Friday, 25 March 2016

An Appropriately Eurus Post

I wonder how obvious a brainwave has to be before we stop calling it that.

Recently, for some reason I can't remember, it occurred to me to connect Jacob's dream at Bethel (ie. Jacob's Ladder) with ziggurats. Checking the footnotes of my NIV Study Bible, I was kind of tickled to realise I was onto something. A spot of Googling revealed this story's the centre of a minor shitfight over interpretation, because of course it is, it's the Bible, but it's interesting nevertheless.

For those who came in late, the story goes like this:
Jacob left Beersheba and set out for Harran. When he reached a certain place, he stopped for the night because the sun had set. Taking one of the stones there, he put it under his head and lay down to sleep.

He had a dream in which he saw a stairway resting on the earth, with its top reaching to heaven, and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it. There above it stood the Lord, and he said: "I am the Lord, the God of your father Abraham and the God of Isaac. I will give you and your descendants the land on which you are lying. Your descendants will be like the dust of the earth, and you will spread out to the west and to the east, to the north and to the south. All peoples on earth will be blessed through you and your offspring. I am with you and will watch over you wherever you go, and I will bring you back to this land. I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you."

When Jacob awoke from his sleep, he thought, "Surely the Lord is in this place, and I was not aware of it." He was afraid and said, "How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God; this is the gate of heaven." Early the next morning Jacob took the stone he had placed under his head and set it up as a pillar and poured oil on top of it. He called that place Bethel, though the city used to be called Luz. (NIV)
A few points. First of all, although "Jacob's Ladder" is a cultural shorthand in the West, it probably wasn't a ladder. For comedy's sake, here's an article insisting it was, followed by the declaration, "The meaning of the ladder and angels is not clear." Yeah, thanks for coming. If you find someone insisting it was a literal ladder, they're probably ultimately working from the Septuagint, where the Greek word is klimax. Best to ignore: the LXX is a notoriously sloppy translation, and klimax doesn't have to mean a literal ladder even in Greek. Also, Googling "Jacob's Climax" will absolutely not result in finding a Bible study.

I know, I was as surprised as you.

The original Hebrew seems to be sullam (סולם, "sool-lawm"), a tricky word because it only appears this once in the Tanach. The Balashon blog, which I just found, handily quotes someone called Nahum Sama as saying:
The Hebrew term sullam, here rendered "stairway", is unique in the Bible; its etymology is uncertain. It may derive from the stem s-l-l, "to cast up a mound," or may be connected with Akkadian simmiltu, "steps." Sullam could therefore be a ladder or a stairway ramp.
He goes on to cite someone called Klein who connects sullam with the Akkadian sullu, a highway, and the Psalmist's favourite word selah, which is "probably a musical direction to raise the voice and derived from סלל (= to raise, to lift)."

Groping for a word like this makes plenty of sense if they're describing the ramp/stairway thingy at the front of a ziggurat, a monument foreign to Hebrew culture. When describing the Tower off Babel they similarly had to improvise by calling it a migdol, a military watchtower – but their descriptions of sunbaked bricks and pitch are spot-on descriptions of building practices from Mesopotamia a thousand years earlier. These are just some of the hints that we're looking at reworked versions of Sumerian and Akkadian stories, making them some of the oldest stories humanity has.

Anyway, as I suspected, the "ladder" is more likely a stairway to the temple at the crown of a ziggurat. Which makes perfect sense, because if you translate the Hebrew from the Babel story a little more directly, they talk about building "a tower whose top [is] into heaven." The top compartment of a ziggurat represented heaven, where the local deity was parked on a throne; to the people who lived at the base it, the top of a ziggurat was heaven.

Those aren't angels.
That's the restored Ziggurat of Ur, traditionally Abraham's birthplace, which lies just outside modern Nasiriyah in southern Iraq. The inclusion of angels (Hebrew malak, or messengers) is a curious addition showing the text was probably rewritten again during the Persian conquest, because as we already know, angels are a Zoroastrian thing. Which makes perfect sense, because that's when the whole thing was first collated together, and the story of Jacob, who was on the lam at the time, probably would've resonated with an audience who remembered the Exile.

A possible reason the angels first ascend and then descend is explained by Rabbi B in the.pdf Climbing Jacob's Ladder:
The ladder keys into the fact that the angels first "ascended" and then "descended." The Midrash explains that Jacob, as a holy man, was always accompanied by angels. When he reached the border of the land of Canaan (the future land of Israel), the angels who were assigned to the Holy Land went back up to Heaven and the angels assigned to other lands came down to meet Jacob. When Jacob returned to Canaan (Genesis 32:2-3), he was greeted by the angels who were assigned to the Holy Land.
By far the trickiest part is Verse 13 and the innocuous little phrase "here above it." Hebrew had no gender-neutral pronouns, so they used the same word for "it" as they did "him." So the "it" God was "here above" could've been the stairway, or it could've been Jacob himself (the verb for "standing" is a bit weird too, the LXX translated it "leaning," suggesting God was... taking it easy? Reclining like a king? Chilling with his homie Jacob? That one takes a better scholar than me). Which way you go is theologically loaded and up to the translator: is God hovering ominously at the top of the stairway, or is he standing over Jacob?

If that isn't bad enough, the words for "God" used in the text could support either. In Documentary Hypothesis terms, this part of Genesis is a mash-up of the J source and the E source (this page has handy guide to which source appears where). God is referred to as both YHWH (the personal name revealed to Moses) and Elohim (a generic deity). That means it could go either way: the J source's God is close, relatable, almost humanised, the God who breathed life into Adam and fashioned Eve from a rib. E's God is distant, universal, remote and abstract. Minor sidenote: the J source is mostly concerned with the southern Kingdom of Judah, and the E source is mostly concerned with the northern Kingdom of Israel. The town of Bethel, where this is said to've taken place, is right on the border between them. That's got to mean something.

Anyway, since Verse 13 is a J verse, I'm coming down on the side of the Yahwists: God is standing next to Jacob. Which is why in a reputable translation like the Jerusalem Bible, it reads like this:
And there was Yahweh, standing beside him and saying, "I, Yahweh, am the God of Abraham your father, and the God of Isaac. The ground on which you are lying I shall give to you and your descendants."
Which means the main lesson of the story survives the translation process:

This god came down to us!

That must've been mind-blowing in 950 B.C. I said I can imagine this tale being reworked from an older Sumerian or Akkadian story... but can you imagine Marduk deigning to leave his high place and touch the same earth as the puny humans? Not likely. In the original you can bet the hero had to ascend to the gods to receive his revelation there. An ancient near-eastern audience probably would've had that version in the back of their minds. So imagine the bricks they must've shat when the priest told them, no, Jacob looked up and YHWH was standing at the foot of his bed! That's damn near a thousand years before Christ, and the Hebrews were already imagining a God who could step out of heaven and come down to them. Amazing.

And, in a roundabout way, appropriate to the whole Easter thing – a season when we celebrate a God who shed the infinite to take up the mortal coil and die the bloody, miserable death of a slave. If you ever feel like a challenge, get a job at a servo and try explaining to your Hindu colleagues what that has to do with chocolate eggs and bunnies.

Have a great Easter everybody. Whether you celebrate it or not, just have a grand and joyous weekend.

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