Nobody ever touch Adam

Listening to Life/21 - You cannot be jealous of the name and presence of God

by Luigino Bruni

published in Avvenire on 13/11/2016

Porta Appia Antica ridOnce the Baal Shem summoned Sammael, lord of demons lord, because of some important matter. The Lord of Demons roared at him: 'How dare you summon me?' Up to now this has happened to me only times; in the hour at the Tree of Knowledge, the hour of the golden calf, and the hour of the destruction of Jerusalem.' The Baal Shem bade his disciples bare their foreheads, and on every forehead, Sammael saw the sign of the image in which God creates man. He did what was asked of him. But before leaving, he said: 'Sons of the Living God, permit me to stay here a little longer and look at your foreheads'.

Martin Buber, Tales of the Hasidim (English translation by Olga Marx)

The Ulysses of Homer and that of Dante sum up, together, the vocation and destiny of the western man. It is an invincible call of the land and the home and, at the same time, an equally invincible need to set off towards new unknown seas. The sea has to be sailed to return home, but it also seduces us and calls for new departures.

The second son returns to his father, exhausted by the search for a boundless and rootless freedom, and the third, youngest child says to his elder, prodigal brother, just as the party for his return ended, whispering in the night: "Listen; do you know why I was looking forward to your return tonight? Before the end of the night, I am leaving. You have opened the way for me"(André Gide). Not even the warmth and the goods of the father's house fill our hearts if we do not see a harbour, a sea or a road in the distance, places and signs that tell about an ‘elsewhere’; if there isn't a heaven somewhere higher, in the west for which we can attempt a different flight that's and higher than what we have learned by exercising around our first nest - only the eldest, meritocratic son is happy to be rooted to the ground, staying still and having no wings. We look at the sun rising in the east every morning and we think of the origin, the beginning. We then follow it as it crosses through the sky, and when we see it go down in the west, our heart does not rest satisfied: neither the beginning nor the eternal return is enough, we also want to know its fate, its last journey, we want to know where its end is. The charm of the end is the root of nihilism, of a sunset eating the dawn; but it is also a vein of humanism and the best biblical prophecy.

"Set forth your case, says the Lord; / bring your proofs, says the King of Jacob." (Isaiah 41:21). After the announcement of a new and great consolation for the people, and after telling us about his calling, the Second Isaiah, that great anonymous prophet-poet, disciple, heir and successor of the First Isaiah descends immediately into the arena of struggle. We are in the Babylonian exile, the temple has been destroyed, the people are lost and surrounded by the winner gods, imposing and proud like the empire itself. The temptation of cult assimilation was too strong, so much that they have been sucked in by those tall and glittering gods, and so they have lost their religion, identity and spirit. As happens to all those who are exiles in empires, to all the exiles and immigrants that arrive in our empire today and try, as long as they can, to remember and tell their children a different story, to talk and transmit the language of their childhood, not to forget all the prayers.

The Second Isaiah started his prophetic activity celebrating a process. Just like Job. But here the contest is not between job-the-man and God. Now the parties are the God of Israel and the gods of other nations, especially those of Babylon. The prophet takes the other gods seriously, and so he calls them to adduce evidence of being alive, just as and more than YHWH. He challenges them on the grounds of history, the only possible terrain in biblical humanism: "Tell us the former things, what they are, / that we may consider them... or declare to us the things to come." (41:22) And also: "Let them bring their witnesses to prove them right" (43:9). But those gods will remain silent, they won't answer: "But when I look, there is no one; / among these there is no counsellor" (41:28). And it is within this contest that his anti-idolatrous polemic fits. The prophet describes the work of the builders of idols: "The craftsman strengthens the goldsmith, / and he who smoothes with the hammer him who strikes the anvil, / saying of the soldering, “It is good”; / and they strengthen it with nails so that it cannot be moved." (41:7) And a few chapters later his polemic becomes even more penetrating and sarcastic: "The ironsmith takes a cutting tool and works it over the coals. He fashions it with hammers and works it with his strong arm. He becomes hungry, and his strength fails; he drinks no water and is faint." (44:12)

His argument on the idols gains expression on three levels. At the base of this particular (and thriving) economy we find the workers, the makers of the idols. They work tirelessly, encouraging each other, without schedules and breaks, like all slaves, like the Jews in Egypt, at the perpetual service of the pharaoh-god. Today – more than yesterday –, the market for manufacturers and consumers of idols works 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Then there are the worshippers of handmade idols, those who prostrate themselves in front of the statues. And finally, above the idols there are (maybe) the gods, represented by the idols, which are the "signs" of foreign deities. In the Bible and in the prophetic writings the second and third levels are sometimes unified, and the confutation of idols becomes the direct confutation of the gods: "Bel bows down; Nebo stoops; / their idols are on beasts and livestock; / these things you carry are borne / as burdens on weary beasts." (46:1). Idols-gods are more "stupid" than the donkeys that carry them on their back.

This gods-idols identification is common in the biblical books, but it is not the deepest vein of the religion of Israel and the prophets. The greatest philosophers and poets of the ancient world had realized that in order to prove the gods false it was not enough to unmask the futility and folly of the statues. Socrates proclaimed his a-theism in the stone statues to affirm his belief in another spiritual god (the so-called daimon). And it was too easy for Horace to ridicule the idol builders: "Formerly I was the trunk of a wild fig-tree, an useless log: when the artificer, in doubt whether he should make a stool or a Priapus of me, determined that I should be a god." (Sermones) He says, therefore, just as the Second Isaiah, that the fact that the statues are not the true God is not enough to show that YHWH is the only true God: "I, I am the Lord, / and besides me there is no saviour." (43:11)

And so this is where a new and fascinating scenario opens up. If the Second Isaiah had always thought that there was no difference between the statues of the Babylonian gods and the gods themselves, then those deities would have coincided with their representations – and he wouldn't have given a teaching about the process to the nations. He would have refuted those gods with the same irony with which he had so easily ridiculed the pieces of wood and iron. But it would have been too easy to dismiss the Babylonian gods by simply revealing the stupidity of the builders and worshippers of fetishes. However he heard the theological need to call those gods and their 'lawyers' in a courtroom, giving them the dignity of a party and a chance to defend themselves, to speak, to bring witnesses and evidence to prove that they were gods effective in history, and, like YHWH, capable of explaining and making sense of past and future events. God's truth is historical truth, his court is the world, we are his witnesses: hic Rhodus, hic salta. Those gods could not speak, they did not bring evidence, their witnesses and prophets were unable to win against the Second Isaiah and his God.

But the legal dispute between the different gods also tells us something very important, and perhaps surprising: if the God of the Bible is a God of dialogue who discusses and provides and asks for evidence, then we cannot exclude that other gods that are different from the convincing one can prove their being non-false. Biblical humanism, in fact, while it strongly affirms that the idol worshippers who identify their God with their artefacts are trivial and silly, cannot state that all those who believe in gods that are different from YHWH are idolaters. And if and when it does it betrays its best part. For the first organizational reform of the people in the desert Moses followed the advice of his father-in-law Jethro (Exodus 18), and would not have done so if he had simply considered him an idolater.

Prophets have devoted an impressive amount of words to the polemic against the idols because they sensed that in those various cults there was something more real and true than mundane sacrifices and offerings to blind and mute artefacts. If they had thought those cults were only stupid worship of fetishes, they would have spent less words to dismiss them. But there was much more in that debate. It was a theological and historical education that would lead Israel, and then Christianity, to understand that in the gods of other peoples the faces of YHWH were hiding, too, their true God that they could not imprison but had to share with all humanity. Israel, too, has had to face idolatry, and not only when they built the golden calf, but every time they claimed a jealous possession of YHWH, when they forgot that even if Elohim had chosen the Jewish people he had not forgotten all the others, letting them down to be slaves of stupid idols. It's not enough to just ban the iconic representation of God to prevent idolatry, just like it is not enough to build statues and carry them in a procession to be idolaters. Instead, we are certainly idolaters if we continue to think that all those who pronounce the word "God" and do not belong to our religion are talking to an idol, to themselves, to nothing. And we are different idolaters, but still idolaters if we think that all those who cannot pronounce the name of God or have forgotten it are only fools, and that their "nothing" cannot be inhabited by a true presence of the one God of all.

It is in Genesis that we find the most beautiful reason for the Bible's battle against the images of God. It lies in that Adam, created in the "image and likeness" of Elohim. We should not make images of God because they are all less true and beautiful that what we see every day reflected on the face of all women and all men. It is the intangible "sign of Adam", stamped on our foreheads, which can prevent that fetishes should ever replace our image with theirs.

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