Monday 7 October 2013

From the Deep - Human Monsters - Leviathan in Ezekiel 29

Ezekiel 29:2-5
2] 'Son of man, set your face against Pharaoh king of Egypt and prophesy against him and against all Egypt. 3] Speak to him and say: “This is what the Sovereign Lord says:

"I am against you, Pharaoh king of Egypt,
    you great sea monster
(Tanim) lying among your streams.
You say, ‘The Nile belongs to me;
    I made it for myself.
4] But I will put hooks in your jaws
    and make the fish of your streams stick to your scales.
I will pull you out from among your streams,
    with all the fish sticking to your scales. 
5] I will leave you in the desert,
    you and all the fish of your streams.
You will fall on the open field
    and not be gathered or picked up.
I will give you as food
    to the beasts of the earth and the birds of the sky."

ב בֶּן-אָדָם שִׂים פָּנֶיךָ עַל-פַּרְעֹה מֶלֶךְ מִצְרָיִם וְהִנָּבֵא עָלָיו וְעַל-מִצְרַיִם כֻּלָּהּ: 
ג דַּבֵּר וְאָמַרְתָּ כֹּה-אָמַר אֲדֹנָי יֱהֹוִה הִנְנִי עָלֶיךָ פַּרְעֹה מֶלֶךְ-מִצְרַיִם הַתַּנִּים הַגָּדוֹל הָרֹבֵץ בְּתוֹךְ יְאֹרָיו אֲשֶׁר אָמַר לִי יְאֹרִי וַאֲנִי עֲשִׂיתִנִי:
ד וְנָתַתִּי (חַחִיים) [חַחִים] בִּלְחָיֶיךָ וְהִדְבַּקְתִּי דְגַת-יְאֹרֶיךָ בְּקַשְׂקְשֹׂתֶיךָ וְהַעֲלִיתִיךָ מִתּוֹךְ יְאֹרֶיךָ וְאֵת כָּל-דְּגַת יְאֹרֶיךָ בְּקַשְׂקְשֹׂתֶיךָ תִּדְבָּק:
ה וּנְטַשְׁתִּיךָ הַמִּדְבָּרָה אוֹתְךָ וְאֵת כָּל-דְּגַת יְאֹרֶיךָ עַל-פְּנֵי הַשָּׂדֶה תִּפּוֹל לֹא תֵאָסֵף וְלֹא תִקָּבֵץ לְחַיַּת הָאָרֶץ וּלְעוֹף הַשָּׁמַיִם נְתַתִּיךָ לְאָכְלָה: 

What does it mean to call someone a monster?

In our society, we throw the word around easily but with certain common targets - child molesters, serial killers, terrorists, dictators. To call someone a monster is to deny humanity to them, to say that we cannot begin to understand their abhorrent actions because they are not like us, they are something alien and terrifying. Calling anyone a monster works as a societal defence mechanism, forming a strong boundary between us and them, putting them on the other side, beyond the pale and beyond the point where they can be understood.

In Ezekiel 29 (and 32 that we will look at next week) the prophet calls Pharaoh a monster.

Writing during the time of the Babylonian exile (the 6th Century BCE), Israel was always torn between the two great powers in the region, Egypt and Babylon. While it was Babylon that destroyed the temple, Egypt under Pharaoh Necho had killed King Josiah and plundered the temple treasury.

God calls to Pharaoh and calls him the Tanim that is in the Nile. Two things are to be noted, firstly that 'tanim' actually means jackals, but since that doesn't make any sense in this context, everyone (both traditional texts like the Zohar, commentators like Rashi, and modern scholars) understands it as the same word as 'tanin' that we saw in Genesis 1.

The second thing to be noted is that we have already seen the word Tanin in relation to Egypt and Pharaoh, in Exodus 7 when the staff of Aaron transformed into a 'tanin'. There the word tanin was in place of the word 'nachash', which means snake, whereas elsewhere it indicates the primordial sea monster.

So how can we translate this word here?

There is a decent possibility that the word Tanim here should be understood to mean the crocodile. The Nile is home to many crocodiles and they had a special place in Egyptian religion (see the statue of the god Sobek at the head of the article). But words have valences, and there is a strong mythic overtone to the word Tanin, and if Ezekiel is calling Pharaoh a crocodile, then this is a monstrous kind of lizard - God Himself will fish him out of the streams.

Pharaoh proclaims "The Nile is mine, I made it for myself". He sets himself up as a creator god, that his formed his own habitat to perfectly suit his needs. It is Pharaoh's arrogance and hubris that mark him out as monstrous.

But God proclaims that Pharaoh is nothing more than a big fish, to be caught on a line and dragged from the river, left rotting on shore as food for the wild beasts.

What can we learn from this extreme fishing?

We call other people monsters to avoid having to understand them, to distance ourselves from them, to announce that they are incomprehensible and inhuman. But God calls someone monstrous because God sees in them an abhorrent trait that cannot be repaired - if Pharaoh believes himself to be God, how can he ever repent? God calls Pharaoh a monster because understands him completely and opposes him completely, he is marked out in this way to identify him with the primordial chaos monster that God is determined to fight in every form.

To mark someone as monstrous should be a call to action, not an end of the discussion. We shouldn't say "s/he was a monster" as if it precludes further discussion, as if we can then just sweep the whole business under the rug. Instead it should resound as a call to action - how can we protect people from the monsters, how do we prevent people from becoming monsters?

Ezekiel tells us that monsters are real, that they need to be opposed. God calls on us to set our faces against the monsters, and drag them from their streams.

Next week on 'From the Deep' - Ezekiel 32 - More Historical Monsters.

'From the Deep' has been made possible by Nishma, a summer of learning in the JTS Beit Midrash.

No comments:

Post a Comment