The Sign of the Cross in the Old Testament

5 October 2019

In his first epistle to the Corinthians, Saint Paul mentions that ‘the Jews seek a sign’ (1 Cor. 1, 22), that is they wanted a supernatural sign, such as resurrection of the dead, or healing of the demonically possessed, which would make them believe in the preaching concerning the Cross. So they sought this supernatural sign, ignoring and ignorant of all the signs and wonders that God had shown them in the past, every time they found themselves in danger. Of course, the sign they were looking for could only have been the Cross, which, on the one hand is foreshadowed throughout the whole of the Old Testament and, on the other, was ever-present, preserving the people of God from devastation and extermination.

There are a great many adumbrations of the sign of the Precious Cross in the Old Testament, but here we shall quote only six particular examples.

The main sign of the elevation of the Cross in the history of the Jewish people is that executed by Moses with his staff when he parted the waters of the Red Sea, at God’s command, so that the Israelites could cross and avoid the pursuit of the Egyptians. The people were saved and the waters then came back together as they had been before (Ex. 14, 1-31). Because of this, at the feast of the Elevation of the Precious Cross, the Church sings a hymn which says: ‘When Moses executed a cross with his staff, the Red Sea immediately parted for Israel on foot’ (Irmos, ode 1, Mattins Canon).

When the Israelites arrived at Rafidim (Horeb), Moses made the sign of the Cross twice. The first was when he struck the rock to bring out water for the thirsty people to drink; and the second when he raised his arms and staff to the heavens to pray and to encourage the Israelites who were fighting the Amalekites (Ex. 17, 1-16). It was the sign of the Cross which gave succor to the Israelite warriors and encouraged their efforts for victory, according to Saint Gregory Palamas (PG. 133-136). Theodoret of Cyrus states that, apart from the sign of the Cross, the image of the crucified Lord was also prefigured (PG 80, 260-261).

Moses made this sacred sign another time, when he led the people of Israel into Edom. There they became dispirited and lost their faith in God, with the result that God sent deadly poisonous snakes to bite them, leading to many deaths. After they’d repented, God ordered Moses to have a bronze snake made and to have it elevated on a post. Anyone who looked upon it was immediately cured (Num. 21, 4-9). Although the Biblical account doesn’t give a detailed description of the elevation of the snake, Saint Gregory Palamas paints a very clear picture. He says that Moses raised the serpent horizontally on the vertical pole, thus forming the arms of a cross (PG. 133-136). Moreover, Jesus Christ Himself, in the narrative in Saint John’s Gospel, is shown as foretelling His death on the Cross, which He likens to the elevation of the bronze snake in the wilderness, saying: ‘Just as Moses raised up the serpent in the desert, so, too, must the son of man be elevated’ (Jn. 3, 14).

In the Old Testament, the sign of the Cross also saved the Prophet Daniel and the three young men, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego. These lived in Babylon at the time of the exile. When the three young men were thrown into the fiery furnace, they were saved, thanks to God’s miraculous intervention (Dan. 3, 23), just as Daniel himself was saved when he was cast into the lions’ den (Dan. 6, 23).

Naturally, in these instances, too, the Biblical text doesn’t present a picture of the rescue of the three young men, but an image of their salvation is given in the words of Andrew of Crete, who declares that, initially the three young men and then, later, the Prophet Daniel were saved by raising their arms to heaven in the form of a cross (PG 97, 1040-1041). The same tradition is preserved in the hymnology of the Church, when, on the Sunday of the Veneration of the Cross, we sing: ‘When he had been cast into the lions’ den, the great Prophet Daniel extended his arms in the form of a cross and was saved, unharmed, from being devoured by them’. (Ode 8, Mattins canon).

In the Old Testament, it’s not just the Cross of Christ which is adumbrated but also other events, such as His birth, passion and resurrection. But the Cross is the means by which Christ was glorified and overcame the wicked enemy, triumphed over death and, through His resurrection brought humankind into a new state of life, liberated from the bonds of death and corruption.

Although the cross was a symbol of abomination and death in the time before Christ, because according to the strictures of Deuteronomy, those who died on the cross were considered to be cursed (Deut. 21, 23), through His crucifixion it became the symbol of victory over death, the symbol of glory and majesty. The cross lost its aura of vilification, degradation, abomination and humiliation and became the expression of sanctity, blessing, honor, glory and magnificence.

How did this radical change, this miracle, this transformation come about? Naturally, with the incarnation of the Son and Word of God: ‘the Word was made flesh’ (Jn. 1, 1) and His crucifixion, through which ‘he died for us’ (Rom. 5, 8). ‘Finding himself in human form, he humbled himself and submitted to death, even death on a cross’ (Phil. 2, 8), ‘redeeming us from the curse of the law by becoming accursed for our sake’ (Gal. 3, 13).

Christ’s Cross and Resurrection opened the way to Paradise and did away with the flaming sword that barred the path to the tree of life (Gen. 3, 24). If we look carefully at the hymnography of the feast of the Veneration of the Cross, we’ll understand the praise lavished upon the Lord’s Cross, which is called: ‘the guard of the gate of Paradise; the victory of kings; the boast of priests; the support of the faithful, the guardian of the commonwealth; the glory and boast of the Church; the much-vaunted boast of Christians; the particular message of the Apostles; the crown of the martyrs; the precious adornment of the prophets’ (Vespers on the Sunday of the Veneration of the Cross).