Biblical Materialism Unlike the Egyptian, Babylonian, Persian, Greek, or Roman traditions, the Hebrew religion is hostile to any imaginary form of the hereafter. In the Hebrew Bible, one would search in vain for the idea that the dying man will meet his Creator: the life of each of the patriarchs ends simply by mentioning their place of burial. About Jacob, it is said that, “breathing his last, he was gathered to his people” (Genesis 49:33), but nothing suggests here anything more than a conventional euphemism. Jacob, in any case, does not join Yahweh. In fact, Yahweh does not seem to reside in any other place than the earthly Jerusalem Temple. Reflecting a Sethian vision of life and death, the Judaic tradition knows nothing of the funerary myths so popular in other cultures, whose heroes explore the Other World. Hope of a better life and fear of divine retribution in the hereafter are absent from the Bible. When, in Isaiah 38, King Hezekiah “fell ill and was at the point of death,” he supplicates Yahweh to lengthen his physical life, not to welcome his spirit. “I have heard your prayer and seen your tears,” Yahweh answers. “I shall cure you: in three days’ time you will go up to the Temple of Yahweh. I shall add fifteen years to your life” (38:5). The Song of Hezekiah that follows clearly states that Sheol holds no promise of any real life and that it is not even under the rule of Yahweh. Once dead, Hezekiah laments, “I shall never see Yahweh again in the land of the living.” “For Sheol cannot praise you, nor Death celebrate you; those who go down to the pit can hope no longer in your constancy. The living, the living are the ones who praise you, as I do today” (38:11–19). We note in passing that biblical materialism goes together with the absence of any transcendent conception of the complementarity of the sexes. In the Bible, the male-female relationship is entirely absorbed in the conjugal and the parental, that is, the social realm. Yahweh does not say to Adam and Eve, “Let love open your hearts and unite your souls,” nor anything of the kind, but instead, “Be fruitful, multiply, fill the earth and subdue it” (Genesis 1:28). Such an implicit devaluation of Eros, elsewhere celebrated as potentially magical, initiatory, or mystical, puts a damper on one of the most beautiful promises of the human experience. This is in turn, of course, related to the injunction of endogamy, since the transcendence of Eros is one of the foundations of exogamy. Consanguinity is not conducive to rapturous infatuation. The so-called polytheistic peoples place their fundamental hopes in an otherworldly Promised Land. It may be represented as a remote island, a high mountain, a subterranean or underwater world, but the point is that it is not accessible to mortals, to fleshly beings, except for the handful of mythical heroes who have ventured there and come back alive. This otherworldly Paradise is often endowed with a miraculous spring or a “tree of life,” that provides eternal life and youth. It is Mag Mell, “the Plain of Happiness” where we remain young and beautiful, in Irish mythology; or the “World of the Living, where there is no death, no lack, no sin.”83 No such hope is given by Yahweh to his people. The Promised Land of the Jews is an accessible geographical place situated between the Nile and the Euphrates; it is a destiny that is exclusively terrestrial and collective. Yahwism has focused all his people’s hope on this earth, where, obviously, neither milk nor honey really flows. After the Jealous God and the Chosen People, the Promised Land is the third pillar of biblical Judaism. In fact, the Yahwist scribes have taken the universal mythic theme of the blessed afterlife for the virtuous dead and turned it on its head; they have transferred this paradise (Pardès, the Garden) and its tree of life, the future hope of each man, into a past lost forever for all mankind. And there they have staged the drama introducing into the world the double scourge of death and labor; for death in their eyes bears no promise, and labor produces no spiritual merit. It is only in punishment of his transgression in the Garden that Yahweh declares to Adam: “By the sweat of your face will you earn your food, until you return to the ground, as you were taken from it. For dust you are and to dust you shall return” (Genesis 3:19). By the same spirit of contradiction, the serpent, associated throughout the Near East with the chthonian divinities but also with revealed or intuitive knowledge (the gnosis of the Greeks), is likewise the object of an inversion: when it offers to the first humans the means of acquiring knowledge and to “be like gods” (Genesis 3:5), it borrows the language of initiatory mysteries; but the Bible presents the serpent as a liar. Yahweh is hardly a god, if we define a god as a creature of the Other World. He is heard strolling in the Garden of Eden (Genesis 3:8), but that’s because the Garden is an earthly place, just like the Promised Land. Yahweh is more a king than a god, which is precisely why the biblical Levites are always in conflict with the Judean and Israeli kings. According to the Levites, Yahweh alone, ideally, should be king (an invisible king speaking through his appointed ministers); human kings are tolerated as long as they strictly conform to Yahweh’s will (that is, to the Levites’ command). The Yahwist denial of the afterlife is linked to the Egyptophobia that permeates the Torah. But it is also historically linked to the rejection of Baal, who was for the inhabitants of Syria what Osiris was for the Egyptians: both god of fertility and lord of the dead. This is why the persistence of the cult of Baal is associated in the Bible with necromancy: “The history of the ancient Israelite conceptions of afterlife is closely related to the struggle between Yahwism and Baalism,” Klass Spronk explains. The absence of any speculation on the afterlife in the Hebrew Bible is due “to the fear of becoming entangled in the Canaanite religious ideas about life and death.”84 Nevertheless, these religious ideas seem very much alive among Hebrews resisting Levitical orthodoxy. It is said that the Israelites worshiped and offered sacrifices to a bronze serpent called Nehushtan, supposedly built by Moses, until Hezekiah “smashed” it (2 Kings 18:4). “They committed themselves to serve Baal-Peor, and ate sacrifices made to lifeless gods,” we read in Psalm 106:28. The prophet Isaiah condemns those who “consult ghosts and wizards that whisper and mutter” or “the dead on behalf of the living” (8:19). Yahweh chastises his people for “constantly provoking me to my face by sacrificing in gardens, burning incense on bricks, living in tombs, spending the night in dark corners” (65:3–4). Deuteronomy expressly forbids the activity of “soothsayer, augur or sorcerer, weaver of spells, consulter of ghosts or mediums, or necromancer. For anyone who does these things is detestable to Yahweh your God” (18:11–12). Leviticus confirms: “Do not have recourse to the spirits of the dead or to magicians; they will defile you. I, Yahweh, am your God” (19:31). Whoever breaks this rule must be put to death (20:6–7 and 27).85 In the eyes of the historian, the prohibition proves the practice; all these passages leave no doubt about the reality of the cults of the dead condemned in derogatory terms by the priests and prophets of Yahweh. These practices included offerings of food to the dead, incubation on graves, and other means of communicating with the hereafter. According to a likely etymology, “religion” (from Latin religare, “to bind”) serves to bind man to the transcendent. It holds him upright by pulling him heavenward. Man therefore exists in vertical tension between the natural and supernatural worlds, between his biological destiny (survival through progeny) and his spiritual destiny (survival through death). Yahweh is the god who cut this vertical bond and turned man’s attention exclusively toward the material world. This fundamentally materialistic nature of ancient Hebraism has often been pointed out by historians of religion: the rewards promised by Yahweh to those who “fear” him are entirely material—to be “full of days,” to have numerous offspring and a great fortune. Man’s only survival is through generation, or blood descent, according to the Torah. This explains the asymmetry between the myth of Osiris and its biblical reflection in the story of Cain and Abel: it is not Abel’s soul that suffers, but rather his blood “crying out to God from the ground” (Genesis 4:10). Nor is there any resurrection, since Seth-Yahweh is the god of death—meaning annihilation, not resurrection. Therefore the assassinated Abel must be “replaced” by a third offspring of Adam and Eve. Circumcision reinforces this primacy of the physical. God said to Abraham: “You for your part must keep my covenant, you and your descendants after you, generation after generation. This is my covenant which you must keep between myself and you, and your descendants after you: every one of your males must be circumcised. You must circumcise the flesh of your foreskin, and that will be the sign of the covenant between myself and you. As soon as he is eight days old, every one of your males, generation after generation, must be circumcised, including slaves born within the household or bought from a foreigner not of your descent. Whether born within the household or bought, they must be circumcised. My covenant must be marked in your flesh as a covenant in perpetuity. The uncircumcised male, whose foreskin has not been circumcised—that person must be cut off from his people: he has broken my covenant” (Genesis 17:9–14). Circumcision, as “the sign of the covenant,” perfectly symbolizes the unspiritual nature of Yahwism. As a mark in the flesh somehow transmitted from father to son, it is like a superimposed genetic trait, a Yahwist gene. Spinoza was on the mark when he wrote: “I attribute such value to the sign of circumcision, that it is the only thing that I esteem capable of assuring an eternal existence to this nation.” Certainly, in the Hellenistic period, Greek dualism infiltrated the so-called Jewish “wisdom literature,” which features the voice of Sophia, sometimes assimilated to the Logos. Thus, the Book of Wisdom, written in Greek in Alexandria in the first century BCE, asserts that “God created human beings to be immortal,” and criticizes those who “do not believe in a reward for blameless souls” (2:22–23). But such texts are the exceptions confirming the rule. They form part of the brief parenthesis of Hellenistic Judaism, which was vigorously repressed by Talmudism and would only be saved from oblivion by Christian copyists. And even within this Hellenistic Judaism, the materialist viewpoint prevailed. According to Ecclesiastes, “The living are at least aware that they are going to die, but the dead know nothing whatever. No more wages for them, since their memory is forgotten. […] there is neither achievement, nor planning, nor science, nor wisdom in Sheol where you are going” (9:5–10). In fact, “the fate of humans and the fate of animals is the same: as the one dies, so the other dies; both have the selfsame breath. The human is in no way better off than the animal—since all is futile. Everything goes to the same place, everything comes from the dust, everything returns to the dust” (3:19–20). The book of Job conveys the same message: there will be no hoped-for consolation when Job’s suffering finally ends. “If man once dead could live again, I would wait in hope, every day of my suffering, for my relief to come” (Job 14:14).86 Alas! “There is always hope for a tree: when felled, it can start its life again; its shoots continue to sprout. […]. But a human being? He dies, and dead he remains, breathes his last, and then where is he? […] A human being, once laid to rest, will never rise again, the heavens will wear out before he wakes up, or before he is roused from his sleep” (14:7–12). As the only reward for his fidelity to Yahweh, Job gets a 140 year reprieve on earth, numerous offspring, “fourteen thousand sheep, six thousand camels, a thousand yoke of oxen and a thousand she-donkeys” (42:12). It is true that between the first century BCE and the first century CE, the idea of the “resurrection” of the dead made its entry into Maccabean literature, written in Greek for the greater glory of the Hasmonean dynasty founded by the Maccabees. The Greek word anistanai literally means “to rise, awaken, get up,” and anastasis means awakening. It is therefore the opposite of “to lie down/fall asleep,” the conventional Hebrew euphemism evoking the death of kings (“he fell asleep with his ancestors,” 1 Kings 14:31, 15:24 and 16:6, or 2 Kings 14:29), while the Greek texts prefer koimao, also “fall asleep” (as in the case of the stoned Stenus of Acts 7:60). The notion of resurrection was applied to the horribly tortured martyrs of the resistance against the Seleucid emperor Antiochus. Then it was extended to all mankind and postponed till the end of time in the book of Daniel: “Of those who are sleeping in the Land of Dust, many will awaken, some to everlasting life, some to shame and everlasting disgrace. Those who are wise will shine as brightly as the expanse of the heavens, and those who have instructed many in uprightness, as bright as stars for all eternity” (12:2–3). Such a vision is taken directly from the Greco-Roman ideal of the hero, right down to its vocabulary. The transfiguration of the good dead into a “body of light” is a common religious motif in Hellenistic culture and beyond. But the rabbinic imagination will mostly ignore that aspect, and rather stick to the idea of the coming back to life of the physical corpse out of its tomb, with its limbs reconstituted. In such a grossly materialistic expectation, there is no need, and hardly any space, for an immortal soul. Besides, even the resurrection at the end of the world has always remained somewhat marginal within the rabbinic tradition, which accepts the authority of the book of Daniel, but rejects the books of Maccabees. In the twelfth century, the great Maimonides evokes the “resurrection of the dead” at the end of time, in the last of his thirteen articles of faith, but this belief has never been developed in the Talmud. Eventually, by another of these inversions, which are the trademark of Judaism, after the birth of Christianity, Talmudic rabbinism adopted by imitation the belief in the immortality of the soul, but in a restrictive form: only Jews have a divine soul, the soul of Gentiles being “equivalent to that of animals” (Midrasch Schir Haschirim). If “God created the akums [non-Jews] in the form of men” rather than beasts, says the Talmud, it is “in honor of the Jews. The akums were created only to serve the Jews day and night without being able to leave their service. It would not be appropriate for a Jew to be served by an animal; instead, it should be by an animal with a human form” (Sepher Midrasch Talpioth).87 There were always Jewish scholars to defend the immortality of the soul in a less polemical form, but they still borrowed it from Christianity. Here is what Jewish historian Heinrich Graetz said of one of them, Joseph Albo, a native of Soria in Spain in the first half of the fifteenth century: “It is a remarkable fact that Albo, who thought that he was developing his religio-philosophical system exclusively in the native spirit of Judaism, placed at its head a principle of indubitably Christian origin; so powerfully do surroundings affect even those who exert themselves to throw off such influence. The religious philosopher of Soria propounded as his fundamental idea that salvation was the whole aim of man in this life, and that Judaism strongly emphasized this aspect of religion.” On the other hand, Albo is fully Jewish when he gives obedience to 613 religious prescriptions as a recipe for eternal happiness.88 Finally, when in the eighteenth century Moses Mendelssohn defended belief in the immortality of the soul—a necessary condition for the elevation of humanity according to him—he would in no way rely on the Jewish tradition. Instead he produced a dialogue in the style of Plato, entitled Phaedo or the Immortality of the Soul (1767). Biblical versus Heroic Cultures
Guyénot, Laurent. From Yahweh to Zion (pp. 101-108). Kindle Edition.