The Burning Bush, Notre Dame de Paris.
The antiphon for the 18th December:
O Adonai, et Dux domus Israel,
qui Moysi in inge flammae rubi apparuisti,
et ei in Sina legem didisti:
veni ad redimedum nos in brachio extento.
This will be a less polished post, as I make up for lost time. I’d like to suggest that there are three main theological points raised in hearing this particular antiphon, which identifies the coming Christ with the God who appeared to Moses in the Burning Bush, and gave the Torah to Israel at Sinai.
The God Who Appears
Those of you who know me and my research will know that I’m particularly interested in theophany in the Old Testament. That is, those occasions on which God manifested himself, showed himself, somehow visually or sensibly revealed himself to an individual or a group. They are highly dramatic moments, often pivotal points in a given Old Testament narrative.
There is a tension in Christian readings of Old Testament theophanies. On the one hand, Christian doctrine recognises, as I did in the first post in this series, that one of Christ’s central claims was that Before Abraham was, I am. Many of the early Apologists pointed to the Old Testament theophanies as appearances of Christ the Logos to his own forebears. In Justin Martyr’s purported Dialogue with Trypho the Jew (38.1) it is on the issue of theophany that Trypho accuses Justin of blasphemy:
“For you utter many blasphemies, in that you seek to persuade us that this crucified man was with Moses and Aaron, and spoke to them in the pillar of the cloud; then that he became man, was crucified, and ascended up to heaven, and comes again to earth, and ought to be worshipped.”
One of the ways in which early Christians articulated their understanding of the relationship between Jesus of Nazareth and the God of Israel was to identify Christ with those appearances God makes to his people in the Old Testament.
Augustine, however, in Books II and III of the De Trinitate takes a starkly different view. His defence of Trinitarian doctrine is on guard on against any reading of Scripture that would suggest that Christ is inferior to the Father. In very broad terms (this is a very unacademic summary), he is suspicious of the idea that the Son might be seen, while the Father remains invisible; this might imply an ontological superiority of the Father. Instead, he argues that the whole Godhead, the divine essence proper to all three persons of the Trinity is invisible, and instead God manifests himself by created things, created visionary experiences. Furthermore, these created theophanies are the work of the whole Trinity, which acts as a unity. Even when a theophany appears to reveal one particular person of the Trinity, this theophany is only ever produced by the whole Trinity working together, by a creature. Augustine seems to think that it is angels who do the work of appearing.
Reading the Old Testament, and the House of Israel
The antiphon also identifies the coming Christ as ruler of the House of Israel. This is no great surprise given the context: he is the God who appears to Israel, and he gives Israel the Torah which constitutes Israel as a people under covenant with God.
Yet I’ve chosen to illustrate this post with a glass image of Christ appearing to Moses in the Burning Bush from the cathedral of Notre Dame de Paris. The great West door of the same Cathedral is flanked by two figures. On the one side, the youthful, beautiful girl who represents the Church, radiant in the splendour of Christian truth. On the other, the older woman, blindfolded in ignorance, representing the Synagogue, those who have rejected Christ.
It is beyond the scope of this post to detail the various ways in which Christian readings of the Old Testament can relate to the Jewish people and the Jewish religion. Suffice it here to say that while some of us think that it is fundamentally necessary for Christian theologians to read the Old Testament as presenting Christ as the God of Israel, and that Christ is the fulfilment of Israel’s Law, we have a moral, ethical, and theological duty to remember the ways that various Christian readings and misreadings of Scripture have fed into anti-Semitism and violent prejudice against Jews, and to guard against those outcomes.
Adonai and the Name
Adonai is not a name, but a title. It means ‘my Lords’ (probably to be read as a plural of majesty, cf. Elohim). It is a stand-in, pronounced in the reading out-loud of Hebrew Scripture in place of the Divine Name YHWH (usually vocalised as Yahweh). Jews and others tend not to pronounce the Divine Name itself out of respect for its near indescribable holiness.
(Incidentally, the use of a title in place of a divine name is not unique to the reading of the Hebrew Bible. The deity presented as God’s bête noire in the Hebrew Bible – whom we know as Ba’al – was in fact probably the other Semitic storm and weather god, Hadad. Ba’al is a title, meaning ‘lord’ or ‘master’ (in modern Hebrew it means ‘husband’). Similarly, Isaiah 46:1 refers to the Babylonian chief deity Marduk as ‘Bel’, a cognate title. The Greek divinity Adonis was also likely just such a deity, with the same West Semitic title ‘Adon as used in the Hebrew Bible and this antiphon. That Adonis is derived from such a Semitic divine title is suggested by the Greek belief that he came originally from Phoenicia.)
An antiphon which addresses Jesus as ‘Adonai’ reminds us that the New Testament most frequently calls him kyrios, ‘Lord’ or ‘Sir’. Sometimes this may be read simply as the polite form of deferential address in first century society, but often it seems deliberately to recall the Divine Name. Kyrios is the Septuagint’s equivalent for Adonai in replacing the Divine Name out of respect for its holiness. The application of the Divine Name to Christ is one of the New Testament’s most powerful rhetorical tools for suggesting Jesus’s status alongside the Father. Philippians 2:9, discussing the exaltation of Jesus, says that God gave him “the name that is above every other name”. Richard Bauckham points out (references supplied on request – they don’t fit the blog format very well) that in the following verse the whole creation is said to worship Jesus, and that this is to the glory of the Father, rather than in rivalry to him. Bauckham suggests that this suggests that the name given to Jesus is none other than YHWH.
The Divine Name is a key part of the Deuteronomistic theology of divine presence. In Deuteronomy 12, which legislates for a single place of sacrificial worship for Israel (implicitly the Temple at Jerusalem), the location is repeatedly referred to in terms of being a place where God has chosen to cause his Name to dwell. The Name can be read as functioning as a metonym – guarding against a divine anthropomorphism – for the divine presence. Associating the Divine Name with Christ, as kyrios or Adonai, is an indicator of his relationship to the Godhead.
‘Jesus’ is for Christians itself a divine name. Its Hebrew original is familiar to us as the anglicised Joshua. It is a theophoric name, bearing within itself the shortened form (YHW) of the Divine Name. Christians have often treated the name Jesus in a similarly roundabout, reverent way, referring instead to Christ, ‘Our Lord’, etc. In the fifteenth century, devotion to the name Jesus was promoted by the Franciscan missionary Bernadino of Siena.