Va-etchannan: Fire and Idols

April 13, 2011 at 2:37 pm | Posted in Va-etchannan | 1 Comment

(This blog was first posted on July 21, 2010.)

And you drew near, and you stood under the mountain, and the mountain was blazing with fire up to the heart of the heavens, darkness, cloud, and thick fog.  Then God spoke to you from the middle of the fire.  You were hearing a sound of words, but you were seeing no form, nothing but a sound.  (Deuteronomy/Devarim 4:11-12)

You must watch over yourselves, lest you forget the covenant that God, your God, cut with you, and you make for yourselves a carved idol of any form that you appointed to God, your God.  Because God, your God, is a consuming fire, a god demanding exclusive rights.  (Deuteronomy 4:23-24)

choshech = darkness; (figuratively) obscurity, hiddenness, blindness, ignorance, curse

arafel = gloom, opaque darkness, thick cloud or fog

Moses makes Mount Horev, a.k.a. Mount Sinai, sounds like a holy volcano.  But there is a practical purpose behind Moses’ description in this week’s Torah portion, Va-etchannan (I implored).  As he continues to remind the Israelites of their history since they left Egypt, Moses emphasizes what he thinks they need to know when they cross the Jordan and start a new nation.

Exodus chapters 19-20 gave us the first description of the revelation and receiving of the ten commandments at Mount Sinai.  This account mentioned fire only twice.  Moses’ recapitulation in Deuteronomy chapters 4-5 mentions fire 16 times.

His most intense description, translated in the first quote above, is quite a contrast from the first time Moses ever heard the voice of God, at the burning bush.  That was a small fire, in broad daylight, that burned but did not consume.  Now, at the edge of the promised land (and his own death), Moses associates God’s voice with an over-whelming, terrifying, consuming fire.  And the fire is surrounded with darkness, cloud, and thick fog.  Maimonides (Rambam) explained this verse by writing that God is a constant, brilliant light, but our own inability to understand holiness appears to us as darkness.

Actually fire, darkness, and cloud or fog are all hard to see through, or to grasp (both literally and metaphorically).  By implication, God also has no definite boundaries, is constantly moving and changing, and is impossible to comprehend.

Moses presents this idea of God along with a long sermon against worshiping idols carved out of wood or stone, like the Canaanites who live in the land the Israelites are about to take over.  Being man-made inanimate objects, idols are solid, concrete, tangible, and immobile, the opposite of fire and fog.

Actually, other ancient religions in the Middle East viewed idols as forms that gods would temporarily inhabit, rather than as gods themselves.  Even so, Moses warns the Israelites against trying to use idols for any religious purpose; God cannot be lured into temporarily inhabiting an idol.

God does not even inhabit fires or clouds, but merely creates them—including the pillar of cloud by day and fire by night that leads the Israelites on all their journeys through the wilderness; and the fire that consumes Aaron’s sons Nadav and Avihu (see my blog “Shemini:  Strange Fire”).  And on rare occasions—at God’s first covenant with Abraham, at the burning bush, and at Mount Sinai/Horev—God speaks from the fire.

Fire is an unnerving metaphor for God’s direct intrusion into our world.  The Israelites are terrified of being consumed by God’s fiery presence, or even of hearing God’s voice from the fire.  So they beg Moses to stand between them and God, and tell them what God says.

I’ve met people who yearn for the divine so much that they want God’s presence, unmediated.  They’re ready to be blasted away.  I’m a more cautious person, myself, and I’d be afraid to experience more of the divine than the few momentary spiritual experiences I’ve had so far.  But I’m not too worried.  I suspect that only our “right brains”, our irrational, intuitive minds, can be touched by an experience of God.  Most of the time, our “left brains”, our rational egos, are built-in mediators that protect us from being consumed by divine fire.  We have our own inner Moses to translate for us and keep us sane.

Of course we lose something in translation.  Every moment of enlightenment, every perception of something beyond normal experience, such as a voice in a fire, is surrounded with obscuring darkness, cloud, and thick fog.  Inspiration strikes—but we are only human, and deep mystery remains.

May we all learn to be grateful for both sides of the human mind.  And may we learn that we cannot express the mystery at the heart of existence through tidy, concrete statements and creeds—any more than we can lure God into inhabiting idols.

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  1. […] I implored”).  Besides relating God to fire (see my blog last year, Va-etchannan: Fire and Idols), Moses gives the “Shema“, the core statement that God is “one”; and the […]

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