Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Monotheism and the Accidental God

Jehovah worshippers got lucky, but what if Elijah the Prophet got it wrong and Jezebel was not so bad, after all?

This isn't going to be a thorough (or, even, reliable) exposition of how we in the West ended up with the one god with whom we live now; it is merely preamble for my poem Jezebel, which can be found posted at Outdoor Poetry Season, my other blog. Behind Jezebel is the idea that history is a story told by victors or, at least, a story told by survivors with a definite point of view.

We live in a world substantially shaped by the bible, variously interpreted as it is by Jews, Christians and Moslems. Never mind that there is no archaeological or trustworthy historical evidence for many biblical tales. The foundational story of the Exodus is fiction, however much it might pain me to say so. The Exodus story, and, particularly, the commandment to remember when we were slaves in Egypt, with its implied obligation to side with the oppressed, has been the rock on which I've constructed my (mostly secularized) commitment to social justice. The human capacity for self-deception being what it is, the Exodus story doesn't actually need to be true for me to experience it like some sort of inherited memory. But it can't hurt, I don't think, to seek a better and richer understanding of how the Bible came to be the book that it is, and how and why it came to tell the stories that it tells.

Throughout the 19th Century and a good portion of the 20th, the relatively young science of archaeology was actually focused on proving that much of the biblical account of early history, since about 1500 BCE (BC, for all you traditionalists), was accurate. But as the science grew up, archaeologists have discovered that there is no factual basis for the story of the flight of thousands of Jews from Egypt. There is very little evidence of the existence of Jews, at all, before about 1000 BCE, when they begin to turn up in some Egyptian and, later, Assyrian accounts of a tribal people living in the Galilee and the hills around present day Jerusalem.

There is evidence that there were, briefly, two Jewish states, Israel and Judah, but the northern state of Israel, larger, more prosperous and more cosmopolitan than Judah, was smashed by Assyrian conquerers around 800 BCE. After the disappearance of Israel, scribes in Judah, in the service of a likely real-life Judean king by the name of Josiah, wrote what would become the Book of Kings, a story attributing the destruction of Israel to the failure of the Jews there to properly honor Jehovah, a particularly intolerant and demanding god who found himself unable to abide the proximity of other gods. However vexing the worship of other gods was to Jehovah, it was a common practice in the polytheistic Middle East, and a practice tolerated by the kings of the northern state of Israel, who ruled over a kingdom much more diverse than Judah.

Theologians can argue the ways in which monotheism is superior to polytheism (and they do), but the Judean scribes had a much more practical interest in attributing the downfall of Israel to the worship of other gods and to the creation of graven images; they were primarily concerned with creating a rationale to support the reconquest of the Galilee by Judah, the home of the true and devout worshippers of the one god, the one who had promised the land to the children of Israel. Telling a story about how Israel broke faith with Jehovah, with the added implication that Judah had kept faith, made good propaganda.

(How ironic it is that almost 3,000 years later the creation of the state of Israel has been legitimized, at least in part, by the same biblical stories, which have in the intervening time laid an even stronger claim on the Western imagination, become history, without any further substantiation.)

The story made little difference at the time. Judah had nowhere near the power necessary to reestablish of Israel. And for the Jews, further complications followed.

There were difficulties with other Middle Eastern powers, the Babylonians, to be sure; Romans, followed; and so did the Jewish sect known as Christians, who come to believe that they have a new covenant with the one God. Later came the followers of Muhammad, who developed a new understanding of the true intent of the same one God. Then the crusades, further wanderings around Europe and western Asia, expulsions, pogroms and finally the Holocaust. But that discussion is best left to another time and, probably, to others more qualified to pursue it. This piece is merely a look at some of the thinking that contributed came to writing Jezebel.

One important character in Kings is the prophet Elijah, and his relentless denunciations of Ahab, king of the northern state, and of Jezebel, the Phoenician princess who married Ahab in what was certainly a political marriage cementing an alliance between Phoenicia and Israel. Needless to say, Elijah and the one god did not approve of Ahab's marriage outside the faith.

Elijah blamed Jezebel for bringing the cult of Baal to Israel and to Samaria, the capital of the northern state. According to Kings, the prophet was persuasive enough to rouse the bad conscience of the Jews of Israel, who at one point rise up and slaughter 450 priests of Baal. This event enrages Jezebel who persuades Ahab to bring Elijah to justice or, maybe, just slaughter him in return. Elijah flees to the desert, as so many Jewish prophets are wont to do and escapes Jezebel's wrath. He does, however, prophesy (see, somewhere, Elijah Prophesys a Prophecy) that she will die in the streets and that her body will be torn to pieces by wild dogs. This, Kings tells us, comes to pass. But however satisfying the slaughter of the priests of Baal and the dismembering of Jezebel may be to the one god, it is not sufficient to spare Israel, which is itself dismembered and scattered to the winds.

But the historically more likely story is that Israel, far larger and more prosperous than Judah, was governed by rulers who had to tolerate the customs and rituals of a diverse population, including Moabites, Ammonites and other Middle Eastern peoples. The wealth and fertile lands of the northern state also attracted the interest of the Assyrians, Babylonians, Egyptians and Romans. In the to-the-victor-go-the-spoils world of the ancient Near East, Israel was more likely doomed to suffer at the hands of greedy, powerful neighbors than by its failure to follow Jehovah's commandments.

Judah, the southern Jewish state, was rockier and hillier. Producing little in the way of surplus, the place was of minimal interest to conquerors. In any case, when Judean scribes wrote the story of Elijah and Jezebel, there were no Israelites left to argue the point.

But what if Jezebel had not been the evil devil-worshipper denounced by Elijah? What if Elijah had himself had an earlier and more positive experience of Jezebel? What if his subsequent fury was, at least in part, the product of repressed desire and visions and, maybe, too much desert sun?

What if someone other than Judean scribes, someone like myself, told a different story about Jezebel?

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