Friday, 1 May 2015

Yii-Jan Lin: Divine Plunder in Apocalyptic Times: The Despoliation of the Egyptians in Patristic Interpretation

The plundering of the Egyptians by the Israelites in Exodus 12 has consistently been a source of controversy and embarrassment for its interpreters. The story raises perplexing questions: How could a just God command the Israelites to despoil the Egyptians? How could the tabernacle and its treasures have been holy if they were constructed from plunder? Patristic responses to these questions generally offer three answers as apologia: 1) the spoils were due the Israelites as wages for their labor as slaves; 2) the despoliation of the Egyptians was retribution and reparation for the abuse of the Israelites; and 3) the plunder was used in the holy work of building the tabernacle rather than the corrupt commerce of the Egyptians and, therefore, justifiable. This last point serves as a springboard for patristic allegoresis, which justifies the use of pagan philosophy and culture by Christians. This allegorical interpretation, with its focus on Christ vs. culture, has remained the primary reading of the narrative into the twenty-first century.
This paper aims to focus instead on the conceptions of wages, labor, and reparations, as fitting for an apocalyptic time, implied in patristic interpretations. The history of African-American slavery, emancipation, and subsequent turmoil provides a provocative analogous narrative through which patristic justification of despoliation can be understood. A cross-reading of Irenaeus and Tertullian with the history of African Americans, and the public discourse surrounding looting in and by their communities at times of disaster, highlights the startling political and economic arguments the Church Fathers make.

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