Tuesday, November 10, 2009

God's Home

For my Fishbane reading (in Biblical Myth and Rabbinic Mythmaking), what stood out to me was the issue of God's location, or, more accurately, the location of his divine glory (Shekinah).

In my post yesterday (A Comforting Presence), I touched a little on the biblical and rabbinic notion that God goes with Israel into exile. There was an earlier rabbinic view, however, that stated that God's presence was perpetually in Jerusalem. That's why Psalm 68:7 says that God brings the solitary ones home, Lamentations Rabbah Petichta 29 argues: God was not with Israel in exile, but he stayed behind in Jerusalem, his resting place. And the rabbis could cite Scriptural passages that supported this position. In Ezra 1:3, for example, the Persian king Cyrus affirms that the LORD is in Jerusalem at that time, even though the Jews are in exile and the temple is in ruins.

I encountered this view here at Hebrew Union College. A professor of mine said there was an ancient view that a God of a country was in some sense confined to his particular country. That's why God in Genesis 12 told Abraham to go to Canaan: that's where God was.

I can think of passages that lean somewhat in that direction. In I Samuel 26:19, David tells Saul that he has driven him out from abiding in the inheritance of the LORD (the land of Israel), telling David in essence to serve other gods. The implication here seems to be that the worship of God is in Israel, God's location, so Saul driving David from that location pushes him away from the true God.

In II Kings 17:24-28, after the Assyrians had conquered Northern Israel, they bring in foreigners to inhabit the land. The foreigners did not fear the LORD, so God sent lions among them. The Assyrians then realize that the foreigners know not the manner of the God of the land, so they get Israelite priests of Bethel to teach it to them. This passage is interesting for the purpose of this post, for it shows that God is attached to the land of Israel, even when his people are not. It's also interesting because it doesn't seem to coincide with other themes of the Deuteronomistic History (Joshua-II Kings), notwithstanding the Deuteronomistic elements of II Kings 17. The Deuteronomists desired to limit worship to Jerusalem, but here, there is some sense that the worship of Northern Israel could be legitimate, even though it wasn't in Jerusalem.

One narrative I've often heard is that the Jewish religion survived whereas other ancient Near Eastern religions did not because the Jewish religion found a way to exist in exile, away from the land of Israel and its temple. Other ancient Near Eastern religions, by contrast, were limited to their lands, so they did not survive. But the Jewish religion said God was everywhere and could be worshipped in any location, even in exile.

This may be true in a big-picture sense, but there are counter-examples. One that Fishbane cites is from the Marduk Prophecy, dated to 1124-1103 B.C.E., in which "we read of three self-determined exiles which the God Marduk underwent (to Hatti, Assyria, and Elam)---leaving Babylon in distress and benefiting the new lands of residence" (144). So other ancient Near Eastern religions believed that their god could survive in exile. And, although there was a notion that the defeat of a nation proved that its god wasn't all that powerful, there was also a view that a god could punish his nation for its sins, so its defeat did not prove his lack of power. Marduk showed that when he benefitted his new lands of residence!

Something else that Fishbane discusses is a rabbinic view that Israel's exile actually casts doubt on God's power (154-155). Granted, God goes with his people into exile, and that's all well and good. But God displays his power when he delivers Israel from her enemies and guarantees her presence in the Promised Land. The relevance of this point to my post here is that God is most at home in Israel, even though he may travel into other countries to be in Israel. But there's another profound message here: According to this view, God at some point has to cease being a wanderer to deserve Israel's worship and the admiration of the nations. This overlaps with my post yesterday, which said that God being with us in our suffering doesn't really solve the theodicy problem. At some point, we need a basis to trust in God's power and love, some hope that things can and will get better and that God will deliver us from our miserable cycles.

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