IS MONOTHEISM A PURELY JEWISH CONCEPTION?
What have we thus far?
The portraits of three subtle barbarians. Our forefathers, yes, but barbarians. Shrewd, careful, sinister, adventurous, bargain-driving, wily men – but barbarians just the same. It is not mentioned by the author of Genesis whether they could read or write. And so steeped are their portraits in the very blackest colors of barbarism that to suppose them to have been literate is the very wildest flight of fancy.
There they are: three old barbarians. As I look upon them I wonder how their names could have inspired the world with such awe; I wonder which of the three I dislike the least. A conclusion not difficult to reach. Much can be forgiven Abraham for his power as a warrior. Much more will be conceded to Jacob for his tenderness for the woman Rachel. But what shall redeem for us the centuries of fantastic devotion which we heaped upon the lazy, stupid swaggering figure of Isaac?
But you are forgetting, I can almost hear the rabbis object. You have not only Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. You have also Monotheism.
Ah, Monotheism! I had almost forgotten it!
I do not think the average scholar will attach much value to my opinion on the importance to civilization of the monotheistic conception of the universe. Philosophers, ethical philosophers in particular, usually rate it – the conception, of course, – very highly. But these Same kindly people invariably conceive of human history in terms of a cycle of progress, which is only one of the many ways in which they give expression to their delightful naivete. As for me, the word progress itself has always appeared as a sort of inverted mirage. Nevertheless I know that the world in which we live is devoted to the idea of progress, so much so that it has made of the theory of evolution – that scientific development of the idea of progress which the late Jacques Loeb riddled so devastatingly – a sort of modern religion. This same world holds in a towering esteem the monotheistic conception of the universe. So that at the basis of every reputable historian's work is the undisputed hypothesis that it is one of the three essential pillars of European civilization. Rome, he would solemnly have you believe, gave the world its laws. Athens, its arts. Jerusalem, monotheism.
It is clear that these historians build not out of what they know but of what they have been told. It is an exercise in mortification to observe them at their work. They go to the library for the bare facts, and no one can find fault with the ardor with which they pursue their studies. But when it comes to reaching the very simplest conclusion – which alone could justify their labors – they go for it to their church.
First observation: God has never offered himself in the same form to two races. To one race he has appeared in the form of the stump of a tree. To another as the sun; to still another as the moon. Depending on the nature of the recipient of the vision, God has appeared as a bull, a cow, a tiger, a donkey, a creature with two heads, one a lion, the other a dog; to another race, with an instinctive reluctance to bother with expensive images, he appeared totally invisible.
Second observation: The meaning of God has never been the same to two races of mankind. To one race he would appear as the creator of a universe the gradual dissolution of which was to him a matter of amused indifference. To another he was a vengeful demon who was continually stayed from destroying it, only by the most lavish sacrifices offered up to him by men. Man, like God, creates in his own image. And Zeus is as peculiar to the Romans as Jupiter is to the Greeks.
Now nothing has a more obvious stamp of truth than the assertion that everything in an organic universe goes back to one primal seed out of which all the known forms of life sprouted and developed. Once you have conceded this singular genesis, it is almost gratifying to personify it and endow this personality with the charm, power and humour of an omnipotent creator. And yet, except to be used by one class of people as a symbol by which to dominate another, of what use to mankind is this fictitious centralized deity?
Someone should make a creditable beginning of the denial of monotheism before the imagination of the race is completely destroyed by it. As a matter of fact, life does manifest itself to our senses in many different forms. The best we can see for the beginning of any form of life is some accident in space to which it might be traced by a wisdom as yet unknown to us. Why, therefore, should we confine all of the phenomena of life to one major accident! Why could there not have been many accidents, quite unrelated to one another?
But, to return to the original question, why cannot the historians go for their conclusions to the facts which they investigate so zealously?
If the footnotes with which these historians strew the margins of their texts tell an honest story, they do a great deal of varied reading and research. Yet you do not have to go very far into historic origins to recognize that every ancient literature embodies, in one form or another, the monotheistic idea. Indeed, many works based on it antedate the writings of Deutor-Issaiah (in whom the Jewish conception reaches a measure of clearness and sincerity) by a thousand years and more. Zarathustra who lived some time in 800 B.C., and might almost be said to have been a contemporary of Issaiah's, certainly expressed the same idea in much loftier if less passionate imagistic speech. Why, then, is Jerusalem credited with monotheism? Party because, while the disciples of Zarathustra tended to their homefires in India and Arabia, the Jews, through Mohammed and Jesus, shot the idea of one God to the north and the south of the Mediterranean. But chiefly because the Jews themselves, Torah in hand, and the cry Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One on their lips, insinuated Monotheism into every nook and cranny of the earth. True or not, the belief that monotheism sprang forth from the racial genius of the Jews has become so common that even the official enemies of the Jews – and some of them, such as G. K. Chesterton and Hillaire Belloc, should know better, – do not trouble to deny it. Their attitude seems to be that it would be much simpler to deny altogether the value of monotheism and create a better repute for the virtues of paganism, than to try to wrest this brass laurel from the crown of Israel.
There have been, as a matter of fact, two dissenting voices, voices ventured forward so meekly, that they have scarcely been heard; the voice of Ernest Renan, who spent a lifetime on Semitic studies only to discover when he was too old to turn to anything else, that the whole matter (learning and people) were exceedingly distasteful to him; and the voice of William Robertson Smith, a Scottish theologian whose only radical departure from custom was to occasionally drop the William from his name.
Renan cautiously propounded the theory that monotheism was really an instinct, and that a semitic one; therefore the universal belief that it was inimical to the Hebrew race should be modified. Smith, who probably never gained access to the writings of his delicate French contemporary, brings his even more dilatory argument to a head with the suggestion that "what is often described as a natural tendency of semitic religion toward ethical monotheism is in main nothing more than a consequence of the alliance of religion and monarchy."
Of the Jews themselves, however, the attitude of Rabbi David Phillipson is typically cocksure: "The Hebrews alone of all semitic peoples reached the stage of pure monotheism through the teachings of their prophets; however, it required centuries of development before every trace of idolatry disappeared even from among them, and before they stood forth as 'a unique people on earth,' worshippers of the God, and Him alone."
We must, however, get ourselves a more impartial definition of monotheism than the pronouncement of this pompous rabbi. We find one in the essays of Dr. George Galloway who describes monotheism as "the ripest expression of the religious consciousness. It rests on the conviction that the ethical and religious values must have a sufficient ground and, this is the one God on whom all existence and value depend."
A good definition this. Probably as good a one as will ever be offered. I had this definition in mind while going through the Old Testament again. During a rather careful rereading in which it became increasingly clear to me that I was the book's first intelligent reader in two thousand years(12) – I find that, with the exception of the first eleven chapters of Genesis, which might or might not have been written by a Jew, there is not much more than an occasional hint of the monotheistic idea to be found in this whole structure of Judges, Kings and Prophets. The conception of God in the first eleven chapters of Genesis is singularly lofty(13). After that, it becomes the portrait of an ordinary tribal god; except that in none of the chronicles of tribal gods that have come within my reading range, have I encountered a tribal god as cruel, jealous, lustful, mean, lying, cheating and treacherous, as that great little guinea pig the God of Israel.
The very opening words of the twelfth chapter of Genesis begin to set the character of the God of Israel: "Now the Lord said unto Abram: 'Get thee out of thy country, and from thy kindred, and from thy father's house, unto the land, that I will show thee. And I will make thee a great nation, and I will bless thee and make thy game great; and be thou a blessing. And I will bless them that bless thee, and him that curseth thee will I curse; and in thee shall all the families of the earth be blessed."
To be a true and just God, in accordance with the monotheistic ideal, God would have to be aloof from all men. So it is a bit surprising that his first human announcement should be that he has made to alliance with a man. More regrettably, no reason is assigned for his selection of Abraham for such an important business: it seems an affair like love at first sight, where the object has as yet to prove worthiness. But there is here one touch of true monotheism; for, be God's reasons for choosing Abraham sufficient or not, He does promise that "in thee shall all the families of the earth be blessed."
The promise continues in the fourteenth verse of the next chapter: "And the Lord said unto Abram, after that Lot was separated from him: 'Lift up now thine eyes, and look from the place where thou art, northward and southward and eastward and westward; for all the land which thou seest, to thee will I give it and to thy seed forever. And I will make thy seed as the dust of the earth; so that if a man can number the dust of the earth, then shall thy seed also be numbered. Arise, walk thou through the land in the length of it and in the breadth of it; for unto thee will I give it."
It is only natural, if God has chosen to work his wonders for the rest of the world through Israel, that the latter should be endowed with some fertile territory to develop in. But in the opening of the fifteenth chapter the operations of the Lord become definitely suspicious: "After these things the word of the Lord came unto Abram in a vision, saying: 'Fear not, Abram, I am thy shield, thy reward shall be exceeding great."' If Israel is to become a blessing for the nations, what evils would there be to shield Israel from? And why this offer of an excessive reward, as if it were not a reward but a bribe? What are Israel's labors to consist of? In return for what particular favors to the Lord are such lavish favors being offered?
The Lord's frankness to his dearly beloved chosen ones increases. In the opening words of the fifteenth chapter we get a rather definite intimation of what the Lord expects of his people Israel. "And he said unto Abram: 'Know of a surety that thy seed shall be a stranger in a land that is not theirs and shall serve them; and they shall afflict them four hundred years; and also that nation whom they shall serve, will I judge; and afterward shall they come out with great substance."'
Can the last words of this momentous passage mean what they appear to tell on the surface? Is God really promising Abraham that some day the nation to develop out of his seed will be permitted by the Lord to loot a nation that is not their own? If there is any doubt that the meaning is precisely what appears on the surface of God's words, it is dispelled by verse nineteen of the third chapter of Exodus: "And I know that the King of Egypt will not give you leave
to go," God says to Moses, "except by a mighty hand. And I will put forth My hand, and smite Egypt with all My wonders which I will do in the midst thereof. And after that he will let you go. And I will give this people favor in the eyes of the Egyptians. And it shall come to pass that, when ye go, ye shall not go empty; but every woman will ask of her neighbor, and of her that sojourneth in her house, jewels of silver, and jewels of gold; and raiment; and ye shall put them upon your sons, and upon your daughters; and ye shall spoil the Egyptians!"
When an English novelist, Charles Dickens, portrayed in a great novel, Oliver Twist, a Jew named Fagin, instructing little English boys in the art of pocket-kerchief snatching, a howl of protest went up from universal Jewry that resounded through every corner of the civilized world. Dickens was excoriated as a liar and a Jew-hater. The book, one of the most beautiful in all literature, was declared to, be a nasty, deliberatively venomous slander of a noble, long suffering race. But when it is our own sacred book of record, instructing our children in the very lowest possible way to rob their neighbors It is to be regarded as sacred scripture and unimpeachable evidence of the nobility of our racial character.
But you do not have to wait till Exodus to discover the true character of the God of Israel, to realize what a palpable sham and hollow pretense is this promise of his, through the goodness of Israel to bless the families of the earth. In his first and only interview with Isaac, the second of that great thievish triumvirate,(14) he betrays what is his real attitude towards the rest of the nations:
"And Isaac went unto Abimelech king of the Philistines unto Gerar. And the Lord appeared unto him and said: 'Go not down into Egypt; dwell in the land which I shall tell thee of. Sojourn in this land, and I will be with thee, and will bless thee; for unto thee, and unto thy seed, I will give all these lands, and I will establish the oath which I swore unto Abraham, thy father."
This land in which the blessers of the world were to develop their peculiar talents was to be taken away, stolen outright, not in the name of any political or commercial treaty, but in the name of a mysterious arrangement with the divinity, from the people who had cultivated it and who were still in peaceful possession of it.
"But," I can hear a pompous rabbinical voice intervening, "these Canaanites were just so many pagans, and unworthy of a land as fruitful as Palestine.
The Old Testament here is a deadly witness against the integrity of the God of Israel, and especially against the cynical Jewish claim that the best proof of Israel's superiority over the rest of the nations of the earth is in Israel's survival. Yes, Israel did eventually conquer all of Canaan and put most of its inhabitants to the sword. But compare the Hebrews described thus far, with the people ruled by Abimelech, King of the Philistines. How pure and beautiful they appear to be, compared with the Jews, especially in that marvelous line spoken by Abimelech, after he had caught Isaac disporting himself in public with the woman he had pretended was his sister. Instead of just kicking Isaac out of his domain as he might very well have done without any difficulty, he turned to him and said: "What is this that thou hast done unto us? One of my people might easily have lain with thy wife, and thou wouldst have brought guiltiness upon us." If there is a nobler, more moral speech in the literature of the world I have not come across it. It certainly shows that these Canaanites were more sensitive to fine moral values than even the most loquacious of the Hebrew prophets. If the Jews survived, as they did, a people so much nobler than themselves, what is there left to say for the virtues of mere survival?
The only Jewish effort to explain away this horrible enigma was made in his vast history of the Jews by Professor Heinrich Graetz. Graetz tried, in a half-hearted round-about way, to develop a rationale for the Jewish claim to the lands of the Canaanite nations. "These claims," he wrote, "derived further strength from the tradition left by the patriarchs to their descendants as a sacred bequest, that the Deity, whom they had been the first to recognize, had repeatedly and indubitably, though only in visions, promised them this land as their possession, not merely for the sake of showing them favor, but as the means for attaining a higher degree of culture. This culture would frequently consist in Abraham's doctrine of a purer belief in the One God, whose nature differed essentially from that of the gods whom the various nations represented in the shape of idols and by means of other senseless conceptions. The higher recognition of the Deity was designed to lead Abraham's posterity to the practise of justice towards all men, in contradiction to the injustice universally prevailing in those days."
This is a very remarkable paragraph. If I had it in my power, I would post it on the door of every synagogue in the world. For it embodies in a few innocently meant words almost every form and species of our peculiar Jewish hypocrisy.
To begin with (1.), there is the remarkable assertion (put forth so brazenly that, offhand, no one would think of disputing it) that the Jews were the first people in the world to conceive of the idea of a One God Universe. When you remember that this was an illiterate and unlettered people born into a world already vastly enriched by every species of literature, that their first exercise in writing was in Chaldean (the Yiddish of their time), with centuries to elapse before they would develop their own language, the conceit is too pitiable even to laugh at.
2. That the conception of the One God as a God of justice and mercy was an innovation that was not only Jewish but would have been impossible of conception except by Jews. This of a people born in bastardy, weaned on pillage, and brought to the estate of a nation in a state of such constant butchery that the average life of their kings on a throne was something like two and a half years.
3. That religious belief is the very highest form of culture, that there cannot be any culture outside of faith and prayer.
4. That for the expression of a profoundly divine idea, gossip is more effective than the art of sculpture. The Old Testament itself is replete with expressions of contempt for images, those painted as well as those molded out of wet clay. It would have been a relief to find in a people, deprived of the privilege of sharing so much loveliness, at least a sincere expression of regret. But no, Jews must take pride in their aesthetic castration as far forward as the end of the nineteenth century.
5. That the covenant between Abraham and God was an unselfish one, aimed at the enrichment not of Israel but of the world of nations about him.
And lastly (6.), that before the appearance of the Jews, the world was a den of vice and iniquity. Abraham, Graetz would have you believe, caught the first human glimpse of God, and with the opening of his eyes let the first ray of good dawn on an unborn moral world.
What Graetz and the rest of the Jewish apologists today call the Jews' very own peculiar monotheism (without a murmur of protest from a stupified world), began life two thousand years ago as a simple but totally incredible explanation of the unwarranted stealing of a peaceful country by a horde of savages. The explanation of seizure by divine inspiration was not a new one to the world. It had already grown old with mankind when it was put forth. But once offered, the credulity with which it has been met is truly amazing. Never before had national thieving been brought to such a high estate and rendered so precious in the annals of man.
I believe I have shown how little there was in the history of the Jews before Moses to justify the world's even entertaining the idea of their divine choice as the chosen people of God. What do we find after the advent of Moses?
In one Midianite camp alone, the Lord God supervised the capture of six hundred and seventy-five thousand sheep, seventy-two thousand oxen, sixty-one thousand asses, and thirty-two thousand virgins. All the men, and all the wives, and all the male children were massacred; the girls and the booty were divided between the Jews and their Lord God.
In Jericho, at the instigation of Joshua, who was impatient with details, the Lord of Israel placed an anathema over the whole population. He massacred them all, virgins and asses alike, and spared only the harlot Rahab for sheltering the Jewish spies who had reached there in advance of this sacred expedition.
A whole tribe, or almost all of it, was slaughtered in civil war at one time, without anyone raising a finger to stop it.
Twenty six nations in all were conquered by this great and just Lord God. For one of them, Amalak, whose sin was that they had the insolence to dispute the Jews invasion of Canaan by way of their own territory, God conceived such a deadly hatred of that he ordered the wholesale destruction of the nation, men, women, children and cattle, that even their remembrance might fade out under the heavens.
All this towards what end! That the Jews might be able to besot the plains of Canaan with a national life that had not a single artistic grace to relieve its monotonous and fearful ugliness.
You have here a portrait not only of the God of Israel but of his chosen people as well. Man, like God, creates in his own image.
(12) It would here be to the point to remind the reader that for nearly three hundred years millions of intelligent people read and recited the most famous of Shakespeare's sonnets in the belief that they were addressed to a woman. The discovery that they were written to a man – and could not possibly have been inspired by a woman – was not made till the very end of the nineteenth century.
(13) This is the only drawback to the theory that Genesis is really two narratives blended into one. How can two men of such imaginativeness have written at the same time and in the same country?
(14) God, it would seem, had no better opinion of Isaac than did his father Abraham. For, having once addressed him, he never troubled himself with Isaac again.