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The Hebrew God is a God who speaks. He created the world in “ten words”; the first time he addressed Adam and Eve was with a blessing; he gave the law to Moses in “ten words”. Everything he does is through speaking. By his voice, he raises up Abraham (telling him to leave), Moses (calling him from the burning bush), and his people Israel (calling on them to hear him). It is breath that makes speech and God’s breath, his spirit (ruach) possesses the prophets and judges, Gideon, Samson, Saul, David, Ezekiel. . . The spirit acts, comes, goes, at God’s whim. The spirit/breath/ (ruach) belongs to both man and God and give life (Psalm 104:29-30). God sends out his word and it falls upon mankind (Isa. 9:8). God breathes into the man to give him life. Ruach (the breath) and Dabar (the word) are intimately connected. It is the ruach that makes the dabar possible in speech. Speaking is the act of the breath. The text is written without vowels but it cannot be spoken without vowels, without the breath, the spirit. God gives meaning and life to the word in the scriptures. One could say that God is inseparable from the texts. It is his voice, breath, found in his human servants, that give them life, that reveals God himself and his ruach. Language is essentially a divinely sourced act.
Further, there is no punctuation in the Hebrew text. Pauses must be made at the correct place to give the correct meaning, or to change the meaning. The breath that utters the vowels and sounds of the words is essentially divine.
Divinity as Voice, a Twofold Unity
The power of God’s creative word functions in a series of doublets:
— God has two names, Elohim and his secret name, YYWH.
— God needs messengers: Moses, but also the Messenger who went before Israel as a cloud or fiery pillar. God’s name was in him, and his people were commanded to listen to him, to his voice; God would not pardon them if they refused, but would strike their enemies if they did hear and obey.
— Moses was also a dual act: Moses was given the word of God but he relayed it to his brother Aaron to announce it to the audience.
— the High Priest and the Prophet had complementary functions: the priests governed the Temple but the prophets reported the word of God; the two functions did not overlap.
— the prophet became the source of legitimacy as when he anointed a king, but he lacked the power of the king himself.
— the prophet made the word of God that called him comprehensible to all but that prophet had to hear “the corporeal voice of Yahwe, the invisible God” (Weber, 293, quoted by Charbonnel), to be assured he was God’s instrument.
Oral Torah Within the Written Torah; Text and Interpretation
Interpretation of the sacred text is thought to be a necessity that veils the text. Interpretation hides the apparent, literal manifestation of the text, hides its stark nakedness, because the text is too majestic, over-awing, too blinding in its glory, for a direct face to face encounter. The veil of interpretation is therefore necessary. By hiding the literal nakedness of the text, covering it with interpretation, one allows it to shine beautifully while liberating its meaning.
There is no meaning independent of revelation through the veil. Moses is the exemplar: To see God Moses was commanded to veil his eyes and hide in the cleft of a rock (Exodus 33). Veiled interpretation is thus obligatory. The written Torah, therefore, carries the oral Torah. To paraphrase a passage Charbonnel quotes from Shmuel Trigano (Le Judaïsme et l’Esprit du Monde, 2011),
In Judaism God is not an unfathomable mystery but a word to speak. Reality is a text, the written Torah. But it requires recovery, and that comes through commentary. The commentary is said to extract the infinite meaning of the text from the text — not adding unwarranted meaning.
From the divine perspective, there is no written Torah but only one unique Torah. Judaism is grounded in both the written and oral Torah; they are inseparable; the Torah is double, written and oral.
The community is bound to the Torah through interpretation.
Interpretation, again, is not adding to the text but is eliciting the deep meanings from it as water is drawn from a well.
The Supreme Point: Word and Act are One
The Hebrew word dabar (דבר) means both word and thing, speech and event. To paraphrase in English Charbonnel’s words,
It is important to understand that DaBaR is not speech as opposed to writing or actions, but on the contrary, is the verb-making-the-act (le Verbe-faisant-Acte).
It is not that the word has a magic power. Rather, the “prophetic word is an unveiling”. The word brings a transcendent clarity into the world. The ruach represents God moving towards the world, the dabar becomes the culmination of that movement. The prophetic ruach manifests the will of a revelation. The dabar is the will having become an act.
Dabar not only refers to the word itself but also to the order, and especially the action. The words of God are his commandments (Exodus 20; Deuteronomy 5:19); the words of Solomon are his actions, his conduct (1 Kings 11:41). To hear the word of God is to obey it. When the word leaves the mouth of the prophet it is not aimed at the listener’s ear but at his will. The word itself causes the action; the word is creative.
Whenever YHWH speaks, he creates. The dabar of God is the intervention of God in the moral and physical development of the world. God and mankind meet in the words of the covenant.
Charbonnel stresses that the identification between word and act, in the language and thought of the Bible, is the most fundamental principle to take on board. Word, act, thing, event — these are one. Our intellectual categories of dualism need to be set aside.
And there is another relationship, too — between time and being.
A New Type of Divine Presence: Beyond Time
The identity of the word with the act brings about another disruption to our western thought, this time to our notion of time. Ordinary time steps aside while a game is played out between the eternal present and a future always about to be realized. To say is to do. We see how this works in the stories of blessings being bestowed on the tribal fathers.
Thus in Genesis 27, we see that as soon as the word is spoken it cannot be undone. Once spoken it has become an active, effective force. One cannot go back or take back one’s words. We cannot say, Hey, that’s not what I meant, or I was mistaken. Jacob was able to take the blessing from his blind father by fraud, but that did not undo the power of Esau’s words once spoken.
The words of God spoken at Sinai are not past. They are eternally present. First, they are present through the available text of Moses himself (as was believed). Moses wrote the abiding words that God spoke from Sinai. Later, prophets and historians were able to recreate the past as the present. Though the kings of Israel are no longer with us, the historians have transferred the authority from the kingdom to the new messengers of the spirit.
Promises are incompleted actions, but they are still present actions that cannot be undone. The YHWH of the past exists today, along with his words in a timeless present.
— The Name of God is a Verb
Recall from Exodus 3 that the name of God is “I am that I am” — a verbal construction bracketing a relative pronoun. It is an existence that is past, present and future, not a metaphysical definition of a god. It is the God who was the I am with the fathers Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and the one who is at Moses’ side now. Pagan gods had names that revealed some magical property of power. But the biblical God is not a name like that, but a verb. His name is a promise. The incompleteness continues. Later, Maimonides would say that God is an agent with a purpose, not a being with an essence; God is what God does.
— The Presence of God on Earth is his Name
It is not YHWH, but his name, that dwells in the Holy of Holies of the Temple. His presence cannot be represented by an image. His presence is that of a Name. Many times we read that it is his Name that dwells in the Temple. God is present through his Name. The presence of God, his dwelling, is the presence and dwelling of his Name only.
— The Written Letter of the Text Bears the Image of God
An idol or image of God is forbidden because it cannot capture the reality of God, or his Name, as mentioned above. But the idea of God’s image is nonetheless found in the written letter of the text. An image cannot be made of the (effectively deified) scriptural word.
We saw that YHWH creates by letters as much as by voice. But the word “letter” in Hebrew also means “sign” (תוא = ‘ôt). So when YHWH inscribes ‘ôt we can translate it as either letter or sign. (YHWH set “a sign” in Cain’s forehead for his protection.) Every letter is a sign (of God); every sign is a letter.
Connection to YHWH, the Apogee of the Author’s Connection to his Text?
Through the word, dabar, God and mankind meet in a covenant. Further, the dabar is an expression of the writer’s pact or covenant with the reader.
The same expression is used of a marriage, for the relationship between God and his people, and for grammar (sic). God is constantly presented in the Hebrew Bible as the one who marries the virgin, or the prostitute, who is Israel. So the marriage relationship of the people to their God is a syntactical composition that, one can say, create the marriage.
So those who write the text of the words of YHWH, are they not the true creators?
Charbonnel concludes this second chapter with a quotation from the rabbi Marc-Alain Ouaknin (La Tora expliquée aux enfants, 2009), that I translate with the assistance of Google:
In the Torah, “creation of the world” does not mean “creation of the physical world”, the moment when matter is born. No, it’s about creating the world in a narrative: it’s the first time a written text is considered as a creation of the world. Not the first time a written text tells of the creation of the world but the first time that people consider that writing is a way of creating: “I write, therefore I create!” Writing becomes a tool by which the world is created “in stories”. (Ouaknin, 127, quoted in Charbonnel, 66)
I have questions and comments but I leave those aside for now; I’m sure you have your own. Feel free to raise them in comments below. Perhaps Nanine Charbonnel can be encouraged to revisit to correct anything I have written and clarify issues arising. I have attempted to set out as best I could the basic ideas of Charbonnel in this chapter. There is one more chapter to cover before the second part of her book which addresses the gospels as “midrash”.
Charbonnel, Nanine. 2017. Jésus-Christ, Sublime Figure de Papier. Paris: Berg International.
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