…you take the blue pill–the story ends…you take the red pill…and I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes. –
Morpheus in The Matrix
(BEING CONTINUED FROM 12/01/2015)
§ 4. Hebrews and Babylonians.
We must indeed guard against throwing on the side of Assyria and Babylon the balance of prejudice which has so long been cast on the side of Jewry. There can have been no more of general ethical or rational elevation in the great polytheistic States than in the small. But it lies on the face of the history of religion alike in India, Mesopotamia, and Egypt, that in great and rich polytheistic priesthoods there arose naturally a habit of pantheistic speculation 1 which at least laid the basis for a higher philosophy, science, and ethic; and it would be precisely the men of such enlarged views in the great Mesopotamian capitals who would most readily hold intercourse with the conquered or travelling Israelites. Certain it is that the cosmogony of Genesis is adapted directly from that preserved and partly developed in Mesopotamia from pre-Semitic times. Thus the so-called genius of the Hebrews for religion founded itself on the common Asiatic tradition of many thousands of years. 2
That the Hebrews should have learned anything worth learning from the Babylonians is a notion for which most people are still unprepared by education. 1 As it was put in the last generation by one apologist: “The moral chasm which separates us from heathens is so great that we can hardly realise their feelings.” 2 But when it is realised that the Hebrews adopted the mythic cosmology of their neighbours 3 it should be easier to conceive that they got from them ideas of a more advanced order. 4 And if the ethical tone of the “inchoate monotheism” of the Hebrew books be thoughtfully noted, it will be realised that only in the larger community was there any appreciable chance for the development of a relatively enlightened creed.
There had there arisen perforce a measure of tolerance in virtue of the very compulsion to polytheism. Early Assyria was as primitively tribal as early Israel: Assur was at least as loudly vaunted and as devotedly trusted as Yahweh; and his worshippers were presumptively not more but less ready to accept other Gods, precisely because they were so much more successful in their wars. Yet when by conquest city was added to city, and kingdom to kingdom, a systematic polytheism was as inevitable in Mesopotamia as in Egypt. There we see kings specially devoted to one God; 5 but when one king’s zeal leads him to impose his cult on all, the outcome is the razing of his own name, as well as his God’s, from the monuments 6 after his death. Whole populations could not be driven out of one
worship into another; and as the sense of national unity arose, the priesthoods of the capitals would more and more readily accept the Gods of the outlying communities. The mere vicissitudes of warfare were always a reason, in military eyes, for desiring to widen the field of divine assistance; and no mere soldier or soldier-king could conceivably doubt the existence of the Gods of his enemies, however he might in battle affect to deride them. It was among the priests, or other thoughtful men of leisure, that there would arise the inference that all the God-names were but varying labels for one great non-tribal Spirit, 1who might be conceived either (as among the Brahmans and Egyptians) pantheistically, or on the lines of the relation of the earthly autocrat to the states he ruled. And it was only through some such theorizing as this that any moral or intellectual progress could be made; for only on this line could monotheism become international. 2
It is part of the convention aforesaid to treat the preservation of the Hebrew creed as a gain to civilization equal with that of the Greek victory over the invading Persians: the heritage of Jewish monotheism, it is assumed, is as precious as the heritage of Hellene literature, philosophy, and art. 3 If, however, there is to be any rational comparative appraisement of cults, it must be in terms of their service either to ethics or to science, including philosophy; and the service to ethics must finally be gauged in terms of human happiness and freedom. Now, we have seen that in the last pages of the Old Testament canon the religion of the Jews is tribal, trivial, narrow; 4 and it is the historic fact that to the day of the final fall of Jerusalem it remained tribalist and localist; a gospel of racial privilege and a practice of barbaric sacrifice; a law of taboo and punctilio, proclaiming a God of ritual and ceremonial, dwelling unseen in a chosen house, with much concern about its furniture and its commissariat. There is no ethical principle in its whole literature that is not to be found in the sacerdotal literatures of Egypt, Persia, India, or in the non-sacerdotal literature of China and Greece. And with the Hebrew ethic there is almost constantly bound up the ethic-destroying concept of the One God as the patron of one people, who only through them consents to recognise the rest of the human race.
It matters little whether, on the other hand, we think of the pantheistic or monotheistic element in the Egyptian and other systems as effective: 1 the question is whether either polytheism or monotheism lifted morals and promoted science and civilisation. Now, the polytheistic empires and the Hebrew State alike failed to reach any principle of international reciprocity, so that on that score they availed nothing against the fatal egoism of race; and as regards moral reciprocity within the State, any discoverable difference of code is rather in favour of the polytheists. 2 The every-day code of the Egyptian funerary ritual 3 supplies the main practical ethic of the Gospels, and is closely echoed in the probably non-Hebraic book of Job; 4 but while a similar social spirit is incidentally met with in the psalms and the prophets, the outstanding and emphasised ethic of the Hebrew historical and prophetic books is really that national and regal righteousness consist in worshipping the Hebrew God and renouncing the others, while to worship them is to commit the sin of sins. The abstractly pietistic sentiment of the Hebrew books, of which the most important element is the sense of contrition, belongs to the psalmodic literature of the Babylonians and the Egyptians alike; 5 and all that is called by pietists “cold” and “hard” and “materialistic” in other religious lore is abundantly paralleled within the covers of the Bible.
In one respect, indeed, the Hebrew ethic is distinctly more refined than that of the other creeds, that is to say, in its relation to the principle of sex; but here, it is quite clear, the general elevation is post-exilic, seeing that every form of sexual vice is
constantly asserted to have prevailed in and around the cult of Yahweh before the Captivity. It thus appears that the Israelites either acquired their purer ethic among the Babylonians, where an ideal of purity certainly co-existed with a practice of sanctified licence, 1 or developed such an ethic as the result of the post-exilic struggle against the seductions and competition of the neighbouring cults. And from this doctrinal evolution, finally, there resulted, apart from the abolition of licentious worship as such, no betterment of the position of women 2 or the practice of men in Jewry as compared with Greece and Rome. Not only did normal sexual vice subsist as elsewhere, 3 but the Hebrew code of divorce was iniquitous, and the law for the special punishment of women offenders remained at least formally barbarous down to the Christian era. 4
74:2 Dr. Jevons does not hesitate to assert (p. 265) that the resemblances between the Babylonian and the Hebrew cosmological myths are “due to the human reason, which in different places working on the same material comes to similar inferences”—an untenable position. He adds that “The difference which distinguishes the Hebrew from all other p. 75 primitive narratives testifies that the religious spirit was dealt in a larger measure to the Hebrews than to other peoples.” Is brutish ferocity the religious spirit? It appears to be implied that reason is “dealt” in an absolutely equal degree to all peoples. Not a word in specification of the alleged “difference” is vouchsafed; but on the next page we read that the primitive science of those early narratives was the work of the human reason, and proceeded from a different source from that whence the religious elements in them came.” In terms of Dr. Jevons’s own definition of religion we must suppose that the Hebrew Peculiarity he has in view is simply monotheism, though the plural term Elohim gives the proof that for the Hebrews also polytheism was primordial. Other hierologists again, such as Prof. Hommel (Die semitischen Völker and Sprachen, 1881, i, 316) and Mr. Sayce (Hibbert Lectures, pp. 314, 317), argue that some religious developments short of monotheism can be explained only by the irruption of a new doctrine from the outside, the former writer looking to the Hebrews and the latter to Semites as against non-Semites. Both arguments are à priori, and lead back to supernaturalism and revelation as against the principle of evolution. Mr. Sayce, besides, is confuted by his own admissions, pp. 316, 320, 337, 339. H. Zimmern (Babylonische Busspsalmen, 1-2) reasonably suggests that national misfortunes altered the religious tone and temper. Cp. Sayce, p. 205, and Huxley’s Essays, as cited below.
75:1 While the first edition of these pages was being printed, the truth was newly insisted on, with awakening force, by Professor Delitzsch at Berlin; and the extensive discussion on Babel und Bibel which followed brought the truth home to multitudes of readers.
75:3 Stade, Geschichte des Volkes Israel, pp. 416, 428, notes; Gunkel, Schöpfung und Chaos. 1895, p. 15; Zimmern,The Babylonian and the Hebrew Genesis, Eng. tr. passim; Tiele, Hist. comparée, Fr. trans. pp. 496-7.
75:6 As to the attempt of Akhunaton or Chuenaten (name spelt in nine ways) = Amunhotep (or Amenophis) IV, cp. Tiele, pp. 161-5; Maspero, Hist. anc. des peuples del ’orient, 4e édit. pp. 209-212; Brugsch, Hist. of Egypt under the Pharaohs, Eng. tr. ed. 1891, ch. x; Breasted, Hist. of Egypt, 1906; A. E. P. Weigall, art. on “Religion and Empire in Ancient Egypt,”Quart. Rev., Jan. 1909; King and Hall, Egypt and Western Asia in the Light of Recent Discoveries, 1907, Pp. 383-7.
76:2 “Unless a monotheistic conception of the universe is interpreted in an ethical sense. monotheism (or monolatry) has no great superiority, either religiously or philosophically, over polytheism” (Jastrow, p. 696).
77:1 For the affirmative view as to Egypt see Brugsch, Religion and Mythologie der alten Aegypter, I. Hälfte, 1884, pp. 90-99. His many citations prove that some at least of the Priests had a monotheistic philosophy. Cp. Le Page Renouf, Hibbert Lectures, 2nd ed. pp. 215-216, 218-230; Tiele, Egypt. Rel., pp. 82, 152, 156-7, 216, 222. But, on the other hand, uniqueness was predicated of many local Gods singly, and there was no universalist cult popularly accepted as such. See the views of Maspero and others, cited by Mr. Lang, Myth, Ritual, and Religion, 2nd. ed. ii, 111 sq.; and compare Renouf (Hibbert Lectures, p. 230), who, however, puts it that the Egyptian doctrines “stopped short in Pantheism.”
77:2 Huxley, after asserting that the Hebrews “created the first consistent, remorseless, naked monotheism which, so far as history records, appeared in the world,” affirms that “they inseparably united therewith an ethical code which for its purity and for its efficiency as a bond of social life was and is unsurpassed” (Essay cited, p. 501: Essays, iv, 363). Of these propositions not an atom of proof is offered. In his eulogy of the Bible as a school book, Huxley gave an equally gratuitous certificate to the popular creed, with unfortunate results. Arnold’s panegyric of Hebrew ethics, which is equally uncritical, is not so surprising as coming from him, being in keeping with his traditionist and æsthetic attitude; and his naïveté made it more transparent. Cp. the author’s Modern Humanists, pp. 151-159.
77:5 Cp. Hommel, Die Semitischen Völker und Sprachen, pp. 316-322; Jastrow, Religion of Babylonia and Assyria, pp. 313-327, 694; Sayce, Hibbert Lectures, pp. 348-352 and App. V.; Boscawen in Religious Systems of the World, 2nd ed. p. 19; Book of the Dead, cc. xiv, Tiele, Egyptian Religion, p. 228; O. Weber, Die Literatur der Babylonier u. Assyrier, 1907, pp, 119, 122, 140; Prof. Erman, Handbook of Egypt. Rel., pp. 82-84.
78:1 Cp. Kuenen, Religion of Israel, Eng. tr. i, 91; Tiele, Hist. comparée des anciennes religions, trad. Fr., pp. 206, 209, 318-319; Sayce, Hibbert Lectures, pp. 129, 133, 267-8; Menzies, History of Religion, 1895, pp. 159, 168-171; Robertson Smith, Religion of the Semites, p. 458; J. M. R., Short History of Freethought, i, 103.
78:2 Cp. Hershon, Genesis with a Talmudical Commentary, 1883, pp. 122, 125, 126, 168; and, as to the higher status of women in old Akkadia and Babylon, Sayce, Hibbert Lectures, p. 176; Jastrow, Religion of Babylonia and Assyria, p. 694.
(TO BE CONTINUED)
by John M. Robertson