In the last post I wrote about the difference between step logic and block logic. Step logic is a very Greek way of thinking and, closer to home, a very Western way of thinking. Ancient Hebrew thought, on the other hand, used what is known as block logic. Now here’s the thing with block logic – it doesn’t always line up as neatly as we want it to. As Marvin Wilson writes:
“The Hebrews often made use of block logic. That is, concepts were expressed in self-contained units or blocks of thought. These blocks did not necessarily fit together in any obviously rational or harmonious pattern, particularly when one block represented the human perspective on truth and the other represented the divine.”1
In this I post want to explore an example of these two “contradictions” – human and divine – at play. We’re going to look at Exodus chapters 19 and 20. In these chapters we witness perhaps the most important moments in Israelite history: God’s revelation on Mount Sinai. So let’s start in Chapter 19 with these amazing words:
“The LORD descended to the top of Mount Sinai and called Moses to the top of the mountain.”
This is huge – God descends. When God wants to speak, God comes down. Christians often speak of God’s descent as having started at the incarnation – God taking on human flesh. But God’s descent didn’t start in the gospels; God has been coming down and getting God’s hands dirty2 all along. Rabbi Eliezer, reflecting on God’s descent into the burning bush that Moses encountered, said, “Why did the Holy and Blessed One, in revealing Himself from the highest heavens, speak to Moses out of the thorn bush? Because just as the thorn bush is the lowliest of all the trees in the world, so the people of Israel had sunk to the lowest level of degradation and the Holy and Blessed One descended with them and redeemed them as it is written, ‘I have come down to rescue them from the Egyptians’ (Exodus 3:8)3”. We love this God-descending talk. The only problem is that when we turn the page we read this:
Then the LORD said to Moses, “Tell the Israelites this: ‘You have seen for yourselves that I have spoken to you from heaven…
Wait a minute. Which is it? Did come down to the top of the mountain or did God speak to Moses from Heaven? If you or I wrote these two sentences a page apart, or even 100 pages apart, our editors would surely have us fix this glaring issue before publication. It just doesn’t make sense, right? Well, it doesn’t make sense to us Greek ‘step thinkers.’ But – and this is important – it wasn’t written by or for Greek thinking people. This is a Hebrew document written by and for Hebrew people. If we were ask to Moses, ‘Which was it? Did God speak from the top of the mountain or from heaven?’ he would probably answer, ‘Yes!’. The two thoughts are separate blocks that are to be set side-by-side, not stacked on top of each other.
Abraham Heschel writes wonderfully about the seeming discrepancy in these two verses:
“These passages do not contradict each other; they refer not to one but to two events. For revelation was both an event to God and an event to man. Indeed, in the second passage it is God who speaks (in the first person); the first passage conveys what the people experienced (it speaks of God in the third person). The same act had two aspects. God did and did not descend upon the earth. The voice came out of heaven but man heard it out of Sinai.”4
This is what Wilson was getting at when he said that we see discrepancies “particularly when one block represented the human perspective on truth and the other represented the divine.”5 This event was important for us, but it was also important for God. If we try and neatly fit these two chapters together step-by-step it simply won’t work. However, if we look at them side-by-side, realizing that they present two perspectives (human and divine), the picture actually becomes clearer and quite beautiful. In the last post we spoke of this as stereoscopic vision – seeing something different with each eye, yet seeing all the more clearly because of it.
Hebrew thinking is very comfortable with the words “God did and did not…”. We need not only keep this in mind when we read the Hebrew scriptures, we also need to have faithful guides, not least of which are Jewish scholars, to help us think from right to left. I suggest a few here.
In the next post we will focus our attention not just in a particular text, but in this tension being played out in a longer narrative. In particular we’ll look at the story of Jacob and explore how thinking backwards through the narrative will help us understand the story differently and, perhaps, better.
1 Marvin Wilson, Our Father Abraham: Jewish Roots of the Christian Faith (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans 1989). 150
2 Gen. 2:7
3 Quoted in Abraham Joshua Heschel’s Heavenly Torah: As Refracted through the Generations. (New York: Continuum this ed. 2011) pp. 105-106
4 Abraham Joshua Heschel, I Asked For Wonder: A Spiritual Anthology pp. 108-109. (New York: Crossroad. 1983. This ed. 2015)
5 Marvin Wilson, Our Father Abraham: Jewish Roots of the Christian Faith (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans 1989). 150