Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Fundamentalism and Syncretism in Hebrew History


Alice C. Linsley


The Habiru/Hebrew priests were Horites, known in the ancient world for being especially fastidious in their observance of the ceremonial law and for their insistence that mankind should worship but one Creator. Other priests were dedicated to the worship of Nature or the elements, or they served a pantheon of deities to which they make offerings to gain favor from the gods. For the Habiru, God could not be appeased or satisfied by offerings of food, wine, oil, grain or by the sacrifice of an animal or a child. When man propitiates his gods, his religion becomes a form of bribery rather than an act of love. He performs a duty laden with fear, even desperation. An important distinction between the Horites and other priests rests in their recognition that God propitiates his wrath by his own action. This is the meaning of the account of Abraham's sleepless night on the mountain. God told him to cut each animal down the middle and laid the halves side by side (Genesis 15). Once this is done, God passes between the animal carcasses and consumes the offering. Abraham observed this, and had no part to play in the action.

The Habiru priests were dispersed widely across the ancient world in the service of great kings. At times and places some Habiru allowed themselves to be influenced by peoples with an inferior moral code. This is called syncretism. Syncretism is the amalgamation or attempted amalgamation of different religions, cultures, or schools of thought. It often occurs when there is social or political pressure to accommodate to the favored practices and beliefs.

Judges 2:11-15, Psalm 78:56-72 and Jeremiah 32:30-35 are often cited as examples of how syncretism led to apostasy and idolatry in Israel. The story of the Golden Calf in Exodus 32 is also cited, but this is not an example of syncretism. In this essay, each of these passages will be evaluated through the lens of anthropology.

Judges 2:11-15
Then the Israelites did evil in the eyes of the Lord and served the Baals. They forsook the Lord, the God of their ancestors, who had brought them out of Egypt. They followed and worshiped various gods of the peoples around them. They aroused the Lord’s anger because they forsook him and served Baal and the Ashtoreth. In his anger against Israel the Lord gave them into the hands of raiders who plundered them. He sold them into the hands of their enemies all around, whom they were no longer able to resist. Whenever Israel went out to fight, the hand of the Lord was against them to defeat them, just as he had sworn to them. They were in great distress.

The word “Baal” means Lord or Master. It sometimes refers to the Lord, as in Baal Shalisha, meaning the Three God. This may be an early Trinitarian reference, or it may simply refer to a deity associated with the number 3. In the Bible, the number 3 is found in connection to enlightening passages and astonishing acts of God. Jonah was 3 days in the belly of the whale. Moses was hidden for 3 months (Ex. 2:2). Job's 3 friends struggled with the mystery of why the righteous suffer. Moses asked permission to make a 3-day journey into the wilderness to worship. Abraham traveled 3 days to a mountain only God could reveal and upon which God provided His own sacrifice. The Covenant God made with Abraham involved cutting up 3 animals that were 3 years old. God in 3 Persons visited Abraham (Gen. 18). The 3 measures of flour made into cakes for Abraham's three Visitors. The 3 gifts offered them: curds, milk and a calf. Abraham prayed 3 times for Sodom. Joseph had a dream of a vine with 3 branches (Gen 40:10-12). The “Son of Man” appeared with 3 men in the fiery furnace. Jesus rose on the third day.

Ashtoreth shrines at high elevations were dedicated to the moon goddess. As the moon merely reflects the radiance of the sun, it was regarded as an inferior entity and therefore an inappropriate symbol for the Creator among the Habiru. This is why Terah, Abraham’s father, was criticized (perhaps unfairly) by the Deuteronomist in Joshua 24:2: “In olden times, your forefathers – Terah, father of Abraham and father of Nahor – lived beyond the Euphrates and worshiped other gods.” The implication is that Terah fell into worshiping contrary to Horite tradition while living “beyond the Euphrates.” Joshua 24:2 should be understood as reflection the concerns of the Deuteronomist. There is a dominant theme running from Deuteronomy through II Kings. These books share a common concern with idolatry and recognize that on the side of the Euphrates where Ur and Haran were located, people worshiped the moon as equal to the sun. However, the moon was not worshiped among the Horites, and Terah was a Horite.

In the binary worldview of the Horites the sun was regarded as superior to the moon. This was not an arbitrary preference, but an affirmation of their observation that the sun is superior in strength and radiance to the moon. The sun's superiority is expressed in Genesis 1:16: "God made the two great lights: the greater to rule the day, the lesser light to rule the night." It is idolatry to regard the lesser as an equal to the greater, as happens in Asian dualism.


Psalm 78:56-64
But they put God to the test and rebelled against the Most High; they did not keep his statutes. Like their ancestors they were disloyal and faithless, as unreliable as a faulty bow. They angered him with their high places; they aroused his jealousy with their idols. When God heard them, he was furious; he rejected Israel completely. He abandoned the tabernacle of Shiloh, the tent he had set up among humans. He sent the ark of his might into captivity, his splendor into the hands of the enemy. He gave his people over to the sword; he was furious with his inheritance. Fire consumed their young men, and their young women had no wedding songs; their priests were put to the sword, and their widows could not weep.

Here we find a central theme of the Deuteronomist, namely, that God rejects and abandons Israel because He is angry. He allows His chosen ones to fall before their enemies and to be taken as captives. There are references to things of old - the tabernacle at Shiloh, the Ark of the Covenant, but anthropologically significant details are entirely lacking.


Jeremiah 32:30-35
"The people of Israel and Judah have done nothing but evil in my sight from their youth; indeed, the people of Israel have done nothing but arouse my anger with what their hands have made, declares the Lord. From the day it was built until now, this city has so aroused my anger and wrath that I must remove it from my sight. The people of Israel and Judah have provoked me by all the evil they have done—they, their kings and officials, their priests and prophets, the people of Judah and those living in Jerusalem. They turned their backs to me and not their faces; though I taught them again and again, they would not listen or respond to discipline. They set up their vile images in the house that bears my Name and defiled it. They built high places for Baal in the Valley of Ben Hinnom to sacrifice their sons and daughters to Molek, though I never commanded—nor did it enter my mind—that they should do such a detestable thing and so make Judah sin.”

The word Molech has a meaning similar to Baal. It means king. Molech was an Ammonite fire deity known among the Moabites as Chemosh. The ancient Habiru did not associate any one element with the Creator. To do so would have been regarded as idolatry. Nor did the Habiru practice human sacrifice.

None of the examples we have considered provide much detail as to the religious practices that are being condemned. There is little anthropologically significant information, as if these accounts come from sources that have no firsthand experience of the time. In fact, some scholars believe these sources reflect the Deuteronomist historians who are the final hand on the Old Testament writings.

The Deuteronomist attempts to explain why God would allow his appointed people to be defeated by their enemies and to be carried into exile. To answer this question, they pointed to moral failures among the leaders of the people. The accusation that Aaron failed in righteousness likely comes from the Deuteronomist, the last known editor of the Old Testament material. The Deuteronomist also urged the breaking of images. "... thus shall ye deal with them; ye shall destroy their altars, and break down their images, and cut down their groves, and burn their graven images with fire." Deuteronomy 7:5

Failure to do this served as another example of moral failure on the part of Israel's rulers and justified the terrible treatment which the Jews received at the hands of the Babylonians, far worse than they ever experienced in Egypt where their rulers were recognized by the Pharaohs.

The Deuteronomist history presents a religion quite different from that practiced by Abraham and his Nilo-Saharan ancestors. It moves the focus from the Righteous Ruler who would be conceived by divine overshadowing to the theology of the land as Israel’s rightful possession. This is the beginning of political Zionism.


Exodus 32
When the people saw that Moses was so long in coming down from the mountain, they gathered around Aaron and said, “Come, make us a god who will go before us. As for this fellow Moses who brought us up out of Egypt, we don’t know what has happened to him.” Aaron answered them, “Take off the gold earrings that your wives, your sons and your daughters are wearing, and bring them to me.” So all the people took off their earrings and brought them to Aaron. He took what they handed him and made it into an idol cast in the shape of a calf, fashioning it with a tool. Then they said, “This is your god, Israel, who brought you up out of Egypt.” When Aaron saw this, he built an altar in front of the calf and announced, “Tomorrow there will be a festival to the Lord.” So the next day the people rose early and sacrificed burnt offerings and presented fellowship offerings. Afterward they sat down to eat and drink and got up to indulge in revelry. Then the Lord said to Moses, “Go down, because your people, whom you brought up out of Egypt, have become corrupt. They have been quick to turn away from what I commanded them and have made themselves an idol cast in the shape of a calf. They have bowed down to it and sacrificed to it and have said, ‘These are your gods, Israel, who brought you up out of Egypt.’ “I have seen these people,” the Lord said to Moses, “and they are a stiff-necked people. Now leave me alone so that my anger may burn against them and that I may destroy them. Then I will make you into a great nation.” But Moses sought the favor of the Lord his God. “Lord,” he said, “why should your anger burn against your people, whom you brought out of Egypt with great power and a mighty hand? Why should the Egyptians say, ‘It was with evil intent that he brought them out, to kill them in the mountains and to wipe them off the face of the earth’? Turn from your fierce anger; relent and do not bring disaster on your people. Remember your servants Abraham, Isaac and Israel, to whom you swore by your own self: ‘I will make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and I will give your descendants all this land I promised them, and it will be their inheritance forever.’” Then the Lord relented and did not bring on his people the disaster he had threatened.

This account stands in stark contrast to the accounts considered above by virtue of the rich details. Moses is on the mountain top and God is speaking to him about the people's corrupt worship. Moses seeks God's mercy for the people. In the valley below, the people are speaking to Aaron who facilitates their corrupt worship. This is not an example of syncretism because it reflects actual Horite practices. However, if the Deuteronomist Historian is correct, the people worshiped a created thing, not the divine person or "seed" of God (Gen, 3:15) represented by the image.

The Hebrews asked the ruler-priest Aaron to create a graven image (Hebrew: pesel) for them. Aaron apparently was one of the members of the priestly caste trained in metal work. The golden image he formed incorporated the sun and would have been a representation of the divine overshadowing or appointment of the Calf of God, Horus. Below is picture of what it would have looked like.




The calf is suggestive of Horus as a child. Horus' anthropomorphic form is either as a adult male or more usually as a boy wearing the sidelock typical of royal Egyptian youth. Horus as a boy is often shown on cippi dominating crocodiles and serpents. Consider this in light of the Woman, the Child, and the Dragon in Revelation 12. Consider also the red cow of Numbers 19 that stands as a perpetual symbol of Israel's need for cleansing. The cow is sacrificed and burned outside the camp and the ashes used for "water of lustration." (Num. 19:9)

The Calf's mother was called Hathor. Her animal totem was the long-horned cow and she was often depicted with a crown of horns in which the sun rests, as a sign of her divine appointment. She appears on monument walls at Dendera holding her child in a manger. She was not to be worshiped; just as Christians are not to worship the Virgin Mary. She is venerated, but not worshiped. The distinction between worship and veneration is a difficult one for Protestants of Puritan heritage. The Puritans methodically stripped the churches of "papist" trappings such as crosses, statues, icons, stained glass windows, montrances, and vestments. Under Oliver Cromwell thousands of these sacred objects were destroyed or re-purposed. Valuable items helped to fund Cromwell's campaigns in Scotland and Ireland. The Puritans made no distinction between veneration and worship. They considered all Roman practices to be idolatrous.

The Puritans were not the first to destroy holy images. In the eighth and ninth centuries, the Eastern churches suffered a similar attack by the Iconoclasts. (Eikonoklasmos or Iconoclasm means "image-breaking.") Before the Iconoclasts, came the image-smashing Deuteronomists. In 2001, Islamic fundamentalists destroyed images regarded as world treasures in Afghanistan. These extremists also smashed three hundred of the 2,500 objects that had been painstakingly reassembled at the Kabul Museum and looted thousands of artifacts. Religious extremism eventually leads to smashing images and destroying traditions.

Iconoclasts of all eras fail to recognize that while God forbids the making and worship of idols, He commanded carvings and pictures for the Tabernacle. These included angels, trees, and fruits from the Garden of Eden (Exodus 37:1-9; 39:22-26; 1 Kings 6:14-19). God gave explicit instructions to the craftsmen concerning how objects for the Temple were to be made and what ornaments were to appear on the hems of the priestly robes (pomegranates and golden bells). He also gave specific instructions as to how all these objects were to be consecrated.

In matters pertaining to how He should be worshiped, God had been directing the Habiru rulers for a long time before Moses. He gave instructions to Abraham and Jacob on how to construct altars and how to offer animal sacrifices. He was to be their King and consented to Samuel's anointing of Saul because the Israelites wanted a king like the other nations. As Bernard M. Levinson points out the legal corpus of Deuteronomy conceptualizes the king in a way that rejects all prevailing models of monarchic power held among the ancient Hebrew. This shift causes readers of the Old Testament to lose the continuity between the ancient Messianic expectation among the Habiru and the New Testament's understanding of God as King incarnate who will be the temple, not merely fill it, and be raised on the third day.

Solomon's many pillared temple was patterned on the more ancient Horite temples found at Nekhen and Heliopolis. Archaeological evidence indicates that Horite temples, such as those found at Petra, and near the Amman airport, and at Shechem, were square with a "holy of holies." At the very center of this sacred space was a round stone platform that either served as the pedestal of a stone pillar or as the base of an altar.

Typically, the interior floor of the Horite temple was paved and the walls were made of hewn stones. In the Horite temples along the Nile there were many pillars rather than stone walls. The temple at Heliopolis or Iunu is an example. Iunu means "place of pillars" and likely refers to the temple of Heliopolis. Herodutus reported that it took nine days to sail from Heliopolis to Thebes. The temple of Thebes was called "Heliopolis of the South."



These pillars served as support for a roof and, in the case of the central area, a symbol of the Creator who generates life. Perhaps the Apostle Paul had this in mind when he wrote to Timothy that the Church of the living God is a pillar (I Tim. 3:15). Pillars in the temple also represented the righteous ones of God. Exodus 24:4 speaks of the twelve pillars in God's house as the twelve tribes upon which God has inscribed the holy Name. The Horite ruler-priests were regarded as "sons" of God. They are sometimes called "gods" (elohim) as in Exodus 22:28: "Thou shalt not revile the gods (elohim), nor curse the ruler of thy people."

The entrance to Solomon's temple was flanked by twin pillars dedicated to his Horite ancestors Joachin and Boaz. David and Solomon were of the Horite priestly lines that can be traced from Genesis 4 and 5 to Joseph who married Mary, the daughter of the shepherd-priest Joachim. Mary’s full name was "Miriam Daughter of Joachim Son of Pntjr (Panther) Priest of Nathan of Bethlehem." The Horites designated the deified king ntjr. In Ancient Egyptian ntjr is a reference to god/gods. P-ntjr means "Priest of God.”


Related reading: Graven Images and Idols; Who Were the Horites?; The Sun and Moon in Genesis;
The Virgin Mary's Ancestry;  Bernard M. Levinson, The Reconceptualization of Kingship in Deuteronomy; Genesis Through the Lens of the Deuteronomist; How the Deuteronomist Changes the Genesis Narrative


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