I Saw God on the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway
Jeffrey Israel has taught religion and political philosophy at Northwestern
University and Rutgers University. He currently teaches Jewish history at Eugene
Lang College of The New School in New York City. He has a Ph.D. in religious ethics from the University of Chicago.
Sometime in the first half of the first millennium B.C.E. a group of Canaanites distinguished themselves from their neighbors by advocating the worship of Yahweh alone, to the exclusion of other Canaanite gods like Baal and Asherah. In the Hebrew Bible, the passion of this early movement may be attested in the stories about Elijah and Elisha in I and II Kings, in the prophetic outcry of Hosea, and elsewhere. It presumably reached its apotheosis in the community established in Jerusalem by Ezra and Nehemiah. According to their eponymous books, Ezra and Nehemiah returned to Judea from Babylonian exile with the help of the Persian emperor in the middle of the first millennium B.C.E. Their community, defined by its singular covenant with Yahweh, is linked in a chain of tradition to Jewish communities spanning the Common Era up to the present day.
I can only imagine the delight, the genuine thrill, that an early Yahweh-alone advocate would have felt had he been transported through time into the backseat of my Honda Accord and seen, as I did, the Hebrew letters “YHWH” emblazoned in white on a black background on an enormous billboard above the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway. Sure, the billboard is sponsored by American Atheists and is meant to challenge the practice of worshipping Yahweh. But after roughly two and half thousand years, the fact that there are still organized opponents who find it necessary publicly to oppose Yahweh worship represents a huge success for Yahwism. You’re not going to find any giant billboards hovering over American highways opposing the worship of Chemosh!
Since the chain of tradition that spans from the Jerusalem of Ezra and Nehemiah links up with me at some point, all the way to me dressing up my two-year-old as a pirate on Purim last week, the billboard also had the opposite of its intended affect on me. The ancient Hebrew letters in this powerful combination utterly overwhelmed the effort of the billboard’s sponsors to profane them.
It conjured in my mind the horrifying image of a man with newfangled fire-resistant gloves grabbing and raising aloft a flaming piece of wood, screaming out: “don’t you see! We no longer need to be afraid!” – only slowly to be engulfed by the flames, defiance morphing into shrieks of pain, and finally consumed.
I had in mind something like the scene at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark, when the Nazis open up the Ark of the Covenant and gaze with wonder and satisfaction at the swooping apparitions that they have brought forth, only soon after to have their faces melted off.
The billboard also undermines itself with the first clause of its catchphrase “You know it’s a myth… and you have a choice.” Consider, for instance, how Wendy Doniger describes myths in her book The Implied Spider: Politics and Theology in Myth.
“a myth is a story that is sacred to and shared by a group of people who find their most important meanings in it; it is a story believed to have been composed in the past about an event in the past, or, more rarely, in the future, an event that continues to have meaning in the present because it is remembered” Page 2.
(Doniger’s view of myth is incredibly rich and complex and goes well beyond what is represented in this passage; do read the whole book and the rest of her work if you’re interested in the best scholarship on this subject.)
The revelation of the name Yahweh to Moses on the mountain in Exodus 3:13-15 is indeed a myth in Doniger’s sense. It is sacred to Jewish people who preserve its memory and find inexhaustible meaning in it.
Perhaps the billboard should have read: “You know it’s a fiction.” But is it merely a fiction? Doesn’t the fact that it is a shared basis of group identification for some set of people who sanctify it distinguish the story of Yahweh from most stories that we would describe as fictions?
Yes, it is a myth. But this is a distinction that indicates its power and presence in people’s lives, not its emptiness.
The second clause of the billboard’s catchphrase is much stronger: “and you have a choice.” This is both a courageous and morally commendable message.
It is courageous because of the still dominant taboo against challenging the inevitability, authority, and worthiness of one’s own and other people’s myths. Since I care deeply about free inquiry, freedom of expression, and individual liberty – or perhaps because these are attached to a myth about American democracy that trumps all of the other myths that I sanctify – I lament and oppose the dominance of this taboo.
The second clause is morally commendable insofar as it frees people who feel stifled by their myths or myth-centered communities to imagine unburdening themselves.
Unfortunately, it is questionable whether or not people can extricate themselves from the power of myths that they have once sanctified. If they can’t, even when they want to, then the billboard might as well hover over a poor, jobless, stigmatized, crime-ridden, environmentally polluted neighborhood and read: “Be Happy!”
The billboard that I saw is apparently one of several. There are others targeting other myths. They ought to be welcomed onto roads that also offer “Jesus Is The Answer.” Nevertheless, on American roads these billboards may ultimately prove self-defeating: they lack the gravity necessary to ground the myths that they evoke.
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