Knohl vs. Weinfeld, Christian Liberty

1.  On Christmas day, one way I tried to deal with the Christmas blues was to do my homework, which consisted of translation and reading.  So here’s my write-up on my Christmas reading of Israel Knohl’s The Sanctuary of Silence.  In this post, I focus on pages 130-132 and 158.

Remember when I was writing that paper on the Deuteronomistic contribution to II Samuel 7 and I Kings 8:1-30?  See Dtr/II Samuel 7/I Kings 8 if you want to read my posts in which I was researching for it.  My point was that the priestly authors in the Bible believed that God dwelt in a sanctuary, whereas the Deuteronomists sought to get away from such theological anthropomorphism.  For the Deuteronomists, God didn’t live in an earthly house, but his name did.  I was echoing Moshe Weinfeld’s work on Deuteronomy and the Deuteromistic School when I made that point.

A big theme of Knohl’s book is that the priestly author was also anti-anthropmorphic in his theology.  You got a taste of that in my post, Knohl on the Holiness School, Atonement, and God’s Food, where I discuss Knohl’s view that the priestly author tried to avoid any implication that God ate his animal sacrifices, whereas the Holiness author went with the popular anthromomorphic view: that God ate food.  Knohl cites other examples in which the priest tries to de-anthropomorphize God.  Like the rabbis centuries later, the priest tends to use the passive voice for God to avoid saying that God actually did something.  Direct attribution of actions to God personalizes the deity, and that’s a no-no, as far as the priest is concerned.  According to Knohl, the priest also doesn’t believe that God directly punishes people for their sins, unlike other biblical authors.  In Knohl’s eyes, the God of the priestly tradition is numinous and transcendent, even though Knohl also says that God communicates with humans; God just prefers monologues to dialogues when he does so.

 Knohl doesn’t really agree with Weinfeld’s scenario, in which the priest has an anthropomorphic theology that the Deuteronomist opposes.  According to Knohl, the priest isn’t comfortable with describing God as living in a house.  The priest rarely uses the root shachan (“dwell”) for God’s residence within the Tabernacle, instead preferring the word yaad (which BDB defines as “to meet at an appointed place”).  While Knohl acknowledges that the priest uses shachan for God at Sinai (Exodus 24:16), he states that “for PT, the dwelling of the Presence on Mount Sinai is less obviously anthropomorphic than its dwelling in the Tent of Meeting, which leads directly to the association with a physical home.”  There are passages in the Pentateuch in which God says that he will dwell (shachan) among the Israelites, and I don’t know to whom Knohl attributes them.  But Knohl does maintain that the priest accepted the “ancient cultic tradition” that God took up permanent residence in the earthly sanctuary; he just holds that the priest “sought to refine that imagery wherever possible” to avoid anthropomorphisms, which bring God down to the human level.

Regarding the Deuteronomist, Knohl cites verses in Deuteronomy that reflect an anthropomorphic theology.  Many of them have to do with God having eyes, but one of the passages, Deuteronomy 20:4, states that God goes before the Israelites into battle to fight before them.  That is slightly different from Deuteronomy 26:15, which says that God’s in heaven.  The author of Deuteronomy apparently believed that God could come down to earth, so his God wasn’t utterly transcendent and removed from humanity (the non-anthropomorphic God at his best).  But that doesn’t surprise me too much, for Deuteronomy 23:14 affirms that God walks about the camp of Israel. 

According to Weinfeld, Deuteronomy is anti-anthropomorphic in its theology because it states that the Israelites saw no form on Horeb, but they heard a voice out of the fire (Deuteronomy 4:15).  Knohl retorts that Deuteronomy isn’t saying that God doesn’t have a form, but rather that God didn’t show it to the Israelites, since God doesn’t like graven images.

Personally, I don’t think that Knohl is fair to Weinfeld.  I don’t expect a comprehensive treatment of Weinfeld in a footnote, but Knohl shouldn’t act as if Weinfeld bases his characterization of Deuteronomy on Deuteronomy 4:15 alone.  Knohl mentions Deuteronomy’s view that God’s name dwells at the earthly sanctuary, but (as far as I can see) he doesn’t really deal with it.  And there are other factors that lead Weinfeld to his conclusions about Deuteronomy, besides Deuteronomy 4:15.  Throughout the Pentateuch, the Ark of the Covenant is God’s throne.  God sits on it when he’s interacting with the priests and goes out to battle.  In Deuteronomy, by contrast, the ark is the container for God’s commandments.  Deuteronomy appears to be going in the direction of a non-anthropomorphic theology, one that thinks God sitting on a little ark is beneath his dignity.  Does that mean that Deuteronomy is totally free from anthropomorphisms?  No, but neither is the priest, for Knohl acknowledges that the priest views the Tabernacle as God’s permanent residence on earth.

2.   At Latin mass this morning, the topic was freedom.  According to philosopher priest, we are free to follow God.  It’s not a matter of God holding over our heads an external standard, as God did in Old Testament times, but of us doing God’s will because we want to.

I doubt that he believes righteousness is optional, since there have been times when he’s been big on “this is a mortal sin” and “this is a venial sin.”  Mortal sins lead us to hell if we don’t repent of them.  There’s nothing optional about obeying God in that scenario!

The priest made me think of something.  Years ago, I had to give a Bible study on the topic of Christian liberty.  To be honest, I had no idea what to say about it!  The people at this church were recovering from their Armstrongite background, in which their former church told people what to believe and do, with the threat of excommunication and the Great Tribulation hanging over their heads if they deviated from the prescribed path.  In the minds of these recoverers, Christian liberty meant being a little freer than that.  But I wondered how the Bible defined Christian liberty.  Some of it includes being free to follow one’s conscience.  In the case of the first century church, that meant being free to drink wine, or to eat meat offered to idols, as long as it didn’t cause another Christian to stumble (Romans 14; I Corinthians 8).  In Galatians 2 and 5, it means not having to observe the entirety of Jewish rituals in order to appease God.  There are also passages about being set free from the slavery of sin (John 8:32-34; Romans 6-7); yet, as philosopher priest pointed out, Romans 6 is clear that we’re to become slaves to righteousness.

In my Bible study, I was a little disorganized, but I raised the question of how liberty fits into church discipline, which has excommunication as an option (Matthew 18).  The Armstrongite church disfellowshipped and shunned people left and right.  That may be wrong, but is there ever a place for those practices, and, if so, when?

Anyway, those are my ramblings for the day.

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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