The verb ירד, yarada, is one of those paradoxical, surprising, mysterious words in the literature of the Hekhalot (« the Palaces »), which deals with celestial ascents and descents. Its first meaning is « to descend », but there are several derived meanings: « to fall, to forfeit, to perish, to be ruined », or to « to slaughter, to humiliate, to precipitate ». It is mainly used to describe the different « descents », « falls », « lapses » or « humiliations » related to the human condition.
The paradox appears when the same verb is also used to describe theophanies, which are therefore somehow assimilated, by contiguity, to their exact opposite: the fall.
A brief collection of uses of this word (yarada) will make the spectrum shine through.
« Abram went down to Egypt ».i
« She went down to the fountain » (Gen. 24:16).
« Moses came down from the mountain » (Ex. 19:14 or Ex. 34:29).
« My beloved has gone down into his garden » (Cant. 6,2).
« He will descend like rain on the cut grass » (Ps. 72:6).
This verb is also used metaphorically:
« Everyone weeps » (Is 15:5). «
The day was falling » (Jug. 19:11).
« Those who sail by sea » (Ps. 107:23).
It applies to death:
« Like those who go down to the grave » (Prov. 1:12).
« Let them go down alive into the hell » (Ps. 55:16).
The word can take the meaning of « forfeiture »:
« You will always forfeit lower and lower » (Deut. 28:43).
Finally, there is the application of this verb to theophanies, to forms of divine apparitions.
« The Lord will descend in the sight of the whole people on Mount Sinai » (Ex. 19:11).
« Sinai Mountain was all smoking because the Lord had descended into it in the heart of the flame » (Ex. 18:18).
« The column of cloud descended, stopped at the entrance of the Tent, and God spoke with Moses. » (Ex. 33,9).
« The Lord came down to the earth to see the city and the tower » (Gen. 11:5).
« I will come down and speak to you, and I will remove part of the spirit that is on you and rest it on them » (Nb. 1:17).
« He tilts the heavens and descends; under his feet, a thick mist » (2 S. 22:10). «
Ah! May you tear the heavens apart and come down! » (Is 63:19).
« Thou wentest down and the mountains staggered » (Is 64:2)
« The Lord Zebaoth will come down to war on Mount Zion and its heights. » (Is. 31:4)
In all cases where God descends into the world, He keeps, let us note, a certain height, or a certain distance. He goes down just low enough to be « in sight of the people », but no lower. He goes down to the mountain, but « within a flame ». He descends to the Tent, but remains « in a cloud ». He descends from the heavens, but « a thick fog » remains under His feet. He descends to Moses, but only at the distance necessary to talk to him. He descends to Mount Zion, but remains on the « heights ».
What does that show?
First, a verb including the ideas of descent, fall, decay, ruin, humiliation, can, as we see, be applied (metaphorically) to God. Each of the theophanies can be interpreted, from the point of view not of man, but of God, as a kind of « descent » and perhaps of « fall ». It’s a strong idea.
Then, as noted, the descents described in the texts cited always keep a certain distance, a reserve. God descends, but only to a certain extent.
Finally, the idea of God’s descent is never associated with the idea of his ascent. There is of course the case of Jacob’s dream. But then it was « the divine messengers » who « went up and down the ladder » (Gen. 28:12). As for Him, « the Lord appeared at the top » (Gen. 28:13), very far away then.
What can we conclude from this?
God can « come down », the texts say. The same texts never say that He « goes up », after having gone down.
This is a strong argument, it seems to me, to associate divine transcendence with a persistent, paradoxical immanence.
i Gen 12,10