Is God an « Exterminator » in potentia?
« The Lord sent death upon Jacob and it came upon Israel. » (Isaiah 9:7)
Death, really? Upon Jacob? And upon Israel? Sent by the Lord Himself ?
The word « death » is in fact used in this verse in the famous translation of the Septuagint, made around 270 B.C. by seventy Jewish scholars in Alexandria at the request of Ptolemy II. The Septuagint (noted LXX) uses the Greek word θάνατον, thanaton, which means « death ».
But in other translations, disregarding this catastrophic lesson of the LXX, Isaiah’s verse is translated much more neutrally as « word ».i
The Jerusalem Bible gives thus: « The Lord hath cast a word into Jacob, it is fallen upon Israel. »
In the original version, Hebrew uses the word דָּבָר , davar, whose primary meaning is « word ».
The dictionary also tells that this same word, דָּבָר , davar, can mean « plague » or « death », as in Exodus 9:3: « A very strong plague » or « a very deadly plague ». Here, the LXX gives θάνατος μέγας, « a great death ». In Hosea 13:14 the word davar means « plagues ».
If the noun דָּבָר , davar, carries this astonishing duality of meaning, the verb דָּבַר , davara, confirms it by adding a nuance of excess. Davara means « to speak, to say; to speak evil, to speak against », but also « to destroy, to exterminate ».
It seems that in Hebrew the sphere of meanings attached to davar and davara is not only potentially full of threats or (verbal) aggression, as in Numbers 12:1 (« Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses ») or in Ps 78:19 (« They spoke against God »), but also full of potential, fatal and deadly action, as in II Chr 22:10 (« She wiped out the whole royal race ») or in Ps 2:5 (« In his wrath he will destroy their mighty ones »).
Davar. Word. Plague. Death.
Davara. To speak. To exterminate.
Such ambivalence, so radical, implies that one can really decide on the meaning, – « word » or « extermination » ? – only by analyzing the broader context in which the word is used.
For example, in the case of Isaiah’s verse: « The Lord sent death upon Jacob and it came upon Israel », it is important to emphasize that the prophet continues to make terrible predictions, even darker:
« The Lord will raise up against them the enemies of Rezin. And he will arm their enemies. Aram on the east, the Philistines on the west, and they will devour Israel with full mouths » (Isaiah 9:10-11).
« So YHVH cut off from Israel head and tail, palm and rush, in one day » (Isaiah 9:13).
« By the wrath of YHVH Sabaoth the earth has been burned and the people are like the prey of fire » (Isaiah 9:18).
The context here clearly gives weight to an interpretation of davar as « death » and « extermination » and not simply as « word ».
The lesson in LXX appears to be correct and faithful to the intended meaning.
Another question then arises.
Is this use of the word davar in Isaiah unique in its kind?
Another prophet, Ezekiel, also reported terrible threats from God against Israel.
« I will make you a desolation, a derision among the nations that are round about you, in the sight of all who pass by » (Ez 5:14).
« I will act in you as I have never acted before and as I will never act again, because of all your abominations » (Ez 5:9).
« You shall be a mockery and a reproach, an example and a stupefaction to the nations around you, when I shall do justice from you in anger and wrath, with furious punishments. I, YHVH, have said » (Ez 5:15).
« And I will put the dead bodies of the Israelites before their filthiness, and I will scatter their bones around your altars. Wherever you dwell, the cities shall be destroyed and the high places laid waste » (Ez 6:5).
We find in Ezekiel the word davar used in the sense of « plague » or « pestilence »:
« Thus says the Lord YHVH: Clap your hands, clap your feet and say, ‘Alas,’ over all the abominations of the house of Israel, which will fall by the sword, by famine and by pestilence (davar). He who is far away will die by the pestilence (davar). He who is near shall fall by the sword. That which has been preserved and spared will starve, for I will quench my fury against them » (Ez 6:11-12).
God is not joking. Davar is not « only » a plague. It is the prospect of an extermination, an annihilation, the final end.
« Thus says the Lord YHVH to the land of Israel: Finished! The end is coming on the four corners of the land. It is now the end for you. I will let go of my anger against you to judge you according to your conduct. (…) Thus says the Lord YHVH: Behold, evil is coming, one evil. The end is coming, the end is coming, it is awakening towards you, and behold, it is coming » (Ez 7:2-5).
Faced with this accumulation of threats of exterminating the people of Israel uttered by the Lord YHVH, an even deeper question arises.
Why does a God who created the worlds, and who has « chosen » Israel, decide to send « death », threatening to ensure the « end » of His Chosen People?
There is a question of simple logic that arises.
Why does an omnipotent and all-knowing God create a world and people that seem, in retrospect, so evil, so perverse, so corrupt, that He decides to send a word of extermination?
If God is omniscient, He should always have known that His creation would eventually provoke His unquenchable fury, shouldn’t he?
If He is omnipotent, why did He not immediately make Israel a people sufficiently satisfying in His eyes to at least avoid the pain of having to send death and extermination a few centuries later?
This is in fact a question that goes beyond the question of the relationship between God and Israel, but touches on the larger problem of the relationship between God and His Creation.
Why is a « Creator »-God also led to become, afterwards, an « Exterminator »-God ?
Why can the « Word » of God mean « Creation », then also mean « Extermination »?
There are only two possible answers.
Either God is indeed omniscient and omnipotent, and then He is necessarily also cruel and perverse, as revealed by His intention to exterminate a people He has (knowingly) created « evil » and « corrupt » so that He can then « exterminate » them.
Either God is not omniscient and He is not omnipotent. But how come ? A possible interpretation is that He renounced, in creating the world, a part of His omniscience and omnipotence. He made a kind of « sacrifice », the sacrifice of His omnipotence and omniscience.
He made this sacrifice in order to raise His creatures to His own level, giving them real freedom, a freedom that in some strange way escapes divine « science » and « knowledge ».
Let us note that this sort of sacrifice was already a deep intuition of the Veda, as represented by the initial, primal, sacrifice of Prajāpati, the supreme God, the Lord of Creatures.
But why does a supreme God, the Creator of the Worlds, decide to sacrifice His omnipotence and omniscience for creatures who, as we can see, end up behaving in such a way that this supreme God, having somehow fallen back to earth, must resolve to send them « death » and promise them the « end »?
There is only one explanation, in my humble opinion.
It is that the Whole [i.e. God + Cosmos + Humanity] is in a mysterious way, more profound, more abysmal, and in a sense infinitely more « divine » than the divinity of a God alone, a God without Cosmos and without Anthropos.
Only the sacrifice of God, the sacrifice of God as not being anymore the sole « Being », in spite of all the risks abundantly described by Isaiah or Ezekiel, makes possible an « increase » of His own divinity, which He will then share with His Creation, and Humankind.
This is a fascinating line of research. It implies that Humanity has a shared but also « divine » responsibility about the future of the world, and to begin with, about the future of this small planet.
iThis debate over the meaning to be given to davar in this particular verse has been the subject of many commentaries. Théodoret de Cyr notes: « It should be noted that the other interpreters have said that it is a « word » and not « death » that has been sent. Nevertheless, their interpretation does not offer any disagreement: they gave the name of « word » to the decision to punish. « Basil adopts λόγον (« word »), and proposes another interpretation than Theodoret: it would be the Divine Word sent to the poorest, symbolized by Jacob. Cyril also gives λόγον, but ends up with the same conculsion as Theodoret: the « word » as the announcement of punishment. See Theodoret of Cyr, Commentaries on Isaiah. Translated by Jean-Noël Guinot. Ed. Cerf. 1982, p.13