Monday, July 23, 2007

St. Ephrem the Syrian on Genesis

“St. Ephrem is justly renowned for his striking, rich, and profound use of the Syriac language, which finds its fullest expression in his remarkable and evocative poetry. His hymns in particular bring to his expositions of the Christian mysteries a depth and beauty all their own.” --Prof. Robert Hayward, Durham University

Alice C. Linsley

While at the Monastery of the Transfiguration I did some valuable reading. The monastery library has an excellent section on the Church Fathers and I will share some of what I read in the next few weeks. I especially enjoyed reading St. John Chrysostom’s Homilies on Genesis, published in 3 volumes by The Catholic University Press of America (part of The Fathers of the Church series). In these sermons Chrysostom exhorts his listeners to hold fast the Faith once delivered. His insights into Genesis point to the immense love of God for creation and for the only creature made in the image and likeness of God. I have more to say about about St. John Chrysostom's remarks on Lamech.

The most fascinating reading was St. Ephrem the Syrian’s reflections on Genesis (Volume 91 in The Fathers of the Church series, The Catholic University Press of America). St. Ephrem (A.D. 309-373) has a lyrical expository style that makes his reflections on Genesis enjoyable reading. Besides being an excellent Bible scholar, St. Ephrem was a Christian poet held in such high regard that he is called “The Harp of the Spirit.”

St. Ephrem’s approach to Scripture avoids the literalism of Fundamentalists and the allegorism of the Alexandrian school. He approaches Genesis as history, type and symbol. St. Ephrem’s method is labeled “symbolic theology” and “is an intricate weave of parallelism, typology, names and symbols.” (The Fathers of the Church, vol. 91, p. 48)

For St. Ephrem types, symbols and patterns are woven throughout creation and are Christ God’s invitation to us to perceive Him and to share in the divine life He offers. If you have read my essay on Abraham and Moses (published here on April 12, 2007), you know that I believe serious Bible study involves teasing out the pattern of divine revelation by looking for parallels, reversals, types and symbols. Imagine how delighted I was to discover that I've been following St. Ephrem's footsteps!

Here is an example of the richness of St. Ephrem’s typology: He understands that the Incarnation began when the Word was spoken into Mary’s ear as an antidote to the serpent’s venom put into Eve’s ear. The life-giving Word spoken to Mary undid the word of death spoken to Eve.

While western exegetes attempt to geographically locate the 4 rivers that fed Eden, St. Ephrem interprets them typologically and in a fashion consistent with Revelation. He compares the 4 rivers that water the garden with the 4 Gospels that water the Kingdom. Hymns of Faith (48.10)

St. Ephrem’s method of interpretation is closer to Jewish Haggadah than to the exegesis of western Christianity. Since Genesis has a Semitic context and St. Ephrem was himself thoroughly immersed in that context, we do well to attend to his reflections and insights on the text. Here are a few:

“If God had not wished to reveal Himself to us there would have been nothing in creation that would be able to say anything at all about Him.” Hymns of Faith (44.7)

“From the very beginning God opened up the treasury of His mercy when He formed Adam.” Hymns of Faith (67.19)

“Wherever you look, God’s symbol is there; wherever you read, there you will find His types. For by Him all creatures were created, and He stamped all His possessions with His symbols when He created the world.” Hymns of Virginity (20.12)

“Creation gives birth to the symbols of Christ, as Mary gave birth to His limbs.” Hymns on Virginity (20.12)

“This Jesus has so multiplied His symbols that I have fallen into their many waves.” Hymns on Nisibis(39.17)

I hope you find these writings as nourishing as I do. Let me know what you think.

Related reading: Lamech Segment AnalysisSt. John Chrysostom on Lamech's Speech; The Poetric Hymns of St. Ephrem; St. Ephrem's Paradise; St. Ephrem on Christ and Chrism


Anam Cara said...

I love the idea that the Word spoken was the beginning of the Incarnation as an antivenom!
I have long felt that Mary's, "Yes,"to God was the counter to Eve's, "No."

I am looking forward to hearing more. Perhaps I just need to make time to read myself (wonder when THAT could happen!)

Alice C. Linsley said...

That's why I had to go away to a monastery. The world seems to intrude on what is really important spiritually. Reading Scripture, prayer, and reflection are eaten up by the tyranny of the urgent.

TLF+ said...

You know, if we can get a real Anglican witness up and running here in South Dakota, you would be such a wonderful retreat leader!

The stark natural beauty here just begs to be interpreted through readings from St. Ephrem and other Orthodox lights.

Alice C. Linsley said...

YOU and your family are a true Anglican witness in South Dakota! You are salt and light. God is already blessing you and granting grace through your faithfulness, obedience, suffering and yearning for HIM.

Remember that St. Ephrem and the other Fathers belong to the whole Church. That's why they are called "Fathers of the Church".

Hopie said...

I am so glad you have found the richness of the Church Fathers to fill out so much of what God has revealed to you through life experience and the study of His Word and natural revelation. St. Ephrem sounds like my kind of writer...I will have to read his "Hymn." Do you have a source?

Alice C. Linsley said...

Hope, you can read more about St. Ephrem here:

If you want to read his poetry, you will have to purchase these books:

St. Ephrem The Syrian's Hymns on Paradise published bt St. Vladamir Seminary Press, 1990 (Translation by Sebastian Brock)

St. Ephrem The Syrian's Hymns published by Pauliost Press, 1989 (Translation by Kathleen E. McVey)

St. Ephrem The Syrian, Vol. 91 of The Fathers of the Church series published by The Catholic University of America Press, 1994

His poetry is powerful and lovely. I'll publish some in the weeks ahead at my other blog: Students Publish Here! Go to