In the 21st century, we have access to two types of texts written by ancient Israelites. The first consists of anthologies of poems, collections of worldly observations and aphorisms, historiographic writings, and extended ethno-narratives. These were curated and ended up—as a result of processes understood but darkly, in a collection, the Hebrew Bible. We also have official inscriptions, some generated by ancient higher-ups for public display, and others by lower-downs, members of the ancient bureaucracy, for more restricted, “inner-departmental” needs. A few contain the proper name YHWH.
Not one of these compositions may be read as if written to prove the reality of YHWH. Their authors presupposed YHWH’s reality.
Consequently, when YHWH is the grammatical subject of sentences in narratives or the subject or object of legal and ritual prescriptions, or when he is addressed in absentia in a poem, contemporary readers understand that the ancient authors were completely unselfconscious about what they wrote. Israelite compositions address reality as they perceived it, basing their knowledge on experience and on what had been transmitted to them by prior generations: parents, grandparents, tribal elders, and perhaps by wandering storytellers. The more learned and “scroll-ish” of them may have read of events past in chronicles kept in temple or palace archives. Their thought-world, the cultural bubble within which they lived and wrote and made sense of their private and collective lives, is best described from a modern perspective as both mythopoeic and realistic. It was realistically mythopoeic. It provided the tangible sense of reality within which they lived their religion.
Whatever the contents of their thought-world, it was a logically constructed world that they were able to explain. It was much like our thought-world, only different. They knew that the earth was flat and that the sun rises and sets; that rain comes from waters beyond the firmament that is beyond the heavens, and that all dead people—good and bad, friend and foe, continue to exist in Sheol. I consider discovering some of the contents of their thought-world an interesting and worthwhile undertaking.
My research as a Seymour Gitin Distinguished Professor during the 2013-2014 academic year is part of a large project: “Seeing God(s) in Temples, the Heavens, and in Model Shrines: A Problem in Ancient Metaphysics.” This project focuses on notions about the corporeality and hence the occasional visibility of gods, including YHWH, in various places. Although not frequent, reports of god sightings are attested in ancient Near Eastern texts as well as in the Bible.
What makes “Seeing God(s)” somewhat difficult is the fact that philosophical theology in Christianity and in Judaism starts out with an axiom that God is immaterial and hence incorporeal. Were the opposite true, as medieval thinkers realized, then God could not be eternal, the ground of all being, and therefore not immutable, omnipresent, omnipotent, and omniscient. The “problem” to which my project’s title alludes and that has to be resolved is that various formulations of these ideas that define deity have been retrojected into the Bible since the Septuagint was translated in the third and second centuries BCE, backread into historical periods unaware of them and untroubled by their absence.
Part of resolving the problem involves reading literally texts that have been interpreted figuratively for more than two millennia.
Most of my research during the year that I spent at the Albright centered on:
(a) tracing the history of God sightings and belief in the corporeality of God in texts from the Iron Age through the late Middle Ages and the beginning of modern thought in the sixteenth century;
(b) understanding how “knowledge” about the corporeality of YHWH, who was usually invisible, was accounted for in the literary blueprints of the desert Tabernacle and Solomon’s temple known from the Bible; and how the corporeality of deities was addressed in fixed Iron Age temples and cult sites, and in portable model shrines excavated in Israel and elsewhere in the Levant;
(c) writing a commentary of sorts on the published results of excavations at Kuntillet Ajrud, an eighth century BCE religious center in the eastern Sinai Peninsula, where an inscription identifies a painted figure comprised of a lion-like head atop a human body as YHWH. The juxtaposition of inscription and drawing compels the following question: Is this what came to mind when ancient Israelites thought of themselves as created “in the likeness like the image” of God (Gen 1: 26)?
Although I have managed to integrate some conclusions that I reached during my time at the Albright into a forthcoming publication, the bulk of my research will be written up during the coming academic year for publication beginning, perhaps, in 2015.
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