Shepherd of Hermas – 9th Similitude

Yikes, this similitude alone is about as long as Gospel books – far longer than any New Testament epistle (33 chapters in all, albeit shorter chapters than in the Gospel books).  I’ll do my best to summarize it all succinctly.  As in the 3rd Vision and the 8th Similitude, this parable is about a tower which symbolizes the Church, and here addresses symbols around its building.

Chapter 1 – The similitude begins on a hill in a green field surrounded by twelve mountains, each of which has a unique description.  I’ll describe them with their explanation, later in this post.

Chapter 2 – In the center of this field is a tall rectangular white rock, seemingly dwarfing all the mountains.  The rock seems very ancient, but has a brand new gate leading inside.  Twelve virgins stood guard around this tower-rock, all dressed in impressive white tunics, though the four at the corners looking particularly “distinguished” over the others.  They also appear to be very strong, capable of heavy labor.

Chapter 3 – Six tall men arrive, with a labor force of more men behind them, and proceed to build a tower on top of this rock.  The virgins help by carrying the shining white stones inside, and ten stones are placed on the bottom layer.

Chapter 4 – Three more layers of stones are set on top of the foundational ten: a layer of 25 stones, then 35, and then 40.  As they’re carried in, the stones are all sorts of different colors, but when set in place they all become shining white.  Some of the stones are carried in by the men, and those stones end up having to be tossed out.  The virgins then carry them in – it’s their job; no one else can do it!

Chapter 5 – The laborers now rest from their building and await the coming of the master of the tower to inspect it.

Chapter 6 – The master arrives, a huge impressive man “so remarkable a size as to overtop the tower.”  He tests each stone, feeling them and hitting them with his staff.  At this point, many of the rocks become damaged – discolored, scarred, cracked, and so on.  He orders these stones removed and replaced.  So the stones are laid next to the tower and more are quarried from the field (not taken from the mountains).  The removed stones are replaced, and plenty more stones are dug up and ready to be used.

Chapter 7 – The master then asks the angel of repentance to polish the stones which had been removed, to see how many of them can be returned to the tower.

Chapter 8 – The stones that were found to be black were rejected.
The stones that had “scabs” were re-hewn, and most of them were repurposed for the tower; some had to be rejected.
Some of the stones that were cracked were re-hewn and reused in prominent places, but others were too cracked to be repurposed.
Most of the chipped stones had to be rejected too, but some were reusable.
The stones which were half-white were mostly rejected, but some were reusable.
The stones that were rough were mostly re-hewn and reused, but some were too hard to smooth down, and had to be rejected.
Similarly, the stones that were found to be stained were mostly fine after a good polish, and only few had to be rejected.  The virgins brought all the good stones back into the tower to be refitted.

Chapter 9 – Next the angel turns his attention to the stones that had been quarried from the field but were unused: they were round and therefore in need of being cut down to rectangular pieces in order to be usable.  Some were big enough that this would work out, and so it was done, but others were kind of small, and had to be assigned to an “addition” to the tower, because the master wanted all the stones to be used.  Finally, the rejected stones were carried away by other women (wearing black), back to the various mountains from which they’d been taken.

Chapter 10 – The angel, Hermas, and the virgins proceed to clean up the tower, make it all nice and shiny for when the master returns on the following day.

Chapter 11 – The angel goes away for the night, leaving Hermas with the virgins.  They praise and worship God for much of the night, and sleep around the tower as siblings, getting up at times to pray.  In the morning, the angel returns and Hermas asks him to explain all that he has seen up to this point.

The rock and the gate (chapter 2) symbolize the Son of God.  It’s old because “He was a fellow-councillor with God the Father in the work of creation.”  The gate is new because Jesus becoming man in these last days is a ‘new’ work of God, through whom only can people enter the Kingdom of God.  That’s why the rocks had to be carried in through the gate by the virgins, and not handed directly up the rock by the laborers.  The laborers, incidentally, are angels who do God’s bidding, and the six men in charge of them are the six special angels who attend God in his presence (chapter 3).  The master of the tower (chapter 6) is also the Son of God; the angels serve him as they serve God the Father.

The tower, built upon the rock of Christ, is, of course, the Church.

The different layers of 10, 25, 35, and 40 stones (chapter 4) represent different generations of believers.  The 10 are the first generation and the 25 are the second generation of righteous people.  The 35 are God’s prophets and ministers, and the 40 are the apostles and teachers who preach the Son of God.  They were brought in first before the rest of the tower (which got tested) because these were the righteous foundation that God wanted to build the rest of the Church upon, reminiscent of imagery used by both Paul and John.

The twelve virgins are “holy spirits,” or “the powers of the Son of God.”  Perhaps similar to the “seven-fold spirit” in John’s Revelation, the Holy Spirit is here portrayed as a multi-faceted person, and less clearly as a single person within the Godhead of the Trinity.  This represents the fact that people not only need to bear the name of Christ, but also be empowered with his power (indwelt with the Holy Spirit) in order to enter the Kingdom.  Thus, the stones had to be carried into the tower by the virgins (Spirit), not the laborers (angels).  The virgins each have names, which (like the Spirit) need to be the clothed which all Christians must wear.  (We’ll get to their names after the next paragraph.)  Another reason that the stones have to be carried by the virgins is that all who enter the kingdom must “ascend through water in order that they might be made alive,” in other words, be baptized!

The stones which were brought in properly, tested, and then rejected have a different story.  They received the name of Christ and the power of Christ, but then they were lured away by the other women in black – that is, some form of idolatry or false religion.  This suggests a belief that salvation can be truly attained and truly lost, a topic that has come up a few times over the course of this book.  Interestingly, each of the women in black have a name, and they match up with the names of the virgins in white.  The first four listed are the four distinguished among either group (with different translations in parentheses for clarity).

  • Virgin in white ~ Woman in black
  • Faith ~ Unfaithfulness
  • Continence (abstinence/self-control) ~ Incontinence (lack thereof)
  • Power ~ Disobedience
  • Patience ~ Deceit
  • Simplicity ~ Sorrow
  • Innocence ~ Wickedness
  • Purity ~ Wantonness (unrestraint)
  • Cheerfulness ~ Anger
  • Truth ~ Falsehood
  • Understanding ~ Folly
  • Harmony ~ Backbiting (backstabbing)
  • Love ~ Hatred

Compare these to the names of the seven women back in the 3rd Vision: Faith, Self-restraint (continence?), Simplicity, Guilelessness, Chastity, Intelligence (understanding?), and Love.  Each of these seven are represented in the twelve, which is neat to observe.  Clearly the earlier image of the Church as a tower is being expanded here in significantly greater detail.

Meanwhile, not all of the stones that were taken out of the tower were ultimately rejected (chapters 8-9).  The building of the tower was paused, specifically for the purpose of allowing those people who fell away a chance to repent and turn back to God – hence the angel of repentance re-hewing and polishing them, refining them for reuse in the tower.

In chapters 17-29, the twelve mountains (from which most of the tower’s stones came) are explained.  In general, they stand for the twelve nations of the world, which each received the gospel preached by the Apostles, and had various degrees of responsiveness to God’s word.  I’ll summarize them in order:

  1. This mountain was black, representing apostates and blasphemers who came into the Church and were summarily thrown out again.
  2. This mountain was bare, representing hypocrites and heretics, most of whom did not remain in the tower, but some of whom did repent.
  3. This mountain had thorns and thistles, representing the rich and those who were entangled in worldly affairs.  They can repent, with difficulty.
  4. This mountain had lots of grass, but the other plants were rather sun-scorched and had withered roots.  This represents those who believed but doubted, having God on their lips but not in their hearts.  Many do not repent, but some do.
  5. This mountain had lots of grass, but was very rugged, representing believers who were slow to learn because they’re more interested in status than actually being wise, learned, or righteous.  Many of them do not repent either, unsurprisingly.
  6. This mountain is rocky, with grass just growing in various clefts (nooks and crannies, loosely translated).  This represents those whose faith is weak because they’re embroiled in rivalry and slander.  Many repent, but some are just too deep into these sins.
  7. This mountain is the ‘perfect’ one: lush and green and fertile with a full ecosystem of plants and animals, representing those who “simple, harmless, and blessed,” without rivalry or conceit.
  8. This mountain had many “fountains” (which I suspect may also be translated “springs,”) from which many animals drank, representing the apostles and teachers who preached the gospel to the whole world.  They were faithful to the end.
  9. This mountain is desolate, inhabited by wild animals that attack people.  The stones taken from this mountain represent a few different sorts of people: the stained stones are people who mistreated others for selfish gain, the scabbed stones are those who rejected God in the past (for those who intend to reject Christ in the present age are apparently without hope), and the chipped stones are liars and slanderers.  All of these people may repent, but most of them are on the path to destruction.
  10. This mountain has nice tall trees providing shade for sheep, representing godly bishops who look after the congregations in their charge, especially caring for the widows and the needy.  As long as they remain faithful, they’re all going straight into the tower.
  11. This mountain had trees bearing fruit of various qualities and kinds, representing martyrs for the faith.  The varying quality of fruits are explained (in cautionary language) to be the condition of the martyr’s heart: the good fruits are those who unhesitatingly died for the sake of Christ, and the less good fruits are those who considered denying Christ in order to survive.  The angel of repentance takes this opportunity to exhort us all not to waver, but to be cheerful in confessing Christ as God no matter what!
  12. The last mountain is all white, and much to my surprise, represents infants, “in whose hearts no evil originates; nor did they know what wickedness is, but always remained as children.”  There’s no mention of infant baptism, so it’s unclear what sort of commentary this may offer regarding Baptism or original sin.  What the angel mentions instead is the importance of being innocent like children, for to such belongs the kingdom of God.

After these explanations, Hermas asks about the stones that were quarried from the field after the tower was tested and more stones were sought (chapter 6).  Chapters 30-31 provide the interpretation of that part of the parable.  These white stones from the field are described as being from the “root” the twelfth mountain (the white mountain representing innocent infants).  These new stones, however, aren’t necessarily infants and children, but are from the “same race.”  This is a tricky word to use in English, because ‘race’ means something today that it never did in the past.  In Greek it’s γένος (genos) and in Latin it’s genere; another way to render it in English could be ‘generation.’  It’s the same word as Peter’s quote, wherein we Christians are describes as “a chosen race,” among other things.  So this shouldn’t be taken in terms of nationality, genealogy, or any other physical characteristic; Christian literature in this era dealt with spiritual realities a great deal more than with physical/natural things.

Anyway, among those quarried stones, some came out ready to be used (nice and square edges), but some came out round.  Just like in the previous tower-building vision, the round stones represent believers caught up in earthly business who need that excess cut out of their lives before they can finally enter the kingdom.  Other than that, they’re part of the elect, part of the tower of the Church, faithful to Christ.

The similitude, then, concludes with a few exhortations, most notably the call to be faithful.  God has given us a good and perfect spirit, the angels reminds us, and warns us not to ruin it.  Like his parable of the branch-cuttings which were distributed and returned, we’re called to be faithful and not to “trample His mercy underfoot… but rather honor Him, because He is so patient with your sins, and is not as ye are.”  Again, failure to make good with God’s gift leads to a loss of salvation.

At the very end, the angel of repentance tosses in a beautiful illustration of God’s mercy: the part where he and Hermas were washing and smoothing out the tower (in chapter 10) is a representation of God will wash away and blot out all the sins of those who have repented and turned to Him!

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About Fr. Brench

I'm a Priest in the Anglican Diocese in New England interested in spiritual formation, theology, and the growth of God's Kingdom.
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One Response to Shepherd of Hermas – 9th Similitude

  1. Pingback: Shepherd of Hermas – 10th Similitude | Leorningcnihtes boc

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