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).