Thursday, May 15, 2014

The Glory of Yahweh and the Cross of Jesus

I jested in a response to yesterday’s post that “having a god susceptible to seizure or destruction is awkward”; and that the kābôd (glory) theology of Ezekiel and the Priestly writers seeks to reduce this awkwardness by construing Yahweh’s presence more invulnerably. If there were a Yahweh statue in the First Temple that was despoiled or destroyed, the suppression of its memory would be understandable – as would be the compensatory power and radiance of its replacement, the glory.

It is not lost on me that this theological protectionism moves in the opposite direction of Christian theologies of the cross.

It’s not so unnatural to think these two moments together: the exile and the death of Jesus. Each stands out as the distinguishing crisis of the literature that remembers it. Both were occasions of profound religious disruption, as the premier point of access to God’s presence was, in both cases, broken. Both were occasions of deep humiliation. This is even more so if the Yahweh statue were carted away with the spoils of war, to be placed before Marduk like the Philistines attempted to place the ark of the covenant before Dagon (1 Sam 5).

What theologians of the cross emphasize is the compassionate solidarity of God with human sin and suffering in the cross of Jesus. Instead of downplaying the extent of Jesus’ humiliation or making his weakness only an excursus in a far longer story of divine power and victory, they make Jesus’ death the key; the truest expression of God’s self. They do not try to one-up Jesus’ defeat with his even more impressive triumph, as if to say, “yes, Jesus was a failed messiah and a criminal of the state, BUT God made him a conquering cosmic badass right afterwards, so that’s kind of neutralized.” In fact, they see the resurrection, not as a rejoinder to the crucifixion, but its exclamation mark: “yes, Jesus was a failed messiah and a criminal of the state, and by his resurrection, God brought him close to failures and outlaws everywhere.”   

By contrast, many Christian theologians seek to protect God’s self from such an embarrassing episode: to make God’s strength and invulnerability more basic to God’s identity than the human weakness of Jesus. In many ways, the kābôd theology looks as though it follows a similar instinct: fortifying God.


But this may not be so – or at least, exhaustively so. Even as the New Testament writings contain both embarrassment and (paradoxical) boasting in the humiliation of Jesus, so also Ezekiel and the Pentateuch could pursue multiple objectives in their theological response to the conquest of Jerusalem. The glory of Yahweh is indeed fearsome and self-directing, in need of no human care. But at the same time as its radiance, mobility, and autonomy could compensate for the located-ness and breakability of a cult statue, these features also serve another purpose: rendering the strong and holy presence of Yahweh available to the defeated exile community. In other words, the kābôd protects God, surely – but it also offers God’s solidarity.

This note is not absent from the history of reception. I love the following excerpt from the Mekhilta of Rabbi Ishmael, an anthology of early rabbinic interpretations of Exodus. Even if the Shekinah of subsequent rabbinic imagination is a development from the biblical kābôd theologies, it may retrieve something authentic in its precursor.
And so you find that whenever Israel is enslaved, the Shekinah, as it were, is enslaved with them, as it is said: “And they saw the God of Israel, and there under his feet, etc” … And it also says: “In all their afflictions, He was afflicted (Is 63:10). So far I know only that He shares in the affliction of the community. How about the affliction of the individual? Scripture says, “He will call upon me, and I will answer him; I will be with him in trouble” (Ps 91:15). It also says, “And Joseph’s master took him, etc” (Gen 39:20). And what does it say then? “And the Lord was with Joseph” (ibid., 39:21)…whithersoever Israel was exiled, the Shekinah, as it were, went into exile with them. When they went into exile to Egypt, the Shekinah went into exile with them, as it is said: “I exiled Myself unto the house of thy fathers when they were in Egypt” (1 Sam 2:27). When they were exiled to Babylon, the Shekinah went into exile with them, as it is said: “For your sake, I ordered myself to go to Babylon (Is 43:14). When they were exiled to Elam, the Shekinah went into exile with them, as it is said, “I will set my throne in Elam” (Jer 49:38). When they were exiled to Edom, the Shekinah went into exile with them, as it is said, “Who is this that cometh from Edom, etc” (Is 63:1). And when they return in the future, the Shekinah, as it were, will return with them, as it is said: “Then the Lord thy God will return with thy captivity” (Dt 30:3).

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Yahweh Unbroken

Why did Ezekiel, an exilic Jerusalemite priest, envision the presence of God as half a human above the waist and fire below, surrounded by radiance? Why did he call it “the appearance of the likeness of the glory of Yahweh”? (Ezek 1)


Why did Jerusalemite priests – in the exile or after? – envision the presence of God as a non-anthropomorphic fire, shrouded in cloud? Why did they call it “the glory of Yahweh”? (Exod 40:34-38; Lev 9)

One can appeal to the direct God-givenness of their visionary experiences: these authors wrote about the presence of God in this way because that was quite simply their experience. But this does not take seriously enough the culturally mediated quality even of mysticism. That little boy who had a near-death experience and saw Jesus grew up in a Christian family. Ezekiel and the Priestly writers “grew up” in the Jerusalem temple. So what in their formation there led them to picture Yahweh as they did?

It is an obscure question, on the one hand: to grope behind the biblical text for the presumptive conditions that generated its particular forms of thought. On the other hand, what one sets alongside a text very much determines one’s evaluation of its theological contribution. For example, the wheels of Ezekiel’s vision are just bizarre, taken in isolation. But setting them against the “Zion” theology of many psalms silhouettes his innovation. Where the psalm ebulliently celebrates God’s presence in the temple and God’s protection of the city (“God is in the midst of the city / it shall not be moved,” Ps 46:5), Ezekiel must address a broken city and a populace deported from the site of God’s presence. The wheels under the glory of Yahweh indicate the mobility of Israel’s God – and his availability, even in exile. 

That much is uncontroversial; the theology of the First Temple assumed that Yahweh was enthroned there. Ezekiel and the Priestly school, by contrast, write of Yahweh’s glory that travels with the people. Perhaps they expanded on existing traditions of a motile deity or a movable tent shrine, perhaps they trailblazed more radically; in either case, it was a timely word. 

My recent readings uncovered another hypothesis about the theology of the First Temple. Because of the Second Commandment prohibiting the production of images, most Jews, Christians, and scholars have assumed that the worship of Yahweh never included a (sanctioned) image or cult statue. Of course, there is the matter of the Golden Calf beneath Sinai (Exod 32) and its analogues, the calves established by Jeroboam in Samaria as an alternative to the Jerusalem temple (1 Kgs 12:28-33). Other Yahwistic cult paraphernalia are mentioned in passing (2 Kgs 18:4; 23:11, 15 etc)– and, as with the calves, seen as abominations. But the conviction has grown in some recent scholarship that these perspectives may date relatively late – to the time immediately before or subsequent to the exile. Before that, there are indications that a more permissive attitude towards cult statuary prevailed. Some researchers have even argued that the First Temple contained a Yahweh statue.

The evidence for this is not decisive. Various psalms (from the First Temple) use strongly visual language to describe their experience of Yahweh: “One thing I have asked from the Lord, that I shall seek / That I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life / To behold the beauty of Yahweh” (Ps 27:4). This language would cohere with a real cult statue; but its reception and use in Christian hymnody shows that it does not need a material referent to make religious sense.  Other psalms speak of Yahweh entering the temple, as if by procession, e.g., “that the king of glory may come in” (Ps 24:7). Given the ubiquity of parades for cult statues in the ancient Near Eastern world, this language, too, would dovetail with a Yahweh icon. The concept of “feeding Yahweh” that is still visible (vestigial?) in Leviticus would fit with the care and feeding of a statue, also common across the Semitic world (Herbert Niehr, “In Search of YHWH’s Cult Statue in the First Temple” in The Image and the Book [ed. Karel van der Toorn; CBET 21; Leuven: Peeters, 1997], 73-95). Assyrian inscriptions may attest the spoliation of divine images taken from Samaria, but the imagery could be conventional (Bob Becking, “Assyrian Evidence for Iconic Polytheism in Ancient Israel,” ibid.).

Nonetheless, even taken as a hypothesis, the possibility of a Yahweh statue in the First Temple reframes the contribution of Ezekiel and the Priestly writers. I do not know how their response compares against the theological reaction of other priests in the ancient world to the loss of their cult statuary – a common enough happenstance when cities fell. But I am very intrigued to know just why these Jerusalemite priests wrote as they did about Yahweh’s presence. Were they protecting Yahweh’s prestige by suppressing the memory of his stolen or broken statue? Were they radicalizing his invulnerability by making his presence subject only to his own will, and independent of cultic care? Were they articulating that somehow, despite the destruction of his icon, Yahweh’s faithfulness ran deeper; Yahweh’s presence with Israel could not be carried away by a victorious Babylonian caravan?

Sunday, March 30, 2014

God is gratuitous

As I recently shared with a friend, I am up to my eyeballs here at Emory in Religionsgeschichte: the study of religion as a body of human ideas and practices. In my case, the study of ancient Israelite religion(s) – and their god(s), including Yahweh.

The difference between the study of Christian theology and Religionsgeschichte is the difference between treating God as a counterpart to humans and treating God as a product of human psychology or culture. I like Langdon Gilkey’s formulation of this difference, resident at the level of language: “though God is the subject of all the verbs of the Bible, Hebrew religious faith and Hebrew minds provide the subjects of all the verbs in modern books on the meaning of the Bible” (197, “Cosmology, Ontology, and the Travail of Biblical Language”).

At first blush, this looks to be a fatal difference – at very least, the presuppositions of the one appear to exclude the other. What kind of theism could it be that is able exhaustively to trace its own evolution as a history of human religiosity?

In fact, I hope to write elsewhere about the question whether etiology – hunting down causes – can ever be a form of love (I think it can; imagine lovers retracing their history together, enjoying the process of ferreting out the hidden little causes for various happenstances along their way. So also with God). But for now let me say, I think that there is a kind of theism that can fully own up to its own history and need not resort to “supernaturalism” for a direct explanation of its course.

That may sound paradoxical, and perhaps it is. The word “direct” is important. Many Christians are familiar with the idea of “the God of the gaps,” that is, allocating to God’s agency those portions of our world and experience that as yet defy explanation in terms of immanent causality. Sometimes these are cosmological (“what started the Big Bang, then, huh? God!”) or aesthetic (“why do we marvel at sunsets? Well, God!). The problem with leaving God these (very marginal) areas of direct supervision is that they are always in peril of vanishing. No gap is durable enough that we can assert it as God’s permanent prerogative. What I had not thought through carefully before graduate school is the fact that the history of God is also almost completely amenable to immanent explanations. Nothing in the appearance and development of Yahwism screams undeniably, “a real, extra-human God was active here!” In other words, there are few gaps even in God for a God of the gaps to go.

This could result in atheism, to be sure. A perfectly understandable response.

Or – alternately – a rediscovery of the “worldly non-necessity of God” – as a deeply theological and indeed Christian truth.

This is what Eberhard Jüngel has been teaching me. In the introduction to his book, God as the Mystery of the World, he revisits the issue of God’s necessity (trans. Darrell Guder; Eerdmans, 1983). And he makes of God’s “worldly non-necessity” not an “alien element” but “a genuinely theological discovery” (22, 23). God can no longer be a “working hypothesis” for moral, political, and yes, religious matters (18). God as a direct explanation is dispensable to the modern world. God’s presence is gratuitous.

And that is the thesis that Jüngel develops: God’s gratuity. God is not shoehorned into this world as one amongst other directly observable causes. God’s activity originates in God’s own freedom alone. And the evidence of that agency is not marked by special fanfare or insignia (think Isaiah 53:2, “he had no form or majesty that we should look at him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him”). It is a freely chosen and lowly presence in human affairs! Veiled and yet discernible to the eye of faith. I.e., not directly readable off the surface of the world.

Jüngel furthermore argues that where God is conceived as necessary in the world, as occupying a chunk in the causal continuum, God is conceived there as Lord (21). That is, God’s attribute of effectual power is all that is needed for God to intervene as a causal force in cosmology or human religion. On such thinking, theologically, God’s power and God’s love work in coordination, non-competitively. But, in effect, Jüngel says that this is not the way of Christ. “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you”—nor, says Jüngel, is it so with their God (Mark 10:42, 43), who renounced power for the sake of love by going to the cross. Nothing is more integral to Jüngel’s theology than the identification of God with the crucified Jesus.
The God who is necessary in the world was understood as the almighty Lord whose love and mercy appear secondary and subsidiary to his claim to lordship.  This is the earthly way of thinking of a lord: first, he has all power and then perhaps he can be merciful – but then again, perhaps not…the thesis of the worldly non-necessity of God is directed precisely against this view of God according to which God, as the almighty Lord who can be differentiated from his love, is necessary in the world (ibid.).  

  


Thursday, February 13, 2014

Guest post on Gollwitzer, Webster, and ethical biblical criticism

Check out my latest guest post over at Die Evangelischen Theologen! The title? "Helmut Gollwitzer and John Webster on Scripture, or, the problem of *ethical* biblical criticism."

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Making Strange the Bible; also, Levantine god mergers

Maybe this is to open the professional curtain prematurely, but I'll do it in the name of public scholarship (also because it's a lot of careful work to do for only 2-3 scholarly peers ever to hear about, haha!). Here are two paper proposals I drummed up recently...illustrating several (very different) directions of my research.

Title: Making Strange the Bible: Historical Criticism and Science Fiction

Abstract: Critical biblical scholarship has since the early modern period re-contextualized the Bible to the situations that produced it, thereby “making it strange” to contexts of contemporary use. Theological students often experience this defamiliarization as perplexing. This paper, however, advocates for the theologically positive application of historical criticism by analogy with the eros of reading science fiction. If, following the work of Darko Suvin, Simon Spiegel, and others, science fiction can cause pleasure and generate new insights by introducing the strange into the familiar, historical criticism can do the same for the Bible. 

Title: Levantine El and the Question of God Mergers: El and Milkom in the Ammonite Onomasticon

Abstract: LBA Syrian evidence from Ugarit has played a decisive role in scholarly reconstructions of the IA Levantine god El. Mainstream accounts of Israelite religion rely on the Syrian profile of El to posit the merger of El with Yahweh; research on Ammonite religion sometimes proposes a comparable merger of El with Milkom. However, because of temporal and cultural remove, this paper recuses the Ugaritic evidence and reopens the question of the identity of IA Levantine El. I argue that the Ammonite onomasticon provides the most reliable index available to this god’s IA profile. After criticizing the existing onomastic taxonomies of Kent Jackson and Jeanene Fowler, I draw on prototype theory to produce a new and more precise classification. The body of the paper then makes a systematic survey of the Ammonite El onomasticon and finds that nothing more specific can be claimed about El than that he was a Levantine god: with benevolent, exalted, and destructive aspects, as well as astral associations. This paper also surveys the Ammonite Milkom onomasticon to compare against the profile of El. In the end, Milkom names show only that Milkom shared benevolent and astral properties with other Levantine gods. I consequently conclude that common scholarly claims about IA mergers of El with other gods such Milkom or Yahweh exceed evidential warrant – and should be abandoned.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

In accordance with the scriptures...


The spring semester of the Candler OT intro class overviews the prophetic writings. I recently read several student surveys in which students stated their hope that they will learn about the relation of OT prophecy and Jesus. This has caused me to revisit old, amorphous thoughts about (in the watchword of the Apostles Creed) Jesus’ “accordance” with the OT.

I don’t know what the students are bringing in with them by way of expectation. I imagine that some of them will be disappointed when lectures and readings demonstrate that key prophetic texts the NT applies to Jesus already possessed a comprehensible meaning in the contexts of their first reception. The virgin daughter of Isaiah 7:14 provided a time signature for Assyrian domination (Mt 1:23). The people who lived in darkness and saw a great light may have referred to the coronation of a Judean king (Mt 4:16). The actions of casting lots and counting bones in Psalm 22 comprised intense complaint language. In other words, these and so many other OT passages were not texts waiting like empty keyholes for Jesus to come along and unlock them. Many or most were not understood predictively in their own times. Furthermore, their interpretation as predictive finds parallel in the reading practices of the Qumran community. There, too, a Jewish sect that saw itself as living in the end times treated the OT like a code, which, when decrypted, exactly narrates their community’s experiences. The effect, rhetorically, is to shore up the group’s sense of equilibrium against setbacks and shame. Reading these out of Scripture turns them from chance defeats into manifestations of God’s will from all eternity. This, too, sounds like the NT’s use of the OT. 

But historical consciousness deals a deathblow to this simple view of OT prophecy. This is no small loss! At stake is the relationship of the two testaments to one another, and the legitimacy of Christian claims about Jesus as the embodiment of God’s formerly attested will. At present, a cottage industry of NT specialists is dedicating itself to resuscitating some theologically charged version of typology: the argument is that, although the language of OT prophets does not refer straightforwardly and directly to Jesus, it “echoes” forward, as it were; Jesus lies very much within its trajectory.

There may be some merit to that sort of heady defense of, say, Matthew and Paul’s OT citations (which otherwise can look pretty undisciplined). My own instinct about the matter says that the nature of Jesus’ accordance with the OT cannot be found at such a “lexical” level. That is, his correspondence to God as known in the OT probably doesn’t reside in the specifics of his birth, his betrayal, the number of days he was interred. Rather, Jesus fulfills the OT will of God at a “grammatical” level: in the “deep structure” of his ministry, murder, and deathless new life. Spotting the conformity of Jesus to the OT does not require a lexicon of individual texts but a sense of the warp and woof of the entire former testament.

I haven’t ever really tried to articulate this conviction before, publically. What I mean is this: Jesus’ ministry embodies the OT God because in the historical works, God is always faithful to raise up a voice to challenge the people’s complacency and oppression. Jesus’ works of mercy embody the OT God because in the stories of Elijah and Elisha, God makes a way out of no way for the desperate widow and the childless mother; because in thanksgiving psalms, God leads the homeless to a home and the hungry to plenty; because in the legal materials, God watches out for the defenseless and vulnerable. Jesus’ proclamation of God in search of the lost embodies the OT God because in the exilic prophets, God’s fidelity gathers the displaced objects of his anger. Jesus’ solidarity with the poor and sinners embodies the OT God because in the prophets, God is a God of pathos, who suffers with his broken people. Jesus’ death and resurrection embodies the OT God because all the prophetic works feature judgment oracles followed by prophesies of restoration; God’s wrath always precedes God’s greater, deeper healing. The participation of believers in Jesus’ death and resurrection embodies the OT God because in the tales of the monarchies, the fate of God’s people depends on the fidelity of God’s representative, the king; they thrive when he obeys. The call of God’s people to be a worshipping community embodies the OT God because in the priestly writings, the holy God dwells at the center of the encampment; because the psalms thrill everywhere with the praise of God. This is all quite imprecise, I know, but I think that in these and a thousand other ways, the events of Jesus’ life resonate with the deep structure of the OT.

This matters to me not because the legitimacy of Jesus as the image of the invisible God hangs in question. Rather, the logic works the other way: I fear that Christians are increasingly unable to use the language of the OT wholeheartedly. One of my professors, Brent Strawn, is slated to release a book later this year on why The Old Testament is Dying (Baker Academic, 2014). In it, he uses the extended metaphor of language death to describe the situation of the OT in the churches. Before they are abandoned permanently, languages enter a phase of terminal illness, recognizable by pidginization with other, dominant forms. This is, on his read, the condition of the OT in much Christian preaching (and thinking!). One way to remedy this prognosis, in my view, is to re-connect the OT with language that is already meaningful to communities of faith. If important NT themes or characteristics of Jesus’ life still meaningfully excite contemporary Christians, then these are also potential avenues through which the OT could regain significance for them, since it is the theological bedrock and inspiration of the second testament. 

Sunday, December 15, 2013

The Dream Course

Surfacing momentarily from the desperate grading and paper writing here at the close of the semester…


In spare moments, I have been dreaming: of how to teach an intro Old Testament class.

Dale Allison’s (informal) analysis of Bible courses taught in seminaries across the US – as well as an old SBL study I can’t find now – indicate that Bible instruction, regardless of conservatism or progressiveness, focuses mostly on “historical context”: that is, reimagining the Bible back into the sociopolitical situations that produced it and within which it first made sense. Bible teachers are prepared professionally to archaize the Bible; hence studying Akkadian, Ugaritic, and all the rest of the gang. And pedagogically, what we offer is more of the same: a strong dose of historicization.

The effect of this archaizing is, for many theological students, perplexing. Of course, many seminarians lack basic Bible literacy and enter their studies with little invested in the Bible’s contemporaneity. But for those who come in with any familiarity or affection for the Bible, instruction that shows the Bible is an ancient, alien document that made sense in ancient, alien contexts can be alarming: a garrulous friend turned mute stranger.

This defamiliarization of the Bible used to be integrated into a program of political critique – a missile aimed, during the Enlightenment, at the edifice of Christendom; or (if Jonathan Sheehan is right), a clever ploy to keep the Bible central and credible when the university replaced the church as the engine of cultural meaning-making. In any case, mostly these no longer stand as relevant goals. Of course, historicizing the Bible still serves to interrupt fundamentalism, but this hardly justifies its centrality in seminary curricula across the country (particularly when theological conservatives have made historical contexts so much their métier!). The end result, in my view, is that an endemic scholarly and pedagogical practice now lacks programmatic coherence.

I vote to keep the practice of archaizing the Bible – but to refit it within a larger curricular goal. Taking the Bible out of its familiar moorings and making it strange is helpful insofar as it opens up space for a fresh and more compelling engagement. Historicizing is the rocket booster that takes the Bible out of familiar (terrestrial) orbit – but it needs something else, some other propulsion afterwards to make it a meaningful mission. This doesn’t always happen, in my opinion. Bible curricula excel at taking the Bible out of people’s hands, helping them to leave behind undeveloped and immature interpretations. But they don’t always replace these with something more adult-sized; being able to recite the Bible’s “original contexts” is about as far from an intelligent, religiously profound, new reading as an Akkadian legal text is from the Gilgamesh epic. These details are necessary, but preparatory. 

So that’s what I would want to introduce into an intro OT course, especially in a seminary context: intelligent, masterful, profound, particular readings of the Old Testament. Of course, content! Get people familiar with the texts. And of course, historical contexts! to make room for re-hearing these texts, now lifted from childish scaffolding. I’m not sure how to do this, or what authors would even count. Abraham Joshua Heschel? Walter Moberly? I would need to find commentators of stature for various portions of the canon, and I certainly wouldn’t limit my selection to Bible scholars. I also wouldn’t want only profound but sympathetic readings: let Regina Schwartz have her say, or Robert Warrior, or others who have found in these texts a fuel for injustice. The point would be, very self-consciously, to expose students to commentators working on these texts at a great human depth, with the passion of love (or the pathos of opposition). My own goal would be to inculcate love for these texts and their God – but I would be less irritated with students who hated the Bible in an informed, probing way than with merely a gaggle of little historians.