05
Aug
09

Biblio-Bites (Vol. 2)

The probability that Clement’s stances on sincerity are infused with a pragmatic recognition of varying spiritual competencies is further strengthened by his allegorical exegesis of two biblical passages involving potentially dangerous cavities: the imprisonment of Joseph within an empty pit at the hands of his jealous brothers (Gen 37:23-24) and the legal penalty for the careless owner who fails to cover an open pit and thus allows unwary animals to fall to their deaths (Ex. 21:33-34).  Surprisingly, Joseph’s “uncommon foresight” and “love of instruction” (πλειον τι προορωµενον; φιλοµαθιας; 5.8.53.2)—readily recognizable characteristics of the proper gnostic—do not immediately lead to his perfection and exaltation, but rather to an aggressive and near-fatal reprisal from his kin following a rather arrogant narration of a dream foretelling his supremacy over the rest of the family.  The remark that the pit was completely free of water, a parenthetical aside in its original context, is highly significant in a Clementine analysis, as he frequently associates this essential element with life, truth, and knowledge (e.g., Ex. Heath. 10.99.3).  Through his incarceration in a lonely place “destitute of knowledge” (κενος δε επιστηµης; Strom. 5.8.53.3) Joseph’s advanced standing is ostensibly reduced to that of his ignorant brethren; he is the one to pay the price for the rash and untimely boasting concerning his preeminence, albeit temporarily so.  Ultimately the exceptionality of the chosen son is upheld, but it is nevertheless insinuated that his revelation of said exceptionality occurred at an improper or inopportune time.

The provocatively peculiar emphases of this reading of a familiar patriarchal vignette are more fully explicated in the succeeding reference to the Mosaic prescription against neglectfully exposed hollows or reservoirs, part of the ancient Israelite code known as the “Book of the Covenant.”  It is linked to the discussion of Joseph not only through sheer proximity but also through their shared use of the Greek term λακκος (“cistern”; “pit”; “prison”); thus the structure of the argument of this section of the Stromateis may be rightfully described as a gezara shawa and should be evaluated as such, with both stories brought together in the service of the same rhetorical goal.  According to the statute itself, the owner of the uncovered pit is liable for any animals straying into it, and must make equivalent financial restitution to their owners.  The relevant scriptural citation is accompanied by explanatory comments which reveal the practical implications of the preceding texts; the knowledgeable reader is instructed to “[c]onceal it [the potent γνωσις], then, from those who are unable to receive the depth of knowledge, and so cover the pit” (επικρυπτοµενος δ ουν προς τους ουξ οιους τε οντας παραδεξασθαι το βαθος της γνωσεως κατακαλυπτε τος λακκον; 5.8.54.3-4).  As Judith Kovacs has sagely noted in her careful study of the role of the pedagogue in Clement’s writings, the fate of the careless Christian teacher parallels that of the negligent landlord of Exodus.  Indeed, “[T]he Gnostic shall himself pay the penalty… incurring the blame for the one who was scandalized, or drowned, because of the magnitude of the word, since he was still of slender understanding” (ο γνωστικος αυτος ζηµιωθησεται… την αιτιαν υπεχων του σκανδαλισθεντος ητοι καταποθεντος τω µεγεθει του λογου µικρολογου ετι οντος; 5.8.54.4).  Together the λακκοι of Joseph and the Book of Covenant warn of the harsh consequences for the wise if the unenlightened are allowed to obtain what they cannot conceivably grasp.

From “’Whatever makes for progress towards gnosis’ Esoterism and spiritual advancement in the Stromateis and the Letter to Theodore” (2009)

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