The moral messages of religious myths (4) 6

Do biblical myths convey a “higher”, “transcendent” morality? Do all, some, or any of them possess a validity for all human beings for as long as the human race exists?

To find an answer to those questions, we posted  The moral messages of religious myths (1), (June 29, 2017), in which we discussed the story of Adam and Eve; next The moral messages of religious myths (2), (July 21, 2017), which was about Cain and Abel; and then The moral messages of religious myths (3), (September 24, 2017), about Abraham not sacrificing his son Isaac. 

Now we come to the story of Prince Moses of Egypt and his capricious god.

The story is told in the Book of Exodus. Here’s an outline of it.

The Pharaoh of Egypt decided that the Israelite population was growing too large, so he ordered that every Israelite boy must be killed as soon as he was born.

An Israelite mother tried to save her new-born son by putting him in a papyrus basket coated with tar and pitch and floating it on the edge of the River Nile.

Pharaoh’s daughter found him and brought him up as her own son, a prince of Egypt named Moses.

When Moses was 80 years old, and long since returned to the Israelites, God told  him to lead the Israelites, who were  badly-treated slaves, out of Egypt to a land he would give them.

So Moses demanded of Pharaoh: “Let my people go.” Pharaoh refused.

God then sent a series of ten plagues to afflict the Egyptians, miraculously instigated by Moses’s brother Aaron. He was 83, and carried a magician’s rod which he used to launch the plagues.

The plagues were: water turning into blood (briefly); frogs overrunning the land; lice afflicting the people; wild animals and/or flies threatening or tormenting them; their cattle becoming diseased; the people erupting in boils; heavy hailstorms beating down on them; swarms of locusts devouring their crops; darkness over all the land for three days; and finally, every firstborn Egyptian child being killed by God in one night.

Each time, the plague was represented to Pharaoh by Moses as a punishment to him for not freeing the Israelites.

Some of the plagues so distressed Pharaoh that he thought of granting Moses’s demand. But every time this happened, God “hardened his heart” and he changed his mind. Until the last plague.

It is stipulated in some cases that the Israelites, living apart from the Egyptians  were let off the plague. The hail, for instance, did not fall  where they lived, and their cattle did not fall sick. And on the night God killed the firstborn he “passed over” the dwellings of the Israelites. How did the omniscient Almighty know which were their houses? He had instructed them (presumably through Moses and/or Aaron) to “smear the upper post” of their doors with the blood of a lamb or goat. As they lived apart, God had easily been able to tell their neighborhood and their cattle from those of the Egyptians when visiting earlier plagues upon the land, but in this instance he needed the markers.

This time Pharaoh let the Israelites go.

They did not go over land ,“through the way of the Philistines”, but were  led by Moses straight to the Red Sea. “But God led the people about, through the way of the wilderness of the Red sea: and the children of Israel went up harnessed out of the land of Egypt.” How “harnessed”, and why, is not explained.

And the Lord went before them by day in a pillar of a cloud, to lead them the way; and by night in a pillar of fire, to give them light.”

And then again Pharaoh changed  his mind. He pursued them with all his horses and chariots. And he nearly caught up with them where they were  camped on the shore of the Red Sea, but an angel puts a screen of darkness over them to keep the Egyptians from seeing them.

Then Moses stretched out his hand over the sea, and it dried up. “The Lord caused the sea to go back by a strong east wind all that night, and made the sea dry land, and the waters were divided. And the children of Israel went into the midst of the sea upon the dry ground: and the waters were a wall unto them on their right hand, and on their left.”

The Egyptians saw them crossing, and pursued them; “went in after them to the midst of the sea, even all Pharaoh’s horses, his chariots, and his horsemen.”

But when the Israelites had safely reached the far shore of the Red Sea, Moses, on God’s orders, “stretched forth his hand over the sea” and “the waters returned, and covered the chariots, and the horsemen, and all the host of Pharaoh that came into the sea after them; there remained not so much as one of them”.

It is hard to see what moral principle can be extracted from the story. Don’t enslave Israelites? Don’t enslave anyone? Don’t needle Jehovah?

The story should not enhance the reputation of the Israelite God. As he had access to Pharaoh’s heart, rather than repeatedly “hardening” it, he could have softened it to useful effect the first time Moses asked for the freeing of the slaves. But of course the sending of the horrifying plagues does much to impress upon the attentive mind the awe-inspiring power of the Ruler of the Universe.

The tellers of the story clearly intended to achieve an impression of shock and awe; but there is no indication that they intended their terrifying tale to carry a moral message in itself. Their aim  was to establish a narrative, starting with a glorification of Moses and the Israelite God, which was fundamental to the Jewish religion: how the LAW which is the essence of Judaism came to be given by God through Moses to the Jewish people.

The Exodus is a preamble to the story of the giving of the Law. The Law was to be for everyday earthly life. There was nothing “higher” or “transcendent” about it. Though it was moral law, to be believed by the faithful as coming from God, it was not a formula for an afterlife of bliss overseen by the Almighty himself, but a set of rules to be administered by men.

Who really authored those rules? No doubt many legislators over many years. The first of them may have been a prince of Egypt named Moses.

One of the more credible theories of Sigmund Freud was that Moses was not an Israelite at all but an Egyptian. His idea (explained in his book Moses and Monotheism) is that the fable of his being born to an Israelite mother and adopted by an Egyptian princess, then returning to “his” people as their liberator and law-giver, was a necessary invention as it simply would not do for him not to have been a Jew. (Which means that the story of Pharaoh ordering all newborn boys to be killed was a whopping slander made up for its expedience. But it must be stressed that the biblical story is not history; it is myth.)

The commonly accepted dating of the giving of the Law to the Israelites by Moses is circa 1250 B.C.E. Freud puts it back into the previous century which allows him to propose that Moses was an adherent of the short-lived religion of the Pharaoh Akhenaton, who reigned for only seventeen years and in that time tried to introduce the worship of One God manifest as the Sun. As soon as he died, the powerful priests of the old polytheistic religion brought it back, and did their best to wipe out every trace of the Akhenaton heresy. In Freud’s account, Moses continued to believe in Akhenaton’s One God, and as the enslaved Israelites also believed in One God – “the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob” – he adopted them as his people, effected their release from Egypt, and set them on course to becoming a distinct nation bound together by laws of his native land (under Akhenaton?).

For anyone curious about how the Israelites came to be in Egypt, the enormous novel Joseph and His Brothers by Thomas Mann tells a version of the the story magnificently. Joseph, the Israelite sold by his eleven brothers and brought to Egypt as a slave, gets on so well with Akhenaton that he becomes the pharaoh’s right-hand man. After many years, his brothers come to Egypt to buy grain, because drought has brought famine to the land where they live. Joseph conceals his identity at first, but is generous to them. They are gob-smacked when they discover who their benefactor really is. They return whence they came, but eventually they come to live in Egypt. The story does not proceed beyond the life of Joseph. How much historical fact is in it, it is impossible to know.

Posted under Christianity, Judaism by Jillian Becker on Sunday, October 29, 2017

Tagged with , , ,

This post has 6 comments.

Permalink

Judaism and Atheism 0

Today is the festival of Passover when Jews celebrate a legendary exodus from Egypt of their Hebrew ancestors under the leadership of an Egyptian prince named Moses. According to the legend, the Hebrews were slaves, and the Egyptian prince was really a Hebrew himself who had been adopted soon after birth by an Egyptian princess. Well, he had to be “re-adopted” somehow by the Hebrews because he it was (so the legend goes) who gave them the laws which bound them together as a nation and founded the religion of Judaism. It is, as all the world knows, a monotheistic religion based on an idea attributed to one Abraham, a Hebrew ancestor who, it is believed, had conceived it hundreds or possibly thousands of years earlier.

It may have been the case that an historical Moses did indeed lead a host of Hebrews out of Egypt, making common cause with them because  – as Sigmund Freud theorizes in his book Moses and Monotheism – he too was a monotheist; a faithful follower of Pharaoh Akhnaton, who had worshiped the sun as the only god, and whose cult after his death had been all but wiped out of history by the priests of the old, revived, polytheistic religion.

One of our founders and editors, C.Gee, has been discussing Judaism and Atheism with one of our readers, Aeschines, as comments on our post On religion (March 25, 2010). We think the discussion is so interesting that we are re-posting it on our front page today:

C.Gee: I regard Judaism as extremely important in the history of rationality. Judaism was the first step to atheism. By making an abstract God, and making him a law-giver (never mind that some of the particular laws were practiced in the region generally), and elevating the principle of obedience to law not man, it constituted a major victory for rationality over superstition, and paved the way for the national, secular, polity. As science progresses, God the law-giver and creator, can have his remit broadened to become God the giver of the laws of nature. He becomes Spinoza’s God, identical with the universe, and thereafter may be ignored, leaving the universe to stand for Him, and then for itself. The two next Books of the [Jewish] Bible should be the Book of Spinoza and the Book of Einstein.

Aeschines: Just curious, but when do you think that Judaism started to influence thought towards atheism?

C.Gee: The idea of an abstract God began in Abrahamic times – 5000 or so years ago. That idea identified the Hebrew people. By the time Moses brought down the Law in God’s name, the Jews had accepted the authority of a God that was everywhere and nowhere (although with some idol-worship recidivism) and we had the beginning of a polity centered on responsibility to fellow men – righteousness to one’s people in God’s name – and an emphasis on how to live this law-abiding life. The Israelites were the first proto-secular, even humanist, society living under a nominal God. Christianity kept the idea of an abstract God, although its immediate object of worship was an idol of God-made-flesh, Jesus. That abstract, absentee God became useful to Christendom during the Enlightenment – precisely because he was absent. Deism was an accommodation with institutional religion for the growing number of people whose frame of mind was secular and scientific. Scientific inquiry could only be undertaken by those who had accepted that there were explanations for phenomena other than animating magic spirits. An abstract, one-time, singular animating spirit called God was a kind of systemic noise – an absent presence that did not interfere with the discovery of the mathematics of universal physical laws. That the Judaic God was a creator and a law-giver, could permit the discovery of His natural laws, in His creation. The Enlightenment was a time of proto-atheism. Further discoveries pushed the originating God further into scientific irrelevance, and secular politics has pushed the law-giving God into social irrelevance. With even the nominality of God now attenuated to vanishing, we are entering into the age of atheism.

Interestingly enough, a recent survey showed that 41% of Jews regard themselves as atheist.

Aeschines: Yes, but what do you think of the horrendous slaughters of native people by the Jews? I am of course referring to the Old Testament genocides and annihilations done in the name of God. The Jews in this regard don’t seem much different from many other religions of that time.

The Assyrians are regarded as “cruel,” but the Jews seem to escape this description, even though they tended to destroy EVERYTHING in their path (with the exception of virgin women, spared presumably for raping).

“The Israelites were the first proto-secular, even humanist, society living under a nominal God.”

Yes, but even a cursory examination of the Bible reveals Yahweh as a malicious, cruel, jealous, contradictory tyrant, much like many of the other gods of antiquity.

C.Gee: The ancient way of war was fierce – no matter in whose name the war was conducted. Even an abstract God can take on human characteristics in the retelling of legendary conquests boasting of the might and mettle of his people in establishing their national territory. (Who knows whether the early conquest by the Jews of those numerous peoples really happened? The Bible is often the only record of it.) But Yahweh had no statue, no location, no maw to feed with living human flesh – even though he was malicious, cruel, jealous, and contradictory. His abstract nature allowed him to be the God of War, of Law, of Creation, of the Hearth, of Everything. No doubt some of these personae conflicted with others, but then a nation must regulate itself in peace and conduct wars. It must sustain itself through Ecclesiastical exigencies. An abstract God is authority for all national endeavors, an unwritten “living” constitution. That constitution kept the nation together even when the territory of its homeland was lost. The idea of nationhood was coterminous with that of God. Belief in one could stand in for belief in the other. I think that many, many Jews now believe in the idea of their nationhood (even those among the diaspora ) and not God.

The Bible is not the constitution of the Jewish people. (It was not, in any case an original founding document, but written at various times ). It is a mythical and historical record and a statute book. Even if it is seen as the literal word of God, its interpreters do not take literally the passages where metaphorical or allegorical meanings must be sought to avoid nonsense. ( God was obviously a versatile speaker – could bark out directions, or hint enigmatically, as the occasion warranted.) Despite that, there is a whole sub-speciality of antisemitism claiming that the Bible is a “blueprint” for modern Israel’s cruel colonialist enterprise – what Joshua did at Jericho, the Zionists are doing to the Palestinians.

You seem to be implying, though, that atheists would not have conducted war, or conducted cruel wars. While no war has been fought in the name of atheism, there are rational justifications for war (conquest was – and still is, despite Geneva conventions – definitely one of them). There is nothing in atheism – the absence of a belief in God – that requires pacifism. There is nothing in atheism that precludes blood-thirstiness.

Posted under Atheism, Judaism by Jillian Becker on Monday, March 29, 2010

Tagged with , , , , , , ,

This post has 0 comments.

Permalink