In the Presence of God
Deuteronomy’s “little credo” (Deut 26:5-10), as I was taught to call it years ago, begins with the famous words “My father was a wandering Aramean(אֲרַמִּי֙ אֹבֵ֣ד אָבִ֔י).” This passage is familiar throughout the Jewish world as the beginning of the “Maggid” portion of the Passover Seder, in which we tell the story of the exodus from Egypt.
The following declaration (Deut 26:12-15) is meant to be recited in “the third year, the year of the tithe (בַּשָּׁנָה הַשְּׁלִישִׁת שְׁנַת הַמַּעֲשֵׂר)” (v. 12). In it, the landowner confirms that he has set aside one-tenth of his agricultural yield for the year and given it to the poor.
“Before God” – Where Is that?
Both of these declarations are to be made לִפְנֵי יְ-הֹוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ “before YHWH your God” (vv. 5, 13). When presenting the first fruits, the Torah specifies further that the giver must bring them to הַמָּק֔וֹם אֲשֶׁ֤ר יִבְחַר֙ יְ-הֹוָ֣ה אֱלֹהֶ֔יךָ לְשַׁכֵּ֥ן שְׁמ֖וֹ שָֽׁם “the place where YHWH your God will choose to make His name dwell” (v. 2), Deuteronomy’s roundabout way of referring to the Temple in Jerusalem. At that location, the worshipper is “before YHWH” because he is standing in front of the building in which YHWH’s name “dwells.”
Deuteronomy does not specify how the second declaration is made “before YHWH,” and unlike the first declaration, does not state that it must be made at “the place that YHWH will choose,” as the following comparison makes clear:
Poor Tithe Declaration
דברים כו:ב …וְהָֽלַכְתָּ֙ אֶל הַמָּק֔וֹם אֲשֶׁ֤ר יִבְחַר֙ יְ-הֹוָ֣ה אֱלֹהֶ֔יךָ לְשַׁכֵּ֥ן שְׁמ֖וֹ שָֽׁם: כו:ג וּבָאתָ֙ אֶל הַכֹּהֵ֔ן אֲשֶׁ֥ר יִהְיֶ֖ה בַּיָּמִ֣ים הָהֵ֑ם… כו:ד וְלָקַ֧ח הַכֹּהֵ֛ן הַטֶּ֖נֶא מִיָּדֶ֑ךָ וְהִ֨נִּיח֔וֹ לִפְנֵ֕י מִזְבַּ֖ח יְ-הֹוָ֥ה אֱלֹהֶֽיךָ: כו:ה וְעָנִ֨יתָ וְאָמַרְתָּ֜ לִפְנֵ֣י׀ יְ-הֹוָ֣ה אֱלֹהֶ֗יךָ אֲרַמִּי֙ אֹבֵ֣ד אָבִ֔י…
דברים כו:יב כִּ֣י תְכַלֶּ֞ה לַ֠עְשֵׂר אֶת כָּל מַעְשַׂ֧ר תְּבוּאָתְךָ֛ בַּשָּׁנָ֥ה הַשְּׁלִישִׁ֖ת שְׁנַ֣ת הַֽמַּעֲשֵׂ֑ר וְנָתַתָּ֣ה לַלֵּוִ֗י לַגֵּר֙ לַיָּת֣וֹם וְלָֽאַלְמָנָ֔ה וְאָכְל֥וּ בִשְׁעָרֶ֖יךָ וְשָׂבֵֽעוּ: כו:יג וְאָמַרְתָּ֡ לִפְנֵי֩ יְ-הֹוָ֨ה אֱלֹהֶ֜יךָ וְגַ֨ם נְתַתִּ֤יו לַלֵּוִי֙ וְלַגֵּר֙ לַיָּת֣וֹם וְלָאַלְמָנָ֔ה כְּכָל מִצְוָתְךָ֖ אֲשֶׁ֣ר צִוִּיתָ֑נִי…
|Deut 26:2 …go to the place where YHWH your God will choose to establish His name. 26:3 You shall go to the priest in charge at that time and say to him… 26:4 The priest must take the basket from your hand and put it down in front of the altar of YHWH your God. 26:5 Then You shall declare before YHWH your God: My father was a wandering Aramean…||Deut 26:12 When you have set aside in full the tenth part of your yield—in the third year, the year of the tithe—and have given it to the Levite, the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow, that they may eat their fill in your settlements, 26:13 you shall declare before YHWH your God: I have cleared out the consecrated portion from the house; and I have given it to the Levite, the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow, just as You commanded me…|
Jeffrey Tigay suggests that by leaving out the phrase “the place where YHWH your God will choose to make his name dwell,” Deuteronomy implies that this declaration need not be recited at the Jerusalem Temple. But then how can it be made “before the Lord”?
At the Temple
Sefer ha-Chinnukh, the 13th-century list of all 613 commandments in the order they appear in the Torah, resolves this issue by stating (precept #607) that this declaration must be made “before the Lord, blessed be He … at His sanctuary (בבית מקדשו).” But is this what the Deuteronomist intended?
Destroy All (Idolatrous) Places of Worship and Establish One for God
Deuteronomy warns the people sternly against practicing idolatry as the Canaanite inhabitants of the land had done. Deut 12:4-5, for example, reads:
ידברים ב:ב אַבֵּ֣ד תְּ֠אַבְּדוּן אֶֽת כָּל הַמְּקֹמ֞וֹת אֲשֶׁ֧ר עָֽבְדוּ שָׁ֣ם הַגּוֹיִ֗ם אֲשֶׁ֥ר אַתֶּ֛ם יֹרְשִׁ֥ים אֹתָ֖ם אֶת אֱלֹהֵיהֶ֑ם עַל הֶהָרִ֤ים הָֽרָמִים֙ וְעַל הַגְּבָע֔וֹת וְתַ֖חַת כָּל עֵ֥ץ רַעֲנָֽן: יב:גוְנִתַּצְתֶּ֣ם אֶת מִזְבְּחֹתָ֗ם וְשִׁבַּרְתֶּם֙ אֶת מַצֵּ֣בֹתָ֔ם וַאֲשֵֽׁרֵיהֶם֙ תִּשְׂרְפ֣וּן בָּאֵ֔שׁ וּפְסִילֵ֥י אֱלֹֽהֵיהֶ֖ם תְּגַדֵּע֑וּן וְאִבַּדְתֶּ֣ם אֶת שְׁמָ֔ם מִן הַמָּק֖וֹם הַהֽוּא:
Deut 12:2 You must destroy all the places at which the nations you are to dispossess worshiped their gods, whether on lofty mountains and on hills or under any luxuriant tree. 12:3 Tear down their altars, smash their pillars, put their sacred posts to the fire, and cut down the images of their gods, obliterating their name from that place.
יב:ד לֹֽא תַעֲשׂ֣וּן כֵּ֔ן לַי-הֹוָ֖ה אֱלֹהֵיכֶֽם: יב:ה כִּ֠י אִֽם אֶל הַמָּק֞וֹם אֲשֶׁר יִבְחַ֨ר יְ-הֹוָ֤ה אֱלֹֽהֵיכֶם֙ מִכָּל שִׁבְטֵיכֶ֔ם לָשׂ֥וּם אֶת שְׁמ֖וֹ שָׁ֑ם לְשִׁכְנ֥וֹ…:
12:4 Do not do so for YHWH your God. 12:5 Instead, you shall seek out only the place where YHWH your God shall choose, out of all your tribes, to set His name there and make it dwell….”
This warning is accompanied by the mandate that YHWH will be worshipped only at a single place. This would seem to support the interpretation of Sefer ha-Chinnukh. The declaration that the tithe has been given away must have been made at the Temple, because that was the only place God could be found. Or was it?
What “Dwelled” in the Temple?
Deuteronomy is careful never to say that YHWH will choose that place as God’s home. “The place that YHWH will choose” appears eighteen times in Deuteronomy. Eight of these times the text merely says that YHWH will choose it and tell the Israelites what to do there. But three occurrences (12:5, 12:21, 14:24) say He will “put His name there,” and six others use an even more loaded term: He will make His name dwell [שכן, shakhen] there (12:5, 12:11, 16:2, 16:6, 16:11, 26:2).
הַמָּקוֹם אֲשֶׁר יִבְחַר יְ-הֹוָה
הַמָּקוֹם אֲשֶׁר יִבְחַר יְ-הֹוָה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם לָשׂוּם אֶת שְׁמוֹ שָׁם
הַמָּקוֹם אֲשֶׁר יִבְחַר יְ-הֹוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ לְשַׁכֵּן שְׁמוֹ שָׁם
|The place that YHWH will choose||the place that YHWH your God will choose to put his name there||the place that YHWH your God will choose to make his name dwell there|
Priestly Theology: God Dwells in the Tabernacle
Deuteronomy uses the term שכן, the same root that gives us the Hebrew word משכן (mishkan), “Tabernacle.” But according to the Priestly source in the Torah, the Tabernacle has that name because that is where YHWH Himself (not His name!) dwells. This is made clear at the beginning of Parashat Terumah, when YHWH tells Moses precisely why He wants these offerings from the Israelites (Exod 25:8):
שמות כה:ח וְעָ֥שׂוּ לִ֖י מִקְדָּ֑שׁ וְשָׁכַנְתִּ֖י בְּתוֹכָֽם:
Exod 25:8 Let them make me a sanctuary, and I will dwell among them.
Moreover, when YHWH instructs that the land must not be defiled, He explains why (Num 35:34):
במדבר לה:לד אֲשֶׁ֥ר אֲנִ֖י שֹׁכֵ֣ן בְּתוֹכָ֑הּ… כִּ֚י אֲנִ֣י יְ-הֹוָ֔ה שֹׁכֵ֕ן בְּת֖וֹךְ בְּנֵ֥י יִשְׂרָאֵֽל:
Num 35:34 I dwell in it… for I YHWH dwell among the Israelites.
And indeed, once the Tabernacle is constructed, readers of the book of Exodus are treated to the sight of God’s presence (i.e., His body) moving in (Exod 40:34):
שמות מ:לד וַיְכַ֥ס הֶעָנָ֖ן אֶת אֹ֣הֶל מוֹעֵ֑ד וּכְב֣וֹד יְ-הֹוָ֔ה מָלֵ֖א אֶת הַמִּשְׁכָּֽן:
Exod 40:34 The cloud covered the Tent of Meeting, and the Presence of YHWH filled the Dwelling Place.
God’s Name vs. God’s Presence
In theory, saying that God’s “name” would dwell in the chosen place could simply be a more delicate way of saying that God’s “presence” would dwell there, and that neither actually means that God’s self will be in the sacred location. But Exod 40:34 makes clear that this supposition is wrong. The kavod depicted there is very much physical. The cloud is what protects human beings from potentially fatal exposure to the intense energy of YHWH’s Presence.
Remember how the Israelites fled Egypt (Exod 13:21):
שמות יג:כא וַֽי-הֹוָ֡ה הֹלֵךְ֩ לִפְנֵיהֶ֨ם יוֹמָ֜ם בְּעַמּ֤וּד עָנָן֙ לַנְחֹתָ֣ם הַדֶּ֔רֶךְ וְלַ֛יְלָה בְּעַמּ֥וּד אֵ֖שׁ לְהָאִ֣יר לָהֶ֑ם לָלֶ֖כֶת יוֹמָ֥ם וָלָֽיְלָה:
Exod 13:21 YHWH was proceeding in front of them by day, in a pillar of cloud to show them the way, and by night, in a pillar of fire to give them light, so they could travel day and night.
Do not imagine that YHWH stopped at sunset to change clouds. There was a single cloud 24/7, and (besides its utilitarian purpose during the escape) its purpose was to protect Israel from the sight of YHWH’s kavod. At night, when it grew darker, the intense brightness concealed by the cloud during the day became visible enough to appear as fire.
Scholars disagree about the source of this Exodus text. If it is not originally a P text, we can be confident of how P understood it: The fire inside the cloud was the kavod, the Presence of God that subsequently dwelt permanently among the Israelites—once a suitable (and portable) Dwelling Place had been constructed for it.
Solomon’s Contradictory Theology: A Composite Text?
When Solomon completes the First Temple in 1 Kings as a permanent Dwelling Place for God’s kavod, God is manifest in the same two manners as at the end of Exodus (1 Kings 8:10-13):
מלכים א ח:י …וְהֶעָנָ֥ן מָלֵ֖א אֶת בֵּ֥ית יְ-הֹוָֽה: ח:יא וְלֹֽא יָכְל֧וּ הַכֹּהֲנִ֛ים לַעֲמֹ֥ד לְשָׁרֵ֖ת מִפְּנֵ֥י הֶֽעָנָ֑ן כִּי מָלֵ֥א כְבוֹד יְ-הֹוָ֖ה אֶת בֵּ֥ית יְ-הֹוָֽה:
1 Kgs 8:10 … The cloud filled the House of YHWH. 8:11 The priests could not stay there to minister because of the cloud, for the kavod of YHWH had filled the House of YHWH.
ח:יב אָ֖ז אָמַ֣ר שְׁלֹמֹ֑ה יְ-הֹוָ֣ה אָמַ֔ר לִשְׁכֹּ֖ן בָּעֲרָפֶֽל: ח:יג בָּנֹ֥ה בָנִ֛יתִי בֵּ֥ית זְבֻ֖ל לָ֑ךְ מָכ֥וֹן לְשִׁבְתְּךָ֖ עוֹלָמִֽים:
8:12 Then Solomon said: “YHWH decided to dwell in a thick cloud. 8:13 Indeed, I have built a princely house for You, an establishment for You to dwell in forever.
Verses 10-11 reflect the Priestly theology that God physically dwells inside a cloud at the Temple. In vv. 12-13, as in Exod 13:21, Solomon understands YHWH Himself to be living (inside “a thick cloud”) within the Temple; these verses have a poetic flavor (see, e.g., the typographic layout of NJPS and BHS) and their origin is unknown. And now the Deuteronomistic compiler of this history—after (perhaps) paying lip service to an ancient and widely-known version of the story—has Solomon do a 180, both physically and (more importantly for our purposes) religiously. He “faces about” (v. 14), and addresses the assembled Israelites. He asks (1 Kings 8:27):
מלכים א ח:כז כִּ֚י הַֽאֻמְנָ֔ם יֵשֵׁ֥ב אֱלֹהִ֖ים עַל הָאָ֑רֶץ הִ֠נֵּה הַשָּׁמַ֜יִם וּשְׁמֵ֤י הַשָּׁמַ֙יִם֙ לֹ֣א יְכַלְכְּל֔וּךָ אַ֕ף כִּֽי הַבַּ֥יִת הַזֶּ֖ה אֲשֶׁ֥ר בָּנִֽיתִי:
1 Kgs 8:27 Can God really dwell on the earth? The heavens and even the heavens above the heavens cannot contain You, much less this house that I have built.
Solomon declares eight times in his long speech, that the house he has built is not for God’s kavod but for God’s shem—His name. YHWH’s name in that Temple is somehow enough to ensure (1 Kings 8:29)
מלכים א ח:כט לִהְיוֹת֩ עֵינֶ֨ךָ פְתֻח֜וֹת אֶל הַבַּ֤יִת הַזֶּה֙ לַ֣יְלָה וָי֔וֹם אֶל הַ֨מָּק֔וֹם אֲשֶׁ֣ר אָמַ֔רְתָּ יִהְיֶ֥ה שְׁמִ֖י שָׁ֑ם…
1 Kgs 8:29 [that] Your eyes be open toward this house night and day, toward the place of which You said, “My Name will be there.”
This passage reflects the Deuteronomistic theology, that God’s name dwells in the Temple, but that His actual dwelling place is somewhere else.
The Two Declarations in Two Places: Before God’s Name and being Before God
This Deuteronomic perspective helps clarify the problem of where the worshipper stands when offering each declaration. The first declaration is recited at the location where the Name dwells, and that is the functional equivalent of declaring it “before YHWH your God.”
But the second declaration says (Deut 26:15):
דברים כו:טו הַשְׁקִיפָה֩ מִמְּע֨וֹן קָדְשְׁךָ֜ מִן הַשָּׁמַ֗יִם וּבָרֵ֤ךְ אֶֽת עַמְּךָ֙ אֶת יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל…
Deut 26:15 Look down from Your holy abode, from heaven, and bless Your people Israel…
This line is reminiscent of Solomon’s prayer in 1 Kings 8:27—God is in heaven, not on earth. What is on earth is God’s name, something that represents God without actually being God. And thus this second declaration, as noted by Tigay, is heard by God no matter where it is recited.
Immanence and Transcendence
Half a century ago, Nikita Khrushchev—then the ruler of the Soviet Union—loudly proclaimed that the first cosmonaut, Yuri Gagarin, had flown into outer space and not seen any God. Did the Deuteronomist really think that God was somewhere “up there”?
We might never know the answer to this question for certain. But from our 21st-century perspective, it is quite easy to understand the difference between Deuteronomy’s shem (“Name”) perspective and the kavod (“Presence”) perspective of the Priestly writings. From the Priestly perspective, God is immanent—immediately present amid our own world of ordinary matter, and housed in the Tabernacle/Temple. From the Deuteronomic perspective, God is transcendent—a being that connects with our world, and with us, from a realm beyond time and space.
Deuteronomy calls this realm שמים (shamayim, “sky/heaven”), because that realm was unreachable for us human beings. No doubt it seemed then that it would always be so. By contrast, ארץ (eretz, “earth”) was our realm of dust and mud, a world in which it must have seemed that God could not be at home. For the Deuteronomist, God was not part of our material world, but was aware of it—and controlled it—from some realm beyond it.
What the Two Theologies Share: God Is Fire
The Priestly and Deuteronomic descriptions of God do have some similarities. In the Priestly conception, the cloud that indicates the Presence of YHWH is not an intrinsic part of God’s nature, but functions to conceal God’s actual presence (the kavod), which is described as אש (“fire”). Deuteronomy uses the same imagery to describe an encounter with YHWH (Deut 4:12):
דברים ד:יב וַיְדַבֵּ֧ר יְ-הֹוָ֛ה אֲלֵיכֶ֖ם מִתּ֣וֹךְ הָאֵ֑שׁ ק֤וֹל דְּבָרִים֙ אַתֶּ֣ם שֹׁמְעִ֔ים וּתְמוּנָ֛ה אֵינְכֶ֥ם רֹאִ֖ים זוּלָתִ֥י קֽוֹל:
Deut 4:12 YHWH spoke to you from amidst the fire. You could hear the sound of words, but you could not see any shape—just a voice.
Though fire is a very real part of our lives down here on earth, it may also be the best way to refer in Biblical Hebrew to “energy”—energy as opposed to matter. Both P and D, as well as other biblical voices, found this the description that came closest to what they imagined was God’s own essential nature.
Isaiah 60, the haftara for Parashat Ki Tavo, describes the same God in its version of the (Priestly) kavod theology, no longer in terms of destructive fire but as life-giving light:
ישעיהו ס:א ק֥וּמִי א֖וֹרִי כִּ֣י בָ֣א אוֹרֵ֑ךְ
וּכְב֥וֹד יְ-הֹוָ֖ה עָלַ֥יִךְ זָרָֽח:
ס:ב כִּֽי הִנֵּ֤ה הַחֹ֙שֶׁךְ֙ יְכַסֶּה אֶ֔רֶץ
וְעָלַ֙יִךְ֙ יִזְרַ֣ח יְ-הֹוָ֔ה
וּכְבוֹד֖וֹ עָלַ֥יִךְ יֵרָאֶֽה:
Isa 60:1 Arise, shine, for your light has dawned
The kavod of YHWH has shone upon you!
60:2 Behold! Darkness shall cover the earth
And thick clouds the peoples;
But upon you YHWH will shine,
And His kavod be seen over you.
Being Before God in Deuteronomy
The genius of Deuteronomy, where it differs with the Priestly theology, was to see that one could be “before YHWH” not only when looking across at the Temple in Jerusalem but also at home, looking up and humbly begging that YHWH “look down” from beyond time and space and offer blessing to the poor and to those who give up some of their own blessings to help them.
For this reason, it was possible for Deuteronomy to command the Israelites to bring their Bikkurim to the Temple and declare “before YHWH” the little credo, and also to command the Israelites to distribute the tithe to their local poor and to make the declaration that they did so faithfully in their home town, but still “before YHWH.”
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Dr. Michael Carasik is the creator of The Commentators' Bible and of the Torah Talk podcast. He received his B.A. from New College, B.A. and M.A. from Spertus College of Judaica, and a Ph.D. in Bible and the ancient Near East from Brandeis University. He blogs as The Bible Guy and teaches at the University of Pennsylvania.
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