City of God, Book 16: From Noah to Moses

This summary/review will be a bit different – less Cliff Notes, more critique. To be honest, this was my least favorite book so far. The book covers a lot of ground – from Noah’s exit from the ark to the Tower of Babel to the call and life of Abraham and his sons to Moses, Joshua and David. It’s a fairly long book, sixty pages or so.

From Noah to Abraham, Augustine traces the development of the City of God through Shem. The narrative is silent from Noah to Abraham regarding “righteous men”, but Augustine is inclined to think that some lived. After Babel, the line of Abraham is the focus of the Bible and Augustine. It is in this line that the City of God develops.

I am not going to do a full summary of this Book, but instead highlight some insights I am taking away along with some critiques.

Through this section, and in others, Augustine raises interesting questions, most I’d never considered before. For example, he asks how animals reached the farthest, most remote islands after the flood. Did they swim? Not likely. Maybe men took them to the islands to populate them. Possibly. Or, angels ‘transported’ them by God’s command. Or, they ‘sprang from the earth’ as at their first creation. If so, then why did God go through such painstaking steps (painstaking for Noah at least) to gather all the animals in the ark? The purpose was to represent the nations by the animals in the ark – the clean and the unclean! Similar questions and conclusions are asked about the language God used to speak to angels, the existence of monstrous races (ie. cyclopes) etc.

One of the aspects of Book 16 that I found convicting was the obvious great care Augustine read with. He notices and contemplates details I’ve never noticed or considered before. At several points he engages in long, I mean looong, discussions about the ages of Terah or Abraham or Jacob when such-an-such an event happened. He does so because he is working to reconcile this passage that says Terah was ‘x’-yrs old when ‘a’ happened with another passage that says he was ‘y’ yrs old when ‘b’ happened and lived a total of ‘z’ years. Wow. I never really pay attention to that kind of detail, but he did. How much do I miss by a less than careful reading of God’s word?!

Also, you do see in this Book, again, how Augustine lays the foundation for Calvin some thousand years later. Considering the choice of Jacob, the youngest, over Esau, the eldest, while still in the womb, Augustine writes, “The apostle Paul wishes this to be understood as an important proof of God’s grace, because when they were not yet born, and were engaged in no activity, good of bad, the youngest was chose, without any question of merit, while the eldest was rejected.. At the time, both were on the same footing, without shadow of doubt, in respect of original sin while in respect to personal sin neither of them had any guilt.”

Ok, now some critiques.

Above I commended Augustine for the amount of time he spends considering peoples ages. It is impressive. However, these details sometimes overshadow truly epochal events in his treatment. Case and point: he spends four pages discussing the age of Terah when he settled in Haran but only two pages on the birth of Moses, the Exodus, Joshua, the Judges, and David. COMBINED!!! The imbalance is odd, and one wonders why so much emphasis is given to people’s ages and so little to events like the Exodus. Puzzling.

Also, The allegorical reading of Scripture is on FULL display through this book. Augustine asserts, “These hidden meanings of inspired Scripture we track down as best we ca, with varying degrees of success; and yet we all hold confidently to the firm belief that these historical events and the narrative of them have always some foreshadowing of things to come, and are always to be interpreted with reference to Christ and his Church, which is the City of God.” At times, Augustine’s allegorical interpretations are beautiful; at others, tortured. An example of the tortured allegorical interpretation can be found in Augustine’s discussion of the smoking fire pot and animals bisected in Genesis 15 in connection with Abrahamic covenant. Augustine maintains, “the heifer may have symbolized the people placed under the yoke of the Law, and the she-goat the same people in their future state of sin, the ram the same people as destined to reign. Those animals are specified as three years old because of the important eras are from Adam to Noah, from Noah to Abraham, and from Abraham to David.” The birds that were also sacrificed represent the spiritual people of God and were not split in two because “carnal being are divided among themselves, whereas spiritual beings are not divided in any way.” The “dreadful darkness” of the night stands for the affliction of God’s people that will be experienced when the Antichrist is revealed and the smoking pot and fire represent God’s judgments at the end of the world. Interesting, but there is nothing in the text of Genesis 15 or in other texts that would confirm this reading.

Even more bizarrely, Augustine claims that Esau represents the physical descendants of Abraham (the Jews) while Jacob represents Abraham’s spiritual descendants, the church.

While I am opened to allegorical interpretations of Scripture, this unrestrained and counter textual mode of interpretation is, I believe, problematic.

Last critique: Augustine seems compelled to defend the indefensible and thus protect the honor of men like Abraham or Jacob. He presents a ‘whitewashed’ version of these men. So, for example, when Abraham passes off his wife Sarah as his sister (which is a partial truth), Augustine portrays this not as an act of deceit or cowardice, but of faith. He was trusting Sarah’s fate to God, and God protected her ‘inviolate’ from the pagan kings. Likewise, Jacob is an honest man. He did not trick Esau out of his birthright or deceive his father Isaac. I think Esau would beg to differ on that! And, by whitewashing these men we do a disservice to the testimony of Scripture that is consistent from Genesis to Revelation; namely, God uses flawed, sinful people to accomplish his purposes.

All in all, this was my least favorite of the Books so far. Augustine lost the forest for the trees and allowed fanciful imagination (albeit pointed towards illuminating Christ) to run ahead of the clear meaning of the text.