Thursday, November 14, 2013

Herev: Mythic Jewish Swords

[The sword and olive branch symbol of the Israeli Defense Force]

I just watched the new preview for the Darren Aronofksy Noah. I expect the Jewish mystically-inclined director will be drawing not just from the Bible, but from Jewish traditions of the world pre-flood, and I don't think I will be disappointed. Ever-so-briefly we see Noah wield a flaming sword! Could that be the sword of Methuselah? Not sure, but I'm thrilled if it is.

It the same reaction I had to the 1980 John Boorman film Excalibur. When that sword pierces the surface of the lake for the first time, water streaming off it, gripped by the alabaster, fish-scale sheathed hand of the Lady of the Lake, well, the archetypal substrata of my brain grabs hold of the parasympathetic nervous system, yanks hard, and my hair still stands on end.

There's just something about swords. Maybe it's Freudian, but it's definitely something. A sword, it seems, is more than just a sharpened crow bar, it's got mythic power like no other weapon. I mean, look at ZaHaL, the IDF. Nobody, and I mean nobody in the IDF wears a sword, even for ceremonial purposes. Yet no rifle, tank, or plane [weapons they actually wield] is used as the IDF's central symbol - they chose a sword.

So what roles do swords occupy in Jewish myth? A symbol of power, force, and punishment, God has a sword of judgment which is given to the angels; it makes its first appearance in the hands of the Cherubim that guard the way back to Eden (Gen. 3). this may be the same sword that is wielded by the Angel of Death. Right now it “sleeps,” but woe to the world should God ever awaken it (Mid. Teh 80:3). God will use a "mighty and hard" sword, presumably this same one, to slay Leviathan at the end of time (Isa. 27:1). This “sword” is sometimes a figure of speech, referring to Divine speech (Deut. 32:41; 3rd Enoch 32).

Magical swords in the hands of humans are much rarer. It is actually the staff of Moses that serves as the Excalibur of Jewish folklore (SEE: The Rod of Aaron, Staff of Moses: Jewish Wondrous ... ), though tradition indicates that passed through Noah's hands, also. Nevertheless, swords inscribed with divine names wielded by humans in supernatural combat are mentioned in the Dead Sea Scrolls (The Children of Light will have such swords during the final apocalyptic battle against the Children of Darkness) and - and I'm hoping this is where Russell Crow and Jewish myth meet - in Midrash Abkir, Methuselah subdues demon changelings that torment primordial humanity with a divinely empowered vorpal blade (my eldest has been reading Alice through the Looking Glass). This sword, inscribed with divine names, might be the Jewish Jedi weapon I'm looking for. Or, maybe, Aronofsky has his own take of the Tzohar. 

Zal g'mor - To learn more consult the Encyclopedia of Jewish Myth, Magic, and Mysticism: http://www.amazon.com/Encyclopedia-Jewish-Myth-Magic-Mysticism/dp/0738709050


Blogger David's Library said...

I am curious as to the complete source of the comment on the sword that sleeps, Mid. Teh 80:30. I would like to read more about that sword.

3:44 PM  

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