Friday, June 28, 2013

Ethics and Religious Practices of the Afro-Asiatics

Alice C. Linsley

"Afro-Asiatic" is a general yet useful term in speaking about some of the oldest human populations whose related languages are classified under this term. It identifies a diversity of peoples, castes, societies and territories that have linguistic affinity. Beyond this, there appear to be shared values, common moral laws, and a similar epistemology.

The peoples under consideration lived between 4500 and 1500 BC, although Vedic sources state that the "Saka" ruled several thousands of years longer. The Matsya Purana claims that the world belonged to Kushite Saka for 7000 years. If this is true, we must extend the range of their influence to about 8000 BC.

While the Saka are identified as "Kushites" that term is perhaps less useful than the term Afro-Asiatics. "Kushite" encompasses many Nilo-Saharan peoples and castes, including Biblical figures such as the kings listed in Genesis 4, 5, 10 and 11. A more accurate historical designation is "Nilo-Saharan."

Archaeology, linguistics, molecular genetics, and anthropology have begun to construct a cohesive picture of the Afro-Asiatics. It is generally agreed that their point of origin is the Upper Nile Valley and that they were masterful navigators of the great water systems of the Late Holocene. Using these water systems, sent-away royal sons dispersed and established new territories from the Horn of Africa to India. The earliest "kingdoms" of southern Arabia were ruled by Saka. These are recognized as the ancient seats of wisdom by Biblical writers.

The rulers and sent-away sons built cities on high places with natural water sources and maintained water shrines along great rivers. The shrines were under the direction of a caste of ruler-priests who have been variously called Opiru, Hapiru, and Habiru (Hebrew) in ancient texts. In Genesis these are the Horite ruler-priests whose lineage is presented in Genesis 36 and they are described as having a red skin tone. Likely they are the descendants of Red Nubians.

Red and black Nubians
Detail from a Champollion drawing

Solar symbolism of Horites
In the Mahabharata, Saka-dvipa is identified as the land of the Sakas whose religious practices and cosmology were centered on the solar arc. O-piru in fact refers to attendants or priests at sun temples. The O here is a solar symbol rather than a letter. Not surprisingly, the oldest Afro-Asiatic monuments reveal alignments that express reverence for the sun.

The diffusion of common religious practices and ethical views is most logically explained by the dispersion of Kushite peoples out of Africa. This dispersion, described in Genesis 10, has been scientifically verified.

Bloodshed: The first moral law

Among the ancient Afro-Asiatics there was anxiety about the shedding of blood. They regarded the shedding of blood to be a moral issue of the first magnitude. Blood was conceived as the substance of life, with the power to bring blessings or curses upon those who were responsible for the shedding of blood. Such blood anxiety required the ministrations of mediators such as priests and shamans.

Before the hunting party departed, the priest or shaman offered sacrifice to the spirits of the hunted animals. When someone killed another human by accident, the killer was to provide an animal to be sacrificed in his place and was to pay satisfaction to the victim’s family. If he killed on purpose, he would forfeit his life. All of these decisions were governed by laws that were passed from generation to generation and upheld by the rulers and their advisors.

There was anxiety about the blood shed by women in their monthly cycle and in childbirth. For this reason it was common for women to remain in structures outside the village during menstruation and childbirth. Female family members brought them food and other necessary provisions. After ritual purification, the women returned to their regular routines in the village. Women of the noble classes remained in their chambers where female servants provided all their needs.

Among ancient peoples religious laws governed every aspect of the community’s life. The laws found in Leviticus and in the ancient Vedic Brahmanas are examples. Here we read instructions for how lepers are to be put outside the community and restored to the community after they are healed. Many of the laws govern family relations, forbidding incest and adultery. Others establish rules for the proper treatment of slaves, foreigners, widows and orphans.

The clay tablet of the code of Ur-Nammu from the reign of King Shulgi is dated to 2095-2047 BC It originally held 57 laws which covered family and inheritance law, rights of slaves and laborers, and agricultural and commercial tariffs. This code prescribes compensation for wrongs, as in this example: "If a man knocks out the eye of another man, he shall weigh out one-half a mina of silver." (Biblical Archaeology Review, Vol. 28, Sep/Oct 2002, p. 30.)

Ethics in the Afro-Asiatic Dominion

The Code of Hammurabi dates to about 1750 B.C. Hammurabi was an Amorite (Semite) who became King of Babylon about the time that Abraham left his father’s house in Harran and settled in the land of Canaan. The ancient capital of Babylon was about 55 miles south of modern Baghdad and it was large city of the Fertile Crescent. Although the city states of the Fertile Crescent shared common ideas and practices, these cities were not unified under a single ruler. Instead they were governed by independent rulers who were often related by marriage. Marriage was a way to form political alliances, and contribute to the preservation of the people’s cultural heritage.

Rulers of the Afro-Asiatic Dominion governed territories extending from the Atlantic coast of modern Nigeria to the Indus River valley of India. They spoke languages in the Afro-Asiatic language family and controlled commerce on the waterways. The Afro-Asiatic world was a river civilization that disappeared when earth’s climate changed. Today central Africa, Palestine, Mesopotamia and India are dry, but 10,000 to 12,000 years ago these areas were wet and fed by rivers many miles wide. The basins of these now extinct or much diminished rivers have been identified by satellite photos. Many of the laws of the Afro-Asiatic Dominion pertain to commerce and water rights.

Rulers controlled the major water systems of the ancient world at a time when Africa and Asia were much wetter. These rulers were owed tribute for maintaining order on the rivers. Royal priests maintained shrines on the rivers where the tribute was collected, a portion being offered to the shrine deity. As the climate changed the landscape of the ancient world, some of the laws changed also. For example, strangers who came to wells or watering holes in now arid lands were no to be harmed or taxed. Wells and public watering holes became, by law, places of immunity. This was all the more necessary since they were frequented by women and children, whose job it was to draw water.

A binary versus a dualistic worldview

The ancient Afro-Asiatics had a binary worldview based on their acute observation of the patterns in nature. The binary worldview hinges on binary sets that are observed by all people at all times and in all places (universal structure/pattern). Binary sets are objective, not subjective.

The French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss believed that the primitive mind and the modern mind are shaped by the same structures. Lévi-Strauss is the central figure in Structuralism. He described structuralism as “the search for unsuspected harmonies” across cultures. He showed that qualities experienced binary opposites, like raw and cooked, reveal a network of abstract relations which form a coherent system of thought or a worldview.

Another example of a binary set is male/female. All humans are born either male or female. The number of incidents of genitally-confused births is very rare and those born with such conditions know their gender. Often their condition can be corrected through surgery and hormone therapy.

Binary sets require that we make distinctions between two seemingly opposite entities. This does not mean that every set of opposites is a binary set, however. Only sets which are universal and objective are binary sets. Tall-short and talent-untalented are subjective and therefore do not represent binary sets.

Among the ancient Afro-Asiatics the key binary sets were: male-female; sun/day-moon/night, heaven-earth, God-Man; and the directional poles east-west and north-south. The ruler was associated with the sun and his skin was sun darkened. His queen was associated with the moon and appeared in public with her skin covered in white power.

In a binary worldview one of the entities in the set is regarded as superior in some way to the other. The entities of the binary have a relationship of dominance and subservience. The sun is greater than the moon because the sun gives light whereas the moon merely reflects the sun’s light. Males are larger and stronger than females. Heaven is more glorious than earth, and God is far greater than Man. This view is different from the dualism that characterizes most Asian religions. Dualism is the belief that reality is comprised of two different yet equal principles: material and non-material, light and dark, good and evil, female and male, etc. The ying-yang symbol does not represent the oldest worldview.

Sometimes the language of a binary set is used to speak of a greater whole. Male and female can refer to all humanity. In Genesis 1:1 we read that God created "the heavens and the earth." This is called a “merism” and it means that God created the whole universe. In Psalm 139, the psalmist declares that God knows "my sitting down and my rising up.” This is to say that God knows all the psalmist's actions. The phrase “good and evil” – as in “the tree of the knowledge of good and evil” - is a merism whereby a metaphysical binary set refers to all that can be known. Eve is tempted to eat of this tree so that she might become like God, knowing all things.

In a binary system meaning also is derived from reversals such as switching directional poles or gender associations. Reversal is when the subordinate entity is granted a place of dominance. In ancient mysticism, the reversal of north and south, that is, moving south to the north position, meant that the feminine principle is set in motion. This spoke of fertility, conception, birth and new life.

In Genesis 12:6 we read that Abraham sought guidance from the “moreh” or prophet when he pitched his tent at the Moreh’s Oak. Male prophets sat under firm upright trees such as oaks. These represent the masculine principle. Female prophets sat under soft trees with more fluid motion such as date nut palms. These trees are called "tamars" and they represent the feminine principle. Judges 4:4-6 says, “Deborah, the wife of Lappidoth, was a prophet who was judging Israel at that time. She would sit under the Palm of Deborah, between Ramah and Bethel in the hill country of Ephraim, and the Israelites would go to her for judgment."

Genesis 12 places the Moreh’s Oak at the sacred center between Bethel and Ai, on an east-west axis. Deborah's Palm was between Ramah and Bethel, on a north-south axis. Note the reversal of cardinal points and gender associations. This is typical of the binary system of the ancient Afro-Asiatics.

The Tree of Life was said to be in the middle of the garden. If the sacred center is the place where the east-west axis and the north-south axis intersect, we have the image of the Cross.

Afro-Asiatics and the role of morehs or prophets

The evidence of archaeology and anthropology suggests that the water shrine was the place were wisdom and council was sought by Afro-Asiatics and Indo-Europeans. The seers or prophets included female. Themistoclea and Deborah are an examples. They served similar functions in their communities, but their practices and worldviews were different. Themistoclea represents the shamanistic approach and Deborah represents an approach in which consultation of spirits and trace states was forbidden.

The Biblical prophet was forbidden from consulting spirits. Indeed Saul's rejection as king over Israel was due in part to his consulting a medium. The Biblical prophets knew what shamans worldwide know - that the spirits sometimes lie. Therefore they were to consult only the Spirit of God (Ruach) who moved over the waters at the beginning and know all things, and cannot lie.

The Wisdom Tradition of the Bible represents a very ancient approach to epistemology. This is evident is such books as Job, Proverbs, Sirach and Baruch. Wisdom as a feminine principle is sometimes called the “Sophia” tradition. Sophia is the Greek word for wisdom and it is based on objective observation of the order of creation.

Likewise, Themistoclea represents an epistemology that wedded experience, reason and the observation of order in Nature. As the prophetess of Apollo at Delphi she would have been a source of much ancient wisdom, including knowledge of the natural world, astronomy, medicine, music, mathematics, animal husbandry and philosophy. She would have offered advice pertaining to the time for sowing and harvests, whether to go to war, and who and when to marry.

Shrine prophets were often deified, either posthumously or during their lifetimes. The Hebrew (habiru) righteous ones were regarded as deified (elohiym). The plural form for deity appears in Genesis 1: In the beginning elohiym created the heavens and the earth. The word also appears in Genesis 6:2, which speaks of the "sons of the elohiym" who took wives from the daughters of men. The plural form relates to the ancient Horites from whom we receive the material in Genesis. They are the origin of Israel's priesthood and why Jews call their ancestors horim.

The Horite ruler-priests were regarded as deified "sons" of God. They served as the wise ones and advised the great kingdom builders of old. As such, they are considered gods, as in Exodus 22:28: "Thou shalt not revile the gods (elohiym), nor curse the ruler of thy people."

Related reading: Ethics and Binary Oppositions; Moral Obligation; Women Prophets and Shamans; Righteous Rulers and the Resurrection; Levi-Strauss and Derrida on Binary Oppositions; The Genesis King Lists; The Kushite Marriage Pattern Drove Kushite Expansion

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