In his poem From Kingdom’s Crown, Ibn Gabirol expresses his core beliefs in man’s relationship with God, creation, and the upper spiritual and intellectual realm. The poem’s diction, symbolism, and structure reveal Ibn Gabirol’s theological and spiritual understandings of the Divine and His role in man’s world. As Ibn Gabirol attempts to harmonize the legacies of Neo-Platonism and Rabbinic tradition, From Kingdom’s Crown embodies the tension between man’s yearning to become closer to God with God’s radical unknowability. The poem stresses the flow of creation from God’s wisdom and implicates God’s immanent presence in the physical world. Through its symbolism and structure, this piece articulates the significant regression of purity from the Divine to the material world. As one of his most famous works, From Kingdom’s Crown offers incredible insight to Ibn Gabirol’s faith and theology.
The author is not afraid to write of God’s qualities. With words like “wise,” “splendor,” and “goodness and beauty,” this piece does indeed express man’s ability to describe and know God. The ability, although, exists only in tension with the unsolvable mystery of the Divine. Throughout the poem, the reader can sense the strong personal connection between Ibn Gabirol and God. This personal connection is nuanced by the constant reminders of man’s inability to truly and entirely understand God. The idea that God is out of reach from man’s conception is depicted in the following stanza: “Who could make sense of creation’s secrets,/ of your raising up over the ninth sphere/ the circle of mind,/the sphere of the innermost chamber?” This passage illuminates the tension in the writer’s claim between the Godliness to which we can connect personally and the transcendence of God’s being that is beyond our spiritual intellect. There exists an entire realm of Divinity that remains a secret to us, as we reside in such a lower realm. From the poem’s plentiful praises of God, we glean the raw human yearning for spiritual closeness to God. This yearning is paired with man’s ultimate humility, as Ibn Gabirol writes, “Men are too coarse to know you.” Readers feel the evident pull between man’s spiritual ascension toward a connection with God and man’s humility as lowly and unknowing. Through this tension, we learn Ibn Gabirol’s feeling that the ultimate ascension of understanding God results in the heartbreaking and humbling reality that one will never fully grasp Divinity. The mystery of God roots itself in man’s amazement and fear of God. The poem reads, “All in awe and trembling,/ bow and kneel before you.” The result of the tension between our love for what we sense of the Divine and the secrets of God is our humble and respecting praise and servitude toward Him.
Another prevalent theme in From Kingdom’s Crown is that of creation. Ibn Gabirol’s understanding of the creative process is expressed in the poem’s symbolism. In the verses, “And wisdom is a fountain and source/of life welling up from within you,” the symbol of a fountain is utilized to convey a flowing emanation of life from primeval divine wisdom. God’s wisdom acted as an instrument of creation that flowed from the Divine to the physical world. From Kingdom’s Crown asserts that nothing existed before creation, and that creation had an unprecedented beginning. There is evidence of this claim in the words, “To bring out the stream of existence from Nothing, like light flowing from sight’s extension.” Another use of symbolism is present here as well. Not only is creation compared earlier to a fountain, but the flow of Being from God’s realm to the material world is also represented by fluid, radiating light. “Your wisdom gave rise to an endless desire,” communicates the author’s conception of divine will radiating from Godly wisdom. This eruption of God’s will within nothingness is what inspired creation. Fire is an additional symbol employed to capture the metaphysical radiance of life from divine wisdom and will: “[You] formed it out of the fire/of intellect’s ardor/whose spirit burned on inside it.” Readers glean the understanding of God’s sculpting form from primeval matter, which was ignited by a rush of holy wisdom.
The implication of this conception of creation reveals the author’s understanding of God’s presence in this world. The starting point of creation began in the upper realm by God’s wisdom, much beyond our lowly human world. The flowing fountain, light, or fire that emanates from this highly wisdom radiates all the way down to create our souls and material world. The poem reads, “The links of His will/reaching the lowest/rung of creation.” The idea that God’s will extends to the lowest realm confirms Ibn Gabirol’s belief of God’s immanent presence. The burst of divine creation touches all, and therefore traces of God and his presence are woven into our daily realities. The author writes, “You sent it out through the body/to serve it and guard it–/ and you watch as it acts like a flame within it,/though the body isn’t consumed.” From these lines, the author explains God’s role in man’s world. Due to God’s inherent presence in this world through the process of creation, God protects man and guides his spirit, which owes its existence to God’s creation. This imminence also adds to the human desire and yearning to know and become closer to God, which lives in tension with the ultimate mystery of the Divine as was discussed earlier.
The structure and progression of the poem indicate another core element of Ibn Gabirol’s theology. The author illustrates a clear declining link from God’s purity to the material world. This idea is explicit in the words, “From a sacred place they descend,/ from the source of light they extend,/ splitting into their ranks.” There is evidence of decent linking the Divine down to the rank of man. From Kingdom’s Crown expresses classic imagery of the celestial world and of a deity with attendant angels. The poem is pulled in the direction of radical Neo-Platonism and of older mysticism from Ezekiel, which involves an intricate world of angels. For example: “These are your kingdom’s soldiers,/ angels serving your will with their forces.” From this imagery, we understand the progression of purity from the celestial to the physical world. To understand the different ranks linking these worlds, we turn to the following lines: “Some are hewn from flame;/ others are wind in air; some are fire and water paired.” Here, the author provides a description of Being that begins at the purest level—fire. This symbolism echoes that which was used to describe the radiance of God’s wisdom that created the world, so it represents divine purity. The following descriptions become courser and courser. Wind, air, and water descend from purity to that which is more and more embodied and tangible. The physicality of this world is explained as the lowest level of this progression, and with this, Ibn Gabirol emphasizes our humility, writing, “Each rank bows down before the One.”
With a close reading of From Kingdom’s Crown, we may gain insight of Ibn Gabirol’s messages to his readers about spiritual tension, creation, God’s presence in our world, and the realms of purity and physicality. This understanding leads to a personal religious experience, emphasizing a connection with the Divine, awe for creation, and trembling humility as mankind.
By Lucille Marshall
Written for Medieval Jewish Thought with professor Eitan Fishbane at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America.