Shattering the Sacred Myths - Chapter 4

The History of Ancient Israel

 
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The most probable history of ancient Israel from the Iron Age to the destruction of Jerusalem in the war against Rome.

We have now considered the possibility that there might be some kind of purpose behind the evolution of consciousness and the development of advanced technology. The next step of our journey will be to explore the last few thousand years of written history to see how the traditional religions and philosophies have answered the question of human purpose.

This will not be an easy thing to do. The problem with trying to explore the history of popular beliefs is that it can be difficult to navigate the most probable sequence of events between the myths of the priesthoods and the theories of the scholars. Sometimes the best that we can do is to make cautious speculations based upon a careful examination of what little evidence remains. Often it is not a matter of what can be proven, but rather what will be believed.

Not only do we need to show sensitivity and respect in order to appreciate the better qualities of each belief, we also need to have a certain bold honesty in order to expose the worst aspects of each belief. Not only boldness in the interpretation of events, but also a bold creative obligation to translate and arrange the words of each historical thinker to make their intended meanings as clear as possible.

The Sumerians

One of the earliest known farming settlements in the world was situated in the Jordan River valley, east of the Mediterranean, around 8000 BC. These early farmers grew wheat and barley and raised sheep and goats. They produced an abundance of food, and as their population grew, they spread out looking for new lands to cultivate. Over the next few thousand years, farming communities spread north into Turkey, south into the Nile River valley of Egypt, and east into the river valleys of Sumeria.

The river valleys of Sumeria in modern day Iraq were ideal for growing crops. The land was fertilized by annual floods which deposited fresh layers of nutrient rich soil. Once farmers learned how to control the flooding by building embankments and digging canals, the land was able to produce enough food to support a large population. From around 3500 BC onwards, the number of people living in the region climbed into the hundreds of thousands, and population centers grew into cities.

The river valleys lacked many natural resources, so the Sumerians established trading colonies in the mountains to the north west. Raw materials such as stone, timber, and metals were transported downriver to be traded for agricultural products. In the centuries that followed, the wheel was invented, bronze became widely available, and the art of writing began as commercial transactions were being carved into clay tablets.

A number of cities were spread out over the river valleys of Sumeria. Each was ruled by its own nobility of kings, priests, and wealthy land owners. Occasionally one city would become powerful enough to conquer its neighbors and form an empire, but such empires never lasted long. As distant trading colonies grew into independent cities, they sometimes became powerful enough to conquer the surrounding territory and form their own empires.

Defeated populations were often captured and taken away as slaves. Ancient economies depended on slave labor. Slaves worked as household servants, they worked in the fields and in the mines, and they were used as an inexpensive labor force to build roads, palaces, and temples. Slaves had a similar value to farm animals and were treated in much the same way.

Each city had its own patron god or goddess, and wars between the cities were often seen as battles between the gods. The Sumerians believed that they had been created by the gods to be their servants. They were powerless against the gods, having no choice but to worship and obey. Despite how much they prayed and sacrificed, they knew that the selfish and uncaring gods would continue to punish them with famines, plagues, and wars.

The Sumerians did not believe in reward or punishment after death. Instead they imagined a shadowy netherworld where the spirits of the dead ate dust and crawled on their bellies. These spirits might occasionally affect the living before they eventually faded into oblivion.

The Egyptians

As Sumerian civilization was being worn down by wars and invasions, Egyptian civilization began to rise around 3000 BC. Egypt was protected from attack by the surrounding desert. The Nile River valley was more fertile than Sumeria, allowing two crops to be grown every year. Many aspects of Sumerian culture were adopted by the Egyptians. But unlike Sumeria, which was divided into a number of kingdoms, the whole of Egypt was eventually united under a single king.

The Egyptians believed in a number of gods and goddesses, some native to their culture, others borrowed from foreign lands. Different communities within the empire followed different religious myths. Most Egyptians recognized at least one god as being the creator of the world.

Many believed that as they passed into the afterlife, their deeds would be judged by the King of the Dead. The souls of the innocent would be guided to paradise, while the souls of the guilty would be torn to pieces by animal gods and would cease to exist.

Proverbs played an important role in Egyptian religion. These short statements about the meaning of life carried the ancient wisdom of the temple priests. Collections of Egyptian proverbs were preserved in writing on temple walls ...

Never believe a word without first putting its truth to the test; careful scrutiny is required by the seeker; understanding does not grow through laziness.

Men need symbols. Lacking them they will invent idols. It is better to base their symbols on realities that lead the true seeker to the source.

An answer brings no illumination unless the question has matured to a point where it gives rise to this answer, which thus becomes its fruit.

True teaching is not an accumulation of knowledge; it is an awakening of the consciousness which goes through successive stages.

Not even the greatest teacher can go one step for his student; the student himself must experience each stage of developing consciousness. Therefore he will know nothing for which he is not ripe.

Growth in consciousness does not depend on the potential of the intellect, but on the intensity of the inner urge.

Whatever you do does not matter so much as what you learn from doing it.

The Phoenicians

In the writing systems of these early civilizations, each word or phrase was represented by a picture. As the centuries passed, the number of recognizable pictures grew to cover hundreds of different words and phrases. Although much could be said using only a few pictures, because of the limited number of meanings that they represented, it was difficult to use them for much more than record keeping.

A group of people known as the Phoenicians emerged around 3000 BC as a colony of traders, cutting down trees in the mountains of Lebanon and shipping them downriver to Sumeria. They built cities and ports along the east coast of the Mediterranean and became skilled boat builders and navigators. Their ships traveled throughout the region, trading with distant lands including Egypt and Greece.

The Phoenicians had inherited writing from the Sumerians, and by around 1200 BC, they had refined the language from hundreds of symbols down to less than thirty. Each symbol now represented a different sound. The invention of the Phoenician alphabet allowed written words to better reflect the power of speech. The Phoenicians also acquired papyrus scrolls from the Egyptians. They were easier to write on and much easier to carry than clay tablets.

The area of land around modern day Israel was then known as the land of Canaan. The Canaanites shared a common culture with the Phoenicians and many of them shared a common heritage. Canaanite farmers worshipped many gods including Baal, the goddess of fertility, and they often held drunken orgies to call upon Baal to bring them rain.

The Philistines

The sands along the coast of the Black Sea, north of Turkey, were rich in iron oxide. Around 1200 BC, the people living in this area learned how to extract large quantities of iron from the sand. Before long, the Mediterranean kingdoms were being invaded by armies of northern tribesmen. The invaders carried superior iron weapons and they attacked by both land and sea.

Northern warships sailed down the Mediterranean coast, destroying the Phoenician ports and cities along the way. The northern army marched through Canaan towards Egypt, ransacking towns and forcing villagers to flee into the desert. The invaders came with wagons carrying their families and possessions, and many of them settled in the vacant ruins.

The Egyptians had time to prepare for battle. They gained an advantage over the northern invasion fleet and it was destroyed as it sailed up the Nile River. But the land invasion was only stopped after a long and bloody battle. The invaders retreated back to the east coast of the Mediterranean, where they settled on fertile land and became known as the Philistines.

Mediterranean civilization was in ruins and regional trade had come to an end. Egypt had been saved from destruction, but the empire was critically weakened and soon collapsed into regional kingdoms. Masses of Egyptian slaves took advantage of the changing conditions to escape through the desert. Many of them eventually settled in the sparsely populated hill country of Canaan. These people became known as the Israelites.

The Canaanite cities were weak after centuries of being dominated by regional empires. The Israelites expanded their territory by capturing one town after the next. They existed as a loose federation of tribes until around 1050 BC when the Philistines invaded their territory. They responded to this threat by uniting under a common king and forming a national army. They then captured the city of Jerusalem and made it their capital.

Stories about gods

It was widely believed by people in ancient times that their lives were at the mercy of a multitude of gods, each one looking after a particular aspect of life on earth or beyond. It was natural then for stories to be told about the relationships between these gods and about the way they intervened in the affairs of mortal men.

As the art of writing continued to improve, stories about the gods became wider in scope and richer in detail. Their popularity depended more on their ability to entertain than to inspire. Portrayals of selfishness, jealousy, and dishonesty between the gods did little to encourage good communal values and practices among the people.

Although stories about the gods may have impressed the majority of people, there would have been some people who had difficultly accepting the common superstitions of their time. These people would have limited their concerns to the practical issues of daily life. Questioning the teachings of powerful priests has always been dangerous.

And there have always been people who believed that the whole of nature was governed by a single higher power. Ancient religions were generally able to accommodate such beliefs by having one particular god who reigned above all others, a god who was often described as being the creator of the world or the king of the other gods.

However, the majority of people had neither the instinct nor the education to contemplate the gods. They simply believed whatever they were told to believe by their priests, who made a comfortable living out of being knowledgeable about matters of religion.

The only significant difference between the Israelites and the other nations at the time was that the Israelite priests had begun to preach that there could be only one creator of the world and therefore only one true God. All other gods were denounced as mere idols not worthy of worship.

Having no other gods to interact with, the only stories that could be told about this god were stories about his relationship with his people. About how he was pleased when they honored him and angry when they disobeyed his commands.

Biblical scriptures

The Israelites adopted a variation of the Canaanite alphabet and began writing down their historical myths. By around 700 BC, innovative priests had collected the best of these myths and woven them together to form a detailed history of the nation of Israel, intended to convince the Israelites that they were God's chosen people.

As new events unfolded, and as new interpretations of their history grew more popular, new scrolls gained acceptance into the common collection of religious literature. Papyrus scrolls had only a limited lifetime, and so any scrolls which fell out of favor were eventually lost and forgotten.

As the sacred scrolls were being copied or translated, successive generations were able to rework and refine the original myths and histories, incorporating into them new influences, and embellishing them with a greater degree of religious zeal and national pride.

What evolved over the centuries became something like a national constitution. Unlike any other literature at the time, it gave the Israelites a common culture, a comprehensive set of laws, a strong national identity, and a fierce emotional connection to the land.

The scriptures were so successful at preserving their cultural identity that even after thousands of years, their descendents continue to carry on their customs and beliefs. As a work of literature, it has had such a profound influence on other cultures that it now forms the basis for half of the world's religions.

Biblical mythology

The mythology of Israel begins with God creating the heavens and the earth. God then creates mankind and gives him possession over the earth. This ancient myth was devised so thoughtfully and told with such authority that many people today still believe it to be true.

According to this myth, God chose a Sumerian man named Abraham, whose faith was so strong that his descendents were promised possession of the land of Israel. Generations of his family then continued to wreak havoc around the Middle East, getting themselves into trouble and then getting themselves out of trouble again, before finally becoming slaves to the Egyptians.

Many centuries later, another mythical hero named Moses supposedly led more than a million of Abraham's descendents out of slavery in Egypt. After surviving in the desert for some time, they returned to the Promised Land, massacred its inhabitants, and were given a system of laws, traditions, and values. The rest of the scriptures cover the unfolding history of Israel.

Early history

United by their commitment to God, they battled for centuries against enemy states and invading hordes. The underlying theme is that when the people remained united by their faith in God then they prospered and defeated their enemies. But when they abandoned their faith in God, and when they were led by kings who were driven only by the desire for personal wealth and power, then the people became divided by civil war and were conquered by their enemies. The early scriptures say ...

Follow after none of the other gods of the people who dwell around you, lest the Lord's anger blaze out fiercely against you and wipe you off the face of the earth, for the Lord your God is a jealous God. Seek to do all that is good and right in the Lord's sight, so that you may prosper and enter into possession of the good land which the Lord has promised to your fathers, to clear it of all who oppose you, as the Lord has commanded.

Do not make idols for yourselves, nor set up carved images, nor erect stone sculptures for the people to worship, for I am the Lord your God. If you practice my commandments then I shall grant you seasonal rain, the land shall produce crops, and the trees shall bear fruit. You shall eat well and live in safety. I will chase away your enemies who will fall before you by the sword.

But if you do not listen to me, then I shall turn against you and you will be defeated by your enemies. Your land will not produce crops nor will your trees bear fruit. I will destroy your livestock and unleash wild beasts into your fields. I will tear down your altars and pile your corpses upon your broken idols. I will turn your cities into ruins, and so thoroughly lay waste to your land that your enemies who settle on it shall be astonished.

Around 930 BC, political differences forced the population to divide into the northern state of Israel, and the southern state of Judah. The people living in the southern state became known as the Jews.

The two states continued to endure civil wars and foreign invasions until around 720 BC, when the northern state was conquered by the Assyrian Empire. The defeated Israelites were taken away as slaves and no longer appeared in history. They became known as the lost tribes of Israel.

The Jews had been told by their ancient prophets that their forefathers had made a pact with God. As long as they continued to obey his commands then God would protect them. And so each time disaster fell upon them they were told by new prophets that they were being punished for their disobedience to God.

Babylonian Exile

Around 590 BC, the Babylonian Empire conquered the southern state of Judah. Most of the population were taken away as slaves. This experience had a profound effect on the development of the Jewish religion. New scrolls were written and many of the older scrolls were changed. The Jewish scriptures were beginning to take their final form. The following lines were added to the book of Isaiah ...

Surely the nations are like a drop in a bucket; they are regarded as specks of dirt on the scales. God weighs the lands as though they were fine dust. Before him all the nations are as nothing. They are regarded by him as worthless and less than nothing. He brings princes to nothing and their judgments soon pass away. No sooner are they planted, no sooner are they sown, no sooner do they take root in the ground, than he blows on them and they wither, and a whirlwind sweeps them away like chaff.

Why do you complain, O Israel, "The Lord does not notice me; my cause is ignored by my God?" Do you not know? Have you not heard? The Lord is the everlasting God, the creator of the ends of the earth. He never grows tired or weary, and his understanding no one can fathom. He gives strength to the weary and increases the power of the weak. Even youths grow tired and weary, and young men stumble and fall, but those who have faith in the Lord will renew their strength. They will fly like eagles, they will run and never grow tired, they will continue and never give up.

Around 550 BC, a Persian prince named Cyrus conquered the Babylonians and created an empire that eventually stretched from Greece to India. He became known as Cyrus the Great, not only for his success in war, but also for his unprecedented tolerance and generous attitude towards those he defeated. His accomplishments were recorded on a clay cylinder ...

I am Cyrus, king of the world. When I entered Babylon, I established my government in the royal palace amidst jubilation and rejoicing. I did not allow anyone to terrorize the land. I freed the people of Babylon and put an end to their misfortunes. The holy cities in faraway lands whose temples were destroyed in the distant past, I restored their temples and gave them back their gods. I have gathered all of the displaced people and sent them back to their homes. The Great God has delivered all of the lands into my hands, and these lands shall now dwell in peace.

Cyrus allowed the Jews to return to their homeland, although many chose to stay in Babylon. Israel was now a province of the Persian Empire.

The Persians had been developing their own religion based on the teachings of a prophet known as Zoroaster. Zoroaster believed that there was a battle raging in heaven between the god of goodness and light, and the god of darkness and evil. When goodness finally defeats evil, there will be a day of judgment. The dead will be resurrected and the guilty will burn in hell. Zoroaster's ideas influenced the development of many other religions in the region up to and including the rise of Christianity and Islam.

The Apocrypha

Around 330 BC, the Greeks under Alexander the Great conquered the Persians and established the Greek Empire. Judah became known as Judea, and for the next few hundred years it was governed by the descendants of Alexander's generals.

The Jews participated in the Greek invasion of Egypt, and as a reward, they were allowed to settle in the Egyptian city of Alexandria. Influenced by Greek culture, the majority of Alexandrian Jews learned to speak Greek instead of Hebrew. In order to preserve their religion, the Jewish scriptures were translated into Greek. This translation was painstakingly compiled over the last few centuries BC.

Some of the scriptures that were translated into Greek had only been written in recent centuries, and although the Greek speaking Jews considered them to be sacred, they were not accepted as sacred by the Jews living in Judea. These controversial books have since become known as the Old Testament Apocrypha.

When Christianity first appeared, the early churches used the Alexandrian Greek translation of the Jewish scriptures as their Old Testament. The additional books of the Apocrypha were accepted by the early church as an integral part of the Bible.

After the Protestant churches split away from Catholic control around the 1600s, book publishers in Protestant countries like England and Germany removed the Apocrypha to reduce the size of the Bible and save on printing costs. The removal of the Apocrypha was encouraged by the Protestant bishops.

The Apocrypha still appears in many Catholic and Greek Orthodox editions of the Bible. One of the Apocryphal books is called Ecclesiasticus. It was written around 200 BC and translated into Greek around 130 BC. In the book of Ecclesiasticus, it says ...

When an intelligent person hears a wise saying, he praises it and adds to it; but when a fool hears it, he laughs at it and throws it away. In the treasuries of God's wisdom there are many wise sayings, but God's wisdom is an abomination to the sinner. The knowledge of wickedness is not wisdom, nor is there good sense in the advice of sinners. For great is the wisdom of the Lord. He is mighty in power and sees everything. And he does not command anyone to be wicked.

Perform all your tasks with humility. The greater you are, the more you must humble yourself, so that you will find favor in the sight of the Lord. Do not praise yourself, or you may fail and bring dishonor upon yourself. The Lord will reveal your secrets and dishonor you before the whole community, because you did not come in fear of the Lord, and your heart was full of deceit.

Do not say, “I have sinned, and yet nothing has happened to me”, for the Lord is slow to anger. Do not be so confident of forgiveness that you add to your sins. Do not say, “His mercy is great, he will forgive the multitude of my sins”, for both mercy and wrath are in him, and his anger will fall upon sinners.

Do not become a beggar by feasting with borrowed money when you have nothing in your purse. A rich person will exploit you if you can be of use to him, but if you are in need he will abandon you. Riches are only good if they are free from sin. Poverty is only evil in the opinion of the ungodly.

Do not cheat the poor out of their living. Do not add to the troubles of the desperate, or delay giving to the needy. Do not let your hand be stretched out to receive, and closed when it is time to give. Do not avert your eyes from the needy, or give them a reason to curse you. For if in bitterness, some of them should curse you, then the Lord may hear their prayers. The compassion of human beings is for their neighbors, but the compassion of the Lord is for every living thing.

Let those who are friendly with you be many, but let your advisers be one in a thousand. When you gain friends, gain them through testing, and do not trust them hastily. For there are friends who are such when it suits them, but they will not stand by you in times of trouble. And there are friends who will change into enemies and talk about you to your disgrace.

Keep away from your enemies and be on guard with your friends. Faithful friends are a sturdy shelter, whoever finds one has found a treasure. Do not abandon old friends, for new ones cannot equal them. A new friend is like new wine; when it has aged, you can drink it with pleasure.

Love your friend and keep faith with him; but if you betray his secrets, then do not follow after him. For a wound may be bandaged, and there is reconciliation after abuse, but whoever has betrayed secrets is without hope.

Do not reveal your thoughts to anyone. The mind of a fool is in their mouth, but the mouth of the wise is in their mind. The wise make themselves loved with only a few words, while all the loving words of a fool are wasted.

Do not find fault before you investigate, examine first and then criticize. Never speak against the truth, but be ashamed of your ignorance. Do not be ashamed to confess your sins. Fight to the death for the truth and the Lord God will fight with you.

Listen to me, and in the end you will appreciate my words. Like a drop of water from the sea, or a grain of sand on the beach, so are our years among the days of eternity. Do not deprive yourself of a day's enjoyment, and do not let your share of desired good pass you by. Reflect on the statutes of the Lord, and meditate at all times on his commandments. It is he who will give you insight into your mind, and your desire for wisdom will be granted.

Destruction of Jerusalem

The Jews were allowed to maintain their own religion until around 175 BC when a Greek king entered the temple in Jerusalem and offered sacrifices to the Greek god Zeus. He then outlawed Jewish customs and crucified anyone who resisted.

Greek power in the region soon collapsed under the weight of civil wars and foreign invasions. The Jews overthrew the Greeks in Judea and remained independent for the next hundred years.

Men who aspired to become biblical prophets continued to write new religious scriptures. Some writings predicted the end of the world or the coming of a messiah. Other writings preached a more enlightened form of morality.

The Roman army entered Jerusalem around 65 BC. From this time onwards, the Romans steadily increased their control over Judea.

Under the reign of emperors like Caligula and Nero, Rome installed governors who were so corrupt and oppressive that in the year 66, the Jews rose up in open revolt against them. Rome reacted by sending an army into Judea. The war lasted several years, millions of Jews were slaughtered, and many of the survivors were sold into slavery.

After a second rebellion in the year 132, the Jews were banished from ever returning to Judea. What remained of their culture was then kept alive by the millions of Jews living in foreign lands, scattered across Europe, Asia, and North Africa.

Judea was renamed Palestine by the Romans in honor of Israel's hated ancient enemy, the Philistines. Greeks and Arabs moved onto the land and it remained a part of the Roman Empire until the rise of Islam around 500 years later.

Continue to chapter 5 ... Ancient Greek philosophy