Mountain of God

So I made it through Italy on my bicycle. The old Roman empire. I actually did a good chunk of the riding in Sicily. Once I found out I could hop around the Mediterranean for $50 a pop on ferries, I got considerably more mobile. I jumped from Barcelona to Rome, then from Naples to Palermo, and then from Bari to Patras. I also did a fair bit of zigzagging. The bicycle climb up Vesuvius was a special thing for me. When I was in Palermo I decided to check out if there would be any other volcanoes on my route, and lo and behold, Mount Aetna was right around the corner. I hadn’t known anything about Mount Aetna other than it was featured in some life insurance commercials when I was a kid. I had to go check it out. I wanted to go climb another volcano on my trusty 2022 Émonda Superlight 5.

I had originally planned a comfortable ride on all flat ground along Sicily’s northern coast. But after the first day, I made the decision to shoot south into the heart of the island toward Aetna. That island has some hills and climbs! I seem to have a penchant for the slow, painful way. Maybe there was something to that girl Dolores (“pains” in Spanish) recommending Sicily to me.

I learned a few things about Aetna once I got there. First, it’s a wee bit bigger than Vesuvius. And by “a wee bit bigger” I mean “a lot freaking bigger.” Actually, there is really no way to climb to the top. You can ride your bike to this or that observation area on the side, but no bicyclele can actually reach the top. Some people ride jeeps around the higher bits. Some people hike to the most remote areas on adventure excursions like the dudes who climb Everest. But I’m not sure it’s possible for anybody to get to the top. See, the other thing I learned is that the volcano is live. Now the definition of a live volcano is something that has erupted recently, like within centuries, or something that has stuff going on under the surface to where it could erupt. I’m not exactly sure of the actual definition, but a lot of volcanoes termed live really don’t look any different from normal mountains. But not Aetna. That volcano has lava flowing out of it at various points, and I don’t think they even let people go to the top.

Initially I was bummed I couldn’t climb the volcano on the bicycle, but to be honest, I probably would have had a heart attack trying. I’m just not the athlete for that kind of ride. However, I came to the conclusion that God didn’t want me to climb that thing. He wanted me to stay at the bottom. Let me show you a picture.

This picture was taken by me from my hotel window at the foot of the mountain. That’s vapor from live lava flows hitting the cold air.

So between the picture above and the feature image of this post, you can see that the heat from the mountain combines with the cold of the air to create some pretty unusual cloud cover, and the mountain very often looks just like how I imagine Mount Sinai to have looked when Moses went to talk to God up there.

Now I got to the area just before Shabbat, and I don’t travel on Shabbat, so I had a couple of days to contemplate that mountain. God arranged things that way. And one of the things that came to mind is that I am one of the people, and the people weren’t supposed to go up to the top of that mountain. Only one person was supposed to do that, and I am not that guy. That’s not to say that I’m not some Other Guy (readers of my book will catch that reference 😉), but I’m definitely not the dude who goes up to the top of Sinai, and so I wasn’t even going to try to go up to the top of Aetna, or even climb any part of it in any way. My job is to stay faithful at the foot of the mountain.

That’s not an easy thing to do, as Aaron and Míriam have made a calf, and everybody is praying to it. Now it’s interesting that that calf was made by the high priest, Moses’ brother. The priests are the custodians of the rituals of religion. The English word priest is actually a result of the Christians confusing the concept of the presbyter, the זקן (zaken), or elder, with the heirus, the כוחן (cohen), or, well, we call it a priest. This actually was one of the reasons I switched from being an Anglo-Catholic Anglican to a Reformed Anglican when I was still a Christian. And of course the Reformed Anglicans hate monks, which I was, and that whole trough of nonsense, along with my van Ouwerkerk tragedy, convinced me to leave the religion altogether. And not only that, but I was sick of converting from one denomination to another, and I was not interested in converting from one religion to another, so I got the idea to “convert” from a “religion” to a “race.” To join with a people instead of a bureaucratic set of dogmas that I had to believe.

This is related to the issue with Aaron and the calf because in my personal experience, it’s always the members of the religious hierarchies, the custodians of the rituals and dogmas of religion, who always screw everything up. Now if you’re a rabbi or a priest or a pastor or an imam and you’re reading this, I’ll say my complaint isn’t necessarily and specifically leveled at you. But you should check yourself regularly that you aren’t becoming an Aaron.

It’s usually the higher ups that jack things up, though. And for the average guy, it’s usually those who want to tell you what to think and do. It’s God who should be doing that, not them. They should just be helping you figure out how to hear God, but they like to think they can speak for him. And the interesting thing about Aaron’s apostasy is that he did it to appease the fears of the people when he should have been focused on staying faithful himself.

But having talked about the oddity of Aaron the high priest being the leader of the apostacy, let’s talk about that calf. Or baby bull. Or the virile bull. So Aaron told people to worship the same animal that Moses was up on the mountain being told to sacrifice. The younger version. The version that would be sacrificed later. That’s what Aaron told people that God was.

Yeah, Moses was being given the commandments to sacrifice that animal, among other animals, but sacrifice was not a new thing. It actually started with Noah and the eating of meat, and the practice had already spread to the entire world. We read in the Iliad the practice of the hecatombs. We read in the Samhitas, the earliest parts of the Vedas, the hymns of the great horse sacrifice. The horse warriors of the Aryan invasion of India had their own version of a sacrifice ritual that formed the original stratum of Hinduism. Many centuries later, Mithras, the god of Roman soldiers, would slay the celestial bull. This slaying of the bull was a common myth in many ancient near eastern cultures. Yet the Babylonian god Marduk, Merodach in the Bible (see Jeremiah 50:2), whose name supposedly means “calf of the Sun,” slew the ancient seven-headed dragon Tiamat and formed the universe out of her body in the epic Enuma Elish.

So obviously sacrifice meant something, and the bull that was being sacrificed was worshipped as a god in some cultures, and was considered that of which the god was the master in others. The sacrifice being equated with the divine was not new, and the idea would continue quite powerfully in the New Testament and Christianity where the Messiah was equated with the animal sacrificed on the one hand (“behold! The lamb of God!” – John 1:29), and with God on the other.

Yet what we have in the Torah is that instead of waiting faithfully for the mediator between God and man to come down from the mountain with truth in hand, the custodian of religious life, the priest, or the hierarchy of the church if we are to put it in Christian terms, had been conciliatory to the lack of understanding of the people and had made the lamb of God into God to be worshipped without regard to what was happening on the mountain.

At this point a lot of Jews will be cheering me on for explaining via the metaphors of the Sinai story what they have been criticizing Christianity about for centuries. But hang on. Things get a little more nuanced. So let me come at you from another direction for just a little bit.

So we have a certain tension in the scriptures between God as a localized being and God as something more transcendent. Let’s take a look at God “the dude.”

They heard the voice of ADONAI, God, walking in the garden at the time of the evening breeze, so the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of ADONAI, God, among the trees in the garden.

Genesis 3:8

ADONAI appeared to Avraham by the oaks of Mamre as he sat at the entrance to the tent during the heat of the day.  He raised his eyes and looked, and there in front of him stood three men. On seeing them, he ran from the tent door to meet them, prostrated himself on the ground,  and said, “My lord, if I have found favor in your sight, please don’t leave your servant.

Genesis 18:1-3

Ya‘akov asked him, “Please tell me your name.” But he answered, “Why are you asking about my name?” and blessed him there. Ya‘akov called the place P’ni-El, “Because I have seen God face to face, yet my life is spared.”

Genesis 32:30-31

But my face,” he continued, “you cannot see, because a human being cannot look at me and remain alive.  Here,” he said, “is a place near me; stand on the rock.  When my glory passes by, I will put you inside a crevice in the rock and cover you with my hand, until I have passed by.  Then I will remove my hand, and you will see my back, but my face is not to be seen.”

Exodus 33:20-23

It happened one day that the sons of God came to serve ADONAI, and among them came Satan.

Job 1:6

The above verses show God walking around in a garden, talking with Abraham, wrestling with Jacob, hanging out with Moses in a form too intense to look directly at, and holding court with angels and having an argument with Satan. This is a localized person. However, other verses paint a different picture. Many of these are too subtle to present with simple clarity, but I can think of one that is pretty obvious.

Can anyone hide in a place so secret
that I won’t see him?” asks ADONAI.
ADONAI says, “Do I not
fill heaven and earth?

Jeremiah 23:24

So we do have in scripture a tension between God presented as a dude, with various presentations of God being more – something transcendent and beyond form. How to reconcile this? I do so with the appearance of the Captain of the Host.

One day, when Y’hoshua was there by Yericho, he raised his eyes and looked; and in front of him stood a man with his drawn sword in his hand. Y’hoshua went over to him and asked him, “Are you on our side or on the side of our enemies?”  “No,” he replied, “but I am the commander of ADONAI’s army; I have come just now.” Y’hoshua fell down with his face to the ground and worshipped him, then asked, “What does my lord have to say to his servant?”  The commander of ADONAI’s army answered Y’hoshua, “Take your sandals off your feet, because the place where you are standing is holy.” And Y’hoshua did so.

Joshua 5:13-15

Here we have this idea that there is this king of the angels. The Christians say this is the Messiah. The Jews say it is an archangel. I’ll say that I think this guy is probably the same guy who was walking around in Eden, talking with Abraham, wrestling with Jacob, talking with Moses, and arguing with Satan while holding court. But this Captain of the Angels guy, who Joshua prostrates himself before, speaks of God like he is a servant of God.

This is important, and close to the crux of what I am getting at. The Torah does seem willing to call this divine being that goes around representing God by the name of God. However, it describes this guy as a servant of God. That is, the representative of God can be called God, but must be understood to be the servant of God. This is something the Christians have gotten quite wrong by their desire to equate a divine Messiah with God. First off, they are contradicting the New Testament when they do so.

You heard me tell you, ‘I am leaving, and I will come back to you.’ If you loved me, you would have been glad that I am going to the Father; because the Father is greater than I.

John 14:28

There is your divine Messiah right there. I guess he didn’t have a ticket at the Council of Nicea. He didn’t listen to the priests who were trying to make the representative of God into God without reference to anything higher. Basically, they were trying to make Jesus into Marduk, the calf of the sun, the golden calf of Aaron.

Leaving behind the Christian christological debates and the debates between Christians and Jews on the subject, I want to turn toward a basic pragmatic issue related to all this. I wrote a couple of posts about Satan a while back, and I promised that I would write some more. They are still on the way. I also wrote a little dialog about the idea of what it means to be free and how freedom can exist in a universe determined by God. That is not unrelated to all this.

You see, when that being walking around in the Garden cursed the serpent, he was acting freely, yes, because nothing was preventing him from doing that, and that is what he wanted to do. However, at the same time, he was freely choosing to be obedient to God. So, he didn’t exactly have a choice. He wasn’t enslaved, because he wanted to obey God. But that being who cursed Satan didn’t curse Satan just because he wanted to, or out of spite, or because he was too stupid to do something else. He cursed Satan the serpent because he was being obedient to that which he represented: God. He could not be another way or do another thing and still be an accurate representative of God.

For for the Satan angle, that’s what I want to leave you with. It will be relevant to some other things that I am hoping to be able to write down soon. For the general angle, we as humans have to understand that any representative of God, whether Jesus or some other prophet or whatever, or this Captain of the Host that Joshua prostrated himself before, or that guy walking around in the Garden of Eden pulling women out of dudes’ ribs and cursing the legs off snakes, who the Torah calls God himself, all of these folks have to do what they do, or they aren’t going to be representatives of God. They are being obedient. And if you do not acknowledge that they are in service to something higher, then you miss the whole point of monotheism.

So, folks, sit at the foot of the mountain and let the mediator do his thing, and don’t listen to the priests who confuse the representative of God with God. Don’t make the Captain of the Host into Marduk. Don’t worship any golden calf.

It’s time for me to check out of this hotel.

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