The Silent God by Marjo C. A. Korpel and Johannes C. De Moor (Brill Academic) The silence of God is a recurring theme in modern reflection. It is not only addressed in theology, religious studies and philosophy, but also in literary fiction, film and theatre. The authors show that the concept of a silent deity emerged in the ancient Near East (including Greece). What did the Ancients mean when they assumed that under circumstances their deities remained silent? What reasons are discernable for silence between human beings and their gods? For the first time the close interrelation between the divine and the human in the revelatory process is demonstrated here on the basis of a wealth of translated ancient texts. In an intriguing epilogue, the authors explore the theological consequences of what they have found.
So much has been written about the silence of God that it seems hardly possible to put forward anything new. However, most of these publications are of a philosophical, systematical-theological or edifying nature. The biblical studies on the topic by professional exegetes are relatively rare. We do not imagine that we can do much better but in our opinion the broad historical background of the problem has been neglected too long. This has resulted in a distorted picture drawn by theologians and philosophers who were judging a past they did not know well enough to pronounce a balanced judgment on it. Yet it was this unrealistic picture that has contributed to deep skepticism, despair and agnosticism among many.
In this book we will try to let hear first of all the voices of others, from testimonies of our own recent past to the distant past of the first texts human beings ever wrote about the subject of a silent God. The subject is so all-encompassing that we do not imagine to have done more than skimming swiftly along a limited number of representative quotations, but we believe them to be sufficient to make our point.
We give all quotations in English, mostly following authoritative translations by others, but occasionally providing our own translations. If possible, we add a reference to the original text. Quotations should not be burdened by too much technical discussion so we confine ourselves to a few explanatory notes for non-specialists.
Obviously the subject of the silent God touches upon many other hotly debated topics, such as theodicy (the attempt to reconcile the existence of evil with the postulated goodness of God), deism, theism and atheism. Occasionally we will briefly comment on such adjacent matters, but our main concern is the question: what do people, in past and present, mean when they state that God is silent? This is something different from arguing that God is nonexistent, dead or absent. In these cases it is self-evident that God remains silent. The concept of a silent God, however, presupposes at least the possibility of a speaking God. So it will be necessary to also investigate how people conceptualized divine speech.
The silence of God is a recurring theme in modern reflection.1 It is not only addressed in theology, religious studies and philosophy, but also in literary fiction, film and theatre.2 As Mark Taylor remarks, 'You cannot understand the world today if you do not understand religion', even though an empty concept of transcendence is a characteristic of modernity (Friedrich 1956).
In this first chapter we give an overview of the ways in which people have handled the concept of a God who according to many believers may have spoken in the past, but is now silent. Why does he keep silent when humanity is hit by disaster? Why do so many ardent prayers remain unheard?
Or is it a misconception that God has spoken? Has he always been silent? And will he always remain silent? Because he does not exist, or is temporarily absent, or just indifferent?
It is more difficult than it may seem to define what 'silence' is . It may be the absence of sound or the absence of speech. Silence has to be interpreted to acquire meaning. Since this book will deal mainly with the concept of silence in the ancient Near East, and in particular with the silence of deities, we will try to establish what the Ancients meant when they assumed that under circumstances God remained silent. The truth about God is not objectively accessible to man. We do not really know who He is. What then is divine 'silence' as perceived by the Ancients?
Divine silence is related to, but not the same as divine absence. Obviously an absent deity does not speak because he is not there to enter into a dialogue with mankind,1 whereas a silent deity can be attentively listening or may have reason to keep silent, but might speak again if he wants to. Joel Burnett ends his fine study on the absence of God in the Hebrew Bible as follows:
Through the theme of divine absence, the Hebrew Bible portrays a God who freely chooses relationships with humankind, a God whom human beings are free to seek, a God who responds.
The very last part of this statement is problematic. The God of the Hebrew Bible does not always respond. Nor did other deities of the ancient world. In this study we concentrate not on the absence of God, but on his silence although he is thought to be present.
If the Word of God is inextricably connected with the word of man, as has been emphasized by many theologians, including Karl Barth and the Second Vatican Council, we need to know more about the religions of the world in which the Hebrew Bible came into being, because that was the reality in which the biblical writers wrote down what they believed to be the word of their own God. As will appear later on in this study, recent discoveries in the Near East have revealed that there are far more points of contact and similarities between the religion of Israel and the religions of its neighbors than is commonly realized or admitted. This is also true of prophecy, the most prominent mode of communication between God and man in the Bible.4 Of course these parallels render the differences all the more interesting, and of course these too will be discussed.
We limit our investigation to the silence of human and divine beings. For example, the silent hymn that the heavens sing to God according to Ps. 19:2-4 may once have been ascribed to deities personifying sun, moon and stars, but in its present form the Psalm does not concern animated beings anymore. The poet is merely using bold metaphorical language to indicate that the silent skies are singing a wordless ode to their Creator.
With regard to the demarcation of the ancient world we confine ourselves to written texts and will only rarely indulge in the interpretation of iconographic evidence because the interpretation of the latter is often hypothetical. In contrast to what has been the custom since the rise of Classicism we include early Greek texts in our inquiry. Intensive contacts between Greece and the Near East existed at least since the 12th century BCE and there is every reason to regard early Greece as part of the Near Eastern world.
Every nation of the ancient world and every period in its long history had its own religious peculiarities, but that does not preclude the possibility to study similarities that need not be the result of direct contacts between religions, but reflect a similar reaction to what was experienced as silence on the part of the deity. Respected works like Pritchard's Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament, Kaiser's Texte aus der Umwelt des Alters Testament, Hallo's The Context of Scripture as well as countless monographs and collaborative volumes exploring similar phenomena in the world of the Bible demonstrate the usefulness of this approach.
Since we are primarily interested in the phenomenon of divine silence we will quote sources from Antiquity not always in strict chronological or geographic order, although we will mostly provide some information on date and origin. However, in many cases the age of a certain tradition cannot be established with certainty because the available fragments do not allow us to follow the history of a literary tradition in great detail. The Mesopotamian Gilgamesh traditions, for example, cover a history of transmission of about two millennia and the extant tablets show an extremely complicated genesis up to c. 1200 BCE, with many gaps.
Some theologians may object to comparing other religions with the Holy Bible. Especially Karl Barth advocated the view that revelation inevitably means the end of religion.? Yet it may be asked if Barth did not place theology in a false dilemma between faith-talk and ordinary discourse where persons as subjects preside. It would seem that. Barth's view implies an underestimation of the anthropological side of the process of revelation. His view of the God of Israel as the God who acts, in contrast to the speculative thinking of myth,9 influenced Old Testament scholars like Gerhard von Rad and George Wright, but has been shown to be based on a no longer tenable view of ancient Near Eastern religion. Other deities in the ancient world too were supposed to act in human history (e.g. the Babylonian Marduk, the Egyptian Amun-Re, the Moabite Kemosh).
Since human beings cannot describe the divine adequately by means of the limited possibilities of human language a paragraph will be devoted to the human nature of religious language (Section 2.2).
If the way in which people speak about God is patterned after human behavior, we must conclude that also the silence of God is patterned after the function of silence in human communication. Therefore, it is useful to first look at the function of silence on the latter level. Human communication always needs interpretation on the basis of the actual situation in which words are spoken. Silences are part of every human utterance and by their very nature require even more explanation (cf. Sections 2.3-5). Therefore exegesis of the texts involved is imperative (Hieke 2009), but for the purpose of this study it will not be necessary to delve deeply into form and redaction history of every individual passage. Our approach will be pragmatic, making use of existing translations of primary sources and restricting technical discussion to the absolute minimum. Quotations are given in English translation. In this way we hope to make the book accessible also to nonspecialists.
Since human utterances about the divine are inevitably patterned after ordinary human discourse, we first investigate what reasons people in Antiquity may have had to keep silent among themselves (Chapter 3).
In Chapter 4 we discuss how human beings did address the deity in Antiquity. Hymns, lamentations, prayers, letters to deities, magic rituals, requests for signs and acts were some of the more common ways of approaching the deities. Also silence was a way of asking the deity to pay attention to one's misery.
In Chapter 5 we relate how the deity did address man according to the sources available. Direct communication was restricted to certain privileged persons. Mostly intermediaries relayed the messages of the deities.
Chapter 6 is devoted to the silence of deities as recorded in the extant writings of the ancient world and in the Hebrew Bible.
To allow the reader a convenient overview of categories of silence in the ancient sources we discuss we group the reasons for silence under the following headings,
Whereas silence among humans could mostly be explained along these lines, the alterity of divine beings made it often difficult to fathom the reasons for silence on the part of the gods. So we devote an extra section to incomprehensible divine silence (Section 6.2.2).
We fully realize that there are other possibilities of categorizing and that any such classification is imperfect because in reality categories overlap to some extent.
In an Epilogue (Chapter 7) we tentatively explore the consequences of what we have found, and try to establish in which way our findings may be relevant to those who experience God's silence as utterly frustrating. We realize that further philosoph- from the material available and may well have overlooked some relevant evidence. ioocvrael, less pstsshyefcho apmailsloitagrci ,systematic indispensable, but we deemed it useful to start enBtuutryevtehnatthw and iescfiaenl field rooanfcltysitcouaffdl eti erhseaolhmaosgoigdcraeosl wts tnsuedlseoi ecs on this subject are selection e the investigation from the disciplines with which we are more 2.2 The Human Nature of Religious Language
If people state that God 'keeps silent' they presuppose that normal audible or written communication between God and human beings is possible. Mostly they assume that God has spoken in the past, for example directly addressing the biblical patriarchs, Moses and the prophets. It is important, however, to realize that the concept of a speaking God belongs to the domain of metaphorical religious language. To be more specific, phrases like these state that God is silent amounts to saying that his messengers, angelic or human, are unable to speak in his name. In our era this is increasingly the case. We have seen that also those who dared to speak the word of God in the past often encountered disbelief and ridicule, or felt' incapable of assuming the role of spokesmen of God any longer, either temporarily or permanently. If a divine origin is claimed for certain messages or events acceptance of this as true always rests on faith. However, faith is not something one can appropriate. According to the Bible faith is a gift (Eph. 2:8), like the Spirit that compels people to speak the word of God.74 Others who witness the same phenomena may well maintain that they have seen or heard nothing. Or may reject the testimony of believers. Or interpret it in a totally different way.
This diversity of possible reactions is expressed by the Dutch painter Cornelis Saftleven (c. 1607-1681) in his painting of the annunciation of the birth of Christ as narrated in Luke 2.75 Most adults look up in adoration, but one on the left is fast asleep and another shepherd is starting to run away. One dog sleeps on like his master, another looks up in surprise. One child finds the painter far more interesting than the angels. Another child looks on very skeptically.
Apparently Saftleven wanted to express the different reactions to angelic manifestations, ranging from disbelief and indifference to adoration. Even if one is an eyewitness to an extraordinary event and hears the words of an 'angel' speaking in the name of God it still requires faith to accept what happens as divine revelation. Saftleven has painted the resulting divergence of opinion with a certain cheerful resignation, as is demonstrated by the naughty little cherub crawling from under the robe of the angel. Such a relaxed attitude might be helpful to mitigate the tension surrounding the debate about the question whether God is forever silent or not. A debate that is not likely to end soon, since believers and unbelievers are quarreling about a speaking or silent God already more than 4000 years ...
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