Isaac Ben Jacob

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Of the Staff of Moses, and of the Secret of God – Part I

We have a very specific task to accomplish on this day. The task which consists in addressing the greatest mystery in Judaism and Christianity, the mystery of Salvation, of redemption. Christianity has taught us that “only Faith can save”. It is a reaffirmation, a subtle echo of what the Supreme Being, our God, answered to Moses when the latter asked him: (Exodus 3:13-14) “Behold, when I come unto the children of Israel, and shall say unto them: The God of your fathers hath sent me unto you; and they shall say to me: What is his name? what shall I say unto them?” Then God, whom a number of Rabbis rightly call “the Invariable Being”, spoke the following words, which still resonate in the minds of so many philosophers, knowledgeable persons and literary writers: “I AM THAT I AM”. He also said: “Thus shalt thou say unto the children of Israel: He who is called I AM, hath sent me unto you.”

 

Such light emanates from these few words pronounced by God, that Shakespeare will condition every form of logic and thought, as well as the finality of humankind, to his famous “To be or not to be, that is the question.” We are in presence of the very definition of Faith, that is to say of the Ultra-material Spirit. Here, Faith is not the act of believing and of submitting oneself to God. Neither is it abandon. On the contrary, Faith is the Certainty of salvation, the anticipation and feeling of the Divine nature. Is it not written: “You are all Gods” (Psalm 82:6; John 10:33-35)? Therefore, Faith is the unchangeable, conscious, perfect and determined intention of doing good for the sake of good, of Being already “in the beginning” of time, with God. Faith is also this self-generated light, by which (John 1:3-4) all things were made; it is “life, and the light of men”.

 

But this light must (Jean 1:5) shine in the darkness and manifest itself into the world, because the world does not understand it, and without this light it would remain a dark place, a valley of the shadow of death. It is with this precise intention that God replies to Moses, when Moses interrogates him by asking by what name to call him. God does not only say “I Am”, he adds “that I am”, i.e. the manifestation of his Being, of this devouring fire which is Faith. He manifests this light born of light, towards everything which is external to himself, and which is also paradoxically his own substance. In other words, he says “I am”, and I am as well the external look outside of my being. In order to shed new light on his words, and to perfect the answer he intends to give to Moses' interrogation, God rephrases what he has already stated: “He who is called I Am, hath sent me unto You”. The “unto You” (to You, towards You) is the manifestation, the projection that God intends to make towards his sons and daughters in the Spirit. Paul, the apostle and the theologian of Salvation by Faith, did not express himself otherwise. Only Faith saves, as its manifestation through actions can be hindered. “To the pure, all things are pure”, that is to say the intention, which is Faith, the Supreme Being, saves, since the Elect have already died and risen with Christ since the origin of time. The Supreme Being who is in us is concealed to the eyes of men; he is in the image of the Holy of Holies, covered by the veil of the Temple. But if, on the contrary, the manifestation of Faith depends on external things, and although in a certain way, the thickness of the veil prevents us from seeing it distinctly, however, this manifestation is the condition to Salvation. In other words, the intention (the Faith) of taking action (the works) saves. Paul was indeed poorly understood by those who figured they could place false words in his mouth. How many perverted preachers are making Faith into an abstract idea, into an abdication of our internal Being in favour of a sort of abandon to the Divine will? They are reducing Faith to an action, to a belief which elevates unconsciousness and unreason as a dogma. There is no renouncement for the just, because God did not create us as slaves, but according to his own words, as his “friends”. The disciple is no greater than the master, but since it is written (and Scripture cannot be destroyed) “you are all Gods”, he is allowed to be the master's equal. “Irrational abandon” to Faith, and renouncement, are heretical manifestations of a denial of Faith. “Cursed are they who counterfeit good into evil”, and Faith into works.

Cosimo Rosselli fresco Moses on Mount Sinai Sistin

'Moses and the Tables of the Law' Cosimo Rosselli 1481/82

Let us take example from Moses, who had the temerity to climb up Mount Sinai despite the prohibition. Is it not written: (Exodus 19:11-12) “for the third day, the Lord will come down in the sight of all the people upon mount Sinai. [...] Take heed to yourselves, that ye go not up into the mount, or touch the border of it: whosoever toucheth the mount shall be surely put to death”? In Moses, there was no abandon to a “god” decreeing irrational interdictions, inciting people to softness, and to renouncement. On the contrary, he revolted against the false gods, and said he would not believe in any god he did not know Face to Face. And so it was, and for having searched for God as an equal (the meaning of the Hebraic text says that God recognised Moses as a relative of his...), the Eternal told him: (Exodus 7:1) “See, I have made thee a god to Pharaoh: and Aaron thy brother shall be thy prophet.” With a boldness equal to that of Moses, let us put our steps into those of this divine prophet, and as imperfect as we may be, hampered by our weaknesses, let us adopt as our own the sign of Salvation which he offered to the world. This mysterious Sign, which is named “Brazen Serpent” (Nahash Nahoshet) is exactly what Paul, who was a doctor in Mosaic Law, was alluding to in his Epistle to the Hebrews: (11:1) “Faith is [...] the evidence of things not seen.” God had taught to Moses a way of demonstrating, and of manifesting Faith, as if by a sort of anticipation of Divine things. This is the very mystery which we are going to discuss here and now, in somewhat enigmatic words (let they who can understand, understand).

 

In the first of the 5 books of Moses (Pentateuch-Torah), i.e. Genesis (“Bereshit” in Hebrew) we can read the following: (3:14) “And the Eternal God said unto the serpent: Because thou hast done this, thou art cursed above all cattle, and above every beast of the field; upon thy belly shalt thou go, and dust shalt thou eat all the days of thy life. (3:15) And I will put enmity between thee and the woman, and between thy seed and her seed; it shall bruise thy head, and thou shalt bruise his heel.”

Bourdon Sebastien, Moses and the Brazen Serpent

'Moses and the Brazen Serpent' Sébastien Bourdon 1653-54

Regarding the Pagan world, the legend of Orpheus bears testimony of this concept, but under the restrictive angle of the original sin. We have there the striking example of a myth anchored into the policy of failure of the ancient religions, and of the beliefs pertaining to reincarnation. Orpheus, whose very name means Serpent in Greek (Orpheus, from Ophis), was the son of Oeagrus the King of Thrace, and of Calliope. He knew how to play his lyre so as to draw the most harmonious sounds from it, and to charm through his melodious chords the birds in the sky, the fiercest animals, and even the beings devoid of any sort of feeling. Orpheus, having travelled in various countries, came back to Thrace and married Eurydice, whom he loved infinitely. Just after their wedding, the young woman was bitten in her heel by a serpent, and all life having left her, she descended into the kingdom of the dead, into the Hell of the Ancients. Orpheus could not resign himself to bowing down under the yoke of fate. Convinced that death was merely the prelude to a new life, he decided to make Eurydice come back from the dead, and to go searching for her as far as into Hell. Orpheus would use all of his art in order to charm through the notes of his harp the god and sovereign of the dead, Hades. Having successively defeated Cerberus, the three-headed hound which barred the entrance of Hell, then the Eumenides, he managed to sway the will of Hades. The latter, although fascinated by Orpheus' chords, promised to let Eurydice return on one condition. The young woman had to follow Orpheus throughout the maze of Hell, without him turning around, or speaking to her. Only when they would both have exited from the kingdom of the dead, would Eurydice come back to life, and the dire consequences of the serpent's bite would be annihilated. Unfortunately, a few moments before Eurydice crossed the threshold back from Hell, Orpheus, worried about her silence, turned around. Seized by a sudden anxiety and by a movement of doubt, he had just sealed the doors of Hell again on Eurydice, and had triggered a second time, like an echo of the Serpent's venom, the death of his beloved.

 

First of all, we need to notice that this account contains obvious references to the Biblical concepts of “original sin”, incarnation and death. The Biblical prophecy in Genesis reveals, as we have already said, that the redeemer of humanity, descended from the posterity (the seed) of Eve, will crush the Serpent's head, but that the latter will bruise him in the heel. The same principle applies in the book of Numbers, where fiery serpents spread death amongst the people. Finally, we must quote the Creed of the Christian Church (the Apostles' Creed), which responds in a way to the account of Genesis: “Jesus Christ descended into Hell, on the third day he arose from the dead.” The abode of the dead into which the dead Christ descended, the Holy Scriptures designate it with the words Hell, Sheol or Hades (cf. Ph. 2:10; Ac. 2:24; Rev. 1:18; Ep. 4:9). This descent into Hell is similar to the one which takes place in the myth of Orpheus. It is the consequence of the poison secreted by the Serpent into the wound in Christ's heel. We have here the expression of a concept already well described in Genesis: (3:19) “Remember that thou art dust, and to dust thou shalt return.” Now the Serpent is sentenced to drag himself about in the dust. According to the Scriptures, this animal's venom thus presides over both incarnation and death; it is the cause of the Original Sin, and the poison which leads to the sepulchre.

 

Let us add, for information purposes, that the “Dictionnaire des Antiquités Grecques et Romaines” of Charles Victor Daremberg and Edmond Saglio (“Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities”: 10 volumes published between 1873 and 1919 by Hachette Livre, in Paris) mentions the myth of Orpheus as having a Biblical origin (excerpt from the article dedicated to Orpheus):

 

“Numerous travels were attributed to Orpheus. They led him as far as Egypt, from where he was purported to have brought back the institution of the Mysteries and the doctrine of the afterlife. The Christians even alleged that in Egypt, he had had knowledge of the books of Moses, and that he had been borrowing the best of his teachings from them.” Although a parallel can be drawn between this myth and some verses of the Bible, one needs to remember nonetheless that the character of Orpheus falls within a policy of failure (i.e. a prospect of failure). The “mirror effect” that we can observe in the myth is the reflection of a Pagan, Manichean belief, which does not see any other option for humankind, than reincarnation. Reincarnation being this blatant impossibility for Orpheus to bring Eurydice back for good from the kingdom of Hades.

 

What differences exist between the Biblical account and the myth of Orpheus? Which answer does the Bible intend to bring to the lack of a way out, to the dead end into which this myth places itself? Here we shall draw a few projections, in order to enlighten our words.

 

As a first step, we need to remark that Eurydice is the image of Salvation, of Faith. Just like Christ, she gets bitten in the heel by the Serpent, and descends into Hell. In this respect, she is likely to symbolise equally, depending on the story, either the Spirit (the true Faith), or the soul (the flawed, weak Faith, the fallen Spirit). In any case, Eurydice is a projection of Salvation, of the notion which people have of it. The question being: which Salvation do we believe in? Are we yearning to become Gods, or is our Faith so flawed, that in spite of our innate desire to survive death, we would not be able to comprehend Eternity? Might we have been born into this world only to end there in dust, and in the most enviable case, to be reincarnated? Is not the point of the myth of Orpheus’ teachings precisely to let us know that incarnation followed with death, and then with reincarnation (that is to say, the prospect of another life, but a mortal one), are nothing but an illusion? Indeed, all this is only an Ouroboros, a Serpent devouring its own tail, i.e. the symbol of a sterile cycle of birth, death and rebirth. The entire cycle’s objective being merely to reproduce death, under all its aspects and forms. As a conclusion to this account, we shall retain that Eurydice is the image that Orpheus has of his own salvation. However, Orpheus does not have a Christian nor a Judaic concept of his own Salvation. If he aspires to a new life, he is searching for it as a mortal man. The rebirth he anticipates for himself is not into Eternity, but into our world made out of dust and which shall return to dust. Consequently, Orpheus is confronted with an insurmountable obstacle. He desperately attempts to prolong the existence he enjoyed with Eurydice. But this existence in and of itself, was already just a decoy, an aberration, a shallow fiction which could not be projected into the future without being the reflection of Orpheus’ own decline.

Now it is said in the same way that the Serpent was the most intelligent of all animals, gifted with craftiness and perversion. The sacred text mentions the Serpent here as a tempter and author of the original sin. For the writer of the sacred text, for Moses, the Serpent is an imaged projection of man infected by his own venom, bent down to the ground under the weight of his own fault, and leaning towards animality. You are dust, and to dust you shall return. Such is the reason why the Serpent is condemned to bite the dust all the days of his life. He is the image of incarnation and death. That creature is composed of a “belly” on which it moves, and of a head. These two elements represent, respectively, the human physical body, and the human psyche, i.e. the soul, but not the Divine Spirit which, on the contrary, is supposed to drive the Elect. If the Serpent is henceforth constrained to “eat the dust” and to crawl “upon his belly”, it is because the situation was not the same in the beginning of things. Before the fall, the original sin, he was attached “vertically” to the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, and he was standing upright. This is what the Fathers of the Christian Church let us know. We are referring here to Augustine of Hippo, to John Chrysostom, to Ambrose of Milan, etc., whose commentaries on the Book of Genesis inform us that the Serpent is also a figure of the Redeemer nailed upon the Cross of Salvation (the Tree of Life), and that the “seed of the Woman” mentioned in the text, is none other than Christ himself. It is a Biblical prophecy meant to announce, immediately after the fall of humankind, its redemption through the new Adam (the Christ). John the Evangelist will say on this subject: (John 3:14) “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up.” And after him, the hymn of the service of Lauds for the exaltation of the Holy Cross proclaims: “Christ's wounds are the source of universal salvation: the people who have been injured, are healed through them, in the manner of the Brazen Serpent (of Moses).” God will become man, that is to say he will be afflicted by the Serpent's venom. Incarnate, and having become similar to mortals, bearing within him the original sin, the God-man will show humankind the way to salvation by nailing to the tree of Life, to the Cross, his body, i.e. the Serpent.

 

That which used to be bent was straightened, that which used to crawl in the dust was lifted up, and this Serpent body, which had become a winding track, a misleading path, was levelled, as it is written: “level the way of the Lord, and make his paths straight.”

 

The Serpent is a poisonous, devious animal, using slyness to catch its adversaries by surprise. Its bite is deadly, it catches man at his heel, because our feet are what we stand on. The upright position does not preside over man's birth, nor over his death. A child cannot walk, the dying man lies in his sepulchre. The dust, in which the Serpent and the animal itself are wallowing, is the powerful and significant image of incarnation and death. Incarnation is a death of the Spirit for God, a slow and progressive fall which leads us to our tomb. The same concept is used again by the Bible in the book of Numbers. We can read in it that the Israelites having revolted against the Eternal, he sent (21:6) “fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people; and much people of Israel died.” This is a mystery which was known and very widespread during Antiquity amongst the Hebrews and Greeks. It can be summarised thusly: the Serpent relates to incarnation, to death, to reincarnation, but conversely, from a Biblical perspective, to resurrection. In other words, although man incarnates in a mortal body (this Serpent made out of dust) which is only destined to the sepulchre (that other image of the Serpent made out of dust), his Faith and his Spirit open the doors of Salvation for him (and array him with a glorious body, which is none other than the Serpent lifted up on the Cross). Resurrected, man's body is transfigured by the Cross, by Faith. His Serpent body is raised into Eternity, and where there was only death (a body of death), arises from then on like an echo of the perfect Being. “I Am”, i.e. the Faith, exteriorises (expresses itself) into Eternity. Faith answers to “that I Am”, that is to say to the Chosen People, to the Elect, to the glorious body of Christ.