Paul and Moses at the Shore of the Red Sea

st-paul-preachingThere is certain work of Christian literature written c. AD 190 that tells the story of how Saint Paul baptized a lion.  By the power of God Paul tamed the animal, baptized him by immersion, and claimed the creature for Christ.           

“I, Paul, en route to Jericho, accompanied by two pious women, was confronted by a great and terrible lion.  Its mane was thick and the creature stood as high as a horse.  The big cat charged at us rending and roaring but I began to pray, for I, through baptism was filled with the Holy Spirit and the power of prayer stopped the lion from its attack—it cast itself at my feet.  

“ ‘Lion, what do you want?’ I asked.  The lion replied, ‘I wish to be baptized.’  I glorified God, who had given speech to the beast and diverted the lion from its pride to salvation.  So I led the lion down to the river and took it by its mane and immersed it three times in the waters of salvation, saying, ‘Ego te baptizo in nomine Patris, et Filii, et Spiritus Sancti.’ [1]  Through the waters of baptism the lion died to sin and rose with Christ.  The creature became one with the Creator.  The lion shook out its mane and then blessed me, saying, ‘Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.’  I said to it in reply, ‘And with your spirit.’  Then the lion ran off into the wilderness from whence it came, glorifying God and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom.  I, Paul, who am baptized, claimed another soul for Christ.  And I was rescued from the lion’s mouth (2 Tim 4:17).” [2]           

In this apocryphal tale Paul is depicted as delivering his account of the conversion of the lion to Christians assembled at the house of Priscilla and Aquila in Ephesus.  The biblical basis for the narrative is Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians chapter 15, verse 32, where he writes: “If at Ephesus I fought savage beasts, what benefit was that to me?”  Although Paul was writing to the Corinth Church using metaphor, the anonymous author of the novella used Paul’s letter to create an illustration of the power of the sacrament of Baptism and the courage of the Apostle who ministered to an animal that easily could have mauled him.  

In the fourth century Saint Jerome called the story “a fable,” but Christians of his day accepted it as gospel.  To them it illustrated the heroism and the sacramental acumen of the Apostle.  Christ said, “Go into the whole world and baptized every creature” (Mk 16:15).  God speaks through creation in all its forms.  In the Bible animals behave contrary to their nature and chastise humans for their base behavior as a reflection of God’s displeasure.  King Darius casts Daniel into the lion’s den for disobeying his decrees but the prophet escapes without a scratch.  “My God has sent his angel and closed the lions’s mouth so that they have not hurt me” (Dn 6:23).  And during the wilderness years, in the Book of Numbers, a talking she-ass admonishes Balaam, a diviner in the Torah, for beating it severely because it grew frightened by the sight of an angel (Nm 22:22-30).  “‘Am I not your own beast, and have you not always ridden upon me until now?  Have I been in the habit of treating you the way you are treating me?’  ‘No,’ replied Balaam. ”  

In his letters Paul wrote copiously on Baptism, the sacrament that serves as “the gateway to life in the Spirit.”  As he wrote he reflected on his own baptism at the hands of the disciple Ananias (Acts 9:1-20) back in the 30s when Paul saw Jesus.  “Whoever is in Christ is a new creation: the old things have passed away; behold, new things have come to pass”(2 Cor 5:16).  Thus grafted into the Body of Christ the famous Pharisee was forever unified with the Trinity, dying to Christ and rising with him at the Resurrection. 

Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?  We were buried therefore with him by baptism into his death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life (Rom 6:3-4). 

Newly baptized, Paul became a new creation through water and the Word that spoke to him on the road (CCC Nos. 1213, 1214).  The voice of Jesus prepared Paul to be freed from Original Sin.  Initiated into full communion with the Church he received his divine commission directly from the Lord.  “Get up and go into Damascus and there you will be told what to do.  It is hard for you to kick against the goad, that is, to go on doing what you deep in your heart you know to be wrong” (Acts 22:10; 26:14).    

On the summit of Mount Sinai, the site where Moses received the Law (Ex 19:16—20:17) amid light, volcanic smoke, and the trumpet blasts of the angel, the Apostle Paul communicated through the Spirit and the Word with Moses, and with the prophet Elijah, both heroes to Paul for their heroic execution of the will of God.  It was Elijah who encouraged Paul to persevere in his vocation as Ambassador for Christ.  Elijah told Paul what God told him through a voice that spoke to him beyond the elements of nature: “Go, take the desert road back to Damascus” (1 Kgs 19:15).  The new convert heeded the counsel of Elijah as he followed the Word of the Lord at Damascus.  Through the ministry of Ananias Paul was welcomed into the Damascene church, despite the murmuring of the members who didn’t trust the former prosecutor dispatched by the Sanhedrin on his unholy mission.  At once the Spirit led Paul from the city into the desert and he was in the desert among wild beasts—including lions, which inhabited Palestine—and fought the temptation to return to his former life in Judaism. 

At Christ’s insistence Paul proclaimed the kingdom of heaven to “gentiles, kings, and Israelites.”  Arriving in the city of Petra with the pearl of great price he attempted to share the faith with its citizens but the monarch Aretas IV repudiated Paul and put him to flight.  Like Elijah Paul escaped to the mountain of God to resign his commission only to be convinced by the prophet to complete his course and to return to Damascus.  The Spirit at Baptism provided the Christian vocation and to Paul his mission was clear.  Only he did not immediately return to Damascus for his enemies waited to kill him.  Of this he felt certain.  Should he have to fight for his life or to avoid danger, he might change his mind and return to his native city of Tarsus in Cilicia, very far from Jerusalem.  Instead the Lord rerouted him from Sinai to the Red Sea, to teach him more about Salvation History from the Christian perspective.  Paul belonged to God; he was not disobedient to the heavenly vision. 

In Biblical times Mount Sinai was known to be situated at the southern tip of the Sinai Peninsula, the conical land mass bordered on the east by the Gulf of Suez and on the west by the Gulf of Aqaba. [3]  Another great stretch of inhospitable desert separated the mountain of grace from the sea of salvation.  Paul had come this far¾why stop now?  Regardless whether he rode a beast of burden or went on foot a continual source of fresh water was paramount.  He could not have survived without water, but it was not a resource that the region lacked.   “Early inhabitants of the Arabian peninsula learned to impound the waters of the rainy season and to canalize them with the greatest waterworks known in antiquity, so that in that region arose one of the most remarkable and yet least known of ancient civilization.” [4]  As Paul traveled he visited cities and villages to obtain water and food.  In exchange for supplies he plied his trade making tents, so necessary to the inhabitants of the deserts, the semi-nomadic Arabs and the Bedouins in their white tunics and blue turbans who patrolled the dunes between Petra and Damascus.    

After many more days of travel, either on foot or on the back of a donkey or a camel, Paul reached the edge of the peninsula, finding himself at the southern edge of the mountain range which gave the Red Sea its name, the sea, where God saved the children of Israel from the Egyptians, thus claiming them as “a people peculiarly his own.”  The words written by Moses appeared three-dimensional to Paul now that he stood with his feet in the waters.    

Thus God saved Israel on that day from the power of the Egyptians. When the Israelites saw the Egyptians lying dead on the seashore and beheld the great power that the Lord had shown against the Egyptians, they feared the Lord, and believed in him and in his servant Moses (Ex 14:30-31).

It was necessary that Paul should visit the Red Sea where the watershed moment of Salvation History occurred 1,200 years before the birth of Christ.  There on the shore, as with Elijah on the mountain of God, Paul conferred through the Spirit with Moses, whose name meant “to draw from the water” (Ex 2:10).  Moses was a type for the entire nation that he led from bondage into freedom and through purification in the desert to prepare Israel to receive the Messiah.  Moses spoke to the people saying, “Thus says the Lord: If you listen to my voice and obey my covenant, you shall be a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people peculiarly my own, so that you may announced the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his own wonderful light” (1 Pt 2:9; Ex 19:6; Is 61:6; Rv 1:6; 20:6).  This the Lord God told the Israelites the day they arrived at Mount Sinai. 

Questions and emotions—an overwhelming sensation of nationalistic pride—flooded the heart of the Apostle as he stood on the sand and cast his gaze across the flashing water.  Paul came to determine that he and Moses held much in common, a shared heritage between the prophet of the Old Law and the herald of the New Law.  Raised as a prince, Moses lived in the sumptuous palace of Pharaoh.  Paul, “a Hebrew of Hebrew parentage” (Phil 3:5; 2 Cor 11:22), enjoyed power and prestige in the Sanhedrin and in the court of the temple in Jerusalem.  Both men receive divine commissions from God via light and a voice from heaven.  They cast away their life plans to serve the living God.  The angel of the Lord concealed in the burning bush on Horeb called out, “Moses!  Moses! (Ex 3:4-6).   Paul (Saul), blinded by the light heard the voice of the Son of Man: “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” (Acts 9:4).  

Moses led the Hebrews across the sea and through the desert for two generations until they entered Canaan.  Paul traveled “to the ends of the earth” and across the Great Sea to unify Israelites and Gentiles.  Each at times suffered from a crisis of confidence.  “Who am I that I should confront Pharaoh and lead the Israelites from Egypt?” Moses inquired of God.  (Ex 3:11).  Paul, on his back with his face hidden to the light, asked, “Who are you, Lord?”   “I am who am,” God replied to Moses (Ex 3:11).  Jesus told Paul, “I AM Jesus whom you are persecuting” (Acts 9:5).  “Send someone else.  I am slow of speech and tongue,” Moses argued (Ex 4: 10).  Paul describes himself as a competent writer but “slow of speech and tongue” (2 Cor 11:6).   

Baptism is the bath of water in which the “imperishable seed” of the Word of God produces and enhances life, temporal and spiritual (1 Pt 1:23; Eph 5:26). The baptized have “put on Christ” (Gal 3:27).  Through the Holy Spirit, Baptism is a bath that purifies, justifies, and sanctifies (1 Cor 6:11; 12:13).  For Paul the truth hit hard as he stood on the shore of the sea where God displayed and proved his love for his chosen people.  He prayed:

I did not see Pharaoh drowned with his armies, but I have seen the devil and his weapons overcome by the waters of baptism. The Israelites passed through the sea; I have passed from death in sin to new life in Christ. You delivered my ancestors from the Egyptians; your Son saved me from the powers of darkness—he opened my eyes when I was blind. The people could not look upon the veiled face of Moses in his glory, though he was their servant-leader. I have seen the countenance of Christ in his glory unveiled, though you, O Lord, said, “No man sees me and lives” (Ex 33:20). All who gaze upon the unveiled face of the Lord are being transformed into the same image of his glory, for the Lord is in the Spirit (2 Cor 3:18). Moses struck the rock and brought forth rivers of water. Christ Jesus your Son strikes the spiritual rock of the New Covenant and draws forth the living water of the Spirit, so that in all pastures the flocks may draw near and drink freely of the waters of salvation. [5]

Later, at Ephesus, Paul recounts to the assembly how he was condemned by the proconsul to be thrown to the lions. 

 “The proconsul Hieronymus was angry with me because I converted his wife to Christianity. [6]  At dawn arose a cry from the Ephesians, ‘Let us watch the man who possesses God contend with the wild beasts!’  Hieronymus commanded Diophantes, a freedman whose wife was also my disciple, to bring me and the other condemned Saints into the stadium.  And when I was brought out they immediately flung me into the stadium.  My dignified bearing angered everybody.  If God is for us, who can be against us?  The proconsul ordered a very fierce lion that had recently been captured to be set loose against the other prisoners and myself.  The lion approached and we stood eye to eye.  And I, filled with the Spirit, said, ‘Do I know you lion?’  The creature said to me in reply, ‘Yes.  It was I whom you baptized.’   ‘Do they not know that you and I have been baptized into the body of Christ?’ I asked. ‘How then were you captured?”  ‘Just as you were,’ the lion replied.  ‘Which was how?’ I asked.  ‘Like you, I am on trial for being a Christian,’ the lion said.  And I said, ‘Then they don’t realize that you and I are brothers.’ 

“Hieronymus ordered more beasts to be released into the coliseum—leopards, jackals, and bears—and he called in the archers to kill my brother the lion.  Like Elijah I prayed for the sky to open and from a clear sky fell hail like hellfire so that many spectators were pummeled by the hail and the rest fled to shelter (see Ex 9:13-26).   As they ran for cover they prayed,  ‘Save us, O God, from the man who fought and saved the soul of the beast!’  The lion and I exchanged the kiss of peace; though he spoke no more¾the Lord revoked his speech.  He was more well-spoken than me.  I went down to the harbor and boarded a ship bound for Macedonia and many Ephesians fled the city.  So I embarked for Macedonia (Acts 16:9) but the lion returned to the mountains where it belonged.  And again I was rescued me from the lion’s mouth and I gave glory to God (2 Tim 4:17).


[1] Latin for “I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit,” from the Rite of Baptism.

[2] The Acts of Paul c. AD 190

[3] New Jerome Biblical Commentary map inserts.  A distance of 637 miles.

[4] Arabia in the Bible by James Montgomery, p 86-87

[5] Adaptation of Saint John Chrysostom’s Sermon on the Exodus. 

[6] The Story of Paul and Thecla c. 190

Father Cordani was ordained to the priesthood in 2011. He holds an MFA in Writing from the Vermont College of Fine Arts and an MDiv from Pope Saint John XXIII National Seminary. He has written for Our Sunday Visitor, the National Catholic Register, and Columbia Magazine. Follow him on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/tucker.cordani and Twitter @tuckercordani

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