by Martin Cothran
There is an aspect of the Exodus story that many people forget.
Moses had stood before Pharaoh more than once asking him to let his people go, and plague upon plague had been brought against the Egyptians as a result of Pharaoh’s refusal. There were plagues of blood, frogs, and gnats; of wild animals, pestilence, and boils; and plagues of hail, locusts, and darkness. And then the final stroke: “Yet one plague more will I bring upon Pharaoh and Egypt, and after that he shall let you go and thrust you out.”
And this he did. When God was through with the Egyptians, they wanted nothing more than that their land be rid of the Hebrews and their God, who had visited such calamity upon them: “And the Egyptians pressed the people to go forth out of the land speedily, saying: We shall all die.”
It is here that something seemingly strange happens:
And the children of Israel did as Moses had commanded: and they asked of the Egyptians vessels of silver and gold, and very much raiment. And the Lord gave favour to the people in the sight of the Egyptians, so that they lent unto them: and they stripped the Egyptians. (Exodus 12: 35-36)
On their way out of Egypt, the people showered the Hebrews with their gold and precious things. What happened to these things? Yes, the Hebrews lapsed into their Egyptian habits and made for themselves a golden calf, but, under the leadership of Moses, they used these things to fashion the articles of the tabernacle. They took the things used for the worship of idols and turned them to the worship of the one true God.
Many hundreds of years later, in a different time and place, St. Augustine saw an important lesson in this story. Just as, by the command of God, the Hebrews despoiled the Egyptians of their treasures and turned them to the service of God, Augustine said, so we are commanded to take the intellectual treasures of the heathen and turn them to better use.
In the same way all branches of heathen learning have not only false and superstitious fancies and heavy burdens of unnecessary toil, which every one of us … ought to abhor and avoid; but they contain also liberal instruction which is better adapted to the use of the truth, and some most excellent precepts of morality; and some truths in regard even to the worship of the One God are found among them. Now these are, so to speak, their gold and silver, which they did not create themselves, but dug out of the mines of God’s providence which are everywhere scattered abroad, and are perversely and unlawfully prostituting to the worship of devils. (from On Christian Doctrine, chapter 40)
Some people ask why we should read the pagans. If we are to separate ourselves from the world, shouldn’t we do away with worldly things? But Augustine asks us to consider whether the learning of the ancients is, in itself, a worldly thing. If it is true, can it have its origin in anything but God? The treasures of the Egyptians are not Egyptian treasures, he says, for they are “dug out of the mines of God’s providence.” If this is so, then we are not only allowed to use them, but obliged to take them and put them into the service of the good.
If those who are called philosophers … have said aught that is true and in harmony with our faith, we are not only not to shrink from it, but to claim it for our own use from those who have unlawful possession of it.
As we look around us, we realize that we are in much the same position as Augustine, who died as Rome was falling to the barbarians. As the empire of Rome fell apart, its treasures fell into the lap of the Church, which preserved them through the Dark Ages for use in a better time.
We are witness to a new barbarism that works to destroy our culture through the very institutions of learning that were founded to pass it on. Our nation’s schools, which once took it as their mission to pass on Western civilization, are now as enthusiastic in wanting to rid themselves of their treasures as were the Egyptians. And once again the Church is in the position of preserving the Egyptian gold.
“It is only Christian men,” said Chesterton, who “guard even heathen things.” (from The Ballad of the White Horse)
This “Letter from the Editor” was first published in The Classical Teacher, Winter 2009. Reproduced here with permission.