While reading Joshua Torrey’s A Lying Spirit over the weekend, I began to ponder again Gregory of Nyssa’s view of the Incarnation and Atonement. The fit is quite natural, both considering “holy deception” (as Torrey calls it)—the former explaining and justifying, the latter applying to the cloaking of God in flesh.
Torrey reviews many examples of deception in the Bible, from God employing a lying spirit to deceive a wicked king, to Rahab’s concealment of the Hebrew spies in the City of Jericho, to Solomon’s baby splitting ruse, in each case quoting the approval God and the commendation of Biblical authors. The book itself is set against the backdrop of Project Veritas’s recent public outing of Planned Parenthood’s wicked and disgusting practices. Deception was plainly used in gaining access to the facilities and employees, earning their confidence and gathering information. The question is, were these methods Biblically justifiable? Torrey answers, “yes.” He bases this not only on many in-kind Biblical examples, but in particular on the apparent narrative theme of deception used to despoil the Deceiver, all in order to save life, subvert the forces of injustice, and further God’s own historical redemptive program.
But of most interest to me, relative to Gregory of Nyssa, is Torrey’s observation that,
The Scripture provides a pretty interesting undercurrent of feminine deception in response to the authority of men. (p. 9)
It is clear from the context that Torrey is neither implying that there is something feminine about deception, nor that there is anything inherently deceptive in femininity; rather, he is simply noting how often in God’s providence, “female use of deception helps to undermine male unfaithfulness to God,” as found throughout the pages of the Old Testament (p. 18).
Rebekah and Isaac
Rebekah mimics the right feel, the right smell, and the right pot of stew to convince her aged, blind, and epicurean husband Isaac that Jacob was in fact Esau, thereby insuring that the blessing of the first born would be procured by the younger Jacob. This is blatant deception. The Scripture gives us no moral appraisal of her actions, but what we do see in the narrative is Rebekah’s faith in the promise of God that “the older shall serve the younger” (Gen. 25:23), while her husband remained faithful to the attainment of “savory food” (27:4), which his eldest son could provide.
Tamar and Judah
Tamar was the daughter in law of Judah, from whom Messiah would come. She had been given to one of Judah’s sons and then to another, both having been executed by God for denying her offspring. Judah, fearing Tamar was the cause of their judgements, then refused to give her to his next son, violating God’s Law meant to ensure godly Covenant seed. Tamar took matters into her own hands, disguised herself as a prostitute, and lured Judah in by means of his wicked lusts. Judah apparently had no idea who she was. She was then found with Judah’s child, leaving Judah enraged for her treachery, until she successfully proved that it was in fact his child. Clearly the prostitution and fornication are condemned by God; but again, the moral appraisal of her deceit is left unclear. All we are left with is Judah’s acknowledgement that “She has been more righteous than I, because I did not give her to Shelah my son” (Gen. 38:26).
The Hebrew Midwives and Pharaoh
After many years of slavery, the Egyptians having forgotten Joseph, the Pharaoh began to fear the strength and multiplicity of the outcast Hebrew people. His solution was to instruct the Hebrew midwives to kill every male Hebrew as soon as they were born. But the midwives disobeyed this order, refusing to kill the infants. When the Pharaoh asked why they had not been following his orders, they lied and said, “the Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women; for they are lively and give birth before the midwives come to them” (Ex. 1:19). In this case we are given a moral appraisal: “Therefore God dealt well with the midwives, and the people multiplied and grew very mighty. And so it was, because the midwives feared God, that He provided households for them” (Ex. 1:20-21). (As a side note, this is a slam dunk for Torrey’s aim re: Planned Parenthood.)
Rahab and the King of Jericho
This is certainly the most discussed example of (presumably) “holy deception” found in the Scripture. As Israel began their conquest of Canaan, the first great city they were to conquer was Jericho, a great walled city. Spies were sent in by Joshua for reconnaissance and were discovered by the guards of the city. Rahab, a prostitute, hid the spies in her home. When the king of Jericho sent messengers to Rahab, requiring that she bring out the spies, she replies,
“Yes, the men came to me, but I did not know where they were from. And it happened as the gate was being shut, when it was dark, that the men went out. Where the men went I do not know; pursue them quickly, for you may overtake them.” (Josh. 2:4-5)
This is as clear a lie as one could imagine. Many have argued that Rahab’s lie was in fact sinful, though her other saving actions were just. But all that she accomplished for the spies hinged on this lie. There would be no preservation of the spies without it. And so we read in James: “was not Rahab the harlot also justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out another way?” (Jas. 2:25), and in the great hall of faith: “By faith the harlot Rahab did not perish with those who did not believe, when she had received the spies with peace” (Heb. 11:31).
Jael and Sisera
In Judges 4, we read of the prophetess Deborah who is called by God to judge the children of Israel whom He had placed under the hand of the Canaanite king Jabin. Deborah calls Barak to command the armies of Israel to go out against Jabin’s general Sisera, in order to deliver God’s people. Barak is too fearful to go to war without Deborah’s presence, and so Deborah declares to Barak, “there will be no glory for you in the journey you are taking, for the Lord will sell Sisera into the hand of a woman” (v. 9). After Barak (with Deborah) routes the Canaanite army, Sisera the general flees to the home of Heber the Kenite, an ally of Jabin. Heber’s wife Jael meets Sisera, makes him comfortable, gives him some milk, and gives him a nice place to rest. He is in fact so comfortable that he falls to sleep, at which point Jael drives a tent stake through his head. Barak receives his victory through the hands of Jael, a woman, just as Deborah had prophesied. “Most blessed among women is Jael,” sings Deborah in the next chapter (5:24).
Eve and the Seed of the Woman
The backdrop of all this deception is the first and most infamous deception, the deception by the Devil in the Garden of Eden. And this must be emphasized: Eve was indeed deceived by the Devil. It was not that she stepped out from under her husband’s authority, making a rash decision on her own terms (as suggested by so called “Christian” Patriarchy); it was not that Adam failed to exercise his dominion, leaving her weak, unaided, and unable to overcome (as suggested by many Complementarians); and it was not that the entirety of potential consequences and the full meaning of her rebellion were plainly laid before her, and she nevertheless consciously chose to reject God and His authority in toto (as implied by many Van Tillians). No, the Apostle Paul says that Eve was “deceived” (1 Tim. 2:14). “Yes,” said the Devil in not so many words, “we know that God is in charge, is the Creator, and is overall a pretty good guy. But He’s keeping you from one thing that you would really enjoy. And the consequence of enjoying it won’t be so bad—you won’t actually die the day you eat it. I mean, don’t you want to be like God? It must be that He doesn’t want you to achieve your holy calling for some reason.”
(To be sure, doing evil in response to deception leaves one just as culpable as any other reason. The heart is exposed when one gives in to the lust of the flesh, the eyes, and the pride of life in response to temptation. The same is true even with holy deception. Wicked Ahab believed the prophets moved by the lying spirit in 1 Kings 22 because they said what he wanted to hear. Isaac fell for Rebekah’s ruse because he was blinded by his lust for delicacies. Judah was exposed by Tamar because of his fornicating heart. Etc.)
Following this primordial deception, God comes in judgement to all involved—Adam, Eve, and the Devil. He tells Satan,
“I will put enmity
Between you and the woman,
And between your seed and her Seed;
He shall bruise your head,
And you shall bruise His heel.” (Gen. 3:15)
By God ordained enmity between the seed of Eve and the seed of the Devil, the great Deceiver will be crushed. And in each case of “holy deception” discussed above, it was the preservation of this seed of the woman that was accomplished. Rebekah’s deception ensured that Jacob, the chosen one of God, would become the covenant conduit through which the Head Crusher would come. Both Rebekah and Jacob are to be found in the genealogy of Christ, along with Tamar and Rahab. And like Rebekah, Tamar’s deception of Judah ensured the continuance of Covenant seed, leading from Judah to the Messiah prophesied to come from him. The Hebrew midwives, though not themselves in the physical seed line of Christ, were nevertheless essential to the preservation of the Covenant seed. And Rahab, through her deception of the Jericho guards, was instrumental to the conquest of Canaan, preserving the seed-become-nation of Israel.
Last, we come to Jael. She, like the midwives and Rahab, was used by God to preserve the seed. But even more is said of her in Deborah’s song found in Judges 5. When Deborah sings of Jael, the Spirit gives both allusions pointing backward to the post deception Garden promise, and allusions pointing forward to the last woman in Christ’s genealogy. We read,
“Most blessed of women be Jael,
the wife of Heber the Kenite,
of tent-dwelling women most blessed.
He asked for water and she gave him milk;
she brought him curds in a noble’s bowl.
She sent her hand to the tent peg
and her right hand to the workmen’s mallet;
she struck Sisera;
she crushed his head;
she shattered and pierced his temple.
Between her feet
he sank, he fell, he lay still;
between her feet
he sank, he fell;
where he sank,
there he fell—dead.” (Jdgs 5:24-27)
We see both a typical fulfillment of the promise given to Eve—a crushing of the enemy’s head at the feet—as well as an allusion looking forward to her through whom the Head Crusher would be born, the Virgin Mary. As Deborah sings of Jael, so Elizabeth exclaims to Mary:
“Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!” (Lk. 1:42)
Gregory of Nyssa on the Incarnation
But what possibly could “an undercurrent of feminine deception” have to do with Mary, the mother of our Lord? This is what brought to mind Gregory of Nyssa. In his work, The Great Catechism, he proposes a truly awful explanation of the Atonement. Gregory believed that the death of Christ was a sufficient ransom paid to the Devil himself. Through the deception of Adam and Eve, the Devil had successfully enslaved mankind. So, God offered an exchange: the greatest of all men for the rest of mankind. According to plan, the Son of God came hidden in human flesh, not allowing His true person to be known. He lived a perfect life, wrought the greatest of miracles, and showed Himself to be the greatest of all men. The Devil was so enticed by this one man, that he was willing to free the whole of mankind in exchange for Him.
But, unbeknownst to the Devil, he had swallowed a poison pill by taking the man; for this man was also true God. We read in Gregory,
[I]n order to secure that the ransom in our behalf might be easily accepted by him who required it, the Deity was hidden under the veil of our nature, that so, as with ravenous fish , the hook of the Deity might be gulped down along with the bait of flesh, and thus, life being introduced into the house of death, and light shining in darkness, that which is diametrically opposed to light and life might vanish; for it is not in the nature of darkness to remain when light is present, or of death to exist when life is active. (Ch. 24)
Thus, death itself is destroyed by smuggling Divine cargo into the house of death, and the Devil is thereby routed. Gregory explains that the cosmic justice of this method of Atonement is to be found in the adequacy of the payment, and the equity of catching the Devil in his own wiles:
That repayment, adequate to the debt, by which the deceiver was in his turn deceived, exhibits the justice of the dealing. […] [H]e who practised deception receives in return that very treatment, the seeds of which he had himself sown of his own free will. He who first deceived man by the bait of sensual pleasure is himself deceived by the presentment of the human form. But as regards the aim and purpose of what took place, a change in the direction of the nobler is involved; for whereas he, the enemy, effected his deception for the ruin of our nature, He Who is at once the just, and good, and wise one, used His device, in which there was deception, for the salvation of him who had perished. (Ch. 26)
Now I, of course, completely reject that any payment was made to the Devil, as does the entirety of the Western Church. I also do not believe that the Devil was literally deceived, for even his demonic minions declared, “I know who you are!” Nor am I sure that the cloaking of the Son of God in flesh was deception proper; it is the Devil’s own seeds of corruption that catch him. But there is certainly reason to see this “undercurrent of feminine deception” as a literary motif, beginning with the first deception in the Garden, typically overturned through important female seed preserving deceptions in the Old Testament, and concluding with a final deception of the Deceiver himself by means of the last woman in the genealogy of the Christ.
We see some evidences of this in the New Testament (as well as the Old). First, we see a whole class of passages that speak of the unrecognizability of the Son of God in His flesh. For example,
[W]ho, being in the form of God, did not consider it robbery to be equal with God, but made Himself of no reputation, taking the form of a bondservant, and coming in the likeness of men. And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross. (Phil. 2:6-8)
Who has believed our report?
And to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?
[…] He has no form or comeliness;
And when we see Him,
There is no beauty that we should desire Him. (Isa. 53:1-2)
His flesh is even likened to the veil that covered the entrance to the Holy of Holies in the Temple, that no man but the High Priest could enter:
Therefore, brethren, having boldness to enter the Holiest by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way which He consecrated for us, through the veil, that is, His flesh[.] (Heb. 10:19-20)
And there are dozens of passages wherein Christ attempts to conceal His true nature from those around Him, even stopping the mouth of devils who knew who He was. The unbelieving world saw Him as only a man, even if a great wonder working man:
He asked His disciples, saying, “Who do men say that I, the Son of Man, am?”
So they said, “Some say John the Baptist, some Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.”
He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter answered and said, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Jesus answered and said to him, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah, for flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but My Father who is in heaven.” (Matt. 16:13-17)
But we speak the wisdom of God in a mystery, the hidden wisdom which God ordained before the ages for our glory, which none of the rulers of this age knew; for had they known, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. (1 Cor. 2:7-8)
And last, we read in highly apocalyptic language of the events of the Incarnation, Crucifixion, and Ascension as viewed from Heaven:
Now a great sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a garland of twelve stars. Then being with child, she cried out in labor and in pain to give birth.
And another sign appeared in heaven: behold, a great, fiery red dragon having seven heads and ten horns, and seven diadems on his heads. His tail drew a third of the stars of heaven and threw them to the earth. And the dragon stood before the woman who was ready to give birth, to devour her Child as soon as it was born. She bore a male Child who was to rule all nations with a rod of iron. And her Child was caught up to God and His throne. Then the woman fled into the wilderness, where she has a place prepared by God, that they should feed her there one thousand two hundred and sixty days.
And war broke out in heaven: Michael and his angels fought with the dragon; and the dragon and his angels fought, but they did not prevail, nor was a place found for them in heaven any longer. So the great dragon was cast out, that serpent of old, called the Devil and Satan, who deceives the whole world; he was cast to the earth, and his angels were cast out with him. (Rev. 12:1-9)
What do we see here but the Devil waiting expectantly to devour the Seed of the woman? But the Child is caught up to the throne of God to rule the nations, while the Devil and his angels were routed and cast to the Earth. Rather than gaining victory at the feet of the woman, he instead found his defeat.
An Advent Conclusion
As I consider the coming of our Lord (the Christ, the promised Seed of the woman) this Advent season, this “undercurrent of feminine deception” will definitely be playing through my mind. Not because I am 100% on board that “holy deception” is a normative Biblical category; nor because I have any sympathies for Gregory of Nyssa’s Atonement theology; but rather because of the obvious (to me) and powerful literary motif of “holy deception” running through the full arc of Redemptive History.
The story begins in the Garden of Eden, wherein Adam and Eve are deceived by the Devil, plunging they and all their posterity into ruin. But God pronounces a curse on the Devil, declaring that the seed of the woman would crush his head. Then at multiple critical points throughout the progression of this seed line, God providentially employs women to preserve it, destroying its powerful enemies. Then comes the last woman in this line, the Virgin Mary, the mother of the true and final Seed, our Lord Jesus Christ. And through her, God Himself is clothed and veiled in flesh, hidden from the eyes and understanding of the fallen world, and is crucified. Has the Devil won? Has the Deceiver of the Nations been successful with his deception? God forbid! Rather, Christ is then “declared to be the Son of God with power according to the Spirit of holiness, by the resurrection from the dead” (Rom. 1:4)!
And I will likewise keep in mind the great courage, intelligence, and covenant faithfulness of the women through whom God sent His Son, the Seed, the Head Crusher, and the Savior of the world.
Christ, by highest Heav’n adored;
Christ the everlasting Lord;
Late in time, behold Him come,
Offspring of a virgin’s womb.
Veiled in flesh the Godhead see;
Hail th’incarnate Deity,
Pleased with us in flesh to dwell,
Jesus our Emmanuel.