Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Seeing Speech, or God and the Senses (3): Synesthetic Visions of the Divine in Philo

While working on Christian hermeneutic mobilizations of Moses’ divine visions (or lack thereof), I am indulging myself by reading quite a lot of Philo's writings.  Philo was extraordinarily interested in the intellectual, contemplative vision of God, seeing with the mind’s eye rather than the bodily one.  Therefore, there is so much one could say about how Philo conceives of the possibilities and limitations of divine vision and how they relate to his most exemplary visionary, Moses, whom he refers to as the greatest and most perfect man who ever lived (Life of Moses 1.1), the most beloved of God (Migration of Abraham 67; On the Confusion of tongues 95-97), and the friend of God (Heir of Divine Things 21).  There are astounding discussions of Moses’ visions, especially concerning the burning bush (astounding for its rather unexpected reticence), Moses’ entrance into the darkness where God was, and Moses’ vision of archetypal reality (the “pattern of the Tabernacle”).  There are extensive discussions of Moses and the elders ascending the mount and seeing God (from Exod. 24) as well. Philo does not hold back to calling Moses "God," and gives him many of the same characteristics of the "Logos" (both, by the way, are archetypal high priests).
            These discussions are real gems that often have implications well beyond the passage itself, bits and pieces taken up again elsewhere in the treatise or in other treatises; they are overlapping discourses that one could spend a lifetime unraveling.   As usual, however, I am fascinated by things Philo says in passing.   Little things catch my attention and I want to unravel them.  One such remark is his discussion of synesthetic visions:  that is, seeing the divine voice (Given this instance of synesthesia, I am going to cross reference this discussion with my "God and the Senses" series).  Referring to Exod. 20:18 LXX—“all the people saw the voice”—Philo writes,
Now, a certain man, setting at nought this ordinance [about the Sabbath], though the echoes of the divine commands about the sacredness of the seventh day were ringing in his ears, commands promulgated by God no through His prophet but by a voice which, strange paradox, was visible and aroused the eyes rather than the ears of the bystanders, went forth through the midst of the camp to gather firewood, knowing that all were resting in their tents. (Life of Moses 2.213; trans. Colson LCL)
The point of the passage is to describe how the death penalty came about for abrogating the Sabbath command.  This ordinance is heightened by the fact that it is, according to Philo, given without the typical intermediary (Moses), but directly by the voice of God.  Yet, in a strange case of synesthesia, the divine voice is seen and not heard.  Although, as I have tried to show in other posts (see "God and the Senses" tag) that a fuller understanding of human-divine contact employs language from all of the senses, Philo distinctly privileges seeing over hearing (as do the Rabbis; see Mekhilta de-Rabbi Ishmael, Bahodesh, 2).  Those who hear are “Jacob,” but those who see are “Israel” (pick up a treatise nearly at random, and you’ll see Philo discussing at some point “Israel” and seeing).  He is interpreting a peculiar translation in the LXX of seeing the voice, but does so to heighten the importance of the Sabbath command.  He does not, however, reflect here on the paradox of seeing sound. 
That he does, however, in Migration of Abraham 47-53.  It is too long to quote in full, but there are some important points to quote at length:
For what life is better than the contemplative life, or more appropriate to a rational being?  For this reason, whereas the voice of mortal beings is judged by hearing, the sacred oracles intimate that the words of God are seen as light is seen; for we are told that “all the people saw the Voice” (Exod. 20:18), not that they heard it.  (Migration of Abraham 47; trans. Colson and Whitaker LCL)
Before proceeding to Philo’s explanation of seeing the divine voice, resolving the paradox, we have to understand why he brings it up at all.  Opening with the rhetorical question of what life is greater than the contemplative life—the answer is “none”—he proceeds to the foundational moment at Sinai.  All of the people at Sinai who see the divine voice are, in this way, prototypical contemplatives:  those who do not just hear, but who see the divine things.  Contemplating through the eye of the mind divine speech (which Philo does continually through commentary; his meditations on the Bible are themselves visual contemplations of the divine voice) is the way to ecstasy (see Migration of Abraham 34-35), the heights of ascend and divine sight.  See as Moses did; and, if not that advanced, as the Israelites did.  This is in contrast to Rabbinic discussions which saw the event as unique—that general would see the divine in a way that not even Isaiah or Ezekiel would (MRI, Shirta, 3; Bahodesh, 9; see further Deuteronomy Rabbah 7:8; cf. Numbers Rabbah 12:4).  Philo continues to explain this paradox of seeing divine speech:
For what was happening was not an impact on air made by the organs of mouth and tongue, but virtue shining with intense brilliance, wholly resembling the fountain of reason, and this is also indicated elsewhere on this wise:  “Ye have seen that I have spoken to you out of Heaven” (Exod. 20:22 LXX), not “ye heard,” for the same cause as before.  In one place the writer distinguishes things heard from things seen and hearing from sight, saying, “Ye heard a voice of words, and saw no similitude but only a voice” (Deut. 4:12 LXX), making a very subtle distinction, for the voice dividing itself into noun and verb and the parts of speech in general he naturally spoke of as “audible,” for it comes to the test of hearing:  but the voice or sound that was not that of verbs and nouns but of God, seen by the eye of the soul, he rightly represents as “visible.”…  This shews that words spoken by God are interpreted by the power of sight residing in the soul, whereas those which are divided up among the various parts of speech appeal to hearing. (Migration of Abraham 47b-49)
Philo explains the paradox of seeing speech by calling upon a couple things at once:  (1) the distinction between human and divine and (2) what exactly does the seeing.  Firstly, human speech is divided up into different parts of speech by vocal organs operating upon the air.  Throughout his writings, Philo is careful not to confuse human and divine qualities.  God does not have a mouth, so to speak, or organs of speech in the bodily sense.  Human speech is sequential and divided; the implication is the divine speech is a unity and, therefore, synchronic.  As he concludes:
The truth is that our sound-producer is not similar to the Divine organ of voice; for ours mingles with air and betakes itself to the place akin to it, the ears; but the divine is an organ of pure and unalloyed speech, too subtle for the hearing to catch it, but visible to the soul which is single in virtue of its keenness of sight. (52)
Secondly, bodily eyes cannot see the divine in Philo; the soul’s or Mind’s (the highest part of the soul) is what sees the divine.  There is also a hint of this in this passage.  In the intervening passage that I did not quote, Philo speaks of how things to be sensed and interpreted by the mind, as he says here, are attracted to those places “akin to it.”  So perfumes waft to the nose; savours to the tongue; etc.  Likewise, the divine voice is interpreted by the place most akin to it, which, oddly, is not the ears, but being a pure thing is interpreted by that “organ” of purity (if, indeed, it has been kept pure and virtuous), the soul.  The rational soul doesn’t smell, hear, taste, or touch; it “sees.” As Philo elsewhere waxes rhapsodic when the “voice of God came” to Moses:  “It suggests a loud, sonorous, continual appeal, pitches so as to spread abroad throughout the soul, whereby no part shall be left to which its right instruction has not penetrated, but all are filled from end to end with sound learning” (Heir of Divine Things 67).

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