The hand of God moves through Israel’s history, to create and shape persons, events, institutions and rituals into prophetic foreshadowings or prefigurations of the coming salvation. Through a careful, contemplative reading of the writings of the Hebrew Bible, early Christian theologians and mystics discovered – amid scenes of warfare and revenge as well as of victory and hope – verbal icons depicting Christ, the Cross, the Church and the Sacraments.
Such verbal icons are called, by the apostle Paul then by the Church’s later theologians, “types” or prophetic images. Like the figure of Adam in Romans 5:14, these images were understood to point forward to the person of Jesus Christ, who would fulfill the promise they represent. He is the “new” or “last” Adam – the “God-man,” in the language of St Cyril of Alexandria (+444) – who recapitulates and restores human nature by His incarnation, then glorifies and exalts that nature by His resurrection and ascension into heaven. Adam of the Genesis narrative is thus seen to be a prophetic figure, whose “fall” is forever rectified by the cross and the resurrection, the humility and the glory of Christ.
Other typological images abound throughout the Hebrew Scriptures. Early Church theologians found many in a passage from the first Book of Kings, which recounts the resurrection (or resuscitation), the calling back from death, of the son of the widow of Zarephath (1 Ki 17:8-24). The Lord sends the prophet Elijah to this pagan city to meet and to receive a meal from the widow, then to raise her child from his untimely death. He performs the miracle by stretching himself out three times upon the child, as he implores God to restore the boy’s soul. St Augustine of Hippo (+430), for example, was especially fond of discovering behind the literal or historical sense of a passage such as this, another level of meaning that can be termed “spiritual,” “symbolic” or “allegorical.”
Here the Gentile widow is perceived by Augustine to be a symbol or image of the future Church of Christ, composed principally of Gentiles. The “couple of sticks” the woman gathers to make a cooking fire are seen as prefigurations of the cross on which the Lord was to be crucified. For the cross was constructed from two pieces of wood (Augustine stresses the point that she collects precisely two sticks). Allegory reaches its peak in response to the woman’s declaration that she will prepare a final meal for herself and her son “so that we may eat and die.” “No one,” Augustine asserts, “will merit to believe in Christ crucified unless he dies to this world. For if a person wishes to eat the body of Christ worthily, he must die to the past and live for the future.”1
If the widow is an image of the Church, then her son prefigures the Gentiles. Like him, the Gentiles lay dead (in their sins). As Elijah came to raise up the child, so Christ came to raise up the pagan nations and to lead them to new life in the Holy Trinity. “Elijah bent down in prayer, and the widow’s son was revived,” Augustine declares. “Christ sank down in his passion, and the Christian people were brought back to life.”2
This kind of allegorical interpretation is practiced by Eastern Church Fathers as well as by the Latin Augustine. St Ephrem of Syria (+373), for example, sees in Elijah’s act of stretching himself three times upon the child a symbol of the Christian practice of invoking the threefold name of the Trinity at the sacrament of baptism. Elaborating on the theme, Ephrem also discovers here an image of the triple descent of the Son of God to raise the dead: by his incarnation, his crucifixion, and his descent into Sheol, the realm of the departed, out of which Christ raised up humankind, to give them a share in his own glorified life.
Interpretation of this kind is very much out of vogue today. For the past two centuries, Christian exegetes of the Scriptures have tended to stress the “literal” or “historical” sense of a given passage, the meaning the author himself understood and attempted to communicate through his writing. Well versed in ancient rhetoric and in poetic symbolism, and convinced that the Holy Spirit inspires (guides but does not dictate) composition of the biblical writings, the ancient Church Fathers discovered in a great many, if not all passages of Scripture a higher or fuller meaning than the one found through a purely literal reading of the text. They were persuaded that God reveals himself through the written Word: not only through historically determinable events, but also through the symbolic quality of the written accounts of those events. Thus the Exodus from Egypt is seen, by apostolic as well as by later writers, to be both a narration of Israel’s liberation from bondage and an image of the greater liberation from sin and death granted through Christian baptism. Similarly, the manna that sustained the children of Israel during their wilderness wandering is interpreted by many as a symbolic figure of the eucharist, the “true bread from heaven” (John 6).
As for this passage in First Kings – like the New Testament accounts of Jairus’ daughter (Mk 5:21-43) and the son of the widow of Naïn (Lk 7:11-17) – the Church can only see here a promise of coming salvation, fulfilled in the death, the resurrection and the exaltation of the eternal Son of God. To modern sensibilities this kind of symbolic or typological interpretation may seem to be nothing more than a fanciful distortion of the original meaning of the passage. To eyes of faith, however, this account of the resurrection of the son of the Zarephath widow speaks directly and eloquently to our gravest problem, the reality of our own death, our alienation from God, who created us for the sole purpose that we might live forever in Him. As Elijah stretches himself three times upon the child to recall him to physical existence, so Christ, the Prophet of prophets and eternal Son of God, makes His “triple descent” into the realm of time and space, to recall Adam – all those who long for salvation – out of the realm of the dead, to restore him to his Mother, the Church, and to bestow upon him the blessed gift of everlasting Life.