21 June 2013

God's Glory in the Hebrew Bible

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“Shekinah Glory,” an artistic rendition of the Ark of the Covenant in the Holy of Holies “Shekinah Glory,” an artistic rendition of the Ark of the Covenant in the Holy of Holies http://www.apwin.org/wp-content/uploads/Pictures-Illustrations/The%20Bible%20Sanctuary%20-%20Exhibit%20B/slides/Shekinah%20Glory.jpg

I find it fascinating that God’s glory in both Qur’an and Bible revolves around Moses and his prophetic role at Mount Sinai – except that, as we will now see, this theme thoroughly permeates the Hebrew Bible (or Old Testament – I’m hoping Jews will enter this dialog as well!). As we learned from the Ayatollah Khomeini in the first blog, God’s glory is actually more tied up with his “Beautiful Names,” one of which is “glorious” (majid, Q. 11:73; 85:15).

We’ll start with Moses, looking both at the light that shone from his face (leading him to wear a veil) and at God’s “Shekinah glory,” the supernatural combination of light and cloud that accompanied the Israelites through the desert after the Exodus and later manifested in the Tabernacle and Solomon’s temple.


The word kabod in the Hebrew Bible

Though there are other words for “glory” in the Hebrew Bible, by far the one most used to convey the idea of honor and dignity (189 times) is kabod. Literally, it means “to be heavy or weighty.” One of its rare negative connotations relates to sin: something or someone “heavy with sin.” Almost always though, kabod conveys the weight of honor and value (think of gold or a person with great influence).

Here we immediately run into a theology of humanity. Look at Psalm 8 that begins with this Semitic connection between a person’s name and his/her very being and dignity: “O Lord, our Lord, your majestic name fills the earth! Your glory fills the heavens.” Then the psalmist reflects on the human being, the crown of God’s creation:


“[W]hat are mere mortals that you should think about them,

human beings that you should care for them?

Yet you made them only a little lower than God

and crowned them with glory and honor.

You gave them charge of everything you made,

putting all things under their authority—

the flocks and the herds

and all the wild animals,

the birds in the sky, the fish in the sea,

and everything that swims the ocean currents” (Ps. 8:4-8 NLT).


Think too of the Bible’s opening page:


So God created human beings in his own image.

In the image of God he created them;

male and female he created them.

Then God blessed them and said,

“Be fruitful and multiply. Fill the earth and govern it.

Reign over the fish in the sea, the birds in the sky,

and all the animals that scurry along the ground” (Gen. 1:27-28).


So God imparted a small portion of his indescribable light (his “image”) on his human representatives, those empowered by him to rule over the earth’s creatures in his stead. Hence, the common Muslim-Jewish-Christian theme running through this website: all of us together on this planet are mandated by our Creator to manage well the affairs of this Good Earth … and for this we will be held accountable on the Last Day.


Moses’ shining face

The story of Moses’ amazing experience in the Exodus picks up this theme of God’s tangible and luminous presence among his people. The next section deals with the “pillar of cloud by day” and the “pillar of fire by night.” Here we move directly to Moses’ third experience on Mount Sinai after he had smashed the first set of stone tablets out of anger at the people’s idolatry and debauchery.

Just as the second time Moses climbed the mountain to receive God’s law, the sight of God’s glory was spectacular, even terrifying:


Then Moses climbed up the mountain, and the cloud covered it. And the glory of the Lord settled down on Mount Sinai, and the cloud covered it for six days. On the seventh day the Lord called to Moses from inside the cloud. To the Israelites at the foot of the mountain, the glory of the Lord appeared at the summit like a consuming fire. Then Moses disappeared into the cloud as he climbed higher up the mountain. He remained on the mountain forty days and forty nights” (Exodus 24:15-18).


Perhaps not surprisingly, those many days of intimate communion with God left a physical mark on Moses. As he comes down the mountain, says the text, his face was shining, causing fear in his brother Aaron and all the people (Exodus 34:29). So after his initial instructions to them, he put a veil over his face. This became a pattern:


When Moses finished speaking with them, he covered his face with a veil. But whenever he went into the Tent of Meeting to speak with the Lord, he would remove the veil until he came out again. Then he would give the people whatever instructions the Lord had given him, and the people of Israel would see the radiant glow of his face. So he would put the veil over his face until he returned to speak with the Lord” (Ex. 34:33-35).


Here I pick up a commentary by a Jewish believer in Jesus as Messiah (from a large but diverse movement called “Messianic Judaism” – most definitely not recognized by mainstream Judaism). John Parsons cites a midrash (like tafsir for the Qur’an, or “commentary”), writing that “the radiance on Moses' face was a reflection of the Divine Light God created on the first day - a light that was 60,075 times brighter than the sun.”

Allow me to interject here a tantalizing parallel in the Islamic tradition. According to Q. 7:172 all human souls were brought before God in Adam’s presence and made to swear their allegiance to God as their Lord. This is the basis of the Islamic belief that everyone is born “muslim” (submitted to God). At that point, all the future prophets stood out from the masses as shining lights, but none as bright as Muhammad, whose substance had been created first (hence, before Adam), yet who was sent to earth as the last prophet. Even before his lifetime, Muhammad’s father’s forehead shone already – or, according to one tradition, “a light rested between his eyes.” Then his mother Amina witnessed several miraculous visions while pregnant with him.

Legends often grow up around great religious figures. Muhammad is no exception. In the body of hadith (reports about what the Prophet said or did, written some 2 or 300 years later) we read that during his 22 years as prophet light consistently emanated from his body. “Whenever he went in darkness,” says one hadith, “light was shining around him like the moonlight.” At other times on a dark night his fingers would light up the way for his disciples. In all these instances, what is at stake is the “proof” of Muhammad b. Abdallah’s prophethood – the Nur Muhammadi, the primordial light of Muhammad. I find it likely that this idea originated in the Jewish-Muslim-Christian dialogs and debates in Medina during the period of the “Rightly-Guided Caliphs” (632-661) and beyond.

Back to Moses and his radiant face coming down from the mountain. Have you ever wondered why medieval art represents Moses with horns jutting out of his head? John Parsons tells us that Jerome in his 4th century Latin translation of the Bible mistook keren (horns) for karan (shone). Aside from the humor of a whole iconographic tradition originating in a confusion of terms, it must have been frustrating for Jerome to explain what the veil had to do the horns!

On a more serious note, in the next blog we will have to disentangle another knot with regard to Paul’s midrash of Moses and the veil.


The Shekinah glory of God

God’s dramatic deliverance of Abraham’s descendants from their enslavement to Pharaoh – the Exodus – culminates with the covenant on Mount Sinai. As the Israelites vow to obey the law given to Moses on their behalf, God commits to being their God. As he says to Moses on his first encounter on the mountain, “Now if you obey me and keep my covenant, you will be my own special treasure from among all the peoples on earth; for all the earth belongs to me. And you will be my kingdom of priests, my holy nation” (Ex. 19:5-6 NLT).

Thus begins God’s tangible self-disclosure in the physical world. This is the “Shekinah glory” of God, though not a term in the biblical text itself, but used by later Jewish sources to refer to God’s visible presence particularly in the tabernacle and first temple. Coming from the verb meaning “to dwell” (cognate of the Arabic verb sa-ka-na), it denotes God’s glory resting among his people in the place he chooses to dwell.

Its first instance is the pillar of cloud by day and the pillar of fire by night – God’s guiding and protecting hand over the Israelites as they fled Egypt in the Exodus (Ex. 13:21). Its “consuming fire” even kept Pharaoh’s army from reaching them when they were backed up against the Red Sea the night before God parted it to let the Israelites through.

This Shekinah presence of God next manifests with the completion of the portable desert sanctuary, the tabernacle:


Then Moses set up the courtyard around the tabernacle and altar and put up the curtain at the entrance to the courtyard. And so Moses finished the work. Then the cloud covered the tent of meeting, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle. Moses could not enter the tent of meeting because the cloud had settled on it, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle” (Ex. 40:33-34 NIV).


The early pattern of the Exodus continued throughout the forty years in the wilderness:


In all the travels of the Israelites, whenever the cloud lifted from above the tabernacle, they would set out; but if the cloud did not lift, they did not set out—until the day it lifted. So the cloud of the Lord was over the tabernacle by day, and fire was in the cloud by night, in the sight of all the Israelites during all their travels (Ex. 40:37-38 NIV)


 In the same manner, when King Solomon has completed the construction of the temple in Jerusalem, he initiated a solemn ritual involving thousands of animal sacrifices and loud praises performed by the priestly musicians, in the midst of which he and Israel’s elders followed the priests carrying the Ark of the Covenant and other sacred vessels of the old tabernacle into their new sanctuary. Then we read:


When the priests came out of the Holy Place, a thick cloud filled the Temple of the Lord. The priests could not continue their service because of the cloud, for the glorious presence of the Lord filled the Temple” (I Kings 8:10-11 NLT).


My Muslim readers may recall that the word Shekinah appears twice in the Qur’an but with a different meaning and a different function. The context is the minor pilgrimage to Mecca (‘umra) that Muhammad led with a few thousand Muslims in 628. The Meccans stopped the peaceful procession in the plain of Hudaybiya, just a few miles away. After two days of negotiation, both sides signed a treaty stipulating that the Muslims will be allowed to make the full pilgrimage the next year. In the meantime, they must now return to Medina, but a truce between Mecca and Medina will stand for ten years. On the same occasion, Muhammad’s followers, despite many of them being dissatisfied by what they perceived as their leader pacifying the enemy through compromise, nevertheless pledged allegiance to him under a tree in the plain of Hudaybiya. In the sura devoted to this topic (Fath, “Triumph”), we read:


“God was pleased with the believers when they swore allegiance to you [Prophet] under the tree: He knew what was in their hearts and so He sent tranquility (sakina, Arabic cognate of Hebrew shekinah) down to them and rewarded them with a speedy triumph” (Q. 48:18 Abdel Haleem).


So in that first instance, the sakina was a peaceful willingness to submit to their leader as they submitted to God. And as it turned out, this treaty proved to be a boon for the Muslim side, for it allowed Muhammad to rally most of the other Arabian tribes to his cause. Two years later, he rode victoriously into Mecca with 10,000 soldiers. Islam had indeed triumphed.

The sakina also applied to Muhammad personally at Hudaybiya. In the second instance this word is used, the tranquility that is “sent down” (recall that this is the qur’anic way of depicting revelation) is meant to reassure Muhammad and bind him to his followers  as a new nation distinct from the “ignorance” (jahiliyya) of pagan Arabian society:


“While the disbelievers had stirred up fury in their hearts – the fury of ignorance – God sent His tranquility down on to His Messenger and the believers and made binding on them [their] promise to obey God, for that was more appropriate and fitting for them. God has full knowledge of all things” (Q. 48:26 Abdel Haleem).


The people’s pledge (bay’a) to Muhammad offers some intriguing parallels to the Sinai covenant, albeit much less dramatic. But the text unquestionably points to God’s “sending down” his sakina at this pivotal moment in the formation of a new people under God.


Hints of the incarnation to come

From a Christian viewpoint, the Shekinah glory of God points to the coming both of the Son in Bethlehem and the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. So much could be said about all of this, but let me just remind you of John’s Prologue with which I ended the first blog. In the time of God’s choosing, the Word – “who was with God and was God” – “became human and made his home among us” (John 1:14). The Greek literally reads, “pitched his tent among us.”

As God’s Shekinah glory filled the tabernacle and then the temple as it was inaugurated, so God took a more radical step and pitched his tabernacle among his people in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. He actually became one of them, though born without a human father and the stain of sin so as to become on the cross “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29).