The Circle of Ancient Iranian Studies
Iranian Religions: Zoroastrianism
The Origin of Israel’s Faith & its
Debt to Prophet Zarathushtra
By: P.E. MacAllister
A speech given on August 17, 2003 in Indianapolis, Indiana
I’m sincerely flattered by Shapur Irani’s invitation to talk with you about the origins of Hebrew religion and the interaction with Zoroastrianism. And start with a disclaimer. First off, I am a tractor guy, not a professor, minister or theological expert. I happen to know more about ancient peoples than the average salesman and have made a lifelong study of the Hebrews so understand what most of the experts are saying. And what I deliver to you now is what we have learned about the ancient Middle East and the faiths it produced, but this will not suggest what it is you are to believe. Theology is personal, requiring that each sort it out for himself. Today, I will interpret how history has managed to shape a given faith with hopes that help in your understanding.
In this exercise we deal with the way God worked in history - however you want to define or describe God. For our purposes today, it’s that element which has created the universe and peopled it with sundry creatures, one being the homo sapien, the only one of said creatures with the capacity to appreciate, acknowledge and ponder God. In our quest we are applying minds which are finite, trying to understand that which is infinite, dimensions so humongous we stutter, trying to get it into perspective. We fail and resort to comparisons, illustrations and often metaphors. If we cannot be precise, we guess or surmise or conclude. Since the forces of nature are perpetually evident, we have to deal with them and ought to comprehend how we fit within this system where providence or the creator has placed us. The ancient Hebrews confronted the same dilemma and had the same awe of “the force” or the “God” who “laid the foundations of the earth” and did “bind the chains of the Pleiades or loosened the cords of Orion”. The theory or explanation they devised is found in the Hebrew scriptures and their odyssey started in Second Millennium B.C. They had to answer the same questions about the creation, like why is there lightning and what is it; what is thunder; why do earthquakes or droughts or eclipses occur; what causes hale; why do tides rise and fall? The natural phenomenon appeared mysterious, awesome, sometimes destructive; and religion became the process which worked out an answer as to what and why these things happened.
The answer: The phenomenon in the world around us is a product of the divine forces. The sun was a god, the moon a goddess; fresh springs were the gift of some sprite or spirit; the winds were also manifestation of divine activity; and the changing seasons, the province of another pair of gods. Groves, caves, tides, mountain peaks, storms, eclipses, all managed by supernatural creatures. Mankind made it more complicated by getting the priests and kings involved and very quickly these two institutions ascertained how we relate to the other worldly forces and announced the will of the god or gods. They said the given deities or numen or demons, fairies or gods could be handled if we plied them with gifts. Then pointed out what happens if we don’t comply. Religion became a tool to help manage society. And it used fear as its partner.
Institutionalized religion soon became a vehicle installed by the leadership who explained the powers of the gods and saw their own role as the authority in the system. The Louvre has a huge diorite stele on which the code of Hammurabi is incised. The iconography at the top shows the king receiving the laws from Shamash, the god of the Babylonians. Same pattern in Israel where the Ten Commandments were delivered by God to Moses at Sinai.
Religion, in Europe, as late as the Reformation walked in lockstep with the state, again, the ruler through the church using threats as a club with which to beat his subjects into docility and obedience.
The Hebrews were only a small factor in this phenomenon, working out their own understanding in the melting pot which was the Fertile Crescent of early 18-1700 B.C. No one knows when or how they originated. Albright thought a group called “Apiru” (probably graduated to “Hebrews”) mentioned several times in Egyptian texts was a starting point. They were people defined by a vocation, maybe caravan attendants, sort of gypsies, and so distinct by lifestyle, not by ethnicity. At some point in time, a cluster of them settled in Canaan and become sedentary. At which point the “Hebrew” connotation is applied to a locus, time period and culture. Given a degree of success, they created a nation of their own. But became unique because of their theological understanding which eschews or disregards the dozens of deities identified by other peoples and selected a single god to be the focus of their worship and their religion. The Bible begins their story with the patriarchal narratives in the Book of Genesis and weaves their origins around a semi-nomadic character named Abraham, who lived in Ur of the Chaldees.
Abraham was instructed by a new god, unfamiliar to his Sumerian neighbors, to journey southwest into Canaan. Arriving at the venerable altar in Shechem he fell in with a god named El, the head honcho in Canaan. Probably El Shaddai, the storm god, the god of the mountain ala Zeus or Thor. El seems to be a generic title, i.e. “deity” in general. But there are other players in the Canaanite pantheon, particularly Baal (Lord) and Asherah, plus neighboring Chemosh for the Moabites, Dagan for the Philistines, Haddad for Syrians, a dozen Egyptian gods, Marduk for the Chaldeans, and take it from there. Abraham accorded all the powers in the pantheon to El, not denying, but ignoring the others and hoped his god proved tougher than Marduk and all the rest. Moreover, he entered into a covenant – a bargain, a pact, a contract, which said Abraham was going to be very lucky and very rich and very powerful and a giant in history if he kept faithful to the worship of El.
The theme of Genesis is selection and covenant. Abraham and his son, grandson and great-grandson all nurtured along the unfolding Hebrew epic, noting Grandson Jacob in particular because he produced twelve sons, thus, twelve tribes. God El made the line of Abraham a special case, selected out of all the earth to be a special blessing. Genesis means “origins” or beginnings and introduces many of the building blocks of the faith…sacrifice, monolatry, covenant, circumcision, tribal delineation, etc. The story, 40 chapters long is unique, loaded with heroes, travel, miracles and blessings, dozens of encounters, and differs from other ancient religions because it is fashioned from the environment and institutions in which it originated. It employs a lifestyle familiar to those of us who know the ancient world, meaning, it is historically accurate, reflecting conditions, movements, encounters, incursions, places which actually existed. It was not some phantasm whimsy or fairy tale like “Jason and the Golden Fleece” or “The Pied Piper of Hamlin”; not gods frolicking around on sexual escapades and vying shamelessly with each other over trivial and nonsensical stuff. The Hebrew deity is infinitely sterner, far more mature, dead serious, solitary and outlasting his rivals by millenniums. Moreover, the Hebrew heroes were flesh and blood people…Jehu, Ahab, Omri, Saul and David, Solomon, Josiah, etc. The stage was the Middle East not Valhalla or the lands to the west or Olympus. Beyond that, it was geographically-specific. Ur of the Chaldees has been excavated. Shechem was a stone age settlement; we have excavated Beth El, Jericho, Jerusalem, Ashkelon, Samaria, Beersheba. Plus the fact (and life) of Israel is referenced in ancient Moabite, Assyrian, Phoenician and Egyptian texts. So we can corroborate the historicity of locus and culture of the biblical sequences in the Hebrew saga. If the cities and battles and monuments are real, how about the characters? Maybe based on real-life people. The story gets a little far fetched from time to time and is greatly and grossly exaggerated, but surely we can say it is about history; about peoples, customs, kings, wars, heroes, ruins and traditions, all historic.
It was not only the history of a given people but a religion which established a pedigree, and in the Biblical material, shaped as well as governed a given society. Fact, it did it so well, a good many practices are evident in a thousand Jewish communities today. My point is it became so utilitarian because it came out of the age and society to which it applied.
We granted ancient peoples ascribed to sundry outside powers, the forces of nature and the destiny of man. Next, they found ways to relate or to communicate through elaborate systems which paid obeisance to the gods in hopes of inducing good fortune. Thus, the recourse to temples, shrines, the use of sacrifice, thus, altars, plus what goes on altars like flesh, incense, oil, flour, etc., and we have to sing praises to the divine powers; establish daily, weekly and annual rhythms for proclaiming adoration and praise; have to get dressed up in special robes and provide special burning pits, temple furniture, sacrificial equipment, and in a lot of pagan systems, sacred female personages who made available sexual favors since fertility in a hundred ways was extolled and sought. There was a defined and accepted way to deal with gods, and Israel adopted the standard practices. All this was a big business. Don’t let anyone tell you the oldest profession was prostitution; the oldest and most lucrative of man’s racket is the priesthood. The more frightened the populace, the more valuable the priesthood and the more costly to the worshipper.
If all of this defines how it is gods should be approached and what must be done to gain divine favors, we see why Abraham employed sacrifice, was linked to the god through covenant, made male circumcision his first sacrament, believed in and used sacred oaths. So the early theology of Israel had a lot in common with Canaan, but one striking difference: its monolatry.
At the end of Genesis about 1600 B.C., the 71, fourth-generation descendents of Abraham moved to Egypt because Cousin Joseph was prime minister and because there was a famine in Canaan. Between the two books, Genesis and Exodus, 420 years elapsed, and the Hebrew multiplied wondrously but were, alas in 1250 as Exodus opens, now subservient to the Egyptians and put to forced labor. The God Yahweh, hearing of their discomfiture, finally decided to fulfill his promise to Abraham and created the hero Moses to free them. In Moses, by the way, we encounter the most significant figure in Hebrew history.
Moses was raised in the royal palace and at age 40 in an altercation, he killed an Egyptian overseer, then fled east into the desert when he fell in with a Midianite Bedouin named Jethro and married his daughter. Content with the solitude in Sinai, he was suddenly rousted one sunny day by a voice out of a burning bush to “listen up”. The voice wants him to go back to Egypt and extract his people. After an argument with the flame and the voice, Moses finally asks, “If I go back and if the people listen, what god do I tell them sent me?” And the voice replies, “I am Yahweh, but your fathers knew me as El Shaddai”. One guess is that maybe Yahweh was the god of the Midianite, Jethro. But from now on, Yahweh not El is the Lord of the Hebrews, their protector and authority.
Anyone paying attention to the Biblical text is bound to be raising some eyebrows about all this. Abraham’s god is missing from the story, and we have a new deity called Yahweh, a form of the verb to be, like “I am he who causes what is, to be”…a creator god maybe. And we wonder what the deal is here. Well, the deal is we have several writers, over something like 1200 years, dabbling with the Old Testament text and in the stories there are two different names for deity, one being “Elohim” and the other being “Yahweh”. It is the result of two different origins of tribal legends. The Exodus text the writer was copying uses Yahweh and sensing the problem, provided a very clumsy explanation. “Not to worry. It’s the same God. He now goes under a new name.”
Exodus is important in understanding the faith of the Hebrews…and the Jews today. You probably remember the ten plagues story, the battle between Moses and Pharaoh, resulting in the release of the Hebrews. The last episode in this protracted standoff was a bit tricky and had to be properly programmed. God prepared to send the angel of death over the land with instructions to strike dead the first born in every household. But with one major exception. To avoid this fate descending on of his own people, Moses had each family kill a lamb, then dip a branch of hyssop in the lamb’s blood, smear it on the lintels over their doorway. So when the angel did appear that night with his sword of death, he spared all those homes marked with blood. Israel was instructed to roast the lamb, eat it with unleavened bread and bitter herbs, preparatory to a journey. The event was called “Passover” since the angel passed over Hebrew homes.
When Pharaoh found his oldest son dead, he told Moses to get those cotton picking Hebrews out of sight and out of the country. So off they went, through the Reed Sea (which parted for them), into the wilderness at Sinai, arriving at the mountain of the Lord fifty days after leaving. It was here they camped and agreed again to make Yahweh their God, offering sacrifice to seal the covenant. It was here as well they received the Ten Commandments. Plus several pages completing a long, interminable law code which the people solemnly agreed to obey. It was here as well that the priesthood was established and installed, then given a place to operate, namely a tabernacle, portable temple.
My point in dwelling on the Exodus story is to point out the theological relevance of that moment in Hebrew history. On the 17th of April this year, the Jews celebrated an event called Passover. With roasted lamb, unleavened bread and bitter herbs, commemorating an event they think might have first happened 3200 years ago. The Exodus narrative describes the founding of the nation Israel. It is their declaration of independence and constitutional convention. Under the patriarchs they were a clan, a large family. Under Moses, they gained their freedom, renewed the covenant with Yahweh, were given the law, were provided a ceremonial system which would support their religious life, were headed for a new country replete with an independent status. In their understanding, God himself had first selected, then brought them out of bondage, and sanctified them to be his agents. They were divinely appointed as “a royal priesthood”. The law delivered by Moses gave to them a lifestyle which if followed would not only bring them success but immortality. The movement Moses – and God – began then, is still ongoing in obedience to the same God, many of the same laws and traditions. The modern Jew owes his existence to this formative period which defined, established and directed the Hebrews into the next three millenniums of history.
The law would ultimately amount to 613 separate statutes and would control all of life. It also invented an institution called “sin” which was transgression of the laws and required some form of expiation when committed, usually a sacrifice. Moses also installed the theological vehicle by establishing a priesthood and if we can believe the stories, once in the promise land, each of the 12 tribal territories had shrines managed by the tribe of Levi. By virtue of the law and the priesthood generations in subsequent history professed and practiced their faith. They did it in unique ways: the nature of dress, the size and shape of the beard, the yarmulke, mezuzahs on the door posts, kosher diet, sacrifice, circumcision, the celebration of at least half dozen holy days including Passover, Yom Kippur, two harvest festivals, Hanukkah, and Rosh Hashana. They kept the Sabbath holy (meaning, no one worked); they raised all of their children; avoided marriage and even contact with gentiles, tithed of their produce to the Lord. In short the nature of their religion prescribed a style of life that kept them different...fact, keeps them unique today. The nature of their law was so exhaustive, there was little opportunity to wonder what was right and what was wrong.
Despite what is often repeated, they did not wander for 40 years in the wilderness. They soon found an oasis at Kadesh-Barnea where they spent the next 39 years. After which point, under a leader named Joshua they invaded Canaan, and with lightening speed subdued most of it, a story covered in the Book of Joshua.
The Lord had promised them a land ”flowing with milk and honey”, a rich land, a glorious patrimony, Kerieth and Sinai were stops along the way. In 1966 I viewed the Jordan Valley from Mount Nebo where Moses got his first glimpse of the land. All I could think of was the God Yahweh really had a great sense of humor. Anyone looking at the pastel landscape in the hazy distance, dried-brick in color, all tans and buff contrasts it with Indiana fields this time of year. Canaan isn’t even in the right league much less the right ballpark. No cattle, no bees, only the muddy Jordan flowing into the Dead Sea. But what Yahweh had done was move them into a very strategic, geographic location. The Syro-Phoenician-Canaan area lies in the overlap of three continents and the exposure to other peoples, other armies, traders and ideas providing vulnerability, but interchanged and much opportunity.
As one examines Joshua’s whirlwind conquest, he attributes it to the fact that Canaan was a series of petty chieftains, never a single kingdom. Then parceled into twelve different territories, one for each tribe. When finished, the author wants us to feel the twelve tribes are settled comfortably in the land which El had promised to Abraham’s descendents. God keeps his word, right?
But it really wasn’t all that cozy in 13th Century Canaan. The next book – Judges - describes 150 years (1200-1050 B.C.) with incursions, disputes, constant battles with neighboring peoples, and 13 separate judges who are called forth when trouble breaks out; each whacks the opposition or the enemy, brings order to the land, then rules for forty years and dies.
While beating back Moabites, Ammonites, Canaanites, Syrians and whoever else, they also learned how to plant wheat and barley, harvest and store it; how to make clay pots, bowls and jugs; how to plant, prune and tend fruit trees, olive and fig trees; how to plant vines and harvest grapes, how to breed livestock, build houses, do irrigation, learn a little smelting, carpentry, cloth-making, and generally provide for themselves in a land which demands a lot of labor. It was hard time and very bloody, but ultimately brought to a close when a hero from the tribe of Benjamin named Saul united Israel to meet a new and more ominous foe, the Philistines. They were war-like and relatively sophisticated people who came storming out of the western Mediterranean and settled on the coast of Canaan in five city states. Possessing the secret to making iron, they were hard to withstand and as Israel developed and improved the land, their neighbors cast covetous eyes upon it and somewhere around 1030 decided to move in.
The Philistine pressure caused the nation to unite. Saul simply demanded recruits from every tribe for a national army and got full support, winning the first battles. But ultimately he was unable to prevail against Philistia.
It is during the course of his wars against the Philistines that the future Hebrew king slowly worked his way up to become a top commander and then a member of Saul’s court. The hero was David, son of Jesse from the tribe of Judah. He demonstrated a good deal of military skill and considerable ability in organizing and leading and soon became a competitor for Saul’s crown. David was finally exiled, became a guerrilla leader and gained national acclaim. So when Saul was killed at Gilboa fighting against the Philistines, David became the obvious choice for king and was duly elected by a council of the tribal elders. For his capital, he sent his own army under Joab to subdue Jerusalem which had never been captured and set up his court, consecrating the city for all time. Yahweh had chosen David as his agent and since David’s wars had brought Israel to a high-water point, he proved the power of the God to triumph over Israel’s enemies. Yahweh was so enamored with David that he declared Jerusalem would be his eternal home, and David’s line should rule the people Israel forever and ever, amen.
He reigned for 40 years and subdued all the lands from the Orontes north of Damascus to the Gulf of Aquab. It was the apogee of Hebrew power, militarily and politically, with the tribute rolling in; the armies invincible; and David the strongest presence in the Middle East. Then after forty years he slept with his fathers. If you need a date, he ascended the throne in roughly 1000 B.C., and his son Solomon was crowned in 960.
If Moses authorized the priestly hierarchical system, it was David and Solomon who institutionalized it. Curiously, it was David who appointed the high priests: Zadok and Abiathar. They were his guys and owed their jobs, hospitalization insurance, performance bonus, and retirement programs to him. Under Solomon, the extensive, impressive and expensive structure of Israel’s ecclesiolatry is created. We had a high priestly system now made hereditary, and 24 rotating teams of Levites and acolytes and hundreds of functionaries involved in a ponderous, complex, ongoing, perennial system of sacrifices, processionals, assemblies, and business from then on. Religion becomes a big, I mean, huge production. Morning and evening prayers, morning and evening sacrifices, holy days, sacred areas, endless rites for purification since there are a jillion ways to sin. The result is that somehow or other, the religion of Israel, was superimposed like never before on the life and thought of the people.
Solomon’s temple became a visible manifestation of the faith and since it was the most luxurious building in the nation it became the centerpiece of the Hebrew ethos. The first draft of the earliest written form of the Hebrew scriptures, a product which will become our Old Testament, was probably written in the court of Solomon. We would now have scribes and official clerks to take care of official correspondence. A people now entrenched, powerful and successful, also get proud and want to know their history. How did we get here? Where did we come form? When? Who were the heroes? About 950 B.C. the campfire stories and the scattered documents or scrolls were compiled and the oral account was written. Incidentally, we happened to have a phonetic alphabet at this point which made recording things infinitely easier then hundreds of little signs or symbols. It was invented in this part of the world maybe around the time of Moses and was refined to 22 symbols, all consonants, which depict sounds. Important to me, because civilization itself depends upon the ability to record and preserve knowledge. We have to make it accessible, and the more universally we make knowledge available, the more rapid will be progress and the more orderly and sophisticated will be our society.
Since Solomon’s editors wrote the book, they were wise enough to validate the legitimacy of the House of David. It is Yahweh who promised his line would rule Israel forever. The scribes also had to butter up the king and depicted him as the wisest man in the world. They illustrate his wisdom in several vignettes and also ascribe to him the books, Song of Songs, Proverbs and Ecclesiastes. But let’s get the record straight. Solomon was bad news. He blew the enormous treasury David had acquired, went into debt, and sold several of his cities to Hiram of Tyre. He was a fabulous builder but also a profligate one and when he died, was bankrupt and universally hated by his people. On his death, the kingdom broke apart and became two separate entities with a king each. Ten tribes went north and became known as Israel, while the two left in the south became Judah. The Northern Kingdom would last an even 200 years till 722 B.C. when they were subdued by Sargon II. The southern kingdom had better luck and lasted till 586…336 years after the death of Solomon. The stormy history of both kingdoms is recounted in the Books of I and II King.
In that period the temple was a vehicle for providing history and preserving literacy. Excavations give us scattered records to tell us what was going on. Fact, most of the clay tablets, ostracon, or papyrus and parchment writings are products of the state cult. The commonplace functions and rituals to adore, propitiate and please the gods are referenced in several sources. We are surprised to note the faith of Israel included little of what we would today define as “religion”. Because the whole system was based on fear, extensively ritualized and long on show and panoply, inculcating a cowering and timorous obeisance before the God (or gods). Mankind lived half afraid – all the time. Because kids were dying in infancy, crops were marginal at best, insects were impossible to control, disease was continual and frequent. All because the deities were beating on us. So we spent a lot of time trying to stay on the right side of them.
As late as Martin Luther, remnants of the same intimidation. He became a monk after a violent thunderstorm frightened him out of his wits. To escape, he promised if saved, he’d become a monk. This is 1500 A.D. He believed in a jealous, angry god because he knew, “Many are called but few are chosen”. 96% of mankind went to purgatory or hell, both for long periods of torture and punishment. The same dreary theme.
So fear of divine punishment was not something all that remote or ridiculous. We gained salvation by doing stuff. But mostly we do what we are told to do. Religion was about obedience, subservience, about fearing for our immortal soul or fearing about what bad is going to happen to me next. It made people uncomfortable and unhappy. It might have explained or related to the gods, but it did very little for men.
Most astounding thing to us is the fact that religion had nothing to do with morality. The issue of ethical conduct was never an item of discussion, never part of the package. Maybe implied or imputed but never promoted.
The Hebrew faith has been called a “cult” because it was a system of religious expression and belief. If one part was revolutionary in terms of its monolatry, extensive law, intolerance of other religions, concept of sin, element of election and special status as a people, another part was old hat; the autocratic, arrogance of the priesthood, the partnership with the throne, the endless ceremony and pageantry, the continuing sacrifice, the religious calendar. Plus the distance established between the person and the God enforced by the ecclesiastical intermediary; add the continual element of fear, the ominous mystery surrounding the nature of the God and his impatience with humankind, all universal. So religion held little appeal and less promise; and when death came, all departed to the same abode, sheol, and roamed, like shades, in the netherworld.
What finally gave theology a heart was a major breakthrough starting in the 8th Century by a class called the prophets. They opposed the status quo and naturally were considered dangerous revolutionaries. The wakeup call came from a sheepherder named Amos in about 750 B.C. when both northern and southern kingdoms were strong, prosperous, secure, and powerful. This rough-hewn character from Tekoa, a sleepy village a half days walk south of Jerusalem, strode into the temple at Bethel one day and jolted the loungers there. His message was a shock. In a long, colorful oration, he declared the Lord was sick to death of the empty rituals and the hollow ceremonies of Israel. “I hate, I despise your feast, I take no delight in your Solomon assemblies.” Moreover, he will no longer accept burnt offerings. Beyond that, he is going to “punish Israel for his transgressions, I will punish the altars of Bethel”; later “I abhor the pride of Jacob and hate his strongholds and will deliver up this city and all that is in it.” Well! What then does the Lord want of his people? He wants, “Justice to roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream…Seek good and not evil…so that the Lord, the God of hosts will be with you…hate evil and love good and establish justice in the gate…” He is remarkably specific about what it is the Lord is against. Exploitation: “Hear this you who trample upon the needy; and bring the poor of the land to an end.” Dishonesty: Those who are trading by “Making the ephah small and the shekel great”, i.e. short weighing grain for sale with false balances. Loan sharking: “That we may buy the needy for a pair of sandals.” I.e., loaning money to buy clothing and when the debtor can’t pay, sell him into slavery.
Fantastic language in this book and for that age, astounding insight. Amos was saying that the poor have stature in the eyes of God, that they are to be treated fairly and not abused and exploited, that the religion of Israel needs to be refocused. It ought to be care for the widow and the orphan, protect those being maltreated. Amos said God is really worshipped when man is responsible for fellowman. He wants kindness, tolerance, forgiveness, compassion, mercy and the strong helping the weak. Amos, that day at the temple of King Jeroboam had the most revolutionary idea in history. Religion, he demanded, has to be moral. Today, it is called social justice; everyone is entitled to a decent sort of life. Those who have should share with those who have not, mankind is one society, not four layers of class and caste. The theme of Amos was quietly rehearsed and reiterated through several disciples till one day four centuries later the Hebrew religion did indeed become moral. Not ceremonial, not sacerdotal, but become a way of life, practiced outside the temple or shrine. Our faith must be ethical. It must be the promoter of justice and fairness.
This all came about in a very curious fashion because Amos did not prevail…except to a handful of disciples who preserved his message and his words. Neither did Hosea, Ezekiel, Isaiah, Jeremiah and three or four others, singing the same tune to different generations. Guess why? It challenged the priesthood and the crown; each content with the way things were going since each liked the roles it played. Amos was booted out of Israel, the prophetic voices suppressed except as each could make converts. But the age of the great prophets (late 7th Century) was not one of good statecraft in Judah but rather of conflict, first with Assyria and then Babylon. Jerusalem fell in 586 B.C. The Babylonians destroyed the city, ravaged the land, decimated the populace. The court, aristocracy and the priesthood were marched off to Babylon in captivity now. The entire nation of David and Solomon was wiped off the map and had they not been different, they would have departed history like the Phoenicians, the Philistines, the Syrians, the Assyrians, Mitanni, Urartu, Hittites, and you name it.
But then a miracle. They survived. In the exile they had time to read their own manuscripts and scrolls, reconstruct history, examine books of the law, the court chronicles of the kings plus some other bits of philosophy and wisdom. They also studied the works of the prophets heretofore ignored by court and temple. But confounded by a crucial question: Why had Yahweh let them down? What happened to the promises made to Abraham, David, Josiah about an eternal destiny? With no land, not royal cult, no priesthood, no place of worship, what do we do next?
In the next generation, their scholars did several things which prepared them to indeed carry forth. They discovered in the prophetic scrolls what had happened: Their sin and transgression had provoked the wrath of Yahweh, and that is why they were so badly clobbered. They were punished for their iniquities. Secondly, they found a way to rehearse and retain their faith by modifying it. They moved worship outside the temple or shrine and centered it around the family hearth. They compiled and reproduced their history, reading over again the long accounts, fitting them to a single body, then spread the learning among the more literate citizens. This fortunately engaged a lot of non-priestly minds, bringing new insights to bear on an old subject, namely, how do we worship god? They preserved in theory established festivals and holy days, but reoriented them towards the family. The father was responsible for maintaining the elements of the faith, augmented by two things: an institution which will ultimately be called the synagogue, and secondly, a growing class of lay experts, learned in the Bible called scribes. This now meant scholars, not penmen or copiers. Soon a class called Pharisees and then slightly later, Sadducees; all religious lay experts and students. So to a considerable extent, the laity took over the function of perpetuating the religion of Israel now called Judaism and created a faith that would travel, could be practiced without a land or a nation. Add to this a growing body of knowledge which will be the Jewish scriptures, a work we call the Old Testament.
Now given a situation where ideas could be exchanged freely, another body of literature evolved which explained the sacred text, it interpreted what had been mandated. For example, one of the Ten Commandments said, “Remember the Sabbath Day to make it holy. Six days shall thou labor and do all thy work”. O.K. fine. So what is work? How about milking the cows, baking bread, starting a fire, having babies? How does one make a day “holy”? Can he read? Write? In short these texts expand, illustrate and explain the laws and the tenets of the faith.
More important, when they finally read Amos and Isaiah and Jeremiah, then agreed Judaism was really about taking care of the widow and the orphan, about honesty, fair play, kindness, helping out, and that the sacrificial system is superfluous. Moreover, everyone must be taught the wisdom of the scriptures, religion ought to be the source of moral teaching and by the time of Jesus, the Mediterranean world marked the Jews for their humane, decent, upright conduct, knew they were to be trusted more than any other people. The Jews did something else which is unique: Their scholars, or theologians, kept the faith fluid so that it marched apace with the times. It is updated to meet today’s challenge. Theology fashioned in the 13th or the 1st Century B.C. does not have a lot to commend it in 2003 A.D.
The period of the exile and this metamorphosis brings us to a new element both in the story, and in the Middle Eastern epic: An Aryan presence into the long history of the Semitic world. The Medo-Persian suzerainty was a refreshing breath of air in the Fertile Crescent. In the monarch Cyrus the Great, we encounter a warrior, conqueror, and manager without the need to visit devastation on conquered people the familiar pattern of Assyrian, Babylonian, Chaldean or Egyptian records.
We have an inscription on a stele that reveals his policy: “I am Cyrus, king of the world, mighty king, king of Babylon, Sumer and Akkad. When I entered Babylon, I set up the seat of domination in the royal palace amidst jubilation and rejoicing. Marduk the great god caused the big-hearted inhabitants of Babylon to…me. My numerous troops moved about undisturbed in the midst of Babylon. I did not allow any to terrorize the land of Sumer and Akkad. I kept in view the needs of Babylon and all its sanctuaries to promote their well-being. I lifted their unbecoming yoke. Their dilapidated dwellings I restored. I put an end to their misfortunes. At my deeds Marduk, the great Lord, rejoiced. The holy cities beyond the Tigris whose sanctuaries had been in ruins over a long period, I returned to their places and housed them in lasting abodes. I gathered together all their inhabitants and restored (to them) their dwellings.”
There are corroborating references to the Persian record in the Old Testament Books of Ezra, Nehemiah and Esther. The former tells us that in 536 the first year after he had subdued Babylon and fell heir to her empire, Cyrus freed the Jews, encouraging a return to their homeland when they might rebuild their nation. His agents returned the temple paraphernalia so they could reconstruct their cult, and he wanted them to reconstruct their culture.
Maybe Cyrus – and the Persians – showed a remarkable tolerance and magnanimity because of their religion, Zoroastrianism. The history of the founder Zoroaster is obscure, told partially in legend or is deduced from extensive writings, references and teachings. Despite the mysterious origins of this faith, the remarkable theological innovation he installed flowed freely and unobtrusively into other religions, including Israel, who lived under Persian rule from 538-330 B.C.
The creator of this faith – so the story goes - was divinely conceived through an angel, the juice of a haoma plant ingested by a priest, and then concourse with a woman of noble lineage. The child from this mixture grew to manhood and became a recluse because of his great desire for learning and his meditation, centered on seeking righteousness. Like Jesus – he was tempted by the devil. But resisted, thanks to his God, Ahura Mazda. Shortly thereafter said God delivered the divine word to Zoroaster, creating the Zoroastrian scriptures, a long opus called the Avesta, the Book of Knowledge of Wisdom. Commissioned to preach it, like Amos, Jesus, Mohammed, Luther, Wesley and Baha Ullah, he had marginal luck until Hystaspes, the father of Darius was converted and agreed to spread the word among the Medes and Persians. The prophet succeeded in his mission, lived to a very old age and was consumed in a flash of lighting, thus, ascended into heaven.
Before his advent the Persians worshipped animals, forbearers, the earth, the sun and a good many elements of Hinduism. Mithra was the chief god, then Anaita, the goddess of fertility, his consort. We also note a bull god, Haoma who dying, rose again and gave mankind his blood to drink, thus, conferring immortality. Priests who served this old and cluttered pantheon were called “magi”.
Zoroaster – like Mohammed - was outraged at this primitive system and announced to the world a new god, Ahura Mazda, the Lord of Light and Heaven. Aided by King Darius, the old superstitious faiths were blotted out and the populace converted to new beliefs, making Zoroastrianism the official state religion. The scripture which instructed the faithful was the aforesaid Avesta which Durant describes as “a mass of prayers, songs, legends, prescriptions, ritual and morals, brightened now and then by noble language, fervent devotion, ethical elevation or lyric piety.” Included are passages from the Rig-vea of the Hindus, Babylonian creation myths including the story of the two first parents and a flood plus considerable Persian folklore. Its basic premise declared two forces were at work in the world, good and evil. Good was associated with light and sponsored by Ahura; and evil, the dark power was the province of Satan or Ahriman. So the world is a battleground with the contest for the hearts of men being waged perpetually. Zoroaster declared Ahura Mazda is supreme over all things. He says, like Isaiah or Job or the prophet Amos: “Tell me truly, O Ahura-Mazda: Who determined the paths of the suns and stars – who is it by whom the moon waxes and wanes - who from below sustained the earth and the firmament from failing – who sustained the waters and the plants – who yoked the swiftness of the winds and the clouds – who Ahura Mazda called forth the Good Mind?”
The god has seven qualities: Light, Good Mind, Right, Dominion, Piety, Well-Being and Immortality. His followers interpreted these attributes as separate holy beings or influences…Amesha Spenta, “immortal holy ones”. Add guardian angels, devils or demons. The first humans had been placed in a paradise only to be invaded by serpents, vermin, locusts, winters, sin, sodomy, menstruation and plagues, all sent there by Ahriman, Satan. Mankind had free will and personalities in their own right with the option of making choices. Converts lived by a golden rule that said, “That nature alone is good which shall not do unto another whatever is not good unto its own self.” Man’s duty was “To make him who is an enemy a friend; to make him who is wicked righteous; to make him who is ignorant learned.” Virtues are piety, honor and honesty.
Converts faced death unafraid. Beyond this pale lay three options: heaven, hell, purgatory. All dead souls passed over the Sifting Bridge, the good soul reaching the other side to the Abode of Song, welcomed by a “young maiden radiant and strong, with a well developed bust” and lived in happiness with the god. The wicked soul fell into the deepest hell, an abyss of darkness and terror with unimaginable torment. If you weren’t totally a lost cause, you dropped off the bridge into a closer pit enclosed for 10,000 years and then were redeemed. At a point in time the last judgment occurs with Ahura Mazda battling Ahriman whom he ultimately destroys. Then, “The dead shall rise, life shall return to bodies…and the whole world shall become free of old age and death and corruption.”
To quote my source again: “All in all, it was a splendid religion, less warlike and bloody, less idolatrous and superstitious than the other religions of its time, and it did not deserve to die so soon.”
At this point, having given you my description of Zoroastrianism, we want to hear the truth from a practicing member of the faith. Mr. Irani knows more about this than anyone east of the Mississippi and has talked to me about some of the elements still employed by Zoroastrians to remember and practice their faith.
I was surprised at the astounding amount of material derived from ancient Zoroastrianism transplanted to other religions. For starters, Christmas, the 25th of December may be aligned with Roman Saturnalia and coincident with winter solstice. But it also happened to be the birthday of Mithra. Most striking contribution was one which rejected the Hebrew the premise that imputed all powers to Yahweh. “I create weal, I make woe”, Isaiah’s God says. I am the source of good and I bring the bad. Besides me “There is no other.” Anyone who thinks about that claim wonders if the writer was dyslexic. When the rational thinking would invade Judaism, this bizarre premise that makes God the source of wickedness, tragedy and deceit would really become ridiculous. So here is a neat way out. We leave Yahweh in charge of righteousness but find another force for evil. The Satan appears in the book of Job as one of God’s agents sort of roaming the earth, checking on people to be sure all are toeing the line. Judaism revamped its thinking, now Satan became the source of evil.
Parallel with this, another clumsy peculiarity. In Moses or Elijah’s day upon death, all souls went into Sheol. Anyone thinking about this has to ask: “What point is there in obeying the laws of Moses? My neighbor is a cheat, a chiseller, beats his wife, molests his children, and he ends up the same place I do. This is not right.” The Persians resolved that point as well. If there are two forces at work, there are two destinies as well; one for the servants of Yahweh, the other accommodates the servants of Satan. Christianity adopted this heaven for their converts which was joy, endless comfort in the presence of God, etc., but sans the young maiden, radiant and strong, with big boobs. Hell is for the wicked, endless misery, pain and torment. (In Jesus’ words, a burning pit.) But Paul’s system for his church provided an inducement for good conduct and righteous living, thus, gaining heaven making more sense and a lot more attractive then sending everyone to Hades.
Note, too, the Zoroastrian declaring a moment of accountability. A premise picked up by some Jewish Pharisees in the First Century A.D. which held that the millennial age is brought about not by Ahura Mazda but by the Messiah, who will arrive with legions of angels and meet the forces of Satan in a climatic battle, which of course, the angels will win. In that great-getting-up-morning as the Messiah is approaching, all bones of faithful Jews shall arise from their graves and meet the Christos in mid air, they rejoin him in reconstituted form to live for a thousand years in paradise. This theory not only tidied up a lot of loose ends but adds enormously to the attractiveness of the faith, particularly the Christian and Muslin faiths. Why do you think suicide bombers are so eager to die? Paul was selling Christianity to the Roman world, critical in his pitch was a new incarnation beyond the grave where there is neither slave nor free, male nor female, Greek nor Jew, but all are equal in this classless, society which Jesus has prepared for his followers. And I’m saying this final judgment and afterlife drifted into Christianity out of those faint echoes and suggestions of Judaism, borrowed from Zoroaster.
We now know where the Garden of Eden theory originated and learn how all sorts of torment, pain, weeds, pain in childbirth came from Satan. We recall other divine beings like the angel Gabriel or Michael of Israel et al, plus the visitors to Abraham, the Seraphim Isaiah described in the temple; the Satan in the Book of Job; the heavenly council referenced in Isaiah, all there in Zoroastrianism. The spirit of God is similar to the amesha spenta, the immortal holy ones of Zoroaster. We recall the element of free will and saw it represented very early in the Garden of Eden and Eve. I was remembering the miraculous birth theme and think of Isaac, Samson, Samuel and, of course, Jesus. Elijah swept to heaven in a fiery chariot is similar to a bolt of lightening which swept up Zoroaster. The Bull God Haoma whose blood provides immortality to its believers is something I’ll think about next time I take communion and hear “This cup is the new covenant sealed in my blood” which is part of the Presbyterian liturgy. The Eden story is there, plus the flood, the temptation, and who knows what else.
All of cursory interest to folks interested, Zoroastrianism, Judaism, Islam and the other five of the extant religions of the world of surprising relevance to we who are Christian. Our faith was built upon Judaism as refined and restated by Jesus, then fashioned into a theology by St. Paul. We are legatees of that ancient journey and in debt scores of unknown Middle Easter savants. Not all that apparent, but I suggest you examine our 21st Century American society, which has put a higher value on the uniqueness of the individual than any other in history. We have become a model in the search for equality and freedom. A major part of our national effort is taking care of people, i.e. the least of these from Social Security retirement down to the Boy Scouts who intend to “Do a good deed daily”. Most of our nation’s budget goes ministering (in one guise or another) to persons. We educate all our children, punish those who abuse and exploit, demand fair play, encourage each person to develop his potential in hopes of gaining personal success and happiness. We give away annually $241 billion a year to worthy causes endeavoring to enhance and ennoble our society; 156 countries in the world have less gross domestic product. We have more volunteer organizations, doing good works than all the rest of the world combined. And you know the rest.
Living inside of it day after day, it never seems all that remarkable but in the scheme of human achievement, you and I are standing on a pinnacle never before reached in mankind’s experience. And it comes from a people motivated and conditioned by the Protestant work ethic as represented in the men who framed our nation and wrote our founding documents. They were different because of the ancient wisdom passed down in our western culture, a significant piece of their morality and national conscience coming from the sages of the east, primarily in Palestine and in Ancient Persia. And in our age of universal literacy, stability, affluence, freedom, and tolerance we can see the results possible when religion is enlightened, is accepted, and like in Ancient Israel, writes the rules for managing the society. It is not Hellenic or Roman models that produce this. It may be their political patterns, but our forms are conditioned by a theology time-tested through the ages, structured not for show or impact but to reflect the grace and mercy of God as it might appear in human institutions to assure the welfare of his people.
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