A Theology of Revelation

4 06 2011

While it is certainly not like me to post (or speak at all) about theology, I must break with convention and share a rather insightful observation by none other than Rashi himself. I was surprised to have encountered it, for Rashi rarely divulges theological observations of any real sophistication or profundity. Nonetheless, this last week’s parsha, פרשת נשא, concludes with a curious turn of phrase. Moses is said to have walked into the “tent of meeting”, the אהל מועד, and to have heard the voice of God speaking to him. The clause reads as follows:

ובבא משה אל אהל מועד לדבר אתו וישמע את הקול מדבר אליו מעל הכפרת אשר על ארן העדת מבין שני הכרבים וידבר אליו

When Moses went into the tent of meeting to speak with the Lord, he would hear the voice speaking to him from above the mercy-seat that was on the ark of the covenant from between the two cherubim; thus it spoke to him. (NRSV)

– Numbers 7:89

We can ignore for the moment the strange and unusual phraseology of the NRSV in this instance, for the issue of interest is a particular verbal phrase, their translation of which (“he would hear the voice speaking to him”) strikes me as being right on the money. I am unsure, however, as to what the masoretes were doing when they vocalised it as they did.

Anybody who has ever engaged with the biblical text is aware that they are encountering at least three different texts, one superimposed upon the other. The naked consonantal text, whatever its own history might have been, underlies both the vocalisation and the accentuation, both of which were added to the Hebrew some time after its original composition, and both of which are likewise historically distinct from one another. Where I would have expected the verb to have been vocalised as מְדַבֵּר (ie: a pi’el participle), it is instead vocalised as מִדַּבֵּר, with a hireq under the mem and a dagesh in the first and second radicals.

Both Onkelos and (Pseudo-)Yonatan parse the verb as a hithpa’el with an elided tav (מתמלל, in their Aramaic), which makes a certain degree of sense. It is not the only time that √דבר occurs in this stem, with two occurrences appearing in Ezekiel as well (2:2 and 43:6). In those instances, as the text is written in the first person, the ensuing pronoun (אלי) demonstrates that, hithpa’el or not, the verb has a non-reflexive meaning. Perhaps Ibn Ezra is uncomfortable with this possibility (although it is embraced by the Radak, in situ), for he parses the clause in Numbers 7:89 as being a contraction of מן דַבּר אליו, the verb in which is a pi’el infinitive construct, attested also in Jeremiah 1:6. This would mean that Moses heard the voice of God “from (ie: as a result of) [God’s] speaking to him”.

Rashi, on the other hand, has a hard time constraining the two occurrences in Ezekiel to fit his theory, which is that the word is a reflexive, and that the referent of the pronoun in Numbers (אליו) is God himself! Unless I am reading too deeply into his interpretation, he seems to be implying that God’s dialogue with a prophet occurs, not in the manner of direct speech, but as the result of the prophet’s being capable of tuning into the frequency at which God’s continual discourse to himself is occurring, and eavesdropping. As a manner of speaking.

I find this idea, to which the Hebrew text does not overtly lend itself at all, to be both subtle and provocative. I would not go so far as to assert that it is buttressed by the vocalisation of this word, but the word’s vocalisation does lend itself to this possible interpretation, and were one so inclined one might stretch this into a general theology of revelation that can be made to fit the hundred thousand other examples of God conversing with prophets.

Whether one does or not, of course, it is certainly interesting food for thought.

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One response

5 06 2011
Skye

In Ezekiel the revelation seems to be tangible to the senses and to have a starting point. “The heavens were opened” and the voice said “‘Son of man, stand up on your feet and I will speak to you.’ As he spoke, the Spirit came into me and raised me to my feet, and I heard him speaking to me.”

But in Chapter 3 what you’re saying seems also to be right. God takes the initiative to reveal himself in particular ways, but there is a choice about whether to listen to what is heard and be changed by it.

“And he said to me, ‘Son of man, listen carefully and take to heart all the words I speak to you. Go now to your people in exile and speak to them. Say to them, ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says,’ whether they listen or fail to listen.'”

It appears to have more to do with someone’s attitude be tuned in, rather than a status of mystic senstivity. The revelation itself, whatever form it takes, seems to be close enough for everyone to reach once it’s been offered.

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