2019-08-06

Jésus-Christ, Sublime Figure de Papier. Chap 2b. A God Bound to the Mechanics of Language

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by Neil Godfrey

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–o–

God is identical to the Word, the Voice, the Breath

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,

Here Charbonnel cites a linguist (Felix Gaffiot) explaining the centrality of the verbal system in grammars we are familiar with; while on the contrary, citing Francis Boulanger, in the Hebrew language is not the verb but the act or action that is the primary focus. One must always prefer the concrete to the abstract when it comes to rendering an account of a function in the Hebrew language.

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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14 Comments

  • Steve Ruis
    2019-08-06 14:03:01 GMT+0000 - 14:03 | Permalink

    Re “— God needs messengers” I have always wondered why an omnipresent, omniscient, and omnipotent god would need messengers, or helpers of any kind. According to scripture there are at least tens of thousands of angels. Why? The effort to explain a message to a messenger cannot be less that delivering the message himself, no? If he is omnipresent, He is already there, whereas an angel has to travel. The deity can speak directly to the recipient of the message, as evidenced by myriad references to this act by prophets, Paul, etc.

    What can a messenger do that such a god cannot?

    People seem to accept these “messengers” as givens. That helpers are needed to guard the gates to the garden of Eden, etc. (Why they weren’t placed around the Trees makes Yahweh’s omniscience suspicious.) I do not see Christian apologists or anyone else addressing such fundamental questions.

    • 2019-08-06 15:43:10 GMT+0000 - 15:43 | Permalink

      The god of ancient Israel wasn’t an omnipresent, omniscient, and omnipotent god. The Platonic Christian god has been superimposed on the ancient Israelite god, but clearly the ancient Israelite god doesn’t have the qualities of the god of Platonic Christian theology, and was never intended to to be taken as such.

      • Steven Watson
        2019-08-17 18:01:03 GMT+0000 - 18:01 | Permalink

        God evolves through the Tanakh. This is one of the thing that makes me leery of telescoping the time of its writing. If you argue as some do that it is a Hellenistic creation, why do they bother having God evolve from being first among equals in a heaven with many gods, with a body and unable to see through foliage into the all-powerful, all-knowing, and everywhere disembodied God and only God of the later books?

    • db
      2019-08-13 04:22:22 GMT+0000 - 04:22 | Permalink

      What can a messenger do that such a god cannot?

      Elyon, God of the Israelites in the Hebrew Bible, could be punked by having his “Ark of the Covenant” taken by enemies.

      All-father, the first-god of Paul, rarely pays attention to humans. Thus a messenger/mediator is mandatory. NB: second-god made the earth, as first-god could not be bothered with it.

  • Attila Csanyi
    2019-08-06 19:42:51 GMT+0000 - 19:42 | Permalink

    The passage in John 1 is in Greek, not Hebrew, and it refers to the LOGOS identified by Philo as the first-born son of God,and the second God.

  • Danila
    2019-08-06 23:56:39 GMT+0000 - 23:56 | Permalink

    It looks to me like NC is applying hundreds of years of rabbinic mystical thought about rabbinic activity to pre-rabbinic Hebrew- and Aramaic-speaking exegetes of Scripture (HAs).
    NC assumes that HAs inferred God’s presence from the absence of vowels. I ask, Why would HAs assume that the HA words were ‘deficient’ and needed God to complete them?
    Also, quote Neil’s translation, “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.” This conclusion is not warranted. Exegetes of a divine text always have to mentally prepare themselves to “step into divine space.” I do not see why an HA would understand their breath as divine, and their vision as not divine.
    There’s a lot of froth here, and I think, not much of use for historians.

    • Neil Godfrey
      2019-08-07 00:14:46 GMT+0000 - 00:14 | Permalink

      I have similar questions, though to be fair, I have not investigated the footnote references very closely in instances, frequently not at all. The main reason is that they are also in French and I am preoccupied enough with the main text’s language at this stage. On occasion it does look as though a footnote reference is to a less than deep scholarly work, though (e.g. to a popular info-work by a rabbi explaining thought that is perhaps more contemporary or from medieval times for a general public, even children, rather than a deep scholarly source). Claims are made that the medieval mystical traditions were found in Second Temple times but I’d like to find clear evidence to support that claim. I think much of it might be found in the DSS from some of the footnote appearances, but I’d like to have a clear English-language reference addressing such an approach. (Or even if a single scholarly French work addressing the Second Temple evidence in depth was available that would also be good — NC may have pointed to one or more in her footnotes already and maybe I need it to be thrust beneath my nose.)

    • Mark S
      2019-08-09 20:12:20 GMT+0000 - 20:12 | Permalink

      That Römer wrote a forward makes it impossible to just throw this out, but it seems hopelessly anachronistic from the bits I can find. The hyper-Hebrew thought environment she seems to want for her évangiles is a rabbinical construction it took many later centuries to realize, mostly in Iraq. She seems to give great credit to Dubourg who is a late proponent of Hebrew originals – he even ‘retroverted’ and did gematria on. Such a thesis is unreal madness, however lyrical the presentation.

      One passage I found bashes the French wikipedia page on the ‘Thèse Mythiste’ for daring to place the sainted Dubourg among the pseudo rationalists of the mythicist school.

      “Il vaut la peine de lire de près la page de Wikipédia intitulée Thèse Mythiste. Apparemment “objective”, surveillée en permanence par des cerbères inconnus dont la bêtise et la méchanceté sont protégés par l’anonymat, elle a le défaut majeur de ne présenter de la thèse de l’inexistence historique du Christ qu’un panorama tronqué, répugnant à tout rationaliste normalement constitué : le rabattement sur l’occultisme, la mythologie solaire et autres balivernes. Oser placer Bernard Dubourg parmi les “occultistes”, atteste, en cette année 2016, du niveau intellectuel véhiculé (parfois) par ce media grand public. Pas une voix pourtant ne s’élève là contre.”

      The ‘unknown gate-keepers (cerberuses!) whose stupidity and malice are protected by anonymity’ of course responded by incorporating her with their authorities.

      https://fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/Discussion:Th%C3%A8se_mythiste_(J%C3%A9sus)#Nanine_Charbonnel

      It’s hard to know what to make of this.

      • Danila
        2019-08-12 13:57:13 GMT+0000 - 13:57 | Permalink

        The French Wikipedia link provided is not an endorsement of NC. It leads to a discussion topic on the Discussion page attached to the “Thèse_mythiste_(Jésus)” page. The discussion topic is “Nadine Charbonnel.” Poster MLL points out that she follows the ideas of Bernard Dubourg, and also says, “TR expose honnêtement la thèse de NC sans la prendre à son compte,” that is, Thomas Romer honestly sets out NC’s thesis without endorsing it all.

      • db
        2019-08-12 15:42:15 GMT+0000 - 15:42 | Permalink

        Whereas I would propose a syncretism of the Septuagint and Middle-Platonism, such that the “Word of God” is another epithet for second-god, like the epithets: Architect; Divine Logos; Jesus; etc. The outcome is clear, as Charbonnel writes, ” I draw a parallel between all that is said about Jesus’ actions, attitudes or feelings and ancient Jewish texts. Divided in two columns covering 43 pages I point out clear evidence that the authors of the texts always had those Jewish sources on their minds when they wrote their narratives”.

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  • Steven Watson
    2019-08-17 18:12:26 GMT+0000 - 18:12 | Permalink

    Lord save us from French “thinkers”. This appears to be no more than pseudo-intellectual balls and we are swimming in enough of their Post-Modernist twaddle as it is. You are making a heroic effort Neil, but it is wasted on me I’m afraid.

  • Attila Csanyi
    2019-08-18 16:37:57 GMT+0000 - 16:37 | Permalink

    That question is made unclear by using the word “God”. There is no such word in the TANAKH.
    Perhaps the best we can say is that the EL and BAAL have devolved, and YHWH evolved, especially after the Zoroadtrian Persian monotheistic influence.

    • Steven Watson
      2019-08-19 02:20:36 GMT+0000 - 02:20 | Permalink

      Thanks, I can no longer see my comment to R.G. Price you are presumably replying to. Where does “Ba’al” come into this, and are you refering to the epithet “Lord” or a specific god? I understand the English “God” obscures the Hebrew of the Tanakh and that you can fish a pantheon much like those found in the rest of Syria out of that Hebrew; I was following R.G.’s usage. While I’m at it I’ll substitute morphed for evolve; you still see the pantheon in the Gospels, somewhat disarticulated but not so terribly obscured, even with the ostensible monotheism. For example in the expansion of the Temptation in G.Mtt and G.Lk, and in G.Jn 8. Satan still fills the same roll as in Job and he is still a son of the Jewish God; though that God, father of the Jews and the God Jesus claims as father have been cleaved in G.Jn (See the Greek) and arguably in G.Mtt/G.Lk. (The latter is much less certain.) Mazdayasna is thoroughly dualistic by the way, hence Satan by the Persian influence almost becoming a second God (after Ahriman). Zurvanism is the monist variety. I can see how in a Judean/Samaritan context Mazdayan influence would have driven the cultus in a monist rather than dualist direction, however.

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