On this day when everyone is Irish, I think it’s good to remember how many of us got here, what it took, the tragedies overcome and the triumphs at the end of the road. Kathryn Miles has written what sounds like a moving, important book. I caught part of her interview today on NPR:
One of our finest historians passed away on August 6th. Tony Judt, the author of numerous historical works, with a primary focus on French intellectuals, passed away after a long battle with ALS. He was 62.
I recently read his excellent Ill Fares the Land, which would have been a strong and timely work regardless of how it was written. Given the fact that he dictated it while suffering from the ravages of Lou Gehrig’s disease made it all the more poignant and moving. Here is the opening section, first published in the New York Review of Books:
Something is profoundly wrong with the way we live today. For thirty years we have made a virtue out of the pursuit of material self-interest: indeed, this very pursuit now constitutes whatever remains of our sense of collective purpose. We know what things cost but have no idea what they are worth. We no longer ask of a judicial ruling or a legislative act: Is it good? Is it fair? Is it just? Is it right? Will it help bring about a better society or a better world? Those used to be the political questions, even if they invited no easy answers. We must learn once again to pose them.
The materialistic and selfish quality of contemporary life is not inherent in the human condition. Much of what appears “natural” today dates from the 1980s: the obsession with wealth creation, the cult of privatization and the private sector, the growing disparities of rich and poor. And above all, the rhetoric that accompanies these: uncritical admiration for unfettered markets, disdain for the public sector, the delusion of endless growth.
We cannot go on living like this. The little crash of 2008 was a reminder that unregulated capitalism is its own worst enemy: sooner or later it must fall prey to its own excesses and turn again to the state for rescue. But if we do no more than pick up the pieces and carry on as before, we can look forward to greater upheavals in years to come.
I have also read his The Burden of Responsibility: Blum, Camus, Aron, and the French Twentieth Century. A very strong work, putting the lives of key intellectuals into their historical context seamlessly. It’s accessible, well-written, cogent. His death has reminded me again of the value of his work, the sharpness of his mind, and the independence of his thought. He will be greatly missed. The New York Review of Books has an excellent collection of his essays, and it’s a great introductory space for his contributions to intellectual history:
Wright’s book is picking up steam. He writes with compression, gets to the point quickly, after marshaling his facts and evidence. And the story he tells is enthralling. Polytheism, to monolatry to monotheism. Some of it I already knew. But much of it is new to me, based upon recent excavations and readings of better, more accurate translations of existing scripture. Wright’s gift is to put it all together in a very accessible, organized manner.
There is much evidence to suggest that Yahweh evolved from at least two Canaanite gods before him, El and Baal. There is also much evidence to suggest that political and economic changes on the ground led to his merger with these gods and then to supplanting them outright. And the Hebrew bible itself provides some clues, but very close reading is necessary to uncover them:
Consider this innocent-sounding verse from the thirty-second chapter of Deuteronomy as rendered in the King James Version, published in 1611:
When the Most High divided to the nations their inheritance, when he separated the sons of Adam, he set the bounds of the people according to the number of the children of Israel.
For the Lord’s portion is his people; Jacob is the lot of his inheritance.
This verse, though a bit obscure, seems to say that God—called the “Most High” in one place and “the Lord” in another—somehow divided the world’s people into groups and then took an especially proprietary interest in one group, Jacob’s. But this interpretation rests on the assumption that “Most High” and “the Lord” do both refer to Yahweh. Do they?
Wright is very good at close analysis like this. But he is sensitive enough to understand how this may upset certain people, and tells us to wait. Be patient. If you read the whole book, he says, you’ll see that it’s not his intention to undermine belief in a higher purpose, only to, perhaps, redirect it and strengthen it. He continues with his breakdown:
The second term—“the Lord”—definitely does; this is the Bible’s standard rendering of the original Hebrew Yhwh. But might “Most High”—Elyon—refer to [the Canaanite god] El? It’s possible; the two words appear together—El Elyon—more than two dozen times in the Bible. What moves this prospect from possible toward probable is the strange story behind another part of this verse: the phrase “children of Israel.”
The King James edition got this phrase from the “Masoretic Text,” a Hebrew edition of the Bible that took shape in the early Middle Ages, more than a millennium after Deuteronomy was written. Where the Masoretic Text—the earliest extant Hebrew Bible—got it is a mystery. The phrase isn’t found in either of the two much earlier versions of the verse now available: a Hebrew version in the Dead Sea Scrolls and a Greek version in the Septuagint, a pre-Christian translation of the Hebrew Bible.
Why would some editor have invented the phrase? Was something being covered up?
There is much evidence to suggest that religions across the globe and through time covered things up. Changed them to reflect new political and economic facts on the ground. Altered scripture. Kicked this book out, edited that one, or changed them just to protect and defend that religion:
Some scholars who have used the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Septuagint to reconstruct the authentic version of the verse say that “children of Israel” was stuck in as a replacement for “sons of El.” With that lost phrase restored, a verse that was cryptic suddenly makes sense: El—the most high god, Elyon—divided the world’s people into ethnic groups and gave one group to each of his sons. And Yahweh, one of those sons, was given the people of Jacob. Apparently at this point in Israelite history (and there’s no telling how long ago this story originated) Yahweh isn’t God, but just a god—and a son of God, one among many.
So how does Yahweh rise through the ranks? How does a god initially consigned to a lower level of the pantheon eventually merge with the chief god, El, and even, in a sense, supplant him? …
Wright goes on to talk about Baal as well, to show the many similarities between Yahweh and the Canaanite god, and to suggest that Yahweh is a fusion, in a sense, of the two gods. Yahweh becomes more like El once he is secure in his status as the only one. Prior to that, he seems to act more like Baal, more like a storm god, not all knowing and all powerful. That evolution looks to be the central narrative of this study . . .
As for the Israelites. They were moving, with fits and starts, from polytheism to monolatry at this point in the narrative. Not full fledged monotheism yet. Because they admitted to the existence of other gods. Their more zealous leaders just hated the idea that any god but Yahweh would be the subject of worship.
About 100 pages into a fascinating new book, detailing the rise and fall of gods, goddesses, the religious impulse and its repercussions. The Evolution of God, by Robert Wright, is a general history, starting from the earliest hunter-gatherer societies, moving into chiefdoms after the discovery of agriculture, onto city-states in Mesopotamia and Egypt, and through the advent of Levantine monolatry and monotheism. I’ve reach the foot of Mount Monolatry and fierce storms are taking shape.
Wright reminds us how much religion permeated every culture, from the dawn of human time to the present. All things were tied to the gods, especially early on in our evolution. The fate of your hunts, your harvests, your health, your personal fortunes and the fortunes of your tribe, chiefdom and city-state were inextricably linked to them. He shows how important facts on the ground — political, economic, general welfare — were when it came to the ascendancy of this god or that god. The quid pro quo nature of that. As in, if a person was seen to have access to a particular god, and good things were associated with that god, like strong harvests and victories in wars, then both the gatekeeper and the god could gain in stature. Multiply that by many factors when we reach city-states, and whole histories might be revised, destroyed, overcome.
So far, Wright is blazing the trail from polytheism to monotheism, but does not say that it’s a straight line. More like a zig zag. In Egypt, for example, monotheism lived for a brief time in the late 2nd millenium under Akhenaton, as he elevated Aten above all other gods. Mesopotamia came close with the god Marduk.
Wright frequently talks about the moral and ethical dimension in religions from around the world, and reminds us that it existed long before monotheism. Even in the very earliest societies, it was believed that the gods punished bad behavior, that if you did X, Y or Z, they might inflict terrible things on you, your family, your clan. Religious rites were primarily designed to prevent that, to push the gods into allowing good things to happen and prevent bad things. We have not changed much in that regard, even after thousands of years of religious evolution.
Back to the foot of the mountain. In a section of the book that might well stir up a lot of controversy, although it’s not controversial amongst scholars, Wright talks about new discoveries regarding Canaan and the origin of the Israelites:
. . . . If you read the Hebrew Bible carefully, it tells the story of a god in evolution, a god whose character changes radically from beginning to end.
There’s a problem, however, if you want to watch this story unfold. You can’t just start reading the first chapter of Genesis and plow forward, waiting for God to grow. The first chapter of Genesis was almost certainly written later than the second chapter of Genesis, by a different author. The Hebrew Bible took shape slowly, over many centuries, and the order in which it was written is not the order in which it now appears. Fortunately, biblical scholarship can in some cases give us a pretty good idea of which texts followed which. This knowledge of the order of composition is a kind of “decoder” that allows us to see a pattern in God’s growth that would otherwise be hidden.
Meanwhile, archaeology has supplemented this decoder with potent interpretive tools. In the early twentieth century, a Syrian peasant plowed up remnants of an ancient Canaanite city called Ugarit. Scholars set about deciphering the Ugaritic language and combing the earth for Ugaritic texts. These texts, along with other vestiges of Canaanite culture unearthed in recent decades, have allowed the assembly of something notably absent from the Hebrew scriptures: the story from the point of view of those Baal-worshipping Canaanites. And, over the past few decades, archaeology has brought another check on the story as told in the Bible. Excavations in the land of the Israelites have clarified their history, sometimes at the expense of the biblical story line.
When you put all this together—a reading of the Canaanite texts, a selective “decoding” of the biblical texts, and a new archaeological understanding of Israelite history—you get a whole new picture of the Abrahamic god. It’s a picture that, on the one hand, absolves Abrahamic monotheism of some of the gravest charges against it, yet on the other hand, challenges the standard basis of monotheistic faith. It’s a picture that renders the Abrahamic god in often unflattering terms, yet charts his maturation and offers hope for future growth. And certainly it’s a picture very different from the one drawn in the average synagogue, church, or mosque.…
Wright’s book is heavily footnoted, comes with several appendices, and the deep research shows. I’m looking forward to discovering more of it and following the evolutionary road deeper into the desert, to the sea, and into the sun.
One of my favorite songs by Leonard Cohen is “Hallelujah.” Many artists have covered it, with various degrees of success, and it appears at the end of one of my favorite movies, “When Night is Falling,” to memorable effect. Am pleased to publish an essay about the great novelist/poet/songwriter with the grissly old voice. Yahia Lababidi compares and contrasts the work of Stephen Patrick Morrissey and Mr. Cohen in a fresh and original way.
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Am reading a fascinating book by Stephen O’Shea, entitled Sea of Faith: Islam and Christianity in the Medieval World. Not only is this good, accessible history, the author throws us a curve by actually telling us how many of these places look at present. It’s a travelogue of sorts as well as a close look at centuries of pivotal interplay between cultures. Seeing the battle locations, the mountains, valleys and plains where history was made, only adds to our sense of reality. Will post some thoughts on the book when finished.