakness and foolishness of God, because it is stronger and wiser than men. This is the reality symbolized by the fact that Ham went out and published his father’s nakedness outside, while Shem and Japheth came in to veil it, that is, to honour it – which means that their action had a more inward character.
These hidden meanings of inspired Scripture we track down as best we can, with varying degrees of success; and yet we all hold confidently to the firm belief that these historical events and the narrative of them have always some foreshadowing of things to come, and are always to be interpreted with reference to Christ and his Church, which is the City of God. It has never failed to be foretold in prophecy from the beginning of the human race, and we now see the prophecy being fulfilled in all that happens.
Thus, after two of Noah’s sons had been blessed, and the middle son cursed, from then onwards down to Abraham, the record is silent about any righteous men who worshipped God with true devotion; and that covers a period of more than a thousand years.19 I am not inclined to suppose that such people did not exist, but if they were all mentioned the narrative would become tedious, and would be more notable for historical accuracy than for prophetic foresight. Accordingly, the writer of these holy Scriptures (or rather the Spirit of God through his agency) is concerned with those events which not only constitute a narrative of past history but also give a prophecy of things to come, though only those things which concern the City of God. For everything that is here said about those human beings who are not citizens of that City is said with this purpose, that the City may show up to advantage, may be thrown into relief, by contrast with its opposite. To be sure, we must not suppose that all the events in the narrative are symbolical; but those which have no symbolism are interwoven in the story for the sake of those which have this further significance. For it is only the share of the plough that cuts through the earth; but the other parts of the plough are essential to make this operation possible. It is only the strings of the lyre, and of other similar musical instruments, that are designed to produce the music; but to effect the result the other components are included in the framework of the instruments. These parts are not struck by the player, but the parts which resonate when struck are connected with them. Similarly, in the prophetic history some things are recorded which have no prophetic significance in themselves; but they are there for the significant events to be attached to them, moored to them, as we might say.
3. The lines of descent from Noah’s three sons
We have next to examine the lines of descent from the three sons of Noah, taking what seem to be the important observations and weaving them into this work, in which is displayed the development in history of the two cities, the earthly and the heavenly. The record starts with the youngest son, called Japheth; his eight sons are named, together with seven grandsons by two of them, three by one and four by the other, which gives a total of fifteen. Then follow the four sons of Ham, Noah’s middle son, with five grandsons from one of them, and two great-grandsons from one grandson, eleven in all. After these have been listed, we are taken back to the beginning in these words:
And Cush had a son called Nimrod; he began to be a giant on the earth. He was a gigantic hunter against20 the Lord God. Hence the saying: ‘Like Nimrod, a gigantic hunter against the Lord.’ And the beginning was made of his kingdom, Babylon, Erech, Accad and Calneh in the land of Shinar. Out of that land Assur departed and built Nineveh and the city of Rehoboth, and Calah, and Dasem, midway between Nineveh and Calah; this is a great city.21
Now this Cush, father of the giant Nimrod, was named first among the sons of Ham; and his five sons and two grandsons had been recorded already. Then either this giant was born to him after the birth of his grandsons, or (more credibly) the Scripture mentions him separately because of his eminence. For in fact his kingdom is recorded, whose beginning was the world-famed city of Babylon, and also the cities or districts which are recorded along with Babylon. But Assure’s departure from that land (the land of Shinar, which was part of Nimrod’s kingdom) and his building of Nineveh and the other cities which he attached to Nineveh, belong to a much later period, though they are mentioned here. The writer took this occasion to mention them in passing because of the fame of the Assyrian Empire, which received a remarkable extension under Ninus,22 son of Belus, the founder of the great city of Nineveh; the name of which was derived from its founder, Nineveh being named after Ninus. Assur, on the other hand, from whom sprang the Assyrians, was not one of the sons of Ham, Noah’s middle son; he is found among the sons of Shem, Noah’s eldest son. Hence it is apparent that it was men sprung from the line of Shem who later gained control of the realm of that giant, and went on from there to found other cities, the first of which was called Nineveh, after Ninus.
After that, the narrative goes back to Ham’s second son, Mizraim; and his descendants are recorded, not as individuals but as seven nations. From the sixth nation, from the sixth son, as it were, it is recorded that a nation arose called the Philistines, thus bringing the number to eight. Then we return to Canaan, the son in whose person Ham was cursed, and eleven of his progeny are named; the extent of their territory is mentioned, and some of their cities are given. Thus when sons and grandsons are reckoned in, the list of the line of Ham contains thirty-one descendants.
It remains to record the progeny of Shem, Noah’s eldest son; in fact, the narrative of these generations has arrived at him by steps, starting with the youngest son. However, there is a certain obscurity in the passage where the record of Shem’s descendants begins, and we must clear this up by an explanation, since it is very relevant to the subject of our inquiry. The passage reads, ‘And to Shem, even to Shem himself, the father of all his sons, Heber was born, the son of the elder brother of Japheth.’23 The logical order of the sentence is: ‘And to Shem was born Heber, even to himself, that is to Shem himself, was born Heber, and this Shem is the father of all his sons.’ The narrator therefore intended Shem to be understood as the patriarch of all who sprang from his stock, who were to be included in his list, whether they were sons, grandsons, or great-grandsons, or those of his later posterity. For Shem himself was certainly not the father of Heber; in fact, he is found among Heber’s ancestors, in the fifth generation before him. Shem was the father of Arphaxad, among other sons; Arphaxad was the father of Cainan; Cainan of Salah; Salah of Heber.
There is therefore a special point in naming Heber before all the rest of the line of descent from Shem, and giving him preference even over Shem’s sons, although in fact his place is in the fifth generation. It assumes the truth of the tradition that the Hebrews were called after him, being Heberaei, as it were. There is, indeed, another possible theory, that they were named after Abraham, and supposedly called Abrahaei. But it is doubtless true that they were named Heberaei, after Heber, and later, with the omission of one letter, Hebraei, Hebrews.24 The Hebrew language is the exclusive property of the people of Israel; and it is in that people that the City of God has been on pilgrimage, as well as in the persons of the saints, besides having a shadowy representation, in a symbolical form, in all mankind.
Accordingly, six sons of Shem are first named; then from one of them four grandsons were born. Another of Shem’s sons also produced a grandson for him, and to this grandson in turn was born a great-grandson and to him a great-great-grandson, and this was Heber. Then Heber had two sons, one of whom he named Peleg, which means ‘divider’;25 and Scripture adds a note to explain the reason for the name, ‘For in his time the earth was divided.’26 What this refers to will become clear later.27 Another of Heber’s sons had twelve sons; and thus the descendants of Shem amount in all to twenty-seven. Thus the grand total of the progeny of Noah’s three sons is seventy-three, fifteen from Japheth, thirty-one from Ham, twenty-seven from Shem. The Scripture then goes on to say, ‘These are the sons of Shem in their tribes, according to their languages, in their regions and their nations’; and then similarly about all Noah’s line we are told, ‘These are the tribes of the sons of Noah according to their generations and their nations. From these the islands of nations were dispersed on the earth after the Flood.’ Hence we gather that there were at that time seventy-three nations (or rather, as will be shown later, seventy-two) not seventy-three men. The list of Japheth’s sons, given earlier, also concluded with these words: ‘From these the islands of nations were separated, each in its own land, everyone according to language, with their own tribes and in their own nations.’
The nations had already been more clearly recorded in a passage about the sons of Ham, as I have pointed out above. ‘Mizraim was the father of those who are called Ludim’, and the rest are similarly listed, making up seven nations. After enumerating all these the writer says in conclusion, ‘These are the sons of Ham, in their tribes, according to their languages, in their regions and in their nations.’ No sons are recorded for many of these, the reason being that they were added to existing nations at their birth and could not found nations of their own. For that can be the only reason why eight sons of Japheth are listed, but only the sons of two of them are mentioned; and that while four sons of Ham are named, the sons of only three are added to the list; and that although six sons of Shem are named the descendants of only two of these are attached. We are surely not to suppose that the others remained childless. That would be absurd. It is obvious that they did not qualify for mention in virtue of having founded nations, because at birth they were enrolled in existing nations.
4. The diversity of languages and the beginning of Babylon
Now those nations, according to the narrative, possessed ‘their own languages’. But despite that statement the narrator goes back to the time when all men had the same language; and then he explains how the diversity of languages arose. ‘The whole earth.’ he says,
had one language and all men had the same way of speaking. Then it happened that, as they migrated from the East, they found a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there. And one man said to the next man: ‘Come, let us make bricks and bake them in the fire.’ And so bricks were used for stone, and they had bitumen for mortar; and they said: ‘Come, let us build a city for ourselves, and a tower, whose top will reach to the sky; and let us make a name for ourselves, before we are scattered over the face of all the earth. And the Lord came down to see the city and the tower which the sons of men had built. And the Lord God said, ‘Behold, the people are one race, and all of them have one language; and they have begun to build, and from now on they will not fail to achieve anything they may try to do. Come, let us go down and bring confusion in their speech, so that no one may understand what the next man says.’ Then the Lord dispersed them from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city and the tower. That is why the name ‘Confusion’ was given to the city; because it was here that the Lord confused the languages of all the earth. And the Lord God dispersed them from there over the face of all the earth.28
This city which was called ‘Confusion’ is none other than Babylon, whose marvellous construction is praised also by pagan historians. The name ‘Babylon’ means, in fact, ‘confusion’.29 Hence it may be inferred that Nimrod ‘the giant’ was its founder, as was briefly suggested earlier. For when the Scripture mentions him, it says that ‘the beginning of his empire was Babylon’, that is, Babylon was the city which had the pre-eminence over all the others, where the king’s dwelling was, in the metropolis, so to speak; although it was not finished on the great scale which their arrogant impiety had in mind. For their plan provided for an enormous height, to ‘reach to the sky’, as was said; whether this referred to a single tower, which was designed as the principal structure among others, or to all the towers, denoted by the collective singular (as ‘the soldier’ is used, to mean thousands of soldiers, and ‘the frog’ or ‘the locust’ to designate a multitude of frogs or locusts in the plagues with which Moses smote the Egyptians30).
But what could the empty presumption of man have achieved, no matter how vast the structure it contrived, whatever the height to which that building towered into the sky in its challenge to God? What though it should overtop the mountains and escape beyond the region of this cloudy atmosphere? When all is said, what harm could be done to God by any spiritual self-exaltation or material elevation however high it soared? The safe and genuine highway to heaven is constructed by humility, which lifts up its heart to the Lord, not against the Lord, as did that giant who is called ‘a hunter against the Lord’. Some interpreters have misunderstood this phrase, being deceived by an ambiguity in the Greek, and consequently translating it as ‘before the Lord’, instead of ‘against the Lord’.31 It is true that the Greek enantion means ‘before’ as well as ‘against’. For example, we find the word in one of the psalms: ‘Let us lament before (ante) the Lord who made us’;32 and also in the Book of Job, where it says, ‘You have burst into fury against (ante) the Lord.’33 It is in the latter sense that we must take it in the description of Nimrod; that giant was ‘a hunter against the Lord’. For the word ‘hunter’ can only suggest a deceiver, oppressor and destroyer of earth-born creatures. Thus he, with his subject peoples, began to erect a tower against the Lord, which symbolizes his impious pride. Now it is right that an evilly affected plan should be punished, even when it is not successfully effected. And what kind of punishment was in fact imposed? Since a ruler’s power of domination is wielded by his tongue, it was in that organ that his pride was condemned to punishment. And the consequence was that he who refused to understand God’s bidding so as to obey it, was himself not understood when he gave orders to men. Thus that conspiracy of his was broken up, since each man separated from anyone whom he did not understand, and only associated with those to whom he could talk. And so the nations were divided by languages, and were scattered over the earth. Such was God’s design; and he achieved it by ways that are to us inscrutable and incomprehensible.
5. The Lord’s descent to confuse the language of those who were building the tower34
Let us consider the statement, ‘And the Lord came down to see the city and the tower built by the sons of men’ – not, be it noted, by the sons of God, but by that society which lives by man’s standards, the society we call ‘the earthly city’. Now God is present everywhere in his entirety, and so does not move from one place to another; but he is said to ‘come down’ when he performs an action which is miraculous in being contrary to the ordinary course of nature, and thus in some way points to his presence. Again, he can never be unaware of anything; and so he does not learn the facts by seeing them at a particular time. But he is said to ‘see’ and to discover’ at a particular time anything which he causes to be seen and discovered. Thus the city had not so far been seen in the way in which God caused it to be seen when he made it clear how much it displeased him. On the other hand, God can be understood as coming down to the city in the sense that his angels, in whom he dwells, did so descend. And so the next passage, where it says, ‘And the Lord God said: “Behold the people are one race, and they all have the same language” ’, and so on; and the following words, ‘Come, let us go down and bring confusion in their speech’, are a recapitulation35 which shows how the action described by ‘the Lord came down’ was effected. If, in fact, he had already come down, what is the point of the words, ‘Come, let us go down and bring confusion’ (which is taken as said to the angels) except that he was present in the angels when they descended and thus came down himself through his agents? And it is appropriate that he does not say, ‘Come, go down and bring confusion’ but, ‘Come, let us bring confusion on their speech’; for in this way he shows that he works through his servants, so that they themselves are also God’s fellow-workers; as the Apostle says, ‘we are fellow-workers with God.’36
6. The mode of God’s speech with the angels
There is another passage which might have been interpreted with reference to the angels; it is the place where, at the creation of man, God said, ‘Let us make man’,37 instead of ‘Let me make man.’ However, since this is followed by ‘in our image’, and since it is unthinkable that we should believe man to have been made in the image of the angels, or that the angels and God have the same image, the plural here is correctly understood to refer to the Trinity. Nevertheless, the Trinity is one God, and therefore even after the words ‘Let us make’ the narrative proceeds: ‘And God made man in the image of God.’ It does not say, ‘The gods made’ or, ‘in the image of the gods’.
Now the passage we are discussing might also be understood as referring to the Trinity, as if the Father said to the Son and the Holy Spirit, ‘Come, let us go down and bring confusion on their speech’, if there had been anything to prevent our understanding this in reference to the angels. But it is more appropriate that the angels should ‘come’ to God with holy movements, that is to say, with reverent thoughts; for it is with reverent thoughts that they consult the changeless Truth, as the law which is established eternally in that heavenly court of theirs. For they themselves are not the truth for themselves; they are partakers of the creative Truth, and move towards it, as to the fountain of life,38 to receive from it what they do not possess of themselves. And this movement of theirs is a stable movement, by which they approach without withdrawing.
And God does not speak to the angels in the same way as we speak to one another, or to God, or to the angels, or as the angels speak to us. He speaks in his own fashion, which is beyond our describing. But his speech is explained to us in our fashion. God’s speech, to be sure, is on a higher plane; it precedes his action as the changeless reason of the action itself; and his speaking has no sound, no transitory noise; it has a power that persists for eternity and operates in time. It is with this speech that he addresses the holy angels, whereas he speaks to us, who are situated far off, in a different way. And yet, when we also grasp something of this kind of speech with our inward ears, we come close to the angels. Therefore I do not have to be continually explaining about God’s acts of speaking in this present work. For unchanging Truth either speaks by itself, in a way we cannot explain, to the minds of rational creatures, or it speaks through a mutable creature, either to our spirit by spiritual images, or to our physical sense by physical voices.
Certainly the words, ‘And from now on they will not fail to achieve anything they try to do’,39 were not put as an assertion but as a question. This is frequently the way men express a threat, as when a speaker says,
Shall they not take up arms and then pursue
From the whole city?40
Accordingly, the passage quoted must be interpreted as if God said, Will not they fail to achieve everything they try to do?’ The quotation as given would not in itself suggest a threat. But I have added the particle –ne, for the benefit of the slow-witted, to read nonne, since a tone of voice cannot be indicated in writing.
We now see that from those three men, Noah’s sons, seventy-three nations – or rather seventy-two, as a calculation will show – and as many languages came into being on the earth, and by their increase they filled even the islands. However, the number of nations increased at a greater rate than the languages. For even in Africa we know of many barbarous nations using only one language.
7. Whether the remotest island received all kinds of animals from those preserved in the ark
There can be no doubt that men could have crossed over by boat to inhabit the islands, after the human race had multiplied. But there is a problem about beasts of all kinds which are not looked after by human beings, and are not, like frogs, brought into life from the earth,41 but only as a result of the intercourse of male and female, such as wolves and the other animals of that kind. How could they have existed on the islands, as well as on the mainland, after the Flood in which all creatures were wiped out, except for those in the ark? For we have to assume that they could be restored only from those whose species was preserved, in both sexes, in the ark. It is credible, to be sure, that they crossed to the islands by swimming, but that could only be true of the nearest islands; and there are some islands situated so far from the mainlands that it is clearly impossible for any beasts to have swum to them. But if we assume that men captured beasts and took them with them, and in this way established the species where they lived, because they were interested in hunting, this could give a credible explanation of the facts. On the other hand, it would be wrong to rule out the possibility that they were transported by activity of angels, either at God’s command or with his permission. If, however, they sprang from the earth, as at their first origin, when God said, ‘Let the earth produce the living soul’,42 then it becomes much more apparent that all species were in the ark not so much for the purpose of restoring the animal population as with a view to typifying the various nations, thus presenting a symbol of the Church. This must be the explanation, if the earth produced many animals on islands to which they could not cross.
8. The origin of recorded monstrosities
There are accounts in pagan history43 of certain monstrous races of men. If these are to be believed, the question arises whether we are to suppose that they descended from the sons of Noah, or rather from that one man from whom they themselves derived. Some of those monsters are said to have only one eye, in the middle of their forehead;44 others have the soles of their feet turned backwards behind their legs;45 others have the characteristics of both sexes,46 the right breast being male and the left female, and in their intercourse they alternate between begetting and conceiving. Then there are men without mouths,47 who live only by inhaling through their nostrils; there are others whose height is only a cubit – the Greeks call them ‘Pygmies’,48 from their word for a cubit. We are told in another place that there are females who conceive at the age of five and do not live beyond their eighth year.49 There is also a story of a race who have a single leg attached to their feet;50 they cannot bend their knee, and yet have a remarkable turn of speed. They are called Sciopods (‘shadow-feet’) because in hot weather they lie on their backs on the ground and take shelter in the shade of their feet. There are some men without necks, and with their eyes in their shoulders; and other kinds of men or quasi-men portrayed in mosaic on the marine parade at Carthage, taken from books of ‘curiosities’, as we may call them.
What am I to say of the Cynocephali, 51 whose dog’s head and actual barking prove them to be animals rather than men? Now we are not bound to believe in the existence of all the types of men which are described. But no faithful Christian should doubt that anyone who is born anywhere as a man – that is, a rational and mortal being –derives from that one first-created human being. And this is true, however extraordinary such a creature may appear to our senses in bodily shape, in colour, or motion, or utterance, or in any natural endowment, or part, or quality. However, it is clear what constitutes the persistent norm of nature in the majority and what, by its very rarity, constitutes a marvel.
Moreover, the explanation given for monstrous human births among us can also be applied to some of those monstrous races. For God is the creator of all, and he himself knows where and when any creature should be created or should have been created. He has the wisdom to weave the beauty of the whole design out of the constituent parts, in their likeness and diversity. The observer who cannot view the whole is offended by what seems the deformity of a part, since he does not know how it fits in, or how it is related to the rest. We know of cases of human beings born with more than five fingers or five toes. This is a comparatively trivial abnormality; and yet it would be utterly wrong for anyone to be fool enough to imagine that the Creator made a mistake in the number of human fingers, although he may not know why the Creator so acted. So, even if a greater divergence from the norm should appear, he whose operations no one has the right to criticize knows what he is about.
At Hippo Zaritus52 there is a man with feet shaped like a crescent, with only two toes on each, and his hands are similarly shaped. If there were any race with those characteristics it would be listed among the marvels of nature. But are we therefore going to deny that this man is descended from that one man who was first created?
As for Androgynes, also called Hermaphrodites, they are certainly very rare, and yet it is difficult to find periods when there are no examples of human beings possessing the characteristics of both sexes, in such a way that it is a matter of doubt how they should be classified. However, the prevalent usage has called them masculine, assigning them to the superior sex; for no one has ever used the feminine names, androgynaecae or hermaphroditae.
Some years ago, but certainly in my time, a man was born in the East with a double set of upper parts, but a single set of the lower limbs. That is, he had two heads, two chests, and four arms, but only one belly and two feet, as if he were one man. And he lived long enough for the news of his case to attract many sightseers.
In fact, it would be impossible to list all the human infants very unlike those who, without any doubt, were their parents. Now it cannot be denied that these derive ultimately from that one man; and therefore the same is true of all those races which are reported to have deviated as it were, by their divergence in bodily structure, from the normal course of nature followed by the majority, or practically the whole of mankind. If these races are included in the definition of ‘human’, that is, if they are rational and mortal animals, it must be admitted that they trace their lineage from that same one man, the first father of all mankind. This assumes, of course, the truth of the stories about the divergent features of those races, and their great difference from one another and from us. The definition is important; for if we did not know that monkeys, long-tailed apes and chimpanzees are not men but animals, those natural historians who plume themselves on their collection of curiosities might pass them off on us as races of men, and get away with such nonsense. But if we assume that the subjects of those remarkable accounts are in fact men, it may be suggested that God decided to create some races in this way, so that we should not suppose that the wisdom with which he fashions the physical being of men has gone astray in the case of the monsters which are bound to be born among us of human parents; for that would be to regard the works of God’s wisdom as the products of an imperfectly skilled craftsman. If so, it ought not to seem incongruous that, just as there are some monstrosities within the various races of mankind, so within the whole human race there should be certain monstrous peoples.
I must therefore finish the discussion of this question with my tentative and cautious answer. The accounts of some of these races may be completely worthless; but if such peoples exist, then either they are not human; or, if human, they are descended from Adam.
9. The story of the ‘antipodes’
As for the fabled ‘antipodes’, men, that is, who live on the other side of the earth, where the sun rises when it sets for us, men who plant their footsteps opposite ours, there is no rational ground for such a belief.53 The upholders of this notion do not assert that they have discovered it from scientific evidence; they base their conjecture on a kind of a priori reasoning. They argue that the earth is suspended within the sphere of the heavens, so that the lowest point and the middle point of the world are identical; and this leads them to suppose that the other half of the world which lies below this part cannot be devoid of human inhabitants. They ignore the fact that even if the world is supposed to be a spherical mass, or if some rational proof should be offered for the supposition, it does not follow that the land on that side is not covered by ‘the gathering together of the waters’.54Again, even if the land were uncovered, it does not immediately follow that it has human beings on it. For there is no untruth of any kind in the Scripture, whose reliability in the account of past events is attested by the fulfilment of its prophecies for the future; and it would be too ridiculous to suggest that some men might have sailed from our side of the earth to the other, arriving there after crossing the vast expanse of ocean, so that the human race should be established there also by the descendants of the one first man.
Let us therefore search among those early peoples of mankind who were, we gather, divided into seventy-two nations and as many languages, to see if we can find among them the City of God on pilgrimage here on earth. We have brought its story down to the Flood and the ark, and have shown its continuance in the sons of Noah through his blessings on those sons, especially in the eldest of them, who was called Shem; for Japheth was blessed only in respect of his dwelling in the habitations of his brother Shem.
10. The progress of the City of God towards Abraham, by way of Shem’s descendants
Thus the line of descent must be followed from Shem himself, to show us the City of God after the Flood, in the same way as the line from the man called Seth showed it before the Flood. This is the reason why the inspired Scripture, after showing the earthly city in Babylon, that is, in ‘confusion’, goes back to the patriarch Shem, to make a fresh start; and from that point it begins the list of generations down to Abraham, mentioning also the number of years that passed before each man named became the father of the son belonging to this line, and the length of each man’s life. And here we must recognize the explanation of the passage which I promised earlier to explain;55 we can see why it was said of the sons of Heber, ‘The name of one of them was Peleg, because in his time the earth was divided.’56 For the statement that the earth was divided can only refer to its division by the diversity of languages.
The record omits the rest of Shem’s sons, who are irrelevant to the purpose, and gives the series of generations to bring us down to Abraham, just as before the Flood we were given only the list which led directly to Noah in the line of descent from the son of Adam whose name was Seth. Thus the list of generations begins, ‘These are the generations of Shem. Shem, the son of Noah, was a hundred years old when he became the father of Arphaxad, in the second year after the Flood. And Shem lived five hundred years after the birth of Arphaxad, and he had other sons and daughters, and then he died.’57 The narrative goes on to mention the others in the same fashion, giving the age at which each became the father of the son belonging to the line leading to Abraham, and stating how many years he lived after that, and noting that he had other sons and daughters. The purpose of this last information is to let us know the sources from which the population was able to increase; for otherwise, if our attention was limited to the few names that are listed, we might be held up by the childish question about how such vast extents of lands and kingdoms could have been stocked by Shem’s posterity, especially when we think of the Assyrian Empire. For it was from Assyria that Ninus, the great conqueror of the nations throughout the East, ruled in vast prosperity, and handed down to his successor an empire of enormous extent and extreme stability, which was to endure for a very long time.58
For our part, to avoid lingering on this period unnecessarily, we are not putting down the number of years of each man’s life in these successive generations; we note only the age at which each had his son, the purpose of the record being to calculate the number of years from the end of the Flood down to the time of Abraham; and any other points that compel our attention will be briefly touched on in passing.
Well, then, in the second year after the Flood Shem became the father of Arphaxad. Arphaxad, in his turn, had a son called Cainan, at the age of 135. Cainan, when 130 years old, became the father of Salah; and Salah himself was the same age when his son Heber was born. Heber was 134 at the birth of his son Peleg, ‘in whose time the earth was divided’. Now Peleg lived 130 years, and then had a son called Reu; and Reu lived 132 years and became the father of Serug. Serug lived 130 years and begot Nahor. Nahor lived seventy-nine years and begot Terah. Terah lived seventy years and begot Abram whose name God changed, calling him Abraham.59 And so the years from the Flood to Abraham make a total of 1,072 according to the standard version, that is, the Septuagint. But we are told that a much smaller total of years is found in the Hebrew texts; and for this discrepancy there is offered either no explanation or one very difficult to follow.60
Thus when we look for the City of God among those seventy-two tribes, we cannot say with certainty that at that time, when men had one tongue, that is, one way of speaking, the human race had been already so estranged from the worship of the true God that true religion continued only in those generations which were descended from the line of Shem through Arphaxad, leading to Abraham. Yet, as a result of the arrogance shown in building a tower to reach into the sky, the city, that is, the society, of the ungodly became apparent. It may be that this city had not existed before that time, or it may have existed in concealment; or perhaps both cities were there all the time, the godly city continuing in the two sons of Noah who received the blessing, and in their posterity, the ungodly in the son who was cursed, and in his descendants, among whom arose that ‘giant hunter against the Lord’.61 It is not easy to decide among these possibilities.
For it is possible (and this is the most plausible suggestion) that there were already, among the descendants of the two good sons, men who treated God with contempt, even before the building of Babylon started, while there were also those who worshipped God among the descendants of Ham. However this may be, we are bound to believe that the world was never devoid of men of both these kinds. In fact, even when the Scripture says, ‘All men have gone astray; all alike have become useless: there is no one who does good, not a single one’, in both the psalms which contain these words we also read, ‘Will none of them understand, these workers of wickedness, who devour my people in the bread they eat?’ And so the inference is that even at that time the people of God existed. Hence the words, ‘there is no one who does good’ refer to the sons of men, not to the sons of God. For the previous verse reads, ‘God looked down from heaven on the sons of men, to see if there was anyone who understood or looked for God.’62 After that are added the words which show the rejection of all the ‘sons of men’, that is, those who belong to the city which lives by the standards of men, instead of the standards of God.
11. Hebrew was the original language, named after Heber
Accordingly, just as when all men had one language, that did not mean that the ‘sons of pestilence’63 were not to be found – for there was only one language before the Flood, and yet all men deserved to be wiped out by the Flood, except for the one family of the righteous Noah – so also when the nations received the merited punishment for their impious presumption and were divided by diversity of languages, and the city of the ungodly received the name ‘Confusion’, that is, was called Babylon,64 even then there existed one family, the family of Heber, in which the language which was formerly that of all mankind could continue. This is the reason why, as I mentioned above,65 Heber is given prominence as the first in the list of those sons of Shem who were the ancestors of individual nations, although Heber was Shem’s great-great-grandson, that is, he is found to be fifth in descent from Shem. The same language continued to be used in his family when the other nations were divided by different languages, and there is good reason for believing that this was the language common to all mankind in previous ages. This explains why this language was thenceforward called Hebrew. For at that point it had to be distinguished from the other tongues by a proper name, just as the others were given their proper names; but when there was only one language it had no other name than ‘the human tongue’ or ‘human speech’, since it was the only language spoken by mankind.
It may be objected that if it was in the time of Peleg, son of Heber, that the earth was divided by different languages – that is, the languages spoken by men on the earth at that time – the language common to all men up to that time should have been called after the name of Peleg rather than that of Heber. But we must assume that Heber gave his son that name of Peleg – which means ‘division’ – just because he was born to him at the time when the earth was divided on the basis of languages – that is, at that particular time, to correspond with the statement that ‘in his time the earth was divided.’66 For if Heber had not still been alive when the multitude of languages came into being, the language which succeeded in persisting in his family would not have received its name from him. For that reason we are to believe that this was the first language, shared by all, since the multiplication and change of languages came by way of punishment, and doubtless the people of God had to be outside the scope of this penalty.
It is not without significance that Hebrew was the language used by Abraham, and that he could not hand it on to all his descendants but only to those who were derived from him through Jacob, and by uniting to form the people of God in the most evident and conspicuous fashion, were able to keep the covenants and to preserve the stock from which Christ came. And Heber himself did not bequeath that language to all his posterity, but only to the line whose generations can be followed down to Abraham. For this reason, although we have no direct statement that there was any godly race of men at the time when Babylon was being founded by the ungodly, the effect of the obscurity on this point is not to baffle the interest of an inquirer but rather to give it exercise. For we read that in the first ages there was one language common to all men; and Heber is selected for mention before all the sons of Shem, although he is the fifth in descent from him; and Hebrew is the name of the language preserved by the authority of patriarchs and prophets not only in their speech but also in the sacred writings. And so when the question is raised, on the subject of the division of languages, where that language could have persisted which was the common language of earlier days – and there can be no doubt that the punishment in the form of a change of language did not take effect where that language survived – the only answer that suggests itself is that it persisted in the family of the man from whom the language took its name. And there is an impressive indication of the righteousness of that nation in the fact that when other nations were chastised by the change of languages, this punishment did not extend to that people.
But now another problem is put forward. How could Heber and his son Peleg have each started nations, if the same language persisted in both of them? And it is true that the Hebrew people derived in one line of descent from Heber to Abraham, and after that through Abraham until Israel became a great nation. How was it, then, that all the recorded descendants of Noah’s sons started separate nations, if Heber and Peleg did not? Surely the most likely explanation is that the giant Nimrod also started a nation of his own; but he is mentioned separately to call attention to his exceptional power and outstanding physique. His founding of a nation thus safeguards the number of seventy-two nations and languages. On the other hand the reason for the mention of Peleg is not that he founded a people – for his people was the Hebrew nation itself, and his language was Hebrew – it was to call attention to an important epoch, because in his time the earth was divided.
We should not be worried by the question how the giant Nimrod could have been alive at the time when Babylon was founded, and the confusion of languages came about, resulting in the division of the nations. For the fact that Heber is sixth in descent from Noah, while Nimrod is fourth, does not mean that their lives could not have coincided in point of time. This kind of thing happens where there are fewer generations and longer lives, and shorter lives in more generations, or when men are born later, in cases of fewer generations, and earlier in cases of more. We must certainly take it that when the earth was divided not only had the other descendants of Noah’s son been born – those who are listed as the fathers of nations – but they had also reached an age when they could have had large familes, worthy of the name of ‘nations’. Hence we must on no account suppose that they were necessarily born in the order in which they are recorded. Otherwise, how could the twelve sons of Joktan, another of Heber’s sons, have already founded nations, if the fact that Joktan is recorded after his brother Peleg means that he was born after him? For we know that it was at the time when the earth was divided that Peleg was born. It follows that we must understand that Peleg was indeed put before Joktan in the list, but was born long after his brother, whose twelve sons already had such substantial families that they could be divided into ‘nations’ with their distinctive languages. For the son who was later in respect of birth might be mentioned earlier just as happened with the descendants of Noah’s three sons. Those descended from Japheth, the youngest, are given first, then those descended from Ham, the second son, and last those from Shem, who was the first and eldest.
We observe that the names of some of those nations have persisted with so little change that even today their derivation is obvious. For example, ‘Assyrians’ derives from Assur, and ‘Hebrews’ from Heber. Some names, however, have been so changed in the passage of ages that the most learned scholars who examine the records of remote antiquity have not been able to discover the origins of all of them, but only those of some of them. The Egyptians, for example, are said to owe their origin to a son of Ham called Mizraim; but there is here no trace of the sound of the original name. The same is true of the Ethiopians, who, we are told, belong by descent to the son of Ham who was called Cush. All in all, it is evident that the names which have been changed outnumber those which have survived unaltered.
12. The new era that begins with Abraham
Let us now go on to observe the development of the City of God from the epoch marked by Father Abraham. From that time onwards our knowledge of that City becomes clearer and we find more evident promises from God which we now see fulfilled in Christ. Now, as we have learned from the evidence of holy Scripture, Abraham was born ‘in the territory of the Chaldeans’67 a land which formed part of the Assyrian Empire;68 and even at that time impious superstitions were rife among the Chaldeans, as among other nations. So there was only one family in which the worship of the one true God persisted and that was the family of Terah, the father of Abraham, and it is reasonable to suppose that the Hebrew language was preserved there only. And yet Terah himself, according to the account of Joshua,69 served the gods of other peoples in Mesopotamia just as God’s people did in Egypt, when they were more clearly marked out as God’s people. Meanwhile, the other descendants of Heber were gradually absorbed in other nations and languages.
From that time only Terah’s family remained, to preserve a seedbed for the City of God, amid the flood of all the superstitions that covered the world, just as only the family of Noah survived the Flood of waters, to effect the restoration of the human race. It is significant that in one case the statement, ‘These are the generations of Noah.’70 follows the record of the generations down to Noah, together with numbers of years, and the explanation of the cause of the Flood, and comes before God begins to speak to Noah about the building of the ark; and in the present case, correspondingly, after the list of the generations of Noah’s son called Shem down to Abraham, a new epoch is emphasized by these words:
These are the generations of Terah. Terah was the father of Abram, Nahor and Haran; and Haran was the father of Lot. Haran died in the home of his father Terah in the country where he was born, in the territory of the Chaldeans. Now Abram and Nahor married wives, the name of Abram’s wife being Sarah, while Nahor’s wife was Milcah, daughter of Haran.71
This Haran was the father of Milcah and Iscah, and Iscah is believed to be identical with Sarah, Abraham’s wife.
13. The reason for the omission of Nahor in the account of the migration
The narrative then describes how Terah and his family left the territory of the Chaldeans, came to Mesopotamia, and made their home in Haran. But it is silent about one of Terah’s sons, called Nahor, giving the impression that he did not take him with him. For the narrative says, ‘Then Terah took his son Abraham, and his grandson Lot, Haran’s son, and Sarah his daughter-in-law, and led them out of the territory of the Chaldeans, on the way to the land of Canaan. And he came into Haran and made his home there.’72 There is no mention anywhere in the passage of Nahor and his wife Milcah. But later, when Abraham sent his servant to get a wife for his son Isaac, we find this account: ‘Then the slave took with him ten of his master’s camels, and a part of all his master’s property, and he set out for Mesopotamia and the city of Nahor.’73
This passage, as well as other evidence in this sacred narrative, shows that Abraham’s brother Nahor also left the Chaldean territory and established himself in Mesopotamia where Abraham had made his home with his father Terah. Then why did the Scripture not mention him when Terah set out from the Chaldean people with his family, and made his home in Mesopotamia? For it mentions not only Abraham his son, but also Sarah his daughter-in-law, and Lot his grandson. We can only suppose that Nahor split off from the religion of his father and brother and attached himself to the superstition of the Chaldeans, and that later on he also emigrated either because he repented of his desertion or because he suffered persecution when he fell under suspicion.
For in the book entitled Judith, when Holophernes, the enemy of the Israelites, inquired what that nation was, and whether he ought to make war on them, Achior, leader of the Ammonites, answered,
Let our lord listen to a word from the mouth of his servant and I will tell you the truth about the people who live near you in this hill country, and no lie will pass the lips of your servant. Now these people are descendants of the Chaldeans, and their former home was in Mesopotamia because they refused to follow the gods of their fathers, who were men of renown in the land of the Chaldeans. They turned off from the way of their parents and adored the God of heaven, whom they had come to know. And the Chaldeans cast them out from the presence of their gods; and they fled to Mesopotamia, and had their home there for many days. Then their God told them to leave their home and go into the land of Canaan; and they made their home there,
and so on, as the narrative of Achior the Ammonite proceeds.74 This makes it evident that the family of Terah had suffered persecution from the Chaldeans for the true religion, in which they worshipped the one true God.
14. The age of Terah, who ended his life in Haran
Now when Terah died in Mesopotamia, where he is said to have reached the age of 205 years, God’s promises made to Abraham were already beginning to be revealed. The Scripture says, ‘Now the days of Terah in Haran were 205 years; and Terah died in Haran.’75 But we are not to take this as meaning that he spent all his time there, but only that he completed all the days of his life in Haran, and they came to 205 years. Otherwise it would not be known how many years Terah lived, since it is not recorded how old he was when he came to Haran. It would be ridiculous to imagine that in the list of generations, where the number of years of each man’s Ufe is carefully recorded, it is only the total of years of this man’s life which is not put on record. It is true that there are some men recorded in Scripture without any mention of their ages; but that is because they are not in the line in which the chronology is set out according to succeeding generations – whereas the line which leads directly from Adam to Noah, and then from Noah to Abraham does not include anyone without a statement of the number of years he lived.
15. The time of Abraham’s departure from Haran, on God’s instructions
After recording the death of Terah, Abraham’s father, the story continues, ‘Then the Lord said to Abraham: “Leave your country and your kindred, and your father’s house” ‘76 and so on. But it is not to be supposed that because this immediately follows Terah’s death in the narrative as written, it must therefore have done so in the order of events. In fact, if this were so, an insoluble problem would present itself. For after those words of God to Abraham the Scripture says, ‘And Abram departed, as the Lord had bidden him, and Lot went away with him. Now Abram was seventy-five years old when he left Haran.’77 But how could this be true, if he left Haran after his father’s death? For it was when Terah was seventy, as was mentioned above, that he became the father of Abraham: and if we add seventy-five, which was Abraham’s age when he left Haran, we get a total of 145 years. This, then, was Terah’s age when Abraham left that city of Mesopotamia; for Abraham was then in his seventy-fifth year, and thus his father, who had begotten him in his seventieth year, was, as I have said, 145 years old. It follows that he did not depart after his father’s death, that is, after his father’s lifetime of 205 years; in fact, the year of his departure, since it was the seventy-fifth year of his own life, is found by reckoning to be, without any shadow of doubt, the 145th year of his father’s, who had begotten him in his seventieth year.
So we must realize that Scripture is here, as so often, going back to a point that the narrative had already passed; similarly in the earlier passage, after recording Noah’s sons, it states that they were, ‘according to languages and nations’,78 and yet later, as if this followed in chronological order, it says, ‘and all the earth had one tongue, and there was one speech for all men.’79 How then could they have been classified ‘according to their nations and languages’, if there was ‘one speech for all men’? It can only be that the narrative goes back to a point it had already passed to make a fresh start.80 Similarly, then, in this passage Scripture says first, ‘The days of Terah in Haran were 205 years, and Terah died in Haran’;81 and then it returns to a point that had been omitted, the omission being due to the desire first to complete that story of Terah which had been begun. ‘Then the Lord’, it says, ‘said to Abram, “Leave your country” ’,82 and so on. And there words of God are followed by, ‘And Abram departed, as the Lord had bidden him, and Lot went away with him. Now Abram was seventy-five years old when he left Haran.’83 This happened, then, when his father was in his hundred and forty-fifth year; for Abraham was then in his seventy-fifth year. The problem can be solved in another way, by assuming that the seventy-five years of Abraham when he left Haran were reckoned from the time of his escape from the ‘fire of the Chaldeans’,84 instead of from his birth, as if this escape is to be regarded as his real birthday.
However, the blessed Stephen, when he recounted these events in the Acts of the Apostles, said, ‘The God of glory appeared to our father Abraham, when he was in Mesopotamia, before he made his home in Haran, and said to him: “Leave your country and your kindred and the home of your father, and come into the country which I shall show you.”’85 According to these words of Stephen it was not after his father’s death that God spoke to Abraham – for Terah died in Haran, where his son Abraham also lived with him – but it was before Abraham made his home in Haran, although he was already in Mesopotamia. Thus he had by now left the Chaldeans. For when Stephen adds, ‘Then Abraham departed from the land of the Chaldeans and made his home in Haran’, the statement does not refer to what happened after God had spoken to him – for he did not depart from the land of the Chaldeans after God’s bidding, since Stephen says that God spoke to him when he was in Mesopotamia; it refers to the whole period, ‘then’ meaning ‘after the time when’. Stephen is saying.’ After the time when he departed from the Chaldeans and made his home in Haran’. Similarly, the following statement, ‘Then, after his father died, God settled him in this land, where you now live [and where your fathers lived]86 does not mean ‘after his father died, he left Haran’, but ‘after his father died, then God settled him here.’
Thus we are to understand that God had spoken to Abraham when he was in Mesopotamia, before he lived in Haran, but that Abraham had arrived at Haran with his father, in obedience to God’s instructions) and had left Haran in his seventy-fifth year, the 145th year of his father’s life. We are told that his settling in the country of Canaan, not his leaving Haran, took place after his father’s death, since his father was already dead when Abraham bought the land in Canaan of which he then, and not till then, became proprietor. As for the words which God spoke to him when he was already established in Mesopotamia, that is, when he had already left the country of the Chaldeans, ‘Leave your land and kindred and your father’s home’; this was not a command to remove his body from there – he had done that already – but to tear his mind away from it. For he had not left the place in spirit, if he was still in the grip of the hope and the longing to return; and the tie of this hope and longing needed to be severed, according to God’s command and with God’s help, and by his own obedience. There is certainly nothing improbable in the supposition that it was when Nahor subsequently followed his father into Haran that Abraham fulfilled the Lord’s instructions to leave Haran, taking with him his wife Sarah and his nephew Lot.
16. The order and nature of God’s promises to Abraham
We now have to consider God’s promises to Abraham; for in these the oracles of our God, that is, of the true God, begin to become more evident. These oracles concern the people of his genuine worshippers, which had been foretold by the authority of the prophets. Now the first of these promises is contained in this passage,
The Lord said to Abram: ‘Leave your land and kindred and your father’s home and go into the land which I shall show you; and I shall make you into a great nation, and I shall bless you and give you a great name, and you will be blessed; and I shall bless those who bless you and curse those who curse you, and in you all the tribes of the earth will be blessed.87
Eusebius decides that this promise was made in Abraham’s seventy-fifth year, assuming that Abraham left Haran soon after it had been made, since the Scripture cannot be contradicted, and in Scripture we read, ‘Abram was seventy-five years old when he left Haran.’ Now if the promise was made in that year, Abraham was evidently already staying with his father in Haran; for he could not have left Haran without having lived there first. Now is this in contradiction to what Stephen says? His words are, ‘The God of glory appeared to our father Abraham when he was in Mesopotamia, before he made his home in Haran.’ It is not; for we must take it that all these events happened in the same yean God’s promise before Abraham made his home in Haran, Abraham’s settlement in Haran, and his departure from Haran. And this is not only because Eusebius in his Chronicle reckons from the year of this promise and shows that the Exodus from Egypt, when the Law was given, took place 430 years later,88 but also because the apostle Paul mentions it.89
17. The three outstanding Gentile empires, Assyria already a great power when Abraham was born
At this period there were three outstanding Gentile empires, in which the city of the earthborn, that is, the society of men who live by man’s standards, achieved a notable predominance under the sway of the apostate angels. These three realms were those of Sicyon, Egypt, and Assyria.90 But the Assyrian Empire was by far the most powerful and exalted of the three. For the famous King Ninus,91 son of Bel, had subjugated the peoples of the whole of Asia, with the exception of India. When I say ‘Asia’ here I do not refer to that part which is only one province92 of greater Asia, but what is called ‘the whole of Asia’. Some people93 have reckoned this as one of the two divisions of the world, though the majority count it as the third part of the whole, which, according to them, consists of Asia, Europe, and Africa. This does not make an equal division. For the part called Asia reaches from the south, through the east, to the north, Europe from the north to the west, and then Africa begins and stretches from the west to the south. Hence the divisions, Europe and Africa, are seen to contain half the world, while Asia by itself contains the other half. The reason why Europe and Africa are treated as two separate parts is that between them the water enters from the Ocean to form the intervening sea, our Great Sea. Therefore, if you divide the world into two parts, the East and the West, Asia will be in one, and both Europe and Africa in the other. That is why the Sicyon realm, of the three outstanding powers of the time, was not subject to the Assyrians, because it was in Europe. Whereas Egypt inevitably came under the power of those who held all Asia, with the sole exception, it is said, of India.
Thus in Assyria the ungodly city exercised predominant power. Its capital was that Babylon whose name, ‘Confusion’, is most apt for the earthbom city. Ninus was reigning there at this time, after the death of his father Bel, who was the first king there, reigning for sixty-five years. Now his son Ninus, who succeeded to the throne on the death of his father, reigned fifty-two years; and he had been on the throne for forty-three years when Abraham was born. This was about 1,200 years before the foundation of Rome, the second Babylonia, as it were, the Babylonia of the West.
18. God’s second promise: the land of Canaan
And so Abraham departed from Haran in his seventy-fifth year, when his father was 145. With Lot, his nephew, and his wife Sarah, he reached the land of Canaan, and arrived eventually at Shechem, where he again received an oracle from God, which is thus described: ‘Then the Lord appeared to Abram, and said to him: “I shall give this land to your seed.” ’94 There is nothing said here about that seed in respect of which he became the father of all nations; the only seed mentioned is that by which he is the father of the one nation of Israel; for it was this seed that took possession of that land.
19. Sarah’s chastity safeguarded by God in Egypt
Then Abraham built an altar there and called upon the name of the Lord. After that he left the place and lived in the desert; and from there he was compelled by stress of famine to go into Egypt. In Egypt he called his wife his sister;95 and this was no lie, for she was that also, because she was closely related by blood. In the same way Lot, who was similarly related, being his brother’s son, was called his brother. And so Abraham said nothing of her being his wife; he did not deny it. Thus he entrusted his wife’s chastity to God, and, as a man, took precautions against man’s treachery; since if he had not taken all possible precautions against danger he could have been testing God, rather than putting his hope in him. But on this subject I have said all that needs saying in rebutting the false criticisms of Faustus the Manichean.96 In fact Abraham’s trust in God was confirmed by the event. For Pharaoh, king of Egypt, who had taken her as his wife, was grievously afflicted and restored her to her husband. In this connection it would be utterly wrong for us to suppose that she had been polluted by intercourse with another; for it is much more probable that Pharaoh was prevented by his great affliction from such intercourse.
20. The separation of Lot and Abraham by amicable agreement
On the return of Abraham from Egypt to the place from which he had come, his nephew Lot left him to go into the land of Sodom, without any breach of affection. In fact they had become rich, and had begun to have many herdsmen for their flocks. These men quarrelled among themselves, and Abraham and Lot took this course to avoid disputes and fighting between their households. For in the way of human nature this might have given rise to quarrels between themselves also. These are the words which Abraham then addressed to Lot to obviate this unpleasantness: ‘Let there not be any quarrel between you and me, and between my herdsmen and yours, for we are kinsmen. Look, is not the whole land in front of you? Leave me. If you go to the left, I shall go to the right; if you go to the right, I shall go to the left.’97 This was perhaps the start of the peaceable custom among men whereby when any landed property is to be shared, the elder makes the division and the younger has the choice.
21. God’s third promise: the land of Canaan in perpetuity
Thus Abraham and Lot parted company and settled in separate homes, not because of a quarrel – that would have been a disgrace – but because of the need to support their households. Abraham was now in the land of Canaan, while Lot was living among the men of Sodom; and now God spoke to Abraham in his third oracle,
Lift your eyes and from the place where you are now look towards the north and the south and the east, and towards the sea; for all the land which you see I shall give to you and your seed for ever, and I will make your seed like the sands of the earth. If any man can number the sands, your seed also will be numbered. Arise and walk through the length and breadth of the land, because I shall give it to you.98
It is not clearly disclosed whether this promise includes also the promise by which Abraham became the father of all nations. For the words, ‘I shall make your seed like the sands of the earth’, might seem to connect it with the former promise. But we have here an instance of the figure of speech called ‘hyperbole’ by the Greeks; it is surely a figurative rather than a literal statement. Indeed, no student of Scripture can have any doubt that Scripture often employs this figure, as it does the other tropes. Now this trope, or figure of speech, occurs when what is said is far in excess of the facts referred to in the statement. No one could fail to see how incomparably greater is the number of the sands than the number of all human beings can possibly be, from Adam himself to the end of the world. How much more numerous, then, are they than the seed of Abraham, meaning not only that posterity of his which belongs to the race of Israel, but also those who are and will be his descendants, by following the example of his faith, in all nations throughout the whole world! This seed is certainly represented by a mere few, in comparison with the multitude of the ungodly; and yet these few make up an innumerable multitude of their own, and this is expressed, in hyperbole, by ‘the sands of the earth’. This multitude, to be sure, which is promised to Abraham is innumerable to men, but not to God; for to God not even the sands of the earth are beyond counting.
Since it is not only the nation of Israel to whom this promise is made, but the whole seed of Abraham, referring rather to spiritual than physical descendants, then these are more fittingly compared to the multitude of the sands, and so we can understand that the promise of both these posterities is given in this passage. But the reason for my statement that there is some ambiguity here is that the nation physically descended from Abraham through his grandson Jacob increased to such a multitude that it has filled almost all parts of the world. Because of this it would have been possible for this nation itself to be compared, in hyperbole, to the multitudes of the sands, since even this race, by itself, is beyond man’s reckoning.
At any rate, no one doubts that the only land referred to here is the country called Canaan. Yet the statement, ‘I shall give it to you and to your seed for ever’, may puzzle some people, if they take ‘for ever’ (usque in saeculum) to mean ‘for eternity’.99 If, on the other hand, they accept the word saeculum here in accordance with our confident belief that the beginning of the future era (saeculum) starts with the end of the present era, there will be nothing to puzzle them. For even though the Israelites have been expelled from Jerusalem, they still remain in other cities of the land of Canaan, and they will remain there to the end. And the whole land, being inhabited by Christians, is itself the seed of Abraham.
22. Abraham’s victory over the enemies of Sodom; the rescue of Lot; and the blessing of Melchizedek
On receiving this promise Abraham moved on and stayed in another place in the same land, Hebron, near the Oak of Mamre.100 After that, there was the war of five kings against four, when the enemy attacked the men of Sodom. Sodom was defeated and Lot was among those captured by the enemy. Then Abraham procured his release, bringing with him to the battle 318 men, his own household dependants, and winning a victory for the kings of Sodom. He refused to take off any of the spoils when the king for whom he had won the victory, offered them to him.101 But he received at that time a public blessing from Melchizedek, who was the priest of the Most High God. Many important things are written about Melchizedek in the epistle entitled To the Hebrews,102 which the majority attribute to apostle Paul, though some deny the attribution. Here we certainly see the first manifestation of the sacrifice which is now offered to God by Christians in the whole world, in which is fulfilled what was said in prophecy, long after this event, to Christ who was yet to come in the flesh: ‘You are a priest for all eternity, in the line of Melchizedek.’103 Not, it is to be observed, in the line of Aaron, for that line was to be abolished when the events prefigured by these shadows came to the light of day.
23. The promise that Abraham’s posterity would equal the number of the stars; Abraham’s faith, and his consequent justification, before circumcision
It was at this time that the word of the Lord came to Abraham in a vision. The Lord promised him protection and an exceedingly great reward; and then Abraham, concerned about his posterity, said that a man called Eliezer, a servant born in his household, was likely to be his heir. Straightway an heir was promised him, not that house-slave, but one who was to come from Abraham himself; and once again he was promised an innumerable seed, not like the sands of the earth, but like the stars of heaven.104 And here it seems that the promise is of a posterity exalted in heavenly felicity; for in respect of mere number, the stars will not bear comparison with the sands of the earth. Although it might be maintained that this comparison is similar to the other, in that the stars also cannot be numbered, because we have to believe that not all of them can be seen by us. For the keener the observer’s sight, the more stars he sees; and so we are justified in supposing that some stars are invisible even to the keenest eyes, quite apart from those stars which, we are assured, rise and set in another part of the world far removed from us. While as for all those who boast that they have made a comprehensive list of the whole number of the stars, Aratus,105 for example, and Eudoxus,106 and any others, the authority of this book treats them with contempt.
This, it should be noticed, is the context of the statement which the Apostle recalls for the purpose of emphasizing the grace of God: ‘Abraham believed in God, and this was accounted to him for righteousness.’107 Paul’s intention was to prevent the circumcised from boasting, and from refusing to admit the uncircumcised peoples to faith in Christ. For at the time when this happened, when Abraham’s faith was accounted to him for righteousness, Abraham had not yet been circumcised.
24. The meaning of Abraham’s sacrifice
In the same vision, when God was speaking to Abraham, he said this also to him: ‘I am your God, who brought you from the land of the Chaldeans, to give you this land so that you may inherit it.’108 Then Abraham asked God by what token he should know that he would inherit it; and God replied, ‘“Take a heifer of three years old, and a she-goat and a ram of three years old, and a dove and a pigeon.” Then he took all these and divided them in half, and put the halves facing each other: but he did not divide the birds. ‘And’, as the Scripture says,
birds came down on the carcasses which had been divided; and Abraham sat there by them. Now about sunset a horror assailed Abraham, and, behold, a dark and mighty dread fell upon him. And he was told: ‘You will know for a certainty that your seed will be strangers in a land not their own, and men will reduce them to slavery and afflict them for four hundred years. But I shall judge the nation to which they are enslaved; and after that they will depart with many possessions. You, for your part, will go to your fathers, nourished in peace in a great old age. But in the fourth generation they will return to this place. For the sins of the Amorites are not yet completed, up to the present time.’ Now when the sun was about to set, a flame appeared, and behold, a smoking furnace and burning torches, which passed along between the divided carcasses. On that day the Lord God arranged a covenant with Abram, saying: ‘To your seed I shall give this land, from the river of Egypt, as far as the great river, the river Euphrates, the Kenites, the Kenizzites, the Kadmonites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Rephaims, the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Girgashites and the Jebu-sites.’109
All these things were done and said in a vision sent by God. Now it would be tedious to discuss every detail and explain every meaning, and it would go beyond the purpose of this work. Therefore we need to understand only what suffices for our inquiry. After the statement that Abraham believed in God and it was accounted to him for righteousness, we observe that he did not fail in his faith in saying, ‘Lord God, by what token shall I know that I shall inherit it?’ – referring, of course, to the promised inheritance of the land. For he did not say, ‘How am I to know?’, implying that he did not yet believe. He said, ‘By what token shall I know?’ in the hope that he might be given some representation of what he already believed, by which he could realize in what way it was to be effected. In the same way there is no suggestion of lack of faith in the Virgin Mary when she says, ‘How will this happen, since I do not know a man?’110 She was convinced that it would happen, but she asked in what way it was to be effected; and when she asked this, she was told. Thus on this occasion also a symbolic representation was presented in the form of the animals, the heifer, the she-goat, the ram, and the two birds, the dove and the pigeon, so that he might know that the event about whose future happening he had no doubt, would come about in a way suggested by those symbols.
Thus the heifer may have symbolized the people placed under the yoke of the Law, and the she-goat the same people in their future state of sin, the ram the same people as destined to reign. Those animals are specified as three years old because the important eras are from Adam to Noah, from Noah to Abraham, from Abraham to David, who, after Saul’s rejection, was the first man established on the throne of Israel by the will of the Lord.111 Hence it was in this third period, extending from Abraham to David, that the people attained adult status, in what may be called the third stage of its life. Or there may be some other more suitable application of the symbolism of these animals. However that may be, I have no shadow of doubt that Abraham’s spiritual offspring are foreshadowed by the addition of the dove and the pigeon.
The reason for the statement that ‘he did not divide the birds’ is that carnal beings are divided among themselves, whereas spiritual beings are not divided in any way, whether, like the turtle-dove, they keep away from the busy world of human affairs, or, like the pigeon, pass their time in the midst of those activities. Both those birds, however, are without guile and harmless, thus signifying that in the people of Israel, to which that land was to be given, there would be individual sons of the promise and heirs of the kingdom, destined to continue in eternal felicity. As for the birds descending on the divided carcasses, they do not stand for anything good; they represent the spirits of this lower air, looking for their own special food, as it were, in this division of carnal creatures. Further, the fact that Abraham sat by them symbolizes that even amidst those divisions of carnal creatures the truly faithful will persevere to the end. And the horror that assailed Abraham at sunset and the dark and mighty dread signify that about the end of this era there will be great distress and tribulation coming on the faithful. In the Gospel the Lord says about this, ‘For there will be great tribulation at that time, such tribulation as there has not been since the beginning.’112
Then there are the words spoken to Abraham: ‘You will know for a certainty that your seed will be strangers in a land not their own, and men will reduce them to slavery, and afflict them for four hundred years.’113 This was a clear prophecy about the people of Israel who were to be slaves in Egypt; not that they were to spend 400 years in the same state of servitude under the Egyptians, enduring affliction at their hands. The prophecy was rather that this would happen in the course of 400 years. For the Scripture says of Terah, Abraham’s father, ‘The days of Terah in Haran were 205 years’, not because all those years were spent in Haran, but because they were completed there; and in the same way in this passage the introduction of the statement, ‘and they will reduce them to slavery, and will afflict them for 400 years’, means that this period of years was completed in that affliction, not that the whole of it was passed in that situation. 400 years, in fact, is given as a round figure, whereas the actual period was somewhat longer, whether it is reckoned from the time of those promises to Abraham, or from the birth of Isaac, because he was the ‘seed of Abraham’, about which these predictions are made. For, as I said above, 430 years are reckoned from Abraham’s seventy-fifth year, when the first promise was given, down to the departure of Israel from Egypt. And in recalling those events the Aposde says, ‘Now this is what I am saying; that the law, made 430 years later, does not invalidate the covenant confirmed by God, so as to make the promise void.’114 This shows that those 430 years could at that time be called 400, because they were not much more than that. How much more naturally could they be so called when a considerable number of them had already gone by at the time when this demonstration and these words were given to Abraham in a vision, or when Isaac was born to his father, now a hundred years old, twenty-five years after the first promise, when of those 430 years only 405 were left, which God chose to call 400. As for the rest of the substance of God’s prediction, no one can doubt that it all refers to the Israelite people.
But then follows this description: ‘Now when the sun was about to set, a flame appeared, and behold, a smoking furnace and burning torches, which passed along between the divided carcasses.’ For the affliction of the City of God, such an affliction as has never happened before, which is to be expected in the future under the power of Antichrist, is symbolized by Abraham’s ‘dark and mighty dread’ just before sunset, that is when the end of the world is approaching. In the same way at sunset, that is, at the very end, this fire symbolizes the day of judgement as it separates the carnal men who are to be saved by fire from those who are to be condemned to punishment in the fire.115
There follows the covenant made with Abraham: and this clearly specifies the land of Canaan, naming eleven rivers there, from the river of Egypt to the great river Euphrates. We can see that this does not mean from the great river of Egypt, the Nile, but from the small river which divides Egypt from Palestine, where there is a town called Rhi-nocorura.116
25. Hagar, Sarah’s maidservant, chosen by Sarah as Abraham’s concubine
Then follows the period of Abraham’s sons, one by Hagar the maidservant, and the other by Sarah the free woman. I have already spoken about these in the last book.117 Now in view of the facts of the case Abraham is in no way to be branded with guilt in the matter of this concubine.118 For he made use of her for the procreation of offspring, not for the satisfaction of lust: not to insult his wife, but rather to obey her; for she believed it would be a consolation for her own barrenness if she made her maidservant’s fertilewomb her own, by her own choice, since she could not do so by nature. Thus as a wife she availed herself of that right referred to by the Apostle when he says, In the same way also the man has no authority over his body, but the woman has’,119 in order to produce a child from another when shecould not do so from herself. There is here no lascivious desire, nothing degraded or shameful. The maidservant is handed over to the husband by the wife for the sake of offspring, and she is received by the husband for the sake of offspring. The aim of both of them is not guilty self-indulgence but the natural fruit of the union. Finally, when the pregnant servant flouted her barren mistress, and Sarah, in feminine jealousy, chose to blame her husband, even in that situation Abraham showed that he had been not a slavish lover but a free parent, and that in respect of Hagar he had safeguarded the reputation of his wife Sarah, having acted not to gratify his own sensuality but to carry out his wife’s decision. He had not sought Hagar but had taken her; he had come to her, but he had not become attached to her; he had given her his seed, but not his love. For he said, ‘Look, your maid is at your disposal; employ her as you wish.’120 What a true man he was, treating women like a true man; treating his wife temperately, her maid obethently, treating no woman intemperately.
26. The promise of a son to Sarah, to be father of nations, the promise sealed by circumcision
After this, Ishmael was born of Hagar; and Abraham might have supposed that in him there was the fulfilment of the promise given when he had decided to adopt his house-born slave, and God said, ‘This man will not be your heir; but he who will issue from you, he will be your heir.’121Therefore, to prevent the supposition that this promise had been fulfilled in the maid-servant’s son, when he was
already ninety-nine years old, the Lord appeared to him and said to him: ‘I am God; be pleasing in my sight, and be without blame, and I shall establish my covenant between me and you, and I shall increase you exceedingly.’ And Abram fell on his face. Then God spoke to him and said: ‘As for me, here is my covenant with you, and you will be the father of a multitude of nations. And your name will no longer be Abram, but Abraham,122 because I have appointed you as the father of many nations. And I shall increase you most exceedingly, and make you into nations, and kings will issue from you. And I shall establish my covenant between me and you and your seed after you, for their generations, to be an eternal covenant, so that I shall be your God, and the God of your descendants after you. And to you and to your descendants after you I shall give the land in which you are dwelling, all the land of Canaan for an eternal possession; and I shall be their God.’ Then God said to Abraham: ‘As for you, you will keep my covenant, you and your seed after you in their descendants. Now this is the covenant which you will keep between me and you and your descendants after you in their generations: Every male of yours shall be circumcised; and you shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskin, and this will be a token of the covenant between me and you. The boy of eight days shall be circumcised, every male in your generations. The slave born in your house and the slave bought from anyone of another nation, who is not of your seed, shall be circumcised, the house-slave and the bought slave; and my covenant will be in your flesh, to be an eternal covenant. And the male child who is not circumcised, who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin on the eighth day, his soul will perish from his people, because he has broken my covenant.’
And God said to Abraham: ‘As for Sarai your wife, her name will not be called Sarai, but Sarah will be her name.123 Moreover, I shall bless her and give you a son by her, and I shall bless him, and he shall become nations, and kings of nations will issue from him.’ Then Abraham bowed down to the ground; and he laughed and said in his heart: ‘Will a child be born to me, at the age of a hundred years? And will Sarah bear a child, at the age of ninety?’ Then Abraham said to God: ‘Let Ishmael here live in your sightl’ But God said: ‘It is true. Sarah your wife will bear you a son, and you will call his name Isaac. And I shall establish my covenant for him as an eternal covenant, to be his God and the God of his descendants after him. While as for Ishmael, see, I have listened to you; see, I have blessed him, and I shall increase him and multiply him greatly. He will be the father of twelve nations, and I shall make him into a great nation. But I shall establish my covenant with Isaac, the son that Sarah will bear to you at this time next year.124
Here are more explicit promises about the calling of the Gentiles in Isaac, that is, in the son of the promise, in whom grace, rather than nature, is symbolized, because he is promised as the son of an old man and a barren old woman. For though God is also at work in the natural process of procreation, nevertheless, where God’s operation is manifest, in a case where nature is decayed and failing, there his grace is more clearly recognizable. And since this was going to happen not by way of generation but by regeneration, that is why circumcision was commanded at this time, when a son was promised from Sarah. As for the fact that God orders the circumcision not only of all the sons, but of the house-born slaves and the purchased slaves as well, this is evidence that this grace pertains to all men. For what does circumcision symbolize but the renewal of nature by the sloughing off of old age? And what does the eighth day symbolize but Christ, who rose again after the completion of seven days, that is, after the Sabbath? The names of the parents are also changed. ‘Newness’ is the note struck in every detail; and the new covenant is presented, in a veiled manner, in the old. For what is the ‘Old Testament’ but a concealed form of the new? And what is the ‘New Testament’ but the revelation of the old? Abraham’s laughter is the exultation of the thankfulness, not the derision of incredulity. As for the words which he said in his heart, ‘Is a son to be born to me, at the age of a hundred years? And is Sarah to bear a child, at the age of ninety?’, these are not expressions of doubt, but of wonder.
If anyone is worried by the statement, ‘And to you and your seed after you I shall give the land in which you are dwelling, all the land of Canaan for an eternal possession’, and is puzzled about how this may be taken as being fulfilled, or whether its fulfilment is still to be awaited, since no earthly possession whatsoever can be eternal for any nation whatsoever; he should know that ‘eternal’ is used by our translators to represent the Greek aiônios, which comes from the Greek word for ‘age’, aiōn being the Greek equivalent of the Latin saeculum. But the Latin translators have not ventured to render it by ‘secular’, for fear of conveying a very different meaning. Many things, in fact, are called ‘secular’ which take place in this age (saeculum) in such a manner that they pass away even in a brief time. Whereas when a thing is called aiônios it means either that it has no end or that it lasts to the end of this age.
27. The perishing of the male child, if not circumcised on the eighth day
Another question may cause perplexity. How are we to interpret the statement in this passage that ‘the male child who is not circumcised in the flesh of the foreskin on the eighth day, his soul will perish from his people, because he has broken my covenant’?125 Now this is in no way the fault of the infant whose soul is said to be doomed to perish; and it is not the infant himself who has broken the covenant of God; it is his elders, who have not taken care to circumcise him. That is, unless it is because even infants have broken the covenant, not in consequence of any particular act in their own life but in consequence of the origin which is common to all mankind, since all have broken God’s covenant in that one man in whom all sinned.126 Now it is true that many covenants are called God’s covenants, apart from the two principal ones, the Old and New, which anyone may get to know by reading, them. But the first covenant, made with the first man, is certainly this: ‘On the day you eat, you will surely die.’127 Hence the statement in the book called Ecclesiasticus. ‘All flesh grows old like a garment. For the covenant from the beginning is, “You will surely the.”’128 Now, seeing that a more explicit law was given later, and the Apostle says, ‘Where there is no law, there is no law-breaking’,129 how can the psalm be true, where we read, ‘I have counted all sinners on earth as law-breakers’?130 It can only be true on the assumption that those who are held bound by any sin are guilty of a breach of some law.
Therefore if even infants, as the true faith holds, are born sinners, not on their own account, but in virtue of their origin (and hence we acknowledge the necessity for them of the grace of remission of sins), then it follows that just as they are sinners, they are recognized as breakers of the Law which was given in paradise. And so both passages in Scripture are true, ‘I have counted all sinners on earth as lawbreakers’, and ‘Where there is no law, there is no law-breaking.’ Thus the process of birth rightly brings perdition on the infant because of the original sin by which God’s covenant was first broken, unless the rebirth sets him free; and circumcision was instituted as a sign of rebirth. Therefore, those divine words must be interpreted as saying, in effect, ‘He who has not been reborn, his soul will perish from his people, because he broke God’s covenant’ when, in Adam, he himself also sinned, along with all the rest of mankind.
For if God had said ‘because he had broken this covenant of mine’ we should be forced to take it as referring exclusively to circumcision. As it is, since he did not explicitly say what sort of covenant the infant has broken, we are free to take it as referring to that covenant whose infringement could be connected with the child. If, on the other hand, anyone maintains that the saying applies exclusively to circumcision, on the ground that it was in the failure to be circumcised that the infant broke the covenant of God, he will have to find some way of stating it which could be interpreted, without absurdity, as meaning that the child has broken the covenant because it has been broken in his case, though not broken by him. Yet even so it must be observed that it would be unjust that the soul of an infant should perish, when the child itself was not responsible for the neglect of circumcision, if it were not that the child was under the bondage of the original sin.
28. The change of names of Abraham and Sarah; the fertility granted to them
Now after this great promise, so clearly expressed, had been made to Abraham, the pair are thereafter no longer called Abram and Sarai in the Scriptures, as before, but Abraham and Sarah, as we have called them from the start, since these are the names in universal use. The promise was in these explicit terms, ‘I have appointed you as the father of many nations; and I shall increase you most exceedingly and make you into nations, and kings will come from you. And I will give you a son by Sarah, and I will bless him, and he will become nations, and kings of nations will issue from him.’131 This is a promise we now see fulfilled in Christ. The reason for the change of Abraham’s name is thus given, ‘Because I have appointed you as the father of many nations.’ This must then be taken to be the meaning of Abraham, whereas Abram, his former name, is translated ‘exalted father’.132 ‘No reason, however. is given for the change of Sarah’s name, but according to the statement of the writers who have recorded the meanings of the Hebrew names contained in the sacred writings Sarai means ‘my princess’, while Sarah means ‘strength’. Hence the statement in the Epistle to the Hebrews, ‘By faith also Sarah herself received strength to deliver an offspring.’133
For both of them had reached old age, on the evidence of Scripture, while Sarah was also sterile, and her menstruation had ceased, so that she was no longer capable of childbirth even if she had not been sterile. Moreover, even if a woman is advanced in years, so long as her normal menstruation continues, she can bear a child to a young man, but not to an old man; while the older man is still capable of begetting a child, but only by a young woman, as Abraham was able to have children by Keturah, after the death of Sarah, because he found her still in the vigour of youth. This, then, is what the Apostle emphasizes as miraculous, and this is why he says Abraham’s body was already ‘dead’,134 because by that time he was not capable of begetting a child from any and every woman who still had some final period of fertility left. For we must understand that his body was ‘dead’ in a particular respect, not in every way. For if it was dead in all respects it would not be the elderly body of a living man, but the corpse of a dead man. Although the problem is usually solved by the assumption that Abraham (‘dead’ as he was) had children by Keturah because the gift of procreation which he received from the Lord remained after the death of his wife. Nevertheless, the solution of the difficulty which I have adopted seems to me preferable for this reason: that although an old man, a centenarian, certainly cannot have a child by any woman in these days, this was not true at that period, when men were still living so long that a hundred years did not reduce a man to the decrepitude of senility.
29. The appearance of the Lord to Abraham in the shape of three men, or angels, at the Oak of Mamre
God appeared again to Abraham by the Oak of Mamre in the shape of three men, who, without doubt, were angels, although some people suppose that one of them was the Lord Christ – maintaining that he had been visible even before he clothed himself in flesh. It is, to be sure, within the capacity of divine and invisible power, of incorporeal and immutable nature to appear to mortal sight, without any change in itself, not appearing in its own being, but by means of something subordinate to itself – and what is not subordinate? Now the reason for the assertion that one of those three was Christ is that Abraham, seeing three men, addressed the Lord in the singular (for the narrative says, ‘And behold three men stood by him, and seeing them he ran forward from the door of his tent to meet them, and he prostrated himself and said: “Lord if I have found favour in your sight…”’)135 But if this is so, why do they not observe this point also, that two of those men had gone to effect the destruction of the men of Sodom, while Abraham was still speaking to one of them, calling him Lord, and begging him not to destroy the just man along with the wicked in Sodom?
Moreover, Lot received those men in the same way, and he also called them Lord, in the singular, when he talked with them. For he first addressed them in the plural, when he said, ‘Look, my lords, turn aside into your servant’s house’;136 and so he does in the rest of the conversation in this passage. And yet later on the narrative continues,
And the angels took his hand, and the hand of his wife, and the hands of his two daughters, because the Lord was going to spare them. And it happened that, as soon as they had brought him out of doors, they said: ‘Save your life, do not look back, and do not stop anywhere in this district; go for safety on the mountains so that you may not be caught.’ Then Lot answered: ‘Lord, I beseech you, since your servant has found mercy in your sight…’137
Then after these words the Lord uses the singular in his reply, although he was in the two angels, when he said, ‘Behold, I have marvelled at your face…’138 Hence it is much more likely that Abraham recognized the Lord in the persons of the three men, as also did Lot in the two, and that they spoke to him in the singular, even though they thought their visitors to be merely men. And their only reason for taking them in was to minister to their wants on the assumption that they were mortals in need of refreshment. But there was, we may be sure, something extraordinary about them, so that although they appeared as men, those who offered them hospitality could not doubt that the Lord was in them, as he is wont to be in the prophets. And this explains why their hosts sometimes addressed them in the plural and sometimes in the singular, to address the Lord in their persons. That they were angels is the testimony of Scripture not only in this book of Genesis where these events are described, but also in the Epistle to the Hebrews, which says, when praising hospitality: ‘By this some men have entertained angels unawares.’139
Thus the promise of a son, Isaac, to be born of Sarah, was again conveyed to Abraham by these three men; and the divine assurance was also given him in these words: ‘Abraham will become a great and populous nation, and all the nations of the earth will be blessed in him.’140 Here were the two promises in the briefest and yet the amplest terms: the promise of Israel according to the flesh, and the promise of all nations according to faith.
30. Lot’s escape from Sodom: Abimelech and the chastity of Sarah
After the giving of this promise, when Lot had escaped from Sodom, a fiery storm came down from heaven and the whole territory of that ungodly city was reduced to ashes. It was a place where sexual promiscuity among males had grown into a custom so prevalent that it received the kind of sanction generally afforded by law to other activities. But the punishment of the men of Sodom was a foretaste of the divine judgement to come. And there is a special significance in the fact that those who were being rescued by the angels were forbidden to look back. Does it not tell us that we must not return in thought to the old life, which is sloughed off when a man is reborn by grace, if we look to escape the final judgement? Furthermore, Lot’s wife was rooted to the spot where she looked back; and by being turned into salt she supplied a kind of seasoning for the faithful – a seasoning of wisdom to make them beware of following her example.141
After this Abraham again used the device in respect of his wife that he had employed in Egypt; this time it was at Gerar, in relation to Abimelech, the king of that city; and once more Sarah was restored to him inviolate. And here indeed when the king reproached him, and asked why he had concealed the fact that she was his wife, and had called her his sister, Abraham revealed the nature of his fears, and added, ‘She is in fact my sister through her father, though not through her mother’,142 because she was Abraham’s sister by his father, through whom she was in this close relation. We observe that her beauty was such that even at that age she was found attractive.
31. The birth of Isaac, and the meaning of his name
After this a son was born to Abraham from Sarah, in fulfilment of the promise; and he gave him the name Isaac, which means ‘laughter’.143 This was because when this son was promised to him, his father had laughed in wonderment and joy;144 and when the promise was repeated by the three men, his mother too had laughed in joy that was mixed with incredulity. However, when the angel reproached her because her laughter, though it showed joy, did not show complete faith, she was afterwards strengthened in faith by the same angel. This is how the boy received his name. And indeed, when Isaac was born and was given that name, Sarah showed that her laughter had no suggestion of scorn or derision but was rather a joyful expression of gladness, for she said, ‘The Lord has provided laughter for me; for anyone who hears of it will rejoice with me.’145 But after a very short time the maidservant was expelled from the house with her son, and according to the Apostle the two covenants, the old and the new, are symbolized here, where Sarah figures as the heavenly Jerusalem, that is, the City of God.146
32. Abraham’s obedience and faith tested. The death of Sarah
It would be too tedious to give a detailed narrative of all these events; but in the course of them Abraham was tempted in the matter of the sacrifice of his beloved son Isaac, so that his dutiful obedience might be put to the proof, and be brought to the knowledge, not of God, but of future ages. It is to be observed that temptation does not always imply anything blameworthy, since the testing that brings approval is a matter for rejoicing. And as a general rule, there is no other way in which the human spirit can acquire self-knowledge except by trying its own strength in answering, not in word but in deed, what may be called the interrogation of temptation. And then, if God acknowledges the task performed, there is an example of a spirit truly devoted to God, with the solidity given by the strength of grace, instead of the inflation of the empty boast.
Abraham, we can be sure, could never have believed that God delights in human victims; and yet the thunder of a divine command must be obeyed without argument. However, Abraham is to be praised in that he believed, without hesitation, that his son would rise again when he had been sacrificed. For when he had refused to accede to his wife’s wish that the maidservant and her son should be turned out of the house, God had said to him, ‘Through Isaac your descendants will carry on your name.’ Now it is true that this is followed by the statement, ‘And I will make of the son of the maidservant a mighty nation, because he is your son.’ What then is the meaning of the words, ‘Through Isaac your descendants will carry on your name’, seeing that God also called Ishmael Abraham’s seed? The Apostle explains the force of ‘Through Isaac your descendants will carry on your name’ in this way: ‘It does not mean that the sons of the flesh are the sons of God: it is the sons of the promise who are counted as his descendants.’147 Consequently, the sons of the promise are called in Isaac to be the descendants of Abraham, that is they are called by grace and gathered together in Christ. The devout father therefore clung to this promise faithfully, and since it had to be fulfilled through the son whom God ordered to be slain, he did not doubt that a son who could be granted to him when he had ceased to hope could also be restored to him after he had been sacrificed.
This is the interpretation we find in the Epistle to the Hebrews, and it is explained as follows: ‘By faith Abraham, when tested, went before Isaac and offered his only son, who received the promises, to whom it was said: “In Isaac your seed will be called”, considering that God is able to raise men from the dead.’ Then he went on, ‘Hence he brought him also to serve as a type.’148 A type of whom? It can only be of him of whom the Apostle says, ‘He did not spare his own son, but handed him over for us all.’149 This is why, as the Lord carried his cross, so Isaac himself carried to the place of sacrifice the wood on which he too was to be placed. Moreover, after the father had been prevented from striking his son, since it was not right that Isaac should be slain, who was the ram whose immolation completed the sacrifice by blood of symbolic significance? Bear in mind that when Abraham saw the ram it was caught by the horns in a thicket. Who, then, was symbolized by that ram but Jesus, crowned with Jewish thorns150 before he was offered in sacrifice?
But now let us turn our attention to the divine words spoken by the angel. For the Scripture says,
And Abraham stretched out his hand to take the knife to slay his son. Then the angel of the Lord called to him from heaven and said: ‘Abraham.’ And he said: ‘Here I am.’ And the angel said: ‘Do not lay your hand on the boy, nor do anything to him; for now I have the assurance that you fear your God, and you have not spared your beloved son, for my sake.’151 ‘Now I have the assurance’ means ‘Now I have made it known’, for God was not in ignorance before this happened. After that, when the ram had been sacrificed instead of his son Isaac, ‘Abraham’, we are told, ‘called the name of the place “The Lord saw”, so that people say today: “The Lord appeared on the mountain.” ’152 Just as ‘Now I have the assurance’ stood for ‘Now I have made it known’, here ‘The Lord saw’ stands for ‘The Lord appeared’, that is, he made himself visible.
Then the angel of the Lord called to Abraham from heaven a second time, saying: ‘I have sworn by myself’ says the Lord ‘because you have carried out this bidding and have not spared your beloved son for my sake, that I shall certainly bless you, and I shall assuredly multiply your posterity like the stars of the sky, and like the sand that stretches by the lip of the sea. And your posterity will possess by inheritance the cities of your enemies, and all the nations of the earth will be blessed in your descendants, because you have obeyed my voice.’153
In this way the promise of the calling of the nations in Abraham’s descendants, after the whole burnt-offering, by which Christ is symbolized, was confirmed also by an oath given by God. For he had often given promises, but never before had he taken an oath. Now what is the oath of the true and truthful God but the confirmation of his promise, and a kind of rebuke to the unbelieving?
After this, Sarah died, in the 127th year of her life, and the 137th year of the life of her husband. For he was ten years her senior in age, as he himself declared when he was promised a son by her, when he said, ‘Is a son to be born to me, at the age of a hundred years? And is Sarah to bear a child at the age of ninety?’154 Then Abraham bought a piece of land, in which he buried his wife. It was then, according to Stephen’s narrative,155 that Abraham was settled in that land, since he now began to be a landowner there – that is, after the death of his father, who is reckoned to have passed away two years previously.
33. Isaac marries Rebecca
After that, when Isaac was forty years old, he married Rebecca, the granddaughter of his uncle Nahor; this, as we see, was when his father was 140, and when his mother had been dead for three years. Now when the servant was sent by Isaac’s father into Mesopotamia to fetch Rebecca, Abraham said to him, ‘Put your hand under my thigh, and I shall put you on oath, by the Lord God of heaven and the Lord of the earth, not to take a wife for my son Isaac from the daughters of the Canaanites.’156 This was nothing but a sign that the Lord God of heaven and the Lord of the earth was destined to come in the flesh which was derived from that thigh. These are no trivial proofs of the foretelling of the reality which we now see fulfilled in Christ.
34. The meaning of Abraham’s marriage to Keturah
But what is the meaning of Abraham’s taking Keturah as a wife after the death of Sarah? We must never imagine that this was a case of incontinence, especially at his age, and considering the holiness of his faith. Are we to suppose that he was still looking to procreate children, even though God’s promise assured him, by a pledge of utter reliability, that Isaac’s children would be multiplied to the number of the stars of the sky and the sands of the earth? But if Hagar and Ishmael, as the Apostle teaches,157 symbolized the carnal people of the old covenant, there is obviously no reason why Keturah and her sons should not stand for the carnal people who suppose themselves to belong to the new covenant. For both Hagar and Keturah are called concubines of Abraham as well as wives, whereas Sarah is never spoken of as a concubine. For when Hagar was given to Abraham, the Scripture says, ‘Then Sarah, Abram’s wife, took Hagar, her Egyptian maidservant, after Abraham had been living in the land of Canaan for ten years, and gave her as a wife to Abram her husband.’158 While the passage about Keturah, whom Abraham received after Sarah’s death, runs thus: ‘Furthermore, Abraham took another wife, whose name was Keturah.’ Here we see both of them called wives; but they are both also found to have been concubines, for the Scripture goes on to say, ‘Now Abraham gave all his property to his son Isaac; and to the sons of his concubines Abraham gave presents, and sent them away from his son Isaac, in his own lifetime, to the east, to the eastern lands.’159
Thus the sons of the concubines have some gifts, but they do not come to the promised kingdom – neither the heretics nor the Jews by physical descent – because there is no heir except Isaac, and ‘it is not those who are sons of the flesh that are the sons of God, but the sons of the promise are reckoned as his descendants’, about whom the Scripture says, ‘It is through Isaac that your descendants will carry on your name.’ For I can see no reason why Keturah, who was married to Abraham after his wife’s death, should be called a concubine, unless it was for the sake of this hidden meaning. But anyone who refuses to take the passage in this sense must not make false accusations against Abraham. For it may be that this episode was designed to provide a refutation of the heretics who were to condemn second marriages;160 that a second marriage after the death of a wife is not a sin is shown by the example of the father of many nations.
Then Abraham died, at the age of 175. Thus he left behind him his son Isaac, now seventy-five, who was born to him when he was a hundred years old.
35. The divine prophecy about Rebecca’s twins
We must now observe the historical progress of the City of God through Abraham’s descendants. In the period between the first year of Isaac’s life and his sixtieth year, in which his sons were born, this fact is noteworthy; that when he asked God that his wife, who was barren, might bear a child, God had granted his request, and his wife had already conceived, and the twins, shut in her womb, were already struggling. Then in the anguish of this distress she asked the Lord about it, and this was the reply, ‘Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples will derive their separate existence from your belly. One of those peoples will overcome the other, and the elder will be servant to the younger.’161 The apostle Paul wishes this to be understood as an important proof of God’s grace, because when they were not yet born, and were engaged in no activity, good or bad, the younger was chosen, without any question of merit, while the elder was rejected.162 At the time, both were on the same footing, without a shadow of doubt, in respect of original sin, while in respect of personal sin neither of them had any guilt.
But the scheme of the work on which I am engaged does not allow of a wider discussion of this subject at the present moment: and I have treated the matter at length in other works.163 As for the statement ‘The elder will be servant to the younger’, hardly anyone of our people has taken it as meaning anything else but that the older people of the Jews was destined to serve the younger people, the Christians. Now it is true that this prophecy might seem to have been fulfilled in the nation of the Idumaeans, which was derived from the elder son (who had two names, being called Esau and also Edom,164 which is the source of ‘Idumaeans’) for the Idumaeans were later to be overcome by the people descended from the younger son, that is, by the Israelites. But in fact it is more appropriate to believe that the prophetic statement, ‘One of these peoples will overcome the other, and the elder will be servant to the younger’, was intended to convey some more important meaning. And what can this meaning be except a prophecy which is now being clearly fulfilled in the Jews and the Christians?
36. The oracle and blessing of Abraham repeated to Isaac
Isaac also received an oracle of the same kind as his father had received several times. The Scripture gives this account of it:
Now a famine came upon the land, besides the earlier famine that occurred in the time of Abraham. And Isaac went away to Abimelech the king of the Philistines in Gerar. Then the Lord appeared to him and said, ‘Do not go down to Egypt; but live in the land which I shall tell you of, and settle in this land; and I shall be with you and I shall bless you. For I shall give all this land to you and your posterity, and I shall confirm my oath which I swore to your father Abraham: and I shall multiply your descendants like the stars of the sky, and I shall give your descendants all this land, and all the nations of the earth will be blessed in your descendants, because your father Abraham obeyed my bidding and kept my precepts, my commandments, my statutes, and my laws.’165
This patriarch had no other wife, nor any concubine, but he was content with his posterity of the two twins produced from one act of intercourse. He also, to be sure, was afraid of danger arising from the beauty of his wife, when he was living among foreigners, and he did what his father had done, calling her his sister and concealing the fact that she was his wife. She was, in fact, closely related to him in blood both on the father’s side and the mother’s. But she too remained inviolate at the hands of foreigners, when it became known that she was his wife. For all that, we should not put Isaac on a higher level than his father just because he did not have relations with any woman except his one wife. In fact, there can be no doubt that the merits of his father’s faith and obedience were superior to his own, so much so that God says that the blessings he bestowed on Isaac were granted him for his father’s sake. ‘All the nations of the earth will be blessed in your descendants, because your father Abraham obeyed my bidding, and kept my precepts, my commandments, my statutes, and my laws.’ Further, he says in another oracle, ‘I am the God of your father Abraham. Do not be afraid; for I am with you, and I have blessed you, and I will multiply your descendants for the sake of your father Abraham.’166
Thus we may realize how chastely Abraham behaved in a matter where he is thought to have acted under the influence of lust; for that is the opinion of men without decency who seek authority for their own wickedness in the holy Scriptures. And we may go on to learn this lesson; that we should not make comparison between men on the basis of particular good qualities; instead, we should observe the whole pattern of each man’s life. For it may be that one man has some quality in his life and behaviour in which he surpasses another, and this excellence far outweighs some other quality in which he is surpassed by that other man. According to this method of judgement (which is the sound and true method) even though continence is ranked above marriage, still a married man who has faith in God is superior to the man who is continent but faithless. Indeed, the faithless man is not merely less praiseworthy; he is utterly detestable. Let us assume that both are good men; even so the married man who. is completely faithful and completely obedient to God is better than a continent man of less faith and less obedience. Whereas if other things were equal, who would hesitate to rank the continent above the married man?
37. The hidden prophecies in Esau and Jacob
Isaac’s two sons, Esau and Jacob, thus grew up together. The primacy of the elder is transferred to the younger as the result of a compact and agreement between them, because the elder had an inordinate craving for the dish of lentils which the younger brother had prepared for his meal, and he sold his first-born’s portion to his brother for this price, after he had pledged his oath.167 Hence we learn that in the matter of eating it is not the kind of food he craves that brings blame upon a man, but his unrestrained greed. Isaac is growing old and he is losing his eyesight through advancing years. He intends to bless his older son and without knowing it he blesses his younger son, instead of the elder brother, who was a hairy man; for the younger brother put himself beneath his father’s hands, with the kidskins attached to himself, as if bearing the sins of another. To prevent us from supposing that this trick of Jacob’s was a fraudulent deceit, and from failing to look for a hidden meaning of great significance, the Scripture made this statement earlier: ‘Now Esau was a man skilled in hunting, a man of the open country; Jacob, on the other hand, was a simple man, living at home.’168
Some of our scholars have translated this as ‘without deceit’ (instead of ‘simple’). But whether it is rendered ‘without deceit’ or ‘simple’ or (better) ‘without pretence’ – the Greek word is aplastos -what deceit is there in the obtaining of a blessing by a man ‘without deceit’? What kind of deceit can be shown by a simple man? What kind of pretence by a man who tells no lies, unless we have here a hidden meaning conveying a profound truth? And then, what was the nature of the blessing? ‘Behold’, says Isaac,
the smell of my son is like the smell of a plentiful field, which the Lord has blessed. And may God give you of the dew of heaven and of the richness of the soil, and abundance of corn and wine, and may nations serve you and princes do reverence to you. Become lord over your brother, and your father’s sons will do reverence to you. Whoever curses you, let him be cursed; and whoever blesses you, let him be blessed.169
Thus the blessing of Jacob is the proclamation of Christ among all nations. This is happening; this is actively going on.
Isaac is the Law and the Prophets; and Christ is blessed by the Law and the Prophets, even by the lips of Jews, as by someone who does not know what he is doing, because the Law and the Prophets are themselves not understood. The world is filled like a field with the fragrance of the name of Christ; and his is the blessing of the dew of heaven, that is, of the showers of divine words, of the richness of the soil, that is of the gathering of the peoples. His is the abundance of corn and wine, that is, the multitude which the corn and wine gather together in the sacrament of his body and blood. It is Christ whom the nations serve, and to whom the princes do reverence. He is lord over his brother, since his people have dominion over the Jews. He it is to whom the sons of his father do reverence, that is, the sons of Abraham according to faith; for he himself is also a son of Abraham according to physical descent. He who has cursed him is accursed; he who has blessed him is blessed. Our Christ, I repeat, is blessed, that is, he is truly spoken of, even by the lips of Jews who, although in error, still chant the Law and the Prophets: and they suppose that another is being blessed, the Messiah who is still awaited by them, in their error.
Look at Isaac! He is horror-stricken when his elder son asks for the promised blessing, and he realizes that he has blessed another in his place. He is amazed, and asks who this other can be; and yet he does not complain that he has been deceived. Quite the contrary. The great mystery170 is straightway revealed to him, in the depths of his heart, and he eschews indignation and confirms his blessing. ‘Who then’, he says, ‘hunted game for me and brought it in to me? And I ate of all of it, before you arrived! Well, I have blessed him; so let him be blessed.’171 One would surely expect at this point the curse of an angry man, if all this happened in the ordinary course of events, instead of by inspiration from above. Historical events, these, but events with prophetic meaning! Events on earth, but directed from heaven! The actions of men, but the operation of God!
If all the details that are so pregnant with hidden meanings of great importance were closely sifted, the results would fill many volumes. But a limit has to be set to this work, to keep it to a reasonable size; and this compels us to hurry on to other topics.
38. Jacob goes to get a wife; his dream on the journey; and his four women
Jacob is now sent by his parents into Mesopotamia, to marry a wife there. When his father sent him off, he said to him,
You must not take one of the daughters of the Canaanites for your wife. Make haste, and be on your way to Mesopotamia to the home of Bethuel, your mother’s father, and take a wife for yourself from there, one of the daughters of Laban, your mother’s brother. And may my God bless you, increase and multiply you; and you will become a group of nations. And may God give you the blessing of your father Abraham, to you and to your descendants after you, so that you may inhabit the land where you settle, which God gave to Abraham.172
Here we already understand that Jacob’s descendants are separated from those other descendants of Isaac, who are derived through Esau. For the saying, ‘Through Isaac your descendants will carry on your name’, refers clearly to the descendants belonging to the City of God, and the other descendants of Abraham, represented by the son of the maidservant, and later to be represented also by the sons of Keturah, were distinguished from them. But there was still a doubt about the twin sons of Isaac, whether the blessing belonged to them both, or to only one of them, and if to one, which of them it was. The question has now been cleared up, when Jacob is prophetically blessed by his father, with these words: ‘And you will become a group of nations. And may God give you the blessing of your father Abraham.’
Now while Jacob was on his way into Mesopotamia he received an oracle in his sleep. The account of it runs as follows:
Now Jacob left ‘the well of the oath’,173 and set out for Haran; and he came to a place and slept there, for the sun had set. And he took one of the stones of the place and put it under his head and fell asleep in that place; and he had a dream. And behold, a ladder was set up on the earth, whose top reached to heaven; and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it. And the Lord leant over it and said: ‘I am the God of Abraham your father, and the God of Isaac. Do not be afraid. The land on which you are sleeping I shall give to you and your descendants. And your descendants will be like the sands of the earth, and will spread over the sea and into Africa, and to the north and the east. And all the tribes of the earth will be blessed in you and your descendants. And look, I am with you, guarding you in every way along which you will go; and I shall bring you back to this land; because I shall not leave you, until I have achieved all that I have spoken of to you.’
Then Jacob arose from his sleep, and said: ‘Why, the Lord is in this place, and I did not know it!’ And he was afraid, and said: ‘How terrible is this place: this is nothing else than the house of God;174 and this is the gate of heaven!’ Then Jacob rose up; and he took the stone, which he had put under his head, and set it up as a monument, and poured oil on its top. And Jacob named that place ‘the House of God’.175
This has a prophetic reference. For when Jacob poured oil over the stone he was not following an idolatrous practice, as if making it into a god; for he did not worship the stone, or sacrifice to it. It was because the name ‘Christ’ has the same derivation as ‘chrism’, which means anointing; and thus without doubt we have here a symbolic act which points to a hidden meaning of great significance. As for the ladder, we are aware that the Saviour himself recalls this in the Gospel. For he first said of Nathaniel, ‘Here is an Israelite in the true sense, and there is no deceit in him’ (because it was Israel – who is Jacob – who saw that vision); and then, in the same passage, he says, ‘Mark my words! I tell you that you will see heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending above the Son of Man.’176
Jacob then proceeded to Mesopotamia, to get a wife there. In fact, as it turned out, he had four women from there, and holy Scripture tells us how this happened. By these women he had twelve sons and one daughter, and yet he felt no unlawful lust for any of them. He had in fact come there to get one wife; but when another sister had been foisted on him instead of the one intended, he did not reject her, after he had unwittingly had intercourse with her in the night, for fear of appearing to treat her with contempt. Now at that time there was no legal prohibition of polygamy, to ensure the multiplication of descendants; and so Jacob took the other sister also, to whom alone he had pledged himself for future marriage. When she proved barren, she gave her maidservant to her husband, so that she might take over her children. The elder sister also followed the same course, although she had borne children, because she wished to increase the number of her offspring. We are not told that Jacob tried to get any other women but the one, nor that he had intercourse with any except with a view to procreation. And he kept his marriage vow, in that he would not have acted as he did, if his wives had not insisted on this course of action – and wives had legitimate control of their husband’s person.177 Thus Jacob became the father, by four women, of twelve sons and one daughter. He then went into Egypt, thanks to his son Joseph, who was sold by his envious brothers and taken into that country, where he rose to a position of eminence.
39. The reason for the surname ‘Israel’
Now, as I said just now, Jacob was also called Israel, which was the name generally borne by the people descended from him. This name was given him by the angel who wrestled with him when he was on his way back from Mesopotamia. This angel obviously presents a type of Christ. For the fact that Jacob ‘prevailed over’ him (the angel, of course, being a willing loser to symbolize the hidden meaning) represents the passion of Christ, in which the Jews seemed to prevail over him. And yet Jacob obtained a blessing from the very angel whom he had defeated; thus the giving of the name was the blessing. Now Israel’ means ‘seeing God’;178 and the vision of God will be the reward of all the saints at the end of the world. Moreover, the angel also touched the apparent victor on the broad part of his thigh, and thus made him lame. And so the same man, Jacob, was at the same time blessed and lame – blessed in those who among this same people of Israel have believed in Christ, and crippled in respect of those who do not believe. For the broad part of the thigh represents the general mass of the race. For in fact it is to the majority of that stock that the prophetic statement applies, ‘They have limped away from their paths.’179
40 The meaning of the statement that Jacob entered Egypt ‘with seventy-five souls’
The narrative tells us that seventy-five people entered Egypt in company with Jacob himself – Jacob being reckoned in, together with his children. In this number only two women are mentioned, one a daughter, the other a granddaughter.180 But a careful examination of the facts does not reveal that Jacob’s offspring amounted to that number in the day or year when he entered Egypt. In fact even the great-grandsons of Jacob are recorded among the number, and those could not possibly have been alive at that time, seeing that Jacob was then 130 years old, while his son Joseph was thirty-nine. Since it is established that Joseph married his wife in his thirtieth year, or later, how could he have had great-grandsons within nine years from the sons he had by that wife? Since Joseph’s sons, Ephraim and Manasseh, did not then have sons (in fact Jacob found them as boys of less than nine years old when he entered Egypt) how is it that not only their sons, but even their grandsons, are counted among the seventy-five persons who entered into Egypt at that time with Jacob? For Machir is mentioned there, the son of Manasseh, and Joseph’s grandson, and Machir’s son Galaad, Manasseh’s grandson and Joseph’s great-grandson. Included also is the son of Ephraim, Joseph’s second son, that is Utalaam, Joseph’s grandson, and Edom, son of this Utalaam; and he was Ephraim’s grandson and Joseph’s great-grandson. They could not conceivably have been born by the time when Jacob went to Egypt, and found Joseph’s sons, his own grandsons, who were the grandfathers of the above-named, as boys of less than nine years old.181
No doubt the entry of Jacob into Egypt, which the scriptural narrative describes as the entry of a company of seventy-five people, is not a matter of one day or one year; it includes the whole period of the life of Joseph, who was responsible for that entry. For the same Scripture says, speaking of Joseph himself, ‘Now Joseph lived in Egypt, with his brothers and all his father’s household; and he lived 110 years. And Joseph saw the sons of Ephraim as far as the third generation.’ The third generation from Ephraim is Joseph’s great-grandson, the third generation undoubtedly referring to son, grandson, and great-grandson. Then the account continues, ‘And the sons of Machir, son of Manasseh, were born on Joseph’s knees.’ Now this is the son of Manasseh, and the great-grandson of Joseph. (The plural is here used in the common scriptural idiom, just as Jacob’s only daughter is called ‘the daughters’; similarly Latin idiom speaks of ‘sons’ even if there is no more than one child.)
Thus, when the felicity of Joseph himself is emphasized, in the fact that he was able to see his great-grandsons, we must by no means suppose that those were already in existence in the thirty-ninth year of their great-grandfather Joseph, at the time when his father Jacob came to him in Egypt. Now this is a point which is missed by those who do not examine the facts carefully, since the Scripture says, ‘Now these are the names of the children of Israel, who entered Egypt together with their father Jacob.’ The ground for this statement is that seventy five people, including Jacob, are reckoned, not that they were all together at the time when Jacob entered Egypt. But, as I said, this entry is taken to cover the whole lifetime of Joseph, who is regarded as responsible for that entry.
41. The blessing promised by Jacob to his son Judah
Thus when we are studying the people of Christ, in whom the City of God is on pilgrimage in this world, if we look for the physical ancestry of Christ in the descendants of Abraham, we discount the sons of his concubines, and Isaac presents himself. If we look in the descendants of Isaac, we set aside Esau, who is also Edom, and Jacob presents himself, who is also Israel. If we examine the descendants of Israel himself, we set aside the others, and Judah presents himself, because it was from the tribe of Judah that Christ was born. And for this reason we should attend to the prophetic blessing invoked on Judah by Israel when he blessed his sons in Egypt just before his death.
‘Judah’, he said,
your brothers will praise you. Your hands will be laid on the back of your enemies: the sons of your father will do reverence to you. Judah is a lion’s whelp; you have arisen, my son, from the shoot; you have lain down and slept, like a lion, and a lion’s whelp; who will rouse him up? A prince shall not be lacking from Jacob, nor a leader from his loins, until three things come which have been laid up for him; and he himself is the expectation of the nations. Binding his foal to the vine and his ass’s foal with the tendril, he will wash his garment in wine, and his clothing in the blood of the grape. His eyes are dark with wine, and his teeth whiter than milk.182
I have explained these points in my argument against Faustus the Manichean,183 and the true meaning of this prophecy shines out, I think, clearly enough. Here is foretold the death of Christ, in the mention of sleeping; and also, in the title, ‘lion’, power, not compulsion, is foretold in his death. He himself emphasizes this power in the Gospel, when he says, ‘I have the power to lay down my life, and I have power to take it up again. No one takes it away from me; but I lay it down of my own accord, and I take it up again.’184 This is how the lion roared, this is how he fulfilled what he said. For there is another reference to this power in the following words about his resurrection: ‘Who will rouse him up?’ It means that no man will do so, except himself, for he said, about his own body, ‘Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up again.’185 While the manner of his death, that is the exaltation of the cross, is implied by one word, when he goes on, ‘You have arisen.’ The words which follow, ‘You have lain down and slept’, are explained by the evangelist, when he says, Then he bowed his head, and gave up his spirit.’186 Or if not, it certainly refers to his burial, for he lay down in the grave and slept; and no human being aroused him from that grave, as the prophets aroused some persons, or as he himself aroused others. He arose of himself, as if from sleep.
Moreover, the robe which he washes in wine means that he washes away sins in his blood, for the baptized experience the sacrament of that blood. Hence Israel adds, ‘and his clothing in the blood of the grape’. What is this clothing but the Church? And ‘his eyes are dark with wine’ means the spiritual men who are made drunk with his cup, the cup about which the psalm sings, ‘And your cup which makes me drunk, how wonderful it is.’187 ‘And his teeth are whiter than milk’; this is the milk that the infants drink – as the Apostle says – meaning nourishing words when they are not yet capable of solid food.188 Thus it is Christ himself in whom the promises made to Judah ‘have been laid up’; and ‘until these things come’ to fulfilment princes from that stock – that is, kings of Israel – have never been lacking. ‘And he himself is the expectation of the nations.’ This is a saying which is clearer at first sight than it can be made by any explanation.
42. The two sons of Joseph, whom Jacob blessed by a prophetic crossing of hands
We have seen that Isaac’s two sons, Esau and Jacob, presented a symbol of the two peoples, the Jews and the Christians – although in respect of physical descent it is not the Jews, but the Idumaeans who are descended from Esau; and it is not the Christian Gentiles, but the Jews, who are descended from Jacob; for the symbol only held good as far as the words ‘the elder shall be servant to the younger.’189 Now the same thing happened in the case of Joseph’s two sons – for the elder typifies the Jews, the younger the Christians. When Jacob blessed them, putting his right hand on the younger, whom he had on his left side, and his left hand on the younger, whom he had on the right, it seemed a serious matter to their father, and he warned his father, thinking to correct his mistake and to show him which of them really was the elder. But his father refused to change his hands, and said, ‘I know, my son, I know. This one also will become a prophet, and he will be exalted; but his younger brother will be greater than he, and his descendants will become a multitude of nations.’190 What could be more evident than that in those two promises the people of Israel and the whole world are included in Abraham’s descendants, the former in respect of physical descent, the latter in respect of faith?
43. The period of Moses, Joshua, the judges and the kings. Saul the first king; but David, the most important, both for his achievements, and as a symbol.
After the death of Jacob and of Joseph, for the remaining 144 years until their exodus from the land of Egypt, the race increased in an incredible fashion, even though they were worn down by such great persecutions, which went as far as the massacre at one time of the male children born to them, because the excessive increase of the people aroused amazement and alarm in the Egyptians.191 On this occasion Moses was secretly extricated from the hands of those who were butchering the infants, and taken to the royal palace, since God was planning immense achievements for him. He was reared and adopted by the daughter of Pharaoh (the name Pharaoh was borne by all the Egyptian kings) and he grew into such a great man that he rescued that race, so miraculously multiplied, from the cruel and burdensome yoke of slavery – or rather God rescued them through his agency, thus fulfilling his promise to Abraham. Moses, it is true, had formerly fled from the land, because in defending an Israelite he had killed an Egyptian,192 and was panic-stricken. But later he was sent on a divine mission, and in the power of God’s spirit he overcame Pharaoh’s magicians who opposed him. Then through his agency ten memorable plagues were inflicted on the Egyptians, since they refused to release God’s people; water turned to blood, frogs, lice, dog-flies, cattle murrain, ulcers, hail, locusts, darkness, death of the first-born. Finally, when the Egyptians had been broken down by all those great plagues and at last had released the Israelites, they were wiped out in the Red Sea when they were pursuing the fugitives. For the sea had divided and offered a path for the departing Israelites; but as the Egyptians followed after them the water came together again and over whelmed them.193
Thereafter God’s people were led through the desert for forty years, under the command of Moses. During this time the ‘tabernacle of the testimony’ was given this name, the place where God was worshipped with sacrifices which foretold future events. This, we observe, was after the Law had been given on the mountain, with everything to inspire awe, for the divine power and presence was attested by the clearest evidence of miraculous signs and voices. This happened soon after the departure from Egypt, at the start of the period when the people lived in the desert, on the fiftieth day after the Paschal Feast had been celebrated by the sacrifice of a lamb.194 This lamb is so accurate a symbol of Christ, foretelling that through the sacrifice offered in his passion he would pass over from this world to the Father – ‘Pascha’, as is well known, is the Hebrew for ‘pass over’ – that when the new covenant was revealed after ‘Christ our Passover was sacrificed’, it was on the fiftieth day that the Holy Spirit came down from heaven. The Spirit is called in the Gospel ‘the finger of God’195 to bring to our minds the remembrance of that original symbolic event, since we are told that the tables of the Law also were written by the finger of God.196
After the death of Moses, Joshua led the people, and brought them into the land of promise and divided it among the people. Wars were waged, with marvellous success, by these two marvellous leaders. But God bears witness that these victories came to them not on account of the merits of the Hebrew people, but because of the sins of the nations whom they defeated. After those two leaders there were a number of ‘judges’, when the people were by now settled in the land of promise; and so the first promise to Abraham began to be fulfilled at this time, as far as it concerned one people, the Hebrew nation, and the land of Canaan, but not yet as it referred to all nations and to the whole world. This was to be fulfilled by the coming of Christ in the flesh, and not by the keeping of the old Law, but by the faith of the Gospel. This was symbolized in the fact that the people were led into the land of promise not by Moses, who had received the Law for the people on Mount Sinai, but by Joshua whose name had even been changed at God’s bidding, so that he should be called Jesus.197
Then, in the period of the judges, there was alternation of success and failure in war, according to the sins of the people and the mercy of God. After this comes the period of the kings, Saul being the first to exercise the royal power. When he was rejected by God and fell in a military disaster and his line was abandoned, so that it should not be the source of kings, David succeeded to the throne; and ‘Son of David’ is the chief title of Christ. David marks the beginning of an epoch, and with him there is what may be called the start of the manhood of God’s people, since we may regard the period from Abraham to David as the adolescence of this race. And there is a special significance in the fact that the evangelist Matthew records the generations in such a way as to attribute fourteen generations to this first stage, that is, the period from Abraham to David. For it is at adolescence that a man becomes capable of procreation; and that is why the list of generations starts with Abraham, who was also marked out as the ‘father of nations’ when he received his change of name.198 Before that time there was, as it were, the boyhood of this race of God’s people from Noah down to Abraham himself; and that is why this boyhood is found to have a language, namely Hebrew. For it is at boyhood that man begins to talk, after he leaves infancy – which is so called because it has not the power of speech.199 And this first age of infancy is sunk in oblivion, as the first age of mankind was wiped out by the Flood. For there are very few men who have any recollection of their infancy.
Thus the previous book covers one age, the first, in the development of the City of God, and this present book deals with the second and third. In this third age, as symbolized by the heifer, goat, and ram – all three years old – the yoke of the Law was imposed, a multitude of sinners came on the scene, and the earthly kingdom entered its first stage. Yet at the same time there were not lacking spiritual men who were prophetically indicated by the symbol of the dove and the pigeon.200