Old Testament Prototypes of the Cross of the Lord*
The whole earthly life of our Lord Jesus Christ was prefigured with greater or lesser degrees of clarity in many persons, events, and institutions of the Old Testament --- which was a preparatory stage of the Christian revelation. The suffering on the Cross and the death of the Saviour, which were the most expressive manifestation of His boundless love for men and His highest labour for our salvation, are prefigured especially often and in many ways in Old Testament shadows and allusions. This amazing image of our salvation through the Saviour’s sufferings on the Cross and their material instrument itself --- the tree of the Cross --- were sometimes openly indicated beforehand to certain of the Old Testament elect, and, as it were, shone forth from the depths of the ages in many prototypical events and individuals. The divinely-wise Fathers and teachers of Christ’s Church, who, incidentally, expressed their understanding in the very beautiful hymns composed to glorify the Passion and death on the Cross of Jesus Christ, tried in every way to understand the various prototypes of the Lord’s Cross.1 The aim of our short sketch is to indicate the most significant prototypes of Christ’s Cross in the Old Testament under the guidance of the mind of the Holy Fathers and in accordance with the Church services.
The Fathers of the Church relate the first prototypical indication of the Cross of Christ to the time when the first man was still in Paradise, which was adorned with various trees. Of the trees of Paradise whose fruit was appointed to the first couple for food, the “tree of life” was exceptional in its characteristics (Gen. 2:9), and it was a prototype of the tree of the Cross of Christ. “The honorable Cross,” says St. John of Damascus, “was foreshadowed by the tree of life planted by God in the midst of Paradise; for as the fall and death came about through a tree, so it was fitting that through a tree life and resurrection should be given” (Concise Exposition of the Orthodox Faith, Book 4, 11:6). The Orthodox Church expresses the same understanding in her hymns, addressing her children with the words, “Now let all who worship the Cross cry out: Hail, tree of life” (Verses on “Lord, I have cried” for Monday of the fourth week of Great Lent). In fact, just as eating the fruit of the tree of life protected man’s body from corruption and death and gave him the possibility of eternal blessedness (Gen. 3:22), so eating of the fruit of the Cross of Christ, protects the Christian from spiritual death and corruption and by it he also is provided with the possibility of being eternally blessed. This is the meaning of the hymn, “O Lord, we sing of Thy life-giving Cross; for by it Thou hast made life blossom forth in the world and hast put death to death” (Verses on “Lord, I have cried” for Thursday of the second week of Great Lent). “Thou art our appeal, O Cross Most Honorable, Tree blessed by God, heavenly garden of whose fruit we have communed and thus received the incorruption of the first Eden” (Verses on “Lord, I have cried” for the third Sunday of Great Lent). Many of the Holy Fathers, as well as the Church of Christ in her services, indicate that as through a tree we fell by the action of the enemy of our salvation, the devil, so through a tree he has overthrown and we were restored. Thus in his sermon for Great Friday, St. John Chrysostom says, “Do you see that the devil is conquered by the same thing with which he once conquered? He through a tree defeated Adam, but Christ through a tree had power against him; the former tree sent us down to Hell, but the latter called forth those who had descended therein.” “Thrice-blessed art thou, O Tree, on which Christ the King and Lord was crucified, through which he who deceived (Eve) by a tree fell, being caught himself by God who was nailed to thee in the flesh, giving peace to our souls” (Canon of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, Canticle 5, Irmos). “By a tree of old we found death; but now again, life by the tree of the Cross” (Verses on “Lord, I have cried” for Tuesday of the fifth week of Great Lent). “A tree of old cast me out of Paradise, but now a tree led me into Paradise when Thou was crucified, O Christ” (Verses on “Lord, I have cried” for Tuesday of the seventh tone), or “In the midst of Eden the tree blossomed forth death, but in the midst of the whole earth a tree brought forth life” (Second Kathisma of Matins for Wednesday of the eighth tone). In explaining the reason for Christ’s crucifixion on the Cross, St. Gregory the Theologian says, “For a tree --- a tree, for a hand incontinently stretched out --- hands stretched out in self-denial, for a weak arm --- arms pierced by nails, for the arm casting Adam out --- arms embracing the ends of the earth” (Sermon). “On the Cross, O Christ, Thou didst stretch out Thy hands, erasing the unrestrained action of the forefather’s hand; by the tree of the Cross hast Thou healed the curse; thus we sing of Thee to all ages” (Canticle 8, Canon for Friday of the third week of Great Lent). According to an ancient tradition (Chrysostom, Basil the Great, Athanasius the Great, Ambrose of Milan, Epiphanius, Nilus, et al.), Adam, driven out of Paradise and condemned to death for his sin, died in Palestine, and the skull of his mouldering body was buried on Golgotha (Synaxarion of Great Thursday). “And when He had searched out the first elements of human death, the Lord accepted His Passion in the place of the skull so that there where human corruption took its beginning, the kingdom of life might begin and so that as death became powerful in Adam, so it might lose its power in the death of Christ” (Commentary of the Fifth Chapter of Exodus by St. Basil the Great). To signify that the Cross of Jesus Christ subsequently was raised up directly over Adam’s skull there exists even to the present a custom in the Christian Church of depicting a human skull at the foot of that Cross.
In the series of prototypes of the Cross of Christ in later times the sacrificial offering of Isaac is rather significant (Gen. 22). The most cursory glance at this event, which so highly displays Abraham’s faith and the obedience of his son Isaac, easily reveals that its true meaning and significance are contained in a certain great mystery concealed under the cover of this event. St. Ephraim the Syrian explains this mystery in this way, “Isaac, being prepared for sacrifice, ascended the mountain like a meek lamb, carrying the wood of the sacrifice on himself: thus our Saviour also went up to the place of the skull burdened by His Cross. I see the knife and understand the spear: I see the altar and represent Golgotha to myself; I see the wood and foreknow the Cross” (Sermon on Abraham). Isaac obediently surrenders himself for sacrifice by his father Abraham, who from love for God is sacrificing his only son by Sarah, his beloved son: thus Jesus Christ was completely submissive to the will of His Father during His Passion and obedient unto death on the Cross (Phil. 3:8, Rom. 8:32). We sing of Him in the hymns of the divine services, “Thou goest as a true Isaac, taking the Cross on Thy shoulders that Thou mightest offer a sacrifice to the Father for my sins as an acceptable fragrance’ (Canon and Akathist of the Divine Passion of Christ, Canon of the Cross, Canticle 6, Troparion 2).
Further, when Joseph took an oath to assure his father Jacob that after the latter’s death he would without fail take his bones from Egypt to the promised land and bury them in the grave together with his fathers Abraham and Isaac, then the old man, having been reassured, was made so joyful that he raised himself up somewhat on his bed “and (Israel) did reverence to the top of his staff” (Gen. 47:29-31). Certain Fathers of the Church (Chrysostom, Blessed Theodoret) suggest that Jacob foresaw the kingly dignity in the tribe of Ephraim (after the division of the Hebrew kingdom) and by his reverence was honouring that dignity in Joseph. According to the explanation of the Church services, Jacob did reverence to the top of the scepter (which may have had the shape of a cross) of Joseph, who was then the governor of Egypt, as a pre-figuring of the royal staff of the Cross of Christ, which is the triumphal glory of pious Kings. “Israel, foreseeing the future, did reverence to the top of Joseph’s staff, revealing how in times to come the most glorious Cross should be the safeguard of royal power, for it is a triumphal glory to kings” (Canon of the Exaltation, Canticle 7, troparion 3).
At the time when Joseph brought his sons to be blessed by his father Jacob, who had gone blind from old age, he placed Manasseh, as the elder, opposite his right hand, and Ephraim, as the younger, opposite his left. But to Joseph’s great sorrow Jacob intentionally placed his right hand on Ephraim’s head, and his left on the head of the first-born Manasseh and then prophetically pronounced a blessing on them and their descendants (Gen. 48:8-20). In the understanding of the Orthodox Church, by such a cruciform placement of Jacob’s hands while giving his blessing, the tree of the Cross of Christ was foreshadowed together with the Cross itself as an instrument of blessing for the faithful: Jacob’s blessing bestowed on the children, prophetically foreshadowed Christ’s blessing, coming down from the Cross to sinful humanity. Prefiguring Thy Cross, O Christ, the patriarch Jacob in granting his blessing to his grandsons placed his hands in that form on their heads” (Verse for August 1). “Arranging thy hands in a holy fashion, O all-glorious one, as thou once didst bless thy grandsons, thou didst reveal the image of the holy tree by which blessing has been granted to all who were cursed by wickedly eating of the tree and had crept into the depths of evil” (Canon of the Cross, Canticle 8, troparion 2 for Friday Matins of tone 8).
During the exodus of the Jews from Egypt, God, while establishing the prototypical feast of the Passover, among other things, through Moses commanded the families of the children of Israel to anoint the two posts and the lintel of the doors in their houses, where they would eat the Passover with the blood of the paschal lamb and added, “And you will have the blood, and I will pass by you, and there will not be the plague of destruction among you when I smite the land of Egypt.” (Ex. 12:4, 7, 13). This sign was not a mere conventional symbol by means of which the Angel of Destruction could distinguish the houses of the Hebrews from the houses of the Egyptians, but it had the significance of testifying to the faith of the Hebrews in the propitiatory power of the paschal sacrifice. The blood of the unblemished Paschal lamb with its meaning of salvation for the Hebrews foreshadowed the blood of the Divine Redeemer --- the Lord Jesus Christ, as the Lamb of God, sacrificed from the foundation of the world (Heb. 11:28). St. Cyprian observes that through this (anointing with blood) the Hebrews traced a perfect cross on their dwellings: for by anointing the lintel and threshold they represented the length, and the two posts, the width of the cross (The Rock of Faith on the Honorable Cross, part 1, chap. 1, 20). The preparation of the paschal lamb itself not only foreshadowed but represented plainly the blessed tree of the Cross: “for”, in the words of St. Justin Martyr, “the lamb was placed on the fire in the form of a cross, since one spit stretched from its hind quarters to its head, and the other, on which the lamb was hung, ran across its back.” Further, the prohibition against breaking the bones of the paschal lamb indicated in a hidden way the mystery of the Cross about which the Evangelist John remarks that the bones of the crucified Saviour were not broken on the Cross (19:36).
According to the sense of the Church services, the external appearance of the Cross of Christ was represented beforehand by the miraculous staff of Moses, which led the Israelites through the Red Sea without their getting set. When Moses stretched his staff over the waters of the sea the first time, so that the Jews could cross the sea as if on dry land, “the Lord drove the water all night with a strong wind and made the sea dry land; and the waters were parted and the children of Israel crossed on dry land in the midst of the sea; the waters were a wall to them on the right side and on the left” (Ex. 14:21-22), and thus they formed the upright part of the tree of the Cross of Christ. Then after the Israelites had crossed, when Moses stretched his staff over the sea the second time to destroy the pursuing Egyptian troops in the midst of the sea, the waters began to return to their place from both sides, and as they covered the bared bottom of the sea together with the chariots and horsemen of Pharaoh’s whole army, they formed the cross-piece of the tree of the Cross of Christ (27-28). “Inscribing the invincible weapon of the Cross upon the waters, Moses marked a straight line before him with his staff and divided the Red Sea, opening a path for Israel. Then he marked a horizontal line across the waters and united them in one, overwhelming the chariots of Pharaoh. Therefore let us sing to Christ our God, for he has been glorified” (Canon of the Exaltation, Canticle 1, Irmos). Beyond this, as Moses’ staff, when turned a second time to the sea against Pharaoh and his hosts, drowned them in the midst of the sea, so too does the triumphant staff of the Cross of Christ render the attacks of the noetic Pharaoh --- the devil and his minions --- unsuccessful when it is turned against them by true believers in the Lord Jesus. “Tracing a cross with his staff, Moses divided the depths and led the people of Israel across; so we conquer our noetic enemies when we make this sign” (Verse on the Beatitudes for Wednesday of tone 8).
Soon after the miraculous crossing of the Red sea, the Hebrews came to Marah and, when they found the waters there too bitter to use, they complained against Moses; then the Lord commanded him to cast the tree he was shown into the water, and the water became sweet (Ex. 15:22-25). This action of a tree, which instantaneously sweetened the huge mass of water required for the multitude of people and for their even more multitudinous flocks, is completely inexplicable by the laws of nature, and only the mystery of the Cross of Christ fully reveals to us why Moses was commanded to use a tree rather than some other means to destroy the bitterness of the water. As the deadly bitterness was removed by a tree cast into the waters of Marah, similarly death was conquered by the power of the Cross of Christ. “Not suffering the deadly bitterness of the tree (i.e. of the tree of knowledge of good and evil which turned out to be deadly to those who ate of it) to remain, O Lord, Thou hast utterly destroyed it through the Cross. In like manner of old did a tree once destroy the bitterness of the waters of Marah, prefiguring the strength of the Cross” (Canon of the Exaltation, Canticle 9, troparion 1). In part the sweetening of the waters of Marah prefigured the power of the Cross of Christ in converting pagans to a pious life. As soon as the preaching of the Cross was proclaimed to pagans who before the coming of the Saviour into the world had been similar in their moral and spiritual life to the bitter waters of Marah, being deprived of the light of Divine revelation and of the law of God --- these pagans turned by the thousands to faith in Christ and from dishonorable living to virtue. “In days of old Moses transformed with a tree the bitter wells in the wilderness, prefiguring the bringing of the Gentiles to the true faith through the Cross,” as the Holy Church sings of this on the feast of the Exaltation (Canon, Canticle 4, troparion 1), when also the prophecy about the sweetening of the bitter waters of Marah is read in Great Vespers.
To quiet the children of Israel who had rebelled against Aaron, Moses once commanded that the twelve staffs of the leaders of each of the tribes of Israel be placed in the Tabernacle of Witness along with Aaron’s staff, and behold, in one night Aaron’s dry and lifeless staff miraculously “blossomed and put forth buds, produced flowers and brought forth almonds” (Num. 17: 1-8). The Church understands this as a prefiguring of the seedless conception of the Great Priest --- Jesus Christ and of the blossoming forth of the sacred tree of the Cross of Christ in the Church: “The rod of Aaron is an image of this mystery, for when it budded it showed who should be priest. So in the Church that once was barren, the tree of the Cross has now put forth flower, filling her with strength and steadfastness” (Canon of the Exaltation, Canticle 3, Irmos).
In Selmon, in the last year of their wandering in the wilderness of Arabia, the Hebrews again began to complain and rebel against God’s instructions, and in His anger “the Lord sent poisonous serpents against the people, and they bit the people, and many of the children of Israel died.” Then Moses turned to the Lord God and asked Him to forgive His chosen people, which had already repented, and the Lord said to Moses, “Make thee a bronze serpent and place it on a signal-pole, and whenever a serpent shall bite a man, everyone so bitten who looks upon it will live;” Moses did this, and those who were bitten survived after looking at the bronze serpent (Num. 21:8-9). The ancient Jews partially understood the mystery of this prefiguring, believing that “he who turned himself toward it was not saved by the thing that he saw, but by Thee, the Saviour of all” (Wis. 16:7). But our Lord Jesus Christ revealed this mystery with complete clarity in His conversation with Nicodemus when He said, “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up so that all who believe in Him might not perish, but have eternal life” (John 3:14-15). The Holy Church teaches that the tree on which the bronze serpent was hung was a prototype of the tree of the Cross of Christ. “Moses set upon a wooden pole a cure against the deadly and poisonous bite of the serpents: for cross-wise upon the tree --- as a symbol of the Cross --- he placed a serpent that creeps about the earth, and thereby he triumphed over calamity” (Canon of the Exaltation, Canticle 1, troparion 2). That the serpent, lifted up on the tree before the eyes of all Israel in the wilderness, was a prototype of Jesus Christ, lifted up on the tree of the Cross before the whole people, is indicated also by the hymn, “Moses lifted the serpent up on a tree, symbolizing Thee, O Jesus, voluntarily lifted up on the Cross” (Canticle 9, troparion 1, Canon for Wednesday of the third week of Great Lent). The healing of those bitten by the poisonous serpents through looking at the bronze serpent prefigured the healing of those bitten by the spiritual serpent --- Satan --- through looking by faith at Jesus Christ lifted up on the Cross. “Prefiguring Thy Passion, O Word, the great Moses of old lifted up a brazen serpent on a tree, healing all who looked upon it from the serpent’s poisonous bite; for, O Master, when Thou was crucified, all we faithful were delivered from harm at the hands of the God-hating serpent” (Canon to the Cross for Friday Matins of tone 6, Canticle 6, troparion 2).
In the series of other prefigurings of the Lord’s Cross, offered for the consideration of the faithful by the Holy Church in her various services, the following events attract our attention. When the Amalekites attacked the Hebrew people, Moses commanded Joshua the son of Nun to lead the nation into battle against them and then ascend to the top of a hill with Aaron and Hur, taking his wonderworking staff with him; he lifted up his hands and extended them, and whenever Moses lifted up his hands, Israel prevailed (Ex. 17:8-11). By lifting up his hands in this fashion, he prefigured the way Jesus Christ’s hands were stretched on the Cross and nailed to it, while, on the other hand, by the fact that this action destroyed the power of the Amalekites, the destruction by the Cross of Christ of the pernicious power of the spiritual Amalek --- Satan and his hosts --- was prefigured. “In times past Moses, standing between the two priests, prefigured in his person the undefiled Passion (of Christ). Forming a cross with his outstretched hands, he raised a standard of victory and overthrew the power of Amalek” (Canon of the Exaltation, Canticle 1, troparion 1). “Moses prefigured the power of the precious Cross, O Christ, when he put to flight Amalek, his adversary, in the wilderness of Sinai: for when he stretched out his arms in the form of a cross, the people became strong again. And now the fulfillment of these images has come to pass for us. Today the Cross is exalted and devils are put to flight” (Feast of the Exaltation, prayer on “Glory, , And now” of the Lity). Similarly when Joshua the son of Nun wanted to finish the battle with the five Canaanite kings, he stretched out his hands to God with a request for help (Josh. 10:12-14) and in this way prefigured the Lord Jesus Christ, Who stretched out His hands on the Cross: “Of old Joshua the son of Nun mystically prefigured the image of the Cross when he spread his hands out in the form of a cross, O my Saviour, and the sun stood still until he had brought down the enemies who opposed Thee, O God; but now the sun has set, seeing Thee on the Cross; and having destroyed the power of death, Thou hast raised up the whole world” (Kathisma of the Cross, tone 8 for August 1). The prophet Jonah spent three days and three nights in the belly of a whale (Jonah 2) and while there he, too, prayerfully stretched his hands out in the shape of the Cross of Christ and survived by the power of that Cross. “In the belly of the whale Jonah prefigured the image of the Divine Cross with his outstretched arms and, looking up, he was saved from the beast by Thy power, O Word” (Canon for the third Sunday in Great Lent, Canticle 6, katavasia). “Jonah stretched out his hands in the form of a cross within the belly of the sea monster, plainly prefiguring the redeeming Passion (of Christ)” (Canon of the Exaltation, Canticle 6, Irmos). The Church teaches that the prophet Daniel, who at the command of the pagan king Darius was thrown into a den of lions for worshipping the true God, was preserved from harm from the lions (Dan. 6) because his hands also were arranged in the form of a cross when he lifted them up to God with a prayer for help. “The greatest of the prophets, Daniel, once cast into a den of lions, stretched out his hands in the form of a cross, and instead of being consumed by them, was preserved unharmed, blessing Christ our God forever” (Canon for third Sunday in Great Lent, Canticle 8, katavasia).
All these varied shadows and hints relating to the Cross of Christ, forming in themselves an unbroken chain of Divine revelation about the sacrificial offering on Golgotha, certainly did not pass before the eyes of the ancient Israelites as dead images, devoid of a higher sense and meaning. The better men chosen from the people of God were able to understand their true sense and meaning beforehand by faith and with the enlightenment of the Holy Spirit (1 Pet. 1:21); thus, according to the words of the Apostle Paul, although the righteous men of the Old Testament died in faith without having received the promised things, still they saw them from afar and rejoiced (Heb. 11:2, 13; cf. John 8:56). What the Old Testament incidentally foretold and revealed beforehand in a hidden fashion in various prototypes was, as Christians see it, completely fulfilled in the New Testament history: on the Cross our Lord Jesus Christ tasted death and thus completed our salvation, freeing us from sin, the curse, and death; from that time, and especially after the triumph of Christianity over paganism, the Holy Cross, as the means of our salvation, the symbol of spiritual victory, and the mighty banner of Christians, became an object of open and solemn adoration in the Christian world; this was so above all after the Holy Empress, Saint Helena, found the Cross of the Lord, when the feast of the Exaltation of the Honorable and Life-giving Cross of the Lord originated.
I.B. (from Russian Pilgrim, No. 36 & No. 37, 1895)
*) Translated from the Russian by Subdeacon Seraphim Johnson.
1) An understanding of prototypes is given in detail in my article “Prototypes of Christ’s Baptism,” Russian Pilgrim, No. 1 for 1894 (in Russian).
Taken from Orthodox Life, Volume 23, No. 5, September – October 1973, published by Holy Trinity Monastery, Jordanville, New York.
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