Bless the LORD, O my soul!
O LORD my God, you are very great!
You are clothed with splendor and majesty,
covering yourself with light as with a garment,
stretching out the heavens like a tent. (Psalm 104:1-2)
For it is written in the law of Moses, “You shall not muzzle an ox while it treads out the grain.” Is it oxen God is concerned about? Or does He say it altogether for our sakes? For our sakes, no doubt, this is written, that he who plows should plow in hope, and he who threshes in hope should be partaker of his hope. (1 Corinthians 9:9-10)
St Paul endeavors to move us all away from a mere literal reading of the Old Testament, a move he himself made as he abandoned Pharisaic Judaism in order to embrace the Messiah Jesus. In the above quote, he takes a phrase from the Torah which is completely true and understandable if read literally, and then denies that its literal meaning is in fact what God is concerned with. The full meaning of this ancient text is not revealed for hundreds of years until the coming of Christ and the proclamation of the Gospel.
Orthodox scholar Sebastian Brock notes how St Ephrem the Syrian, like many Orthodox Patristic writers, followed St Paul in this method of interpreting the Old Testament. The Jews saw the Torah as mostly laws governing the minutiae of life, while the Christians read the same Scriptures as prophecies of the Messiah and guidance for those who follow Christ. The Bible uses human language to talk about God but we must not then reduce that language to a mere human, literal meaning, for it is opening to us the divine life. Even when the Bible speaks about God in a very human way (anthropomorphizing God or ascribing to God human emotions and behavior), we need to be cautious, not reading the text so literally. ‘Humanizing’ God might help us to understand His intervention in creation, but it can also cause us to misunderstand God as nothing more than a superhuman and then we falsely attribute to God all kinds of human foibles and faults.
“… Ephrem’s understanding of how the biblical text is to be understood, for it sets out to describe how God speaks to humanity through the biblical text, allowing himself, as it were, to become incarnated into human language. The starting point is the dilemma: how can human beings speak about the Godhead, seeing that the human mind is not capable of crossing the ontological gap (or ‘chasm,’ as Ephrem often calls it) which exists between Creation and its Creator? This might suggest that a holy silence is all that is possible. Ephrem, however, has a solution to the problem: God, stirred by love for his creation, has himself crossed this gap and entered the created world, allowing himself to be described in human terms and in human language in the Bible. Thus, before becoming incarnate in the human body, he first became incarnate in human language, or, in Ephrem’s own homely metaphor of clothing, ‘God put on names,’ or metaphors, in the Old Testament, just as subsequently he ‘put on a body’ at the incarnation. Of great importance for Ephrem in all this is the fact that God is not forcing himself on humanity; rather, he is deliberately encouraging the use of his gift to humanity of free will. . . .
Humanity, on its part, must not abuse this divine condescension by taking literally these ‘names’ or metaphors with which God has clothed himself; to understand these terms literally would be a total misunderstanding of biblical language. The very fact that the biblical text moves from one metaphor for God to another should be a sufficient warning against any such misconception. Thus, instead of fixing one’s mind on the literal meaning of the metaphors, one should allow these metaphors to act as pointers upwards, as it were, toward the hiddenness of God, whose true nature cannot be described by, let alone contained in, human language.” (ST EPHREM: SELECT POEMS, pp 16-17)