Mary as Ark and Tabernacle

Some more insights from James Alison, this time in relation to the Blessed Virgin Mary, in his talk Living the Magnificat. I don’t agree with Alison on everything in this essay (he takes a very traditional Roman Catholic view on Mary: Immaculate Conception, Queen of Heaven, the works), but I was fascinated by his description of how St Luke presents Mary as the fulfilment of the Ark of the Covenant and the Tabernacle, describing each of these as “dress rehearsals” for the story that was “definitively and triumphantly performed by Mary of Nazareth”.

He argues that this can be seen in Luke’s choice of Greek words:

So the Spirit of God will overshadow – ἐπισκιάσει – her (Luke 1:35). The dress rehearsals for this include the Ark of the Covenant being overshadowed by the cherubim – συσκιάζοντες (Exodus 25:20), and the Presence overshadowing the Tabernacle – ἐπεσκίαζεν (Exodus 40:35) – in the book of Exodus.

(Note: for technical reasons I’ve had to transliterate the Greek in this post; any errors in doing so are mine alone. Corrections welcomed, through only very slightly gritted teeth…) (Update: issue now fixed, Greek letters restored.)

Each year the High Priest would emerge through the veil from the Holy of Holies, becoming in the process a “temporary incarnation of the divinity”. This provides the “background imagery” for the annunciation:

Mary is to be the real Holy of Holies, the real Ark bearing the covenant, the real Tabernacle into which Moses could not go. And because it is the real high priest, YHWH himself, the Creator, who is to emerge from her, no man needs to go into her first in order to come out again in different robes, as would have been the case with the High Priests of the Temple.

(As an aside, Dr Alison also suggests that the same link is found in Revelation 11:19-12:1, linking the Ark with the woman who is to give birth – support for the interpretation that identifies the woman with Mary?)

Another parallel is found in the account of Mary’s visit to Elizabeth:

When Elizabeth hears her greeting, John the Baptist leaps for joy in her womb. The verb in Greek is ἐσκίρτησεν and it appears in two significant places: it is the same verb which in Hebrew describes David dancing about, skipping before the Ark in 1 Chronicles 15, where also the arrival of the Ark is greeted with great shouts – and the verb ἀναφονέω is used of the Levites greeting the Ark and of Elizabeth greeting her cousin.

The same verb is also found in Malachi 4:2, which Alison translates as follows (emphasis of “her” is in the original):

But for you who fear my name, the sun of righteousness shall rise with healing in her wings. You shall go forth leaping (σκιρτησετε) like calves from the stall.

In each case, what is happening is the fulfilment of what had been “cultic objects”, with Mary “beginning to live out, slowly, painstakingly, in time, what those cultic objects had been pointing to”:

And it is this real performed, lived-out history over time, soon to be opened out through her son’s protagonism so that we may all become its performers and livers-out, which will itself be the crowning perfection of creation.

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16 Responses to Mary as Ark and Tabernacle

  1. A quick comment on the translation of Mal. 4:2 above. One’s got to be very careful when translating from gendered languages such as Hebrew into (non-gendered) English. You have to have a strong existing case for using a personal pronoun in the translation. I’m not claiming that it doesn’t exist (haven’t read the book, only skimmed this post, my Hebrew is poor), just pointing out.

  2. John H says:

    Tapani: thanks. I suspect Dr Alison was being a bit mischievous. I don’t think it affects his overall point. 🙂

  3. Phil Walker says:

    Or, possibly writing & alpha ; to get α. If that works…

    I always thought Jesus was the fulfilment of the Ark, the Tabernacle, the Holy of Holies, etc.

  4. Phil Walker says:

    Yep. & [greek letter] ; does the trick for lower case, and capitalise the first letter for a capital. I don’t know what they look like in this font!

  5. John H says:

    I always thought Jesus was the fulfilment of the Ark, the Tabernacle, the Holy of Holies, etc.

    I hear ya. But James Alison has still got me thinking: his analysis does seem to sharpen up the way in which Jesus fulfils the whole sacrificial order as the true High Priest – and it turns the Virgin Birth into an intrinsic part of that fulfilment. Whereas sometimes it can appear as something of an add-on: something that actually happened, something necessary to fulfil OT prophecy (depending on how you translate Isaiah 7:14), but not something that has a direct bearing on the heart of the gospel.

    And the NT does seem to allow for different levels/perspectives of fulfilment. So Jesus fulfils the Tabernacle in that he “tabernacled among us” (John 1), but OTOH he entered through the curtain into the Holy of Holies (Hebrews 6).

  6. John H says:

    Thanks for the tips on rendering Greek letters in HTML, btw. Next time I feel like typing about fifty “&” HTML codes to write a few Greek words I’ll let you know. 😉

  7. Chris Jones says:

    When I want to put a bit of Greek into a post or comment, I open up MS Word (if I’m at the office) or OpenOffice (if I’m at home on my Linux box) and use the “Insert Symbol” dialog to put the Greek characters in one by one. Then I copy and paste the Greek text into the combox. On Firefox at least, the browser is smart enough to translate the Unicode characters coming out of the clipboard into the HTML entities it can understand. It is a bit of a pain to click on the Greek letters one-by-one but it beats typing the HTML entities.

    On Windows I have also had some success installing a Greek language pack and keyboard mapping, which allows typing the Greek text directly with the keyboard. This is very helpful if you have a lot of Greek you want to put in. But the installation is a bit tricky and I cannot recall how to do it. Plus it doesn’t help the Mac users or the Linux gearheads with the problem.

    I am sure it can be done on Linux (I am sure there are Linux users in Greece, after all) but I don’t know how to do it.

  8. John H says:

    Chris: thanks. I don’t think this was a problem with my PC – Greek characters appear fine, and I was able to copy and paste the text into the WP text entry box. The problem came when saving the page – pretty sure it’s an issue with the locale on the server itself.

  9. Chris Jones says:

    Following up on Tapani’s comment on the translation:

    I’m no Greek scholar but I don’t see how Alison can justify using “her” in his translation. The problem is not the one Tapani identifies (the misinterpretation of grammatical gender), because the pronoun in the LXX is not feminine to begin with — it’s masculine. The LXX is:

    ?? ???? ???????? ????? (en tais pteryxin autou)

    where “autou” is the 3d person singular genitive, masculine or neuter form of the personal pronoun. It can only mean “his” or “its,” never “her.” To translate it as “her” the Greek would have to be

    ?? ???? ???????? ????? (en tais pteryxin autes)

    I think Alison’s confusion may be that he thinks “autou” ought to agree with “tais pteryxin” (wings), which is indeed feminine. But the referent of “autou” is not “pteryxin” but “helios” earlier in the sentence (which is masculine).

    Of course Alison’s overall point is exactly right: this typological approach which sees our Lady and her role in the economy of salvation prophesied in the Old Testament is all over the Church’s patristic and liturgical tradition. But in this case he is pushing the text farther than it will go to support it.

    (BTW John, one thing I left out in my discussion of using the clipboard to paste in Greek text is that Greek characters with diacritical marks never work with this method. You can’t paste in (for example) an alpha with a rough breathing mark or an omega with an iota subscript. You have to make do with a plain vanilla alpha or omega.)

  10. Chris Jones says:

    OK, I can now see that my method doesn’t work on Word Press, just as you said. Scratch all after “hello,” then.

  11. John H says:

    Chris: like I said, I think this is a locale issue with the server, rather than a WP issue as such. Out of my hands, alas…

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  13. J. Random Hermeneut says:

    I’ve got it on pretty good authority that it’s not a locale issue with the server 😉 since html which reports itself as unicode (ie.
    … ) will display whatever one throws at it in the Greek and Hebrew department (or so I’ve heard 😉 )

    Pretty sure it’s a WordPress configuration issue. I suggest pursuing this with your config file and see if that’s where the problem lies:

  14. John H says:

    Aha! Thanks! Another victory for #passiveaggressivesupportrequests!

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  16. J. Random Hermeneut says:

    This is a test:

    ברשית ברא אלהים את השצים ואת הארץ

    Εν αρχη εποιησεν ο θεος τον ουρανον και την γην.

    Und die Erde war wüst und leer, und es war finster auf der Tiefe; und der Geist Gottes schwebte auf dem Wasser

    Et la terre était désolation et vide, et il y avait des ténèbres sur la face de l’abîme. Et l’Esprit de Dieu planait sur la face des eaux.

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