The souls of peoples are revealed by what they collectively « forget », much more than by what they remember, what they dwell on and what they seemingly proclaim to the world.
Proof of this is the word oblivion itself, which in several languages seems to indicate in one stroke a vibrant part of the collective unconscious, emerging as if by accident, an indication of obscure depths…
The Latins use the word oblivio for ‘oblivion‘. It is a metaphor borrowed from writing over what has been erased: in the ‘palimpsests’ (from the Greek: « what one scratches to write again »), the copyists erased (or ‘obliterated’) theold text to write a new one.
The Greeks use the word λαθέσθαι, lathesthai, ‘to forget’, and λήθη, lethe, ‘forgetting’ , hence the famous Lethe, the river of the Underworld, which is known to make souls forgetful. These words derive from λανθάνω, lanthanô, whose first meaning is ‘to be hidden’. Greek ‘oblivion’ is therefore not a fatal erasure, but only a kind of withdrawal, of putting under the bushel, under a veil. Words with a priori positive connotations: ἀληθής, alethes, « true » or ἀλήθεια, aletheia, « truth, reality », are constructed with the privative alpha ἀ-, thus as negations. Truth or reality are not understood in ancient Greek as a dazzling evidence, but as a « not-hidden » or a « not-forgotten », then requiring a kind of work of extraction.
Arabic has the word نَسِيَ nassiya, whose first meaning is « to abandon, to neglect » and by derivation « to forget ». Nomadism cannot be encumbered, and on the long road of travel, many things are left behind, become negligible, and without regret, ‘forgotten’.
Sanskrit expresses the verb ‘to forget’ in many ways. One of them uses the pre-verb vi-: विस्मरति , vismarati, literally meaning « to come out of memory ». Another verb मृष्यते , mrisyate is built using the root मृष mṛṣ , whose primary meaning is ‘to forgive’. Forgetting is a grace given to the other, and even to the enemy…
The English and German languages use very similar words, to forget and vergessen, which are also built with preverbs (for and ver) connoting omission or failure, and comparable in this respect to Vi- Sanskrit. The English to get derives from the old Nordic geta and the Gothic bigitan, (‘to find’). German ver-gessen derives from the same root: *ghed-, ‘to take, to seize’. In both languages, ‘to forget’ therefore originally means ‘to divest oneself of’, ‘to throw away’, in an active sense, rather than just ‘lose’ or ‘misplace’. There is a kind of violence here.
In Hebrew, ‘to forget’ is שָׁכַח shakhah, as in « He will not forget the covenant of your fathers » (Deut. 4:31) or « And you forget me, declares the Lord God » (Ez. 22:12). But it is quite surprising that, with a slightly different vocalization, the verb שְׁכַח shekhah, has an almost exactly opposite meaning. Indeed, if שָׁכַח means « to forget », שְׁכַח means « to find » as in « I found a man » (Dan. 2,25) or « They were no longer found » (Dan. 2,35).
The fact of forgetting seems to carry in germ the possibility of ‘finding’, or conversely, the fact of ‘finding’ implies, in the word itself, the imminence of forgetting…
« To forget »…
What does this word really mean?
To erase (Latin) ? To hide (Greek) ? To abandon (Arabic) ? To forgive (Sanskrit) ? To throw away (Anglo-German)? To find (Hebrew) ?
Peoples are like diamonds, reflecting clean and changing shards… Their languages express much less what they think they feel, than what they are in fact blind to, what they remain astonishingly mute about, and forgetful deep down inside…
The origin of the name « Israel » is based on some passages of Genesis dedicated to Jacob, which ‘explain’ why he was first named « Jacob », and then how he was renamed « Israel ».
This famous story, commented on throughout the centuries, is briefly recalled by the prophet Hosea, in the following way.
« The LORD will therefore charge against Judah, and will execute judgment on Jacob according to his ways, and will reward him according to his works. From his mother’s womb he supplanted his brother and in his manhood he triumphed over a God. He wrestled with an angel and was victorious, and the angel wept and asked for mercy.»i
The LORD will do justice for Jacob, says Hosea. What has he done? He « supplanted his brother, » he « fought against God, » and he was « victorious, » reducing him to « weeping » and asking for mercy. Let’s look at these points.
Even before he was born, in his mother’s womb, it is written that « Jacob supplanted » his brother.
He was given the name Jacob because he had come out of his mother’s womb holding his brother’s heel. « The first one came out completely red like a coat of hair, and they called him Esau. Then his brother came out, and his hand held Esau’s heel, and he was called Jacob. » ii
In Hebrew the word « Jacob » is taken from the verb עָקַב ‘aqab, « he supplanted », « he deceived », « he defrauded ». « Jacob » seems to be a difficult name to bear, even if its proper meaning can be euphemised by giving it a derived meaning from the Genesis passage: « he who caught (his brother) by the heels », at the moment of his birth.
But Jacob again earned his name by supplanting Esau a second time, by « buying » his birthrightiii, and a third time, by substituting for him to obtain the blessing of his father Isaac on his deathbed.
Jacob is aware of the negative meaning attached to his name, and he is also aware of the significance of his actions. « Perhaps my father will feel me and I will be like a deceiver in his eyes, and I will bring on me the curse and not the blessing, »iv he worries to Rebekah.
Jacob fears being seen as a « deceiver ». Therefore, he does not really consider himself as such, despite appearances and facts. He no doubt thinks he has settled the legal aspect of frauding by acquiring the birthright in exchange for a « red soup ». He also relies on his mother Rebecca who says to him: « I take your curse upon me, my son. Obey me. » v
But these are minor concerns. Jacob ends up taking the fraud personally when his father, blind and dying, asks him, « Who are you, my son? » and he answers, « It is I, Esau, your firstborn. » vi
Isaac blessed him then, but seized by doubt, asked a second time: « Is that you, there, my son Esau? « Jacob answers: « It is I. » vii Then Isaac blessed him a second time, confirming him in his inheritance: « Be the head of your brothers, and let your mother’s sons bow down before you! Cursed be he who curses you, and blessed be he who blesses you! » viii.
Esau comes up in the meantime and asks, « Is it because they named him Jacob that he has already twice supplanted me? He has taken away my birthright and now he has taken away my blessing! » ix
We can see by this that Jacob’s name carried his whole destiny in a nutshell, at least for the first part of his life.
Now let’s see how Jacob changed his name during the night combat scene.
« Jacob was left alone, and a man struggled with him until dawn. » x
Jacob is alone, but a man is with him. How to reconcile this apparent contradiction? Is this « man » just an apparition, a mirage? Or is he an angel? A divine spirit?
I opt for a third track. It could be an inner presence.
But then how can we explain this mad fight against himself?
Night-time delirium? Mystical crisis ? You have to hold on to minute details.
« Seeing that he could not defeat him, he touched his hip and Jacob’s hip dislocated as he struggled with him. » xi
The Hebrew text says that Jacob was struck in the hollow of the « hip »: כַּף-יֶרֶךְ , kaf yérek. But this word can have several meanings. If one adopts the idea that it is a physical, virile struggle, it might be a euphemism for « genitals ». A good punch in these parts can give an advantage.
But if one adopts the interpretation of an inner, mystical struggle, one must find something else. Now, this composed expression can also mean, taken word for word: « the hollow (kaf) of the bottom (yarkah)« , i.e. the « bottom of the bottom », or the « depth ».
If Jacob has engaged in an inner struggle, he has reached the extreme depths of his soul.
At that moment the man, or the angel, (or the depths of the soul?) begs Jacob: « Let me go, for the dawn has come. » Jacob answered, « I will not let you go unless you bless me. » Then he said to him, « What is your name? » He answered, « Jacob ». He said, « Jacob will no longer be your name, but Israel; for you have fought with God and with men and have triumphed. » xii
(Israel: ki-sarita ‘im elohim ve ‘im enoshim va toukhal)
According to this interpretation, « Israel » would therefore mean: « He fought against God », taking as a basis for the word Israel the verb שָׂרָה, sarah, to struggle.
But the « very learned » Philo of Alexandria, commenting on the same passage, is, for his part, of the opinion that the name « Israel » means « seeing God », relying on the verb רָאָה, raah, « to see, to have visions ».
Which interpretation seems the best?
If it was a mystical battle, Philo’s interpretation seems much better.
But for the way forward, we can also refer to Rashi, who does not deal directly with this question here, but addresses it in another way.
Rashi comments on the verse « Jacob shall henceforth no longer be your name, but Israel » as follows: « It will no longer be said that you have obtained these blessings by trickery and supplanting (עקבה, same root as יעקב), but in all dignity and openly. The Holy One, blessed be He, will reveal Himself to you in Bethel, change your name there and bless you. I will be there and confirm them to you. This is what the Prophet Hosea will say: He wrestled with an angel and got the upper hand, he wept and begged him (Hosea 12:5). It was the angel who wept and begged. What did he ask him? In Bethel He will find us and there He will speak to us (ibid.). Give me a delay until He speaks to us there. But Jacob did not want to and the angel had to, in spite of himself, give him confirmation of the blessings. This is what is meant here in verse 30, ‘He blesses him on the spot’. He had begged him to wait, but Jacob refused. »
Rachi relies for this comment on the authority of Hosea. Hosea himself simply quotes Genesis. God appeared again to Jacob when he returned from the land of Aram, to the place that was later to be called Bethel, and blessed him there, saying to him, « Your name is Jacob; but your name henceforth shall not be Jacob any more, but Israel.» xiii
In this new account of Jacob’s change of name in Israel, Rashi gives himself his own interpretation of the meaning of the name Israel : « ‘Your name will no longer be Jacob’. This name refers to a man who is on the lookout to catch someone by surprise ( עקבה ), but you will bear a name that means prince (שׂר) and noble. »
As can be seen, Rashi proposes here a third interpretation of the meaning of the name « Israel ». After the ‘struggle’ (against God), the ‘vision’ (of God), here is the ‘kingship’ (in God?).
Immediately after these events, the story resumes with a new, mysterious episode. « The Lord disappeared from the place where he had spoken to him. Jacob erected a monument in the place where he had spoken to him, a monument of stone.» xiv
Why do I say « a mysterious episode »? Because the great Rashi himself admits about this verse: « I don’t know what this text wants to teach us. »
Let’s take a chance. We read here yet another circumstantial expression of place: « in the place where he had spoken to him ».
In Bethel, God stands « near » Jacob, during his « battle » at the place called Peniel, on the bank of the Jaboc, and that the same time Jacob holds his opponent tightly in a close combat.
This is the first difference of « placement ».
But what is surprising is that God then disappears away « from him » (i.e. moves away from the place « near » Jacob) to go « to the place where he had spoken to him » (bi maqom asher diber itou).
It seems that God disappears, not just « from » but rather « into » the place where He had just spoken.
Let’s elaborate. We must distinguish here between the place where God stood « near » Jacob, – and the « place where God had spoken », which is not a geographical place, but more likely the very soul of Jacob.
What the text teaches us, therefore, is that God disappeared « in » Jacob’s soul, melting into it, blending into it intimately.
After this anticipatory detour by Bethel, let us return to the scene of Penïêl, close to the ford of Jaboc. Jacob has just been named there for the first time « Israel ».
He then wants to know the name of the one who just called him that: « He answered, ‘Why do you ask my name?’ And he blessed him on the spot. » xv
The man, or the angel, blesses Jacob, but does not reveal his name to him. On the other hand, one can infer from the text that he showed his face to him.
Indeed, we read: « Jacob called this place Peniel: ‘Because I saw an angel of God face to face, and my life was saved’. » xvi
Peniel means, word for word, « face of God, » which seems to support the fact that Jacob-Israel did « see » God in his nightly battle.
This is an opportunity to note a kind of inverted symmetry between Jacob’s experience and that of Moses. Jacob « saw » God, but was not given to hear his name. For Moses it was the opposite, God revealed to him one of his names, Eyeh asher Eyeh, « I will be who I will be, » but He did not show him His « face, » only His « back.
What is the most manifest sign of election and grace: seeing the face of God or hearing His name?
Interpretations of this difficult question are legion. I will not discuss them here.
There is another mystery, before which Rashi himself had to admit ignorance: why did God disappear where He had spoken?
Why is the place of His presence now the place of His absence?
One lesson of the text might be that only His ‘word’ may reconcile both His (past) presence and His (present) absence.
Some words are like solitary gems, waiting to be re-discovered, in order to reveal some strange resonances. They sometimes indicate constants of the human nature, which travel through passed millennia, vanished empires, linguistic basins, linking together distant cultures and old civilizations.
For example, in English, the words: « medecine, meditate, mediation, moderate, modest, mode », all actually originate from the same Indo-European root MED-, in Sanskrit : मद्. It is a very rich root, which is also reflected in Latin (medicus, meditor, modus) and Greek ( μἠδομαι, medomai: ‘to meditate, think, imagine’ ; μῆδος, mêdos: ‘thought, design’).
What is more surprising is that in its plural form, this latter word reveals a latent, but significant ambiguity. The plural of μῆδος is μἡδεα, médéa, which means « thoughts » but may also mean « human genitals », establishing thereby an unexpected link between two different aspects of human experience.
There is something even more surprising! The ambivalence between « thought » and « genitals » embedded in this Greek word is found almost identically in Arabic and Hebrew, even though these two semitic languages do not belong to the same linguistic and cultural Indo-European sphere as Greek. How can this happen ? Pure coincidence ? Or symptom of a deeper constant of the human mind ?
The primary meaning of the Arabic verb ذَكَرَ , dzakara, is : « to touch, hit or hurt someone in the virile member », and its secondary meanings are : « to remember, to tell », and « to pray, to say one’s prayers ». We also find a similar ambivalence in the nouns that derive from it. For example, ذِكْرً , dzikr, means « reminiscence, remembrance, recollection » and also « invocation, prayer, reading the Koran ». The same root with different vowels,ذَكَرً , dzakar, means « male », and its plural ذُكُورً, dzoukour, is the « male organ ».
In Hebrew, the verb זָכַר, zakhar, means « to think, to remember, to mention », but also, in a derived sense, « to be born male ». The name of the prophet Zechariah takes his name from this verbal root, and means : « The one God remembers ». The noun זַכֶר , zakher, means « remembrance, name » and זָכָר, zakhar, « that which is male, masculine ».
The word zakhar is, for example, used very crudely by Maimonides in the Guide for the Perplexed(Part I, Chapter 6), which deals with « man and woman » (ish and ishâ)i: « The term zakhar v-nekebah was afterwards applied to anything designed and prepared for union with another object » ii Note that the Hebrew word nekebah literally means « hole », and that zakhar v-nekebah thus literally means « the member and the hole ».
I find it extremely astonishing that languages as different as Greek, Hebrew, and Arabic should share such analogies, by creating direct verbal links between the male organ, mind, memory, and even the sacred.
Even more surprisingly, similar analogies and links can be found in Sanskrit !…
The Sanskrit root MED-, मद् is associated with the idea of strength, vigor, energy. It gave words like medas, « fat, marrow, lymph », medin, « vigor, energy », medini, « fertility, earth, soil », medah, « fat-tailed sheep », or medaka « spirituous liquor ».
As for the root MEDH-, मेध् , it gave words such as: medha: « juice, sauce, marrow, sap; essence; sacrificial victim; sacrifice, oblation »; medhā: « intellectual vigor, intelligence; prudence, wisdom »; medhas: « sacrifice »; medhya: « full of sap, vigorous; strong, powerful; fit for sacrifice; pure; intelligent, wise ».
We see in all these meanings the same kind of metonymic thinking at work. Marrow and sacrifice, sap and power, physical strength and mental energy, intelligence and wisdom draw semantic orbs where the vital energy (sap, fat, seed) is, by its abundance, conducive to sacrifice, and rises to signify man’s higher functions.
If we dig deeper the relationship between fat, sex and mind, we find some amazing leads. In fact, the sanskrit root MED- is a strong form of MID-, « getting fat » or MITH- « understanding » and « killing ».
How can « understanding » and « killing » have the same root, the same etymology? MITH- has as first meaning « to unite, to couple » and as derived meanings « to meet, to alternate », and also « to provoke an altercation ».
It seems that the idea of « meeting » is fundamentally twofold: one can meet as a friend or as an enemy, as a couple or as an antagonist, hence the two meanings derived from this very deep, very primeval intuition: that of « understanding » and that of « killing ».
One can go back even further to more originary sources with the root MI- , « to fix in the ground, to found, to build, to plant pillars ». Hence the derived meanings: « to measure, judge, observe » and « to perceive, know, understand ». Thus the word mit means: « pillar, column », and more generally « any erected object ». It is close to mita, « measured, metered; known ».
Let’s summarize. Every « erection » is a « foundation », and a preparation for future « knowledge »; to « erect » is to prepare oneself to « know ». Memory is rooted in the very foundation of one’s being.
For these ancient languages, « to be manly » is to be pegged to one’s own body, and thus rooted in the entire memory of the species, but it also means projecting oneself entirely into the future.
iCuriously enough, the French edition of the Guide des égarés published by Editions Verdier (1979) left entirely over the sentenceAs can be seen on page 39 of the 1979 edition, but it is indeed present in the English translation dating from 1919.
iiMoses Maimonides. The Guide for the Perplexed. Translated by M. Friedländer. Ed. George Routledge & Sons, London, 1919, p.19
« Let us make man in our image, after our likeness » (Gen. 1:26).
What exactly do these words refer to? What is this divine « image »? What is this Godhead’s « likeness »?
Hebrew has a dozen different terms that express or connote the idea of image. But in this verse, it is the word tselem (צֶלֶם) that is used. Its primary meaning is « shadow, darkness ». It is only in a figurative sense that tselem means « image, figure, idol ».
As for the idea of « likeness » or « resemblance », it is expressed in this verse by the word demouth (דְמוּת). The root of this word comes from the verb damah (דָּמָה), « to resemble, to be similar ».
From this same verbal root derives the word dam (דָּם), « blood »; and figuratively « murder, crime ». Another derived meaning is « resemblance », probably because people of the same blood can have similar traits.
There are several other words, quite close etymologically to damah, that are worth mentioning here, for their potential resonances: דֻּמָּה , dummah, « destruction »; דְּמִי, demi, « destruction, annihilation »; דֳּמִּי, dami, « silence, rest » ; דָּמַע, dama, « to shed tears ».
There is also the word dimyon, whichmeans « demon », and which seems very close to the Greek daimon (δαίμων). Is this a coincidence? Perhaps the Hebrew term was borrowed from the Greek daimon, and transformed into dimyon? Or was it the other way around? I would tend for the former option. It is a fact that the word daimonwas used by Homer to mean « divine power ». Moreover, the Greek word daimon etymologically comes from the verb daiomai, « to share, to divide ». Its initial meaning, taken from this verb, is « the power to attribute », hence « divinity, destiny ».
One can usefully compare the same shift in meaning with the old Persian baga and the Sanskrit bogu, « god », which give in Avestic baga-, « part, destiny » and in Sanskrit, bhaga, « part, destiny, master ».
Taking into account all these resonances, I’d like to propose alternatives translations of Genesis 1:26:
« Let us make man out of our shadow (tselem), and out of our tears (dama). »
Or , more philosophically:
« Let us make man out of our darkness (tselem), and out of our annihilation (dummah). »
New questions would then arise:
What does that (divine) darkness refer to? What does this (divine) annihilation really mean ?
A short answer: darkness (´tselem´) is a metaphor of the (divine) unconscious, and annihilation (´dummah´) is a metaphor of the (divine) sacrifice.
And where is the entrance to the Underworld? Rabbi Jeremiah ben Eleazar said, « Gehenna has three entrances: one in the desert, another in the sea, and the third in Jerusalem. » iii
Gehenna takes its name from Gaihinom, meaning a valley as deep as the Valley of Hinom. But Gehenna has many other names as well: Tomb, Perdition, Abyss, Desolation, Mire, Mire of Death, Land of Below. iv
This last expression is similar to the one used by the Nations: the « Underworld ».
« We speak in Latin of the underworld (inferi) because it is below (infra). Just as in the order of bodies, according to the law of gravity, the lowest are all the heaviest, so in the order of spirits, the lowest are all the saddest. » v
Everyone agrees that the Underworld is a sad place. But is it a geographical place, like being located « under Zion »?
Augustine, for his part, asserts that the Underworld is a spiritual place, not a place « under the earth ».
And he adds that this « spiritual place » is in Heavens.
In Heavens ? But which one?
Augustine indeed distinguishes three different Heavens.vi
First Heaven: The corporeal world, which extends over the waters and the earth.
Second Heaven: Everything that is seen by the spirit, and resembles bodies, like the vision of animals that Peter in ecstasy saw coming down to him (Acts, X, 10-12).
Third Heaven: « What the intellectual soul contemplates once it is so separated, distant, cut off from the carnal senses, and so purified that it can see and hear, in an ineffable way, what is in heaven and the very substance of God, as well as the Word of God by whom all things were made, and this in the charity of the Holy Spirit. In this hypothesis, it is not unreasonable to think that it was also in this sojourn that the Apostle was delighted (II Cor., 12:2-4), and that perhaps this is the paradise superior to all the others and, if I may say so, the paradise of paradises. » vii
How can one explain the difference between the second Heaven and the third one ?
One may get an idea of the difference by analyzing two visions of Peter as opposed to Paul’s own famous revelation:
« He felt hungry and wanted to eat something. But while they were preparing food for him, he fell into ecstasy. He saw the sky open and an object, like a large tablecloth tied at the four corners, descending towards the earth. And inside there were all the quadrupeds and reptiles and all the birds of the sky. Then a voice said to him, ‘Come, Peter, kill and eat.’ But Peter answered, ‘Oh no! Lord, for I have never eaten anything that is unclean or impure!’ Again, a second time, the voice spoke to him, ‘What God has cleansed, you do not defile.’ This was repeated three times, and immediately the object was taken up to heaven. (…) As Peter was still reflecting on his vision, the Spirit said to him, ‘Here are men who are looking for you. Go therefore, come down and go with them without hesitation, for I have sent them.» viii
Following the advice, Peter goes to Cornelius’ home, who was a Roman centurion. There he finds a large number of people waiting for him. Then Peter said to them, « You know that it is absolutely forbidden for a Jew to fraternize with a stranger or to enter his house. But God has just shown me that no man is to be called unclean or impure.» ix
This first vision had a very real and concrete effect on Peter. It induced this eyebrowed and law-abiding Jew to somewhat overlook some prohibitions set by the Law, and to fraternize and share food with a group of non-Jews, assembled in their own home.
Peter then had a second vision, in more dramatic circumstances.
Peter had been arrested, put in prison, and about to be executed, on the order of King Herod.
« Suddenly the angel of the Lord came, and the dungeon was flooded with light. The angel struck Peter on the side and raised him up: « Get up! Quickly, » he said. And the chains fell from his hands. »x
Then, « Peter went out and followed him, not realizing that which was done by the angel was real, but he thought he was having a vision.» xi
This was not a vision indeed, but a real event, since Peter was really set free.
Still, there was an element of « vision » in this « reality » : the apparition of the angel and his role in the escape of Peter.
Peter had yet to acknowledge that role.
« Suddenly, the angel left him. Then Peter, returning to consciousness, said, « Now I know for certain that the Lord has sent His angel and has taken me out of the hands of Herod and out of all that the people of the Jews were waiting for.» xii
It was not the reality of his evasion from the prison of Herod that awakened the consciousness of Peter.
He became conscious only when the angel left him.
iAt least that is what Rech Lakich asserts in Aggadoth of the Babylonian Talmud. Erouvin 19a §16. Translated by Arlette Elkaïm-Sartre. Ed. Verdier. 1982, p.264.
iiThe passage « Who has his fire in Zion and his furnace in Jerusalem » (Is. 31:9) shows us this. According to the school of R. Ishmael, His fire in Zion is Gehenna; His furnace in Jerusalem is the entrance to Gehenna. In Aggadoth of the Babylonian Talmud. Erouvin 19a §14. Translation by Arlette Elkaïm-Sartre. Ed. Verdier. 1982, p.263.
iiiAggadoth of the Babylonian Talmud. Erouvin 19a §14. Translated into French by Arlette Elkaïm-Sartre, and my English translation. Ed. Verdier. 1982, p.263.
In ancient Greek dictionaries, just right after the name Orpheus, one may find the word orphne (ὄρφνη), « darkness ». From a semantic point of view, orphne can be applied to the underworld, the « dark » world. Orpheus, also descended into the Underworld, and was plunged into orphne.
Orpheus was « orphic » par excellence. He sought revelation. He ventured without hesitation into the lair of death, and he came out of it alive – not without the fundamental failure that we know well. But later, the shadows caught up with him. A screaming pack of Thracian women tore him apart, member to member.
Only his severed head escaped the furious melee, rolled ashore. The waves swept him across the sea, and Orpheus‘ head was still singing.
He had defeated death, and passed over the sea.
The myth of Orpheus symbolizes the search for the true Life, the one that lies beyond the realm of Death.
The philosopher Empedocles testifies to the same dream: « For I was once a boy and a girl, and a plant and a bird and a fish that found its way out of the sea.”1
In tablets dating from the 6th century BC, found in Olbia, north of the Black Sea, several characteristic expressions of Orphism, such as bios-thanatos-bios, have been deciphered. This triad, bios-thanatos-bios, « life-death-life », is at the center of orphism.
Orpheus, a contemporary of Pythagoras, chose, contrary to the latter, to live outside of « politics ». He refused the « city » and its system of values. He turned towards the elsewhere, the beyond. « The Orphics are marginal, wanderers and especially ‘renouncers‘ », explains Marcel Detiennei.
Aristophanes stated that the teaching of Orpheus rested on two points: not making blood flow, and discovering »initiation ».
The Greek word for initiation to the Mysteries is teletè (τελετή). This word is related to telos, « completion, term, realization ». But teletè has a very precise meaning in the context of Orphism. Among the Orphic mysteries, perhaps the most important is that of the killing of the god-child, Dionysus, devoured by the Titans, – except for his heart, swallowed by Zeus, becoming the germ of his rebirth within the divine body.
Several interpretations circulate. According to Clement of Alexandria, Zeus entrusted Apollo with the task of collecting and burying the scattered pieces of Dionysus’ corpse on Mount Parnassus.
According to the neo-Platonic gnosis, the Mysteries refer to the recomposition, the reunification of the dismembered body of God.
The death of Orpheus is mysteriously analogous to the more original death of the god Dionysus, which probably derives from much older traditions, such as those of the ancient Egyptians, who worshipped Osiris, who was also torn to pieces, scattered throughout Egypt, and finally resurrected.
For the comparatist, it is difficult to resist yet another analogy, that of the sharing of Christ’s « body » and « blood, » which his disciples « ate » and « drank » at the Last Supper just before his death. A scene that has been repeated in every Mass since then, at the time of « communion ».
There is a significant difference, however, between the death of Christ and that of Osiris, Dionysus or Orpheus. Contrary to the custom that governed the fate of those condemned to death, the body of Christ on the cross was not « broken » or « dismembered, » but only pierced with a spear. The preservation of the unity of his body had been foretold by the Scriptures (« He keeps all his bones, not one of them is broken », Psalm 34:20).
No physical dispersion of the body of Christ at his death, but a symbolic sharing at Communion, like that of the bread and wine, metaphors of flesh and blood, presented at the Last Supper, symbols of a unity, essentially indivisible, universally shareable.
This makes all the more salient the search for the divine unity apparently lost by Osiris or Dionysus, but found again thanks to the analogous care of Isis, Zeus, or Apollo.
Beyond the incommensurable divergences, a paradigm common to the ancient religions of Egypt and Greece and to Christianity emerges.
The God, one in essence, is dismembered, dispersed, really or symbolically, and then, by one means or another, finds Himself unified again.
One, divided, multiplied, dispersed, and again One.
Again One, after having been scattered throughout the worlds.
So many worlds: so many infinitesimal shards within the divine unity.
What was it that Empedocles did refuse to reveal? Why didn’t he tell what he was « forbidden to say »? What was he afraid of, – this famous sage from Agrigento, this statesman, this gyrovague shaman and prophet? Why this pusillanimity on the part of someone who, according to legend, was not afraid to end up throwing himself alive into the furnace of Etna?
« I ask only what ephemeral humans are allowed to hear. Take over the reins of the chariot under the auspices of Piety. The desire for the brilliant flowers of glory, which I could gather from mortals, will not make me say what is forbidden… Have courage and climb the summits of science; consider with all your strength the manifest side of everything, but do not believe in your eyes more than in your ears.”i
Empedocles encourages us to « climb the summits of science » …
The Greek original text says: καὶ τὸτε δὴ σοφίης ἐπ’ ἄίκροισι θοάζειν, that translates literally: « to impetuously climb to the summits (ἐπ’ ἄίκροισι, ep’aikroisi) of wisdom (σοφίης sophias) ».
But what are really these « summits of wisdom »? Why this plural form? Shouldn’t there be just one and only one « summit of wisdom », in the proximity of the highest divinity?
In another fragment, Empedocles speaks again of « summits », using another Greek word, κορυφή, koruphe, which also means « summit, top »:
John Burnet and Auguste Reymond translated (in French):
« Marchant de sommet en sommet,
ne pas parcourir un sentier seulement jusqu’à la fin… »iv i.e.:
« Walking from summit to summit,
not to walk a path only to the end…”
Paul Tannery adopted another interpretation, translating Κορυφὰς as « beginnings »:
« Rattachant toujours différemment de nouveaux débuts de mes paroles,
et ne suivant pas dans mon discours une route unique… »v
« Always attaching new and different beginnings to my words,
and not following in my speech a single road…”
I wonder: does the apparent obscurity of this fragment justify so wide differences in its interpretation?
We are indeed invited to consider, to dig, to deepen the matter.
According to the Bailly Greek dictionary, κορυφή (koruphe), means « summit« , figuratively, the « zenith » (speaking of the sun), and metaphorically: « crowning« , or « completion« .
Chantraine’s etymological dictionary notes other, more abstract nuances of meaning for κορυφή : « the sum, the essential, the best« . The related verb, κορυφῶ koruphô, somewhat clarifies the range of meanings: « to complete, to accomplish; to rise, to lift, to inflate« .
The Liddell-Scott dictionary gives a quite complete review of possible meanings of κορυφή: « head, top; crown, top of the head [of a man or god], peak of a mountain, summit, top, the zenith; apex of a cone,extremity, tip; and metaphorically: the sum [of all his words], the true sense [of legends]; height, excellence of .., i.e. the choicest, best. »
Liddell-Scott also proposes this rather down-to earth and matter-of-fact interpretation of the fragment 24: « springing from peak to peak« , i.e. « treating a subject disconnectedly ».
But as we see, the word κορυφή may apply to human, geological, tectonic, solar or rhetorical issues…
What is be the right interpretation of κορυφή and the ‘movement’ it implies, for the fragment 24 of Empedocles?
Etymologically and originally, the word κορυφή relates to κόρυς, « helmet« . Chantraine notes incidentally that the toponym « Corinth » (Κόρινθος) also relates to this same etymology.
The primary meaning of κορυφή, therefore, has nothing to do with mountains or peaks. It refers etymologically to the « summit » of the body, the « head ». More precisely, it refers to the head when « helmeted », – the head of a man or a woman (or a God) equipped as a warrior. This etymology is well in accordance with the long, mythological memory of the Greeks. Pythagorasvi famously said that Athena was « begotten », all-armed, with her helmet, « from the head » of Zeus, in Greek: κορυφἆ-γενής (korupha-genes).
If we admit that the wise and deep Empedocles did not use metaphors lightly, in one of his most celebrated fragments, we may infer that the « summits », here, are not just mineral mountains that one would jump over, or subjects of conversation, which one would want to spring from.
In a Greek, philosophical context, the « summit » may well be understood as a metaphor for the « head of Zeus », the head of the Most High God. Since a plural is used (Κορυφὰς, ‘summits’), one may also assume that it is an allusion to another Godhead, that of the divine « Wisdom » (a.k.a. Athena), who was born from Zeus’ « head ».
Another important word in fragment 24 is the verb προσάπτω, prosapto.
Bollack translates this verb as « to join, » Burnet as « to walk, » Tannery as « to attach”, Liddell-Scott as « to spring »…
How diverse these scholars’ interpretations!… Joining the summits one to the other… Walking from summit to summit… Attaching new beginnings to a narration… Springing from peak to peak, as for changing subjects…
In my view, all these learned translations are either too literal or too metaphorical. And unsatisfactory.
It seems to me necessary to seek something else, more related to the crux of the philosophical matter, something related to a figurative « God Head », or a « Godhead »… The word koruphe refers metaphorically to something ‘extreme’, — also deemed the ‘best’ and the ‘essential’. The Heads (koruphas) could well allude to the two main Greek Godheads, — the Most High God (Zeus) and his divine Wisdom (Athena).
More precisely, I think the fragment may point to the decisive moment when Zeus begets his own Wisdom, springing from his head, all armed….
The verb προσάπτω has several meanings, which can guide our search: « to procure, to give; to attach oneself to; to join; to touch, to graze » (Bailly).
Based on these meanings, I propose this translation of the first line of fragment 24:
« Joining the [God] Heads, one to the other ».
The second verb used in fragment 24 (line 2) is τελέειν, teleein: « To accomplish, to perform, to realize; to cause, to produce, to procure; to complete, to finish; to pay; (and, in a religious context) to bring to perfection, to perform the ceremony of initiation, to initiate into the mysteries (of Athena, the Goddess of Wisdom) » (Bailly).
Could the great Empedocles have been satisfied with just a banal idea such as « not following a single road », or « not following a path to the end », or even, in a more contorted way, something about « not saying a single path of words »?
I don’t think so. Neither Bollack, Burnet, nor Tannery seem, in their translations, to have imagined and even less captured a potential mystical or transcendent meaning.
I think, though, that there might lie the gist of this Fragment.
Let’s remember that Empedocles was a very original, very devout and quite deviant Pythagorean. He was also influenced by the Orphism then in full bloom in Agrigento .
This is why I prefer to believe that neither the ‘road’, nor the ‘path’ quoted in the Fragment 24, are thought to be ‘unique’.
For a thinker like Empedocles, there must be undoubtedly otherways, not just a ‘single path’…
The verb τελέειν also has, in fact, meanings oriented towards the mystical heights, such as: « to attain perfection, to accomplish initiation, to initiate to the mysteries (of divine Wisdom) ».
As for the word μύθων (the genitive of mythos), used in line 2 of Fragment 24, , it may mean « word, speech », but originally it meant: « legend, fable, myth ».
Hence this alternative translation of μύθων μὴ τελέειν ἀτραπὸν μίαν (mython mè teleein atrapon mian) :
« Not to be initiated in the one way of the myths »…
Here, it is quite ironic to recall that there was precisely no shortage of myths and legends about Empedocles… He was said to have been taken up directly to heaven by the Gods (his « ascension »), shortly after he had successfully called back to life a dead woman named Panthea (incidentally, this name means « All God »), as Diogenes of Laërtius reportedvii.
Five centuries B.C., Empedocles resurrected “Panthea” (« All God »), and shortly afterwards he ‘ascended’ to Heaven.
One can then assume that the Fragment 24 was in fact quite premonitory, revealing in advance the nature of Empedocles’ vision, the essence of his personal wisdom.
The Fragment 24 announces an alternative to the traditional « way of initiation » by the myths:
« Joining the [God] Heads, one to the other,
Not to be initiated in the only way of the myths. »
Empedocles did not seem to believe that the myths of his time implied a unique way to initiation. There was maybe another « way » to initiation: « joining the Most High Godhead and his Wisdom …
All human languages are animated by a secret spirit, an immanent soul. Over the millennia, they have developed within them their own potency, even without the participating knowledge of the fleeting peoples who speak them. In the case of ancient languages, such as Sanskrit, Egyptian, Avestic, Hebrew (biblical), Greek (Homeric), Latin, or Arabic, this spirit, soul, and other powers are still at work, many centuries after their apogee, albeit often in a hidden form. The keen, patient observer can still try to find the breath, the strength, the fire, well in evidence in ancient, famous pages or left buried in neglected works. One may sometimes succeed, unexpectedly, to find pearls, and then contemplate their special aura, their glowing, sui generis energy.
The innumerable speakers of these languages, all of them appearing late and disappearing early in their long history, could be compared to ephemeral insects, foraging briefly in the forest of fragrant, independent and fertile language flowers, before disappearing, some without having produced the slightest verbal honey, others having been able by chance to distill some rare juice, some suave sense, from time to time.
From this follows, quite logically, what must be called the phenomenal independence of languages in relation to the men who speak and think them.
Men often seem to be only parasites of their language. It is the languages that « speak » the people, more than the people speak them. Turgot said: « Languages are not the work of a reason present to itself.”
The uncertain origin and the intrinsic ‘mystery’ of languages go back to the most ancient ages, far beyond the limited horizon that history, anthropology and even linguistics are generally content with.
Languages are some kind of angels of history. They haunt the unconscious of men, and like zealous messengers, they help them to become aware of a profound mystery, that of the manifestation of the spirit in the world and in man.
The essence of a language, its DNA, is its grammar. Grammar incorporates the soul of the language, and it structures its spirit, without being able to understand its own genius. Grammatical DNA is not enough to explain the origin of the genius of language. It is also necessary to take the full measure of the slow work of epigenesis, and the sculpture of time.
Semitic languages, to take one example, are organized around verbal roots, which are called « triliters » because they are composed of three radical letters. But in fact, these verbs (concave, geminated, weak, imperfect,…) are not really « triliters ». To call them so is only « grammatical fiction », Renan saidi. In reality, triliteral roots can be etymologically reduced to two radical letters, with the third radical letter only adding a marginal nuance.
In Hebrew, the biliteral root פר (PR) carries the idea of separation, cut, break. The addition of a third radical letter following פר modifies this primary meaning, and brings like a bouquet of nuances.
Thus, the verbs : פּרד (parada, to divide), פּרה (paraa, to bear fruit), פּרח (paraha, to bloom, to bud, to burst),ּ פּרט (paratha, to break, to divide), פּרך (parakha, to crumble, to pulverize), פּרם (parama, to tear, to unravel), פּרס (paraça, to break, to divide), פּרע (para’a, to detach from, to excel), פּרץ (paratsa, to break, to shatter), פּרק (paraqa, to tear, to fragment), פּרר (parara, to break, to rape, to tear, to divide), פּרשׂ (parassa, to spread, to unfold), פּרשׁ (parasha, to distinguish, to declare).
The two letters פּ et ר also form a word, פּר, par, a substantive meaning: « young bull, sacrificial victim ». There is here, in my view, an unconscious meaning associated with the idea of separation. A very ancient, original, symbolic meaning, is still remembered in the language: the sacrificial victim is the one which is ‘separated’ from the herd, who is ‘set apart’.
There is more…
Hebrew willingly agrees to swap certain letters that are phonetically close. Thus, פּ (P) may be transmuted with other labials, such as בּ (B) or מ (M). After transmutation, the word פּר, ‘par’, is then transformed into בּר, ‘bar’, by substituting בּ for פּ. Now בּר, ‘bar‘, means ‘son’. The Hebrew thus makes it possible to associate with the idea of ‘son’ another idea, phonetically close, that of ‘sacrificial victim’. This may seem counter-intuitive, or, on the contrary, well correlated with certain very ancient customs (the ‘first born son sacrifice’). This adds another level of understanding to what was almost the fate of Isaac, the son of Abraham, whom the God YHVH asked to be sacrificed.
Just as פּ (P) permuted with בּ (B), so the first sacrificial victim (the son, ‘bar‘) permuted with another sacrificial victim (‘par‘), in this case a ram.
The biliteral root בּר, BR, ‘bar‘, gave several verbs. They are: בּרא (bara‘, ‘to create, to form’; ‘to be fat’), בּרה (baraa, ‘to eat’), בּרח (baraha, ‘to pass through, to flee’), בּרך (barakha, ‘to kneel, to bless’), בּרק (baraq, ‘lightning’), בּרר (barara, ‘to purify, to choose’).
The spectrum of these meanings, while opening the mind to other dimensions, broadens the symbolic understanding of the sacrificial context. Thus the verb bara‘, ‘he created’, is used at the beginning of Genesis, Berechit bara’ Elohim, « In the beginning created God…. ». The act of ‘creating’ (bara‘) the Earth is assimilated to the begetting of a ‘son’ (bar), but also, in a derivative sense, to the act of fattening an animal (‘the fatted calf’) for its future sacrifice. After repetition of the final R, we have the verb barara, which connotes the ideas of election and purification, which correspond to the initial justification of the sacrifice (election) and its final aim (purification). The same root, slightly modified, barakha, denotes the fact of bringing the animal to its knees before slaughtering it, a more practical position for the butcher. Hence, no doubt, the unconscious reason for the late, metonymic shift to the word ‘bless’. Kneeling, a position of humility, awaiting the blessing, evokes the position taken by the animal on the altar of sacrifice.
Hebrew allows yet other permutations with the second radical letter of the word, for example in the case cited, by substituting ר with צ. This gives: פּצה (patsaa, ‘to split, to open wide’), פּצח (patsaha, ‘to burst, to make heard’), פּצל (patsala, ‘to remove the bark, to peel’), פּצם (patsama, ‘to split’), פצע (patsa’a, ‘to wound, to bruise’). All these meanings have some connotation with the slaughter that the sacrifice of the ancient Hebrew religion requires, in marked contrast to the sacrifice of the Vedic religion, which is initiated by the grinding of plants and their mixing with clarified butter.
Lovers of Hebrew, Sanskrit, Greek, or Arabic dictionaries can easily make a thousand discoveries of this nature. They contemplate curiously, then stunned, the shimmering of these ancient languages, sedimenting old meanings by subtle shifts, and feeding on multiple metaphors, for thousands of years.
Unlike Semitic languages, the semantic roots of Chinese or the ancient language of Egypt are monosyllabic, but the rules of agglutination and coagulation of these roots also produce, though in another way, myriads of variations. Other subtleties, other nuances are discovered and unfold in an entirely different grammatical context.
These questions of grammar, roots and settled variations are fascinating, but it must be said that by confining ourselves to them, we never remain but on the surface of things.
We need to go deeper, to understand the very texture of words, their fundamental origin, whose etymology can never be enough. The time travel that etymology allows, always stops too early, in some ‘original’ sense, but that does not exhaust curiosity. Beyond that, only dense mists reign.
It has been rightly pointed out that Arabic is, in essence, a desert language, a language of nomads. All the roots bear witness to this in a lively, raw, poetic way.
In the same way, one should be able to understand why and how the Vedic language, Sanskrit, which is perhaps the richest, most elaborate language that man has ever conceived, is a language that has been almost entirely constructed from roots and philosophical and religious (Vedic) concepts. One only has to consult a dictionary such as Monier-Williams’ to see that the vast majority of Sanskrit words are metaphorically or metonymically linked to what was once a religious, Vedic image, symbol or intuition.
It is necessary to imagine these people, living six, twelve, twenty or forty thousand years ago, some of them possessing an intelligence and a wisdom as penetrating and powerful as those of Homer, Plato, Dante or Kant, but confronted to a very different ‘cultural’ environment.
These enlightened men of Prehistory were the first dreamers, the first thinkers of language. Their brains, avid, deep and slow, wove dense cocoons, from which were born eternal and brief butterflies, still flying in the light of origin, carefree, drawing arabesques, above the abyss, where the unconscious of the world never ceases to move.
The Hebrew word temounah has three meanings, says Maimonides.
Firstly, it refers to the shape or figure of an object perceived by the senses. For example: « If you make a carved image of the figure (temounah) of anything, etc., you are making an image of the shape or figure of an object perceived by the senses. « (Deut. 4:25)
Secondly, this word may be used to refer to figures, thoughts or visions that may occur in the imagination: « In thoughts born of nocturnal visions (temounah), etc.”, (Jb. 4:13). This passage from Job ends by using a second time this word: « A figure (temounah), whose features were unknown to me, stood there before my eyes. « (Jb. 4:16). This means, according to Maimonides, that there was a ghost before Job’s eyes while he was sleeping.
Finally, this word may mean the idea perceived by the intelligence. It is in this sense that one can use temounah when speaking of God: « And he beholds the figure (temounah) of the Lord. « (Num. 12:8). Maimonides comments: « That is to say, he contemplates God in his reality.” It is Moses, here, who ‘contemplates’ the reality of God. In another passage, again about Moses, God Himself says: « I speak to him face to face, in a clear appearance and without riddles. It is the image (temounah) of God himself that he contemplates. » (Numbers 12:8).
Maimonides explains: « The doctors say that this was a reward for having first ‘hidden his face so as not to look at God’ (Berakhot 7a) ». Indeed, one text says: « Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look towards God.” (Ex. 3:6)
It is difficult to bring anything new after Maimonides and the doctors. But this word, whose image, vision and idea can be understood through its very amphibology, deserves a special effort.
The word temounah is written תְּמוּנָה (root מוּן ).
The letter taw, the initial of temounah, can be swapped with the other ‘t’ in the Hebrew alphabet, the teth ט, as is allowed in the Hebrew language, which is very lax in this respect. This gives a new word, which can be transcribed as follows: themounah. Curiously enough, the word thamana טָמַן, which is very close to it, means « to hide, to bury ».
One may argue that it’s just a play on words. But the salt of the matter, if one lends any virtue to the implicit evocations of the meaning of the words, is that Moses « hides » (thamana) his face so as not to see the temounah of God.
By hiding (thamana) his own face (temounah), Moses contemplates the figure (temounah) of God, which remains hidden from him (thamana).
What does this teach us?
It teaches us that the divine figure does not show itself, even to a prophet of the calibre of Moses. Rather, it shows that the divine figure stays hidden. But by hiding, it also shows that one can contemplate its absence, which is in fact the beginning of the vision (temounah) of its very essence (temounah).
By renouncing to see a temounah (an image), one gains access to the temounah of the temounah (the understanding of the essence).
Through this riddle, hopefully, one may start to get access to God’s temounah.
It is also a further indication that God is indeed a hidden God. No wonder it is difficult to talk about His existence (and even more so about His essence) to ‘modern’ people who only want to « see » what is visible.
According to Genesis, taken literally, man was created twice.
Genesis, in chapter 1, describes a first creation of « man » called ha-adam. The word ha-adam includes the definite article ha and literally means « the earth », metaphorically « the red » (for the earth is red), and by extension « man ».
In Chapter 2, Genesis describes a second creation of man (ish), accompanied by a creation of woman (isha). These two words are not preceded by the article ha.
The most immediately noticeable differences between the two creations are as follows.
First of all, the names given to the man differ, as we have just seen: ha-adam on the one hand, ish and isha on the other.
Secondly, the verbs used to describe the act of creation are not the same. In the first chapter of Genesis we read: « God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, in our likeness' » (Gen. 1:26). The Hebrew word for ‘let us make’ is נַעֲשֶׂה from the verb עֲשֶׂה, ‘asah, to do, to act, to work. In the second chapter of Genesis we read: « And the Eternal God planted a garden in Eden toward the east, and there he placed the man whom he had fashioned. « (Gen. 2:8) The Hebrew word for ‘fashioning’ is יָצָר , yatsara, to make, to form, to create.
Thirdly, in Genesis 1, God created man « male and female » (zakhar and nqebah). Man is apparently united in a kind of bi-sexual indifferentiation or created with « two faces », according to Rashi.
In contrast, in Genesis 2, the creation of woman is clearly differentiated. She is created in a specific way and receives the name ‘isha‘, which is given to her by the man. The man, ‘ha-adam‘, then calls himself ‘ish‘, and he calls his wife ‘isha‘, « because she was taken from ‘ish‘ ».
Rashi comments on this verse: « She shall be called isha, because she was taken from ish. Isha (‘woman’) is derived from ish (‘man’). From here we learn that the world was created with the holy language, [since only the Hebrew language connects the words ‘man’ and ‘woman’ with a common root]. (Berechith raba 18, 4).”
I don’t know if it can be said with impunity that only the Hebrew language connects the words « man » and « woman » to a common root. English, for example, displays such a link with « man » and « woman ». In Latin, « femina » (woman) would be the feminine counterpart of « homo » (« hemna« ).
But this is a secondary issue. However, it shows that Rashi’s interest is certainly not exercised here on the problem of double creation and on the triple difference between the stories of Genesis 1 and Genesis 2: two nouns (adam/ish), two verbs to describe creation (‘asah/yatsara), and two ways of evoking the difference between genders, in the form ‘male and female’ (zakhar/nqebah) and in the form ‘man and woman’ (ish/isha).
The double narrative of the creation of man and woman could be interpreted as the result of writing by independent authors at different times. These various versions were later collated to form the text of Genesis, which we have at our disposal, and which is traditionally attributed to Moses.
What is important here is not so much the identity of the writers as the possible interpretation of the differences between the two stories.
The two ‘ways’ of creating man are rendered, as has been said, by two Hebrew words, עֲשֶׂה ‘to make’ and יָצָר ‘to form’. What does this difference in vocabulary indicate?
The verb עֲשֶׂה ‘asah (to do) has a range of meanings that help to characterize it more precisely: to prepare, to arrange, to take care of, to establish, to institute, to accomplish, to practice, to observe. These verbs evoke a general idea of realization, accomplishment, with a nuance of perfection.
The verb יָצָר yatsara (to shape, to form) has a second, intransitive meaning: to be narrow, tight, embarrassed, afraid, tormented. It evokes an idea of constraint, that which could be imposed by a form applied to a malleable material.
By relying on lexicon and semantics, one can attempt a symbolic explanation. The first verb (עֲשֶׂה , to do) seems to translate God’s point of view when he created man. He « makes » man, as if he was in his mind a finished, perfect, accomplished idea. The second verb (יָצָר , to form) rather translates, by contrast, the point of view of man receiving the « form » given to him, with all that this implies in terms of constraints, constrictions and limits.
If we venture into a more philosophical terrain, chapter 1 of Genesis seems to present the creation of man as ‘essence’, or in a ‘latent’ form, still ‘hidden’ to some extent in the secret of nature.
Later, when the time came, man also appears to have been created as an existential, natural, visible, and clearly sexually differentiated reality, as chapter 2 reports.
S. Augustine devoted Part VI of his book, Genesisin the literal sense, to this difficult question. He proposes to consider that God first created all things ‘simultaneously’, as it is written: ‘He who lives for eternity created everything at the same time. « (Ecclesiasticus, 18,1) The Vulgate version says: « inaeternum, creavit omnia simul« . This word ‘simul‘ seems to mean a ‘simultaneous’ creation of all things.
It should be noted in passing that neither Jews nor Protestants consider this book of Ecclesiasticus (also called Sirach) to belong to the biblical canon.
For its part, the Septuagint translates from Hebrew into Greek this verse from Ecclesiasticus: » o zon eis ton aiôna ektisen ta panta koinè « . (« He who lives for eternity has created everything together. »)
This is another interpretation.
So shall we retain ‘together’ (as the Greek koinè says) or ‘simultaneously’ (according to the Latin simul)? It could be said that it amounts to the same thing. However it follows from this difference that Augustine’s quotation from Sirach 18:1 is debatable, especially when it is used to distinguish between the creation of man in chapter 1 of Genesis and his second creation in chapter 2.
According to Augustine, God in the beginning created all things ‘in their causes’, or ‘in potency’. In other words, God in chapter 1 creates the idea, essence or principle of all things and everything in nature, including man. « If I say that man in that first creation where God created all things simultaneously, not only was he not a man in the perfection of adulthood, but was not even a child, – not only was he not a child, but was not even an embryo in his mother’s womb, but was not even the visible seed of man, it will be believed that he was nothing at all.”
Augustine then asks: what were Adam and Eve like at the time of the first creation? « I will answer: invisibly, potentially, in their causes, as future things are made that are not yet.”
Augustine takes the side of the thesis of the double creation of man, firstly in his ‘causal reason’, ‘in potency’, and secondly, ‘in act’, in an effective ‘existence’ which is prolonged throughout history.
This is also true of the soul of every man. The soul is not created before the body, but after it. It does not pre-exist it. When it is created, it is created as a ‘living soul’. It is only in a second stage that this ‘living soul’ may (or may not) become ‘life-giving spirit’.
Augustine quotes Paul on this subject: « If there is an animal body, there is also a spiritual body. It is in this sense that it is written: The first man, Adam, was made a living soul, the last Adam, the ‘newest Adam’ (novissimusAdam), was a life-giving spirit. But it is not what is spiritual that was made first, it is what is animal; what is spiritual comes next. The first man, who came from the earth, is earthly; the second man, who came from heaven, is heavenly. Such is the earthly, such are also the earthly; and such is the heavenly, such are also the heavenly. And just as we have put on the image of the earthly, so shall we also put on the image of him who is of heaven.”
And Augustine adds: « What more can I say? We therefore bear the image of the heavenly man from now on by faith, sure that we will obtain in the resurrection what we believe: as for the image of the earthly man, we have clothed it from the origin of the human race. »
This basically amounts to suggesting the hypothesis of a third ‘creation’ that could affect man: after adam, ish or isha, there is the ‘last Adam‘, man as ‘life-giving spirit’.
From all of this, we will retain a real intuition of the possible metamorphoses of man, certainly not reduced to a fixed form, but called upon to considerably surpass himself.
It is interesting, at this point, to note that Philo of Alexandria offers a very different explanation of the double creation.
Philo explains that in the beginning God « places » (וַיָּשֶׂם שָׁם ) in the Garden of Eden a « fashioned » man (‘The Eternal God planted a garden in Eden towards the east and placed the man he had fashioned in it’). Gen. 2:8). A little later he ‘established’ (וַיַּנִּח ) a man to be the worker and the guardian (‘The Eternal-God therefore took the man and established him in the Garden of Eden to cultivate and care for it’. Gen. 2:15).
According to Philo, the man who cultivates the garden and cares for it is not the « fashioned » man, but « the man [that God] has made« . And Philo says: « [God] receives this one, but drives out the other.”i
Philo had already made a distinction between the heavenly man and the earthly man, by the same verbal means. « The heavenly man was not fashioned, but made in the image of God, and the earthly man is a being fashioned, but not begotten by the Maker.”ii
If we follow Philo, we must understand that God drove the ‘fashioned‘ man out of the garden, after having placed him there, and then established the ‘made‘ man there. The man whom God ‘fashioned‘ was ‘placed‘ in the garden, but it seems that he was not considered worthy to cultivate and keep it.
Moreover, in the text of Genesis there is no evidence to support Philo’s thesis of a cross between a ‘fashioned’ man and a ‘made’ man.
Philo specifies: « The man whom God made differs, as I have said, from the man who was fashioned: the fashioned man is the earthly intelligence; the made man is the immaterial intelligence.”iii
Philo’s interpretation, as we can see, is metaphorical. It must be understood that there are not two kinds of men, but that there are rather two kinds of intelligence in man.
« Adam is the earthly and corruptible intelligence, for the man in the image is not earthly but heavenly. We must seek why, giving all other things their names, he did not give himself his own (…) The intelligence that is in each one of us can understand other beings, but it is incapable of knowing itself, as the eye sees without seeing itself »iv.
The ‘earthly’ intelligence can think of all beings, but it cannot understand itself.
God has therefore also ‘made‘ a man of ‘heavenly’ intelligence, but he does not seem to have had a happier hand, since he disobeyed the command not to eat of the fruit of the ‘tree of the knowledge of good and evil’.
But was this tree of ‘the knowledge of good and evil’ really in the Garden of Eden? Philo doubts it. For if God says, « But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, you shall not eat of it », then « this tree was not in the garden »v.
« You shall not eat of it.” This should not be interpreted as a prohibition, but as a simple prediction of an all-knowing God.
This can be explained by the nature of things, Philo argues. The tree could have been present in « substance », but not in « potency »…
The man ‘in the image’ could have eaten the substance of a fruit of this tree. But he did not digest all its latent potency, and therefore he did not benefit from it in any real way.
There is yet another possible interpretation. Knowledge is not found in life. It is found only in potency, not in life, but in death.
The day in which one eats from the fruit of the tree of knowledge is also the day of death, the day in which the prediction is fulfilled: « Thou shalt die of death » מוֹת תָּמוּת (Gen. 2:17).
In this strange verse the word « death » is used twice. Why is this?
« There is a double death, that of man, and the death proper to the soul; that of man is the separation of soul and body; that of the soul is the loss of virtue and the acquisition of vice. (…) And perhaps this second death is opposed to the first: this one is a division of the compound of body and soul; the other, on the contrary, is a meeting of the two where the inferior, the body, dominates and the superior, the soul, is dominated.”vi
Philo quotes fragment 62 of Heraclitus: « We live by their death, we are dead to their life.”vii He believes that Heraclitus was « right to follow the doctrine of Moses in this ». As a good Neoplatonist, Philo also takes up Plato’s famous thesis of the body as the ‘tomb of the soul’.
« That is to say that at present, when we live, the soul is dead and buried in the body as in a tomb, but by our death, the soul lives from the life that is proper to it, and is delivered from evil and the corpse that was bound to it, the body.”viii
There is nevertheless a notable difference between the vision of Genesis and that of the Greek philosophers.
Genesis says: « You shall die of death! «
Heraclitus has a very different formula: « The life of some is the death of others, the death of some, the life of others.”
In the Fayan (« Master Words ») of Yang Xiong, written two thousand years ago, the chapter entitled « Questions about the divine » begins laconically:
« The question is about the divine.
– The heart.
– What do you mean by this?
– Immersing itself in the sky, it becomes heaven. Immersed in the earth, it becomes earth. Heaven and earth are divine clarity, unfathomable, and yet the heart plunges into them as if it were going to fathom them.”i
The divine is indefinable, unintelligible. However, the heart does not care. It tries to form an idea of it, by its impetuous and passionate way of searching for it. It knows that it has no chance of grasping it in its essence or in its existence, in heaven or on earth. Yet he does not hesitate, he throws himself into the bottomless abyss, as if he could reach the bottom.
The heart knows that it cannot reach a bottom that is bottomless. But it rushes into the abyss. It drowns in the immensity, and by guessing the immensity, it becomes immense. It immerses itself in the sky and grasps the sky in itself, it enters the earth and everything in it becomes earth, it jumps into mystery, and mysteriously metamorphoses into mystery.
Only by plunging into the abyss does it discover that it becomes an abyss, and that it has always been an abyss, that it is still an abyss, and will be even more so.
All knowledge of the divine begins with the as if it were possible to know this knowledge. The as if carries the faith of the heart forward or backward. The as if carries the heart beyond what it is and beyond what it knows.
Why does the heart bet on the as if?
Yang Xiong explains it in a commentary on the Tài Xuán Jīng (« The canon of the supreme mystery »):
« The heart hidden in the depths, beauty of the sacred root. Divination: the heart hidden in the depths, the divine is not elsewhere.”ii
Compact, unmistakable style.
In Chinese, « divine » is shen, 神. This ambiguous word also means soul, spirit, mystery, alive, and even God.
« Heart » is xīn 心. Three tears around a blade. Three moons on the mountain. Three gods near a tree.
Shen is xīn. Xīn is shen. The heart drowns in the divine. The divine drowns in the heart.
This idea is classical in Confucianism. It is found in the Mengzi, which quotes Confucius, and Yang Xiong takes it up again in this form:
« The divine in the heart of man! Summon it, it exists. Abandon it, it disappears.”iii
It is the idea, therefore, that the holy man makes the divine exist in the world through his action. He stands on the border between heaven and man. Participating in both worlds, he fills the gap between them.
Yet another image:
« The dragon is writhing in the mud. The lizard basks there. Lizard, lizard, how could you understand the dragon’s aspiration?
– Must the dragon have this desire to rise into the sky?
– When it’s time to rise, it rises. When it is time to dive, it dives. There is both rising and diving at the same time.”iv
When it comes to research, no time form basking in the sun. Or in the mud.
Ancient languages, such as Sanskrit, Egyptian, Avestic, Chinese, Hebrew and Greek, possess a kind of secret spirit, an immanent soul, which makes them develop as living powers, often without the knowledge of the people who speak them, and could be compared to insects foraging in a forest of words, with fragrant, autonomous and fertile scents.
This phenomenal independence of languages from the men who speak and think with them is the sign of a mystery, latent from their genesis. « Languages are not the work of a reason conscious of itself”, wrote Turgoti .
They are the work of another type of ‘reason’, a superior one, which could be compared to the putative reason of language angels, active in the history of the world, haunting the unconscious of peoples, and drawing their substance from them, just as much as from the nature of things.
The essence of a language, its DNA, lies in its grammar. Grammar incorporates the soul of the language. It represents it in all its potency, without limiting its own genius. Grammar is there but it is not enough to explain the genius of the language. The slow work of epigenesis, the work of time on words, escapes it completely.
This epigenesis of the language, how can it be felt? One way is to consider vast sets of interrelated words, and to visit through thought the society they constitute, and the history that made them possible.
Let’s take an example. Semitic languages are organized around verbal roots, which are called « trilitera » because they are composed of three radical letters. But these verbs (concave, geminated, weak, imperfect, …) are not really « triliterated ». To call them so is only « grammatical fiction », Renan assertedii. In reality, triliteral roots can be etymologically reduced to two radical, essential letters, the third radical letter only adding a marginal nuance.
For example, in Hebrew, the two root letters פר (para) translate the idea of ‘separation’, ‘cut’, ‘break’. The addition of a third radical letter following פר then modulates this primary meaning and gives a range of nuances: פרד parada « to separate, to be dispersed », פרח paraha « to erupt, to germinate, to blossom », פרס parasa « to tear, to split », פרע para’a « to reject, to dissolve », פרץ paratsa « to destroy, to cut down, to break », פרק paraqa « to break, to tear », פרס perasa « to break, to share », פרש parasha « to break, to disperse ».
The keyboard of possible variations can be further expanded. The Hebrew language allows the first radical letter פ to be swapped with the beth ב, opening up other semantic horizons: ברא bara « to create, to draw from nothing; to cut, to cut down », ברה bara’a « to choose », ברר barada « to hail », בבח baraha, « to flee, to hunt », ברך barakha, « to bless; to curse, to offend, to blaspheme », ברק baraqa, « to make lightning shine », ברר barara, « to separate, sort; to purify ».
The Hebrew language, which is very flexible, may also allow permutations with the second letter of the verbal root, changing for example the ר by צ or by ז. This gives rise to a new efflorescence of nuances, opening up other semantic avenues:
פצה « to split, to open wide », פצח « to burst, to make heard », פצל « to remove the bark, to peel », פצם « to split, to open in », פצע « to wound, to bruise », בצע « to cut, to break, to delight, to steal », בצר « to cut, to harvest », בזה « to despise, to scorn », בזא « to devastate », בזר « to spread, to distribute », בזק « lightning flash », בתר « to cut, to divide ».
Through oblique shifts, slight additions, literal « mutations » and « permutations » of the alphabetic DNA, we witness the quasi-genetic development of the words of the language and the epigenetic variability of their meanings.
Languages other than Hebrew, such as Sanskrit, Greek or Arabic, also allow a thousand similar discoveries, and offer lexical and semantic shimmering, inviting us to explore the endless sedimentation of the meanings, which has been accumulating and densifying for thousands of years in the unconscious of languages.
In contrast, the Chinese language or the language of ancient Egypt do not seem to have a very elaborate grammar. On the other hand, as they are composed of monosyllabic units of meaning (ideograms, hieroglyphics) whose agglutination and coagulation also produce, in their own way, myriads of variations, we then discover other generative powers, other specific forms generating the necessary proliferation of meaning.
Grammar, lexicography and etymology are sometimes poetic, surprising and lively ways of accessing the unconscious of language. They do not reveal it entirely, however, far from it.
A psychoanalysis of language may reveal its unconscious and help finding the origin of its original impulses.
For example, it is worth noting that the language of the Veda, Sanskrit – perhaps the richest and most elaborate language ever conceived by man – is almost entirely based on a philosophical or religious vocabulary. Almost all entries in the most learned Sanskrit dictionaries refer in one way or another to religious matters. Their network is so dense that almost every word naturally leads back to them.
One is then entitled to ask the question: Is (Vedic) religion the essence of (Sanskrit) language? Or is it the other way round? Does Vedic language contain the essence of Veda?
This question is of course open to generalization: does Hebrew contain the essence of Judaism? And do its letters conceal an inner mystery? Or is it the opposite: is Judaism the truth and the essence of the Hebrew language?
In a given culture, does the conception of the world precede that of language? Or is it the language itself, shaped by centuries and men, which ends up bringing ancient religious foundations to their incandescence?
Or, alternatively, do language and religion have a complex symbiotic relationship that is indistinguishable, but prodigiously fertile – in some cases, or potentially sterile in others? A dreadful dilemma! But how stimulating for the researcher of the future.
One can imagine men, living six or twelve thousand years ago, possessing a penetrating intelligence, and the brilliant imagination of a Dante or a Kant, like native dreamers, contemplating cocoons of meaning, slow caterpillars, or evanescent butterflies, and tempting in their language eternity – by the idea and by the words, in front of the starry night, unaware of their ultimate destiny.
iTurgot. Remarques sur l’origine des langues. Œuvres complètes . Vol. 2. Paris, 1844. p.719
In the ancient Umbrian language, the word « man » is expressed in two ways: ner– and veiro-, which denote the place occupied in society and the social role. This differentiation is entirely consistent with that observed in the ancient languages of India and Iran: nar– and vīrā.
In Rome, traces of these ancient names can also be found in the vocabulary used in relation to the Gods Mars (Nerio) and Quirinus (Quirites, Viriles), as noted by G. Dumézili.
If there are two distinct words for « man » in these various languages, or to differentiate the god of war (Mars) and the god of peace (Quirinus, – whose name, derived from *covirino– or *co-uirio-, means « the god of all men »), it is perhaps because man is fundamentally double, or dual, and the Gods he gives himself translate this duality?
If man is double, the Gods are triple. The pre-capitoline triad, or « archaic triad » – Jupiter, Mars, Quirinus -, in fact proposes a third God, Jupiter, who dominates the first two.
What does the name Jupiter tell us?
This name is very close, phonetically and semantically, to that of the Vedic God Dyaus Pitar, literally « God the Father », in Sanskrit द्यौष् पिता / Dyauṣ Pitā or द्यौष्पितृ / Dyauṣpitṛ.
The Sanskrit root of Dyaus (« God ») is दिव् div-, « heaven ». The God Dyau is the personified « Heaven-Light ».
The Latin Jupiter therefore means « Father-God ». The short form in Latin is Jove, (genitive Jovis).
The linguistic closeness between Latin, Avestic and Vedic – which is extended in cultural analogies between Rome, Iran and India – is confirmed when referring to the three words « law », « faith » and « divination », – respectively, in Latin: iūs, credo, augur. In the Vedic language, the similarity of these words is striking: yōḥ, ṡṛad-dhā, ōjas. In Avestic (ancient Iranian), the first two terms are yaoš and zraz-dā, also quite similar.
Dumézil states that iūs is a contraction of *ioves-, close to Jove /Jovis. and he adds that this word etymologically refers to Vedic yōḥ (or yos) and Avestic yaoš.
The three words yaoš, yōḥ (or yos) and iūs have the same etymological origin, therefore, but their meanings have subsequently varied significantly.
In Avestic, the word yaoš has three uses, according to Dumézil :
-To sanctify an invisible entity or a mythical state. Thus this verse attributed to Zoroaster: « The religious conscience that I must sanctify [yaoš-dā].”ii
-To consecrate, to perform a ritual act, as in the expression: « The consecrated liquor » [yaoš-dātam zaotram].iii
-To purify what has been soiled.
These concepts (« sanctification », « consecration », « purification ») refer to the three forms of medicine that prevailed at the time: herbal medicine, knife medicine and incantations.
Incidentally, these three forms of medicine are based respectively on the vitality of the plant world and its power of regeneration, on the life forces associated with the blood shed during the « sacrifice », and on the mystical power of prayers and orations.
In the Vedic language, yōḥ (or yos) is associated with prosperity, health, happiness, fortune, but also with the mystical, ritual universe, as the Sanskrit root yaj testifies, « to offer the sacrifice, to honor the divinity, to sanctify a place ».
But in Latin, iūs takes on a more concrete, legal and « verbal » rather than religious meaning. Iūs can be ´said´: « iū-dic« , – hence the word iūdex, justice.
The Romans socialised, personalised, legalised and ‘secularised’ iūs in a way. They make iūs an attribute of everyone. One person’s iūs is equivalent to another person’s iūs, hence the possible confrontations, but also the search for balance and equilibrium, – war or peace.
The idea of « right » (jus) thus comes from a conception of iūs, founded in the original Rome, but itself inherited from a mystical and religious tradition, much older, and coming from a more distant (Indo-Aryan) East. But in Rome it was the juridical spirit of justice that finally prevailed over the mystical and religious spirit.
The idea of justice reached modern times, but what about the spirit carried in three Indo-Aryan languages by the words iūs, yaoš-dā, yōs, originally associated with the root *ioves– ?
One last thing. We will notice that the words yōḥ and Jove, seem to be phonetically and poetically close to two Hebrew names of God: Yah and YHVH (Yahweh).
More than two millennia B.C., in the middle of the Bronze Age, so-called « Indo-Aryan » peoples were settled in Bactria, between present-day Uzbekistan and Afghanistan. They left traces of a civilisation known as the Oxus civilisation (-2200, -1700). Then they migrated southwards, branching off to the left, towards the Indus plains, or to the right, towards the high plateau of Iran.
These migrant peoples, who had long shared a common culture, then began to differentiate themselves, linguistically and religiously, without losing their fundamental intuitions. This is evidenced by the analogies and differences between their respective languages, Sanskrit and Zend, and their religions, the religion of the Vedas and that of Zend-Avesta.
In the Vedic cult, the sacrifice of the Soma, composed of clarified butter, fermented juice and decoctions of hallucinogenic plants, plays an essential role. The Vedic Soma has its close equivalent in Haoma, in Zend-Avesta. The two words are in fact the same, if we take into account that the Zend language of the ancient Persians puts an aspirated h where the Sanskrit puts an s.
Soma and Haoma have a deep meaning. These liquids are transformed by fire during the sacrifice, and then rise towards the sky. Water, milk, clarified butter are symbols of the cosmic cycles. At the same time, the juice of hallucinogenic plants and their emanations contribute to ecstasy, trance and divination, revealing an intimate link between the chemistry of nature, the powers of the brain and the insight into divine realities.
The divine names are very close, in the Avesta and the Veda. For example, the solar God is called Mitra in Sanskrit and Mithra in Avesta. The symbolism linked to Mitra/Mithra is not limited to identification with the sun. It is the whole cosmic cycle that is targeted.
An Avestic prayer says: « In Mithra, in the rich pastures, I want to sacrifice through Haoma.”i
Mithra, the divine « Sun », reigns over the « pastures » that designate all the expanses of Heaven, and the entire Cosmos. In the celestial « pastures », the clouds are the « cows of the Sun ». They provide the milk of Heaven, the water that makes plants grow and that waters all life on earth. Water, milk and Soma, all liquid, have their common origin in the solar, celestial cows.
The Soma and Haoma cults are inspired by this cycle. The components of the sacred liquid (water, clarified butter, vegetable juices) are carefully mixed in a sacred vase, the samoudra. But the contents of the vase only take on their full meaning through the divine word, the sacred hymn.
« Mortar, vase, Haoma, as well as the words coming out of Ahura-Mazda‘s mouth, these are my best weapons.”ii
Soma and Haoma are destined for the Altar Fire. Fire gives a life of its own to everything it burns. It reveals the nature of things, illuminates them from within by its light, its incandescence.
« Listen to the soul of the earth; contemplate the rays of Fire with devotion.”iii
Fire originally comes from the earth, and its role is to make the link with Heaven, as says the Yaçna.iv
« The earth has won the victory, because it has lit the flame that repels evil.”v
Nothing naturalistic in these images. These ancient religions were not idolatrous, as they were made to believe, with a myopia mixed with profound ignorance. They were penetrated by a cosmic spirituality.
« In the midst of those who honor your flame, I will stand in the way of Truth « vi said the officiant during the sacrifice.
The Fire is stirred by the Wind (which is called Vāyou in Avestic as in Sanskrit). Vāyou is not a simple breath, a breeze, it is the Holy Spirit, the treasure of wisdom.
» Vāyou raises up pure light and directs it against the dark ones.”vii
Water, Fire, Wind are means of mediation, means to link up with the one God, the « Living » God that the Avesta calls Ahura Mazda.
« In the pure light of Heaven, Ahura Mazda exists. »viii
The name of Ahura (the « Living »), calls the supreme Lord. This name is identical to the Sanskrit Asura (we have already seen the equivalence h/s). The root of Asura is asu, “life”.
The Avestic word mazda means « wise ».
« It is you, Ahura Mazda (« the Living Wise One »), whom I have recognized as the primordial principle, the father of the Good Spirit, the source of truth, the author of existence, living eternally in your works.”ix
Clearly, the « Living » is infinitely above all its creatures.
« All luminous bodies, the stars and the Sun, messenger of the day, move in your honor, O Wise One, living and true. »x
I call attention to the alliance of the three words, « wise », « living » and « true », to define the supreme God.
The Vedic priest as well as the Avestic priest addressed God in this way more than four thousand years ago: « To you, O Living and True One, we consecrate this living flame, pure and powerful, the support of the world.”xi
I like to think that the use of these three attributes (« Wise », « Living » and « True »), already defining the essence of the supreme God more than four thousand years ago, is the oldest proven trace of an original theology of monotheism.
It is important to stress that this theology of Life, Wisdom and Truth of a supreme God, unique in His supremacy, precedes the tradition of Abrahamic monotheism by more than a thousand years.
Four millennia later, at the beginning of the 21st century, the world landscape of religions offers us at least three monotheisms, particularly assertorical: Judaism, Christianity, Islam…
« Monotheisms! Monotheisms! », – I would wish wish to apostrophe them, – « A little modesty! Consider with attention and respect the depth of the times that preceded the late emergence of your own dogmas!”
The hidden roots and ancient visions of primeval and deep humanity still show to whoever will see them, our essential, unfailing unity and our unique origin…
The high antiquity of the Zend language, contemporary to the language of the Vedas, is well established. Eugène Burnoufi even considers that it presents certain characteristics of anteriority, which the vocal system testifies to. But this thesis remains controversial. Avestic science was still in its infancy in the 19th century. It was necessary to use conjectures. For example, Burnouf tried to explain the supposed meaning of the name Zarathustra, not without taking risks. According to him, zarath means « yellow » in zend, and uchtra, « camel ». The name of Zarathustra, the founder of Zoroastrianism, would thus mean: « He who has yellow camels »?
Burnouf, with all his young science, thus contradicts Aristotle who, in his Treatise on Magic, says that the word Ζωροάστρην (Zoroaster) means « who sacrifices to the stars ».
It seems that Aristotle was right. Indeed, the old Persian word Uchtra can be related to the Indo-European word ashtar, which gave « astre » in French and « star » in English. And zarath can mean « golden ». Zarathustra would then mean « golden star », which is perhaps more appropriate to the founder of a thriving religion.
These questions of names are not so essential. Whether he is the happy owner of yellow camels, or the incarnation of a star shining like gold, Zoroaster is above all the mythical author of the Zend Avesta, of which the Vendidad and the Yaçna are part.
The name Vendidad is a contraction of Vîdaêvo dâta, « given against demons (dêvas) ».
The Yaçna (« sacrifice with prayers ») is a collection of Avestic prayers.
Here is an extract, quite significant.
« As a worshipper of Mazda [Wisdom], a sectarian of Zoroaster, an enemy of the devils [demons], an observer of the precepts of Ahura [the « Lord »], I pay homage to him who is given here, given against the devils, and to Zoroaster, pure, master of purity, and to the yazna [sacrifice], and to the prayer that makes favorable, and to the blessing of the masters, and to the days, and the hours, and the months, and the seasons, and the years, and to the yazna, and to the prayer that makes favorable, and to the blessing!”
This prayer is addressed to the Lord, Ahura. But it is also addressed to the prayer itself.
In a repetitive, self-referential way, it is a prayer to the yaçna, a ‘prayer praying the prayer’, an invocation to the invocation, a blessing of the blessing. A homage from mediation to mediation.
This stylistic formula, « prayer to prayer », is interesting to analyze.
Let us note from the outset that the Zend Avesta clearly recognises the existence of a supreme God, to whom every prayer is addressed.
« I pray and invoke the great Ormuzd [= Ahura Mazda, the « Lord of Wisdom »], brilliant, radiant with light, very perfect, very excellent, very pure, very strong, very intelligent, who is purest, above all that which is holy, who thinks only of the good, who is a source of pleasure, who gives gifts, who is strong and active, who nourishes, who is sovereignly absorbed in excellence.”ii
But Avestic prayer can also be addressed not only to the supreme God, but also to the mediation that make it possible to reach Him, like the sacred Book itself: « I pray and invoke the Vendidad given to Zoroaster, holy, pure and great.”iii
The prayer is addressed to God and all his manifestations, of which the Book (the Vendidad) is a part.
« I invoke and celebrate you Fire, son of Ormuzd, with all the fires.
I invoke and celebrate the excellent, pure and perfect Word that the Vendidad gave to Zoroaster, the sublime, pure and ancient Law of the Mazdeans.”
It is important to note that it is the Sacred Book (the Vendidad) that gives the divine Word to Zoroaster, and not the other way round. The Zend Avesta sees this Book as sacred and divine, and recognizes it as an actor of divine revelation.
It is tempting to compare this divine status of the Book in the Zend Avesta with the divine status of the Torah in Judaism and the Koran in Islam.
The divine status of sacred texts (Zend Avesta, Torah, Koran) in these monotheisms incites to consider a link between the affirmation of the absolute transcendence of a supreme God and the need for mediation between the divine and the human, – a mediation which must itself be « divine ».
It is interesting to underline, by contrast, the human origin of evangelical testimonies in Christianity. The Gospels were written by men, Matthew, Mark, Luke, John. The Gospels are not divine emanations, but human testimonies. They are therefore not of the same essence as the Torah (« revealed » to Moses), or the Koran (« dictated » to Muhammad, who was otherwise illiterate) or the Zend Avesta (« given » to Zoroaster).
In Christianity, on the other hand, it is Christ himself who embodies divine mediation in his person. He, the Anointed One, Christ, the Messiah, incarnates the divine Word, the Verb.
Following this line of thought, one would have to conclude that Christianity is not a « religion of the Book », as the oversimplified formula that usually encompasses the three monotheisms under the same expression would suggest.
This formula certainly suits Judaism and Islam, as it does Zend Avesta. But Christianity is not a religion of the « Book », it is a religion of the « Word ».
iEugène Burnouf, Commentaire sur le Yaçna, l’un des livres religieux des Parses. Ouvrage contenant le texte zend. 1833
« The earth was tohu and bohu, darkness covered the abyss, a wind of God (וְרוּחַ אֱלֹהִים , ruah Elohim) was moving over the waters.”i
Tohu means « astonishment, amazement » and bohu means « emptiness, loneliness », explains Rashi, who adds: « Man is seized with amazement and horror in the presence of emptiness.”
Man was amazed and horrified? But how could this be done? Man was only created on the 6th day, when the emptiness had already been partly filled by light, the firmament, the land and the seas, the light fixtures and a multitude of living beings. But this is not necessarily contradictory. It is inferred that Rashi is referring to the « astonishment and horror » that man felt long after the tohu and bohu were created, when man began to reflect on the origins.
However, this reflection has not ceased and is still relevant today.
So there are two kinds of men, if we follow the path indicated by Rashi. Those who feel « amazement and horror » when they think about the hustle and bustle of the origins, and those who are in no way moved by this kind of thinking.
Above the emptiness, above the abyss, above the bohu, « a wind of God » was moving. The word רוּחַ, ruah, is very ambivalent and can mean wind, breath, spirit, soul, depending on the context. Translating here as « a wind » as the Jerusalem Bible does seems to favour a more meteorological or geo-physical approach to these original times. This translation uses the indefinite article (« a wind ») which indicates a certain non-differentiation, a possible multiplicity of other « winds » that God would not have put into action.
The Bible of the French Rabbinate translates ruah Elohim as « the breath of God ». Rashi comments: « The throne of the Divine Majesty stood in the air and hovered on the surface of the waters by the sole force of the breath of the word of the Holy One, and by His order. Like a dove hovering over its nest.”
This comment by Rashi calls for another comment, – from my modest part.
To explain just one word, ruah, Rashi uses four more words. First an expression of three words: « the strength of the breath of the word » of the Holy One, blessed be He, and a fourth word that clarifies its meaning: « by His order ». To this are added two more images, that of the « Throne of the Divine Majesty », and a comparison of the ruah with « the dove hovering over its nest ». The « wind of God » hovering in front of the loneliness of the bohu is thus well surrounded.
It is generally one of the roles of the commentator to multiply the possible outbursts of meaning, and to make promises glimmer. It is apparent from Rashi’s commentary that not only was the ruah not alone in the beginning, but that it bore, so to speak, the Throne of God, in His Majesty, and that it was accompanied by His Word and His Order (i.e. His Power). A curious trinity, for a monotheism that claims to be pure of all kind of trinitarian idolatry.
Now let us change era, and air. Let’s go East.
The same idea of « original breath » is expressed in Chinese by the two caractères元气 , yuánqì. The two ideograms used are: 元 , yuán, origin and 气 , qì, breath.
The qì is the vital breath. It is the fundamental principle of life, which animates all beings. After death, the qì continues to live in the afterlife. The qì embodies the essence of a universe that is constantly changing. It constantly circulates and connects things and beings.
Qì takes different forms. We can distinguish the original qì ( yuánqì,元气), the primordial qì (yuánqì 元氣), the prenatal qì (jīng 精), the qì of the mind and the qì of the soul (shén 神), etc.
Archaeological traces of the qì character have been found, engraved on turtle shells. It was originally represented by three horizontal bars, supposed to evoke steam or mist. The qì also appears on a jade jewel dating from the period of the Fighting Kingdoms (-403 to -256), in the form of the sinogram 炁 , composed of the radical 灬, which refers to fire (huǒ 火). During the Han Dynasty (from -206 to 220), qì is represented by a sinogram combining steam 气 and fire 火.
In the Song Dynasty (960 – 1279) the qì is represented by the sinogram 氣 which refers to the steam emanating from the cooking of rice. It is still used today, and illustrates the material and immaterial nature of the concept. Its key is the pictogram 气 (qì) which represents a cloud.
The lower part of the sinogram is the pictogram 米 (mǐ), which represents grains of rice and means « rice ». The character 氣 expresses the idea of rice boiling in the pot.
The sinogram writes qì as a mixture, immaterial and ethereal (steam), dense and material (rice).
In Genesis, the movement of the divine breath precedes the separation of heaven and earth, and then the creation of living beings; in Chinese cosmology, too, the breath (qì 气) precedes the separation of yin and yang, which is itself the origin of the « ten thousand beings » (wànwù 万物), that is to say all beings and indirectly the things that make up the world.
In Chinese thought, qì is at work in the reign of the living and in the mineral reign. For example, the veins of jade are considered to be organized by qì just like the veins of the human body. Chinese painting depicts the geological strata of mountains, which are one of the macro-cosmic manifestations of qì, and the aesthetics of a canvas depends on the capture of this breath.
Qì nourishes thought and spiritual life and has a certain relationship with the divine shén 神, whose deep meaning is etymologically linked to the characters « to say » and « to show, to reveal ». The divine is not in the qì , that is to say, but the qì can be used by the divine.
The qì is ‘breath, wind’, the divine (shén) is ‘word, revelation’.
The divine is not in the ‘wind’ or the ‘breath’, it is in the ‘word’, – far from any materialism of cloudy emanations, or cooking vapors.
Throughout the ages, cultures and languages, the ancient metaphors of wind and breath still inspire us.
Energy comes from the world and brings it to life. But for the Hebrews and the Chinese, the divine is not of the world. The divine is not in the wind.
The Divine, or the Word, may be in the world, but they are not of the world…
The Veda is about knowledge and vision. The Sanskrit word veda has for its root विद् vid-, as does the Latin word video (“I see”). This is why it is not untimely to say that the Ṛṣi have ‘seen’ the Veda. However, seeing is not enough, we must also hear. « Let us praise the voice, the immortal part of the soul » says Kālidāsa.
In the Veda, the word ‘word’ (vāc) is feminine. And the ‘spirit’ is masculine. This means both can along together and unite intimately, as in this verse from the Satabatha-Brāhmana: “For the spirit and the word, when harnessed together, carry the Sacrifice to the Gods.”i
This Vedic formula combines in the same sentence the Spirit, the Word and the Divine.
A Christian may think of this alliance of words as a kind of Trinity, two thousand years before the Holy Spirit came to the Verb sent by the Lord.
Could it be that some deep, anthropological constant, worthy of being observed, is here revealing itself, in times of profundity?
Every language has its genius, their words have their power, their potency. One speaks them without really knowing them. One grazes their abysses, fly over their peaks, ignoring their heaps of secrets.
Our languages tell us that we are enigmas to ourselves.
Perhaps two examples will shed some light on the far-reaching implications of this unconscious of languages.
The Hebrew verb נָהַר (nāhar) means ‘to shine, to radiate with joy’, as in Is 60:5 (“Then you will look and be radiant”i). A derived word נָהָר (nāhār) means « stream, river ». In feminine form, this word becomes נָהָרָה (nāhārā) and means « light ». And in a different vocalization, attested in Chaldean, נָהִירוּ (nāhiru) means « wisdom ».
This word, therefore, may incarnate unto itself light, joy, a river – and wisdom!
Curiously, the Greek language also has words that bring together the meaning of light, the idea of joy and the brilliance of water. A verse from Aeschylus in the Prometheus in chains sings « the countless smile of the sea waves » (ποντίων τε κυμάτων άνήριθμον γέλασμα).
Another example highlights the intrinsic capacity of a word to bear witness to the dream of the whole language, and of those who speak it. Thus the verb עָלַם (‘alam) means « to hide, to be ignored ». As a noun, the same word עָלַם means ‘eternity’. One would like to ask: does this word incite to think that eternity is ‘hidden’? Or that ignorance is ‘eternal’?
In another vocalization, the same word means ‘world’. But perhaps even most beautifully, the word , in yet another vocalization (‘elem), means ‘child’.
Again the mind wanders… Is the world a veiled child? Does a child hide his eternity? Does eternity veil and hidden childhood? Is the veil the eternal childhood of the world?
A thousand possible thoughts arise from just one word. Languages, all of them, abound with simple surprises, disconcerting shifts, and forgotten nuggets. Yet they bear witness to a dream, they testify that the smallest word is linked to untold mysteries.
Sometimes inaction or a wait-and-see attitude pays off. For example, it is written: « Moses and the Ark of the Covenant did not move ». Standing still in the middle of the camp was the best thing to do. Tactical caution was called for. Those who rushed to the top of the mountain were soon « cut to pieces » by the Amalekite and the Canaanite.
Far from the factual, from common sense, Philo proposes two unexpected ways of interpreting this verse: « Either the wise man does not separate himself from virtue, or virtue ignores movement, and the good man changes it.”i
Philo’s method is known. He always looks for the allegorical meaning in words, the hidden movement towards symbolic heights. Phrases seem to move, taking on a higher meaning as they pass by.
By this upward movement, the sentence mimics the non-movement (permanence) of virtue, it embodies the non-change (immutability) of the good man.
Philo explains: « The breath of God joins only one category of men, those who strip themselves of all that is in the becoming, of the innermost veil, of the envelope of opinion »ii.
The future is not in the becoming. Nor in opinion.
Aaron speaks, he is skilful with words; Moses remains in silence, he strips himself of any words. With a few words, the biblical sentence makes the silent and immobile contemplation of Moses heard.
This is a general lesson. Thought must free itself from everything that clutters it, make itself « naked ».
When Moses leaves the camp, he will pitch his tent on the mountain. He goes out of the world. That is to say, he establishes himself firmly on his own judgment, so that he can enter the “dark cloud”, the invisible region. He will need this inner immutability in order to face the mysteries, and to bear witness to them afterwards.
Moses is not only an initiate. He is the hierophant of mystical knowledge, a tutor of divine truths, which are neither of heaven nor earth.
There are men who are from the earth, others are from heaven, but others go even further. Those of the earth seek material pleasures and cherish the body. Those from heaven are the artists, the scientists and the humanists.
And then there are those who, like Moses or other Prophets, are not satisfied with the Kingdom of the universe, and are not satisfied with being citizens of the world. They neglect all the senses. They emigrate. They choose the exodus to the Land of immortal and immaterial ideas. They believe that the Earth is not the future of mankind. Neither are the Heavens. Does man have a future, by the way? Isn’t man essentially transitory, fleeting, ephemeral?
Didn’t God say that He wanted to « blot out man”?
“The Lord regretted having created man on earth, and he grieved within himself. And the Lord said, ‘I will blot out man whom I have created from the face of the earth, every man and beast and crawling creature and bird of the air—for I am grieved that I have made them’.”iii
The Lord « regretted » and then « grieved ».
How can God regret what He has done? Is He not supremely wise? Could He not foresee in His foreknowledge what would become of His creation?
And why these two verbs, « to regret » and « to grieve », in succession? Pleonasm? Unnecessary repetition?
Maybe the first verb translates the clarity of the notion, the second conveys the depth of the reflection. One is thinking at rest, the other is thinking on the move. These are two powers of the mind. They allow us to contemplate creatures as they are, but also as being able to become other than they are.
Rashi comments on this verse.
“ ‘He regretted having created’. The Midrach translates: God took solace in the fact that at least He had created man ON EARTH. If He had created him in heaven, he would have led the worlds above in his rebellion. ‘And He grieved in His heart’. The Targum Onkelos translates: Man (subject of the verb) became an object of suffering in the heart of God. It came to God’s mind to inflict punishment on him. Another explanation of the first verb VA-YINA’HEM: ‘he regretted’. In God’s mind, mercy gave way to justice. He wondered: what to do with the man He had created on earth? The verb נחם always means in the Bible: to ask oneself what to do. It means: ‘What is the right thing to do?’ God is not a man to regret (Num 23,19) « .
The dictionary says that the verb נחם means: « to repent, to change one’s feelings, to allow oneself to be bent, to have pity, to forgive ». These nuances of meaning do not apply indifferently to man or to God.
It can apply to the point of view of man, but probably not to the point of view of God, when it is a question of « repenting », « regretting », « changing one’s feelings ». But it can be applied from God’s point of view, if we translate this word as « to have mercy », « to forgive », « to allow oneself to be bent ».
The nuance proposed by Rashi, « to ask oneself what to do », opens up still other paths, which (tellingly) are not quoted in the dictionary, and which are turned towards the future, towards the unforeseen.
Virtue ignores movement, and the good man ignores change, Philo said two thousand years ago. And, a little less than a thousand years ago, Rashi said that God himself could « change his feelings » and « ask himself what to do ».
There is no end to surprises, yet to come. Anything is possible, definitely. Anything may yet happen.
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 Hebrew word תְּמוּנָה (temounah) has three meanings, according to Maimonides.
Firstly, it refers to the shape or figure of an object perceived by the senses. For example: « If you make a carved image of the figure (temounah) of anything, etc., it is a form or figure of an object perceived by the senses. « (Deut. 4:25)
Then, it may describe imaginary figures and thoughts that may occur in the imagination: « In thoughts born of night visions, etc. »(Jb. 4:13). This passage from Job ends by using the word temounah: « A figure (temounah), whose features were unknown to me, stood there before my eyes. « (Jb. 4:16). This means, says Maimonides, that there was a ghost before Job’s eyes, appearing while he was sleeping.
In its third sense, this word means the idea perceived by the intelligence. It is in this sense, says Maimonides, that one can use temounah when speaking of God, as in this passage: « And he beholds the figure (temounah) of the Lord (YHVH). « (Num. 12:8).
Maimonides comments as follows: “That is to say, he [Moses] contemplates God in his reality.”
In this famous passage, God speaks in the first person singular: “I speak to him [Moses] face to face, in evidence, not in riddles.”
Then, immediately afterwards, God speaks of Himself in the third person: « and he [Moses] sees the form (temounah) of YHVH. »
Maimonides comments: « The doctors say that this was a reward for having first ‘hidden his face so as not to look at God’ (Berakhot 7a) ».
Indeed, during the burning bush episode: “Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look towards God” (Ex. 3:6)
But Maimonides is silent on the fact that the Berakhot treatise reports opposing opinions on this subject.
Rabbi Yehoshua ben Korḥa interprets negatively that Moses first hid his face and then asked God to show him His « glory » (Ex. 33:18). Consequently, God denies him this privilege.
On the contrary, Rabbi Shmuel bar Naḥmani and Rabbi Yonatan believe that Moses’ discretion when God appeared in the burning bush was rewarded in three ways. Firstly, his face « shone » when he came down from the mountain (Ex. 34:29). Secondly, the Israelites « were afraid to approach him » (Ex. 34:30). Thirdly, Moses could « see the form (temounah) of YHVH » (Num. 12:8).
It is difficult to say anything new after the doctors of the Talmud and Maimonides. I will try anyway.
The word תְּמוּנָה (temounah) has as its verbal root מוּן, moun, “to furrow, split; to invent, fabricate, lie”i. The letter taw, initial of temounah, gives the word its substantive form. But if one swaps this taw with the teth of the Hebrew alphabet, one gets the word themounah. And curiously enough, the word thamana, טָמַן, means precisely « to hide, to bury ».
I find it very surprising that Moses “hides” (thamana) his face in order not to see the temounah of God. And that by “hiding” (thamana) his face, he was precisely granted the privilege of seeing YHVH’s temounah…
One may still want to ask: was YHVH’s temounah a figure, a vision or an idea?
Admittedly, the etymological root of the word temounah is not very reassuring, as it evokes invention, fabrication or lies…
We may want to re-read Num 12:6-8 with extra attention:
“If there is a prophet among you, it is in a vision ( בַּמַּרְאָה , ba-mar’ah) that I reveal myself to him, it is in a dream (בַּחֲלוֹם , ba-ḥalom) that I speak to him. It is not so with my servant Moses, all my house is entrusted to him. I speak to him face to face, (פֶּה אֶל-פֶּה , pê êl-pê), in evidence, (מַרְאֶה , mar’êh), not in riddles, and he sees the temounah of YHVH.” (Numbers 12:6-8).
It is said explicitly, here, that Moses is not just like other prophets, and that consequently, God did not reveal Himself to Moses “in a vision” (ba-mar’ah) or “in a dream” (ba-ḥalom).
However God revealed Himself as “mar’êh” and as “temounah”. What do these words really mean?
The word מַרְאֶה , mar’êh, means in fact « vision », but also « mirror ». The first meaning is found in Dan 10:7, « They did not see the vision » and in Ez 8:3, « In visions of God » (בְּמַרְאוֹת אֱלֹהִים , be-mar’ot Elohim). The second meaning is found in Ex 38:8, « with the mirrors of the women ».
Given the context, it seems probable that the meaning found in Daniel and Ezechiel (‘vision’) must prevail here, though this meaning still seem to contradict Num 12:6.
The translation of mar’êh by « evidence » is also a possible option, but there still may be an ambiguity, if the « vision » is seen like in a « mirror ».
The King James translation of Num 12:8 gives :
« With him will I speak mouth to mouth, even apparently, and not in dark speeches; and the similitude of the LORD shall he behold. »
That translation does not really help to eradicate a doubt about the real nature of the mar’êh and of the temounah.
So, did Moses “see” YHVH “apparently”, or in a “vision”, or like “in a mirror”, or “in evidence” ?
What we just know is that Moses did not “see” the temounah of YHVH ( תְמֻנַת יְהוָה), “by a vision” or “in a vision” (ba-mar’ah).
We also know that Moses did not “see” but did “contemplate” (יַבִּיט , yabit) “a vision” (mar’êh), – directly, without the preposition בַּ, i.e. without any intermediary.
Moses contemplated a pure and intelligible idea, perceived by his intelligence, his soul.
iCf. Ernest Klein. A Comprehensive Etymological Dictionary of the Hebrew Language for Readers of English. Carta Jerusalem & The University of Haifa. 1987
Man is an “intermediate being”, said Plato, “between the mortal and the immortal”i. This obscure expression can be understood in several senses.
Man is constantly on the move. He goes up and down. He ascends towards ideas he doesn’t quite understand, and he descends towards the matter he has forgotten and which reminds him of her. Systole and diastole of the soul. Breathing of the body, inhalation, exhalation of the spirit.
The ancients had formed words that can help to understand these opposite movements. The Greek word ἒκστασις (extasis), means « coming out of oneself ». In « ecstasy », the spirit « comes out » of the body, it is caught in a movement that carries it away. Ecstasy has nothing to do with what is called « contemplation », which is immobile, stable, and which Aristotle called θεωρία (theoria).
The meaning of the word θεωρία as « contemplation, consideration » is rather late, since it only appears with Plato and Aristotle. Later, in Hellenistic Greek, the word took on the meaning of « theory, speculation », as opposed to « practice ».
But originally, θεωρία meant « sending delegates to a religious festival, religious embassy, being a theorist ». The « theorist » was the person going on a trip to consult the oracle, or to attend a religious ceremony. A « theory » was a religious delegation going to a holy place.
Ecstasy is an exit from the body. The theoria is a journey out of the homeland, to visit the oracle of Delphi. These words therefore have one thing in common, that of a certain movement towards the divine.
They are images of the possible movement of the soul, vertically or horizontally, as ascent or approach. Unlike the theoria, which denotes a journey of the body in the literal sense, ecstasy takes the form of a thought in movement outside the body, traversed by lightning and dazzle, always aware of its weakness, its powerlessness, in an experience which is beyond it, and which it knows it has little chance of really grasping, little means of fixing it in order to share it on its return.
The word ecstasy is the minimal trace of a kind of experience that is difficult to understand for those who have not lived it. It is not simply a matter of « ascending » to higher or even divine realities. When the soul moves into these generally inaccessible regions, she encounters phenomena that are absolutely dissimilar to anything she has ever observed on earth, in her usual life. She runs an infinitely fast race, in pursuit of something that is always ahead of her, and which draws her further and further away, into an ever-changing elsewhere, and which projects her to an infinite distance of what she has ever experienced.
Human life cannot know the end of this incredible race. The soul, which is given the experience of ecstasy, understands by experience the possibility of such a search. She will always remain marked by her ‘election’, by the gift given to her of a striking flight towards a reality that is forever elusive.
It is interesting to question the texts that report ecstasies that have had the effect of changing the course of history, and to analyze their differences.
In his comments on the experience of ecstasyii, Philo considers that Moses, despite the fame and the power of his visioniii, did not have access to the full understanding of the divine powers.
Philo then sought in the vision of Jeremiah, with more success, the traces of a greater penetration of these powers.
Moving forward in these fields is a random and delicate undertaking. The texts are difficult, they resist interpretation.
“This is how the word of God was addressed to Jeremiah”iv.
This is a restrained way of giving an account of what was, one might think, originally an ecstasy. Reading these lines, one can guess at its hold.
Other prophets expressed the marks of their ecstasy in other metaphors. Ezekiel says that « the hand of God came »vi upon him, or that the spirit « prevailed ».vii
When ecstasy is at its height, the hand of God weighs more than usual:
“And the spirit lifted me up and carried me away, and I went away sorrowful in the exaltation of my spirit, and the hand of the Lord weighed heavily on me.”viii
The definition of ‘ecstasy’ according to the National Center for Textual and Lexical Resource (CNRTL) is as follows:
“A particular state in which a person, as if transported out of himself, is removed from the modalities of the sensible world by discovering through a kind of illumination certain revelations of the intelligible world, or by participating in the experience of an identification, of a union with a transcendent, essential reality.”
This definition speaks of enlightenment, identification or union with transcendental realities. But what do these words really cover?
According to other testimonies, ecstasy, of mystical essence, seems infinitely more dynamic, more transforming. It draws its principle and its energy from the intuition of the divine infinite and from participation in its movement.
Ecstasy is more a race than a stasis, more a dazzle than an illumination.
Bergson, the philosopher of movement, paradoxically gives a rather static, ‘arrested’ image of ecstasy: “The soul ceases to turn on herself (…). She stops, as if she were listening to a voice calling out to her. (…) Then comes an immensity of joy, an ecstasy in which she is absorbed or a rapture which she undergoes: God is there, and it is in her. No more mystery. Problems fade away, obscurities dissipate; it is an illumination.”ix
It is not known whether Bergson knows from real personal experience what he is talking about.
One only has to pay attention to the testimonies of Blaise Pascal or S. John of the Cross, to guess that ecstasy cannot be so luminously static. Taken to such an elevation, ecstasy has a fiery power that carries away all certainty, all security, and even all illumination.
Ecstasy dazzles like a primal dive into the center of Light. And the worlds, all the worlds, are then only like tiny quantum hairs emanating from a divine Black Hole.
It is difficult to explain in audible words, in palpable images, the infinite rapture of the soul, when she is given to see her own, eternal, birth.
The Arabic word تأويل, ta’wil, means « interpretation », and is used particularly in connection with the reading of the Qur’an, as to its inner, allegorical, mystical meaning.
This word has other meanings, which I recall here because they help to feel how the Arabic language understands the idea of « interpretation ».
Ta’wil may also mean: « vision, spectre, ghost; interpretation of dreams, of visions. »
The root of ta’wil is أول, ‘awal, which means « beginning » and comes from the verbal root أآل , ‘a’al, whose meaning, in its I form, is « to arrive, to reach a place; to return; to be a leader, to command; to abandon someone ». In form II of the verb ‘a’al, the meaning is: « to bring back, to make someone come back to something; to explain, to interpret; to establish, to institute; to define, to determine; to explain ».
Let’s indulge in an impromptu psychoanalysis of the word ta’wil and its verbal root.
It implies fundamentally a ‘return’ to a ‘beginning’. The ta’wil is essentially oriented towards an ‘origin’. The thought of ta’wil seems to be fascinated by an « original place », where it is necessary to « come back » to, in order « to take command », in order to « establish », to « institute », to « define », to « determine ».
But before attempting the ta’wil of any Koranic suras, it might be wise to proceed to the ta’wil of the ta’wil itself.
Perhaps the ta’wil would function more freely, if it were free from any absolute « beginning » and « origin », and if it took into account the complexity of human History, the diversity of beliefs, and the unexpected resources of various wisdoms, — and if it also turned more towards the future, towards the as yet unthought, rather than towards the past.
One of the most ancient meanings of the verbal root ‘a’al of the word ta’wil is « to abandon », as I already mentioned.
Perhaps, in order to make a good ta’wil, it is necessary to abandon clichés, repetitions, mechanical thoughts ?
Perhaps it is necessary to free the ta’wil from any imposed ‘truths’, from any fatwas, from any self-nominated ‘authorities’.
Perhaps it is necessary, for a really critical ta’wil, to finally leave the ossified, stale, dry, dead world of ready-made ideas, hammering heavily their way into human brains.
The biblical name Bezaleeli literally means « in the shadow of God ». Philo offers this interpretation: “The ‘shadow of God’ is the Logos. Just as God is the model of His own Image, which He has here called ‘shadow’, so the Image becomes the model of other things, as He showed at the beginning of the Law (Gen. 1:27) (…) The Image was reproduced after God, and man after the Image, who thus took on the role of model.”ii
Man then is only the shadow of a shadow, the image of an image, or the dream of a dream. For the word shadow evokes the dream, the dream, according to Philo, who quotes the verse: « God will make Himself known unto him in a vision, that is, in a shadow, and not in all light » (Num. 12:6).
In truth, this quotation from Philo is a bit approximate.
The King James version says, more faithfully: “If there be a prophet among you, I the LORD will make myself known unto him in a vision, and will speak unto him in a dream.”
In fact, in the original Hebrew, we read not the word « shadow » (tsal), but « dream » (halom).
If one renders the translation with this word, the verse reads:
« Listen to my words. If he were only your prophet, I, the LORD, would manifest myself to him in a vision, I would speak with him in a dream. But no: Moses is my servant; he is the most devoted of all my house. I speak to him face to face, in a clear apparition and without riddles; it is the very image of God that he contemplates. Why then were you not afraid to speak against my servant, against Moses? »iii
Even to a ‘prophet’, God may manifest Himself in ambiguous and fragile ways: through a vision or a dream.
But to Moses, God appeared face to face, clearly, ‘without riddles’. And Moses contemplated God as an « image ».
He had the great privilege of seeing God face to face, but in reality he saw only His image. This image, this « shadow », was the Logos of God, if we are to follow Philo.
Evidently, here, the Platonic theories of the Logos had percolated and sowed some seeds in the mind of a great Jewish thinker.
Born in Alexandria just before our era, Philo appears in history shortly before a certain Yĕhōshúa of Galilea, who was later destined to be granted the name of the divine Logos by his followers.
From Moses to Jesus, one can see some continuity and some difference. Moses talks face to face with the Logos of God, i.e. His « image », or His « shadow ». Jesus also talks face to face with God, but he is himself called Logos.
What is the difference? Maybe a difference in the degree of ‘incarnation’ of the Divine Spirit.
The prophets usually are given visions and dreams. To Moses, was given the image and vision of the Logos. To Jesus was given to be the Logos.
And to the Prophet Muhammad what was given? He was given the Qur’an. As the prophet was notoriously illiterate, this text was first dictated to him in oral form, by an angel. Some scribes then took it upon themselves to transcribe the revealed text for posterity.
Can we say that the Qur’an is an instance of the divine Logos? Admittedly, the Qur’an and the Logos are both different instances of the Word of God.
So what is the (ontological) difference between the experience of Moses, that of Jesus and that of Muhammad?
In all three cases God manifests Himself through His Word.
Three brands of monotheism came out to celebrate these manifestations.
The Jews conserve the ‘words’ that God spoke to Moses. They believe that the Logos can be embodied in the vision that Moses saw, and in the Law that he heard.
The Christians believe that the Logos can incarnate Himself in a Messiah, called « Son of God », and that the (divine) Word is « the Son of God ».
The Muslims believe that the « Uncreated Qur’an » is the Word of God.
In reality, nothing may prevent the Logos to ‘descend’ and ‘incarnate’ in this world, wherever and whenever He or She wishes to do so.
In the Book of Genesis, God creates man in two different ways. Two words, עֲשֶׂה ‘ésêh, « to make » and יָצָר yatsar, « to form » are used, at two distinct moments, to indicate this nuance.
« And God said: Let us make man in our image, after our likeness » (Gen. 1:26). The Hebrew word for « let us make » is נַעֲשֶׂה from the verb עֲשֶׂה ‘ésêh.
And in the second chapter of Genesis we read:
« And the Lord God planted a garden eastward in Eden, and there he put the man whom he had formed. « (Gen. 2:8) The Hebrew word for « formed » is: יָצָר , yatsar.
What does this difference in vocabulary teach us?
The verb עֲשֶׂה means “to make” but has several other nuances: “to prepare, arrange, care, establish, institute, accomplish, practice, observe.” This range of meanings evokes the general idea of realization, accomplishment, perfection.
The verb יָצָר means “to form, to fashion” but also has an intransitive meaning: “to be narrow, constricted, embarrassed, afraid, tormented”. It evokes an idea of constraint, of embarrassment.
It is as if the first verb (« to make ») translated the point of view of God creating man, and as if the second verb (« to form ») expressed the point of view of man who finds himself in the narrow « form » imposed to him, with all that it implies of constraint, tightness and torment.
The Book of Genesis twice cites the episode of the creation of man, but with significant differences.
Firstly, God « places » (וַיָּשֶׂם שָׁם ) a man “whom he had formed « (Gen. 2,8) in the Garden of Eden. A little later, God « establishes » (וַיַּנִּח ) a man there to be the worker and the guardian (Gen. 2,15).
Philo interprets this reference to two different “placement” or “establishment” of “man” as follows: the man who tills the garden and looks after it, is « the man [whom God] has made », and not the man whom he has « formed ». God « receives the former, but drives out the latter.”i
Philo introduces a distinction between the « heavenly » man and the « earthly » man. « The heavenly man was not formed, but made in the image of God, and the earthly man is a being formed, but not begotten by the Maker. »ii
One can understand thusly: God first « formed » a man and « placed » him in the garden. But this man was not deemed worthy to cultivate it. God drove him out of the Garden of Eden. Then He « established » the man whom He « made » in his place.
Philo adds: « The man whom God has made is different, as I have said, from the man who has been formed: the formed man is earthly intelligence; the man who has been made is immaterial intelligence. »iii
So it was just meant to be a metaphor. There are not two kinds of men, but rather two kinds of intelligence in the same man.
« Adam is the earthly and corruptible intelligence, for the man ‘in the image’ is not earthly but heavenly. We must seek why, giving all other things their names, he did not give himself his own name… The intelligence that is in each of us can understand other beings, but it is incapable of knowing itself, as the eye sees without seeing itself. »iv
The « earthly » intelligence thinks all beings but does not understand itself.
God takes up his work again, and endows man with a « celestial » intelligence. He then has new troubles, since this new man disobeys him and eats of the fruit of the « tree of the knowledge of good and evil ».
It can be argued that without this « heavenly » intelligence, man could not have eaten and known good and evil.
Another question: Was this tree really in the Garden of Eden?
Philo doubts it, because God has said: « But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, you shall not eat of it.”
This is (grammatically) not an order, but just a factual statement. Philo infers that « this tree was therefore not in the garden ».v
This can be explained by the nature of things, he argues: « It [the tree] is there by substance, it is not there in potency. »
In other words, the “tree” is apparently there, but not really its “fruit”.
More philosophically: knowledge is not to be found in life. Knowledge is only to be found “in potency”, i.e. in death.
For the day that one eats of the fruit of the tree of knowledge is also the day of death, the day of which it is said, « You shall die of death » מוֹת תָּמוּת, mot tamut, (Gen. 2:17).
Why this pleonasm, “to die of death”, in the biblical text?
« There is a double death, that of man, and the death proper to the soul; that of man is the separation of soul and body; that of the soul, the loss of virtue and the acquisition of vice. (…) And perhaps this second death is opposed to the first: this one is a division of the compound of body and soul; the other, on the contrary, is a meeting of the two where the inferior, the body, dominates, and the superior, the soul, is dominated. »vi
Philo quotes here the last part of the fragment 62 of Heraclitus: “ Immortals are mortal, mortalsimmortal, living their death, dying their life ».
He believes that Heraclitus was « right to follow the doctrine of Moses in this », and, as a good Neoplatonist, Philo takes up the famous thesis of the body, tomb of the soul, developed by Plato.
“That is to say, at the present time, when we live, the soul is dead and buried in the body as in a tomb, but by our death the soul lives of the life proper to it, and is delivered from evil and from the corpse that was bound to it, the body.”vii
The Book of Genesis says: “You shall die of death!”. Heraclitus has a formula which is less of such a pleonasm: “The life of some is the death of others, the death of some, the life of others.”
Who to believe? Is death double, that of the body and that of the soul? Or does death herald another life?
We can try to propose a synthesis, like Philo did.
Knowledge is not to be found in life. It is only there “in potency”, and it is probably to be found in “death”, which announces an “other” sort of life.
« Ben Bag Bag said: Turn her over and over, for all is in her; search her, grow old and weary into her, and from herdo not move, for there is nothing better for you than her.»i
In this short piece of advice, one can be struck by the deliberate ambiguity, the soft insinuation with which Ben Bag Bag introduces and cultivates the allusion – a metaphor for high-flying teaching.
The original meaning is clear. The figure « in which » to « wear out » is the Torah.
Already, the Song of Songs had accustomed us to the idea that erotic metaphors, even the most daring ones, could be applied to translate the highest and deepest spiritual realities.
Rambam (Maimonides) commented on Ben Bag Bag: « He says about the Torah: examine it in every sense and meditate on it, for everything is in it. And he adds, ‘Examine her’ (תחזי), for if you look at her with the eye of understanding, you will see the truth in her, as the Aramaic formula ‘and she lives’ is translated into Aramaic by וחזא. Then he says: ‘Grow old and use yourself into her’, that is to say, work into her until the end of old age and do not leave her for anything else. »
The Torah is like a woman, – a woman whom one loves for life, until old age, and « into whom » one must turn, return, wear out, and never leave.
Is such a metaphor permissible? To the wise, everything is possible. It is up to the commentator not to attempt the deeper intention. The metaphor of faithful, conjugal, lifelong, consecrated love is not a bad one. The associated images are transformed, then magnified, by their very slippage.
The same Pirqe Abot, michnah 4 of chapter 2, teaches: « He said: Fulfill His desire as if it were yours, so that He may fulfill your desire as if it were His own. Suspend your desire in front of His, then He will suspend the desire of others in front of yours. »
Rachi comments: » ‘Fulfill His desire as if it were your own,’ even when you fulfill your desire, do it in the name of Heaven. ‘That he may fulfill your desire as though it were His own’, so that from Heaven you may be given well and abundantly. ‘Suspend your desire in the face of his’: compare the harm of the commandment with his wages; ‘then he will suspend the desire of others’, who stand against you to harm you. »
Biblical Hebrew is a crude language, where things are said directly, without detours. For example, the verb ‘to love’ רׇחַם is used like this: « I will love thee, O Lord, my strength. » The same word, in its substantive form, means: « womb, sex, breast, entrails », and also, « vulture, filthy bird » (- this name was given because of the vulture’s love for its young).
The word ‘desire’, רָצוֹן ratson, also means « complacency, contentment, pleasure, favour, joy, pleasure, grace ». The arc of the senses here runs from the most material to the most spiritual.
These words are like Jacob’s ladder, which one can use to climb to the highest Heavens or descend to the bottom of the abyss.
On the plain of words, a worn-out ziggurat casts its shadow – the world of ideas is deeper than memory. Who measures its angles? Who discerns its diagonals? Who calculates the effect of rain and dust on it? Who can see the hollow that time leaves in it?
Towards the end of the 3rd millennium B.C., in Sumer, a poem celebrated the sovereign God, the God of gods. Enlil, his name Sumerian name, is its oldest written name, ever.
« Enlil! His authority is far-reaching,
His word is sublime, holy!
What he decides is imprescriptible.
He assigns forever the destiny of beings.
His eyes scan the entire earth.
His radiance penetrates to the farthest reaches of the land.
When the venerable Enlil takes his place in majesty..,
On his sacred and sublime throne,
When he exercises his powers as Lord and King in perfection,
The other gods spontaneously prostrate themselves before him and obey his orders without question.
He is the great and powerful ruler who dominates Heaven and Earth,
Who knows everything and understands everything.»i
A millennium later, a prayer in the Akkadian language was composed for the supreme God. His Akkadian name was Marduk.
« Lord Marduk, O supreme God, of unsurpassed intelligence..,
When you go to war, the heavens falter,
When you raise your voice, the sea is disturbed.
When you brandish your sword, the gods turn around.
Not a single one can resist your furious shock.
Fearful Lord, in the Assembly of the Gods, there is none like you! »ii
The language of the Sumerians does not belong to any known language family. As for the language of the Akkadians, which included Hebrew, Aramaic and Arabic peoples, it was Semitic.
Sumerians and Akkadians began to mix in Mesopotamia from the 4th millennium BC. Jean Bottéroiii notes that the Akkadians arrived in the north and centre of Mesopotamia, whereas the Sumerians were already present in the south.
The mixing of these peoples took place gradually. A common cultural capital was formed over time.
The Sumerians were « the most active and inventive, » according to Jean Bottéro. They were the ones who invented writing, around ~3000. Sumerian is therefore the oldest language ever written.
From the 2nd millennium BC, the Sumerians were « absorbed » by the Semites. Akkadian remains the only spoken language, but the Sumerian language, a language of culture, liturgy and scholarship, does not disappear and continues to be written.
There is an enormous amount of documentation about this period. More than 500,000 documents written in Sumerian make it possible to study the religious world of these peoples, their prayers, hymns, rituals and myths.
In this mass of documents, there is no dogmatic, normative text. There are no « holy writings », no « revealed text ».
Yet religion permeated life. The sacred penetrated daily life.
In this multitude of assembled peoples, no one claimed the monopoly of a cognitive election, the supremacy of knowledge.
These peoples, these myriads, of diverse origins, shared together a sense of the sacred, an intuition of mystery.
In Babylonia, beliefs were humble, and the high priests remained modest in their formulas:
« The thoughts of the gods are as far from us as the depths of heaven.
« Light, intelligence and wisdom ». These three words are used together several times in the Book of Daniel. The queen, wife of King Balthazar, son of Nebuchadnezzar, praises Daniel’s « extraordinary spirit » as follows: « There is a man in your kingdom in whom dwells the spirit of the holy gods. In the days of your father there was in him light and understanding and wisdom like that of the gods. « (Dan. 5:11).
Then Balthazar called him and said: « Are you Daniel, of the people of the deportation of Judah, brought from Judah by my father the king? I have heard that the spirit of the gods resides in you and that in you is light, intelligence and extraordinary wisdom. « (Dan. 5:13-14)
Daniel had already experienced a glorious hour in Babylon when he had explained the dreams of Nebuchadnezzar, and revealed their « secret », their « mystery ».
The Hebrew word for « secret » and « mystery » is רָז (raz). This word is of Persian origin, and it is only found in the Bible in the Book of Daniel alone. It is also found later in the Qumran texts. Itmay be used in various contextsi.
Nebuchadnezzar had defeated the kingdom of Judah and destroyed the temple of Jerusalem in ~587. However Daniel brought him to resignation by revealing “the mystery”.
The mystery takes on its full value, its true meaning, only when it is brought to light, when it is « revealed », as in the verse: « It is he who reveals the deep and hidden things. »(Dan. 2:22).
The Hebrew verb used for « reveal » is גָלָה (galah) which means: « To discover, to appear, to reveal, to make known ». But in a derived sense, it means: « To emigrate, to be taken into captivity, to be exiled, to be banished. » In theniphal form, “To be uncovered, to be naked; to reveal oneself, to be announced.”
For example, « Have the gates of death been opened to you? « (Job 38:17), « There God revealed himself to him. « (Gen. 35:7), « The glory of God will be manifested. « (Is. 40:5).
It is the « revelation » that constitutes the deep substance of the secret, its inner fabric, much more than the secret itself, which is only the external appearance. A secret forever buried in the depths of time would be like a seed that would never germinate.
And, in Hebrew, “to reveal” evokes another series of meanings, revolving around emigration, exile, banishment. A penetration of the secret, an entry into the mystery, evokes a departure to a foreign land, or even a deportation, like an exile to Babylon…
A child of exile, a deportee from Judah, « reveals » his own « secret » to the king who « exiled » his people, – and by doing so, who « discovered » Judah, who made it « appear ».
Irony and depth of words, which say more than they are meant to say.
The word גָלָה (galah), which means « to reveal » and « to emigrate », also reaches a sublime form of mystery. By linking « revelation » and « emigration », it deepens a mystery whose meaning it does not reveal.
i« Then the mystery (רָז ) was revealed to Daniel in a night vision. « (Dan. 2:19)
« He who reveals depths and secrets (רָז ) knows what is in the darkness, and the light dwells with him. » (Dan. 2:22)
« The mystery (רָז ) that the king pursues, wise men, soothsayers, magicians and exorcists have not been able to discover it to the king. « (Dan. 2:27)
« But there is a God in heaven who reveals the mysteries (רָז ) and who has made known to King Nebuchadnezzar what is to happen at the end of days. Your dream and the visions of your head on your bed, here they are. « (Dan. 2:28)
« This mystery (רָז ) has been revealed to me, and I have no more wisdom than anyone else, for the sole purpose of letting the king know its meaning. « (Dan. 2:30)
« And the king said to Daniel: « Truly your god is the God of gods, and the master of kings, the revelator of mysteries (רָז ), since you were able to reveal the mystery (רָז ). » (Dan. 2:47)
According to the Talmud of Jerusalem, a Jew, named Sabbathai of Ulama, one day entered the temple of Pe’or, then « fulfilled a need and wiped himself on Pe’or’s face. All who heard of it praised the man for this deed and said: « Never has anyone ever acted as well as he did.»i
What to think of this curious scene? The Talmud seems to regard it as a great deed, an act of courage showing the contempt of an Israelite for the idols of the Moabites. A Jew, defecates on the idol, wipes himself on the idol’s nose, and receives praise from his fellow believers.
In reality, no blasphemy, no transgression happened then: the cult of Pe’or consisted precisely in doing this sort of rite. Rashi explains it very well: « PE’OR. Named so because people undressed (פוערין ) in front of him and relieved themselves: that is what his cult consisted of. »
One may infer from that indication that the Talmud’s comment (« No one has ever acted as well as he did ») could not come in fact from other Jews, supposed to be gleefully approving of Sabbathaï desecrating the idol.
How could law-abiding Jews approve of a Jew who would have just strictly followed the rites of a pagan cult in the temple of Pe’or?
It is more likely that the praise for Sabbathai came rather from the Moabites themselves, being surprised (and maybe flattered) to see an Israelite following the rites of worship of Pe’or, and even adding a final touch of perfection, a remarkable pirouette.
The name Pe’or comes from the verbal root ָפָּעַר which in Hebrew means « to open one’s mouth wide ». The god Peor, a.k.a Ba’al Pe’or, (and better known in the West as Belphegor), was the « god of openness ». Whether this openness is that of the mouth or that of the anus is of secondary importance. It could just as well be a reference to the opening mouth of the Earth or of Hell.
In fact, Isaiah uses the word pe’or in an infernal, hellish, context: « Therefore the Sheol expands its throat and opens its mouth ( וּפָעֲרָה פִיהָ) inordinately.»ii
Another word, very close phonetically (פָּצַה), means « to split, to open wide », and in a metaphorical sense « to unchain, to deliver ». The Psalmist uses it in this way: « Deliver me, save me.»iii
Ba’al Pé’or, god of « openness », is a god over whom one could defecate “religiously”. That was a metaphor for deliverance…
One may say, rather counter-intuitively, that Ba’al Pé’or also prefigured, beyond what could be considered the apparent nothingness of idols, and their laughable inanity, a more disturbing idea: that of a Godhead ultimately despised and humiliated, – by the defecation of human excrements.
A very modern idea.
iQuoted in Georges Sorel, in Le système historique de Renan, Paris, Ed. G. Jacques, 1906
It was very brutal, very sudden. « Enoch walked with God, and then he was no more, for God took him away. »i A real trick. The construction of the sentence is straightforward, without nuance. If we translate word for word: « Enoch walked with God (in the text: ‘to the Gods’: et-ha-Elohim, אֶת–הָאֱלֹהִים), then, ‘nothing more of him, vé-éïnénou, וְאֵינֶנּוּ‘, because God (Elohim) took him away (or: seized him), ki-laqaḥ oto Elohimכִּי–לָקַח אֹתוֹ אֱלֹהִים .»
The expression used to render the key moment of Enoch’s disappearance (‘nothing more of him’ – éïnénou) evokes a kind of nothingness, an ‘absence’ instantaneouslysubstituting for the ‘presence’ of Enoch, for his walking in ‘presence of God’, during three centuries.
Rachi comments as follows: « Enoch was a righteous man, but weak in conscience and easy to turn to evil. So God hastened to take him out of this world before his time. That is why the text expresses itself differently when it speaks of his death, and says: AND HE WAS NO LONGER in this world to complete his years. »
Therefore, Rashi does not believe that Enoch was taken up to Heaven in the manner of Elijah, like in a ‘rapture’. According to Rashi it is only a metaphor, a vigorous one admittedly, but which only translates the death of a « just », who was also a little « weak ».
I find that Rashi’s commentary falls rather short of the text.
Why demean Enoch by calling him a « weak man and easy to incite to evil »? Enoch is a « just » man. This is no small thing. Moreover, « he walks with God ». This is not a sign of weakness. Secondly, why does Rashi say that God « hastened to take him out of this world before his time, » when Enoch had already been walking with God (וַיִּתְהַלֵּךְ חֲנוֹךְ, אֶת–הָאֱלֹהִים ) for three hundred yearsii?
If we add the years that Enoch lived before giving birth to Methuselah, Enoch lived a total of three hundred and sixty five yearsiii…That is a long time before God decided to “hasten”...
A thousand years before Rashi, Philo of Alexandria had proposed a completely different interpretation. « Enoch was pleasing to God, and ‘they could not find him’ (Gen. 5:24). Where would one have looked to find this Good? What seas would one have crossed? On what islands, on what continents? Among the Barbarians, or among the Greeks? Aren’t there not even today initiates in the mysteries of philosophy who say that wisdom is without existence, since the wise man does not exist either? So it is said that ‘he could not be found’, that way of being which was pleasing to God, in the sense that while it exists well, it is hidden from view, and that it is hidden from us where it is, since it is also said that God took it away ».iv
Philo goes from the figure of Enoch to that of Good. Where to find the Good? Where to find Wisdom? Just because we can’t find them, doesn’t mean they’ve suddenly disappeared, doesn’t mean they don’t exist. Philo sees in the text an incitement to take flight towards high ideas. Probably an influence of Pythagoras and Plato. A form of encounter, the spirit of Israel and that of Greece.
After Philo and Rashi, what can we still see in this passage of Genesis?
The name Enoch (חֲנוֹךְ) gives a clue. It means « the initiate », « the one who is dedicated ». The word ḥanukah has the same root. Long before it meant the feast of the same name, which commemorates the victories of the Maccabees, this word had the generic meaning of « inauguration », of « dedication »: the dedication of the altar (Num. 7:11) or the inauguration of the temple (Ps. 30:1).
Enoch was a living « dedication ». He had « dedicated » himself to God. He was a “walking” sacrifice (like Isaac, walking to the place of his sacrifice).
Enoch had given his own life as a sacrifice. God was pleased with him, and God walked « with him ». Then, one day, suddenly, God took him away.
Why that day, precisely, and not before or after?
I think that Enoch was taken away on the day he was 365 years old. He had spent 65 years until he became the father of Methuselah, and 300 more years of walking in the presence of God. A life of 365 years, that is, a year of years.v
A « year of years » is a good metaphor to signify the perfection of time accomplished, the sum of the life of a righteous man.
But why was Enoch ‘suddenly’ no longer seen?
When God takes hold of a soul, it is not done in a picosecond or a femtosecond or even as one might say, ‘immediately’.
It is done in a time without time, infinitely short in the beginning, and infinitely long, immediately afterwards.