In Biblical Hebrew, the word « to descend » (יָרַד yarad) offers a curiously vast range of meanings, including distant semantic universes that are brought closer together, some very simple, everyday ones and others touching on very high notions, including the idea of theophany.
The primary meaning of the verb yarad is “to go from top to bottom”:
« She went down to the fountain » (Gen 24:16)
« My beloved went down to his garden. « (Ct 6,2)
« Abram went down to Egypt. « (Gen 12:10)
« Moses came down from Mount Sinai. « (Ex 34:29)
But the idea of a « descent » invites various metaphors. Here are some examples:
« He will come down like rain on the cut grass. « (Ps 72:10)
« Those who go down into the peat. « (Pr 1,12)
« Let them go down alive into the sheol. « (Ps 55:16)
Some of the metaphors associated with “yarada” broaden the meaning, while keeping the general idea.
« The day was going down. « (Jg 19:11)
« They all burst (yoréd, יֹרֵד בַּבֶּכִי) into tears. « (Is 15:3)
« Those who sail (yoredéi, יוֹרְדֵי הַיָּם) on the sea. « (Ps 107:23)
A second group of meanings is formed around meanings such as: « to fall, to perish, to be ruined ».
« You, you will always fall further and further down. « (Deut 28:43)
The Ritual speaks of a sacrifice that « goes up » and « goes down », that is to say that it varies according to the fortune or virtue of the person offering it.
A third group of meanings, built around the Hiphil form of the verb, increases the strength and intensity of the meaning: « To bring down, to humiliate, to precipitate ».
Finally there is the particular group of meanings associated with apparitions of God, the theophanies.
« The Lord will come down (yéréd YHVH, יֵרֵד יְהוָה )to Mount Sinai in the sight of all the people. « (Ex 19:11)
« The mountain of Sinai was all steamy because the Lord had come down (yarad יָרַד )there in the midst of the flame (ba-éch בָּאֵשׁ). « (Ex 19:18).
« When Moses had entered, the pillar of cloud descended (yéréd יֵרֵד) and stopped at the entrance of the Tent and God spoke with Moses. « (Ex 33:9)
« The Lord of Hosts will come down to do battle on Mount Zion and its heights. »(Is 31:4)
« The Lord came down to earth to see the city and the tower. « (Gen 11:5)
A theophany is obviously an extraordinary phenomenon. Witnesses who are able to report a godly vision and translate it into convincing words can sometimes contradict themselves, increasing the doubt of the skeptics. But they also strengthen the faith of those who see hidden meanings beyond words.
Let us take the example of a curious verse:
« He parted the heavens and came down; dark clouds were under His feet. » (2S 22,10)
A good Cartesian might object: if God comes down with a thick mist under His feet, how can one see Him from below?
Several answers to this rather naive objection are possible. The phenomenon can be observed from several angles. Or the expression « dark clouds » may be open to interpretation. It may mean that God is indeed descending, but with a kind of reticence. Another verse is an allegory of the cloud or mist:
« Ah, may you tear the heavens apart and come down! « (Is 63:19).
Theophany is sometimes followed by considerable physical effects or, conversely, very subtle consequences.
In the catastrophic genre: « You went down, and the mountains staggered. « (Is 64:2)
In a more subtle genre, there is the dream, like those of Jacob and Moses.
« The divine messengers went up and down this ladder. « (Gen 28:12). There is the idea of a continuous, processional link between the top and the bottom.
God thus addresses Moses in this way:
« I will come down and speak to you and I will take away part of the spirit that is on you and put it on them. « (Num 11:17)
Is Moses threatened with a possible lobotomy? Should part of his mind be removed to benefit his co-religionists?
Philo offers this reassuring comment:
« Don’t think that the removal was done by entrenchment or separation. It’s like fire: one would light a thousand torches in it, but it remains equal to itself and does not diminish in the least. This is also the nature of science. »i
There is a more important issue. Why does God, who in principle is abundantly endowed with it, need to take some of the spirit of Moses and distribute it like at auction?
God takes a little of Moses’ spirit because Moses possesses a unique spirit, without equal. God recognizes this uniqueness and wants others to benefit from it. God wants to multiply (to clone?) part of Moses’ spirit, to share it with the Hebrews.
This is a kind of « communion ».
God has « come down » to distribute to the people what is unique in Moses.
The semantic analysis of the word yarad projects, as one can see, a wide spectrum of meaning.
This word may mean « fall », « decay », « humiliation », but also the « appearance » of God in glory on the mountain or in the clouds, or may convey the intimate operation of a « communion », linking spirit to spirit.
Thus, the idea of a theophany, expressed in the form of God’s « descent » is not, by construction, immune from possible contamination or slippage, coming from more ordinary, much more human acceptances.
From this observation, of a purely semantic nature, a lesson can be drawn about an aspect of the deepest nature of the divine.
The Highest may also descend into the Lowest.
iPhilo. De Gigantibus. 1,22