“Maskiert.” Ein “BUMM” zu Moses (Exodus 34)

Mit bestem Dank an Harry Schroeter und sein Team!

Research Cluster: “Religious Structures of Modernity”

By “modernity” in the singular I refer to any and all varieties of modernity as manifest in a plurality of “modernities.” “Modernity” as such refers – in this project – to phenomenal worlds or worldviews situated in both continuity and difference from various medieval and ancient antecedents and that are thus structured by shifts in worldview indicated in epochal transitions, e.g., from a Ptolemaic to a Copernican view of the world, or associated with transformative processes,  e.g. “secularization.”

By religious structures of modernity I refer to the transformation of premodern religious norms and forms into specifically modern concerns, patterns, symbols, value systems etc. This project aims to guide, as well as gather, research into the presence of the religious in the secular, of the premodern in the modern, namely, as constitutive elements of various modernities. The project thus builds on, as well as broadens, Max Weber’s example of uncovering the Protestant character of modern capitalist production and extends, as well as subjects to critique, his method of searching for religious elements as constitutive of specifically modern phenomena.

This research cluster is conceived within the context of the Graduate Program in Religion at Boston University, specifically the specialization in Religion in Philosophy, Politics, and Society. It interdisciplinary in that it draws on philosophical, and more broadly humanistic, as well as social and political science theory and puts them in conversation.

A note on “secularization:” Historically speaking, “secularization” refers to the forced transfer of assets owned by the Church into the hands of the laïcistic state in the wake of the French Revolution. It became a useful metaphor in descriptions of the profound changes that spiritual and symbolic assets once associated with religion entered into the “possession” of the laity, whether this was in form of art and literature, or in form of institutions such as modern state-run schools and universities. This grand transfer of religious inheritances into the hands of new and novel forms of social organization and modes of expression is the very subject of this research cluster. I nevertheless suggest to use the term secularization sparingly, as it seems to imply that what came from religious contexts is now no longer “religious” in that it has been secularized. The transfer of agency, however, may not in fact have changed the “structure” of what has been transferred, claimed, or inherited which therefore remains open to investigation. By focusing on the possibility of identifying “religious structures of – rather than in – modernity” I hope to stimulate the generation of new questions and perspectives on “secularization” and the putative “secular.”

Finally, by “research cluster” I mean a loose association of individual projects (dissertations, conferences, lectures, journal articles, etc) conducted by graduate students, post-graduate fellows, and faculty that grow out of and significantly relate to sustained conversations that will stake out the intellectual profile and approach that is here only briefly adumbrated.


Statement on Israel Palestine Conflict 2021

Note: The following statement was signed Boston, May 17, 2021. As of today, Friday, May 21, a ceasefire has been declared between Hamas and Israel. The further-going demands of the statement have not therefore been rendered moot.

Seventy-three years after the Nakba of 1948, the forced displacement of three quarters of a million Palestinians from what became the territory of the State of Israel, and nearly fifty-four years after the June 1967 war, that brought further Palestinian territories and populations under Israeli control, it is important that we realize, without equivocation, that Palestinian lives matter. There cannot be a lasting peace in the Middle East without Israelis and Palestinians recognizing one another’s humanity. Those who claim to act in the name of their religion should consider that, in the eyes of God, we are all equal. Hatred is not the answer.

The undersigned members of the Boston University faculty call for an immediate cease fire between the IDF and Hamas in Gaza. Indiscriminate firing of rockets into civilian areas in Israel and disproportionate air and ground attacks on targets in densely populated areas of Gaza: both amount to collective punishment. These are violations of the laws of war, not justified acts of self-defense. The use of force must be a last resort, not a tactic used to score political points. This is not the way!

We call on President Biden to show leadership and use every appropriate means, including sanctions, to force an end to these needless and brutal hostilities and bring the parties back to the negotiating table, for a fair and equitable peace process without preconditions. We call for a return to bilateral negotiations to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict once and for all. We call on Israel to respect and protect the rights of Muslim and Christian communities in Jerusalem and elsewhere in the Holy Land to free and safe access to their holy places. We call for an end to mob violence in Israeli cities that pits Israeli citizens, Palestinians Arabs and Jews, against one another. The incitement of hatred must stop. The right to peaceful protest must be respected. We urge the Palestinian Authority to restore the democratic process, hold the long-overdue elections, and give the Palestinian nation the leadership it so desperately needs. We call on Hamas to stop using their own population as human shields! We call on Israel to end this war and allow the people of Gaza and the entire region to heal.

We condemn all acts of anti-Jewish violence and reject the rhetoric that holds Jews accountable for the actions of the State of Israel, where they are not citizens and cannot vote. We condemn all forms of Islamophobia and anti-Semitism.

Michael Zank, Professor of Religion, Jewish Studies, and Medieval Studies
Director, Elie Wiesel Center for Jewish Studies, College of Arts and Sciences

David Frankfurter, Professor of Religion and Aurelio Chair in the Appreciation of Scripture

Tim Longman, Professor of Political Science and International Relations
Director, CURA: Institute on Culture, Religion, and World Affairs
Acting Director, African Studies Center

Neta C. Crawford, Professor and Chair of the Department of Political Science

Carrie Preston, Director, Kilachand Honors College / Professor of English and Women's, Gender, & Sexuality Studies

Muhammad H. Zaman, Professor of Biomedical Engineering

Kimberly Arkin, Associate Professor of Anthropology

Ingrid Anderson, Associate Director, Elie Wiesel Center for Jewish Studies

Teena Purohit, Associate Professor of Religion

Joy and Sadness

Moses Mendelssohn famously argued that mixed sentiments are aesthetically more profound than simple ones.  Profound does not mean pleasing. Pleasing requires something pleasant, but mixed sentiments are not as pleasant as simple ones. A mix of joy and sadness can hardly be more pleasant than joy, pure and simple. Whatever strength joy confers, or expresses, is diminished by sadness. Why then praise mixed sentiments?

I believe that mixed sentiments elevate us. Simple sentiments presuppose attention to things that are simple. Complex sentiments are attached to, or evoked by, complex matters.

Imagine you are God. You look down from your heavenly abode and you see all the things that occur on this earth, let alone other earths for which you may be responsible. Do you think you'd be happy? The gods are happy only if they don't really care about us down here. A God who cares cannot be happy. But, assuming that God does not manipulate or force us to act one way or another, he may not always and only be sad. Sometimes he may be pleased. Or rather, since He is God, and for Him there is no time (time attaching only to temporal things), he must always and forever be both, sad and happy. Mixed emotions bring us a little closer to God.

There is a wonderful rabbinic story about what went on in Heaven as the Israelites shouted for joy when their Egyptian pursuers drowned in the sea, riders, horses, and all. The angels, so goes the story, wanted to join the chorus of jubilation. Perhaps it was Miriam's timbrel that proved irresistible. But the Holy One, Blessed be He, immediately shushed them and said, how can you be jubilant as my creatures are drowning?

Today, Israel celebrated its 73rd Independence Day. It is a joyous occasion for all who take pride and comfort from Israel's existence. Among them is my father-in-law who just turned 100 and who saw what people do to Jews who don't have what it takes to fight back. Israel is strong, and that is good.

Many of us who take pride and comfort from Israel's existence are also haunted by the fact that Israel's independence means catastrophe to the Palestinian Arab community. Can we keep both of these facts in our minds at the same time? Not at the same time, perhaps. After all, we are not God. But perhaps one after the other. And then, perhaps, our sense of joy will be mitigated by sadness. Books poster

May this be more than an exercise in aesthetics. There is nothing sublime or beautiful, says philosopher Immanuel Kant, that is not also morally good.




Yom Hashoah 2021

Words, on the occasion of the BU Hillel and Elie Wiesel Center candle lighting ceremony, April 8, 2021

I light this candle

to remind us that

it is not enough

to say, Never Again!

If we don't know

what it is we are

supposed to remember.

How can we remember

what we never experienced?

But we never experienced

Sinai, or

the House of Bondage, and yet

we remember

If I forget Thee Jerusalem

But how can I remember

What I have not seen?


It is these kinds of

impossible commandments

we resolve to keep


They are not too far from

our mouths, they say.

But our words fail

Not because of the silence

of forgetting

but because there are too many of them.


Too many names to recall

Too many lost


How can they say

there is a God when

even God forgot

to remember?


I light a candle

to the God


forgot to write

their names

in the book

of life.



Jewish Mardi Gras

Purim, as I see it, is a Jewish version of Mardi Gras. Or perhaps it's the other way around. In any case, it is not in the Torah of Moses and it wasn't commanded at Sinai. It was instituted, according to the scroll of Esther, which provides the legend of Purim, by the Persian Jewish community, in the days of King Ahashveros or Ahasuerus, presumably a reference to the Persian shahinsha Xerxes (5th century BCE), to celebrate the rescue (after a casting of lots, hence the Persian name of the festival) of Persian Jewry from the evil plot of Haman. Heroine of the story is Hadassah Esther (Ishtar) who braves the great king by approaching him unbidden and, by doing so, she risks her life for the sake of her fellow-Jews. There is also her good uncle Mordecai, a loyal subject to the same king who earlier discovered a plot against the same king. The Book of Esther is the only canonical biblical book not found among the Dead Sea Scrolls. The Hebrew version does not mention God at all. The Greek version adds a prayer, while the Hebrew version plays out entirely on the human plane.

Timed to announce the coming of the First Month of the Jewish calendar, i.e., Nissan, whose New Moon is associated with the birth of the Messiah and which culminates in the Passover, Purim has much in common, in terms of its place in the seasons of the solar year, with Mahdi Gras, which marks the beginning of Lent and leads up to Easter. These liturgical similarities are not coincidental. Both Jewish and Christian celebrations hark back to earlier times, when the natural cycle – and human dependence on the mercy of the gods – was the essence of religion. Both Jewish and Christian celebrations obscure the agricultural origins of these moments in cyclical time by means of narratives about divine providence and salvation in history.

Purim is the only holiday where, as the talmudic rabbis suggest, a man is to drink to the point that he begins to confuse hero and villain of the story, Haman and Mordecai. How so? When the scroll of Esther is read in the synagogue, people are supposed to make noise whenever one of these characters is mentioned. You are supposed to cheer for Mordecai and hiss or boo when Haman appears. Sometimes both appear in the same sentence. It is easy to get confused in the emphatic expression of opposite emotions in short order. It doesn't take much alcohol to become too sluggish to quickly make the right response.

I once attended a reading of the scroll of Esther at the synagogue of the Satmar Hasidic community in Meah Shearim. Men and children had dressed up. Some looked ornate in their usual Satmar garb, others – especially some of the boys – looked burlesque. As I was trying to find the place in the printed edition of Esther I was handed, a boy dressed as a voyager on Star Trek, complete with a noise making laser pistol, passed me by a number of times. It seemed like everyone around me was moving and making a lot of noise. I stood out by the fact that I quite obviously neither belonged nor had any sense of where we were in the reading. After a while, the boy in the space outfit took pity on me. He took the book out of my hands, leafed for a moment, then gave it back to me, this time opened to the right place. It was a gesture of kindness and inclusion.

In that spirit: Happy Purim, everyone!

No, Mr. Schwarzenegger, the Capitol Riots were not like Kristallnacht

In a short video, posted on YouTube, the former Conan the Barbarian star and California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger brandished his stage sword and compared it with American democracy. The tertium comparationis between the “hardened steel” of a sword and American democracy was somewhat nebulous, especially as the brief message ended with a call to “healing.” Is our democracy’s resolve “hardened” by challenge, or are we to threaten rioters with the sword of justice? But I am not writing as a critic who might take issue with Schwarzenegger’s poetry.  I am writing about Schwarzenegger invoking Kristallnacht 1938 as a historical parallel to the recent “breaking of glass” in the US Capitol, a parallel that Schwarzenegger vaguely claims to be familiar with because he was from Austria, even though he was born in 1947.

I am not just confused by this parallel. I am disturbed by it. Here is what happened on Kristallnacht, a three-day state-sponsored, highly organized, and nation-wide pogrom unleashed on Jewish houses of worship, business, and private homes that took place from November 9 to November 11, 1938. I am quoting from the US Holocaust Memorial Museum page on “Kristallnacht.”

Nazi Party officials, members of the SA and the Hitler Youth carry out a wave of violent anti-Jewish pogroms throughout Greater Germany. The rioters destroyed hundreds of synagogues, many of them burned in full view of firefighters and the German public and looted more than 7,000 Jewish-owned businesses and other commercial establishments. Jewish cemeteries became a particular object of desecration in many regions. Almost 100 Jewish residents in Germany lost their lives in the violence. In the weeks that followed, the German government promulgated dozens of laws and decrees designed to deprive Jews of their property and of their means of livelihood even as the intensification of government persecution sought to force Jews from public life and force their emigration from the country.

After the pogroms, the implementation of German anti-Jewish policy was gradually concentrated in the hands of the SS. Thus, Kristallnacht figures as an essential turning point in Nazi Germany's persecution of Jews, which culminated in the Holocaust, the attempt to annihilate European Jews during the war.

My own family was victimized on that day. My grandfather, a World War I veteran of the German army, was among those on lists of prominent Jews to be detained in concentration camps that had been established as early as 1933. My mother’s twin brother, then sixteen years old, was not on such a list but a local policemen thought he should be so he sent him away as well. My grandfather was later released as a decorated WW I volunteer. My uncle was released later, which forced the family to release his seat on a Kindertransport they had secured for the twins. My mother escaped to England. My grandparents and my uncle were ghettoized in Mainz and, in early 1942, deported to German-occupied Poland, where they perished.

Kristallnacht was not spontaneous but well planned. It was violent, deliberate, and devastating for the millions of Jews still living in Germany at that time.

As others have argued, there are many parallels between Trumpism and Hitlerism, or Trumpism and fascism. In many ways, popular support for Trump, the cult of personality, the destruction of trust in mainstream media and the creation of a cloud of disinformation that stokes hatred and encourages violence, all this rings familiar and sheds light on the erosion of democratic institutions that preceded the rise of Hitler in Germany who, btw, was elected and legally appointed as Chancellor before he used constitutional emergency powers to eliminate all opposition. The totalitarian state was not established in a day, and the ground was prepared by a decade and more of the erosion of trust in the rule of law.

But the Capitol riot of January 6 is not equivalent to November 9, 1938. If Schwarzenegger is looking for a parallel, here is one: the abortive Beerhall Putsch of 1923 that landed Hitler in prison. To be sure, that was not the end of Hitler’s political career. Let us brandish the sword of Conan to make sure the January 2021 riots were the end of Trump’s.

On Fiction and the Bible

Let’s talk about fiction, fictions, belief and the imagination

The word “fiction” comes from the Latin verb fingere, which gives us the English name for the digits of our hands, “finger,” which we also use as a verb, when we speak of “fingering someone,” meaning to manipulate (from Latin manus: “hand”).

Literally, fiction is something made by our fingers or something our fingers point to. The semantic range of the Latin verb fingo includes the following meanings:

  1. to shapefashionformknead (dough)
  2. to adorndressarrange
  3. to dissemble; I alter the truth in order to deceivefeignpretend
  4. to trainteachinstruct

Fiction is something made to appear before our eyes, something conjured, an alteration of things found.

We can juxtapose fiction to fact, a derivation from the Latin factum, which is also something made. Facere can mean, or be used to express, the following range of actions: to make, do, act, name (in the sense of designate someone for a job, e.g., make him king), perform, work, build, construct, set (e.g. fire), achieve, to be effective, to cause, commit, concoct, establish, fabricate, and more.

We tend to think that facts are not fictions, but the words seem related, as are facts and fictions, if both are essentially made and the products of human (or divine or natural) making.

Facts and fictions are products of making. Facts are made things; fictions are made up things. Things are made or made up by someone or something, i.e., they have a cause. If everything is caused, everything is either fact or fiction. The distinction between fact and fiction points to the difference between intellect and imagination.

Anthropologically speaking, the human experience begins with toolmaking. A tool, say a stone flint, extends the range, strength, or ability of our fingers. It allows us to produce different and better facts. The human experience also begins with speech. Utterings are also a kind of tool in that they extend our range of power beyond the body. To use a spatial metaphor, speech extends our range in two directions, namely, inward and outward. Utterings are also “innerings.” The utterings of our mouths, the sounds we make with the intention of meaning, give voice to our inner lives, to the things we see, hear, taste, and feel and that we communicate with one another. With the ability to communicate comes the possibility of manipulating and dissembling, but also of instructing.

The first evidence of religion is also the first evidence of civilization, namely, the deliberate burial of human remains with gifts for the hereafter. From the very beginning, human lives were not just factual but fictional, playgrounds for the imagination. We may assume (or is it a fiction?) that early human worlds were populated, even dominated, by fictions. This is a probable assumption because we are aware of the arduous process by which humans have learned to distinguish between fact and fiction. The distinction between fact and fiction serves our interest in self-preservation. Knowing, what is fact and what is fiction, is a source of power. Knowledge is power, as the saying goes, but no knowledge is as powerful as the knowledge of causes. If I know the actual cause of a thing, I must no longer fear or enslave myself to fictitious causes. Knowledge liberates from enslavement to fictions.

Today we associate the struggle for the knowledge of true causes with the history of science. But where does that leave fiction?

Fiction remains a powerful tool of manipulation for the sake of power. Knowledge does not just liberate the knower from enslavement to fiction. It also enables the knower to create fictions and to manipulate others, by conjuring worlds that are equally or more compelling than facts. The art of using fiction to manipulate others is used in the rhetoric of persuasion, in propaganda, in advertisement and public relations, and of course in politics.

But fiction, the making of our imagination, is also a powerful tool for the powerless, who can imagine themselves as free and empowered.

The knowledge of facts comes with an element of disenchantment. The world of fiction is an enchanted world. We crave fiction more than facts.

Fiction can provide escape from facts. It exercises the imagination. When we are exposed to fiction as fiction, that is when we recognize that what we see, read, or hear is a product of the imagination, we suspend disbelief and enjoy the alternate reality of fiction. This may seem an entirely passive or receptive engagement, but it is, in fact (!), our own imagination that is at work producing the images, faces, feelings, and emotions that fiction conjures for us. This is particularly true where the medium provides mere clues but doesn’t paint the whole picture for us. Our imagination is more active in the production of fiction when we read than when we immerse ourselves in total works of art such as a musical, a movie, or computer-animated virtual reality.

It is our craving for fiction that makes us susceptible to manipulation. We want to believe what we are told, especially if the telling comes with the authority of religious power.

Realizing the difference between fact and fiction is a perennial task; it is work we practice every day and throughout our lives. We don’t already know whose words we trust or whose truth we can safely embrace. Higher education, really any education worthy of that name, encourages us to raise questions: “How do we know this?,” “Is this a fact, or is it a fiction?,” and “If this is fiction, is it harmless or harmful?”


Biblical literature is a complex mix of fact and fiction. On the borders of biblical literature, Jews, Christians, and Muslims each cultivated their own creative engagements with this literature. They have taken from it what they found compelling and instructive and they have made it into new complex mixes of facts and fictions. Modern biblical scholarship is the effort, begun in the 17th-century European Enlightenment, to break the spell or enchantment of the Bible, its hold on the European imagination, and subject it to the same scrutiny as the new science applied to nature. Textual and higher criticism treated biblical literature with the same critical tools scholars applied to any and all received bodies of literature. As archaeological and epigraphic knowledge grew, in the nineteenth century, new comparanda emerged that allowed scholars to see the emergence of biblical literature in its historical context and recognized the presuppositions and cultural assumptions shared by the biblical texts with other ancient texts and inscriptions. It stripped the Bible of its extraordinariness and established critical distance between modern readers and the ancient texts.

Traditional approaches to the Bible have the opposite purpose. Instead of distance they want to establish proximity and identification. Instead of rational and methodical critique they employed the imagination.

There are two major tools, among other traditional ways of creative engagement with biblical texts, namely, interpretation and embellishment.

Interpretation takes the text as sacrosanct, that is, as an unchangeable symbolic body or body of symbols, down to every word and even each letter, including misspellings, diligently copied from generation to generation. To make sense of this body of symbols, interpretation uses strategies such as allegorical interpretation, typology, and the like, to read the text otherwise than written. Using interpretative strategies to bend the text to the will of the interpreter treats the text as figurative rather than literal, i.e., it suggests that the text means more and other than it says. Late ancient and medieval exegetes spoke in this regard of a “fourfold sense” of Scripture, distinguishing, for example, between the literal (Jerusalem, the city), the tropological or moral (Jerusalem=the believer’s soul), the allegorical (Jerusalem=The Church), and anagogical (Jerusalem=Heaven, pointing to the eschatological future of individual or collective redemption). This would be a Christian example. A similarly ascending system of meanings is suggested by the Hebrew acronym PaRDeS (pshat, remez, drash, sod). There is evidence of creative interpretation in the Bible itself, e.g., when Daniel ponders the words of Prophet Jeremiah and finds a way of applying his prophecies to his own time. The library of Dead Sea Scrolls, uncovered at Khirbet Qumran since the late 1940’s, included the first known example of a commentary on a biblical book, the Pesher Habakuk.

The other strategy–embellishment or “corrective” retelling–is also evident among the sacred scriptures, for example, if we understand the Books of Chronicles (1 and 2 Chr) as a corrective retelling of Samuel-Kings. [E.g., cf. 2 Sa 24 with 1 Chr 21]

These retellings were exceedingly popular, well-known, and often displaced the biblical version because they were felt to be more satisfying as explanation of certain events or circumstances, such as the expulsion of Adam and Eve from Paradise ( Life of Adam and Eve), of ritual obligations (sacred history retold to fit into 50-year cycles in the Book of Jubilees), or of new theological ideas ( immortality of the soul popularized in poetic form in the Wisdom of Solomon).

The New Testament gospels fictionalize the life of Jesus of Nazareth to support the apocalyptic message of the early Christian community and to defend their claim that Jesus was the promised “anointed one” or Messiah. There are variations between these tellings that are obvious when you contrast Mark, whose gospel proclaims Jesus of Nazareth as a powerful divine man who vanquished death, with Matthew and Luke, who add genealogies, pregnancy and birth stories, and different vignettes, with the purpose of providing evidence or arguments either directly from scripture (using fulfillment citations, as Mt does) or by means of allusions and imitation of scriptural style (as Luke does), to create a quasi-biblical life of Jesus of Nazareth and to explain why someone from Nazareth could be the promised anointed one. I call these accounts fictional, among other reasons, because they shared the intention of showing (through the birth in Bethlehem) that Jesus of Nazareth had a significant connection with the House of David, a crucial condition for legitimate messiahship in early and later Christian arguments with the Jews, but they use irreconcilably different “facts” to establish that connection. This contradiction means that either one account is fictional and the other factual, or both accounts are fictional.

Similarly, the Latin Life of Adam and Eve constructs a backstory to the figure of Satan (a biblical figure without real personality or individuality), using poetic biblical passages (from Isa and Ezek) to create a new mythological figure as the great enemy of humankind and the one who, for Christians, was vanquished by Christ. In this fashion the ancient combat myth finds its way back into a biblically inspired fiction.










Spring Courses: Holy City and Maimonides

YHWH, God of Israel

Biblical literature pivots around the relationship between YHWH and Israel. By “YHWH” I refer to the name of the biblical Israelite deity that, in its shorter forms yah and yahu (Greek IAO), appears in numerous theophoric names, such as Hizki-yahu (“IAO is my strength”) and in expressions of praise (hallelu-yah). There are other divine names in the Bible, including those associated with the patriarchs of Genesis (“God of Abraham,” “Strong one of Isaac,” “god of my breasts,” etc) and most importantly variants of el/eloah and elohim, an abstract plural noun often used interchangeably with YHWH. In Ugaritic sources, el refers to the chief god of the pantheon. The notion of the high god of a pantheon is also indicated in the term elyon, i.e., “the Highest.” In the Bible, the mythological pantheon remains relatively undifferentiated. El might appear in the council of gods (see Ps 82:1), but the lesser gods or “sons of god” remain unnamed. They are a generic lot, with one exception: “YHWH, el of the Hebrews” (Ex 3:18), “el of Isra-el” (Ex 32:27 and often). In this case, el is the function, while YHWH is the persona taking on that function.

YHWH particularizes Israel as the nation of YHWH. The same is the case with the national gods of neighboring communities. National gods of other people see, e.g., Chemosh of the Moabites in Num 21:29, Jud 11:24, and cf. 1 K 11:33. In speaking of YHWH as elohenu (“our god”), Israel particularizes itself in relation to a divine being that is theirs. YHWH tseva’ot (LORD of Hosts) is invoked in conjunction with the Ark narrative in 1 Samuel 1–7 and in a number of psalms. In some psalms, YHWH appears to be associated with the north (zaphon), in the Song of Deborah and Barak he appears from the south (teman). He sometimes bears the very epithet rider of the clouds that Canaanite sources associate with Ba’al, a male fertility deity of the kind YHWH likely resembled at the beginning of his divine career. The epigraphic evidence from the Sinai oasis of Quntillet Ajrud attests to YHW’s antiquity as a deity revered by proto-Hebrew tribes.

The pre-history of this deity involves the passage from a local numen with fertility-related characteristics (characteristics of a male deity with a female counterpart) to deity of the Hebrews more broadly, and ultimately a god whose exclusive veneration is a matter of party politics (see the stories about Elijah and the purge staged by the Israelite usurper Jehu; 2 K 10:28) and eventually a matter of state (1 K 22-23) in the late Judahite monarchy. What interests me here is the long duration of YHWH’s intermediate position between the Highest and among the other “sons of God.” Traces of this original way of differentiating between YHWH, the god of Israel, and el elyon can be found, though they are not always obvious, especially when we approach biblical literature with the assumption that YHWH was always consistently identified with the Highest.

Consider the following passage from the Song of Moses (Deuteronomy 32:8-9 LXX):

When the Most High apportioned the nations,

When he seeded out Adam’s sons,

fixed the boundaries of nations

according to the number of divine messengers,

that’s when Iakob, his people, became the lord’s portion,

Israel the measured part of his inheritance.[1]

The meaning of these verses is clear. The poem urges the listener to inquire of the elders about the days of old, the very beginning, when the Highest divided unified humanity into a multitude of nations “according to the number of” divine beings. The verses introduce the intimate relationship between YHWH and Israel, a desert foundling (32:10MT), pampered and elevated by YHWH, much as Jerusalem is described in Ezekiel’s poem about Jerusalem (Ez 16). As “Jacob ate his fill and Jeshurun grew fat,” Israel “forgot the god who gave you birth” and turning to other gods, caused YHWH to become jealous and angry, etc. Much like Isaiah’s song about the vineyard (Isa 5), the Song of Moses reviews the benefactions Israel received from its god only to abandon him later on, causing YHWH to threaten the Israelites with “being scattered” (meaning of Hebr. Uncertain) and their memory to be obliterated. But then YHWH reverses himself for fear of Israel’s perdition being misinterpreted as the victory of Israel’s adversaries rather than YHWH’s actions (vv. 26-27). This sequence, which, as mentioned, follows a familiar prophetic pattern, is followed by a section that is more reminiscent of wisdom literature (vv. 28-38) and concludes with a section (vv 39-43) reminiscent of Isaiah 45, with its more exclusivist rhetoric. The Greek version of the Song of Moses culminates in a call to the Heavens, the “sons of god,” “angels of god,” and the “nations” to rejoice “with his people” over his avenging of the blood of his sons.

εὐφράνθητε, οὐρανοί, ἅμα αὐτῷ, καὶ προσκυνησάτωσαν αὐτῷ πάντες υἱοὶ θεοῦ· εὐφράνθητε, ἔθνη, μετὰ τοῦ λαοῦ αὐτοῦ, καὶ ἐνισχυσάτωσαν αὐτῷ πάντες ἄγγελοι θεοῦ· ὅτι τὸ αἷμα τῶν υἱῶν αὐτοῦ ἐκδικᾶται, καὶ ἐκδικήσει καὶ ἀνταποδώσει δίκην τοῖς ἐχθροῖς καὶ τοῖς μισοῦσιν ἀνταποδώσει, καὶ ἐκκαθαριεῖ κύριος τὴν γῆν τοῦ λαοῦ αὐτοῦ.

Deut 32:43 LXX https://www.academic-bible.com/en/online-bibles/septuagint-lxx/read-the-bible-text/bibel/text/lesen/stelle/5/320001/329999/ch/0b89294002b40812b31018ccd0148821/


The “messengers of god” of verse 8 reappear in verse 43, where they are in parallel to the “sons of god” (υἱοὶ θεοῦ ). Given the composition as a whole, it is difficult to avoid the slippage from a song in praise of the intimate relationship between YHWH and Israel to a song that makes Israel the special inheritance of the Highest himself, namely, if we approach it from the assumption that YHWH is, in fact, none other than the Highest himself.

The Masoretic version disambiguates the identification of YHWH and Highest by replacing the sons or angels of god, according to whose number the nations were divided up in the beginning, with the phrase “according to the number of the children of Israel.” If we assume that the original version of the Song had the Hebrew equivalent of “sons of God” (b’ney Elohim), then the Masoretic scribes only needed to change one word, to remove the offensive meaning, by replacing Elohim with Israel. Even more intriguing is the difference between the Masoretic version of v. 43 and the Greek. The (later) Hebrew is much shorter and omits all reference to the Heavens, the angels, and the sons of god.

The textual transmission of the Song of Moses is thus quite complicated. The older version preserved in LXX seems to offer the more unabashedly mythological view, similar to what we find in other Israelite hymnic poetry, where YHWH is among the lesser gods without therefore losing any of his significance for Israel, while Israel remains entirely beholden to YHWH alone. In fact, the logic of this view is required in order for YHWH to air his grievance over Israel’s conduct in the sight of Heaven (= the Highest), the (other) sons of god, and the nations. Israel is a source of embarrassment for the god to whom this nation was assigned, who found and brought it up in the desert, lavishing care upon it so it grew into a strong and self-satisfied nation. The history of Israel reflected in these images corresponds to what we know about Israelite origins historically and from biblical narrative. The claim here added is that the Highest assigned YHWH to Israel from the very beginning, the days of old. In other words, it was the providence of the Highest, who makes arrangements for every nation (through the agency of his sons or messengers) ahead of time, who gives national identity its definition and duration, that assigned YHWH to Israel and Israel to YHWH.

The logic of much of biblical historiography is the logic of emergence of the dual monarchy of Israel and Judah as a fortuitous rise of a loosely defined tribal community of Hebrews out of the ashes of the collapse of late-Bronze Age upheavals. The normative prophetic tradition that become part of the Jewish canon of scriptures accompanies and punctures this rise with its poignant critiques. The historical books of the Deuteronomistic school shape this view into a coherent narrative based on the idea of a covenant that binds Israel to YHWH, and YHWH to Israel and makes the nation’s ups and downs readable in light of loyalty and disloyality of the Israelites (Judges) and their kings (Samuel-Kings) to YHWH alone. The obligation to worship YHWH alone is not originally tied to a written compact but serves as a symbol of national unity that, over time, meant different things to different groups, movements, and institutions. The rewritten history of the kingdom in Chronicles emphasizes loyalty to the temple and the Levitical priesthood. The prophetic historiographers of Samuel-Kings emphasized the personages of prophets and a few kings who hearkened to their voices. There is most certainly some influence of Assyrian imperial suzerainty treaties on the form of late-monarchy Judahite covenantal thinking. The notion that Josiah reformed the cult and based his reinauguration of a pan-Israelite state on a found “scroll of instructions” is either the case of a historically unprecedent royal act or a later invention that wants to anchor the logic of Israelite history as contingent on the nation’s obligation to worship YHWH alone in its last and perhaps greatest iteration, i.e., in the written Torah of Moses.

What YHWH was to Israel, Chemosh was to Moab, Milcom to the Ammonites, and the Ashtoret to the Sidonians (1 K 11:33). A nation owed veneration, obedience, sacrifice, and exclusive loyalty to their own national deity. What kind of a people would turn to “other gods,” and enter into covenants with them? The story of biblical kingship is bracketed by exactly that charge. At its inception, which –– according to the Book of Kings –– marks the high point of Israelite history, King Solomon is charged with abandoning the ways of his father David when he introduced the gods of others to Jerusalem. (See 1 K 11:7.33). At the end of that historical narrative, King Josiah of Judah is praised for having rectified the offense that led to the downfall of Israel, its partition into two kingdoms, thereby its weakening and eventual destruction, and the “evil” that king after king committed “in the eyes of YHWH.” (See 2 K 23:13) King Josiah’s measures, meticulously detailed in 2 K 23 aim at establishing a bulwark against further foreign domination. His economic measures include the elimination of cult centers outside Jerusalem and thereby the centralization of taxation, strengthening the royal household and enabling the king to pursue wars of conquest and consolidation. This fantasy of restoration created the hubris that eventually led to Judah’s demise at the hand of the Babylonians who mustered much greater resources after emerging from Assyrian domination.

From the destruction of Judah and Jerusalem, a kingdom that had proclaimed exclusive loyalty to YHWH alone, emerged a refined, more sophisticated, more wistful culture that used elements of cultic purity, scribal arts, law, and wisdom to refashion and reimagine what it meant to venerate YHWH alone. In that process, and through encounters with new and more sophisticated civilizations, Jewish theology began to change. Prophetic poetry particularized Israel in a novel, more subtle way as the suffering servant of YHWH while YHWH began to be seen as the one creates weal and creates woe, who fashions light as well as darkness (Isa 45), who directs the fate of nations for the sake of his servant, Jacob. As “Israel’ turns into an increasingly fuzzy social body, as their god appears or allows himself to be venerated not just in the Land of Israel but also abroad, the god of Israel grows in stature and merges with the Highest. This new particularization of “Israel” as the covenanted people of the Creator of Heaven and Earth, compared to whom all other gods are mere idols and nothings, with no ears to hear or eyes to see, creates the jarring possibility of the disinheritance that was to be claimed by the nations: if the god of Israel is God, purely and simply, then what does God have to do with Israel? Through his only begotten son he reaches, teaches, and judges all nations. We can see how the Christian interpretation of the Jewish Scriptures draws conclusions that are already prepared for in the trajectory of the history of the relationship between YHWH and Israel. But the Christians are not alone in offering a strong and plausible interpretation of Scripture. Jews, facing the challenges of Christian, and later also Islamic, interpretations of the Israelite legacy, found a variety of ways to reconcile their politically diminished status with the spiritual elevation of YHWH, god of Israel. These included the ways of halakhah and Talmud torah, the ways of custom, the ways of biblical interpretation and storytelling (midrash), the ways of mysticism and philosophy: Israel’s persistence in exile a proof for the existence of God.

Finally, over the last century and a half, the ways of politics and nation-building in an age of secularism have given the original sense of Israelite theology renewed relevance. If each nation has the political right to exist by virtue of the natural right to choose its national existence, then so does Israel. Stripped of metaphysical ballast, YHWH, god of Israel, has once again become readable as a national god among national gods, and Israel as a nation among others.

After all, the name YHWH means, I AM WHO I AM.

[1] Cf. New English Translation of the Septuagint (NETS) online at http://ccat.sas.upenn.edu/nets/edition/05-deut-nets.pdf. I significantly modified this translation based on the basic meaning of the Greek wording.