The civilization of the homoeopathic gift

Greater than Guilt/4 - The almighty and defeated God teaches a kind of faith that changes everything

by Luigino Bruni

published in Avvenire on 11/02/2018

Piu grandi della colpa 04 rid“The most beautiful poems
are written on stones
with bleeding knees
and the mind sharpened by mystery.
The most beautiful poems are written
in front of an empty altar, 
surrounded by agents
of divine folly.
So that, criminally insane as you are,
you dictate verses to humanity
the verses of redemption
and biblical prophecies,
and you are Jonah’s brother.”

Alda Merini, ‘Our Triumph’  (‘Il nostro trionfo’); in: The Holy Land (Vuoto d’amore; English translation by Stephanie Jed and Pasquale Verdicchio)

“In those days the Philistines gathered for war against Israel, so Israel went out to engage the Philistines in war” (1 Sam 4:1b). After the great and wonderful night of Samuel’s vocation the scene changes, and the winds of war blow over Israel. A people already known to Israel makes its first appearance - and will accompany and fight her for many centuries: the Philistines. They are an ancient people of the sea that exercised political and cultural dominance over the entire region, linking it to its own name (Palestine, Philistia: the land of the Philistines). The scene changes, perhaps the narrator, too, but some elements of continuity remain. Among them are Eli, his children, and especially the Ark.

Samuel, the text says (chapter 3:3), slept next to the ark in the temple of Shiloh. It is not easy for us to understand today what the Ark of the Covenant, built by Moses during the Exodus on the explicit command of the Lord, really was. It was a small chest covered in gold, containing the Tablets of the Law. During the wanderings in the desert, it was transported covered with a cloth. When the people camped, the Ark was placed under a tent (the "tent of the meeting"). Above the ark, YHWH spoke face-to-face with Moses: “There I will meet with you” (Exodus 25:22) and talk to you. That small mobile chest was the sacrament of the Law, testimony to Moses' unique and extraordinary dialogues with the voice, a memorial of the Covenant of the twelve tribes with their different God.

For the man of the Antiquity, the visible things were always the sacrament of the invisible. The Ark of the Covenant was even more so, because for the Israelites it was the most sacred thing on earth, safeguarded in the sancta sanctorum of the temple of Shiloh and then in that of Jerusalem. At the same time, the Ark was also the reality that most bordered with the idols of wood or gold, hated so much by the Bible and the prophets. It resembled very much the baldachins and sarcophagi that the Egyptians and the Canaanite peoples carried in procession during their holy festivals. The God of Israel, YHWH, had revealed himself to their patriarchs and Moses as a truly different God, but the people chosen by that different God were very similar to their neighbours, as in their need to touch and see the gods, to magically use the divinity to gain favour for births and harvests, or defeat diseases and enemies. The Ark stood at the boundary between old and new, and like all boundaries and thresholds it was extremely dangerous, vulnerable and porous. We know from the Bible (and from life) that it is easy to pass from one terrain to another if the watchmen are not active and vigilant on the border. The prophets are the watchmen of the threshold that separates religion from idolatry; they are very precious guardians especially for religious people who are the first in danger of crossing the border. Without prophets we inevitably end up turning faiths into idolatries, even when we call our idols by the names of YHWH or Jesus. Because, just as with the Ark built following God's instructions, the most sacred realities that we receive as a gift are the ones to transform into idols, and without the prophets it is almost impossible to understand their metamorphosis from gift to idol. It is not surprising then that the beginning of the new prophetic era in Israel inaugurated by Samuel's vocation is accompanied by a great crisis of the Ark of the Covenant.

In the first battle with the Philistines, Israel suffers a heavy defeat: “Israel was defeated by the Philistines, who killed about four thousand men on the battlefield” (4:2). The defeat is read as a theological fact ("Why did the Lord defeat us"; 4:3), and the elders propose a solution: “Let’s bring the chest containing the Lord’s covenant from Shiloh so it can go with us and save us from our enemies’ power” (4:3). So they take the ark from the temple, and carry it to the battlefield, accompanied by Eli's two sons, who are (corrupt) priests from the temple of Shiloh where the Ark was kept. When they take the Ark into battle they behave exactly like the other peoples who took the statues of their warrior gods to the battlefield. They proclaim a different God, but behave like their idolater enemies. The arrival of the ark in the battlefield in fact provoked the screaming and terror of the fighters on both sides - similar scenes are, unfortunately, still seen in many tribal wars. But when “the Philistines fought. Israel was defeated, (...) It was a massive defeat: thirty thousand Israelite foot soldiers fell, God’s chest was taken, and Eli’s two sons Hophni and Phinehas died” (4:10).

The presence of the Ark did not prevent an even more devastating defeat, the ark being taken by the enemy and the sons of Eli falling in battle. The news arrives at Shiloh, even to the old Eli, who dies of a broken heart hearing the news of the death of his two sons in battle and the capturing of the Ark (“Eli fell backward off the chair beside the gate. His neck broke, and he died”; 4:18). His daughter-in-law dies, too, hearing the same news (“she doubled over and gave birth” 4:19).

Therefore, the defeat and the capture of the Ark represent not only a military event but also the dawn of a new religious, therefore human era: the separation of God from things, the holy from the sacred, religion from magic. It is a very long process present throughout the entire Bible, the history of the Church, and the history of each believer (consecrated or lay). In significance and tragedy the defeat of the Ark was analogous to the Babylonian conquest of 587 BC: a huge tragedy but also the beginning of a new faith that taught the people to pray without a temple and to believe in a God who was all-powerful and defeated.

The Philistines deposit the Ark in their temple, next to the statue of their main god: Dagon. The next day the Philistines find Dagon fallen face to the ground. They raise it back, but the next day when they return to the temple they see the statue of Dagon on the ground again. But this time it had also broken, and his head and hands had ended up on the threshold of the temple: “That’s why to this day Dagon’s priests or anyone else who enters his temple... doesn’t step on the threshold” (5:5). Dagon's fragments had touched the threshold, thereby contaminating it. This scene takes us directly into that ancient religious world, inside the "culture of the threshold" that separated the sacred from the profane, an indistinct sacred that always mixed with tremendum. A magical-sacred world that touched and largely embraced Israel in these first centuries of its history.

Among the many elements of these interesting chapters that are so rich in narrative details (some of which are very precious for the religious, anthropological and historical information they give us), the story of the strange offerings of the Philistines accompanying the restitution of the Ark is striking.

The capturing of the Ark turned out to be a misfortune for the Philistines. Tumours (or bubonic plague) and invasions of rats (which were believed to be the carriers of the plague) infested the cities in which the Ark was placed in those months, just like the plagues of Egypt. Up to the point when the people raised their voice, asking their leaders that the Ark be returned to the Jews: “Send the chest of Israel’s God away! Let it go back to its own home” (5:11). To hope for the end of disasters, however, it was not enough to restore the "bare property" of the Ark: in that ancient world gifts and offers also had to accompany the return of the Ark. But what gifts? The Philistines summoned their soothsayers and magicians, and they responded: “Five gold tumours and five gold mice” (6:4). So there is recourse to a homoeopathic principle (the like are treated with the like), which we can also find in the well-known episode of the book of the Exodus, when YHWH said to Moses: “Make a poisonous snake and place it on a pole. Whoever is bitten can look at it and live” (Numbers 21:8). In that episode, too, the boundary between magic and religion is unstable and porous, and that bronze snake was very, even too similar to those that the people had seen in Egyptian cults.

These ancient practices of homoeopathic gifts intended to serve as immunizers against some evil by using, symbolically, the same evil - like two negatives that become positive when multiplied. Among the many archaic and idolatrous traces that are returning strong and active in the capitalism of our time, the homoeopathic gift as a mechanism of immunization is particularly powerful and relevant, and not only in the economic environment. Just like those Philistines who donated five tumours and five mice, thinking that they would immunize them from the great evil of the plague, the great capitalist institutions try to immunize themselves from the great evil of the true gift (which would have the subversive force of imploding them, if left free to act within the relationships) by introducing tiny doses of gift into the system, which reproduce the true gift, and are more glittering. Gadgets, sales, donations to philanthropic institutions as well as incentives and prizes are the new tumours and mice "given as gifts" to try to keep the plague away. And as for the Philistines, for now this magical immunizing practice seems to work very well in our homoeopathic gift system.

The chapters of this first cycle of the Ark are all impregnated with elements of ancient and magical religions (in Israel and among the Philistines). But the strongest among all is the beginning of a new religious and therefore anthropological and social era. Israel, after the seven months of the Ark's absence, will regain and keep it until the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians (when it disappears), and will continue to live in an ambivalent relationship with it. But those seven months of faith in the "God of the ark without the ark of God" changed the nature of that Ark, faith, God and man. It was a religious and ethical exercise of that new faith in a truly different God, a deposit of the experience of the Babylonian exile where, without the temple, that faith would reach such maturity that it would generate many of those literary, theological and anthropological masterpieces that the Bible is made up of. Without the concrete experience of a defeated God with his people, of a tenacious faith that does not die despite losing first the Ark then the temple the Servant Songs, the book of Jeremiah and many psalms would never have been written, nor would we have the dialogue of Jesus with the Samaritan woman. Like us, who write the most beautiful chapters of our lives when we continue to believe in the love of those whom we can no longer touch in our soul, on the day when we finally discover that our earth is really left without the Ark and the temple, we will simply have learned to love life "in spirit and truth".

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