Saturday, July 13, 2013

The איש Theophany and Secret Mark

There is an expression in Biblical Hebrew which is worth considering for our purposes.  When Hebrew feminine nouns represent inanimate objects, such as curtains, loops, tenons, wings etc., (see Exodus, 26:3, 5, 17, Ezekiel, 1:9, 23; 3, 13) a literal translation would get in the way.  For it would be absurd to represent one curtain as a 'wife' coupled to 'her sister' curtain, or one loop as a 'wife' to take hold of 'her sister' loop, or one tenon as a 'wife' set in order against 'her sister' tenon. Yet this is a very significant thing to remember when considering another side to what we might call - איש mysticism.

Translators avoid these absurdities, by employing an idiomatic rendering of the phrase, ishah el-ahotah.   That is, ishah (one) el-ahotah (to another).   So often times we see the Hebrew phrase rendered with the formula:

Neither shalt thou take ______ one to another.

Such as:

  1. Neither shall you take (sisters) one to another.
  2. Neither shall you take (aunts) one to another.
  3. Neither shall you take (nieces) one to another.
  4. Neither shall you take (cousins) one to another.
  5. Neither shall you take (near kinswomen) one to another.
  6. Neither shall you take (wives) one to another.
The first five substitutions represent blood relations, while the last does not.  English translators have, in a majority of cases, given the literal rendering, instead of the idiomatic to the masculine form of the phrase "one another."

Now let's turn to the איש form.  The masculine equivalent is ish 'el achiv signifying "a man to his brother,” translated thus: ish (a man) el achiv (to his brother.) The suffix -iv stands for the possessive pronoun his; while ach stands for brother. When ish is followed by ach, the first (like the feminine form) is sometimes translated 'one,' the second sometimes rendered 'another.' This idiomatic rendering is, indeed, absolutely necessary when the masculine Hebrew nouns to be coupled together represent inanimate objects.

For instance, the noun, faces, of the inanimate cherubims placed over the mercy seat, is in Hebrew a masculine noun. (See Exodus, 15:20) “And their faces shall look one to another." Also Exodus 37:9. "With their faces one to another."  It is impossible to literally translate these words without it sounding strange. But in all other passages, the masculine phrase ish el achiv represents masculine persons, and is translated to the majority of cases literally.

It may not be amiss to observe that the preposition, joining ish 'achiv, is not always el; the prefixes l, k, b are often used to express different kinds of prepositions. The phrase ish achiv, with its coupling preposition, occurs, at least, twenty eight times in the Old Testament, thirteen of which are translated in the idiomatic form, "one — another"; the remaining fifteen are translated literally, “ man — his brother."

I am not sure that there is not something here of deep mystical significance.  Let's look at the important expression again:

“The cherubs shall spread their wings upward so that their wings shield the kaporet (cover). The cherubs shall face ish el achiv,” (Ex 25:20)

The classic understanding is that the cherubs contain the faces of children, one boy and one girl. Yet, oddly enough, when the Torah describes how they face one another it literally means “man to his brother.”

One can argue, as Rashi does in his commentary on Ex 26:3, that when the Torah is talking about objects which are feminine words (lashon nekeivah) —yeriot (curtains) in that verse — then the Torah describes pairing parts as “ishah el achotah” (woman to her sister). In our case, since the word “keruv” is masculine, it is described as “ish el achiv.”

Despite this, the term “ish el achiv” — which appears in five contexts in the Torah —still implies two males, which brings the male/female interpretation subject to scrutiny. The first three times the phrase appears are different stages of Joseph’s brothers talking about their relationship with him. Of these three, the first is when they say to one another that “the dreamer is coming and we’d better kill him.” The second is when Joseph, as viceroy, insists that they bring Benjamin to see him.

They say to one another that this is happening because of their role in Joseph’s disappearance. The third is when they become frightened at the discovery of their money in their bags, after they had paid for their food and stopped along their journey home. (37:19, 42:21, 42:28) When the Manna falls, we find the people are scared, and “ish” says to “his brother,” “what is it?” because they have never seen and do not understand heavenly bread (Ex 16:15).

The next two appearances of this phrase are in the aforementioned passage where the mishkan is actually put together (Ex 25:20, 37:9) — both describing the cherubs facing each other.  The final appearance of this phrase in Num 14:4, in the aftermath of the spy incident, when many suggest a return to Egypt rather than an attempt to conquer the seemingly dangerous and unwanted land of Canaan.

Aside from the keruvim (winged angel figures), all of these cases are literally of men turning to one another and vocalizing their thoughts or opinions. So the two angels were men, right?  But Jewish mystical tradition identifies them as male and female.  The Gemara in Yoma 54 that depicts the keruvim as “joined together in an embrace” of a male and female. Aside from Rashi’s interpretation in 26:3, how can we reconcile that the Torah describes each of the keruvim as masculine, when the face of one of them was female? How can we interpret the phrase “ish el achiv” differently to better understand the role of the keruvim?

The term “ish el achiv” is used when people are discussing issues that have great repercussions. In the case of Joseph’s brothers, they went through stages: let us kill Joseph (they decided to sell him), we are being tormented because of selling Joseph (they eventually bring Benjamin), and our money is in our bags (they return to Canaan, and eventually try returning the money to Joseph). People are scared of heavenly bread, they ask one another about it, and they learn to use it for their daily sustenance.

Could it be that that stupid, implausible etymology preserved in Philo and passed on to Church Fathers and Jewish authorities too, might preserve something genuinely authentic.  A 'man (איש) seeing god' that is Ἰσραὴλ = 'ish ra'ah [or ro'eh] 'El is a reflection of the a male to male relationship in the inner sanctum of the tabernacle.  It is manifest in Jacob's wrestling with איש but it is clearly also reflected in the revelation of Secret Mark:

And after six days Jesus told him what to do and in the evening the youth comes to him, wearing a linen cloth over his naked body. And he remained with him that night, for Jesus thaught him the mystery of the Kingdom of God. And thence, arising, he returned to the other side of the Jordan

I guess there is a reason why there are very few Jews who doubt of the authenticity of Morton Smith's discovery.  They know better ...

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