Thursday, March 01, 2007

The Word of God: Take two Tablets and call it "Morning"

[A piece of Basalt with the Ten Commandments in paleo-Hebrew found near where I grew up - Los Lunas, New Mexico! From the Ancient Hebrew Center website at www.ancient-hebrew.org/6_18.html]

I was just a speaker at a Unitarian-Universalist Fellowship speaking about the Yetzer ha-Ra. During my presentation, I told the maaseh (tale) from Talmud tractate Yoma about how the Sages trapped the Evil Desire (See: "The Yetzer ha-Ra" entry). In that legend, God drops a tablet from heaven with the word emet [truth] inscribed upon it, which the Sages have to interpret. One perceptive attendee started to ask about how this legend of truth falling from heaven could could be reconciled with Christian thought.

It seems an off-kilter question for a moment, and I was about to say "It can't and doesn't have to be," but then I realized that the motif of God's Word being inscribed in heaven is actually a cross-cultural, trans-religious concept.

The idea of heavenly words of creative power appears early in the Ancient Near East. In Mesopotamian myth there is the Tuppi Shimti, the "Tablet of Destiny." This amulet-like device is worn by the chief god, giving him (or her) supreme and immutable authority over the divine order:

"She [Tiamat] elevated Kingu, made him chief among them [the elder gods]....She gave him the Tuppi Shimti, fastened it upon his chest: As for you, your command will be immutable, [your word] shall endure!"
(Enuma Elisha, tablet 1- based on a translation appearing in The Concept of Fate in Ancient Mesopotamia in the 1st Millennium).

When control of the Tuppi Shimti passes to the younger god Marduk, he acquires the power to create the cosmos, for it is the "bond of supreme power [it holds creation together]...the leashes of the great heavens" (ibid., table 4; K 6177 + 8869, text B). Incidentally, the Tuppi Shimti also seems to be a magical device, or perhaps it is the primordial prism through which magic flows (Bin Shar Dadme, 1, lines 66-69)

Now compare this to the passage in Genesis Rabbah 1:8, which describes the Torah as both God's architect and blueprint for constructing the universe (SEE "Little Lower than Divine" entry) and you can see there is a cognate relationship between the Pagan and Jewish legends of heavenly books of creation.

OK, so, lets keep going - the Tuppi Shimti is a kind of book, but of course in light of the state of ancient Mesopotamian technology, that meant it was a plaque, made either of clay or, more likely, stone. Now, returning to the Jews, think of the Aseret Dibrot, the Ten Commandments - two stone tablets given to Moses from the hand of God (Ex. 32:15-16).

I think it is clear that there is a kind of shared tradition here, or at least a shared motif, this mythic image of the creative Divine word concretized (literally) in a heavenly stone/book. Of course, the stand out and unique aspect of the Jewish version is that the heavenly book/stone is brought down to earth - we eventually get the "Tablet[s] of Destiny," and the creative power which is inherent in it.

Variations of this motif continue to appear in Jewish tradition - There is the rabbinic legend that God created the cosmos by casting a chunk from the Throne of Glory into the Abyss, causing order to coagulate around it (Is. 28:16; Yoma 54b; Mid. Teh. [Buber] 140; Midrash Konen 2:24). This stone became known as the Even ha-Shetiyah, "Foundation Stone." Rabbinic thought sees it as a model of the cosmos:

When God came to create the world, God created it in the same way that a human fetus is created. Just as a human fetus begins in the navel and pushes out in one direction and the other, to all four sides, similarly, God began creating the world from the foundation stone of the Temple, and from there founded the world (Tanhuma, Pekudei 3).
According to some versions, this "stone" was Hokhmah, "Wisdom" (Prov. 3:19). Then there is the stone in the Yoma story, which, keep in mind, is a story about the divine order [Again, the inscribed stone being the "tablet of destiny"?] within creation that eventually passes into [wise] human hands.

So what does all this have to do with the Christian question asked of me? Well, if you consider the Greek mindset, its inclination to elevate the spiritual as prior and superior to the material, then it is clear that the Tuppi Shimti / Aseret Dibrot / Even ha-Shetiyah is still present in Christian thought, it's just presented sans the rock: "In the beginning was the Word; and the Word was with God, was God...and through him all things came to be...." (John 1:1-3). This "Word," of course, gets its own material existence, later rather than earlier, and not as stone, but as a person - Jesus. This radical revision of the heavenly book/stone strikes me as an intellectual parallel to how Christians also re-worked the Jewish tradition of the Primordial Man (See the earlier entry, "Adam Kadmon"). So in the Christian variation, the Book also comes to earth, but not to be possessed by all men - instead it is embodied in one man. As in the Jewish version, we are supposed to all benefit from it, but only indirectly, through the sole agency of Jesus. Obviously, we Jews prefer the more direct access to divine power that comes through Torah (but I turn polemical, so let's return to congruences).

So the word of God has many - what, "concretizations," "incarnations"...."in-lithic-fications"? - I guess "reifications" is the best way to describe it. Anyway, Pagans, Jews, Christians, we all share the notion that the world-shaping "Divine Word[s]" is more than a concept; it has a deeper, harder, more constructive reality than mere thought - it is thought actualized; heavenly ideas with earthly weight.


Blogger Carly said...

Thanks for sharing your response to the Christian question. I get questions like this a lot and I don't know how to answer them. The questions are so clearly asked from a Christian filter that any answer I give, would be unsatisfying.

12:41 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

your blog is great. entries like this one are fascinating. Your ability to take a concept ie: the word of God, and show how it cuts accross various religions and philosophies is much respected.

6:10 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Christian's and Jews seem to be so very homophobic in American society that it is a blessing to consider the Enuma Elisha as a more intelligent read, and perhaps more loving.

11:30 PM  
Blogger Geoffrey Dennis said...

There is a tendancy for people to thoughtlessly lump Christians and Jews togther on everything, and here's a prime example. The fact that many (not even all) Christian communities make such an issue of homosexuality has little or nothing to do with the Jewish community. I think the poster will find that most Jewish congregations in North America have little or no emnity toward someone because of their sexual orientation. As for the Enuma Elish, well I think its a fascinating read, but more "loving"? I suspect the poster has not actually seen the translation of this cunieform work and is, again, talking from a place that has little to do with any actual knowledge base of the topic.

7:13 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

you definitely do not speak for Orthodox/Traditional Jews. JUdaism is very plainly opposed to the practice of homosexuality.

2:39 AM  

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