Document: Letter 33
Date: c. 387
Addressee: Iranaeus
English Translation: FC 26.428-431
Summary of Contents: Answers to various questions posed by Iranaeus

In our last letter we wrote that we should set our soul free from its enemies and form with it a bond of unbreakable living. And since this discourse caused us to use an example from Deuteronomy where it treats of the man who had two wives. The one lovable, the other hateful, you seem rightly disturbed lest someone think he has received two souls, for this cannot be.

Indeed, you know very well that sometimes, when Scripture uses an allegory, it may refer at one time to the type of the synagogue, and at another to the type of the Church; sometimes to the soul, at another time to the mystery of the Word, and at other times to different types and kinds of souls. He who judges by the spirit makes this distinction. Thus, in the following chapter of the Law, I think that not two souls but different qualities of the one soul are meant. For, that type of soul is lovable which desires pleasures, flees hardships, shies away from penance, and heeds not the judgment of God. Indeed, the lovable one, because she seems sweet and pleasing on occasion, does not influence the heart but merely gives pleasure. The other is more serious, for she is consumed with zeal for God, and like an earnest wife would not wish to prostitute her partner; she makes no allowances for her body, does not permit or grant it any indulgence, gives no rein to pleasure and delight, flees the hiding places of shameful deeds, engages in hard labor and dire dangers.

If, in these circumstances, each bears him a child, he will be unable in establishing his will, he says, to show preference to the eldest son of the lovable wife in place of the eldest son of the hateful wife, since he knows the son of the hateful one is the eldest. In this I think it is not meant to typify simply a case of preference between the two eldest as much as to express the fact that the son of the hated one has the rights of the eldest. For, the eldest is the first-born, and the saints are the first-born, because “every male that opens the womb shall be called holy to the Lord.” Yet, not every first-born is holy, for Esau was not holy although he was the first-born.

But the saints are the first-born, for you have in Numbers: “Lo, I have taken the Levites from the midst of the children of Israel in place of every first-born who opens the womb among the children of Israel. Every first-born of Israel is mine since the day when I struck every first-born of Egypt. Accordingly, He receives the Levites instead of the first-born, just as He does the saints. We know from the Epistle to the Hebrews that the saints are first-born, for there you have: “But you have come to Mount Sion, and to the city of Jerusalem, and to the company of ten thousands of angels and to the church of the first-born.” Thus, as the first-born of the Church are the saints, so also are the Levites, since they also are first-born. They are not holy through their order of birth, but by reason of their duty of holiness. For Levi was the third son of Lia, not the first.

One who is sanctified opens the womb. What womb? Hear the words: “The wicked have departed from the womb.” In fact, you know that the first-born is one who opens the womb; understand the womb of the good mother from whom the holy do not depart, but sinners do. But the Levites are taken from the midst of Israel, for they have nothing in common with the people whose worldly first-born are destroyed. The first-born of the world are of another mother, from whose womb Paul was separated when he was called to the grace of God. Thus separated from the midst of the people, he received the Word, which is in the midst of our heart. So it is said: “But in the midst of you there stands one whom you do not see.”

That was not a purposeless digression which we made from one Law to another in order to demonstrate that the first-born is not the son of the lovable one, that is, of relaxation and pleasure, although the words of the chapter express this when Scripture says: “He will be unable to prefer the eldest son of the loving wife since he knows the son of the hateful one is the eldest.” He is truly the eldest who is the holy offspring of a holy mother, like the true mother from whose womb true sons do not depart, but sinners do. So, he who is son not of a true mother is not true eldest, but like an eldest son he is helped by riches so that he will not be in need; he is not honored that he may be rich. The other is given twice as much from all so that he will abound. For this reason, you have in Genesis the patriarchs each given two robes by their brother Joseph when they were sent back to their father, to signify to the father that Joseph was found whom the father believed to be dead.

The first-born, therefore, received the right of inheritance when Scripture said: “This is the beginning of his children, and to him are due the first birthrights.” The first-born saints are of the first-born Son of God; from that beginning, because He is the beginning and the end, the saint takes his beginning; the son to whom is due the privilege of the first-fruits takes his beginning according to the saying of Abraham: “Cast out the slave-girl with her son; for the son of this slave-girl shall not be heir with my son Isaac.

This is meant by divine Revelation to refer more to the inheriting of virtues than of money, when the Lord says: “Heed all that Sara says to you; for through Isaac shall your descendants be called. What other thing was there in Isaac which ennobled his father if not the inheriting of sanctity? Indeed, he put the son of the slave-girl over nations, handing over, as it were, the full amount of his patrimony. But he gave double the amount to the son of Sara, on whom were conferred not only temporal but heavenly and ever- lasting blessings.

Farewell, and love us, because we love you.

Translation from FC 26.428-431, adapted by SMT

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