PQC: I took advantage the recent long break to “revisit” all the books on Jewish problem I have at hand. All the books I read and re-read are written by [ex]-Jews with one exception, Laurent Guyénot. Without these books I would still have been in the dark like everyone else.
For many years since 911, I’ve realized that one cannot fathom all the problem of the today world politics without understanding the 911 “event” (not incident). But one cannot understand the 911 event without understand the Jews, the master mind behind the 911, and their previous crimes.
In this blog, I have posted “The Wandering Who”, “The Invention of The Jewish People”, and “By Way of Deception” … And this time , with “From Yahweh to Zion”, Laurent Guyénot explains in details the history of this destructive and evil Jewish ideology from its inception, its actions throughout history and to this current time at its zenith.
How can one explain the fact that the small group of people, who had been hated, despised throughout Europe by Europeans for centuries, now have turned the table and become masters of the West with unprecedented privileges that today, even white European elites fiercely compete one another to serve such Jewish privileges?
How can one explain the stupidity of the European elites when they incorporated the dirty fiction full of sexual perversion, cold blood mass murders, and deceit a.k.a the Torah, despite whose “teaching” is opposite and contradictory to that of Christian values, into their Christian canon as “holy bible”?
How can such dirty plagiarized, parodied fiction still remain and be regarded as “holy” for thousands years without serious question from intellectual followers? Of course with few exceptions such as Mark Twain and Thomas Paine:
“The most detestable wickedness, the most horrid cruelties, and the greatest miseries, that have afflicted the human race have had their origin in this thing called revelation, or revealed religion. It has been the most dishonourable belief against the character of the divinity, the most destructive to morality, and the peace and happiness of man, that ever was propagated since man began to exist. It is better, far better, that we admitted, if it were possible, a thousand devils to roam at large, and to preach publicly the doctrine of devils, if there were any such, than that we permitted one such impostor and monster as Moses, Joshua, Samuel, and the Bible prophets, to come with the pretended word of God in his mouth, and have credit among us.… Whence arose all the horrid assassinations of whole nations of men, women, and infants, with which the Bible is filled; and the bloody persecutions, and tortures unto death and religious wars, that since that time have laid Europe in blood and ashes; whence arose they, but from this impious thing called revealed religion, and this monstrous belief that God has spoken to man? The lies of the Bible have been the cause of the one, and the lies of the Testament of the other.”― Thomas Paine, The Age of Reason.
Anyway, anyone who really wants to understand the Jews, their crimes, and their modus operandi, must read this book “From Yahweh to Zion”. I must warn anyone though who happens to be follower of one of Abrahamic religions will find offences since Laurent Guyénot set out to scrutinize the original ideas and belief system of the fictional character Abraham: the first Jew.
Having said that, I myself do not solely blame these Jews. Without kings, queens, dukes, princes, who employed the despised Jews as their tax collectors, middle agents to squeeze the peasants, could these Jews themselves alone do such harm to other people?
Without the statist structure that people believe and obey, could this tiny group of despised Jews alone take such control of the West and were able to dictated and orchestrated such two devastating world wars themselves?
Without these filthy Jews, would the West have been in peace with justice and prosperity without war?
I have answered these questions many times over. People have been killing one another for millennia because of religious and racial beliefs under orders of the elites. Does “civil war” teach us anything about “religion”, “nationalism”, and “pure race”?
In the game of power, everyone does the same tricks with cold blood. Jewish nationalism (Zionism) is …just nationalism! Jewish absurdity is … just absurdity! Jewish crimes, atrocities are just crimes and atrocities!
When I was young, I often asked myself:
Did I choose to be born? Did I choose my parents? Did I choose to be Asian? Did I choose to be male or female, or whatever gender? Did I choose my hair, eyes color? Did I choose my shape and size? Did I choose certain illness in my body? So why the fuck should I be proud or ashamed of those things that imposed upon me by accident and chance of biolife? Yet, I certainly must be proud or ashamed of my own actions, over which I do have control and choice.
That’s how I realize that these fucking Jews are not alone in this stupid delusional “chosen-ness”. The “Aryan” race! The Han race! The Viet race! The White race…
As I have traveled around East and West, the reality on the ground has taught me a truth. In every “nation”, the 1% does not give a fuck about the rest. The 1% always exploits, squeezes the rest with the help and throught the statist power system That’s how they become the well protected 1%. Same ancestors, same blood. Fuck it! The have-plenties always despise and squeeze the haveless and the have nots. The have-plenties never want to mingle with the haveless much less the have-nots. And everywhere, if you do not have money you do not have a home, much less a country. You are homeless, you are no people, you are un-people.
Wherever I go I would test what Krishnamurti observed and commented:
“We are very defensive, and therefore aggressive, when we hold on to a particular belief, a dogmas, or when we worship our particular nationality, with the rag that is called the flag… “When you call yourself an Indian or a Muslim or a Christian or a European, or anything else, you are being violent. Do you see why it is violent? Because you are separating yourself from the rest of mankind. When you separate yourself by belief, by nationality, by tradition, it breeds violence. So a man who is seeking to understand violence does not belong to any country, to any religion, to any political party or partial system; he is concerned with the total understanding of mankind.”
And I always find it true, especially within one own nation. Ironic isn’t it? Have you ever been accused of “unamerican”, “unaustralian,” “unvietnamese,” “unchinese” , unwhetever… and self-hate whatever?
If so, you should be proud and be congratulated, for that is the absolute proof of your true intellectual ability : you are a free human being, not a sheeple in a herd.
Last but not least, needless to say that posting these books does not necessarily mean I totally concur with these authors’ arguements. I am anarchist , they are not!
As always, the last word is yours.
From Yahweh to Zion: Chapter 1-2-3
by Laurent Guyénot (Author), Kevin J Barrett (Translator)
“The destiny of the Jewish people appears to the historian as a paradoxical and incredible phenomenon, almost beyond comprehension. It is unique and without equivalent in the history of mankind,” writes French author Alexandre Roudinesco.1 Such commonplace assertions are hard to refute.
To explain what makes the Jewish people so special, and Jewish identity so enduring, without resorting to the notion of divine election, one has to agree that the Bible has played a major role. (I use the word “Bible” for the Jewish Tanakh, the Old Testament of the Christians.) Jews around the world have drawn from the Bible pride in their history and confidence in their destiny, no matter what hardship they may endure.
Whether Jewishness is defined as religious or ethnic, its roots are in the Bible. Therefore, its essence must be sought there. Whether he has read it or not, whether he judges it historical or mythical, every Jew ultimately bases his Jewishness on the Bible—or whatever he knows about the Bible. This venerable corpus—which includes the five “Books of Moses” (the Pentateuch, or Torah), the Historical Books, and the Prophets—constitutes the unshakable foundation of both Jewish religion and Jewish identity. (The Talmud is only a commentary on the Bible, and does not fundamentally alter its core ideology). From a religious viewpoint, the Bible preserves the memory and the essence of the Covenant with God that the believer internalizes. From an ethnic viewpoint, the Bible is the foundational collective memory of the Jewish people, and the pattern by which Jews interpret their whole subsequent history (the Dispersion, the Holocaust, the rebirth of Israel, and so on). Any nation is a narration, and what makes the Jewish nation special is ultimately what makes the biblical narration special. The Bible has always been the “portable fatherland” of the Diaspora Jews, as Heinrich Heine once put it. But it also became and has remained the heart of Israel, whose founders did not give it any other Constitution.
It is true that the earliest prophets of political Zionism—Moses Hess (Rome and Jerusalem, 1862), Leon Pinsker (Auto-Emancipation, 1882), and Theodor Herzl (The Jewish State, 1896)— did not draw their inspiration from the Bible, but rather from the great nationalist spirit that swept through Europe at the end of the nineteenth century. Pinsker and Herzl actually cared little whether the Jews colonized Palestine or any other region of the globe; the former considered land in North America, while the latter contemplated Argentina and later Uganda. More important still than nationalism, what drove these intellectual pioneers was the persistence of Judeophobia or anti-Semitism: Pinsker, who was from Odessa, converted to Zionism during the pogroms that followed the assassination of Alexander II; Herzl, at the height of the Dreyfus affair. Pinsker, a medical doctor, regarded Judeophobia as a hereditary and incurable “disease transmitted for two thousand years,” and he characterized the Jews as “the people chosen for universal hatred.”2 The most recent manifestation of anti-Semitism in Nazi Germany was the justification for the creation of Israel in 1948. And it is still today one of the pillars of Jewish identity throughout the world, as documented in Yoav Shamir’s excellent film Defamation (2009). Indeed, since the end of the 1960s the Holocaust has become the source of a new secular version of the Election—the belief that Jews are God’s chosen people. Yet, as we shall see, the Holocaust resonates deeply with the Bible.
Fundamentally, as its very name indicates, Zionism is a biblically inspired project: Zion is a name used for Jerusalem by biblical prophets. Although officially a secular ideology, Zionism was, from the start, biblical to the core. Avigail Abarbanel makes the point in a text meant to explain to Israelis why she has given up her Israeli citizenship: “Let’s say you did ‘return home’ as your myths say, that Palestine really was your ancestral home. But Palestine was fully populated when you started to covet it. In order to take it for yourself you have been following quite closely the biblical dictate to Joshua to just walk in and take everything. You killed, you expelled, you raped, you stole, you burned and destroyed and you replaced the population with your own people. I was always taught that the Zionist movement was largely non-religious (how you can be Jewish without Jewish religion is perplexing in itself). For a supposedly non-religious movement it’s extraordinary how closely Zionism—your creator and your blueprint—has followed the Bible. Of course you never dare to critique the stories of the Bible. Not even the secular amongst you do that. None of my otherwise good teachers at my secular schools ever suggested that we question the morality of what Joshua did. If we were able to question it, the logical next step would have been to question Zionism, its crimes, and the rightness of the existence of our very own state. No, we couldn’t be allowed to go that far. It was too dangerous. That would risk the precarious structure that held us in place.”3
The founders of the Yishuv (Jewish communities settled in Palestine before 1947) and later the founders of the new State of Israel were steeped in the Bible. From their point of view, Zionism was the logical and necessary end of Yahwism. In Ben-Gurion, Prophet of Fire (1983), the biography of the man described as “the personification of the Zionist dream,” Dan Kurzman entitles each chapter with a Bible quote. The preface begins like this: “The life of David Ben- Gurion is more than the story of an extraordinary man. It is the story of a biblical prophecy, an eternal dream. […] Ben-Gurion was, in a modern sense, Moses, Joshua, Isaiah, a messiah who felt he was destined to create an exemplary Jewish state, a ‘light unto the nations’ that would help to redeem all mankind.” For Ben-Gurion, Kurzman writes, the rebirth of Israel in 1948 “paralleled the Exodus from Egypt, the conquest of the land by Joshua, the Maccabean revolt.” Yet Ben-Gurion had no religious inclination; he had never been to the synagogue, and ate pork for breakfast. He liked to say that “God did not choose Israel; Israel chose God,” and he quoted Joshua 24:22 to back it. According to the rabbi leading the Bible study group that he attended, Ben-Gurion “unconsciously believed he was blessed with a spark from Joshua’s soul.” He had been captivated by ancient history since his childhood, and changed his name David Grün to that of a Jewish general fighting the Romans. “There can be no worthwhile political or military education about Israel without profound knowledge of the Bible,” he used to say.4 He wrote in his diary in 1948, ten days after declaring independence, “We will break Transjordan [Jordan], bomb Amman and destroy its army, and then Syria falls, and if Egypt will still continue to fight —we will bombard Port Said, Alexandria and Cairo,” then he adds: “This will be in revenge for what they (the Egyptians, the Aramis and Assyrians) did to our forefathers during biblical times.”5 Three days after the Israeli invasion of the Sinai in 1956, he declared before the Knesset that what was at stake was “the restoration of the kingdom of David and Solomon.”6
Prophecy is part of the biblical mindset. In a statement published in the magazine Look on January 16, 1962, Ben-Gurion predicted that in the next twenty-five years: “All armies will be abolished, and there will be no more wars. In Jerusalem, the United Nations (a truly United Nations) will build a Shrine of the Prophets to serve the federated union of all continents; this will be the seat of the Supreme Court of Mankind, to settle all controversies among the federated continents, as prophesied by Isaiah.”7 That program is running late, but it has not changed. How could it? It is printed in Isaiah! Christians find hope in the prophecy that, one day, people “will hammer their swords into plowshares and their spears into sickles. Nations will not lift sword against nation, no longer will they learn how to make war” (Isaiah 2:4). But more important to Zionists are the previous verses, which describe these messianic times as a Pax Judaica, when “all the nations” will pay tribute “to the mountain of Yahweh, to the house of the god of Jacob,” when “the Law will issue from Zion and the word of Yahweh from Jerusalem,” so that Yahweh will “judge between the nations and arbitrate between many peoples.”
Ben-Gurion’s attachment to the Bible was shared by almost every Zionist leader of his generation and the next. Moshe Dayan, the military hero of the 1967 Six-Day War, wrote a book entitled Living with the Bible (1978) in which he biblically justified the annexation of new territory. Even the nuclear policy of Israel has a biblical name: the Samson Option. On March 3, 2015, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu dramatized in front of the American Congress his deep phobia of Iran by referring to the biblical book of Esther (the only Bible story that makes no mention of God). It is worth quoting the heart of his rhetorical appeal for a US strike against Iran: “We’re an ancient people. In our nearly 4,000 years of history, many have tried repeatedly to destroy the Jewish people. Tomorrow night, on the Jewish holiday of Purim, we’ll read the book of Esther. We’ll read of a powerful Persian viceroy named Haman, who plotted to destroy the Jewish people some 2,500 years ago. But a courageous Jewish woman, Queen Esther, exposed the plot and gave the Jewish people the right to defend themselves against their enemies. The plot was foiled. Our people were saved. Today the Jewish people face another attempt by yet another Persian potentate to destroy us.”8 Netanyahu managed to schedule his address to the Congress on the eve of Purim, which celebrates the happy end of the book of Esther—the slaughter of 75,000 Persians, women and children included. This recent and typical speech by the head of the State of Israel is clear indication that the behavior of that nation on the international scene cannot be understood without a deep inquiry into the Bible’s underlying ideology. Such is the main objective of this book.
The first three chapters probe the heart of the Hebrew Bible. They set out to extract its ideological substratum, unveiling the process by which Yahweh, through the voices of his priests, prophets, and scribes (the “cognitive elite”)9 shaped the vision and collective psychology of his chosen people. Christians have their own reading and particular conception of the Old Testament—a “religious,” second-degree reading—that differs from the Jewish reading, and that impedes their understanding of Jewish identity. We must consider the biblical tradition in its original context in order to grasp its revolutionary and corrosive character.
Chapter 4 then examines the genesis of Christianity and its medieval evolution, while chapter 5 analyzes the evolution of the Jewish people in its relation to Christendom. The major turning point of this story is the expulsion of Sephardic Jews from the Iberian Peninsula in the fifteenth century, and their forced mass conversions to Christianity, followed by the pitiless hunt for the “false Christians” thus generated. These traumatic events radicalized Jewish anti-Christianity, and played a critical role in the upheaval of the old world, as Jewish historians alone have correctly apprehended. Chapters 6 through 9 shed light on world events from the nineteenth to the twenty-first centuries by focusing on the influence of Ashkenazi Jews in Central and Western Europe and then in North America. The “deep history” of networks, secret diplomacy, clandestine operations, psychological warfare, and propaganda reveals the decisive steps in this process, which launched a struggle for the soul and destiny of humanity. This book will highlight a “project” that has been ongoing for over a hundred years, marked by four world wars and culminating in the programmed destruction of the Arab-Muslim Middle East, the final installment. The two concluding chapters (10 and 11) provide a summary and synthesis, proposing theoretical models capable of handling the empirical data, and presenting a conception of history that recognizes the crucial role played by the Jewish people. These chapters, like the preceding ones, will rely mainly on Jewish authors, whose views on these questions are often much more relevant than those of conventional non-Jewish historians.
This book is a critical approach to “Jewishness” as a system of thought—a representation of the world and the self—essentially an idea. I am critiquing this idea by exposing its dangerous irrationality, nothing more. Even if it were as old as the world, any idea would deserve critique. Since the first victims of a toxic idea are the men and women who believe it, they are the first I wish to help liberate. Trying to understand Jewishness entails dealing with the nature of the Election, the Holocaust, and Israel, for they are the three “invisible walls” of the “Jewish prison,” according to French journalist Jean Daniel’s personal testimony.10 If there is a moral judgment in the following pages, it is directed at the elite who have built this prison throughout the ages, and kept its key.
For today, just like yesterday, Jewishness is an identity shaped by the elite, as it has always been. The dominant ideology among world Jewry is, by definition, the ideology imposed by the dominant Jews, the cultural and religious elite intimately associated with the political and financial elite. “The evils of Israel are the evils of leadership,” wrote Jewish publisher Samuel Roth in Jews Must Live: An Account of the Persecution of the World by Israel on All the Frontiers of Civilization (1934). He blames all the suffering of the Jews on “the stupendous hypocrisy and cruelty imposed upon us by our fatal leadership.” “Beginning with the Lord God of Israel Himself, it was the successive leaders of Israel who one by one foregathered and guided the tragic career of the Jews—tragic to the Jews and no less tragic to the neighboring nations who have suffered them. […] despite our faults, we would never have done so much damage to the world if it had not been for our genius for evil leadership.”11 This book will show that the submission of the Jewish people to the self-proclaimed representatives of Yahweh—and to their ideology— is the essence of biblical ethics. Even though the biblical narrative itself presents the Hebrew people as often rebellious and reverting to their “abominable” natural leaning toward fraternization with their neighbors, Yahwist ideology, which forbids intermarriage with the goyim, always seems to have the final say.
Today, under the influence of a new elite, composed mostly of sons and grandsons of rabbis, Jewishness tends to merge with Zionism. Being Jewish had always been synonymous with being part of “Israel,” but now “Israel” has taken on a new meaning. Jewish identity is no longer defined as belonging to a people or a religion, but as loyalty to a particular Middle Eastern state. The efforts of Jewish authorities to condemn anti-Zionism as a disguise for anti-Semitism (Israel has become “the Jew of nations,” claims Paul Giniewski in Antisionisme: le nouvel antisémitisme, 1973) are only the counterpart of their efforts to convince all Jews that Zionism is a nonnegotiable part of their Jewishness. When Rabbi Josy Eisenberg writes in an editorial for the French magazine L’Information juive, “Except for a few Jews—alas sometimes negationists—love for the State of Israel is today the only common point of all Jews,” he means it less as an observation than as an injunction: each Jew is required to love Israel or he will be deemed traitor to his own Jewish identity, that is, a “self-hating Jew.” At minimum, adds Eisenberg, “there is today a moral imperative not to add our voice to the detractors of Israel, and to always temper our critiques.”12
I do not ignore the fact that, like the ghettos of bygone days, the “Jewish prison” has also been a refuge. As an even greater paradox, it can be argued that the prison has incited great creativity among the prisoners most determined to free themselves; true freedom is, perhaps, only available through escape. If so many Jews have left their mark on worldwide cultural history, it is obviously not in spite of their Jewishness. Instead it is often in an antagonistic relationship to it, or at least in a determined effort to move beyond it. These Jewish geniuses are very different from the communitarian elites, even though the latter try to appropriate and profit from the posthumous fame of the former. The archetypal example is Baruch Spinoza, excommunicated by the rabbis during his lifetime, now lionized as the greatest Jewish thinker. Almost without exception, the Jewish geniuses have been anticommunitarian, critical of Judaism, and, in the twentieth century, anti-Zionist. Today the Jewish mental prison consisting of victimization (Holocaust worship and fear of anti-Semitism) and guilt (blackmail-driven loyalty to Israel) has become so oppressive that those who wish to escape must first exhaust themselves breaking down the walls.
This book is, above all, the result of a sincere effort at cognitive empathy. I have read from a wide range of schools of thought, but among them I have given the greatest importance to Jewish writings. These have greatly influenced my vision of Jewish culture and its worldwide impact, leaving me today with the dispassionate conviction that Judaism and the Jewish people have been, throughout history, in their very antagonism to Gentile cultures, and sometimes in a brutal and tragic way, a dynamic factor of evolution. No Christian, indeed, could deny that fact without ignoring Jesus’s background.
This book will deal with Judaism, the Jewish people, Jewish history, Jewishness, and Jewry (the Jewish community). I adopt for all these terms nominalist definitions, the only ones that suffer no objection: “A Jew is a person who considers him/herself a Jew and is so considered by others,” to quote Raphael Patai.13 Likewise, Jewishness is nothing but what Jews think of it. I am dealing with these notions exclusively from a cognitive viewpoint; my research is about beliefs, ideology, mental frameworks, and representations. For example, the fact that the majority of modern Jews define their Jewishness as ethnic rather than religious is, from the standpoint adopted here, a cognitive fact, nothing more. Whether genetic studies prove them right or wrong is not the point, for ideology is independent from biology.
The thesis of this book is also independent from the question of the Bible’s dating. That the majority of Jews and non-Jews think it is three thousand years old is just another cognitive fact. The nature of the Bible is in its content, not its age. Yet the historical context of its birth and growth, as informed by scholarly research, can be enlightening. Such is the subject of the first chapter.
Finally, the argument of this book is independent from the question of the existence of God—a question that presupposes a consensual definition of “God,” an impossible task. Let it be said, however, that the author holds as self-evident that the Universe is endowed with Intelligence; for how could man, otherwise, be intelligent? Philosophers figured that out more than two thousand years ago.14 The unfathomable mystery of that Cosmic Power of Truth and Love, without which human brotherhood is a vain idea, cannot be contained in a book or a set of dogmas. As for Yahweh, I consider him nothing more than the main character of a saga written by several generations of priests and scribes for their own advantage. Yet, as an idea cultivated in the collective psyche of millions of people for tens of centuries, it is certainly endowed with great spiritual power.
All Bible quotes are taken from the Catholic New Jerusalem Bible, which has not altered the divine name YHWH into “the Lord,” as most other English translations have done for unscholarly reasons. I make only one alteration to this authoritative translation, for reasons that will be apparent later: I write “god” rather than “God” when the word is used as a noun rather than a name, as in “the god of Israel.” For example, where the NJB arbitrarily differentiates “Chemosh, your god” from “Yahweh, our God” in Judges 11:24, I do not.
THE PEOPLE OF SETH
“If you faithfully obey the voice of Yahweh your God, by keeping and observing all his commandments, which I am laying down for you today, Yahweh your God will raise you higher than every other nation in the world.”Deuteronomy 28:1
The Birth of Israel The history of Israel, as recounted by mainstream historians, begins at the end of the tenth century BCE, when the Middle East was dominated by Assyria, whose capital was Assur. That is when the Omrides dynasty founded in northern Palestine a kingdom that took as its name Israel, and as its administrative capital Samaria. It was known in the Assyrian chronicles as the “House of Omri.” Judea, in the south, was a backwards hinterland consisting of mountainous arid land inhabited by pastoral tribes that had only recently settled down. Religious life in Israel was certainly as diverse as in other parts of Syria. It was merely a local version of polytheism, which, across the known world, admitted the plurality of gods—some local, some national, others international or cosmic, all proceeding from or contained within the supreme god, referred to simply as El (God), or by majestic plural Elohim.
It is believed that a general by the name of Jehu first promoted the cult of his god Yahweh in the kingdom of Israel, after seizing the throne in 842 BCE.15 Yahweh Sabaoth (Yahweh of armies) seems to be the archaic name of this military god, which was carried in battle in a mobile ark (1 Samuel 4:4). He resembled Assur, the national and military god of the Assyrians, presented in Assyrian chronicles as the true king of the eponymous city-state, with the human ruler being only the vicegerent. Assur is a warrior god, who grants victory to his people and destroys the gods (i.e., temples and shrines) of conquered peoples.16 This is also, as we shall see, the dominant feature of Yahweh.
In the middle of the eighth century, the Neo-Assyrian Empire embarked on a new round of political and commercial expansion, systematically destroying the cities that refused vassalage. Israel allied itself with Damascus against Assyria. Judea refused to join in this endeavor and stood under Assyrian protection. Israel was annihilated in 720 BCE. Jerusalem saw its population double in an influx of refugees who included priests bent on preserving their former national identity. Under their influence, a pan-Israelite ideology developed aiming to reconquer the North under the banner of Yahweh. The opportunity seemed to present itself with the weakening of Assyria during the reign of King Josiah (639–609), who tried to extend his control over the northern lands, and dreamed of making Jerusalem the center of a new empire.
In those ancient times, government propaganda took a religious form. And Yahweh is a vengeful god. He had defied Assur, was defeated by him, but continued to assert his superiority over his conqueror. The book of Isaiah, whose oldest strata was composed soon after the destruction of Israel by Assyria, is the founding document of that program: “Yahweh Sabaoth has sworn it, ‘Yes, what I have planned will take place, what I have decided will be so: I shall break Assyria in my country, I shall trample on him on my mountains. Then his yoke will slip off them, his burden will slip from their shoulders. This is the decision taken in defiance of the whole world; this, the hand outstretched in defiance of all nations. Once Yahweh Sabaoth has decided, who will stop him? Once he stretches out his hand, who can withdraw it?’” (14:24–27).
The book of Isaiah would be expanded during several centuries, without deviating from the initial plan, which was to make Zion the new center of the world: “It will happen in the final days that the mountain of Yahweh’s house will rise higher than the mountains and tower above the heights. Then all the nations will stream to it. […] For the Law will issue from Zion and the word of Yahweh from Jerusalem” (2:2–3). Kings, Yahweh assures his people, “will fall prostrate before you, faces to the ground, and lick the dust at your feet” (49:23), whereas “I shall make your oppressors eat their own flesh, they will be as drunk on their own blood as on new wine. And all humanity will know that I am Yahweh, your Saviour, your redeemer, the Mighty One of Jacob” (49:26). “For the nation and kingdom that will not serve you will perish, and the nations will be utterly destroyed” (60:12).
Yahweh held his people solely responsible for his defeat by Assur: they have failed him by their religious pluralism, likened to a betrayal of their holy alliance. In fact, according to the biblical chroniclers, it was Yahweh himself who led Assur against the Israeli people to punish them for their apostasy. Judah, on the contrary, saw its own survival as the sign of Yahweh’s favor: Judah thus earned the birthright over Israel, as Jacob had over Esau. This theme was probably introduced into the biblical narrative at the time of Josiah, by weaving together traditions from the North (Israel) and from the South (Judea). Northern legends, for example, glorified the ancient king Saul, while southern folklore honored David, the shepherd turned honorable bandit. In the resulting story, the tension between Saul and David is resolved in favor of the latter when Saul says to David, who once served him: “Now I know that you will indeed reign and that the sovereignty in Israel will pass into your hands” (1 Samuel 24:21). God establishes on David an eternal dynasty (2 Samuel 7:12–16) and his son Solomon reigns over an empire.
Despite two centuries of fruitless searching, archaeologists have come to admit that the magnificent Kingdom of Solomon has no more reality than Arthur’s Camelot. At the supposed time of Solomon, Jerusalem was only a large village, while Samaria hosted a palace. The myth of Solomon probably started as a fantasy mirror image of Josiah’s political project, designed to strengthen the claims of prophet-priests that a new David (Josiah) would restore the empire of Solomon. The game of mirrors thus created between mythical past and prophetic future is a masterpiece of political propaganda.17
Josiah’s expansionist scheme was thwarted by Egypt, which also hoped to take advantage of the weakening of Assyria. After Josiah’s death in battle against the Egyptian army, the days of Judah were numbered. The books of Kings tell us that several of his sons reigned briefly, first as vassals of Egypt, then of Babylon. When the last of them rebelled against King Nebuchadnezzar II, the latter retaliated by besieging and finally burning Jerusalem in 588 BCE, deporting some of its elites (the book of Jeremiah advances the plausible figure of 4,600 people); another group found refuge in Egypt. The exiles enjoyed broad autonomy in Babylon, and some even acquired wealth and influence. Speaking on behalf of Yahweh from Egypt, the priest-prophet Jeremiah wrote to the exiles: “Work for the good of the city to which I have exiled you; pray to Yahweh on its behalf, since on its welfare yours depends” (Jeremiah 29:7). But twenty chapters later, Jeremiah announced the “vengeance of the Lord” on the Babylonians and called on their Persian enemies to “slaughter and curse with destruction every last one of them” (50:21). In the same spirit, the author of Psalm 137:8 writes: “Daughter of Babel, doomed to destruction, […] a blessing on anyone who seizes your babies and shatters them against a rock!” The reason for this violent shift in Yahweh’s sentiment was that the situation had changed: in 555 BCE, a prince named Nabonad seized power in Babylon. He made war against the Persian king Cyrus (Koresch) and allied with the king of Egypt Amasis. There is evidence that the Judean exiles sided with the Persians, according to Jewish historian Heinrich Graetz: “Did any of the Judean favorites at the Babylonian court, or any of the converted heathens open secret negotiations with Cyrus? The kindness shown later on to the Judeans by the Persian warrior, and their persecution by Nabonad, led to the supposition that such was the case.”18
When the Persians conquered Babylon in 539 BCE, some of the exiles and their descendants (42,360 people with their 7,337 servants and 200 male and female singers, according to Ezra 2:64–67) returned to Jerusalem under the protection of King Cyrus, with the project of rebuilding the Temple in Jerusalem. For his gentleness, Cyrus is bestowed the title of God’s “Anointed” (Mashiah) in Isaiah 45:1, Yahweh (or his influential devotees) having “grasped [him] by his right hand, to make the nations bow before him.” In 458 BCE, eighty years after the return of the first exiles, Ezra, proud descendant of a line of Yahwist priests, went from Babylon to Jerusalem, accompanied by some 1,500 followers. Carrying with him an amplified version of the Torah, Ezra called himself the “Secretary of the Law of the God of heaven” (Ezra 7:21), mandated by the king of Persia. He was soon joined by Nehemiah, a Persian court official of Judean origin.
Ezra the Proto-Zionist Chapter 22 of the second book of Kings tells how Deuteronomy, the heart of the biblical canon, was “discovered” during the reign of Josiah. It was during renovation work in the Temple that the high priest Hilkiah found a “scroll of the Law (Torah)” that he identified as having been written by Moses himself. Historians interpret this narrative as a legend fabricated by priests to pass their new law (Deuteronomy) as the mere reenactment of an old law. Therefore, according to the most conservative biblical science, Deuteronomy dates to the age of Josiah around 625 BCE. The story of its discovery is a pious fraud. From the same period come most of the six historical books following Deuteronomy (Joshua, Judges, Samuel I and II, Kings I and II), which recount the history of Israel from Moses to Josiah. They form what is known as “Deuteronomic history,” as they are cast in the same ideological mold as Deuteronomy—what I more simply call Yahwism.
But this dating is now being challenged. According to Philip Davies, a representative of the “minimalist” school, the “reform of Josiah” is itself “bound to be regarded as a pious legend, just about possible perhaps, but extremely improbable.” Indeed, it is hardly conceivable that Deuteronomy was written in a monarchy, let alone under the authority of a king, because it is a law code adapted to a theocracy, a country ruled by priests. The entire Deuteronomic history minimizes the royal function, which it depicts as having been only grudgingly granted by Yahweh to the Hebrews: “It is not you they have rejected but me,” Yahweh complains to Samuel when the Hebrews ask for a king (1 Samuel 8:7). The idea that a king would sponsor a priestly code of law limiting his power, to which he would then submit voluntarily, makes no sense. On the other hand, the Deuteronomic ideology perfectly corresponds to the regime that Ezra and Nehemiah wanted to impose: the reign of a caste of priests, with a weak king or no king at all. This does not mean that all the contents of the Bible were invented in this period. There was an aggregation of oral and written materials: chronicles and legends of kings, warriors, and holy men, as well as religious and secular songs, visions, and prophecies. But “the ideological structure of the biblical literature can only be explained in the last analysis as a product of the Persian period,” the time when Ezra drafted his project of reconquest.19
The tale of the “discovery” of the “Law of Moses” in the Temple under Josiah is a double deception. This Torah supposedly written by Moses, abandoned and then revived two centuries later by Josiah, then becoming obsolete again as the country was ravaged, then finally returned by Ezra to a people who, it seems, no longer remembered it—this Torah had in fact never been known or applied before Ezra, but was invented by him and the Levitical families who intended to make it the instrument of their new power over the Palestinian population.
The biblical text was designed to establish Ezra’s legitimacy based on Moses the mythical ancestor, as well as Josiah the last king before the Exile. It is built on a mise en abîme that goes like this: First, Moses receives from Yahweh the Law (of Deuteronomy) and urges the Hebrew people to “faithfully obey the voice of Yahweh your God, by keeping and observing all his commandments” (Deuteronomy 28:1–20). Secondly, Josiah receives from the high priest that same “Book of the Law,” the “Law of Moses” (that had once fallen from the sky but now emerges from the dust), and summons “the whole populace, high and low” to hear it being read (2 Kings 23:2). Thirdly, Ezra brings back from Babylon this very “Book of the Law of Moses” and summons the families of the settlers to read it to them “from dawn till noon” (Nehemiah 8:1–3).
The first two episodes are mythical, only the third is historical. For a historian critical of his sources, the only near-certainty is that, around 458 BCE, a clan claiming to issue from a lineage of Yahwistic Judean priests and installed in Babylon won from the Persians the right to establish a semi-autonomous state in Palestine; and that in order to dominate the local population, they developed a version of history presenting themselves as legitimate heirs of an ancient tradition.
Historians of recent training admit that the Pentateuch incorporates traditions older than the Exile and Return, but they downgrade their importance. The conquest of Canaan by Joshua, for example, is seen as a mythical projection of the reconquest of Canaan by the Jews of Babylon, designed to give Ezra the image of a new Moses or Joshua. Indeed, what the Lord required of the Hebrews during the conquest of Canaan under Moses and Joshua is exactly what Ezra and Nehemiah required of the Judeo-Babylonians colonizing Palestine concerning their relations with the “people of the land,” an expression recurring in the books of Ezra and Nehemiah to denote the population of Judea over which the Babylonian settlers intended to reign. These indigenous people, who believed themselves rightful inhabitants of the country, were declared “foreigners” in the inverted view of history imposed by the Persian-backed settlers, and explicitly identified with the peoples fought by Joshua in bygone days.
Ezra complains that the exiles who settled back in Palestine before him “have been unfaithful” to Yahweh “by marrying foreign women from the people of the country” (Ezra 10:2), these people with “disgusting practices” (9:14). He requires that all the perpetrators repudiate their foreign wives and the children born of them. The fact that the prohibition of intermarriage by Ezra is the faithful echo of the one formulated in Deuteronomy, and that the mixed marriages condemned by Ezra are reminiscent of those blamed on the Hebrew people in the books of Numbers and Kings, must be interpreted in reverse, according to the new historians, since much of the Pentateuch and all the Deuteronomic literature were written to support the theocratic project of Ezra.
The book of Ezra says that when the settlers from Babylon wanted to (re)build the Temple, they first found themselves in “fear of the people of the country” (3:3). These latter are referred to as “the enemies of Judah and Benjamin” when they proposed to the exiles: “Let us help you build, for we resort to your god as you do and we have been sacrificing to him since the time of Esarhaddon king of Assyria, who brought us here” (4:2). This language actually reflects the gaze of the exiles on the locals, whom they considered the descendants of Assyrian colonists practicing an illegitimate version of the Hebrew religion, polluted by idolatry—a view justified in the second book of Kings (17:23–41) by the assertion that all of Israel was deported by the Assyrians (the famous twelve lost tribes). But current historians, informed by the Assyrian archives, estimate that only 20 percent of the population of the kingdom of Samaria was deported. Clinging to this prejudice, the exiles rejected the indigenous proposal: “It is out of the question that you should join us in building a temple for our god. We shall build for Yahweh, god of Israel, on our own, as King Cyrus king of Persia has commanded us.” Conflict ensued: “The people of the country then set about demoralizing the people of Judah and deterring them from building” (Ezra 4:3–4).
Through additional arrogance, these “people of Judah” (the settlers) who scorned the “people of the country” (indigenous Judeans) were not content merely to declare themselves the only ones worthy of the name of Judah. They also usurped the prestigious name of Israel, which previously had only meant the former northern kingdom.
Like the conquest of Canaan by Joshua, the journey of Abraham from Mesopotamia to Palestine, prompted by Yahweh’s commitment “to give you this country as your possession” (Genesis 15:7), seems written as a model for the (re)conquest of Palestine by the exiles in Babylon. Abraham was in fact unknown among pre-exilic prophets.20 Other episodes of Genesis, like the Tower of Babel (chapter 11), cannot have been written prior to the fall of Babylon. The same is true of the Garden of Eden, since the Hebrew word Pardès (from which “Paradise” derives) is of Persian origin.
Other episodes betray a xenophobia that fits well with the spirit of the conquest of Ezra. For example, the curious story in which the three sons of Noah, at the initiative of the youngest, Cham, “cover the nakedness” of their father (Genesis 9:18–29), contains the thinly veiled idea that Ham, the ancestor of the Canaanites, had sex with his dead-drunk father. Noah cursed him when “he learned what his youngest son had done to him.” This is probably an etiological account of the impurity attributed to the Canaanites—the narrative equivalent of an obscene insult tossed in their direction to justify their enslavement: “Accursed be Canaan, he shall be his brothers’ meanest slave.”21
The explanation also applies to the history of the two daughters of Lot (Abraham’s nephew), who, after being virtually delivered to the Sodomites by their father (Genesis 19:8), got him drunk and seduced him, thereby conceiving Moab and Ben-Ammi, ancestors of the Moabites and Ammonites (Genesis 19:31–38). On the other hand, Judah’s fornication with his daughter-in-law Tamar, dressed as a prostitute (Genesis 38), is depicted as the God-blessed action that produced the tribe of Judah.
Hasmonean Literary Production The books of Ezra and Nehemiah base the authority for the reforms of their eponymous heroes on edicts supposedly issued by Persian sovereigns. “Yahweh roused the spirit of Cyrus king of Persia to issue a proclamation and to have it publicly displayed throughout his kingdom: ‘Cyrus king of Persia says this, Yahweh, the God of heaven, has given me all the kingdoms of the earth and has appointed me to build him a temple in Jerusalem, in Judah.’” (Ezra 1:1–2). The book of Ezra then reproduces a contrary edict of the next emperor, Xerxes, prompted by a warning from locals against the danger of allowing the exiles to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem: “this city is a rebellious city, the bane of kings and provinces, and […] sedition has been stirred up there from ancient times” (4:15). The Judeans countered by writing to the next king of Persia, Darius, to invite him to search the archives of Babylon for the edict of Cyrus. This was found at Ectabane, and summarized in a new edict of Darius authorizing the rebuilding of the temple, and ordering gigantic burnt offerings financed by “the royal revenue.” Darius warned that “if anyone disobeys this order, a beam is to be torn from his house, he is to be impaled on it and his house is to be reduced to a rubbish-heap for his offense” (6:11).
Then it is Artaxerxes who, by a new edict, is supposed to have granted Ezra authority to lead “all members of the people of Israel in my kingdom, including their priests and Levites, who freely choose to go to Jerusalem,” and to rule over “the whole people of Trans-Euphrates [territories west to the Euphrates], that is, for all who know the Law of your God; and you are to teach it to those who do not know it. And on anyone who will not comply with the Law of your God and the Law of the king let sentence be swiftly executed, whether it be death, banishment, fine or imprisonment.” Thus ends what is presented as “the text of the document which King Artaxerxes gave to Ezra” (7:11–26).
The edicts of Cyrus, Darius, and Artaxerxes are fake. No historian believes them authentic. The fraud is almost transparent in the first case, which was supposedly lost and then found. As for the edict of Artaxerxes, it is even more incredible. However, it is unlikely that writing under Persian rule, Jews would have produced false edicts, even in Hebrew. This leads to the plausible theory that the books of Ezra and Nehemiah, in their present form, were written after the end of the Persian rule over Judea. This brings us to the Hellenistic period, which followed the conquest of Alexander the Great in 333 BCE.
Large Jewish communities were living in Egypt at that time. Some date back to the Babylonian conquest, when refugees settled there by the thousands, counting among them the prophet Jeremiah. As in Babylon, the Jews supported the Persian conquest of Egypt, and obtained under Persian rule privileged status as intermediaries between the ruling elite and the population. In 332, true to their strategy, they welcomed the new conqueror, Alexander the Macedonian, who accorded them special rights. To encourage immigration to his new capital, Alexander went so far as to grant the Jews the same privileges as the Hellenes who formed the ruling elite. This privileged status, alongside the legendary ability of Jews to enrich themselves, naturally aroused the jealousy of the natives; Jewish historian Flavius Josephus reports in his War of the Jews (II.18.7) that there was in Alexandria “perpetual sedition” of the Gentiles (Greeks and Egyptians) against the privileged Jews, which intensified in the second half of the second century BCE.
After Alexander’s death, his generals fought among themselves over his conquests. Around 300 BCE, Ptolemy Soter reigned as Pharaoh of Egypt and its dependencies, which included Judea, while Seleucus received almost the whole of Asia, including Persia and Upper Syria. But a century later, Judea fell to the house of the Seleucids. Hellenistic culture, born of the love affair of Greece and Egypt, then permeated the entire Middle East. The use of Greek spread from Asia to Egypt, although Aramaic, from which Hebrew and Arabic derive, remained the lingua franca in Judea and Mesopotamia.
However, in and around Judea, the assimilationist trend was being fought by an identity movement. In the second century, the tension heightened between the Jews who embraced Hellenism and those who rejected it. In 167 BCE, the decision of the Seleucid king Antiochus Epiphanes to end Jewish exclusiveness by dedicating the Temple to Zeus Olympios provoked the revolt of part of the population of Judea, led by Judas Maccabeus and his brothers.
The Maccabean chronicle stigmatizes all those who advocated assimilation: “It was then that there emerged from Israel a set of renegades who led many people astray. ‘Come,’ they said, ‘let us ally ourselves with the gentiles surrounding us, for since we separated ourselves from them many misfortunes have overtaken us.’ This proposal proved acceptable, and a number of the people eagerly approached the king, who authorized them to practice the gentiles’ observances.” And so they “abandoned the holy covenant, submitting to gentile rule as willing slaves of impiety” (1 Maccabees 1:11–15), to the point of marrying outside their community. When Antiochus imposed his “royal prescriptions,” “many Israelites chose to accept his religion, sacrificing to idols and profaning the Sabbath” (1:43). As a consequence, the Maccabees “organized themselves into an armed force, striking down the sinners in their anger, and the renegades in their fury” (2:44). These quotations show that the Maccabean revolution was really a civil war led by the Ioudaismoi against the Hellenismoi (in the terms of 2 Maccabees 2:21, 4:13, and 14:38); the former longed for their integration into the global culture, while the latter saw such integration as tantamount to apostasy.22
Taking advantage of the disintegration of the Seleucid state, the Maccabees seized effective control of Judea. They established a fundamentalist regime based on the book of Leviticus, written shortly before. While neither of Levitic nor of Davidic lineage, they usurped the function of high priest (in 152 BCE) and king (in 104 BCE), forming the Hasmonean dynasty that lasted until the conquest of Jerusalem by the Roman general Pompey in 63 BCE. The Hasmoneans launched a vast enterprise of conquest, absorbing not only Samaria, but Galilee in the north, Idumea in the south and Moabitide in the east, imposing circumcision there. Galilee and Idumea were converted to the centralized cult of Yahweh in Jerusalem, probably by hardy Judean settlers. But the Samaritans, who considered themselves the true Israelites, refused to forsake their temple of Mount Gerizim for the Jerusalem one. During the Maccabean war, they had already remained loyal to Antiochus and provided him with an army (1 Maccabees 3:10). Hyrcanus destroyed their temples and sanctuaries.
The Book of Jubilees, a text of Hasmonean propaganda, reaffirms the supranational destiny of Israel, based on Yahweh’s promise to Abraham: “I am Yahweh who created the heaven and the earth, and I will increase you and multiply you exceedingly, and kings shall come forth from you, and they shall judge everywhere wherever the foot of the sons of men has trodden. And I will give to your seed all the earth which is under heaven, and they shall judge all the nations according to their desires, and after that they shall get possession of the whole earth and inherit it forever” (32:18–19).
Although the Maccabees’ revolt was accompanied by the rejection of everything Greek, their descendants unrestrainedly adopted Greek culture and customs, which led them, in turn, to be hated by nationalists, represented then by ultra-legalistic Pharisees (Parushim in Hebrew, meaning the “Separated,” which could also be translated as “Puritans”). In 89 BCE, if we are to believe Josephus, the Hasmonean king Alexander Janneus, after taking a rebellious city, “did one of the most barbarous actions in the world to [the Pharisees]; for as he was feasting with his concubines, in the sight of all the city, he ordered about eight hundred of them to be crucified; and while they were living, he ordered the throats of their children and wives to be cut before their eyes” (Jewish Antiquities XIII.14).
It was under the authority of the Hasmoneans that the biblical canon was established. The two books of Chronicles, which incorporate the content of the books of Kings, are dated from this period. Opinions vary on the importance of the Hasmonean influence on the final version of the Pentateuch, the historical books and the Prophets. But all historians date from this period a large number of peripheral books, written in Greek for the most part. This is of course the case with the two books of Maccabees, hagiographies in honor of the founding martyrs. The book of Jonah, whose hero is sent to the Assyrian city of Nineveh to convert its inhabitants, also dates to the time of the Hasmoneans and their efforts at mass conversion. Some texts from this period appear to be efforts at syncretism between Greek wisdom and Yahwism, such as the book of Wisdom or Ecclesiasticus (Sirach). Others are actual frauds, such as the book of Baruch, which presents itself as a letter from the prophet Jeremiah to the exiles in Babylon.
The book of Daniel introduced the new genre of backdated prophetic visions and dreams, which contributed to the prestige of the Jewish scriptures among unsuspecting Gentiles. Flavius Josephus relates in his Jewish Antiquities that Alexander the Great was impressed when, in Jerusalem, he was given a book that announced that a Greek would destroy the Persian empire. In reality, the book did not yet exist, and Alexander had never set foot in Jerusalem.
The narrative part of the book of Daniel was inspired by a novelistic genre in vogue in the Hellenistic world. Young Daniel, selected from the Judean exiles to be educated by the chief eunuch of King Nebuchadnezzar, proves capable of interpreting the dreams of the king. He decrypts the premonitory announcement of the fall of Babylon, as well as the collapses of the Persian and Macedonian kingdoms, and predicts with amazing clarity the reign of Antiochus Epiphanes—a contemporary at the time of writing. Impressed, Nebuchadnezzar falls at the feet of Daniel and says: “Your god is indeed the God of gods, the Master of kings” (2:47).
We may compare this to the third book of the Sibylline Oracles, a Jewish-Alexandrian fraud composed in the middle of the second century BCE, which makes the oracle of Delphi glorify the Jewish people; it did not impress the pagan Greeks, but would later be taken seriously by the fathers of the Christian church. The Letter of Aristeas to Philocrates is another crypto-Jewish text from the Hellenistic period, written by an Alexandrian Jew pretending to be a Greek in order to sing the praises of Judaism. He recounts, in the style of legend, the Greek translation of the Pentateuch (the Septuagint), which Pharaoh Ptolemy II Philadelphus had ordered and sponsored in person. From reading the translation, Ptolemy supposedly swooned in ecstasy before such Jewish wisdom, exclaiming that it “comes from God.” (Josephus takes up this legend in the twelfth book of his Jewish Antiquities).
The books of Tobit, Judith, and Esther belong to the same romance genre as that of Daniel. The heroes are smart Jews who, having reached the rank of courtier, use their influence to benefit their community. The author of the book of Esther was probably inspired by the book of Ezra to invent an even more fantastical decree than the false edict of Cyrus. It is issued by King Ahasuerus (Xerxes), under the influence of the high court official Haman, vexed by the insolence of the Jew Mordecai, and sent to the governors of 127 provinces. It is thus formulated in the Greek version of Esther: “Among all the nations in the world there is scattered a certain hostile people, who have laws contrary to those of every nation and continually disregard the ordinances of kings, so that the unifying of the kingdom that we honorably intend cannot be brought about. We understand that this people, and it alone, stands constantly in opposition to every nation, perversely following a strange manner of life and laws, and is ill-disposed to our government, doing all the harm they can so that our kingdom may not attain stability. Therefore we have decreed that those indicated to you in the letters written by Haman, who is in charge of affairs and is our second father, shall all—wives and children included—be utterly destroyed by the swords of their enemies, without pity or restraint, on the fourteenth day of the twelfth month, Adar, of this present year, so that those who have long been hostile and remain so may in a single day go down in violence to Hades, and leave our government completely secure and untroubled hereafter” (3:13c–13g).
Needless to say, though the issues raised by Xerxes fairly reflect the complaints that we find expressed against Jews in other Hellenistic sources, the proposed “final solution” is a fiction: no known decree, no ancient chronicle, nor any other evidence exists that any sovereign has ever contemplated the solution of the extermination of the Jews. But the motif serves to celebrate the salvific action of the heroine Esther, Mordecai’s niece, who shares the king’s bed without revealing that she is Jewish. (The rabbinical tradition says that Esther was not only Mordecai’s niece, but also his wife, whom he would have somehow slipped into the bed of the sovereign as did Abraham in Egypt with his half-sister and wife Sarah).
Convinced by Esther’s charm, the king cancels the order to kill the Jews and instead hangs Haman and his ten sons on the gallows Haman had raised for Mordecai and his sons. Since a royal decree cannot be canceled, Esther convinces Ahasuerus to issue a new decree by which he gives the Jews “permission to destroy, slaughter and annihilate any armed force of any people or province that might attack them, together with their women and children, and to plunder their possessions” (8:11). And thus do the Jews massacre 75,000 people. Throughout the land, “there was joy and gladness among the Jews, with feasting and holiday-making. Of the country’s population many became Jews, since now the Jews were feared” (8:17).
Every year the Jews celebrate the happy ending of this imaginary story by the feast of Purim, one month before Easter. Until the Middle Ages, they used to hang or burn effigies of Haman. Since all enemies of the Jews were then assimilated to Christians, Haman was identified with Christ and often put on a cross rather than a gibbet.23
Scholarly research in “form criticism” has shown that the “romance of Joseph,” which occupies the last chapters of Genesis (37–50), belongs to the same genre as the novels of Tobit, Esther, and Daniel, and dates from the same period. To flee famine, the 70 members of the tribe of Jacob come from Canaan with their flocks to settle in the land of Goshen, northeast of Egypt. They are nomadic herders, and “the Egyptians have a horror of all shepherds” (Genesis 46:34). Joseph, a member of the tribe, is sold by his brothers to the Ishmaelites, then becomes a slave to Potiphar, a eunuch of Pharaoh. Thanks to his gift of dream interpretation (like Daniel) and his organizational abilities, Joseph wins the trust of the Pharaoh and becomes his chancellor (41:40). Having pardoned his brothers, he encourages the members of his tribe and obtains for them “land holdings in Egypt, in the best part of the country, the region of Rameses.” Responsible for managing the national grain reserves, he stores large amounts during the years of plenty; and then, when famine strikes, he negotiates a high price for the monopolized grain and thus “accumulated all the money to be found in Egypt and Canaan.” The following year, having created a monetary shortage, he forces the peasants to relinquish their herds in exchange for grain: “Hand over your livestock and I shall issue you food in exchange for your livestock, if your money has come to an end.” One year later, the peasants have nothing left “except our bodies and our land,” and so have to beg, then sell themselves in order to survive: “Take us and our land in exchange for food, and we with our land will become Pharaoh’s serfs; only give us seed, so that we can survive and not die and the land not revert to desert!” (47:11–19). Thus it was that the Hebrews, after settling in Egypt, “acquired property there; they were fruitful and grew very numerous” (47:27).
The basic plots of the stories of Joseph, Esther, and Daniel share much in common: Joseph advises the King of Egypt, Daniel the King of Babylon, and Esther the King of Persia. Both the stories of Joseph and Esther focus on the influence that can be exercised for the benefit of the Jewish people, by a member of the Jewish community infiltrated into the heart of power. Joseph has ascended to the position of the king’s advisor by his ability to interpret dreams; while Esther, the niece of an official “attached to the Royal Court,” was introduced into the harem of the Persian king, where she seduces and steers him. Joseph is the prototype of the court Jew who having risen to a position of public responsibility thanks to his practical intelligence, promotes his tribe at the expense of the people he pretends to serve while actually ruining and enslaving them by grabbing their money and putting them in debt. For all this, he is blessed by Yahweh and held up as an example.
The situation described in the Joseph novel is consistent with the Hellenistic period. The rulers of Egypt at the time, having adopted the title of pharaoh and some of the accompanying customs, were Greek, not Egyptian; they did not speak the language of Egyptian peasants, an alien and exploited people. Jews, however, had been familiar to them for centuries. A secondary argument in favor of a Hellenistic dating of the Joseph story is its resemblance to the story of another Joseph that the historian Flavius Josephus situates at the time of the Ptolemies (Jewish Antiquities XII.4). This Joseph, a man “of great reputation among the people of Jerusalem, for gravity, prudence, and justice,” was appointed as Judea’s tax collector by Ptolemy after promising to bring back double the tax revenues of his competitors. “The king was pleased to hear that offer; and, because it augmented his revenues, said he would confirm the sale of the taxes to him.” Joseph fulfilled his contract by murdering several prominent citizens and confiscating their property. He became extremely rich and was thus able to help his coreligionists. Therefore, concludes the historian, Joseph “was a good man, and of great magnanimity; and brought the Jews out of a state of poverty and meanness, to one that was more splendid.” The proximity of the two Joseph narratives suggests that they derive from the same matrix.
When reflecting on biblical literature, it is important to understand that it is not a product of the “Jewish people.” The romantic illusion that people create their national mythology has been debunked; a literature that gains national status is always the product of an intellectual elite patronized by a political elite. It is today admitted that the heart of the biblical corpus, with its code of laws and its “history of Israel,” is the work of a small group of skillful priestly scribes. They produced much of the Bible in Babylon, while jealously preserving their pedigree records, intermarrying (often between cousins or uncle and niece), and making circumcision a distinctive sign (it was not practiced in Mesopotamia).24 They developed a highly effective strategy to survive and thrive by infiltrating spheres of power. Even if the stories of Joseph, Daniel, and Esther are postexilic, they convey the same culture of exile inscribed from the beginning in the genetic code of Judaism. After having probably helped the conquest of Babylon by the Persians, the Judean exiles obtained new high offices at the Persian court, as well as military and financial support for their theocratic project in Palestine. The Torah is the instrument crafted by these master propagandists to subjugate and control the Palestinian population.
By writing a book purporting to cover the whole history of mankind, from the creation of the world to its apocalyptic end, and a history rolled out by the hand of the Creator, the priest-scribes assured their book a millennial success; they made it “the Book” par excellence. They gave it, moreover, a semblance of unbeatable seniority by pretending it was written by a Moses who had to be situated in the thirteenth century BCE. Several Alexandrian Jewish authors even attempted (with little success) to bluff the Greeks about the age of the Torah, insisting that Homer, Hesiod, Pythagoras, Socrates, and Plato had been inspired by Moses. This is the case with Aristobulus of Paneas in his Explanations of the Scripture of Moses (around 170 BCE) or with Artapanos in On the Jews, where he presents Joseph (son of Jacob) and Moses as the “first inventors” who taught the Egyptians everything they knew, from astronomy and agriculture to philosophy and religion.25 The same extravagant claims appear in The Wisdom of Salomon, composed in Egypt in the late first century BCE, then in Philo of Alexandria two centuries later. They would again be taken up by Flavius Josephus in Roman times. Yet no Greek or Latin text from a non-Jew offers any evidence that these claims ever impressed the pagans. In reality, the Hebrew Bible is much more recent than is commonly believed. With the exception of some later additions, its final redaction probably dates from the Hellenistic period, a time of great literary production. It is therefore roughly contemporary with its Greek version, known as the Septuagint.
The high antiquity of the Jewish people itself was contested as early of the first century CE by Greek scholars, notably the Hellenized Egyptian Apion, whose work is lost but known through the rebuttal of Flavius Josephus. Flavius says he has written his Against Apion against those who “will not believe what I have written concerning the antiquity of our nation, while they take it for a plain sign that our nation is of a late date, because they are not so much as vouchsafed a bare mention by the most famous historiographers among the Grecians” (I,1).
Kenites, Midianites, and Arabs
An interesting hypothesis on the identity building of the early Hebrews has been drawn from the Genesis story of the primordial brothers Cain and Abel. Cain, the elder and a cultivator, saw his sacrificial offering ignored by Yahweh, who preferred the offering of the younger Abel, a shepherd. This provoked the murderous jealousy of Cain, who felt cheated of his birthright. Yahweh cursed Cain for his fratricide (aggravated by his denial): “Listen! Your brother’s blood is crying out to me from the ground. Now be cursed and banned from the ground that has opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood at your hands. When you till the ground it will no longer yield up its strength to you. A restless wanderer you will be on earth” (4:9–12). But Yahweh’s curse is mitigated by a special protection: “‘Whoever kills Cain will suffer a sevenfold vengeance.’ So Yahweh put a mark on Cain, so that no one coming across him would kill him” (4:15).
In this form, the story resembles an etiological legend, intended to explain the origin of a nomadic lifestyle through the original sin of an ancestor. What nomadic people, unfit for agriculture, was described by the original legend? And what does the famous “mark of Cain” mean? The scholar Hyam Maccoby has an answer: The name of Cain (Qayin in Hebrew) is identical to the name of the tribe of Kenites, and also means “smith” or “iron-worker.” Such tribes of blacksmiths are well attested in ancient times; they were nomads because their skills were required over a very wide area. They were also often known for their mastery of the art of music. Finally, they were often the object of superstitious fears, because the art of metalworking is associated with magic.
The descendants of Cain are described in Genesis 4:19–24 as nomads living in tents, inventors of ironwork, makers of metallic musical instruments, and marked by a magical protection making it perilous to attack them (according to a possible interpretation of the “mark of Cain”). Moreover, the biblical narrative retains the trace of a special covenant between the Israelites and the Kenites, who are the only foreign people presented in benevolent terms. Saul spares them when he exterminates the Amalekites among whom they dwell: “Go away, leave your homes among the Amalekites, in case I destroy you with them—you acted with faithful love towards all the Israelites when they were coming up from Egypt” (1 Samuel 15:6). Moses’s father-in-law is described as a Kenite (or “Cain”) in Judges 1:16, where we learn that “The sons of Hobab the Kenite, father-in-law of Moses, marched up with the sons of Judah from the City of Palm Trees into the desert of Judah lying in the Negeb of Arad, where they went and settled among the people.” This may echo a common origin of Israelites and Kenites, or at least a closeness based on a shared status of migrants and wanderers. According to Maccoby, many biblical stories are borrowed from Kenite traditions.26
The curse of Cain has parallels in the traditions of other nomadic peoples. Yuri Slezkine remarks that before the modern era, some ethnic groups of wanderers conceived their mode of existence “as divine punishment for an original transgression.” For example: “Of the many legends accounting for the Gypsy predicament, one claims that Adam and Eve were so fruitful that they decided to hide some of their children from God, who became angry and condemned the ones he could not see to eternal homelessness. Other explanations include punishment for incest or refusal of hospitality, but the most common one blames the Gypsies for forging the nails used to crucify Jesus.”27 Since nomadism is deeply embedded in the Hebrews’ collective memory, should we then seek the secret source of the wandering of the Jewish people in a “Cain complex” dating back to a primordial fratricide, like Freud seeking the key to the human psyche in a universal Oedipus complex dating back to a primordial parricide (Totem and Taboo, 1913)? Such an enterprise would be equally speculative.
The Bible does not clearly distinguish between the Kenites and the Midianites, but suggests that the former are a tribe among the latter. Hohab, Moses’s father-in-law, is called a Kenite in the book of Judges, but named “Hobab son of Reuel the Midianite” in Numbers (10:29). The same father-in-law is identified as a Midianite “priest” (kohen) in Exodus, and named Reuel (Exodus 2:18), then Jethro (3:1). In that Exodus story, when Moses flees Egypt “into Midianite territory” (2:15), he is hosted by Jethro who eventually gives him his daughter Zipporah, with whom Moses will have two sons. It is while grazing his father-in-law’s flocks that Moses finds himself near Mount Horeb, “to the far side of the desert” (3:1). There he meets Yahweh, the god of Abraham, for the first time, and is told (by Yahweh) that Mount Horeb is “holy ground.” Later, his Midianite wife appeases Yahweh, who wants to kill Moses, by circumcising their son with a flint, so that Yahweh “let him go” (4:24-26). In chapter 18 of the same Book of Exodus, after having led his people from Egypt across the Red Sea, and established his camp in the desert, Moses is met by Jethro, who rejoices over the miracles accomplished by his son-in-law. Then Jethro “offered a burnt offering and other sacrifices to God; and Aaron and all the elders of Israel came and ate with Moses’ father-in-law in the presence of God” (18:12).
Assuming this story to be archaic, some scholars, beginning with Eduard Meyer in 1906, have argued that the cult of Yahweh originated with the Midianites, and was passed on to Moses, the son-in-law of a Midianite priest who, it is implied, had seven daughters but no son.28 The Bible even hints at Jethro’s role in crafting the first Constitution of the Hebrews. Jethro says to Moses:
“Now listen to the advice I am going to give you, and God be with you! Your task is to represent the people to God, to lay their cases before God, and to teach them the statutes and laws, and show them the way they ought to follow and how they ought to behave. At the same time, from the people at large choose capable and God-fearing men, men who are trustworthy and incorruptible, and put them in charge as heads of thousands, hundreds, fifties and tens, and make them the people’s permanent judges. They will refer all important matters to you, but all minor matters they will decide themselves, so making things easier for you by sharing the burden with you. If you do this—and may God so command you—you will be able to stand the strain, and all these people will go home satisfied.” Moses took his father-in-law’s advice and did just as he said. Moses chose capable men from all Israel and put them in charge of the people as heads of thousands, hundreds, fifties and tens. (Exodus 18:19-25).
“Yahweh came from Sinai,” the Bible says (Deuteronomy 33:2 and Psalms 68:18). It is there that Moses first encounters Yahweh, who orders him to go back to Egypt and free his people; it is there that Moses brings them back; and it is from there that, two years later, on Yahweh’s order again, he sets off with them towards Canaan. And Sinai, with its Mount Sinai or Mount Horeb, is located in the land of the Midianites, which Greek authors place unanimously in northwest Arabia, on the eastern shore of the Gulf of Aqaba, and not in the Egyptian peninsula which bears this name since the Church placed it there, apparently under Constantine. Even Paul the Apostle knew that “Sinai is a mountain in Arabia” (Galatians 4,25).
Explorer Charles Beke was among the first to place Mount Horeb in Arabia (Sinai in Arabia and of Midian, 1878). This thesis has gained the support of a growing number of scholars, including Hershel Shanks, editor of the Biblical Archaeology Review, and Frank Moore Cross, Hebrew professor at Harvard. The precise location of Mount Horeb/Sinai can be deduced from phenomena witnessed by the Hebrews there: “Now at daybreak two days later, there were peals of thunder and flashes of lightning, dense cloud on the mountain and a very loud trumpet blast; and, in the camp, all the people trembled. Then Moses led the people out of the camp to meet God; and they took their stand at the bottom of the mountain. Mount Sinai was entirely wrapped in smoke, because Yahweh had descended on it in the form of fire. The smoke rose like smoke from a furnace and the whole mountain shook violently. Louder and louder grew the trumpeting. Moses spoke, and God answered him in the thunder” (Exodus 19:16-19). If Mount Horeb shakes, rumbles, smokes and spits fire like a volcano, then it should be a volcano, as Beke was the first to remark (Mount Sinai a Volcano, 1873). Northwest Arabia, where Midian is located, happens to be a volcanic area, unlike the Egyptian Sinai; volcanic activity was still documented there in the Middle Ages.29 Among the most likely candidates is Jabal al-Lawz, whose summit is consists of metamorphic rocks.30
These geographic considerations point to an Arab origin of Mosaic Yahwism. This in turn may explain why tribalism and nomadism are so entrenched in the Judaic tradition. Genesis 25 says that Midianites are descendants of Abraham, just like the Ishmaelites. Midianites and Ishmaelites are actually confused in Genesis 37, where we read that “Midianite merchants sold Joseph to the Ishmaelites” who “took Joseph to Egypt” (37:28), then that “the Midianites had sold him in Egypt” (37:36). The Bible actually gives Abraham as common ancestor to the Midianites, the Kenites, the Moabites, the Edomites, and the Amalekites, all predominantly nomadic peoples whose arid lands are situated between Arabia and Judea. Islamic tradition teaches that Abraham came from Arabia and died there, and some scholars consider this tradition as possibly older than the biblical tale of Abraham coming from Mesopotamia. At the time of Muhammad (early 7th century) powerful “Jewish tribes” were living in the Hejaz, although we know nothing of their particular brand of Judaism. According to Islamic tradition, they had been living there since the time of Moses.31 Orientalist David Samuel Margoliouth remarks that these tribes and some of their members bore recognizably Arab names rather than Jewish ones. Many Hebrew names, including Yahweh itself, come from Arabic, according to Margoliouth, who also claims that the book of Job, among other stories in the biblical canon, “ostensibly comes from Arabia.”32
The origin of the Hebrews among the nomadic population of northern Arabia is consistent with the most likely etymology of their name, as deriving from the Accadian term Habiru. This word is attested as far back as the fourteenth century BCE on the Egyptian Amarna tablets, to designate nomadic wanderers or refugees from the East, often with the negative connotation of disruption of public order.33 In the Bible, the Israelites are called “Hebrews” only by Egyptians (14 times in Exodus) and Philistines (8 times in 1 Samuel). In Exodus 1-15, the term is applied to Jacob’s tribe settling in Egypt. Yahweh is designated there as “the god of Israel” but is presented as “the god of the Hebrews” to Pharaoh (7:17). But habiru is also employed with the vulgar meaning of “bandits,” “thieves,” or “robbers” in Isaiah 1:23 and Hosea 6:9. 34
If we follow Midianite-Kenite theory,35 Yahwism turns out to be the religion of an unstable confederation of proto-Arab tribes who, perhaps after returning to Midian from a period of exploitation under Egyptian rule, set out to conquer lower Syria, a land “flowing with milk and honey” (Numbers 13:27). Canaan was then a prosperous and urbanized region, unlike the poorer lands of its southern fringe. Its inhabitants, whom the Bible portrays as detestable idolaters, were members of a technologically and culturally advanced civilization, organized in city-states, struggling to maintain independence from the more powerful states in Egypt and Mesopotamia.
We need not conclude that the religion of the ancient Hebrews was identical to that of the Midianites. It was, rather, a new form of it, and Moses deserves credit for its novelty. What Moses brought to Yahweh is mobility. The Midianite Yahweh was a topical god, inseparable and almost indistinguishable from his sacred mountain, from whence he thundered publicly and spoke privately. Yahweh cannot leave Mount Horeb, and therefore proposes to Moses to “send an angel to precede you, to guard you as you go and bring you to the place that I have prepared” (Exodus 23:20). However, two chapters later, he has changed his mind and asks Moses to make for him, out of the precious materials stolen from the Egyptians, a luxurious gold plated tent, the detailed specifications of which are given in Exodus, chapters 25 to 31. Henceforth, it is in this “Tabernacle” that Yahweh will reside, and that Moses will talk to him “face to face, as a man talks to his friend” (33:11). Moses has delocalized Yahweh, and his successors finally settled him on a throne in Jerusalem.
From the Exodus narrative, two different stages can be identified in the story of Yahweh and his people. First, Yahweh asks Moses to bring them from Egypt to Sinai: “After you have led the people out of Egypt, you will worship God on this mountain” (3:12). At this stage, Yahweh says nothing of conquering Canaan. Moses must simply declare to the Israelites that he is sent by “the god of your ancestors” (3:16) to guide them to Midian. The implication here is that their ancestors are from Midian, just like Yahweh.
It is only two years after settling in Midian that Moses receives a new order to bring them to Canaan. It is hard to resist the hypothesis that the real motivation for this massive migration (603,550 males over twenty years old, not counting the Levites, according to Numbers 1:44) was overpopulation and scarcity of natural resources. It is then that Canaan becomes the Promised Land. Moses tried to recruit his father-in-law: “You know where we can camp in the desert, and so you will be our eyes. If you come with us, we shall share with you whatever blessings Yahweh gives us” (Numbers 10:31-32). Jethro seems to have refused, and the Midianites who did not join the expedition later became the Hebrews’ most hated enemies, as recounted in Numbers 31.
Cain and Abel as mirror images of Seth and Osiris The biblical story of Cain and Abel seems adapted from the Kenites’ legend of their primal ancestor, the fratricide Cain, but with the addition of a crucial element: a third son of Adam and Eve, named Seth, granted by God to replace Abel after his death. The fact that this third son was added as an afterthought is evidenced by a comparison between Seth’s and Cain’s progenies. The names of Cain and four of his five descendants are reproduced with little change in five of the seven descendants of Seth (compare Genesis 4:17–18 and 5:6–32). Clearly a scribe has copied the progeny of Cain and pasted it to Seth.
Seth happens to be also the name of an Egyptian god, the younger brother of Osiris. Strangely enough, the story of Cain and Abel bears a striking resemblance to the story of Osiris and Seth, whose most detailed rendering has been provided by Plutarch in the first century CE. Like Cain and Abel, Osiris and Seth are born of a primordial couple, together with their two sisters Isis and Nephthys, whom they respectively marry.36 Osiris, the elder, receives from his divine father the fertile soil of the Nile Valley, and teaches agriculture to its inhabitants, while his sister-wife Isis teaches them to make bread. Seth, the youngest, has to settle for the barren deserts surrounding the river valley. Jealous of God’s favor and men’s worship that his brother receives, Seth decides to eliminate him. Employing a ruse, he locks Osiris in a coffin, seals it, and throws him into the Nile. Isis finds the body of her husband and hides it. Seth discovers the hiding place and cuts up the body into fourteen pieces that he scatters across the land of Egypt. Isis searches patiently and finds all the pieces except the penis, which she replaces with a simulacrum. The body is then reconstituted by Nout, the mother of Osiris, who “tied the bones of her son back together, put his heart back in his body, and set his head where it belonged.” Then the body is embalmed by Anubis, the jackal-headed god, and brought back to life by Thoth, the prince of magic, thanks to the lamentations of Isis. She then conceives, with the revived Osiris, a son, Horus, whom she hides in the great Delta reed beds to escape the homicidal schemes of his uncle. Warned by his mother, Horus escapes an attempted rape by Seth. He returns as an adult to complete the deliverance of Osiris by taking vengeance on Seth, which has the effect, in the words of a litany of Horus to his father, of “driving out the evil attached to [Osiris]” and “killing his suffering.” Horus, however, cannot destroy Seth, who continues to covet the throne of Egypt. Their dispute is finally brought before the court of the gods, who then split Egypt between Seth and Horus (Upper and Lower Egypts), before changing their minds and banishing Seth to give the entirety of both lands to Horus. The struggle turns out to be endless: repeatedly beaten and chained, Seth is released periodically from his chains to once again seize the advantage.
The myth of Osiris lends itself to multiple interpretations. Fundamentally, says Plutarch, the enemy brothers represent “two contrary principles, two rival powers” in perpetual struggle throughout creation. In the Cosmic Soul, explains Plutarch, “All that is good, is Osiris; and in earth and wind and water and the heavens and stars, that which is ordered, established, and healthy, as evidenced by season, temperature, and cycles of revolution, is the efflux of Osiris and his reflected image.” That is why, at the time of Plutarch, Osiris merged with the sun god Ra, whose regular course maintained the stability of the world. By contrast, “that part of the soul which is impressionable, impulsive, irrational and truculent, and in the bodily part what is destructible, diseased and disorderly, as evidenced by abnormal seasons and temperatures, and by obscurations of the sun and disappearances of the moon,” bears the mark of Seth (Plutarch, Isis and Osiris 49).
During this period, the myth of Osiris became an object of fascination far beyond the borders of Egypt, resonating with dualistic religious views from Persia and Mesopotamia. Seth represented the destructive principle par excellence. On the earthly plane, Osiris is the Nile river and Isis the soil fertilized by it, and the cyclical floods of the Nile are symbolically equivalent to the death and resurrection of Osiris, while a poor flood, leading to drought and famine, was one of the disasters wrought by Seth, the god of the desert. The peasants of the Nile Valley placed themselves under the protection of Osiris and Isis, while Seth was perceived as the god of foreigners and nomads, be they shepherds, hunters, caravan merchants, or invaders.
There is an obvious symmetry between the Egyptian myth of Osiris and Seth, and the biblical story of Cain and Abel. Cain, the elder, is sedentary and cultivates fertile lands like Osiris, while Abel, the younger, is a nomadic shepherd inhabiting arid lands like Seth. Yet the biblical god acts opposite to the Egyptian pantheon: he upsets the social order by favoring the younger brother, thus provoking the elder’s legitimate sense of unfairness. As in a mirror image of the Egyptian myth, the Bible has the elder brother kill his younger brother.
The epilogue added to the Cain-Abel story reinforces the symmetry. Like Osiris, the murdered Abel gets a new life of some kind, when Yahweh grants to Adam and Eve “another offspring, in place of Abel.” And this third son, a substitute or alter ego of the second, is named Seth (Genesis 4:25). This homonymy cannot be a coincidence, but rather strong evidence that the Cain-Abel story, in the form that has come down to us, is dependent on the Osiris-Seth myth. This fits the hypothesis of a biblical redaction in the Hellenistic period. The Yahwist scribes have deliberately reversed the Egyptian myth, by shifting the good role to the younger brother Abel, and naming his resurrected alter-ego after the Egyptian god Seth. Must we conclude that the Levites, motivated by their incurable Egyptophobia, have chosen to redeem the mortal enemy of Egypt’s national god and identify with him? We are encouraged in this conclusion by the many other biblical stories built on the inversion of Egyptian ones that we shall encounter further on.
Adding additional support to that exegetic interpretation, we find that the Hellenistic Egyptians did ascribe to the Jews a sympathy for Seth, which fueled their Judeophobia. According to Plutarch, some Egyptians believed that, after having been banned from Egypt by the gods, Seth wandered in Palestine where he fathered two sons, Hierosolymos and Youdaios, that is, “Jerusalem” and “Judah.” In other words, these Egyptians saw the Jews as “sons of Seth.” There was also a persistent rumor in the Greco-Roman world that in their temple in Jerusalem, the Jews worshiped a golden donkey’s head, the donkey being the animal symbol of Seth. A contemporary of Plutarch, the Roman author Apion, accredited that rumor, which Jewish historian Flavius Josephus, for his part, denied in his treatise Against Apion. Tacitus also mentioned it in his Histories, while noting that Roman general Pompey found no donkey’s head when entering the Holy of Holies in 63 BCE.
Labeling the Jews as worshippers or descendants of Seth may have been an expression of anti-Semitism (to use an anachronistic term). But it is not without historical basis. In the first century CE, Flavius Josephus, relying on the History of Egypt written by the Egyptian Manetho three centuries earlier, identifies the Hebrews with the Hyksos, a confederation of nomadic warriors from Palestine, who reigned over Lower and Middle Egypt for more than a century before being repelled. Josephus estimates that the 480,000 Hyksos fleeing Egypt back to their ancestors’ homeland in Palestine were none others than the twelve Israelite tribes. These Hyksos distinguished themselves by the exclusive worship of Seth. Their King Apophis, reads a slightly later papyrus, “chose for his lord the god Seth. He did not worship any other deity in the whole land except Seth.”37 The Hyksos seem to have considered Seth as a jealous god, since they “destroyed the temples of the gods,” according to Manetho quoted by Josephus. The Hyksos’ tyrannical and brutal government left Egyptians with traumatic memories. Unlike Flavius, Manetho had not identified the Hyksos with the Jews but had simply mentioned that, before being expelled from Egypt as lepers, the Jews had settled in Avaris, the former capital of the Hyksos, consecrated to Seth.
Osirism versus Judaism The Pentateuch gives us the Jewish viewpoint on Egyptian religion, a viewpoint that Christians have inherited with the Book. To understand the Egyptian viewpoint on Jewish religion, let us delve more deeply into the significance of the Osiris myth, which can be regarded as the cornerstone of Egyptian civilization from the beginning of the first millennium BCE. When he visited Egypt in 450 BCE, Herodotus noted that “Egyptians do not all worship the same gods, except for Isis and Osiris; these two all without distinction worship” (Histories II.17). Until the triumph of Christianity, no other myth contributed more to shaping the spirit of the inhabitants of the Nile Valley, from peasants to pharaohs. On it was crystallized the national identity of the world’s oldest state, as well as individuals’ metaphysical hopes in the most afterlife-oriented civilization ever.
From a strictly narrative viewpoint, the basic plot of the myth follows a universal pattern, best known in the story of Hamlet adapted by Shakespeare from a Scandinavian legend: Osiris is King Hamlet, murdered treacherously by his brother, and Horus is his son, the young prince Hamlet junior, commissioned by the ghost of his father to avenge the killing. Seth is the exact equivalent of the treacherous Claudius, the archetypal villain, whose thirst for power is uninhibited by any moral conscience—what we today would call a sociopath or psychopath. Seth, however, remains in the Egyptian imagination an eternal principle, whose final disappearance no eschatology can foresee. He is the necessary opponent, the destabilizing principle without which humanity would be immobile. Without Seth, there can be no resurrection of Osiris; without a fight against evil, there can be no heroic sacrifice.
The legend of Osiris is a myth of love as much as a myth of resurrection. Both themes are intimately linked in this timeless story of love triumphing over death—the only love story worth telling. It combines the Hamlet plot with another universal scheme that folklorists label by the title of its best-known version, “Beauty and the Beast.” In the tale of “Hamlet,” it is revenge carried out by the son on earth that soothes the spirit of the dead (and heals his injury), while in the tale type “Beauty and the Beast” it is the sacrificial love of a woman that heals the heart of the dead (and breaks the spell that had been put on him).38 Isis was both wife and sister (the “soul mate”) of Osiris, but by giving him life, she also becomes his mother, encapsulating the feminine ideal in its entirety. The myth of Osiris is thus fertile with an imagination that does not restrict Eros to a sexual or even emotional register, but opens onto the spiritual and the universal. Love that triumphs over death is the supreme idea of the relationship between Osiris and Isis. Seth, on the other hand, is portrayed as a debased pervert, as manifested in his attempted rape of Horus.
For the Egyptians, Osiris is the principle of harmony that binds the human community. He brings together all the tribes of Egypt around the nation’s sacred kingship. According to myth, for each of the scattered pieces of the body of Osiris she found, Isis conducted local funeral rites and so left a “tomb of Osiris” in each township. Thus was realized the consubstantial union of the land of Egypt and the body of Osiris. The annual festival of Osiris at Abydos was a celebration of civil peace and national unity against all invaders. Seth, by contrast, was synonymous with “domination and violence,” says Plutarch. He was the god of discord and civil war—the master of fitna in Qur’anic terms, or a kind of diabolos in the etymological sense of “divider.” For the Egyptians, German Egyptologist Jan Assmann writes, “The gods are social beings, living and acting in ‘constellations’; a lonely god would be devoid of any power of personality and would have no impact on the great project of maintaining the world.”39 Seth is the exception that proves the rule: he was a pariah among the gods, who excluded him from their board of directors for disturbing the divine order. His “theophobic” nature agreed with the exclusivity of worship established by the Hyksos, who banished the other religions from the public sphere, adding religious persecution to political oppression.
After the defeat of Seth, Horus inherited the title of king of the world and received the ka of his father—the vital generational principle that lingers on Earth, as opposed to the ba which is the individual soul leaving this world. Horus, the falcon-king, then reigned over the Egyptians through the pharaoh, who was his incarnation on earth. But it is to Osiris that the royalty of the Other World returned. One of the ideas implicit in the myth is that Osiris reigns over the Hereafter, while the earthly world is the land of perpetual struggle between his son Horus and Seth. As long as Horus governs, which is to say when the state is in the hands of worthy representatives of Osiris’s values, Seth is under control. But whenever Seth takes over the management of the world, lies and violence prevail.
While Horus rules over mortals, kingship of the otherworld goes to Osiris. Osiris is opposed to Seth like resurrection is opposed to annihilation; both form the double face of death. Funerary rites of embalming, a ritual reconstitution of the body, find their mythical expression in the reassembly of Osiris’s body. Osiris presides over the judgment of the dead and attracts the purified souls, as Plutarch explains: “When these souls are set free and migrate into the realm of the invisible and the unseen, the dispassionate and the pure, then this god [Osiris] becomes their leader and king, since it is on him that they are bound to be dependent in their insatiate contemplation and yearning for that beauty which is for men unutterable and indescribable” (Isis and Osiris 78). On a personal level, Osiris personifies the virtues, making hearts light and enabling favorable judgments. Seth, conversely, embodies all the vices that prohibit access to immortality: murder, lying, stealing, greed, adultery, homosexuality, blasphemy, and rebellion against parents.
What does all this have to do with Yahweh? Was Yahweh, the god who led the Hebrews out of Egypt, related in any way to the Egyptian Seth, the god of strangers, refugees and nomads, banned from Egypt by his peers? After all, the Torah tells us that Yahweh was formerly known as El Shaddai (Genesis 17:1, Exodus 6:2–3), a Semitic name translatable as “the destroyer god” (from el, “god,” and shadad, “destroy”), an appropriate surname for Seth.
Despite all these similarities, there is no conclusive evidence of a historical link between the cults of Seth and Yahweh. However, it is possible to show that the Egyptians who believed that the Jews had the ass-headed god Seth as their divinity or ancestor, had legitimate reasons to do so. They were simply following the universal practice of translating foreign gods into their own pantheon on the basis of functional resemblances. Indeed, from the point of view of Egyptian metaphysics, the god of the Jews betrays a Sethian character. Yahweh is Seth on an archetypal or paradigmatic level. Such is the thesis we will defend in the following chapters, thereby offering, in certain respects, an Egyptian outlook on the Jewish question.
Yahweh is Seth, first of all, to the extent that he shares the dominant trait of his character, murderous jealousy: “Yahweh’s name is the Jealous One” (Exodus 34:14). As the next chapter shows, Yahweh manifests toward all his fellows an implacable hatred that characterizes him as a sociopath among the gods, very much like Seth. At a time when the pantheons of the world demonstrated courtesy, hospitality, and even fraternity, allowing peoples to recognize each other as living under the same heavens, Yahweh taught the Hebrews contempt for the deities of their neighbors—making them, in the eyes of these neighbors, a threat to the cosmic and social order. It will be shown in chapter 2 that the exclusive monotheism demanded by Yahweh (or “monoyahwism,” as Jan Assmann calls it) is a degraded imitation of that inclusive monotheism toward which all the wisdoms of the world converge by affirming the fundamental unity of all gods. In Canaan, Yahweh’s hatred rages especially against Baal, who is somewhat the equivalent of Osiris: the great universal god, especially honored as an agrarian deity by cultivators, though despised by nomads. Yahweh also attacks Asherah, the Great Divine Mother adored throughout the Middle East under various names, and assimilated to Isis in the Hellenistic period.
Yahweh is also Seth (the anti-Osiris) in his denial of life after death, as I argue in chapter 3. The Hebrew Bible differs from all religious traditions of Antiquity by the inability of its authors to conceive of an afterlife beyond sleep in the humid darkness of Sheol: “For dust you are and to dust you shall return” (Genesis 3:19), without any soul worthy of the name. Yahweh does not care about the dead, whom he “remembers no more” (Psalms 88:6). The Torah constantly identifies individuals with their genetic origin; the only afterlife it offers is through offspring. When Abraham contemplates the starry sky, he does not see spiritualized souls, as do the Egyptians, but the image of his future earthly offspring (Genesis 15:5; 22:17). Only generation allows man to survive; therefore, only the people as a whole is eternal. Here is the explanation for the asymmetry between the myth of Osiris and its biblical inversion: there is no resurrection for Abel, as Seth-Yahweh is the god of death, not resurrection. There is no Other World for the good dead in the Torah: the Yahwist scribes have borrowed Paradise, the land of blessed immortality, from neighboring cultures, but shifted it to the beginning of the story, then closed access to it forever. The originality of the Bible, as we shall see, is often merely the inversion of motifs from other cultures (Egyptian, Canaanite, Babylonian, Persian, and Greek).
If the Hebrew Bible is heavily tainted with Egyptophobia, Egyptian traditions were themselves strongly Judeophobic. The Egyptians of the Hellenistic period knew the Exodus story of how the Hebrews escaped from Egypt after “despoiling” the Egyptians of “silver and golden jewelry, and clothing” that had been entrusted to them as loan guarantees (12:35–36). But they had another version of how the Jews left Egypt: The Jews did not flee Egypt but rather were expelled by royal decree. The earliest known example of that alternative Exodus is found in Hecataeus of Abdera’s Aegyptiaca, written around 300 BCE: “When in ancient times a pestilence arose in Egypt, the common people ascribed their troubles to the workings of a divine agency; for indeed with many strangers of all sorts dwelling in their midst and practicing different rites of religion and sacrifice, their own traditional observances in honor of the gods had fallen into disuse. Hence the natives of the land surmised that unless they removed the foreigners, their troubles would never be resolved. At once, therefore, the aliens were driven from the country.” The greatest number went to Judea under the guidance of Moses. “The sacrifices that he established differ from those of other nations, as does their way of living, for as a result of their own expulsion from Egypt he introduced a way of life which was somewhat unsocial and hostile to foreigners.”40
Another Egyptian version of the Exodus appeared shortly after that of Hecateus in the writing of Manetho, quoted at length by Flavius Josephus in Against Apion. In it Jews are no longer just held responsible for epidemics and other ills by their disregard for the gods, but are themselves contagious lepers, and expelled as such. The same rumor was repeated by several authors. In the first century CE, Pompeius Trogus connects the theme of contagion with that of the legendary antisocial behavior (amixia) of the Jews. He adds—as an echo of Exodus—that Moses, before being expelled, “carried off by stealth the sacred utensils of the Egyptians, who, trying to recover them by force of arms, were compelled by tempests to return home.” Later, “as they remembered that they had been driven from Egypt for fear of spreading infection, [the Jews] took care, in order that they might not become odious, from the same cause, to their neighbors, to have no communication with strangers; a rule which, from having been adopted on that particular occasion, gradually became a religious institution” (Philippic Histories).41
The Roman historian Tacitus stands by this version, which he claims is agreed upon by “most authorities.” After being expelled as lepers (victims of “a wasting disease which caused bodily disfigurement”), the Jews, under Moses’s guidance, adopted a sort of anti-religion. Tacitus writes: “Among the Jews all things are profane that we hold sacred; on the other hand they regard as permissible what seems to us immoral.” They show a “stubborn loyalty and ready benevolence towards brother Jews. But the rest of the world they confront with the hatred reserved for enemies. […] Those who come over to their religion adopt the practice [of circumcision], and have this lesson first instilled into them, to despise all gods, to disown their country, and set at naught parents, children, and brethren” (Histories V.3–5).
Common sense tells us that this slanderous story of the Jews’ origin as Egyptian lepers is an aggravated expression of the account reported by Hecataeus, which makes them foreigners, not lepers. It is not difficult to see how, in the Egyptian mind, foreigners and wanderers (habiru) who do not respect the Egyptian gods could turn into vectors of disease. In an edict by Emperor Claudius dated 41 CE, it is the spirit of civil war fomented by the Alexandrian Jews that is compared to “a public sickness” infecting the whole Roman world (oikoumene).42
THE THEOCLASTIC GOD
“Anyone who has intercourse with an animal will be put to death. Anyone who sacrifices to other gods will be put under the curse of destruction.”
Jealousy and Narcissistic Hubris “Yahweh’s name is the Jealous One” (Exodus 34:14). The Torah emphasizes jealousy as his main personality trait, calling him “the Jealous One” repeatedly (Exodus 20:5, Deuteronomy 4:24, 5:9, and 6:15). What Yahweh demands from his people above anything else is exclusivity of worship. But that is not all. He also demands that all his neighbors’ shrines be utterly destroyed: “Tear down their altars, smash their standing-stones, cut down their sacred poles and burn their idols” (Deuteronomy 7:5). Thus spoke Yahweh, otherwise known as El Shaddai, “the destroyer god” (Exodus 6:3).
After the destruction of the northern kingdom of Israel by Assyria, Yahwist priests and prophets who had sought refuge in Jerusalem held the Israelites responsible for their country’s defeat: they “provoked Yahweh’s anger” by “sacrificing on all the high places like the nations which Yahweh had expelled for them,” and by “serving idols” (2 Kings 17:11–12). Israel’s divine election had now passed to the smaller kingdom of Judah, whose survival depended on respecting the exclusivity of Yahweh’s cult and of Jerusalem’s Temple, and on destroying any trace of rival cults and holy places.
The second book of Kings judges David’s heirs on the unique criterion of obedience to that precept. Hezekiah is praised for having done “what Yahweh regards as right,” namely abolishing the “high places” (2 Kings 18:3–4). On the other hand, his son Manasseh is blamed for having done “what is displeasing to Yahweh, copying the disgusting practices of the nations whom Yahweh had dispossessed for the Israelites. He rebuilt the high places that his father Hezekiah had destroyed, he set up altars to Baal and made a sacred pole [an Ashera], as Ahab king of Israel had done, he worshiped the whole array of heaven and served it. […] He built altars to the whole array of heaven in the two courts of the Temple of Yahweh” (2 Kings 21:2–5). Manasseh’s son Amon is no better. Josiah, however, proves worthy of his great-great- grandfather Hezekiah, removing from the temple “all the cult objects which had been made for Baal, Asherah and the whole array of heaven. […] He exterminated the spurious priests whom the kings of Judah had appointed and who offered sacrifice on the high places, in the towns of Judah and the neighborhood of Jerusalem; also those who offered sacrifice to Baal, to the sun, the moon, the constellations and the whole array of heaven” (2 Kings 23:4–5). In Samaria, over which he regained partial control, Josiah ordered the sanctuary of Bethel destroyed, and “All the priests of the high places who were there he slaughtered on the altars, and on those altars burned human bones” (2 Kings 23:20). In other words, Josiah is zealously faithful to the Law of Moses.
For the Egyptians, gods are social beings, who collaborate in the management of the cosmos. The harmony of this world, including human affairs, depends on good cooperation between the gods.43 Hebrew theology, on the other hand, promotes the war of one god against all others. Yahweh feels a deep aversion toward all other gods and goddesses. His obsession is to preserve his people from any influence from other divine beings, and to make it his “personal possession” and “a kingdom of priests” devoted to his cult (Exodus 19:5–6). The Jealous One is possessive: “I shall set you apart from all these peoples, for you to be mine” (Leviticus 20:26). It is for their arrogant contempt of their neighbors’ religious practices that the Jews were perceived everywhere as a “race hated by the gods” (Tacitus, Histories V.3).
In the ancient world, respecting the variety of the gods was the basis of international relationships. From the third millennium BCE onward, nations built their mutual trust on their capacity to match their gods; in this way, they knew they were living under the same heaven. “Contracts with other states,” explains Egyptologist Jan Assmann, “had to be sealed by oath, and the gods to whom this oath was sworn had to be compatible. Tables of divine equivalences were thus drawn up that eventually correlated up to six different pantheons.” This translatability of the gods relied on a standardization of their cosmic functions: the sun god of one country, for example, was assumed to be the same as the sun god of another. Polytheism as a cultural system used a “translational technique,” says Assmann, and in this respect, it “represents a major cultural achievement.” By standardizing the cosmic function of each god, it made the divine world of one particular group compatible with the divine world of another group. “Religion functioned as a medium of communication, not elimination and exclusion. The principle of the translatability of divine names helped to overcome the primitive ethnocentrism of the tribal religions, to establish relations between cultures, and to make these cultures more transparent to each other.”44 This was how the Greek and Egyptian deities merged into a Greco-Egyptian syncretism: Osiris took on the traits of Hades, as well as Asclepius and Dionysus.
Yahweh, however, could not be matched up with any other god, and his priests forbade doing so. “Whereas polytheism, or rather ‘cosmotheism,’ rendered different cultures mutually transparent and compatible, the new counter-religion [Yahwism] blocked intercultural translatability.”45 And when the Lord directs his people, “You will make no pact with them or with their gods” (Exodus 23:32), or “Do not utter the names of their gods, do not swear by them, do not serve them and do not bow down to them” (Joshua 23:7), he is in effect preventing any relationship of trust with the neighboring peoples.
The polytheisms of the great civilizations, Assmann emphasizes, are cosmotheisms, insofar as the gods, among other functions, form the organic body of the world. Such a conception naturally leads to a form of inclusive or convergent monotheism, compatible with polytheism: all gods are one, as the cosmos is one. The notion of the unity of the divine realm naturally connects with the notion of a supreme god, creator of heaven and earth, enthroned atop a hierarchy of deities emanating from him—a concept familiar to Plato, Aristotle, Seneca, and most ancient philosophers. The Yahwist priests, in a competitive mood, would also develop their own monotheism; but it was an exclusive and revolutionary monotheism, the exact opposite of the inclusive and evolutionary monotheism of neighboring peoples, and it led to the same result only in appearance.
To understand how this biblical monotheism came about, it is necessary to know that in the oldest strata of the Bible, Yahweh is a national, ethnic god, not the supreme God of the Universe. The Israelites revered Yahweh as the Assyrians worshiped their god Ashur and credited him with their military victories: “For all peoples go forward, each in the name of its god (elohim), while we go forward in the name of Yahweh our God for ever and ever” (Micah 4:5). “I am the god of your ancestors, the god of Abraham, the god of Isaac and the god of Jacob,” Yahweh says to Moses (Exodus 3:6). Then Yahweh mandates Moses to say to his people: “Yahweh, the god of your ancestors, has appeared to me,” and to urge them to talk to Pharaoh in the name of “Yahweh, the god of the Hebrews” (3:16–18). “This is what Yahweh, god [elohim] of Israel says, Let my people go,” Moses and Aaron say to Pharaoh (5:1). The Hebrews chant after the miracle of the Red Sea engulfing Pharaoh and his army, “Yahweh, who is like you, majestic in sanctity, who like you among the gods [elim]?” (15:11).46 And in Canaan, a Hebrew chief declares to his defeated enemy: “Will you not keep as your possession whatever Chemosh, your god, has given you? And, just the same, we shall keep as ours whatever Yahweh our god has given us, to inherit from those who were before us!” (Judges 11:24).47 In all these verses, Yahweh is an ethnic or national god among others.
Yahweh’s superiority over other gods presupposes the existence of these other gods. One story in particular deserves to be mentioned here: After the Philistines had captured the Ark of the defeated Israelites, they “put it in the temple of Dagon, setting it down beside Dagon” (1 Samuel 5:2). The next day, they found the broken statue of Dagon. Yahweh then afflicted the inhabitants of two Philistine cities, Ashdod and Gat, with a proliferation of rats and an epidemic of tumors. The Philistines then ordered their priests to return the Ark to the Israelites, along with a penitential offering of “five golden tumours and five golden rats.” “So make models of your tumours and models of your rats ravaging the territory, and pay honor to the god of Israel. Then perhaps he will stop oppressing you, your gods and your country” (6:4–5).
We repeat: At this stage, Yahweh was not the creator of the universe, but an ethnic god among many, demonstrating his superiority over all other gods and demanding the exclusive worship of the Israelites. The term “monolatry” has been coined to describe this rare form of polytheism that presupposes the existence of a plurality of gods but prohibits the worship of all except one. This is the meaning of the first commandments given to Moses: “I am Yahweh your God who brought you out of Egypt, where you lived as slaves. You shall have no other gods to rival me” (Exodus 20:2–3). David’s understanding of Yahweh’s blessing in 2 Samuel 7:23–26, if read without monotheistic spectacles, also points to a covenant between a god and a people: “Is there another people on earth like your people, like Israel, whom a god proceeded to redeem, to make them his people and to make a name for himself by performing great and terrible things on their behalf, by driving out nations and their gods before his people? For you constituted your people Israel your own people for ever and you, Yahweh, became their god. Now, god Yahweh, may the promise which you have made for your servant and for his family stand firm forever as you have said, so that your name will be exalted for ever and people will say, ‘Israel’s god is Yahweh Sabaoth.’”
It was only during the Babylonian exile that Yahweh, deprived of the temple where he had previously sat between two cherubim, began to claim to have created the universe himself. After banning all trade with other gods and declaring Yahweh more powerful than they, the Yahwist priests and prophets would claim that these other gods simply did not exist. And if Yahweh was the only real god, then he must have been the creator and master of the universe. The exterminating fury of the deicide god thus reached its logical conclusion, since denying the existence of other gods condemns them to nothingness.
This evolution from monolatry to monotheism was retro-projected to the time of King Hezekiah in the following curious story. Having destroyed the northern kingdom, the Assyrian king threatens Hezekiah in these words: “Do not let your god on whom you are relying deceive you with the promise: ‘Jerusalem will not fall into the king of Assyria’s clutches’ […] Did the gods of the nations whom my ancestors devastated save them?” Hezekiah then goes up to the Jerusalem Temple and offers the following prayer: “Yahweh Sabaoth, god of Israel, enthroned on the winged creatures, you alone are God of all the kingdoms of the world, you made heaven and earth. […] It is true, Yahweh, that the kings of Assyria have destroyed the nations, they have thrown their gods on the fire, for these were not gods but human artifacts—wood and stone—and hence they have destroyed them. But now, Yahweh our god, save us from his clutches, I beg you, and let all the kingdoms of the world know that you alone are God, Yahweh” (2 Kings 19:10– 19). In response to this prayer, “the angel of Yahweh went out and struck down a hundred and eighty-five thousand men in the Assyrian camp,” then struck their king by the hand of his sons (19:35–37). Pure fiction: the Assyrian annals tell us that in reality, Hezekiah paid tribute to the Assyrian king. But the lesson of the story, for critical readers, is that a prayer sufficed to annihilate all other gods and promote Yahweh from the status of national god to that of universal God.
Of course, the universal God, Father of all men, was known in Samaria and Judea much before Yahweh was introduced there. The Bible itself tells how Abraham was initiated by Melchizedek, king of Salem (Jerusalem’s former name), “a priest of God Most High […], Creator of heaven and earth” (Genesis 14:18-20). The High God was commonly called El, meaning “God” (from which derives the Arabic name Allah). So the trick was to merge Yahweh with El; in the post-exilic strata of the Torah, the two names become interchangeable. Historical- critical scholars have long noted that biblical passages referring to Yahweh belong to southern traditions (Judea), while the traditions of the North (Israel or Samaria) designated the creator simply as “El” or “Elohim.” This indicates that it was in Judah that Yahweh usurped the majesty of El, who was thus declared residing in the Jerusalem Temple, to be worshiped nowhere else. From this point of view, Yahwism is a conspiracy against the true God.
In the biblical story, Baal is the most formidable rival of Yahweh. To justify the eradication of Baal worship in Canaan, Yahwist scribes present him as a foreign god imported by Jezebel, the Phoenician wife of Ahab (1 Kings 16:31–32). But he was actually the traditional god of the land. Baal was for the Canaanites what Osiris was for the Egyptians: both fertility god and lord of the dead. Baal is actually the equivalent for “Lord” in Aramaic (as well as for the Greek Kyrios and the Hebrew Adonai). The term is often used in the plural to designate the deities at large, including the deified dead. But in all of ancient Syria, Baal Shamem, the “Heavenly Lord,” refers to the supreme God, understood as including all the manifestations of the divine.48 It is ironic that Yahweh, originally a minor tribal god, should rival the great Baal for the status of supreme God.
In the cycles of Elijah and Elisha, Elijah challenges 450 prophets of Baal to conjure lightning upon the burnt offering of a bull: “You must call on the name of your god, and I shall call on the name of Yahweh; the god who answers with fire, is God indeed.” The prophets of Baal exhaust themselves by shouting to their god, performing “their hobbling dance,” and gashing themselves with swords and spears, with no result, while Yahweh sets fire to Elijah’s bull after Elijah has drenched it with twelve jars of water to raise the challenge. People then fall on their faces and scream “Yahweh is God!” Then, on Elijah’s order, they seize all the prophets of Baal, and Elijah slaughters them (1 Kings 18). Let us appreciate the significance of this battle of the gods, which is still awaiting its Hollywood adaptation. It perfectly illustrates how, to arrive at monotheism, Yahwism takes the diametrically opposite path from other cultures of the same period: Rather than reaching philosophically the notion of the unity of all gods under a universal Godhead, the Yahwists pursued the outright negation of other gods and the extermination of their priests. In this process, theology and anthropology are inseparable. It is insofar as the national god of the Jews managed to establish himself as the “one God” of humanity that the Jewish people would be able to style themselves as the “chosen people.”
For a Greek, writes historian Joseph Mélèze Modrzejewski, “monotheism can only be the subject of philosophical speculation and not of religious practice, polytheistic by definition.” Therefore, when the Greeks discovered the Jews in Egypt after Alexander’s conquest, a misunderstanding took place, nurtured by Jewish intellectuals themselves. Because they worshiped only one god and claimed for him the title of universal creator, the Jews gained for themselves a reputation as a “people of philosophers”—while the Egyptians, for their part, accused them of “atheism.” Around 315 BCE, Theophrastus of Eresus, disciple of Aristotle, called the Jews “philosophers by birth,” while mentioning that they “now sacrifice live victims according to their old mode of sacrifice,” that is, by burning completely their animal offerings (the original meaning of “holocaust”).49
The misunderstanding became a public scandal in 167, when Antiochos IV dedicated the temple in Jerusalem to Zeus Olympios (the supreme god). He was expressing the idea that Yahweh was another name of Zeus. But the revolt led by the Jewish Maccabees proved that in their eyes, Yahweh remained primarily the god of the Jews, and only incidentally the supreme God. In other words, Jewish monotheism is really a supremacism and not a universalism.
More than a misunderstanding, it is an ambiguity inherent to Judaism and its relationship to Gentiles. That is apparent in the Edict of Persian king Cyrus according to the book of Ezra: “Yahweh, the God of heaven, has given me all the kingdoms of the earth and has appointed me to build him a Temple in Jerusalem, in Judah. Whoever among you belongs to the full tally of his people, may his God be with him! Let him go up to Jerusalem, in Judah, and build the Temple of Yahweh, the god of Israel, who is the god in Jerusalem” (1:2–3). So, Cyrus speaks in the name of “the God of heaven” while authorizing the Judean exiles to build a temple to “Yahweh, the god of Israel […] the god in Jerusalem.”
We understand that both phrases refer to the same God, but the duality is significant. We find it again in the edict authorizing the second wave of return. It is now Artaxerxes, “king of kings,” addressing “the priest Ezra, Secretary of the Law of the God of heaven,” to ask him to offer a gigantic holocaust “to the god of Israel who resides in Jerusalem” (7:12–15). We later find twice the expression “God of heaven” interspersed with seven references to “your God,” that is to say, the God of Ezra and Israel (and keep in mind that capitalization here is a convention of modern translators). The phrase “God of heaven” appears one more time in the book of Ezra, and it is, again, in an edict of a Persian king: Darius confirms the edict of Cyrus and recommends that the Israelites “may offer sacrifices acceptable to the God of heaven and pray for the life of the king and his sons” (6:10). Elsewhere the book of Ezra only refers to the “God of Israel” (four times), “Yahweh, the God of your fathers” (once), and “our God” (ten times). In other words, according to the author of the book of Ezra, only the kings of Persia imagine that Yahweh is “the God of heaven”—a common designation of the universal god Ahura Mazda among the Persians—while for the Jews, Yahweh is merely their god, the “god of Israel,” the god of their fathers, in short, a tribal god.
The same principle can be observed in the book of Daniel, when Nebuchadnezzar, impressed by the gifts of Daniel’s oracle, prostrates himself and exclaims: “Your god is indeed the God of gods, the Master of kings” (Daniel 2:47). These passages (in which the god of the Jews becomes, in the eyes of the goyim, the God of the Universe) reveal the real secret of Judaism, the key to its relationship to universalism and Gentiles: for the Jews, Yahweh is the god of the Jews, while Gentiles are led to believe that he is the supreme and only God. “In the heart of any pious Jew, God is a Jew,” confirms Maurice Samuel in You Gentiles (1924).50
Finally, note that the monotheism of the Torah is untempered by dualism. There is no trace in the Torah of a cosmic struggle between two principles, as in the myth of Osiris or in Persian Zoroastrianism. The fundamental tension is not between good and evil, but between Yahweh and the other gods. The snake (Nachash) tempting Eve in the Garden of Eden disappears forever from the Bible after that: it has no ontological consistency. The “devil” (diabolos in Greek) will make his appearance in the Gospels, and “Lucifer” later still, based on a tendentious exegesis of Isaiah 14:12 in the Latin translation (Vulgate). As for “the satan,” it appears to be borrowed from a Sumerian legal word meaning the “accuser,” and it never occurs as a proper name in the Pentateuch (Torah). “Satan” is the prosecution lawyer in Zechariah 3:1 and in the book of Job.51 In the Old Testament, when he personifies a destructive principle, Satan is hard to distinguish from Yahweh himself. Thus, in 2 Samuel 24, Yahweh incites David to abuse his power, while in the same episode recounted by 1 Chronicles 21, the role is given to Satan. One reads in the latter narrative that “Satan took his stand against Israel” (21:1), that “God […] punished Israel” (21:7), that “the angel of Yahweh wreaks havoc throughout the territory of Israel” (21:12) and that “Yahweh unleashed an epidemic on Israel” (21:14). Ultimately, it is always God who strikes not only the enemies of Israel, but also Israel itself when it proves unworthy of him. It is he who triggers wars, epidemics, and plagues of every imaginable sort; he uses alternately Israel to destroy the nations (as a “mace,” Jeremiah 51:20), and the nations to destroy Israel. Yahweh is the source of both good and evil. (It follows logically, according to some kabbalistic schools, that one can serve him through evil as well as through good.)
The relationship between man and the biblical god is purely contractual and legalistic. According to the Egyptologist Jan Assmann, the idea that God could dictate his laws to men is an innovation of the Bible. In Egypt and elsewhere in the ancient world, the law was not the responsibility of the gods, but of men. It stemmed from human consensus, and its application was based on human judgment. The law therefore had no divine or eternal character: “No ‘pagan’ religion made the law its chief concern.”
The Mosaic law, for its part, fell from heaven already engraved in stone. “Monotheism’s achievement was not to have introduced law and justice, but to have transferred them from the earth and human experience, as the source of the law, to heaven and the divine will. By ‘theologizing’ justice, that is, by placing justice in god’s hands, monotheism elevates it to the status of religious truth.”52 From the Egyptian point of view, attributing the decrees of law to a divine revelation is a perversion of religion and a distortion of law, which normally draws its source and legitimacy from human experience. The Yahwist priests stripped man of this fundamental responsibility, in order to deify law and history. According to the great Jewish thinker Yeshayahu Leibowitz, “The Torah does not recognize moral imperatives stemming from knowledge of natural reality or from awareness of man’s duty to his fellow man. All it recognizes are Mitzvot, divine imperatives.”53 The hundreds of mitzvot (“commandments”) are an end in themselves, not a way to a higher moral consciousness. In fact, according to Gilad Atzmon, Jewish legalism stifles genuine ethical judgment, for “ethical people don’t need ‘commandments’ to know that murder or theft are wrong.”54 Jesus expressed the same view when he accused the Pharisees of preventing people from entering the Kingdom of God with their Law (Matthew 13).
It can be remarked that elevating the law, a human construction, to the level of a divine command, has contributed to making Jews unassimilable. This is what Zionist author Jakob Klatzkin, an admirer of Spinoza, once pointed out in the journal Der Jude, 1916: “Only the Jewish Code rules our life. Whenever other laws are forced upon us we regard them as dire oppression and constantly dodge them. We form in ourselves a closed juridical and business corporation. A strong wall built by us separates us from the people of the lands in which we live —and behind that wall is a Jewish State.”55 Jewish historian Bernard Lazare likewise remarked that all the peoples conquered by the Romans submitted without difficulty to the laws of their conquerors, because laws and religions were clearly separated in their cultures. Only the Jews resisted assimilation, because Mosaic laws are religious by nature, and suffer no compromise.56
No Goddess for Yahweh Neither is there is any trace in Yahwist metaphysics of gender complementarity. According to the Bible, Yahweh needed no female deity to create the world—in a curious manner, hanging the sun in the sky three days and three nights only after declaring “let there be light” (Genesis 1:3– 19). Yahweh is a god without history, without genealogy, without wife or mother or children; and therefore without mythology. Yet archeologists have found in the ruins of Kuntillet Ajrud (the Sinai Peninsula) inscriptions dating from the eighth century BCE, asking the blessing of “Yahweh and his Asherah,” suggesting that the Hebrews of that time had not yet excluded the Great Goddess from their religion.
The discovery of the cuneiform tablets of Ugarit (in modern Syria) have helped us understand the importance of the goddess Asherah in the Semitic cultures of the ancient Middle East. Asherah was the consort of El, the sky god and father of the gods, but she also appears as his mother, while her children Baal and Anath are also a couple. According to Raphael Patai, author of The Hebrew Goddess, “For about six centuries […], that is to say, down to the destruction of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar in 586 BCE, the Hebrews worshiped Asherah (and next to her also other, originally Canaanite, gods and goddesses) in most places and times.”57 Only in the Yahwism of the Exile, which triumphed with the reform of Ezra, was Asherah removed successfully. Yahweh’s repulsion for Asherah is matched only by his hatred of Baal. We find the name of Asherah forty times in the Old Testament, either to designate and curse the goddess, or to designate her symbol in the form of “sacred poles” that the Yahwist kings strove to destroy.
We are now so used to the idea of a Creator who is male, single, and alone, that we have trouble imagining the spiritual void this implies from the point of view of ancient polytheism. The Bible tells that Hebrews often rebelled against this misogynous theology of their priests, and worshiped Asherah as “Queen of Heaven,” to the dismay of the prophet Jeremiah (7:18). After the destruction of Jerusalem by Babylon, the book of Jeremiah tells us, Judean refugees in Egypt wondered if it was not their neglect of the Great Goddess, rather than of Yahweh, that was responsible for their misfortune, and they turned toward her with fervor. Jeremiah called them back to order by threatening that Yahweh would exterminate them (chapter 44).
The Great Goddess is known in the Middle East under multiple identities. Under the name of Ishtar, she is the “Queen of all the inhabited places, who keeps the people in order,” according to a Mesopotamian anthem.58 In the Hellenistic period, Asherah and Ishtar were still assimilated to the Egyptian Isis, while Isis was enriched in turn with attributes of Demeter, Artemis, and Aphrodite, to which the Romans added Diana and Venus. Isis became for the Greeks the “myrionyme” goddess (“of ten thousand names”). In the Hellenistic synthesis that combined ancient Egyptian religion with Greek philosophy, the worship of the goddess Isis took precedence over that of her husband-brother Osiris. It radiated from Alexandria across the eastern edge of the Mediterranean basin. Isis became the symbol of Hellenistic civilization and its ambition to encompass all cultures.59 “You are, by yourself, all other goddesses invoked by all peoples,” said Isidoros addressing Isis. “You, the unique, who are all,” said the dedication of a worshiper from Capua. And in Apuleius’s novel The Golden Ass, the goddess Isis calls herself “Queen of Heaven” and says: “My name, my divinity is adored throughout all the world in diverse manners, in variable customs and in many names.”60
How can Yahweh, a male god who tolerates no female counterpart, help men grasp the mystery of womanhood? Yahwism reduces the divine to the masculine, and ignores the most universal and mysterious of all human experiences: the complementarity of genders. In the Garden of Eden, natural law itself is reversed when the woman is declared to have come out of the man, rather than the reverse. If the function of myths is to express in narrative form universal truths, are we not here dealing with an anti-myth? Historical exegesis has long understood that the biblical story of the transgression of the first couple was meant as a polemical attack on Eastern traditions that exalt sexuality as a holy experience and a divine encounter, through initiatory or marriage rites. These rites have long been misrepresented in Western traditions by the calumnious rumor of “sacred prostitution.” The lack of any “metaphysics of sex” in Judeo- Christian culture has led to a judgment of obscenity passed on the whole iconography of hieros gamos in Asian sacred art.61 In Genesis, the first sexual act of Adam and Eve (of which the consumption of the forbidden fruit is the obvious metaphor) is the source of all evil, the “original sin” in Augustinian terms. No transcendence, no positive value whatsoever is attached to it, since even the knowledge that it is supposed to grant is denied.
On this ground, Yahwism is an anti-Osirism, since the myth of Osiris and Isis magnifies the power of love over death. The Egyptian myth has parallels in countless myths and tales foreign to Judaism and Christianity, in which a lost soul, a victim of a bad death (Osiris) is saved in the afterlife by the sacrificial love of his soul mate (Isis).62 This type of mythical imagination is totally foreign to the Bible. No biblical narrative encourages Jews to conceive of sexuality as anything other than a natural function. The paucity of Jewish reflection on the supernatural power of human love can be contrasted with the rich traditions of India, where the erotic and the sacred go together. See for example how the Creator Brahma creates Dawn, radiant of youth and vitality, and himself succumbs to her charms, according to the Kalika Purana. One of the lessons of these myths of Hieros Gamos, according to Indologist Heinrich Zimmer, is that a man may find his own soul by adoring a woman, and vice versa.63
Yahwism, for its part, only values marriage from the perspective of creating lineages and communities. The only major exception is the Song of Songs—which only found a place in the Hebrew corpus in the first century CE due to an allegorical interpretation of Rabbi Akiva unrelated to its original inspiration. In reality, the Song of Songs is merely a poetic evocation of youthful love, probably of non-Jewish origin, whose carnal eroticism does not rise beyond comparison with drunkenness. The divine is never mentioned.64
From Deicide to Genocide The ancient peoples readily admitted that they all worshiped the same Great Goddess under different names. The cult of the Mother Goddess is undoubtedly the most international and the most likely to bring different peoples together; all men can recognize themselves as the son of one universal Mother. Motherhood is pacifying. It is also, perhaps, less discriminating than fatherhood, and it seems that the concept of chosen people would make less sense in a world embraced by the Queen of Heaven than in a world controlled by the one Yahweh. But the exclusively male character of Yahweh and his refusal to share power with a goddess are not the only factors involved. It is the chronic jealousy of Yahweh, not just his misogyny, on which the xenophobia of biblical Israel is founded. We have seen that the ancient peoples always ensured that their gods were compatible or on good terms, making cultural and economic relations possible.
The authors of Deuteronomy were aware of the widespread idea that national gods were all under the authority of the Supreme Creator. But they altered it in typical fashion: “When the Most High (Elyown) gave the nations each their heritage, when he partitioned out the human race, he assigned the boundaries of nations according to the number of the children of God, but Yahweh’s portion was his people, Jacob was to be the measure of his inheritance” (32:8–9). In other words, among all nations, the very Father of humankind has picked one for himself, leaving the others under the care of lesser gods (angelic powers, for such is here the accepted meaning of “children of God”). That is the ultimate source of Jewish pride: “Of all the peoples on earth, you have been chosen by Yahweh your God to be his own people” (7:6). And this people of his, Yahweh naturally wants to “raise higher than every other nation in the world” (28:1). Although he implicitly admits being the Father of all other national gods, he feels for them only a murderous hatred.
The essence of monotheistic Yahwism, which is a secondary development of tribalistic Yahwism, is the exclusive alliance between the universal Creator and a peculiar people, in order to make it “a people that dwells on its own, not to be reckoned among other nations” (Numbers 23:9). Its specificity is less in the affirmation of a unique God than in the affirmation of a unique people. The one God is the side of the coin shown to the goy to remind him his eternal debt to the “inventors of monotheism”; but the other side, the concept of chosen people, is what binds the Jewish community together, so that one can give up God without abandoning the exceptionality of the Jewish people.
And so, even while claiming to be the Creator of the universe and humanity, Yahweh remains a national, chauvinist god; that is the basis for the dissonance between tribalism and universalism that has brought up the “Jewish question” throughout the ages. In fact, the Jewish conception of Yahweh parallels the historical process, for in the development of Yahwism, it is not the Creator of the Universe who became the god of Israel, but rather the god of Israel who became the Creator of the Universe. And so for the Jews, Yahweh is primarily the god of Jews, and secondarily the Creator of the Universe; whereas Christians, deceived by the biblical narrative, see things the other way around.
Having chosen for himself a single tribe among all the peoples, using unknown criteria, Yahweh plans on making of them not a guide, but a bane for the rest of humanity: “Today and henceforth, I shall fill the peoples under all heavens with fear and terror of you; whoever hears word of your approach will tremble and writhe in anguish because of you” (Deuteronomy 2:25). The biblical stories are there to dramatize the message. Let us mention a few, taken from the cycles of Jacob, Moses, and David, all carrying the same trademark.
Shechem, the son of Hamor, king of the Canaanite town of Shechem, “fell in love with [Jacob’s daughter Dinah] and tried to win her heart,” then “seized her and forced her to sleep with him.” Jacob’s sons “were outraged and infuriated that Shechem had insulted Israel by sleeping with Jacob’s daughter—a thing totally unacceptable. Hamor reasoned with them as follows, ‘My son Shechem’s heart is set on your daughter. Please allow her to marry him. Intermarry with us; give us your daughters and take our daughters for yourselves. We can live together, and the country will be open to you, for you to live in, and move about in, and acquire holdings.’ Then Shechem addressed the girl’s father and brothers, ‘Grant me this favour, and I will give you whatever you ask. Demand as high a bride-price from me as you please, and I will pay as much as you ask. Only let me marry the girl.’” Jacob’s sons then “gave Shechem and his father Hamor a crafty answer,” demanding that “you become like us by circumcising all your males. Then we will give you our daughters, taking yours for ourselves; and we will stay with you to make one nation.” Hamor, trusting the good intentions of Jacob’s tribe, convinced all his male subjects to be circumcised. “Now on the third day, when the men were still in pain, Jacob’s two sons Simeon and Levi, Dinah’s brothers, each took his sword and advanced unopposed against the town and slaughtered all the males. They killed Hamor and his son Shechem with the sword, removed Dinah from Shechem’s house and came away. When Jacob’s other sons came on the slain, they pillaged the town in reprisal for the dishonoring of their sister. They seized their flocks, cattle, donkeys, everything else in the town and in the countryside, and all their possessions. They took all their children and wives captive and looted everything to be found in the houses” (Genesis 34:1–29).
Second example: In Moses’s time, when the kings of Heshbon and Bashan wanted to prevent the Hebrews from entering their territory, the Hebrews “captured all his towns and laid all these towns under the curse of destruction: men, women and children, we left no survivors except the livestock which we took as our booty, and the spoils of the captured towns” (Deuteronomy 2:34– 35).
That is nothing compared to what King David did to the people of Rabba, after having sacked their town and “carried off great quantities of booty”: “And he brought forth the people that were therein, and put them under saws, and under harrows of iron, and under axes of iron, and made them pass through the brickkiln: and thus did he unto all the cities of the children of Ammon. And David and all the people returned unto Jerusalem” (2 Samuel 12:31). The episode is repeated in 1 Chronicles 20:3: “And he brought forth the people that were therein, and cut them with saws, and with harrows of iron, and with axes. Even so dealt David with all the cities of the children of Ammon.”
I have quoted here from the King James Revised Version. Significantly, this episode has been fraudulently retranslated after 1946. We now read in the Revised Standard Version: “And he brought forth the people who were in it, and set them to labor with saws and iron picks and iron axes, and made them toil at the brickkilns.” And in the Catholic New Jerusalem Bible: “And he expelled its inhabitants, setting them to work with saws, iron picks and iron axes, employing them at brickmaking.” This new rendering makes the story politically correct, but highly improbable, since iron tools were never needed to make bricks—certainly not axes, picks and saws—but made deadly weapons that no victor in his right mind would distribute to the men he had just vanquished.
The war code established by Yahweh makes a distinction between the cities outside and those within the territory given to his people. In the former, “you will put the whole male population to the sword. But the women, children, livestock and whatever the town contains by way of spoil, you may take for yourselves as booty. You will feed on the spoils of the enemies whom Yahweh your God has handed over to you.” In the nearby foreign towns, on the other hand, “you must not spare the life of any living thing,” men and women, young and old, children and babies, and even livestock, “so that they may not teach you to do all the detestable things which they do to honor their gods” (Deuteronomy 20:13–18). So, in Jericho, “They enforced the curse of destruction on everyone in the city: men and women, young and old, including the oxen, the sheep and the donkeys, slaughtering them all” (Joshua 6:21).
The city of Ai met the same fate. Its inhabitants were all slaughtered, twelve thousand of them, “until not one was left alive and none to flee. […] When Israel had finished killing all the inhabitants of Ai in the open ground, and in the desert where they had pursued them, and when every single one had fallen to the sword, all Israel returned to Ai and slaughtered its remaining population” (8:22–25). Women were not spared. “For booty, Israel took only the cattle and the spoils of this town” (8:27). In the whole land, Joshua “left not one survivor and put every living thing under the curse of destruction, as Yahweh, god of Israel, had commanded” (10:40).
Likewise for the nomadic tribe of Amalekites, the first enemy the Hebrews faced during the Exodus from Egypt and Canaan. In a cynically paradoxical formulation, Yahweh asked Moses: “Write this down in a book to commemorate it, and repeat it over to Joshua, for I shall blot out all memory of Amalek under heaven” (Exodus 17:14). The idea is repeated in Deuteronomy 25:19: “When Yahweh your God has granted you peace from all the enemies surrounding you, in the country given you by Yahweh your God to own as your heritage, you must blot out the memory of Amalek under heaven. Do not forget.”
The mission fell to Saul in 1 Samuel 15: “I intend to punish what Amalek did to Israel— laying a trap for him on the way as he was coming up from Egypt. Now, go and crush Amalek; put him under the curse of destruction with all that he possesses. Do not spare him, but kill man and woman, babe and suckling, ox and sheep, camel and donkey.” Thus spoke Yahweh Sabaoth, the divinely spiteful, by way of the prophet Samuel. Since Saul spared King Agag “with the best of the sheep and cattle, the fatlings and lambs,” Yahweh repudiates him: “I regret having made Saul king, since he has broken his allegiance to me and not carried out my orders.” Yahweh withdrew Saul’s kingship and Samuel “butchered” Agag (“hewed Agag in pieces,” in the Revised Standard Version, faithfully translating the Hebrew verb shsf).
Despite this theoretically perfect biblical genocide, the Jews never ceased to identify their enemies with Amalekites. Flavius Josephus, writing for the Romans, recognizes them in the Arabs of Idumea. Later, Amalek came to be associated, like his grandfather Esau, with Rome and therefore, from the fourth century onward, with Christianity. The villain of the book of Esther, Haman, is referred to repeatedly as an Agagite, that is, a descendant of the Amalekite king Agag. That is why the hanging of Haman and his ten sons and the massacre of 75,000 Persians are often conflated in Jewish tradition with the extermination of the Amalekites and the brutal execution of their king. The Torah reading on the morning of Purim is taken from the account of the battle against the Amalekites, which ends with the conclusion that “Yahweh will be at war with Amalek generation after generation” (Exodus 17:16).65
When the people, under Moses’s guidance, settled temporarily in the country of Moab (or Midian) in Transjordania, some married Moabite women, who “invited them to the sacrifices of their gods” (Numbers 25:2). Such abomination required “the vengeance of Yahweh on Midian.” (The peoples of Moab and Midian seem here conflated). And so, instructed by Yahweh as always, Moses formed an army and ordered them to “put every [Midianite] male to death.” However, the soldiers were guilty of taking “the Midianite women and their little ones captive,” instead of slaughtering them. Moses “was enraged with the officers of the army” and rebuked them: “Why have you spared the life of all the women? They were the very ones who […] caused the Israelites to be unfaithful to Yahweh. […] So kill all the male children and kill all the women who have ever slept with a man; but spare the lives of the young girls who have never slept with a man, and keep them for yourselves.” At the end of the day, “The spoils, the remainder of the booty captured by the soldiers, came to six hundred and seventy-five thousand sheep and goats, seventy-two thousand head of cattle, sixty-one thousand donkeys, and in persons, women who had never slept with a man, thirty-two thousand in all,” not to mention “gold, silver, bronze, iron, tin and lead” (Numbers 31:3–31).
And we would be in error if we believed that the message of the prophets, most of whom were priests, softens the violence of the historical books: “For this is the Day of Lord Yahweh Sabaoth, a day of vengeance when he takes revenge on his foes: The sword will devour until gorged, until drunk with their blood,” foresees Jeremiah as reprisals against Babylon. For Yahweh promises through him “an end of all the nations where I have driven you,” which includes Egypt (Jeremiah 46:10–28). “Yahweh’s sword is gorged with blood, it is greasy with fat,” says Isaiah, on the occasion of “a great slaughter in the land of Edom” (Isaiah 34:6).
Zechariah prophesies that Yahweh will fight “all the nations” allied against Israel. In a single day, the whole earth will become a desert, with the exception of Jerusalem, which will “stand high in her place.” Zechariah seems to have envisioned what God could do with nuclear weapons: “And this is the plague with which Yahweh will strike all the nations who have fought against Jerusalem; their flesh will rot while they are still standing on their feet; their eyes will rot in their sockets; their tongues will rot in their mouths.” It is only after the carnage that the world will finally find peace, providing they worship Yahweh; then “the wealth of all the surrounding nations will be heaped together: gold, silver, clothing, in vast quantity. […] After this, all the survivors of all the nations which have attacked Jerusalem will come up year after year to worship the King, Yahweh Sabaoth, and to keep the feast of Shelters. Should one of the races of the world fail to come up to Jerusalem to worship the King, Yahweh Sabaoth, there will be no rain for that one” (Zechariah 14).
The prophetic dream of Israel—nightmare of the nations—is very clearly a supremacist and imperial project. There is indeed, in Isaiah, the hope of world peace, when the peoples of the earth “will hammer their swords into ploughshares and their spears into sickles. Nation will not lift sword against nation, no longer will they learn how to make war” (Isaiah 2:4). But that day will only come when all nations pay homage to Zion. In those glorious days, says Yahweh to his people in Second Isaiah, kings “will fall prostrate before you, faces to the ground, and lick the dust at your feet,” whereas Israel’s oppressors will “eat their own flesh (and) will be as drunk on their own blood” (49:23–26); “For the nation and kingdom that will not serve you will perish, and the nations will be utterly destroyed” (60:12); “Strangers will come forward to feed your flocks, foreigners be your ploughmen and vinedressers; but you will be called ‘priests of Yahweh’ and be addressed as ‘ministers of our God.’ You will feed on the wealth of nations, you will supplant them in their glory” (61:5–6); “You will suck the milk of nations, you will suck the wealth of kings” (60:16).
Certainly all these past and future genocides perpetrated in the name of Yahweh are imaginary, but the psychological effect produced by their accumulation ad nauseam on the chosen people is not, especially since some are commemorated ritually. It is to celebrate the massacre of seventy-five thousand Persians slaughtered by the Jews in one day that Mordecai, the secondary hero of the book of Esther, “a man held in respect among the Jews, esteemed by thousands of his brothers, a man who sought the good of his people and cared for the welfare of his entire race” (10:3), establishes Purim, a month before Easter. Emmanuel Levinas would have us believe that “Jewish consciousness, formed precisely through contact with this moral hardness, has learned the absolute horror of blood.”66 It’s a bit like claiming that the virtual violence of video games will eventually make our children less violent. Was it not on the day of Purim, February 25th, 1994, that Baruch Goldstein massacred with a submachine gun twenty- nine pious Muslims at the tomb of Abraham? Has his grave not become a place of pilgrimage for Orthodox Jews?67
The Plunder of the Nations
“Feeding on the wealth of the nations” is the destiny of the Jewish nation, says the prophet (Isaiah 61:6). It is also the way it was first created, for plundering is the essence of the conquest of Canaan, according to Deuteronomy 6:10–12: “When Yahweh has brought you into the country which he swore to your ancestors Abraham, Isaac and Jacob that he would give you, with great and prosperous cities you have not built, with houses full of good things you have not provided, with wells you have not dug, with vineyards and olive trees you have not planted, and then, when you have eaten as much as you want, be careful you do not forget Yahweh who has brought you out of Egypt, out of the place of slave-labor.”
Gentiles, Canaanites, or others are no different from their belongings in Yahweh’s eyes, and can therefore become the property of Hebrews. “The male and female slaves you have will come from the nations around you; from these you may purchase male and female slaves. As slaves, you may also purchase the children of aliens resident among you, and also members of their families living with you who have been born on your soil; and they will become your property, and you may leave them as a legacy to your sons after you as their perpetual possession. These you may have for slaves; but you will not oppress your brother-Israelites” (Leviticus 25:44–46). Note that, from the historian’s point of view, the prohibition proves the practice (there is no need to legislate on something that doesn’t exist), and the story of Joseph illustrates that a Jew sold as slave by other Jews was not inconceivable.
While waiting for the fulfillment of their imperial destiny, the chosen people can, even more effectively, exercise their incomparable mastery of monetary mechanisms. One of the revolutionary contributions of biblical religion in the world is the transformation of money from a means of exchange to a means of power and even war. In every civilization that has reached the stage of monetary trade, lending at interest, which makes money a commodity in itself, was seen as a moral perversion and a social danger. Aristotle condemns usury in his Politics as the “most unnatural” activity because it gives money the ability to produce itself out of nothing, and thereby take on a quasi-spiritual, supernatural character. Around the same time, Deuteronomy prohibited the practice, but only between Jews: “You may demand interest on a loan to a foreigner, but you must not demand interest from your brother” (23:21).68
During the Jubilee, every seven years, any creditor must remit his Jewish neighbor’s debt. But not the stranger’s: “A foreigner you may exploit, but you must remit whatever claim you have on your brother” (15:3). As far as we know, the Yahwist priests were the first to conceive of enslaving entire nations through debt: “If Yahweh your God blesses you as he has promised, you will be creditors to many nations but debtors to none; you will rule over many nations, and be ruled by none” (15:6). The story of Joseph bringing the Egyptian peasants into debt bondage confirms that the enrichment of Jews by Gentile debt is a biblical ideal. This story is deeply immoral, but quite central in the saga of the chosen people; it guarantees divine blessing on all abuses of power practiced against foreigners. It also illustrates a lesson that Jews have effectively applied throughout their history, from medieval Europe to eighteenth century Russia: the ability to grab money through a monopoly on lending at interest is greatly increased if one first receives from the state authority to collect taxes. The lesson is repeated in the similar story that Flavius Josephus situates in the Hellenistic period (already mentioned in our previous chapter). “As difficult as it may be for the modern reader to accept,” remarks Lawrence Wills, “we actually have before us hero legends concerning tax farmers, as if we were reading the Robin Hood legend told from the Sheriff of Nottingham’s perspective.”69
The story of Joseph, like those of Esther and Daniel, offer as Jewish heroes characters who have reached the rank of kings’ advisers and intermediaries in the oppression of peoples; the heroes make use of such positions to promote their community. The court Jews mentioned in the Bible most often occupy the functions of cupbearer or eunuch, that is, purveyors of wine and women. Second Kings 20:18 informs us that some Judeans served as “eunuchs in the palace of the king of Babylon,” eunuchs being generally attached to the harem. “How often,” remarks Heinrich Graetz, “have these guardians of the harem, these servants of their master’s whims, become in turn masters of their master.”70 If there is one thing possible to a guardian of the harem, it is to introduce the woman of his choice into the prince’s bed, as did Mordecai, “attached to the Chancellery” with “two royal eunuchs,” with Esther, his niece and perhaps spouse (Esther 2:21).
The Levitic Tyranny
The first victims of Yahweh’s violence are the chosen people themselves. Deuteronomy orders the stoning of any parent, son, brother, or wife who “tries secretly to seduce you, saying, ‘Let us go and serve other gods,’ unknown to you or your ancestors before you, gods of the peoples surrounding you. […] you must show him no pity, you must not spare him or conceal his guilt. No, you must kill him, your hand must strike the first blow in putting him to death and the hands of the rest of the people following. You must stone him to death, since he has tried to divert you from Yahweh your God” (13:7–11). Worse still, if “in one of the towns which Yahweh your God has given you for a home, there are men, scoundrels from your own stock, who have led their fellow-citizens astray, saying, ‘Let us go and serve other gods,’ hitherto unknown to you […], you must put the inhabitants of that town to the sword; you must lay it under the curse of destruction—the town and everything in it. You must pile up all its loot in the public square and burn the town and all its loot, offering it all to Yahweh your God. It is to be a ruin for all time, and never rebuilt.” For that is “what is right in the eyes of Yahweh your God” (13:13–19).
When some Jews beyond the control of Moses ate with the Moabites, joined in their religious cults, and took women from among them, “Yahweh said to Moses, ‘Take all the leaders of the people. Impale them facing the sun, for Yahweh, to deflect his burning anger from Israel’” (Numbers 25:4). When a Hebrew had the gall to appear before Moses with his Midianite wife, Phinehas, grandson of Aaron, “seized a lance, followed the Israelite into the alcove, and there ran them both through, the Israelite and the woman, through the stomach.” Yahweh congratulated him for having “the same zeal as I have,” and, as a reward, gave “to him and his descendants after him, […] the priesthood for ever” that is, “the right to perform the ritual of expiation for the Israelites” (25:11–13). Is it not extraordinary that the founding of the Aaronic priesthood (reclaimed by Ezra and the high priests he installed in power) is thus based on a double murder blessed by Yahweh?
The overarching theme of the Bible is the relationship between Yahweh and his people. But according to a critical reading, the Bible is actually the history of the relationship between the priestly elite speaking for Yahweh and the Jewish people, who are sometimes submissive, and sometimes rebellious to authority. The Bible itself shows that it is the priests that prevented the Jewish people from establishing any form of alliance with the surrounding peoples, and pushed them to genocidal violence against their neighbors. In the tragedy of Shechem summarized above (Genesis 34:1–29), it is Levi, embodying the priestly authority, who incites the massacre, while Jacob condemns it. Prophets, who claim to have a direct line with God, are priests or spokesmen of priests.
The power of the Levitical elites over the people is based on a system of interpretation of national history that is formidably infallible: whenever misfortune strikes, it is always the fault of the people (or the king) who did not obey God’s law (and its priestly guarantors) with enough fervor. After the destruction of Israel by the Assyrian army, the priests base their authority over the kingdom of Judea by proclaiming that Yahweh deprived Israel of victory because the Israelites had betrayed his alliance by “sacrificing on all the high places in the manner of the nations which Yahweh had expelled before them,” and “worshiping idols” (2 Kings 17:11–12). The Assyrian army itself is “the rod of my anger” (Isaiah 10.5). The argument is the same after the destruction of Jerusalem by Babylon. The national tragedy does not imply a superiority of the foreign gods over Yahweh, which would encourage their adoption. Rather, it is Yahweh himself who used the Babylonians, after the Assyrians, to punish the people who betrayed him. The only remedy for disaster: strengthened loyalty to Yahweh.
The Yahwist lesson is always the same. Each time the Hebrews begin to sympathize with other nations to the point of mingling with their religious life (social life being inseparable from worship), Yahweh punishes them by sending against them … other nations. The hand of friendship held out by others is a death trap. He whose friendship you seek is your worst enemy. This principle in Yahwist ideology encloses the Jewish people in a cognitive vicious circle, preventing them from learning the only sensible lesson from their experience: that contacts promote cultural understanding between peoples, while refusal of contact generates hostility. According to the Bible, the chosen people have obligations only toward Yahweh, never toward their neighbors. And when those neighbors are hostile, their complaints are irrelevant, since ultimately it is always Yahweh who sends them against his people when he has decided to punish them. For two thousand years, Jews have been constantly reminded by their elites that the persecutions they suffer are not the result of offensive behavior against Gentiles, but rather their efforts to live with them in harmony—efforts that amount to infidelity to God and to their vocation as “a people apart.”
From time to time the people rebel against this devastating logic. After the capture of Jerusalem by Babylon, Judean refugees in Egypt, suddenly freed from the Levitical yoke, decide to worship Ishtar, the “Queen of Heaven,” saying that it was perhaps for having neglected her that their country had been ravaged. This provokes the wrath of Jeremiah, who, in the name of Yahweh, threatens them with extermination (Jeremiah 44). Likewise, doubts gnaw at some communities after the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 CE, as evidenced by the Jewish literature of this period: “The world which was made on account of us abides; but we, on account of whom it was made, vanish,” some complain in The Apocalypse of Baruch (14:19). Or: “If, as you say, you created the world for us, why do not we have what is ours?” (IV Ezra 6:59). Many Jews of Alexandria, Ephesus, and Rome rushed through the exit door offered by Christianity.
The history of the Jews, of course, cannot be reduced to a struggle between the elites and the people; the people are divided, sometimes to the point of civil war, while the elite is ever- changing and subject to rivalries. Nonetheless, the tension between an elite legislating forever in the name of God, and a refractory people, is the fundamental dialectic tension in Jewish history because it is the heart of Jewish collective memory preserved in the Bible. It is inscribed in Jewishness, and internalized by the Jewish community to this day. Every Jew is constantly pressed to identify with the ruling elites, yet resists these elites to some extent. Since biblical times, common sense often prevails among the Jews known as “assimilationists”—the internal enemies of Yahwism. But the mobilizing power of the Yahwist ideology tirelessly triumphs, and with each disaster or threat of disaster, the people lets itself be convinced en masse to retreat into its mental fortress. The few dissenting voices are stigmatized as emanating from Jews contaminated by “self-hatred.” Endogamy and Monotheism When two peoples become neighbors, they face a choice between war and marriage. In the ancient world, marriage required the mutual adoption of each other’s gods, or at least their cohabitation in the same household. To marry a woman of another people not only binds one to her relatives, but to her gods as well. This does not pose a problem to the extent that the gods are social beings who tolerate each other. But the god of the Hebrews is a jealous god, who tolerates no other. Yahweh therefore always imposes the choice of war. The command of strict endogamy is justified in the Bible by strict monotheism, and foreign women are held primarily responsible for the apostasy of their husbands; worse, they transmit their gods and religious rites to their children. At the first conquest of Canaan, it was forbidden to marry one’s children to the natives, “for your son would be seduced from following me into serving other gods; the wrath of Yahweh would blaze out against you and he would instantly destroy you” (Deuteronomy 7:3–4).
To prevent religious contagion, Moses orders, in the name of Yahweh, the extermination of all living beings without distinction in certain conquered towns “so that they may not teach you to do all the detestable things which they do to honor their gods” (20:18). Similarly, during the return from the Exile, on learning that the “survivors” had resorted to the abomination of mixed marriages, and that “the holy race has been contaminated by the people of the country,” Ezra makes them promise to “send away all the foreign wives and their children” (Ezra 9:2; 10:3).
Since the alliance between Yahweh and his chosen people is comparable to a marriage, mixed marriages and foreign cults are both considered forms of adultery or prostitution. To worship other gods is like having sex with a foreigner. To dramatize this idea, the prophet Hosea marries a prostitute, “as Yahweh loves the Israelites although they turn to other gods” (Hosea 3:1). Conversely, as Niels Lemche writes, “Intermingling with foreign women means playing with foreign gods, which is the same as breaking the covenant relationship.”71 Keeping the blood pure of any foreign influence is the core of the covenant with Yahweh. When some Hebrews take wives from Moab, it is described, in biblical terms, as: “The people gave themselves over to prostitution with Moabite women. These invited them to the sacrifices of their gods, and the people ate and bowed down before their gods” (Numbers 25:1–2). Moses/Yahweh orders the impalement of the chiefs of the guilty tribes, then the extermination of all Midianites, with the exception of “young girls who have never slept with a man, and keep them for yourselves” (31:18). For the prohibition of intermarriage does not apply to rape and sexual slavery; the well- known principle that Jewishness is transmitted by the mother was originally prescribed to keep the bastards of these unions from polluting the community.
For a king to marry a foreign princess is a political act that seals an alliance between the kingdoms. Even this is condemned by Yahwists scribes, although in the case of Solomon, the sentence is ambiguous since the seven hundred wives and three hundred concubines attributed to this fictional king, which make him the world champion in all categories, are a sign of his vast influence. However, his foreign wives, “who offered incense and sacrifice to their gods” (1 Kings 11:8), were held responsible for the decline of Solomon and his kingdom when he was old. “His wives swayed his heart to other gods” (11:4), including “Astarte the goddess of the Sidonians, Chemosh the god of Moab, Milcom the god of the Ammonites” (11:33). Similarly, the king of Israel, Ahab son of Omri, is the most despised of the northern kings because he took to wife Jezebel, a Phoenician princess and worshiper of Baal. Under her influence, Ahab “proceeded to serve Baal and worship him. He erected an altar to him in the temple of Baal which he built in Samaria. Ahab also put up a sacred pole [an Ashera] and committed other crimes as well, provoking the anger of Yahweh, god of Israel, more than all the kings of Israel his predecessors” (1 Kings 16:31–33).
The command of endogamy is so highly valued in the Bible that it even trumps the prohibition of incest as understood by most cultures. Abraham marries his half-sister Sarah, his father’s daughter (and prefers her son to that of his concubine). This allows him, when he goes to Egypt, to pretend that his wife is his sister, so the Pharaoh can requisition her as a concubine, offering Abraham in exchange “flocks, oxen, donkeys, men and women slaves, she-donkeys and camels” (Genesis 12:16). Abraham renews the strategy in the land of Negev. When the king Abimelech learns the truth and confronts Abraham, who responds: “Anyway, she really is my sister, my father’s daughter though not my mother’s, besides being my wife.” Then Abimelech gave back to Abraham his wife, together with “sheep, cattle, men and women slaves” (20:12– 14).
This second narrative suffers from improbability insofar as Sara is already old. It is actually a duplicate of the same story told later about Isaac, whose young wife Rebecca was coveted by the same Abimelech, thinking she was Isaac’s sister. Seeing through a window “Isaac caressing Rebekah,” Abimelech accuses Isaac of misleading him: “What a thing to do to us! One of the people might easily have slept with your wife. We should have incurred guilt, thanks to you” (26:10). It is hard to resist the impression that Isaac, in imitation of his father, uses his wife to extract from these highly moral Philistines a ransom as a debt of honor. The scheme is not unlike the story of Esther, a secret Jew and niece—as well as wife according to some readings—of the influential Jew Mordecai, who uses her to favorably dispose the Persian king toward the Jewish community.
Isaac is less endogamous than his father Abraham, whose marriage to a half-sister remains an isolated case. Isaac receives an Egyptian wife in his youth, but his heirs are the children he will have with Rebecca, the daughter of his cousin Bethuel (whose mother, Milcah, had married his uncle Nahor, according to Genesis 11:29). Rebecca, horrified at the idea that her son Jacob should marry outside of the family, sends him to her brother Laban so he can marry one of Laban’s daughters, i.e., his cousin. Jacob marries both Leah and Rachel (Genesis 28). The case of Esau, Jacob’s older brother, appears similar: He offends his parents by marrying two Hittite women (“These were a bitter disappointment to Isaac and Rebekah” 26:35), then broadens his efforts and takes to wife his cousin Mahalath, the daughter of his uncle Ishmael (28:9). However, Ishmael is himself of impure lineage, being the son of Abraham and his Egyptian handmaid Hagar. So Esau is excluded from the chosen people and is the ancestor of the Edomites (Genesis 36). This genealogy can only have been invented by a caste of Babylonian exiles carrying inbreeding to an extreme. At the time of the Second Temple that followed their return, marriages between uncle and niece were highly valued, especially among families of priests, who were obsessed with the purity of their blood.
Endogamy is also a characteristic feature of Jewish novels written in the Persian and Hellenistic periods. Let us recall how Tobiah, the son of Tobit, marries his “closest relative,” the daughter of his uncle. The angel Raphael informs him that her father Raguel “has no right whatever to refuse you or to betroth her to anyone else. That would be asking for death, as prescribed in the Book of Moses, once he is aware that kinship gives you the pre-eminent right to marry his daughter” (Tobit 6:13).
The puritan revolution of the Maccabees emphasized strict endogamy and, in keeping with Deuteronomic tradition, viewed intermarriage as idolatry. The Book of Jubilees, a book of the Hasmonean period, proclaims: “And if there is any man who wishes in Israel to give his daughter or his sister to any man who is of the seed of the Gentiles he shall surely die, and they shall stone him with stones; for he has wrought shame in Israel; and they shall burn the woman with fire, because she has dishonored the name of the house of her father, and she shall be rooted out of Yisrael” (30:7).
It is true that during that same period, Judaism experienced a period of expansion during which many people were converted. In 125 BCE John Hyrcanus conquered the land of Edom and, according to Flavius Josephus, “subdued all the Edomites, and permitted them to stay in that country, if they would circumcise their genitals, and make use of the laws of the Jews; […] at which time therefore this befell them, that they were hereafter no other than Jews” (Jewish Antiquities XIII.9). His son Aristobulus, nicknamed Philhellene, annexed Galilee in 104 BCE, then occupied mostly by Itureans, uniting Itureans to Edomites “by the bond of the circumcision of their genitals” (XIII.11). Alexander Jannaeus, brother and heir of Aristobulus, was less successful in his attempt to convert the Hellenistic cities of Samaria, Gaza, and Pela in Transjordan; so he “slew the inhabitants of Gaza; yet they were not of cowardly hearts, but opposed those that came to slay them, and slew as many of the Jews” (XIII.13). These policies of forced conversions came from Hellenized rulers viewed as “godless” by contemporary pious Jews. Moreover, they did not contradict the principle of inbreeding, because the converted Jews were still considered second-class, while native Jewish society remained hostile to their marital integration, especially among the elites.
Modern Jewish historians writing for Gentiles have spread the idea that ancient Judaism was a proselytizing faith, but this idea is based on a misinterpretation of the data. Ancient Jewish chronicles have not retained the name of even a single missionary, and Jewish literature on the conversion of the Gentiles is limited to the one that will take place at the end of time, when the world will recognize the superiority of the Jews. The evidence does, however, confirm the existence of “Judaizers” who approached Jewish communities and attended their meetings; all belonged to the elite, so that if they were to marry within the Jewish community, they would play a particular role. Yet even this practice was condemned by Orthodox rabbis. At the end of the second century, Rabbi Hiyya the Great comments: “Do not have faith in a proselyte until twenty- four generations have passed, because the inherent evil is still within him.”72 Chapter 3
THE PRINCE OF THIS WORLD
“I shall shake all the nations, and the treasures of all the nations will flow in, and I shall fill this Temple with glory, says Yahweh Sabaoth. Mine is the silver, mine the gold! Yahweh Sabaoth declares.” Haggai 2:7–8
Death and Culture in the Antique World
The Bible is a collection of disparate, stylistically varied texts from various epochs. Consequently, the biblical notions concerning the fate of the deceased in the hereafter are multiple, heterogeneous, and generally difficult to reconcile. There is nevertheless a fundamental Yahwist conception, of which the others are only deviations: the Hebrew Bible does not grant man any form of afterlife worthy of the name: man is dust and returns to dust (Genesis 3:19). “My spirit cannot be indefinitely responsible for human beings, who are only flesh” (Genesis 6:3). Yahweh has nothing to do with the dead “whom you remember no more, cut off as they are from your protection” (Psalms 88:5). Genesis 2:7 plays on the semantic link between man, adam, and earth, adamah : “Elohim shaped adam, dust of adamah.”
Admittedly this denial of the afterlife in Yahwist literature is not absolute: there is Sheol. The Bible uses this term to designate a dark and damp region underground, where the dead, good as well as bad, subsist only as impotent shadows in an unconscious sleep. While Sheol represents a subterranean place, it is above all a negative concept that approaches the idea of nothingness (unthinkable by definition); death in Sheol is virtual annihilation. In fact, the term appears only five times in the Pentateuch: four times in Genesis, as a conventional name for death,73 and once in Numbers, concerning Korah and two hundred and fifty notables, “renowned men” who rebelled against the authority of Moses and Aaron: “The ground split apart under their feet, the earth opened its mouth and swallowed them, their families, all Korah’s people and all their property. They went down alive to Sheol with all their belongings. The earth closed over them and they disappeared in the middle of the community” (Numbers 16:31–33). The term here has only a narrative function, since no subterranean afterlife is granted to these men after their living burial.
Some will object that the Torah has two terms to designate the immortal spirit: nephesh and ruah. This is a misunderstanding. The Hebrew word nephesh is translated in the Septuagint by the Greek psyche, and in English by “soul.” But in reality it designates a “living being,” that is to say, a body that life has not yet left; it sometimes translates simply as “life.” The term is intimately related to blood in the food prohibitions of Leviticus 17. “According to the primeval Jewish view,” writes Jewish historian Josef Kastein, “the blood was the seat of the soul,” which is why it is forbidden to consume the blood of animals. The Hebrew word ruah, translated as pneuma in the Septuagint, and generally as “spirit” in English, means “wind,” “breath,” “respiration,” and thus also designates life. Thus there is no notion of immortal soul in the formula of Genesis 2:7: “Yahweh God shaped man from the soil of the ground and blew the breath of life [ruah] into his nostrils, and man became a living being [nephesh].”
The metaphysical materialism of the biblical worldview is overlooked or denied by Reform Judaism, and mentioning it is now considered bad manners. But such was not the case a century ago, when Sigmund Freud wrote in Moses and Monotheism (1939) about the Egyptians: “No other people of antiquity has done so much to deny death, has made such careful provision for an after-life […]. The early Jewish religion, on the other hand, had entirely relinquished immortality; the possibility of an existence after death was never mentioned in any place.”74
From the Egyptian point of view, such a denial of life after death makes Yahwism an anti- Osirian religion, that is to say, a Sethian anti-religion. To understand this, we must consider the details of the death and resurrection of Osiris, related by Plutarch. Osiris is the first king of Egypt. Scheming to take his place, his younger brother Seth discreetly takes the measure of his body and commands the making of a sumptuously decorated coffin. Through deceit he induces Osiris to lie down, closes the lid, seals it with lead, and throws the coffin into the Nile, which carries Osiris as far as the Mediterranean. Isis, aided by her sister Nephthys, goes in search of her husband’s coffin. After many attempts, she discovers the body, which she brings back to Egypt and hides. Seth discovers the hiding place and cuts the body into fourteen pieces, which he disseminates throughout the land of Egypt. The faithful Isis then transforms herself into a kite and sets off in search of the scattered limbs of her husband. She finds all the pieces except one: his virile member, which had been eaten by fish. Isis makes a simulacrum to replace it, reconstitutes the body, and brings it back to life through lamentations and prayers.
The story of Osiris is a funerary myth; it conveys a vision of the destiny of man after death. Seth is the personification of death in its destructive corporeal aspect, while Osiris is the personification of the spiritual victory over death. As the first king and first death in history, Osiris is also the king of the dead. Each Pharaoh inherits his destiny and, when he dies, becomes Osiris, king of the Other World, even as his son inherits the royal throne on earth, corresponding to the role of Horus. In texts carved on the inner walls of the pyramids, which are nothing more than gigantic and sophisticated burial mounds, the divinities of the Egyptian pantheon are grouped around their sovereign, Osiris, to assist him in his new life in the grave. The dead pharaoh inherits royalty in the Other World: “May you rise up, protected and provided for like a god, equipped with the attributes of Osiris on the throne of the First of the Occidentals, to do what he did among the glorified, imperishable stars.”75
Progressively, these royal texts became more democratic. The Texts of the Sarcophagi, placed in the coffins of the notables of the Middle Kingdom, were inspired by them. Then in the New Kingdom appeared the Books of the Dead, papyri placed in the tombs of ordinary deceased. They describe Osiris sitting in the Hall of Judgment, surrounded by an arena of divine judges. A scale was placed before the deceased in order to carry out the weighing of his heart; the other plate of the scale was occupied by the pen of Maat, goddess of Truth and Immutable Justice. If the balance weighed against him, the dead man’s soul was forever excluded from eternal happiness. All justified souls were admitted into the community of gods and spirits, modeled on the pattern of earthly society. Osiris, we must note, does not judge the dead; he only presides over their judgment. The conscience of each one is his own judge. From the Middle Kingdom onward, as documented by Bojana Mojsov, Osiris “was the voice that spoke to every heart, the undisputed sovereign of the dead whom everyone had to encounter when the hour had struck. As a god who shared human suffering and death, Osiris would know the human heart and understand the trials and tribulations of earthly life.”76 While Osiris reigns on the dead, Isis takes care of the living, and assists them on their final journey, provided they have been initiated.
The motif of the missing and then reconstituted penis indicates that Osiris belongs to mankind, yet is an exception to the rule that the dead do not procreate. Though dead, Osiris conceives Horus with Isis. Osiris is an exceptional and paradigmatic dead man. The same is true of most of the mythical characters held to rule over the Other World: they come from the world of the living, they are the divine deceased. In the Sumerian epic of Gilgamesh, the mythical king who quested for immortality during his lifetime was promoted to “Grand Judge of the Dead” after his death.77 In India, Yama is the first man who “has traveled to heavenly heights […] and shows the way to the multitude,” according to the Rig-Veda (X.14). In Greece, Dionysus, who is the same figure as Osiris according to Herodotus (II.41), passed through the human experience of birth, suffering, and violent death before becoming a divinity of death, whose worship aims to ensure a good afterlife. Odin, the Germanic god of the dead, is described by the Scandinavian mythographers as a magician warrior who, having died hanging from a tree, became “Lord of the Dead,” reigning in Valhalla over “all men who perish by arms.”78 One could multiply the examples of heroes or mythical earthly kings who have become kings of the dead, generally after a sacrificial death.79 But none has had a radiance comparable to Osiris, probably because no great civilization was as preoccupied with death as Egypt.
The Egyptian vision of the afterlife exerted great influence on surrounding civilizations. Greek authors readily admitted this debt, and Herodotus even knew that the cults celebrated at Eleusis were of Egyptian origins.80 Hellenism, which radiated outward from Alexandria beginning in the third century BCE, owes much to Osirism, as does the later phenomenon of Neoplatonism. The “mysteries of Osiris,” an initiatic cult described by Iamblichus about 320 CE, competed with Christianity in popularity. Apuleius, a second-century Roman author of Berber origin, gives us an encrypted summary in his loosely autobiographical novel Metamorphoses (or The Golden Ass). Pursuing an interest in magic, the hero, Lucius, is turned into an ass—the symbol of Seth, symbolizing a world of crime and debauchery. By praying to the “divine Mother” Isis, he recovers his human shape. He then devotes his life to the goddess and is initiated into her Mysteries, described as “a voluntary death” by which one can be “born again.” Isis promises Lucius a happy afterlife, “when, having passed through the allotted space of your life, you descend to the realms beneath,” and, “dwelling in the Elysian fields, (you) shall frequently adore me whom you now see, and shall there behold me shining amidst the darkness of Acheron.”
According to an ancient theory that had fallen out of favor but is now returning to the forefront of religious anthropology, man’s struggle against death is the source of religious rituals and myths.81 For the Egyptologist Jan Assmann, “death is the origin and cradle of culture,” for culture is the effort of man to survive death, individually and collectively. Its first achievements were devoted to representations of immortality and to symbolic exchanges between the world of the living and the world of the dead.82 According to the most reasonable hypothesis, prehistoric cave art was a means of communicating with the underworld of the dead. Prehistoric megaliths, the earliest stone architecture, were also houses for the dead; and images were probably first fashioned to memorialize the dead. Art stems from the desire to make visible the invisible. It is in this light that we must understand the Deuteronomic prohibition: “You shall not make yourself a carved image or any likeness of anything in heaven above or on earth beneath or in the waters under the earth” (Exodus 20:4).
Drama, epic, and myths are also born from funerary rites and the need to keep the dead alive. The majority of myths and folktales have as their central theme the bond between a mortal and an invisible power. This is why the highest ideal of love is found in myths of the Other World. The myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, associated with the Greek mystical current of Orphism, structurally resembles the myth of Osiris and Isis: Orpheus the king, driven to despair by the death of his beloved wife, travels through hell to find her, rescue her, and bring her back to life; in the version popularized by Virgil and Ovid, he fails. In the myth of Demeter and Persephone, a mother goes in search of her daughter who has been abducted by Hades, but only succeeds in bringing her back for part of the year. Love that survives death, and to some extent triumphs over it, is one of the most prized narrative themes of ancient culture; it takes many forms, ranging from sacred myths to ghost stories (one of which, narrated around 130 CE by Phlegon of Tralles, inspired Goethe’s ballad “The Bride of Corinth”).
Unlike the Egyptian, Babylonian, Persian, Greek, or Roman traditions, the Hebrew religion is hostile to any imaginary form of the hereafter. In the Hebrew Bible, one would search in vain for the idea that the dying man will meet his Creator: the life of each of the patriarchs ends simply by mentioning their place of burial. About Jacob, it is said that, “breathing his last, he was gathered to his people” (Genesis 49:33), but nothing suggests here anything more than a conventional euphemism. Jacob, in any case, does not join Yahweh. In fact, Yahweh does not seem to reside in any other place than the earthly Jerusalem Temple. Reflecting a Sethian vision of life and death, the Judaic tradition knows nothing of the funerary myths so popular in other cultures, whose heroes explore the Other World.
Hope of a better life and fear of divine retribution in the hereafter are absent from the Bible. When, in Isaiah 38, King Hezekiah “fell ill and was at the point of death,” he supplicates Yahweh to lengthen his physical life, not to welcome his spirit. “I have heard your prayer and seen your tears,” Yahweh answers. “I shall cure you: in three days’ time you will go up to the Temple of Yahweh. I shall add fifteen years to your life” (38:5). The Song of Hezekiah that follows clearly states that Sheol holds no promise of any real life and that it is not even under the rule of Yahweh. Once dead, Hezekiah laments, “I shall never see Yahweh again in the land of the living.” “For Sheol cannot praise you, nor Death celebrate you; those who go down to the pit can hope no longer in your constancy. The living, the living are the ones who praise you, as I do today” (38:11–19).
We note in passing that biblical materialism goes together with the absence of any transcendent conception of the complementarity of the sexes. In the Bible, the male-female relationship is entirely absorbed in the conjugal and the parental, that is, the social realm. Yahweh does not say to Adam and Eve, “Let love open your hearts and unite your souls,” nor anything of the kind, but instead, “Be fruitful, multiply, fill the earth and subdue it” (Genesis 1:28). Such an implicit devaluation of Eros, elsewhere celebrated as potentially magical, initiatory, or mystical, puts a damper on one of the most beautiful promises of the human experience. This is in turn, of course, related to the injunction of endogamy, since the transcendence of Eros is one of the foundations of exogamy. Consanguinity is not conducive to rapturous infatuation.
The so-called polytheistic peoples place their fundamental hopes in an otherworldly Promised Land. It may be represented as a remote island, a high mountain, a subterranean or underwater world, but the point is that it is not accessible to mortals, to fleshly beings, except for the handful of mythical heroes who have ventured there and come back alive. This otherworldly Paradise is often endowed with a miraculous spring or a “tree of life,” that provides eternal life and youth. It is Mag Mell, “the Plain of Happiness” where we remain young and beautiful, in Irish mythology; or the “World of the Living, where there is no death, no lack, no sin.”83 No such hope is given by Yahweh to his people. The Promised Land of the Jews is an accessible geographical place situated between the Nile and the Euphrates; it is a destiny that is exclusively terrestrial and collective. Yahwism has focused all his people’s hope on this earth, where, obviously, neither milk nor honey really flows. After the Jealous God and the Chosen People, the Promised Land is the third pillar of biblical Judaism.
In fact, the Yahwist scribes have taken the universal mythic theme of the blessed afterlife for the virtuous dead and turned it on its head; they have transferred this paradise (Pardès, the Garden) and its tree of life, the future hope of each man, into a past lost forever for all mankind. And there they have staged the drama introducing into the world the double scourge of death and labor; for death in their eyes bears no promise, and labor produces no spiritual merit. It is only in punishment of his transgression in the Garden that Yahweh declares to Adam: “By the sweat of your face will you earn your food, until you return to the ground, as you were taken from it. For dust you are and to dust you shall return” (Genesis 3:19). By the same spirit of contradiction, the serpent, associated throughout the Near East with the chthonian divinities but also with revealed or intuitive knowledge (the gnosis of the Greeks), is likewise the object of an inversion: when it offers to the first humans the means of acquiring knowledge and to “be like gods” (Genesis 3:5), it borrows the language of initiatory mysteries; but the Bible presents the serpent as a liar.
Yahweh is hardly a god, if we define a god as a creature of the Other World. He is heard strolling in the Garden of Eden (Genesis 3:8), but that’s because the Garden is an earthly place, just like the Promised Land. Yahweh is more a king than a god, which is precisely why the biblical Levites are always in conflict with the Judean and Israeli kings. According to the Levites, Yahweh alone, ideally, should be king (an invisible king speaking through his appointed ministers); human kings are tolerated as long as they strictly conform to Yahweh’s will (that is, to the Levites’ command).
The Yahwist denial of the afterlife is linked to the Egyptophobia that permeates the Torah. But it is also historically linked to the rejection of Baal, who was for the inhabitants of Syria what Osiris was for the Egyptians: both god of fertility and lord of the dead. This is why the persistence of the cult of Baal is associated in the Bible with necromancy: “The history of the ancient Israelite conceptions of afterlife is closely related to the struggle between Yahwism and Baalism,” Klass Spronk explains. The absence of any speculation on the afterlife in the Hebrew Bible is due “to the fear of becoming entangled in the Canaanite religious ideas about life and death.”84
Nevertheless, these religious ideas seem very much alive among Hebrews resisting Levitical orthodoxy. It is said that the Israelites worshiped and offered sacrifices to a bronze serpent called Nehushtan, supposedly built by Moses, until Hezekiah “smashed” it (2 Kings 18:4). “They committed themselves to serve Baal-Peor, and ate sacrifices made to lifeless gods,” we read in Psalm 106:28. The prophet Isaiah condemns those who “consult ghosts and wizards that whisper and mutter” or “the dead on behalf of the living” (8:19). Yahweh chastises his people for “constantly provoking me to my face by sacrificing in gardens, burning incense on bricks, living in tombs, spending the night in dark corners” (65:3–4). Deuteronomy expressly forbids the activity of “soothsayer, augur or sorcerer, weaver of spells, consulter of ghosts or mediums, or necromancer. For anyone who does these things is detestable to Yahweh your God” (18:11–12). Leviticus confirms: “Do not have recourse to the spirits of the dead or to magicians; they will defile you. I, Yahweh, am your God” (19:31). Whoever breaks this rule must be put to death (20:6–7 and 27).85 In the eyes of the historian, the prohibition proves the practice; all these passages leave no doubt about the reality of the cults of the dead condemned in derogatory terms by the priests and prophets of Yahweh. These practices included offerings of food to the dead, incubation on graves, and other means of communicating with the hereafter.
According to a likely etymology, “religion” (from Latin religare, “to bind”) serves to bind man to the transcendent. It holds him upright by pulling him heavenward. Man therefore exists in vertical tension between the natural and supernatural worlds, between his biological destiny (survival through progeny) and his spiritual destiny (survival through death). Yahweh is the god who cut this vertical bond and turned man’s attention exclusively toward the material world. This fundamentally materialistic nature of ancient Hebraism has often been pointed out by historians of religion: the rewards promised by Yahweh to those who “fear” him are entirely material—to be “full of days,” to have numerous offspring and a great fortune. Man’s only survival is through generation, or blood descent, according to the Torah. This explains the asymmetry between the myth of Osiris and its biblical reflection in the story of Cain and Abel: it is not Abel’s soul that suffers, but rather his blood “crying out to God from the ground” (Genesis 4:10). Nor is there any resurrection, since Seth-Yahweh is the god of death—meaning annihilation, not resurrection. Therefore the assassinated Abel must be “replaced” by a third offspring of Adam and Eve.
Circumcision reinforces this primacy of the physical. God said to Abraham: “You for your part must keep my covenant, you and your descendants after you, generation after generation. This is my covenant which you must keep between myself and you, and your descendants after you: every one of your males must be circumcised. You must circumcise the flesh of your foreskin, and that will be the sign of the covenant between myself and you. As soon as he is eight days old, every one of your males, generation after generation, must be circumcised, including slaves born within the household or bought from a foreigner not of your descent. Whether born within the household or bought, they must be circumcised. My covenant must be marked in your flesh as a covenant in perpetuity. The uncircumcised male, whose foreskin has not been circumcised—that person must be cut off from his people: he has broken my covenant” (Genesis 17:9–14). Circumcision, as “the sign of the covenant,” perfectly symbolizes the unspiritual nature of Yahwism. As a mark in the flesh somehow transmitted from father to son, it is like a superimposed genetic trait, a Yahwist gene. Spinoza was on the mark when he wrote: “I attribute such value to the sign of circumcision, that it is the only thing that I esteem capable of assuring an eternal existence to this nation.”
Certainly, in the Hellenistic period, Greek dualism infiltrated the so-called Jewish “wisdom literature,” which features the voice of Sophia, sometimes assimilated to the Logos. Thus, the Book of Wisdom, written in Greek in Alexandria in the first century BCE, asserts that “God created human beings to be immortal,” and criticizes those who “do not believe in a reward for blameless souls” (2:22–23). But such texts are the exceptions confirming the rule. They form part of the brief parenthesis of Hellenistic Judaism, which was vigorously repressed by Talmudism and would only be saved from oblivion by Christian copyists. And even within this Hellenistic Judaism, the materialist viewpoint prevailed. According to Ecclesiastes, “The living are at least aware that they are going to die, but the dead know nothing whatever. No more wages for them, since their memory is forgotten. […] there is neither achievement, nor planning, nor science, nor wisdom in Sheol where you are going” (9:5–10). In fact, “the fate of humans and the fate of animals is the same: as the one dies, so the other dies; both have the selfsame breath. The human is in no way better off than the animal—since all is futile. Everything goes to the same place, everything comes from the dust, everything returns to the dust” (3:19–20).
The book of Job conveys the same message: there will be no hoped-for consolation when Job’s suffering finally ends. “If man once dead could live again, I would wait in hope, every day of my suffering, for my relief to come” (Job 14:14).86 Alas! “There is always hope for a tree: when felled, it can start its life again; its shoots continue to sprout. […]. But a human being? He dies, and dead he remains, breathes his last, and then where is he? […] A human being, once laid to rest, will never rise again, the heavens will wear out before he wakes up, or before he is roused from his sleep” (14:7–12). As the only reward for his fidelity to Yahweh, Job gets a 140 year reprieve on earth, numerous offspring, “fourteen thousand sheep, six thousand camels, a thousand yoke of oxen and a thousand she-donkeys” (42:12).
It is true that between the first century BCE and the first century CE, the idea of the “resurrection” of the dead made its entry into Maccabean literature, written in Greek for the greater glory of the Hasmonean dynasty founded by the Maccabees. The Greek word anistanai literally means “to rise, awaken, get up,” and anastasis means awakening. It is therefore the opposite of “to lie down/fall asleep,” the conventional Hebrew euphemism evoking the death of kings (“he fell asleep with his ancestors,” 1 Kings 14:31, 15:24 and 16:6, or 2 Kings 14:29), while the Greek texts prefer koimao, also “fall asleep” (as in the case of the stoned Stenus of Acts 7:60). The notion of resurrection was applied to the horribly tortured martyrs of the resistance against the Seleucid emperor Antiochus. Then it was extended to all mankind and postponed till the end of time in the book of Daniel: “Of those who are sleeping in the Land of Dust, many will awaken, some to everlasting life, some to shame and everlasting disgrace. Those who are wise will shine as brightly as the expanse of the heavens, and those who have instructed many in uprightness, as bright as stars for all eternity” (12:2–3). Such a vision is taken directly from the Greco-Roman ideal of the hero, right down to its vocabulary. The transfiguration of the good dead into a “body of light” is a common religious motif in Hellenistic culture and beyond. But the rabbinic imagination will mostly ignore that aspect, and rather stick to the idea of the coming back to life of the physical corpse out of its tomb, with its limbs reconstituted. In such a grossly materialistic expectation, there is no need, and hardly any space, for an immortal soul. Besides, even the resurrection at the end of the world has always remained somewhat marginal within the rabbinic tradition, which accepts the authority of the book of Daniel, but rejects the books of Maccabees. In the twelfth century, the great Maimonides evokes the “resurrection of the dead” at the end of time, in the last of his thirteen articles of faith, but this belief has never been developed in the Talmud.
Eventually, by another of these inversions, which are the trademark of Judaism, after the birth of Christianity, Talmudic rabbinism adopted by imitation the belief in the immortality of the soul, but in a restrictive form: only Jews have a divine soul, the soul of Gentiles being “equivalent to that of animals” (Midrasch Schir Haschirim). If “God created the akums [non- Jews] in the form of men” rather than beasts, says the Talmud, it is “in honor of the Jews. The akums were created only to serve the Jews day and night without being able to leave their service. It would not be appropriate for a Jew to be served by an animal; instead, it should be by an animal with a human form” (Sepher Midrasch Talpioth).87 There were always Jewish scholars to defend the immortality of the soul in a less polemical form, but they still borrowed it from Christianity. Here is what Jewish historian Heinrich Graetz said of one of them, Joseph Albo, a native of Soria in Spain in the first half of the fifteenth century: “It is a remarkable fact that Albo, who thought that he was developing his religio-philosophical system exclusively in the native spirit of Judaism, placed at its head a principle of indubitably Christian origin; so powerfully do surroundings affect even those who exert themselves to throw off such influence. The religious philosopher of Soria propounded as his fundamental idea that salvation was the whole aim of man in this life, and that Judaism strongly emphasized this aspect of religion.” On the other hand, Albo is fully Jewish when he gives obedience to 613 religious prescriptions as a recipe for eternal happiness.88
Finally, when in the eighteenth century Moses Mendelssohn defended belief in the immortality of the soul—a necessary condition for the elevation of humanity according to him— he would in no way rely on the Jewish tradition. Instead he produced a dialogue in the style of Plato, entitled Phaedo or the Immortality of the Soul (1767).
Biblical versus Heroic Cultures One of the most important aspects of man’s relationship to his dead is hero worship. No better definition has been given of the hero than Lewis Farnell’s: “The hero in the Greek religious sense is a person whose virtue, influence, or personality was so powerful in his lifetime or through the peculiar circumstances of his death that his spirit after death is regarded as of supernatural power, claiming to be reverenced and propitiated.”89 Basically, a hero is a man to whom a community acknowledges its debt, and worshipping the hero is the way it pays off its debt. There are as many types of heroes as types of debts. A heroic cult can be born directly from popular fervor or from an official institution, such as the oracle of Delphi in Greece or the Senate in Rome.
Greece is the heroic civilization par excellence. Heroic cults can be traced back to the birth of the polis in the eighth century. They persisted during the Hellenistic period and continued thereafter.90 At the time the Gospels were written, Carla Antonaccio writes, Greece was “saturated with heroes.”91 And it was not just Greece: the divinized dead exist in all traditional cultures, and certainly throughout the Mediterranean.
Heroes embody their societies’ contradictions and traumas, and open the way for transcending them. Every heroic legend affirms human freedom in its dialectical relationship with divine power. Heroism is a humanism insofar as it glorifies the man who surpasses his limits, transgresses the established human rules, and sometimes even goes so far as to defy the gods. That is why the heroic is intimately linked to the tragic. But heroism is also the affirmation of the presence of the divine in the human, which is why the heroic paradigm is the cloth from which myth is woven. By the will of the gods, the hero has escaped death-as-annihilation, and various versions of his legend present different narrative representations of that victory: resurrection (he “wakes up” after falling “asleep”); transfiguration (his body is supernaturally transformed); or simply ascension (he is miraculously transported to the hereafter). The mythic vision is always paradoxical, since it affirms that the dead are alive.
The heroic ideology implies that certain beings are not only the children of their parents, but also possess something extra, a supplement of soul, that comes to them from a special bond with divinity. This bond is often understood as adoptive: the hero is the twice-born man whose second birth is by the grace of a god. But the legendary process, working backwards, often brings the miraculous back to the conception of the hero. His connection with the divinity, which distinguishes him from ordinary men, is then imagined as genetic: it is the god himself who conceived the hero with a mortal. The term “son of god” thus becomes a synonym of “demigod” in Greek mythography since Hesiod. Myth-making can go one step further and make the hero a god temporarily descended among men.
Quite logically, the Hebrew Bible ignores the religious concept of the immortal hero, with a single exception: Elijah, who is seen by his disciple Elisha carried in a “chariot of fire drawn by horses of fire” and “ascending to the heavens in a whirlwind,” to never reappear again (2 Kings 2:11). But the classical motif of the hero transfigured by death, resplendent with light, is here clearly atrophied, a mere fossil or residue of heroic ideology covered by biblical antiheroism.
We also find traces of a belief in immortality in the mention of a cult on Samuel’s tomb, to which Saul resorts, in order to have the prophet’s ghost “rise from the earth” and “disclose the future” (1 Samuel 28:3–19). This episode recalls Ulysses conjuring up the spirit of the clairvoyant Tiresias in the Odyssey (Song XI). But the biblical author has covered this story with reprobation: not only has Saul already been condemned by Yahweh at this stage, but the priestess attached to the tomb of Samuel (pejoratively termed a sorceress) only bends to his demand against her will.
It is significant that both Elijah and Samuel are heroes from the northern kingdom of Israel. The tomb of Samuel in Shiloh was a famous place of worship and pilgrimage. All the burial places of the judges mentioned in the book of Judges, whose references hint at their importance as religious sanctuaries, are also located in the North.92 Samaria also hosts Joseph’s tomb, as well as the well of Jacob known to Jesus (John 4:6), located precisely where Jacob’s bones were buried according to Joshua 24:32. This is evidence that before the usurpation of Israel’s cultural heritage by the Yahwist priests of Judea, the people of Israel worshiped their heroic dead, and that such rites still survived in the North despite prohibition by the Jerusalem priesthood.
There are also in the Bible residual stories of heroes being conceived by gods. The most obvious case is the nephilim of Genesis 6, those giants conceived by the “sons of the gods” with the “daughters of men.” Who are “the heroes of the past, those famous men”? This passage is evidently an echo of the “fortunate heroes” mentioned by Hesiod in Works and Days (172). What is therefore significant is that the passage seems written expressly to deny their immortality, since Yahweh reacts to these hybrid unions by proclaiming: “My spirit cannot be indefinitely responsible for human beings, who are only flesh; let the time allowed each be a hundred and twenty years” (6:3).
The biblical redactors integrated other legendary narratives of supernaturally conceived heroes, but they did so in a demythologized and satirical fashion. One example is the story of Samson—another hero of the North—a sort of Hercules capable of defeating a thousand men with the “jawbone of a donkey” (Judges 15:15). An “angel of Yahweh” announces to Samson’s future mother, the wife of Manoah: “You are barren and have had no child, but you are going to conceive and give birth to a son.” The wife goes to find her husband to tell him of this visit from a “man of God […] who looked like the Angel of God, so majestic was he.” Suspicious as any husband would be in such circumstances, Manoah asks to see the stranger, and when his wife, visited again, calls him to introduce him to her visitor, Manoah asks him: “Are you the man who spoke to this woman?” (“speaking” sounds like a euphemism). Manoah then invites him to share a meal, “for Manoah did not know that this was the Angel of Yahweh” (13:3–15).
The conception of Isaac, son of Abraham and Sarah, is strangely similar. Again, it is hard to resist the impression that we are dealing here with a parody of Greek nativities of demigods. Abraham is sitting near his tent in the middle of the day when he saw a noble man and his two companions standing by. He greets them respectfully: “‘My lord,’ he said, ‘if I find favour with you, please do not pass your servant by. Let me have a little water brought, and you can wash your feet and have a rest under the tree. Let me fetch a little bread and you can refresh yourselves before going further, now that you have come in your servant’s direction.’ They replied, ‘Do as you say.’ Abraham hurried to the tent and said to Sarah, ‘Quick, knead three measures of our best flour and make loaves.’ Then, running to the herd, Abraham took a fine and tender calf and gave it to the servant, who hurried to prepare it. Then taking curds, milk and the calf which had been prepared, he laid all before them, and they ate while he remained standing near them under the tree. ‘Where is your wife Sarah?’ they asked him. ‘She is in the tent,’ he replied. Then his guest said, ‘I shall come back to you next year, and then your wife Sarah will have a son’” (Genesis 18:1–10).
We see here Abraham offering hospitality to a powerful man, and the man proposing to return the favor by conceiving with Sarah a son for Abraham, knowing the couple to be sterile. Such a reading is not far-fetched, since a little further, Judah asks his son Onan to sleep with his sister-in-law Tamar “to maintain your brother’s line” (Genesis 38:8). It is only later in Isaac’s conception story that the guest is identified with Yahweh, and his companions with “angels” (malachim): “Yahweh treated Sarah as he had said, and did what he had promised her. Sarah conceived and bore Abraham a son in his old age, at the time God had promised” (21:1–2).
Meanwhile, the very same two “angels” were sent to Sodom and received hospitality from Lot, Abraham’s nephew. Hearing of it, “the men of Sodom, both young and old, all the people without exception” wanted to seize them, saying to Lot: “Send them out to us so that we can have intercourse with them” (19:4–5). To which Lot answered: “Look, I have two daughters who are virgins. I am ready to send them out to you, for you to treat as you please, but do nothing to these men since they are now under the protection of my roof” (19:8). It is hard to decide whether we should read this story as an obscene parody of the belief in angels and spirits. It is strange in any case that the heroic motif of the fertile union of a god with a mortal is associated with a story of angels targeted for sodomy.
In conclusion, the biblical scribes strongly disliked the heroic ideology that grants the noble dead a blessed immortality and a role in enhancing the welfare of their community. Yahwist religion erased this ideology from ancient legends, but not to the point of making it undetectable by historical criticism. Contrary to a widespread idea, the denial of the individual soul in the Hebrew Bible is not an archaism dating back to a stage when men had not yet developed this concept. On the contrary, it is a revolutionary ideology, aggressively set against a universal belief that is probably as old as humanity, judging by funerary archeology. Critical analysis of the biblical legends proves that the Yahwist editors deliberately eliminated every notion of heroic immortality from the traditions that they appropriated from the ancient kingdom of Israel. This is easily seen in the account of Abel’s death, when Yahweh says to Cain, “Listen! Your brother’s blood is crying out to me from the ground” (Genesis 4:10). Spilled blood crying for vengeance is metaphorical, but the metaphor is not the product of poetic skill; rather, it is a distortion of the common motif of the murdered soul crying for vengeance. Abel has no soul, no eternal spirit; his blood is all that is left of him. Therefore, it must be his blood that cries out.
Biblical antiheroism is profoundly antihumanist. The heroic imagination, while admitting the communion of the human with the divine, grants man great freedom in relation to the gods. Heroes are the authors of their own accomplishments, whether as warriors, conquerors, legislators, builders, or simply thinkers. But the Moses of Exodus, the perfect man according to Yahwism, takes no initiative; he merely repeats slavishly what Yahweh tells him (like Abraham, who does not object to the divine order to sacrifice his son). Far from drawing from his own wisdom the laws that he gives to his people, Moses contents himself with receiving them from Yahweh already engraved in stone. (His only contribution, in fact, is to break the tablets).
The materialism inherent in Judaism has profound consequences in Jewish mentality. Among these consequences, Karl Marx identifies the immoderate pursuit of financial power: “Money is the jealous god of Israel, in face of which no other god may exist. Money degrades all the gods of man—and turns them into commodities.”93 By their perfection of usury, which has now resulted in the transformation of money into debt and its complete dematerialization, Jews have somehow endowed money with a virtually supernatural power. It is as if the spiritual world in which the Jew does not believe has been replaced by a spiritual world of his own making: a spiritualization of matter that is actually an inverted spiritual world, since instead of linking man to heaven, it chains him to earth. Jewish political adviser Jacques Attali, who credits the Jewish people with making money “the single and universal instrument of exchange, just as he makes his God the unique and universal instrument of transcendence,” also points out that in Hebrew, “currency” (DaMim) is the same word as “blood” (DaM, plural DaMim), and rejoices in this “dangerous and luminous proximity.”94
The Eternal People The heroic ideology implies that man, at his best, is not merely the fruit of his parents; his soul is partly extragenetic. Blood and soul are different things. But Judaism sacralizes genetics above everything else. An so it is the entire chosen people, acting “as one man” (Judges 20:1), who is somehow heroized in the Bible. It is significant that the name “Israel” is both that of a person (Jacob) and of the people who descend from him.
The Hebrew Bible binds the individual to his collective racial origin rather than to his personal spiritual destiny. The immortality that is denied the individual is reinvested entirely on the collective: only the people is eternal. (“I instituted an eternal people” Isaiah 44:7). This is why endogamy assumes the character of a sacred law, the transgression of which merits death. “There is in the fate of the race, as in the Semitic character, a fixedness, a stability, an immortality that strike the mind,” writes Isaac Kadmi-Cohen in Nomads: An Essay on the Jewish Soul (1929). The author describes Judaism (more generally “Semitic religions”) as “the spiritualization that deifies the race, jus sanguinis [blood law].” Through Yahweh, therefore, it is the people who are deified: “Thus divinity in Judaism is contained in the exaltation of the entity represented by the race … It is therefore in this exclusive love, in this jealousy, one might say, of the race that the deep meaning of Semitism is concentrated and that its ideal character appears.”95 Through the beginning of the twentieth century, many Jewish thinkers likewise understood Judaism as a kind of tribal soul. The American rabbi Harry Waton, writing in his A Program for Jews and Humanity in 1939, summarized this analysis quite well: “Jehovah differs from all other gods. All other gods dwell in heaven. For this reason, all other religions are concerned about heaven, and they promise all reward in heaven after death. For this reason, all other religions negate the earth and the material world and are indifferent to the well-being and progress of mankind on this earth. But Jehovah comes down from heaven to dwell on this earth and to embody himself in mankind. For this reason, Judaism concerns itself only about this earth and promises all reward right here on this earth.” “Hebrew religion, in fact, was intensely materialistic and it is precisely this that gave it persistent and effective reality.” “The Bible speaks of an immortality right here on earth. In what consists this immortality? It consists in this: the soul continues to live and function through the children and grandchildren and the people descending from them. Hence, when a man dies, his soul is gathered to his people. Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, and all the rest continue to live in the Jewish people, and in due time they will live in the whole human race. This was the immortality of the Jewish people, and it was known to the Jews all the time.” “The Jews that have a deeper understanding of Judaism know that the only immortality there is for the Jew is the immortality in the Jewish people. Each Jew continues to live in the Jewish people, and he will continue to live so long as the Jewish people will live.”96
The purity of blood, that is, of lineage, is the great preoccupation of Deuteronomic legislators and historians. It has been pointed out that blood plays the same role with the ancient Hebrews as language among the Greeks. For the Greeks, the archetypal figure of the foreigner is the barbarian, an onomatopoeia designating those whose language is incomprehensible; whereas in biblical history, apart from the history of the Tower of Babel, everyone seems to speak the same language. There is almost no mention of any interpreters. The only exception is when Aaron makes himself the interpreter of Moses to his people; but he does this not because Moses, brought up in the royal palace, does not speak Hebrew, but only because he is “slow and hesitant of speech” (Exodus 4:10).97 Today, even if language has taken on a specific identity function in modern Israel, it is always blood that prevails.
Ultimately, since eternity is granted only to the people as a race, it is as if the Jews were united by a collective, ethnic, genetic soul. Thus it is said that a Jew’s soul is the Jewish people. Or should this collective soul be named Yahweh? Maurice Samuel writes in You Gentiles (1924): “The feeling in the Jew, even in the free-thinking Jew like myself, is that to be one with his people is to be thereby admitted to the power of enjoying the infinite. I might say, of ourselves: ‘We and God grew up together.’”98 Likewise, Harry Waton writes: “The Jews should realize that Jehovah no longer dwells in heaven, but he dwells in us right here on earth.”99 This is reminiscent of the anthropological truth of religion as set forth by Ludwig Feuerbach in The Essence of Christianity (1841), according to which God is the objectified human essence: “The consciousness of God is the self-consciousness of man.”100 Feuerbach was concerning himself with Christianity and its universal God, but his insight can also be applied to Judaism and its supremacist God. The profound truth of Judaism is that Yahweh is objectified Jewishness.
The Jewish people is haunted by its past, totally absorbed in it. That is the basis of its incomparable resistance to dissolution. It is inhabited by a unique destiny, and each Jew carries within himself a portion of that destiny. From an Osirian or spiritual point of view, the explanation for this peculiarity is the denial of the survival of the individual soul. The Jewish people’s collective character displays a form of monomania resembling the folkloric vision of dead men who haunt this world, stuck in their past earthly life, because, refusing the possibility of an afterlife, they do not even know that they have passed through death.
And yet, what appears horribly missing from Yahwism is at the same time its source of strength. For the individual has only a few decades to accomplish his destiny, while a whole people has centuries, even millennia. Thus can Jeremiah reassure the exiles of Babylon that in seven generations they will return to Jerusalem. Seven generations in the history of a people is not unlike seven years in the life of a man. While the goy awaits his hour on a scale of a century, the chosen people see much further. This explains the peculiar development of Jewish thought called “apocalyptic eschatology,” compared to which the hope of an individual future life is referred to as “minor eschatology.” The transfiguration that, in Greek culture, refers to the fate of the individual after his death, becomes in the Jewish apocalyptic literature of the intertestamental period (between the second century BCE and the second century CE) applied to the whole Jewish people, symbolized by the heavenly Jerusalem.
Many modern Jewish thinkers have identified this feature of Jewish religion as the source of its incomparable strength. For Moses Hess (Rome and Jerusalem: The Last National Question, 1862), the father of modern Jewish nationalism, “Jewish religion is, above all, Jewish patriotism.” “Nothing is more foreign to the spirit of Judaism than the idea of the salvation of the individual which, according to the modern conception, is the corner-stone of religion.” The essence of Judaism is “the vivid belief in the continuity of the spirit in human history.” This brilliant idea, “which is one of the fairest blossoms of Judaism,” is not, according to Hess, derived from a denial of individual immortality. On the contrary, it “has, in the course of ages shrunk to the belief in the atomistic immortality of the individual soul; and thus, torn from its roots and trunk, has withered and decayed.”101
On this point Hess is mistaken, but only in part, for it is probably true that an exclusively individual conception of immortality tends to weaken the group spirit, and that before the great universalist religions (Christianity, Buddhism, Islam), the notion of individual immortality was not completely separated from the idea of a spiritual attachment of man to his clan (a clan soul). From that point of view, Christianity’s strictly individual notion of the soul (a new soul deposited by God in each new body) can be viewed as a cognitive limit: it sheds no light on the ancestral depths of the psyche.
The emphasis on the individual eternal soul (eternal even in hell) is also unconducive to a holistic vision of human destiny. Socialists of religious inclination, such as Jean Jaurès, have pointed out this weakness. In his view, there can be no purely individual salvation, because each man’s soul is linked to all other souls.102 This dialectic of individual versus collective soul is well encapsulated by Jim Casy in John Steinbeck’s masterpiece The Grapes of Wrath. Casy, a disillusioned preacher, finds a new faith in humanity through social activism. He takes comfort in the idea that, “Maybe all men got one big soul ever’body’s a part of.”103 This narrowness of the Western concept of the soul, which may be the ultimate source of Western individualism, is best perceived in contrast with Buddhist philosophy, which asserts the impermanence and interconnectedness of all individual souls.