In addition to his twelve disciples Jesus had a group of devoted women followers. Mary Magdalene stands out by the number of times her name is mentioned in the Gospels. She’s the first among all the disciples to acknowledge the resurrected body of Christ. Throughout history her image has been popular in art, celebrated by gnostic advocates and recently praised by the magisterium. To this day there is no theological or academic consensus on her identity. Since the turn of this millennium, tailwinds are stirring up her Spirit. Her role in spreading the Good News is at last recognized, conferring upon her a rightful status similar to Peter. The disciple who was once called Simon whom Jesus gave the metaphorical name of rock. Similarly, Mary’s surname of Magdalene has an etymology that is linked to the Hebrew word migdal, meaning tower. The literary device that the narratives apply to Simon is here applied to Mary. Both are metaphorical attributes: Simon as rock and Mary as tower. The Gospels reveal that Jesus uses parables and metaphors in his teachings. They are central to his message. As such, how essential are literary devices to revelation and the underlying dynamic of the “truth”?
Mary Magdalene is mentioned more times than any other disciple except Peter. The sum would be greater if one takes into account the number of occasions her identity has been obscured by misrepresentation. In the eight times that a list of women is cited, on every occasion Mary Magdalene is named first. Only at the crucifixion is Mary the mother of Jesus mentioned first and Mary Magdalene last. Mary whose womb gave birth to Jesus is present at his death, whereas it is Mary Magdalene who finds the empty tomb who is witness to the risen Christ.
Although these women remained in the background they nonetheless provided financial support to Jesus and his mission. All four Gospels describe a group of women that accompanied Jesus until his last week and were present at his crucifixion. They alone remained until the end, whereas the male disciples fled.
Before I get into Mary Magdalene and the significance of metaphor in establishing her identity, I would like to say a few words about the historical context of the narratives.
The setting: the Gospels
The hero: Mary Magdalene
The quest: the dynamic of “truth”
The adversary: materialism and literal sense of the Word
The mentor: metaphor
The outcome: the tower of the flock (1)
The Gospels vary in their description of an enigmatic female follower of Jesus. Three synoptic Gospels, namely Matthew, Mark and Luke, share a common perspective and chronology of Jesus’ ministry. However, Luke is a bit of a devil’s advocate in his description of a woman’s anointing of Jesus. The event in Mark and Matthew takes place in Bethany in Simon’s house before the Passover. In Luke, the scene is in a different city, in a Pharisee’s house at another time. As for the fourth Gospel of John, the text only shares a similar chronology of Jesus’ mission in these events: The baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist, the multiplications of loaves and fishes, the crucifixion, the anointing of Jesus, and Mary Magdalene’s presence at the empty tomb. In Luke and John, Mary anoints the Lord’s feet. In Matthew’s and Mark’s she pours the fragrant oil over his head. Although the woman at the anointing scene remains unnamed in Matthew, Marc and Luke, in John she is described as Mary the sister of Lazarus and Martha from the town of Bethany.
The Gospel of Mark is the oldest text, written between ~65-75 CE. Whereas Matthew and Luke are dated approximately between ~80-90 CE. The Gospel of John was written circa ~90-100 CE. Mark relies mostly on oral tradition for his source and inspiration. Matthew and Luke have two common sources; Mark and “Q” ‒ from the German Quelle meaning source. Matthew is more descriptive than Mark whereas Luke’s version is more embellished and at times confounding. Although Matthew and Luke complement each other, they differ in many factual details. There is no academic consensus on the identity of the authors. None of the Evangelists knew or met Jesus.
The accounts were likely written in Antioch Syria, Ephesus ‒ now Turkey‒ and Rome, outside the confines of Judea, and for the most part after the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 AD. In a period where Greek culture ‒Hellenism‒ was dominant in the Greco-Roman empire. The extent of the cultural influence of Hellenism is reflected by Greek gods that were adopted by the Romans as their own. They were given Latin names and made part of their pantheon.
The Gospels were likely written by Jewish men who were knowledgeable of holy scriptures. This is evidenced by their extensive references to the Septuagint ‒ a Greek translation of Hebrew texts, known as the Old Testament in its canonical compilation. The texts use a wide range of literary devices to convey their view of events. The authors were likely spiritual leaders in their respective communities. They shared their lives and celebrated religious practices with Jews and Gentiles alike. They lived by Jesus’ all-embracing commandment of love your neighbor like yourself and obeyed the instruction to teach the Good News to all nations.
The texts were written in Koine, a Greek dialect that became the dominant language in the Mediterranean and the Middle-East after the conquests of Alexander the Great. It is assumed that Greek rather than Hebrew was chosen because it was the lingua franca of its time. And because the Evangelists lived in a cultural environment populated by Greek speaking Jews and Gentiles. Perhaps, these texts were written in Koine as a way to avoid Roman suspicion in the aftermath of the Jewish rebellion and the destruction of Jerusalem. Another reason might be that reading and writing were closely guarded skills and privileges held by Jewish priestly dynasties and scribes.
In the aftermath of the destruction of Jerusalem the political environment changed. Jewish people who were not imprisoned, enslaved or executed fled the city to varied communities of the Diaspora. Those who remained in Judea were under tighter Roman control and monitored for any sign of insurrection. In general, Jewish religious practices were tolerated by the authorities as long as it did not cause any public disturbance. The priestly orders that were affiliated with the Temple were dispersed and dwindled in importance. Surveillance of the Jewish population in the empire increased. Any text or letters addressed to varied churches carried by messengers were likely confiscated by Roman patrols and checked for any sign of rebellion. The irony is that parables and metaphors were used to deflect any misapprehension that the message of the Good News was politically motivated. Jesus chides and explains to his disciples that only enlightened few understand the meaning of his words.
After the crucifixion of their beloved teacher and the destruction of Jerusalem, worshipers could no longer rely on the priesthood of the Temple for religious guidance. Political circumstances shifted the worship to a theology connected to the Jewish experience of exile. Centered on the principle that God does not only reside in the Holy of Holies located in the Temple but is symbolized by the chariot of God. The movable presence of Yahweh, accessible to whom he chooses for his mission.
The Jewish people of the Diaspora more than ever required spiritual direction and hope. To many, Jesus the Nazarene was considered an outsider chastised by the priestly orders of Jerusalem. As such he represented a spiritual model in a post Second Temple era for many Jewish people who heard his message. During his mission, Jesus directed his attention to people who suffered as outcasts, who yearned for hope, integration and salvation. Jesus healed people who suffered a loss: He cured the blind, the deaf and the paralyzed. He brought back to life the dead. He praises the alien like the Samaritan and the occupier like the Roman centurion on their faith. And Jesus welcomed women as his followers. He praised Mary Magdalene for anointing him, foretelling she would play a key role in the aftermath of his death.
There is no scholarly consensus as to the origin of the surname Magdalene. The magisterium’s position is that the name refers to a place named Magdala. A word derived from the Hebrew word migdal. As a result certain versions of the New Testament translate Mary’s surname of Magdala, implying that her name is connected to the city of her origin located on the shores of the Sea of Galilee.
The assumption inspired a deep-seated conviction about a connection between the city of Magdala and Mary. However, this relation may not be entirely factual as it does not reflect historical data and the geography of Palestine of the time. Such a place on the banks of the Sea of Galilee no longer existed at the time of Jesus. Writings by Flavius Josephus (~37-100 CE), an historian and author of the The Jewish War, who lived during that era, does not mention a city known as Magdala/Migdal. Instead the site is referred as Taricheae, a prosperous city known for its production of salted fish. In addition the Greek geographer Strabo (64 BCE – 24 CE) in his Geography of Palestine describes the city of Taricheae without any mention of a town named Madgala. Nonetheless, the city later became known as Magdala and led to the support for the popular conviction about Mary’s surname.
Confounding as it may be, recent archaeological findings at the location of Magdala revealed the existence of an ancient city called Migdal Nunia, meaning tower of the fish. A structure that consists of a lower basin built out of rocks. The vessel was filled with water where fish were kept after an abundant fishing expedition.
The name Migdal or Migdol in Hebrew means tower. Other translations render it as fortress, stronghold or watchtower. The word is derived from the root gaddal meaning growing up, and to become great or important; figuratively implying pride and authority. In Exodus (14:2), Migdol is the location of an encampment near where Moses crossed the Sea of Reeds. In Jeremiah it refers to a chastised Jewish colony in Egypt. In many other instances Migdal indicates a tower in conjunction with a geographical location: Midgal-Gad the tower of Gad and Midgal-Eder to tower of Eder. In Joshua (19:38) Migdal-El signifies the Tower of God. And in Micah the term is associated with flock:
Mc 4: 8 And you, O tower of the flock,
hill of the daughter of Zion,
to you shall it come,
the former dominion shall come,
kingship for the daughter of Jerusalem.
Seven Evils Spirits
In 1969, shortly after the conclusion of Vatican II, the Catholic Church officially disclosed that the long held view that identified Mary Magdalene as a prostitute was not based on any factual or scriptural evidence. Cleared of being a prostitute she is nonetheless mostly remembered as a sinner and the woman whom Jesus cast out seven evil spirits, even though the cure’s description consist of two phrases. Mark (16:9) simply states from whom Jesus had cast out seven demons. Whereas Luke (8:2) mentions briefly that; Mary surnamed Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out. This event and the mischaracterization of her as a prostitute overshadowed her more important role in the spreading of the Good News.
Luke describes Mary Magdalene as a sinner. This description likely led to her being depicted in the West as a prostitute. However, sin in the Old Testament does not necessarily convey moral or carnal debauchery. Sin originally meant to miss the mark, to do evil against somebody, especially Yahweh. Sin above all is related to revolt, offense and contempt, especially in violation of the covenant: It is mostly related to idolatry.
The cure of evil spirits is often referred to as exorcism. The term is misleading as it conjures up images of wild and harmful possessions portrayed by the media. This idea of possession does not convey what the original meaning of casting out evil spirits may have been about. It consisted in a process to cleanse a person of unclean spirits in order to allow he or she to be accepted in a community or an inner circle of followers. Evil spirits are also described by the Greek word demons. The term refers to spirits that hover between terrestrial world and the realm of the gods and are not necessarily harmful. Demons in those days did not represent cinematographic images of horrific and dreadful possessions.
Possession of evil spirits was a condition perceived by most devout Jews of the time, including Jesus and his disciples, as unclean and impure. A condition that must be kept out of reach in order to avoid contagion. It conforms to the practice of an orthodox believer in setting himself apart from Gentiles and non-compliant Jews by a strict application of holy instructions, separating what is clean vs unclean, pure vs impure. The instructions dictate how one eats, who he shares meals or who he associates with, who he could touch or who can touch him: the woman he could marry, when to have sex, and what type of sex; how to farm; what type of animals he could eat, and how to kill them, etc.
Back then a wife was man’s property. A woman was typically identified as a sister, a wife or as a mother of some man. Because of Mary’s status and her behavior, she breaks established religious customs of her time. Being unmarried at a late age was viewed with distrust. And her single status might have been at the origin of the suspicion of her evil possession. She is wealthy as noted by the very expensive perfume she uses on Jesus. She throws herself at Jesus’ feet, she touched him, violating religious practices, displaying a wild nature and strong minded character. And most daring of all, she anoints Jesus: An act full of significance and daring.
Jesus’ message of love your neighbor like yourself supersedes all commandments and instructions. It is applied to everybody, including women. Was Jesus’ casting out Mary’s evil spirits a process of removing all restrictions and biases regarding a woman becoming a close follower in an observant Jewish context? Luke (10:39) describes Mary of Bethany listening to Jesus’s teachings instead of helping her sister Martha preparing the meal for the guests. This indicates that she is more interested in absorbing Jesus’ words and becoming a disciple than behaving according to prescribed rules of her time. During the first century of Judaism it was unusual for a woman to sit down and listen to a Rabbuni, meaning teacher in Aramaic. More so for a teacher to accept a woman as a disciple.
The anointing of Jesus is described in all four Gospels. This in itself is a significant event. Nonetheless, each version recounts what happened in varied details. Overall the scene depicts a woman holding in her arms an alabaster vial containing very expensive perfume walking in a room filled with dinner guests. She moves toward Jesus and kneels in front of him. She pours the costly nard over Jesus’ feet and then rubs them. By some accounts the value of the perfume is estimated to be worth as much as one year’s wages. She then wipes his feet with her long lush hair. She does this in full view of Jesus’ disciples and guests in a show of utter submission and love. She deliberately chooses to make the anointing an act of public display.
Lk 7:36 One of the Pharisees invited him to a meal. When he arrived at the Pharisee’s house and place at the table, suddenly a woman came in, who had a bad name in town. She had heard he was dining with the Pharisee and had brought with her an alabaster jar of ointment. She waited behind him at his feet, weeping, and her tears fell on his feet, and she wiped them away with her hair; then she covered his feet with kisses and anointed them with ointment.
By her actions she recognized Jesus as her Lord and teacher. The scene has a significant symbolic reference in terms of the anointing of Jesus as Messiah. The disciples are scandalized by such an act of devotion and symbolism. They question why so much money should be spent frivolously instead of feeding the poor. Plus, it is considered a violation of religious practice for a woman to touch an unmarried man. Nonetheless, Jesus tells them to leave her alone, because she has done a good work.
In the Old Testament the ritual of anointing relates to pouring scented oil over a person’s head as a sign of divine election to a position of power. Biblical examples depict the ritual being performed on high priests or kings. The Hebrew word for “the anointed one” is Mashiaẖ. It is translated in Greek into Christ and the term was rendered as Messiah in English. King David is a befitting example of Mashiaẖ. As a young man he killed Goliath and grew to become a successful military leader who united the kingdoms of Israel and Judah. He was a poet, a good orator and a musician. As a result of his military skills and political maneuvering he rose in ranks and was anointed king by prophet Samuel. Hebrew prophets regard Kind David as the ancestor of a future Mashiaẖ.
The translation of Hebrew texts into Greek represents a cultural departure from the original religious experiences lived by the Jewish people; especially for Gentiles who were introduced to the Holy scriptures and who did not share the historical background as a people. This also applies to the translation of the Bible in numerous other languages. The term Mashiaẖ does not convey the same meaning for Jewish people as its translation into Christ/Messiah does for Christians. For the Jewish people the term has a religious, historical and geopolitical meaning. For Christians, the word Christ relates more to Savior. And is connected to the commandment of love your neighbor with the mission to teach the Good News to all nations, underlying a universal manner of being as the core of its message.
Mary’s anointing has a symbolic reference to Jesus as a spiritual Messiah and Savior. In retrospect, Mary’s actions show a sign of prophetic insight. Christians a few centuries later would, with the conversion of Emperor Constantine, take over Rome and spread their message to the whole empire and beyond reaching all nations without the help of an army, tax collection or central government.
In Matthew, Mark and Luke the identity of the woman at the anointing scene is unnamed. This is a mystery, especially considering that the event is reported in all four Gospels, all of which describe the behavior of a person filled with symbolic significance. There is one exemption. John does reveal her identity: She is Mary from the town of Bethany, a woman he describes as Mary Magdalene who is present at the tomb.
Jesus says this about his anointing: Let her alone, in order that she may keep it for the day of My burial. He is giving us a clue by revealing a connection between the woman at his anointing and Mary Magdalene with fragrant oil kept in preparation for his burial. Hence, the unnamed woman in Matthew, Mark and Luke and referred to as Mary of Bethany in John, is hypothetically the same person. (2) She is Mary from the town of Bethany also known as Mary with the metaphorical attribute of Migdal.
Jesus’ fate unraveled shortly after his last supper. He was betrayed by one of his followers, abandoned by his disciples, and arrested by the Roman occupying forces. He was denounced by the priests and judged and condemned by the mob under the supervision of Pontius Pilate, the Roman prefect. He was tortured, humiliated and forced to carry the instrument of his death. He was finally nailed to a cross as a violent display of the sanctioning power of the Empire. Finally, he was left to die between common criminals. Throughout his ordeal the only people that stood by his side were Mary the mother of Jesus, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, Joset and Salome.
In John’s version, Mary Magdalene finds an empty tomb and witnesses the appearance of Jesus whom she does not recognize and mistakes for a gardener. Mary asks the gardener if he took the body away? And if so, to tell her where he put it. Suddenly, Jesus calls out; “Mary”. And at the sound of her name she cries out “Rabbuni” in Aramaic. Mary Magdalene, a novice of Jesus’ teachings, has a revelation. She did not recognize Jesus at first because the risen Lord after his death is a different body.
Magdalene was the first to proclaim that Jesus has risen from the dead. She is the chosen messenger to spread the Good News. As it happens, the root word apostle in Greek means messenger. As a result on June 3rd 2016, by the express wish of Pope Francis, the Church gave Saint Mary Magdalene the same rank of Feast celebration that was given to the Apostles in the General Roman Calendar. Stating; the special mission of this woman should be underlined, she who is an example and model for all women in the Church. The Church also acknowledges the opinion of Rabanus Maurus and Saint Thomas Aquinas who called Mary Magdalene apostolorum apostola or the Apostle to the Apostles. Although Mary
Magdalene is considered a Saint by several Christian denominations, her status is pre-Congregational, meaning, she is a saint whose beatification or canonization occurred before the institution of the modern investigations performed by the Congregation for the Causes of Saints.
In mythology, the first to inaugurate a new reality is elevated in status and consecrated as a supernatural being, a deity or a saint. Myth is essentially a story that describes the events that are at the origin of a new reality created by civilizing people in the beginning of time. The Gospels recount the events that ushered a new era of Christianity, inaugurating a new time with the separation between Before Christ (BC) and After Death (AD). A secularized version of these acronyms are rendered as Before the Common Era (BCE) and Common Era (CE). To sum it up, myth records meaningful events of the world. These events evolve in a time beyond history, in a fuzzy boundary between the supernatural and the ordinary world, between mythology and history. In this respect Mary Magdalene being the first to witness the risen Christ plays a preeminent role in Christianity.
The Metaphor as Code
In order to be able to write in Koine the Evangelists must have been educated in Greek. Among the more noteworthy teachers of Classical Greek schools of thought is Aristotle, who’s writings cover a wide array of subjects including Rhetoric and Poetics. Rhetoric is the art of speaking or writing in an eloquent manner in order to convince and influence an audience. One essential component of both treatises is metaphor: A figure of speech that is as old as Greek literature and can be traced back to the writings of Homer. Metaphor consists in giving the thing a name that belongs to something else.
Metaphor is not the exclusivity of Greek literature, it is extensively used in Hebrew holy scriptures. The following are only a few samples:
Pr 18:10 The name of Yahweh is a strong tower;
the upright runs to it and is secure
The wealth of the rich forms a stronghold
a high wall, as the rich supposes
Ps 18: 2 Yahweh is my rock and my fortress,
my deliverer is my God
I take refuge in him, my rock,
my shield, my saving strength,
my stronghold, my place of refuge
Literary critic Northrop Frye is a guiding source when he states that: Within the Bible itself, all the values connected with the term “truth” can be reached only by passing through myth and metaphor. He is not alone in making the assessment. Literary theorist Kenneth Burke explains that literary devices like the metaphor have their role in the discovery and description of “the truth”. While mythologist Joseph Campbell sees the metaphor as a dynamic way of looking at narrative. During an interview Campbell asked an interviewer this question: What is a metaphor? Bemused he answered: My friend John runs very fast. People say he runs like a deer. There’s a metaphor. Campbell replied; That’s not a metaphor. A metaphor is: John is a deer.
This is what Jesus says:
Jn 10:9 I am the door/gate
Jn 14:6 I am the way
Jesus’ tells Simon that he is rock. He will be known as the foundation on which Jesus will build his community.
Mt 16:18 So now I say to you: You are Peter ‒ rock‒, and on this rock I will build my community. And the gates of the underworld can never overpower it.
During the Last Supper Jesus shares his last meal with his disciples. Jesus picks and holds a loaf of bread, cuts it into twelve pieces and shares it with his followers. He pours wine in a cup and shares it with his disciples and says.
Mk 14: 22 Take it, he said, this is my body…this is my blood
Jesus words are symbolic actions: The bread is his body, the wine is his blood. By taking the bread in his hands, cutting it into pieces and sharing it with his Disciples, Jesus’ biological body becomes a different body and signifies the group of Disciples holding the symbolic pieces of bread formerly made of one loaf. Each individual member makes up the assembly known as the Church, defined by a papal encyclical as the Mystical Body of Christ. The cup of wine is Jesus’ blood, sacrificed for the life of the community after his death. The cup holds an additional symbolic attribute in terms of being a container: A physical object that holds a beverage for consumption. In this sense the mythical Holy Grail is only one material component in the metaphorical equation. The other, is the content of wine turned into blood as a symbol of Jesus’ sacrificial death to give life to his Mystical Body.
A metaphor is a figure of speech that consists in using a word~image to convey~embody something else. It is a break in the normal use of language that modifies habitual social conventions and religious practices. In the case of the Gospels, it is a shift in meaning and in being: A transport from a literal, material and visible level into a metaphorical, intangible and invisible level. The process involves a carrying-over of a material condition into a spiritual state to inspire revelation ‒ to unveil what is hidden. Unraveling a dynamic interaction between the material and the spiritual state of understanding the Word.
Mk 8:18 Have you eyes and do not see, ears and do not hear?
The name Mary Magdalene, depending on the translation, is used at least twelve times in the Gospels. Similarly, the name of Simon Peter, used with a metaphorical attribute, is used fifteen times in the Gospel of John. The narratives show that Jesus privileges the use of literary devices to reveal his message. Simply put, the metaphor is the door to the Good News. It enable us to see Mary as a metaphorical tower. In the same way we see Peter as metaphorical rock. Furthermore, Simon’s surname represents a single element as opposed to a more elaborate structure defined by tower. The distinction suggests a more complex character of Mary Migdal.
Luke, who at times is confounding, is nonetheless helpful when he describes Mary as surnamed the Magdalene, adding support to the idea that Migdal is a metaphorical attribute of tower. Similar to one that is given to Peter, or John the Baptist, or James and John as the Sons of Thunder.
Lk 8:2 With him went the Twelve, as well as certain women who had been cured of evils spirits and ailments: Mary surnamed the Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out…
Furthermore, it is surmised that the term Migdal might also allude to tower of the fish, and is made in connection to the ancient city of Midgal Nunia. Even though this city was known as Taricheae at the time of Jesus. It is presumed that Jewish people, as an act of defiance against the Roman occupier, did not call the city by its Latin name but continued to referred to it as Migdal. This type of rock basin holding fish were likely found in many other fishing towns around the sea of Galilee.
In another metaphorical example in Matthew (4:8) Jesus says he will make his disciples fishers of men. As it happens the Greek word for fish is ichthys. The word was converted into an acronym during the first century CE meaning; Jesus, Christ, Son of God, Savior, and was depicted by the symbol of a fish. Second-century theologian Tertulian explains: we, little fishes, after the image of our ichthys, Jesus Christ, are born in the water.
Christians were not the only ones using the image of a fish as a religious symbol. It was a common pagan symbol as well. As a result, Christians used the image in times of persecution in order to avoid attracting suspicion from the Roman authorities. It was customary for a believer to mark meeting places and tombs with the icon to differentiate followers from unbelievers. It was also used as a secret meeting code between Christians. One faithful would draw an upper arc and the other would complete the image by drawing the lower arc forming an image of a fish.
To conclude, Simon was named Peter to signify he was the foundation of the Church. Whereas, Mary surnamed Magdalene, is the first to recognize the resurrected body of Christ. According to a literary interpretation of the narratives she is Migdal, a symbolic tower, implying strength and vision. Perhaps alluding to tower of the fish, and as such she embodies the sacred vessel symbolized by the tower of the flock.
Mary Magdalene’s portrait can only be made with a patchwork of evidence found in varied Gospels. Her identity will be subject to continued scholarly scrutiny and debate. Nonetheless, literary devices are essential tools that provide clues in finding the truth about Mary’s metaphorical identity.
Mk 14: 9 In truth I tell you, whenever throughout all the world the Good News is proclaimed, what she has done will be told as well, in remembrance of her.
(1) The original idea of the thematic sequence is taken from A.L. Greimas, Structural Semantics: An Attempt at a Method, Lincoln, University of Nebraska Press, 1983. I have introduced my own sequence which may not be endorsed or approved by the author.
(2) The Church’s position about Mary Magdalene’s identity is split between an old tradition dating back to Pope Gregory I (540-604 CE), who identified Mary Magdalene, the sister of Lazarus and Martha of the town of Bethany, and the woman who anointed Jesus as the same person. According to the Church this interpretation continued to influence western ecclesiastical authors, Christian art and liturgical texts relative to this Saint. However, the magisterium’s current position is that Mary Magdalene should not be confused with Mary the sister of Lazarus and Martha, from the town of Bethany
Bourgeault Cynthia, The Meaning of Mary Magdalene, Boston, Shambhala, 2010
Burke Kenneth, Four Master Tropes, JSTOR.org
Chilton Bruce, Mary Magdalene, A Biography, New York, Doubleday, 2005
Frye Northrop, The Great Code, Toronto, Academic Press Canada, 1982
Frye Northrop, Words With Power, San Diego, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1990
King Karen L., The Gospel of Mary of Magdala, Santa Rosa, Polebridge Press, 2003
Kirby John T., Aristotle on Metaphor, JSTOR.org
Ricoeur Paul, La Metaphor Vive, Paris, Seuil, 1975
Sabar Ariel, Unearthing the World of Jesus, Smithsonian.com
Starbird Margaret, Mary Magdalene, Bride in Exile, Rochester, Bear & Company, 2005
No matter if one is religious or agnostic, Paul’s letters are compelling pieces of literature. Part confession, part exhortation, and part reprimand, his epistles are a gripping expression of a call to duty in the face of what the Apostle perceived to be an eminent end of days. Although the world did not cease to exist as he expected, the destruction of Jerusalem and its Second Temple eight years after his death in 70 AD, could very well be considered the end of the world for the Jewish people. The political context that led to Paul’s execution in Rome foreshadowed his dread about the future. To this day his landmark epistle to the Romans remains his most important legacy. Overall, his letters disclose a man set apart for a mission. His calling initiated an identity crisis directly related to his Jewish religious background as a man born in Tarsus, living in a Greek cultural environment, and subject to Roman political control. The context of Paul’s vocation reveals a religious disintegration and the unraveling dynamic of a spiritual experience.
The term religious typically implies an experience that is lived within the framework of a belief system, whereas the term spiritual relates to an experience that can also occur outside the boundaries of an established religion. Paul’s pharisaic background and calling make his experience both religious and spiritual in the sense that his calling shattered the boundaries of his religious beliefs set by tenets outlined in the Torah. With his vocation, Paul went beyond the instructions to reach into a spiritual realm outside his religious beliefs to embrace what he once perceived to be blasphemous and heresy.
Following his calling, Paul undertook to preach the Good News to the world. His travels included cities in Albania, Macedonia, Greece, Cyprus, parts of Turkey, Syria, Asia Minor, Arabia and Judea. On several occasions he visited Jerusalem where several of the Lord’s disciples lived, among them Peter and James, the brother of Jesus. His first journey took place three years after his revelation. On his last visit, approximately fifteen years later, he was arrested, imprisoned and transferred to Rome where he was executed five years later. Paul, the persecutor of Christian Jews, eventually became persecuted by conservative Jews and Christian Jews who did not share his views on the suspension of the law to accommodate Gentile converts.
In order to put Paul’s spiritual experience in proper perspective, it is necessary to describe his religious background and the cultural environment in which he lived. It is also important to emphasize the changes brought about by the translation of the Torah into Greek, a language in which Paul wrote his letters. This applies also to all the languages in which the Bible was translated over time. Important aspects of the original Hebrew words have been obscured from one language to another, and inevitably some of the original significance has been lost in the translation.
Saul, who is better known by his Latin name Paul, was born in Tarsus –south-central Turkey– between 1 and 5 AD. His birthplace was renowned for being a center of Greek culture. Like many other cities of that region, it was under military and political control of Rome. Nonetheless, Greek was a predominant language of that era.
During that period the Jewish population of the Diaspora was approximately 4.5 million, about 7% of the total population of the Roman empire. A majority of Jewish people lived outside Judea, mostly in territories located along the Mediterranean coast of North Africa and the Aegean coast, all the way to Italy and beyond. Paul’s family, like many other Jewish families, lived in voluntary exile, perhaps because Hellenistic rulers had granted Jews extensive rights, special privileges, and protection under the law.
At the time of Paul’s writing the literacy level in the Greco-Roman world was close to 20% of the urban population, whereas in Judea it was about 2 to 3% of the Jewish people. Being born and educated in an urban environment with higher literacy levels might explain why his letters were written in Koine, or common Greek. Traditionally, reading and writing were a closely guarded trade by priestly dynasties and scribes of Israel. It was a family craft that was kept from generation to generation. As a rule, priests interpreted and managed the religious instructions of the law, whereas scribes acted as consultants and accountants for the ruling class. In some cases priestly orders also acted as scribes and performed all the related functions for the rulers.
Another explanation why Paul wrote in Koine is that the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Torah, was widely used during his lifetime. According to tradition the Septuagint had its origin in Alexandria, Egypt. It was sponsored by King Ptolemy II (287-47 BC), who had recently established the library of Alexandria. The king was persuaded by his chief librarian to include a copy of the Jewish sacred text in the library. Over time the Septuagint became popular among a growing Jewish population of the Diaspora who were inevitably influenced by Hellenism. This is exemplified by the Epistles and Gospels written in Koine.
Paul’s letters are unique in many respects. They are the oldest Christian writings and predate the oldest Gospel of Mark by 20 years. His epistles are among very few documents written by a historical New Testament individual. Although his letters are compelling pieces of literature, they don’t stand up to rhetorical standard. Paul used a dialect similar to one spoken by Hellenistic Jews of the time. His writing reveals he was not concerned with being eloquent. He did not use the canons of rhetoric and did not give credit to reason, the basic philosophical foundation of Hellenism. The text is comprised of different styles crammed together and best described as letters meant to be read aloud by Paul’s emissary to varied assemblies of believers. His composition represented Paul’s own cultural background and his unique way of expressing himself.
Not all epistles bearing his name were written by Paul. Scholarly consensus attributes the following documents to his authorship: First and Second Letters to the Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, Philemon and Romans. Other letters are called Deutero-Pauline, meaning they were written under his name. For the sake of authenticity, the list above will be used as the source of this essay, the reason being that it is hard enough to determine an accurate portrait of Paul without having documents that contradict important events or confuse his theological teachings. A case in point is the Book of Acts written by Luke some forty years later. The book is colorful, full of anecdotes, yet in many instances contradicts or omits some historical facts about the apostle.
Except for the letter to Philemon addressed to a friend, the epistles are centered on pastoral matters dealing with varied churches that have their location as title. Unlike the Gospels, Paul is not preoccupied with describing the chronological life of Jesus or his sayings. Their content varies from giving thanks, to words of support, to criticism or reprimand, and are mostly concerned with expressing his thoughts on the justification through faith in Christ Jesus. His letters outline his interpretation of the law, sin, love, death and the resurrection of the body of Christ as the Church.
The Apostle Paul was a crucial player in the foundation of Christianity. His militant work made him the second most important figure after Jesus Christ. And although he never met Jesus, he did meet Peter, the apostle that the Lord chose as leader of his Church, and James, the brother of Jesus in Jerusalem. As a result, Paul heard first hand their testimony about Jesus’ message.
Saul was raised in the matter of the law as a Pharisee. At the outset he was educated in the school of thought that relied on the written and oral traditions of the Torah, a belief system based on the liturgy and rituals that now constitute Rabbinic Judaism. According to his letters, Paul persecuted Jews who were preaching Jesus’ message, and on some occasions he did so violently. He was actively involved in trying to destroy the early church. As a Pharisee he simply perceived Christian Jews as violating Mosaic Law. He persecuted both Jews and Gentiles alike for proclaiming that Jesus was the Messiah and preaching that Jesus was crucified and buried; on the third day was resurrected from the dead and sat at the right hand of God. Christian Jews were also targeted for breaking bread with uncircumcised Gentile converts.
The irony is that on several occasions the Gospels describe Jesus being confronted by Pharisees. They claim that Jesus does not have the authority to forgive sins, and that he should not be eating with sinners. He was chastised for healing a follower on a Sabbath. On one occasion Pharisees confronted him by saying that the law of Moses requires that an adulteress be stoned, to which Jesus replies that he who is without sin throw the first stone.
One day, on his way to Damascus, presumably in order to persecute Christian Jews, Paul’s religious conviction is shattered to the core. His faith is irrevocably altered. His letters do not give any details of what exactly happened, except that Christ appeared to him in the same fashion as he did to the disciples. All we know is that it brought a radical change in his life. His religious experience compelled Paul into having a diametrically opposed view of Christ Jesus and the Jews and Gentiles who proclaimed his message.
What caused Saul’s change? Did he break down, compelled by the message of love thy neighbor made by the people he persecuted? Did he submit to the presence of the body of Christ embodied by Jesus’ followers? Whatever the reason, his experience unleashed a religious disintegration that compelled him to preach the Good News of the resurrected body of Christ.
His calling unravels a drastic change in his religious beliefs. The law that once was responsible for the persecution of Christian Jews is lifted. Christians and Gentiles are now to be part of the Church as one body in Christ. With his calling Paul the Pharisee opens his heart to all who have faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. Hence, whoever has faith is saved: men, women, Jews, Gentiles, circumcised and uncircumcised, slaves, free men and members of all nations.
Because of his preaching the Gospel, Paul suffered persecution and adverse conditions throughout his mission:
2 Cor 11:23 Are they servants of Christ? I know I sound like a madman, but I have served him far more! I have worked harder, been put in prison more often, been whipped times without number, and faced death again and again. Five different times the Jewish leaders gave me thirty-nine lashes. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked. Once I spent a whole night and a day adrift at sea. I have traveled on many long journeys. I have faced danger from rivers and from robbers. I have faced danger from my own people, the Jews, as well as from the Gentiles. I have faced danger in the cities, in the deserts, and on the seas. And I have faced danger from men who claim to be believers but are not. I have worked hard and long, enduring many sleepless nights. I have been hungry and thirsty and have often gone without food. I have shivered in the cold, without enough clothing to keep me warm…
There is a significant difference between the original meaning of many Hebrew words, their Greek translation and today’s significance. As a result it is important to clarify some of the concepts as Paul understood them. This is especially the case of faith, sin, death and Christ, etc, that don’t have the same spiritual resonance today as it did when he wrote them.
Rom 3: 22 God’s saving justice given through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe.
In a current Christian mindset, faith is a belief that God exists, that we trust that he will do what he says he will do. It also means we trust the tenets of our religious belief system to be true. In this instance, faith places trust in God or on the system we have faith in. The original meaning of the Hebrew word emunah, translated into faith, implies support, in the sense that it does not only rely on the premise that God is present and will act, but emphasizes the individual’s action in support of God and his commandments. As such, faith is an unfailing duty of reciprocity which exists between contracting parties. It is a covenant involving a personal commitment by the faithful and generating a wholesome ̶ shalom ̶ manner of being with the Divine. This support emanates from the believer as much as from God, reflecting a personal relationship with the Lord. The distinction is important in order to understand Paul’s calling of being one in Christ.
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Gal 1:15 But when God, who had set me apart even from the time when I was in my mother’s womb, called me through his grace, and chose to reveal his Son in me so that I should preach him to the Gentiles…
The Hebrew word grace does not signify elegance and mercy but describes the establishment of a new order of things. It implies a similar sense as the original Hebrew word, meaning the strategic order of setting up a tent in an encampment that separates the members living within with strangers living without.
Rom 5:12 When Adam sinned, sin entered the world. Adam’s sin brought death, so death spread to everyone, for everyone sinned.
As a consequence of his persecution of Christians, Paul equates the Law with sin and death. The root of sin is not related to sexual behavior but is centered on idolatry that enslaves people by diverting man’s support of God and his commandments. It relates to power schemes that interfere with an individual’s close relationship with God: Popular idols and subliminal gods that are set against the true God. Consequently, the wage of sin is death does not mean the physical decay of the flesh but the estrangement from a close relationship with the Divine. The result is an alienation that shatters an individual’s integrity in respect to who one is, his/her personal calling, and his/her role in history: in Christian terms, salvation.
In Genesis, God commanded Adam and Eve not to eat the fruit in the middle of the garden or they would die. The story reveals that Eve listened to the serpent that tempted her by saying that by eating the fruit they would be like gods knowing good and evil and would not die. Adam’s sin stems from listening to Eve and eating the forbidden fruit rather than obeying God’s commandment, an offense that resulted in their expulsion from the Garden of Eden. The transgression initiated an alienation from God’s presence, a loss of Adam’s holiness that introduced sin and a spiritual death into the world. According to Paul, Jesus’ mission on earth redeemed Adam’s sin by restoring God’s presence with his own death and resurrection. Jesus was exalted at the right-hand side of God and restored a divine holiness among all who believe. For Paul, sinfulness is the condition of being devoid of faith in Christ who died to restore a reconciliation with God.
Paul uses the same expressions of Lord and God used in the Old Testament. He refers to Jesus as Lord and Christ. The latter is the Latin translation of the Greek Christos meaning messiah. The word Christ does not share the same original significance with the Hebrew mashiach. The term signifies “the anointed one” related to the Jewish practice of the anointing with oil of a king, a sovereign who is a descendant of King David, one who is anticipated to be a great political and military leader of Israel. Mashiach is linguistically, politically, and religiously distinct from the Greek Christos, translated into savior ̶ and more closely related to moshiah. The translation sets the term outside the theological and political jurisdiction of Israel. Saul most likely knew the difference between the two words. However, the scope of his calling demanded that he include Christian Jews and Gentiles who were living outside the political realm of Israel into the body of Christ.
There are many instances where God sets apart people in the Bible. We have very few examples of an actual self consecration. Paul is an exception. God sets Saul apart for a mission to reveal his Son in Paul.
Rom 1:1 Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle and set apart for the gospel of God the gospel he promised before and through his prophets in the Holy Scriptures.
There are two separate issues to note from the quotes above. The first: Paul is setting himself apart. The second: the apostle uses a link of Holy Scriptures to justify the unwritten Gospel of Jesus Christ.
Paul separates himself and commits his life to Christ. The action of setting apart constitutes a consecration, making someone holy. The separation sets boundaries with the profane, the common and the unclean. It is the action of separation that bestows upon a person or object a quality of being holy or sacred. It is not an intrinsic quality of a person or an object in itself.
Paul at the outset believes in the sacred instructions of the Torah. He abides by the exclusive rules of the Holy Scriptures. As a result he opposes Christian Jews who go against God’s commandments. As such he persecuted whoever violated the law whom he considered unclean. Prior to his calling Paul believed in the exclusive rule of the written code consisting of a strict separation between those who abide by the instructions and those who violated them.
After his calling, the law is no longer necessary and is associated with sin because it is an obstacle to the message of love thy neighbor that includes Gentiles. The exclusive nature of the Jewish law prior to the Christ event is lifted. It is supplanted by an all-inclusive commandment of love, generating a wholly manner of being that includes Jews, Gentiles, circumcised and uncircumcised, slaves, free men, women and members of all nations: God’s holy people.
Rom 13: 8 For to love the other person is to fulfill the law.
However, the Jewish law is not abolished. It is encompassed by the commandment of love thy neighbor. If you love your God and neighbor as yourself, you will fulfill law and will not break any of the commandments. As a result, love covers two separate but interacting manners of being consisting of being set apart as a Pharisee, and being one in Christ. It generates an interaction between being exclusively ruled by the written code and by being called into the profane world that was once opposed. It is a movement from an exclusive application of the law to the all inclusive commandment of love.
Among all of Paul’s epistles, Romans stand out as his theological testament: It is addressed to Gentile converts he never met, to a church he did not organize, and a city he never set foot in. In the letter he introduces himself and announces his long planned visit to the church in Rome. He informs its members of his project to continue his mission to Spain. He commends Phoebe who will most likely read Paul’s letter to the assembly. He gives thanks to his friends and fellow-workers, among them, Aquila and Priscilla on whom he relied for updates about the congregation. Paul explains that he had to put off his trip on many occasions because of a duty he had to carry out first, the completion of which was a collection of money meant as an offering to the mother church on the occasion of his second visit to Jerusalem. He also confesses that he viewed his journey with some apprehension, concerned that the members of the church would not welcome his visit or accept his offering. He asks the congregation to pray for the success of his mission.
The apostle introduces to the Roman assembly basic theological principles of the Holy Scripture, many of which we have outlined. He uses the example of Abraham and God’s covenant to justify his premise that circumcision is preferable but not necessary because Abraham’s justification by faith occurred prior to his circumcision. Abraham’s covenant secured a promise to all descendants and consecrated the Patriarch as the father of many nations not only to those who rely on the law and who are circumcised but to all who have faith.
PAUL’S TRIPS TO THE MOTHER CHURCH
His first of two journeys to Jerusalem proved to be crucial for the unity of the early church, even though Paul did not expect to be welcomed with open arms. Members of the mother church had reasons to view Paul with suspicion, foremost because he used to persecute Jewish converts with notable zeal. Also, the Apostle was considered to be too much of a Hellenist. The Apostle knew his teachings would be questioned by Jesus’ disciples who were more conservative Jewish Christians, particularly James, the brother of Jesus. Among the more contentious issues is Paul’s belief on the suspension of the law to accommodate Gentile converts.
Although the members of the mother church believed that the law, including circumcision, should be required of all new Christian converts, the meeting ended with a tacit compromise which allowed Paul’s interpretation of the Gospel to be more tolerant toward the Gentiles. However, after the meeting, both sides stuck to their original beliefs. Paul did not change his mind that the church he was building was God’s new creation in which there are neither Jews nor Gentiles but one body in Christ.
Gal. 2:9 For God, who was at work in Peter as an apostle to the circumcised, was also at work in me as an apostle to the Gentiles.
Paul’s calling and mission made him many enemies among the Christian Jews as well as the religious Jews who viewed his teachings as a violation of the law. He stood out as a controversial figure and a source of trouble. In 57 AD he was arrested in Jerusalem. He was most likely denounced to the local authorities by religious conservatives during a period when the city was rife with unrest. His arrest took place only a few years prior to the Jewish-Roman wars in 63-73 AD. Coincidentally, like Jesus, Paul’s incursion in Jerusalem would lead to his arrest and death, a convenient scapegoat sacrificed at the altar of political turmoil. Two years after being taken into custody he was transferred to Rome. He was executed under the reign of Emperor Nero in 62 AD.
In my essays, The Book of Job, I outline a theory of an interaction between the sacred and the profane. I attempt to show a spiritual dynamic generated by a fuzzy principle defined as the wholly other: a lexical ambiguity that implies solely or exclusively in terms of separate but also signifies completely or entirely as a totality. The dynamic takes place in a sphere in which two distinct entities of the holy and profane interact and transcend each other. The process dissipates any religious boundaries into an all inclusive totality establishing equilibrium between the conflicting outlooks.
Keep in mind that the Book of Job is an ancient work of fiction whereas Paul’s calling is a personal account written in his own words. His journey reveals a path from one mode of existence to a wholesome manner of being. It reconciles his Jewish religious background and his Hellenistic cultural environment in which he was born and lived.
Paul lives through an experience that moves him from an exclusive reliance on God’s commandments into a profane world of Christ and the Gentiles. In the process he transcends the law’s confinement. He lives through both realities; the Holy Scriptures and his calling to the commandment of love. He moves from one order things to a wholly other way of being.
At the outset, Saul as a Pharisee believed in the exclusive application of the law and opposed Christian Jews who did not abide by it. He viewed Christians as unclean, to be chastised. With his encounter with the Christ, his opposition is lifted and he embraces what he once negated. In essence, Paul’s faith lies in a struggle between the law and Christ’s message of love. He overcomes the confines of the written code with the divine power of compassion. His mission henceforth is to preach to all Christian Jews and Gentiles as being part of the holy people.
A similar spiritual dynamic is illustrated by Jesus Christ: Jesus the son of man, a title that simply means the profane nature of ordinary human being and the resurrected body of Christ as Lord and sovereign being.
Gen. 32:28 Your name shall no more be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with men, and have prevailed.
Paul’s calling, like Jacob’s, involves a struggle, one that must be undertaken in order for the dynamic to unfold. It is only after Jacob has striven with God ̶ or his angel ̶ that he became known as Israel. The ensuing battle with the Lord engendered a new religious identity. Like Jacob, Paul struggled with the Gospel and Christ took over.
1 Cor 13:7 Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
For Paul, love bears all things. He is no longer divided by the demands of the law that led him to segregate both Christian Jews and Gentiles. He reconciles being a Pharisee living in a Greek cultural environment embracing all who have faith in the commandment of love.
Rom 13:9 You must love your neighbor as yourself.
The meaning of neighbor does not only imply any urban individuals living next to each other. In the context of Paul’s travels to preach, neighbor is whoever one sets up camp next to: men, women, Jews, Gentiles, circumcised and uncircumcised, slaves, free men and members of all nations.
1 Cor 13:13 As it is, these remain: faith, hope and love, the three of them; and the greatest of them is love.
Paul’s spiritual journey is referred to as a universal manner of being for the simple reason that the central driving force of his message is love. It is considered to be a principle that is readily accepted as being universal. The term universal has been used instead of the synonym catholic because today it is associated with a religious denomination. It no longer conveys its original significance of katholikos ̶ throughout the whole, or universal ̶ as it was used during the Greek classical period. The term was also popular with the earlier Christian writers who used it in its non-ecclesiastical sense.
Love is a powerful force that shakes us and moves us, a drive that helps us see beyond the barriers of prejudice, doctrine and dogma. It opens our hearts to a possibility of making us wholesome by settling internal and external conflicts. Moreover, love unites and reconciles the individual with self, family, friends, community, homeland and the universe.
Paul’s words and actions make him an exceptional man not only because of his contribution to religion and civilization. But because his message is universal and immortal, one that reaches out to members of all nations.
The resurrection of Jesus Christ is one of Christianity’s most central creed. It is also one that is subject to literal as well as spiritual interpretations. The contention between the two stems from a lexical ambiguity of the term “body,” a word that, in respect to spiritual salvation, signifies a group of believers; an assembly, hence the Church, rather than the anatomy, the flesh. The Good News proclaimed by Paul and the Apostles reveals that despite the crucifixion, the Lord has risen and is present among his believers. The cross is the symbol of tyranny of this world that consists of the political, legal and priestly institutions that have judged and condemned Jesus for claiming to be the Son of God and the Messiah. Thus, the Good News proclaims that although the worldly powers attempted to dispose of Jesus by putting him to death, he was exalted and risen from the dead. With his passion and resurrection of the mystical body of Jesus Christ, the living Church is henceforth sovereign and risen above the tyranny of this world.
For just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function, so in Christ we, though many, form one body, and each member belongs to all the others. (Rom 12:4)
What is conveyed by certain words in the Bible is different from their ordinary, everyday use. Many of the terms used in the Old and New Testaments have a distinct and specifically religious connotation. This is especially true of the meaning of body, death and the resurrection. Consequently, it is essential to put the original meaning of some of terminology in proper perspective. The expression “Good News,” synonymous with “Gospel,” is equally used here as it conveys a better mental representation of what the Apostles and the first Christians meant about the message of the risen Lord and the church as the resurrected body of Jesus Christ.
Apostle Paul was a determinant figure in the spreading of the Good News. His militant work made him the second most important figure in Christendom after Jesus Christ. Moreover, his epistles are the oldest documents relating to the development of the early church. In his letters, he outlines the basic tenets of the resurrection of the body of Christ. Although he has never met Jesus, he did meet Peter the apostle that the Lord chose as leader of his church in Jerusalem. As a result, Paul heard Peter’s testimony of Jesus’ message firsthand. Nonetheless, Paul is a controversial figure. Some blame him for a fateful opposition between Jews and Christians; others contend that too much emphasis has been given to Paul instead of Jesus Christ. Regardless, Paul was Christianity’s most persuasive and crucial organizer. Without him, Christianity would not be what it is today.
Saul, who is also called Paul, was born between 1 and 5 A.D. in Tarsus, a city in south-central Turkey renowned for being a center of Greek culture comparable to Athens. He was an orthodox rabbi and according to his letters, he was a Pharisee. The book of Acts reveals he was a Roman citizen, but some scholars suspect the assertion. He was raised and educated according to the strict rules of Rabbinical law. There is no explanation on his part as to why he wrote his epistles in Greek. Nevertheless, his exhortations – meant to be read aloud – reveal a traditional Jewish, rather than Hellenistic mindset.
According to his letters, Paul persecuted Jews who were proclaiming Jesus’ message and was actively involved in trying to destroy the early church. As a result, Christian Jews were either beaten or chastised according to the law. Paul doesn’t give any details about his persecution and the level of violence, except that he was driven by Pharisaical zeal in defense of his ancestral tradition. He simply perceived Christian Jews as violating Jewish law.
The irony is that, on several occasions, the Gospels describe Jesus being confronted by Pharisees, who claimed that Jesus did not have the authority to forgive sins and that he should not be eating with sinners. He was also admonished for healing a follower on a Sabbath. On one occasion, Pharisees confronted him by saying that the law of Moses requires that an adulteress be stoned, to which Jesus replied that “he who is without sin throw the first stone.” (John 8:7)
One day on his way to Damascus – presumably in order to persecute Jews who believed in Christ – Paul heard a mysterious voice calling him and was shaken to the ground by a vision of Jesus. He gave no details of what exactly happened. Nonetheless, the event brought a radical change in his life. This religious experience compelled Paul into having a diametrical view of Christ Jesus and the Jews who believed in him and, as a result, he submitted to the revelation of “Christ and I are one” and in “One body in Christ.”
From the outset, Paul was educated in the school of thought that relied on the oral and written tradition of the Torah, or instructions, a belief system based on the liturgy and rituals that constitutes rabbinic Judaism. As a result, he opposed Jews who believed in Jesus whom he perceived to be violating the law. His calling unraveled a shift where the law that was responsible for his persecution was no longer necessary. With Jesus’ message of “love thy neighbor like yourself” (Mark 12:31), Paul the Pharisee opened his heart to all followers of Christ: Men, women, Jews, Gentiles, circumcised and uncircumcised, slaves, free men, and members of all nations. Hence the term “neighbor” is no longer limited to a group of chosen people but to all who submit to the commandment of love.
As it is, these remain: faith, hope and love, the three of them; and the greatest of
them is love. (1 Cor 13:13)
As a consequence of his persecution of Christians, Paul equates the law with sin and death. For the apostle, sin is the condition of being devoid of faith in Jesus Christ, who died for our sins. It is linked to Adam’s original sin that resulted in being cast out of God’s presence, ensuing in a spiritual death. Whereas, with His mission and presence on earth, Jesus redeems Adam’s sin by restoring God’s presence among the believers.
When Adam sinned, sin entered the world. Adam’s sin brought death, so death spread to everyone, for everyone sinned. (Rom 5:12)
In Genesis, God commanded Adam and Eve to not eat the fruit in the middle of the garden or they would die. The story reveals that Eve listened to the serpent who tempted her by promising that, if they ate the fruit, Adam and Eve would be like gods knowing good and evil and that they would live forever and would not die. Adam’s sin stems from listening to Eve and eating the forbidden fruit rather than obeying God’s commandment. The betrayal resulted in their expulsion from the Garden of Eden and incurred an estrangement from God’s presence and dominion. Paul equates this original alienation from God to a spiritual death – a death that is redeemed by the Son of God’s presence on earth among the people who have faith.
The Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John were written between 70 A.D. and 90 A.D. after the destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem. The Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke are considered “synoptic” because they share a similar chronology of the life of Jesus. Mark, the oldest gospel, was written approximately 20 years after Paul’s epistle to the Thessalonians. The Gospel of John was written the latest, circa 90 A.D., with a chronology and style all of its own. None of the authors knew or met Jesus. The narratives are recollections of oral testimonies of Jesus’ mission. The authors were likely all Jews. They took great care of linking the Old Testament to the messianic legitimacy of Jesus. All of the text was written in Greek and share a similar allegorical style in respect to their use of metaphors, parables, signs and miracles.
The synoptic Gospels share a similar chronology of the last supper, the passion and resurrection. The accounts use the same metaphors to describe Jesus’ central message of his body. During the last supper, Jesus breaks the bread, drinks the wine and shares it with his disciples and says:
Take and eat; this is my body
Drink from it; this is my blood (Matt 26-28)
In terms of literary criticism, the metaphor is a figure of speech. Whereas in terms of messianic expectations these words inaugurate a shift away from the normal use of language, an exile from a former way of being in respect of communication, community and communion. The metaphor is used as a code to reveal the spiritual meaning of the Good News. It implies a shift in meaning, a break in the ordinary use of language instituting a new symbolic reality in terms of religious commandments and ritual practices. The metaphor expresses an expansion of being as an assembly of believers as the body of Christ.
The breaking of a loaf of bread and sharing with all the disciples constitutes the one body. This institutes a living church comprised of Jesus and his disciples. Jesus giving the commandment to do the same in his memory and preach his message to all. The same goes for the sharing from one cup of wine that become the blood of the new covenant. Thus the Good News proclaims that all are welcomed to partake in the breaking and eating of the bread in remembrance of Jesus Christ.
In the same way, after supper he took the cup, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me. Cor 11:25
Although the Gospel of John does not have a last supper scene, he does confirm the importance of the metaphor in order to understand the Good News.
I am the gate ─ door (John 10:9)
I am the way (John 14:6)
Jesus told his disciple Simon that he would be known as Peter (literally meaning rock) on which he would build his living community, his church. This is an additional confirmation and an allegorical allusion that the metaphor holds a vital role in understanding the meaning of the Word.
You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my community ─ Church. (Matt 16:18)
Jesus’ fate unraveled shortly after his last supper. He was betrayed by one of his followers, abandoned by his disciples, and arrested by the Roman occupying forces. He was denounced by the priests and the mob in Jerusalem and judged and condemned by the crowd under the supervision of Pontius Pilate, the Roman prefect. He was tortured, humiliated and forced to carry the instrument of his death and was finally nailed to a cross as a violent display of the sanctioning power of the Empire. Finally, he was left to die between common criminals. Throughout his ordeal the only people that stood by his side were Mary of Magdala, the mother of James, Joset and Salome in the books of Matthew and Mark, and Jesus’ mother in the book of John.
During Jesus’ ministry, a number of women followed Jesus but typically remained in the background of the twelve male apostles. These women, among them Mary of Magdala, provided financial support to Jesus’ ministry. Early on, Jesus cured Mary of Magdala of her possession of seven demons (possession was a term used to imply an illness for which there was no known explanation or cure.) In the eight times that a list of women is mentioned in the Gospels, on every occasion Mary of Magdala is named first. All in all, she is mentioned more times than any other disciple.
There is no scholarly consensus as to the origin of the surname Magdala. The Church’s position is that it refers to a place named Magdal (Migdal in Hebrew and Magdala in Aramaic), meaning tower or fortress. However, such a place on the banks of the Sea of Galilee no longer existed at the time of Jesus. Nonetheless, the surname Magdala should be viewed as a metaphor and symbolic attribute in terms of fortitude similar to John, who was also known as John the Baptist, or Simon, who was given the metaphorical name of “rock” by Jesus.
Mary of Magdala is not only mentioned in the synoptic Gospels but is also present in the book of John. All four accounts describe women that accompanied Jesus during his last week and were present at the crucifixion. They alone remained until the end, whereas the male disciples fled. Foremost, these female followers were the first to witness that Jesus’ body was no longer in the tomb.
It was Mary of Magdala who discovered the empty tomb and was the first to witness the risen Christ. She was also the first to proclaim that Jesus had risen from the dead, a messenger to the Good News. As it happens, the root word apostle in Greek means “messenger.” Consequently, the narratives bestow the attribute of apostle to Mary of Magdala and the other women.
The Gospels describe Simon as the metaphorical rock on which Jesus builds his Church. Mary of Magdala, who was the first to witness the risen Lord, is alluded to in the narratives as the metaphorical tower proclaiming the Good News of the resurrected body of Christ to the believers. In addition, the name Madgal-eder also appears in Micah 4:8-10 and refers to a symbolical “tower” or “stronghold of the flock,” a biblical link that infers that Mary of Magdala is a stronghold of the church.
Paul’s letters reveal that Jesus appeared to him in the same way he appeared to the Apostles following his crucifixion. The appearance is described as establishing a communication and a spiritual union between the risen Christ and his followers. In this sense, Jesus does not re-assume his physical life on earth but he is present with his disciples who are living witnesses and members of his risen body. His resurrected body rising up above the tyranny of the ruling system of this world.
So will it be with the resurrection of the dead. The body that is sown is perishable, it is raised imperishable; it is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory; it is sown in weakness, it is raised in power; it is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body. (Cor 15:42)
Sovereignty & Tyranny
Paul and the Gospels proclaim that the Son of God has inaugurated a new covenant, one that consists of the inclusion of Jesus’ commandment of love. Consequently, the old meaning of neighbor is supplanted and expanded to include not only a chosen people but all who have faith in the resurrected body of Christ: Men, women, Jews and Gentiles, circumcised and uncircumcised and people of all nations, and members of all walks of life; the disfranchised, the outcasts, the powerless and the poor.
The Good News proclaims that Jesus Christ was raised from the dead and that he was exalted as Lord/sovereign. With his resurrection, the Lord granted a divine birthright to all who have faith, a birthright that bypasses one established by a worldly order and its institutions. However, his messianic message is not to be understood as political but as spiritual. It does not challenge any political system. It is a body that lives in but is not of this world.
The Epistle to the Romans were meant to be read to Christians living in Rome. Although Paul had planned to visit the church personally, he never made it willingly. He was arrested in Jerusalem in 56 A.D., likely for sedition. He finally ended up being extradited and sent to prison in the capital. Paul’s letter planted the Good News at the center of the empire. His exhortations, seen as a challenge to the spiritual legitimacy of the ruling order, in all likelihood led to Paul and Peter being executed in Rome. History shows that the Roman empire eventually collapsed. It was unable to destroy the living church in its midst. And although the tyranny of a worldly power can put Christians to death, it is incapable of eradicating the Good News of the Sovereignty of the body of Christ.
We look for the resurrection of the dead,
and the life of the world to come
The Book of Job tells the story of an upright man whose integrity is put to the test. The hero is chastised and tormented for no apparent reason. All along, he insists on his innocence and pleads for justice. Job is temporarily alienated from his God and undertakes a journey into the profane where he is totally segregated from the world. But before he is finally restored to a greater glory, he becomes the outcast of outcasts. He is the innocent victim repudiated by the whole society. The narrative is an excursion into the unknown. It discloses a revelation of God.
the setting………. the land of Uz
the mentor……….Job’s integrity
the outcome……..a vision of God
The “Book of Job” is called Iyyov in Hebrew. The etymology of the word may have meant originally “enemy”, while a similar Arabic root signifies “the penitent”. The form and themes of the narrative are closely similar to the Babylonian wisdom writings of the “Poem of the Righteous Sufferer” -XIVth century BC-. The “Acrostic Dialogue on Theodicy” -IXth century BC-. It also bears some resemblance to the Egyptian texts called “The Complaints of the Eloquent Peasant” and “Dialogue of the Man Weary of his Life and Soul”, both written between the XXth and the XVIIIth century BC. The author is unknown. The date of the book is uncertain, but popular consensus points to dates ranging between 600-400 BC. Job is a man from the land of Uz, a place somewhere at the edge of the desert, in the south-eastern parts of the Dead Sea; probably a city of ancient Edom.
The central theme of the narrative is set on the theological debate about God’s divine right not to justify his actions to “man”. His authority is enough of a prerogative to sanction any of his deeds. And, no matter how unjust his actions may appear, they should not be questioned by man since God is God.
Job is not an Israelite; he is depicted in the narrative as a foreigner. His life is described as being exemplar. We might say that he is a perfect mythical model:
Job 1:8 “Have you considered my servant Job, that there is none like him on the earth…”
His life is blessed with numerous children, and he is surrounded by many loyal servants. His wealth is measurably abundant with cattle.
Job 1:3 …this man was the greatest of all the people of the east.
Nevertheless, Job is unaware that in the highest courts his integrity is being questioned and his livelihood is at stake.
One day, the sons of God appear at His court accompanied by a stranger. Curious about the newcomer, God asks him of his whereabouts. Satan, without being specific, replies that he roamed the earth. God must have presumed the intruder wise since he questions him about Job’s righteousness. Satan’s response is that Job has no merit for his probity since he has been favored by the Lord’s grace. God, to prove Satan’s allegations wrong, allows Job to be put to a test. As a result, Job loses his wealth and his children die. Job is distraught, but he remains loyal to his God. His character remains intact. Unfortunately, Satan does not give up. He returns a second time and insists that Job will curse God’s name if he takes his good health away. Again, the Lord allows the fiend to inflict a terrible disease on Job:
Job 2:7…loathsome sores from the sole of his foot to the crown of his head.
Overtaken by his affliction, Job admits having sinned in his life but proclaims that his punishment is outrageously disproportionate to his offense. Despite the calamities that befall him, he refuses to curse his God. He even remains steadfast against his wife’s incessant plea to damn his creator for his unjust treatment. Despite all, Job remains true to his Lord. But when a group of his friends come to deplore his condition, Job’s willpower begins to falter. He finally curses the day that he was born. The long series of dialogues and lamentations begin. His friends, instead of lending their support, condemn him. They maintain that he must be guilty to deserve such a fate, since God is just.
Before his ordeal, Job was living content unaware that God was willing to forsake him in order to test his integrity. As the calamities befall him one after the other, our hero cries for justice, unaware of what his dreadful experience is about to reveal.
Contrary to Genesis, where the serpent entices the woman to challenge God’s command, the narrative presents Satan as the one who defies the Lord to test Job’s integrity. Satan is presented as a symbol of wisdom, since he has roamed the earth, and God is curious to know his opinion about his prized servant. Nothing is said about the alien except that he is not one of God’s sons. Etymologically, the word Satan in Hebrew means adversary. It is synonymous with accuser or prosecutor (1). It also entails one who takes up an antagonistic position against somebody; ie, an enemy (2). What follows is perplexing. God forsakes his favorite servant at the suggestion made by a stranger. As a result, Job becomes a scapegoat of God’s inscrutable design.
As the afflictions haunt our hero, everybody, from the highest rank to the lowest cast, begins to avoid and shun him. Plagued by a horrible disease and bad breath, his wife also finds him repulsive. Even his servants treat him as a stranger. Children everywhere despise him. His intimate friends abhor him. He is even reviled by the outcasts of the community. He is singled out as a scapegoat and totally excluded from society. God’s favorite servant has become a pariah rejected by the whole community.
His friends, instead of consoling him, ask him to repent for his sins, since God rewards the just and punishes the guilty. Therefore, Job should repent.
Such is the subject of all the dialogues between Job and his friends Eliphaz, Bildad, Zophar, and Elihu. They symbolize the “order” in society. They, like Job before his downfall, are all representatives of the hierarchy, they are delegates of the status quo. They rally to God’s side to preserve the order of which they are a part. They hold on to the belief that God rewards the righteous by giving him wealth and power, alternatively punishing the sinner by taking away his riches and making him an outcast. God is an ally of the strong. He selects the upright and blameless and segregates the offender.
Their biggest fear, it seems, is that the hero’s downfall might portend their own demise if they don’t sanction God’s condemnation. Therefore, like a contagious disease, he must be quarantined. As a result, the process of collective victimization begins. It is focused on a sole victim: the scapegoat. As they all rally to God’s decision, Job is singled out to safeguard against the divine wrath. The ostracism becomes in effect a “violent” process of social segregation. Not only Job’s friends but all the members of the community behave in a “mimical” fashion. They aggregate into a dynamic entity -a “mob”- whose sole purpose is to foment a consensus against their chosen victim and exclude him from their ranks. Job is chosen precisely as the scapegoat for an ultimate purpose: to defend the order and hierarchy of society which the victim is believed to be threatening. (3)
Yet it is the complete exclusion from society that enables Job to experience his revelation. It allows him to perceive the whole reality of God and of the community from which he becomes excluded. Because he is segregated, he sees social reality as an outsider. He perceives the whole structure of the society from without.
As the hero finally survives his ordeal, he is reinstated with greater power and glory than he previously had. The mythological significance disclosed in the account is central: the dynamic interaction between the hero, as an individual, and God and society becomes the foundation of the revelation. (4) It goes without saying that the journey is an arduous one. Similar, in some respects, to Israel’s experience in the desert: a trek into the unknown. And although Satan is depicted as the obstacle, he nevertheless plays a primordial part in the development of the hero’s apperception of God.
Even though the process of victimization is painful for Job, it is necessary in order for him to see God. To this effect the mentor is Job’s integrity itself. His trial shows how his personal righteousness is essential to the final outcome. It enables him to transcend his perception of God’s reality. Job’s wisdom allows him to recognize that his personal rectitude is not justifiable in the face of God. God’s authority, albeit a questionable one, is still a divine prerogative. God has a theological precedence over humans, and Job is no exception no matter how righteous he is.
The text describes him as “blameless” and “upright”, he fears God and turns away from evil. His integrity, however, does not imply that he is sinless. His uprightness is used in the sense of his perfect integration into the community and with the environment rather than his being without sin. Furthermore, Job’s integrity implies that his personality is whole and that he is at peace with himself and with his community. His relationships are of the “right” kind with his family, and with his God. This righteousness translates itself into peace –shalom– and well being.
This quality is in turn transmitted to his progeny. His sense of responsibility is such that he even performs atonement for his sons in anticipation that they might commit blasphemy. Job’s piety is only matched by his virtue. In the Book of Job, adversity meets integrity head on and integrity is not subdued.
We have already outlined that the denouement is revealed in terms of a vision of God. The journey reveals what is at the core of the religious experience. (5)
The focal point in any definition of religion revolves around the nature and function of the sacred. It is the matrix of any religious phenomenon whatever its cultural or historical origin. Emile Durkheim showed the importance of the dichotomy between the sacred and the profane.(6) The sacred generates a field of belief unto itself which is best defined in terms of conviction. Nothing in particular is sacred yet anything can be sacred. It all depends on the historical or the spatio-temporal circumstances under which a certain phenomenon becomes sacrosanct. That is what is referred to as a hierophany: namely, when the sacred manifests itself in history as typified by Yahweh and the burning bush. And when the sacred appears, it automatically imposes an arbitrary distance to the profane, which it opposes.
sacred vs profane
“holy ground” vs the common ground
Yahweh vs the other gods
the center vs the outside
Normally, God is the Holy One. Yet, in the narrative, he shares his sacredness with his favorite servant. As Satan explains,
Job 1:10 “Have you not put a hedge around him…on every side?”
In other words, Job has been overwhelmingly protected and favored by God. He has been put at the center of God’s holy embrace. The sacred claims the supremacy of attention. It also attempts to circumscribe a reality, more precisely, an identity. And this identity is maintained by its opposition to the profane. The sacred is by definition that which is distinct from the profane. However, the profane is a religious reality necessary to the sacred, since the sacred is sacred precisely because of its opposition to the profane. Satan, as the adversary, illustrates very well what we mean. Satan is Satan because he instigates the conflict between God and Job. He separates the holy union between the lord and his servant, propelling Job into the realm of the profane where he is excluded from everything.
The following illustrates how the profane plays a critical role in the edification of the sacred:
holy/sacred vs common/profane
Moses/Israel vs Pharaoh/Egypt
Yahweh vs the other gods
As noted by Mircea Eliade, the dynamic relation between the sacred and the profane demonstrates that anything can be consecrated.(6) It is not specific persons or things that have sacred values per se, it is because they are recognized as such at some crucial moment in time. The epiphany of the burning bush, for instance, has been consecrated by the narrative as the ultimate revelation of Yahweh and has been acknowledged as such by the people of Israel. The sacred always imposes a separation and a distance between its center, depicted as holy, and the profane, located outside its periphery. Hence, the profane, which lies beyond the consecrated field, is depicted as the excluded and the alien. The dichotomy between these two principles is an essential one. Just think of the division between:
sacred vs profane
God/good vs Satan/evil
Jews vs gentiles
Christians vs the heathen/pagan
Muslims vs the infidels
Furthermore, all religious creeds underline an opposition to the outside world defined as the profane. Our world is meaningful, while the other world is chaotic and mostly inhabited with strangers also described as demons.(7) As outlined in the Book of Job, Satan is a foreigner and an alien.
Literally the word profane means “that which is outside the temple”. The profane refers to whatever lies beyond the boundaries of the sacred. This explains why the profane is never cited in clear terms. By definition, the outside world is always other: a blurred reality always inhabited by unknown and strange beings. As such, it is perceived as a threat to the vivid reality of the sacred to which we identify. Yet this other reality is threatening precisely because it presents an-other sacred reality of its own that challenges the exclusivity of our beliefs. In other words, this other reality defies the foundation of the exclusive validity of our sacred beliefs. Therefore, our beliefs are defined as sacred and are opposed to other beliefs described as alien which are ruled by other gods. Our mythical cosmos confines us to recognize only our world as sacred and discard the rest as profane.
Religion generates its sacred identity from the myths and rituals that perpetuate the creed regulated by the hierarchy of priests. The closer one is to the “holy”, the greater the sense of sacredness. Hence, the antagonism amplifies the identities of the sacred and the profane. The stronger the opposition the stronger the belief in the sacred.
sacred vs profane
believers vs unbelievers
theists vs atheists
civilized vs primitive
Belief is generated by the dynamic opposition between the two principles. As the Bible shows, the God of the fathers must be protected against the intrusion of other gods that might challenge His supremacy. Therefore, we always acknowledge the sacred validity of our own religious beliefs but deny it to others. This is one of the reasons why the profane is always excluded from the sacred. Because it challenges the foundation of the absolute validity of the sacred and it shatters the conviction in the religious uniqueness of the sacred and its tenets. To protect this supremacy, the sacred precipitates the dynamic opposition to keep the profane at a distance. This is why the essence of faith lies in antagonism:
Gen. 32:28 “Your name shall no more be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with men, and have prevailed.”
We find this dichotomy in each and every religion. What is viewed as sacred is opposed to the profane which in turn has a sacred validity of its own. In other words, the sacred seeks to be exclusive while denigrating the profane’s own sacred validity.
Job has been described as “the greatest of all people in the east”, protected by God’s grace and surrounded by his sacred embrace. As the story unfolds, we witness Job’s downfall. Originally at the center of attention, he becomes more and more alienated from God and the community. As he becomes excluded, he is also debased. The hero is singled out as victim and scapegoat. Finally, he is isolated from the very society in which he was a central figure.
As Job loses everything, he is further segregated into the realm of the profane. Formerly at the center of God’s favor, he now stands isolated from everybody, outside of the Lord’s reach. As such, he lives the life of a total outcast. He becomes the prototype of a lord-victim.
Job 3:20 “Why is light given to him that is in misery,
and life to the bitter in soul,
who long for death, but it comes not,
and dig for it more than for hid treasures;”
Closely related to the sacred and the profane is a third concept which is essential to the whole dynamic religious experience. This principle is the wholly other. (8) The term wholly is derived from the word “whole”, meaning entirely, in full, throughout. Used in conjunction with the word other, it becomes a category in which the two distinct entities of the sacred and profane inter-activate and transcend one another.
The dynamic aspect of the wholly other reveals its infinite nature. Its scope is to transcend all cultural and religious boundaries into the all inclusive. The wholly other stems from the antagonism of the sacred and profane reality. It transcends the sacred’s own exclusivity by opening up to the profane into the all inclusive dynamic truth. As we saw, Job lived through both realities: the sacred and the profane. Hence, the wholly other transcends one state of religious reality into another. In other words, it is Job’s transition from the sacred to the profane reality that underlines the fundamental essence of the wholly other. It is his experience of being both included and excluded from the sacred that allows Job to see the whole reality of God: the sacred and the profane. Surprisingly, it is through the profane that Job has a glimpse of the whole and other nature of the divine reality. Step by step, as he moves away from the sacred into the profane, he experiences the all inclusive. His apperception of the whole becomes in effect a revelation of God.
the wholly other
sacred vs profane
The prologue describes a special relationship between God and Job. Similar to Genesis, it is disturbed by the arrival of an alien: the serpent in Genesis, and Satan in Job. As the account reveals, Job is abandoned by God for the sake of the adversary. The special relationship between God and his servant is broken. By the same token an order is broken and Job is precipitated into the unknown.
At the end of the narrative Job is reinstated into God’s favor. God restores everything Job had lost and much more. Job doubles his wealth. Family and friends return. He has many other children. As Job’s innocence is vindicated, he nevertheless submits to the theological premise that God transcends any human prerogative, as he confesses:
Job 42:5 “I knew you then by hearsay;
but now, having seen you with my own eyes,
I retract all I have said
and in dust and ashes I repent.”
In a final remorseful outburst, he recognizes his own mortality and bows to God’s immortality. He yields to God’s eternal prerogative.
To conclude, our hero has temporarily lived the demeaning journey of being excluded from God and community. This profane experience of Job is related to seeing the workings of the hierarchical order of which he was part. Because he belonged to that sacred order, he only temporarily sojourns into the realm of the profane. Time enough to see the “whole” reality of God, and only to reemerge with greater glory. Resulting in the revelation of having “seen” the whole reality of God: the sacred, the profane and the wholly other.
1 Zech. 3:1-5 and I Chr. 21:1. Paul in Romans 16:20, equates the serpent of Genesis to the Satan of Job. The reptile, symbol of the Goddess and fertility in the creation myth, is held responsible in Job for the alienation between God and “man”.
2 The Arabic verb for “Shatana” also means “to be remote”, especially from the truth of God.
3 See Rene Girard, Job: the Victim of his People, London, Athlone Press, 1967, and his other work, The Scapegoat, Chicago, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1986. See also the interesting analysis made by Dabrowski Kazimierz about desintegration, in, Positive Desintegration, Boston, Little, Brown, 1964.
4 As Rene Girard puts it “religion is in itself culture” Ibid. Job, 152.
5 This experience is recounted in myth, yet it is only an expression of the experience, and it must be differentiated from the religious experience itself, which is unique and unfathomable and cannot be properly described in words because they convey only a glimpse of the religious experience. Consequently, we can only rely on the language that relates that experience.
6 Emile Durkheim, The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life, New York, Free Press, 1965 and Rudolf Otto, in, The Idea of the Holy, London, Oxford University Press, 1958.
7 Mircea Eliade, The Sacred and the Profane, New York, Harper & Row, 1959.
8 Roger Caillois, L’Homme et le Sacre, Paris, Gallimard, 1939, 35-59.
9 Rudolph Otto, Ibid, 25.
Genesis, the first book of the Bible, does not limit itself to the creation narrative. Adam and Eve go on to have children, among them, Cain and Abel. In some respect they typify the consequence of the fall: the evil and the good.
The story of the two brothers is a further allusion to God’s preference for herdsman-ship over agriculture. Cain’s fruit offering is disregarded by God who looked favorably upon Abel’s flock offering. As we know, this arouses Cain’s jealousy and causes the killing of Abel.
The text goes on with the patriarchal genealogy of the first couple’s descendants.
As the generations of men multiply on earth, it saddens God to see that they are all wicked and evil. As a result, he decides to destroy humankind in a flood. But among the corrupt God finds favor with Noah. He tells him to build an ark in order to save his family and the animals of the earth.
Soon after the flood life begins anew. The narrative goes on with the enumeration of Noah’s descendants. Meanwhile, the epic of the Patriarchs unfolds. Among the principal heroes are Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The narrative depicts successively their own unique relationship with their God.
The saga depicted in Genesis ends with the people of Israel’s move to Egypt to escape the famine that ravaged their lands. A fortunate turn of events allows them to be invited to Egypt by Joseph, Jacob’s son, who was sold as a slave to an Egyptian by his jealous brothers. Because of Joseph’s uncanny ability to interpret dreams, he had soon been noticed by the Egyptian court and was promoted to a prestigious position among their ranks.
But before we begin with the epic of Exodus, Genesis inaugurates three important Old Testament themes:
Abraham………..God’s promise and alliance
Isaac…………..….the spared sacrifice
Jacob………….….the struggle with the angel of God; i.e. Israel
These themes are but a prelude to what is the centerpiece of the Pentateuch: Exodus.
Exodus is a unique and invaluable account that discloses the birth of a religion. Everything evolves around the significant experience of the people in the wilderness. In many ways Genesis, which precedes it, simply acts as an introduction to the important excursion of the people of Israel.
The flight out of Egypt and the revelation of Yahweh in the desert are the fundamental points which reveal Israel’s origin and identity. The fashion and context in which the journey took place is a remarkable trait that discloses its essence: Moses typifies the semi-nomadic and tribal experience of the “fathers”.
The people’s isolation in the desert and the transient quality of the journey toward the promised land did not favor the development of a stable culture usually associated with agriculture and the fertility cults. In other words, the unique experience of Israel was a product of its isolation which also gave birth to the exclusive and jealous nature of Yahweh. Being secluded from other gods and cultures favored the unique cult of a single and exclusive God. What followed that experience favored the fierce opposition to other gods.
The identity of Israel is, in a sense, closely related to the idea of flight, movement, and seclusion. The isolation of the desert was providential to its historical development where the three entities identified as Moses, Yahweh, and Israel came together in a fateful fashion.
Several generations of Hebrews had lived in Egypt since the time of their first arrival. These “people” now felt less and less welcomed in their adoptive land. Their lives were increasingly threatened by oppressive conditions imposed by the Pharaoh.
Among the Egyptians the Hebrews were a people without a leader. Moses, it turns out, was a prince without a kingdom. When he is told by God of his destiny on Mount Sinai the revelation links the leader to the people. He saw the apparition and heard God’s voice revealing to him the oath he made to the Fathers before him.
Israel’s identity as a people and as a covenant, and as a nation is recreated with that revelation. The exodus in the desert further consolidates that identity. Apart and away from the other gods and other cultures living in Egypt, the setting is favorable for Yahweh to inaugurate a new bond. Yahweh characteristically describes himself as a jealous God, he is unconditionally opposed to other gods. As the story shows, the wilderness is an ideal place to forge such an alliance.
The introduction begins with the description of Moses’ birth. But the epic soon shifts to the hierophany. God reveals his presence by the burning bush and the sound of his voice. The encounter takes place on Mount Sinai, also called Mount Horeb. According to the traditional lore of the time, the site was, significantly enough, referred to as the “Mountain of God” or the “Mountain of the gods”. The sacred place was known locally as an area where mysterious phenomena often occurred. It was commonly believed that divine beings lived there. Coincidentally, the place could not have been more appropriate for Moses’ spiritual initiation.
the setting…………Egypt and the wilderness
the quest………….the “promise”
the obstacle………the Pharaoh and other gods
the outcome………the ten commandments; Israel
The setting underscores the geographical and historical context that led to the exodus. It is an underlying factor in the plot. The spatio-temporal circumstances for Exodus rely on the departure out of Egypt and the movement toward the quest for the promised land.
Exodus is the second book of the Pentateuch. These books are also referred to as the Torah orTanakh, also known as the Instructions. Early Jewish and Christian traditions believed Moses to be the author of these texts, but biblical scholars discovered that Exodus is not the work of one author but rather a compilation of at least four literary sources known as the Yahwist -J, the Elohist -E, the Priestly writer -P, and the Redactor -R. As we have mentioned already, these sources were put together into one narrative by a single editor identified as the Redactor. 2 We will come back to this mysterious editor later.
According to biblical accounts Moses’ parents were from the tribe of Levi, one of the many tribes that lived in Egypt. These people were also called the Hebrews. The name Hebrew has many etymological origins, and none of them certain. It may have been derived from the word Habiru, a variant of Hapiru or Apiru, which was a designation for a class of people who made their living by offering themselves as hired help. According to biblical tradition, the Israelites had been in Egypt for numerous generations and had become a threat to the Pharaohs because of their ever growing population. 3
In addition to the Hebrews, there were a great number of slaves from different countries who were brought in as prisoners of war and lived all over Egypt to serve in different capacities. Many became free persons within the Egyptian society and several were found at various levels of rank in the Egyptian court.
Many of these “foreigners” immigrated to Egypt because of its prosperity. As in the case of the Hebrews, some fled the recurrent famines in their own countries. The overwhelming ethnical diversity did cause some problems. One document, The Admonitions of Ipuwer, conveys the distress felt by the Egyptians by the presence of an increasing number of aliens:
Foreigners have become people everywhere…Robbery is everywhere…the desert is [spread] throughout the land…Barbarians from outside have come to Egypt…4
The great number and diversity of these cultures were matched by their respective religious beliefs. Historically though, the Egyptians had been very tolerant of different cults and other gods.
There is little archaeological evidence that corroborates the facts described in Exodus. The Pharaoh in the account, for instance, is not identified. However, we know that the drafting of foreign labor began with the reign of queen Hatshepsut and her son Thutmose III. The forced labor was later continued by Seti I and Ramses II, circa 1300-1225 BCE. It is possible that the Hebrews were drafted in large number into forced labor for the building of fortified cities on the north-eastern frontier of Egypt. This part of history is nevertheless filled with conjecture. Yet there is one chronicle that depicts the Hebrews suffering at the hands of the Egyptians. The text can be found on the great Rekhmire’s tomb who was Thutmose III’s vizier. It describes how the Egyptians,
…treated their Israelite slave with ruthless severity…setting them to work on clay and brick-making.5
However, the most quoted evidence of the existence of the Hebrews in Egypt is the inscription on a Merneptah stele which reads:
Israel is desolate, it has no seed left.6
As for the period in which the exodus took place, most scholars today support the dating to be around the thirteenth century BCE.
Before the exodus the Hebrews, like many other semi-nomadic tribes, had come to Egypt to escape the famine that ravaged their lands. From the time of their arrival in Egypt to the time of their departure the conditions of their lives changed; presumably because of shifts in the policies of the Egyptian monarchy.
From a predominantly agricultural and mercantile society Egypt emerged into a more aggressive militaristic power. The victory over the Hyksos marked the coming to power of a great new dynasty: the Eighteenth. With its fortunes of war Egypt entered a new phase in its history. And the New Kingdom, spanning from 1550 to 1307 BCE, is in all probability the setting for Exodus.7
There is still a lot of debate about the historicity of Moses. There is no clear archaeological evidence proving his existence. Despite this, we cannot deny a “truth of faith” about his character.8 We cannot dispel either the importance that Moses had on the history of Israel and the development of Jufaism in general.
Curiously, the hero has an Egyptianized name which has a twofold etymological origin. On one hand, the name Moses is derived from the Egyptian verb msy which means “is born” or “to give birth”. The expression could be found in names like Thut-mose, meaning “Thoth is Born”, and also in Ramses or Re-mose, which means “Re is born”. On the other hand, the Hebrew etymology for Moshe, associated in Ex. 2:10 with mashah, means “drawn out of the water”. These two etymological origins bear the dual nature of Moses’ ethnical background which is an intrinsic part of his identity.9
Acts 7:22 And Moses was instructed in all the wisdom of the Egyptians, and he was mighty in his words and deeds.
The narrative begins when Moses’ life is providentially saved from the Pharaoh’s command to “cast” all the Hebrew newborn males “into the Nile”. The Hebrew women had become so fertile that their growing number was viewed as a threat. In order to save Moses from the hands of the infanticide ruler, Moses’ parents, Amram and Jochebed, hid their child for three months. When they could not conceal him any longer, his mother put him in a watertight reed basket and set him afloat on the Nile. The Pharaoh’s daughter, while bathing in the river nearby, found the child and recognized him as one of the Hebrew children. Meanwhile, Moses’ sister watched her brother’s safe destination. She then approached the princess and proposed to let a Hebrew woman nurse the child. Arrangements were made for Moses’ mother to nurture the child until he was grown, and then he would be returned to the Pharaoh’s daughter.
Mose = Moshe
“is born” = “draw out of the water” Egyptian princess’ adoptive son ~ Hebrew mother
In the course of his life fateful events would confirm Moses’ identity. A determinant episode describes the hero’s killing of an Egyptian who was beating a Hebrew. As a result, he identified with the plight of his people. But because of his action Moses feared the wrath of the Pharaoh who had heard of the murder, and fled to the Midian desert. His deed made him an outcast of the Egyptian society and he was unable to return until the Pharaoh’s death.
While he was in the desert he came across a group of women who brought their flock to water at a well. They were the seven daughters of a local tribal priest. As several shepherds attempted to chase them away he came to their rescue. When their father found out about the Egyptian’s conduct he invited him to share a meal. The dinner apparently went well since the father gave his daughter Zipporah in marriage to Moses. Jethro, the father-in-law, was a Kenite,10 a tribe reputed for having priests and scribes among its members.
Moses’ marriage into the Kenites would prove beneficial for his mission. Priests, particularly scribes, had important roles in royal courts, especially in dealing with the commercial and legal matters of growing tribes and large kingdoms. In that era, the art of writing was closely associated with the scribal and priestly office. Their functions may be compared to the role that accountants play in our society today. These scribes held the highest offices and were part of a privileged caste in the king’s court. The knowledge of their craft was closely kept in the family from generation to generation. They acted as clerks who kept records of finances and took inventories of livestock and goods. Rulers depended on them to account for their wealth. In that function they were held in high esteem. In Egypt, scribes were even divinized. Among the first to be honored was Imhotep who was a minister and an architect.11
Scribes were legal experts as well. They kept records of alliances and tribal agreements between the sovereigns and their vassals. They performed tasks similar to what lawyers do today. Consequently, the scribes were critical to any potential leader. In these circumstances, Moses’ marriage into the Kenites was useful. The priests and scribes of his adopted tribe would be invaluable during the exodus. They helped to consolidate the religious, social, legal, and economical activities of the “people” of Israel. The revelation and then the application of the ten commandments are a perfect example of how the association between the priests and Moses turned out to be essential for the collective management of Israel.
Until his marriage the hero lived the life of an outcast. But soon, God would call him out of the burning bush to reveal his identity and tell him of his destiny. The primordial encounter establishes the foundation of a triune relationship between Yahweh, Moses, and Israel; ie, God, the leader, and the people.
Ex. 3:8 “…and I have come down to deliver them out of the hand of the Egyptians, and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey…”
Although there is no special term for the word “promise” in the Old Testament, the idea is conveyed by a various range of Hebrew expressions, among them are “speak”, “speech”, “say”, and “swear”. Because Yahweh is regarded as the faithful one, His word is enough to guarantee the fulfillment of the promise.
The principal term used in Hebrew for land is ‘eres. It is the fourth most used term in the Old Testament. As far as theological interpretation goes, the concepts of land and the covenant are so closely connected that it is almost impossible to describe one without talking about the other. The land is described as Yahweh’s gift, which he first promised to Noah, and then to Abraham and his descendants.
Israel was chosen by Yahweh to be his “people for his own possession”.12 The word possession is used in the same manner in which God owns the land. When Yahweh refers to his people he refers to them in terms of his property. Herein, the term is used to describe Yahweh’s “special” possession of his people in the sense of an acquired property.
The concept of the promised land is described in terms of alliance between Yahweh and Israel. The emphasis is laid on the closeness of the relationship between God and his people. God is the owner of the land in the same fashion that he owns his people. And Israel’s possession of the land depends on her faithfulness to God. Yahweh as the land-lord allows the possession of the land by his people only if they remain faithful to his word.
Lev. 25:23 “The land is mine; for you are strangers and sojourners with me.”
In the thematic sequence we have identified the Pharaoh as the obstacle that is also closely connected to the gods of Egypt.
Once out of Egypt the Hebrews were free to be Yahweh’s chosen people. The narrative goes on to recount the tribulations of their journey in the desert. A particularly crucial episode is described through Moses’ outburst of anger when he saw the idolatry of the people as he came down from the presence of God on Mount Sinai. At the sight of the idol, Moses threw and broke the tables of the ten commandments upon the molten calf. This incident typifies his determination to keep Yahweh’s cult free from any foreign influence. This is especially true in the case of the worship of the golden calf. The underlying antagonism is fundamental to the whole biblical narrative. This theme may be the key to understanding why monotheism has supplanted all other forms of worship.
Ex. 32:8 “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!”
According to the excerpt above, the golden bull-calf is linked to Egypt. But according to E who wrote this account, the molten calf relates to a specific episode of heresy that flourished in the cities of Dan and Beth-El in the northern kingdom of Israel during the reign of King Jeroboam to whom E was opposed.
Soon after King Solomon died, the northern kingdom of Israel, under the reign of Jeroboam, seceded from the southern territory of Judah. The division occurred primarily as a result of the unpopular policies of missim: a burdensome tax paid in the form of forced labor. Instead of appointing the hereditary priest whose lineage traced back to Moses to the temples in Dan and Beth-El, Jeroboam nominated his own officials for ceremonies related to the golden calf.
But for the great number of Canaanites of the time, the golden bull-calf was the visible manifestation of the animal associated with the fertility cult and the goddess Asherah.
It may be that it is from this heresy that the whole antagonism to the molten image stems. Especially in connection with the Canaanite worship of Asherah. The golden calf is also associated by tradition to Baal and her companion Baalat, which could be translated into “lord” or “owner”, and “owneress”. These cults were popular among the Canaanites living under the reign of King Jeroboam. E, who wrote this passage, in all probability lived during the time when these events took place.13 The account reveals his outrage at Jeroboam for not having appointed a legal priestly heir to the temple to which priestly order E most likely belonged himself.
This is one interpretation of the event. The narrative, however, links the worship of the molten calf to Egypt.
If we go along with the story and believe that the golden calf really originated in Egypt, then we might try to find parallels of the golden calf in Egyptian religion.
Several scholars believe that Ramses II and his son Menerptah were the probable oppressors of the Hebrew people.14 When Ramses II made peace with the Hittites following the disastrous battle of Kadesh, a great number of deities such as Anat, Astarte, and Asherah became popular in Egypt. Archaeological findings show that the Canaanite gods, particularly the goddesses, had an extraordinary fluidity in taking the shapes, forms, and names of other deities.15 This is especially the case in warfare and conquest where acculturation becomes widespread among the different cultures and the divinities assume the identity of other gods. This is the case in regards to the Canaanite goddesses Asherah, or Astarte, and her Near Eastern counterpart Anath.
There were numerous bull cults in ancient Egypt, most of them minor divinities. Among them were, the black Apis Bull, the white Min Bull, a symbol of virility, and Mont-Re. But none of these cults was more important than the one portrayed by the cow-goddess. This divinity was found in a very early stage of Egyptian religion and became prevalent throughout Egypt. The most famous cow-goddess was Hathor. One of the more popular goddesses in Egypt, Hathor was a sky-goddess and a symbol of fertility. As the sky-goddess, she was the Eye of the Sun god Re. In that quality, she personified the sky. She was known as the Beautiful One and the Golden One; the joyous goddess of love, music, and happiness. Gold was her sacred metal and Hathor was described as the “Gold of the Gods”. She was also called “the Lady of the Sycamore”. Hathor was especially popular among women. She incarnated the principles of beauty, love, and fertility. As such, she typified the Mother Goddess. Hathor was especially concerned with birth and babies. As a “cow” she suckled the baby kings and protected them through childhood. Her protection even extended to kings in their old age. Throughout Egyptian history, the Golden One remained a very popular goddess.16
There are some striking similarities between the golden calf from Exodus and the Golden One, the goddess of fertility. In addition, the reference in the text to the “play” and the “sound of singing” among the worshipers when Moses came down from Mount Sinai points to an additional likeness between the two deities. Hathor was the bringer of happiness, and the goddess of music and love.
The “molten calf”, however, was dealt a hard blow by Moses. Yahweh is indeed a jealous God. He allows no other God but himself. Following Moses’ destruction of the idol, the worshipers who did not repent were all killed by the faithful Levite priests. Loyal to their functions, they made sure the worship of the forbidden image would be completely eradicated.
Ex 20: 3 “You shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself a graven image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above…for I the lord your God am a jealous God…”
The narrative is particularly explicit about Moses’ inquiry of God’s identity. The name that is revealed to Moses, Yahweh -YHWH in the un-vocalized Hebrew- is so sacred in Jewish tradition that it is not pronounced; instead, God, Adonai, El Shaddai, or the lord is regularly substituted for it.
Ex. 3:14 “I am who I am”
As Martin Buber points out, God’s name is not meant to be esoteric.17 It is not made to avoid any question about God’s identity or to withhold any information about his being. Instead, the twofold ehyeh -I am- implies God’s presence and closeness with whom He has chosen to be. In fact, Yahweh is so close to Moses that he is his “mouth”:
Ex. 4:12 “Now therefore go, and I will be with your mouth and teach you what you shall speak.”
Furthermore, as we have already seen in the first verses of Genesis, God is once again an individuum vaguum, the image-less voice speaking out of nowhere. Yahweh’s revelation to Moses is also meant to be a sign or a visible expression of God’s presence. When Yahweh asks Moses to say to the people of Israel: “I am has sent me to you”, God literally implies his overwhelming presence in Moses. His mouth is Yahweh’s mouth. Moses is the sign sent by Yahweh.
Ex. 3:12 He said, “But I will be with you; and this shall be the sign for you, that I have sent you:”
Therefore, the essence of the name of God becomes in effect secondary, since the name merely underlines God’s presence; the God of the Fathers is present with Moses as he was present with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Yahweh is present with Moses as the historical manifestation of God’s promise he made to the Patriarchs and to His people. God’s revelation to Moses is made in order to deliver the Israelites from their bondage in Egypt.
The “I am who I am” becomes clearer in conjunction with Moses’ realization of his identity as God’s spokesman. He is the historical manifestation of Yahweh’s promise made to Israel. The same promise he made to Abraham is related to Moses; yet according to Yahweh, it is the first time his name has been revealed.
Yahweh is Moses’ mentor. Moses is chosen by Yahweh to embody the verbal promise. However, Moses needs additional help in his mission. Aaron, his brother, becomes the heroes’ spokesman in his dealings with the Pharaoh. In the text God commands Moses to “Say to Aaron”.18 The reason being that Moses, who has some kind of speech impediment and may have been a stammerer, is inflicted with such a dread to speak to the Pharaoh that he refuses to obey God’s command. He argues stubbornly with God and arouses his anger. Yahweh finally agrees to let Moses’ brother be his spokesman. Aaron, in effect, becomes Moses’ mouth in the same fashion that Moses is Yahweh’s mouth.
Further help is needed for the favorable outcome and the final release of the people from Egypt. The plagues are an additional and necessary force to convince the Pharaoh of God’s will. Yahweh uses the plagues as a powerful sign to break the ruler’s obstinacy. One at a time, the plagues are announced by Moses through Aaron. The account of the plagues are for the most part ornamental. They symbolize Yahweh’s control over nature, since Moses does not have the Pharaoh’s military might.19
The outcome of Exodus is profiled by the quest of the promised land. As we will see, what is at issue here is as much the quest underlined by the “promise” as the actual possession of the land itself.20
But as we get closer to the denouement, Moses is faced with a dilemma. He is concerned about the future of the people’s faithfulness to Yahweh. The Israelites, in the course of their exodus, lived a nomadic way of life and the relationship between Yahweh and his people thrived in the desert. The idea of a fixed settlement in Canaan puts an end to those ideal conditions. In the wilderness God took care of his people, guiding them like a shepherd that brings his cattle to grazing lands. There is a certain amount of nostalgia and preoccupation at the end of the journey as to the future of this unique relationship. In the promised land the people would no longer live in the isolation of the desert with one God, as one people, but among foreign cultures and alien gods.
Deut. 7:1 “When the lord your God brings you into the land which you are entering to take possession of it, and clears away many nations before you, the Hittites, the Gir’gashites, the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Per’izzites, the Hivites, and the Jeb’usites, seven nations greater and mightier than yourself, and when the lord your God gives them over to you, and you defeat them; then you must utterly destroy them; you shall make no covenant with them, and show no mercy to them. You shall not make marriages with them, giving your daughters to their sons or taking their daughters for your sons. For they would turn away your sons from following me, to serve other gods; then the anger of the lord would be kindled against you, and he would destroy you quickly. But thus shall you deal with them: you shall break down their altars, and dash in pieces their pillars, and hew down their Ashe’rim, and burn their graven images with fire.
“For you are a people holy to the lord your God; the lord your God has chosen you to be a people for his own possession, out of all the peoples that are on the face of the earth.”
It is paradoxical, in these circumstances, that Moses will never set foot in Canaan, the land he yearned for so long. Only the people of Israel led by Joshua will.
Canaan was populated by natives who worshiped different gods. Unlike in the isolation of the desert, Yahweh would be surrounded by other gods. Among the people living there were the Canaanites who, as we have already outlined, were worshipers of Asherah, the goddess of fertility.
History reveals that the people would eventually intermarry with their Canaanite neighbors and be influenced by the settled and agricultural ways of life associated with fertility cults, despite the evils associated with agriculture and the slavery suffered in Egypt which are vilified in Exodus.21
Once settled in the promised land, Yahweh’s exclusivity was forever threatened. The danger was always present that the people of Israel would forgo and forget their bond with Yahweh. A worrisome and perhaps challenging prospect for God and his prophets. More so, for the scribes and priests who wrote these texts.
The antagonism of Yahweh to any other form of worship is fundamental. Yet it is an underlying principle of many religious experiences and expressions. The greater the opposition to other gods, the closer the relationship with God. The stronger the antagonism between Yahweh and the other cults, the stronger Israel’s religious identity. The stronger the identity, the greater the belief, etc.
The journey out of Egypt is the beginning of Israel as a people and its covenant with God. And the revelation of Yahweh on mount Sinai inaugurates a wholesome relationship between God, his people and the covenant. Although there was no word in biblical times for religion, the beliefs associated with the entity of God, his Kings, priests, prophets, and his people were perceived as one single dynamic reality.
This was made possible by the covenant that Yahweh made with the Patriarchs and, finally, with Moses. What begun in Exodus is promulgated by faith and verified by history, notably in the “story”. For Israel, the self-fulfilling words of God are tied to the faith in the unfolding events of history which are related to Exodus. The covenant sealed the destiny of Israel to the promise. The “ultimate concern” lies in the hope that the exclusive alliance will not fade with time. Attached to the covenant is the unbreakable character of the relationship that is stressed upon Israel in the form of the ten commandments and the law.22
With the law, Exodus inaugurates the legal, the social, and spiritual aspect of Israel as an inseparable reality. Under one God Israel becomes one entity, one identity.
Another paradox is that Yahweh must rely on his people’s obedience as much as they on his guidance. Without his people, Yahweh could not survive, and for that matter he would not exist. Therefore, Israel is the chosen people of Yahweh as much as Yahweh is their chosen God. In other words, the people of Israel have chosen God that has chosen them as the chosen people, and vice versa. This exclusive alliance sets the people apart from other people as much as Yahweh is set apart from other gods.
But in the outcome, the law or the ten words become the ultimate legacy and the monopoly of the priestly hierarchy. The divine ordinances regulate and keep the community together. With the liturgy, the cults, and the rituals, the priesthood becomes the ruling order. In effect, “man” is under the priest’s regulatory supervision for his access to God. The hierarchy of the sacred becomes the medium through which “man” can have access to the holy.
Ex. 19:5 “Now therefore, if you will obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my own possession among all peoples; for all the earth is mine, and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.”
Exodus illustrates literally how the story, or the creative power of the word as outlined in Genesis, is the creative agent of Israel’s identity and history. In fact, the historicity of Exodus is not as important as the “truth of faith” that generates the actual belief of its own sacredness.2
* * *
As we have explained, Exodus stems from four different literary sources: E, J, P, and R which were edited by the Redactor. The first three sources were written much later than the actual exodus, most likely between 922 and 608 BC. And the Redactor, in all probability, compiled the texts during the fourth century BC, more than eight centuries after the actual events described in Exodus took place. It would be revealing at this stage, to find out more about this elusive character who is responsible for the compilation of the most important book ever written in Christendom.
If we were to gather all the data available concerning the identity of this obscure and uncelebrated editor, we would probably end up with a portrait that would look a lot like Ezra.
In 587 BC, the southern kingdom of Judah was defeated by the Babylonians and its inhabitants were sent into exile. The city of Jerusalem was devastated and the temple destroyed. Providentially, Babylon was later conquered by the Persian King Cyrus in 539 BC. He apparently had no religious beliefs of his own and he did not particularly care to impose any creed upon others. He allowed the Jews to return to their land and worship their God. With his assistance, a second temple was built in 515 BC. Not surprisingly, the king was hailed as the right hand of Yahweh and a good shepherd.
Ezra 1:1 The lord stirred up the spirit of Cyrus king of Persia.
With the new temple being built, hope was on the rise. Under the new Persian rule, a Jewish exile called Nehemiah was appointed as the civil governor of Jerusalem. He needed additional help in religious matters, so he asked for another official from the Persian courts. This man was Ezra. He was a priest of Aaronid descent who was described as the “Secretary of State for the Jewish Affairs”, and the “scribe of the law of the God in heaven”. The reference of “God in heaven” was a title commonly given to Yahweh by the Persian regime.
Ezra came with a specific goal: to put religious order among the ruins of Jerusalem and I.
He did not come empty handed. He brought with him the copy of an intriguing law-book, which in all likelihood was a copy of the Pentateuch as we know it today. Not surprisingly, Ezra stands out at the end of the Pentateuchal law of the Old Testament in the same fashion as Moses stands at the beginning of it. He was presumably a man of great authority. As such he applied the law scrupulously and with great discipline.
Ezra 7:6 He was a scribe skilled in the law of Moses which the lord the God of Israel had given.
Upon his arrival in Judah, he was struck by the religious heresy of the Jewish people. He soon forbid the common practice of intermarriage between Jews and their non-Jewish neighbors. He even persuaded already married Jews to divorce their Gentile consorts.
Neh. 9:2 And the Israelites separated themselves from all foreigners, and stood and confessed their sins and the iniquities of their fathers.
Religious laxity had spread among the Jews during the Babylonian rule. Apathy for their God was adamant. During the exile, numerous communities who were scattered all over the Babylonian empire had turned their back to the scrupulous observances demanded by Yahweh. While the temple of Jerusalem lay in ruins, Jewish communities in Egypt and elsewhere lost their urge to worship Yahweh as the law demanded. Loin des yeux loin du coeur -far from sight the heart grows distant.
Worse yet the name of Yahweh was freely associated with the goddess Anath, whose identity is closely related to Asherah and Astarte, names that are repeatedly interchanged in the Bible.
The reference to “the queen of heaven” mentioned in the quote below shows how popular the worship of the goddess Asherah had become. When the people were exhorted by the prophet to return exclusively to Yahweh, a group of women retorted:
Jer. 44:16 “As for the word which you have spoken to us in the name of the lord, we will not listen to you. But we will do everything that we have vowed, burn incense to the queen of heaven and pour out libations to her, as we did, both we and our fathers, our kings and our princes, in the cities of Judah and in the streets of Jerusalem; for then we had plenty of food, and prospered, and saw no evil. But since we left off burning incense to the queen of heaven and pouring out libations to her, we have lacked everything and have been consumed by the sword and by famine.”
Ezra was understandably outraged to see Yahweh rivaled to hear such profanity. He took upon himself to forcefully inaugurate a temple-state hierocracy.24 He put the temple of Jerusalem back at the center of Jewish practice just as it was before. Patriarchal order was soon restored. The priestly monopoly of the law was reinstated.
Herein lies the background of the Bible.
For ages it was believed that the Pentateuch was written by Moses. Even today some still believe it. It only goes to show what a great job the redactor did when he arranged the different sources together.
What is so amazing is how successfully he put into a single narrative often contradictory accounts. A close scrutiny of the text, however, reveals some important discrepancies between the different sources. In J’s account, for instance, God personally descends on Mount Sinai, while in P’s God does not. In both J’s and E’s Moses sees God, not in P’s. J and E repeatedly describe Yahweh as merciful whereas P never uses the word “mercy”, but describes the lord as the God of justice and anger.
To make matters worse, the different sources challenged each other priestly authority. E backs the Levitical priestly family of Shiloh, and J is a patron of the descendants of Zadok. Whereas, P and R are supporters of the Aaronide lineage who are openly critical of Moses.
Why then, did the Redactor put these contradictory accounts together? Probably because each individual text was considered sacred and popular among the segment of the population from which it emerged.
In addition to his editorial savvy, R was also an astute theologian. By arranging different versions into one single account, he leaves the final authority regarding matters of theological interpretation to the priestly office. No single truth can be asserted. Every aspect can be challenged by a contradictory version. Therefore, any interpretation of the text can always be questioned, leaving the monopoly of authority in matters of faith in the hands of the priesthood.
It is one of the greatest paradox of Exodus that Moses did not set foot on the promised land. Yet this paradox may confirm an underlying principle of religious experience: that the quest is the essence of belief, not the object itself. In other words, it is the expectation and hope rather than the fulfillment of the promise that is the essence of faith. The promised land is the metaphor for the quest.
Another important principle lies in the obstacle to the quest. An underlying opposition to the profane reality of other god(s) and goddess(es) must be enforced in order to maintain the exclusivity of the holy. Concurrently, when God changes Jacob’s name to Israel, he reveals a fundamental tenet of the religious reality:
Gen. 32:28 Then he said, “Your name shall no more be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with men, and have prevailed.”
Israel literally means “He who strives with the angel” or “with God” or “God strives”. Hence the very essence of the word Israel lies in the dynamic relationship between God, his commandments (ten words), oneself and the people into wholesome shalom.
1 Mountains are privileged places where the sacred appears. See Martin Buber for the Mountain of God in, Moses, Oxford, Phaidon Press Ltd, 109.
2 Richard Elliott Friedman, Who Wrote the Bible, New York, Summit Books, 1987.
3 Martin Buber, Moses, Ibid., 20.
4 Ian Wilson, Exodus, The True Story Behind the Biblical Account, San Francisco, Harper & Row, 1985, 56.
5 Ian Wilson, Ibid., 81. Another clue may be the cities of “Pithom” and “Raam’ses”, mentioned in Ex. 1:11, which are known to have been constructed during the reigns of Seti I and Ramses II.
6 F.F. Bruce, Israel and the Nations, London, The Paternoster Press, 1963, 13.
7 Ian Wilson, Ibid.
8 Raffaele Pettazzoni, Essays on the History of Religions, Leiden, Brille, 1967, 21.
9 According to S. Freud, Moses was an Egyptian, see Moses and Monotheism, New York, A.A. Knopf, 1939.
10 He is also called Reu’el in Ex.2:18 and Hobab in Jg.4:11. See also Max Weber for more on the scribes and priests in, Ancient Judaism, New York, The Free Press, 1967, 336-343.
11 Régis Debray, Le Scribe: Genèse du Politique, Paris, Grasset, 1980, 33-36.
12 Deut. 7:6.
13 Ex. 32:1 to 33:1.
14 It is believed that during his long reign -1301 to 1234 bc- Ramses II ordered the construction of numerous temples with colossal statues of gods and of himself. The four deities behind his temple at Abu Simbel show that he was placing himself at the same level as the three dynastic gods of Egypt: Ptah, Re, and Amon. It is during the successive reign of his son Menerptah -1234-27 bc- that we have the famous inscription about Israel: “Israel is desolate; it has no seed left.”
15 William Foxwell Albright, Archaeology and the Religion of Israel, Baltimore, The Johns Hopkins Press, 1968, 71 f.
16 See, Barbara Watterson, The Gods of Ancient Egypt, New York, Facts On File Publication, 1984.
17 M. Buber, Ibid., 192-195.
18 Ex. 7:19; 8:5; 16.
19 The last plague, the one that finally convinces the Pharaoh to release the Israelites, may have an underlying significance that is of some interest. There is a parallel between the Pharaoh’s killing of the Hebrew male infants in the beginning of the narrative, from which Moses escapes, and the death of all the Egyptian first-born including the ailing Pharaohs’ child (Ex.11:1-12;). The meaning of the last plague can be related to the “blood revenge” of the ancient customs of the Semitic tribes: “eye for eye, tooth for tooth” (Ex. 21:24, Deut. 19:21, Mt. 5:38), described in the law of retribution of the Covenant Code. See Max Weber, Ancient Judaism, New York, Macmillan Co., Inc, 1967, 61-62.
20 In Hebrew the word for covenant is berith. It has the same significance as bond or agreement. Many social relationships of the time were agreements also known as covenants between Kings.
21 See Michael Walzer, Exodus and Revolution, New York, Basic Books, 1985, 101. Also Deut.11:10.
22 The wilderness period was the constitutional age, the time of Israel’s beginning, the time when God’s commandments were made into law. In Exodus -Ex.34:28, Deut.4:13,10:4- the term “ten words” has been replaced by the more common appellation of the “ten commandments”. The expression “ten words” refers to a group of prescriptions of cultic nature. It is used in the OT to describe a group of divine commandments written down by Yahweh and given to Moses.
23 The most revered and holy place for the Israelites during their exodus was the tabernacle, inside which the ark contained the copy of the sacred tablets containing the ten commandments. Again the legacy of the written “word” remains the most sacred religious reality for posterity, handed down from generation to generation.
The oldest biblical divinity is that of God of the Father(s). With this essay we will summarize some of the appellations of God used in the Old Testament.
One of the oldest Semitic appellatives of God is ‘el.1 The designation has been widely used in ancient Israel and Babylonia. It is also found in the oldest names as a component of: Ishma-el, Bethu-el, and Isra-el. 2 The original meaning of the word ‘el is still uncertain, but a probable origin may stem from the root ‘lh, which conveys the sense of “to be strong and powerful”, “direction”, or even “a sphere of control”. We also find the root alongside the proper name of deities such as: El-Shaddai (God Almighty), El-Elyon (God Most High), and El-Roi (“El sees me”, “God Seeing”).3
Among the most appropriate epithets of El are “Mighty”, “Leader”, or “Governor”. Its most forceful significance was meant to stress an attribute of majesty, with the intent to inspire fear in the face of God’s “mighty” presence.
Another important feature in the Scriptures is the frequent use of the appellative El in connection with the patriarchs’ names. The “God of Abraham” for instance, is the “El of Abraham”, the “Fear of Isaac” is the “El of Isaac”, and the “Mighty One of Jacob” is the “El of Jacob”. The designation was also used to describe the “God of the fathers”; i.e. the “El of the Fathers”.4 This feature indicates a special relation between the deity and the individual leader. The God of the leader became, henceforth, the God of the family and of the tribe. As such it also established a tribal bond between the God and the group.
Gen. 33:18 And Jacob came safely to the city of Shechem, which is the land of Canaan, on his way from Paddanaram; and he camped before the city. And from the sons of Hamor, Shechem’s father, he bought for a hundred pieces of money the piece of land on which he had pitched his tent. There he erected an altar and called it El-Elo’he-Israel (that is God, the God of Israel).
Several divinities of the ancient Near East in the second millennium BCE were for the most part assigned to a specific cultic place. The more stable kingdoms living during that period were constantly threatened by wandering nomadic tribes. War was an ongoing reality, especially among the emerging powers seeking to expand their dominion. The survival of the smaller semi-nomadic tribes depended on the initiative of their leader.
The pervasive use of magic in connection to their tribal gods was common as a way to inspire confidence, strength, and protection against rival enemies. The religious life of the group was closely intertwined into the nuclear social structure. Herdsmen, clans, and tribes, most of them semi-nomadic, were constantly in search of new ways to provide for their own subsistence and that of their flock in a harsh environment. The best fertile lands were already occupied by the powerful rulers of the city-states.5
The text of Genesis reveals that the worship of El among the early Hebrew migrant tribes had the same specific function of social cohesion and protection. Consequently, the random contact with other tribes and cultures brought about spontaneous opposition to rival cultic deities which endangered the integrity and cohesion of the group. This is especially the case of El and its opposition to Baal, the warrior storm-god, the King of the Gods.6
Another word commonly used for God in the Old Testament is ‘elohim.7 Etymologically it is connected to El. It is used mostly as an “abstract plural” or a “plural of intensity”. Elohim can best be translated into the Godhead. It is mostly used as a superlative to elevate the rank of the divinity above the pantheon of the other gods. This expression was utilized primarily in Babylonia and in pre-Israelite times to express the unity of individual gods that combined the totality of the higher divine reality. The plural form became recognized as an expression of superiority. In that sense, the narrative uses the plural form of ‘elohim to glorify the God of Sinai as the supreme divinity, and to express the superiority of God -‘elohim- to other gods.
The name Elohim is also an appellation for God which is used to replace the name Yahweh. Among other epithets used in the Bible to replace the unspeakable name of God -YHWH- is Adonai, or the Lord.
El, in all likelihood, is linked etymologically to ilu, a widely popular high-god of ancient Mesopotamia and the most prominent deity in the Canaanite religion. El, which we have identified with the God worshiped by the fathers, was also a prevalent God in Canaan, what was commonly known as Palestine.8
Ex: 6.2 And God said to Moses, “I am the lord. I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, as God Almighty, but by my name the lord I did not make myself known to them. I also established my covenant with them, to give them the land of Canaan, the land in which they dwelt as sojourners.”
P, who wrote the quote above, makes it quite clear that the identity of the gods worshiped by the forefathers are not to be mistaken with Yahweh, who disclosed himself to Moses for the first time. In the text, Yahweh informs Moses that he was known by the forefathers as El Shaddai; i.e., the God Almighty. The account also reveals the whole new reality of Yahweh who links the promise he made to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and finally to Moses.
Yahweh’s promise links his presence to the enduring existence of his people’s posterity; ie, the descendants. A promise which is revived again and again through the kings and prophets in whom Yahweh chooses to inspire his authority.
Ex. 3:14 God said to Moses, “I am who I am”. And he said, “Say this to the people of Israel, `I am has sent me to you.'”
In the quote above J links God’s name with the verb “to be”, or “to exist”.
I am who I am
The significance of the tautology ehyeh-asher-ehyeh, with the emphasis on the redundancy of the verb ehyeh, “to be”, is meant to enforce the idea of vitality and presence. The context in which God speaks, and to whom he speaks, implies an apperception of the divine presence which is linked with the promise made by God to the forefathers.10
The essence of the being of God is portrayed in terms of presence and of relationship. All the attributes are closely related to the twofold relationship between Yahweh and Moses and the realization of the promise to free the people from Egypt.11 The closeness is explained when God says to Moses, “But I will be with you”.12
When God tells Moses to go to the people and tell them that “I am has sent me to you”, he implies that when the hero utters the words “I am”, Moses will assume and ultimately embody God’s divine authority. Yahweh’s personal presence and existence is, shall we say, determined by Moses’ acquiescence of his mission. Yet it is the ongoing quality of the promise that is eternal, not God’s spokesmen. As such, the promise transcends Moses’ historicity.
Individuality is also stressed by the pronoun “I” which can only exist in the act of speaking to others or to oneself.13 Yet the first person singular indicates the presence of the image-less individuum vaguum. In the narrative the “I” exists -or stands out- as an individual being since God’s words are audible and comprehensible to the hero even though God’s reality is image-less. As God introduces himself, a distance is set between Yahweh and Moses. The alienation stems from the mystery of the distant promise that God had made to the forefathers. But as soon as Moses realizes the scope of his destiny, the hero finally understands the message and goal of the revelation. Then, the separation narrows. As Moses accepts God’s mission, he eventually identifies with the promise. More so when Yahweh reassures Moses that he will be with him and that his mouth will be God’s mouth. At the outset, Yahweh is an wholly other alterity to Moses yet he becomes one with God and wholly other entirety with the acceptance of his mission and the covenant.
Although God forbids the use of any graven images to portray or to identify him, the text is full of metaphors to suggest that his identity is accessible to us:
Ex. 33:11 “Thus the lord used to speak to Moses face to face, as a man speaks to his friend”.
God here is depicted as a friend, and the intimacy of the relationship is further symbolized by its anthropomorphic and metaphorical nature.
Throughout the Bible, the narrative uses the anthropomorphic to reveal God.
Gen. 1:3 > God speaks
Gen. 1:26 > God created man in his image
Gen. 3:8 > God walks in the garden
Gen. 32:24 > God wrestles with Jacob
Exod. 15:8 > God has a nose
Deut. 11:12 > God has eyes
1 Sam. 8:21 > God has ears
Ps. 2:4 > God laughs
Isa. 42:14 > God pants and groans
We have seen in Genesis how God speaks to the world. He speaks to his prophets, to his people and to the reader/hearer. This ability to communicate is essential in order for his will to be known.
God was present in the beginning. He was present with Abraham, Jacob, Isaac, and Moses. God is always present in his promise. Therefore, God transcends the personal relationship to encompass the people and their progeny in order that the promise be safeguarded.
The historical: Yahweh is the God of the Patriarchs, of Moses, of the anointed Kings, of the Prophets, and the priests etc…
The eternal: God’s promise to his people from which he chooses his spokesman
1 The term Semitic is used here to represent the family of languages of which Hebrew, Aramaic, Ethiopic and ancient Assyrian are a part.
2 Ilumma-ila and Ibni-ilu, in Babylonia; IlL-awwas and Jasma`-ilu in Southern Arabia.
3 El-Shaddai (Gen. 17:1); El-Elyon (Gen. 14:18f); and El-Roi (Gen. 22:14).
4 El of Abraham (Gen. 31:53); El of Isaac (Gen. 31:42); El of Jacob (Gen. 49:24).
5 See Max Weber, Ancient Judaism, New York, The Free Press, 1952.
6 See M. Weber, Ibid., 154. Also Walther Eichrodt, Theology of the Old Testament, London, SCM Press, 1969, 180, Gerhard von Rad, Old Testament Theology, London, Oliver and Boyd, 1965, and Edmond Jacob, Old testament Theology, New York, Harper and Brothers, 1955, 56.
7 Gen.1: 26; 20:13; etc.
8 Ronald E. Clements, The God of Israel, Atlanta, John Knox Press, 1979, 64.
9 Torah, Philadelphia, The Jewish Publication Society of America, 1982, Ex. 3:14.
10 One interesting hypothesis on the origin of YHWH -called the tetragrammaton- relates to an extension of the prehistoric word hu rendered “He”, the god. Another similarity points to the Dervish cry Ya-hu which can be translated into “O He”. The original expression may have been Ya-huva, if the Arabic pronoun huwa is taken to mean “he”. It is possible that the name Ya-huva could have meant “O-He” also. Such an expression could easily have evolved into Yahu and finally Yahweh. It is also interesting to note the rhetorical character in the original use of the word. M. Buber, Moses, Oxford, Phaidon Press Ltd, 49f.
11 See Martin Buber, Moses, Oxford, Phaidon Press Ltd, 192-195.
12 Ex. 3:12.
13 See Ivan Illich and Barry Sanders’, ABC: The Alphabetization of the Popular Mind, San Francisco, North Point Press, 1988, 70f.
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