2019-08-13

Jésus-Christ, Sublime Figure de Papier. Chap 3b. Creative Intertextuality

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by Neil Godfrey

Last time we looked at the oscillations between individual characters and collective identities. In this post we consider how stories are created out of the rewriting of older texts and foreshadowing future narratives.

The Word of God is creative; the texts fulfil its promises . . .

Recall from previous posts that the “Word of God” is said to have creative power. Word and action are one. The texts themselves accomplish its promises. Isaiah 55:11 (Young’s Literal translation):

So is My word that goeth out of My mouth, It turneth not back unto Me empty, But hath done that which I desired, And prosperously effected that [for] which I sent it.

Charbonnel informs us that there is no word in Hebrew corresponding to our word “promise”. There is no need for a separate act subsequent to the speech to make the words deliver. The evidence of the fulfilment is that the words have been spoken.

Compare Genesis 3:15 (again the literal translation):

and enmity I put between thee and the woman, and between thy seed and her seed; he doth bruise thee — the head, and thou dost bruise him — the heel.’

Isaiah 11:6-9 and 65:17

And a wolf hath sojourned with a lamb, And a leopard with a kid doth lie down, And calf, and young lion, and fatling [are] together, And a little youth is leader over them.

And cow and bear do feed, Together lie down their young ones, And a lion as an ox eateth straw.

And played hath a suckling by the hole of an asp, And on the den of a cockatrice Hath the weaned one put his hand.

Evil they do not, nor destroy in all My holy mountain, For full hath been the earth with the knowledge of Jehovah, As the waters are covering the sea.

. . . .

17 For, lo, I am creating new heavens, and a new earth, And the former things are not remembered, Nor do they ascend on the heart.

All of the above passages are expressed in the present tense, or more exactly in the sense that they have been accomplished.

. . . in the day of the Lord

There is a story in the Talmud that goes like this:

Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi said to Elijah: When will the Messiah come?

Elijah said to him: Go ask him.

Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi asked: And where is he sitting?

Elijah said to him: At the entrance of the city of Rome.

Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi asked him: And what is his identifying sign by means of which I can recognize him?

Elijah answered: He sits among the poor who suffer from illnesses. And all of them untie their bandages and tie them all at once, but the Messiah unties one bandage and ties one at a time. He says: Perhaps I will be needed to serve to bring about the redemption. Therefore, I will never tie more than one bandage, so that I will not be delayed.

Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi went to the Messiah. He said to the Messiah: Greetings to you, my rabbi and my teacher.

The Messiah said to him: Greetings to you, bar Leva’i.

Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi said to him: When will the Master come?

The Messiah said to him: Today.

Sometime later, Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi came to Elijah.

Elijah said to him: What did the Messiah say to you?

He said to Elijah that the Messiah said: Greetings [shalom] to you, bar Leva’i.

Elijah said to him: He thereby guaranteed that you and your father will enter the World-to-Come, as he greeted you with shalom.

Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi said to Elijah: The Messiah lied to me, as he said to me: I am coming today, and he did not come.

Elijah said to him that this is what he said to you: He said that he will come “today, if you will listen to his voice” (Psalms 95:7).(Sanhedrin 98a)

To paraphrase Charbonnel:

So he will come, but he is there already. He is already there, but he affirms that he will come. He is going to come tomorrow, but perhaps today. The he will only come if we hear him. The temporality is not an eternal present; but it is of a forever possible present fulfillment of the past promise about the future. All times are bound up into one.

Jewish tradition repeats the maxim, “There is no before and there is no after in the Torah”. The way this rule is played out in the narratives is of particular interest. All events are linked, as per Elie Wiesel (quoted in French by Charbonnel):

Everything holds together in Jewish history — the legends as much as the facts. Composed during the centuries that followed the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, the Midrash mirrors both the imagined and the lived reality of Israel, and it continues to influence our lives.

In Jewish history, all events are linked. (Wiesel, 11)

Charbonnel further cites Max Weber in Ancient Judaism:

The expected evil or good is but rarely placed in the distant future. Mostly it can come to pass at any time. As a rule, however, it is likely or certain to be directly at hand. Isaiah saw the young woman already expecting the eschatological boy king. Every military move of the Mesopotamian rulers, especially events such as the invasion of the Scythians, could mean or initiate the approach of the “Enemy of the North” — presumably a figure of the popular-mythological expectation. In Jeremiah’s eyes, especially, this was the harbinger of the end. The fateful peripeties of the contending states kept alive these expectations.

This timeliness of the final hope was indeed decisive for the practical-ethical significance of prophecy. . . .

All these affairs of the present after all are completely irrelevant, for the end is directly at hand. (Weber, 325-326)

As we have seen and will see further, temporality and textuality are intimately linked.

New Texts Created by Typology

Typology (from the Greek typos meaning prefiguring of one to come in the future) is a foundation of Christian narratives. The New Testament events are consciously based on the idea that they were prefigured in the Old Testament. But there is more to typology and it is found within the Old Testament texts themselves. It is not made explicit but it is clear when we look closely at the texts.

A. Mirror scenarios

Very different texts appear to assume the existence of each other. Stories are created out of rewriting, repeating, quoting, distorting and transforming other texts.

We see certain “scene types” repeated: the announcement of the birth of a hero to a sterile woman; the meeting a future wife at a well; the epiphany in a field; an initiatory test; danger in the desert and discovery of a well to enable survival; the last will and testament of the hero approaching his death; — and contests between brothers, a younger and elder, for supremacy. And among all of these scenes we find the common thread of rewritten election narratives.

Other reworkings move away from stock scenes and create something unique, as we see when we compare the stories of Esther and Joseph, citing Maurice Mergui:

— both stories are set in exile (both stories possibly were intended to defend exilic Judaism against “the house of Judah”)

— in both, Jews of modest station reach high positions in the kingdom after existing potentates (Vashti, Pharaoh’s servants) have been removed

— the two heroes win royal favour by their beauty and wisdom

— but the monarch, still furious over other failings of his subjects, forgets their meritorious service

— but the monarch is eventually reminded of them through a dream or sleeplessness

— the hero, at their zenith, undergoes an eclipse (Joseph hides his identity and Esther hides herself)

— until circumstances oblige them to reveal themselves to save their people

— they reveal themselves at a banquet

— suspension from a tree also plays an important role in both stories

“Lexical analogies such as these are such that we can speak of a single scenario.”

B. Authors creating new texts within the terms of the old

Take the troubled situation of the people of Israel after the fall of the temple in 587 — compare the narrative of Exodus; also Second Isaiah and the new or second Exodus;

Take the story of Creation and of Adam — compare Nehemiah 9 and see how it uses the Paradise scene as a type of Israel’s reconciliation and blessedness in their land;

Take the stories within the Pentateuch itself — note the interactions between the stories of Joseph and Moses.

C. Writing (or re-writing?) the earlier text to make it work as a model for the later

Two of the three examples Charbonnel discusses:

Does not the story of Abraham and Sarah in Egypt (Genesis 12) contain all the features of the events of the later Exodus event? It is surely evident that the narrative was composed with the later Exodus in mind in order to prefigure that Exodus.

Genesis 15 is another type of Israel receiving the covenant with God. The covenant with Abraham anticipates the future covenant with his descendants. Abraham is a forerunner not only of Moses but of the entirety of Israel. All of the traditions of the Pentateuch are centred in Abraham.

D. A “Metaphysics of History”

The typology goes beyond a simple point by point analogy. Abraham, for example, contains broader spiritual meanings insofar as his story (as that of a nomad) points to Israel’s relationship with God even beyond the time of the standing temple. The stories of old times are written for the present circumstances of the author.

Further, the analogies are not just in the events themselves but in the mind of their divine guide: they show that God works the same way throughout history. God will perform the Second Exodus in the same way he was able to a passage for the original Israelites.

E. Rewriting is interpretation: Midrash

In Exodus 20 it was God himself who spoke the law, but in Deuteronomy it is Moses who presents a second reading of the law for a new generation who are about to enter the promised land. Moses is the interpreter of the law — reinterpreting it for the new generation.

Here Charbonnel introduces some key definitions, quoting Gilbert Dahan. (The original relevant pages can be found, and translated, online at https://www.bible-service.net/extranet/current/pages/1394.html ). The one of most interest to many readers here will be, of course, midrash. I offer slightly modified machine translations:

Targum: it is probably a variety of paraphrase, in which the elements of explanation and update are systematized; The Rober Le Déaut, the renowned specialist in these texts, said that “the Targum correspond well to a current Bible whose notes would be integrated into the text”; the term specifically refers to the ancient Aramaic translations but it can be used more broadly to describe a type of text that linearly rewrites the biblical text by explaining it . . . . The targums themselves are also characterized by the presence, more or less consistent according to the text, of “Midrashic” elements. 

Midrash: It is still a term that comes from the study of the Bible in the Jewish community; it means an exegesis that “glues” to the biblical text but plays all the phenomena of intertextuality to fill the silences of the text and to solve the puzzles posed by this text, even if that makes the exegesis itself as enigmatic . . .  – the most common example being the stories of sequences introduced by “After these events,” where, playing on the multiple meanings of the Hebrew term devarim, “words”, “events”, [see previous post where this double meaning was discussed] we imagine a dialogue or an episode that explains the passage. . . . You can use more widely for the concept of midrash in Christian exegesis meaning thereby all explanatory additions . . . .  (Bolded text is singled out for special attention by Charbonnel, p. 89)

Language tools that facilitate the above

It is beyond my ability to convey precisely Charbonnel’s discussion (pages 89-90) of Hebrew tenses and the waw consecutive. Allow me to say nothing more than that it appears Hebrew tenses allow for a blurring or confusion of events past, past completed and continuing, present and future, future as if past, past as if about to give birth to the present, and so forth and so forth. (For those with online access to Trigano’s Le Judaïsme Et L’esprit Du Monde there is a relevant passage pages 185-186.)

The uses of enallage . . .

Not sure what enallage means? Consult Wikipedia: Enallage

Again, I avoid attempting to discuss the details of tenses and participles of biblical Hebrew that I read through French text. Suffice to say there is again a detailed discussion of the grammar involved that yields us future events spoken of as if they are past.

. . . and prolepsis

Or a “flashforward“. Genesis 12:10-20, the account of Abraham and Sarah going down to Egypt, finding trouble there, but leaving with blessing, is a prolepsis or anticipation of the Exodus. No doubt I am missing much of the nuance in Charbonnel’s discussion.

Another instance, Amos 5:1-3 is a lamentation over the destruction of Israel but it is told as if the event has already passed, hence the prophet’s mourning.

A more nuanced discussion of Nanine Charbonnel’s point must await a translation of her work or be the preserve of those more fluent in French than I am.

This brings us to the third and final section of this chapter: a discussion of distinctions between literal and figurative meanings of the biblical narratives.


Charbonnel, Nanine. 2017. Jésus-Christ, Sublime Figure de Papier. Paris: Berg International éditeurs.

Dahan, Gilbert. 2011. “Réécrire l’Écriture ? | S.B.E.V.” December 2011. https://www.bible-service.net/extranet/current/pages/1394.html.

Weber, Max. 1967. Ancient Judaism. Translated by Hans H. Gerth and Don Martindale. London: Free Press.

Wiesel, Elie. 1986. Messengers of God: Biblical Portraits and Legends. Reissue edition. New York: Simon & Schuster.


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Neil Godfrey

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