The Three Screams of God


When do you need a ‘veil’ ?

There are strong reasons to wear a veil, under certain circumstances. For example, it reads:

« And Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look upon God. »i

Or: « When Moses had finished speaking to them, he put a veil over his face. »ii

In both cases, the veil seems to be justified, for very different reasons.

But there are times when, clearly, you have to remove the veil. For example:

« When Moses entered before the Lord to speak with him, he took off the veil until he came out. »iii

How can we explain that Moses sometimes veils himself, and sometimes reveals himself, when he is in the presence of God?

Moses, it seems to me, makes an essential difference between watching and speaking.

To make a long story short, this difference is as follows: the gaze kills, the word gives life.

It is certain that there is mortal danger in « seeing » the face of God. « Man cannot see me and live. »iv

To overcome this risk, Moses only looks at God’s « back » or the « cloud » in which He hides.

On the contrary, the word is the very instrument of prophecy. It does not kill, it gives life.

With a capital letter, the Word is Wisdom, Verb, Logos. It is even placed at the right hand of God, like Adonaiv. It names the Name. It sets out the Law.

In the extreme, the Word is a « scream ». More precisely, three screams.

It reads: « The Lord passed before him and screamed: ‘YHVH, YHVH, God, merciful and gracious!’  » vi

Why does God shout His name to Moses three times?

Why does He shout His name ‘YHVH’ twice in a row, and His name ‘EL’ a third time?

These three screams are not addressed to Moses alone, maybe.

They must be heard, long after, by all those who were not there, – all of humanity yet to come.

In order for these ‘names’ to be heard long after Moses days, they had to be screamed, to be shouted, very loud, to reach the extremities of Mankind. But above all, they had to be written.

« Put these words in writing »vii.

Words, screams, writings. How do you put a scream in writing ? With capital letters? There are none in Hebrew.

If Moses had put on a veil, he would not have « seen », and above all he would have heard badly enough, one can speculate – except for the screams. But, for sure, with a veil he could not have written.

And he could not have spoken (audibly). Moses did not have an easy wordviii. With a veil over his face, he would have been even more embarrassed to speak distinctly.

The veil would have been a barrier to exchange. It was therefore not really necessary, it was even strongly discouraged.

Especially since the interview environment was very noisy. « Moses was speaking and God was answering him in thunder. »ix

Moses had previously put a veil over his face for fear of dying in front of the Face, or when he had wanted to hide his own « shining » face from the Israelites.

The veil was then necessary, it seems, as a defence (against death) or as a modesty (against the jealousy of the people).

But when it came to speaking, hearing, writing, then Moses removed the veil.

The lesson is still valid today.

i Ex. 3,6

ii Ex. 34,33

iii Ex. 34, 34

iv Ex. 33,20

v Ps. 110 (109) -1

vi Ex. 34,6

vii Ex. 34,27

viii Ex. 6,30

ix Ex.19,19

A God hidden in the mud


« You really are a hidden God.  » (Is 45:15)

אָכֵן, אַתָּה אֵל מִסְתַּתֵּר

Vere tu es Deus absconditus.

Isaiah calls out to God by a simple « you », in Hebrew « attah ».

This « you » mocks the cynic, the incredulous. It testifies to the immediate proximity of what is revealed, the certainty of the idea.

But this « you » hides more than it reveals itself.

The adjective « hidden » is said mistatar in Hebrew. Esther of the Book of Esther, bears this name, she is « the hidden one » (מִסְתַּתמִסֵר mistatèr). These words come from the verb סַתָר « to hide, protect, shelter ». This word is often found in the Bible, with a wide range of possible meanings: to cover, conceal, eclipse, bury, wrap, bury, blotch, mask, shut in, shut up, hold, drag, veil.

In the substantive form, three main meanings emerge: 1) What is hidden, secret 2) Envelope, cover, veil 3) Protection, retirement, asylum.

It is revealing, I think, that the meaning of a word that means « veil » can have hidden depths, and refer to other words, just as deep, just as veiled.

The verb tsamtsem, related to the concept of tsimtsum, also means « to veil ».

The God who hides and veils himself is also the God who contracts Himself, and makes Himself silent. It is also the God of kenosis, the God who humbles Himself ( the word humble comes from Latin humus, earth, which also gave homo, man).

What is God hiding in His humiliation? What is He hiding in the humus, in the mud-made man?

Deus and humus


Christianity offers the opportunity to ask a question that has no place in Judaism or Islam.

Why does such a high, transcendent God, creator of the worlds, king of the universe, stoop so low, dying crucified, under the spitting and mocking of some of his creatures? Why does he humiliate himself by incarnating himself? What does the Deus have to do with humus?

The theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar proposes the idea of « kenosis » in response to these questions. The « kenosis » of the Son (the God nailed to the cross) is linked to another « kenosis », that of the Father (the « descent » of God to man).

Two thousand years ago, Paul of Tarsus had already strongly marked that this idea of kenosis was a « madness » for the Greeks, and a « scandal » for the Jews.

Why is kenosis scandalous to them? Jewish Tradition admits that there is a certain analogy between God and man, since according to Scripture, man is created in the « image » and « likeness » of God.

If man and God have any « similarity », any « resemblance », it is first and foremost the fact of « being ». Scholastics called this similarity relationship the analogy of being (« analogia entis »).

But does the fact of « being » have the same meaning for God and for man? There is a good chance of misunderstanding this word, with its multiple meanings, and its drawer obscurities.

Objections abound on this subject, even within Christianity. Karl Barth points out that Reform theologians formally deny the analogy of being. Since creation is stained by original sin, there can be no analogy between the being of man and the being of God.

The only accepted analogy, according to these same theologians, is the analogia fidei, the analogy of faith. Only faith can bring us closer to the mystery of being. By means of reason, no knowledge of God is possible. Only a gift of grace makes it possible to « know God ». Philosophy and its representations, ideas or images – like the analogy of being – are in this context powerless, useless.

The God of the Reformation is certainly not a God accessible to philosophers.

However, how can we understand this name of God, revealed to Moses: « I am he who is »?

How can we understand « I am », and « He who is », if no « analogy of being » can make us understand its meaning?

If no analogy of being is admissible in the context of the encounter between God and Moses, it means that the word « being » itself is only an empty word, a false image, which does not reflect the infinite difference in nature between being as it is said by God (« I am he who is ») and being as it is lived by man. We use the same word (« to be »), but for things that have nothing to do with each other. We are in the middle of an illusion, in the middle of a mistake.

But then why bother with this question, if the language is perfectly useless? Why read the Torah if the word « to be » is meaningless?

Why would God tell Moses words that would objectively have no meaning for human understanding? Why would God maintain confusion in this way, by playing on the obvious inability of human language? Is this God a « deceitful » God?

If the word « to be » is devoid of any common sense, does it nevertheless have a real meaning, reserved for the initiated?

If each way of being is only a fleeting image, a partial appearance, a transitory phenomenon, where does the ultimate essence of being stand?

God revealed to Moses to be the being who is « the being who is ». By contrast, it is deduced, man is a being who is not « a being who is »; he is a being, undoubtedly, but he is not « the being who is ». Nor is he a being who is not, because then he would be nothing more than a void, and the question would be resolved. This is clearly not the case. What is it then?

The metaphor of being like a « garment » can put us on a track. Serge Bulgakov dares the idea of a God who undresses himself freely from his Glory, while remaining God in himself.

To what extent can this free disregard for God by Himself go? To infinity? Is there a lower limit below which God can no longer « undress », or infinitely « naked »?

Impotence of metaphors…. What does it mean, « to undress », or « to be naked », for God?

In the absence of a precise answer, we borrow from Paul a Greek word, « kenosis », which means « emptying », to enrich a deficient theological vocabulary. « Kenosis » refers to the fact of a naked God, as delivered in Scripture, but does not explain why, the end or the essence of it.

When God says: « I am the one who is », does he then « undress » himself with the Glory of his « being », by this very word? Or is this word still a glorification?

Does he undress from his glorious « Being » to remain humbly gathered in this simple word, which twice uses the word « to be », which is also part of the miserable lexicon of man?

The word that Moses heard on the mountain has no visible equivalent. The « burning bush » was well visible to him, but it was not the visible image of the divine words (« I am he who is »). At the very least, it can be argued that the « burning bush » is perhaps an image of Glory, of which it is precisely a question of seeing if God can decide to undress himself from it.

If Glory is a garment, and God undresses himself, what remains to be « seen »? Or to « hear »? A fortiori, if the being is a garment, and the man undresses himself in it, what remains to be shown or said?

Under the garment of the being, what ultimate nakedness is she lying waiting for? Under the divine Glory, what darkness reigns?

Boring questions, no possible answers. And yet we must continue to wander, in search of new paths, as the darkness thickens here.

Noxious darkness invades the brain as soon as we speak, not of the Divinity that is said, or that reveals itself, but of the one that hides or lowers itself.

« The darkness of the abandonment of the Son has its roots in the darkness of the Father » (Adrienne von Speyr).

These similar darknesses may also, in their darkness, carry an infinitely weak glow. The deeper they are, the deeper you dive in them, the more you drown in them, the more they make you hope to find at the bottom of the sea the glow of the unheard-of, the glow of the unthinkable.

An infinitely weak glow at the bottom of infinitely dark darkness is a good metaphor for the infinite.

Any concept or image that can be formed about divine infinity must be renounced immediately. It is necessary to leave (as if by iteration, in the construction of a mathematical infinity) the place to a new enigma, to a new darkness, always deeper, each provisional concept annihilating itself, each proposed image immediately becoming obscured.

In the absence of being able to say anything positive, therefore, we can only try the negative path, the one that one of the best specialists in the field has called the « dark night ».

It is necessary to hypothesize that God is also incarnated, in his own way, in « night » and « powerlessness ». He can be « night » to himself, reveal himself deep darkness and absolute nakedness under the garment of his Glory; admit to himself « absence » at the heart of his Presence.

These are other ways of defining kenosis, other metaphors.

In the 4th century, Hilaire de Poitiers said that the Word of God has a « disposition to annihilation » which consists in « emptying himself within his power ».

This idea is still based on the raw fact of kenosis, as reported in the biblical text.

Let us return to an index, the only one we have of « annihilation » and « emptiness ». Jesus shouted just before he died: « Elôï, Elôï, lema sabachtani? »

Jesus expresses himself in Aramaic, and this phrase is translated as follows: « My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? »

This cry of agony and dereliction is also a notable, though not obvious, reference to the first verse of David’s Psalm 22, which reads in Hebrew as follows (note the difference with Aramaic):

אֵלִי אֵלִי, לָמָה עֲזַבְתָּנִי

« Eli, Eli, lamah, azabthani? ‘’

The spectators who were watching Christ’s agony on Golgotha made a mockery of Christ’s cry: « And now he is calling Elijah to help him! ».

It can be assumed that the dying person misspoke the words, suffocated by the cross, or that his dying breath was too weak for the crowd to hear him clearly. Another hypothesis is that Aramaic was perhaps not well understood by the Roman soldier? Or was the allusion to the verse in David’s psalms perhaps not obvious to the witnesses present?

All these hypotheses are obviously superfluous, inessential; but they refer to a single question that is essential:

Why this cry of abandonment, in the mouth of the « Messiah »?

The abandoned Son, the Father abandoning. At the supreme moment, extreme loneliness. Absolute failure, total nil. Jesus denied, despised, mocked by Man. And abandoned by God.

All this, from beginning to end, even today, incomprehensible, laughable, scandalous: « Madness for the Greeks, scandal for the Jews. »

This madness and scandal are two thousand years old. What can they still mean, under the lazzis, hatred or indifference, for a civilization of reason, order and « lights »?