In my mind (and maybe in reality, who knows?) the beginning of the via negativa in the West has its roots in the anti-authoritarianism of the ancient Hebrews, who gave us first the prophets, then the great wisdom literature of Job, Ecclesiastes, certain psalms, and of course the Proverbs. The process of redaction involved — among many other things — the principle that context could alter content, sometimes by 180 degrees. Pagan hymns such as Psalms 19 and 104 and the Song of Songs were not shunned, but captured and converted. Popular sayings were elevated by inclusion within aristocratic compositions about the ineffable.
A fascinating article from a recent issue of the Journal for the Study of the Old Testament (27:2, Dec. 2002, 223-235), by Laura Joffe, references Douglas Adams in its title, “The Answer to the Meaning of Life, the Universe and the Elohistic Psalter.” (In Adams’ comic novel Life, the Universe and Everything, the answer to the meaning of life is revealed to be . . . 42!) Here’s the abstract. (Apotropaic means ‘designed to avert evil.’)
“This article asks why the Elohistic Psalter (Pss. 42-83) was commissioned. It is suggested that the Elohistic Psalter was constructed in order to invoke a ‘magic triangle’ (comprising God’s name, the number 42, and a blessing) for some apotropaic purpose. It is argued that this theory gains credence from two areas: first, the importance of numerical organization of large groups of Psalms; and, second, the history of the number 42, which in biblical times was a number of disaster, and in later Jewish tradition became associated with a protective name of God.”
I’m no big fan of numerology, but toward the end of the article Joffe gets at a point that has always been of great interest to me: “How does the biblical curse of 42 relate to the Elohistic Psalter — the blessing of 42? Blessing and cursing themselves are closely related concepts, often mentioned together (Deut. 11.26-28; Josh. 8.34; Ps. 109.17-18; Prov. 27.14). In the prose prologue to Job, the same root [Hebrew letters given] serves for both blessing (1.21) and cursing (1.5, 11; 2.5).”
So in Job’s famous renunciation speech — “Naked came I out of my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return thither: the Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord” — may we hear a little ambiguity, even irony, in that “blessed”? It’s even more a matter of interpretation with Job’s wife’s sole speaking part. In light of this new information, I would advocate switching “curse” to “bless” in the translation, enhancing the bitterness with sarcasm: “Then his wife spoke up and said, “Why do you still cling to your faith? Bless God and die.”
Joffe continues with other examples from the Old Testament, concluding, “The curse of 42 that invoked the name of God could be effectively warded off by a blessing that also involved 42 and the name of God.” In a footnote, she wisely points out that “Using like to fight like features highly in both the ancient and modern worlds. The eye that protects against the evil eye, homeopathic medicine and immunization, are all examples of the same thing.”
“GodDAMN!” one may say with the utmost reverence, upon seeing something particularly striking (usually a woman). The simplest invocation of all — “Oh, God!” — may operate as both blessing and mild oath at the same time, depending on the circumstances: for example, in the throes of sexual rapture.
This will get us into the even murkier territory of distinguishing between sacred and profane, if we go any further. Best to leave it alone for now.