A Very Lousy Bargain With God


The prophet Isaiah was sawed in half with a wood saw by order of Manasseh, king of Judah. It was Belkira, also a prophet in Jerusalem, who had accused him.

What was the accusation? Isaiah had called Jerusalem « Sodom, » and had foretold that it would be devastated along with the other cities of Judah.

He also prophesied that the sons of Judah and Benjamin would go into captivity, and that king Manasseh would be put in a cage with iron chains.

Belkira claimed that Isaiah hated Israel and Judah.

But the most serious accusation was that Isaiah had dared to say: « I see further than the prophet Moses ».

Moses had said: « No man shall see the LORD and live. »

Isaiah had contradicted him: « I have seen the LORD, and behold, I am alive. »

Isaiah had told his vision in detail to Hezekiah, king of Judah and father of Manasseh, and to several prophets, including Micah.

Let’s summarize it here. An angel took Isaiah up to the firmament and then to the first six heavens. Finally he reached the seventh heaven. There he saw « someone standing, whose glory was greater than all else, a great and marvelous glory ». The angel said to him: « This is the Lord of all the glory that you have seen ». Isaiah also saw another glorious being, similar to the first. He asked, « Who is this one? ». The angel answered, “Worship him, for this is the angel of the Holy Spirit, who has spoken in you and in the other righteous ones.”

That was just foreplay.

Isaiah continued.

“And my Lord, with the angel of the Spirit, came to me, and said: ‘Behold, thou hast been given to see the LORD; and for thy sake this power is given to the angel that is with thee.’ And I saw that my Lord worshipped, and the angel of the Spirit, and they both glorified the LORD together.”i

Isaiah also claimed to have seen the LORD, Yahweh-God, in the year of the death of King Uzziah (~740). « I saw the LORD sitting on a great and high throne (…) ». And he cried out in anguish: « Woe is me, I am lost! For I am a man of unclean lips, I dwell among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of Hosts.”ii

The price to pay for this vision was relatively small. A seraphim flew to Isaiah, and touched his mouth with an ember caught with pliers.

It was only later that he finally had to pay with his life for this vision of God: his body was sawed in half.

When Isaiah saw God, the Lord said to him, « Go and tell this people, ‘Listen, listen, and do not understand; look, look, and do not discern’. Make the heart of this people heavy, make their ears hard, swallow up their eyes. »iii

Two lessons can be drawn from these texts.

Firstly, Isaiah sees God face to face in all his glory, but does not die, contrary to what Moses said.

Secondly, though all this divine glory is clearly revealed to Isaiah, it only entrusted him with a rather disappointing and illogical message to deliver on his return to earth.

God sends Isaiah back to his people with a warning that is inaudible, incomprehensible, and above all paradoxical, contradictory. He must tell the people to ‘listen’ to him, but at the same time make them hard of hearing, and incapable to understand.

He must tell them to ‘look’ and  and make their eyes glaze over.

Isaiah did not call into question the rather lousy mission he had been given.

Why so much glory given to Isaiah, and at the same time so much severity for the people?

As a matter of strong contrast, let us recall what happened to Ezra.

Ezra also had a vision.

The angels Michael, Gabriel, Raphael and Uriel placed him on a « cloud of flames » and took him to the seventh heaven. But when he got there, unlike Isaiah, Ezra saw only « the back of the Lord, » noting, « I have not deserved to see anything else. »

In front of the Lord’s back, Ezra tried to intervene on behalf of men. He told him without delay and spontaneously: « Lord, spare sinners!”

Then began a rather long quarrel between God and Ezra.

Ezra said, « How righteous are you, how almighty are you, how merciful are you, and how worthy are you? « 

He also asked what will happen on Judgment day.

The Lord answered, « The Moon will become blood on the last day, and the sun will flow in its blood. »

This prompted Ezra to reply, « In what has heaven sinned? « 

The Lord replied, « This heaven looks down upon the wickedness of mankind. »

Ezra wanted to plead the cause of men once again.

He attacked on a sensitive point, the election.

Ezra: « By the life of the Lord! I am going to plead for good against you because of all the men who have no place among the chosen ones! »

The Lord: « But you will be chosen with my prophets! »

Ezra: « Sinners, who shaped them? »

The Lord: « It’s me. »

Ezra: “If I too, like sinners, was created by you, then it is better to lose myself than the whole world!»iv

Here is a great prophet, Isaiah, who had the great privilege, denied even to Moses, of seeing the glory of God without dying, and who returns to earth with the mission to weigh down the hearts of his people, to make them deaf and blind.

And here is another prophet, Ezra, who could only see the « back of the Lord », but who did not hesitate to plead the cause of men on several occasions, and who said he was ready to renounce his election and to lose himself in exchange for the salvation of the world.

How should this be interpreted?

The Lord agreed to do men a favor, and said to Ezra: « Let sinners rest from their labors from the ninth hour of the Sabbath eve until the second day of the week; but on the other days let them be punished in return for their sins. »

From Friday afternoon until Monday midnight, three and a half days of grace.

One half of the week filled with grace. Half of the time then.

A good result for a prophet admitted to see only the « back of God ».

Think what Isaiah might have gotten if he had only tried to bargain with God.

Maybe, being captivated by his vision of God’s glory did not prepare him to engage God into a serious bargaining….

i The Ascension of Isaiah, 9, 27-40

ii Is. 6, 1-5

iii Is. 6,9-10

ivVision of Esdras, 87-89a

The Tango of Abraham.


 

Three men met Abraham at noon in the plains of Mamre, in Genesis chapter 18. But only two angels met Lot, later that same evening in Sodom.

Why three men at noon, then two angels in the evening?

One interpretation by Philo of Alexandria is worth mentioning,

« When the three had appeared, why did the Scripture say, « The two angels came to Sodom in the evening »? (Gen. 19,1). Three appear to Abraham and at noon, but to Lot, two and in the evening. Scripture makes known the difference in the profound sense that there is between the perfect being and the one who progresses, namely the perfect has the impression of a triad, of full nature, continuous, with nothing missing, without emptiness, entirely perfect, but this [not-so-perfect] one has the impression of a dyad that has separation, void and emptiness. One welcomed the Father who is in the middle and is served by the first two powers, while the other welcomed the serving powers without the Father, because he was too weak to see and understand the middle one, king of powers. One is illuminated by a very bright light, the noon light, without shadow, while the other is illuminated by a changing light, at the limits of night and day, because evening has been shared as an intermediate space: it is neither the end of the day nor the beginning of the night.»i

Philo’s interpretation (« The three angels are the Father, served by the first two powers ») is rather embarrassing from the point of view of a strictly monotheistic position, such as that generally professed by Judaism.

On the other hand, it is compatible, at least metaphorically, with the Trinitarian interpretation of Christianity. Philo was born in 25 BC, and lived in Alexandria, then in a state of turmoil, open to neo-Pythagorean and neo-Platonic ideas, and other influences, from Chaldea or Persia.

More than a thousand years after Philo of Alexandria, the famous Rashi of Troyes provided a very different explanation for these variations.

Regarding Gen 18,2, Rashi comments: « AND THERE ARE THREE MEN. God sent angels in human form. One to announce the good news about Sara. One to destroy Sodom. One to heal Abraham. Because the same messenger does not accomplish two missions at the same time. »

Regarding Gen 19,1, Rashi notes: « BOTH. One to destroy Sodom and one to save Lot. It was the latter who had come to heal Abraham. The third one who had come to tell Sara about the birth of her son, once his mission was fulfilled, left. – THE ANGELS. Before (Gen 18,2) they are called MEN. When the Shekhina was with them, they were called men. Another explanation: previously, with Abraham, whose strength was great and who was used to angels as much as to men, they were called men. While with Lot they are called angels. »

There is a common point between Philo and Rashi; they agree that Abraham was perfect, strong, and that Lot was weak. They both deduce from this that seeing the Shekhina among men is a sign of strength, and seeing angels (in the absence of the Shekhina?) is a sign of weakness.

Other questions then arise.

Why did the angel who had announced the next birth of a son to Abraham and Sarah go away once his mission was accomplished, leaving his two companions to continue to Sodom and Gomorrah?

In other words, why was the angel responsible for destroying Sodom and Gomorrah present at Mamre’s meeting, when it was a matter of announcing a birth, and according to Rashi, completing Abraham’s healing?

Was the presence of the exterminating angel necessary in order to listen to Abraham’s arguments in favour of the inhabitants of the two cities threatened with destruction?

Abraham argued at length to intercede on behalf of the inhabitants of Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen. 18, 23-33). Was this plea addressed to the exterminating angel, to the third « man » present in Mamre?

However, this exterminating angel is also called by the proper name of God (YHVH). This is how the text calls him during his exchanges with Abraham.

Let’s summarize.

On one side there are three men, in charge of three different missions (a birth announcement, a healing and an extermination). These three men are in fact three angels, but in reality they are all together one and the same God, named YHVH several times in the Genesis text. YHVH expresses itself in the 1st person singular, as being the Lord, the Eternal YHVH.

The three men speak successively, the first to announce the coming birth, the second to speak to himself, in a way as an aside (« Shall I hide from Abraham what I am going to do? » Gen. 18:17), and the third to discuss the next extermination with Abraham.

Then Lord YHVH « goes away », when he has finished speaking with Abraham (Gen. 18:33). Immediately afterwards (Gen. 19:1), « The two angels arrived at Sodom in the evening ».

It seems that the following conclusions can be drawn from this.

God was present, as Shekhina, among the three men visiting Abraham, in Mamre, and then all along the road to the gates of Sodom. Then God departs, and there are only the two angels left, one to exterminate the cities, the other to save Lot and his family. God left just before the extermination.

This chapter of Genesis reports exchanges of words between God, Abraham, and even Sarah, but also a whole body language, a ballet of movements, running, prostrations, steps, standing.

It is interesting to analyze this staging, the scenography of the movements of God and Abraham during this day.

Abraham was sitting at the entrance of his tent, he looked up, and « he saw three men standing beside him; as soon as he saw them, he ran from the entrance of the tent to meet them and bowed down to the ground.  » (Gen. 18:2)

How is it that Abraham runs to men who « stood by him »?

This must be seen as a spiritual meaning. Abraham sits and sees three men standing. They are close to him, but he, Abraham, is far from them. So he has to get up, to get up to their level, and he has to start running, to get closer to them, as much as they have already approached him.

All this is not to be understood on a material, physical level, but on a spiritual, metaphysical level.

Then Abraham « hurries to the tent » (18:6). Then « he ran to the flock » (18:7). Shortly afterwards, when they ate, « he stood up » (18:8). Then, « having risen, the men departed from there and came in sight of Sodom. Abraham walked with them to bring them back. » (18, 16). There follows a kind of soliloquy of God. Finally, the team finished its march: « The men left from there and went to Sodom. YHVH was still standing before Abraham. » (18, 22)

Before Sodom, there is a long exchange between God and Abraham, who tries to intercede on behalf of the inhabitants of the city, in the name of the « righteous » who are within it. Then God goes away. And Abraham returned home (18:33).

Immediately after the two angels enter Sodom (19:1).

In these few lines, Abraham sits, then runs to men, to his tent, to the flock, to his tent again, stands up, walks to Sodom, stops, leaves, arrives in front of Sodom, talks with God, sees God go away, and returns home.

How can we explain all these movements by an old man who has just been circumcised, and who is struggling to recover from his wound?

The simple description of physical movements does not seem to be a sufficient explanation. Rather, they indicate a spiritual dynamic. All these movements reflect Abraham’s inner agitation.

A key to understanding is found in verse 18:3: « Lord, if I have found favor in your sight, then do not pass before your servant. »

Abraham is agitated and runs a lot, so that God « does not pass » before him.

Abraham runs because he wants the Lord to stop.

What can we conclude from this?

First, that the divine can take three “figures”: the figure of the One (YHVH), the figure of the Three (« the three men »), and the figure of the Two (« the two angels »).

Then, this text teaches us that the movements of the body are metaphors of the movements of the soul. It’s like tango. It takes two to dance or to talk to each other. Three men plus Abraham make four. But when God and Abraham talk to each other, they are two. And their attitudes, their positions, are linked, as in a dance. Their movements are correlated.

Abraham gets up, runs, prostrates himself, runs again, etc., so that God will stop, stand still, and stay with him…

There is here a lesson (of spiritual tango) to be learned…

i Philo. Quaestiones in Genesium, Livre IV, 30

YHVH told Adonai: « Sit on my right »


Man does not speak. It is the word that « speaks ». Man is not the master, he is only the instrument.

« By whom is spoken the word that is said? The eye and the ear, what God splints them? For he is the ear of the ear, the mind of the mind, the word of the word and also the breath of the breath, the eye of the eye.  » – (Kena-Upanişad, 1, 1-2)

During the Vedic sacrifice, it is not the priest who speaks, despite the appearance, it is the God.

God is the spirit in the spirit, the breath in the breath.

God alone is truly « speaking word ». Brahman alone inhabits the words. Only he remains in all the cries, songs, psalmodies, throughout the sacrifice.

The idea of the God « Word » is not specific to the Vedas. It is found in other traditions.

The Bible, which appeared long after the Vedas, also presents a God who creates and makes people exist through his Word alone.

The Vedas and the Bible have a common vision. God is Word, and from this Word emanates a creative Word. From this creative Word is born (among others) Man, – speaking creature.

The Hebrew tradition proclaims the absolute oneness of God. But it also recognizes a second cause: a Word that is detached from God, that comes from his Mouth, and that acts in the world by its own power.

In support, the prophet Moses and the psalmist David.

Moses speaks explicitly of a Lord who splits himself, – or of two « Lords » who are both « YHVH », the first sending the second punishing men:  » Then the Lord rained upon Sodom and upon Gomorrah brimstone and fire from the Lord out of heaven;  » (Gen. 19:24)

The Hebrew text is as follows:

וַיהוָה, הִמְטִיר עַל-סְדֹם וְעַל-עֲמֹרָה–גָּפְרִית וָאֵשׁ:  מֵאֵת יְהוָה, מִן-הַשָּׁמָיִם

We note the repetition of the YHVH tetragram as an initial agent of the action ( וַיהוָה), and as an active partner (מֵאֵת יְהוָה). We also notice the use of the expression מֵאֵת יְהוָה, « from YHVH » which indicates a kind of detachment, of movement.

Literally: YHVH rains fire and brimstone, and YHVH himself comes « from » YHVH, who is in the « highest heaven ».

We find this divine duplication elsewhere. King David chanted:

« The Lord (YHVH) said to my Lord (Adonai): Seat on my right ».i

How can we understand that the Lord (Adonai) sits at the right hand of the Lord (YHVH)?

Isn’t YHVH also Adonai? What does the figure of the Lord (Adonai) « sitting at the right hand » of the Lord (YHVH) represent? Who is this Lord (Adonai), who also slaughters kings, does justice to the nations, and is « a priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek »?

David says again:

« By the word of YHVH the heavens were made, by the breath of his mouth, all their army. »ii

What does David mean by evoking the mouth of God, His breath and His word? Are God’s Mouth, Word and Breath « united » in divine oneness, or are they « distinct »? Or are they both united and distinct?

What specific action do Word and Breath have respectively on the world, what singular meanings do they have for man?

David offers a first answer. He presents the Word as an « envoy », healing those who need YHVH:

« He sent his Word, and he healed them. « iii

The divine Word, as presented in the Vedas, has an astonishing structural analogy, it seems, with the divine Word in the Bible.

Two great spiritual traditions, different in many other respects, very distant geographically and in time, come together to affirm that God speaks, that His Word is divine, and that It heals and saves men.

Yet, there is another unanswered question ;

The Word heals. But what does the Breath do?

iPs. 110 (109) -1

iiPs 33(32) -6

iiiPs 106(107)-20