Tuesday, March 22, 2005

Rock of Ages: a Holy Week Catena

An article appearing today at the Bible & Interpretation website argues that Har Karkom in the Sinai Peninsula is the biblical Mount Sinai. I don't know whether I agree or disagree, but the following caught my eye:

On the top of one of the two hills of Har Karkom there is a small rock cleft. A cleft on the summit of a mountain is not common in the Sinai peninsula. In Exodus 33, 21-22, Mount Sinai is described as having such a characteristic.

The reference is to these verses: "And the Lord said, Behold, there is a place by me, and thou shalt stand upon a rock: And it shall come to pass, while my glory passeth by, that I will put thee in a clift of the rock, and will cover thee with my hand while I pass by: And I will take away mine hand, and thou shalt see my back parts: but my face shall not be seen."

Now despite what the article says, I imagine that there are any number of heights with clefts in them in the Sinai Peninsula. But the "cleft" always makes me think of Augustus Toplady's hymn, "Rock of Ages" (1775):

Rock of Ages, cleft for me,
Let me hide myself in Thee!
Let the water and the blood,
From Thy riven side which flowed,
Be of sin the double cure,
Cleanse me from its guilt and power.

I have always assumed that "Rock of Ages" contains an implicit comparison between the cleft of Mount Sinai and the wounded side of Christ — a conceit fully as strange (but religiously natural) as any contained in ancient midrash. The comparison gains weight from the circumstances of the hymn's origin: Toplady was overtaken by a storm, took shelter in a rock opening, and improved the time by writing "Rock of Ages."

Nevertheless, I find that there is another Exodus passage probably in the background of "Rock of Ages," and that is the rock of Horeb in Exodus 17:6: "Behold, I will stand before thee there upon the rock in Horeb; and thou shalt smite the rock, and there shall come water out of it, that the people may drink. And Moses did so in the sight of the elders of Israel."

This rock was taken, on apostolic authority (see I Corinthians 10:4), to be a symbol of Christ, and as such appears in hymns contemporary to Toplady's (see this site for a discussion):

Is He a Rock? How firm He proves!
The Rock of Ages never moves:
Yet the sweet streams, that from Him flow,
Attend us all the desert through.
(Isaac Watts, 1706)

In Moses' rod a type they saw
Of his severe and fiery law;
The smitten rock prefigur'd Him
From whose pierc'd side all blessings stream.
(John Newton, 1772)

Nevertheless, Toplady seems to be the only one to combine the themes of the cleft rock at Sinai, the smitten rock of Horeb, and the wounded side of Christ. And his hymn is the only one of those mentioned that is still sung today.

I wonder, too, about the origin of this translation of Numbers 20:11 in the Pseudo-Jonathan Targum. The scene is similar to that in Exodus. The targumist was trying to figure out why Moses struck the rock two times.
And Moses lifted up his hand and struck the rock with his rod two times. The first time it oozed out blood. The second time much water came out, and the congregation of Israel drank, and their livestock.
I am not sure (although I imagine someone has studied this) about the relation of John 19:34 ("But one of the soldiers with a spear pierced his side, and forthwith came there out blood and water") to this midrash. Perhaps there is none. But the poetic interconnections throughout the ages, hymnic and midrashic, between the Sinai cleft, the rock of Horeb, the wounded side of Christ, provide some food for thought during Holy Week.

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