Saturday, August 10, 2013
THE FEAR OF GOD: The Dread of Isaac
Uncovered at the Ur excavation. The legend of the binding of Isaac reached all the way to Abraham's birthplace.
I recently had a intense discussion—pardon me—a huge argument—on the meaning of the Fear of God. Some people got down right nasty, and they tried to tell me that I was flat out wrong, and incomprehensible in my analysis. Plus, I didn't know what I was talking about because the four source theory disagreed with my analysis. Mind you they showed no proof or references for their argument, nor could they read Hebrew, or use reason and logic to dissuade me from my position on what it means to fear God. So, what is my position that prompted such malice and filled me with arrows of hate from the naysayers? I took the high road, and that means I traveled straight to the highest court in history: The Talmud, Judaism's bench of the greatest scholars of all time, and the early church fathers of the Roman Catholic Church. If you want to argue, then take it to them, not me. I'm the messenger, and a devoted one at that. But, if you can offer a logical, theologically orthodox position that contradicts me, I'm always willing to take a look at it. I may not agree, but, at least I won't get nasty.
What Started the Whole Donnybrook
I rely on only orthodox, traditional sources, none of that four source nonsense for me (Yahwist or Jehovist, Elohist, Deuteronomist, and Priestly, or JEDP). The reason I do is because when you get away from focusing on the literary strains, and concentrate on what is being said at these supposed breaks in the narration--as if that was an indicator they were interjected by someone else other than Moses--you find a continuity of meaning, of the intent of God who is emphasizing a salient point in the narrative. Once you understand these Hebrew points that must be emphasized, then you begin to understand the mindset of not only the author, Moses, but that of God. Try to follow my meaning before you get on your high horse and disagree. Okay? Pax. Read first, then mount your horse and disagree.
The First Time Fear Appears
The word fear first appears in Genesis 9:2 when God makes a covenant with Noah, “The fear of you and the dread of you shall be upon every beast of the earth and upon every bird of the heavens, in everything that moves on earth and in all the fish of the sea; in your hand they are given.” Abarbanel, the Talmudic sage says, “Lest Noah be afraid that the few surviving people would be in constant danger from the hordes of animals in the world, God assured him that He had implanted an instinctive fear of human beings.” It was assumed because mankind had sunk as low as the animals that the aura of God that emanated from them had disappeared and the animals would no longer fear them. Noah had a reasonable fear considering there was more of them than of Noah's family. They didn't have Remington shotguns or Henry rifles in those days, that just by firing one of those would be enough to startle and frighten an animal into running off. God did something else here. He gave Noah permission to eat meat. This had never been done before, according to some sages like Or HaChaim. Noah had tended to all the animals' needs and he was allowed to partake of the toil of his hands for food. Otherwise, their food source was extremely limited given the amount of time they spent in the ark, and he stepped off into a land with no crops to replenish his food stores. This was a gift God gave to man to protect him in the wilderness.
The second time the word fear appears is in Genesis 15: 1 when God gives Abram a vision and says, “Fear not Abram, I am a shield for you; your reward is very great.” This beautiful promise is immortalized in the Amidah/Shemoneh Esrei prayer of the Jews, the first blessing which describes God as the Shield of Abraham. This assurance is handed down from generation to generation as a promise that Abraham's heritage shall never be extinguished from the face of the earth. It is no wonder that Paul, the Jewish genius, would admonish believers to put on their armor of God to battle against evil. (Eph. 6:13) The gentiles were not aware of this promise made by God to His followers.
The word fear is used several more times in Genesis where God speaks either through an angel (to Hagar) or directly to an individual to fear not. There are reassurances from one person to another, like Joseph saying to fear not to his brothers because God meant for what happened to him for the good. These admonitions are important because the individual was terrified they would lose their life. Fear is also translated as dread, like the Dread of Isaac. Remember the akedah, or the binding of Isaac? When Abraham bound his own son to offer him as a sacrifice to God, it sent a shock of dread through Isaac because of the knife held against his throat. The small cut across his throat from the sharp knife is often referred to as the beaded necklace in Talmudic writings. Even though Isaac remained compliant, trusting in God, trusting in his father, he was still terrified. At that moment he felt unworthy, his sins were still upon him. He had not offered a sacrifice for the remission of his sins, and here he was, bound as a sacrifice, and feeling unworthy.
The Akedah or the Binding of Isaac
There are many legends about the akedah, but there is an important legend regarding what happened after Isaac was released and the ram was sacrificed in his place. It is written that Isaac was taken to Paradise for three years as a reward for his compliance and in reparation for what he suffered. Can you even imagine what fear he felt as a result of his father's knife against his throat? Biblical scholars are all agreed that God would not let this compliance go unrewarded. There are some scholars who gloss over Isaac's trial to lionize Abraham's willingness to sacrifice his beloved son as a prefiguring of Christ's sacrifice. And this is correct. But we mustn't forget there was another person there, Isaac. Recall Christ in the Garden praying before his crucifixion, suffering such dread blood issued from his pores.
Isaac is not mentioned in the scripture until Rebekah arrives to marry him. (Gen. 24:62) “Meanwhile Isaac had gone from Beer-lahai-roi and was living in the region of Negeb (the south country).” The word bo mi-bo is used which means come from the way. The numerical value of the consonants equals three, for three years. Did you ever wonder why he is not even present for his own mother's death? The scripture suggests that Isaac was in the same place where Hagar had prayed and God answered her. Rashi says Isaac went there to retrieve Hagar (Keturah, Gen. 25: 1) as a wife for Abraham since his mother had died. This was in an attempt to heal the rift caused by his mother. Hagar was no longer a slave of Sarah's, but a princess again. However, there is no explanation for these disparate interpretations, and that is why we must go to the Aggadah, or the extra curricular legends to fill in the gaps. Bear in mind, these legends are believed to be true primarily because they are the Oral Tradition of Judaism, and they are reconciled with other scriptures in order to qualify as a part of the tradition.
One legend surrounding Isaac's disappearance has puzzled sages for centuries and can only be reconciled through another scriptural passage outside the Torah, or the five books of Moses, to explain where he was and why he was gone so long, missing important events like a parent's funeral. There is some support for this legend in Song of Songs 4: 9, “. . . with one bead of thy necklace.” The reference is to a bead of blood on the neck from a cut and only Isaac falls into that category.
To die with your sins still upon you was to die a horrible death, the worst possible kind. This is the reason why Shakespeare's Hamlet was even more furious about the way his father was murdered (doomed to haunt the castle until his death is reconciled). His father died without the benefit of confession and holy unction, let alone his remaining years robbed from him. This was also the reason why he hesitated to kill the king while he was in prayer. Hamlet wanted the king, his father's brother to die while his sins were still heaped upon his soul, and not in a moment of grace.
Jacob also felt the same dread his father Isaac felt. He felt unworthy. This is why he wrestled the angel all night until he received a blessing. There is a pattern emerging in this first book of the Old Testament regarding the fear of death, therefore, the fear of God. Fear is not only the dread of death but dying while unworthy.
Let's take one step deeper into the scriptures by defining the word. Fear in Hebrew is spelled: yud, resh, alef. It translates: to fear, to be afraid, followed by “the what to fear,” or “what to flee from,” like fleeing from sin. To reverence, as one's parents, to fear God, as the avenger of wrong; hence to be godly or upright. To tremble for joy, terrible, dreadful, to terrify, holy fear.
When you breakdown the letters into their Talmudic mystical meanings there is an even deeper meaning that emerges from the word. In Hebrew, even the position of the letter in the word has meaning. Yud is the smallest letter of the alefbeis, or alphabet and it is the first letter in the name of God. Yud means dynamo or power or thrust. Yud is the cosmic letter of the alefbeis, which is interpreted as the hand of God. As the first letter in the word, yud takes on an even greater significance. This means that the hand of God lies within the word.
The second letter resh means healing, but it also means poverty, a kind of spiritual emptiness. Think about Christ's Sermon on the Mount: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” He's telling the poorest of the poor who are so shunned by society that God has heard their prayers. They may not have anything here on earth, but they will have untold riches in heaven. There they will not be shunned, they will be like landowners. Death will be the entrance into a fuller life.
If you move into the letter resh's shadow on the beginning of a word, resh means that you can become judgmental, casting your sin upon others. Dickens wrote about the concept of casting your sin upon others in his novel, Martin Chuzzlewit. In the end, the protagonist realizes that the speck of sin he was so concerned about in others was even larger in himself. He had deliberately searched for faults in others in order to deny them an inheritance. By constantly looking for the sin of pride and greed in others, he had blinded himself with his own pride and greed, preventing him from seeing the good in those who loved him.
The next letter alef means letter, or sign, and wonder or miracle. It represents the central teaching of Judaism, that God is One. Alef is the first letter of the first word of the Ten Commandments or the Ten Words. Alef became the chief or the head of the alefbeis, appointed by God to declare His Oneness, and that is why it is the first letter. Alef begins several names for God, representing the many divine forces within God. Alef is also the first letter in Deuteronomy, deliberately made even smaller than all the letters in the rest of the book. The author did this in order to show how important and necessary the ingredient of humility is in learning and practicing the Law, a trait that we must all possess even when approaching God—a lesson learned the hard way by Moses, his lack of obedience preventing him from entering the Promised Land.
Remember I said that even the position of a letter in a word can mean something. If you move the letter resh to the center of the word it means trembles in a desire for wholeness, to return. The letter resh in the word fear is in the middle and, therefore, evokes the desire to be whole as it stands sandwiched between the cosmic letter of God, yud, and alef, the miracle. The interpretation is that God desires for us to be whole and provides that miracle of grace if we just give ourself completely to Him, dreading our sins that separate us from our heart's desire, in the mold of Isaac and Jacob. We should fear the death that would end our ability to repent, to face God with our hearts quivering with love, always ready to seek forgiveness. Confession should be upon our lips to heal the rupture between God and man, and a longing to please God should permeate our hearts.
We have learned that the individual letters and their representations all play into defining the word fear. What we must consider is that a healthy fear or reverence is not like the reverence we mean today; like another word for admiration, or even a quiet reflective demeanor. Fear is not a passive word but one that has force, a dynamic force that changes our nature, that turns us toward repentance, emptying us only to fill us up with God's grace, where we can achieve a true wholeness. This fear is the hand of God reaching down into us and causing us to tremble before Him. Therefore, to fear God, is a healthy, informative, dynamic love and reverence for God, knowing that He is the arbiter of good and evil, and that He separates the wheat from the chaff. When we choose to do evil we separate ourselves from our brothers and sisters and God. In essence, we issue the judgment on ourselves. The fear of God reels us back in so that we may face God on His terms and not ours. Instead of facing away from God, taking our own path and creating our own law, we turn toward God and humble ourselves.
“The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom; prudent are all who live by it. Your praise endures forever,” (Psalm 111:10) Fear has become almost a dirty word, a watered down version of the name-and-claim it crowd. Those who believe in a trembling fear are denigrated, laughed at as being childish or foolish or ignorant. People used to understand that fear was a useful tool of informing the conscience. Once you move past the trembling stage to realize the love God has for us, then a mature view is formed for God, growing our love for Him, but always keeping in the back of our minds that God is the author of the Law, our Creator, the Governor of the universe. How simple our lives become when we submit ourselves wholly to Him, and the grace we receive as a result passes all understanding. We should always strive to fear God first, to root out the leaven in our lives, so that we can love God more fully.