The Bible and Maimonides on the Heavens

The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork.

Think Psalm 19:1 is just a figure of speech, expressing David’s wonder at the cosmos? Think again. In his A Guide for the Perplexed (p130), Maimonides gives his own explanation of the verse:

Scripture supports the theory that the spheres are animate and intellectual, i.e., capable of comprehending things: that they are not, as ignorant persons believe, inanimate masses like fire and earth, but are, as the philosophers assert, endowed with life, and serve their Lord, whom they mightily praise and glorify; comp “The heavens declare the glory of God,” etc. (Ps. xix. 2).

Now before Michael S. Heiser comes and tells me off for relying on medieval Jewish texts as opposed to the Bible itself, and it’s Ancient Near Eastern context, let’s examine Maimonides’ own evidence, and whether or not it is coherent:

It is a great error to think that this is a mere figure of speech for the verbs “to declare” and “to relate,” when joined together, are, in Hebrew, only used of intellectual beings.

Maimonides is correct here. Biblehub has a list of all occurrences in scripture where the verb saphar occurs, and in virtually (if not entirely) all of them, it refers to human actions, counting, relating, recounting and inscribing. It is impossible for an inanimate object to perform these tasks. Even in the poetic psalms this is so (see Psalm 66:16, Psalm 64:6 and Psalm 22:22, for example). David could merely have suggested that the heavens ‘show’ God’s glory, through the verb Ra’ah. The simplest option is therefore that David believed the heavens were sentient.

It’s not like such an idea was unknown in the Ancient Middle East either, the Egyptians personified the sky and earth as the gods Nut and Geb. As Egyptologist Joyce Tyldesly tells us:

Now Nut’s body separated the world from chaotic waters of Nun. Her laughter rumbled as thunder and her tears fell as rain. Along her body the stars and moon twinkled at night, and the sun blazed by day

The Penguin Book of Myths & Legends of Ancient Egypt: p38

Image result for nut and geb

So Maimonides was correct to reject in the strongest terms the notion that Psalm 19:1 is merely poetic or metaphorical. Whilst certainly poetic to an extent (it being in a psalm), the use of words used only to describe human communication implies that the Psalmist was being serious when he spoke of heaven as declaring through speech (v2) God’s glory.

I am hardly the only one who has noted this, here is Robin Parry, who sees such an idea as being omnipresent in the Biblical text:

Modern Westerners draw rigid distinctions between animate objects (like animals and plants) and inanimate objects (like the sea and mountains). The former are alive and have no consciousness. we climb mountains, we look and mountains, we dig in mountains, we paint mountains, but we do nor talk to mountains and we certainly do not expect them to talk back. Now ancient Israelites didn’t talk to mountains either, but they seem surprisingly willing to talk about the whole of the created order as if it were in some sense alive and conscious and able to respond to God in a manner appropriate to it. This phenomena is so common in the Bible we often become oblivious to it, so it is worth highlighting some instances.

The Biblical Cosmos: A Pilgrim’s Guide to the Weird and Wonderful World of the Bible: p2

In a Pre-Newtonian era, the notion that the heavenly spheres had intellect in themselves made perfect sense in that they appeared to move around the earth, surely for no reason, implying that either them, or an ‘unmoved mover’ were sentient. I accept the Aristotelian argument from motion as a sound argument for the existence of God, but this does not entail that the heavens are literally sentient beings, when in the modern era, it is known that the heavens are essentially nothingness, and do not have a brain, or the ability to speak. As long as things move from potentiality to actuality, the argument still stands.

Now we should ask, when the Bible speaks of fields exulting and trees singing for joy (Psalm 96:12) as well as Mountains praising God’s name (Psalm 89:12), was that meant literally as well? Very possibly. As for why God would allow such mistakes in the Tanakh, for that we need to consider that the Psalms were written to God by men, so an inspired author could share the opinion of his day provided it did not conflict with the divine message, which was never about science to begin with.

rkb ‘rpt, out!

Michael S. Heiser lies for Jesus

So this video showed up on my timeline:

I used to like Michael Heiser, but now I realise he is simply being dishonest, and lying to his audience, and the audience falls for it. (I’ve taken on Michael Heiser fanboys before)

My primary concern is with Heiser’s claim that the Torah nowhere mentions God giving commands to Noah. Such is simply false, and Heiser is either ignorant, or is deliberately lying, and since Heiser has a PhD in Hebrew Bible and Semitic Languages, I suggest he is not ignorant, so is lying. In Genesis 9, God clearly gives commands to Noah:

“But you must not eat meat that has its lifeblood still in it. And for your lifeblood I will surely demand an accounting. I will demand an accounting from every animal. And from each human being, too, I will demand an accounting for the life of another human being.

“Whoever sheds human blood,
    by humans shall their blood be shed;
for in the image of God
    has God made mankind.

God clearly gives two of the seven commandments here: to not eat meat from a live animal and to not shed human blood. Heiser however fears giving legitimacy to another religion, so conveniently ignores this.

Finally, I cannot help but laugh at the comment section:

These are the very laws the Antichrist will use to behead those who will NOT deny Jesus!

Of course the Antichrist will promote the seven laws of Noah (i.e. he will be Jewish). To give Heiser credit, he cautions against Anti-Semitic conspiracy theories in the video, but this is lost on his followers.

rkb ‘rpt out!

Jewish Oral Torah: A Guide for the Perplexed

Many assume that the text central to Rabbinical Jewish thought is the written Torah, the law given to Moses on Mount Sinai, but whilst the written Torah is arguably foundational to the Jewish religion (it being where all else comes from), it is the Oral Torah, also given to Moses on Mount Sinai which is more central to Jewish thought through it’s collections in the Talmud and earlier Mishnah, for before the law was written, it was orally transmitted. In this essay we shall explain the biblical necessity for Oral Laws dating back to Mount Sinai, and what exactly the Oral Law entails.

Deuteronomy 12:21 tells us that animals are to be slaughtered ‘as I (Moses) have commanded’, but we are never told how Moses commanded for the animals to be slaughtered in the text. This implies that their must have been an earlier, unwritten command given by Moses.

A similar verse is Exodus 21:24, the famous ‘Eye for an eye’ verse, which has proved controversial since it’s conception. As the great Jewish Rabbi Saadia Gaon said in a debate with a Karaite (who deny the oral law), taking the text literally leads to impracticalities, since a man who has no eyes cannot be punished for knocking out a man’s eye (the Karaite was silent), thus a non-literal meaning must be found. But what is this non-literal meaning? That’s where the oral law, dating back to Mount Sinai comes in.

A final interesting passage is Deuteronomy 17:8-12, where interpretation of the law is entrusted to religious leaders, this will be important later in the essay.

So how does the Oral Torah work?

Well, the Oral traditions are passed down from teacher to student, and have been done so since the revelation of the Torah. Originally, the oral law was passed down indirectly, through example, as Philo of Alexandria tells us, rather than writing, and it remained that way until the aftermath of the fall of the Second Temple, when it was feared that the Oral teachings of Moses would be lost forever, so under the orders of a certain R. Judah HaNasi (the Prince), they were compiled in the Mishnah, a famous legal collection. The later Jerusalem and Babylonian Talmudim were commentaries on the Mishnah, which greatly expanded it.

As we already discussed, Deuteronomy 17:8-12 gives Priests the authority to make religious decisions whenever ambiguities exist in the law:

If a judicial decision is too difficult for you to make between one kind of bloodshed and another, one kind of legal right and another, or one kind of assault and another—any such matters of dispute in your towns—then you shall immediately go up to the place that the Lord your God will choose, where you shall consult with the levitical priests and the judge who is in office in those days; they shall announce to you the decision in the case. 10 Carry out exactly the decision that they announce to you from the place that the Lord will choose, diligently observing everything they instruct you. 11 You must carry out fully the law that they interpret for you or the ruling that they announce to you; do not turn aside from the decision that they announce to you, either to the right or to the left. 12 As for anyone who presumes to disobey the priest appointed to minister there to the Lord your God, or the judge, that person shall die. So you shall purge the evil from Israel.

 

For this reason, religious authorities have the power to deliver edicts (Gezayrot) through a majority verdict, and such is the main source of religious law in Judaism, which overrides even divine command, as a famous story in the Talmud explains. In this story, R. Eliezer calls for a voice from heaven to give support for his ruling, but even after this, the majority of Rabbis reject him, for the simple reason that God had already decreed in the Torah that one must always follow the majority ruling, therefore God laughed with joy and declared that he had been overridden. This story shows the primacy religious tradition (held by a majority of authorities) has, which takes precedence over scripture when contradictions arise.

An example of a Rabbinical law derived from religious tradition, rather than the written Torah is the edict decreeing that boys over the age of 6 must receive an education. Indeed usually when making rulings, the Rabbis appealed to argument and logic rather than biblical authority.

This is not to suggest that the commands of God mean nothing, on the contrary, Oral Law is so authoritative precisely because it was divinely received at Mount Sinai, and supposedly received more attention than the written law.

rkb ‘rpt, out!

Bibliography

A History of Judaism – Martin Goodman

The Bible: A Biography – Karen Armstrong

Religions of Arabia before Islam

Pre-Islamic Arabian religion is important for the study of the modern Abrahamic faiths, yet very little is known from the inscriptions that survive. In this essay, we shall explore religion in Arabia as it was before Islam, using what little information we have and we shall discuss how these religions impacted the Abrahamic religions, not just early Islam, but early Judaism as well. Without further ado, we shall discuss the different religious practices held by Pre-Islamic Arabs.

Midian, Thamud and Nabataea

O YHWH, when You went out from Seir, when You marched from the land of Edom, the earth trembled, the heavens poured out rain, and the clouds poured down water.

The Midianites very likely worshipped one god, YHWH, whose name is derived from the Arabic root H-W-Y, meaning ‘Impassioned’, language which compares YHWH to a stern husband who expects his wife not to cheat (by worshipping other gods). YHWH was associated with metallurgy, and was associated with Mount Sinai in Northern Arabia.

The Midianites did not make images of YHWH, a transcendent being who could not be accurately depicted, and in some cases (such as at Horvat Uza), they made no images at all, a practice which was carried on to the later Nabataeans. Although the latter were polytheists, worshipping the gods Dhu Shara and Al Uzza, there is evidence of a YHWH worshipping contingent in the famous Nabataean city of Petra, with many parts of the Torah originating there, such as the Table of Nations. The Nabataeans were known to worship at a cubic temple, the Ka’ba, similar to the more famous Ka’ba at Mecca. The Christian Bishop Epiphanius of Salamis evidently misread Ka’ba (cube) as Ka’iba (virgin), so mistakenly assumed that the Nabataeans believed in a demonic parody of the Virgin Mary.

The Midianites also likely venerated Cain as an ancestor, one who was created with the help of YHWH, and received the divine protection of YHWH. The related Thamudites went so far as to worship a deity named Cain (Qayn) as a god.

Lakhmids and Ghassanids

The Lakhmids and Ghassanids were two northern tribes in Late Antiquity, who apparently descended from Yemenite migrants. They had a fierce rivalry. The Lakhmids were under the Persian sphere of influence, and practiced a pagan religion. Virgins would be sacrificed to the goddess Al-Uzza, in one occassion over 400, and in another occasion, the son of the Ghassanid king Al-Harith (Arethas) was sacrificed.

The Ghassanids on the other hand were Christian from the start, and were under the Byzantine sphere of influence as a result. Despite this, they were Monophysite, rejecting the Byzantine Chalcedonian Christianity by insisting that Christ had one nature, rather than distinctly human and divine natures. Interestingly the Ghassanids resisted conversion to Islam, and remained Christian even after the Islamic conquest, settling in the Levant, where for many years Christianity predominated.

South Arabia and Abyssinia

Any discussion of South Arabian religion should include a discussion of the Pre-Christian religion of Abyssinia, which, though not in Arabia, was under the Yemenite sphere of influence. The South Semitic pantheon, which included hundreds of gods, was far more complex than the rest of Arabia’s, likely owing to the relative complexity of it’s civilisation, linking to Durkheim’s suggestion that God is a reflection of society.

It is known from archaeology that like the later Muslim Arabs, the Yemenites and Abyssinians used the star and crescent as a religious symbol, and this is demonstrated by the fact that it was replaced by Christian crosses on Aksumite (Abyssinian) coinage after the conversion of Aksumite king Ezana to Christianity, indicating that it was theologically abhorent to the later Christians. Likely the symbol was of the moon god Almaqah, patron god of Saba.

Image result for aksumite coinsLeft: Aksumite coin with star and crescent

Other patron gods included Wadd of Ma’in, Amm of Qataban and Sayin of Hadramaut, alongside many minor, and tutelary deities. Yet all these gods were mere intercessors for the high god Athtar, whose name is cognate to the Ugaritic minor deity Attar, as well as the more well known Mesopotamian goddess Ishtar, neither of whom were seen as supreme deities (though Attar briefly usurped this role from Baal, before abdicating, his story becoming the prototype for Isaiah 14).

The Aksumites were known to worship the war god Mahrem, who was equated with the Greek god Ares, perhaps suggesting that the name Mahrem is derived from the name of the Roman equivalent Mars (though this is speculative). Interestingly the Aksumite king was held to be the son of Mahrem, recalling similar ideas found across the Semitic speaking world, as well as Egypt. For example, in the Keret Epic, king Keret was held to be ‘son of El’, whilst in Psalm 2, King David is called YHWH’s son.

Eventually, however, the Aksumites converted to Christianity, and soon after, the Yemenite kingdom of Himyar converted to Judaism. A considerable Christian community existed in the village of Najran in the south of Saudi Arabia, however, which was the victim of a massacre by the fanatical Jewish king Yusuf Dhu Nuwas, which shocked the Christian world, and provoked the Aksumite king to invade and depose Yusuf.

Palmyra

Image result for gods of palmyraLeft: The Divine Triad of Palmyra

Palmyra was a city of Aramean origin, which nonetheless was under heavy Arab influence from the Syrian desert. Palmyran civilisation was highly cosmopolitan, and thus it’s religion shares influence from many diverse pantheons. However, again, one god, Bel reigned supreme, with his deputies, Aglibol and Yarihbol forming a triad with him. Alongside this, other gods, such as the Phoenician god Baalshamin and the Mesopotamian Nergal were absorbed into the pantheon, as well as (most important for our discussion) the Arab goddess Allat.

The Palmyrenes also believed in lesser spiritual beings known as Ginnaye, whose name is likely cognate to the Jinn of the Quran, which the Quran says were worshipped as gods, and perhaps can be identified with the Shedim of Mesopotamian and Jewish lore (more on that in a later post).

Mecca

Contrary to popular belief, the pagans of the Quran, or Mushrikun, were likely not polytheists in the strict sense (though this was attributed to them by the book), since they believed in one god, who created the cosmos and who had sovereignty over it. However, this supreme god had multiple angelic (rather than divine, as in Yemen and Palmyra) intercessors, who were prayed to in their own right, such as Allat, Manat and Al-Uzza, similar to the Catholic practice of praying to saints. The word Mushrikun is derived from the same root (s-r-k) as the noun Shirk, and has associations of ‘partnering’, as with the related noun ‘Shirkat‘, a confederation of tribes. This implies the Mushrikun did not deny the existence of Allah, but rather partnered him with other spiritual entities in worship.

Mecca being a hub of trade, it had absorbed aspects from many foreign religions, including vestiges of faiths long forgotten. The famous Quranic account of Jesus, where he was replaced by a replica who died in his place, then ascended to heaven, appears to be derived from the Gospel of Basilides, an early Gnostic Christian text. Another example would be the stunningly beautiful male cupbearers and female concubines given to Muslims in heaven, whose descriptions share striking similarities with descriptions of Ganymede and Hera, cupbearer and wife respectively of Zeus in Greek mythology.

The Birth of Monotheism

Image result for kuntillet ajrudLeft: YHWH of Israel and his Asherah

The Bible (Judges 1:16) tells us that the descendants of the Midianite priest Jethro settled in the area around Arad in Judah. It is from here that we can assume the Hebrews adopted the cult of YHWH from Midian. However, the earliest Jews, not understanding Arabic, were unaware of the true meaning of YHWH’s name, and so worshipped other gods alongside him, as is demonstrated by archaeology at Kuntillet Ajrud. Eventually, in the days of King Josiah of Israel, the Priest Hilkiah discovered a ‘Book of the Law’, likely an early version of the Book of Deuteronomy (from before the intrusion of polytheism into the cult of YHWH), which prompted king Josiah to begin a series of monotheistic reforms. From then on, Judaism remained a monotheistic religion.

A millenium later, and monotheistic ideas had been reintroduced into Arabia via Judaism and Christianity. But many tribes remained pagan, and in Mecca, the people combined worship of the Abrahamic god with vestiges of their pagan past, reducing the gods of old into mere intercessors for the true god, yet they worshipped them nonetheless. All this changed when a certain Meccan merchant, Muhammad, acquainted with the ideas of Jews and Christians, preached worship of Allah alone, without intercessors. Muhammad, who viewed himself as a herald for the coming kingdom of God, could be viewed as a Meccan Josiah, therefore.

Conclusion:

The religions of Ancient Arabia were quite diverse, but it seems as though commonalities existed, with one supreme god existing, be he Allah, Athtar, Bel or YHWH, with all other gods existing as mere mediators for the most high god. Usually these mediators were worshipped in their own right, but amongst the Midianites, YHWH, whose name meant jealous, was the only god worthy of worship, and it is this idea which influenced the later monotheism of the Jews. I therefore hold that Ancient Arabian religion deserves more attention than it gets, for being the source of western monotheism.

rkb ‘rpt, out!

Bibliography:

In The Shadow of the Sword: The Battle for Global Empire and the End of the Ancient World – Tom Holland

Arabia and the Arabs: From he Bronze Age to the coming of Islam – Robert G. Hoyland

The Throne of Adulis: Red Sea Wars on the Eve of Islam – Glen W Bowersock

The Crucible of Islam – Glen W Bowersock

The Exodus: How it Happened and Why it Matters – Richard E. Friedman

(all other sources are linked in the above essay)

 

 

The Kingdom of Aksum – The origins of Abyssinian Civilisation

I have often discussed the Semitic peoples of the Middle East here on my blog. But the Semitic languages are not merely confined to the Ancient Near East, they are also found in Ethiopia and Eritrea.

How they ended up there is anyone’s guess. Since the Ethiopian languages are South Semitic languages, related to the MSA languages of Yemen and Oman, many assume they originated in South Arabia, whilst others go as far to suggest that the Semitic languages, alongside the other Afroasiatic language families, originated in Ethiopia itself, before spreading across the Red Sea to the Middle East. A Bayesian study, however, points to a Levantine origin for the Semitic languages, with the former option, that of influence from Arabia on Ethiopia therefore being more likely. The genetics of the Habesha (Semitic speaking Ethiopian) people also suggest a heavier amount of Eurasian genetics than other people of the Horn of Africa.

It would be a eurocentric mistake however, to attribute the rise of civilisation in the Horn of Africa solely to South Arabian influence. That Ethiopia developed Agriculture (the beginnings of civilisation) independently from the Near East is shown by the fact that agricultural terms such as ‘plough’ in the Ethiopic languages are of Cushitic, not Semitic origin, indicating that the early Ethiopian kingdoms were started by native Cushitic peoples, rather than Arabs.

Nonetheless, significant migration did occur between Yemen and Ethiopia, the former were not invaders, who came to impose a superior culture on the native Cushites, but rather came in search of trading opportunities, introducing the Semitic languages, and writing through the Musnadic script to Ethiopia, as well as the gods of Saba, such as their god Mahrem, who was equated with the Greek god Ares. In the 4th century CE however, around the same time as the conversion of Constantine, Ezana, Negus (King) of the Ethiopian kingdom of Aksum converted to Christianity under the influence of the Syrian missionary Frumentius.

A few decades later, across the Red Sea, the South Arabian kingdom of Himyar converted to Judaism. They would become the arch-rivals of Aksum in years to come.

The Himyarites became zealous in their Jewish faith, and in response, in the 6th century CE, the Aksumite king Kaleb invaded Himyar and installed a Christian ruler on the throne, who in five years was deposed and replaced by the radical Jewish warlord, Yusuf Dhu Nuwas.

Dhu Nuwas marched on the Christian town of Najran and massacred the population, outraging Christians across the Middle East. When Kaleb heard of the massacre, he raised another force, and invaded Yemen again, this time permanently occupying it.

Later on however, a rogue Aksumite general, Abraha was able to usurp Yemen from Aksumite control, and proclaim himself king. In the year 570 CE, according to Islamic traditions, Abraha marched north to Mecca, attempting to destroy the Kaaba, when (it is said), Allah sent  flock of birds to destroy Abraha’s war elephants.

Abraha died not long after. Native Himyarite Sayf ibn Dhi-Yazan was able to liberate Yemen for the Persians, with Yemen becoming a satrapy of the Sassanid Empire.

Historian GW Bowersock argues that the disturbances in South Arabia inaugurated the beginning of the end of the old political and religious order of Late Antiquity, which ultimately led to the rise of a new religio-political order just to the north, in Mecca and Medina. To the earliest Muslims however, Aksum was a friend, and famously, the Negus of the time, Armah, even offered sanctuary to early Muslims fleeing persecution in Mecca. Perhaps for this reason (though also perhaps because the Arabs had experienced setbacks in Nubia to the north), the Arab conquest made minimal inroads into Ethiopia, although documents from the Umayyad Caliphate mention the Dahlak Islands on the coast of Eritrea as places of exile for enemies of the Caliph, implying that areas of the Eritrean coast had been conquered by the Arabs, likely as a means of restricting Aksumite access to the Red Sea, after attempted raids on the Red Sea coast of Arabia by Ethiopians.

In any case, Aksum would not fall until the 10th century, and not to Arabs, but to a fellow Ethiopian kingdom, ruled by the Jewish (or perhaps Pagan) queen Gudit. Ethiopia would continue this tradition of remaining unconquered for thousands of years, until the Italians invaded in 1935.

The Kingdom of Aksum is largely forgotten history, but it played an important role in the rise of both Christianity and Islam. It was, we can say, the last great Semitic speaking civilisation of the Ancient Near East, before the rise of Islam, and is historically interesting in the fact that it was able to resist the Arab conquests in spite of it’s historically strong links to Arabia, resulting in the unique and fascinating culture we see in Ethiopia today.

rkb ‘rpt, out!

Bibliography:

The Throne of Adulis: Red Sea Wars on the Eve of Islam – Glen W Bowersock

The Crucible of Islam – Glen W Bowersock

Empires in Collision in Late Antiquity – Glen W Bowersock

In God’s Path: The Arab Conquests and the Creation of an Islamic Empire – Robert G Hoyland