Category Archives: Old Testament

Should there be another child category to sit alongside NT and OT and cover Intertestamental period? Should that include Philo? What effect will that have on the child category Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha?

From Babylonia to Moses and Enoch to Paul: Questions

I conclude the series on From Adapa to Enoch with this post.

Ancient scribes were taught to see the world through the eyes of mythical heroes like Adapa and Enoch. They were taught to write in the voices of the likes of Adapa and Enoch. Through ritual mortals could even become the presence of those mythical figures. Even the early Christian writings declare the ability of human worshipers to bear the shining glory of God and sit with him in heavenly places. “Shining glory”, in that Mesopotamian-Persian-Hellenistic thought world was a corporeal entity that could be taken off and put on like clothing. We need to set aside our idea of dualism that posits an unbridgeable divide between the natural and supernatural realms. Dualism in the time we are discussing happened entirely within the realm of the single cosmos: the physical bore signs of the spiritual; a mortal could ascend into heaven and share in the divine glory and yet remain mortal. The entire universe was a system of signs. To be able to read the stars was to learn the language of the gods and to understand the secrets of the universe. A word had power to change the events in the physical world. The world was even created by words in the Judean myth.

Categories that are problematic for us to understand, like how a scribe could experience supernatural revelation or think that his words were of similar essence to preexisting revealed text, assume a radical distinction between the natural and the supernatural. But our Judean scribes, like Babylonian scribes, had no separate category for the merely material world as opposed to their culturally determined speech or God’s purely supernatural miracles. They had a semiotic ontology in which the universe was shaped by God in language-like ways. The … “reckoning, calculation” of speech can be implanted in the mind of the speaker of the [Thanksgiving Hymns], or God can cause him to perceive the [measurements] that govern the movement of sun and year. God organized essential pieces of human language in precisely the same way as he organized other mysteries and calculations of the universe.

(Sanders, 235. Highlighting and [] substitutions of technical expressions mine.)

If this kind of knowledge had its origins in Mesopotamia, according to the thesis argued by Seth Sanders in From Adapa to Enoch, it found its way throughout the Near East, including Judea, in the “Parchment Period”, when new writing media (script, language, container) superseded clay and cuneiform. (We are talking fifth century B.C.E.)

Judean scribes made consistent changes to the Babylonian forms of knowledge that came their way:

[I]n its adaption of Babylonian knowledge, Judea shows a pattern of narrativization. All known cases of Babylonian into Jewish literature involve a genre change into narratives of the ancient past. Whether ritual (the treaty-oaths of Esarhaddon), legal collection (the laws of Hammurapi), or astronomical and mathematical tables (Mul.Apin, Enüma Arm Enlil 14, the standard cuneiform fraction sequences), all were transformed into stories about ancestors, from Moses to Enoch to Levi. This reflects a dominant and widely recognized Judean literary value by which scribes conducted other major acts of text-building such as the Pentateuch (cf. Baden 2012, Sanders 2015, Schmid 2010).

(Sanders, 232 f. My highlighting)

To sidetrack for a moment into the Sanders 2015 citation above, Sanders sees the sources of the biblical narratives as being very the classical Mesopotamian literature. For example, the Genesis story of the Noah Flood appears to be based at least in part on a source like the Epic of Gilgamesh. Where the Genesis narrative differs from any Mesopotomanian narrative model is in its doublets (everything is narrated twice) and even in the fact that many of those doublets are inconsistent or contradictory. The possibility of a Greek influence never arises. A question in my mind relates to Greek historical narratives that do contain doublets with contradictions and other inconsistencies (see, e.g. Explaining (?) the Contradictory Genesis Accounts of the Creation of Adam and Eve). Other Greek literature even sets out a narrative structure that seems to foreshadow what we read in the larger story of the Flood and return to civilization through “Babel” (see, e.g. Plato and the Bible on the Origins of Civilization). Of course the narrator keeps himself in the background in the Primary History (Genesis to 2 Kings) so there is no personal intrusion to alert readers before introducing a second (and contradictory) version of events as we find in Herodotus. Questions remain.

Question 1: How does the above Mesopotamian/Near Eastern view of the conceptual unity of the material-cultural-supernatural worlds compare with Classical Greek and Hellenistic concepts? (Do we encounter evolution of ideas?)

Question 2: If the answer to Q1 points to differences then do we see these differences surface in the canonical and extra-canonical literature up through the Hellenistic and early Roman eras?

Question 3: Can we look more closely at the claimed extension of the above ideas to their early Christian analogs (e.g. Christians now sitting on thrones in heaven and reflecting more and more of the glory of God)?

 

Becoming Like God: A History

The title is “a” history because it is an interpretation built on detailed argument that is presented for consideration by Seth Sanders in From Adapa to Enoch, a book sent to me for blog discussion by the publisher Mohr Siebeck.

I’m drawing to a close my reading this book and now come to chapter 6 with “Who is Like Me Among the Angels?” as the first part of its heading. A primary concern of the chapter is that we set aside Western ideas of dualism and explore a quite different thought-world behind ancient texts, including those we know “too well” in both the Old and New Testaments.

The chapter title is taken from the Self-Glorification Hymn from Qumran and later in the post I will outline the arguments for interpreting that hymn as intended for recitation by mere mortals like us, though ones instructed thoroughly in divine wisdom.

Baal

But first, the history. We begin with the Ugaritic (Canaanite) myth of Baal dating centuries before Judean times. An opportune moment came for would-be usurpers when Baal left his throne to journey to the underworld. The first contender failed because he was too weak: he could not run as fast as Baal or wield Baal’s lance. The second contender did not “measure up” to Baal, literally: sitting on Baal’s throne his feet did not reach the footstool and his head did not reach the top of the throne. (Measurement was an important signifier: note the details of measurements set out in Ezekiel, Enoch, Revelation.) This is a myth narrated in the third person: Baal did this, Athtar did that, etc.

Thereupon Athtar the Terrible
ascends the heights of Zaphon,
sits on Mighty Baal’s seat.
(But) his feet do not reach the footstool,
his head does not reach the top (of the seat).
(To this) Athtar the Terrible responds:
“I will not reign on the heights of Zaphon!”
Athtar the Terrible descends,
he descends from the seat of Mighty Baal,
and reigns over the earth, god of it all.

(Adapted from Sanders, p. 215)

The Light-Bringer (Isaiah)

Next, compare Isaiah’s myth of Lucifer, a myth generally thought to have derived from the sort of myth we read of in the Baal epics.

How you have fallen from heaven,
morning star, son of the dawn!
You have been cast down to the earth,
you who once laid low the nations!
Y
ou said in your heart,

I will ascend to the heavens;
I will raise my throne
above the stars of God;
I will sit enthroned on the mount of assembly,
on the utmost heights of Mount Zaphon
I
will ascend above the tops of the clouds;

I will make myself like the Most High.”

(Isaiah 14:12-14)

The idea of becoming like the supreme god means ascending to the throne of god but results in being brought down to earth. (Here we have a myth narrated in the second person, addressing “you”.) In Isaiah the myth appears to express a wish for God to punish the arrogance of the power (presumably Babylon, some would argue Assyria) that would exalt itself in such a way.

The Light-Bringer (Ezekiel – a myth of wisdom)

Ezekiel sees an interesting development of this myth:

“‘Therefore this is what the Sovereign Lord says:

“‘Because you think you are wise, as wise as a god,
I am going to bring foreigners against you, the most ruthless of nations;
they will draw their swords against your beauty and wisdom
and pierce your shining splendor.
They will bring you down to the pit,
and you will die a violent death in the heart of the seas.
Will you then say, “I am a god,” in the presence of those who kill you?
You will be but a mortal, not a god, in the hands of those who slay you.

(Ezekiel 28:6-9)

Here again the “light-bringer”, Lucifer, exalts himself to the status of God and is once again mercilessly punished for his arrogance. But the significant development here is that it is not size or power that the light-bringer boasts is what makes him as god, but his wisdom, his learning.

Moses

Let’s backtrack now to Moses who in the story in Exodus did indeed become “like God” after time spent in the presence of God:

When Moses came down from Mount Sinai with the two tablets of the covenant law in his hands, he was not aware that the skin of his face was radiant (qaran) because he had spoken with the Lord.

(Exodus 34:29)

The word for radiant can also be understood as “horns” so it is interesting to note a Babylonian astronomy text with the same ambiguity:

If the sun’s hom (si) fades and the moon is dark, there will be deaths, (explanation:) in the evening watch, the moon is having an eclipse (and in this context,) si means “hom,” si means “shine.”

As was discussed in the earliest posts of this series such a shining or glory is something that can be added to, placed upon, taken or stolen from, a person like a garment, clothing, a crown, a sword. It was bestowed upon a Mesopotamian king when he ascended the throne.

* The Akkadian word is qarnu, cognate with the Hebrew qrn root we read in Exodus 34.

It explains that what he sees is an eclipse and that when he reads the Sumerian word si in the base text, “si means ‘horn,’* and si also means ‘shining.’” After reading the commentary, the person who sees the thin shining rim of the sun should interpret both visual and written signs as simultaneously horn and light. A second commentary adds that the lemma means “‘to daze,’ si means ‘to mask,’ si means ‘shining,’ si means ‘radiance,’ si means Tight.’”

And Mummu, the counsellor, was breathless with agitation.
He split (Apsû’s) sinews, ripped off his crown,
Carried away his aura and put it on himself.From Enuma Elish I:66-68

Here the range of associations with “horn” is extended to the affective – the word translated “be dazed” can also mean “be numb with terror” – and the physical: light can mask, cover over, and block things like a fog. The phenomenon unifies astronomy, myth, and politics. This spectrum of associations is embodied in the Mesopotamian mythological object called the melammu, a blinding mask of light. The melammu is the property of gods, monsters, and the sun, and one is conferred by the gods on the king at his coronation. This mask of light is thus cosmic, physical, and political at once, a somatic mark of divine rulership, and it is external to the body, even alienable, as the theft of Mummu’s melammu in Enūma Elish (I 68) shows. A melammu can be stolen, but it can also be newly conferred on someone.

This mythic pattern provides the most straightforward model for understanding what happened to Moses’ face: it is not the face itself but its surface, the skin, that radiated. Moses’ physical proximity to the source of revelation added a new layer to his appearance, a physical mark of inhumanity. The Israelites feared contact with him because of his divine persona.

(Sanders, 209-210)

Moses was deemed unique for acquiring some of the glory, the radiance, of God as a consequence of being in his presence for a prolonged period.

  • “You have made my face to shine” (1 QHa 11:4).
  • “You have made my face to shine by Your covenant” (1QHa 12:6).
  • “by me You have illumined the face of the Many ( רבים ) and have strengthened them uncountable times, for You have given me understanding of the mysteries” (1QHa 12:28).
  • “You have exalted my horn ( קרני ) on high. I shine forth in sevenfold light ( אור ), in l[ight which] You have [established for Your glory ( בבודכה ).” (1QHa 15 26-27)
  • “by your glory ( כבוז־כה ), my light (אורי) shone forth.” (1QHa 17:26)

But the concept was established. We find a strong interest in the light-transformation of those learned in God’s wisdom in the Qumran (Dead Sea Scrolls) literature. Could not others come to reflect the light that had shone from Moses? Certainly, Moses’ light was pale compared to God’s, and the scribe’s light would be less still, presumably, but still possible.

In Mesopotamian versions of this mythic pattern, the divinized being is not unique; he is merely the incumbent of a role.

Qumran liturgy manifests a fascination with adopting this illuminated role. Here sectarians who recited the standard set of Hodayot [Thanksgiving] prayers meditated regularly on the possibility of acquiring a shining face, and even of God raising the hom/radiance of the speaker. . . . .

If the language allows the speaker to invoke the transformed state of Moses, it also evokes more broadly a state of enlightenment characteristic of the ideal sage.

(Sanders, 210)

Daniel Transforms Isaiah’s Servant into a Role for All Enlightened Ones

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Questions re the Mesopotamian Influence in the Hebrew Bible

Let’s look a little more closely at the parallels between the Judean literature (canonical and pseudepigraphical) and that of Mesopotamia to see what might have been going between them. It’s one thing to say that we can see signs of Mesopotamian written records in Judean writings but a critical question to ask is by what means, how, the one came in contact with and influenced the other. That is the particular question Seth Sanders explores in chapter 5 of From Adapa to Enoch. I will highlight a few of the points he raises.

Esarhaddon Inspires Yahweh

Here is an adaptation of the chart from pages 171-172:

Vassal Treaty of Esarhaddon

Deuteronomy 13

You shall not hear or conceal any, … word which is not seemly nor good to Ashurbanipal, the great crown prince designate, son of Esarhaddon, king of Assyria, your lord, either from the mouth of his enemy or from the mouth of his ally, or from the mouth of his brothers, his uncles, his cousins, his family, members of his father’s line,  
Prophets or diviners

(2) If there should arise in your midst a prophet or oneiromancer who provides a sign or portent, (3) and should the sign or portent – concerning which he had spoken to you, saying, “Let us go after other gods (whom you have not known) so that we may worship them” – come true: (4) Do not heed the oracles of that prophet or that oneiromancer … (6) And that prophet or that oneiromancer shall be put to death, for he fomented conspiracy against Yahweh …

Family members

or from the mouth of your brothers, your sons, your daughters,
Family members

(7) If your brother, the son of your mother, or your son, or your daughter, or the wife of your bosom, or your friend who is as your own self,
Prophets or diviners

or from the mouth of a prophet, an ecstatic, a diviner, or from the mouth of any human being who exists; you shall come and report (it) to Ashurbanipal, the great crown prince designate, son of Esarhaddon, king of Assyria … VTE § 10

Incitement to rebellion punished by instant death

If anyone speaks rebellion and insurrection to you, to kill … Ashurbanipal the [great prince] designate, son of Esarhaddon, …
If you are able to seize them and kill them, then you shall seize them and kill them! VTE § 12

Incitement to apostasy punished by instant death

entices you secretly, saying, “Let us go and worship other gods” – whom neither you nor your fathers have known … –
(9) Do not assent to him or give heed to him! Let your eye not pity him nor shall you show compassion nor condone him
(10) – but you shall surely kill him! (Deut 13:2-10)

Did the author of the Deuteronomy passage have a copy of the vassal treaty before him? It is unlikely. It does not appear so. Deuteronomy is evidently not a translation at any rate.

Were these simply ancient Near Eastern clichés? Furthermore, while the Hebrew-Assyrian parallels have long been assumed to derive from historical contact, questions remain about the social and physical locations of contact, especially if the thesis of literary translation is unsustainable. A convincing account requires a plausible, well-documented mode of transmission.

Examining whole parallel passages side by side in light of known patterns of textual transmission in the ancient Near East suggests that rather than cuneiform and papyrus, the relationship between the two texts can most plausibly be explained by memory transmission, based on the oral performance of the curses in a ceremony of the sort required in VTE. (p. 173)

From pages 174-175: read more »

More Thoughts on Origins of Biblical and Pseudepigraphical Literature

We have two models for the origin of the biblical and its ancillary literature.

According to Seth Sanders in From Adapa to Enoch we have a progression from the late Iron Age to the Seleucid era.

  • The early period (during the time of the kingdom of Judah before its exile) we have “public genres of power” that appear to draw upon the primarily cuneiform law codes and vassal treaties of Mesopotamia. In “Judea” these genres acquired a narrative framework.
  • Later, in the postexilic period, we find instead secret genres of knowledge that drew upon the scribal traditions of omens, astronomy, etc. The primary facilitator for this development was the spread of the Aramaic script as a common scholarly language.

 

Russell Gmirkin’s view is that the above texts of Deuteronomy and Exodus are rather products of the Hellenistic era. The elements of the political and legal documents of Mesopotamia are relatively few and subsumed within the sort of literature that Plato was promoting in Laws. The narrative framing of such laws was also enjoined by Plato.

Gmirkin’s Plato and the Creation of the Hebrew Bible does not cover the noncanonical literature so the following diagram is my own, not Gmirkin’s. Throw the stones at me for what follows. I have, however, drawn upon other scholars who also set out reasons for their suspicions that the canonical texts were the product of the Persian and/or Hellenistic eras. (Philip Davies whom I mentioned in the previous post looks largely at the Persian era.)

I imagine that with this latter scenario there are different schools, some of them possibly opposed to each other. The diagram below makes it appear that they are contemporaneous but I do not think that should not be seen as strictly the case.

The diagram also only mentions the same texts as above (law codes and public curses) but that is only for comparison purposes. In fact just about everything from Genesis to Daniel is included here. (Philippe Wajdenbaum in Argonauts of the Desert extends the Greek influence from the legal codes to details of the narrative framework of those laws.) The pseudepigraphical texts are another story.

 

I am only running through a mind-game here. If there were in fact opposing scribal schools, and if the Greek literature was an influential factor in the formation of what became the canonical texts, do we find a glimpse of the origin of that division in the following passage of Plato’s Laws, Book 7. We know the Pentateuch condemned the study of the stars, but why?

ATHENIAN: Next let us see whether we are or are not willing that the study of astronomy shall be proposed for our youth.

CLEINIAS: Proceed.

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Who Influenced Biblical and Second Temple Jewish Literature?

I have been posting on points of interest in Seth Sanders’ From Adapa to Enoch: Scribal Culture and Religious Vision in Judea and Babylon and have reached a point where I cannot help but bring in certain contrary and additional perspectives from another work I posted on earlier, Russell Gmirkin’s Plato and the Creation of the Hebrew Bible.

In chapter 5 Sanders sets out the view that Judean scribes in the Late Iron Age (the era of the Assyrian and Chaldean empires) took from the Mesopotamian scribal heritage “public genres of power”. Specifically:

  1. The author(s) of Deuteronomy 13 and 28 imitated the appearance of Assyrian Treaty-Oaths such as the Vassal Treaty of Esarhaddon;
  2. The author(s) of Exodus 21-24 took the Laws of Hammurabi as their model.

In the Second Temple era the interest of Judean scribes turned to genres of secret, esoteric knowledge. Specifically:

  1. The Enoch Book of Astronomy and Qumran literature on the calendar and the “watches” embraced Babylonian astronomical knowledge;
  2. The Qumran Testament of Levi incorporated Babylonian metrology (sequences of fractions and proportions in the sexagesimal system), and apparently metrology was also a part of other texts, Visions of Aram, Testament of Qahat, pseudo-Daniel although these are primarily examples of the importance of secrecy and guarding the knowledge through proper lineages.

Seth Sanders is interested in explaining the transition from the Late Iron Age Judean scribal culture to that of the Second Temple period, from genres of public power to genres of secrecy and esoteric wisdom.

As we saw in the previous post one of the most significant innovations the Judean scribes brought to the Mesopotamian material was the addition of a narrative context for the revealed laws, rituals and knowledge of the cosmos.

One question that arises and that I have not found explored in Sanders’ book is why the Judean scribes applied a significant narrative frame to their Babylonian sources. (As far as I have been able to determine Sanders addresses the function of the narrative framing but not the source-inspiration or model for the narrative framing concept.)

For example, the Laws of Hammurabi are bluntly introduced as being given by the sun god to the king. Contrast the laws of Exodus 21-24. Yes, they are delivered by the chief god but what a build-up: the Red Sea crossing, the Mount Sinai quaking, the tension between rebellious and obedient chosen people, the struggles of Moses to lead them, and so on!

But there are a few other details worth keeping in mind, too.

One: the amount of material supposedly borrowed from the vassal treaties is in fact arguably quite limited. Certainly there are clear similarities between the curses in both Deuteronomy and the treaties. But not much else that points to clear indications of direct borrowing. (Sanders also addresses the vagueness of some of the associations but I’ll discuss his answer in more detail in a future post.) Ditto for the borrowing from Mesopotamian Law Codes. Yes, there are clear links to the law of the goring ox in Exodus. But again, we soon run dry of comparable examples.

What of the prophetic literature of the Second Temple era? Mesopotamian prophecies, like the book of Daniel, “foretold” the historical events of successive kings rising up and doing good or bad things, but again there are notable differences, especially once again with the colourful narrative context of the Judean work. Sanders refers to the explanation of Matthew Neujahr in Predicting the Past in the Ancient Near East to point to similar historical circumstances in very different time periods leading to a blending of mantic/omen literature with chronicles or “historical” records.

I think an excellent explanation for the application of narrative framing of laws and other revealed knowledge is offered by Russell Gmirkin in Plato and the Creation of the Hebrew Bible. The same thesis further explains why so little detail from Hammurabi’s code or the vassal treaties are actually found in the Pentateuch, and further yet, points out many similarities in Exodus and Deuteronomy to Plato’s discussion in Laws. Of particular importance, Plato wrote, was that law codes be presented with divine and antique authority and not as precepts newly hatched by a recent fallible generation. Myths or stories of origins were important for their presentation.

If we accept Gmirkin’s view then what we find is not a progression from “public genres of power” in the Late Iron Age to “secret and esoteric wisdom” in the Second Temple period, but rather we have different scribal schools — compare Philip R. Davies’  thesis in Scribes and Schools. To what extent these schools were contemporary I would not like to speculate, though it seems we would have to confine ourselves to the Hellenistic period unless there was more cultural overlap between Greeks and Persian dominated lands prior to Alexander’s conquests than I am aware of. At this point we are on the edge of too many questions and pathways to explore to be covered in a few short posts.

But with this interlude now done I feel I can resume posts on Sanders’ book.

-o-

See also

  1. How Does One Date the Old Testament Writings?
  2. Gmirkin: Plato and Creation of Hebrew Bible
  3. Sanders: From Adapa to Enoch

“Revealed Science” : Emergence of Jewish Science and Apocalyptic Genres

Continuing to share my reading of Seth Sanders’ From Adapa to Enoch, Scribal Culture and Religious Vision in Judea and Babylon. All posts are archived here.
“Science” will be used here as a system of exact knowledge of the physical world.
Sanders, From Adapa to Enoch

Recall from the previous post (How Science Began) that we are talking about a world that conceptualized no clear distinction between the natural and the supernatural, or between nature and culture.

Seth Sanders identifies three core areas of exact description of the physical world documented by the Priestly scholars as the earliest form of Judean “scientific knowledge” known to us:

  • Time and the Universe (Genesis 1:1 to 2:4a)
  • The Temple (Exodus 25-31)
  • The Human Body (Leviticus 12-15)

The Origins of the Universe

Genesis opens with a taxonomy of each major entity in the world and concludes with God’s word creating the sabbath day as part of the cosmos. Later in ritual texts we find that this creation has included the categories of clean and unclean animals (Leviticus 11, Deuteronomy 14), their different physical attributes being recognized since antediluvian times. (Notice that the sabbath and forbidden foods are not deemed to originate in culture but as an integral part or category of the created world itself. Creation was activated by God’s word.

The Temple

Here we are in the realm of ritual requirements. We therefore find a quite different account of the temple and its system. Here we read not the words of an anonymous narrator but the words of God himself. God is quoted as setting out the details of the materials, measurements, layout and rituals of the tabernacle. Moses is a passive visionary because God points out that He, God, caused Moses to see it all. God has to show or reveal the heavenly model that the earthly structure and rituals are to copy. But it needs to be set out in the words of God for the reader who is not privileged to see the heavenly structure.

The Human Body

Similarly we are in the realm of ritual. The rules for bodily discharges and blemishes are likewise made known by divine commands, revelation.

Astronomical data and new information about the body introduced into Judea (using Judea throughout though in pre-Roman times Jehud may be more strictly correct) survive in such intertestamental literature as the Astronomical Book of Enoch and certain of the Dead Sea Scrolls.

It is interesting to see how this new scientific information made its entrance into the Judean world, building on the genres of existing “scientific” knowledge that we have seen in the three priestly statements above. We start with the introduction of astronomical knowledge that originated in Babylonia.

Revelation and Science are the One Genre

The Astronomical Book of Enoch begins:

The book of the courses of the luminaries of the heaven, the relations of each, according to their classes, their dominion and their seasons, according to their names and places of origin, and according to their months, which Uriel, the holy angel, who was with me, who is their guide, showed me; and he showed me all their laws exactly as they are . . . .

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Jésus-Christ, Sublime Figure de Papier. Chap 3e … A Different Kind of Literary Heritage

Nanine Charbonnel concludes her Prelude to her discussion of the gospels with a fascinating overview of literary technique that I think is not widely known outside the halls of academia. An author could compose a book in such a way that its thematic structure was a representation of . . . a topographical setting, or a building, or an animal — but not for any mundane reason. No, think of a place where God met and spoke with his people, or a sacred building like a tabernacle for the dwelling of God, or a sacrificial animal.

Mary Douglas (1921-2007) – Wikipedia

Once again NC turns to the anthropologist Mary Douglas and her book Leviticus as Literature. It is worth reading the book in its entirety in order to appreciate the anthropological foundations to her analysis. I had to pull myself away from revisiting milestone anthropological studies in order to complete this post. (There is even a book dedicated to responding to Douglas: Reading Leviticus: Responses to Mary Douglas, edited by John F. A. Sawyer. Some readers here will like to know that the last chapter in that volume is titled “Leviticus in Mark: Jesus’ Attitude to the Law”, by Alan Watson.)

Modern readers (at least most of us, I am sure) love to read from start to finish, usually as fast as comprehension will allow, with the assumption that the author has composed a linear narrative or exposition.

Now we know the Bible forbade the making of images but that did not stop authors from devising all sorts of word images. In our previous posts we have even seen how the Hebrew consonants forming words could be subject to interpretation based on their shapes and meanings (e.g. beth, meaning house). In one of our earlier posts some readers, including me, expressed some doubt that certain mystical interpretations raised by NC really did date back to the Second Temple era. We tend to think of them as kabbalistic and originating in the medieval era. NC disputed that assumption but I have not followed up her references (not wanting to take on another work of translating French at this stage). So I was intrigued to see Mary Douglas write the following:

The central idea of this book is that Leviticus exploits to the full an ancient tradition which makes a parallel between Mount Sinai and the tabernacle. Various antique transpositions between houses, bodies, and temples prepare us for believing that Ramban, the mystic philosopher and revered medieval interpreter, was drawing on very ancient traditions when he read Exodus so as to draw a parallel between the desert tabernacle and Mount Sinai. The tradition goes back to Exodus. . . . 

(Douglas, 59)

Then a few pages on,

It might well be objected that this is a medieval fantasy of no relevance for Leviticus. Ramban is the name of Rabbi Nachmanides (1194–c.1270) and his conjectures might have had nothing to do with Leviticus but come straight out of thirteenth-century mysticism. Milgrom, who is well aware of this question, considers that Ramban was drawing on an ancient tradition. He bases the interpretation on the text of Exodus itself, and particularly on the name of the tabernacle as the Tent of Meeting. After considering and dismissing several speculations on the origin of the term, he says:

‘Nevertheless, the immediate archetype for P’s Tent of Meeting is not some mythic Canaanite model or hypothetical Hittite example, but the ancient Israelite tradition of the theophany at Mount Sinai. P (Exod 24: 15b; 25: 1) concurs with and indeed incorporates the epic tradition (Exod 19. 20; 20: 1) that God descended upon Sinai . . . ’ [Milgrom 1991, 142].

This was where the initial meeting between God and Moses took place. At the end of Exodus, God transferred his earthly presence to the tabernacle in the form of fire and cloud. The tabernacle thereafter became the site of all subsequent meetings. God’s direct presence is too terrible to be endured, so it is veiled in cloud, and the holy of holies in smoke of incense. The cloud is the sign of God’s presence as he journeyed with his people in their wanderings. At Sinai when all the work of the tabernacle was finished, ‘Moses was not able to enter the tent of meeting because the cloud settled upon it and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle’ (Exod 40: 35). In Genesis smoke of sacrifice attracted God’s attention after the flood. In Exodus the incense altar was used for the priest to send up clouds of fragrant smoke (Exod 30: 7–8, 34–8; 40: 26). Smoke impedes visibility, like a cloud.

Thus, Milgrom argues, the name ‘Tent of Meeting’ gives grounds for thinking that the correspondence between tabernacle and Sinai are at least as old as Exodus. The same argument is made by Alfred Marx when he shows that God’s presence at Sinai and his presence at the altar at the time of sacrifice are to be read as strictly parallel. The mountain and the altar are figures of one another. [Grappe and Marx 1998, 24]. It could even be older, derived from the ancient symbolism of the cosmic mountain used in Canaanite religions. The idea of a cosmic centre of the world, on a raised place, on which a shrine has been built, is common around the Mesopotamian region.

(Douglas, 62 f. My bolded highlighting)

In the diagram here I have copied Mary Douglas’s illustration of the tabernacle and placed it beside a representation of Mount Sinai.

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

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

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Jésus-Christ, Sublime Figure de Papier. Chap 3c. … Word Play Undermining Historicity

Nanine Charbonnel has written a Prelude of a hundred pages, three chapters, to her discussion of the historicity of Jesus, Jésus-Christ, Sublime Figure de Papier. Well aware of the vitriol that generally accompanies the question, she explains her hope that such an introduction will help smooth the way for a calm, considered discussion of the topic.

In this post begin to discuss the final section of that last chapter of her Prelude. I won’t complete it because there is too much of interest to try to cram it all into a single post. In this post we’ll look at an example of how wordplay in a biblical narrative speaks against the story having a historical basis.

The previous post introduced the impossibility of separating the individual from the collective meaning of biblical narratives, made even more difficult by the ready confusion of tenses — the future spoken of as past yet bearing on the present time for the reader.

Robert Lowth

NC reaches back to the eighteenth century’s Robert Lowth who made the same point in Lectures on the Sacred Poetry of the Hebrews. Lowth distinguished normal allegory or parable from what he labelled a “mystical allegory” in biblical narratives. A normal allegory consists of a symbol or metaphor representing another figure. When a wild beast is used to represent a rampaging empire no-one thinks the story, at any level of comprehension, is about the wild beast. But as we have seen, we find something different in the patriarchal narratives, for instance. Abraham and Sarah’s adventures in Egypt are about both Abraham and Sarah and the Exodus story of their descendants.

Charbonnel quotes Robert Lowth who argues that “mystical allegory” sets the narratives of the Hebrew Scriptures apart from other literature. The “mystical allegories” derive their imagery entirely from within Jewish religious thought.

This latter kind of allegory [= “mystical allegory”], on the contrary, can only be supplied with proper materials from the sacred rites of the Hebrews themselves ; nor can it be introduced, except in relation to such things as are directly connected with the Jewish religion, or their immediate opposites ; for to Israel, Sion, Jerusalem, in the allegorical as well as the literal sense, are opposed Assyria, Babylon, Egypt, Idumea . . . (Lowth, 123. From the English translation of the Latin original; NC quotes French translation)

Not all critics agreed with Lowth on this point. Included in the English translation were notes by Professor Michaelis, who comments on Lowth’s idea of “mystical allegory”:

I admire the perspicacity of our Author in discovering this circumstance, and his candour in so freely disclosing his opinion. I am, however, much inclined to suspect those qualities which are supposed to be altogether peculiar to the sacred poetry of the Hebrews ; and there is, I confess, need of uncommon force of argument to convince me, that the sacred writings are to be interpreted by rules in every respect different from those by which other writings and other languages are interpreted ; but, in truth, this hypothesis of a double sense being applicable to the same words, is so far from resting on any solid ground of argument, that I find it is altogether founded on the practice of commentators, and their vague and tralatitious opinions.—M. (123 f)

Elaborating on his objection M subsequently insists that Psalm 110 is exclusively about the Messiah and has no other meaning, certainly not also applying to David; Psalm 18, on the other hand, cannot refer to the Messiah but can only refer to one person, David.

Then,

There is likewise this further distinction, that in those other forms of allegory [e.g. a lion representing a marauding kingdom] the exterior or ostensible imagery is fiction only ; the truth lies altogether in the interior or remote sense, which is veiled, as it were, under this thin and pellucid covering. But in the allegory of which we are now treating [Lowth’s “mystical allegory”], each idea is equally agreeable to truth. The exterior or ostensible image is not a shadowy colouring of the interior sense, but is in itself a reality; and although it sustain another character, it does not wholly lay aside its own. For instance, in the metaphor, or parable, the Lion, the Eagle, the Cedar, considered with respect to their identical existence, are altogether destitute of reality ; but what we read of David, Solomon, or Jerusalem, in this sublimer kind of allegory, may be either accepted in a literal sense, or may be mystically interpreted according to the religion of the Hebrews ; and in each view, whether considered conjunctly or apart, will be found equally agreeable to truth. (Lowth, 124)

For Lowth, this was the work of the Holy Spirit:

I had occasion before to remark the liberty which is allowed in the continued metaphor, of mingling the literal with the figurative meaning, that is, the obvious with the remote idea, which is a liberty altogether inconsistent with the nature of a parable. But to establish any certain rules with regard to this point in the conduct of the mystical allegory, would be a difficult and hazardous undertaking. For the Holy Spirit has evidently chosen different modes of revealing his sacred counsels according to the circumstances of persons and times, inciting and directing at pleasure the minds of his prophets . . . (124 f)

Names Make the Story Work

The composers of biblical stories assigned meaningful names to both persons and places. Sometimes the meaning is made explicit. Cain, Abel, Babel, Levi and Levites, . . . .

Mary Douglas (1921-2007) – Wikipedia

NC refers to a fascinating discussion by anthropologist Mary Douglas on the significance of names (and absence of name) in the story of the stoning of the blasphemer in Leviticus 24. I will quote the entire section from Douglas’s Leviticus as Literature, 205-208, with my own bolded highlighting:

The Curser Cursed

The second story bursts in to the calm sequence of laws . . . . Stoning is not an obvious tit-for-tat riposte for insult or blasphemy, but in the middle of the short story the law of talion is solemnly recited:

Now an Israelite woman’s son, whose father was an Egyptian, went out among the people of Israel; and the Israelite woman’s son and a man of Israel quarrelled in the camp, and the Israelite’s woman’s son blasphemed the Name, and cursed.

And they brought him to Moses. His mother’s name was Shelomith, the daughter of Dibri, of the tribe of Dan. And they put him in custody, till the will of the Lord should be declared to them.

And the Lord said to Moses, ‘Bring out of the camp him who cursed; and let all who heard him lay their hands upon his head, and let all the congregation stone him. And say to the people of Israel, Whoever curses his God shall bear his sin. He who blasphemes the name of the Lord shall be put to death; all the congregation shall stone him: the sojourner as well as the native, when he blasphemes the Name, shall be put to death. He who kills a man shall be put to death. He who kills a beast shall make it good, life for life. When a man causes a disfigurement in his neighbour, as he has done it shall be done to him, fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth; as he has disfigured a man he shall be disfigured. He who kills a beast shall make it good; and he who kills a man shall be put to death. You shall have one law for the sojourner and for the native; for I am the Lord your God.’ So Moses spoke to the people of Israel; and they brought him who had cursed out of the camp, and stoned him with stones. Thus the people of Israel did as the Lord commanded Moses. (Lev 24: 10–23)

The strong retaliatory element does not appear obvious in the story although it is usually taken to illustrate the application of the law. There is nothing at first glance to connect cursing with stoning. ‘Sticks and stones do break my bones, but words will never hurt me,’ but if it is shifted to the verbal level a linguistic parallel appears, with scope for possible word-play. Two words have been used. Verse 15 says: ‘Whoever curses his God.’ The word for the act of cursing [= q-l-l, dishonour, curse] means to trifle, despise, dishonour, make contemptible. But in verse 16 it says: ‘He who blasphemes the name of the Lord.’ This term is slightly different, it has the same stem as ‘to bore a hole’, or ‘to pierce’, and by extension, to specify, to pronounce explicitly, to identify, [= n-q-b, to pierce, bore through, perforate] and from here by extension presumably to name insultingly. Usually the two meanings are unconnected, but there is resonance between them. In the midst of a fight the man did two bad things, first he cursed, and second he spoke against or pierced with words the name of God. When consulted what to do (presumably by the priestly oracle) God commanded that he be put to death by stoning. The Hebrew stem of the verb which is translated as to stone [= r-g-m, to throw, hurl, pelt]  actually means to hurl or pelt. In English it could mean to pelt with anything, cabbages, bad tomatoes, or dung, but in Hebrew it is always used to pelt with stones. The oracle does not seem to have chosen a punishment that fits the crime, but if the word play be admitted, the retaliatory principle works in the literary mode: the blasphemer has hurled insults at the name of God, let him die by stones hurled at him. In English the nearest double meaning is the metaphor of mud-slinging. Then the oracle would run as follows: he has slung mud, let him die by mud slung at him.

The literary mode might be right. There are some curious names in this story, which need to be unravelled. We are told that the blasphemer’s mother’s name was ‘Shelomith’, which might suggest retribution, [Cf. shelummat] her father was Dibri, which suggests lawsuit [Cf. dibrah]; by his mother he was of the tribe of Dan, which suggests judgement [Cf. Genesis 49: 16: ‘Dan shall judge his people as one of the tribes of Israel.’]. By a strongly directed selection of the meanings of the names the story told to children could go like this:

‘Once there was a man (with no name), son of Shelomith-Retribution, grandson of Dibri-Lawsuit, from the house of Dan-Judgement, and he pelted insults at the Name . . . and the Lord said “He shall die, he pelted my Name, he shall be pelted to death.” ’

But could not the story be told that way because it is the way it happened in history? read more »

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

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)

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Jésus-Christ, Sublime Figure de Papier. Chap 3a. Representing a Collective in a Single Individual

Let’s begin the third and final chapter in part 1 of Nanine Charbonnel’s Jésus-Christ, Sublime Figure de Papier. Part 2 of the book is titled The Gospels are Midrash. Some readers will be aware of my ambivalent feelings about calling the gospels midrash but let’s hear the meat of the argument, whatever labels are used. But if Charbonnel intends us to read Part 2 through Part 1, let’s complete that step. (To see all posts in this series go to the Charbonnel archive.)

Chapter 3’s thesis is the uniqueness of the Hebrew Bible, meaning its alien character by comparison with Greek and Latin literature. The chief idea Charbonnel wants to get across (and that the previous two chapters have been leading us towards) is that in the Hebrew scriptures form and content are interrelated.

Notre thèse est celle-ci : ce sont des écrits où forme et contenus sont réciproquement liés. (Charbonnel, 67)

This chapter examines firstly the nature of typology in the Hebrew Scriptures and secondly the impossibility of separating out literal from figurative meanings.

The Individual and the Collective

The Google translation works very well here:

All the great characters in the biblical text are what cold call “corporate personalities”. This notion was proposed in the inter-war period by the Anglican Henry Wheeler Robinson and the Danish theologian Pedersen, and was particularly developed in French in the work of the late J. De Fraine, Adam and His Lineage, published in 1959. Here is how he summarizes this notion . . .

Notice the fluidity in which the singular and plural function in Hosea 11:1-2

“When Israel was a child, I loved him,
and out of Egypt I called my son.
But the more they were called,
the more they went away from me.

Similarly for Rebeccah for whom any humane person would trust the promise given her was figurative, an individual representing a collective (Genesis 24:60):

60 And they blessed Rebekah and said to her,

“Our sister, may you increase
to thousands upon thousands;
may your offspring possess
the cities of their enemies.”

And Genesis 25:23

23 The Lord said to her,

“Two nations are in your womb,
    and two peoples from within you will be separated;
one people will be stronger than the other,
    and the older will serve the younger.”

We see the same in the Psalms, the Prophets (in particular the Servant of YHWH — which will come into the discussion in more depth in Part 2 of the book), . . . read more »

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

All posts in this series are archived here.

–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

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Jésus-Christ, Sublime Figure de Papier. Chap 2a. The Sacred and Creative Power of the Hebrew Text

Forgive the longer than desirable delay since my last post on Nanine Charbonnel’s book, Jésus-Christ, Sublime Figure de Papier. (See the Charbonnel tag for all posts in this series.) The fault lies entirely with my failure to maintain my knowledge of basic French over the years so that it’s been a harder than usual struggle to be reasonably confident that I have grasped the details of the rather technical discussion in the second chapter.

The theme of this chapter is the remarkable range of meanings that can be teased out of the basic consonants of the early Hebrew biblical text. It is a mistake, Charbonnel points out, to think of the Hebrew text as being vowel-less. Yes, it is true that vowels were not written down as part of the original text, but without vowel sounds the consonants could not be pronounced at all. Seen from that perspective the vowel sounds can be considered the very soul, life, of the otherwise lifeless consonant text.

Further, the fundamental unit of the Hebrew language, consistent with other Semitic languages, was a (generally) three consonant root. To this three-letter foundation could be added suffixes and prefixes and, and by changing the internal vowel sounds one could produce a very wide array of nouns, adjectives and verbal forms. To paraphrase a quotation Charbonnel draws from a doctoral thesis by David Banon (University of Strasbourg),

it is as if the Semitic language had an unfinished character, a character that requires the reader to complete. In this respect the Hebrew text would look like the Creation that is not yet quite completed and that requires the man, the Adam, to perfect.

With such flexibility inherent in the text there is a possibility of endless play on interpretations and meanings.

Some other ways in which the Hebrew text acquires such plasticity:

Hebrew letters are also numbers. So words have numerical values. The sum of the value of each letter can be compared with the value of another word and inferences of interpretation can be thus drawn between the two words.

Each letter has a meaningful name. The letter for “b” (ב), for instance, is beth (or rather, BTH), and beth means house. So each consonant can be likened to a meaning or another word.

Some letters double as grammatical essentials. He (ה) is also the definite article, “the”; it is also a feminine ending; and also a word-ending signifying direction (towards); it can also indicate a question.

Certain letters can change the meaning or time or tense (whether an action has been completed or is on-going) associated with a word. To roughly paraphrase rather than exactly translate another passage,

When there is no yod (י) the verb’s meaning is assigned to the past, the action is accomplished. When there is a yod prefix, the verb is unfulfilled, or conditional, subjunctive. To assign the sense of future, simply add a yod before the verb. The yod is shaped like a hand with a pointing finger, indicating something to be arrived at or decided. So the future is open. And it is because of this openness that yod is the first letter of the name of the Lord, Yahweh. Whenever a yod will be written or read its will evoke the name of the Lord and His opening up of the future.

Encore plus étonnant, il suffit bien d’une autre lettre, un waw (jouant le rôle de préposition, donc avec une voyelle), pour ‘’convertir” (sémantiquement) la forme verbale de l’inaccompli en accompli (en gardant cette fois, pour le ‘’il”, le yod, qui marquait le futur), et inversement (la forme de l’accompli, avec son suffixe). C’est le fameux ‘’waw conversif” :

« Ce W- qui ajoute une nuance de succession est parfois appelé waw conversif, car il donne à chacune des formes la valeur temporelle ou aspectuelle qui est celle de l’autre forme quand cette dernière n’est pas précédée de waw. Les formes précédées de ce waw sont appelées formes converties. Ce trait syntaxique et stylistique, […] est caractéristique de la langue littéraire biblique. »

Le phénomène est énigmatique.

Peut-être son apparition est-elle liée à la narration, et elle s’expliquerait dans le cadre de l’évolution de celle-ci (il correspond à un passé simple, dans une suite narrative). Quoi qu’il en soit de son origine, il paraît cependant difficile de nier son existence sémantique, et la structure mentale qu’il peut forger. Qu’en est-il de l’influence de ce mécanisme sur la pensée biblique ? Faut-il dire que l’accompli obtenu ainsi, peut exprimer «le temps passé mais avec l’espoir de l’avenir» ? Il nous semble au moins qu’il accentue encore l’instabilité dans la temporalité, que nous allons approfondir plus loin.

Restons-en au poids des lettres. Insistons sur un degré de plus dans la possibilité de confusion. Pour cette transformation de la forme inaccomplie en un accompli, le waw dit conversif (ou inversif) se distingue du waw conjonctif (car le waw peut aussi être simplement la conjonction de coordination : le ‘’et” français), en ce qu’il est vocalisé ‘’a” et est suivi d’un redoublement de la consonne suivante. Mais quand il s’agit de transformer la forme accomplie (en inaccompli), le waw qui la précède est vocalisé ‘’shewa” (= é), ce qui ne permet pas, dans ce cas, de le distinguer d’un waw conjonctif…

Ainsi c’est le contexte seul, mais aussi parfois la pure décision du lecteur qui interprète le waw comme étant la conjonction ‘’et”, ou comme étant le signal de la forme inversée (qui par un accompli signifie alors un inaccompli…).

Charbonnel, 44-46

Charbonnel follows with a discussion about what I take to be the waw consecutive and that looks interesting but, alas, that I have given up attempting to translate even with the aid of Google. I quote the passage in the side-box for anyone with the competence to do the honours and be kind enough to produce a translation in the comments.

The final point enabling further multiplications of interpretations listed, surely especially significant at the time the New Testament works were being composed, was familiarity of many authors with Aramaic as well as Hebrew. The languages are very close but significantly some differences involve reversals of meaning.

Such details about the scripts and languages need to be kept in mind whenever we seek to make sense of the biblical writings, Charbonnel concludes.

Mystical Power of the Letters

— It is the written text that is sacred but what is read or seen on the page can be different from what is actually read aloud or spoken. The writing is sacred but the meaning is impossible to comprehend without an instructor.

— While the text itself is sacred, there can be some confusion in the meaning. Puns and word-play, moreover, can become an integral part of the meaning of the text and not mere incidental coincidences. Some letters are very similar and easily confused (e.g. resh ר and daleth ד) with potentially disastrous changes in meaning. Again to offer another crude paraphrase of my interpretation of a passage in Charbonnel’s text:

Letters serve not only as support for revelation but as an integral part of it. Since the world stands on the Torah, according to one tradition, any attack or breaking of the text puts creation in danger. . . . An 11th century saying: “If by accident you omit or add a single letter you destroy the whole world.”

It is forbidden to allow two letters to touch one another in order to preserve the distinctive sacredness of each, with all of its variable potentials of meaning. Quoting Marc-Alain Ouaknin, Mystères de la Bible,

The letters are all autonomous. Every letter is a world, every letter is a universe. The scribe therefore scrupulously writes each letter paying attention that there is no contact between two letters. In case that happens the book would be unfit for liturgical reading. (Machine translation, p. 48)

Letters, their forms, ranks, numbers, meanings, have something of a mystical power:

In Hebrew, father and mother begin with Aleph, son and daughter begin with Beth: Beth is thus the second generation, the one who has already received the teaching of her eldest, Aleph. (Charbonnel’s quotation, p.49, from LES SYMBOLES DANS LA BIBLE: LE SENS CACHÉ DES LETTRES HÉBRAÏQUES )

In the back of my mind as I read these pages I am wondering to what extent it all applies to the authors of Second Temple and early Christian texts. As if reading my mind Charbonnel states:

The belief that the letters of the alphabet are sacred powers is not only found in the esoteric doctrines of the Middle Ages (the Kabbalah) but certainly also in the period of the writing of the Old Testament texts (from the sixth to the first century before Christ.) (machine assisted translation, p. 49)

How the Bible Stories are Shaped by the Above Mechanisms

read more »

Melchizedek, King of Sodom

This title caught my eye:

A quick bit of googling brought me up to speed on the general idea. From Melchizedek king of Sodom in Genesis 14? by Matt Colvin:

Now, I am not a higher critic, but I have read the collected works of David Daube, and I have learned that where there are difficulties and ugly seams in a narrative, it is worth digging to see if there is an elegant solution to the problems. I think the following facts require consideration:

1. “Melchizedek king of Salem” appears with no introduction. He is not mentioned anywhere earlier. He is not among the 4 kings on one side or the 5 kings on the other. The chapter is swarming with kings, but the king of Salem is not among them until he is suddenly introduced apropos of nothing.

2. The “king of Salem” is mentioned one verse after we are told that “The king of Sodom went out to meet Abraham after his return…” If the king of Salem is one person, and the king of Sodom is another, then verse 17 shows Abraham meeting the king of Sodom, when suddenly the king of Salem intrudes and gives Abram a blessing. Meanwhile, what is the king of Sodom doing? Just standing around watching this transaction?

3. Why would the king of Salem give Abraham a blessing? The king of Sodom, on the other hand, has just been defeated and plundered by Chedorlaomer and company, so he would naturally be thankful and full of good feelings for Abraham, who has just defeated Chedorlaomer et al. in turn.

4. Further, no sooner has Melchizedek blessed Abraham than the king of Sodom resumes conversation with Abraham as though they had never been interrupted! Such convolutions fly in the face of everything that Robert Alter has taught us about the economy of reported speech in The Art of Biblical Narrative.. And the king of Salem vanishes, never to be mentioned again until Psalm 110:4 (and again in Hebrews 6-7). Abraham and the king of Sodom act like the king of Salem had never been there. They act, that is, as if they are the only two parties present or active.

All these considerations are very old. They have exercised the Rabbis, who give creative solutions.

5. Verse 20 says that “he gave him a tithe of all.” The author of Hebrews of course takes this to mean that Abraham tithed to Melchizedek. But the verb would most naturally taken with the same subject as the previous verbs, which were “And he blessed him and he said…” Furthermore, why would Abraham give tithes to an unknown king?

Imagine… if the king of Salem is actually the king of Sodom, we would have…

1. No interruption of the narrated meeting, but rather, further information given about it: the single king (of Sodom/Salem) is given a name so that we can know who he is before he exchanges words (and would-be gifts) with Abraham.

2. No need for a sudden change of subject (#5 above), since unlike the king of Salem, the king of Sodom has a very good reason to give Abraham a tithe, for Abraham is the victorious conqueror of the conqueror of the king of Sodom.

3. A much better unity to the passage. The discussion of whether Abraham should take the goods and give the king of Sodom the persons follows very naturally on the information that the king gave him a tithe. Recognizing his indebtedness to Abraham, he attempts to pay him with a tenth of all he has, but requests the favor of keeping the persons. Abraham refuses to take anything, just as will also insist on paying for the cave of Machpelah instead of accepting it as a gift from Ephron the Hittite in Genesis 23. He will have no debt-friendships with peoples of the land at all.

4. The word Salem (שלם) is somewhat similar to Sodom (סדם), so that it is just possible that “Salem” is a corruption of “Sodom”. But it may be possible to come up with other explanations for the substitution of the city name Salem for Sodom in verse 18. For instance, Wikipedia notes that W. F. Albright reads “melek-shelomo” = ”a king of his peace”, sc. ”a king allied to him”. It adds, “if the Albright reading is accepted, this would then imply that the whole interchange was with the King of Sodom.” This seems to me a highly desirable conclusion from a narratological viewpoint. (The estimable Jesuit scholar of Aramaic, Joseph Fitzmyer, mentioned Albright’s suggestion here.)

I don’t know if Robert Cargill’s book contains a similar argument but would not be surprised at some overlap.