In the Spirit of Religious Tolerance

Reading Havelock’s “The Muse Learns to Write” .  A couple of extracts:

Havelock asks: “What’s different about the Old Testament (implicitly prelogical) from other Greek texts (logical)?  He makes the proposition that it might be just that the Hebrew writing was not rich enough to convey nuance and style.


“The more I thought about the act of transcription as it occurred in Greece, the more convinced I became, that there was something about the Greek writing system which put it in a class by itself.  Its uniqueness could not have been a matter of simply adding five vowels as though the problem were a sum in arithmetic.  Like many of my generation, raised in the traditions of a more conservative culture, I was familiar with the Old Testament and had begun acquaintance with the so-called ‘literature’ of Sumer, Babylon, and Assyria (as these have been recently translated from cuneiform tablets) as well as versions of Egyptian wisdom literature.  A stark contrast appeared between the sheer richness of Greek orality as transcribed and the caution of its competitors.  A wealth of detail and depth of psychological feeling contrasted with an economy of vocabulary and a cautious restriction of sentiment which seemed to be specific properties of all Near Eastern and Hebrew literature.  It occurred to me that the true orality of these non-Greek peoples was not getting through to us–had in fact been irretrievably lost, because the writing systems employed were too imperfect to record it adequately.  These peoples could not have been stupid, or insensitive, or of a lower order of consciousness…”

Havelock then raises the question:  what exactly is reflected by writing? Is it a reflection of thought processes.  Or could the writing have a different purpose? Could the narrative simply just be a memory tool in preliterate societies.  He looks at how literacy relates to thought processes.

“[The researcher, Luria, spent 2 years doing] comparative studies between nonliterates and literates in Uzbekistan where they speak Cyrrilic – a derivative of Greek.  His nonliterates (the majority) identified geometrical figures by giving them the names of concrete objects w associated shapes: a circle would be called a plate, watch, bucket …The nonliterate would not classify a log apart from a hammer, saw, hatchet.  In brief, his illiterate subjects seemed not to operate w formal deductive procedures at all — which is not the same as to say they could not think or that their thinking was not governed by logic but only that they would not fit their thinking into purely logical forms which they seemed to have found uninteresting…Luria directed attention to cultural conclusions from his research that would have accelerated the investigation of historical oralism as a distinct mode of consciousness with its own rules.  For example, in addition to different ways of classifying, lists of disconnected names would be memorized by giving them a narrative…functional content would be cast in verbal forms designed to assist the memory by conferring pleasure: social and aesthetic purposes form a partnership (like poetry)….Indeed, texts would be first published by being read aloud.  The audience who listened would carry the word to others…”

Havelock then proceeds to cite Pfeiffer who in considering the Old Testament, claims the call to Abraham (Genesis 12) is the oldest written original (non Priestly) source, with oral tradition supplying much of the rest.  According to him, this oral material has been remodeled to achieve some theological consistency.

I’m going to argue a little with this because, in contrast to the Greek tradition of revelation through discourse, I see the original purpose of religious texts to have resided in a “power associated with words” that benefits from secret societies and mysticism.  Thus, I would maintain that in contrast to “oral publication”, in the formation of an original oral document, there was instead “oral dictation” of a written text with little comprehension of the words associated with this dictation by an audience that probably did not speak the same high Hebrew language as the priest who spoke the words.  This was associated with rituals or covenants being established that retained a common collective representation to the people involved.  So the literary text was purposefully designed to be conveyed through teaching to a select group of people bound by initiation, not to be understood by the masses.  I question whether much of it was initially ever exclusively oral, although it was certainly memorized and continues to be even with the Guttenberg press.

With this perspective, I was asked to address the concept of polytheism as it occasionally arises in the Old Testament.

There were 8 selections given to be considered:

The first 4 passages (and most of Genesis) deal with the question of rank.

1) Gen 1:26-27. Creation of man and woman – G_d is referenced as plural in one verse, and singular in the next.  “Let us …”.  There is the use of repetition in the text as if woman were an afterthought to be explicitly included.  Interestingly, in contemporary culture, the emphasis in this selection has shifted to the “man and woman” question with a language of exclusion (that is separate and different), when it may have originally been meant as an act of inclusion of women.  Was this section of text ever not written?  G_d ranks men and women relative to the plants and animals.  I call this the “Adamic covenant”.

2) Gen 3:22-24.  Banishment of man from Eden – “Let us …”  Is ‘us’ the leader of a people pulling people into the leadership?

Man wants more, and G_d says no.

3) Gen 6:1-4. The Old People and the Flood – “sons of G_d” and daughters of men mixed.  This phrasing may have ‘validated’ the ‘superior’ qualities of an ‘elder people’ – people who may have followed an older tradition (the Native American equivalent might have been people who lived in the rock caves vs. people who descended into a pueblo communal lifestyle).  In any event, retrospectively, this was wrong.  Man’s time with G_d’s spirit is limited.  But people continue after this to live a lot longer.  Men are limited.  Flood. Noahic covenant.

4) Gen 11:1-9. Tower of Babel – The history of brick and mortar building.  The story of the name of a place.  “Let us…” confuse man by having lots of languages, with a moral against hubris. Men are limited.  Note the shift in the language between the previous “Vayomer Adonai – and G_d said” to “Vayomru …” “They (men) said…”

5) Ex 12:12. Passover – Passover ritual is recited/dictated.  The G_d of Israel is said to explicitly acknowledge/desire the destruction of the gods of Egypt, directly using the words Ani Adonai where G_d speaks in the 1st person.  Men are enslaved, and then God does all the work of liberation, fighting battles, and later feeding.  Reenactment of the Abrahamic covenant in the liberation process.

6) Num 33:1-5 Exodus and a list of places – Purpose of the story is to remind of the Passover rite, and convey a geography lesson.  Notes the existence of Moses’ writing.  Probably never entirely oral, but memorized and recited.  G_d is said to punish gods of Egypt.

7) Judges 11:22-27.  Story of Jephtath and the conquering of Amorites.  The collective representation of G_d is poorly differentiated from nation-leader.  Gods are considered to fight one another and win wars, and allocate land to people.  G_d of Israel is “land of Israel”’s god.  Chemosh is “land of Amorite”’s god.  Association of G_d with land and property.  Problematic because with this collective representation, people of a different god cannot occupy the same land (equally, if at all).  Jephtath is illegitimate and driven out of the land to exile, but develops allegiances, becomes a leader and, when his strength is recognized is asked by the elders to fight for Israel against Ammon who has initiated a fight because they want land back that Israel took forcefully from them when Israel left Egypt.  Jephath argues that it was Ammon’s fault that the Amorites lost the land because Israel had requested the peaceful right of passage and had been refused.  So, Israel and Ammon had fought.  Now, unable to resolve their differences once more, with Israel having fought for passage and won the land-rights through force, Ammon says ok, you got through, now give us the land back.  Israel says no.  Israel and Ammon fight again.  Jephath apparently makes a tragic oath that if he wins even more Amorite land, he will sacrifice whatever walks through the door.  Big slaughter during fight.  Wins fight and – loses daughter. But she leaves a custom of women going up the mountain for 4 days to remember her being sacrificed.

The purpose of this writing is to convey a custom: that of the women going up the mountain for 4 days every year.  Greek-like influence in tragic story. If I had to speculate, I would say that this story developed in a community that was offset from mainstream Judaism, perhaps by Jephath’s birth status. It was later included in spite of the ‘foreign’ quality.  Distinguish oral from oral-dictation that is not meant to be understood by the people that hear it.  Religion and mysticism.  Words have magic power when spoken and related.  These were words that when written, would only have been comprehensible to a very few.  These very few were entrusted to guard the secret, uttering the words every time the 4 day ceremony was performed that represented the acquiescence of valuable women to their own sacrifice for their country.

What to do with the land, the Amorites, and their religion?  Does the conquering of a people also mean the religious conquering, and if so, what is the status of the “unclean” conquered people?  Not a question in those times- collective representations would make this not ambiguous then, as it might be today.

8) 2 Samuel 7:12-29.  The Davidic covenant.  Note the priestly blessing, and the psalm/prayer at the end.  Rhythms, rhymes.  One imagines bowing every time “Adonai Elohim” is said.  G_d is one.  No other god like G_d, no other god besides G_d.  Collective representation of G_d to Jewish people has removed the possibility of other gods, although G_d still retains nation-G_d and temple-G_d associations.  I imagine this priestly blessing being recited by the high priest every time a new ruler is established in Israel.

It is well worth listening to the sound of the Hebrew texts.  My point here, is that you will be hearing these words in Hebrew much the same way that your Jewish “Hebrew dialect speaking” lay person would have heard them.  Maybe with a little less familiarity with the sounds and some of the words, but not much.  Take an inner city or very rural kid and read Shakespeare to him without translation, and one has about the same level of comprehension.

So, we have an evolution of the collective representation of G_d in the narrative.

1.  The “us” form, alternating with the “He” form in the beginning, perhaps insertions from different authors, may also reflect a linguistic “pulling up from the people through leaders toward G_d.”

2. This is followed by the nation-land-G_d in Exodus, Numbers and Judges where gods fight one another and win or lose.

3. Finally, this culminates in the Davidic covenant.  The collective representation no longer tolerates any other gods, but the One.

Hard questions.

Is the Trinity a violation of monotheism?

Is monotheism too powerful as a power structure?

This power is useful when applied to making peace if it is inclusive, but it lacks the ability to tolerate strong dissent by splitting.

Do we individually choose the collective representation of G_d that binds us culturally?

Or does G_d give each of us individually a specific collective representation as a kind of dismantling of the Tower of Babel?

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