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Category: Saul

Civil Centralization = Religious Centralization

“Up to the last, Babylonian religion remained local. It was this local character that gives us the key to its origin and history, and explains much that would otherwise seem inconsistent and obscure.

The endeavour of Nabonidos to undermine its local character and to create a universal religion for a centralised Babylonia, was deeply resented by both priests and people, and ushered in the fall of the Babylonian empire. The fundamental religious idea which had underlain the empire had been the supremacy of Merodach, the god of Babylon, over all other gods, not the absorption of the deities of the subject nations into a common cult.

The policy of Nabonidos, therefore, which aimed at making Merodach, not primus inter pares, but absolute lord of captive or vassal deities, shocked the prejudices of the Babylonian people, and eventually proved fatal to its author.

In Cyrus, accordingly, the politic restorer of the captive populations and their gods to their old homes, the priests and worshippers of the local divinities saw the pious adherent of the ancient forms of faith, and the real favourite of Merodach himself.

Merodach had not consented to the revolutionary policy of Nabonidos; he had, on the contrary, sympathised with the wrongs of his brother gods in Babylonia and throughout the world, and had thus deserted his own city and the renegade monarch who ruled over it.

In all this there is a sharp contrast to the main religious conception which subsequently held sway over the Persian empire, as well as to that which was proclaimed by the prophets of Judah, and in the reforms of Hezekiah and Josiah was carried out practically by the Jewish kings. The Ahura-mazda whom Dareios invokes on the rock of Behistun is not only the lord of the gods, he is a lord who will not brook another god by his side.

A penciled illustration of the Behistun Inscription.  https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Behistun_Inscription_Eger.png

A penciled illustration of the Behistun Inscription.
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Behistun_Inscription_Eger.png

The supreme god of the Persian monarch is as absolute as the Persian monarch himself. In the Persian empire which was organised by Dareios, centralisation became for the first time a recognised and undisputed fact, and political centralisation went hand-in-hand with religious centralisation as well.

In Judah, a theocracy was established on the ruins of the old beliefs which had connected certain localities with certain forms of divinity, and which found such naive expression in the words of David to Saul (1 Samuel xxvi. 19): “They have driven me out this day from abiding in the inheritance of the Lord, saying, Go, serve other gods.”

The destruction of the high-places and the concentration of the worship of Yahveh in Jerusalem, was followed by the ever-increasing conviction that Yahveh was not only a jealous God who would allow none other gods besides Himself; He was also a God who claimed dominion over the whole world.”

A.H. Sayce, Lectures on the Origin and Growth of Religion as Illustrated by the Religion of the Ancient Babylonians, 5th ed., London, 1898, pp. 89-90.

The Rise of Marduk

“In an inscription upon a clay cylinder brought from Babylonia seven years ago, Cyrus is made to declare that the overthrow of Nabonidos, the last independent Babylonian monarch, was due to the anger of Bel and the other gods.

Nabonidos had removed their images from their ancient sanctuaries, and had collected them together in the midst of Babylon. The priests maintained that the deed had aroused the indignation of Merodach, “the lord of the gods,” who had accordingly rejected Nabonidos, even as Saul was rejected from being king of Israel, and had sought for a ruler after his own heart.

It was “in wrath” that the deities had ”left their shrines when Nabonidos brought them into Babylon,” and had prayed Merodach, the divine patron of the imperial city, to “go round unto all men wherever might be their seats.”

Merodach sympathised with their wrongs; “he visited the men of Sumer and Accad whom he had sworn should be his attendants,” and “all lands beheld his friend.” He chose Cyrus, king of Elam, and destined him by name for the sovereignty of Chaldea.

Cyrus, whom the Hebrew prophet had already hailed as the Lord’s Anointed, was thus equally the favourite of the supreme Babylonian god.

“Merodach, the great lord, the restorer of his people,” we are told, “beheld with joy the deeds of his vicegerent who was righteous in hand and heart. To his city of Babylon he summoned his march, and he bade him take the road to Babylon; like a friend and a comrade he went at his side.”

A single battle decided the conflict: the Babylonians opened their gates, and “without fighting or battle,” Cyrus was led in triumph into the city of Babylon.

His first care was to show his gratitude towards the deities who had so signally aided him. Their temples were rebuilt, and they themselves were restored to their ancient seats.

With all the allowance that must be made for the flattery exacted by a successful conqueror, we must confess that this is a very remarkable document. It is written in the Babylonian language and in the Babylonian form of the cuneiform syllabary, and we may therefore infer that it was compiled by Babylonian scribes and intended for the perusal of Babylonian readers.

Yet we find the foreign conqueror described as the favourite of the national god, while the last native king is held up to reprobation as the dishonorer of the gods. It is impossible not to compare the similar treatment experienced by Nebuchadnezzar and the native Jewish kings respectively at the hands of Jeremiah.

The Jewish prophet saw in the Chaldean invader the instrument of the God of Judah, just as the Babylonian scribes saw in Cyrus the instrument of the god of Babylon; and the fall of the house of David is attributed, just as much as the fall of Nabonidos, to divine anger.”

A.H. Sayce, Lectures on the Origin and Growth of Religion as Illustrated by the Religion of the Ancient Babylonians, 5th ed., London, 1898, pp. 85-6.

Assyro-Babylonian Studies in Modern Context

“Mesopotamian religion has been of interest to biblical scholars since the discovery in 1872 by George Smith of a flood story in an Assyrian tablet. This proved that non-biblical ancient Near Eastern documents contained material directly pertinent to the Bible. To some thinkers, the uniqueness and integrity of the Bible could therefore no longer be maintained.

Leading philologists, especially in Germany, such as Hugo Winckler, Hermann Gunkel, Heinrich Zimmern and Friedrich Delitzsch, staked out different and sometimes contradictory positions in what became known as ‘Pan-Babylonianism’ or the ‘Astral-mythological’ school. The basic tenet of this group was that the civilization of Israel was essentially Babylonian in origin, including its religious ideas, such as monotheism.

Winckler, for example, argued that Joshua, Saul and David were actually Babylonian astral deities. Zimmern went on to suggest that Marduk was a forerunner of Jesus. Peter Jensen, a distinguished Assyriologist, argued that Abraham, Jesus and John the Baptist, for example, were borrowed from Babylonian mythology and that the Gilgamesh epic, to him a kind of astral saga, was the basis for the New Testament and the Koran.

Outside of Germany more moderate positions were taken, but still implying a strong cultural and religious dependency of Israel upon Babylonia. The extravagant claims of the Pan-Babylonianists eventually collapsed and are not taken seriously today.

A broader and more moderate view held that Babylonia was part of the ancient Near Eastern context of the Hebrew Bible (Lambert 1988). Committed Christian and Jewish scholars, for example, often put the Bible first, so to them ancient Near Eastern ‘parallels’ helped to clarify or even ‘prove’ the validity of the Bible because they were independent witness to biblical passages.

Mesopotamian studies, especially in the United States, became effectively an adjunct of biblical studies. In the period 1880–1940 the majority of leading American scholars in the discipline were Protestant clergymen, very much interested in possible biblical connections.

To some scholars, such as W. F. Albright, the ‘biblical world’ came to include the whole of the ancient Near East. There was therefore no need to separate Mesopotamian studies from biblical studies; they were aspects of the same agenda. In this spirit, Albright could entitle one of his most popular books From the Stone Age to Christianity (Albright 1940).

According to this, Mesopotamian religion was a ‘preparatio’ for the more profound religion of Israel, itself a preparation for Christianity. Today, because of the accumulation of new material, a panoramic grasp of the languages and civilizations of the ancient Near East such as Albright enjoyed is impossible to attain, but Albright’s fundamental approach remains influential, especially among conservative Christian scholars.”

Benjamin R. Foster, “Mesopotamian Religion and the Bible,” John R. Hinnells, ed., A Handbook of Ancient Religions, 2007, pp. 207-8.

Human Sacrifice in Ancient Babylon

” … All the younger gods, who displaced the elder gods as one year displaces another, were deities of fertility, battle, lightning, fire, and the sun; it is possible, therefore, that Ashur was like Merodach, son of Ea, god of the deep, a form of Tammuz in origin.

His spirit was in the solar wheel which revolved at times of seasonal change. In Scotland it was believed that on the morning of May Day (Beltaine) the rising sun revolved three times. The younger god was a spring sun god and fire god. Great bonfires were lit to strengthen him, or as a ceremony of riddance; the old year was burned out.

Indeed the god himself might be burned (that is, the old god), so that he might renew his youth. Melkarth was burned at Tyre. Hercules burned himself on a mountain top, and his soul ascended to heaven as an eagle.

These fiery rites were evidently not unknown in Babylonia and Assyria. When, according to Biblical narrative, Nebuchadnezzar “made an image of gold” which he set up “in the plain of Dura, in the province of Babylon,” he commanded:

“O people, nations, and languages… at the time ye hear the sound of the cornet, flute, harp, sackbut, psaltery, dulcimer, and all kinds of musick… fall down and worship the golden image.”

Certain Jews who had been “set over the affairs of the province of Babylonia,” namely, “Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-nego,” refused to adore the idol.

They were punished by being thrown into “a burning fiery furnace”, which was heated “seven times more than it was wont to be heated.” They came forth uninjured.

In the Koran it is related that Abraham destroyed the images of Chaldean gods; he “brake them all in pieces except the biggest of them; that they might lay the blame on that.” According to the commentators the Chaldaeans were at the time “abroad in the fields, celebrating a great festival.”

To punish the offender Nimrod had a great pyre erected at Cuthah.

“Then they bound Abraham, and putting him into an engine, shot him into the midst of the fire, from which he was preserved by the angel Gabriel, who was sent to his assistance.”

Eastern Christians were wont to set apart in the Syrian calendar the 25th of January to commemorate Abraham’s escape from Nimrod’s pyre.

It is evident that the Babylonian fire ceremony was observed in the spring season, and that human beings were sacrificed to the sun god. A mock king may have been burned to perpetuate the ancient sacrifice of real kings, who were incarnations of the god.

Isaiah makes reference to the sacrificial burning of kings in Assyria:

“For through the voice of the Lord shall the Assyrian be beaten down, which smote with a rod. And in every place where the grounded staff shall pass, which the Lord shall lay upon him, it shall be with tabrets and harps: and in battles of shaking will he fight with it.

For Tophet is ordained of old; yea, for the king it is prepared: he hath made it deep and large: the pile thereof is fire and much wood: the breath of the Lord, like a stream of brimstone, doth kindle it.”

When Nineveh was about to fall, and with it the Assyrian Empire, the legendary king, Sardanapalus, who was reputed to have founded Tarsus, burned himself, with his wives, concubines, and eunuchs, on a pyre in his palace. Zimri, who reigned over Israel for seven days, “burnt the king’s house over him with fire.”

Saul, another fallen king, was burned after death, and his bones were buried “under the oak in Jabesh”.

In Europe the oak was associated with gods of fertility and lightning, including Jupiter and Thor. The ceremony of burning Saul is of special interest. Asa, the orthodox king of Judah, was, after death, “laid in the bed which was filled with sweet odours and divers kinds of spices prepared by the apothecaries’ art: and they made a very great burning for him” (2 Chronicles, xvi, 14).

Jehoram, the heretic king of Judah, who “walked in the way of the kings of Israel,” died of “an incurable disease. And his people made no burning for him like the burning of his fathers” (2 Chronicles, xxi, 18, 19).

The conclusion suggested by the comparative study of the beliefs of neighbouring peoples, and the evidence afforded by Assyrian sculptures, is that Ashur was a highly developed form of the god of fertility, who was sustained, or aided in his conflicts with demons, by the fires and sacrifices of his worshippers.”

Donald A. Mackenzie, Myths of Babylonia and Assyria, 1915, pp. 348-51.

Magical Raiment

” … Some bodies which were laid in Sumerian graves were wrapped up in reed matting, a custom which suggests that the reeds afforded protection or imparted magical powers. Magical ceremonies were performed in Babylonian reed huts.

As we have seen, Ea revealed the “purpose” of the gods, when they resolved to send a flood, by addressing the reed hut in which Pir-napishtim lay asleep. Possibly it was believed that the dead might also have visions in their dreams which would reveal the “purpose” of demons who were preparing to attack them.

In Syria it was customary to wrap the dead in a sheep skin. As priests and gods were clad in the skins of animals from which their powers were derived, it is probable that the dead were similarly supposed to receive inspiration in their skin coverings.

The Highland seer was wrapped in a bull’s skin and left all night beside a stream so as to obtain knowledge of the future. This was a form of the Taghairm ceremony, which is referred to by Scott in his Lady of the Lake.

The belief in the magical influence of sacred clothing gave origin to the priestly robes. When David desired to ascertain what Saul intended to do he said, “Bring hither the ephod.” Then he came to know that his enemy had resolved to attack Keilah.

Elisha became a prophet when he received Elijah’s mantle.”

Donald A. Mackenzie, Myths of Babylonia and Assyria, 1915.

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