Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Saint Ephrem Syrus: A Treatise on Penitence

Matthias Henze


The Ancient Near Eastern Origins and Early History

of Interpretation of Daniel 4

Brill, 1999

P. 157

… At three different occasions throughout his work Ephrem turns to the Book of Daniel for longer exegetical reflections….. In a single hymn entitled De Ecclesia, which according to its content belongs to the four hymns Contra Julianum rather than to Ephrem’s larger hymn cycle by the same name, Ephrem meditates on the duress the church is experiencing under pressure from Julian….. In stanzas 6-7, he urges his fellow Christians to follow the examples set by Daniel in the lions’ den as well as by the lads in the fiery furnace, who clung to their Christian [sic] beliefs and hence came out of their trials unharmed.

The love of Him who gives life to all,

tested Daniel,

by the condition they have contrived,

the schemers, to silence

his acceptable prayer

which laid bare their idols.

they brought shame on their images

all unwittingly.

He put an end to their worship

that One might be worshipped by all.

Blessed be he whose true ones

convicted the deceivers.

It [i.e., the vine as a symbol or the Church] bent and cast

its friends in the fire,

yet its leaves bore dew

and cooled the furnace.

The arms of the conqueror

were conquered, though he had decreed

that the Most High before his images

should bend.

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His friends who forsook him not

by Him were not forsaken.

Blessed is He who in place of an image

is praised by His worshippers. ….

The second reference is found in the Hymns on the Fast. Ephrem once again commends Daniel and his three companions for their pious zeal and virtuous endurance in times of trial. No less than three hymns of this cycle (VII-IX) are devoted to Daniel and his three companions.


Thirdly, we find a masterful exegetical exposition of the legend about Nebuchadnezzar’s madness in a cycle of hymns entitled Hymns on Paradise. In this cycle, which was most likely composed during Ephrem’s years in Edessa (363-373), Ephrem elaborates beautifully on the biblical Paradise narrative in Gen 2-3. Rather than providing a running commentary on the Genesis account as he has done elsewhere, …

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Ephrem chooses to meditate on various themes he deems essential for a theological understanding of Paradise, such as Paradise as sacred space (and time), Paradise and the Church, Paradise and the Spirit, etc. The entire cycle is richly embellished with biblical allusions.

Our text is taken from hymn XIII of the Hymns of Paradise …. The hymn is organized around a comparison of Adam’s expulsion from Paradise on the one hand and Nebuchadnezzar’s exile among the beasts of the field on the other. The previous hymn, hymn XII, ends with a reflection on the different nature of animals and human beings in creation. Animals do not know guilt or shame and, having no part in the resurrection, cannot be blamed for any wrongdoing (XII.19). Adam and Eve, on the contrary, were created and bestowed with a free will, because God wanted them to win the crown of immortality. Stanza 20, the last stanza of hymn XII, articulates the moral conclusion and hence forms the transition to our hymn. “The fool, who is unwilling to realize his honorable state, prefers to become just an animal, rather than a man, so that, without incurring judgment, he may serve naught but his lust”. The fool who becomes like an animal foreshadows the comparison of Adam’s and Nebuchadnezzar’s lot. The stage is set for hymn XIII. Our reading begins with stanza 2.

2. In the beginning God created the creation,

the fountainhead of delights;

the house which he constructed

provisions those who live therein,

for upon His gift

innumerable created beings depend;

from a single table

does He provide

every day for each creature

all things in due measure (Ps. 145:15-16).

Grant that we may acknowledge

Your grace, O Good One.

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RESPONSE: Through Your grace make me worthy

of that Garden of happiness.

3. A garden full of glory,

a chaste bridal chamber,

did he give to that king

fashioned from the dust,

sanctifying and separating him

from the abode of wild animals;

for glorious was Adam

in all things –

in where he lived and what he ate,

in his radiance and dominion.

Blessed is He who elevated him above all

so that he might give thanks to the Lord of all ….

In these two stanzas Ephrem articulates his view of Paradise and its (theological) geography. He conceives of Paradise as a circular mountain which circumscribes the entire world. When Cain says to Abel in the Peshitta, “Let us go the valley …” (Gen 4:8, Syriac pqatā’, the Hebrew is lacking at this point; the LXX reads εìς τò πεδíον, i.e., ‘to the field’), this implied for Ephrem that their home was on a mountain. ….

The Paradise mountain is then divided further into three concentric circles, designating three levels of sacred space. A careful reading of the Genesis narrative provides the key to understanding the distinctive qualities of these three degrees of holiness. In Gen 3:3 Eve reports to the serpent that God had commanded them not to touch the tree (Hebrew lō(̒) tigg’û bô). Hebrew nāga‘ is ambiguous and can mean either ‘to touch’, or ‘to draw near’. The ambiguity is retained in the Peshitta (Syriac lā(’) tetqarrbûn), yet the verb used in Syriac (qreb in the Ethpa.) readily lends itself to Ephrem’s interpretation, which reads the command to mean ‘to approach’, rather than ‘to touch’. The Syriac thus implies that the divine prohibition was rather strict in nature and ruled out not only the touching of, but even the drawing near to, the tree. In his Commentary on Genesis, Ephrem offers the same interpretation.

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The tempter then turned his mind to the commandment of Him who had set down the commandment, that [Adam and Eve] were not only commanded not to eat from one single tree, but they were not even to draw near to it. The serpent then realized that God had forewarned them abut even looking at it lest they become entrapped by its beauty. […]

The serpent remained silent, for it perceived immediately that Eve was about to succumb. It was not so much the serpent’s counsel that entered her ear and provoked her to eat from the tree at it was her gaze, which she directed toward the tree, that lured her to pluck and eat of its fruit…..

The fact that Adam and Eve were forbidden even to draw near to the tree called for an explanation. In his commentary, Ephrem suggest that Eve had to be guarded from gazing at the tree simply because the tree’s beauty would have enticed her immediately into longing for the fruit – which is, after all, what happened after the serpent seduced her. In his Hymns on Paradise, however, Ephrem provides a different explanation. The closest analogue for the divine prohibition not to draw near in the Hebrew Bible is found in passages that deal with notion of sacred space, such as the theophany at Mount Sinai, or the Divine Presence in the Temple in Jerusalem. In either case we find a tripartite structure, i.e., three concentric circles which serve as demarcations of increasing degrees of holiness organized around the divine presence in the center. God’s command to Eve not to draw near to the tree therefore had to imply that the geography of Paradise followed the same pattern. On the summit of Mount Paradise stood the Tree of Life, representing the divine presence, or the Holy of Holies, an area Adam and Eve were not allowed to enter (cf. Hymns on Paradise III.3). The Tree of Knowledge marked the demarcation line (analogous to the veil in the sanctuary; cf. III.13.17) to the next level, the slopes of the mountain. The lower slopes, finally, indicate the realm where the animals lived. Along the foothills is the fence, produced by the cherub with the revolving sword (IV.1).

Returning to stanza three in hymn XIII, the “garden full of glory, a chaste bridal chamber” is a common epithet for Mount Paradise in Ephrem’s hymns. Adam, here referred to as king, was fashioned from dust, still within the lower slopes of the mountain, an area he

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shared with the beasts. He names the animals, as Ephrem reports in the previous hymn, … and is venerated by them. Adam then discovers his need for a mate, and God creates Eve. It is at this point that Adam and Eve are separated geographically from the animals and enter the middle slopes of the garden. In the words of our hymn (XIII.3), God was “sanctifying and separating him from the abode of wild animals; for glorious was Adam in all things – in where he lived and what he ate, in his radiance and dominion”.

Ephrem is quite specific about the distinctive qualities of Adam’s and Eve’s new environ: no animals dwell here. The first human beings are thus blessed with a unique domicile, food, radiance, and dominion. These last lines, of course, anticipate the comparison with Nebuchadnezzar, who claimed many of the same privileges.

4. The king of Babylon resembled

Adam king of the universe:

both rose up against the one Lord

and were brought low;

He made them outlaws,

casting them afar.

Who can fail to weep,

seeing that these free-born kings

preferred slavery

and servitude.

Blessed is He who releases us

so that His image might no longer be in bondage.

At this point, Ephrem introduces the key hermeneutic maneuver of the entire hymn, the exegetical coordination of Adam and Nebuchadnezzar. The obvious analogies between the two kings are quickly outlined. Like Adam, Nebuchadnezzar indulged in royal splendor. Yet, both heroes proved unable to remain content with their appointed

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status. Becoming increasingly greedy, they grew arrogant before God. Even their swift punishments were analogous in that both were expelled into an exile among the beasts.

5. David wept for Adam,

at how he fell

from that royal abode

to the abode of wild animals (Ps 49:13).

Because he went astray through a beast

he became like the beasts:

He ate, together with them

as a result of the curse,

grass and roots,

and he died, becoming their peer.

Blessed is He who set him apart

from the wild animals again.

The discussion returns to Adam, and a new text is introduced, Ps 49:13, “Man (Hebrew ’ādām) does not abide in (Hebrew yālîn) honor; he is like the beasts that perish.” Like the rabbis, Ephrem saw in the third part of the biblical canon a storehouse of interpretive tools which, once juxtaposed with a verse from the Torah, shed light on the cryptic line under consideration. Jewish exegetes read the verse from Psalm 49 as an explanation about how long Adam resided in Paradise: Adam was expelled from his elevated status in less than a day’s time. ….

Ephrem chooses a different interpretation. In the Peshitta, the first half of verse 13 reads, “Man (Syriac bārnā šā’) did not take notice (Syriac ’etbayyan) … of his honor”, which Ephrem understands to imply that Adam, here understood as the individual, rather than as the collective as the Syriac would suggest, took no cognizance of his

P. 164

elevated status he enjoyed at the moment when God led him (and Eve) away from the animals to the next higher level on Mount Paradise. Adam was careless and forfeit his privileged status.

The stanza provides us with the first glimpse into the ultimate message Ephrem seeks to communicate through his comparison of Adam and Nebuchadnezzar, and to which he will return at greater length in a short moment. Like Adam, we as well are unaware of our present status. Ephrem’s goal thus is to enable us to see what we have lost, since only by discerning this loss can we appreciate what we are lacking and develop a desire to be restored.

6. In that king [i.e., Nebuchadnezzar],

did God depict Adam:

since he provoked God by his exercise of kingship,

God stripped him of that kingship.

The Just One was angry and cast him out

Into the region of wild beasts;

he dwelt there with them

in the wilderness

and only when he repented did he return

to his former abode and kingship.

Blessed is He who has thus taught us to repent

so that we too may return to Paradise.

The parallels between the two biblical accounts are striking indeed and invite comment. Adam was cast into the lower slopes of the animals where he is made to share their life and even their diet (“But your food shall be the grasses of the field”, Gen 3:18). Nebuchadnezzar, too, was sent into the wilderness, roaming the steppe like a wild animal, eating herbs and roots, and growing out his hair and nails.

The punishment is justified, as Ephrem is quick to point out by referring to God as the “Just One.” Frequently throughout the Hymns on Paradise Ephrem employs the two divine attributes of Grace and Justice, also known in rabbinic literature as middat haddîn and middat harahămîn, or in Ephrem’s terminology the “Just One” and the “Good One.” For Ephrem, this rabbinic notion of God’s justice and grace is inseparably linked with the notion of the human free will. …. In XIII.4 Ephrem had already stressed that both Adam and

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Nebuchadnezzar acted out of their free will (“Who can fail to weep, seeing that these free-born kings preferred slavery and servitude”). Once again, the paraenetic force behind Ephrem’s remarks is unmistakable. With the Church corresponding to Paradise, every Christian is put to the test just like Adam. The test is not about the fruit of the tree, but about obedience to Christ whose fruit we may enjoy daily. ….Christians are to respond by properly using the divine gift of free will. Earlier in the cycle, Ephrem expresses this crucial concept as follows:

Blessed indeed is that person on whose behalf

they [i.e., the assembly of Saints] have interceded before

the Good One,

before the Just One.

Those whom the Good One loves shall be in Eden,

those whom the Just One rejects, in Sheol. (VI.19)

Ephrem dwells on the parallel between Adam and Nebuchadnezzar at some length – while emphasizing that it is not complete. In the previous stanza we learned about Adam that “he ate, together with them as a result of the curse, grass and roots, and he died, becoming their peer”. (XIII.5). The equivalent line about Nebuchadnezzar reads quite differently, “he dwelt there with them [i.e., the animals] in the wilderness and only when he repented did he return to his former abode and kingship.” (XIII.6). Adam’s fall is final, and his transgression does not allow for repentance. In fact, Adam returned to Paradise only with the advent of the second Adam – who is, of course, Christ. …. With Nebuchadnezzar the situation is different. The

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monarch finds a terminus to his penance and is immediately reinstalled into his royal splendor. This, then, is the rationale for the Nebuchadnezzar episode: it provides us with a figura of our own situation. Just as Nebuchadnezzar found release from his sin through penitence, so can we.

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7. Because it was not easy

for us to see our fallen state –

how and whence we had fallen

at the very outset –

He depicted it all together

in that king,

portraying in our fall

his fall,

and portraying our return

in his repentant return.

Praise to Him who delineated

this likeness for the repentant.

8. Although he disliked

the abode of wild beasts

it was necessary

for the king to remain there;

yet, despite his madness and error,

he recalled that he was a man

and prayed that he might be returned

to his own former abode;

and when the Good One returned him,

he gave thanks to Him for His compassion.

Blessed is He who gave us in him

an example of returning.

The same ease which allows Ephrem to move from Adam the individual to Adam the collective and vice versa is now transferred to Nebuchadnezzar. Nebuchadnezzar’s fate becomes, in the words of Anderson, “a virtual précis of the human condition. For Ephrem, our level of self-knowledge is so low that we have no consciousness of our present duress. In this sense Adam was more fortunate than us, for the sharp contrast between his existence in the Garden and the wilderness impressed upon him the magnitude of his transgression.” …. The same holds true for Nebuchadnezzar. After seven years in exile among the beasts of the field, Nebuchadnezzar finally came to realize the full extent of the loss he suffers, and “he recalled that he was a man”. In this respect, Adam and Nebuchadnezzar were privileged indeed. The gravity of their affliction dispersed any doubts about the seriousness of their offense. Here Ephrem’s use of divine epithets is again deliberate. Once Nebuchadnezzar comes to realize the gravity of his fall, he begins to pray, and the “Good One” heeds

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his prayer. The harsh punishment was necessary, not because it was called for in accordance with the divine measure for measure principle, as both the rabbis and Aphrahat would have it, but because it served a double paraenetic purpose. First, it quickened the king’s memory and enabled him to secure his return through penitence. And second, it reminds us of our fall. Looked at from this perspective, Nebuchadnezzar’s animalization is not an expression of divine retribution, but an act of loving chastisement. The reader is reminded of the exhortatory nature of Ephrem’s hymn. In the words of the Psalmist, “Happy is the man whom you discipline, O Lord, the man you instruct in your teaching” (Ps 94:12).

Our problem, as Ephrem explains, is that we have become used to our lives “among the animals”. (XIII.10) Not only have we lost any appreciation for the glorious existence for which we were intended, we have to be redeemed against our own wills.

9. Look at how great is our shame

in comparison:

our very confinement in darkness

has become for us a source of pleasure;

we are proud

of the land of curses;

how we love

our confinement in a pit!

Like the Egyptians we

are drowning in the sea.

Blessed is He who has had pity on us

so that we should not be left in this our state.

10. The Good One in His love

wished to discipline us for doing wrong,

and so we had to Ieave Paradise

with its bridal chamber of glory;

He made us live with the wild beasts,

which caused us sorrow,

so that we might see how little

our honor had become,

and so would supplicate Him and beg to return

to our inheritance.

Praise be to Him who released

these prisoners who have no wish to be free!

The fate of Adam and Nebuchadnezzar directly points at, or better stated, becomes a type of our own situation. We have become so accustomed to our debased nature that God has to chastise us as well, hoping that we too repent and “beg to return to our inheritance.”

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11. In both his mind and understanding

was the king of Babylon childlike,

but through our Lord, my brethren,

your understanding is complete.

He returned to Babylon:

Both he and the city have vanished;

but do you, my brothers,

seek your city,

for both you and it

shall endure forever.

Happy are those who live there,

for in it none ever need to be buried.

The analogy between Nebuchadnezzar's fate and our own lives is not complete, as Ephrem emphasizes in his concluding stanza on the Babylonian king. Having lived in a pre-Christian era, Nebuchad¬nezzar's understanding was limited, and both he and his city were doomed to vanish. With the coming of Christ, however, we are granted insight into God's plans, so that our understanding is in fact complete. The imagery of the city ("You, my brothers, seek your city, for both you and it shall endure forever") brings us back to where we started, the notion of Paradise. In the following hymn, hymn XIV, which continues both the acrostic and the theme of hymn XIII, Ephrem elaborates on the concept of Paradise as an eternal city (XIV.4).

We should learn from Daniel,

who prayed

that he might come up from Babylon

to the land of promises (cf. Dan 9:15-19);

Babylon is the likeness of this earth,

full of curses.

God gave us this type which He depicted

so that we too

might pray that we return

to our dwelling in Eden.

Blessed is He who brings us forth

through grace to our goal.

The happy ending in Dan 4 was not so happy after all, for although Nebuchadnezzar was restored into his former position, he died just as Adam did. We, on the other hand, are called to live in the eter¬nal city. Again in the words of Ephrem (XIV.7), "let us too return to our Fathers' house, my brethren, and not become captivated with desire for this transient earth - for your true city is in Eden." (cf. Hebr. 11:16).

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Ephrem's insightful illustration of Nebuchadnezzar's madness marks a major caesura in the Syriac reception history of Dan 4. Whereas Aphrahat closely followed the rabbinic reading of Dan 4 as a force¬ful story about divine retribution leveled at a human king who thought himself divine, Ephrem places the emphasis solely on the penitential aspect. The punitive side of Nebuchadnezzar's transformation is retained, to be sure, but punishment now becomes chastisement. It comes to serve a larger purpose, i.e., to confront Nebuchadnezzar - and through him the whole of Christianity - with the reality of humanity's fallen state, in an effort to evoke a desire for ultimate restoration. Nebuchadnezzar's lamentable exile becomes a mirror of the human condition per se, and the notorious king becomes a model penitent. ….

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