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Revelation and the God of Israel (review)
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Modern Judaism 24.1 (2004) 93-100

Norbert Samuelson, Revelation and the God of Israel (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002). x + 259 pp.

Revelation in the ordinary sense of the word is an everyday experience, or at least it can be. It refers to moments of illumination, recognition, or insight. In the context of the history of religion, on the other hand, revelation refers to the extraordinary insight into a reality that is usually hidden and is of great existential importance for an entire community. In this sense, the word revelation (from the Latin revelatio) is the equivalent of the Greek word apocalupsis (apocalypse). It is the kind of revelation found in apocalyptic literature (e.g., in the biblical book of Daniel or the Fourth Book of Ezra in the apocryphal books), and this literature is what determined our use of the word revelation in a religious context.

Revelation in the ordinary sense is still a common, if hyperbolic, term. Religious revelation, however, has become problematic. For the apocalyptists, the earth was at the center of the universe and was surrounded by spheres of superior beings whose true essence was hidden from the gaze of the ordinary person, the firmament serving as a screen behind which God was engaged in managing the affairs of the sublunar sphere. Although we no longer picture ourselves as living in a Ptolemaic cosmos, we inadvertently perpetuate the psychology of geocentrism. Hence, as is the case with other words whose metaphoric value is tied to a dated cosmology, revelation still functions in modern religious discourse even though it had to undergo considerable changes in meaning in order to be able to do so. Revelation may no longer refer literally to the apocalyptic gaze at the backstage where divine agents pull the strings that cause the seemingly erratic motions on the stage of human history. But while modern man no longer wishes to have his strings pulled, he still feels enamored with the possibility of revelation. But what is revelation to the modern autonomous man who conceives of himself as a free agent in the arenas of private and public action? Is it the revelation of the moral law itself, discovered by the human genius in response to the experience of thepresence of (divine) alterity? Because modern man considers religion as the projection of human hopes onto the screen of heaven (Feuerbach), he is also able to interpret revelation as the metaphor of our profoundest encounters with the Universe/the Absolute/the Other/the Holy/and so on. The only difference seems to be that we do with full awareness what our parents did naively.

But how is it possible for a religious concept like revelation to take on such profoundly different meanings? Why is it not, instead, entirely discarded, replaced by something more fitting to the changed worldview of the religionists? Or is it, rather, that, for psychological or other reasons, changes in worldview must be hidden behind words that stay the same even though their meanings change? In any case, in order to possess such malleability, divine revelation must be something broader than the cosmological images by which it is accompanied at any given time. As the symbol of a profound continuum of human experience, the concept must represent a fundamental human need.

Norbert Samuelson's recent work on the concept of revelation presupposes the shift in meaning that we discern in the usage of broad religious concepts such as revelation. Revelation and the God of Israel (Cambridge, 2002) is the sequel to Judaism and the Doctrine of Creation (Cambridge, 1994) and thus the second part of Professor Samuelson's exposition of the classical triplet of the doctrines of creation, revelation, and redemption. In order to make these broad dogmatic concepts manageable, Samuelson limits the scope of his inquiry to a summary of the biblical plot and to definitions of revelation extracted from a few representatives of medieval Jewish philosophy and modern Jewish theology. After he establishes the meanings of the concept in each context, that is, the meaning of revelation in the context of biblical literature, its meaning in the context of medieval philosophy, and finally its meaning in the context of modern...

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