Hebraic Draughts

Rough drafts of thoughts, following reading, studying and teaching Hebrew and Jewish texts.

Philo’s Self-Interpretation

 

There is no surprise that Philo reads God’s commandment to Abraham in Gn 12 allegorically. As with all allegorical readers, some confusion remains unclarified regarding the status of the peshat, once the instructive allegory has been accomplished: did God speak these words to Abraham at a certain point in history, and intended him to leave his country, homeland and father’s house, or is it only allegorical? These are not the only two options, of course: God may speak, and mean only the allegorical meaning (with no intention of asking Abraham to migrate); or the entire story may be allegorical; or it is a historical event that God designed to serve as an allegory for all, and so on and so forth, but I fear I digressing into an overly Wittgensteinean reading of Philo.

Philo sets down the allegory in a straightforward manner, like a deciphered code:

‘Land’ or ‘Country’ (γῆ) is a symbol of body (σῶμα), ‘kindred’ (συγγένεια) of sense-perception (αἴσθησις), ‘father’s house’ of speech (λόγος). [Migration of Abraham 1]

As is often the case, the oddity of Philo’s translation is based on the LXX rendition of the word. Alter probably translates it best as “birthplace,” and notes that “kinsfolk” would make it synonymous with “father’s house.” In defense of the LXX, one should note it does preserve the connection between מולדת and תולדות – an important theme of Genesis.

Back to Philo: in explaining the third part of this allegorical commandment, that is, why one should leave one’s logos, he says:

Again, quit speech also, ‘your father’s house’ as he [Moses] calls it, for fear you should be beguiled by beauties of mere phrasing, and be cut off from the real beauty, which lies in the matter expressed. Monstrous it is that shadow should be preferred to substance or a copy to originals. And verbal expression is like a shadow or copy, while the essential bearing of the matters conveyed by words resembles substance and originals. [Migration 12]

There is great pleasure in seeing this middle Platonist talking about the weakness of shadows, but the allusion to the Cave is just an extra benefit of this section. This is a remarkable passage, because in Philo’s exposition of Abraham’s migration he includes a justification for his own allegorical method: depart from speech, because words are not substance, and they should always be secondary to substance. This is precisely the reason that he disposes of the literal meaning of the text whenever it fails to meet the platonic substance he cherishes so dearly.

The relationship between “father’s house” to “speech” remains intuitive in his interpretation, and it will take two millennia for Lacan to arrive and explain this parallel, which Philo takes for granted.

 

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