More from Gregory of Nyssa’s The Life of Moses:
Gregory sees the death of the firstborn in Egypt as teaching “when through virtue one comes to grips with any evil, he must completely destroy the first beginnings of evil” (57).
Here he draws on Christ’s teaching in Matthew 5 on anger/murder and lust/adultery, noting Christ here commands us “to abolish lust and anger and to have no more fear of the stain of adultery or the guilt of murder” (57). He adds: “Take for an example a snake: when one crushes his head, he kills the rest of the body at the same time” (57).
He sees the soul as divided into “the rational, the appetitive, and the spirited” (58; cf. 66).
Gregory’s allegorical style is on full display in his description of the departure from Egypt:
The thorns of this life are sins; the shoes “the self-controlled and austere life”; the tunic “the full enjoyment and pursuits of this life”; the belt “reason” and “prudence”; the staff “the message of hope”; the food “warm and fervent faith”; etc.
Gregory’s method: “The loftier meaning is therefore more fitting than the obvious one” (63).
On the crossing of the Red Sea: The army of Egypt represents “the passions of the soul”; the stone from the sling, “reviling”; the spear point, “the spirited impulse”; the horses, “the passion for pleasures”; etc.
The meaning: “Since the passions naturally pursue our nature, we must put to death in the water both the base movements of the mind and the acts which issue from them” (67).
In baptism one drowns “the whole Egyptian person” and emerges alone “dragging nothing foreign in our subsequent life” (67). Those who receive baptism in ignorance, “bring along the Egyptian army, which still lives with them in their doings” (68).
“For uncontrolled passion is a fierce and raging master to the servile reasoning” (68).
If there are negative allegories in Gregory, there are also positive. The wood placed in the bitter water to make it sweet represents the cross. To throw the wood in the water is to receive “the mystery of the resurrection” which begins with the wood. Gregory adds as an aside: “(you of course understand ‘the cross’ when you hear ‘wood’)” (69).
The springs in the wilderness are the twelve disciples and the seventy date palms, the other appointed apostles. The campsite are the virtues.
Before taking the manna, one has to empty “the sack of his soul of all evil nourishment prepared by the Egyptians” (71).
When Moses held his hands aloft, it signified “the contemplation of the law with lofty insights” but when he let his hands hang to earth it meant “the lowly literal exposition and observance of the Law” (75).
“He who would approach the knowledge of things sublime must first purify his manner of life from all sensual and irrational emotion” (78).
The tabernacle is Christ. The skin dyed red used to decorate the tabernacle represent the mortification of sinful flesh and “the ascetic way of life” (89). “This teaches that grace, which flourishes through the Spirit, is not found in men unless they first make themselves dead to sin” (89).
The priestly vestments represent the virtuous adornments of the soul. The golden bells are “the brilliance of good works” (91).
The “philosophical life” may be “outwardly austere and unpleasant”, yet it is “full of good hopes when it ripens” (92).
“The head adorned with the diadem signifies the crown reserved for those who have lived well” (94).
To be continued…
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