God’s Shadows

Marc Chagall. Moses and the Burning Bush

Can God have an ‘image’ or a ‘shadow’? According to the Torah, the answer to this question is doubly positive. The idea that God can have an ‘image’ is recorded in Genesis. The text associates ‘image’ (‘tselem‘) and ‘likeness’ (‘demut‘) with Genesis 1:26: בְּצַלְמֵנוּ כִּדְמוּתֵנוּ , b-tsalmenou ki-demutenou (‘in our image and likeness’), and repeats the word ‘image’ in Genesis 1:27 in two other ways: בְּצַלְמוֹ b-tsalmou (‘in his image’) and בְּצֶם אֱלֹהִים b-tselem elohim (‘in the image of Elohim’).

As for the fact that God may also have a ‘shadow’, this is alluded to in a verse from Exodusi, which quotes the name Betsalel, which literally means ‘in the shadow of God’1. The word צֵל tsel means ‘shadow’. This word has the same root as the word צֶלֶם tselem, which we have just seen means ‘image’. Moreover, tselem also has as its primary meaning: ‘shadow, darkness’, as in this verse: ‘Yes, man walks in darkness’, or ‘he passes like a shadow’ii.

One could therefore, theoretically, question the usual translation of Gen 1:26, and translate it as follows: « Let us make man in our shadow », or « in our darkness ». What is important here is, above all, to see that in Hebrew ‘image’, ‘shadow’ and ‘darkness’ have the same root (צֵל ).

This lexical fact seems highly significant, and when these words are used in relation to God, it is obvious that they cry out: « Interpret us! ».

Philo, the Jewish and Hellenophone philosopher from Alexandria, proposes this interpretation: « The shadow of God is the Logos. Just as God is the model of His image, which is here called shadow, so the image becomes the model of other things, as is showed at the beginning of the Law (Gen. 1:27) (…) The image was reproduced after God and man after the image, who thus took the role of model.”iii 

Philo, through the use of the Greek word logos, through the role of mediator and model that the Logos plays between God and man, seems to prefigure in some way the Christian thesis of the existence of the divine Logos, as introduced by John: « In the beginning was the Logos, and the Logos was with God, and the Logos was God.”iv

Man is therefore only the shadow of a shadow, the image of an image, or the dream of a dream. For the word shadow can evoke a dream, according to Philo. He quotes the verse: « God will make himself known to him in a vision, that is, in a shadow, and not in all light » (Num. 12:6).

In the original Hebrew of this verse, we read not ‘shadow’ (tsal), but ‘dream’ (halom). Philo, in his commentary, therefore changed the word ‘dream’ for ‘shadow’. But what is important for us is that Philo establishes that the words ‘vision’, ‘dream’ and ‘shadow’ have similar connotations.

The text, a little further on, reveals a clear opposition between these words (‘vision’, ‘dream’) and the words ‘face-to-face’, ‘appearance’, ‘without riddles’, and ‘image’.

« Listen carefully 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 household. 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? » v

God manifests Himself to a simple prophet in ambiguous and fragile ways, through a vision (ba-mar’ah בַבַּמַּרְאָה ) or a dream (bahalom בַּחֲלוֹם ).

But to Moses, God appears ‘face to face’ (pêh el-pêh), ‘in a clear appearance and without riddles’ (v-mar’êh v-lo b-hidot וּמַרְאֶה וְלֹא בְחִידֹת ). In short, Moses contemplates ‘the image of God himself’ (temounah תְּמוּנָה).

Note here the curious repetition of the word mar’ah מַּרְאָה, ‘vision’, with a complete change in its meaning from negative to positive… God says in verse 6: « If he were only your prophet, I, the Lord, would manifest Myself to him in a vision (ba-mar’ah בַּמַּרְאָה ) ». And it is the same word (מַרְאֶה), with another vocalization, which he uses in verse 8: « I speak to him face to face, in a clear apparition (ou-mar’êh וּמַרְאֶה ) ». The online version of Sefarim translates the same word as ‘vision’ in verse 6 and ‘clear appearance’ in verse 8. The ‘vision’ is reserved for the simple prophets, and the ‘clear appearance’ for Moses.

How can this be explained?

Verse 6 says: ba-mar’ah, ‘in a vision’. Verse 8 says: ou-mar’eh, ‘and a vision’. In the first case God manifests himself ‘in‘ a vision. In the second case, God speaks with Moses, not ‘through’ a vision, but making Himself as « a vision ».

Moses has the great privilege of seeing God face to face, he sees the image of God. This image is not simply an image, or a ‘shadow’, because it ‘speaks’, and it is the very Logos of God, according to Philo.

Rashi is somewhat consistent with Philo’s point of view, it seems to me. He comments on this delicate passage as follows: « A vision and not in riddles. ‘Vision’ here means ‘clarity of speech’. I explain my words clearly to him and I don’t hide them in riddles like the ones Ye’hezqèl talks about: ‘Propose a riddle…’. (Ye’hezqèl 17, 2). I might have thought that the ‘vision’ is that of the shekhina. So it is written: ‘You cannot see my face’ (Shemoth 33:20) (Sifri). And he will contemplate the image of Hashem. It is the vision from behind, as it is written: ‘You will see me from behind’ (Shimot 33:23) (Sifri). »

If God only manifests Himself ‘in a vision’, it is because He does not ‘speak’. The important thing is not the vision, the image or the shadow of God, but His word, His Logos, the fact that God « speaks ». Read: פֶּה אֶל-פֶּה אֲדַבֶ-בּוֹ, וּמַרְאֶה pêh al-pêh adaber bo, ou-mar’êh: ‘I speak to him face to face, – a vision’.

It is necessary to understand: ‘I speak to him and I make him see clearly my word (my Logos, my Dabar)’…

Philo, a Hellenophone, probably gives the word Logos some Platonic connotations, which are not a priori present in the Hebrew word Dabar (דָּבָר). But Philo makes the strong gesture of identifying the Logos, the Image (of God) and Dabar.

Philo is also a contemporary of Jesus, whom his disciple John will call a few years later Logos and « Image » of God.

Between the Dabar of Moses and the Logos as Philo, John and Rashi understand it, how can we not see continuities and differences?

The Spirit (or the Word) is more or less incarnated. As in the ‘image’ and the ‘clear appearance’ of the Logos. Or as in being the Logos itself.


1In Hebrew,  tsal means « shadow » and Tsalel : « shadow of God »

iEx. 31,2

iiPs 39,7

iiiLegum Allegoriae, 96

ivJn 1,1

vNum. 12,6-8

The Metaphors of Monotheism in India, Israel and the West

The philosopher must travel among the nations, following the example of Pythagoras.

« Pythagoras went to Babylon, Egypt, all over Persia, learning from the Magi and priests; it is reported that he also got along with the Brahmins. »i

No people, no culture, no religion has a monopoly on knowledge. Under the appearance of their multiplicities, we must seek a deeper, original unity.

In the Vedas, Agni is « God of Fire ». Fire is an image. It’s only one of his names. Agni is the Divine in many other aspects, which its names designate: « Agni, you are Indra, the dispenser of good; you are the adorable Viṣṇu, praised by many; you are Brahmānaspati… you are all wisdom. Agni you are the royal Varuṇa, observer of the sacred vows, you are the adorable Mitra, the destroyer. »

Agni embodies the infinite multiplicity and profound unity of the Divine. Agni is in the same time innumerable, and the only God.

The religion of the Vedas has the appearance of a polytheism, through the myriadic accumulation of God’s names. But it is also a monotheism in its essential intuition.

The Vedas sing, chant, invoke and cry out the Divine, – in all its forms. This Divine is always Word, – in all its forms. « By the Song and beside it, he produces the Cry; by the Cry, the Hymn; by means of the triple invocation, the Word. »ii

Agni is the divine Fire, which illuminates, it is also the libation of the Soma, which crackles. He is one, and the other, and their union. Through Sacrifice, Fire and Soma unite. Fire and Soma contribute to their union, this union of which Agni is the divine name.

The same questions are still running through humanity.

« Where is the breath, the blood, the breath of the earth? Who went to ask who knows? « asks Ṛg Veda.iii

Later, and further west, the Lord asked Job: « Where were you when I founded the earth? Speak if your knowledge is enlightened. Who set the measures, would you know, or who stretched the line on her? (…) Tell us, if you know all this. On which side does the light dwell, and where does the darkness dwell? » iv

There is an instinctive familiarity, a brotherhood of tone, an intuitive resemblance, between a thousand years apart.

The ancient Hebrews, dedicated to the intuition of the One, also sought and celebrated His various names. Is this not analogy with the multiple names and Vedic attributes of the Divinity, whose essence is unique?

When God « shouts » three times his name to Moses’ address « YHVH, YHVH, EL » (יְהוָה יְהוָה, אֵל), there is one God who pronounces a triple Name. Three screams for three names. What does the first YHVH say? What does the second YHVH mean? What does the third name, EL, express?

Christianity will respond a thousand years after Moses to these questions with other metaphors (the Father, the Son, the Spirit).

A thousand years before Moses, verses from Ṛg Veda already evoked the three divine names of a single God: « Three Hairy shines in turn: one sows itself in the Saṃvatsara; one considers the Whole by means of the Powers; and another one sees the crossing, but not the color. »v

The three « Hairy » are in fact the only God, Agni, whose hair is of flame.vi

The first « Hairy » is sown in the Soma, as a primordial, unborn germ. The second « Hairy » considers the Whole thanks to the Soma, which contains the powers and forces. The third « Hairy » is the dark being of Agni (the Agni « aja », – « unborn »), a darkness that God « passes through » when he passes from the dark to the bright, from night to light.

For the poet’s eye and ear, this ‘triplicity’ is not a coincidence. Millennia pass, ideas remain. Agni spreads the fire of his bushy and shiny « hair » three times, to signify his creative power, wisdom and revelation. From the burning bush, Yahweh shouts his three names to Moses to make sure he is heard.

The figure of a God « one » who shows Himself as a « three », seems to be an anthropological constant. The same strange, contradictory and fundamental metaphor links Aryan and Vedic India, Semitic and Jewish Israel, and Greek-Latin and Christian West.

iEusèbe de Césarée. Préparation évangélique, 4,15

iiṚg Veda I, 164,24.

iiiṚg Veda I, 164,4.

ivJob, 38, 4-19

vṚg Veda I, 164,44.

viOne of the attributes of Apollo, Xantokomès (Ξανθόκομης), also makes him a God« with « fire-red hair »

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