Monday, January 29, 2018

The Anteriority of God:
A Meditation on Silence

Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence. When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. 1 Kings 19:11-13 (NRSV)

     In both Genesis stories, God precedes us and our world; he is the creator. He comes face to face with us in the garden and delivers our exile in person. God also speaks to Noah, and to Abraham and Moses, but while he remains always anterior in terms of the precedence of time, he also moves gradually, biblical book to biblical book, from face to face spatiality to a certain removal, a distancing. Job is an exception. God's longest biblical speech is, ironically, delivered not to an Israelite, but to an easterner, and it emphasizes not His immediate presence, but his awesome and remote power, his unknowability.
     It is a stark contrast to the immediacy of human representations of the divine, idols that can be touched, propitiated, entertained, gilded when the economy is on the ups, or broken and burned when the conqueror breaks through. Israelites, seeking the comfort of a presence, a face, also turn regularly to the familiar comfort of idols, thus leading God to, as the storytellers say, turn his face away. Always, though, he also inspires heroes, kings and prophets to lead the strays back to the fold.
     In doing so, he sometimes speaks directly, but more often through dreams. God speaks to Job out of the whirlwind, but by Elijah's time, the wind, though powerful and destructive beyond any human power, is no longer God's chosen vehicle for speech. Elijah becomes a fugitive, hunted into the wilderness, hiding in a cave. When his surroundings erupt in fury, he huddles inside, Instead, Elijah waits for quiet, the “sound of sheer silence.”
     American songwriter Paul Simon rose to prominence after penning a song he called the “The Sound of Silence.” The song, which begins “Hello darkness, my old friend,” was written in Simon's favorite place of inspiration, behind the closed door of his bathroom, the water running and the light turned off.1 Almost like a dreamer in a dark bathroom (in his case a cave) Elijah also seeks darkness and secrecy behind his cloak as he goes forth to meet God, lest he actually see the God who also hides His presence.
     By the time of urban literacy and royal libraries—a time that begins with Hezekiah and blooms under Josiah—the presence of God in the Word is no longer announced by the sort of personal appearances or angelic messengers that so mark His presence in the days of oral tradition. Instead, we find such muffled, almost desperate certiorari as Isaiah's “Hear, O heavens, and listen, O earth; for the Lord has spoken:”.2 Prophets have become eloquent and passionate writers, but there is no voice of God, only the routine, passive and rote nod to tradition of “The word of the Lord that came to...” Isaiah, or Micah, or Amos.
     Ezekiel, who experiences the trauma of the Assyrian destruction of the Jerusalem of scribes and libraries, is the exception. In dramatic prophetic language, once in Babylon, he fervidly reclaims the authority of the original, oral tradition. God, in his vision, has Ezekiel eat the text, the scroll (which tasted “sweet as honey”) and only then turn to speaking the word to a rebellious people.
     God, at least the biblical God, pretty much disappears once the returned exiles rebuild the temple. In the books of the intertestamental period, banned from the Protestant canon (largely because of the absence of God?), we see, often sans the immediate presence of the divine, the Maccabean/Hasmonean resistance to their more liberal fellows and Greek paganism. God remains in the background; it is priesthood and the temple that stands for orthodoxy, while orthodoxy replaces God.
     Out of the silence, however, arrives the incarnate God. In a brief ministry, Jesus explodes orthodoxy and establishes a new vision of divinity. The question, perhaps, is whether the new vision becomes like the old:

And the people bowed and prayed
To the neon god they made
And the sign flashed out its warning
In the words it was forming
And the sign said “The words of the prophets
Are written on the subway walls
And tenement halls
And whispered in the sounds of silence”3

Notes
1Eliot, Marc. Paul Simon: A Life (NY, John Wiley & Sons, 2010), p. 40. Cited in https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Sound_of_Silence.
2Isaiah 1:2 (NRSV).

3Simon, Paul. The Sound of Silence on Wednesday Morning, 3 a.m. (NY, Columbia Records, 1964; remixed as single, 1965).

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