On Monday, Esther Hamori, an associate professor of Hebrew Bible at Union Theological Seminary in New York, presented the 2019 Samuel Iwry Lecture on "The Biblical God and His Entourage of Monsters" for the Department of Near Eastern Studies.
The lecture explored different forms and meanings of biblical monsters in both the Old Testament and the New Testament.
Before delving into her discussion of biblical monsters, Hamori first established the significance of the existence of monsters.
“Monsters have meaning. Wherever they appear, they reflect something about what their creator thinks, how they see the world,” she said. “Frankenstein reflects anxiety about the frontier of science and technology while Dracula reflects anxiety about sexuality and immigration. Monsters raise questions. Monsters makes you think.”
Hamori then presented her theory of the monster family tree.
She categorized the classic monsters into various categories based on traits such as formlessness, deformation and otherworldliness.
“No monster has all of these traits, but all monsters have some,” she said. “The biblical world is full of monsters exhibiting these classic monster traits in varying combinations.”
Hamori pointed out that in the Bible, there are monsters on earth, under the ground and beneath the seas. These monsters are usually presented as God’s opponents and have a tendency to wreak havoc on the world.
However, Hamori stated her belief is that the Bible argues that the monsters which come from heaven and are in fact part of divine court are the most fearsome.
“As the biblical monster population comes into focus, one chilling feature stands out; most of the monsters from the Bible and the most dangerous and deadly of them, those that kill the most people, aren’t God’s opponents, they are his entourage,” she said. “The point I want to prioritize is the big picture — the overwhelming pattern of God’s violent deployment of each type of monster within his company of monsters even across sources, periods and genres.”
Hamori uses an Old Testament example where God sends down “fiery serpents,” or nehashim seraphim in Hebrew, to punish a group of irreverent Israelites. She stated that God then says he will save the group if Moses makes a bronze statue of a serpent and hangs it on a pole for people to pay homage to as a symbol of his power.
Hamori explained that these serpents are also tied to the Uraei, Egyptian cobras used in Ancient Egypt to signify royalty and divine authority, and that the Uraei appeared on Tutankhamun’s tomb as a representation of God’s protection and vengeance.
“God uses seraphim in this story in ways that reflect both aspects of the Uraeus,” she said. “First, to spit burning venom to kill his enemies, and then to offer protection to an assault he orchestrated.”
Hamori explained that numerous Biblical stories use seraphim as a weapon against those that do not respect God’s authority.
“In each case, God uses the seraphim to injure, threaten or kill people he deems to be insufficiently reverent. The seraphim serves classic monster function,” she said. “They are behavioral border guards sent out to kill or intimidate people into compliance.”
Hamori also discussed the role of cherubim in the Bible, who act as guardians of the Garden of Eden and which she said are depicted in Biblical imagery to have two pairs of wings and the faces of four animals.
“The cherubim serve as a safeguard against unauthorized movement between realms,” she said.
Hamori explained that when God sent a divine executioner to punish his enemy, the cherubim provided burning coal for the executioner to use as a weapon.
“This is the first time, but not the last, that we see cherubim in this role, the role of weapon master,” she said. “Ever heard of the four horsemen? The four horsemen can cross realms as they please. There is a gateway, and we have come to know the guardians.”
Hamori then discussed angels as Biblical monsters, countering the more common view that angels act as friendly beings.
“Angels are deadly, shape-shifting, realm-crossing, divine hitmen with a terrible combination of lethal superpowers and the ability to cross all natural boundaries,” she said.
Hamori pointed out that angels are formless and as such, can change form for different purposes, and that their primary purpose is to kill humans at God’s command.
“Angels are the obedient servants of God and when they are commanded to deliver a message, they do. Whether it is to kill a single target or slaughter hundreds of thousands, they do -- crossing realms to do so, using lethal superpowers, and shifting shapes to adapt to circumstances,” she said.
Finally, Hamori mentioned demons, which are, for the most part, missing from the Old Testament.
“Demon become definitively associated with Satan in the New Testament. God banishes the demons,” she said. “But here’s the thing, God has only abandoned the monsters, not the acts. In fact, every single type of divine being that is ever shown acting in the service of God in the Bible injures, tortures, threatens death towards men.”
Hamori concluded by referring to God’s entourage of monsters as an army ready at his command.
“The monsters of God’s entourage in the Bible demonstrate something about the Biblical God. Each monster points to another facet of God’s own monstrosity,” she said.
Senior Ryan Jou said the presentation brought further depth to a subject he thought about fairly often.
“I want to get a sense of what other creatures are out there, and I really enjoy how the professor brought a wide breadth of studies into something like this because I think it is not well recognized especially when somebody is coming from another professional background,” Jou said.
Jou added that hosting these events not only extends knowledge on different topics, but it also helps define what it means to be a scholar at Hopkins.
“Hopkins in general is known as a research institution, but we are not limited to just scientists. We have to realize that the humanities can be equally important in terms of research because it tells a lot about who we are as people,” he said.