Thursday, February 24, 2011
Wednesday, February 23, 2011
Leviathan I: The Cosmic Sea Dragon of the Bible
Can you draw out Leviathan by a fishhook? Can you press down his tongue by a rope? Can you put a ring through his nose, or pierce his jaw with a barb?....His strong scales are his pride, shut up as with a tight seal. One is so near to another that no air can come between them. They are joined one to another; they clasp each other and cannot be separated. His sneezes flash forth light, and his eyes are like the eyelids of the morning. Out of his mouth go burning torches; sparks of fire leap forth. Out of his nostrils smoke goes forth as from a boiling pot and burning rushes.His breath kindles coals, and a flame goes forth from his mouth. In his neck lodges strength, and dismay leaps before him. The folds of his flesh are joined together, firm on him and immovable.His heart is as hard as a stone, even as hard as a lower millstone. When he raises himself up, the mighty fear; because of the crashing they are bewildered. The sword that reaches him cannot avail, nor the spear, the dart or the javelin. He regards iron as straw, bronze as rotten wood. The arrow cannot make him flee; slingstones are turned into stubble for him. Clubs are regarded as stubble; he laughs at the rattling of the javelin. His underparts are like sharp potsherds; he spreads out like a threshing sledge on the mire. He makes the depths boil like a pot; he makes the sea like a jar of ointment. Behind him he makes a wake to shine; one would think the deep to be gray-haired. Nothing on earth is like him, one made without fear. He looks on everything that is high; he is king over all the sons of pride. ( Job 40: 25-26; 41:15-32).
One actually gets a pretty clear imagine of Leviathan: some kind of fire-breathing, sea going creature, part dragon (Out of his mouth go burning torches; sparks of fire leap forth. Out of his nostrils smoke goes forth as from a boiling pot and burning rushes. His breath kindles coals, and a flame goes forth from his mouth) and part halibut (he spreads out like a threshing sledge on the mire). Most importantly, he seems truly majestic (His sneezes flash forth light, and his eyes are like the eyelids of the morning...He makes the depths boil like a pot).
Why would God make such a creature? In fact, the Hebrew Leviathan (or Rahav - there seems to be two names for this creature) may be a semi-tamed version of the terrible chaos monster mentioned in surrounding pagan mythologies - Lotan, Prince Sea, or Tiamat. This dragon personifies chaos, disorder, and entropy. In most accounts, the gods must slay this primordial monster in order for cosmos, orderly existence, to become possible.
The Bible reworks this myth in monotheistic terms. God contains chaos within this creature, subduing it. Chaos is not destroyed, but delimited. When God stops His part in the creative process, He declares the universe to be tov meod, "very good" - but not perfect. The world, according to this Biblical myth, is orderly on many levels, but residual bits of chaos linger, most visibly in the realm of the moral. As Jon Levenson notes in his book on Biblical myth, Creation and the Persistence of Evil, God's mishpat, literally "justice" but with the connotation of "divine plan," is not yet fully realized. We, God's junior partners, His co-creators, have our part to do in establishing mishpat at the societal level. If we fully embrace this partnership, then God responds reciprocally (as the Zohar puts it, "A quickening below triggers a quickening above") and in time the cumulative result is that God will finally wipe away this last remnant of chaos in creation,
In that day the Lord will punish, With His great, cruel, mighty sword Leviathan the Elusive Serpent-- Leviathan the Twisting Serpent; He will slay the Dragon of the sea.' (Isaiah 27:1)
and existence will be perfected. Rabbinic literature tells us a great deal more about Leviathan, but that will have to wait for a coming post, Leviathan II.
To learn more, consult Abyss, Chaos, Dragon, Leviathan, and Water in the Encyclopedia of Jewish Myth, Magic, and Mysticism.
Look up the Encyclopedia of Jewish Myth, Magic, and Mysticism available at Amazon. http://www.amazon.com/Encyclopedia-Jewish-Myth-Magic-Mysticism/dp/0738709050/sr=1-1/qid=1159997117/ref=sr_1_1/002-7116669-7231211?ie=UTF8&s=books
[Illustration: Border design by E.M. Lilien in Die Bucher der Bibel ]
Barack Obama, Rapture, End of Days, Israel, prophecy, revelation
Tuesday, February 15, 2011
Trial by Ordeal: Divine Tests in Jewish Tradition
Tuesday, February 08, 2011
The Angelus Interpres in Jewish Tradition
concept certainly is. An angelus interpres is an entity who helps a prophet or other mortal experiencing a revelation to make sense of it. Seems that divine messages often come in garments that conceal their full import - surreal visual images, obscure oracles, or the like, and some explanation is necessary, rather like how when Americans sit through a Moliere play, they need a pamphlet to explain why it's funny.
Probably through the influence of priestly spirituality (Isaiah, Ezekiel, and Zechariah were all priests), these angels become a prominent aspect of later prophecy (for a fully discussion of the affinity of Priests for angels, read Rachel Elior's The Three Temples). For example, Ezekiel (40:3-44:4, where an angel guides him through the messianic Temple), Daniel (7:16; 8:16-19; 9:22; 10:14), and Zechariah (chapters 1-6) - these books all feature angels who assist these respective prophets in understanding the visions bestowed upon them. Zechariah is my favorite, primarily because the explanations are at times as opaque as the visions themselves (check out Ch. 4).
We also see these angels in non-Biblical sources, especially apocalyptic writings (many of them also priestly compositions), such as the Book of Enoch. Scholars have offered various theories as to why the angel becomes important, most arguing that as the Biblical period draws to a close, there is a greater sense of God's exalted transcendence, that it is felt an intermediary entity must interface between a perfect God and imperfect humanity. This is the same attitude that made other kinds of divine intermediaries, like the logos, the memra, Wisdom, or Jesus, necessary in the minds of some Greco-Roman believers.
In Judaism, there emerges a kind of "parenthetical" concept of prophecy - that while prophecy brackets the time before and after our time (the Biblical period and the Messianic Age), we live in a period of history when prophecy no longer functions. Here's a diagram:
Post Biblically, there are any number of entities who can interpret the world for humans - sarei chalom (dream angels), maggidim (spirit guides), ibburim (the spirits of the righteous dead), and bat kols (echoes from heaven). But by far the most common and well known is Elijah, the angel of the convenant. Elijah appears frequently in rabbinic tradition, either to tell what is happening in the celestial spheres, to help someone make sense of an experience, or even to comment on controversies of Jewish law, as in this passage:
[in arguing over the rights of a concubine….] R. Abiathar said [so-and-so], and R. Jonathan said [so-and-so] R. Abiathar soon afterwards came across Elijah and said to him: 'What is the Holy One, blessed be He, doing?' and he answered, 'He is discussing the question of the concubine in Gibea.' 'What does He say?' said Elijah: '[He says], My son Abiathar says So-and-so, and my son Jonathan says So-and-so,' Said R. Abiathar: 'Can there possibly be uncertainty in the mind of the Heavenly One?' He replied: Both [answers] are the word of the living God (Gitten 6a)
Occasionally Elijah can be more decisive than is the case here, but I share this particular passage because it emphasizes that in our age, God opts, more often then not, to defer to human decision-making. The Torah is in our midst, and so too the responsibility to make sense of it and make it work. We are empowered to the point where we are no longer depend on miracles, angels, or heavenly voices to make up our minds. More than that, if we take the process seriously, if all our arguments are made in a spirit of truth, love, and righteousness, argued truly for the sake of heaven, then whatever we may conclude can be considered "the word of the living God."
To learn more, read entries Angels, Bat Kol, Elijah, Ibbur, Maggid, in The Encyclopedia of Jewish Myth, Magic, and Mysticism.