Concerning Mar Jacob of serugh:
Mar(1) Jacob was born in 451 A.D. in Kurtam, a town on the Euphrates river in
Mesopotamia, probably educated in Edessa, and, at a relatively young age, made
chorepiscopus--a suffragan having some of the responsibilities, but not the full
authority, of a bishop--of Haura, in the diocese of his native district of Serugh. In
519 he was consecrated bishop of Batnan in the same diocese of Serugh,(2) where
he reposed two years later in 521. He lived a quiet life as an ascetic and man of
prayer, resolutely avoiding the theological and political controversies that raged in
the wake of the Fourth Ecumenical Council of Chalcedon, which had been held in the
year he was born. He began, according to one biography, to compose metrical
homilies at the age of twenty-two; and it is said that by the time of his repose
some forty-eight years later, the list of his homilies had reached 763.
Mar Jacob wrote in Syriac, a dialect of the Aramaic spoken by our Saviour and the
Jews of His time. Although he left behind other compositions besides the metrical
homilies, it is for these that he is known. They are written in two-line units, each
line consisting of twelve syllables. His style, while simple and straightforward, is
full of striking imagery. Systematic rhyme, as later developed in Arab and European
poetry, is not employed. The recourse to frequent restatement of an idea--a
characteristic of all Semitic literature--serves to assure that a listener who missed a
point on its first mention will grasp it on the second; these homilies were intended
to be read aloud in a congregation. In imagery, interpretation, and a typological
approach to Scripture, Mar Jacob is a faithful disciple of Saint Ephraim the Syrian,
his predecessor by some seventy years, to whom he devoted a panegyric that has
survived. Mar Jacob has been given the epithet "The Flute of the Holy Spirit and the
Harp of the Church," and is considered second only to Saint Ephraim among the
Syriac Fathers. Of the 763 homilies he is said to have written, some 300 still exist
in European libraries. Between 1905 and 1910, Paul Bedjan edited and published
195 of these in five volumes. A few of them have been translated into French,
German, Spanish, and Italian; we know of only six that have been translated into
English.(3) Yet Bedjan's collection alone includes an astounding range of homilies,
full of a deep and beautiful spiritual vision, commenting exhaustively on all of
Scripture, including many Old Testament subjects rarely given special attention; the
homily that follows is an excellent example. With God's help, translations of many
of Mar Jacob's homilies will be appearing in forthcoming issues of this periodical.
In publishing these homilies, we repay a debt we incurred in the foreword to our
edition of The Ascetical Homilies of Saint Isaac the Syrian. There we called the
wealth of untranslated Syriac patristic literature "a secret and sealed well-spring of
living water drawn up unto eternal life." Even if one may say that Syriac literature is
an acquired taste, we believe that after the reader has had a chance to taste for
himself what it has to offer, he will repeat Mar Jacob's own words, "This is a sweet
spring whose draught cheers him that tastes it!"(4)
We wish to express our gratitude to Dr. Sebastian Brock of Oxford, whom we also
mentioned in the foreword to Saint Isaac's Homilies. Despite the demands of
teaching, scholarship, and his own translations, he has always found the time to
answer, in a very gracious manner, all the questions about Syriac we have
addressed to him. It was his translation of Mar Jacob's celebrated homily,
"Concerning the Veil on Moses' Face,"(5) that first acquainted us with Mar Jacob; we
strongly recommend it to the reader.
The following is a translation of Homily Number 117 of Bedjan's edition, Vol. IV, pp.
282-96. The third chapter of the Fourth Book of Kings(6) recounts a battle between
the King of Moab and the allied forces of Israel, Judah, and Edom. The composite
army of these three kingdoms subdues the Moabite forces and the victory seems to
be theirs, when the King of Moab takes his first-born son and sacrifices him atop
the city wall as a holocaust to his god. The Scripture tersely concludes, "And there
was great indignation against Israel: and they departed from him, and returned to
their own land" (IV Kings 3:27). A year or so before reading Mar Jacob's exegesis of
this passage, we came across two related articles in Biblical Archaeology Review.
Since the first(7) is primarily concerned with an account of the discovery and
interpretation of the "Moabite Stone"--an inscribed monument from the ninth
century B.C. describing this battle, which was erected by the King of Moab to
commemorate his victory--it devotes only a few lines to the question why "there
was great indignation against Israel," and why the King of Moab's abominable
sacrifice turned his defeat into victory:
Were the Moabite forces so strengthened by their king's self-abnegating sacrifice
that they fought with a renewed spirit of desperation and self-sacrifice and
defeated the allies, forcing them to retreat? Did the wrath of Yahweh come upon
the allied armies? And if so, why? In what way did his wrath manifest itself? In the
outbreak of a disease? Or fear among the soldiers? These questions have been
asked by Bible readers and commentators for centuries, but no one has been able
to give a satisfactory answer.(8)
The second,(9) however, is an attempt to explain this by way of "the psychological
breakdown or trauma that affected the Israelite forces when they beheld the sign of
human sacrifice atop the walls of Kir-Hareseth" (p. 63). This explanation left us
dissatisfied. The Israelite armies, having the military advantage anyway, would
more likely have been roused by the murder to greater fury against the King of
Moab, and destroyed him utterly. Furthermore, the Scripture says that the "great
indignation" was against Israel--but why? Margalit seeks to interpret "there was
great indignation against Israel" as a Scriptural way of saying "The Israelites had a
psychological breakdown"; but this is not in keeping with the straightforwardness of
the sacred texts, and examines the incident only from a humanistic, psychological
standpoint--as if God had no part in the matter.(10)
Having said this much, we leave the reader to see for himself how Mar Jacob
resolves the mystery--and how a God-inspired mind can reveal the wealth hidden in
a short passage of Scripture, which remains concealed from those who read
Scripture without a strong, living faith.
THE SCRIPTURE enlightens the eyes of the soul with its readings;
Read it, O man of discernment, and enabled by love, be filled with light therefrom.
From the divine readings a sun dawns On minds that encounter them with discretion.
5God has placed the Scriptures in the world like lamps of great light
In the midst of darkness, for the world to be lightened by them;
The soul of him that has love receives light from the readings,
And he walks through their realms as in broad daylight.
Approach Scripture with love and behold its fairness,
10 For it will not let thee see its face except for the sake of love.
Without love, though thou read, thou wilt not profit,
Because love is the door whereby one enters in unto the meaning.
Scripture therefore requires that, having taken it up,
Thou not read therein except thou love it more than thine own soul,
15 And it saith to thee, "If thou shouldst read through me reluctantly,
Then I too shall be reluctant to disclose to thee my meanings.
Either love me, and open me to read and behold my comeliness,
Or read me not at all, for except thou love me, thou wilt gain no profit.
The same mind that thou hast towards me when taking me up,
20 I also assume towards thee as I encounter thee.
If love and desire for my meanings be stirred up in thee,
I set out all my riches for thee to take.
If I see that thy soul is opened to me by love,
I open to thee all my doors for thee to enter in.
25 I have measures, and scales, and allotments,
And in equity I reward each man with his recompenses.
Him that loves me as he reads in me, I love,
And should he ask me for all my treasures, I give them to him.
But when he is unsympathetic as he reads through me,
30Then likewise do I encounter him, and dismiss him with the cry, 'Out with thee!'
He that takes hold of me is able to subdue me through his soul's love,
For, if he loves me, I will array all my treasures before him.
But unless he love me, let him not be concerned with me, for he will profit nothing
Since I only extend to him words without signification."
35 Scripture saith such words to him that reads through it,
Exhorting him to acquire love, and only then to approach.
Love, therefore, must impel him that approaches the readings,
And then his mind will be enriched by the meaning.
I TOOK UP THE SCRIPTURE, and as I read, amazement came over me
40 At the King of Moab who sacrificed his son on the wall,(11)
And I came to a stop, standing with great emotion at the reading;
And with ingenuous love I pushed my way in to the meaning.
A pagan sacrificed his son atop a wall to a polluted demon,
And from God indignation prevailed against Israel:
45 On account of this, wonder has captivated me,
To speak about God's visitation, the reason for which is concealed from most men.
The King of Moab sacrificed to a demon, and, by the Lord, triumphed over the great
For most men, hearing this history causes confusion;
And so concerning this I have now resolved to speak,
50 If there be love in the ear that hearkens, to understand.
THREE KINGS WENT FORTH to war against the sons of Moab:
Those of Israel, of Judah, and of Edom.
Three kings assembled together for the fray,
To draw up violent battle against wretched Moab.
55 But a great thirst befell them unto exhaustion;
The kings came to Elissaeus; and he hearkened to them.
The prophet prayed, and without wind or rain,
Torrents of swift waters gushed forth for the great Nation,
And by a hidden beckoning the torrents filled pools of water,
60 So that the peoples that had assembled for battle drank.
They recovered their strength and mightily attacked;
The battle fell suddenly on Moab, and the lawless one was undone.
The armies that had gathered encompassed him,
Laid waste his land and furiously destroyed his inheritance.
65 The fighting waxed severe; they razed his flourishing towns
And ravaged and wasted the beauty of his land and his cities.
And the heathen saw that the battle prevailed against him,
And that he was unable to sustain the conflict of that fight.
The king set his face to flee, but they permitted him not;
70 He found himself amidst swift legions.
The battle surrounded him like the flood of a great sea,
With no succor, no deliverer, no helper.
But straightway he took his first-born son, whom he loved,(12)
And in the sight of the multitudes offered him up for a holocaust on the wall.
75 And the Lord's indignation waxed severe among the peoples surrounding him,
And evil fortune prevailed against the Hebrews and the Edomites.
A breathing-spell came about for the idolatrous king through the sacrifice of his son,
And the war of the three kings, which had imperiled him, ceased.
The great strife was stayed by the sacrifice of his son,
80 And by his first-born's blood he triumphed over the mighty siege.
And for this reason great is the inquiry,
Why indeed the victory went to the idolater for the abo-minable sacrifice he offered
The battle is the Lord's, but the sacrifice was offered to a demon;
Why then did the Lord give him the victory upon his making the polluted sacrifice?
85 The king's idol, to which he sacrificed his son on the wall,
Was able neither to make him to triumph nor to be vanquished;
Whereas to the Lord, in Whose hands are victory and defeat,
The pagan's sacrifice did not belong, since it was of the idols.
For it is written that the Lord's indignation prevailed against the Israelites--
90 Not that the demon that received the sacrifice caused the victory.
LET US NOW INQUIRE why the Lord gave the victory
To the King of Moab when he sacrificed his first-born to an idol.
He beheld how confident the heathen was in his god,
And His wrath rose up against Israel His own people.
95 The former entrusted the battle to his idol, believing that it would deliver
But the Lord's own people doubted that the Lord would redeem them.
Hence His indignation rose up against the Hebrews,
Because they did not love Him and boast in Him like the pagans.
"If a pagan, whose god is no god,
100 So loveth it as to sacrifice his first-born to it,
I that am the Lord, and am God, and am the Saviour,
Wherefore, O Hebrews, have ye not so loved Me as he hath loved an idol?
This nothing, the King of Moab loveth as if it were something great,
And hath sacrificed his son to it in his great love.
105 But I, Who am He Who is,1 and the Lord, and something great,
My people hath hatefully esteemed as nothing.
And therefore, before this pagan who loveth his god,
I bring low them that have not loved Me.
This fellow hath placed great faith in falsehood, and doubted not,
110 But My people maketh the truth out to be a lie, and doubteth its own
This heathen, though he hath seen in his god neither might,
Nor succor, nor magnificent marvel,
Nor signs, nor splendid deeds of any kind,
Hath so believed in it as without misgiving to sacrifice his son to it.
115 But Israel, that hath seen My miracles, and My lofty arm,
--Who divided the sea, rent the rock, and sweetened the waters,
Who brought down manna, brought up quail, multiplied blessings,
Made a river flow, broke down walls, and slew kings--
The miracles in Egypt, the stupendous deeds in the sea, and the wonders in the
120 The fearful things on Sinai, and every kind of glorious deed in every land--
After these magnificent things done by Me,
My people is hesitant and remiss, without faith that it will be made victorious by Me.
Wherefore I deliver it over to the lost one,
That from him it may learn how to trust in its God.
125 He, having made no trial of his idol, loveth it greatly,
Whereas My people hath experience of Me through miracles, yet loveth Me not.
Moses taught it, `Love thy God,' but since it heareth him not,
Let the pagan convict it by how much he loveth his little idol.
He sacrificed his first-born to it, though he hath no experience of its ever helping
130 But Me hath My people disdained, though My benefactions are so many."
Wrath, therefore, waxed great against Israel,
When the Moabite sacrificed his son on the wall to his idol,
That the Nation might be shamed that loved not the Lord its Lord
Like that pagan who showed his love in sacrificing his son.
135 THOSE THREE KINGS that joined battle with the idolater
Had beheld the prodigy wrought by Elissaeus:
Pools of water in parched places for the great Nation,
Rapid rivers under fair and cloudless skies:
Those armies drank but gave no glory;
140 They saw the sign but were not moved to give thanks for the marvel.
And so at the idolater's sacrifice, they were driven away,
For he, without any sign, bound his confidence fast to his god.
The miracles of the great Moses, they beheld in Elissaeus,
Who prayed, filled the river beds with water, and gave them to drink.
145 Like that rock that brought forth pools of water in the wilderness,
Abundant streams gushed forth for those companies on the way of Edom.
But because they withheld the praise due the great sign that came to pass,
They were condemned in the pagan who saw no sign, yet believed.
The wretch was already conquered; his land, devastated; his nation, shattered;
150 He had beheld the miracles that the Lord of the sons of Jacob performed,
Had heard tidings of the miracles wrought of Elissaeus,
And had seen with his own eyes the lofty arm of Adonai;
The great battle encompassing him prevailed against him,
And he was brought low in the conflict besetting him on all sides;
155 But neither because of the prodigy that had taken place did he forsake his
Nor, because the sorry man was defeated, did he doubt or disdain his idol,
Nor, because they were triumphing over him, did he slacken in his faith,
Nor yet, because it had not saved him, did he think his god was not a god;
But after all these things, firmly believing that it would help him,
160 He sacrificed his first-born to it and doubted not concerning his deliverance.
This the Lord saw, and His indignation rose up against Israel,
Because it was not, like the pagan, steadfast towards its God.
THE CONFIDENCE that fellow had in that which was nothing
The Lord required His people to have in Him.
165 He gave them a rebuke, so that they might acquire
That unswerving mind of faithfulness towards Him in all affection.
Because of the heathen's sacrifice He blamed them and expelled them
For not trusting in God in a manner like him.
The three nations that fought with him
170 Were the sons of Abraham by race,
The sons of Israel, the sons of Judah, and the sons of Edom,
Even the sons that Esau and Jacob, from the house of Isaac, had begotten;
And they were required to show in their conduct
A love towards God like that which their fathers had had.
175 But the mind that these men ought to have possessed towards God,
This possessed the pagan towards his god;
And like Abraham, who bound his son in the presence of his God,
This fellow sacrificed his first-born to that which was fancied to be his god.
The love that was their due to have shown,
180 This did he show to the demon that he worshipped.
So the Lord waxed wroth that others rendered to their gods
The love due Him from His own worshippers.
The faith that had been seen in Abraham,
A pagan possessed towards the unclean spirit to which he offered sacrifice:
185 But the sons of the Isaac that had been bound up to become a sacrifice
Forgot the love of the God of their fathers,
And loved images, and cleaved to vanity,
Forgetting and forsaking the faith of Abraham.
And the Lord waxed wroth seeing the King of Moab
190 Bearing to his own god the faith proper to them,
And sacrificing his first-born on account of the seething of his faith,
Which was enkindled by that image that he worshipped.
The Lord's wrath rose up against the Hebrews,
Because He beheld that their faith had cooled:
195 Neither did they love Him as did the heathen their gods,
Nor did they reverence Him as did the deluded their idols,
Nor did they boast in Him as did the Moabites in their graven images,
Nor did they have faith enough in Him to sacrifice to Him their minds;
Their love towards God was insipid, stagnant, and defective;
200 All His benefactions were forgotten, and He was not held in honor;
And so that they might be reproved by the idolater's sacrifice,
For how far they fell short of righteousness, wrath prevailed and confounded them.
THE LORD FEARED NEITHER that perchance the lost fellow should think
That that god of his had abated the battle against him,
205 Nor that the armies of the sons of Jacob should think
That the demon that received the pagan's sacrifice had put them to flight;
Nor did He withhold an occasion for stumbling from the Israelites,
Inasmuch as they themselves sought occasion to offer sacrifice to futile images.
He knew, moreover, that for him that is steadfast towards his God,
210 There is no means able to separate his love from him;
And that whoever hates Him is not enabled to love Him
Either by signs or glorious deeds, because he is divided in his faith.
God perceived that even should the King of Moab die,
He would not let go his image or hate it.
215 And He perceived that even should He work ten thousand miracles for His
Its faith would still be divided, remiss, and infirm;
That even without occasion for stumbling, it would stumble of itself;
And that in every way, the sacrifices of demons were dear to it.
Had He averted His wrath from rising up as it did,
220 Neither the Moabite nor Israel would have been benefited.
For neither would that idolater have doubted in his god,
Nor would the Nation have joined together to love the Lord.
The Lord saw that if He were longsuffering, it would be to no advantage,
So His wrath rose up and injured their faith in Him.
225 He was wroth with His people because of the sacrifice of the pagan's son,
And caused them to be vanquished and him to triumph; nor did it distress Him
That the idolater should think that his god had come to his aid,
And they, that because of the sacrifice, a demon had put them to flight:
And that every kind of deception should reign there over those abandoned ones:
230 Since by their own desire, the Lord remained the same to them in either
case, He let them be misled.
He accepted that the pagan should think his god great,
Since in his delusion he had thought this even before offering the sacrifice.
He also permitted an occasion for the sons of the Hebrews to stumble,
For they would have stumbled whether they conquered or not.
235 BY WHAT HE DID, the Lord confirmed each one in what was characteristic of
Their way of thinking was not altered by what came to pass.
What more could the King of Moab have to offer
To his friend the demon, than wholeheartedly to sacrifice his first-born?
That wrath should prevail against Israel from God
240 Was not a matter for increasing his love towards his own god.
He was what he was--a man deep in deception--
And whether he triumphed or not, he loved his idol.
And so, because of the pagan's sacrifice, the Lord's wrath prevailed
Against the sons of His Nation, to convict them for how greatly they wronged Him.
245 For He knew that the more He chastises whoever loves Him,
The more he loves God because of the chastisement;
And that to him that is doubleminded, full of stumbling and infidelity,
All the blessings that He arrays before him are bitter to him.
Because Israel was ungrateful for all His goodness,
250 He reproved it by a pagan who scorned not his idol for all its wickedness.
He beheld with great wrath the pagan's valor, and how noble he was according to
his own creed in that polluted sacrifice,
Which was a reproach to the witless Nation.
WHOEVER READS THIS HISTORY concerning the King of Moab is scandalized when
he comes across it,
And if he meets it without searching it out, he becomes confused.
255 When recounted, it is like a stumbling-stone amidst the readings
To whomever the sight of it injures, sooner than understanding can provide
The mind stands dimmed at his history when it looks thereon,
For it is obscure and hidden if the sense does not light it up.
But a man of discretion is not troubled when he comes upon it,
260 For all of the King's Highway is clear of rocks of offense:
God's dispensation is entirely light,
But a soul that is blind stumbles thereat because of its want of understanding.
Upon the King of Moab's sacrificing his son, wrath prevailed against Israel:
But without being tripped up, an intelligent person understands,
265 After hearing that the Lord was wroth with the Hebrews,
That this was because they did not glory in Him as did the nations in their gods.
TO REPROVE THEM, He also said this in reproach on one occasion,
"Send to the isles of Kedar,(13)
And see if the nations of the earth will exchange their gods,
270 As Israel hath exchanged My glory for that which is to no profit."
He drew an example from the vain gods of the nations,
Thus condescending, in order to shame them for how greatly they wronged Him.
And here, by the pagan's sacrifice, He convicted them
For not loving Him as that deceived one who condemned them loved his god.
275 "The nations of the earth will not exchange their gods,
But My people exchangeth Me for idols," He said, convicting them.
He abased Himself, comparing Himself with some empty god of the nations,
That He might shame His people that loved Him not,
In order to inspire fear in Israel, while rebuking it
280 For the great dishonor it called down on God in its effrontery.
"Suppose that I were an idol and thou didst worship Me: wouldst thou exchange Me
Why then hast thou exchanged Me, which thing is done not even among the
He blamed them for how much He had been lowered, in order to inform them
That they kept not for Him even the dignity of an image, which is not subjected to
285 And here, because of the King of Moab's sacrifice, He shamed them,
For not loving Him as that idolater loved that which was nothing.
The judgment of that idolater He stored up in His book,
So that He might seek out his judgment with the lost when He discloses his zeal
He neglected him until that time of retribution,
290 So that he was not required to give answer for having shed innocent blood.
That man had already perished, and for him to perish further was not possible,
So the Lord stored up his sentence for the great Judgment,
Making him seem, to the Nation that loved Him not as he loved that which he
As if just and free of accusation, while yet accusing him.
295 He as it were did not condemn him, although his condemnation was very
In order wrathfully to condemn His people by his means, and only then to judge him.
That man was an outsider, the time for whose chastisement had not come;
By his means He sought to admonish the insiders for how disgraceful they were.
For this reason His wrath rose upon Israel:
300 Glory be to the Good One Who by chastising gaineth them that seek Him.
End of the Second Homily on Elissaeus
(1) "Mar" is a reverential title equivalent to "Kyr" in Greek, and means "Sir" or "Lord."
(2) Batnan of Serugh--today the city of Suruc in Turkey--is located approximately
twenty miles southwest of Edessa, the present-day Urfa, and approximately
seventy miles northeast of Aleppo.
(3) "On Habib the Martyr" and "On SS. Guria and Shamuna" appeared in Vol. VIII of
the Ante-Nicene Fathers series, pp. 708-720; R. H. Connolly's translation of "On the
Liturgy for the Departed" appeared in Downside Review 29 (1910), pp. 260-270, as
well as another by him on the Eucharist, Downside Review 27 (1908), pp. 278-287;
see below, and page 53, note 2, for Sebastian Brock's translation of "Concerning the
Veil on Moses' Face"; and most recently, Robin Darling Young's translation of all but
the first thirty-odd lines of "On the First Day of Creation" appeared in Joseph W.
Trigg's Message of the Fathers of the Church, Vol. IX, Wilmington: Michael Glazier,
Inc., 1988, pp. 184-202.
(4) Bedjan, Homiliae Selectae Mar-Jacobi Sarugensis, Vol. V, Homily No. 155, "On
Melchizedek, Priest of the Most High God, and on the Types of our Lord," p. 154,
(5) Sobornost, 3:1 (1981), pp. 70-85.
(6) In the Septuagint it is the Fourth, in the Hebrew, the Second, Book of Kings.
(7) "Why the Moabite Stone was Blown to Pieces," Siegfried H. Horn, BAR May/June
1986, pp. 50-61.
(8) Ibid., p. 56.
(9) "Why King Mesha of Moab Sacrificed His Oldest Son," Baruch Margalit, BAR
November/December 1986, pp. 62-63. Although both articles fail to grasp the
spiritual import of this Scriptural narration, they provide valuable information for
putting the battle it recounts into historical context, and are well worth reading.
(10) The Syriac Peshitta text on which Mar Jacob comments also uses a word
meaning "indignation, wrath." The Septuagint translation has metamelos,
"repentance, regret," as when one rues having done someone an evil--or a
(11) See IV Kings 3.
(12) An allusion to Gen. 22:2, "And God said to Abraham, Take thy beloved son,
whom thou lovest . . ."
(13) Compare Jeremias 2:10-11, "Go to the isles of the Chettians, and send to
Kedar, and observe accurately, and see if such things have been done; if the
nations will change their gods, though they are not gods; but My people have
changed their glory, for that from which they shall not be profited." Mar Jacob,
probably quoting from memory, combines "the isles of the Chettians" and "Kedar."
|A Homily by Mar Jacob of Serugh
Translated by the Holy Transfiguration Monastery
|The Second Homily on Elissaeus and on the King of Moab Who Sacrificed His
Son on the Wall