I. Background and Swedenborg¡¯s Exegesis
Monday, July 7, 1995
Location - FNCA 1995
For my first contribution to the theme of "The Exodus and Sinai," I want to talk about
Swedenborg's interpretation of the first Passover in Arcana Coelestia ¶¶ 7822-8020. He
focuses here, as in most of his treatment of Exodus, on what we usually refer to as "the
internal historical sense," the level of meaning that deals with the spiritual history of
humanity. I would digress for just a moment and repeat the observation that Arcana
Coelestia does not have much to say about "the spiritual sense of the Word" in the strict
sense of that phrase. Its whole treatment of the stories of the patriarchs--the greater
bulk of the book of Genesis--has to do with the Lord's glorification and therefore with
"the celestial sense." The "spiritual sense" narrowly construed has to do with our
individual regeneration, parallel to the Lord's glorification, but differing decisively in
degree. Throughout Exodus, then, Swedenborg focuses on the demise of what he refers to as
"the Jewish church" and the beginning of the Christian church.
Let me begin, though, with the general literal background. The twelfth chapter of Exodus
begins, "And the Lord spoke to Moses and Aaron in the land of Egypt, saying, This month
shall be for you the beginning of months: it shall be the first month of the year for
you." In our own calendar, we number the years from the event we regard as the turning
point in human history, the birth of the Lord. Israel did not count years in the same
fashion, but she did much the same thing by taking the Passover as the beginning of each
In the story that begins with creation, there are a number of turning points. There is the
expulsion from the Garden. There is the flood. There is the scattering of the people at
the failure of the Tower of Babel. The subsequent call of Abram established a theme that
the story will follow from then on--the promise that Abram's descendants will become a
great nation. The stories of the patriarchs then constitute a kind of prehistory of the
nation; and the nation itself is founded in this twelfth chapter of Exodus.
This is the precise point at which a large but amorphous people becomes independent, is
established with a separate identity. When "the children of Israel journeyed from Rameses
to Succoth" (12:37), they took their first action as a distinct group under its own
leadership. They were separated from the Egyptians geographically and politically.
The story makes it very clear that this separation was accomplished by divine initiative,
and that there had been some vital preparations for it. A kind of separation is implicit
in the fact that the Israelites had been warned about the plague that was about to come
upon the land and had been told how to protect themselves from it. This separation was
given substance by their obedience--by the fact that they were the ones who sacrificed the
paschal lambs and left the marks of blood on their doorposts and lintels. They were
further set apart by their safety when the firstborn were smitten.
All these events served to mark them off and to hold them together at the very beginning
of their career as a nation. They served to establish Moses as a leader who commanded
respect, a leader who could deliver on his promises. There was a long way to go before the
promise to Abram would be fully realized, before they would be a secure nation with a land
of their own, but this was the decisive step in that direction. The chapter begins with
the people oppressed, in slavery, and ends with the people free, loaded down with "gifts"
from their former oppressors, and on the way to the Promised Land. This was their Fourth
of July, their Independence Day, the birth of a nation.
After more than three thousand years, it remains a powerful symbol within Judaism. It is
the reason Jews have so often identified with the oppressed and have taken leading roles
in defense of human rights and civil liberties. The Passover seder, with its telling of
the story of liberation from slavery, is an annual family ceremony with a major role for
the children; and in that sense it remains a symbol that sets Jews apart and holds them
together, whether they are Zionists or not.
In presenting a deeper level of meaning, Swedenborg takes the story of the Passover as
symbolizing what was going on in the spiritual world after the Lord's resurrection. The
Israelites, he says, represent the people of a "spiritual church" in the other world, a
people who have been held captive. In ¶ 7990, he has a concise description of the nature
of this captivity:
We refer to people as "in spiritual captivity" when they are kept in what is good and true
inwardly by the Lord, but are held in what is evil and false externally, by hell.
This notion is basic to the whole chapter, and we need to have it firmly in mind. Perhaps
we can best do so by recalling times when we have really wanted to do something
constructive but have found circumstances so subtly conspiring against us that everything
we tried to do seemed to make things worse. We might also look with some empathy at people
who have been brought up knowing nothing but violence in their lives. In a sense, they are
like people who have been brought up hearing and speaking only English--violence is the
only language they know. Even their best intentions will have to be expressed in this
language, and anyone who does not know the language will not be able to understand what
Somewhere in this range of frustration we may place the spiritual captives Swedenborg is
talking about--somewhere probably closer to the latter example than to the former. The
history of Biblical days makes depressing reading. Military conquest was taken absolutely
for granted. No one raised moral objections to a Sennacherib or a Nebuchadnezzar, to an
Alexander or a Caesar. No one had raised moral objections to Joshua when he and his armies
came in and slaughtered Canaanites. This was thought to be God's will. The Babylonians who
had destroyed Jerusalem and the temple were not really doing wrong. They were agents of a
punishment that Jerusalem deserved because of its infidelity.
In New Testament times, the high priesthood changed hands by assassination as often as
not. The Romans were not regarded as evil because their troops were occupying Judea.
Judea would do the same to Rome if the tables were turned. One major image of the Messiah
was of a king who would make Jerusalem supreme in all the world.
What is the lot of a good and gentle soul when the whole world speaks this language? What
forms of behavior are accessible? Perhaps a few rebels may call the whole system into
question, but all sensible people will agree that they are at least a little bit crazy.
Nice, may be, but definitely out of touch.
Let me try a more contemporary illustration. I suspect that one of the things we will have
to unlearn in the spiritual world, one of the patterns of thought we will have to move out
of, involves the whole matter of ownership of property. In heaven, it's very simple.
Everything belongs to the Lord. If we need something for some good use, it is provided.
If we don't need it, we don't have it; and we don't miss it because we are focused on use.
Here and now, though, our whole society is built on concepts of ownership. We have deeds
and checkbooks and titles and copyrights and laws and customs that define and attest to
what we own. We have prices on things, so that we can exchange the money we own for the
goods that someone else owns. They want our money more than they want that bar of soap,
and we want that bar of soap more than we want that amount of money.
Need and use are simply not in this picture. Try claiming possession of an automobile
temporarily, strictly on the basis of usefulness or need, and see how far you get. We call
that larceny, and if the car is expensive enough, it gets to be grand larceny. It's a
little easier to give things away, but you still have to watch it. You might incur some
legal liability that will come back and bite you.
Within the confines of this system, there is still "better" and "worse." There are people
who inwardly regard themselves as stewards of their possessions. This is highlighted by
the opposite, by the fact that we are currently seeing an upsurge of feeling that the
person who owns land should be able to maximize profit from it--that it is an infringement
of ownership rights to restrict what can be done. Here, the inward sense of stewardship
seems to be totally lacking. The main point is, though, that our best, gentlest, kindest
intentions still have to be expressed in the language of ownership. Our souls tell us that
everything is the Lord's. Our culture tells us that we cannot act that way.
Perhaps this will help us understand these people Swedenborg describes as being in
"spiritual captivity." Even after death, he says, these outward strictures tended to hold
them fast. They could not reach the freedom of heaven, the freedom simply to act out of
their inner insight and generosity. They had to do what they could within the language
imposed on them externally, by hell. At the time of the First Coming, we are told, there
were many such good folk kept in a "lower earth."
They could not be freed because the only means the Lord had was the "human" of heaven.
They would be freed when, after the glorification, he had a "human" of his own. It is put
this way in ¶ 7931, after an initial statement that the spiritual sorting out was done
according to divine order:
By "order," we mean that order that obtained in heaven from the time when the Lord began
to arrange everything in heaven and earth from his divine human, which happened
immediately after the resurrection (Mt 28:18). Under this order, people of the spiritual
church could be raised into heaven and enjoy eternal blessedness, which could not happen
under the prior order. Previously, that is, the Lord had arranged everything by means of
heaven, while afterwards he did so by means of his own human, which he glorified and made
divine in the world. In this way there was such an increase in strength (robur, almost =
"brawn") that people could be raised into heaven who could not have been raised before.
This also meant that evil people withdrew in all directions and were enclosed in their
It may help at this point to review the subject of the human form of heaven. By the time
Arcana Coelestia had reached the chapter we are exploring, Swedenborg had presented an
extensive description of the Maximus Homo or Universal Human in interchapter articles.
Its main thesis is that when heaven is viewed in its entirety, it has a human form, with
the various regions and communities serving as organs of that "body." In ¶ 3637, he makes
the following statement:
The Universal Human is the Lord's whole heaven in its human aspect (respective ad
hominem), but in the highest sense the Universal Human is the Lord alone, since heaven is
from him and everything there is responsive to him. Since the human race became completely
perverted because of its evil live and consequent false opinions, and since lower things
started to rule over higher ones in humanity, or natural things over spiritual ones,
Jehovah or the Lord could no longer flow in and arrange things in order through the
Universal Human--through heaven. This made it necessary for the Lord to come into the
world in order to put on a human nature and make it divine, and by this means to restore
order, so that the whole heaven bore reference to him as the Only Person, and was
responsive to him alone. This involved dismissing people in evil and therefore in falsity
to a region below the feet, therefore outside the Universal Human. Therefore, people who
are in heaven are said to be "in the Lord," actually in his body, for the Lord is all
there is to heaven, where all individuals are allotted their regions and their functions.
It is this process that Swedenborg sees imaged in the twelfth chapter of Exodus, in the
story of the first Passover.
This has not come out of the blue. The preceding chapters, dealing with the plagues, have
been interpreted as descriptive of the "vastation" of those who were oppressing the
spiritual church. In each case, Moses and Aaron go to Pharaoh with a message, which
Swedenborg interprets as an approach of divine truth. Here, we might draw on a theme from
Heaven and Hell, namely that in its own light, hell looks quite attractive. The moment a
little heavenly light is let in, though, its ugliness becomes apparent. In the same way,
the plagues, spiritually understood, are not so much inflicted on the Egyptians as they
are disclosed to them.
To turn for a moment to the literal sense of the Gospels, the presence of the Lord's
character and teaching was revelatory not only of the divine nature but of the nature of
everyone who encountered that presence. Individuals disclosed their inner character by the
way they responded. The same thing would happen more obviously in the spiritual world,
where outward effects flow very directly from spiritual causes. The people of the
spiritual church who were being held in the "lower earth" could not be freed until there
was a light pure enough to enable them to see what was imprisoning them.
Let us return to the example of our own concepts of ownership by way of illustration. If
this is the only "order" we know, we are totally subject to it. We cannot even think in
other terms. We cannot conceive of a world that operates in some other way, of another
"order." If, however, we take seriously the order of heaven as described in Heaven and
Hell, if we begin to appreciate the beauty and sanity of heavenly government, then we
begin to see at least the better ways of acting within the limits imposed on us by
circumstances beyond our control. "The order of heaven" begins to affect the way we order
However, as long as our circumstances are essentially unchallenged, our freedom is
severely constrained. It is as though the Lord is trying to establish order through our
sense of heavenly order--through our own little microcosm of the Universal Human.
Heavenly order does not have the brawn to effect itself in this body. As the divine human
of the Gospels becomes real in people's hearts and minds, though, heavenly order gains
Earlier this summer, I saw a video of a Korean woman theologian whose name I unfortunately
have not retained. Most Korean Christianity is of a rather evangelical mold, and she finds
herself reproved for her appreciation of the virtues of the Buddhism and shamanism that
are very much part of Korean thought and culture. At one point, she mentioned that she was
accused of "syncretism"--that is, of trying to blend Christianity with other religions
rather than keeping it pure.
It takes only a little reflection to see that this is an extraordinarily naive criticism.
It is naive because it glosses over completely the immense extent to which evangelical
Christianity itself is syncretistic. Its whole doctrinal framework developed in dialogue
with Hellenistic thought. Its organizational structures were adapted from local models.
Its festivals were revisions of "pagan" festivals. Its liturgies follow the canons of
western poetry and music. The Christianity we tend to regard as normative has been
radically Westernized, radically Europeanized, in comparison with its roots in the ancient
Near East. It is in part because our own Christianity has become so thoroughly
Americanized that it is so often ineffective in addressing the problems endemic to our own
By way of illustration, I have been using our commercial culture as an example of the
outward oppression that can be imposed on people of internal good will. The role of
oppressor in Exodus is played by the Egyptians, so before we go any further, it might be
well to look a little more closely at them. In general, Swedenborg takes Egypt to
represent the realm of information about the physical world we live in. This includes
knowledge of the "external things of the church," which I would take to include all its
principles of outward organization and worship, all the "realities" of its finances and
politics. In dealing with the story of the Exodus, though, Swedenborg gets a little more
specific. In ¶ 7926 he offers one of his more extended descriptions, as follows:
" To inflict a plague on Egypt": this means a consequent condemnation of people from
the church who have been in faith separated from charity. This follows from the
meaning of a "plague"--here the death of the firstborn--as the condemnation of people
from the church who have departed from charity (cf. ¶¶ 7766, 7778). In fact, "Egypt"
and "the Egyptians" refer to people who have been engaged in knowledge of church
matters but who have separated life from doctrine--that is, charity from faith.
We think of "faith alone," I suspect, as describing primarily people who pass judgment on
themselves and others strictly on the basis of their orthodoxy, people for whom correct
doctrine is an end in itself. There has to be more to it than that, because when charity
departs from faith, it does not leave a vacuum. The doctrine, however "correct" it may be,
is still used for particular purposes, and those purposes are not loving ones. In the kind
of situation I have been sketching, in the situation of bondage to our own forms of
cultural disorder, the doctrine is used to defend and justify whatever we find to be to
our own advantage.
The general form this rationalization will take is fairly predictable, for the reason that
"Egyptian" information is relatively external information. The values involved will tend
toward the materialistic. That is the level of reality to which we are primarily sensitive
in such states. That is simply "the way the world works." We have adjusted our church to
these ways of working, as to some extent, of course, we must. Churches need budgets. Our
small congregations have to discover ways to survive in the economic context of our
country and our times. What we do not need to do is to deny the adjustments, claim that
our compromises are not compromises, that our syncretism is not really syncretism.
In Swedenborg's interpretation of the story of the plagues, the regular visits of Moses
and Aaron to Pharaoh are images of incursions of "non-syncretized" truth. The inevitable
effect of such incursions is to show things up in a new light, in a light that is not at
all flattering. The purpose is to effect a separation, in the literal sense, a separation
between the Israelites and the Egyptians, in a deeper sense a separation between the good
intentions and the circumstantially distorted outward forms. To return to the beginning of
this talk, this is the declaration of independence, the point at which the inner oppressed
take an identity of their own and depart from the outward oppressors.
It is an intriguing image. It offers us a potentially useful kind of relativism, in which
approximations to truth have some power to effect appropriate separations, but only divine
truth has the power to separate cleanly and perfectly. I may be a relatively nice person,
but that does not mean that everyone who would rather not be in my company is not nice. I
may be a relatively not-nice person, but that does not mean that everyone who chooses to
associate with me is not nice. When the Lord is present, though, reactions tell the truth.
Good is attracted and evil is repelled.
This, incidentally, is why such emphasis is placed on the Paschal lamb, the symbol of
innocence. In the sorting out in the spiritual world, the primary criterion is innocence,
which needs a little definition.
Swedenborg has quite a lot to say about innocence in the Arcana, and it seems as though
its definition develops slightly as the work progresses. In the early chapters, quite
naturally, most of the references are to the obvious innocence of babies, though there are
clear pointers to "the innocence of wisdom." In the section we are looking at, innocence
is defined as "to acknowledge that with self there is nothing but evil, and that all good
is from the Lord" (¶ 7902e). Toward the end of the work, though, it is noted that ". . .
the Lord when in the world, as to his Human was innocence itself," (¶ 101325), and shortly
thereafter we come to what may be the more familiar definition, " . . . the good of
innocence is to acknowledge that all truths and goods are from the Lord, and nothing of
them from our own proprium, so it is to want to be led by the Lord, and not by self" (¶
One of the clearest opposites to this, incidentally, is found in Ezekiel (29:3), where the
Lord God is presented as saying, "Behold, I am against you, Pharaoh king of Egypt, the
great whale that lies in the midst of his rivers, who has said, `My river is my own, and I
have made it for myself.'" We could very appropriately transfer this picture from the
prophets back into the confrontations in Exodus. The struggle is between the Paschal lamb
and the Pharaoh, with Moses and Aaron as, in a sense, simply the voice of the lamb.
We could go a little further. When the rivers of Egypt are turned to blood, this is a
revelation of the nature of the rivers that Pharaoh makes. "Blood," in this context, is
interpreted as a symbol of "falsified truth," which deserves a little attention of its
own. In the third chapter of Exodus, the Israelites are told that when they leave Egypt,
they are to take along Egyptian vessels of silver and gold, which Swedenborg interprets as
"information about what is true and good" (¶ 6917). How is it that "Egyptian" vessels can
be true when "the Egyptians" represent falsity?
Information, Swedenborg explains, is neither true nor false in and of itself. It becomes
true or false by the way it is used--by its "application and use." It is like wealth,
which is a blessing if it is used well and a curse if it is used maliciously. The
principle is summarized in Heaven and Hell (¶ 356e) quite concisely:
The same data that are false for evil people because they are applied to evil ends are
true for good people because they are applied to good ends.
If we apply this principle to the river, as another symbol of truth, the river is water
for Israel and blood for Pharaoh--truth for those who are inwardly kept in truth and good,
but falsity for those who claim in as their own creation. All Moses does by stretching his
hand over the river is reveal the quality of the use to which the river is being put; and
interestingly enough, Pharaoh's magicians are able to duplicate this disclosure. This
strikes me as quite possibly an image of the common claim that looking out for number one
is the only policy that makes any sense--the open acknowledgment and defense of egotism.
There is a long way to go, through a lot of plagues, before the actual discrimination and
separation can take place.
Let me summarize now, and then pick up one particular implication. In his treatment of the
story of the Exodus in Arcana Coelestia, Swedenborg focuses on "the internal historical
sense," and in the twelfth chapter on events in the spiritual world consequent to the
Lord's resurrection. Specifically, he describes people of "the spiritual church" who have
been kept in "the lower earth," and who are now liberated and enabled to travel to their
own proper heaven--their own "Promised Land." These are people whose inward goodness has
been protected, but who have been kept outwardly in evil. I hope it is clear that we all
fit this definition to some extent.
The implication I would like to pick up rests in the fact that the story we are looking at
comes very near the beginning of the Bible. In fact, Israel did not march triumphantly
into Canaan and live happily ever after. They went to Sinai and received more laws than
they knew what to do with, then they marched to the southern border of the holy land and
were afraid to undertake its conquest, and then they spent forty years in the wilderness,
"murmuring" at the harshness of their lot. If we follow Swedenborg in taking the Exodus as
representing the impact of the First Coming, perhaps we should take another look at the
early church. There is a tendency to romanticize it--to see the time of the apostles as
golden age, an age of perfect devotion and unity. There is historical evidence to the
contrary, and common sense itself might suggest that humanity does not switch so easily
from the depths to the heights. In fact, we may not be as different from the apostles as
romanticism would have it--or they not as different from us.