Of all the tribes of people, why is it that a group of pastoral tribal nomads, who were minorities then and minorities now, seem to have such an enduring presence in our world? Because ideas and the details matter. Their ideas have stood the test of time and ended up shaping many assumptions we take today to be self-evident in Western civilization.
Throughout history, as far back as our hunter gatherer ancestors, humans thought in the form of symbols. And what they saw in their dreams and imaginations, just as we do today, were symbols for things that contained emotional significance to them. But symbolism is much more than assigning an image to a meaning. It is this specific ability of humans that allowed us to develop mathematics, language, and any higher order thinking. Words and symbols are simply auditory and visual symbols for ideas and objects.
Early humans, not being able to fully distinguish between dreams, imagination, and reality, assumed that the two were the same or at the very least intimately connected. They acted out what they imagined and dreamed in their subconscious as if it would affect objective reality in their favor. This is the beginning of ritual and religion. Groups of people shared their rituals and symbolism which became a cultural identity and worldview.
Early rituals were centered around the objects in nature that humans were most connected with. Because we are social animals, we reflected our own humanity onto the creatures we hunted and created communion with these animal deities by consuming them in ritual fashions. This idea still exists in our psyches as many of us partake in communion in various forms today. Christians doing so with the body of Christ being the focus of that communion.
With the discovery of agriculture, the center of humanity’s survival shifted focus. Instead of hunting animals and traveling to wherever the animal roamed, humanity became much less mobile. Fertile ground was valuable and an area that produced a consistent harvest was settled and the work of humanity started to follow a cycle of seasons. Still using symbolism and reflecting their own natures into the objective world, humans shifted their focus of ritual and religion towards the cycle of the harvest and the feminine principle of nature.
Because all new human life comes from women, there was a focus on the parallels between human sexuality and the fertility of the earth. Every year there was a sowing of seeds, a tending of the earth, a sprouting of new life, a harvest and the death of what brought life, followed by the seeds of that harvest bringing new life in the same way during the next seasons. This occurred on and on into eternity in their minds. The former hunters were slowly turned into farmers, and with their old ways went the old beliefs, the old gods and those rituals. A worship of the things that supported this new life: the sun, rain, and the cyclical nature of the earth replaced their former worship of animals and the old rituals.
This is the point at where everything changes.
In sharp contrast to the prevailing ideas of the time, a group of desert nomads brought to light new ideas with which to view the world that changed the direction of human history. Three major concepts of the Hebrew tradition still affect our views today:
- Ethical monotheism
- God is not of nature, but transcends nature
- Human history is progressive and not cyclical
The very idea that there is a universalism to individual human rights, humanity’s drive to manipulate nature in our favor, and the optimistic assumption of progress all come from these originally Hebrew ideas. These ideas, rooted in ethical monotheism and combined with Greek natural law, fused together to become the basis for the ideas at the root of Western civilization.
Ethical monotheism is distinct from simply monotheism. Ethical monotheism is the idea that there is one universal god who is concerned with the ethical behavior of all humans. Being a nomadic people, there are political reasons behind the development of this concept, which was in stark contrast to polytheism and some of the previous forms of monotheism at the time. The Hebrew god was not tied to a geographical location as its people were not. Other gods were often considered to be the gods of a region, which is why tribal people did not often question the realities of other tribal gods. The victors of tribal wars even incorporated many of the conquered tribe’s gods into their own cultures. But the nomads of the desert were always on the move, tending to their flocks, and needed a deity that traveled with them.
The ethics of polytheism can allow people some freedom from universal responsibility in that if there are multiple gods who had no consistent morality, individuals could not be expected to abide by any universal morality themselves. It gives people options as opposed to one ethic to follow that all people were subject to. But people who tend herds are not necessarily dependent on many forces of nature that would come together to determine their success, and thus had less forces outside of their control to contend with. And like the hunters that preceded them, individual initiative was necessary for survival.
A sense of individualism and self-reliance coincides with less reliance on multiple deities. The individual success of a people like this would be greatly reflected in the specific actions each person takes, as there is not as much focus on the fertility of the land, weather, and the cycle of the harvest as compared to those who relied on those variables for a bountiful crop. It is only natural the nomadic shepherds would develop a deity who rewarded individual behavior. This personality type is directly reflected in the god they developed. And whether they realized it or not, having a god that focuses on individual behavior, is not reliant on the seasons and not embodied in nature, would make a huge difference in the direction of human thought.
A God Outside of Nature
Believing in a god outside of nature brings a consistency to humanity’s expectations for the rules and nature of the universe. It was not simply the fact that there was one god as compared to many, but the essence of the gods was different in an important way. The Greek gods were reflections of humans but with extraordinary powers and the gift of immortality. People who worshipped Greek gods would appease different gods with different personalities for different reasons. Their gods were just as flawed as humans and were not driven by ethics. Earlier tribal and agricultural gods were gods of nature to include animals, plants, and objects visible in the cosmos. Gods of nature are amoral as there is no morality in nature. The sun does not have morality or ethics. It has a nature that is its own which differs from all of the other objects of nature worship.
The Hebrew god was different in this specific fashion. It was not a god of nature, but a god outside of nature. It was a god that directed the rules of nature. If there is only one god, and that god is outside of and controls nature, then there is an expected consistency to the rules of the universe. And if there is consistency in the rules, they can be understood. Part of doing God’s work would be to seek understanding of His nature by observing it which then allowed us to manipulate it in our favor. This is the essence of empiricism, which is the idea that all knowledge arises from our sense experiences. Everything from digging canals to the technology of today is based in the belief of the consistency of nature’s laws and the ability to observe, understand, and manipulate them, much like Greek natural law. This is in part why Greek natural law and the tradition of the Hebrew god were later able to coexist and fuse into what we know today as Western thought. Both have an essence of universal laws that apply to all of existence.
Progressive and Cyclical History
A belief in the promise of a future where a messiah will bring unity to all of mankind creates a sense of optimism as opposed to an expectation of a repeated cycle of events for all generations to come. This idea is often described as the greatest contribution of the Jewish faith to Western civilization.
Agricultural people of the time often saw history as a cycle of repetitive occurrences, and looked at a previous time as a golden age. They did not expect to progress beyond what was known and had no expectations of the future outside of successive generations going through the same cycles as they and their ancestors had. This is why many ancient calendars are in the shape of a circle. Egyptian cycles were largely dependent on the rise and fall of their rivers, and that is what they based their calendars, gods, and expectations on. The Hebrew slaves of the Egyptians saw the world very differently.
Part of Jewish belief is the idea of a future that was better than what they experienced during their lives now referred to as the messianic tradition. They expected history to move towards a time when a messiah would be the savior of the Jewish people. That creates in the mind of their people an expectation of progress. Each generation moves closer to salvation and is expected to develop morally and ethically. While most all other people of the time and region expected a repetition of what came prior, the Jewish faith broke away from that cycle into an expectation of progress for people as a group through individual ethical progress. Today, where humanity has seen more progress of many types as compared to any previous generation, it can be hard to imagine anything else. But the expectation of progress is an idea that we did not always have as part of our psyche and its development broke people off into groups of those who expected repeated cycles and those who expected progress.
Throughout history, many people with many gods and many ideas have come into power and disappeared into the shadows. But a few ideas have survived the test of time. These three ideas have not only survived the test of time but have led to a complete change in the course of human history as they shaped Western civilization. Universal morality, the manipulation of nature to serve mankind, and the assumption of progress, are ideas that we take to be self-evident today. We often hear people say, “Yes things are good, but they can always be better.” The next time you hear that, think about why anyone would assume so. Then think about the optimism that comes with the assumption of progress and what that means to the psyche and expectations of billions of people today and throughout history. And remember the ideas of a tiny tribe of desert nomads they called “the dusty ones.”