St. Ephrem on Ninevah and Sodom

sainte02The use of Scripture in many of the Orthodox Church Fathers puzzles many modern readers. We tend to see reading as something that can be done in two modes: literal or figurative. In addition, we tend to equate literal with “true” and figurative as “not real and thus somehow not quite true.” It’s actually a very limited way of reading reducing meaning to two poor choices. Indeed, there is a “privileging” of the literal – by equating it with “real.” The model is literal equals historical equals objective equals true. It is, if you will, a very “flat-footed” reading that makes many assumptions about the world – most of which would support the notion of the world as a “secular realm.” In this model the question would be: “Are the Scriptures as true as the New York Times?” You can think about that question after you quit laughing.

First off, for the Fathers, “true” means “eschatological.” Things are true as measured by the end of all things. Creation has an end and a goal both of which already reside in the created order. All that exists is moving towards its end and the fulfillment of the truth of its existence. Thus, to be modern and flat-footed, the only “literal” truth has not yet been fully manifest. We live in a world of shadows, icons, hints, and signposts. Thus the Fathers tend to read things looking for something that isn’t always apparent. They are looking for the truth, but often having to look beyond the immediate presentation to find the end of the matter. Comparisons and echoes between two events are key moments in interpretation. This is especially true when the key moment echoes the life, death, resurrection, etc., of Christ – who is the End of all things.

William, one of our readers and a frequent commentator, posted a comment this morning that offered a marvelous example of this Patristic style of interpretation. His example came from St. Ephrem of Syria – one of the greatest hymn writers in the early Church. Parenthetically, it should be noted that a number of the better interpreters of Scripture in the early Church used poetry and hymn-writing as a major means of expression. It’s almost a way of saying that the world exists more like poetry than prose.

St. Ephrem finds a comparison between the story of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah (in the book of Genesis) and the story of the sparing of the city of Ninevah (in the book of the Prophet Jonah). He also sees a comparison between the attitude of Abraham (who asked for God’s mercy on Sodom) and the Prophet Jonah (who was angry because God spared Ninevah).

The saint is not particularly concerned with any question of “did this really happen?” or other concerns that drive modern literal interpretations. The truth of the destruction of Sodom and the sparing of Ninevah is to be found in the Eschaton, when Christ will come to judge all things. And the point of that judgment is, St. Ephrem affirms, to be found in the mercy of God. It is the common teaching of the Orthodox fathers that God is merciful towards all (“not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance”). However not all desire God’s mercy. Christ said:

 And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil. For every one who does evil hates the light, and does not come to the light, lest his deeds should be exposed (John 3:19-20).

Thus Ephrem sees the same mercy (light) coming to Ninevah and to Sodom. One is glad to receive mercy, but the other hated mercy (the Sodomites surely showed no mercy to their visitors) and found God’s mercy to be as fire and brimstone.

Of course any move away from modern literalism frightens some people for fear that claims for the reality of Christ’s atoning death and resurrection might be weakened. Although the Church sees the written account of the Gospels as “doctrinally shaped” narratives – nonetheless we stand on the ground of a certain literalism in the Gospels. For the Truth Himself, the Alpha and Omega, is among us in the gospel and all that happens around Him is being brought to its “literal” truth. The blind receive their sight because darkness is not the truth. The lame walk and the dead are raised because brokenness and death are not the truth of our existence. Where Christ is judgment has come. Judgment that gives sight and causes to walk. Judgment that raises the dead. But also judgment that reveals traitors and hypocrites and unmasks the false power of the princes of this world.

Thus St. Ephrem’s poetry reveals. As William noted:

…the Ninevites were faced with the same threat that Sodom and Gomorrah faced, but their hearts were different. Ephrem describes the Ninevites’ ashes and sackcloth as being like blood money and an offering that made reconciliation. The tears that flowed from their eyes were met with mercy flowing from heaven, Ephrem writes. God always meets repentance with mercy. Anyway, this describes God’s wrath as something whose very purpose is mercy:

“Give thanks to the One Who sent His anger to Nineveh
that His anger might be a merchant of mercy.
For two treasures His anger opens:
the treasure of the deep and the treasure of the height.
Urgently the fruit [repentance] went up from below to the height.
Urgently mercy rained from above to the deep.
Urgently the blood money went up to the height.
Urgently pity came down from above to the deep.”

It seems that God’s visitation on Sodom and Gomorrah that was a shower of brimstone on unrepentant souls was no different from his visitation on Nineveh that was a shower of mercy on the repentant. Abraham’s prayer didn’t change God, nor did the Ninevites’ sackcloth, because God’s will is always mercy on the repentant. Abraham’s prayer for mercy toward the righteous is in conformity with God’s eternal intent.

Here is another quote from St. Ephrem comparing Jonah with Abraham. It doesn’t necessarily answer any questions, but it’s interesting, and it suggests the difference between Sodom and Nineveh and between a merciful man and an unmerciful one:

“That Sodom not be overthrown Abraham prayed.
That Nineveh be overthrown Jonah hoped.
That man prayed for a city that abused watchers [angels]
This man was angry at a city that made the watchers rejoice.”

“Tears moistened her (Nineveh); mercy shone on her;
weeping rained in her; pity sprouted in her
The King of the height saw and desired
the fruit that a flow of tears grew.
The High One hungered very much for her tears,
since He tasted remorse in her fruits.
He came down and opened the treasury of mercy
to purchase by His mercy the fruits of His servants.”

Thank you William. Thank you St. Ephrem. Thanks be to God.

13 Responses to “St. Ephrem on Ninevah and Sodom”

  1. William Says:

    Thank you father. These insights are truly powerful.

  2. Steve Says:

    Father,

    This is a masterpiece! The Scriptures are as true and fresh today as they ever were. Praise the Lord for He is good!

  3. Ian Says:

    Thank you William and thank you Father. I feel a great draw towards the “Eastern” Saints, particularly the poets such as St Ephrem — your comment, “the world exists more like poetry than prose,” is one I can identify with.

  4. Katia Says:

    HAVE MERCY on us, who are at fault before Thee greatly

    at every hour, O my Christ;

    and before the end, grant means

    that we may repent before Thee.

    From the Hymns of Ascent

  5. St. Susanna the Martyr Says:

    Wow, Father, thank you! This really helps me to understand the Orthodox approach to Scripture much better. The fullness of Orthodoxy never ceases to amaze me. And it is fundamentally that Orthodoxy sees Truth itself, or I should say Himself, in a fullness that I’d barely even glimpsed before.

  6. alyssasophia Says:

    As always, Fr. Stephen, your timing is impeccable! Thank you so much for your explanations and examples. I understand so little. Lord have mercy.

  7. Mrs. Mutton Says:

    Are the Scriptures as true as WHAT?!?!?! “All the news that’s fit to tint”?!?! “All the news that fits, we print”?!?! When you live in NYC, as I did for the first 32 years of my life, you get to see very quickly just how much “truth” the NY Times prints. Or, as they used to say in the Soviet Union, “There is no truth in the News, and no news in the Truth.”

  8. Moses Says:

    Is the poem listed above found in that pink/purple book (Hymns on Paradise) published by SVS press? By the way, does anyone know if that was a good translation?!?! Sorry to go off topic Father! Great post! =D

  9. William Says:

    Hi Moses,

    The three separate quotations come from three separate poems, each part of a series on Jonah and Nineveh that appears near the end of St. Ephrem’s “Hymns on Virginity and on the Symbols of the Lord,” which is a beautiful collection. Those hymns are found in the Classics of Western Spirituality edition translated by Kathleen E. McVey and published by Paulist Press. That seems to be a good translation, with lots of notes on alternative readings and such. I picked up the Hymns on Paradise edition you refer to, but haven’t read it yet (soon, hopefully!). I’m guessing it’s a good translation, since all the SVS patristics stuff I’ve read so far has been good.

  10. Duke Says:

    I apologize for being a bit thick, but this doesn’t make sense to me:

    “It seems that God’s visitation on Sodom and Gomorrah that was a shower of brimstone on unrepentant souls was no different from his visitation on Nineveh that was a shower of mercy on the repentant.”

    God destroyed one and not the other; how is it the same?

  11. Katia Says:

    Hi Duke,

    God gave choice to Sodom and Gomorrah and Nineveh, something like this;

    To the first He gave them choice, chose brimstone or repent and they go we want brimstone and they get it, the second He gave them the same choice brimstone or repent and they chose repentance, in both cases He acted with mercy because He wanted (Wants) the salvation of all but S & G acted upon their free will …

    that’s how i understand it but Fr. Stephen will correct me if i am wrong

    With Love in Jesus Christ

  12. William Says:

    Duke,

    God’s activity is always the same because he does not change (despite language of him “changing his mind,” etc.) and neither does his merciful and loving purpose for mankind. But the effect of his activity varies according to what it encounters in human hearts. So when God’s visitation meets repentant hearts, there is forgiveness and mercy and transformation in the fire of his presence. When it meets hateful hearts, such hearts are burned up in that same fire, and this is what we call the wrath of God. God was prepared both to destroy and to show mercy on Sodom and Gomorrah, just as he indicated to Abraham, but he obviously destroyed the city because there was no repentance. God also was prepared destroy Nineveh, as he indicated to Jonah, and Jonah also knew that God would turn away his wrath if the people repented. He said as much after God showed mercy: “O Lord, were these not my words when I was yet in my land? Therefore I saw the need to flee to Tarshish; because I knew you to be compassionate and merciful, longsuffering and abundant in mercy and willing to change your heart concerning evils.” (Jonah 4: 1-2). In other words, just as with Sodom and Gomorrah, God was prepared both to destroy and to show mercy at his visitation. It was the same in both cases. The only thing different was the repentance or lack thereof of the inhabitants of each city.

    From St. Maximus (and echoed in several other fathers, including St. Ephrem):

    “God is the sun of justice, as it is written, who shines rays of goodness on simply everyone. The soul develops according to its free will into either wax because of its love for God or into mud because of its love for matter. Thus just as by nature the mud is dried out by the sun and wax is automatically softened, so also every soul which loves matter and the world and has fixed its mind far from God is hardened as mud according to its free will and by itself advances to its perdition, as did Pharaoh. However, every soul which loves God is softened as wax, and receiving divine impressions and characters it becomes ‘the dwelling place of God in the Spirit.'”

    I hope that helps.

  13. Michael Says:

    Duke,
    In response to you question, with a little latitude, I would offer an analogy. The mercy and love of God is like running water. If we are prepared to receive it, then it will be a life-giving spring to our souls. However, not being prepared to receive mercy and love, the same running water becomes a destructive torrent to our souls. That is about as far as I would like to take this analogy, so I offer myself as a concrete example. I am an Orthodox Christian that is not in good standing with the Church, through my own sinfulness and pride. I willfully separated myself from Christ and His Church (for a good description I would recommend Fr Joseph’s recent posting on his blog: http://southern-orthodoxy.blogspot.com/ ). Even in the muck I have created for myself, Christ has continued to bestow His love, mercy, compassion and many blessings. However, I have made this love and mercy to be wrath. I can say from personal experience, rejecting Christ’s love is the same as bringing fire and brimstone down upon yourself. God’s wrath is the rejection of His love. This love is bringing me to repentance.

    I would recommend you to begin reading the Scriptures in this patristic pattern. Father Stephen’s site has been an invaluable asset to me in my turning back to Christ.

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