Sunday, 3 October 2010

God, Materialism and the Bible

First posted on Marxmail.
The old testament contains many, many strata, written at very different 
stages, in extremely varied circumstances. It is a complex document that 
cannot be easily resumed as "the triumph of private property and 
In fact, at its core, there is a certain tilting of the Old Testament 
towards pastoralism, visible in the importance given to sheep and the 
fact that Jews had to pay "compensation" for the lives of their sons by 
sacrificing lambs (redemption through lamb sacrifice) "in exchange" for 
a son :

Exodus 13:2 "Consecrate to me every firstborn male. The first offspring 
of every womb among the Israelites belongs to me, whether man or animal.

And every first male thou shalt redeem with a lamb; and if thou wilt not 
redeem it, then thou shalt break his neck: and all the firstborn of man 
among thy children shalt thou redeem.

and it came to pass, when Pharaoh would hardly let us go, that the LORD 
slew all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, both the firstborn of man, 
and the firstborn of beast: therefore I sacrifice to the LORD all that 
openeth the matrix, being males; but all the firstborn of my children I 

Hence the tradition of redeeming a male son with the sacrifice of a 
lamb, which in modern judaism is merely symbolical.

This equivalence between lamb and first male son is thus deeply present 
in Judaism and by extension Christianity ("Jesus is the lamb of God sent 
to reddeem through his blood the sins of mankind").. It goes back to 
very old practices among the pastoral tribes that would later be 
amalgamted within the so-called "Israelites".

Of course, the Old Testament then goes on to give a spurious 
"explanation" for such practices through the imaginary history of the 
flight from Egypt, a narrative that provides an explanation for daubing 
the door of the dwelling with lamb-blood (to ward of the spirit of the 
Lord who comes looking for the first-born child), celebrating PAssover 
(bitter herbs, lambs business, because of the great hast to escape the 
PAhroah's army) and quite a few other, otherwise "unexplainable" 
elements in Jewish folklore (ritual cleanliness for example).

The Old Testament thus contains a lot of evidence regarding the original 
nature of the various "Jewish" tribes that came to Palestine from the 
2nd millenium BC onward : they were pastoralists, whose mythology was 
overwhelmingly centered around sheep-rearing and for whom the 
lamb-conception season (easter) was of primordial importance. No triumph 
of agriculture, but a very slow, and begrudging transition from pastoral 
nomadism to settled cultivation.

The redeeming through a  lamb instead of the sacrifice of a  human babe, 
the symbolical equivalence of lamb and male chile, the notion of 
sacrifice (remember Isaac) is common to many pastoralist societies 
around the globe. That it left an imprint so profound (through the idea 
of "redemption" and eventually to that of Christ's "sacrifice") in later 
re-writings of the Old Testament myths (6th to 3rd century BC, when the 
inhabitants of Palestine were agriculturists and no longer nomads), is 
proof enough of the persistence of Pastoral and nomadic motives in the OT.

So I wouldn't say that the OT is the triumph of Private property over 
Pastoralism (which is quite Patriarchal by the way, the head of the 
family being in complete control !), but rather the re-interpretation, 
over several centuries, of Palestinian mythology and it's re-fitting 
into an agriculturist society. Two millenia of lamb/first-born son 
redemption (equivalence) symbolism still stubbornly refusing to adapt to 
new conditions. Right into the 1century BC (or 20th century AD for that 
matter). What more proof do you need that mythological/symbolical 
structures are incredibly resistant to change, and persist long after 
the mode of production that gave rise to them has ceesed to exist. The 
old concepts they contain are still operative, even though the actual 
content has long-ago vanished. And are still capable of being 
incorporated (even create) new beliefs.

No comments:

Post a Comment