The Affordances of God, Continued
A while back I worked on singling out the idiom of God in our everyday language in terms of an irruptive and interruptive voice that takes us out of the scene we are in, places us on another scene, and is made to say the same thing on both scenes from within a third, meta, scene. So, you’re having a nice conversation with a couple of friends and one of them asks a question about something you’ve all avoided talking about for a while, like, say, a friend you’ve all broken with for reasons that have never been made explicit. Someone there is raising the question, but the question still comes from elsewhere, even for the person asking it, and it evokes questions of betrayal, resentment and cowardice that now find their echoes on other scenes; even if uttered differently on the other scenes, the word is the same as you work it over and try to integrate it in or display it against, the scene it interrupted. In this way we can think about God’s word as being within, alongside of, commenting on our own words, meaning it’s just a question of developing habits of inquiry and reflection, which are forms of deferral, to cancel out the noise and make it audible.
I’d like to now thread this idiom through a couple of revisionist readings of the Bible I’ve fairly recently become acquainted with, and which happen to be at odds with each on some crucial points, in productive ways. The first reading is by Bernard Lamborelle, which it seems to me few people have taken up so far. Lamborelle argues that the “Lord” who makes a covenant with Abram and then cedes to him quite a bit of territory was not, in fact, “God,” but, rather, an actual, temporal lord, a powerful king in the area—Lamborelle goes so far as to contend it was Hammurabi. Lamborelle gets equally specific about many other things, and it’s a fascinating analysis, but what I find sufficient for my own purposes is the way thinking of Abraham as being
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“entitled” within a kind of feudal relationship in which he is essentially a mercenary serving a local ruler clarifies some obscurities and contributed to my understanding of how the ancient Jewish God was found(ed) out of a mimetic and resentful relation to divine kingship. Lambotelle sees the beginning of this relationship in the aftermath of Abram’s defense and rescue of his cousin Lot in the war of the five kings around (really, against) Sodom. Lamborelle argues that, in saving his kinsman, Abram had to rather bravely take arms and strike a blow against the powerful king involved in extending his sovereignty by subjugating Sodom. Abram so impressed this ruler that he offered Abram a covenant, in which Abram will act as governor of the Cannanite territories for the ruler, and the ruler will then allow Abram (then, Abraham) to have his children inherit them. Soon after Sodom is in fact destroyed, and Lot and his family saved. Not only is that episode made much clearer now, but so is the fact that Abraham, while at times seeming to be a rather simple shepherd, is obviously a man of considerable wealth and power. So, I am taking on board the assumption that somewhere in the memories eventually recorded in the Hebrew Bible we would find the conversion of a covenant with an earthly into a meta-personal “lord”—with that original covenant, perhaps made with someone not too clearly connected with those who came to claim it as an inheritance, being held onto in all its earthly specificity extremely tenaciously.
Now, from another angle, we have the “supplementary hypothesis” of the bible’s composition, as developed most prominently by Tzemach Yoreh which, as opposed to the canonical “documentary hypothesis” which posits several different documents being stitched together to create what was to become the bible, proposes a process of layering and revision wherein the later documents (especially “J” and “P”) are adding to and more or less subtly “correcting” (while trying to avoid actually erasing) the earliest layer, “E” (“Elohim”). Yoreh’s readings are extremely convincing and it seems to me that at least some of the relation between to the biblical sources must have had a revisionary character. I’ll give now the example of Yoreh’s most spectacular claim, which also happens to be the one that most interests me here: that in the earliest, E, layer, Abraham does, in fact, sacrifice Isaac. (I won’t go into the details here, but the more you think about it, the more obvious it is—which means we have, rather amazingly, documentation of one of the most profound revolutions in human history: the rejection of child sacrifice.) Now, Lamborelle is impatient with all this talk of layers and thinks it was just Hammurabi testing Abraham’s loyalty, but this seems to me a bit too subtle (Lamborelle also thinks Hammurabi cuckolded Abraham in order to produce Isaac, which then leads him to the conclusion that, as Muslims believe, it was in fact Ishmael who was brought to be sacrificed—Yoreh’s account is far more economical.) But Yoreh thinks it was really “God” who demanded the sacrifice, and the reason he gives is Abraham’s lack of faith in Elohim (while Yahweh wants to be exalted, Elohim just demands faith) displayed in the episode where Abraham tried the same old (and never very successful, or even coherent) wife/sister trick on Abimelach because he believed there was no fear of God in that place. Since this was post-covenant, Abraham should have relied on Elohim’s protection. So, I want to preserve the relation with an earthly lord along with the actuality of Isaac’s sacrifice, and I can do so by simply transferring the lack of faith Yoreh finds to the earthly lord Lamborelle has identified and say that it is Abraham’s independent and bungled relations and negotiations with Abimelach that led the earthly lord to “test” Abraham and take away his sole legitimate heir.
But in that case Abraham could not be the patriarch of the Jewish people, since his legitimate line would have ended (even though, aside from Ishmael, he goes on to take another wife and have more children after Sarah dies, they are not relevant to the line of inheritance the bible is interested in preserving). With Isaac out of the picture, there is no real connection between Abraham and Jacob, which means—as Yoreh asserts—that Jacob was the first “real” patriarch (all of this is caught up in relations between the respective kingdoms of Israel and Judah, which I’m leaving aside for now). The reason for keeping Abraham at the head of the line (even going so far as to manufacture a kinship relation between him and Jacob/Israel), and even for commemorating him in the first place (without Isaac, which is the telos of much of his story, Abraham is at best a “tragic” hero, which the biblical stories, or the patriarchal ones at any rate, never have any interest in), is to assert that property grant from “the Lord”—and so I am sticking with Lamborelle in assuming there is something very real and earthly there. It also means that the land deed has been usurped, how, and why, I can’t say, but this would explain the ongoing motif in the patriarch stories (especially Jacob and Esau, but also Joseph and his brothers) in which a kind of usurpation is legitimated after the fact, both by God and by some “deserving” quality of the usurper. In this case the ancient Israelite nationality derived from imperial service, an always tenuous mode of employment, and a pattern we see playing out elsewhere in the bible, most obviously the story of Joseph in Egypt and of Esther in Persia. This is the original meaning of “chosenness,” then: especially useful for and devoted to imperial service.
This is probably a good time for my regular reminder that while it might sound like I’m “debunking” or “demystifying” the bible, for me the is a very different kind of exercise, one which increases enormously my awe at those generations of scribes who maintained and revised this “inheritance” for centuries, drawing a thread through various stages of national existence, imperial dependency and national catastrophe. (Which also means that there’s no reason to assume that the stories of the patriarchs interacting with regional kings in situations with uncertain power dynamics corresponds to the ancient history of Jews, Judeans, Hebrews or whoever; it seems to me more likely that the stories are selected and reworked in accord with the problems faced by Jewish elites in Babylonian exile and then under Persian restoration, both situations no doubt involving complex and novel patron-client relationships.) And it seems to me even more remarkable to note that this pattern has continued with the Jews until this very day, in which a kind of national existence coincides with various forms of imperial service, punctuated regularly with disastrous collapses of the terms of service. This may tell us a lot about traditional Jewish social structures, with figures at the top plugged into the surrounding social order (bankers, merchants, “court Jews”) supporting a system that privileges scholars and rabbis, bottoming out with craftsmen and peddlers; it might also provide some insight into all nationalisms, which, anti-imperial as they all are, without exception make accommodations and form alliances that make them useful to one or another of the imperial powers; but I’m interested here in what it tells us about the affordances of God. And the implication of the observation that every commemoration of God’s discourse is channeled through the memory of an asymmetrically positioned human voice is that any human voice may be a channel for God’s voice, since there is always an asymmetry to every human exchange, even if it just comes down to who speaks first, or whose words cause the other to pause—and to cause to pause is to confer and compel a kind of authority. The voice of God is, in fact, in every human voice, including our own interior monologues, even if it is far from identical with any human voice. Any human discourse concerns the transmission and safe-keeping of some inheritance, because all discourse is of and toward the center, which long ago became transmissible through kingdom, property, more or less formalized obligations and the “proper name.” The scribes who wrote the Hebrew Bible followed the implications of this further than anyone else that I’m aware of because the demolition of their treaty or land grant issued by an imperial power, and the repetition of the demolition both in reality and (I am assuming) as itself a kind of textual inheritance indirectly transmitted (“usurped”) required them to posit a king above all earthly kings, and therefore a king who would remain after all the other kings, one by one, fell, and therefore a king who looked on with indifference (at best) at the ambitions and claims to eternity made by those (merely) earthly kings, and therefore loved faithfulness to this king above kings more than loyalty to any earthly king or their rituals (“idols”), a faithfulness only those exiled time and again could exhibit—this is a God people could covenant with above and beyond all earthly covenants, and the joining in such a covenant would spread love amongst other adherents to it, a love greater than love for any earthly inhabit of the center. At the same time, this is a covenant one has “always already” broken and betrayed, making repentance and the quest for forgiveness and redemption (from the debt entailed by the covenant and left unpaid by the betrayal of it) the basic stuff of life. There will always be an incommensurability between human and metapersonal imperatives. Any imperative we receive from an earthly governor has an end date and is itself one in a longer chain of imperatives, an acknowledgement that itself requires faithfulness to that earthly imperative and the attempt to make that imperative commensurable and “interoperable” (with imperatives we are in the realm of technics) with those preconditioning and entailed imperatives tagging along. That earthly imperative, which concerns some earthly inheritance, must be addressed, even if to repudiate it, to turn over the property to other claimants, to donate it all to the center or to satirically disable oneself as an instrument of the imperative. The details of the inheritance implicit in the imperative (which might be a plea from a dependent as much as a command from a superior) then become the idiom in which one becomes a derivative, speculating on the furthest future options of that imperative.
I am continuing my work here on the full externalization and performativation of selving, which is to say the evacuation of the internal scene of representation which certainly had one of its origins in the revising and “strong reading” of biblical literature in the Second Temple period in ancient Israel. Maybe I could say I’m skipping over that interiorization back to a more literal understanding of the covenants, vassalage treaties, assignments, land grants and other forms of transmission which the biblical scribes preserved and recoded. We are all fully describable in terms of the institutional positions we circulate through and the layers, modes, and retrieval and analysis of the data we perpetually give off. We don’t need, in that case, notions of subjectivity, the soul, freedom, and all the other transcriptions of those institutional positions and data emission—we can go ahead and transcribe our selves (whatever makes is the same across time and place) directly in terms of the financial, ritual, juridical and disciplinary idioms through which we circulate. It’s no less human or “profound” to revise some combination of psychiatric, literary and political discourse to describe one’s activities in an empowering and alert way than to draw upon ancient metaphorizations of breath or wind that once relied upon carefully designed commemorations to take on their meaning. Such an approach enables a much more precise accounting for one’s ledger of exchanges with the center, which records or inscribes in one’s practices and hypotheses what one has been given (what has happened to one), what one has taken (reassembled into doings) and the distributory logic or nomos according to which one gives back. These circuits form an infrastructure which must be locked in and tended to and the elements of which must be made increasingly interoperable. In other words, you want the most precise and comprehensive vocabulary for ensuring that if you cheat in your life it will show up and become an unavoidable reality for you.
To be “human” in the Abrahamic tradition, then, is to be heir to a land grant and grant of authority that, given that imperial authority has passed from the earthly lord to God, includes the entire earth and all that is in it, albeit distributed in accord with descent from earthly lords. The boundary between humans and animals follows accordingly, and the (imperial) desire to become like God acknowledged but rendered paradoxical and the very source of the boundary between human and divine. Leveraging the higher authority of God against the earthly lords has proven catastrophic, but listening to and supplementing the discourse of God operating through earthly authorities might prove less so. If someone (who had been granted it) grants you a bit of territory, virtual or physical, and that territory can be governed through a workable juridical order—a juridical order, that is, that can refer back to an originating distribution (even if of questionable provenance) and withstand challenges to it, and that can solicit the contribution of disciplinary agencies (distribute authority to them) without ceding the integrity of the juridical—then the word of God is in there somewhere to be worked out through self-reflexive practices of pedagogical commemoration. And reducing the human to a minimally “successionable” grant of authority over a field of practice/hypotheses might produce textualizations of such grants (contracts, judgments, and literary inquiries into their anomalies) that allow for overlappings with other traditions which, if they don’t provide for such minimal grants, might be able to explain to us how they account for succession in ways we might make commensurable.
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