The Israelites and Their Excuses; The Painful Story of Moses

  January 08, 2024   Read time 10 min
The Israelites and Their Excuses; The Painful Story of Moses
Not surprisingly, most Israelites declined the prophet's invitation to enter into a dialogue with Yahweh. They preferred a less demanding religion of cultic observance either in the Jerusalem Temple or in the old fertility cults of Canaan.

This continues to be the case: the religion of compassion is only followed by a minority; most religious people are content with decorous worship in synagogue, church, temple and mosque. The ancient Canaanite religions were still flourishing in Israel. In the tenth century, King Jeroboam I had set up two cultic bulls at the sanctuaries of Dan and Beth-El. Two hundred years later, the Israelites were still taking part in fertility rites and sacred sex there, as we see in the oracles of the prophet Hosea, Amos's contemporary. Some Israelites appear to have thought that Yahweh had a wife, like the other gods: archaeologists have recently unearthed inscriptions dedicated 'To Yahweh and his Asherah'. Hosea was particularly disturbed by the fact that Israel was breaking the terms of the covenant by worshipping other gods, such as Baal.

Like all of the new prophets, he was concerned with the inner meaning of religion. As he makes Yahweh say: 'What I want is love (hesed) not sacrifice; knowledge of God (daath Elohim) not holocausts.' He did not mean theological knowledge: the word daath comes from the Hebrew verb yada: to know, which has sexual connotations. Thus J says that Adam 'knew' his wife Eve. In the Old Canaanite religion, Baal had married the soil and the people had celebrated this with ritual orgies but Hosea insisted that since the covenant, Yahweh had taken the place of Baal and had wedded the people of Israel. They had to understand that it was Yahweh not Baal who would bring fertility to the soil. He was still wooing Israel like a lover, determined to lure her back from the Baals who had seduced her: When that day comes - it is Yahweh who speaks - she will call me, 'My husband,' no longer will she call me, 'My Baal.' I will take the names of the Baals off her lips, their names shall never be uttered again.

Where Amos attacked social wickedness, Hosea dwelt on the lack of inwardness in Israelite religion: the 'knowledge' of God was related to 'hesed', implying an interior appropriation and attachment to Yahweh that must supersede exterior observance. Hosea gives us a startling insight into the way the prophets were developing their image of God. At the very beginning of his career, Yahweh seemed to have issued a shocking command. He told Hosea to go off and marry a whore (esheth zeuunim) because the whole country had 'become nothing but a whore abandoning Yahweh'. It appears, however, that God had not ordered Hosea to scour the streets for a prostitute: esheth zeuunim (literally, 'a wife of prostitution') meant either a woman with a promiscuous temperament or a sacred prostitute in a fertility cult. Given Hosea's preoccupation with fertility rituals, it seems likely that his wife Gomer had become one of the sacred personnel in the cult of Baal. His marriage was, therefore, an emblem of Yahweh's relationship with the faithless Israel. Hosea and Gomer had three children, which were given fateful, symbolic names. His eldest son was called Jezreel, after a famous battlefield, their daughter was Lo-Ruhamah (Unloved) and their younger son Lo-Ammi (Not-My-People).
At his birth, Yahweh had annulled the covenant with Israel: 'You are not my people and I am not your God.' We shall see that the prophets were often inspired to perform elaborate mimes to demonstrate the predicament of their people but it appears that Hosea's marriage was not coldly planned from the beginning. The text makes it clear that Gomer did not become an esheth zeuunim until after their children had been born. It was only with hindsight that it seemed to Hosea that his marriage had been inspired by God. The loss of his wife had been a shattering experience, which gave Hosea an insight into the way Yahweh must feel when his people deserted him and went whoring after deities like Baal. At first Hosea was tempted to denounce Gomer and have nothing more to do with her: indeed, the law stipulated that a man must divorce an unfaithful wife. But Hosea still loved Gomer and eventually he went after her and bought her back from her new master. He saw his own desire to win Gomer back as a sign that Yahweh was willing to give Israel another chance.
When they attributed their own human feelings and experiences to Yahweh, the prophets were in an important sense creating a god in their own image. Isaiah, a member of the royal family, had seen Yahweh as a king. Amos had ascribed his own empathy with the suffering poor to Yahweh; Hosea saw Yahweh as a jilted husband, who still continued to feel a yearning tenderness for his wife. All religion must begin with some anthropomorphism. A deity which is utterly remote from humanity, such as Aristotle's Unmoved Mover, cannot inspire a spiritual quest. As long as this projection does not become an end in itself, it can be useful and beneficial. It has to be said that this imaginative portrayal of God in human terms has inspired a social concern that has not been present in Hinduism. All three of the God-religions have shared the egalitarian and socialist ethic of Amos and Isaiah. The Jews would be the first people in the ancient world to establish a welfare system that was the admiration of their pagan neighbours.
Like all the other prophets, Hosea was haunted by the horror of idolatry. He contemplated the divine vengeance that the northern tribes would bring upon themselves by worshipping gods that they had actually made themselves: And now they add sin to sin, they smelt images from their silver, idols of their own manufacture, smith's work, all of it. 'Sacrifice to them,' they say. Men blow kisses to calves! This was, of course, a most unfair and reductive description of Canaanite religion. The people of Canaan and Babylon had never believed that their effigies of the gods were themselves divine; they had never bowed down to worship a statue tout court. The effigy had been a symbol of divinity. Like their myths about the unimaginable primordial events, it had been devised to direct the attention of the worshipper beyond itself. The statue of Marduk in the Temple of Esagila and the standing stones of Asherah in Canaan had never been seen as identical with the gods but had been a focus that had helped people to concentrate on the transcendent element of human life. Yet the prophets frequently jeered at the deities of their pagan neighbours with a most unattractive contempt. These home-made gods, in their view, are nothing but gold and silver; they have been knocked together by a craftsman in a couple of hours; they have eyes that do not see, ears that do not hear; they cannot walk and have to be carted about by their worshippers; they are brutish and stupid subhuman beings that are no better than scarecrows in a melon patch. Compared with Yahweh, the Elohim of Israel, they are elilim, Nothings. The goyim who worship them are fools and Yahweh hates them.
Today we have become so familiar with the intolerance that has unfortunately been a characteristic of monotheism, that we may not appreciate that this hostility towards other gods was a new religious attitude. Paganism was an essentially tolerant faith: provided that old cults were not threatened by the arrival of a new deity, there was always room for another god alongside the traditional pantheon. Even where the new ideologies of the Axial Age were replacing the old veneration of the gods, there was no such vitriolic rejection of the ancient deities. We have seen that in Hinduism and Buddhism people were encouraged to go beyond the gods rather than to turn upon them with loathing. Yet the prophets of Israel were unable to take this calmer view of the deities they saw as Yahweh's rivals. In the Jewish scriptures, the new sin of 'idolatry', the worship of 'false' gods, inspires something akin to nausea. It is a reaction that is, perhaps, similar to the revulsion that some of the Fathers of the Church would feel for sexuality. As such, it is not a rational, considered reaction but expressive of deep anxiety and repression. Were the prophets harbouring a buried worry about their own religious behaviour? Were they, perhaps, uneasily aware that their own conception of Yahweh was similar to the idolatry of the pagans, since they too were creating a god in their own image?
The comparison with the Christian attitude towards sexuality is illuminating in another way. At this point, most Israelites believed implicitly in the existence of the pagan deities. It is true that Yahweh was gradually taking over some of the functions of the elohim of the Canaanites in certain circles: Hosea, for example, was trying to argue that he was a better fertility god than Baal. But it was obviously difficult for the irredeemably masculine Yahweh to usurp the function of a goddess like Asherah, Ishtar or Anat who still had a great following among the Israelites, particularly among the women. Even though monotheists would insist that their God transcended gender, he would remain essentially male, though we shall see that some would try to remedy this imbalance. In part, this was due to his origins as a tribal god of war. Yet his battle with the goddesses reflects a less positive characteristic of the Axial Age, which generally saw a decline in the status of women and the female. It seems that in more primitive societies, women were sometimes held in higher esteem than men.
The prestige of the great goddesses in traditional religion reflects the veneration of the female. The rise of the cities, however, meant that the more masculine qualities of martial, physical strength were exalted over female characteristics. Henceforth women were marginalised and became second-class citizens in the new civilisations of the Oikumene. Their position was particularly poor in Greece, for example - a fact that Western people should remember when they decry the patriarchal attitudes of the Orient. The democratic ideal did not extend to the women of Athens, who lived in seclusion and were despised as inferior beings. Israelite society was also becoming more masculine in tone. In the early days, women were forceful and clearly saw themselves as the equal of their husbands. Some, like Deborah, had led armies into battle. Israelites would continue to celebrate such heroic women as Judith and Esther but after Yahweh had successfully vanquished the other gods and goddesses of Canaan and the Middle East and become the only God, his religion would be managed almost entirely by men. The cult of the goddesses would be superseded and this would be a symptom of a cultural change that was characteristic of the newly-civilised world.

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