Sunday, June 30, 2013

Esther J. Hamori on the איש Theophany [Part One]

Esther J Hamori of Union Theological Seminary recently published her 2004 dissertation from New York University.  It's title “When Gods Were Men,” is from the start of a Mesopotamian classic mythic poem. Esther Hamori plays on that line's purported meaning by devoting this book to documenting “when [Israel's] God became two men.”

Hamori devotes her attention to Gen 18:1-15 and 32:23-33 (per the Hebrew verse numbering), which each relate crucial encounters in the lives of the patriarchs Abraham and Jacob, respectively. She presents her case like a district attorney telling the jury what really happened. From the opening sentence in Chapter 1, she declares her interpretive thesis as fact, identifying an enigmatic figure in each narrative as being none other than Yahweh—with a mien so human as to hinder recognition as deity.

Three common aspects, says Hamori, warrant her studying the two Genesis stories together: 1) A character who appears “in person” is referred to as Yahweh/God; 2) The narrator designates him “as a ‘man’ . . . by the Hebrew word ’îš” (p. 1) or its functional plural, ’ănāšîm; 3) This figure engages in human physical activity – sitting and eating a meal, or participating in a wrestling match.  Or as she puts it:

There are two biblical texts in which God appears to a patriarch in person and is referred to by the narrator as a “man,” both times by the Hebrew word îš. Both of these identifications of God as an îš are accompanied by graphic human description. As a result of the highly unusual nature of these depictions, each has been the object of widely varying interpretations. The figure defined as an îš who wrestles with Jacob (Genesis 32:23-33) has been identified in modern scholarship as an angel, a demon, a man, God, and various other alternatives. The three men )anašîm who visit Abraham, dine with him and announce the birth of his son (Genesis 18:1-15) have been understood as angels, gods, men, and more. However, while the identities of the )anašîm in each text have been much discussed, the texts sharing this unusual terminology have not been studied together with regards to this issue. It will be argued here that these two Genesis stories reflect the same phenomenon, that is, human theophany, or more specifically, the îš theophany.” 

After noting that this type of the Ish theophany has been ignored by previous scholarship she notes:

The peculiarity of Genesis 18, to which von Rad refers, and the equal peculiarity of Genesis 32:23-33, have led to a variety of interpretations regarding the îš in each story. Some scholars working with one text or the other do not consider the îš to be God. While some have specific opposing interpretations, others are either inconsistent or ambiguous in their identifications of the figures. In a discussion of Genesis 32, for instance, von Rad refers to Jacob's “encounter with God,” then to “the heavenly being,” and then to “the demon whom Jacob took on... this nocturnal assailant was later considered to be Yahweh himself. In his work on )eloh|m, Joel Burnett refers to Jacob's opponent as “God... portrayed in concrete and anthropomorphic terms,” as well as “elohim's messenger,” and “a divine being.” Other scholars share similar mixed interpretations.

In other cases, scholars working with either text—such as Seebass, Wenham, Speiser, von Rad, and others—have interpreted the term îš metaphorically, placing the words “man” and “men” in quotes repeatedly throughout their discussions. Indeed, there are two texts which describe Yahweh as an îš in a metaphor or simile. In Exodus 15:3, Yahweh is called an îš milhama, “man of war” or “warrior,” and in Isaiah 42:13, he is said to be like an îš milhama. The îš terminology in Genesis 18:1-15 and 32:23-33, however, is not used metaphorically. On the contrary, these )anasîm are described in graphic, physical human terms. [Esther J. Hamori, When Gods Were Men, p. 1 - 3]

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