Wednesday, January 25, 2006

The new name

Tonight I sat down to study the Torah portion (Exodus 6:2-9:35), then began to draw comparisons between Abram (aka Abraham), Jacob and Moses in their respective experiences of God's calling, promise and blessing, covenant, testing, signs, etc. All three were 'Jews by choice', that is, by their choice to accept the covenant terms and by God's choice to call them into his service. For example, in Genesis 18:19 God says of Abraham, "I have known him," which others have translated "singled him out" (new JPS) or "chosen him" (RSV) or "embraced him" (Robert Alter).

But only Abram and Jacob received new names as part of their 'conversion' or encounter with God's covenant promise and blessing. At first my question was: Why wasn't Moses, bearer of an Egyptian name, given a new name?

This brings us to Exodus 6:2-3 (along with 3:13-15). Moses receives the revelation of a "new" name for the God of his fathers: "I am the Lord, and I appeared to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as El Shaddai, but I did not make myself known to them by my name, the Lord, “ which is "my Name forever."

Now my question is: what is the significance of this reversal of the naming ceremony in the case of Moses?

In the case of Abram and Jacob, the naming formula was: "you shall no longer be called .... but your name shall be...." In the case of Moses, God in effect says, "I shall no longer be known only as .... but my name shall be ....forever!"

One response to my question focuses on the difference between El Shaddai and the Lord as names of God. The first name, El Shaddai, defines and delimits God as a certain sort of God, prone to act in certain ways toward his creatures. The new name introduces a entirely different approach to God, as Abraham Joshua Heschel explains: "Definitions take the name of God in vain. We have neither an image nor a definition of God. We have only His name. And the name is ineffable." (Man Is Not Alone, p. 97) The new name is open-ended and limitless, as in the interpretation “I will be who I will be.” (Exod. 3:14)

The God whose name defies definition nevertheless chooses to align himself with certain interests and principles. For while “the Lord does whatever he pleases“ (Psa. 135:6) yet “the Lord has chosen Jacob for himself, Israel for his own possession.” (Psa. 135:4) To his people Israel he brings deliverance and freedom, redemption and well-being (Exod. 6:6-8). But this God is not only the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, he is also the God of the stranger, the orphan, and the widow (Deut. 10:18). Such are his interests, as understood and taught by Israel.

As to his principles, they are revealed to Moses when God “proclaims in the name of the Lord” that he is a God of compassion and grace, kindness and truth, who extends forgiveness yet requires accountability (Exod. 34:5-6 MT). Likewise we read: “Righteousness and justice are the foundation of your throne, kindness and truth go before you.” (Psa. 89:15 MT) Such are his principles, as understood and taught by Israel.

A final thought: Does the new name taken on by God in Exodus imply a new relationship with his people? When both Abram and Jacob were given new names there was an implied new relationship, a covenant relationship, with God. Perhaps the reverse is true here, as the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob reveals his intention to redeem his people with the announcement that he will be known henceforth by a new name.

The phrase “I am the Lord” (ani hashem) is found 199 times in the Hebrew Bible, but of this total 177 occur in just 4 books: Exodus (17), Leviticus (52), Isaiah (22), and Ezekiel (86!).

My son, my firstborn

Exodus 4:22
And you will say to Pharaoh, “Thus says the Lord: Israel is my son, my firstborn.”

Israel’s relationship to God is explained by various metaphors in the Bible: servant (Isa. 41:8, 44:1-2, 21, 49:3; I Chron. 16:13), flock (Ezek. 34:11ff, Psa. 23:1-4, 95:7, 100:3, etc.), and son, to name just a few of the more prominent ones.

The metaphor of Israel as God’s firstborn son appears at several places and under different circumstances in the Hebrew Bible. At least three ideas are suggested by a survey of these passages:
1) Israel as God’s chosen people;
2) God’s love for Israel;
3) The permanence of their relationship.

1. Israel as God’s chosen people
Granted, this idea appears more often with the servant passages listed above, but the two metaphors are related. For example, in Psalm 89 David is first introduced as God’s chosen servant (Psa. 89:3) then later identified as his firstborn son (Psa. 89:26-27), which is interpreted there as “the highest of the kings of the earth.” So likewise Israel, as God’s chosen servant and firstborn son, has been set first among the nations, as God’s portion and inheritance:

Deut. 32:6b, 9
Is he not your Father who has bought you? He has made you and established you…. For the Lord’s portion is his people; Jacob is the allotment of his inheritance. (cf. Psa. 135:4)

2. God’s love for Israel
I quoted selectively from Deuteronomy 32; in context the passage is fairly negative toward Israel: A “foolish and unwise people” (v. 6), Israel “abandoned the God who made him” (v.15), and the report only grows worse from there on. The context of the passage quoted below, from Hosea 11, is also hard on the shortcomings of Israel. Even so, God’s love for Israel remains steadfast: “For whom the Lord loves he reproves, even as a father, the son in whom he delights.” (Prov. 3:12) Israel is the son in whom God delights. Even as God reproves Israel, there remains the special love of a father for his child:

Hosea 11:1
When Israel was still a youth I loved him, and called my son from Egypt.

(The new JPS offers an interpretive translation: I fell in love with Israel when he was still a child; and I have called [him] my son ever since Egypt.)

3. The permanence of their relationship
God’s love for Israel is an everlasting love:

Jeremiah 31:3
I have loved you with an everlasting love.

The prophet Jeremiah mixes the metaphors of flock and son, and in doing so places double emphasis on the enduring nature of God’s relationship with Israel:

Jeremiah 31:8-9
They will come with weeping, and with supplications I will lead them; I will make them walk by streams of waters, on a straight way where they will not stumble; for I am as a father to Israel, and Ephraim is my firstborn…. He who scattered Israel will gather him, and guard him, like a shepherd guards his flock.

Then he completes the thought with assurance of God’s devotion to Israel:

Jeremiah 31:20
Is Ephraim my dear son? Is he a delightful child? For whenever I speak against him, I surely remember him still; therefore my heart yearns for him; I will surely have mercy on him, declares the Lord.

All of this does not make God a tribal deity, for the “nation” Israel has never been limited to an ethnic identity. Theoretically, any person who so chooses may “enter the status of Israel….by accepting God’s rule as set forth in the Torah.” (Jacob Neusner, The Emergence of Judaism, p. 26) Israel the people became Israel the chosen when they chose to accept the terms of the covenant, when, standing at Sinai, they declared, “We will do and we will hear.” (Exod. 24:7) When today observant Jews recite the Shema both morning and evening, they affirm the sovereignty of God and the centrality of his commandments in their lives, and in so doing they show themselves to be Israel.

The following passage from the Talmud makes use of Exodus 4:22 in a creative way:

Shabbat 89b
R. Samuel b. Nahmani said in R. Jonathan's name: What is meant by the Scripture, For you are our father, though Abraham does not know us, and Israel does not acknowledge us: you, O Lord, are our father; our redeemer, from everlasting is your name (Isa. 63:16)? In the future the Holy One, blessed be he, will say to Abraham. “Your children have sinned against me.” Abraham will answer before him, “Master of the Universe! Let them be wiped out for the sanctification of your Name.” He will say, “I will tell this to Jacob, who went through the pain of bringing up children: perhaps he will ask for mercy on their behalf.” He will say to him, “Your children have sinned.” Jacob will answer before him, “Master of the Universe! Let them be wiped out for the sanctification of your Name.” …. Then he will say to Isaac, “Your children have sinned against me.” But Isaac will answer him, “Master of the Universe! Are they my children and not your children? When they gave precedence to "we will do" over "we will hear" (cf. Exod. 24:7) before you, you called them, My son, my firstborn (Exod. 4:22). Now are they my children, not your children? Moreover, how much have they sinned? How many are the years of man? Seventy. Subtract twenty, for which you do not punish (Num. 14:29), there remain fifty. Subtract twenty-five that comprise the nights (when they are asleep and do not sin), there remain twenty-five. Subtract twelve and a half for prayer, eating, and using the privy, there remain twelve and a half. If you will bear all of them, good; if not, let half be on me and half on you. And if you say, all of them must be on me, don’t forget I offered myself up before you!’ When they say, ‘For you [i.e., Isaac] are our father,’ then Isaac will say to them, ‘Instead of praising me, praise the Holy One, blessed be he,’ and Isaac will show them the Holy One, blessed be he, with their own eyes. At once they will lift up their eyes on high and exclaim, 'You, O Lord, are our father; our redeemer, from everlasting is your name.'

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Champion of Jacob, Stone of Israel

His bow remained steady, and the arms of his hands were made agile by the hands of the Champion of Jacob, by the Shepherd, the Stone of Israel. (Gen. 49:24)

In Jacob's blessing for Joseph, he uses three wonderful picture words for God: Champion ('aviyr), Shepherd (ro'eh), and Stone ('even). God is the Champion of Jacob, the Shepherd and Stone of Israel.

A. The Stone

Consider the last one: the Stone of Israel. Until recently I have always taken the word to be equivalent with the several references in Psalms to God as a rock (either selah or tsur) with the basic meaning of a high fortress or a cliff for refuge. So do at least four recent translations: RSV, the new JPS, NIV, and, interestingly enough, the translation by Robert Alter. All of them translate the word as rock here, but as stone everywhere else in Genesis. On the other hand, the old JPS (following the KJV) is consistent to say "the stone of Israel."

Why do I think this is important? Well, a stone is not a cliff, and so would not mean (as the translations imply) a stronghold or refuge. Instead, a stone is used for building (cf. Gen. 11:3), or by Jacob for a place to rest his head (Gen. 28:11; cf. Exod. 17:12) and then for a marker in the form of a pillar (Gen. 28: 18, 22; also 31:45 and 35:14) or a mound (Gen. 31:46), and for a cover on the mouth of a well (Gen. 29:2-3, 8, 10; note the relation to gathering and watering the sheep). Also, altars were often built with stone (Exod. 20:25). Finally, a stone could be a precious stone (Gen. 2:12).

So when Jacob declares that God is the Stone of Israel, what does he have in mind? The foundation stone for building the nation? (Isa. 28:16) The stone of revelation? The stone of worship? The stone of identification (Num. 6:27) as in a marker placing God's claim on Israel? The stone protecting the life of the nation as in the well associated with the shepherd and the sheep? Or the stone of highest value?

B. The Champion

God is also the Champion of Jacob. On this term compare Isaiah 49:26, 60:16; Psalm 132:2,5.

I derived the translation “champion” indirectly from a comment by Martin Buber on the title for God that is peculiar to Jacob. He used a more obscure word “paladin.” (The Prophetic Faith, p. 42) I must admit that "paladin" (def., paragon of chivalry, heroic champion) is new to my vocabulary, but what an interesting way of understanding God’s relation to Israel, both the man and the people.

The Isaiah references given above call for knowledge that "I the Lord am your Deliverer, your Redeemer, the Champion of Jacob." Read the context of each, especially Isaiah 60:15-22, and you may agree that champion is an appropriate interpretation of the Hebrew word 'aviyr.

Champion of Jacob. This title suggests so much about the chivalrous regard God has shown to Israel:
*Loved with an everlasting love (Jer. 31:3);
*Carried on eagles’ wings (Exod. 19:4);
*Surrounded with songs of deliverance (Ps. 32:7);
*Nourished with honey from the rock (Deut. 32:13);
*Guided in paths of righteousness (Ps. 23:3);
*Chosen (and kept) as a treasured possession (Deut. 7:6).

A traditional Jewish hymn envisions this Champion:

He wears triumph as a helmet on His head,
His power and holiness have stood Him in good stead…
He takes pride in me, the source of His delight;
And He will be my splendor whose praise I will recite…
He beautifies the people He has carried since their birth.
For Him they are precious; He pays honor to their worth.
(Excerpts from Hymn of Glory, translated by Jules Harlow)

Or consider this beautiful song of deliverance:

The Lord your God is with you, He is mighty to save.
He will delight in you with joy, He will quiet you with His love,
He will rejoice over you with singing.
(Zeph. 3:17)

Shepherd of Israel

Gen. 46:2-4a
And God spoke to Israel in the visions of the night, and said, Jacob, Jacob.
And he said, Here I am.
And he said, I am God, the God of your father. Do not be afraid to go down to Egypt, for I will make you a great nation there. I will go down with you to Egypt, and I will surely bring you up again…

At the beginning of Israel’s journey, when he was known only as Jacob, he received similar assurance from God:

Gen. 28:15
And behold, I am with you, and will guard you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not forsake you until I have done what I have spoken to you.

Israel the man represents Israel the people. What has God has promised here to Israel? To be the Shepherd of Israel (Gen. 48:15, 49:24), and as such to be with his people wherever they go; that is, to go with them, even into exile, even into bondage, and in time to deliver them, to bring them back to their land.

The picture of God as the Shepherd of Israel points forward to the exodus:

Psalm 77:21 MT "You led (guided) your people like a flock in the care of Moses and Aaron."
Psalm 78:52 "He led forth his people like sheep, he drove them like a flock through the wilderness."

A. The Shepherd

Psalm 80:2a MT "Give ear, Shepherd of Israel, who leads (drives) Joseph like a flock!"

As the Shepherd, God relates to Israel in numerous and remarkable ways:

1. Purchases and Owns. The shepherd cares for the sheep because he owns them. He will not abandon the sheep. So God chose and purchased Israel; as owner, God calls Israel by name and delights in his treasured possession. Psalm 74:2 "Remember your congregation, [the people] you purchased long ago, the tribe you redeemed as your inheritance..."

2. Tends and Provides. The shepherd prepares pasture for the sheep. So God provided manna in the wilderness and taught Israel that "man does not live on bread alone, but ... on anything that the Lord decrees" (Deut. 8:3, NJPS).

3. Leads and Guides. The shepherd guides the flock wisely along right paths (Psalm 23:3). So God guides Israel by their daily practice of the commandments. Psalm 119:35 “Lead me in the path of your commandments, for I delight in it.”

4. Gathers and Carries (cf. Gen. 46:5). Isaiah 40:11 "Like a shepherd he tends his flock: he gathers the lambs in his arms and carries them close to his heart; he gently leads those that have young." God is a gentle shepherd.

5. Watches and Guards (cf. Gen. 28:15). The shepherd stands guard over the flock by day and by night. So "the guardian of Israel neither slumbers nor sleeps." (Psalm 121:4) God has covenanted with Israel to be their guardian, to make their concerns and interests his own.

6. Seeks and Returns. Sheep tend to stray and require continual attention from the shepherd. When we like sheep stray, repentance is the path of return. Psalm 119:176 “I have strayed like a lost sheep; seek your servant, for I have not forgotten your commandments.”

7. Stops and Restores. Psalm 23:2-3a “He lays me down in green pastures, he leads me beside tranquil waters, he restores my soul.” As the shepherd provides his flock rest in lush surroundings, so God has given Israel the Sabbath. The prophet Isaiah brings to my mind the Shepherd of Israel when he describes the Sabbath commandment as a “delight” in which we “feast on the inheritance of Jacob” (Isaiah 58:13-14).

What is most remarkable about the metaphor of God as Shepherd? That the lowly, earthy existence of a shepherd wandering about with his flock should be applied to the Awesome One who fills the universe with his glory. Even so, it is by such earth-bound metaphors (so-called anthropomorphisms) that we catch a glimpse, not of God in essence, but of the ways in which God relates to Israel, as understood by Israel.

B. The names Jacob and Israel

Note that in the passage quoted at the beginning, God spoke to Israel but called him by his other name Jacob. This should be surprising, for when the new name Israel was revealed to Jacob, God said (in both versions of the event): “Your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel.” (Gen. 32:28, 35:10) When Abram’s name was changed to Abraham, the original name was no longer used. But that is not the case with Jacob: both names are used interchangeably, not only in Genesis, but throughout the Hebrew Bible. Both names are used in reference to the man, and both are used, often in parallel, to designate the people.

It is important to recognize that the name Israel is not in essence an ethnic designation. The latter might be true of another name, Hebrew, which is used often in Genesis and Exodus, and also appears in Deuteronomy, 1 Samuel, Jeremiah, and Jonah. But even in the narrative of Genesis, the name Israel has to do with a community of nations (q’hal goyim, Gen. 35:11), which is represented by the twelve sons of the one man Israel. The name Israel has an ethnic component, in the transmission of the name from generation to generation, but the name is both broader and deeper than mere ethnicity.

1. Broader. Membership in the community is open to outsiders.
Isaiah 14:1 For the Lord will have mercy on Jacob, and again choose Israel, and settle them in their own land; and the stranger will join with them, and they will unite with the house of Jacob.
Isaiah 44:5
This one will say, I am the Lord’s, and another will call [himself] by the name of Jacob, and another will write on his hand The Lord’s, and identify himself by the name of Israel.
2. Deeper. Membership is not by birth but by initiation into the covenant (represented by circumcision), and is further defined by a body of teachings collectively known as the Torah, through which Israel knows itself and worships God.
Psalm 78:5-7 For he established a testimony in Jacob, and appointed a Torah in Israel, which he commanded our fathers to make them known to their children; in order that the next generation might know them, the children yet to be born. They will rise and tell them to their children, that they should put their confidence in God, and not forget the works of God, but keep his commandments.