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Andrew Lang

Theories of Jehovah

The Making of Religion: Chapter XVI (1900)

Published on: Saturday 20 January 2007

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Andrew Lang, ’Theories of Jehovah’, The Making of Religion, (Chapter XVI), Longmans, Green, and C°, London, New York and Bombay, 1900, pp. 268-288.


All speculation on the curly history of religion is apt to end in the endeavour to see how far the conclusions can be made to illustrate the faith of Israel. Thus, the theorist who believes in ancestor-worship as the key of all the creeds will see in Jehovah a developed ancestral ghost, or a kind of fetish-god, attached to a stone—perhaps an ancient sepulchral stele of some desert sheikh.

The exclusive admirer of the hypothesis of Totemism will find evidence for his belief in worship of the golden calf and the bulls. The partisan of nature-worship will insist on Jehovah’s connection with storm, thunder, and the fire of Sinai. On the other hand, whoever accepts our suggestions will incline to see, in the early forms of belief in Jehovah, a shape of the widely diffused conception of a Moral Supreme Being, at first (or, at least, when our information begins) envisaged in anthropomorphic form, but gradually purged of all local traits by the unexampled and unique inspiration of the great Prophets. They, as far as our knowledge extends, were strangely indifferent to the animistic element in religion, to the doctrine of surviving human souls, and so, of course, to that element of Animism which is priceless—the purification of the soul in the light of the hope of eternal life. Just as the hunger after righteousness of the Prophets is intense, so their hope of finally sating that hunger in an eternity of sinless bliss and enjoyment of God is confessedly inconspicuous. In short, they have carried Theism to its austere extreme—’though He slay me, yet will I trust in Him’—while unconcerned about the rewards of Animism. This is certainly a strange result of a religion which, according to the anthropological theory, has Animism for its basis.

We therefore examine certain forms of the animistic hypothesis as applied to account for the religion of Israel. The topic is one in which special knowledge of Hebrew and other Oriental languages seems absolutely indispensable; but anthropological speculators have not been Oriental scholars (with rare exceptions), while some Oriental scholars have borrowed from popular anthropology without much critical discrimination. These circumstances must be our excuse for venturing on to this difficult ground.

It is probably impossible for us to trace with accuracy the rise of the religion of Jehovah. ’The wise and learned’ dispute endlessly over dates of documents, over the amount of later doctrine interpolated into the earlier texts, over the nature, source, and quantity of foreign influence—Chaldaean, Accadian, Egyptian, or Assyrian. We know that Israel had, in an early age, the conception of the moral Eternal; we know that, at an early age, that conception was contaminated and anthropomorphised; and we know that it was rescued, in a great degree, from this corruption, while always retaining its original ethical aspect and sanction. Why matters went thus in Israel and not elsewhere we know not, except that such was the will of God in the mysterious education of the world. How mysterious that education has been is best known to all who have studied the political and social results of Totemism. On the face of it a perfectly crazy and degrading belief—on the face of it meant for nothing but to make the family a hell of internecine hatred—Totemism rendered possible—nay, inevitable—the union of hostile groups into large and relatively peaceful tribal societies. Given the materials as we know them, we never should have educated the world thus; and we do not see why it should thus have been done. But we are very anthropomorphic, and totally ignorant of the conditions of the problem.

An example of anthropological theory concerning Jehovah was put forth by Mr. Huxley. [1] Mr. Huxley’s general idea of religion as it is on the lowest known level of material culture—through which the ancestors of Israel must have passed like other people—has already been criticised. He denied to the most backward races both cult and religious sanction of ethics. He was demonstrably, though unconsciously, in error as to the facts, and therefore could not start from the idea that Israel, in the lowest historically known condition of savagery, possessed, or, like other races, might possess, the belief in an Eternal making for righteousness. ’For my part,’ he says, ’I see no reason to doubt that, like the rest of the world, the Israelites had passed through a period of mere ghost-worship, and had advanced through ancestor-worship and Fetishism and Totemism to the theological level at which we find them in the Books of Judges and Samuel.’ [2]

But why does he think the Israelites did all this? The Hebrew ghosts, abiding, according to Mr. Huxley, in a rather torpid condition in Sheol, would not be of much practical use to a worshipper. A reference in Deuteronomy xxvi. 14 (Deuteronomy being, ex hypothesi, a late pious imposture) does not prove much. The Hebrew is there bidden to remind himself of the stay of his ancestors in Egypt, and to say, ’Of the hallowed things I have not given aught for the dead’—namely, of the tithes dedicated to the Levites and the poor. A race which abode for centuries among the Egyptians, as Israel did—among a people who elaborately fed the kas of the departed—might pick up a trace of a custom, the giving of food for the dead, still persevered in by St. Monica till St. Ambrose admonished her. But Mr. Huxley is hard put to it for evidence of ancestor-worship or ghost-worship in Israel when he looks for indications of these rites in ’the singular weight attached to the veneration of parents in the Fourth Commandment.’ [3] The Fourth Commandment, of course, is a slip of the pen. He adds: ’The Fifth Commandment, as it stands, would be an excellent compromise between ancestor-worship and Monotheism.’ Long may children practise this excellent compromise! It is really too far-fetched to reason thus: ’People were bidden to honour their parents, as a compromise between Monotheism and ghost-worship.’ Hard, hard bestead is he who has to reason in that fashion! This comes of ’training in the use of the weapons of precision of science.’

Mr. Huxley goes on: ’The Ark of the Covenant may have been a relic of ancestor-worship;’ ’there is a good deal to be said for that speculation.’ Possibly there is, by way of the valuable hypothesis that Jehovah was a fetish stone which had been a grave-stone, or perhaps a lingam, and was kept in the Ark on the plausible pretext that it was the two Tables of the Law!

However, Mr. Huxley really finds it safer to suppose that references to ancestor-worship in the Bible were obliterated by late monotheistic editors, who, none the less, are so full and minute in their descriptions of the various heresies into which Israel was eternally lapsing, and must not be allowed to lapse again. Had ancestor-worship been a péché mignon of Israel, the Prophets would have let Israel hear their mind on it.

The Hebrews’ indifference to the departed soul is, in fact, a puzzle, especially when we consider their Egyptian education—so important an element in Mr. Huxley’s theory.

Mr. Herbert Spencer is not more successful than Mr. Huxley in finding ancestor-worship among the Hebrews. On the whole subject he writes:

’Where the levels of mental nature and social progress are lowest, we usually find, along with an absence of religious ideas generally, an absence, or very slight development, of ancestor-worship.... Cook [Captain Cook], telling us what the Fuegians were before contact with Europeans had introduced foreign ideas, said there were no appearances of religion among them; and we are not told by him or others that they were ancestor-worshippers.’ [4]

Probably they are not; but they do possess a Being who reads their hearts, and who certainly shows no traces of European ideas. If the Fuegians are not ancestor-worshippers, this Being was not developed out of ancestor-worship.

The evidence of Captain Cook, no anthropologist, but a mariner who saw and knew little of the Fuegians, is precisely of the sort against which Major Ellis warns us. [5] The more a religion consists in fear of a moral guardian of conduct, the less does it show itself, by sacrifice or rite, to the eyes of Captain Cook, of his Majesty’s ship Endeavour. Mr. Spencer places the Andamanese on the same level as the Fuegians, ’so far as the scanty evidence may be trusted.’ We have shown that (as known to Mr. Spencer in 1876) it may not be trusted at all; the Andamanese possessing a moral Supreme Being, though they are not, apparently, ancestor-worshippers. The Australians ’show us not much persistence in ghost-propitiation,’ which, if it exists, ceases when the corpses are tied up and buried, or after they are burned, or after the bones, carried about for a while, are exposed on platforms. Yet many Australian tribes possess a moral Supreme Being.

In fact ghost-worship, in Mr. Spencer’s scheme, cannot be fairly well developed till society reaches the level of ’settled groups whose burial-places are in their midst.’ Hence the development of a moral Supreme Being among tribes not thus settled, is inconceivable, on Mr. Spencer’s hypothesis. [6] By that hypothesis, ’worshipped ancestors, according to their remoteness, were regarded as divine, semi-divine, and human.’ [7] Where we find, then, the Divine Being among nomads who do not remember their great-grandfathers, the Spencerian theory is refuted by facts. We have the effect, the Divine Being, without the cause, worship of ancestors.

Coming to the Hebrews, Mr. Spencer argues that ’the silence of their legends (as to ancestor-worship) is but a negative fact, which may be as misleading as negative facts usually are.’ They are, indeed; witness Mr. Spencer’s own silence about savage Supreme Beings. But we may fairly argue that if Israel had been given to ancestor-worship (as might partly be surmised from the mystery about the grave of Moses) the Prophets would not have spared them for their crying. The Prophets were unusually outspoken men, and, as they undeniably do scold Israel for every other kind of conceivable heresy, they were not likely to be silent about ancestor-worship, if ancestor-worship existed. Mr. Spencer, then, rather heedlessly, though correctly, argues that ’nomadic habits are unfavourable to evolution of the ghost-theory.’ [8] Alas, this gives away the whole case! For, if all men began as nomads, and nomadic habits are unfavourable even to the ordinary ghost, how did the Australian and other nomads develop the Supreme Being, who, ex hypothesi, is the final fruit of the ghost-flower? If you cannot have ’an established ancestor-worship’ till you abandon nomadic habits, how, while still nomadic, do you evolve a Supreme Being? Obviously not out of ancestor-worship.

Mr. Spencer then assigns, as evidence for ancestor-worship in Israel, mourning dresses, fasting, the law against self-bleeding and cutting off the hair for the dead, and the text (Deut. xxvi. 14) about ’I have not given aught thereof for the dead.’ ’Hence, the conclusion must be that ancestor-worship had developed as far as nomadic habits allowed, before it was repressed by a higher worship.’ [9] But whence came that higher worship which seems to have intervened immediately after the cessation of nomadic habits?

There are obvious traces of grief expressed in a primitive way among the Hebrews. ’Ye shall not cut yourselves, nor make any baldness between your eyes for the dead’ (Deut. xiv. 1). ’Neither shall men lament for them, nor cut themselves, nor make themselves bald for them; neither shall men tear themselves for them in mourning, to comfort them for the dead’ (by way of counter-irritant to grief); ’neither shall men give them the cup of consolation to drink for their father or their mother,’ because the Jews were to be removed from their homes. [10] ’Ye shall not make any cuttings in your flesh for the dead, nor print any marks upon you.’ [11]

It may be usual to regard inflictions, such as cutting, by mourners, as sacrifices to the ghost of the dead. But one has seen a man strike himself a heavy blow on receiving news of a loss not by death, and I venture to fancy that cuttings and gashings at funerals are merely a more violent form of appeal to a counter-irritant of grief, and, again, a token of recklessness caused by a sorrow which makes void the world. One of John Nicholson’s native adorers killed himself on news of that warrior’s death, saying, ’What is left worth living for?’ This was not a sacrifice to the Manes of Nicholson. The sacrifice of the mourner’s hair, as by Achilles, argues a similar indifference to personal charm. Once more, the text in Psalm cvi. 28, ’They joined themselves unto Baal-Peor, and ate the sacrifices of the dead,’ is usually taken by commentators as a reference to the ritual of gods who are no gods. But it rather seems to indicate an acquiescence in foreign burial rites. All this additional evidence does not do much to prove ancestor-worship in Israel, though the secrecy of the burial of Moses, ’in a valley of the land of Moab, over against Beth-peor; but no man knoweth of his sepulchre to this day,’ may indicate a dread of a nascent worship of the great leader. [12] The scene of the defection in Psalm cvi., Beth-peor, is indicated in Numbers xxv., where Israel runs after the girls and the gods of Moab: ’And Moab called the people unto the sacrifices of their gods; and the people did eat, and bowed down to their gods. And Israel joined himself unto Baal-peor.’ Psalm cvi. is obviously a later restatement of this addiction to the Moabite gods, and the Psalm adds ’they ate the sacrifices of the dead.’

It is plain that, for whatever reason, ancestor-worship among the Hebrews was, at the utmost, rudimentary. Otherwise it must have been clearly denounced by the Prophets among the other heresies of Israel. Therefore, as being at the most rudimentary, ancestor-worship in Israel could not be developed at once into the worship of Jehovah.

Though ancestor-worship among the Hebrews could not be fully developed, according to Mr. Spencer, because of their nomadic habits, it was fully developed, according to the Rev. A.W. Oxford. ’Every family, like every old Roman and Greek family, was firmly held together by the worship of its ancestors, the hearth was the altar, the head of the family the priest.... The bond which kept together the families of a tribe was its common religion, the worship of its reputed ancestor. The chief of the tribe was, of course, the priest of the cult.’ Of course; but what a pity that Mr. Huxley and Mr. Spencer omitted facts so invaluable to their theory! And how does the Rev. Mr. Oxford know? Well, ’there is no direct proof,’ oddly enough, of so marked a feature in Hebrew religion but we are referred to 1 Sam. xx. 29 and Judges xviii. 19. 1 Sam. xx. 29 makes Jonathan say that David wants to go to a family sacrifice, that is, a family dinner party. This hardly covers the large assertions made by Mr. Oxford. His second citation is so unlucky as to contradict his observation that ’of course’ the chief of the tribe was the priest of the cult. Micah, in Judges xvii., xviii., is not the chief of his tribe (Ephraim), neither is he even the priest in his own house. He ’consecrated one of his own sons who became his priest,’ till he got hold of a casual young Levite, and said, ’Be unto me a father and a priest,’ for ten shekels per annum, a suit of clothes, and board and lodging.

In place, then, of any remote reference to a chief’s being priest of his ancestral ghosts, we have here a man of one tribe who is paid rather handsomely to be family chaplain to a member of another tribe. Some moss-troopers of the tribe of Dan then kidnapped this valuable young Levite, and seized a few idols which Micah had permitted himself to make. And all this, according to our clerical authority, is evidence for ancestor-worship! [13]

All this appears to be derived from some incoherent speculations of Stade. For example, that learned German cites the story of Micah as a proof that the different tribes or clans had different religions. This must be so, because the Danites asked the young Levite whether it was not better to be priest to a clan than to an individual? It is as if a patron offered a rich living to somebody’s private chaplain, saying that the new position was more creditable and lucrative. This would hardly prove a difference of religion between the individual and the parish. [14]

Mr. Oxford next avers that ’the earliest form of the Israelite religion was Fetishism or Totemism.’ This is another example of Stade’s logic. Finding, as he believes, names suggestive of Totemism in Simeon, Levi, Rachel, and so on, Stade leaps to the conclusion that Totemism in Israel was prior to anything resembling monotheism. For monotheism, he argues, could not give the germs of the clan or tribal organisation, while Totemism could do so. Certainly it could, but as, in many regions (America, Australia), we find Totemism and the belief in a benevolent Supreme Being co-existing among savages, when first observed by Europeans, we cannot possibly say dogmatically whether a rough monotheism or whether Totemism came first in order of evolution. This holds as good of Israel (if once totemistic) as it does of Pawnees or Kurnai. Stade has overlooked these well-known facts, and his opinion filters into a cheap hand-book, and is set in examinations! [15]

We also learn from Mr. Oxford’s popular manual of German Biblical conjecture that ’Jehovah was not represented as a loving Father, but as a Being easily roused to wrath,’ a thing most incident to loving fathers.

Again, Mr. Oxford avers that ’the old Israelites knew no distinction between physical and moral evil.... The conception of Jehovah’s holiness had nothing moral in it’ (p. 90). This rather contradicts Wellhausen: ’In all ancient primitive peoples ... religion furnishes a motive for law and morals; in the case of none did it become so with such purity and power as in that of the Israelites.’ [16]

We began by examining Mr. Huxley’s endeavours to find traces of ancestor-worship (in his opinion the origin of Jehovah-worship) among the Israelites. We next criticised Mr. Spencer’s efforts in the same quest, and the more dogmatic assertions of Mr. Oxford and Stade. We now return to Mr. Huxley’s account of the evolution from ghost-cult to the cult of Jehovah.

From the history of the Witch of Endor, which Mr. Huxley sees no reason to regard as other than a sincere statement of what really occurred, he gathers that the Witch cried out, ’I see Elohim.’ These Elohim proved to be the phantasm of the dead Samuel. Moved by this hallucination the Witch uttered a veridical premonition, totally adverse to her own interests, and uncommonly dangerous to her life. This is, psychically, interesting. The point, however, is that Elohim is a term equivalent to Red Indian Wakan, Fijian Kahu, Maori or Melanesian Mana, meaning the ’supernatural,’ the vaguely powerful—in fact X. This particular example of Elohim was a phantasm of the dead, but Elohim is also used of the highest Divine Being, therefore the highest Divine Being is of the same genus as a ghost—so Mr. Huxley reasons. ’The difference which was supposed to exist between the different Elohim was one of degree, not of kind.’ [17]

’If Jehovah was thus supposed to differ only in degree from the undoubtedly zoomorphic or anthropomorphic "gods of the nations," why is it to be assumed that he also was not thought to have a human shape?’ He was thought to have a human shape, at one time, by some theorists: no doubt exists on that head. That, however, is not where we demur. We demur when, because an hallucination of the Witch of Endor (probably still incompletely developed) is called by her Elohim, therefore the highest Elohim is said by Mr. Huxley to differ from a ghost only in degree, not in kind. Elohim, or El, the creative, differs from a ghost in kind, because he, in Hebrew belief, never was a ghost, he is immortal and without beginning.

Mr. Huxley now enforces his theory by a parallel between the religion of Tonga and the religion of Israel under the Judges. He quotes Mariner, [18] whose statement avers that there is a supreme Tongan being: ’of his origin they had no idea, rather supposing him to be eternal. His name is Tà-li-y-Tooboo = "Wait-there-Tooboo."’ ’He is a great chief from the top of the sky down to the bottom of the earth.’ He, and other ’original gods’ of his making, are carefully and absolutely discriminated from the atua, which are ’the human soul after its separation from the body.’ All Tongan gods are atua (Elohim), but all atua are not ’original gods,’ unserved by priests, and unpropitiated by food or libation, like the highest God, Tà-li-y-Tooboo, the Eternal of Tonga. ’He occasionally inspires the How’ (elective King), but often a How is not inspired at all by Tà-li-y-Tooboo, any more than Saul, at last, was inspired by Jehovah.

Surely there is a difference in kind between an eternal, immortal God, and a ghost, though both are atua, or both are Elohim—the unknown X.

Many people call a ghost ’supernatural;’ they also call God ’supernatural,’ but the difference between a phantasm of a dead man and the Deity they would admit, I conceive, to be a difference of kind. We have shown, or tried to show, that the conceptions of ’ghost’ and ’Supreme Being’ are different, not only in kind, but in origin. The ghost comes from, and depends on, the animistic theory; the Supreme Being, as originally thought of, does not. All Gods are Elohim, kalou, wakan; all Elohim, kalou, wakan are not Gods.

A ghost-god should receive food or libation. Mr. Huxley says that Tà-li-y-Tooboo did so. ’If the god, like Tà-li-y-Tooboo, had no priest, then the chief place was left vacant, and was supposed to be occupied by the god himself. When the first cup of Kava was filled, the mataboole who acted as master of the ceremonies said, "Give it to your god," and it was offered, though only as a matter of form.’ [19]

This is incorrect. In the case of Tà-li-y-Tooboo ’there is no cup filled for the god.’ [20] ’Before any cup is filled the man by the side of the bowl says: "The Kava is in the cup"’ (which it is not), ’and the mataboole answers, "Give it to your god;"’ but the Kava is not in the cup, and the Tongan Eternal receives no oblation.

The sacrifice, says Mr. Huxley, meant ’that the god was either a deified ghost, or, at any rate, a being of like nature to these.’ [21] But as Tà-li-y-Tooboo had no sacrifice, contrary to Mr. Huxley’s averment, he was not ’a deified ghost, or a being of like nature to these.’ To the lower, non-ghostly Tongan gods the animistic habit of sacrifice had been extended, but not yet to the Supreme Being.

Ah, if Mr. Gladstone, or the Duke of Argyll, or some bishop had made a misstatement of this kind, how Mr. Huxley would have crushed him! But it is a mere error of careless reading, such as we all make daily.

It is manifest that we cannot prove Jehovah to be a ghost by the parallel of a Tongan god, who, by ritual and by definition, was not a ghost. The proof therefore rests on the anthropomorphised pre-prophetic accounts, and on the ritual, of Jehovah. But man naturally ’anthropises’ his deities: he does not thereby demonstrate that they were once ghosts.

As regards the sacrifices to Jehovah, the sweet savour which he was supposed to enjoy (contrary to the opinion of the Prophets), these sacrifices afford the best presumption that Jehovah was a ghost-god, or a god constructed on ghostly lines.

But we have shown that among the lowest races neither are ghosts worshipped by sacrifice, nor does the Supreme Being, Darumulun or Puluga, receive food offerings. We have also instanced many Supreme Beings of more advanced races, Ahone, and Dendid, and Nyankupon, who do not sniff the savour of any offerings. If then (as in the case of Taa-roa), a Supreme Being does receive sacrifice, we may argue that a piece of animistic ritual, not connected with the Supreme Being in Australia or Andaman, not connected with his creed in Virginia or Africa (where ghost-gods do receive sacrifice), may in other regions be transferred from ghost-gods to the Supreme Being, who never was a ghost. There seems to be nothing incredible or illogical in the theory of such transference.

On a God who never was a ghost men may come to confer sacrifices (which are not made to Baiame and the rest) because, being in the habit of thus propitiating one set of bodiless powers, men may not think it civil or safe to leave another set of powers out. By his very nature, man must clothe all gods with some human passions and attributes, unless, like a large number of savages, he leaves his high God severely alone, and is the slave of fetishes and spectres. But that practice makes against the ghost-theory.

In the attempt to account thus, namely by transference, for the sacrifices to Jehovah, we are met by a difficulty of our own making. If the Israelites did not sacrifice to ancestors (as we have shown that there is very scant reason for supposing that they did), how could they transfer to Jehovah the rite which, by our hypothesis, they are not proved to have offered to ancestors?

This is certainly a hard problem, harder (or perhaps easier) because we know so very little of the early history of the Hebrews. According to their own traditions, Israel had been in touch with all manner of races much more advanced than themselves in material culture, and steeped in highly developed polytheistic Animism. According to their history, the Israelites ’went a-whoring’ incorrigibly after strange gods. It is impossible, perhaps, to disentangle the foreign and the native elements.

It may therefore be tentatively suggested that early Israel had its Ahone in a Being perhaps not yet named Jehovah. Israel entertained, however, perhaps by reason of ’nomadic habits,’ only the scantiest concern about ancestral ghosts. We then find an historical tradition of secular contact between Israel and Egypt, from which Israel emerges with Jehovah for God, and a system of sacrifices. Regarding Jehovah as a revived memory of the moral Supreme Being whom Israel must have known in extremely remote ages (unless Israel was less favoured than Australians, Bushmen, or Andamanese), we might look on the sacrifices to him as an adaptation from the practices of religion among races more settled than Israel, and more civilised. [22]

Speculation on subjects so remote must be conjectural, but our suggestion would, perhaps, account for sacrifices to Jehovah, paid by a race which, by reason of ’nomadic habits,’ was never much given to ancestor-worship, but had been in contact with great sacrificing, polytheistic civilisations. Mr. Huxley, however, while he seems to slur the essential distinction between ghost-gods and the Eternal, grants, later, that ’there are very few people(s?) without additional gods, which cannot, with certainty, be accounted for as deified ancestors.’ Tà-li-y-Tooboo, of course, is one of these gods, as is Jehovah. Mr. Huxley gives no theory of how these gods came into belief, except the suggestion that ’the polytheistic theology has become modified by the selection of the cosmic or tribal god, as the only god to whom worship is due on the part of that nation,’ without prejudice to the right of other nations to worship other gods. [23] This is ’monolatry,’ and ’the ethical code, often of a very high order, comes into closer relation with the theological creed,’ why, we are not informed. Nor do we learn out of what polytheistic deities Jehovah was selected, nor for what reason. The hypothesis, as usual, breaks down on the close relation between the ethical code and the theological creed, among low savages, with a relatively Supreme Being, but without ancestor-worship, and without polytheistic gods from whom to select a heavenly chief.

Whence came the moral element in the idea of Jehovah? Mr. Huxley supposes that, during their residence in the land of Goshen (and a fortiori before it), the Israelites ’knew nothing of Jehovah.’ [24] They were polytheistic idolaters. This follows, apparently, from Ezekiel xx. 5: ’In the day when I chose Israel, and lifted up mine hand unto the seed of the house of Jacob, and made myself known unto them in the land of Egypt.’ The Biblical account is that the God of Moses’s fathers, the God of Abraham, enlightened Moses in Sinai, giving his name as ’I am that I am’ (Exodus iii. 6, 14; translation uncertain). We are to understand that Moses, a religious reformer, revived an old, and, in the Egyptian bondage, a half-obliterated creed of the ancient nomadic Beni-Israel. They were no longer to ’defile themselves with the idols of Egypt,’ as they had obviously done. We really know no more about the matter. Wellhausen says that Jehovah was ’originally a family or tribal god, either of the family of Moses or of the tribe of Joseph.’ How a family could develop a Supreme Being all to itself, we are not informed, and we know of no such analogous case in the ethnographic field. Again, Jehovah was ’only a special name of El, current within a powerful circle.’ And who was El? [25] ’Moses was not the first discoverer of the faith.’ Probably not, but Mr. Huxley seems to think that he was.

Wellhausen’s and other German ideas filter into popular traditions, as we saw, through ’A Short Introduction to the History of Ancient Israel’ (pp. 19, 20), by the Rev. A.W. Oxford, M.A., Vicar of St. Luke’s, Soho. Here follows Mr. Oxford’s undeniably ’short way with Jehovah.’ ’Moses was the founder of the Israelite religion. Jehovah, his family or tribal god, perhaps originally the God of the Kenites, was taken as a tribal god by all the Israelite tribes.... That Jehovah was not the original god of Israel’ (as the Bible impudently alleges) ’but was the god of the Kenites, we see mainly from Deut. xxxiii. 2, Judges v. 4, 5, and from the history of Jethro, who, according to Judges i. 16, was a Kenite.’

The first text says that, according to Moses, ’the Lord came from Sinai,’ rose up from Seir, and shone from Mount Paran. The second text mentions Jehovah’s going up out of Seir and Sinai. The third text says that Jethro, Moses’s Kenite (or Midianite) father-in-law, dwelt among the people of Judah; Jethro being a priest of Midian. How all this proves that ’Moses was a great impostor,’ as the poet says, and that Jehovah was not ’the original God of Israel,’ but (1) Moses’s family or tribal god, or (2) ’the god of the Kenites,’ I profess my inability to comprehend.

Wellhausen himself had explained Jehovah as ’a family or tribal god, either of the family of Moses’ (tribe of Levi) ’or of the tribe of Joseph.’ It seems to be all one to Mr. Oxford whether Jehovah was a god of Moses’s tribe or quite the reverse, ’a Kenite god.’ Yet it really makes a good deal of difference! For in a complex of tribes, speaking one language, it is to the last degree unexampled (within my knowledge) that one tribe, or family, possesses, all to itself, a family god who is also the Creator and is later accepted as such by all the other tribes. One may ask for instances of such a thing in any known race, in any stage of culture. Peru will not help us—not the Creator, Pachacamac, but the Sun, is the god of the Inca family. If, on the other hand, Jehovah was a Kenite god, the Kenites were a half-Arab Semitic people connected with Israel, and may very well have retained traditions of a Supreme Being which, in Egypt, were likely to be dimmed, as Exodus asserts, by foreign religions. The learned Stade, to be sure, may disbelieve in Israel’s sojourn in Egypt, but that revolutionary opinion is not necessarily binding on us and involves a few difficulties.

Have critics and manual-makers no knowledge of the science of comparative religion? Are they unaware that peoples infinitely more backward than Israel was at the date supposed have already moral Supreme Beings acknowledged over vast tracts of territory? Have they a tittle of positive evidence that early Israel was benighted beyond the darkness of Bushmen, Andamanese, Pawnees, Blackfeet, Hurons, Indians of British Guiana, Dinkas, Negroes, and so forth? Unless Israel had this rare ill-luck (which Israel denies) of course Israel must have had a secular tradition, however dim, of a Supreme Being. We must ask for a single instance of a family or tribe, in a complex of semi-barbaric but not savage tribes of one speech, owning a private deity who happened to be the Maker and Ruler of the world, and, as such, was accepted by all the tribes. Jehovah came out from Sinai, because, there having been a Theophany at Sinai, that mountain was regarded as one of his seats. [26]

We have seen that it seemed to make no difference to Mr. Oxford whether Jehovah was a god of Moses’s family or tribe or a Kenite god. The former (with the alternative of Joseph’s family or tribal god) is Wellhausen’s theory. The latter is Stade’s. [27] Each is inconsistent with the other; Wellhausen’s fancy is inconsistent with all that we know of religious development: Stade’s is hopelessly inconsistent with Exodus iv. 24-26, where Moses’s Kenite wife reproaches him for a ceremony of his, not of her, religion. Therefore the Kenite differed from the Hebrew sacra.

The passage is very extraordinary, and is said by critics to be very archaic. After the revelation of the Burning Bush, Jehovah met Moses and his Kenite wife, Zipporah, and their child, at a khan. Jehovah was anxious to slay Moses, nobody ever knew why, so Zipporah appeased Jehovah’s wrath by circumcising her boy with a flint. ’A bloody husband art thou to me,’ she said, ’because of the circumcision’—an Egyptian, but clearly not a Kenite practice. Whatever all this may mean, it does not look as if Zipporah expected such rites as circumcision in the faith of a Kenite husband, nor does it favour the idea that the sacra of Moses were of Kenite origin.

Without being a scholar, or an expert in Biblical criticism, one may protest against the presentation to the manual-reading intellectual middle classes of a theory so vague, contradictory, and (by all analogy) so impossible as Mr. Oxford collects from German writers. Of course, the whole subject, so dogmatically handled, is mere matter of dissentient opinion among scholars. Thus M. Renan derives the name of Jehovah from Assyria, from ’Aramaised Chaldaeanism.’ [28] In that case the name was long anterior to the residence in Egypt. But again, perhaps Jehovah was a local god of Sinai, or a provincial deity in Palestine. [29] He was known to very ancient sages, who preferred such names as El Shaddai and Elohim. In short, we have no certainty on the subject. [30]

I need hardly say, perhaps, that I have no antiquated prejudice against Biblical criticism. Assuredly the Bible must be studied like any other collection of documents, linguistically, historically, and in the light of the comparative method. The leading ideas of Wellhausen, for example, are conspicuous for acumen: the humblest layman can see that. But one may protest against criticising the Bible, or Homer, by methods like those which prove Shakspeare to have been Bacon. One must protest, too, against the presentation of inconsistent and probably baseless critical hypotheses in the dogmatic brevity of cheap handbooks.

Yet again, whence comes the moral element in Jehovah? Mr. Huxley thinks that it possibly came from the ethical practice and theory of Egypt. In the Egyptian Book of the Dead, ’a sort of Guide to Spirit Land,’ there are moral chapters; the ghost tells his judges in Amenti what sins he has not committed. Many of these sins are forbidden in the Ten Commandments.

They are just as much forbidden in the nascent morality of savage peoples. Moses did not need the Book of the Dead to teach him elementary morals. From the mysteries of Mtanga he might have learned, also, had he been present, the virtue of unselfish generosity. If the creed of Jehovah, or of El, retained only as much of ethics as is under divine sanction among the Kurnai, adaptation from the Book of the Dead was superfluous.

The care for the departed, the ritual of the Ka, the intense pre-occupation with the future life, which, far more than its morality, are the essential characteristics of the Book of the Dead—Israel cared for none of these animistic things, brought none of these, or very little of these, out of the land of Egypt. Moses was certainly very eclectic; he took only the morality of Egypt. But as Mr. Huxley advances this opinion tentatively, as having no secure historical authority about Moses, it hardly answers our question, Whence came the moral element in Jehovah? One may surmise that it was the survival of the primitive divinely sanctioned ethics of the ancient savage ancestors of the Israelite, known to them, as to the Kurnai, before they had a pot, or a bronze knife, or seed to sow, or sheep to herd, or even a tent over their heads. In the counsels of eternity Israel was chosen to keep burning, however obscured with smoke of sacrifice, that flame which illumines the darkest places of the earth, ’a light to lighten the Gentiles, and the glory of thy people Israel’—a flame how litten a light whence shining, history cannot inform us, and anthropology can but conjecture. Here scientific nescience is wiser than the cocksureness of popular science, with her ghosts and fetish-stones, and gods that sprang from ghosts, which ghosts, however, could not be developed, owing to nomadic habits.

It appears, then, if our general suggestion meets with any acceptance, that what occurred in the development of Hebrew religion was precisely what the Bible tells us did occur. This must necessarily seem highly paradoxical to our generation; but the whole trend of our provisional system makes in favour of the paradox. If savage nomadic Israel had the higher religious conceptions proved to exist among several of the lowest known races, these conceptions might be revived by a leader of genius. They might, in a crisis of tribal fortunes, become the rallying point of a new national sentiment. Obscured, in some degree, by acquaintance with ’the idols of Egypt,’ and restricted and localised by the very national sentiment which they fostered, these conceptions were purified and widened far beyond any local, tribal, or national restrictions—widened far as the flammantia moenia mundi—by the historically unique genius of the Prophets. Blended with the doctrine of our Lord, and recommended by the addition of Animism in its pure and priceless form—the reward of faith, hope, and charity in eternal life—the faith of Israel enlightened the world.

All this is precisely what occurred, according to the Old and New Testaments. All this is just what, on our hypothesis, might be expected to occur if, out of the many races which, in their most backward culture, had a rude conception of a Moral Creative Being, relatively supreme, one race endured the education of Israel, showed the comparative indifference of Israel to Animism and ghost-gods, listened to the Prophets of Israel, and gave birth to a greater than Moses and the Prophets.

To this result the Logos, as Socrates says, has led us, by the path of anthropology.


[1Science and Hebrew Tradition.

[2Op. cit. p. 361.

[3Science and Hebrew Tradition. p. 308.

[4Prin. Soc. p. 306.

[5The Tshi-speaking Races, p. 183.

[6Some Australian tribes have cemeteries, and I have found one native witness, King Billy, to the celebration of the mysteries near one of these burying-places. I have not discovered other evidence to this effect, though I have looked for it. The spot selected is usually ’near the camp,’ and the place for so large a camp in chosen, naturally, where the supply of food is adequate.

[7Cf. the Aryans, Principles of Sociology, p. 314.

[8Principles, p. 316.

[9Ibid. p. 317.

[10Jeremiah xvi. 6, 7.

[11Leviticus xix. 28.

[12Deuteronomy xxxiv. 6.

[13Short Introduction to History of Ancient Israel, pp. 83, 84.

[14Stade i 403.

[15Stade, i. 406.

[16Wellhausen, History of Israel, p. 437. Mr. Oxford’s book is only noticed here because it is meant for a popular manual. As Mr. Henry Foker says, ’it seems a pity that the clergy should interfere in these matters.’

[17Science and Hebrew Tradition, p. 299.

[18II. 127.

[19Science and Hebrew Tradition, p. 331.

[20Mariner, ii. 205.

[21Op. cit. p. 335.

[22Of course, it in understood that Israel (in the dark backward and abysm of time) may also have been totemistic, like the Australians, as texts pointed out by Mr. Robertson Smith seem to hint. There was also worship of teraphim, respect paid to stones and trees, and so forth.

[23Science and Hebrew Tradition, p. 349.

[24P. 351.

[25History of Israel, p. 443 note.

[26Religion of Semites.

[27Geschichte des Volkes Israel, i. 180.

[28Histoire du Peuple d’Israel, citing Schrader, p. 23.

[29Op. cit. p. 85

[30See Professor Robertson’s ¶Early Religion of Israel for a list of these conjectures, and, generally, for criticisms of the occasional vagaries of critics.

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