The Torah: A Handbook of Prophecy
The Torah can be read both linearly and non-linearly. These two readings can also be called "exoteric" and "esoteric." It is read linearly in synagogues on Mondays, Thursdays and Saturdays when it is read publicly. The historical narrative form would seem to indicate that the linear reading is sufficient to transmit the information contained within the Torah. The public reading demonstrates that its meaning is available to all, making it an exoteric book. But there is another side to the Torah, one that has yet to be fully explored. A close reading of the Torah, paying attention to its literary structure, reveals the existence of a non-linear stratum within it. In order to understand the non-linear aspect of the Torah, the linear text must be deconstructed. The act of deconstruction removes the text from the public realm, thereby making the non-linear reading esoteric. The non-linear stratum appears in the very first chapter of Genesis.
According to the Torah, the linear versus non-linear duality is embedded not only in the Torah, but in the very nature of the created world. The six days of creation are numbered from one to six in Genesis 1, and the process is presented as historical narrative. Apparently, the six days should be read linearly and each day seen as an addition to all that came before it. This is consistent with the public reading of the Torah. However, literary analysis reveals that the six days are organized in two parallel groups of three days each, 1-3, and 4-6. Each of the two groups has distinguishing characteristics. The first three days are distinguished by the creation of unique motionless entities that receive names. The next three days detail the creation of classes of unnamed individuals that have local motion. Once the two groups are distinguished, the well-known parallels between days 1 and 4, 2 and 5, and 3 and 6 are obvious. Taken together, the division into two groups and the three pairs of days can be visualized in a table.
Table 1. The Six Days of Creation
Positional Element of Pair
The six days have been arranged in a 2 column by 3 row table, 2X3. Days 1-3 go down column L(eft); days 4-6, column R(ight). Row A includes days 1 and 4, B contains 2 and 5, C is 3 and 6. The character of each individual day is a function of its place in the table, the intersection of its column and its row, as indicated by the two letter label, such as LA for day 1. While the precise characteristics of the columns and rows can be argued, there is no denying that the table represents relationships inherent in the six-day structure of creation. This is an example of the non-linear reading of the Torah available through literary analysis. The linear text has been deconstructed into six components that have been rearranged in the table that demonstrates the conceptual underpinnings of creation. Since the same six days that require a non-linear reading are numbered serially by the text, we must conclude that the Torah is two-faced by design, having both an exoteric, linear, aspect, and a non-linear, esoteric, aspect.
An interpretation of the six-day table would be an example of what could be called esoteric exegeses. The key to such an exegesis might be based on the visual key displayed in the table. The days of creation describe a three tiered, hierarchical, universe, exemplified by the three levels of the perceived world, rows A-C in the table. There is an upper celestial level (A) beyond human reach, transcendent, and a lower terrestrial level (C) which is immanent. Between them is an intermediate level (B) which both separates the transcendent from the immanent (LB) and connects them (RB), as exemplified by the birds that go up and the fish that go down. Each of these three levels has two aspects, expressed in the columns, an aspect of division and individualization (L) and an aspect of multiplication and socialization (R).
The interpretation could then continue in a more abstract vein and point out that the days of creation and their objects are not, in fact, the primordial elements of reality. They are logically preceded by a mesh of two types of principles, which might be called the "vertical" and "horizontal" principles, as indicated by the columns and rows of the table. The unique creation of each day comes to signify the unique meshing of two principles, one vertical and one horizontal. Esoteric exegesis would continue by exploring the relationship between God and the abstract principles underlying the six days of creation. Such exploration in the past has described the underlying principles in terms of the spherot of the kabbalah. The midrash refers to an archaic Torah which existed for nine hundred and seventy-four generations before the creation of the world, providing God with the blueprint of creation. The supernal Torah of the midrash may be connected with the esoteric face of the Torah found in its structure, since the underlying structure provides a pattern for creation. In this introduction, I will present several examples of an authored, non-linear, stratum in the Torah which is open to, and perhaps demands, esoteric interpretation.
The Function of the Esoteric Torah
We have now seen an example of the non-linear structure of the Torah, as determined by literary analysis, and the beginnings of an esoteric exegesis based on the structure. If the non-linear stratum of the Torah is an integral part of the text, as it appears to be, we must ask why the text has both linear and non-linear aspects. It is possible to explain the function of the non-linear, esoteric, Torah as a mirroring of Moses' experience as prophet, and consequently as a handbook of prophecy. This understanding is based on the twofold nature of Moses' experience, as prophet and as lawgiver. Moses the prophet received Torah directly from God. Moses the lawgiver delivered the Torah to the people. This double giving is reflected in common introductory phrases such as "God spoke to Moses saying 'speak to the Israelite nation.'" Such phrases indicate that the Torah was given in two voices, the voice of God heard by Moses the prophet, and the voice of Moses the lawgiver heard by people. Nowhere does the Torah indicate whether it is meant to reproduce the voice of God or the voice of Moses. Reading the Torah as a two-faced document makes it possible to hear both voices in it. The voice of Moses is heard in the linear, exoteric reading. The non-linear, esoteric, reading would then reflect the voice that Moses heard. If this voice can be heard in the Torah, then the function of the esoteric Torah might be to lead the reader to the experience of Moses as prophet. In other words, the esoteric Torah could be a handbook of prophecy, a book designed to develop the reader's ability to hear the voice of God. Let us examine the implications of this view regarding our example from the days of creation.
If the esoteric, non-linear, face is associated with the prophetic experience, then we might say that the prophet perceived the nature of the created world as a grid or weave similar to the table of the six days we reconstructed. The prophetic vision, the way the prophet grasped divine speech, is an integrated weave containing well-defined concept-threads and relationships. In order to read the Torah in public, it was necessary to deconstruct the weave into an orderly set of linear terms, the six days of creation and the Sabbath. The deconstruction is spelled out in the numbers associated with the days of creation in the first chapter of the Torah. The deconstruction of the non-linear woven text into a form suitable for oral recitation is problematic. Since the underlying nature of the creation is non-linear, any linear recitation will be distorted. The weave can be deconstructed by the threads of the warp or the threads of the weft. Neither of these linear deconstructions will present the rich complexity of the weave itself. The creation narrative indicates the order of deconstruction, by warp threads, through numbering the components by days. While there are many tabular structures in the Torah, this is the only one that indicates the order of deconstruction. In the next example, we will see a weave that is presented by warp threads.
God: The Weaver of History
Another place where the linear/non-linear duality is prominent is in the sequence of plagues in Exodus. The non-linear aspect of God's actions, like the creation weave, appears dramatically in the nine plagues that precede the death of the first-born. Here too an ostensibly linear historical narrative proves to be a two-dimensional text that makes most sense when viewed as a weave, or table. Viewing the text in this format makes it clear that the plagues are organized by two sets of principles, one vertical and one horizontal. By examining the non-linear relationships between the plagues and comparing them with the creation weave, it becomes apparent that the plagues should be seen as linked to, and even dependent upon, the non-linear reading of the creation narrative. This point is extremely important in establishing the esoteric reading as meaningful.
The order and arrangement of the plagues conforms with the nature of the three-tiered universe as understood through the esoteric reading of the creation narrative. While the creation weave implies an underlying metaphysics, the plagues weave states explicitly that its function is to disseminate knowledge of God, or theology. By basing the plagues narrative on the underlying structure of creation, the Torah indicates that the God of history, the immanent God who visits Pharaoh in Egypt, is the same as the transcendent God of the metaphysics of creation.
The creation narrative lies so far out of human experience that terms like "history" can not readily be applied to it. It lacks the "cause and effect" frame of reference which is central to all historical narrative. Instead, it seemingly relies entirely on divine will, while still revealing a set of metaphysical organizing principles that seem to take precedence over the physical creation. God's will is to be found not only in the details of the entities created in six days, but also, and primarily, in the organizing principles found in the relationships between these days. The plagues narrative on the other hand, is presented as palpable history, having a frame of reference familiar to its readers. Never-the-less, like the creation it expresses God's will. He openly divulges His reasons for bringing the plagues, to spread knowledge of Himself. He teaches about Himself through His actions in this narrative, by means of a meticulous weave based on three parallel sets of three plagues each. God weaves history. His materials include weft and warp threads that are inextricably linked to the creation weave. Metaphysics and theology are not to be separated. I will begin the presentation of the nine plagues by listing them with the characteristics that lead to classifying them in three groups.
Table 2. Nine-Plague List
Instruction to Moses
|First||1. Blood||"Go to Pharaoh in the morning"||Aaron|
|2. Frogs||"Come to Pharaoh"||Aaron|
|3. Lice||"Say to Aaron, Stretch your rod"||Aaron|
|Second||4. Mixture||"Rise up early in the morning and present yourself to Pharaoh"||God|
|5. Cattle plague||"Come to Pharaoh"||God|
|6. Boils||"Take handfuls of ashes"||Moses and Aaron|
|Third||7. Hail||"Rise up early in the morning and present yourself to Pharaoh"||Moses|
|8. Locusts||"Come to Pharaoh"||Moses|
|9. Darkness||"Stretch out your hand"||Moses|
In the above list I have divided the nine plagues into three cycles. Each cycle repeats a set of three different instructions to Moses. In the first plague of each cycle God tells Moses to present himself (nitzav, hityatzev) to Pharaoh in the morning. In the second plague of each cycle, God tells Moses to come (bo) to Pharaoh. The third plague in each cycle has no introduction; God simply tells Moses how to bring about the plague. In respect of these three different instructions, each of the three cycles is identical to the others. The three instructions appear in the same order in each cycle. There is, however, another element that distinguishes one cycle from the other, the agent who brings about the plague. All three plagues in the first cycle are brought about by Aaron. Similarly, all three plagues in the third cycle are brought about by Moses. The middle cycle has a combination of agents; two plagues are brought about by God Himself, and one by Aaron and Moses together. We now have two different means of classifying the plagues. We can divide them into three groups according to the three different instructions, and we can divide them by agents. The advantage of the tabular arrangement is that it demonstrates the two different methods of grouping simultaneously.
Table 3. The Nine Plagues Table
All of the information that I presented in the previous paragraphs is directly accessible from the above table. The classification by opening instructions appears in the columns. The classification by agents appears in the rows. The table makes it clear that two "lines of thought" were employed in organizing the plagues, one that is expressed in the columns and one that is expressed in the rows. Each individual plague is defined by the intersection of its "agent" line and its "introduction" line. The planning lines give new meaning to "context." The context of a plague according to the esoteric, non-linear, reading is determined by its position in the table, not just by its place in the linear flow of the text.
As interesting as this tabular arrangement may be, in and of itself it adds little to our understanding of the plagues. The full significance of the tabular arrangement comes to light when we use it as a tool for understanding the nature of the plagues. I have indicated the plagues by name in the tables. This is essentially shorthand for the whole section of text that concerns each plague. In order to study the plagues properly, the nine blocks of text should be organized as I have indicated in the shorthand table.
Each row and each column of the table should be examined as a three-plague set, six sets in all. The three horizontal sets can then be compared with each other. So too, the three vertical sets can be compared. The first horizontal set, plagues 1-3, is performed by Aaron by pointing at the ground. All three of these plagues have their source in the ground. In the last row, 7-9, the plagues come out of the sky. The plagues in the middle row come neither from the ground nor from the sky, but from between them. So there is a clear spatial theme in the organization of the plagues, which is expressed by the relative positioning of the rows. The spatial organization is similar to that which we noted in the creation weave, although opposite in direction; the creation weave is oriented from the top down while the plagues weave is oriented from the bottom up. Now let us look at the columns.
The columns draw our attention to the introductions, and consequently, the "actors" in each scene. In the first column God tells Moses to go to Pharaoh. In the second column God invites Moses to come with Him to Pharaoh. Here I must clarify a point. The Hebrew verb that appears in the introductions to the three plagues in the middle column is bo, "come", even though it is often mistakenly translated in this context as "go". The importance of properly understanding this verb is that it positions the speaker, God. Moses is told to "come" to Pharaoh, thereby implying that either God is with Pharaoh, or that He will go with Moses to Pharaoh. Thus there is a contrast with the first column, where Moses is apparently sent to Pharaoh without God. In the third column Moses does not go to Pharaoh at all; he is with God. This gives us the following arrangement: first column, Moses and Pharaoh; second column, God, Moses, and Pharaoh; third column, God and Moses. Since Moses is common to all three, he can be ignored. That leaves the following arrangement: first column, Pharaoh; second column, God and Pharaoh; third column, God.
The middle column is a conceptual middle between the two adjacent columns. This is similar to the phenomenon that we noted in the rows, where the middle row falls conceptually between the extremes. This arrangement, with the conceptual middle serving as the structural middle, reinforces a tendency we noted already in the creation weave: the text is constructed visually rather than orally. In an oral presentation, the conceptual extremes precede the middle, i.e., thesis, antithesis, synthesis. The structures of the Torah, however, place the logical middle in the middle: thesis, synthesis, antithesis. This points to one of the most fundamental distinctions between the linear and non-linear readings. The linear, oral, reading can seem illogical at times because it can not take into account the inherent visual logic of the text, whereas the non-linear reading has no such limitation. In the case before us, this limitation has led to the universal mistranslation of "bo" as "go" rather than "come".
The plagues of the first column, the water changing to blood, the invasion of mixed things, and the hail, all pointedly take place by the light of day in the morning, in a public setting. These three plagues bring about changes in the three levels of the created world: the lower waters, the upper waters, and the biosphere between them. This is the mundane world over which Pharaoh claims mastery; hence, he alone appears in this column.
Next we are going to look at the third column. There is an important methodological point that explains why we skip from the first column to the third column. We have noted that the central column, as well as the central row, combines elements of the extremities, i.e. Pharaoh on one extreme, God on the other, and both of them in the middle. Therefore, we should first study the extremes and then see how they combine in the middle.
The most obvious difference between the plagues of the first column and lice, boils, and darkness, the third column, is visibility. Lice are virtually invisible, boils have no visible cause, and darkness is the negation of visibility. The invisible plagues were brought about without any visible warning from the invisible God. These three plagues directly affect individuals, as opposed to the cataclysmic changes of the first three plagues. Even darkness, which might appear to be an objective change, is reported in terms of individual blindness: "people did not see one another". It is possible to make a case for calling the ninth plague "depression" rather than "darkness." The verb used to bring it about, veyamosh, literally means "was made palpable". The palpable darkness prevented individuals from interacting, "people did not see one other". It was so bad that "for three days they could not get up from under themselves." This sounds to me like a description of mass clinical depression. It was not from darkening of the sun, for there was light amongst the Israelites. We can sharpen the comparison between the first column and the third by examining the order within each column.
We have already noted that the first column reproduces a picture drawn by the first days of the creation in which the primal world consists of three levels, the upper and lower waters and the firmament between them. This is the objective world clearly seen by the light of day. The third column deals with personal experience, the itch of a mite, the discomfort of a skin eruption, and debilitating depression, "darkness". These three plagues are ordered experientially. They begin with an itch caused by the smallest of visible creatures, followed by a skin eruption that could have either an external or psychosomatic cause. Finally, there is a darkness of the spirit. The order is "internalization", from the outside inward. It points to a Job-like experience that forces an unmediated confrontation between the individual and God. The extreme columns have defined the separate realms of "public events" and "private experience", or perhaps, "objective" and "subjective" realities.
The substantial, public, Pharaonic world of the first column, meets the third column's private world of the spirit, in the central column. The common metaphor for the combination of the body-public and the private spirit is animal life, or simply life; the Hebrew for "animals", chayot, can also be read as "life", chayut. The central column is made up of frogs, livestock, and locust. It seethes and swarms with life- and death. From the lower world of the first row, rise up hordes of frogs. From the upper world of the third row, come down swarms of locust. In the middle are masses of domesticated flocks and herds. Clearly, the middle column contains living creatures, which join the objective physicality of the first column with the hidden spirit of the third column. Pharaoh, the hero of the first column, is presented as the ostensible master of matter. The invisible God who appears by Himself in the third column is the Master of the spirit. God and Pharaoh, spirit and flesh, meet in the middle column.
We have begun to see that there is meaning embedded in the tabular structure of the nine plagues. The three-by-three table appears to represent a philosophic system in which reality has three spatial dimensions, represented by the rows, and three qualitative dimensions, represented by the columns. The "context" of each plague is determined by the unique intersection of a spatial dimension and a qualitative dimension, much like a Cartesian co-ordinate system. Changing the metaphor, we can see that the text of the nine plagues is like a weave. It can be studied "warp and weft". This is the basic characteristic of tabular texts such as the nine plagues. They must be grasped as interwoven.
For further reading see:
The Creation Weave
A New Look at Genesis
The literary structure of the Decalogue
Design by Sadhana Ganapathiraju