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v2.1 Reference

Your God is a Devouring Fire

Fire as a Motif of Divine Presence and Agency in the Hebrew Bible

In the ancient Near East, the distinction between the divine realm and the material world was not always clear. In Mesopotamia, statues, kings, and even cultic utensils could become "gods" in their own right. Certain biblical traditions show this idea as well. Yhwh appears as a human during visitations to Abraham and Jacob (Gen 18:1-2 and 32:25-31). Yhwh also can act through objects (Gen 15:17; 1 Sam 5:1-5). This suggests that, in Israel as in Mesopotamia, a distinction between humans and gods was one of status more than ontology. Throughout the ancient Near East, religious literature included motifs that emphasized divine status, such as power, size, wonder-working ability, and the possession of numinous qualities.

In Israel, these divine "status symbols" were frequently storm motifs like cloud, precipitation, and fire. Fire was one of the most common, perhaps because, being vivid and powerful, it shared Yhwh's life-giving, transformative, yet dangerous qualities. In certain narratives, fiery motifs accompany an embodied divine presence. At other times, fiery phenomena are the sole perceptible indications of divine presence. As a motif of divinity, fire can symbolize divine agency even functioning at a distance from Yhwh or shared with a secondary agent like an angel, tool, or weapon. Israel's extensive use of fire in the cult gives witness to similar traditions. Divine fire accompanies each new cultic inauguration in the Hebrew Bible. A tradition in Leviticus suggests that this fire remained continuously burning and served as a "gate" that allowed God to received portions of the cultic offering.

In the Hebrew Bible, fire was thus a "status symbol" of divinity, drawn from traditional storm motifs and ancient conventions of divine embodiment. In its vivid ethereal appearance and power to give, transform, and take life, it symbolized the presence and agency of Yhwh, the God of Israel.

About the Author

Michael Simone, SJ is professor of Sacred Scripture at Boston College
Catholic Biblical Association

9780915170555 : your-god-is-a-devouring-fire-simone
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