The Divine Secret

“See that you say nothing to any one; but go, show yourself to the priest,” said Messiah to the leper in Mark 1:43. Scholars have long dubbed this theme in Mark the “Messianic secret.”

For a different reason, though actually I think a related reason, there is an older theme about God in the Hebrew scriptures, a theme of secrecy and mystery. Just as in the case of the Messianic secret theme of the New Testament, the times most prone to the secrets of God being revealed are times of close encounter. And in several instances of this close encounter, the word of the angelic being representing God is secrecy.

“Pray tell me your name,” said the patriarch Jacob to the divine being (angel?) with whom he wrestled by the Jabbok. “You must not ask my name!” the divine being replied (Gen 32:30, JPS translation). J. Abelson comments, “A mysterious secrecy hedged round the names of angels as well as the Divine Name in the Bible” (The Immanence of God in Rabbinical Literature). What is this Divine secret about?

One of the classics of Christian devotion is The Cloud of Unknowing by an anonymous 14th century Englishman. The title of the book comes from Mount Sinai, where God was encased in the cloud, and the wilderness, where his Glory was a fire hidden within a cloud. The thesis of the book, which is, in my opinion good if taken with relativity and not as an absolute, is that we cannot know God with regular knowledge but should know him instead with our faculty of loving. That is, intellectual knowledge will not penetrate the cloud hiding the Glory, but relational and contemplative knowledge can and will.

The theme of Divine secrecy occurs in many stories. J. Abelson strings examples together, including the encounter Manoah and his wife had when the angel came to announce the birth of Samson. Manoah said, “What is your name? We should like to honor you when your words come true” (Judges 13:17, JPS) and the angel replied, “You must not ask for my name; it is unknowable!”

Likewise, when Moses asked about the Divine Name he was told, “Ehyeh-asher-ehyeh . . . thus shall you say to the Israelites, ‘Ehyeh sent me to you'” (Exod 3:14). The Hebrew phrase could be rendered “I am what I am” or “I will be what I will be.” All things derive from God. He does not derive from created things. To compare him to created things is the wrong direction. Created things have their form and meaning from him, not the other way around. And Moses and the Israelites will have to live with a certain secrecy, a certain patient waiting to experience who God is.

In the case of the Messianic secret of the gospels, the purpose seems to be a simple one: the people will tend to define a Savior or Messiah figure in selfish terms. But Yeshua will not be defined this way. Our being derives from him and not the other way around. He will not conform to human expectations, but will show us what redemption really looks like and the challenge is given to us to see and receive, not to define and authorize. He is King and we are servants, even though the King serves like no other.

In the case of the Divine secret of the Torah and Hebrew Bible, God will not become an idol. His immanence (nearness, indwelling people and creation) is a subject all too easily abused by a people who see spirits in living things and forces of nature. The immanence of God can only be properly understood by those who know, “My thoughts are not your thoughts, my ways not your ways.”

And in our modern scene of religious ferment and shallowness, we need to hear this. Sterile religion sees God as only far away, the clockmaker praised from below to no practical effect. Manipulative religion sees God as only near, intimate, and here to serve human desires and needs. Masses turn out to get the blessing with no view of the Majesty.

But God is hidden in a cloud of unknowing, in a Divine secret. We perceive, but our intellect can only take us so far. We love and there we penetrate more deeply. We love people in whom we find the image of God. We love ourselves because of God and in that love we find even more closely the image of God. We love God through what we can discern of him by our faculty of love and we sense something vast, purely good, and unending.

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4 Responses to The Divine Secret

  1. louise says:

    Derek: this is a very moving ‘homily’ from your heart and mind today. thank you, and with thanks to the LORD of LORDS who inspires you.

    “For a different reason, though actually i think a related reason, there is an older theme about God in the Hebrew scriptures, a theme of secrecy and mystery…revealed ..at times of close encounter……” yes, how very true. it always seems so obvious the way you are able to tie things together! !

    and then this good thought you shared with us, Derek—“..we cannot know God with regular knowledge but should know Him instead with our faculty of loving.”

    All well said. printed this off to include with study beginning tomorrow using your book A NEW LOOK AT THE O.T.

  2. Derek Leman says:

    Thanks, Louise. And thank you for your help as an advance reader for YESHUA FOR SMALL GROUPS. You are keeping me on my toes! The small group study will be much better because of your time and effort.

    I am by life experience a rationalist and I still place a high value on logic and reason, but life is teaching me (and many others) the value of other kinds of knowledge. I think the elevation of science to an exaggerated place in human knowledge has blinded many of us to the wider world of wisdom-knowledge-perception. I am thankful for science’s advances and I am proud of my oldest daughter, a chemist, but there is more to knowledge than testable facts and observations.

  3. Andrew T. says:

    Derek,

    You’ve said it well. There are many ways of knowing, and they must be balanced. On the one hand, the hard-nosed rationalist argues the Divine out of the picture altogether. Only what can be reproduced in a laboratory or demonstrated in an equation is reality to this person. A life-changing and profound Near-Death Experience in which God is encountered…that’s just brain chemicals. On the other hand, religious authorities tend to be self-serving, making God in their own image. Why are Christian fundamentalists so focused on hell? Is it because they really care about your soul, or is it more to do with the fact that nothing keeps fear alive like good old fire and brimstone? Or if an ultra-Orthodox man finds out that there is nothing inherently holy about wearing a black hat, it’s as if he has gone off the derech, because he won’t mindlessly imitate. Or if someone in either community has a life-changing NDE that conflicts with long-standing theology, he’d be amiss to share it, because of course this “heretical” vision of his could only be from the Satan. Both extremes have missed the narrow gates of heaven of which Yeshua spoke, gates which few find. Personally, I discern God in the simple chesed of Yeshua of Nazareth, Mother Theresa or Rabbi Carlebach more than in all the works of the scientists and theologians.

  4. Allison says:

    Interesting post, Rabbi Leman. I always thought that G-d must be unfathomable to our mere human minds. You talk about that same idea in a very interesting way here.

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