Thursday, September 29, 2011

The Bread of Heaven

"Seest thou not what they do in the cities of Judah and in the streets of Jerusalem? The children gather wood, and the fathers kindle the fire, and the women knead their dough, to make cakes to the queen of heaven, and to pour out drink offerings unto other gods, that they may provoke me to anger."
            —Jeremiah 7:17–18
But the people defended their worship of her, saying,

    "But we will certainly do whatsoever thing goeth forth out of our own mouth, to burn incense unto the queen of heaven, and to pour out drink offerings unto her, as we have done, we, and our fathers, our kings, and our princes, in the cities of Judah, and in the streets of Jerusalem, for then we had plenty of victuals and were well and saw no evil..."
            —Jeremiah 44:17

The Temple of Solomon, the first of the Hebrew temples, was designed to be a model of the cosmos. The two most sacred precincts of the temple were called the Holy Place and the Holy of Holies. These two precincts were separated by a special curtain that represented the border between the material and immaterial universe. It was woven of colors that represented the four elements of the natural world—air, fire, water, and earth. The Holy of Holies was the most sacred spot in the whole temple. It represented the timeless, immaterial, center of the universe, and was the place where the Presence of God, who was also called the Shekhinah and the Holy Spirit of God, dwelt. The word Shekhinah is from the root shachan/sakan, meaning “to dwell within,” with the additional implication that the dweller was a royal presence.

The Holy Place contained the sacred objects and implements necessary to the rituals of the temple, including the weekly offering of shewbread, or “Presence bread” which sat upon a special golden table. The Presence Bread was called the most holy food, most holy meaning that it had the ability to impart holiness to those who ate it. Twelve loaves of this special bread were baked fresh weekly. They sat on the table for the week, from Sabbath to Sabbath, becoming sanctified with the holiness and Presence of God in the Holy of Holies. On the Sabbath, an invocation of the Presence of God’s Holy Spirit into the bread was performed and the holy bread was eaten by the temple priests.

This weekly ritual of the sacred bread was, according to author Margaret Barker, not so much an offering to God but as a ritual of thanksgiving to God for the gift of the divine presence. (1) The  priests were consuming God’s spirit, God’s presence, and thereby partaking, in some small way, of the nature & divinity of God. This ritual was very like what later became the Catholic celebration of Holy Communion.

The priests performed this weekly ritual because they felt God had commanded it. The bread itself was considered an eternal covenant between the Hebrews and their God; the divine injunction for the priests to eat the Presence Bread was considered an eternal statute. (2) In other words, it was an important and mandatory part of the temple ritual.

Wisdom has prepared her meat and mixed her wine; she has also set her table.
She has sent out her maiden, and she calls from the highest places of the city,
“Let all who are simple come to my house!”
To those who have no sense she says,
“Come, eat my food and drink the wine I have mixed. Forsake the foolish and live; go in the way of understanding.”

 — Proverbs 9:2-6

The divine presence—the Shekhinah, the Ruach HaKodesh or Holy Spirit of God—that resided in the Holy of Holies was a feminine presence; we know this because the words referring to it—Ruach and Shekhinah—are feminine-gendered words. The Divine Presence was also equated with the feminine Biblical figure of Wisdom, God’s first creation / emanation, and his helper in the creation of the rest of the universe. (3)

All of this tells us quite clearly that the Spirit of God, God’s very presence in our world, was considered feminine. So the Divine Presence being ritually consumed by the priests of the temple each Sabbath was that of the feminine aspect of the divine, Wisdom, who, “set out her table” and called in “the simple” who wished to walk in the way of understanding (4) —Wisdom, the Goddess who was known in early Hebrew tradition as the Divine Mother Asherah, consort of El, and later, of Yahweh.

It was Asherah, the Divine Mother, who dwelt in the Holy of Holies. It was to the wise Asherah that the people condemned by Jeremiah were baking their cakes and offering their incense and libations.

Later, when strict monotheism became the order of the day, Asherah’s feminine nature was veiled under the more neutral description of “God’s Presence,” and “the Spirit of God,” or the “Holy Spirit.”

In erasing the presence of the feminine aspect of the divine, reformers, re-writers, and later, translators, have argued that Wisdom was not a Being but an abstract principle -- an aspect of the One God. But the evidence that the ancient Hebrew religion did indeed include the presence of the Goddess is found in the form of the Yahweh-Asherah shrines discovered by archaeologists, the countless small female statuettes that have been unearthed, references to the sacred poles known as “asherahs,” as well as the constant indignation of the monotheistic reformers and prophets (such as Jeremiah) concerning the people’s veneration of the Queen of Heaven. 

In the temple, both blood and bread offerings were made. Margaret Barker tells us that the bread  offerings were considered the most important. (5) So important, in fact, that the Sabbath bread ritual survived the destruction of the temple and became the challah bread that is blessed and consumed in every Jewish home during the weekly Sabbath meal.

The bread offering also survived as part of the Catholic mass in the form of the Holy Eucharist, or Holy Communion. The word “eucharist” means thanksgiving; the term “holy communion” implies a communing with the divine. In the Mass, just as in the Jerusalem Temple, the bread is offered to God and the Divine Presence of the Holy Spirit is invoked (the epiclesis). (6) The bread is consecrated by the power of the Holy Spirit, infused with the Divine Presence, and then is consumed by the priest as a means of communing with the Divine. He then distributes it to the people so that they, too, may share in this communion with the Divine.

Several passages in the Gospels equate Jesus with Wisdom, and many of the early Christian writings do so as well. And while Jesus was a wise being, it was thus that the feminine aspect of Wisdom became conflated with the masculine figure of Jesus. The temple ritual of the sacred bread became one in which the Divine Presence was consumed as his body and blood (7), and the concept of Wisdom as an honored feminine being, as the Divine Presence to whom offerings were made, was lost.

(1) Temple Themes in Christian Worship, pp 209-210
(2) __ , p 211
(3) — , pp 209-210
(4) Proverbs 9: 2-6
(5) Temple Themes in Christian Worship, pp 210

(6) The Roman church has changed this, but it is still done in many of the Eastern churches.
(7) Technically, the wine represent his blood. Wine was used in certain temple rituals and may have been representative of the covenant between God and his people. 

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