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Jean-Louis Ska

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Israel, Where Is Your God?

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Jean-Louis Ska

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Israel, Where Is Your God?

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2024

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https://thetorah.com/article/israel-where-is-your-god

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Israel, Where Is Your God?

In the ancient Near East, when a city was conquered, its gods were godnapped to the victor’s city. Where did YHWH go after the Temple was destroyed?

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Israel, Where Is Your God?

A brass Shiviti from the Great Synagogue of Danzig., 1803/04, The Jewish Museum. Typically positioned at the front of the synagogue, the shiviti reminds worshippers of God by presenting the Tetragrammaton and quoting Psalms 16:8: "I am ever mindful of YHWH's presence."

The psalmist cries:

תהלים מב:ד הָיְתָה־לִּי דִמְעָתִי לֶחֶם יוֹמָם וָלָיְלָה בֶּאֱמֹר אֵלַי כָּל הַיּוֹם אַיֵּה אֱלֹהֶיךָ.
Ps 42:4 My tears have been my food day and night, while people say to me continually, “Where is your God?”[1]

He repeats his enemies’ taunt later in the psalm:

תהלים מב:יא בְּרֶצַח בְּעַצְמוֹתַי חֵרְפוּנִי צוֹרְרָי בְּאָמְרָם אֵלַי כָּל הַיּוֹם אַיֵּה אֱלֹהֶיךָ.
Ps 42:11 As with a deadly wound in my body, my adversaries taunt me, while they say to me continually, “Where is your God?”

In context, the question, “Where is your God?,” seems rhetorical—mocking the psalmist whose God has not acted on his behalf. Yet if the psalmist were to seek God, where would he look?

God is in the Temple

Several texts describe YHWH dwelling in the temple of Jerusalem:

תהלים קלב:יג כִּי בָחַר יְ־הוָה בְּצִיּוֹן אִוָּהּ לְמוֹשָׁב לוֹ.
Ps 132:13 For YHWH has chosen Zion; he has desired it for his dwelling place.

In this respect, ancient Israel was not very different from the other religious cultures in the ancient Near East and elsewhere. The main divinity of a nation dwelled in a temple, in the capital of the kingdom, where this divinity was honored and worshiped as protector and benefactor of the nation.[2] This is the case with Marduk in Babylon, Baal in Ugarit, Amon in Thebes, Athena in Athens, or Jupiter Capitolinus in Rome.

YHWH is presented in biblical texts in an analogous way. Thus, it is from the temple that YHWH hears prayers:

תהלים יח:ז בַּצַּר לִי אֶקְרָא יְ־הוָה וְאֶל אֱלֹהַי אֲשַׁוֵּעַ יִשְׁמַע מֵהֵיכָלוֹ קוֹלִי וְשַׁוְעָתִי לְפָנָיו תָּבוֹא בְאָזְנָיו.
Ps 18:7 [2 Sam 22:7] In my distress I called upon YHWH; to my God I cried for help. From his temple he heard my voice, and my cry to him reached his ears.

In addition, those who dwell in the temple, in YHWH’s house, benefit by a special protection:

תהלים כז:ד אַחַת שָׁאַלְתִּי מֵאֵת יְ־הוָה אוֹתָהּ אֲבַקֵּשׁ שִׁבְתִּי בְּבֵית יְ־הוָה כָּל יְמֵי חַיַּי לַחֲזוֹת בְּנֹעַם יְ־הוָה וּלְבַקֵּר בְּהֵיכָלוֹ. כז:ה כִּי יִצְפְּנֵנִי בְּסֻכֹּה בְּיוֹם רָעָה יַסְתִּרֵנִי בְּסֵתֶר אָהֳלוֹ בְּצוּר יְרוֹמְמֵנִי.
Ps 27:4 One thing have I asked of YHWH, that will I seek after: that I may dwell in the house of YHWH all the days of my life, to gaze upon the beauty of YHWH and to inquire in his temple. 27:5 For he will hide me in his shelter in the day of trouble; he will conceal me under the cover of his tent; he will lift me high upon a rock.[3]

A Pilgrimmage

For this reason, the faithful undertake a pilgrimage to “see God” or to “appear in the presence of God.”

תהלים מב:ג צָמְאָה נַפְשִׁי לֵאלֹהִים לְאֵל חָי מָתַי אָבוֹא וְאֵרָאֶה פְּנֵי אֱלֹהִים.
Ps 42:3 My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When shall I come and behold the face of God?[4]

In the “songs of ascents,” the pilgrim leaves his or her house to walk towards the temple of Jerusalem where he or she can be in YHWH’s presence.[5] That explains this pilgrim’s joy:

תהלים קכב:א שִׁיר הַמַּעֲלוֹת לְדָוִד שָׂמַחְתִּי בְּאֹמְרִים לִי בֵּית יְ־הוָה נֵלֵךְ.
Ps 122:1 A Song of Ascents. Of David. I was glad when they said to me, “Let us go to the house of YHWH!”

The pilgrimage to the temple chosen by YHWH occurs three times a year at important moments of the liturgical year, namely “at the Feast of Unleavened Bread, at the Feast of Weeks, and at the Feast of Booths” (Deut 16:16).

YHWH is not only present in the temple, at the end of the journey; YHWH is also present all along the way that leads to the divine dwelling, protecting the faithful from the start until the end of the journey:

תהלים קכא:ז יְ־הוָה יִשְׁמָרְךָ מִכָּל רָע יִשְׁמֹר אֶת נַפְשֶׁךָ. קכא:ח יְ־הוָה יִשְׁמָר צֵאתְךָ וּבוֹאֶךָ מֵעַתָּה וְעַד עוֹלָם.
Ps 121:7 YHWH will keep you from all evil; he will keep your life. 121:8 YHWH will keep your going out and your coming in from this time forth and forevermore.[6]

The pilgrimage is an image of life itself, a journey towards YHWH’s house, under YHWH’s wings.

God is in Heaven

Other passages, however, describe YHWH’s dwelling place in heaven, high above our world. Thus, the psalmist responds to the perceived taunts of other nations:

תהלים קטו:ב לָמָּה יֹאמְרוּ הַגּוֹיִם אַיֵּה נָא אֱלֹהֵיהֶם. קטו:ג וֵאלֹהֵינוּ בַשָּׁמָיִם כֹּל אֲשֶׁר חָפֵץ עָשָׂה.
Ps 115:2 Why should the nations say, “Where is their God?” 115:3 Our God is in the heavens; he does all that he pleases.

Yet even when YHWH is imagined as in heaven, the temple remains important as a place for communication with the heavens. Solomon repeats several times in his prayer at the dedication of the temple that prayers directed towards the temple will be heard by YHWH in heaven:[7]

מלכים א ח:כז כִּי הַאֻמְנָם יֵשֵׁב אֱלֹהִים עַל הָאָרֶץ הִנֵּה הַשָּׁמַיִם וּשְׁמֵי הַשָּׁמַיִם לֹא יְכַלְכְּלוּךָ אַף כִּי הַבַּיִת הַזֶּה אֲשֶׁר בָּנִיתִי.
1 Kgs 8:27 But will God indeed dwell on the earth? Behold, heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain you; how much less this house that I have built!
ח:כח וּפָנִיתָ אֶל תְּפִלַּת עַבְדְּךָ וְאֶל תְּחִנָּתוֹ יְ־הוָה אֱלֹהָי לִשְׁמֹעַ אֶל הָרִנָּה וְאֶל הַתְּפִלָּה אֲשֶׁר עַבְדְּךָ מִתְפַּלֵּל לְפָנֶיךָ הַיּוֹם. ח:כט לִהְיוֹת עֵינֶךָ פְתֻחוֹת אֶל הַבַּיִת הַזֶּה לַיְלָה וָיוֹם אֶל הַמָּקוֹם אֲשֶׁר אָמַרְתָּ יִהְיֶה שְׁמִי שָׁם לִשְׁמֹעַ אֶל הַתְּפִלָּה אֲשֶׁר יִתְפַּלֵּל עַבְדְּךָ אֶל הַמָּקוֹם הַזֶּה.
8:28 Yet have regard to the prayer of your servant and to his plea, YHWH my God, listening to the cry and to the prayer that your servant prays before you this day, 8:29 that your eyes may be open night and day toward this house, the place of which you have said, “My name shall be there,” that you may listen to the prayer that your servant offers toward this place.

What happens, however, when the temple is destroyed?

Where is Their God?

The unbelievable and impossible happened when the Babylonian army conquered and burnt Jerusalem in 586 B.C.E. Jeremiah attributes the destruction to Jerusalem’s misbehavior:[8]

ירמיה ז:יג וְעַתָּה יַעַן עֲשׂוֹתְכֶם אֶת כָּל הַמַּעֲשִׂים הָאֵלֶּה נְאֻם יְ־הוָה וָאֲדַבֵּר אֲלֵיכֶם הַשְׁכֵּם וְדַבֵּר וְלֹא שְׁמַעְתֶּם וָאֶקְרָא אֶתְכֶם וְלֹא עֲנִיתֶם.
Jer 7:13 And now, because you have done all these things, declares YHWH, and when I spoke to you persistently you did not listen, and when I called you, you did not answer.
ז:יד וְעָשִׂיתִי לַבַּיִת אֲשֶׁר נִקְרָא שְׁמִי עָלָיו אֲשֶׁר אַתֶּם בֹּטְחִים בּוֹ וְלַמָּקוֹם אֲשֶׁר נָתַתִּי לָכֶם וְלַאֲבוֹתֵיכֶם כַּאֲשֶׁר עָשִׂיתִי לְשִׁלוֹ.
7:14 Therefore I will do to the house that is called by my name, and in which you trust, and to the place that I gave to you and to your fathers, as I did to Shiloh.

The desolation of a city deserted by its God is well depicted in the book of Lamentations:[9]

איכה ב:ז זָנַח אֲדֹנָי מִזְבְּחוֹ נִאֵר מִקְדָּשׁוֹ הִסְגִּיר בְּיַד אוֹיֵב חוֹמֹת אַרְמְנוֹתֶיהָ קוֹל נָתְנוּ בְּבֵית יְ־הוָה כְּיוֹם מוֹעֵד.
Lam 2:7 The Lord has scorned his altar, disowned his sanctuary; he has delivered into the hand of the enemy the walls of her palaces; they raised a clamor in the house of YHWH as on the day of festival.

Instead of songs of praise, we hear the insulting clamor of the enemies in YHWH’s temple. As the nations ask, “Where is their God?,” the psalmist calls on YHWH to act:[10]

תהלים עט:י לָמָּה יֹאמְרוּ הַגּוֹיִם אַיֵּה אֱלֹהֵיהֶם יִוָּדַע בַּגֹּיִים [בַּגּוֹיִם] לְעֵינֵינוּ נִקְמַת דַּם עֲבָדֶיךָ הַשָּׁפוּךְ.
Ps 79:10 Why should the nations say, “Where is their God?” Let the avenging of the outpoured blood of your servants be known among the nations before our eyes.

But can YHWH still be present on earth, and close to Israel, despite the profanation of the temple and the sins committed in Jerusalem? Where is YHWH, now that the divine dwelling place is destroyed? The exilic and postexilic biblical authors offered answers to this question that addressed the evolving needs of the Israelites.

YHWH Is a Sanctuary for Those in Exile

The customs of the time would have called for the Babylonians to “godnap” YHWH.[11] After conquering a city, the victorious army would bring the statues of the divinities of the conquered city to the temple of the victorious nation to be placed in front of its divinity. Indeed, the book of Samuel (1 Sam 5:1–2) has a godnapping story: After the Battle of Aphek, the Philistines bring the Ark of Covenant—the closest thing the Bible records to a divine statue—to the temple of Dagon.

Yet several biblical texts claim that no statue or image of YHWH was placed in the temple. Therefore, though the temple was profaned and desecrated, the God of Israel could not be taken as a prisoner and brought to Babylon, not even symbolically.

Thus, the book of Ezekiel insists that the Glory of YHWH, the sign of YHWH’s presence in the temple, had left the temple before the Babylonians entered the city:[12]

יחזקאל יא:כב וַיִּשְׂאוּ הַכְּרוּבִים אֶת כַּנְפֵיהֶם וְהָאוֹפַנִּים לְעֻמָּתָם וּכְבוֹד אֱלֹהֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל עֲלֵיהֶם מִלְמָעְלָה. יא:כג וַיַּעַל כְּבוֹד יְ־הוָה מֵעַל תּוֹךְ הָעִיר וַיַּעֲמֹד עַל הָהָר אֲשֶׁר מִקֶּדֶם לָעִיר.
Ezek 11:22 Then the cherubim lifted up their wings, with the wheels beside them, and the glory of the God of Israel was above them. 11:23 And the glory of YHWH ascended from the middle of the city and stopped on the mountain east of the city.[13]

Leaving aside all the complicated details and the possible origin of this description, what matters is that the Glory of YHWH can move from one place to another, transported by wings and wheels.[14]

This conception that the Glory of YHWH can dissociate from the temple is central to Ezekiel’s claim that YHWH is a sanctuary for the exiles:[15]

יחזקאל יא:טז לָכֵן אֱמֹר כֹּה אָמַר אֲדֹנָי יְ־הוִה כִּי הִרְחַקְתִּים בַּגּוֹיִם וְכִי הֲפִיצוֹתִים בָּאֲרָצוֹת וָאֱהִי לָהֶם לְמִקְדָּשׁ מְעַט בָּאֲרָצוֹת אֲשֶׁר בָּאוּ שָׁם.
Ezek 11:16 Therefore say, “Thus says the Lord YHWH: ‘Though I removed them far off among the nations, and though I scattered them among the countries, yet I have been a sanctuary to them for a while in the countries where they have gone.’”[16]

The Glory of YHWH is YHWH’s presence in this world, not in heaven. It appears to the prophet in exile in Babylonia, especially by the Chebar canal (See Ezek 1:1, 3; 3:23; 10:15, 20, 22; 43:2–3). Thus, for Ezekiel, YHWH’s presence is not territorial, not even restricted to the Holy Land. The Glory of YHWH, the God of Israel, appears in the land of the exiles, a land dominated by foreigners worshipping foreign divinities. The God of the defeated nation appears in the land of the victorious nation to comfort and instruct the members of this defeated nation.[17]

YHWH Returns to Jerusalem with the Exiles

Deutero-Isaiah (Isa 40–55), written in the exilic and early postexilic period, takes a further step in reflecting on YHWH’s presence among the exiles, describing their return to Jerusalem as coinciding with the return of YHWH’s Glory to the city.[18] The path going through the desert separating Mesopotamia and the Holy Land is not prepared for the exiles, but for YHWH in person:

ישׁעיה מ:ג קוֹל קוֹרֵא בַּמִּדְבָּר פַּנּוּ דֶּרֶךְ יְ־הוָה יַשְּׁרוּ בָּעֲרָבָה מְסִלָּה לֵאלֹהֵינוּ. מ:ד כָּל גֶּיא יִנָּשֵׂא וְכָל הַר וְגִבְעָה יִשְׁפָּלוּ וְהָיָה הֶעָקֹב לְמִישׁוֹר וְהָרְכָסִים לְבִקְעָה.
Isa 40:3 A voice cries: “In the wilderness prepare the way of YHWH; make straight in the desert a highway for our God. 40:4 Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain.”
מ:ה וְנִגְלָה כְּבוֹד יְ־הוָה וְרָאוּ כָל בָּשָׂר יַחְדָּו כִּי פִּי יְ־הוָה דִּבֵּר.
40:5 “And the glory of YHWH shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together, for the mouth of YHWH has spoken.”

The returnees do not walk towards YHWH. Rather, the journey of the exiles is a pilgrimage towards the Holy City, not only under YHWH’s protection, but also with YHWH walking the same way with the exiles. We could even say that the returnees are, in some way, God’s presence coming back to the temple.

YHWH Travels with Israel in the Wilderness

The postexilic Priestly narrative devotes a lengthy section to the building of the Tabernacle, the Tent of Meeting.[19] Notably, in the wilderness, YHWH asks Moses and Israel not to build a temple, but a tent.[20] The Priestly YHWH comes down from Mount Sinai to dwell in a tent among the other tents of Israel:[21]

שׁמות מ:לד וַיְכַס הֶעָנָן אֶת אֹהֶל מוֹעֵד וּכְבוֹד יְ־הוָה מָלֵא אֶת הַמִּשְׁכָּן. מ:לה וְלֹא יָכֹל מֹשֶׁה לָבוֹא אֶל אֹהֶל מוֹעֵד כִּי שָׁכַן עָלָיו הֶעָנָן וּכְבוֹד יְ־הוָה מָלֵא אֶת הַמִּשְׁכָּן.
Exod 40:34 Then the cloud covered the tent of meeting, and the glory of YHWH filled the tabernacle. 40:35 And Moses was not able to enter the tent of meeting because the cloud settled on it, and the glory of YHWH filled the tabernacle.

The God of Exodus is a nomad among a nation of nomads, a pilgrim among a nation of pilgrims. The Glory of YHWH is not at the end of the way; the Glory of YHWH is on the way:

שׁמות מ:לו וּבְהֵעָלוֹת הֶעָנָן מֵעַל הַמִּשְׁכָּן יִסְעוּ בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל בְּכֹל מַסְעֵיהֶם.
Exod 40:36 Throughout all their journeys, whenever the cloud was taken up from over the tabernacle, the people of Israel would set out.
מ:לז וְאִם לֹא יֵעָלֶה הֶעָנָן וְלֹא יִסְעוּ עַד יוֹם הֵעָלֹתוֹ. מ:לח כִּי עֲנַן יְ־הוָה עַל הַמִּשְׁכָּן יוֹמָם וְאֵשׁ תִּהְיֶה לַיְלָה בּוֹ לְעֵינֵי כָל בֵּית יִשְׂרָאֵל בְּכָל מַסְעֵיהֶם.
40:37 But if the cloud was not taken up, then they did not set out till the day that it was taken up. 40:38 For the cloud of YHWH was on the tabernacle by day, and fire was in it by night, in the sight of all the house of Israel throughout all their journeys.

This also means that, in the Priestly narrative, the pilgrimage is not a journey towards a temple, but a journey with the sanctuary.

“The path is the goal” is a famous principle of Chinese philosophy. Tao in Chinese means “way, path.” We may say that ancient Israel discovered a similar truth in a living divinity who comes to encounter his people on earth and accompanies the faithful along the way: “YHWH is the path and the goal.”

Published

February 13, 2024

|

Last Updated

June 5, 2024

Footnotes

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Prof. Jean-Louis Ska is Professor of Old Testament Exegesis at the Pontifical Biblical Institute in Rome, where he has taught since 1983. He has been emeritus since January 2016. He received his doctorate in Sacred Scriptures from the Pontifical Biblical Institute. He has published books in French, English, and Italian, including Introduction to Reading the Pentateuch (Eisenbrauns 2006). Some of his works have also been translated into Spanish, Portuguese, Croatian, Chinese, Japanese, and Korean. His main interests are biblical narratives, biblical law, and the influence of biblical literature on western civilization.