Jésus-Christ, Sublime Figure de Papier. Chap 3d … Metaphors of Exodus and Lion Dens Become History

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by Neil Godfrey

Continuing from Chap 3c . . . .

The Exodus: Metaphor Preceded “History”

Other examples of changing names and wordplay:

The narrative can even culminate in the bestowing of a new name, or make the point that the change of name is itself the central point, along with all that it signifies:
Isaiah 62:1-4

for Jerusalem’s sake I will not remain quiet,
. . . .
you will be called by a new name
that the mouth of the Lord will bestow.
. . . .
No longer will they call you Deserted,
or name your land Desolate.
But you will be called Hephzibah [=My Delight is in Her]
and your land Beulah [=Married]

As mentioned earlier, Philo found much of interest in the names assigned to biblical characters, especially when names were changed. Noteworthy was the pattern of the three patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob (Israel), and the fact that the first and third had name-changes but that the middle one, Isaac, remained Isaac throughout. This was seen by Philo to point to Isaac being the central character to which we all must aspire. Abram to Abraham and Jacob to Israel — these figures were “becoming”, progressing; Isaac represented a timeless ideal for all.

Recall from earlier posts Charbonnel’s discussion of assonance as part of the word-play that moulded the meaning of the narrative. Further examples:

Jeremiah 1:11-12

11 The word of the Lord came to me: “What do you see, Jeremiah?”

“I see the branch of an almond tree [שָׁקֵ֖ד] =šā·qêḏ],” I replied.

12 The Lord said to me, “You have seen correctly, for I am watching [שֹׁקֵ֥ד = šō·qêḏ] to see that my word is fulfilled.”

Amos 8:1-2

Thus hath the Lord God shown unto me: And behold, a basket of summer fruit [קָ֑יִץ = qā·yiṣ].

And He said, “Amos, what seest thou?” And I said, “A basket of summer fruit.” Then said the Lord unto me: “The end [הַקֵּץ֙ = haq·qêṣ] is come upon My people of Israel; I will not again pass by them any more.

Another instance where narratives resonate through the level of text predominating over literal meaning is found in a comparison of Noah and Moses. Noah was saved in an ark, a very large boatתֵּבַ֣ת / tê·ḇaṯ; Moses was saved in a basket lowered into the Nile — תֵּבַ֣ת / tê·ḇaṯ. Comment by Marc-Alain Ouaknin in Mystères de la Bible,

Noah and Moses were not saved because they were protected by a boat, but because they entered into the universe of language, they were protected by the same word. (A wild and woolly paraphrase. I do not have access to Ouaknin’s book.)

Let’s look at another case. See here how the language of military conquest and release becomes the history of an Exodus from Egypt. NC cites passages from Mario Liverani’s Israel’s History and the History of Israel, though she does so from the French publication. I quote sections from the English-language text, pp. 277-279 in which he shows how an image of exodus from a foreign kingdom was a common metaphor before our well-known Pentateuchal story was composed. Liverani uses the traditional eighth-century dating of the early prophets.

The Exodus Motif

. . . The sagas of the ‘patriarchs’ offered an inadequate legitimation, because they were too remote and were localized only in a few symbolic places (tombs, sacred trees). A much more powerful prototype of the conquest of the land was created by the story of exodus (sē’t, and other forms of yāsā’ ‘go out’) from Egypt, under the guidance of Moses, and of military conquest, under the leadership of Joshua.

The main idea of the sequence ‘exit from Egypt –> conquest of Canaan’ is relatively old: already before the formulation of the Deuteronomistic paradigm, the idea that Yahweh had brought Israel out from Egypt is attested in prophetic texts of the eighth century (Hosea and Amos). In Amos the formulation has a clearly migratory sense:

Did I not bring Israel up from the land of Egypt, and the Philistines from Caphtor and the Arameans from Kir? (Amos 9.7).

In Hosea, the exit from Egypt and return there are used instead as a metaphor (underlined by reiterated parallelism) for Assyria, in the sense of submission or liberation from imperial authority. Because of its political behaviour, and also for its cultic faults, Ephraim (= Israel, the Northern Kingdom, where Hosea issues his prophecies) risks going back to ‘Egypt’, which is now actualized as Assyria:

Ephraim has become like a dove
silly and without sense;
they call upon Egypt, they go to Assyria (Hos. 7.11).

Though they offer choice sacrifices
though they eat flesh,
Yahweh does not accept them.

Now he will remember their iniquity,
and punish their sins;
they shall return to Egypt (Hos. 8.13; see 11.5).

They shall not remain in the land Yahweh;
but Ephraim shall return to Egypt,
and in Assyria they shall eat unclean food (Hos. 9.3).

Ephraim…they make a treaty with Assyria,
and oil is carried to Egypt (Hos. 12.2 [ET 1]).

In these eighth-century formulations, the motif of arrival from Egypt was therefore quite well known, but especially as a metaphor of liberation from a foreign power. The basic idea was that Yahweh had delivered Israel from Egyptian power and had given them control – with full autonomy – of the land where they already lived. There was an agreed ‘memory’ of the major political phenomenon that had marked the transition from submission to Egypt in the Late Bronze Age to autonomy in Iron Age I.

We should bear in mind that the terminology of ‘bringing out’ and ‘bringing back’, ‘sending out’ and ‘sending in’, the so-called ‘code of movement’, so evident in Hosea, had already been applied in the Late Bronze Age texts to indicate a shifting of sovereignty, without implying any physical displacement of the people concerned, but only a shift of the political border. Thus, to take one example, the Hittite king Shuppiluliuma describes his conquest of central Syria in the following way:

I also brought the city of Qatna, together with its belongings and possessions, to Hatti… I plundered all of these lands in one year and brought them [literally: ‘I made them enter’] to Hatti (HDT 39-40; cf. ANET, 318).

And here is another example, from an Amarna letter:

All the (rebellious) towns that I have mentioned to my Lord, my Lord knows if they went back! From the day of the departure of the troops of the king my Lord, they have all become hostile (EA 169, from Byblos).

Egyptian texts also describe territorial conquest in terms of the capture of its population, even if in fact the submitted people remain in their place. This is an idiomatic use of the code of movement (go in/go out) to describe a change in political dependence.

But when, towards the end of the eighth century, the Assyrian policy of deportation began (with the physical, migratory displacement of subdued peoples), then the (metaphorical) exodus from Egypt was read in parallel with the (real) movement from Israel of groups of refuges from the north to the kingdom of Judah (Hos. 11.11). The inevitable ambiguity of the metaphor of movement gave way to a ‘going out’ which was unambiguously migratory, though it maintained its moral-political sense of ‘liberation from oppression’. The first appearance of this motif occurs, significantly, in the Northern kingdom under Assyrian domination.

Thus in the seventh century the so-called exodus motif took shape in proto-Deuteronomistic historiography. The expression ‘I (= Yahweh) brought you out from Egypt to let you dwell in this land that I gave to you’ (and similar expressions) became frequent, as if alluding to a well known concept. Evidently this motif, influenced by the new climate of Assyrian cross-deportations, and the sight of whole populations moving from one territory to another, was now connected to the patriarchal stories of pastoral transhumance between Sinai and the Nile Delta, to stories of forced labour of groups of habiru (‘pr.w) in the building activities of the Ramessides, and to the more recent movements of refugees between Judah and Egypt: such movement was therefore no longer understood as a metaphor, but as an allusion to an actual ‘founding’ event: a real ‘exodus’, literally from Egypt.

Just as in Hosea the Exodus motif already provided a metaphor for the Assyrian threat, so in prophetic texts of the exilic age the exodus became (more consistently) a prefiguration of the return from the Diaspora – at first, fleetingly, from the Assyrian, to a (still independent) Jerusalem; then firmly, from the Babylonian disapora:

Therefore, the days are surely coming, says Yahweh, when it shall no longer be said, ‘As Yahweh lives who brought the people of Israel up out of the land of Egypt,’ but ‘As Yahweh lives who brought out and led the offspring of the house of Israel out of the land of the north and out of all the lands where he had driven them.’ Then they shall live in their own land’ (Jer. 23.7- 8; 16.14-15).

(Liverani, 277 ff)

Law and History Made from Word Games

Let’s look again at some observations of Mary Douglas. I go a little beyond what NC has quoted, though. We begin with a comment on the case of the blasphemer that we quoted in the previous post:

This study argues against taking the story of the blasphemer punished by stoning too legalistically. It is not teaching the letter of the law but making a literary comment on the letter of the law. The style shows that what should be taken seriously is some kind of general match between offence and retaliation. The general principle is that God’s universe runs on reciprocity. In other words, the law is the negative side of the principle of fair dealing on which the covenant is based.

Remember Daniel’s judgement on the elders who bore false witness against Susanna. He asked each accuser separately what was the tree under which they saw her with her lover, and ordered punning death sentences for them (Susanna: 54–9). Bernard Jackson’s account of the well-known joke is worth quoting:

the climax rests upon the different trees advanced by the two elders as the locus delicti. The point is reinforced by a skilful double pun. When the first elder replies ‘under a mastick tree’ (hupo schinon) Daniel retorts that the angel of God has already received instructions to cut him in two (schisei se meson) for the lie; when the second testifies that itwas a holm (hupo prinon), Daniel replies that the angel of God is waiting, scimitar in hand, to saw him in half (prisei se meson). Patristic sources debate already whether the existence of this double pun is evidence that Greek was the original language of the story; Origen asked his Jewish associates whether they could reproduce it in Hebrew, but they could not. . . . More recently, the New English Bible translators have, with modest arboreal licence, reproduced the pun in English: ‘ “Under a clove-tree . . . he will cleave you in two; under a yew-tree . . . to hew you down”.’ (Jackson 1977: 38)

Daniel’s judgement, which makes a verbal matching of crime and penalty, illustrates the law of retaliation in Leviticus.

The principle of equivalent retaliation is quite blatant in the narrative books. Why did Jezebel die by falling out of a high window (2 Kings 8: 30)? Answer: the false woman built high places for false gods. Why was Absolom delivered to his enemies hanging by his beautiful hair (2 Sam 18: 9–10)? Answer: his pride in his own beauty brought him to this end.

(Douglas, 214)

I like MD’s concluding remark:

The victims of injury find something peculiarly gratifying in the malefactor being requited poetically as well as practically.

The stories are not history. I would classify them with something closer to the character of Aesop’s fables. They are morality tales with vivid images constructed from puns and word play to teach memorable lessons through memorable and witty narrative.

Ditto for the symbolic actions of the prophets that are more effective as word images than literal biographical events. Recall how Jeremiah was to wear a belt for so many days then bury it beneath rocks until it rotted: Jeremiah 13:1-11; then how he was to smash a pot: Jeremiah 19:10-12; and how he was to carry a yoke first of wood then of iron: Jeremiah 27:1-11. And how God killed Ezekiel’s wife the same day Jerusalem was attacked: Ezekiel 24:15-27.

Daniel in the Metaphorical Lions’ Den

NC quotes at length from a thesis by Henri Hochner, Les Métaphores de la relation Dieu-Israël dans la littérature prophétique (pp. 12-13), where he outlines the argument of a work by Karel van der Toorn. I quote here directly from Van Der Toorn’s article.

Close study of Ludlul bel nëmeqi (= “I shall praise the Lord of Wisdom”) and its echoes in letters by scholars who identify with its protagonist reveals that the motif of the pit of lions goes back to Babylonia as well. In the Babylonian tradition, however, the lions are not real lions; they stand for human adversaries. The “pit of lions,” in its sole Babylonian occurrence, is a metaphor for the hostility and competition among the scholars at court. The biblical author inherited the motif of the lions’ pit from the Babylonian tradition, but when he incorporated it into the story of Daniel, he turned the metaphor into a literal description.

(Van Der Toorn, 627)

Here are some extracts:

The king, the very flesh of the gods and the sun of his subjects,
developed a grudge against me, impossible to dissolve.

The courtiers were exchanging depreciating comments about me;
they came together to instigate malicious things.

Says the first, “I will make him end his life,”
and the second says, “I will make him vacate his post.”

So likewise the third, “I will seize his position”;

“I will take possession of his house,” vows the fourth.

The fifth . . .

and the sixth and the seventh. . . .

The clique of seven have joined their forces,
merciless as the raging storm, equal to demons.

One is their flesh, united in purpose;
their hearts rage against me, they are ablaze like fire.

They combine against me in slander and lies.

The god Marduk appeared to him in three dreams promising to restore him to health and to his former position and great honour in the king’s court. After all of that has been accomplished the scribe piously gives thanks as follows:

[He who] smote me, [Mard]uk he restored me.
He smote the hand of my smiter, Marduk made him drop his weapon.
Marduk put a muzzle on the mouth of the lion that was devouring me.
Marduk despoiled my pursuer of his sling
and deflected his slingstone.

Among Urad-Gula’s detailed complaints one is especially relevant to the story of Daniel in the lions’ den. Though the passage occurs in a broken context, enough has been preserved to allow the following reconstruction. . . .

39 [. . . D]ay and night I pray to the king in front of the lion’s pit
40 [. . that] . . . are not finicky about the morsels [. . .]
41 [. . . ] my heart amidst my colleagues [. . .]

Parpola has not failed to note the parallel of this passage in the story of Daniel, but what exactly does it mean to be “before the lion’s pit”? Earlier on, Urad-Gula writes that he once used to be regarded “as one who eats lion’s morsels” . . . . This, apparently, was something to be happy about, whereas his position “in front of the lion’s pit” was something to be deplored.

The references to the food of lions and to the lion’s pit can be elucidated once we abandon a literal reading of these passages. Urad-Gula can hardly be expected to have received the same food as the lions. In fact, he has just stated that he used to receive “leftovers” (rêhâti) with the king’s exorcists . . . These leftovers were the remains of the offerings given to the gods. They were of quality, since only the best was good enough for the gods. They are likened to ‘lion’s morsels’ because both in quantity and in quality they resembled the bits of flesh thrown to the lions. In comparison with the ordinary population, the court scholars ate quite well. Since Urad-Gula’s dismissal from court, however, he finds himself “before” . . . the lion’s pit. This lion’s pit, I suggest, is the circle of his former colleagues from which he has been ousted. He no longer enjoys his food in their midst. For him, they have indeed turned into lions, eager now to devour him.

(Van Der Toorn, pp. 632 f)

The context clearly demonstrates that the single “smiter” about to murder him was in fact the numerous colleagues who conspired against him to have him removed from his job. The same context clearly shows that these same conspirators were “the lion” that was devouring him.

As in the letter of complaints by Urad-Gula [see insert box for Urad-Gula], then, the image of the lion is used in the poem Ludlul to convey the ferocity with which colleagues at court attack the baffled counselor. The vindication of the protagonist, his triumph over his detractors and calumniators, is pictured as delivery by Marduk from the mouth of the lion. The importance of the metaphor is borne out by a mid-first-millennium text from Babylon containing selected lines from literary texts in which precisely this line from Ludlul is quoted: “Marduk put a muzzle on the mouth of the lion.The line is also quoted and explained in the commentary on Ludlul from the library of Asshurbanipal.It must be assumed that many who had received their scribal training in first-millennium Mesopotamia would recognize the line and know that it came from Ludlul. The “Poem of the Righteous Sufferer” (as the text is often called in Assyriological literature) was apparently part of the scribal curriculum and, thus, belonged to the literary culture of the intellectual elite. People like Urad-Gula knew their classics. These texts constituted the referential frame within which they interpreted their own lives.

In one of Urad-Gula’s letters from which we quoted above the image of the lion had developed into a pit of lions. In Mesopotamia, such a pit was a traditional device for capturing lions.

(Van Der Toorn, 636 f)

Continuing . . . .

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

Douglas, Mary. 2001. Leviticus As Literature. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press.

Liverani, Mario. 2005. Israel’s History and the History of Israel. London ; Oakville, CT: Equinox Publishing.

Van Der Toorn, Karel. 1998. “In the Lions’ Den: The Babylonian Background of a Biblical Motif.” The Catholic Biblical Quarterly 60 (4): 626–40.

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Neil Godfrey

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9 thoughts on “Jésus-Christ, Sublime Figure de Papier. Chap 3d … Metaphors of Exodus and Lion Dens Become History”

  1. Also, this very much highlights the perspective I’ve been gaining which is that the Jewish scriptures really were works of literary genius and sophistication (despite the fact that they copied heavily from prior sources, but all ancient writers did), and much of the reason that Christianity was embraced by Roman scholars is that they were dumb-struck by literary complexities they didn’t understand and couldn’t comprehend due to lack of cultural context.

    These works are filled with multiple layers of word puzzles that just totally mystified the Romans, who put a lot of stock in divine literature. It’s also abundantly clear that the writer of Mark was a master writer who was deeply studied in traditions of Jewish story telling and writing. Mark literally contains like every trick of the trade in Jewish writing. I’m also convinced that the so-called poor grammar of Mark is really just a lack of recognition of Mark’s word puzzles and literary references.

    Mark was a cross-cultural work of genius that Gentile audiences didn’t understand and completely misinterpreted, and those same people went on to misinterpret the entirety of the Jewish cannon.

    For me this is the most fascinating aspect of history. It’s amazing how the misunderstanding of these writings completely shaped the course of history. Misreading stories literally changed the world.

    It’s mind-bowing…

    1. r.g., did you mean

      “the Jewish scriptures really were works of literary genius and sophistication”,

      or, “the Christian scriptures…were works of literary genius and sophistication”??

    2. Indeed it is my fellow blogger here… Who can dispute your thoughtful comments…?? Perhaps a tweek or two but your point is well taken…

      Thanks again Neil.. I have been hard at work making connections in Mark 1:12-13 and the beasts that Jesus was with in the wilderness of Jerusalem… which by the way Peter associates with nothing clean!! It is Babylon.( Peter wrote about the lion, the devil, roaming about with accusation and diabolical malice everywhere.. wanting to bring the Christian religion into disrepute and death dealing judgement…

      The NT writers… John, Peter, etc Egypt etc. Jerusalem the Whore and these writers reflect ancient texts (especially Daniel with its martyrdom motifs…) many faithful are thrown into the pit of wild beasts…lions.. serpents, dogs, etc. jealous and envious of Jesus and so want to get rid of him like Daniel as the sage in the courts of the Enemy!

      Moreover, Mark used Daniel extensively in his apocalyptic scenario where everything would end in 70 C.E.. the end of the world ,,for Mark and others, and especially Paul in his own lifetime, not some other!!

      Just plain cool stuff.

  2. the reason that Christianity was embraced by Roman scholars is that they were dumb-struck by literary complexities they didn’t understand and couldn’t comprehend due to lack of cultural context.

    Please consider responding on this point to the first response comment per Raphael Lataster (August 2019). “Questioning Jesus’ Historicity“. The Bible and Interpretation, i.e. “Why would human rulers of the age (i.e. pagan rulers like Rome and also the Jewish leadership in Palestine) want Christian salvation?”

    also consider posting a comment per your twelve “Questions for Jesus Historicists”.

      1. r.g.price,
        Your view on the gospel author of Matthew et al. appears to be more assertive.

        You should coin a new term to replace “Synoptic Gospels” —perhaps: Pan+Myopia=”panmyoptics” 🙂

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