Ascent & Descent; the Sky & the Earth Kiss

This is the second follow-up to the post, “Gagarin and the Seven Heavens“. The first follow-up post is here.

Moses goes up; God comes down.

James L. Kugel, in his The Bible as It Was (Cambridge, MA: Harvard, 1997), mentions how it is written that, in the meeting between God and Moses atop Mt. Sinai, “the Lord went down upon the mountain” [Exod 19:20].

On the other hand, God later says, “You have seen for yourselves that I have talked with you from heaven” (Exod 20:21), and still later Moses recalls, “Out of heaven He caused you to hear His voice” (Deut 4:36). So where was God really? The book of Nehemiah summed up the paradox:

[374] You went down upon Mount Sinai, and You spoke with them from the heavens. –Neh 9:13 [Kugel, 373-374]

There was, however, another pair of passages in Psalm 18, verses 9 & 13 [17:10, 14 LXX], where the Lord “bowed down the heavens and came down”, so that he “thundered from the heavens” (LXX ἐβρόντησεν ἐξ οὐρανοῦ); the skies move to the earth. This pattern is repeated in post-second-temple texts, as Kugel lists them. The Septuagint of Psalm 18:9 (17:10 in the LXX) reads:

καὶ ἔκλινεν οὐρανὸν καὶ κατέβη, καὶ γνόφος ὑπὸ τοὺς πόδας αὐτοῦ.

Badly and sloppily translated for consistency:

And [he] bent sky [“bent a sky”? –not clear why the article is missing here in the Greek] and descended, and a tempest [was] under his feet.

Now, ἔκλινεν translates the Hebrew for “bowed down”, from κλινω, which here has the meaning of bending or swerving or inclining/slanting (see the abridged Liddell & Scott, 381). The overwhelming sense is that there is a boundary in the sky (“heaven”) beyond which God dwells, and that God bends the boundary around his dwelling to remain in that dwelling while moving it and touching down to the earth beneath it. The same image –and the same Greek word (here, κλῖνον)– appears in Psalm 144:5 (143:5 LXX), where the psalmist says “bow your heavens and descend, touch the mountains, and they shall smoke”, suggesting the same about the height and distance of God’s location, the bending of the boundary between there and here, and the result of the contact. There is something dangerous about the contact. The burning of the earth at the point of contact may suggest the fieriness of the domain above the sky.

Something like this kind of mutual stretching-out-towards of sky and earth here (Moses from the earthy, God from the sky) seems to be what is behind the psalmist who writes in Ps 85:10ff.: “Mercy and truth are met together; righteousness and peace have kissed each other. Truth is sprung up out of the earth; and righteousness hath looked down from heaven.”

Kugel also lists texts that express the other alternative in the traditions — Sinai uproots and goes up to the sky.

In both of these alternatives, the sense of bounded location is key, as is the relative distance or nearness –or even overlap– of the locations.

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Header image found here.

20 thoughts on “Ascent & Descent; the Sky & the Earth Kiss

  1. From what you say here, I do not see paradox. I see meeting God by our rising as high as we can go, and His descending to meet us, represented by Moses, where it is possible. I imagine a bending of the heavens at a point to form a gentle “u” shape where God descended to a high mountain top. If Jimi Hendrix had been with Moses, I’m sure he would have said: “‘Scuse me while I kiss the sky.” However, that is anachronism.

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  4. Very interesting. I’m reminded of the “liminal space” sort of talk, where our physical reality almost merges with an ethereal counterpart. I’ve heard the arguments about the “pre-incarnate” theophanies, but they seem categorically different from the Incarnation of the Son. Taking this track, god “enters” our world by “softening” (so to speak) the barrier between the material world and “real reality,” whereas in the Incarnation there’s an ontological entrance which cannot be reversed or ignored, because it changes everything.

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    • All evidence points to a very uncomfortable conclusion, which is that the language of liminal space stuff was 100% conceptualized with regard to a space above the hard dome of the sky firmament. That is, at least, how they conceived it.

      There were modifications – the Ptolemaic picture seems to have been universally received among the educated, though perhaps not among those not educated, as certain conflicts reveal.

      The interpretive tradition where pre-incarmate theophanies are all proleptic Christologies is actually indebted to a “two powers in heaven” tradition at first (see Alan Segal), until this tradition is forgotten and then later commenter are simply continuing the tradition of the earlier exegetes.

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