1978 (6) Holy Righteous Ones Preparers of Salvation
The Holy Righteous Abraham, Moses and Elias
as Preparers of Man's Salvation
by Bishop Nathaniel of Vienna and Austria
The stages in the history of man's maturing for salvation are generally delineated in the Old Testament by three names: those of the Patriarch Abraham, the God-seer Moses, and the Prophet Elias. St. Basil the Great says that he could never look upon a depiction of Abraham offering lsaac as a sacrifice without tears coming to his eyes. Indeed, if we consider the moral stature of the Righteous Abraham in this deed, our souls cannot remain indifferent; they cannot help but be filled with the most ardent admiration.
At a single word from the Lord, Abraham forsook his native city, Ur of the Chaldees, which was in the full bloom of its culture, possessing all the comforts of life, all the most attractive things in life, and departed for a wild, far-distant land which the Lord promised to give to his offspring to possess forever: "and in thee shall all the tribes of the earth be blessed" (Gen. 12:3). Abraham was still childless, but without bitterness he said to God: "What wilt Thou give me, whereas I am departing without a child, but the son of Masek, my home-born female slave, this Eliezer of Damascus is mine heir? . . . I am grieved since Thou hast given me no seed: but my home-born servant"shall succeed me" (Gen. 15:2-3). He performed this podvig only out of love and obedience to God.
But with what warm, what boundless love this mighty patriarch, great in his righteous integrity, loved his long-awaited legitimate son Isaac, the child born in his old age. This love was all-embracing; it had everything: both the natural affection of a father for his son, and the joyfully triumphant contemplation of the firstfruits of the fulfillment of God's promises, which were to be accomplished through this son. Thus, in Abraham's love for Isaac we can perceive the origin of elements of the most perfect love in the entire world of earthly creatures, which would be revealed two thousand years after Abraham in the love of his most blessed descendant for her Son and God.
And lo! in obedience to the Lord's word, Isaac was led to the slaughter by Abraham, who was ready to sacrifice even his only son to the Lord God, whom he loved more than anything in the world.
Moreover, this resolution to offer his son as a sacrifice in accordance with God's command was not a brief flight of emotion, not merely an ardent impulse. It took three days for Abraham and lsaac to arrive at the place of sacrifice. The agony of the sacrificing father, and his readiness for the terrible sacrifice lasted for seventy-two hours. Indeed, there could be no human heart so callous as not to tremble with emotion on reading this biblical narrative attentively (Genesis, ch. 22).
In this podvig, Abraham is deemed worthy of the highest honor possible for a human being. In the Church's view, he becomes a type of the Lord Almighty Himself – God the Father Who, for the salvation of the human race, offered His only-begotten Son as a sacrifice. And the meek Isaac, himself carrying the wood on which he would have to be laid as a whole-burnt offering, humbly questioning his father and submissively being bound by him, becomes the type of Christ the Savior.
The first people sinned through disobedience, and in the podvig of the Righteous Abraham and Isaac, disobedience was overcome with the greatest force and vividness. A human being scaled the summit of obedience, prompted by the purest love for God. It was this quality of obedience which the Lord, Who gave man the original commandment, wished to cultivate in him as his guiding quality, for He created man for growth in obedience and love, for the Godlike qualities which were later to be manifested in such abundance by the Son of God on earth.
Indeed, the Lord does not accomplish our salvation apart from us, but in His providential care for us has those among us who are faithful to Him as His co-participants.
However, we may justly inquire: "Why, if Abraham was lifted to such a spiritual height by his holy podvig; did he remain only a type of the Lord and did not become a participant in the incarnation and the actual salvation of mankind? Why did the Lord not make haste to descend upon Mount Moriah where this amazing sacrifice was taking place, as He did later upon the room in Nazareth and the cave of Bethlehem? Why did the Lord wait more than two thousand wearisome years before coming into the world?"
To answer this question, we must turn with sadness from the shining heights of holiness to which Abraham ascended to the incidents of backsliding and weakness into which the same great patriarch fell. We see how, before the birth of Isaac, Abraham had twice hidden behind his wife Sarah in fear of the Egyptians and Abimelech, and in his cowardly fear was prepared to give her away – to relinquish the participant in his holy labors, and how he was ready to lead a whole nation into serious sin and under the punishment of God (Gen. 12:11-20 and ch. 20). We see Abraham, after the death of his wife Sarah, being consoled by his concubine Keturah.
Let no pen or tongue dare to condemn the greatest and holiest of the patriarchs. But seeing these backslidings, these human weaknesses of his, we understand that the Lord could not come down to him and unite himself with him fully, could not make him, such as he was, a participant in the divine life; we see that human nature in Abraham had not matured sufficiently for theosis. But Abraham participated in the process of preparing mankind to receive the Lord, in the process of maturing towards the possibility of divine/human life as much as he was capable. "Your father Abraham rejoiced to see My day: and he saw it and was glad," said the Lord, the Son of David, the Son of Abraham (Jn. 8:56 and Mt. 1:1).
The Lord spoke with Abraham in a vision at night (Gen. 15:1), and appeared to him in the form of the three strangers. Before the Fall, man spoke with God face to face, knew Him personally, because people were created for knowledge of God in love and obedience to Him. And it was necessary before the coming of the Lord that the possibility of knowing God, seeing Him, and recognizing Him be returned to mankind. For this purpose, the Lord called one of the descendants of Abraham, the righteous Moses, who was so filled with love for his brethren, the co-heirs of the promise, that he discarded as something despicable, not worthy of consideration, his (by earthly standards) brilliant position as adopted son of the princess, the daughter of Pharoah; and having taken the part of an oppressed Israelite, he fled from Egypt. If in Abraham we see the height of Old Testament love of God, in Moses we see, besides, a love of God not surpassed by that of Abraham, the embodiment of the second half of God's fundamental law: the height of love for neighbor as for oneself.
The Lord led Moses to a great height of election. The Lord handed him His law amid thunder and tempest on Mount Sinai. The Lord spoke with him face to face, and for the first time since the Fall, the single time preceding the moments before Golgotha, the Lord called a human being (in the person of Moses) His friend: "If there should be of you a prophet to the Lord, I will be made known to him in a vision, and in sleep will l speak to him. My servant Moses is not so; he is faithful in all My house. I will speak to him mouth to mouth apparently, and not in dark speeches; and he has seen the glory of the Lord . . ." (Num. 12:6-8), and, "And the Lord spoke to Moses face to face, as if one should speak to his friend . . ." (Ex. 33:11).
(In one other place in the Old Testament, Abraham is called a friend of God (Is. 41:8), but this occurred not during his lifetime, but many centuries after his death.)
Making use of his friendship with God for the realization of his love for neighbor as himself, Moses addressed the Lord with this bold prayer in the terrible hour of divine anger for the sin of the Israelites: "O Lord . . . if Thou wilt forgive their sin, forgive it; and if not, blot me out of Thy book, which Thou hast written"(Ex. 32:32).
note: Since the peoples' sin lay in a violation of the covenant, Moses' plea, "Forgive their sin," is equivalent to the entreaty: "Do not consider the covenant broken; do not reject Israel; do not take from her the calling and rights of the people chosen by God." The necessity of such a request was brought about by the following. To Moses' first intercession (vv. 11-13) God replied with a promise not to destroy Israel. Its further existence was thus assured. Yet such a promise still did not signify that the Jews would remain the chosen people. The very mood of the people gave cause to doubt this, as they had not only shown no readiness to have God's mercy restored to them, but also displayed an extreme obstinacy which threatened them with complete rejection by God. In view of this, Moses prayed: "Forgive their sin." If forgiveness could not be freely granted, he offered his life as a sacrifice: "Blot me out of Thy book, which Thou hast written."
Moses was an instrument of God's great work: through him God's Law, lost through the transgression in Eden, was restored to mankind; the possibility of divine service and of private communion with God was reestablished; earth ceased to be alien to heaven. The continuing process of the preparation for mankind to receive the Son of God entered into man's life on earth through Moses in the God-given divine services, although not fully, not perfectly, but in shadows, in images and in reflections. Thus, the Church sees Moses in particular as a type of Christ and often in festal services sings hymns drawing a comparison between him and Christ the Lord: "The shadow of the Law passed away when grace came . . . In place of the pillar of fire there rose the Sun of Righteousness; in place of Moses, Christ, the Salvation of our souls" (Dogmatic of Tone ll).
But the Lord could not come down even to Moses and unite Himself with him freely. In the hour of his calling, we see him bargaining with the Lord and provoking God's anger by his stubborn reluctance to follow God's call: "I pray Thee, Lord, appoint another able person whom Thou shalt send" (Exodus 4:13, and all of chapters 3 & 4). We see Moses sinning before the Lord at the waters of Meribah in Kadesh in the desert of Sin (Num. 20:12 and Deut. 1:37, 33:8). The Lord said to Moses" "Thou shalt see the land before thee" which He gave to the children of Israel (Deut. 32:52). The Promised Land was not just a concrete earthly reality; it was also a type of the Kingdom of God, and God's words to Moses related to both of these meanings of the Promised Land: the holy and righteous God-seer Moses was vouchsafed a vision of the divine-human life – the tabernacle of God and men – but it was not permitted him to enter it.
* * *
The third spiritual summit of Old Testament man was the holy Prophet Elias.
The entire narrative concerning him is permeated with unbelievably exceptional power and great zealous love for the Lord. In the time of the impious Israelite King Ahab and his queen, Jezebel, who has become a symbol of all that is ungodly and foul, this mighty prophet arose, burning with great zeal for the Lord. In obedience to God's command, he closed the heavens by a single word, and for three years there was not a drop of rain in the whole land of Israel, as a punishment for its idolatry. In his zeal for God, Elias brought down fire from heaven upon the sacrifice to God, that Israel would cease crippling itself with two contrary beliefs, that the people would confess who is the true God – the wicked Baal or the righteous Lord. In unrestrained but righteous anger against the prophets of Baal and Astarte, the seducers and corrupters of God's people, the Prophet Elias slew "four hundred and fifty prophets of Baal, and four hundred prophets of the groves"with his own hands (III Kings, ch. 18).
We can in no way reproach the holy and righteous Elias. He was no less devoted to God than his forefather Abraham. At the same time, we see in him no backslidings like those of Abraham. He was no less capable of communion with God than was Moses, for the Lord appeared to him on Mount Horeb as He had to Moses; and in the New Testament, only these two, Moses and Elias, out of all of Old Testament mankind, were summoned to behold the light of Tabor, in the Divine Transfiguration.
Perhaps he might be reproached for fear of death when he fled from Jezebel, who was persecuting him: "And Elias feared, and arose, and departed for his life" (III Kings 19:3). But fear of death is a feeling which is natural and inherent in man, and the Lord did not reproach His prophet for this fear, for Elias did not do anything wrong or against God's command under its influence, not even on such a scale as when Moses arbitrarily struck the stone at the waters of Meribah. Only after having finished his mission from God did he flee from his persecutor.
But not even Elias could become the vessel of the divine incarnation because of his spontaneous ungovernable wrath and the all-embracing ardor of his zeal for the Lord God. This wrath, this ardor is of a different spirit from that of the New Testament, the spirit of Him Who is meek and lowly of heart. Thus, when Christ's disciples James and John wanted to bring down fire "even as Elias did," Christ forbade them, saying, "Ye know not what manner of spirit ye are of. For the Son of Man is not come to destroy men's souls, but to save them" (Lk. -9:54-56).
With love and divine tact, the Lord also spoke very subtly to His prophet when He appeared to him on Mount Horeb: "The word of the Lord came to him, and He said, What doest thou here, Elias? And Elias said, I have been very zealous for the Lord Almighty, because the children of Israel have forsaken Thee: they have digged down Thine altars, and have slain Thy prophets with the sword; and I only am left alone, and they seek my life to take it. And He said, Thou shalt go forth tomorrow, and shalt stand before the Lord in the mount; behold, the Lord will pass by. And, behold, a great and strong wind rending the mountains, and crushing the rocks before the Lord: but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake; but the Lord was not in the earthquake: and after the earthquake a fire: but the Lord was not in the fire: and after the fire the voice of a gentle breeze" (III Kings 19:9-12). Elias was a great and strong wind, rending mountains and smashing rocks before the Lord, but he was not a still small voice. The Lord awaited this still small voice, which was not in Elias, for yet many centuries. The Lord, in accomplishing the salvation of those whom He had created in His image and likeness, who were consequently spiritually sovereign beings, could not come to mankind without its consent, without that still small voice," because He is not in storm, nor in fire, but in the blowing of a gentle breeze. This blowing of a gentle breeze appeared among men when "the angel Gabriel was sent from God unto a city of Galilee, named Nazareth, to a virgin . . . and the virgin's name was Mary" (Lk. 1:26-27) and when, in her reply.to the angel's announcement, which was more wondrous than that made to Abraham, of greater promise than that made to Moses, and infinitely more blessed than that made to Elias, her gentle voice was heard to say, "Behold the handmaid of the Lord, be it unto me according to thy word" (Lk. 1:38). Only at that moment could the coming of the Son of God to mankind take place, and at that precise moment it did take place, for the Almighty Lord, having patiently waited centuries for this moment, did not delay a second longer, but forthwith united Himself with the human nature which He had created and which, though torn from Him by sin, had not been forgotten by His love. He renewed and recreated it in the womb of the Ever-Virgin.
Nevertheless, neither Abraham, nor Moses, nor Elias were left without a part to play in this work.
The Holy Virgin is in soul and body the offspring of Abraham. For her to come into being, he left his native Ur of the Chaldees, which abounded with culture and the comforts of life; from him, her forefather, she inherited the most exalted flight of selfless love for God, which was exhibited by him on Mount Moria in the sacrificial offering of his son, and by her in the loftiest and purest manner by her participation in the saving Passion of the Lord on Golgotha.
note: The city of Ur (the present day Mugheir), judging from inscriptions preserved there, was a coastal town which carried on far-reaching trade by sea. At present, however, the site of Ur is located more than seventy kilometers inland from the Persian Gulf. It is also known that the Tigris and Euphrates flowed into the gulf in separate channels, though they now flow into it through one common channel which has been formed at a relatively recent date in the soft, muddy ground. The process of silting proceeds at the rate of approximately one mile every sixty-six years, thus increasing the area of the country at the expense of the Persian Gulf. If Egypt, as Herodotus put it, is the gift of the Nile, Babylon is likewise a gift of the Tigris and the Euphrates. In the rich, muddy soil lush vegetation sprang forth which in ancient times made Babylon a synonym for tremendous fertility. In describing this land, Herodotus considered it necessary to demure at giving a detailed description of the fertility of the area, in fear that he might elicit disbelief on the part of his readers. The date palm yielded an inexhaustible supply of food for the people. Cereals rendered a harvest at a rate of two hundred, sometimes three hundred fold.
She was raised and educated in the Law given by God through Moses on holy Mount Sinai; she was trained in the temple, which had been built in compliance with God's command through Moses, and she corrected the shortcoming by which Moses had angered God at the Unburned Bush (a type of her), because she did not doubt in the least, nor did she raise any objection to God at her selection, but by her humble words, "Behold the handmaid of the Lord," effaced the untoward stuttering of Moses' words at his selection: "I pray Thee, Lord, appoint another able person whom Thou shalt send."
By the "blowing of a gentle breeze." a still small voice, she set aright the burning tempest of Elias' zeal. In this podvig of hers also participated her kinsman, the great prophet who came after her, coming in the spirit and power of Elias, that is, being in no way less than Elias in zeal for God, he did not slay with the sword but called to repentance even the "brood of vipers" whom he rebuked. This new Elias did not fear the Jezebel of his time, but received a martyr's death from her at the juncture of the Old and New Testaments, that even in Hades he might be the Forerunner of the Lord.
In this comparison of the most holy and most pure Virgin Mary with the giants of the spirit of the Old Testament, we would like to touch on one other problem: Why did the Mother of God, the holiest of all that are holy, more honorable than the cherubim and more glorious beyond compare than the seraphim, have to pass over the threshold of death, to taste the bitter Cup of death which is common to all men, while the Prophet Elias avoided death and was taken up alive into Heaven?
In answering this question, we must remember that the Lord always fulfills the sincere, mature and profound wishes of his faithful servants. The Mother of God did not fear death; she did not seek to avoid it. She knew that death had already been overcome by her Son and God. Most of all, she wanted to be with Him, her beloved Son and Lord, in soul and body. And as the Church's account of her dormition tells us, she asked the Lord for only one thing, "that I may not see the dismal sight of the demons," for they are vile and foul. It is natural for chastity and modesty to seek to avoid all contact and even proximity with those who bear filth, impudence and shamelessness. And the Lord fulfilled this most chaste wish of His most holy Mother: she tasted of death, committing her soul to His embrace, which was beyond the demons' reach; and He, after His own example, resurrected her on the third day that she could be with Him in body and soul at the right hand of God's throne.
The Prophet Elias did not wish to die at the hands of Jezebel, not because he feared death as such, for immediately after he fled from Jezebel he asked God for death. But he could not reconcile himself with the power of evil, or with the shameful prophets who were corrupting God's people, or with Jezebel, queen of Israel. But the Lord would not bring His faithful servant down to Hades, which was inescapably bound up with death in the Old Testament. He could not commit to the power of the enemy, who were infinitely more foul than the shameful and loathsome priests or repulsive Jezebel.
The Lord took him up to heaven alive, but Church teaching tells us that when, in the last times, iniquity will be multiplied and the love of many will have dried up to the point that all manifestations of zeal for God will have grown weak among mankind, there will appear "two witnesses, two olive trees, two candlesticks" (Rev. 11: 3, 4) who will bear witness to God's truth among fainthearted mankind, inspiring courage among the small flock of those who remain until the end, confounding and rebuking the many, impudently triumphant enemies of God. With God's acquiescence these two candlesticks will be slain by Antichrist (Rev. 11:7) and will rise on the third day. Church teaching tells us that these two witness candlesticks will be the Patriarch Enoch and the Prophet Elias, the two righteous men of the Old Testament who did not taste of death, that they might be able to accomplish God's mission at the end of the ages, when human strength has grown weak.
note: Antichrist. coming forth from the dark and lower regions of the earth, into which the devil was exiled, will slay them with God's forbearance and leave their bodies unburied in the same ancient and ruined city of Jerusalem in which the Lord suffered. In this city he will establish his kingdom and royal throne like unto David, whose Son in the flesh was Christ, our true God, and he will thereby attempt to show that he is the messiah come to fulfill the word of the Prophet" "In that day I will raise up the tabernacle of David that is fallen, and will rebuild the ruins of it. and will set: up the parts thereof that have broken down" (Amos. 9:11). This the deluded Jews will accept and relate to his coming. Enticed by the false miracles of Antichrist and giving him a preeminent place in their hearts, the Jews and pagans will not permit the holy bodies of the prophets to be buried, and will rejoice in their deliverance and liberation from the punishments they endured on account of their own faulty understanding. Lying dead for the same number of days as the number of years of their prophesying. Enoch and Elias will, to the horror of those who watch. ascend to heaven on a majestic chariot of cloud (cf. Interpretation of the Apocalypse by St. Andrew. Archbishop of Cæsarea).
This terrible weakening of human moral strength can be clearly and painfully felt even now, as never before. Whether this means that the hour in which the Prophet Elias and the righteous Enoch will come to us as forerunners of the Second Coming of Christ is at hand, we cannot say: but we steadfastly believe that sooner or later this will happen, and the earth will yet hear a stern voice saying: "As the Lord of Hosts liveth, today I will appear before Him . . . How long will ye halt on both feet? If the Lord be God, follow Him; but if Baal, then follow him" (III Kings 18:15, 21). And many, many of the signs of modern times bear witness that little time remains before the day when this voice will be heard, and perhaps we, our generation, will meet face-to-face, on this earth, in our present conditions of reality, the stern, fire-breathing prophet of God, whom Church hymnody justly calls "the Second Forerunner of Christ's Coming, glorious Elias."
Translated by Seraphim F. Englehardt from Orthodox Observer (Montreal). No. 27. July, 1959.