On Sheol, Necromancy and a Bar Mitzvah

Worshipers before symbols of Marduk“I don’t believe in God,” he says.

“Okay,” I answer. “Which God don’t you believe in? The bumbling, fumbling, and mumbling LORD God in Genesis 2:4-3? YHVH of Job 38, portrayed as a birthing mother? What about Adonai of Lamentations, accused by Lady Zion of mass murder?”

For the next twenty minutes we compare and contrast all sorts of ideas about the divine. I pull a text off my shelf to show him how ancient Babylonians pictured their deities – sometimes in purely symbolic form.

“Look at this one,” I say, pointing to a drawing. “A worshiper standing before the symbols of the Babylonian deity Marduk. We weren’t the only ones to think that it might be impossible to make a picture of a god.”

“So,” he asks, “do Jews have a heaven and a hell?”

I start describing Sheol, a dark and murky place mentioned mostly in poetical biblical texts.

“It’s often a code word for grave,” I say.

Sometimes the earth opens up and swallows people into Sheol, I add. The deceased live a kind of shadowy existence there, but the texts don’t indicate that there is either reward or punishment.

“Sounds boring,” he says.

“Yup,” I answer. “I’d be bored.”

We move on to the world-to-come in which all sorts of important Talmudic answers will finally get answered. Then, we end up discussing funerary practices.

“Why do people cover mirrors?” he asks.

“Some people believed that the soul had a really tough time acknowledging that the body it had inhabited was dead and buried,” I say, “and that it would go back and forth from grave to home in a kind of confusion. They also thought that if the soul went past a mirror and didn’t see the body it once belonged to in the mirror, it would be deeply upset and confused.”

“But wait,” he said, “surely the soul had known that custom when it was alive with a body. Why wouldn’t it come back from the graveyard, see the covered mirrors and say, ‘I guess somebody must be dead. Oh. That’s me!’”

I start laughing.

My conversation partner is twelve. Each and every week, between practicing the Hatzi Kaddish or the first prayers of the Amidah or some other component of the service, we find our way into conversations like these. You never know. We might start with Ancient Israelite polytheistic practices and end with medieval ideas around how to trick the dead into revealing the future.  Necromancy is a thing, and not only at that time In Jewish history, either.  Ask the witch of Endor.

(The latter, by the way, requires an invocation that begins: “I conjure you, Duma, prince of dreams, in the name of the Almighty God, that you come to me this night and answer my question.” The invocation actually ends with the adorable command: “Do not make sport of this!”)

We’ve looked at ancestor worship in Chinese Jewish settings (supported by the evidence that incense was burned to venerate Abraham and Sarah, for example). We’ve talked about the archeological record that reveals that our ancient forbears thought YHVH had a consort by the name of Asherah.

He’s brought up Greek mythology, the Khazars, and the Crusades. I’ve talked about the Babylonian Exile and the books that never made it into the canon.

“Like what?” he asks.

“There’s a reference to something called the Book of the Covenant in Exodus,” I say. “There appears to have been something called the Book of the Wars of YHVH – it’s mentioned in Numbers. There’s a book that the prophet Samuel was supposed to have written and one by Nathan.”

“What happened?” he asks.

“They fell off the bestseller list,” I say, and it is his turn to laugh.

Is any other rabbi lucky enough to have this kind of student?  I delight in his frank, fresh thinking. I think he enjoys my delight.

In August, when this young man stands up in front of his friends and family and leads a Shabbat morning service, I will be (yes, it sounds cliché), one very proud rabbi. He has offered proof that our children and teenagers can experience their tradition, heritage and history as an intellectual and spiritual playground.

I hope our conversations continue long after the mazal tovs and the candy tossed in the air.

It’s worth a prayer, I think – to the God I believe in, anyway.


Torah of Many Gods – No One is Alone

kuntillet ajrud 02bIn the interests of fair disclosure, I am about to demonstrate that the authors of our Torah sometimes went to unusual lengths to cover up our polytheistic tendencies.

To some extent, you would not think the twisted maneuvers I am about to describe would be necessary. After all, if the Israelites hadn’t been wayward worshippers of Baal and the like, our prophets would have been out of a job.

It remains a fact that ancient scribes found various passages troubling, and they messed with them. We know this for a fact. We can identify insertions, deletions, and the like in the service of clarifying (for example) a confusing theological problem. It helps to have, in some cases, various examples of the same text to see what’s going down, but there are also other methods of discovery.

The following lesson will be based on textual comparison, though, just so you don’t think I am one of those people who will post anything that wanders into my dreams and nightmares. I know those people. My students keep quoting them.

The writers of Torah were mostly monolatrous. This is not some form of sexual deviance. Monolatry is a kind of polytheism in which one recognizes the existence of other deities for other people-groups. In the Ancient Near East, deities possess specific geographical territory. Chemosh holds sway in Moab. Marduk hangs out in Babylonia.

Here’s the important part: Your own deity is always the biggest and the bestest on the block.

The name of our national God-dude is YHVH. That’s the name. Not “Elohim” or “Adonai.” Our God has a name, and it is YHVH. To be certain, we are not exactly certain how to pronounce it, but that is the stuff of another blog (though really, you can find that information everywhere –rather like pictures of the humongous statue of Jesus in Brazil).

YHVH shows up in some rather unexpected places in the archeological record. Often, on pots. And not infrequently, given the sample sizes from the eighth century BCE, YHVH is paired with another deity whose name happens to be Asherah.

Long, long ago, in the Canaanite culture that helped give birth to Israelite culture (some historians say the Israelites were actually just Canaanites with a new look), the pantheon of deities was headed up by El Elyon, also known simply as “El.” He bossed around a number of lesser deities. Among them were Ba’al and Asherah and, it would seem, for some ancient Israelites, YHVH.

Check out Kuntillet Ajrud, an archeological site occupied between the ninth and eight centuries BCE. The site has yielded a number of inscriptions to El, Ba’al, Asherah, and YHVH. Here as elsewhere, YHVH is paired with “his” Asherah (in other texts, she is referred to as his “consort”). YHVH, for some ancient Israelites, had a wife.

Now, the text in question. Here it is, in three textual forms:

Deuteronomy 32:8-9

Masoretic Text (MT) Dead Sea Scrolls (DSS) Septuagint (LXX)
 [8] When the Most High(El Elyon)apportioned the nations,when he divided the sons of men,he fixed the borders/boundaries of the peoples according to the number of the sons of Israel.[9] For YHVH’s portion is his people, Jacob his allotted heritage. [8] When the Most High(El Elyon)apportioned the nations,when he divided the sons of men,he fixed the borders/boundaries of the peoples according to the number of the divine beings (literally, “sons of god[s]”).[9] For the YHVH’s portion is his people, Jacob his inherited portion. [8] When the Most High(El Elyon)divided the nations,when he separated the sons of men,he fixed the borders/boundaries of the nations according to the number of the angels of God.[9] And his people Jacob became the portion of the YHVH, Israel was the line of his Inheritance.

“Sons of men” are people groups. Who is “Jacob”? Jacob is not used just to refer to the character of our Torah, but to the whole people of Israel. Same thing for the Septuagint’s use of the name Israel. The names Jacob and Israel are used interchangeably for the Israelite nation in ancient texts. See, for example, the point at which the seer Bilaam ends up blessing the Israelite nation though he is hired to curse them:  How fair are your tents, O Jacob, Your dwellings, O Israel! (Num. 24:5).

Still, no matter how you shake it, the Masoretic Text is weird. El Elyon apparently fixes the boundaries of people according to the, um, sons of Israel. Wait, what?Torah names an awful lot of people groups – we don’t ALL descend from Jacob’s loins. Let’s see: Ishmaelites, Moabites, Kenites, and so on and so forth. Weirder: the text says YHVH is given Jacob as a people group, as a “portion” of all humankind. But all humankind is from Israel/Jacob.

Scholars have long since decided that the DSS is giving us the older version of this story, in which El Elyon (that Canaanite head honcho, remember?) divided up the peoples according to the subsidiary deities of his pantheon. El Elyon gave Israel/Jacob to YHVH.

The Septuagint is trying to get a more monotheistic read by insert angels for subsidiary deities. The MT is going one better and trying to get the reader to read as though El Elyon is actually the same deity as YHVH. But the rewrite is challenging – almost nonsensical.

The Israelites were not monotheistic. Actually, most Jews today aren’t monotheistic either – not strictly speaking. Neither are Muslims or Christians. All three of us insist that there are other supernatural beings inhabiting the divine world – whether angels or demons of some sort. God is not alone.

But then, no one is.