Awakening Judaism

16 maart 2024


Endlessly the wide world stretched out in all directions. Large and small rivers meandered slowly through the flat land. Very far away, one could vaguely discern the long low mountain ridges that wreathed the world. The air trembled in the heat of the afternoon, but the water gave life. Insects buzzed and stung, water birds flew up clapping for animals that came too close to quench their thirst. People irrigated their fields and thanked the gods for bountiful harvests and the ripe fruits that made the branches sag under their weight. Yet sometimes the water that was a blessing became a curse as it overflowed its banks and flooded all the land. People, however, had made many sacrifices to the gods to secure their blessing, but perhaps not enough.
High above it all stretched the infinite sky through which by day the sun god traveled slowly and by night the moon god was accompanied by myriads of twinkling stars slowly shifting together. Like those stars in the sky, so were the gods: innumerable. Priests strove to jot down interminable lists of gods’ names with a reed in damp clay. They also kept lists of the numerous demons that surreptitiously preyed on people to scare them unawares and infect them with ailments or other mischief. And then there were the death spirits who, jealous as they were of the living, troubled them with bad dreams that predicted little good.
In heaven resided the gods, on earth dwelt men, and under the earth ruled some gods, but above all there the dead sighed in their dark realm. It was the lamentable fate of every mortal to descend there one day. Heaven, earth and realm of the dead were connected. People prayed to gods in heaven and to the dead in the underworld. Gods and dead answered the pleas of the living – or not; then they turned a deaf ear to their complaints. There was always some searching for the cause. Had one sinned? Broke a taboo? Was the deity aggrieved by a lack of praise and sacrifice? Had the dead been offered too scanty food offerings? Had they been buried with too little mourning mass? Fortunately, numerous priests who specialized in all these things were able to provide relief, to assist the weak in his anguish and distress.
This is how times passed. Gods remained gods, people became dead people, dead people remained dead people. This is how it had always been, this is how it would always be. So there was no history, no future, there was only an ever-repeating repetition of the eternal now.
Then, at the edge of the world, in a small area called Judah, prophets began to prophesy peculiar things. Strange words that had never been heard before were now being spoken. Singular ideas were proclaimed. What deity had revealed these mysteries to the prophets? What power in heaven had shown these seers the images of a new world? One grew somewhat restless, there in Judah, for the known world seemed to falter. And indeed, in time, the old familiar worldview that for several millennia had guided mankind on its passage through life would fade away. What strange revelations were these prophets prophesying about?
Heaven became all but empty, the underworld all but forgotten. The newness that now dawned, that was accepted by the Judeans, at first hesitantly, then more and more enthusiastically, that’s what this book is about.


The Bible, this eternal classic, did not come out of nowhere; it has its roots in the cultures of a distant past, in the world of the Middle East. The ancient civilizations of the Sumerians, Babylonians, Assyrians, Aramaeans and Canaanites formed one vast cultural area that included Israel and Judah. But Hittites and geographically isolated Egypt were also important civilizations. Because Egypt was quite a world apart in many ways – including religiously – we give less attention to it than to Mesopotamia, which exerted a much greater influence on Israel and Judah. Those influences were sometimes quite direct, mostly indirect. Legislation, all kinds of customs, composition of families, stories that were told, the way of living, of fighting, of parenting, of seeking healing, seeking protection from evil powers, the way of believing too, show a lot of overlap. This, of course, is not surprising; after all, Israel and Judah were part of the world in which they were embedded. Hence there are so many analogies between religious texts from those ancient cultures and the text of the Bible. Knowledge of those ancient Eastern cultures allows us to appreciate the Bible much better, and to discover in what it is unique apart from all the similarities. For the Bible, or its message, does not blend seamlessly with all that was believed in those ancient cultures; the professed values and truths are by no means the same. The Bible offers something unique; it offers a radically different view of the reality in which man lives.

Long before the exile (around 600 B.C.), Israelites and Judeans had entrusted oral traditions to papyrus. The Israelites would be carried off into exile by the Assyrians and absorbed into the multitude of nations. They disappeared from the world stage. But when a century later the Judeans were transported by the Babylonians to distant Babylon, an impressive literary activity developed in the Judaean court there. Psalms, prophecies, the history of Israel and Judah, it was all edited there. People even edited new epics that they had learned about in Babel, such as about creation, a flood. In Persian times (539-333 BCE), the priests and scribes who had returned to Judah would devote themselves with renewed zeal to writing, editing and copying religious works. From the time of the Judaean exile, we speak of “Judaism. So the Bible is ultimately a product of that Judaism. The uniqueness of this literature is only revealed when we place the faith of Israel and Judah in the context in which it originated and grew: the Old Eastern world. Samuel Kramer (1897-1990), Assyriologist and expert on the Sumerian language, said of it that it was a miracle how the Bible broke through centuries-old fixed frames and conventional schemes, to blossom open into a body of work with a dynamism, with a creative force, that is without equal in the history of the world. That dynamism, that creative force, is what we want to explore in this book. We will do so by going back to the distant roots of Judaism, which are the kingdoms of Israel and Judah, as well as the even older cultures in which those two kingdoms arose. We will do this through the following chapters.
In the 12e century the thundered world of the Middle East rocked to its foundations. Sea peoples, driven by climate changes in search of new land, washed up in waves again and again on the coasts of Egypt and the Levant.

The Levant is the coastal area on the eastern Mediterranean, between Asia Minor (Turkey) and Egypt. Many cities were destroyed and left desolate in ruins, once powerful empires folded back on their core lands. This created a power vacuum in Canaan, the southern part of the Levant, in which new states could be formed: Ammon, Moab, Edom as well as Israel and Judah. In the first chapter we tell how the world of the Middle East changed dramatically at that time, and how Israel and Judah were then able to develop and grow. However, their independence would not last; different superpowers alternated in their domination over “the four corners of the world” – by which they meant the whole world: Assyria, Babylonia and Persia. (Greek domination is beyond the scope of this book). A central event in the experience of the Judeans or Jews was how they were deported as exiles to Babylon by the Babylonians, but were able to return triumphantly to their own little land thanks to the Persians. There were also stories circulating about even much earlier times, about how Abraham had been brought by God to that “promised land,” how his distant descendants had been led from Egypt again by God to that land, how in those early days that land was ruled by judges, a time when God was still king. These were stories that were very helpful to the exiles returning from Babylon, for these stories confirmed their rights to the land.

In describing the history of Israel and Judah, one can follow two tracks. One faithfully follows the story as described in the Bible. Israel then arose from the distant ancestor Abraham. All sorts of intriguing stories describe how his family developed into a people, who, driven by hunger, fled to Egypt, fell into slavery there until they were freed again from Egypt and advanced to the promised land in Canaan, where they would form their own state, later two states. Another track is the critical-historical one. In this, one starts from archaeological data (they then come first), supplemented by a critical reading of the Bible. The first track is an attitude of faith; the second is a purely scientific approach. This book follows the second track. This in no way means that the stories of Abraham, Moses and other patriarchs would be meaningless; their rich content still has something to say to modern man as well. One need only mention the topic of slavery that is dealt with in the book of Exodus, and which we only now seem to wonder what actually inspired Western man with his slave trade. To describe all this richness of the Bible would require a theological book. What is offered here, however, is not a book for reflection, but a book that attempts to shed light on how people used to live and believe, and how their history probably (because science always remains provisional) went. I mentioned that the Bible is a product of Judaism, of how Jews at the time conceived their world and their history. Their worldview, Godview, picture of history, is placed here in the wider world of the time. The goal is thereby to gain a better understanding of the uniqueness of Jewish society and of its sacred scripture, the Bible.

In a second chapter, we look at how people lived in those long-ago times, both in Mesopotamia and in Israel and Judah. We explore what families and households looked like, how people married, had sex and possibly divorced again. We sympathize with the concerns around pregnancy, miscarriages, abortion, but we rejoice with the new fathers and mothers over the birth, and sigh with them over the concerns about parenting. We look at how education was then, how slaves were treated, and how people relied on all kinds of remedies, magic and prayer to heal the sick. Often they did not heal, they died and were buried; we also learn about funeral rites. And further, we discover how people lived, day in and day out, on their land, in the villages, in the cities, both in the small Israelite and Judaean cities, and in the more impressive cities of the larger Mesopotamian empires. Then there was the war. Palestine was not a quiet backwater; it was a major thoroughfare between south and north, between south and east, both for trade caravans and armies. Great powers were always out to annex this important territory, by force of arms. The prophet Isaiah could dream of a time when swords would be turned into plowshares and spears into pruning knives, but it was far from that: swords, spears and other weaponry remained of great importance. We look at how warfare took place in those days.

All subsequent chapters are devoted to religion. That’s a lot, but there’s also a lot of fascinating things to say about that. Chapter three describes a world full of gods and magic. We are introduced to the main gods of the Mesopotamian pantheon, meet some household gods, but also learn about dangerous evil spirits and, fortunately, the incantations with which we can keep them at bay, or if it is too late to do so, excoriate them. In the previous chapter we saw how people were buried, but now we ourselves descend into the gloomy realm of the dead, the realm where people remained after death until eternal days, whether in Mesopotamia, Egypt, or Israel. As long as people still lived above, on earth, they could learn the will of the gods. Numerous forms of divination helped with this, some of which special ones, such as dreams and prophecies, also gave Israel insight into what God had in mind for man. Of course, gods, if they dwelt on earth, needed a dwelling place here. In Israel they were simple temples, but in Mesopotamia the temples were huge complexes of buildings, often with a stair tower next to them that jutted to the sky for the gods to descend through: the ziggurat. This was unknown in Egypt, but their temples were no less impressive, and the pyramids, colossal tombs of the pharaohs, are still breathtaking. Finally, we also look at the activity of priests in those temple complexes.

In the fourth chapter, we take a closer look at the religious experience of the people. How did they see the gods, how did they experience them, what impact did the gods have on their lives? We see the birth of the awareness of sin and guilt, and discover that sometimes the gods could also be absent, that they were silent, unreachable to the supplications of the believer. Israel, too, knew the desperate prayer, “Awake, Lord, why do You sleep?” We also look at some other prayers, in which we are struck by the soul stirrings of people who lived long ago: their worries, their fears, their hopes. A special bond existed between gods and kings. Kings ruled on behalf of the gods, waged wars on their orders, built or repaired temples on their instructions. Mesopotamian kings were so close to the gods that they were occasionally deified as well. In Egypt, the pharaoh was divine anyway. But in Israel, the king never got beyond being adopted as a son of God. Finally, we turn to what are controversial topics among scholars: sacred marriage and sacred prostitution in Mesopotamia.

A shorter, fifth chapter deals with Zoroastrianism. This was the religion of the Achaemenid Persians, with whom the Judeans had to deal as exiles in Babylon. It can be said that zoroastrianism was a very different religion from the polytheism of the Mesopotamian peoples. What is fascinating is that Zoroastrianism seems to have exerted quite an influence on the Jewish faith, which since that time, since the exile, incorporated a number of new things into its religion: a belief in a battle between angels and demons, a pre-existent Messiah, an emphasis on morality in the religion, and a new view of death that was no longer the irrevocable end but was followed by a judgment that brought man to heaven or hell.

And then there is the faith of Israel itself. In the previous chapters we saw that there are a lot of overlaps here with the faith of Mesopotamian peoples, although we also discovered differences. But in chapter six we discuss an important difference that has not yet been addressed: Israel’s belief that there is only one God, that all other so-called gods are “nothingnesses,” over whose images the prophets made merry. But how did Israel arrive at that, at the idea that there is only one God? We look at a surprising evolution within Israel itself from polytheism (several gods being worshiped) to monolatry (worshiping only one God among many), to monotheism (belief in the existence of only one God). Some extraordinary events in history have formed the bed in which this evolution became possible.

Chapter seven introduces us to the literature of Mesopotamia. It is incredibly rich, but we limit ourselves to the literature dealing with the gods, and then only insofar as it is interesting to compare with Biblical stories. These are stories, myths, epics, which one can also find scattered elsewhere in Dutch and English books, but which have been brought together here for the convenience of the reader. That is, the relevant passages from those epics are reproduced here, because the Eastern epics are very long and repetitive. A myth is not just a story about divine or human heroes, it is above all a way of understanding the world, of explaining why it has become the way it is. The myths that concern us are those about primeval times: creation, paradise, the Flood, about the battle against sea monsters. They are stories that inspired Bible writers, but which they did not copy blindly. Where they differ then is explored. There is also a rich wisdom literature: ancient eastern fables, theodicy, wisdom proverbs are discussed and compared with biblical versions. Finally, we also look at some law texts. To modern people, laws do not belong to “religious literature,” but the people of ancient times knew that these laws were given to mankind by the gods, or by God, hence we place them in this chapter. Again, we compare Israelite or Old Testament laws with the laws of other realms.

The last chapter is about priests and prophets of Israel. We have already talked about priests and prophets among other Middle Eastern peoples in previous chapters, and here and there Israel’s were touched on briefly, but here we deal with them specifically. We examine who could be priests, what the duties of priests and Levites were, what the responsibility of the high priest was, how things stood with lower temple personnel. We also address an important distinction made in that ancient world between sacred and profane, a distinction we also find in Israel. Food laws and purity laws were derived from this. The sacrificial cult of Israel is also discussed. As for the prophets, we look at how they were called and discover that some prophets were enraptured by God’s spirit in a rather bizarre way. We examine what a prophecy actually is, what was God’s part in it and what was the responsibility of the prophet. Finally, we talk about the mysterious power that school in the word and sign, something totally foreign to modern man, but which was the power of the prophets at the time and was feared.

In the concluding chapter, we revisit some important issues discovered on our journey through the ancient Oriental world, and formulate some important conclusions.

Share This