Origen’s Spiritual Interpretation of the Story of Lot and his Daughters

Origen’s Origen Picturespiritual level of meaning refers to truths found in scripture that were only discernible after the coming of Christ.  Quite frequently they deal with the transition from the Old Covenant to the New Covenant and why Jews failed to recognize the significance of Christ’s coming.  Origen’s spiritual level of interpretation often comes in the story-as-symbol form that we see in his moral level of interpretation.

Origen begins his discussion of the spiritual meaning of the story of Lot and his daughters by dismissing a spiritual interpretation which said that Lot represented Jesus and that the two daughters represented the two Testaments.[1]  Origen rejects this because of its lack of coherence.  If Lot represents Christ then one would have to say that Christ’s descendants, like the Ammonites and the Moabites, would not be able to enter the church of the Lord until the third or fourth generation (cf. Deut. 23:3).  Such a conclusion would be absurd.  So Origen suggests that Lot represents the Law.[2]  Lot’s wife represents the Jews who escaped from Egypt during the Exodus but looked back at the simple things they enjoyed in Egypt and wanted to go back.  Since the people looked back, the Law left them behind.

Next, Origen explains the spiritual significance of Zoar, a city which was small and yet not small.  Here Zoar also represents the Law.  It is small when the Jews interpret it on a purely literal level and observe the Sabbaths, the new moons, circumcision, and the food laws.  It is not small when it is understood on a spiritual level.

Origen next moves to Lot’s ascension of the mountain.  Just as Lot ascended the mountain, so the Law was embellished by the building of the temple.  But the temple became a den of thieves and this is why Lot and his daughters dwelled in a cave.

Origen then goes on to identify Lot’s daughters with the two sisters mentioned in Ezekiel 23:4, which represent Judah and Samaria, making Judah and Samaria the daughters of the Law.  The efforts of the two daughters to get their father drunk is compared to the Jews covering up the spiritual knowledge of the Old Testament.  The Law never intended to beget children who only understood the Law literally.  These children, like the Ammonites and the Moabites, will never enter the church of the Lord unto the third or fourth generation or forever (cf. Deut. 23:3).  The number three (i.e. third generation) was given because of the Trinity, the number four (i.e. the fourth generation) was given because of the gospels, and forever was added to indicate the time up to when the fullness of the Gentiles would believe.

What can we say about Origen’s spiritual interpretation of this text?  First, Origen is right to note a parallel between Lot’s wife looking back at Sodom and the Israelite’s looking back with longing on their life in Egypt.  One could even argue that this allusion was actually intended by the author of this text, given the fact that Genesis was written to function as scripture for later Israelites.  However, it is unnecessary to say that Lot represents the Law in this case, though such an attribution makes sense given the salvation-historical character of Origen’s spiritual level of interpretation.  Perhaps this insight is better understood to belong to the moral meaning of this text.

Second, although Origen’s interpretation of Zoar is creative, spiritually insightful, and even poetic, it is based on a misunderstanding of the text: “it is not small” is a question in Hebrew – it should be translated “is it not small?” – rather than a statement.

Third, Origen was right to reject the identification of Lot with Jesus and his two daughters with the two testaments.  However, his identification of Lot with the law, the daughters with Israel and Judah, and the mountains with the temple is also problematic.  There is no reason to connect Lot with the law or the mountains with the temple.

In terms of moral application, it is more likely Lot is used as an example of what happens when the Israelites interact too closely with the inhabitants of the land: they will have more of and impact on you than you will have on them.  The behavior of Lot’s daughters testify to that fact.  Lot and his daughters probably flee to the cave to protect themselves from the destruction that was taking place behind them or simply for shelter.  There is a verbal connection between this cave and the den of thieves of Jeremiah 7 and the gospels but there is no reason to make this connection here.  The identification of the daughters with those who only interpret the Law literally is somewhat arbitrary.  The lesson that is to be learned from the daughters is a moral lesson rather than a spiritual one.

Origen’s interpretation of the numbers three and four is likewise arbitrary. Origen justifies this type of interpretation by pointing to Galatians 4:24-31, where the Apostle Paul uses the story of Sarah and Hagar to illustrate the difference between those who try to remain with the Old Covenant after Christ has come and those who have embraced the New.  The difference between what Paul is doing and what Origen is doing is that Paul’s comments were not made in the course of preaching on the book of Genesis.  Paul was simply using the language of Genesis to illustrate a point he was presently trying to make.[3]  Paul also avoids trying to make every detail of the book of Genesis fit into the new narrative that he had created.  Although it is important to look for the spiritual level of interpretation, not every text was meant to speak about the things Origen would like them to speak about.

Origen’s methods for interpreting and appropriating the text of the Old Testament as Christian Scripture are much like the character of Lot in the story of Lot and his daughters: it is somewhere between the perfect and the doomed.  Origen rightly emphasizes the importance of the literal meaning of the text but his own interpretation of the literal meaning is often distorted by his training in Greek philosophy, by mistakes that were made in the Septuagint’s rendering of the Hebrew text, and by simple exegetical mistakes.  Origen rightly emphasizes that the Old Testament should be used to give moral guidance for Christians today but his commitment to this truth often led him to find lessons that are too far removed from the plain-sense meaning of the text.  In the same way, Origen rightly points out that the Old Testament contains truths that have only now become apparent through the coming of Christ. but this belief caused him to find teachings that may be true in themselves but are difficult to justify.  Like Lot’s wife, if our hearts become too attached to Origen’s exegesis we ourselves may end up sharing her fate and never move on to the mountains of insight actually intended by the Spirit.  But if we reject the spirit of Origen’s interpretation, we may end up like Lot’s daughters.

Nevertheless, Origen gives us great insight into how the text of the Old Testament speaks to the church today.  Moreover, he is an example for the church today because he never ceased to struggle to find meaning in the Old Testament for Christians.  Origen struggled with the text and would not let it go until he received a blessing; he kept on struggling until, through the text, he met face to face with God.  Origen is both a positive and negative example of what it means to appropriate the Old Testament as Christian Scripture.  So, when learning at his feet, the church should test everything, hold on to the good and avoid every kind of evil, and leave behind what is doomed and, in hope, move on toward what is perfect.

Mark Francois

[1] Origen, “Genesis Homily V,” 117-18.
[2] This is followed in the text by a fascinating note from Rufinus that explains that the identification of Lot with the law is legitimate because, even though the word for law in Latin is feminine, the word for law in Greek is masculine.
[3] Cf. James Barr, Holy Scripture: Canon, Authority, Criticism (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1983), 70. “The business of the New Testament is not primarily to tell what the Old Testament really means, but to declare a new substance which for the Old was not yet there, although it was understood that it had prophesied its future coming.  The task of the New Testament was not primarily to interpret the Old, but to interpret that new substance.  It is more correct to say that the Old Testament was used to interpret the situations and events of the New.  In spirt of the massive use of the Old Testament  and its network of meaning, the New Testament is more like creative literature than lie exegesis.”

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