Saturday, 31 December 2011

A new discovery

I was clearing out the allotment shed today, and somewhere down among the mouldering remains of old seed packets I found a book. It appears to be an account of how God gave an onerous list of rules to one of his prophets; the guy's name is unfortunately obscured by beetroot stains. If you keep the rules you'll live long and prosper, and become a rich banker. If you don't, and especially if you worship anyone else, you'll end your days as a homeless alcoholic living in a night shelter. If you escape being hit by a thunderbolt that is. Foreigners are to be exterminated without mercy. He claims to love us, but it it really the sweet scent of our whole burnt offerings he wants?

The big question is, do we bow down to this God, and keep all his rules in hope, or do we decide he's a psychopathic narcissist who probably runs a bank, and is unfit to be worshipped? Should I report my find to the government so they can put all the rules into law, or should I burn the thing before it can do any damage?

Happy New Year, by the way.

Thursday, 22 December 2011

Felix Dies Natalis Solis Invicti

Happy Birthday of the Unconquerable Sun! Which, of course, happens to be 25 December, which was the shortest day of the year when Julius Caesar established his new calendar in 45 BC, though it's drifted a little since. The Romans had always worshipped the sun, alng with many other deities, but Aurelian made a new version, the worship of Sol Invictus, an official cult in 274 AD. It was popular with several succeeding emperors, and Constantine I, who legalised Christianity again after the pagan backlash of the Great Persecution, celebrated the god as his 'companion' until long after his supposed conversion to Christianity. Here he is, on a coin struck in Londinium, with Sol Invictus himself on the reverse.

Constantine favoured the church, and declared its tolerance in the Edict of Milan, issued with his co-emperor and rival Licinius in 313, but despite centuries of claims to the contrary, there's no clear evidence that he ever committed himself to Christianity. He issued two rescripts regarding working on 'the venerable day of the Sun', when he wanted people to abstain from any work apart from a few specific things like manumitting slaves. Neither, however, makes any reference to Christianity, which only became the official religion of the Empire in 380, under Theodosius I.

In the following century, Pope Leo I (reigned 440-461) said, in a sermon:

From such a system of teaching proceeds also the ungodly practice of certain foolish folk who worship the sun as it rises at the beginning of daylight from elevated positions: even some Christians think it is so proper to do this that, before entering the blessed Apostle Peter's basilica, which is dedicated to the One Living and true God, when they have mounted the steps which lead to the raised platform, they turn round and bow themselves towards the rising sun and with bent neck do homage to its brilliant orb. We are full of grief and vexation that this should happen, which is partly due to the fault of ignorance and partly to the spirit of heathenism: because although some of them do perhaps worship the Creator of that fair light rather than the Light itself, which is His creature, yet we must abstain even flora the appearance of this observance: for if one who has abandoned the worship of gods, finds it in our own worship, will he not hark back again to this fragment of his old superstition, as if it were allowable, when he sees it to be common both to Christians and to infidels? (

So it seems that some were mixing the worship of the Sun with that of the Son. It was an age when the old polytheistic religion of Rome was effectively dead, and people were experimenting with various monotheisms, dedicating themselves to an array of alternative gods. At the same time, there was no hostility beteen the cults, apart from Christianity and Judaism. People were fee to mix and match, and so syncretism within the church shouldn't be seen as surprising. Constantine I may have been such a syncretist, or he may just have found the church politically useful in reuniting the empire after a series of civil wars. As the first sole emperor in almost 40 years, he must have faced an uphill task, and probably needed all the help he could get.

It was in this context that the church adopted the midwinter festival as a celebration of Jesus' birth. It was the time when the days were darkest and shortest, the old year died, and the promise of its rebirth in the spring must have been uppermost in peoples' minds as they faced the long, cold winter, and the 'hungry gap' in early spring, before the first of the new season's crops came in to fill their bellies. Famine was never far away in a subsistence economy, and malnutrition and disease must have been  regular features of everyday life at this time of year. The further north you went, the longer and darker the winter, and the greater the likelihood of shortages. The midwinter festival seems to have been almost universal, attached to whatever gods were worshipped in a paricular culture. Essentially, it was cultural, rather than a feature of any specific religion, but in an age when religion permeated almost every act, it was inevitable that it would take a religious form. The Greeks celebrated is as Lenaia, a feast dedicated to Dionysios, when a bull, or originally a man, was sacrificed. The Romans had a tamer version, Brumalia, dedicated to Bacchus.

Decmber 25th is first mentioned as the date of Jesus' birth in 354. There was a belief that he was concieved on the same date as he died, and conception around April would obviously lead to a birth about December. It fitted the midwinter festival, though Christmas remained fairly low key for some centuries, only slowly gaining in importance.

How much was taken over from the pagan festivals of the time isn't known. One thing's certain, though; the religious aspects were rejected, and if anything was absorbed, it was what we nowadays recognise as cultural not religious. There's nothing particularly Christian - or unChristian for that matter - about having a feast in the darkest time of the year. Occasionally, we meet Christians of a rather narrow bent, who claim that we shouldn't observe Christmas or Easter because they're 'really' pagan observances in disguise. It's sheer nonsense. We don't know when Jesus was born, but obviously the even has to have happened. He can't have been resurrected without dying; he can't have died without being born. It's entirely appropriate that we should celebrate all three.

Happy Christmas, Holidays, Winterval, or whatever you want to call it!

Saturday, 10 December 2011

In the Beginning 3

We left Genesis at Chapter 1:19 (here; the first post in the series is here) ; God has brought forth order, and made land, sea and sky. He's created plants, immediately after separating land and sea, then put lights in the sky.

Genesis 1:9-19 And God said, "Let the waters under the sky be gathered together into one place, and let the dry land appear." And it was so. God called the dry land Earth, and the waters that were gathered together he called Seas. And God saw that it was good. Then God said, "Let the earth put forth vegetation: plants yielding seed, and fruit trees of every kind on earth that bear fruit with the seed in it." And it was so. The earth brought forth vegetation: plants yielding seed of every kind, and trees of every kind bearing fruit with the seed in it. And God saw that it was good. And there was evening and there was morning, the third day. And God said, "Let there be lights in the dome of the sky to separate the day from the night; and let them be for signs and for seasons and for days and years, and let them be lights in the dome of the sky to give light upon the earth." And it was so. God made the two great lights-- the greater light to rule the day and the lesser light to rule the night-- and the stars. God set them in the dome of the sky to give light upon the earth, to rule over the day and over the night, and to separate the light from the darkness. And God saw that it was good. And there was evening and there was morning, the fourth day.

Since the plants and animals which are brought forth are living beings, that implies that the heavenly bodies may well have been thought of as somehow belonging to the same order of things. To other peoples of the Ancient Near East, and evidently to many Israelites, the heavenly bodies were objects of worship; their cults are referred to in 2 Kings 23:5 and Amos 5:26. The fact that they're said to have been established within the royal temple in Jerusalem, and perhaps that at Bethel, points to their importance. Here, of course, they're relegated to the status of nameless created beings, but they're still beings, not inanimate objects. Even the word 'shemesh', meaning sun, is, however, closely related to the name of the sun god, Shamash. The divine association is still there, embedded in the language. The 'great lights', sun and moon, are given roles, to rule day and night, which they separate. So they have a specific function, upholding part of the order God has brought forth out of the primal chaos. They act, as it were, as God's viceroys, set over one aspect of creation.

Genesis 1:20-31 And God said, "Let the waters bring forth swarms of living creatures, and let birds fly above the earth across the dome of the sky." So God created the great sea monsters and every living creature that moves, of every kind, with which the waters swarm, and every winged bird of every kind. And God saw that it was good. God blessed them, saying, "Be fruitful and multiply and fill the waters in the seas, and let birds multiply on the earth." And there was evening and there was morning, the fifth day. And God said, "Let the earth bring forth living creatures of every kind: cattle and creeping things and wild animals of the earth of every kind." And it was so. God made the wild animals of the earth of every kind, and the cattle of every kind, and everything that creeps upon the ground of every kind. And God saw that it was good. Then God said, "Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth." So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. God blessed them, and God said to them, "Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth." God said, "See, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit; you shall have them for food.And to every beast of the earth, and to every bird of the air, and to everything that creeps on the earth, everything that has the breath of life, I have given every green plant for food." And it was so. God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good. And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day.

Birds and water organisms are brought forth, and told to be fruitful and multiply; fish are to 'fill' the waters, and birds are to multiply on the earth. Sea and sky are thus populated with animal life. v21 uses bara', to create, which hasn't been used since v1. The tannin, 'sea monsters', probably represent the chaos monster of myth, but God has got bigger, and the monster smaller. Now, the monsters are created in the same way as any other living being, and, like the rest of them, are subject to God's authority. In Ps 104, which contains similar language to Genesis 1, Leviathan is created to 'sport in the waters', a far cry from the Leviathan God destroys in Ps 74. The process reaches its climax in Jonah, where the monster, now a mere fish, proves to be a better servant of God than his recalcitrant prophet.

Then God authorises the earth to bring forth animals, but the earth isn't 'filled' with them. That is reserved for humans, who come next, and, like birds and fish, they are to be fruitful and multiply; like fish, they are to 'fill', but this time, the land. No doubt this is, as much as anything, a comment on what the authors could see around them; shallow seas, and lowland water courses, will indeed teem with life as long as they're not affected by pollution or overfishing. Similarly, a settled country would have been 'filled' with people, wherever there was agricultural land to support them.

When humans are made, we suddenly find that God isn't alone; he says 'Let us make...', though he alone gets credit for doing the making. The church likes to see the Trinity in this, but of course this was an idea which evolved after the New Testament was written, never mind Genesis. The first question has to be, what was in the minds of the authors? Nowadays, we come very close to absolute monotheism; we see God as a unique being, alone in his divinity, tempered only by the idea of his being three in one. the Israelites, however, believed in many divine beings, the Elohim.

Elohim is often used as a name for God, but it's also used for gods or angels (Ex 12:12, Ex 32:1, Deut 13:18, Ps 8:6, etc), or even the spirits of the dead (I Sam 28:13). God is the greatest of the Elohim, the one who is God, who alone may be worshipped, but he is surrounded by the heavenly host, and here, in the creation of humanity, we catch a glimpse of them at work. In this passage, creation  turns out to be a team effort.

Just as the sun and moon are to rule the heavens, so human beings are to have dominion over living things; over fish, birds and land animals, but not over the lights in the sky. Again, to some extent, this is a simple statement of observed fact; humanity was indeed the dominant species. It is also a commission from God; humanity is to rule as his viceroy on earth, just as sun and moon rule in the heavens. Human beings are thus put on a level with beings which, to any of the surrounding cultures, were mighty gods. It's a very different picture from the one painted by their myths.

In the story of Atrahasis, the lesser gods have to dig ditches, and they rebel because the work is so hard. So the great gods sacrifice one of the lesser, and mix his blood and flesh with clay, to make mankind. The men do the work, but they breed so much that the noise they make disturbs the gods. Eventually they make a flood to drown them, and only Atrahasis and his family, forwarned by one of the gods, escape with an ark full of animals. Of course, this is much earlier than Genesis; from the Babylon of the 18th Century BC, while Genesis 1 is 1st Milennium BC certainly, and probably post-exilic. Ideas have moved on, and now the Israelites are asserting a much higher role for humanity than that of a useful beast of burden which has to be culled now and then to keep the numbers down!

However, humanity isn't the centre of creation. The story is primarily one about God and his relationship with creation, rather than that of the creation of a single species. We may have dominion over the earth, but the sun and moon rule the sky. We may be told to multiply and fill the earth - without which, we cannot exercise dominion over it - but the fish are told to fill the sea. Rather, we're an important part of an interlocking system, not put there to dominate and destroy, but to act under God's authority, as his viceroy.

Right from the beginning, we're sexual beings, created as male and female, intended to multiply and breed. Unlike the story of Atrahasis, and its parallel in the Gilgamesh cycle, this breeding isn't seen as a threat. Nowadays, of course, we know that it can be, but we live in a very different age to the authors of Genesis. In those days, population levels were sustainable, and pollution remained within manageable limits. There's no hierarchy here, no hint of male superiority. The sexes are created side by side, and commanded to breed. The story of the Fall, if that's what it is, belongs to a different version of the creation story.

Genesis 2:1-3 Thus the heavens and the earth were finished, and all their multitude. And on the seventh day God finished the work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all the work that he had done. So God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it, because on it God rested from all the work that he had done in creation.

The climax comes on the seventh day. God's finished the job, he has a nice lie in, and he blesses his work. Combined with the repeated statement that what God made was 'good', this affirms creation in a way we can't afford to forget. Sabbath is built into the fabric of the story in a way which provides a theological basis for the practice. The cycle of time which began with the first day ends in the rest of God.

Sunday, 4 December 2011

Creation ex nihilo

Rabbi Michael Samuel suggests here that the idea of creation ex nihilo may be older than I thought. He hasn't got any clear statements of it though, only texts which might suggest some such idea at the back of their authors' minds. There's certainly nothing which would stretch it all the way back to Genesis!