From Immanence to Transcendence
translated by Sara MacVane
If we take a look at the ways in which God is depicted in the Hebrew Bible, we can see how these images are constructed and displaced during the whole history of ancient Israel in conjunction with the particular geopolitical situation of any given moment. This in turn varies significantly during the 1st millennium BCE.
Different theologies are at work within the Bible itself and that helps us understand how the concept of the divine passed from the God (simply) of Israel to a God (also) of others. How had ancient Israel come to celebrate the “only God” at the end of the 1st millennium BCE?
Research on the religion of ancient Israel has undergone change and now rightly sees monotheism not as the original religion of Israel, but as a result of its political history between the 10th and the 6th centuries BCE. It is important to understand not only how a local god became God of all, but also how much the conception of the divinity was dependent on external institutions such as: the kingship, the Temple and its rites, and encounters with other cultures. These various influences have served as the focus of interpretations which we will look at now.
YHWH, a divinity from the South
In order to understand how the idea of YHWH evolved, it is important to know that it did not originate in Canaan. The principal god there is EL as attested by our oldest reference to Israel, the stele of Merneptah from the 13th century BCE. The text says: Israel is destroyed and has no seed. The inscription suggests that the name Israel refers both to a territory and to a group of people and that their God is EL, the great Canaanite god.
As to YHWH, he was not originally an autochthonous god of Canaan, but a local divinity of the region of Edom, in the north-west of Arabia. There is a 13th century BCE inscription in the Egyptian temple at Sudan which attests to this origin. It mentions the place name YHWH in the expression the shasus of YHWH which might mean the country of the Shasus-YHWH or YHWH of the country of the Shasus. Many Biblical passages say that YHWH came from the South. YHWH was most likely the God of the storm and the God of war, like the Egyptian god Seth (the root of the word YHWH is probably related to a word meaning blow). Whatever the origin, the divinity YHWH arrived in Palestine through commercial contacts and marriages among semi-nomadic groups: Shasus, Midianites, Kenites. According to Thomas Roemer this transition may have been brought about by a people of YHWH. Several biblical texts confirm this southern origin. Deuteronomy 33. 2 says: YHWH came from Sinai and dawned from Seir upon them; he shone forth from Mount Paran. While Judges 5. 4 begins: YHWH when you went out from Seir, when you marched from the region of Edom …. In this vein, the stories of Moses in Midian preserve traces of an ancient tradition of a cult of YHWH in Midian and Edom. The whole epic of Moses – his flight, his encounter of Zipporah, a Midianite woman, his work as a shepherd which leads him to the mountain of Elohim in Midian – taken together indicate that the worship of YHWH came from Midian. Moses receives the law in the revelation made to him in Midian. In Exodus 18. 11, after the Jews leave Egypt, Jethro is the first person to worship YHWH: Now I know that YHWH is greater than all gods. The story leaves no doubt that the Midianite priest is the priest of YHWH. The story preserves and reworks an old tradition insisting on two points: firstly, the religious complicity between two groups of people, one Arab-Midianite-Edomite and the other Israelite, and secondly, the fraternal and family help of Jethro and of Midian, without which Israel could not have entered Canaan or benefitted from this liberating god. YHWH is already the God of other people before he becomes the God of Moses and the Israelites.
In this long ago history, in an encounter of exchange, YHWH was adopted by the Israelites in Canaan as the God who freed them from Egypt. A process of identification with the god EL is at work here, and so the Bible preserves more local names like EL, the God of Israel to designate YHWH (Genesis 33. 20). The cult of YHWH that was arising in Canaan was transformed by these contacts and influences. This is the reason why a number of biblical traditions make YHWH another Baal, a god of the climate (1 Kings 18). The cult of YHWH took on attributes of a sun cult under Egyptian influence, as is clear in many of the psalms.
YHWH wins: a royalist theology
From this encounter with the cultures of Canaan and Egypt, the cult of YHWH adopted a national and royalist theology. It borrowed a characteristic which located the divine in a direct relationship with royalty; a god-king whose son and intermediary was the human king. The stele of Hammurabi illustrates this characteristic. It has the god Shamash showing King Hammurabi the divine law, that very code which inspired a large part of the law of Moses.
We find this royalist theology in many different cultures of the ancient Near East. Neo-Assyrian theology states that Assur is the king and the human king is his lieutenant. This royalist theology abounds in the historic and legalist literature in the books of Samuel and 1st and 2nd Kings. Divine adoption of the king is evident in 2 Samuel 7. 14 and Psalm 2. 7: You are my son.
At the beginning of the 2nd millennium BCE Jerusalem was a place of sun worship with two divinities, Shahar and Shalim. It is here that two dominant cultural spheres met, the cult of the sun god (from Egypt) and the cult of a climate god (from the ancient Near East), as Othmar Keel has clearly demonstrated. According to Keel, the cult of YHWH was introduced in Jerusalem by King David; then his son Salomon restored the temple of a solar divinity, YHWH was accepted in it, the attributes of the two gods converged, until they became one god. A seal from the 7th century BCE says: YHWH is my light and many psalms use solar imagery for YHWH. Psalm 19. 6 says: Its rising is from the end of the heavens and its circuit to the end of them, and nothing is hid from its heat. At Psalm 104. 4, YHWH has the attributes of a god of the storm, a god of combat, and a sun god: You make the winds your messengers, fire and flame your ministers.
The stele of Baal at Ugarit presents Baal as the supreme climate god who sends the rain necessary for the fertility of the soil. He holds a branch-like spear in his left hand in a gesture intimately associated with the figure of the king. The stele illustrates how the divinity protects, sustains and legitimizes royal power.
In Israel, the two gods Baal and YHWH coexisted during the period of Judges and into the beginning of the kingship. In the Northern Kingdom, the cult of YHWH became dominant, probably in the 9th century BCE with the coup d’état of King Jehu, who imposed YHWH as the national cult to the detriment of Baal (2 Kings 9 – 10).From this confrontation the attributes of YHWH became those of a royal god and a climate god.
The late 9th century stele of Mesha, king of Moab, includes the oldest reference to YHWH, here considered the national god of Israel. The inscribed stele testifies to the power of the Northern Kingdom of Israel and its god YHWH in the 9th century BCE.
In the kingdom of Israel, YHWH as supreme divinity of the Northern Kingdom was associated with other cults, particularly that of the goddess Asherah, if you agree with a contemporary interpretation of the Kuntillet ‘Ajrud stele: I bless you by YHWH of Samaria and son of Asherah. The inscription testifies to an association which is denounced in 2 Kings 13. 6.
After the destruction of the Northern Kingdom and the fall of Samaria in 722 BCE, Judah remained simply a vassal of Assyria. The providential cessation of the Assyrian siege of Jerusalem in 701 was interpreted by the prophet Isaiah as one of the theological accomplishments of YHWH that no other god had managed: he saved his city, while Amon had not been able to save Thebes from the Assyrians. Some people wonder if it is not at this moment that YHWH began to be considered the one and only god in Judah.
At the end of the 7th century King Josiah carried out a reform to purify the cult of Aramean and Assyrian influences. YHWH was the ONLY God and his cult was centralized in Jerusalem (2 Kings 23). The Deuteronomist theologians reformulated the theology of only YHWH in conformity with the Assyrian model of vassalage. They created a national theology of alliance with YHWH in which YHWH is finally the only lord of Israel. From that point on, Deuteronomy, which promotes that theology, is a literature of resistance. The reform of Josiah is one of the most obvious instances of this royalist theology. The king himself is behind a cult reform which make YHWH the only divinity of Judah, the only king of Israel and of Jerusalem, which in turn is the only center of his cult.
The crisis of the exile, the fall of Jerusalem, and the deportation of Judeans to Babylon in 587 brought about a radical change in this royalist theology. YHWH was no longer exclusively attached to a territory, but became the God of history, as powerful as Marduk. We see this in the connection between the cylinder of Cyrus and Isaiah 45. 1 where YHWH makes Cyrus his anointed one: to Cyrus whose right hand I have grasped.
The definite turn toward the singularity of God is remarkable in Isaiah 42 – 44. Paradoxically, it is at the moment when Judah was weakest in geo-political terms that the principal divinity of Jerusalem was transformed into the Lord God of the world. In 2nd Isaiah, YHWH is satirical about other gods: Is there any god besides me? This monotheistic affirmation of 2nd Isaiah has roots in an interpretation of the singleness of god which was already present in Babylonian literature and in The Poem of Creation. One of the prayers to Marduk affirms that this great god is a synthesis of all the gods: Sin is Marduk who illuminates the night; Shamah is the Marduk of justice.
This brief over-view illustrates how the conception of a national, royalist, climate and solar YHWH transmuted into that of a one and only universal God. The singleness of God is not an invention of the Bible. The authors of the Bible radicalized the concept by making it aniconic; God cannot be shown. In 2nd Isaiah, the monotheistic theology is branded with royalist theology, tied to the providential person, Cyrus, the anointed one.
YHWH guarantees order in the world: a temple theology
The idea of a god as the guarantee of order in the world became fully developed in the priestly theology which arose after the Babylonian exile and then with the reconstruction of the Temple at Jerusalem in 520 – 515 BCE and that of Samaria in the middle of the 5th century. The reconstruction of the Temple in Jerusalem kindled the hope in the prophets Haggai and Zechariah that a royalist theology would be restored in the figures of Zorababel and the priest Joshua. Instead, the priestly order of the time understood the new situation in a community without a king or a state. The concept of God and of his relationship to Israel underwent a transformation.
Generally speaking, in the ancient world, the relationship between the gods and human beings was brought about through cult and ritual. Following the work of Christopher Nihan, it is useful for us to understand that the communities of the ancient world were first of all sacrificial communities. Sacrifice was the means of creating a bond between the gods, human beings, and the surrounding world.
In the relationship between human beings and the divinity, if the sacrifice was ineffective because it was not done properly, or if the cult was neglected, the gods abandoned the community, which was no longer protected by them. According to Ezekiel (10. 18-22) if the cult makes the Temple impure, YHWH leaves the sanctuary: The glory of the Lord went out from the threshold of the house. The departure of the god was the worst thing that could happen to a community which was then delivered to demonic powers. A good illustration of the relationship of the land to its god is found in 2 Kings 17. 24-41. After the fall of Samaria, it was necessary to re-establish the cult of the God of Israel so that the lions would stop devouring the strangers who had settled in the land.
After the Exile and the loss of the kingdom and the Temple, the priests were very concerned to bring the presence of their creator-god into the heart of the community of Israel. In order to do this, the priests elaborated a priestly history (Genesis – Leviticus) in which they developed a particular idea of divine revelation. According to Exodus 6. 1-7, Elohim is the god of humankind (Genesis 1 – 11), the name of God is Shadday, god of the steppes for the patriarchs (Genesis 12 – 50), while the tetragram YHWH is reserved for Moses (Exodus 1, Leviticus 16).
By understanding history in this way, this school of thought saw a continuum, with YHWH as the god of the patriarchs and also the Elohim of the universe. In the beginning, in Genesis 1, humankind is created as tsélem (image) according to the Akkadian word tsalamu. This word indicates a statue or effigy of the god, and it was used first of all for the king. This school of writing tells how the original created order was disturbed by violence which constrained God to use a flood to reorder things. After the disturbance of the universe, a new alliance with Noah redefines a minimum order in Genesis 9, and God retires to the heavens and renounces any over-riding power of tyrannical and violent domination. The rainbow is the symbol of this separation: God inhabits the heavens, no longer the earth, and he hangs up his weapons, unlike the god Assur.
The history which follows on the patriarchal story and the departure from Egypt (Exodus) describes how God comes again among human beings by coming to inhabit his house, his Temple in the middle of Israel, as Exodus 40 shows us. This story with the alliance with Abram, the departure from Egypt, the revelation in Sinai and the instructions in Exodus 25-40 regarding the sanctuary, show that YHWH moved from Sinai all the way to the heart of the sanctuary.
According to the priestly narrative then, Israel is the sacrificial community, with responsibility for the cult of YHWH. This is why Leviticus prescribes how the cult should be performed. The book describes in detail what the priests must do in order to keep impurity away from Israel’s separate cult space. The central idea of this history is that although he is the universal God, YHWH came to reside on earth and so finally, a new cohabitation between the divine and humankind became possible.
The priestly history ends in Leviticus 16 with the Day of Atonement. In this passage, the high priest Aaron is in the Holy of Holies. On this occasion only, he wears particular clothing made of linen, like the clothing of those who inhabit the heavenly kingdom, and this shows us that he is in the divine presence.
The function of the rite with the goat dedicated to Azazel, a demon situated in the desert, is to preserve the purity of the sanctuary and the country. The land towards which the goat is chased represents a territory of non-civilization. By protecting the purity of the center of civilization (the sanctuary), the rite allows life to continue. The scope of the rite is to make sure that the divinity will never again leave the sanctuary or the country.
This brief overview shows us the literary and theological attempt of priestly history to invent a post-monarchical cult which could function without a national kingship, that is, without a king to support and sponsor the Temple. This theology was remarkably fertile. It reinvented the art of living with God, conceived as the universal creator God in a moment of significant institutional upset. The audacity of this school was to appropriate the creator god Elohim and to identify him with YHWH, who was both the universal god and the god of Israel, and to make the temple, the center of the world, the place where YHWH’s relationship to the land was renewed.
In the later 5th century history of Israel, the priestly system was called into question by the experience of the diaspora, because it was more difficult to celebrate the sacrificial cult of YHWH in a strange land. That experience gave rise to reflection about the representation of the divinity.
YHWH, God for foreigners: an alternative theology
The communities in the foreign lands of the diaspora raised questions about the cult and the relationship of their god to other people in other lands. Their understanding of YHWH underwent change.
As to the relationship between YHWH and the land, many accounts refer to the promised land outside of Judah – Samaria. Numbers 32 and Joshua 22 show an astonishing empathy for the Transjordan, described as the promised land for the tribes of Ruben and Gad. These accounts insist that it is possible for these tribes to remain faithful to YHWH in the territory “beyond the Jordan”. They express the adhesion of the diaspora to the post-exile cult of YHWH, by naming “beyond the Jordan” a promised land where the cult of YHWH as the only God is celebrated.
Similarly, the conversation between Joseph and Pharaoh in Genesis 45 makes Egypt a new d land, in place of Canaan. Pharaoh offers a “better” land in Egypt. The same situation holds when Abraham comes into Philistia in Genesis 20 – 21; King Abimelech offers his country as a land where Abraham can stay and benefit from “better” land. Genesis 26 radicalizes and extends the division of territory in the story of Isaac’s alliance with Abimelech, king of Gerar, to live together at peace.
In Genesis the work at hand is a reflection on the promised land. It allows the promise to go beyond a particular territory or nation This reflection within the Bible texts corresponds to the Persian period, a time of peace which encouraged international exchanges, trade, and the establishment of communities of YHWH well beyond Judah. In Genesis 15. 18-19 this idea of the promised land is most fully expressed: To your descendants I give this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates. This space goes from Mesopotamia to Egypt, and includes people known to Deuteronomy. In that other history, these are people whom Israel must chase out, while in Genesis 15 they seem to be the legitimate inhabitants of this vast territory where Abraham and his descendants can live.
In enlarging the promised land to neighboring countries, these texts offer us a new image of YHWH as the only God of a country without any borders. Will the satrapy of the trans-Euphrates become the promised land for the Pentateuch? In the Pentateuch we see an extraordinary opening with renewed international relations in place. YHWH is not only the guarantee of order in the world, he is also the God of a different land.
As regards the relationship of God with other peoples, several texts refer to these nations as people who recognize YHWH or as people of YHWH. The people of Ammon, Moab, and Edom are neighbors to Israel and benefit from a theocratic legitimization of their territories. According to Deuteronomy 2. 2-23, the obligation of peaceful existence with these neighboring people relies on the relationship between Israel, Ammon, Moab, and Edom. And this precept presupposes the patriarchal tradition and the relationship between Abraham and Lot. Because of the ties between their ancestors, YHWH keeps watch over the autonomy of each group and over the balance and justice of their relationship one to another.
Genesis 20, 21, and 26 give us a different model of the peaceful relationship between Abraham, Isaac, and Abimelech. These texts insist on a dialogue between YHWH and the king about the reciprocity of the agreement which binds the partners, and engages them in an indestructible way, in that they are “brothers”. According to Genesis 21, the Philistine king guarantees the integrity of the patriarchs and their descendants. In a subtle way Genesis 21. 22-34 indicates that the alliance of Elohim concerns foreign nations. The God of Israel is the God of others. We can analyze the story of Joseph in a similar way (Genesis 37 – 50). The astonishing literary and theological audacity of the authors of the book of Genesis overturns the ancient image of the enemies and oppressors of the past, re-creating them as new partners in a life together under YHWH.
These examples constitute an international story of salvation. It is an international out-look which goes beyond the borders of Judah and recognizes Israel as a place of mediation. It also offers a way of refashioning Israel’s privileged relationship to YHWH by making Israel’s election into something also shared by other people.
To effect this transformation, here are two examples which we might classify as the “first lay story” (excuse the anachronism).
The story in 2 Kings 5 is quite astonishing. First of all, in a situation of political and military opposition to Israel, YHWH gives the victory to Naaman the Syrian, a man whom YHWH holds in high consideration. Naaman appears as the one accompanied by YHWH. Then his illness and healing lead him to recognize YHWH, the God of Israel, as the only God: Now I know that there is no God in all the earth except in Israel. The search leads to a monotheistic affirmation.
There is more still, because Naaman asks Elisha for local earth to take home, on which he will build an altar, and then, on this altar, he will sacrifice: … for your servant will no longer offer burnt offering or sacrifice to any god except the Lord. This story contradicts the rule that the cult has a central location, that sacrifice should not take place in a foreign land, outside Judah – Samaria. In addition, the story also says that Naaman may participate in a cult other than the cult of YHWH: I bow down in the house of Rimmon.
This story renders the cohabitation of different religious practices legitimate. It offers a first form of tolerance with regard to the rules of purity and to the exclusivity of YHWH (Deuteronomy 13). A certain number of texts produce an alternative theology, recognizing that YHWH is not exclusive to Israel, but is available to others as well.
We can read Deuteronomy 4. 19 not just as affirming the privilege of a community which came to a new understanding that God is one, but also as accepting and recognizing a religious plurality which YHWH values: … the sun, the moon, and the stars, all the host of heaven, ….. things the Lord your God has allotted to all the peoples everywhere under heaven. In recognizing that YHWH is at the origin of religious plurality, the text shows us an open monotheism which leads to tolerance and to a dialogue between the One and many, and this is surely the indication of a different kind of divinity.
In this discussion I have tried to show how the Hebrew Bible contains the traces of an important religious evolution. A local divinity who was foreign to Canaan became the principal, royal god of Israel and of Judah, in so far as being a sun god and the god of the climate. Then, this God became the guarantee of the cosmic order in Samaria and Judah and was recognized also as the god of foreigners.
This second step reduced the importance of the holy sanctuary. Even though Jerusalem and Samaria continue to be affirmed as the center of worship, certain texts reveal a priestly account of the world. They point to a post-sacrificial cult, a cult which can take place next to other cults without becoming contaminated. The essential location of the cult is not accomplished only through exhaustive ritual, but also through faithfulness to God’s word and the interior fervor of the believer.
In this discussion I have tried to underline an understanding of faith which is at the heart of biblical texts. It would be important to continue by showing how much this stammering alternative vision takes on a larger dimension in the reflections on a God who is incomprehensible or is at least in withdrawal in the books of Job and Ecclesiastes – an intelligence which allows us to hold together the one and the many, the singularity of Israel and the universality of its faith.
NB: All direct quotes of biblical texts are taken from The New Revised Standard Version.
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