Thursday, 16 January 2014

The Storm God of the Torah - Yitro - Mythic Torah

Zeus and Thor by
Thor may have done very well at the box office, with two solo movies together with the Avengers, but he's far from being the first popular storm god.

Across the world, storm gods have been very popular - from Zeus in Greece to Indra in India, the storm gods have brought life giving rain to the people and protected them from rampaging monsters. The world may be full of sea serpents, but it's the storm gods that slay the dragons.

So why is the God of the Bible portrayed as a storm god? And why is the Torah itself given in the midst of a storm?

In this week's parasha of Yitro, the Israelites arrive at Mount Sinai, and God appears over the mountain, ready to speak the ten commandments to the whole nation of Israel.

Exodus 19
    16] On the third day, as morning dawned, there was thunder and lightning, and a dense cloud over the mountain, and a very loud blast of the horn. Everyone in the camp trembled. 17] Then Moses led the people out of the camp to meet with God, and they stood at the foot of the mountain. 18] Mount Sinai was covered with smoke, because the Lord descended on it in fire. The smoke billowed up from it like smoke from a kiln, and the whole mountain trembled violently. 19] The blare of the horn grew louder and louder. As Moses spoke, God answered him with thunder.

טז  וַיְהִי בַיּוֹם הַשְּׁלִישִׁי בִּהְיֹת הַבֹּקֶר, וַיְהִי קֹלֹת וּבְרָקִים וְעָנָן כָּבֵד עַל-הָהָר, וְקֹל שֹׁפָר, חָזָק מְאֹד; וַיֶּחֱרַד כָּל-הָעָם, אֲשֶׁר בַּמַּחֲנֶה.יז  וַיּוֹצֵא מֹשֶׁה אֶת-הָעָם לִקְרַאת הָאֱלֹקים, מִן-הַמַּחֲנֶה; וַיִּתְיַצְּבוּ, בְּתַחְתִּית הָהָר.יח  וְהַר סִינַי, עָשַׁן כֻּלּוֹ, מִפְּנֵי אֲשֶׁר יָרַד עָלָיו ה, בָּאֵשׁ; וַיַּעַל עֲשָׁנוֹ כְּעֶשֶׁן הַכִּבְשָׁן, וַיֶּחֱרַד כָּל-הָהָר מְאֹד.יט  וַיְהִי קוֹל הַשֹּׁפָר, הוֹלֵךְ וְחָזֵק מְאֹד; מֹשֶׁה יְדַבֵּר, וְהָאֱלֹקים יַעֲנֶנּוּ בְקוֹל

The language focuses on storm imagery - thunder, lightning, fire, earthquakes. At the coming of God, the whole mountain is covered with smoke and the whole world trembles.

Biblical scholars have long noticed similarities between God's portrayal and the portrayal of God's main rival in the Bible, the Canaanite God Baal. For example, we read in the Baal cycle found at Ugarit:

Lo, also it is the time of his rain. / Baal sets the season, / And gives forth his voice from the clouds. / He flashes lightning to the earth. 

The God of the Bible and Baal were both populist deities, both in charge of bringing life-sustaining rain that allows life to flourish in the land of Canaan, both of whom also embodied the violent aspects of the storm, striking down their enemies with fire and lightning.

But why is this the way God is described at the key moment of revelation at Sinai? When the Bible has other images at its disposal (for example king of the universe or divine warrior), why does it portray God coming out of a storm?

It comes down to carrots and sticks.

By appearing out of the fire, out of the smoke and the flames, God makes the people 'tremble' with fear. This is the same aspect of God that fights the primordial Leviathan, that can send lightning to strike the earth. This is a God that you must obey, or else be struck from the earth.

But at the same time there is a promise involved in this aspect of God, a promise of life-giving rain, water that nourishes the earth and sustains all existence.

The Torah has both these levels too, both carrots and sticks, threats and promises, curses and blessings. It seems to me that today, we focus on the negative aspects of the law, the restrictions, the punishments. We react badly to outside forces telling us we can't do something.

But the word Torah itself is related to the word Yoreh, the early rain that falls in the autumn. Without this rain, life in Israel would wither and die - the Torah too comes with an understanding that it is there to enrich your life, to spread water so that your seeds can flourish.

Today is Tu Bishvat, the new year for trees, on which we are grateful for the natural world that allows us to flourish, and through which we experience God's shefa, the divine flow of energy. As the rain is to the ground, the Torah is meant to be for our lives, making the barren earth fertile.

There may be a lot of threats and curses on the surface, but just as God appeared in a terrifying form that promises much good for the world, the Torah should be a way to improve our lives, to give it meaning and a shape for the future.

Thor may be able to summon lightning to strike down his enemies - our God does that too, but God also gives us the Torah as our own form of life-sustaining rain.

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