A Dark And Hidden God
Isn't it possible that you aren't supposed to be reading God as "the Boss", but rather as "the World"? That God is -- a little more than a metaphor, maybe -- but not some Joe up on cloud 9 either? Isn't it possible -- I mean, if you really read the Bible, isn't it *obvious* -- that the *intent* is to portray God as capricious and arbitrarily brutal -- because the *world* is capricious and arbitrarily brutal? And yet to claim, at the same time, in tension with that, that God (the Universe, mind -- not some guy) loves us, that we are to love God with all our minds, all our hearts, all our souls? God who loves AIDS and tigers and nebulae just exactly as much as He loves us, who lets babies die and sends the tsunami. That God. Who is not a guy. He is, perhaps, a way of talking about what it is that you love, when you love life despite the tsunami.
I don't think so. In terms of intent -- how we're meant to read God -- I think you absolutely have to distinguish the immanent all-pervasive divinity of animism from the transcendant all-powerful divinity of monotheism. The animistic idea of the divine -- which can be as abstracted and impersonal as the Tao or as literal and individual as the dryad -- is largely, I'd argue what is under attack in monotheism. The angry-god = volcano-explodes = we-suffer simplistic answers of animism are discernable in the texts, but they're palimpsested by the Big New Idea that the divine is *not* the world, not *of* the world. He's not the sky, not the storm, not the bull, not the hawk, not the summer rain, not the wine or the grain. These things are mere creations of a craftsman god, ephemeral toys made of clay which will, in the end, crumble back to dust.
The recurrent iconography (the imagery raised to religious symbolism) of dust, of destruction, of pointless toil, of accomplishments stripped away and scattered on the wind is, I think, a negation of animism, of the immanent divinity. This is the imagery of the transcendant God, the absent God, and humanity alone in a world that is, quite literally, desolate of divinity. The world is dust and it's only the heretics like William Blake who'll argue that the divine can be found in a mote of dust, a grain of sand, a bubble of quantum foam; the core message is that life sucks. Vanity of vanities. There's a certain stoicism and humility to be found in that philosophy, articulated most clearly in Ecclesiastes but evidenced also in common-use words and phrases like "heam", "mektoub" or "in God's hands"... but it can also be deeply fatalistic, deterministic to the point of being defeatist. When the divine is not immanent and all-pervasive, but transcendant and all-powerful, our judgement, our control, is projected outwards. We become the subjects of our own destiny, that divinity an alien force sovereign over all we are.
Look at Buddhism and Taosim in contrast. Buddhism is similarly nihilist, teaching that all life is suffering, the material world a vain illusion, but it offers solace in the possibility of escaping that illusion; because divinity is immanent, it says, we have direct access to our own Buddha nature which can guide us to nirvana if we only choose to follow the path. Taoism is even less pessimistic, accepting the good with the bad, recognising the joy as well as the suffering. The point of Taoism is not to get to the end of the path so we can wash the dust off our bodies, wash the bodies off our souls, wash our souls away into peace. The point is just to walk the path -- the Tao -- enjoying the rain along with the sunshine. Such sensual pleasures are "vanity" in the iconography of dust. The rain is a flood sent to destroy humanity. The sun brings drought and famine. All we can do is *suffer* what we are *subjected* to.
The endless catastrophes and calamities of the scriptures are not there to teach us the harsh whimsy of Nature, that the world is to be understood as sublime, a thing of "terrible beauty" we are to love all the more for its devastating caprice. Rather, I would argue, these are integral parts of the iconography of dust and the ideology of determinism it is intended to instill. We are not being taught to love a material world in which the immanent divinity is manifest. We are being taught to revile it. Our alliegiance to the world, the flesh, the whole deadly sexy sensuality of nature, is being severed. The abject suffering of our material lives is being drummed into us time and again; we're being told we should surrender, seek peace in acceptance of our lot, seek solace in our spiritual transcendance of the inherent misery of this world of dust.
In the monotheist traditions, some hints of immanent divinity do slip through the spaces in between the iconography of dust and the philosophy of submission. With the Holy Spirit, the shekinah, the Gnostic Sophia, the monastics and the mystics of these religions seem to me to be returning to an archaic animism. There are hints, I think, of that immanent, all-pervasive, nameless, faceless force in the Elohim who begin the Creation. That first chapter of Genesis is not all that far from the Orphic cosmogony in some ways; it just starts a step on, with that initial primal chaos already divided into the Ocean and the Wind -- the deep and the spirit of God. There's a formlessness and plurality to those powers taking their name from no more than the common word for gods, spirits, the high -- el -- cognate with the Ugaritic term il. This is divinity in its most abstract form, as a pneuma moving upon the face of the abyss. Wind upon the water.
In the seven days, the seven ages, the seven stages of creation we can see a simple attempt to taxonomise the world philosophically from first principles. Light and dark, day and night (compare Haemera and Nyx in Hesiod). Land and sea. Plants, animals. The stars and the seasons they mark out. It's not good physics or biology in modern terms, not scientific as we'd know it; but it is, I think, intended to be read as natural philosophy. If we think of these Elohim as little more than ordering forces of nature we might even see a hint of an evolutionary model in the cyclicity of the process, the continuous re-affirmation, a hint that order emerges out of chaos because chaos is endlessly generative and order only that within it which persists, which survives because it is most fit to survive... that which is, as the Elohim would put it, "good".
The fact that the Elohim speak, that they invoke the world into existence, that they have a conscious will to execute and an opinion on the results doesn't quite collapse the inchoate abstraction into a concrete Creator, I think. They retain their elusive insubstantiality, so indefinite, in fact, it's hard to pin them down as strictly transcendant or as strictly immanent beings. Instead they're liminal, existing on the threshold, skimming along the surface of the deep, reflections on the water, light and dark, rippled by wind.
For the Egyptians, the Creator was himself created. Ptah, the original craftsman, emerged out of four aspects of chaos: Amun, that which is hidden; Kuk, that which is dark; Huh, that which is formless; Nun, the watery abyss. Ptah then shaped the creator god Atum on his tongue, spoke him into existence. (The "t" of South Semitic shifts in West Semitic to a "d", we should note; so semantically and symbolically, the Egyptian Atum bears more than a passing resemblance to the Hebrew Adam.)
Anyway, in that first chapter of Genesis, I think, we can see an attempt to (re)construct a liminal conception of the divine as a dark and hidden force acting upon an abyss without form. But that liminal divinity, sadly, doesn't last much longer than the first chapter. As soon as we get Adam as the man of clay,we get his Creator, a craftsman divinity, a divinity not just anthropomorphised but sociomorphised. Our own first dabblings in the mud, the first pots shaped upon the wheel and baked, the first shabti figurines of the Neolithic, the skulls of the dead refleshed with clay in Catal Huyuk -- these become metaphors of the transcendant divinity as shaper of *material*.
The start of Genesis tries to jettison the anthropomorphism, but it fails, and this is a large part of why I think monotheism fails, eventually, in its own aim. The attempt to pare away the fetishistic icons and idols, the pantheons of petitionable divinities, to reduce all this superstitous baggage down to the abstract, ascetic, aniconic idea of YHVH, ultimately runs up against our stubborn inabilities and refusals to deal in abstraction. We want the folk tales rather than the lectures. We want plot and character and symbolism rather than dry theory. We want the idols even if they do have feet of clay.
So man made God in his image. And it all went downhill from there.
Now, I'm not saying the God of the Hebrew Bible is a nice fellow. If you insist on construing him as a fellow, you'd have to say he's not just a brutal fuck -- he's *crazily* brutal...
Isn't it possible -- I mean, if you really read the Bible, isn't it *obvious* -- that the *intent* is to portray God as capricious and arbitrarily brutal -- because the *world* is capricious and arbitrarily brutal?
But is he crazy? And if so, in what way. In many cases that brutality is not, I'd say, as arbitrary as it looks -- irrational perhaps but not entirely capricious, vengeful perhaps but with precise targets. It's the ruthlessness that's really frightening. He's not psychotic. But if you measured him on the scale of psychopathy I think he'd score as a "pure forty". Which is to say that if we contrue him as a fellow -- and I do think that type of reading is called for by his characterisation within the text -- his behaviour has, with a few exceptions (e.g. his seemingly random decision to kill Moses), quite clear and logical motivations (the Israelites have fallen into fornication and idolatry, allowed the whoredom and faggotry of foreign religions within his domain), usually set out in the text itself. The brutality is simply an utter lack of empathy.
The problem is that for all the abstraction of the transcendant divinity the impulse towards crude explanatory anthropomorphism does survive as a hangover from polytheism; only here it is reconceived as a plan, a schema. We can see that process of abstraction taking place in Mesopotamian culture in the evolution of the idea of me, where the often-arbitrary divine powers of polytheism are consolidated, legislated, abstracted into "systems of the world". The world -- the human, natural and divine order -- is determined by these me, so much so that any god with designs on the top job -- Anzu, Inanna, Marduk -- must steal them. These "Tablets of Destiny", made by the craftsman god, the god of irrigation and pottery, mathematics and writing, Enki, are the precursors to the apocryphal Enoch's "book of life", transcribed by him on God's dictation, precursors also to the earthly tablets of the Ten Commandments and the Book of the Law which contains them, embodying the "systems of the world" as far as humans need to know them.
It is straying from this Infinite Year Plan, more often than not, which brings down God's totalitarian brutality.
The world as posited in these scriptures is not arbitrary and capricious. Rather it is supremely ordered. It is dictated, legislated on all levels, with the activities of the human, the natural and the divine all comprehensively proscribed and prescribed by this latter-day god of wisdom, emulating his prototype in "Enki and the World Order". As in all such dictatorial regimes brutality is doled out as a way of maintaining power by imposing a state of fear. When the relationship between divinity and humanity is that between master and slave, a state of fear is a good thing to maintain, if you're the master.
"Why does God create humanity? Why destroy them?" asks Trent. "To do his work for him," is the simple answer to the first question, I'd say. "For disobeying him," is the simple answer to the second.
Forget Eden as a garden. The word edin is simply Sumerian for steppe, the garden a meidan, an enclosed agricultural area. Forget Adam as some pet in his own personal paradise. Adam exists to serve his master, just as the first men of Sumerian myth were created to work for the Igigi. "When once the gods as men toiled in the fields", the Sumerian precursor of this story begins, going on to tell how these proud gods tired of the hard work and decided a few slaves might be in order, how Enki was ordered by Enlil to create humanity from clay. Reading intertextually, there is no more mystery to YHVH's ways here than there is to those of European plantation owners shipping slaves to the New World. Indeed the creation of humanity from clay symbolically positions us in relation to the gods as the shabtis found in digs across the Middle-East were in relation to humans -- these shabtis being little clay figurines buried with the dead, to toil for them in the netherworld. We are the shabtis of the gods.
I'm sorely tempted to critique this whole creation-from-clay as an implicit validation of subhumanising and enslaving other racial groups; if it's alright for a divine being to enslave a human then it's presumably alright for a human being to enslave a subhuman. Bearing in mind, however, the context of the neolithic revolution, and the sociomorphic nature of this myth, I think, we'd do better to read both YHVH and the Igigi as signifiers for the new technological social order. We are the shabtis of the gods -- that's the point here -- not the gods to our enslaved enemies. It's not a grandiose delusion but a neurosis, a myth for the new age of the plow and the pot -- of humanity as the worker shaped by and for Industry... in the service of Authority. A humanity that knows its place.
The Greeks, like the Sumerians, split the role of Creator and Dictator, portraying humanity as shaped from clay by a god of technology -- Prometheus -- on the orders of a god of might -- Zeus. The later role Prometheus plays in stealing fire from the gods, his punishment for this crime, and the association of this with the Greek version of Flood, where it is Zeus's punishment on humanity for receiving stolen goods, offers an interesting... hypothesis. If we unfuse the roles of Creator and Dictator in the Biblical tale, one might well construct an alternative myth, an analogue in which it is another Light-bringer, an angel of craft in all senses of the word, who creates humanity on the orders of his master, whose rebellion is to give them fire, light, reason, who is chained in a most desolate place for his outrageous insubordination, and who gets nothing but ingratitude and hatred from a humanity he sought to help.
The role of the serpent -- symbol of wisdom, symbol of Enki -- in the Eden myth, and its later assimilation with the Lucifer in Christianity, reinforces this contrarian reading. Forget the smokescreen of temptation and sin; this is a story of stolen wisdom. Note that even the shame of nakedness, of being nude -- arom -- is in part a pun on the term given for the craftiness of the serpent, his cunning -- arum. Adam and Eve have been revealed, one might say, to themselves and to each other, metaphorically.
I'm not suggesting that this hypothetical myth ever existed, simply posing it as an ethical inversion. The differences in how an archetypal story is tackled by different authors, different cultures, are indicative of the different ethical and political agendas of those authors, those cultures. What does it tell us that the Creator of Genesis does not create humanity on the orders of a distinct Dictator?
Compare the actions of Enki and Enlil in the Babylonian version of the Flood. Enlil, who ordered the creation of humanity but let Enki do the dirty work, becomes annoyed at the noise of these creatures and orders Enki to unleash the deluge, to destroy them all. Acting contrary to this Primal Solution, Enki risks his own safety by warning Atrahassis of the coming Flood. He defies the sovereign Lord of Lords and God of Gods, which we might expect to be treated as an outrageous crime, but this is a culture where even that Supreme Being could be impeached (and indeed is, brought before a rather democratic "assembly" of gods and exiled for the rape of the maiden Ansud); in this culture Enlil's ruthlessness is wanton tyranny and Enki's insubordination is heroic. When the Flood is over, the survivors, justifiably, have no truck with Enlil, excluding him from their sacrifices.
It's fairly clear, after all, who's on the side of humanity and who's a psychopathic bastard.
More specific questions are raised when we look at the apocryphal shadows and reflections of this archaic version of the Flood myth, where there an awful lot of hints of that Enki / Enlil relationship. What does it tell us that apocrypha present the Dictator with a right hand man, his scribe, his Voice, the ascended mortal Enoch, but that this is not included in the official text? What does it tell us that other apocrypha have Enoch giving "secret wisdom" to humanity but that this is, again, excluded? What does it tell us that Genesis connects the flood with the intermarriage of angels and humans but does not, unlike the apocrypha, also connect it with the transmission of forbidden knowledge from one to the other, nor represent Enoch as the angels' advocate, speaking up for them in the face of God's wrath? What does it tell us that the serpent in the garden offering stolen wisdom to humanity is not Lucifer, not officially, not until centuries of folkloric addenda have assimilated the two? What does it tell us that the story of Lucifer as the Dictator's first right hand man does not have him, in Enoch's role as Voice, mouthing the words "Let there be light"?
Again, I'm not trying to suggest some great occluded truth here in a join-the-dots secret history of monotheism. But the archaic and the apocryphal margins of the Bible's narrative of Creation and Destruction do contain these fragments that are highly suggestive of a coherent tale. "Highly suggestive" is an understatement, actually; all we need do is click the risen human Enoch and the fallen angel Lucifer together and the tale is there in front of us.
The Dictator orders the Creation and the Creator makes it so. "Let there be light," he says, and then proceeds with the ordering and arrangement of the world until it's just so. The Creator rather admires his own work. The Dictator decides it could use some slaves to do the chores and orders the creation of humanity. The Creator makes humanity out of clay and sets them to work. The Dictator warns the humans not to touch that fiery, juicy wisdom stuff, telling them it will kill them. The Creator tells the humans that's a crock of shit, so they give it a go. They don't die. The Dictator gets mighty angry. The Dictator decides to make sure these humans don't get that fiery, juicy immortality too; their job is to work the fields, not be "as gods like us". The Dictator orders a round-the-clock guard on his hoard. Others of the Elohim follow the Creator's lead, giving more of that fiery, juicy wisdom stuff to the humans. They decide they like the humans so much they settle down and have babies. The Dictator gets really angry now. The Dictator decides on a flood to wipe all these bastards out. The Creator pleads for mercy. The Dictator is having none of that bleeding-heart liberal nonsense. The Creator sneaks off and warns Noah. Noah builds a boat and survives. The Creator is happy until the Dictator has him dragged before him in chains. He's going to pay for this, the Dictator tells him. For a very long time.
It is only the fusion of the roles of Creator and Dictator which renders the monotheist God seemingly capricious, arbitrary in his mercy and arbitrary in his brutality. I say "seemingly", however, because a fair attempt has been made at reconciling the conflicts. The revision of plantation eden into paradise Eden renders humanity as pet rather than slave, painting the Dictator in a more favourable light. The revision of wisdom into nakedness, of sorrow into shame, again paints the Dictator as a more paternalistic figure, wishing only to maintain our innocence. The revision of the imposition of worker status on humanity into just punishment rather than selfish subjugation changes the Dictator from overseer to judge. The revision of the flood from an act of narcissistic rage to one of righteous wrath again validates the Dictator. The revision of the salvation of the flood hero from a rebel's act of empathy to a master's act of discrimination repositions the "moral high ground" and places the Dictator firmly on it. Finally, the revision at the end of the Flood myth sees a complete inversion: where the Sumerian version has the remnants of humanity make offerings to everyone other than the Dictator, the Biblical version has the remnants of humanity make offerings to no-one else but the Dictator.
In every case, it seems, these revisions, these ethical inversions of the Sumerian tale, are focused on whitewashing the Dictator, the Enlil aspect of God, in order to excuse and / or deny his irrational, vengeful ruthlessness, his outright opposition to doubt, critique and empathy. In every case, these ethical inversions celebrate authority at the expense of wisdom, justice and mercy. Where the Sumerian tale explores the relationship of neolithic Industry to neolithic Authority, the former in service to the latter, but aligned ultimately -- in its core values of curiosity, objective evaluation and co-operation -- with an Enlightenment mindset that predates our own by two or three thousand years, aligned with humanity-as-worker rather than society-as-tyrant... the Biblical tale unwrites this relationship, subsuming Industry entirely into the service of Authority, swallowing Enki up into Enlil, and spitting out only a few bare bones of the rebel god of craft.
Sadly, the Bible is not unique in this respect. In "Erra and Ishum", it is Marduk, Enlil's inheritor in Babylon, who as Sovereign of Heaven, Possessor of the Me, Lord God of Gods claims responsibility for the attempt to destroy humanity, referring to "when I was angry and rose up from my dwelling and arranged for the Flood". In "The Epic of Creation" where Marduk receives his titles having established his authority by slaying Tiamat, the monster of the deep, and her brood of elder deities now redefined as demons, the very last name bestowed upon him shows us, perhaps, the moment when the God of the Bible was born, in the submission of the god of wisdom:
"He whose fathers have given him such a splendid name / Shall have the name Ea, just like me. / He shall have mastery over the arrangement of all my rites, / And shall direct every one of my decrees."
Ea, as I've mentioned in a previous post, was the Babylonian name for Enki. Ea, as I've also mentioned in a previous post, offers a quite sensible decryption of that enigma offered to Moses when he asks for the name of his God, the God of Abraham who came out of the Mesopotamian river-valley, from Ur of the Chaldeas (where Enki was a hero), up through Babylon perhaps (where Enki was known as Ea, where that identity was appropriated by Marduk), up to Haran and down into Canaan. Moses asks what name his god is to be known by.
-- Eyah asher eyah, says God.
I am that which is