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Nec Tamen Consumebatur. Exodus 3 and the Non-Consumable Other in the Philosophy of Emmanuel Levinas.

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  30 January 2009

Michael Purcell
45 Cocklaw StKeltyFife KY4 0DG


Brevard Childs, reflecting on the significance of Exodus 3 In the history of theology, comments:

In the history of Christian theology most of the major theological problems have entered into the discussion of Exodus 3. In the early and medieval periods the interest focused on the issue of ontology and divine reality; in recent years on revelation as history or history as revelation. The amazing fact is how seminal this one passage continues to be for each new generation.

Research Article
Copyright © Scottish Journal of Theology Ltd 1995

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1 Childs, B. S., Exodus, SCM Press, London, 1987, p.88.Google Scholar

2 One might question the legitimacy of employing scripture as a basis for philosophical reflection with the danger of a weakening of the rigour of philosophical thinking. But perhaps Emmanuel Levinas is correct to say: ‘At no moment did the Western philosophical tradition in my eyes lose its right to the last word; everything must, indeed, be expressed in its tongue; but perhaps it is not the place of the first meaning of beings, the place where meaning begins.’ (Ethics and Infinity, p.24–25) The first place of meaning is in the encounter which takes place between two people. Insofar as the text of Exodus 3 is the encounter par excellence be tween two people who maintain themselves in separation and distinction one from the other it is an original source of meaning which is food for reflection not only on the theological level, but also on the philosophical level.

3 B. Childs, op.cit., p.54 It is not my purpose to enter into the debate over the various levels and traditions which are incorporated in to this story, but to take the text as it stands. Childs terms ‘insightful’ the early work of Habel, who divides the episode into (i) the divine confrontation (1–3, 4a), (ii) the introductory word (4b–9), (iii) commission (10), (iv) objection (11), (v) reassurance (12a), (vi) sign (12). How can the dynamic of such an encounter, with its various moments, help us to articulate the dynamic of human inter-relations? Rather than transfer the insights of person-to-person relations to the human-divine relationship, how does an understanding of the human-divine relationship modify and correct our understanding of the person-to-person relation?

4 Childs, op.cit., p.72.

5 Childs, op.cit. p.87.

6 Childs, op.cit., p.72.

7 Durham, J. I., Word Biblical Commentary 3: EXODUS, Word Books, Texas, 1987, p.30.Google Scholar

8 Childs, op.cit. p.56. Italics my own.

9 Levinas, E., Totality and Infinity, Martinus Nijhoff, The Hague, 1979, p.22. Hereafter, TI.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

10 E. Levinas, TI, 22–23. For a concise explanation of the philosophical notion of infinity in the present context, see Levinas, E., Philosophy and the Idea of Infinity, in Collected Philosophical Papers, M. Nijhoff, The Hague, 1987CrossRefGoogle Scholar. The main point is that infinity is not so much a matter of distance, but rather that, even in his proximity to us, the other still remains beyond our possibilities of comprehension. The Cartesian insight, in Meditations on First Philosophy, of the subject's idea of infinity is an insight into the fact that, in thinking the infinity, the subject actually thinks more than it thinks, for the ideatum surpasses its idea.

11 Childs, op.cit. 88–89.

12 Elevinas, , Othenwise than Being or Beyond Essence, Lingis, A. (tr), Martinus Nijhoff, the Hague, 1981, p.144.Google Scholar

13 Levinas, , Ethics and Infinity, Conversations with Philippe Nemo, Cohen, R. A. (tr), Duquesne University Press, Pittsburgh, 1985, p.109Google Scholar. (First published as Ethique et Infini, 1982.)

14 Levinas, Emmanuel, Existence and Existents, Lingis, Alphonso (tr), Martinus Nijhoff, The Hague, 1978. Hereafter, EE.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Wyschogrod, Edith, in Emmanuel Levinas: The problem of ethical metaphysics. The Hague, 1974CrossRefGoogle Scholar, points out that whereas in his later works Lévinas uses the term ‘desire’ to ‘designate an effect inadequate to its object’ (p.20) in his earlier works, such as Existence and Existents, ‘desire’, like ‘need’ is satiable.

15 ibid, p.43.

16 ibid., p.44.

17 E Levinas, EE, 45.

18 E Levinas, TI, 172.

19 ibid., p.43.

20 E Levinas, TI, p. 157.

21 The classic philosophical articulation of such a subject-centred world is surely evident in Heidegger's Being and Time, where the world is presented as something which is there ultimately as a possibility for the subject's own being, and things within the world are ontologically defined by their relationship to Dasein. Speaking of the involvement of things (Zeuge) within the world he writes: ‘The fact that it has such an involvement is ontologically definitive for the Being of such an entity, and is not an ontological assertion about it. That in whicli it is involved is the “towards-which” of serviceability, and the “for-which” of usability.’ Using the example of a hammer, Heidegger develops the notion: the hammer is involved in hammering, which is for making something fast, for protection against bad weather, and this is ultimately for the sake of [um-willen] providing shelter for Dasein.' Dasein is that being who is ‘the sole authentic “for-the-sake-of-which”’ all other entities are. (Being and Time, McQuarrie, J. (tr), Harper and Row, NY, 1962, pp. 116117.Google Scholar)

One would have to recognise, however, that in his later work Holzwege, where he speaks of the power of poetry, the subject is called into question by the poetic word addressed to him. Taylor, Mark, in Altarity, (University Press of Chicago, 1987)Google Scholar, in a chapter on Heidegger entitled ‘Cleaving’ writes that, for the subject, to be in the presence of the poetic word, is ‘[t]o hear the “inhuman”, “anonymous”, “uncanny” murmur of the holy [which] is to become open to that which cannot be conceived, grasped, mastered, or controlled.… By “tolling” (laÜten) the “trace” (Spur) of the holy, poetry sounds the “death-knell” (Toten-geläut) of the all-knowing, constructive subject of modern philosophy.’ (p.58) In recognising the power of poetry, Heidegger, in his later work, acknowledges the displacing power which the Other, by speaking, has with respect to the subject.

22 Levinas, E. The Ego and Totality, in Collected Philosophical Papers, Lingis, A. (tr), Martinus Nijhoff, 1987 (first published in Revue de Métaphysique et de Morale, 59, pp.353–73), p.44.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

23 ibid., p.45.

24 E. Levinas, TI, 21.

25 Maurice Blanchot, reflecting on the biblical account of Cain's killing of Abel, asks, ‘Why did Cain kill Abel?’ Both were engaged in the economics of work and production, yet Cain maintained himself in an economical framework centred on himself, which admitted of no place for anything exterior to his own domain. Abel, however, offered the first-fruits to the Lord beyond. Cain affirmed himself as the centre of life, and God, as exterior, was second; Abel recognised the mastery of the Lord in his life, acknowledged his presence, placing himself in a position of subservience. Cain and Abel symbolise two differing orders; the economic order of Cain where the self dominates and others are seen as a function of the self; and the transcendent order of Abel where recognition is given to the other and response made. Two orders which the one world is not able to contain. Hence, the only alternative presents itself to Cain: either Abel can be accommodated within his world of the self, or Abel can be removed in order that Cain's world survive. And so the first fratricide — the model of all other murders — is accomplished. As Blanchot comments, when confronted with the other who contests my power of possession, ‘the choice is dialogue or murder’. Blanchot continues: ‘when Cain kills Abel, it is the self which, confronted with the transcendence of the other person (that which in other people goes beyond me absolutely and which is well represented in biblical history by the incomprehensible inequality of divine favour), tries to face up to it through recourse to the transcendence of murder.

‘But are these two transcendences of the same order, and what can discussion of them signify? To Abel, Cain says; with regard to that by which you claim to go beyond me, your dimension of infinite and absolutely exterior being, that which places you beyond my reach, I will show that I am I the master, for insofar as I have power, I am master of the absolute, and I have made death one of my possibilities.

‘It is because, for Cain, this infinite presence of Abel had become an obstacle, like a thing belonging to Abel and of which he had to deprive him.… Because the presence of the other to another is not welcomed by the self as a movement by which the infinite approaches the self, because this presence closes in upon another like a property of other people in the world, because it ceases to yield to his word, the world ceases to be big enough to be able to contain at the same time the other and the self, and it is necessary for one of them to reject the other—absolutely.’ (Entretien Infini, Gallimard, pp. 86–87)

26 Levinas, E., The Ego and Totality, p.45.Google Scholar

27 ibid., p.44–45.

28 ibid., p.45.

29 Such exorbitance is termed by Levinas infinity. The concept of infinity is opposed to that of totality. The totalising tendency seeks to incorporate whatever is other into some impersonal system embraced by an over-arching concept. Infinity, on the other hand, signifies the transcendence of the other person who is unable to be compassed by any thought or by any system, and whose very presence, as infinite, calls into question the possibility of comprehensive thought and embracive system.

30 E. Levinas, TI, p. 162.

31 E. Levinas, EE, p.43.

32 loc.cit.

33 Aristotle, Metaphysics, Book 1.

34 ‘Dans la jouissance, je suis absolument pour moi. Egoiste sans référence à autrui — je suis seul sans solitude, innocement égoiste et seul. Pas contre les autres, pas “quant à moi” — mais entièrement sourd à autrui’ (TI).

35 See Levinas, , Humanisme de l'autre homme, Fata Morgana, 1972, p.49.Google Scholar

36 TI, 33.

37 TI, 34.

38 idem. ‘Le Désirable ne comble pas mon Désire mais le creuse, me nourrisant, en quelque manière, de nouvelles faims.’

39 idem.

40 TI, 35. Such an ‘invisible’ is not to be strictly identified with God, who is supremely Other, but rather with the other person, for we are saying that each person manifests his own infinity which is utterly beyond possession by the self.

41 Augustine, Confessions, X, 6.

42 Augustine, op.cit., X, 27.

43 Levinas, TI, 26.

44 Although there is the command ‘Thou shalt not kill, which shines forth from the face of the other, the possibility of killing is not thereby removed. Moral imperative is not ontological necessity.

45 Levinas,TI, 172.

46 E. Levinas, Collected Papers, p.45.

47 One need only reflect how the verb possidere (to possess) can be rendered by esse with the thing possessed being subject and the possessor in the dative. To possess is to take something self-standing and engulf it into another subject.

48 Psalm 49, 10 (Grail).

49 Levinas, E., Humanisme de l'autre homme, Fata Morgana, 1972, p.45 Hereafter, HAH.Google Scholar

50 E. Levinas, HAH, p.44.

51 Levinas, HAH, p.46. “Nous travaillons dans le présent, non pour le présent.…… Que l'avenir et les plus lointaines choses soient la règie de tous les jours presents (Nietzsche)’

52 Levinas, TI, p. 176.

53 E. Lev1Nas, Collected Papers, p.45. Levinas does not want to lessen the criticism of money which has been made from the prophet Amos (2, 6) to Marx's Communist Manifesto, namely ‘its power to buy man’, but recognises that the distribution of justice must, in some way, be quantifiable. Money, by which the quantification of the person is achieved, supplies the category for ensuring justice to others, precisely on account of its exchange value. There can be not justice ‘without quantity and without reparation’.

54 E. Levinas. TI, p.52.