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

they intend.

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

our priorities.

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.

contact phil at for any problems or comments