Wednesday, March 14, 2007
Cow and Cobra
“God said, ‘Okay. Heaven’s for everybody.’ God never left anybody or anything out.”
-God Goes on Vacation by Edwina Gateley
New things begin as answers to very old questions. This is only one reason why it is unwise to forget the past. The other is that God never leaves anybody or anything out.
For all that Egypt had rejected him and enslaved his mother’s people, Moses was still an Egyptian and would have understood the divine in Egyptian terms. Egyptian mythology is deeply beautiful. In it, God is just as likely to appear as an ibis or a baboon as she is as slender Isis or the gentle cow-eared Hathor.
Egypt is a rainless land where fire, in the guise of Ra the sun, is sacred. The cobra and the cow guard the sun, the cobra in his hood, the cow between her brancing horns. Every night in cloudless Egypt, the sun is swallowed by Nut whose body was decked with stars and who gives birth to the sun each morning. The sun’s night-sea journey became for Carl Jung the incubator of dreams, where our conscious mind descended into the waters of the unconscious, and drew life from the blood of the feminine.
Should we be surprised, therefore, that when Moses met God it was a light shining through the branchy horns of a bush and his staff coming to life as a cobra? Is it blasphemy to see the burning bush as another variation of the unquenchable feminine force of life? Cow and cobra would become part of Israel's legend, too. Each would appear in the desert, each in its own time, each with its own lesson. And yet, there was something different in Israel's experience as well. By becoming not symbol, but being in itself, the fire that did not consume, God deepened our understanding of life beyond cow and cobra, ibis, baboon and human to the very elements that fashion us. Not only the creatures, but the earth also, lives.
The Golden Calf was probably not some bull of Assyria, but Hathor, the great mother goddess of Egypt. Hathor the cow is a very ancient being. Daughter of the sun god Re and the sky goddess Nut, friend of cobras, Hathor’s name means House of Horus and for a time, she was considered the mother of the falcon Horus until that honor passed to Isis. Horus, like the cobra, was a protector of Kings, god of sun and manhood and far vision, one eye the sun, one eye the moon, the speckles on his falcon breast the stars. He rests on the neck of Pharaoh, shielding him with his wings in a way that reminds me of something Moses himself said,
As an eagle stirs up her nest,
and hovers over her young;
as she spreads her wings, takes them up,
and bears them aloft on her pinions,
the Lord alone guided him; (Deut 32: 11:12a)
The way I experience the Divine will differ the way that you do, but that does not necessarily make one of us wrong and the other right. Who is anyone to name the infinite? That is only one reason why, in Judaism, God is simply Hashem, the Name.
Even as I worship One God, I worship the One who embraces, not excludes. I remember that Jesus, too, knew serpent and cow. Born in a manger, he later foreshadowed his death from an image from the Exodus. “And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” (John 3:14-15)
To look at Moses and the burning bush, to meet Hathor and Horus, to remember the tender moment when the cobra king raised its hood over the head of Prince Siddhartha to shield him from the rain, to see the cross as the serpent that heals us from all poison, is to go far from the world as we know it. It is to enter a truly storied world of wonders, a world that mere fact cannot contain. Which teaches me that to live as sacred beings on a sacred earth is ultimately to let go of everything I know.