A Damned Nation?

9 04 2010

John Hobbins has baited me with a meme, but I shan’t bite.

The meme requests me to divulge an item of halakhic or aggadic import that is presently considered outdated, but that I believe should be as relevant as ever. I can think of several examples of such items, currently considered relevant but which should be relegated to the bin, but am not at liberty to comment on the inverse. There are no items of halakhic or aggadic import, in my opinion, which possess any relevance at all outside of the liturgical space and, given my non-participation in all things ‘confessional’, I’m therefore not at liberty to comment. This would be a rather short post, then, were it not for the fact that I would like to comment on John’s choice, for I believe that he is somewhat misinformed.

John would like to see more hellfire preaching but, while I’m not bothered one way or the other by what pastors say inside their churches, he claims that such preaching has a mandate that goes back to the Hebrew Bible. This, I cannot accept.

John quotes Isaiah 65-66: the final two chapters of an enigmatic collection of prophecies. Like much of the text, these two chapters contain a blending of harsh indictments with comforting promises of restoration. In fact, the two styles are so closely intertwined here as to make it difficult to separate the objects of the prophet’s address. On one hand, the recipients of the message are promised that their offspring will flourish, that their exiled (or otherwise distant) brethren will be brought back to the land of Israel, that Jerusalem will be made a place of everlasting joy, and that no more strife will befall the inhabitants of the land or the livestock upon it. On the other hand, however, the recipients of this message are told that, for the crime of sacrificing humans and other unclean animals, and for having eaten the flesh of pigs, reptiles and mice, God is going to bring against them a fiery conflagration, that they will line up with heads bowed before God’s vengeful sword, and that their brethren shall return from distant lands to gaze upon their dead flesh. The final line is striking:

ויצאו וראו בפגרי האנשים הפשעים בי כי תולעתם לא תמות ואשם לא תכבה והיו דראון לכל בשר
They will go out and gaze on the corpses of those who sinned against me. Their worm will not die and their fire will not be extinguished: they will be a disgrace to all flesh.

Perhaps the most striking thing about this line is the fact that, until now, the oracles of doom and the promises of restoration have been distinct from one another. While intertwined, textually, and while thematically related, they nonetheless described two mutually incompatible worlds. In this line, however, it is evident that they are both describing the same situation: while some people will merit restoration, and while some people will merit suffering and death, those who merit the restoration will forever be able to gaze upon those who merited God’s brutal punishment. The image of a flowering land, flourishing offspring and a nature at peace with itself does not fully accord with the prospect of gazing upon the permanently rotting and burning flesh of one’s sinful family. To that end, it would seem that the passage is hyperbolic, and not actually intended to be taken literally. When we consider injunctions to bury the corpses of sinners, lest the land be contaminated and (depending on how one parses the genitive) God be affronted, the notion that Isaiah is promising an Israel literally riddled with corpses for all time is absurd.

Furthermore, if the prophet is speaking metaphorically when he promises a land whose unburied corpses will never cease their decomposition, why may he not also be speaking metaphorically when he implies the eternal suffering that is implicit in the notion that their fires will never burn out? Given that the prophet has God promising those he loves a mortal life (albeit, one “as long as the days of a tree”), does it accord with this message that he should promise those he hates an eternal dying? Why do some people (John Hobbins is by no means alone in this regard) read this one aspect of the text literally, despite the absence of any reference to an eternal post-mortem state of being elsewhere within the corpus of the Hebrew Bible? Because, quite patently, it accords with images of hellfire and damnation in the New Testament and, while the New Testament literature is rooted very firmly within those Hebrew texts that Jesus and his disciples took for scripture, it evinces a more historically developed theology, and one that has received broader Hellenistic influence. There is no hell in the Old Testament. There is a scarcely a page without it in the New.

We can none of us help reading one text through the lens of another. The very fact that I assumed above that the author of Isaiah 66:24 had read Deuteronomy 21:23 is, while logical to me, an assumption that some might decry. No text within the Hebrew Bible was composed with the intention of being part of the Hebrew Bible, and we can only hazard a guess as to what its various authors had read, and what they presumed that their audiences knew. It is certain that Jesus and his disciples had read Isaiah 66 (indeed, our verse is explicitly quoted in Mark 9:48, which has Jesus encouraging his disciples to dismember themselves now, lest the offending limbs cause them to incur eternal damnation), but the question as regards what Isaiah read and knew is a more difficult question to answer.

It might, indeed, be possible that the author of Isaiah 66 did believe in a place of eternal damnation, but such cannot be known for certain from this verse alone. Given its presence in a passage clearly metaphorical, and given the absolute absence of any other references to this phenomenon in the Jewish texts of the period, I’m going to cast my vote in favour of this notion being foreign to the authors of the Hebrew Bible, and suggest that John Hobbins only reads it here because he is accustomed already to the idea, and not because he would have discovered it from a reading of this verse.




3 responses

10 04 2010
John Hobbins

Dear Simon,

Thanks for taking these matters up. You address a series of questions with remarkable clarity and independence of thought, as I suspected you would, which is the reason I tagged you.

I think the metaphorical / literal question is far more complicated than you make it out to be, for all the texts under consideration with respect to the fires of judgment and much more, intra-mundane and extra-mundane alike, all the texts from Isa 65-66, 1 Enoch, Daniel 12, the New Testament, the passage I cite from the Talmud and many more of the same kind, to Dante’s Inferno and beyond.

To make a long story short, all previews of Gehenna-like damnation and Eden-like salvation are to be read as literal (as opposed to allegorical) on one level, with details relating to each other literally, not symbolically, and metaphorical on another, with the preview ganz gesehen seen as a metaphor whose correspondence to a literal reality cannot be said to be literal or the contrary by definition.

Admittedly, however, the tendency to literalize metaphors is very strong in religious traditions. It is uncontroversial, I think, that that is how tradition arrived at tefillin, the only question being whether the relevant passages in both Exodus and Deuteronomy were meant metaphorically, or just the first (Ex 13:9, 16; Deut 6:8-9; 11:18, 20).

The only question, that is, among those who seek to understand the texts historically. The metaphorical understanding is attested in some ancient Greek translations of the Torah, among the Samaritans, and the Karaites, whereas the Qumran sectarians and the Pharisees took the texts literally.

The history of interpretation of Ezek 37, in which resurrection is quite clearly I think a metaphor, but is taken literally by the Sages and probably by most everyone from the 2nd cent BCE on, is another example.

To complicate things further, I would point out that it is normal to preserve the metaphorical import of a thing underneath a literalization of it.

Metaphors are dangerous. I’m convinced that Jesus meant that bit about hacking off limbs metaphorically, which is why, Simon, I still have all of mine. But religious athleticism seems to involve, for a few people in a few places, the literalization of metaphor.

In demonstration of the complexity of the issue, Origen is famous for having done in one of his, but Origen of all people understood metaphors, and found them where they are not with abandon. Furthermore, he did not self-mutilate his eyes or hands. How inconsistent. What we have, and not just in the case of Origen, is the selective literalization of metaphors on the one hand, and the selective metaphorization of literal discourse on the other.

Origen and his rabbinic contemporaries loved to go back and forth by illustrating their respective metanarratives via allegorization of the Song of Songs; a magnificent game if you ask me. I mean, come on, play is intellectually and spiritually the entire essence of the Talmud. Serious play, but play nonetheless.

The question of hell-fire judgment is perhaps most easily posed by way of example: when Jesus told the parable of Dives and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31) – a passage by the way, with interesting coeval analogies – in what sense is it literal and in what sense is it a metaphor? I give the example because it is one of the most beloved examples of hell-fire preaching in world literature.

Apparently there is a way to preach hell-fire which strikes people in general as conveying important truths apart from the vexed question of literality – metaphoricity.

Here are a few other comments in response. You say:

“I can think of several examples of [items of halakhic or aggadic import], currently considered relevant but which should be relegated to the bin, but am not at liberty to comment on the inverse. There are no items of halakhic or aggadic import, in my opinion, which possess any relevance at all outside of the liturgical space and, given my non-participation in all things ‘confessional’, I’m therefore not at liberty to comment.”

First of all, I would like to understand this better. Are you saying that “liturgical space” is one thing, and “all things ‘confessional'” is another? At the very least, it sounds as if you buy into the premise of a version of post-Enlightenment culture that stipulates that religion is to be restricted to a private space of some kind. If that is what it takes to get the haredim from running your life, I suppose, but isn’t this an indiscriminate approach? Any historian will tell you that slavery would not have been abolished nor civil rights given to African-Americans if the religion did not make itself felt in the public square in determinative fashion.

That’s why a secularist like Michael Waltzer – I think I am right in qualifying him as a secular Jew in about the same sense as you are – wrote a book in answer to my question (bless his heart, he anticipated it) in which the piece of aggadah he lifted up as continuing relevance is the Exodus paradigm.

10 04 2010
Simon Holloway

John, your marvellous comment is longer than my initial post! You have given me too much to respond to, so I shall take your comment piecemeal.

First of all, you mention Dan 12. I’m guessing that you’re referring specifically to the second verse, which is a great example and I’m sorry that I missed it earlier. Some of those who sleep in the dust will awaken to eternal life, while others will awaken to eternal contempt. I italicise two words within my paraphrasing of the clause because, while they are structurally presented as antitheses of each other, they are actually not semantically so. It is interesting to note that Daniel has never been too popular a text within Judaism (as Leviticus, I imagine, has never been a bestseller amongst Christians), for its ideas lend themselves readily to both Christological and (a “Christian style” of) eschatological considerations.

Is the author promising heaven and hell? I think your clarification that some of these passages are intra-mundane is a noteworthy one, and this may be one such example. “Many of those who sleep in the dust will awaken”, might be taken to imply their ‘awakening’ on an alternate plane of reality, but might likewise (and in my opinion, does) imply revivification on earth. Some of them will be granted eternal life, while some will be granted, one assumes, mortality, and eternal contempt. That does not necessarily denote suffering, but merely the manner in which other people hold them in esteem.

In other words, a time will come when the majority of people will be resurrected, but only certain of them to immortality on earth. Others of them, while they will again experience earthly existence, will die once more and be forever disparaged by those who survive them. Do I think that this is necessarily what the passage is implying? Perhaps, though I am not married to the idea, as they say. I mention this only because it needs to be noted that it may be what the passage is saying, and I don’t think Daniel 12:2 can be compared to writings within the New Testament, whose references to damnation appear to be without that level of ambiguity.

Even so, it occurs to me that I may be guilty of what I accused you of initially: of starting with a presupposition (the Hebrew Bible contains no after-life), and dogmatically asserting that over examples to the contrary. I shall have to think about this longer, and you can expect to read the fruits of my contemplations here, for whatever they will be worth.

In the meantime, however, I don’t entirely agree with your suggestion that Ezekiel 37 has been read literally from the 2nd century on. If we look at some of the earlier examples of exegesis, that certainly seems to be the case, but a tendency develops over time to favor (sometimes exclusively) a metaphorical understanding.

The Talmud (bSan 92b) understands it literally, to the extent that various of the rabbis disagree as regards whose bones they were. Abba bar Aivu (“Rav”) declares that they are the bones of the Ephraimites of 1 Chr 7:20-21, who were slain by the residents of Gath for having attempted to steal their cattle. Shmuel, on the other hand, believed that they were the bones of those who denied the resurrection (a key belief of the rabbis, as well you know), and R’ Yirmiyah bar Abba sees them as the bones of those who never obeyed God’s precepts. The list goes on.

Likewise literal an interpretation, but by no means as strictly so, can be found in some of the midrashim (GenR 13:6, DeutR 7:6), which derive from this passage a proof for the resurrection of the dead. These midrashim, which are somewhat later in composition than the attributions of the Babylonian Talmud, are already shifting further away from the truly literal understanding. Even though their authors believe very much in the physical revivification of dead matter at the end of days, they are reading Ezekiel 37 as a passage that hints to its existence, rather than attempting to ground the actual narrative in history.

We see this trend continue: consider the mediaeval exegetes! Midrash Rabba is presumed to have been completed in the 10th century, while no more than a century later, Rashi insists on verse 11 that this is all but “a hint and an allusion to the entirety of Israel, who are in straits and who are referred to as dry bones in their distress.”

The 12th century grammarian, David Kimchi (Radak) is a little more ambiguous. On both verses 1 and 12, he stresses the figurative nature (למשל) of this passage, and argues that it comes to teach us something about the metaphorical revitalisation of the Jewish people. He also, however, stresses the possibility of a literal reading, and insists that, at the end of all things, all Jews will be physically and literally resurrected.

Still in the 12th century, we might recall the dictum of Maimonides (Laws of Kings, 12:1) that, while the sages promised many supernatural and fantastic occurrences during the era of the “anointed”, all of them (including those promised by Isaiah) were allegories only. “Do not think that, during the days of the anointed, a single aspect of the world’s operation will be nullified or that there will be any change in the work of creation. The world will operate according to its [natural] operation.”

Finally, and this one is just a point of clarification: I took “liturgical space” and “confessional” as being somewhat synonymous, and it was only my desire to not repeat my phrase that led me to move from the former to the latter within the space of a sentence. I don’t know whether or not I am espousing what you call “a post-Enlightenment culture” but, while I do believe very strongly in the utter separation of religion and scholarship (even, and especially, in situations when one’s life is driven by the former), I don’t think that people need to separate these things in other aspects of their daily life. Were I a “religious” person (a nebulous construct; I know less what it means each year), I’d feel at liberty to disclose items of halakhic or aggadic import that should hold relevance but do not. Being non-religious (the opposite of a nebulous construct is no less slippery), I don’t think that any of them hold any degree of ‘relevance’ to my life. I identify, as you know, with Judaism as a culture. As a religion, I prefer it on paper. Attending services, I feel like an anthropologist and, even though I have clearly fallen in love with the object of my scrutiny, it’s an anthropological eye that appraises it nonetheless.

Finally (really finally this time), while religion played a strong hand in the abolition of slavery in the United States, it was likewise religious conservatism which sought to retard or abort the process. I would contend that religion’s relegation to the private sphere would have resulted in the abolition of slavery considerably sooner.

10 04 2010
John Hobbins

Well, I know for a fact that Bible-believing Christians are their own worst enemies, and though it’s not my place to say, that may well be the case for Torah-true Jews as well.

I trust, Simon, that you will continue your anthropological studies at shul, and pitch in even in the life of the community, as I’m sure you do. After all, as all anthropologists know, Augustine’s dictum is perfectly true: ex opere operato. That is, apart from the probity and actual belief/non-belief of the operators, the myth and ritual remain cogent.

If you don’t have access to these articles I wrote, let me know, and my church’s secretary will send you PDFs of them next week:

“The Summing Up of History in 2 Baruch,” Jewish Quarterly Review 89 (1998) 45-79

“Resurrection in Daniel and Other Writings at Qumran,” in The Book of Daniel: Composition and Reception. Volume Two (John J. Collins, Peter W. Flint, eds., Supplements to Vetus Testamentum 83/2, Leiden: Brill, 2001) 395-420

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