Jewish Origins Without Revelation (Part 3, final)

More remains to be said about this alleged God who supposedly made promises to Abraham and his progeny’s future conquest and possession of the land of Canaan which, at the time of king David had become a fait accompli. Who was this God and where did he come from? What about his becoming the one and only and unique God of Israel?

In a polytheism practicing religious environment such as was the ancient Near East in the second millenium BCE, the god who allegedly demanded the people’s obedience and worship, as well as recognition of him as the dominant God of the already existing pantheon, had to be properly identified so that his authority be respected by all.

To accomplish this feat, king David’s royal historiographers looked into the mythologies of the countries adjoining Canaan, north and south, Mesopotamia and Egypt. In both those areas they found myths and holy stories that lent themselves to re-interpretation in the light of the Hebrew tribes’ experience in the Exodus-cluster of events. It is probable, given Moses’ experience at the Egyptian royal court, that he remembered what he had heard there and shared this mythological material within the circles of the liberated Hebrew slaves, after Exodus and before his death.

King David, in an effort to justify the conquest of Canaan may have “unpacked” Moses’ Egyptian legacy and with some modifications, introduced it into Israel’s nascent constitution, the Torah.

One of several Egyptian creation myths was contained in what is known to us as a part of the Egyptian Memphite theology. This myth may have served king David’s purpose. Its theme consists of the mechanism of creation which reverberates in the Jewish Bible story of creation.

The myth tells that before creation there existed a watery void, accompanied by darkness, formlessness and invisibility. This sounds very much like the tohu vavohu in Genesis 1:2 which translates as “the earth was without form and void and darkness was upon the face of the deep.” Then, just as the flood waters of the Nile subside and small hillocks of mud appear, the annual event making agriculture of that inundated area feasible, so also according to the creation myth, the primeval waters subsided and the first hillock of earth appeared in the middle of nothingness. On that hillock sat the creator god Atum whose name means that he was “all within himself.”

The phrase “all within himself” resembles the Jewish liturgical text, kadosh, kadosh, kadosh, adonay tseva’ot, melo kol ha’aretz kevodo, or in English, “Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord of hosts, the whole earth is full of his glory,” (Isa. 6:3)

Note: In Christian Church liturgy this acclamation of the divinity is called the “trishagion” (Greek: thrice holy).

God Atum then brings the other gods into being by naming them. That mode of creation sounds similar to the biblical text in which the biblical God brings animals to Adam, the first human being, so that Adam name them.

The Memphite theology goes even further in terms of being a prototype, as it were, for the biblical creation text. It states that Ptah, the god of Memphis, then the capital of Egypt,was “the heart and tongue of the gods.” Heart and tongue was the Egyptian pictorial way of saying mind and speech. “Indeed, all the divine order came into being through what the heart thought and the tongue commanded.” Interestingly, the biblical creation text echoes this Egyptian concept, “And God said, ‘Let there be light! And there was light.’ ” Creation, in the Genesis text, happens by means of the spoken word of God.

It is worth mentioning here that the Memphite theology precedes early Greek and Hebrew thought by 2,000 years!

It was clever on the part of David to refer in the Torah, Israel’s Constitution, right at its beginning, to the creation event and to credit Israel’s God, elohim, with that accomplishment. Interestingly, the name of the Canaanite chief god was el (plural elim or elohim). In the Genesis text, it is this elohim who is the creator of the world but in the Abraham- related narratives, beginning in Genesis 12, this god has acquired the unpronounceable name YHWH (often pronounced Yahweh, when probable vowels are added to the four consonants). Here lies a contradiction, in as much as the name YHVH, according to the biblical narrative itself, does not become known/revealed until the episode at the Burning Bush in Exodus 3:15 where God introduces himself as YHVH to Moses, an event, in all probability 500 years or more after Abraham.

In many Bible narratives the two names are joined to read YHWH-Elohim. By doing this, the creator God, the God who promised the land of Canaan to Abraham and the victorious God of the Exodus who defeated not only Pharaoh but also the Egyptian gods, are now united into one supreme divinity. No greater god than Israel’s God can now be invoked by anyone to quarrel about Israel’s having taken possession of Canaan. And scrolling forward in history, this also is this very god who has an intimate relationship with David, Israel’s king and author of the new Constitution, the Torah.

For David, the new monarch of the geo-political state of Israel, a state consisting of a number of tribes with each one having its own historical and religious past, unification was of utmost importance.

For Egyptian pharaoh Akhenaten (1353-1336 BCE) about whom Moses had undoubtedly heard while at the Egyptian court, this too was a concern. His solution to the problem was the introduction of what we today call monolatry, the rule of a single supreme god. This was not elimination of the pantheon of gods but merely the multiple gods’ demotion to a lesser status. Akhenaten promoted the god Aton (or Aten) to the supreme position and incorporated the god’s name into his own: thus Akhen-aten meaning, “successful for Aten.” or something very similar. The symbol of Aten was the disk of the sun with each of its rays ending in the Egyptian symbol of life, the ankh.

From monolatry to monotheism it is only one step. It is an all important step. Promotion of one god to a supreme position and worship of that one god by all twelve tribes as the one and only true god would undoubtedly encourage and eventually establish unity, a precondition for the establishment of the United Kingdom under David. E pluribus unum.

How can this be accomplished? It is here that we discover David’s genius. Transforming the name el (singular) into elohim (a plural) but having this plural followed by both verbs and adjectives in the singular rather then in the plural, as is grammatically required in Hebrew, the MANY [gods of the tribes] are now changed into ONE [god].. This grammar-related process accomplished the transition from monolatry to monotheism.

The codification of the above grammatical procedure for religio-political purposes is clearly evident from the shema, the single faith affirmation of Judaism to this day. Stemming from the time of Judah’s king Josiah (640 BCE). It was he who instituted the so-called Josianic Reform which consisted of centralizing worship in Jerusalem. The text of the shema is found in Deut. 6:4 and reads in Hebrew, shema yisrael yhvh eloheynu yhvh echad. The literal translation of this text is, “hear Israel YHVH our gods YHVH one.”The usual English rendering of the sentence is, “hear, O Israel, the LORD our God, the LORD is one.”Without going into the intricacies of Hebrew grammar, the shema can also be translated as, “Hear Israel, YHVH is our gods, YHVH is one.” What might strike the reader is that the verb “is” cannot be found in the Hebrew text. Reason for this is that the verb “to be” in conjugated form does not exist in the present tense in biblical Hebrew. An example: to say “I am a woman” is in Hebrew ani ishah or “I woman.” Both the “am” and the “a” (the indefinite article) must be supplied by the reader.

The tradition calls for a circumlocution for God’s name YHVH. Why so? Because the name consists of four consonants only. Written biblical Hebrew consists of consonants only. The vowels must be supplied by the reader. This makes the reading of Hebrew biblical texts tricky and difficult. Besides, there was reluctance to pronounce God’s holy name. This explains the circumlocution adonay employed when the reader of Torah texts encounters the four holy letters of God’s names. The term adonay literally means “my lords” (1st person plural, possessive of adon, meaning “lord” ). Eventually, the term’s usage transformed it into a singular, followed by verbs and adjectives in the singular. It follow that in the shema two nouns in the plural are, on the basis of religious tradition, considered singular and treated as such. Once again, E pluribus unum.

Finally, where did the four holy letters of God’s name, YHVH (also called the tetragrammaton) come from? As far as the Bible is concerned, this was God’s name revealed to Moses at the Burning Bush in the Sinai. Among Bible readers it is rarely known that YHVH was not a complete newcomer to the Near Eastern pantheon. Excavations in the eastern Sinai at Kuntillet Ajrud in 1975-1976 yielded several inscriptions dated to the 9th and 8th centuries BCE in which blessing formulas involving the name Yahweh and Asherah are mentioned. On the wall of a tomb at Khirbet el-Quom the excavators found an inscription reading, “May Uri-Yahu be blessed by Yahweh my guardian and his Asherah.” Also ancient sanctuaries with primitive statuary identified as Yahweh with his consort Asherah were found in that general geographic area.

How and why this particular pagan divinity was adopted by Israel as her God and adapted into playing the major role in certain major historical events, we do not know. Much work dealing with these issues remains to be done.

The term Asherah occurs in the Torah text a number of times. While in the above mentioned excavations, Asherah is identified as Yahweh’s consort, the Torah speaks of it as a sacred pole that stood near Canaanite religious locations to honor the Ugaritic mother-goddess Asherah, consort of El. The biblical texts condemns these poles. So for instance Exod. 34:13 states, “Break down their [Canaanite] altars, smash their sacred stones and cut down their Asherim [Asherah poles].”

It might be of interest to mention that echoes of monolatry within ancient Israel survive within the Jewish siddur (prayer book) such as, mi khamokha ba-elim adonay, “who is like you among the gods, Adonay? In the amidah, the standing prayer, we read, barukh ata Adonay, Eloheynu melekh ha-olam, ha-el ha-gadol, ha-gibbor, ha-norah, el-elyon…:”Praised are you Adonay, our God, king of the world, the great God, the powerful God, the awesome God, the highest God…” Both texts suggest the existence of gods other than YHVH. Are these “errors” in monotheism caused by carelessness of editors?

To summarize, it is my belief that Torah began with King David’s plan to create a founding document for the United Kingdom. In trying to establish justification for the Hebrew tribes’ invasion and taking possession of Canaan and adjoining territories, he invoked God’s promise to Abraham, the head of a tribal group, to take possession of the land of Canaan. To establish this God’s absolute superiority overl the other gods in the tribal and Canaanite pantheon, he appropriated and adapted Egyptian myths of creation and combined these with tribal reminiscences/sagas, forming a pre-history that explained and justified ancient Israel’s hegemony over the defeated local population.

By conquering the city of Jebus, a city previously not conquered by any of the tribes, renaming it Yerushalayim or “Inheritance of Peace,” establishing it as capital and religious pilgrimage center of the newly formed kingdom, he succeeded in temporary unification of the tribes into a quasi-homogeneous geo-political entity.

The United Kingdom did not survive the reign of David’s son, king Solomon. It split into two entities after Solomon’s death, the northern kingdom of Israel, consisting of ten tribes and the southern kingdom of Judah, consisting of the tribes of Judah and Benjamin.

Following the reign of 20 kings in the north, that kingdom fell to Assyria under king Sargon II in 722 BCE. Little or nothing is known about the fate of the conquered northern tribes.

Judah, in the south, following the reign also of 20 kings, was conquered by Babylonia in 586 BCE under king Nebuchadnezzar and a large part of the population was exiled to Babylonia. With the fall of Babylonia to Persia under Persian king Cyrus (538-529 BCE) the Judean exiles were allowed to return home and to rebuild the walls and the Temple of Jerusalem shortly after, but Jewish independence had been lost. With the exception of the roughly 100 years of the Maccabean Kingdom (165-64 BCE) the Jewish state ceased to exist until its rebirth as Eretz Yisrael, the modern State of Israel, in 1948.
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Through the many centuries of Jewish exilic existence, Torah not only has survived but has kept its relevance and even religious authority for many Jews.

Much in Torah draws on the supernatural. As a person bridging the 20th and 21st centuries, I find it impossible to join in my superstitious ancestors’ belief systems. I fully realize, however, that had I lived in their times, I probably would have been on the same page with them. I find it simplistic to criticize past world views from the viewpoint of our times.

I do stand in awe of some of these ancestors’ insights. In my studied opinion the Torah did not originate in heaven and was brought down to us humans by a god or his angels. As I see it, our ancestors recognized certain truths, saw these as critical for the maintenance and well being of their society. As it happened, that wisdom was handed down to us as advice for the viability of future societies.

It was our ancestors’ observation of events and their consequences that helped them arrive at conclusions certain of which, if followed by us today, would undoubtedly improve the lives of many and perhaps even slow down, stop and possibly reverse our descent into planetary human self-destruction.

Reliance on some kind of a future supernatural intervention into human affairs to stop our tendency to self-destruct is counter intuitive and downright dangerous. It will not happen!

As I see it, the purpose of Torah, originally the Constitution and By-laws of a newly formed nation, is not so much about giving us information allegedly relevant about God but rather about a community that considered itself destined to bring enlightenment to the nations, something that remains to this day Judaism’s task and mission.

I continue to be impressed by a text from the Yerushalmi, The Talmud of the Land of Israel (Tj chag. 1:7) in which our sages (z”l) quote God as having said, “Would that they forsake me, but keep my Torah.”

This ends the mini-series.

 


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