Copyright © 1982, 2013, Victoria University
LECTURE TRANSCRIPT: Lecture 15
EXODUS: A REVOLUTIONARY HERITAGE
I've suggested that while there is a great variety of creation myths, if you look at the creation myths of Mediterranean countries in the general cultural orbit of the Bible, you find certain typical forms emerging. One of these we described as the sexual creation myth, which simply assumes that the creation was the beginning of the natural cycle. While there are many exceptions in mythology, one very natural figure for this kind of creation myth to focus on would be an earth-mother. And that seems to be, as far as we can see, the common type of creation myth in the east Mediterranean countries, in pre-Biblical times at any rate.
The one that we find in the first chapter of Genesis is an artificial Creation myth, where the world is originally made, rather than simply coming into being, and where the focus is a sky-father, rather than an earth-mother. I've suggested that one significant element in that contrast is that an earth-mother or sexual creation myth is simply the cycle of nature and the seasons extended, but that in the Bible there is a belief in a historical process, a sense of time going somewhere and meaning something, which involves a revolt against all cyclical conceptions of reality.
A cyclical conception of reality is essentially the deification of a kind of machine: that is, it illustrates the ineradicable tendency of the human mind to invent something and then abase itself in front of it. No sooner has the human mind invented the wheel than it starts inventing projections of a wheel of fate or a wheel of fortune, of something ineluctable and mysterious and stronger than man himself. It seems ironic that these projected images should almost invariably be taken from man's own inventions.
Anyway, the first chapter of Genesis, the later or Priestly account of Creation, seems to think in terms of a cosmos as emerging from chaos, and as being associated with an awakening of consciousness that seems to be symbolized in the emphasis on the metaphor of days of a week. The second, or Jahwist account, which begins in the second chapter, is much older, and not all the old sexual mythology has been eliminated from it. The second account begins with the watering of a garden, and we've already seen a suggestion in the Song of Songs and elsewhere of the garden as the bride's body. It's in this older account that Adam is made from the dust of the ground, adamah, which is a pun in Hebrew, and adamah is feminine. So there's a sense in which Adam had a mother as well as a divine father.
What is more important in this contrast for us at the moment is this: a sexual creation myth focused on an earth-mother has no problem with the conception of death, because it is a myth which concerns, very largely, living things, animals and plants, all of which die. In a sexual creation myth, death is built in. It is not only an inevitable part of the myth, it is in some respects the only element that really makes sense of it. But we suggested that the artificial myth thinks more in terms of sky metaphors, of the sun that sets in the evening and comes up again as the same sun the next morning. The bodies in the sky—the sun, the moon, the planets—are not living things in the same way, though they may be deified, as animals and plants are, and they suggest also a sense of planning and of intelligence, a control of affairs in which the same recurring phenomena are brought back.
So it's clear from this, and from many other considerations as well, that in the Biblical account of the Creation, God could have created only a perfect and model world in which there could be no death or sin or misery or pain. That is the reason we are told in that account in the first chapter of Genesis that God made something and then saw that it was good. As Bernard Shaw says in one of his essays, 'What would he say now?' The answer is of course that he would say, according to the traditional Christian interpretation, This is not the world I made, this is the world you fell into, and it's all your fault, and not the least little bit my fault. See Paradise Lost, Books I to XII'.
Now obviously we can only get to that interpretation by doing a certain violence to the Biblical account. For one thing, it is traditional—you'll find it in Paradise Lost as well as elsewhere—that everything we find inconvenient in nature, from mosquitoes to earthquakes, is the result of a fall in nature which accompanied or was part of the original fall of man. But that is of course pure reconstruction: there is nothing about a fall of nature in Genesis. It is said that God cursed the ground, but he removed the curse before the Flood, so that doesn't count either.
The essential point is that it is a matter of belief in Judaism and Christianity that the original world created by God must have been a model world: consequently, an artificial creation myth must have an alienation myth like that of the fall of man to account for the difference between the world as such a God must have made it and the actual world that we're living in now.
Of course, this implies that the perfect or model world was made primarily for man's benefits that is a belief which has obvious psychological links with paranoia. But as Thomas Pynchon remarks in his very remarkable novel Gravity's Rainbow, man cannot live except in a paranoid state. He has only the choice between creative and destructive paranoia. So it is not the fact that the world was created for man's sake which is the difficulty, but simply that for an artificial creation myth which assumes an intelligent and planning God, one needs, to complete it, the myth of the fall of man.
The fall of man is described very obliquely in the Book of Genesis. There are two trees, we are told, a tree of life and a tree of knowledge: according to the principle of metaphor, they are clearly the same tree. The forbidden tree has a cursed serpent crawling limply away from it on his belly; and as the serpent is very frequently a sexual or a phallic symbol, one would expect that the tree of life, in an original version of the story, would have had an erect serpent climbing up through its branches, as it still does in certain symbolic systems like those of kundalini yoga in India. Elsewhere, too, the serpent is the symbol of wisdom, so that the knowledge that man gained by the Fall through the subtle serpent, the deceiving serpent, must have been in some respects an illusory knowledge.
It is also of course a knowledge which has something to do with the discovery of sex as we know it, because as soon as the knowledge is acquired, Adam and Eve knew that they were naked and looked around for clothing. Thus, the original unfallen state is apparently conceived as being a sexual ideal of a kind that we have since lost the key to. The Freudian psychologist Jacques Lacan speaks of the 'myth of the lost phallus' as being one of the most widespread of human conceptions, and it certainly seems involved in the Genesis account as well.
I'm passing over, for the moment at any rate, the Flood story, which in a sense completes the account of the fall of man, and would like to go on to the next phase of Biblical revelation, the phase known as Exodus, or the revolutionary phase.
In the first chapter of Exodus we are told that the Hebrews had entered Egypt under the patronage not merely of Joseph as the advisor to the Pharaoh, but of the Pharaoh himself. That is consistent with what we find all through the Bible, that the world ruler is not necessarily thought of as an evil or wicked man, but simply as one who rules over the kind of world in which sooner or later a successor of his will be evil. The Pharaoh who welcomed the family of Jacob into Egypt was a benevolent pharaoh, but in the course of time there was a pharaoh who 'knew not Joseph' and attempted to get rid of the Hebrews by genocide. The first Persian monarchs, Cyrus and Darius, are spoken of with the greatest respect, but before long we have Ahaseurus in Esther, who attempts another pogrom of genocidal proportions. At the time of the Roman Empire, Paul insists that 'the powers that be are ordained of God', but in no time at all we have Nero and the other persecuting Caesars; and although Alexander the Great is represented by Josephus as being welcomed into Jerusalem by the high priest, in the course of time, the Syrian Seleucian Empire produced Antiochus Epiphanes.
In many respects, the account in the Bible might have been simpler if it had begun where the story of Israel in effect begins, with God appearing in a burning bush to Moses. Moses in Egypt, having escaped from the original massacre of Hebrews and having been brought up as an Egyptian, looks over the landscape and sees a bush burning, yet without burning up. The emphasis is on the ear rather than the eye: the fact that the bush burns without burning up is merely there to attract Moses' attention; but it is the voice that speaks from within that is important.
Now if you begin the story there, you have immediately wiped out that whole dreary chess game that is known traditionally as theodicy. That is, how are you going to reconcile the existence of a perfectly good God with a horribly bad world, and yet without involving the good God in the bad world in any causal way? It's a problem of white not to move and win; a silly problem, I think, and a made-up one. The scene that begins the Exodus story is much more intelligible. Here, there is a situation of tyranny and exploitation going on to start with: the first datum is injustice, tyranny and exploitation. God then announces that he is giving himself a name and a highly partisan role, and is going to enter history on the side of the oppressed classes. Never mind how you got into this situation: how you get out of it is the important thing.
So Moses grows up and gathers Israel around him, and there occurs the story about the plagues, the hardening of Pharoah's heart, and then the crossing of the Red Sea, the event which separated Israel from Egypt. All through the rest of the Bible this separation of Israel from Egypt is one of the major tonalities, the theme which comes back again and again and again. And it is a matter of the highest importance for our understanding of our own cultural traditions that the tradition we have derived through Judaism and Christianity from the Bible has this revolutionary factor which the Exodus story gives to it. All the characteristics of the revolutionary mind are adumbrated right there, and you find most of them repeated in Marxism today.
One of those characteristics is the belief in a specific historical event as the starting point. That is, the story of Israel begins with Moses and the Exodus, and the story of Christianity begins with the birth of Christ. It doesn't begin with the Essenes or anything else that might have looked vaguely similar. The story of Communism begins with Marx and Engels and not with Fourier, Owen, St. Simon, or any of the other Utopian socialists. Islam begins with Mohammed and the flight from Mecca to Medina.
That historical consciousness is something that I have stressed already, because it gives to us the typological way of reading the Bible that I have been concentrating on in this course. As I tried to explain, typology is not a form of allegorical interpretation: it is a theory of history, or more accurately of the historical process, one which says that in spite of all the chaos and confusion in human events, nevertheless those events are going somewhere and meaning something, and that eventually something will happen which will indicate what their meaning is. That is what is distinctive about the Biblical tradition and is what that tradition has contributed to modern theories of history, both progressive and revolutionary. It is something which, so far as I know, is confined to that tradition. I don't find it in the Orient or in the Classics.
Another characteristic of the revolutionary tradition is the dialectical habit of mind, in which everything that is not for us is against us, so that all the middle ground is progressively eliminated. The Hebrews made their great contribution to our own cultural traditions, as is the wont of human nature, through their least amiable characteristic. It was not their belief that their God was true that became influential: it was their belief that all other gods were false. That conception of false god again is something that would have been almost unintelligible to, say, an educated Greek or Roman. A Greek merchant travelling in Babylon would naturally commend himself to the gods of Babylon before going to sleep. And we can see various traces in the Old Testament of an original belief, ascribed to other people such as the Syrians, that there was nothing nonexistent about other peoples' gods.
I think I may have called your attention to a passage in the Book of Kings in which the Syrians say among themselves when they're going to war with Israel, 'Well, Israel is a hilly country; consequently, Jehovah must be a God very good at hill fighting. If we can only get the Israelite army out of the hills and on to the plain, then we'll clean up on them'. And of course this resulted in disaster, because Jehovah, thin-skinned as ever, took offence at the notion that he wasn't equally good in valleys. Similarly, if you look at the Trojan War, you'll see that when the Trojans are defeated, the Trojan gods are defeated with them, and have to be taken by Aeneas to Italy to get refurbished for another period of power. All that is extremely remote from something like the contest between Elijah and the priests of Baal on Mount Carmel, where the object is to prove, not that Jehovah is stronger than Baal, but that Baal does not exist at all. He is not really a god, but a figment of the human imagination. That dialectical separation between the God and no god is something which seems to have come in with the teachings of the prophets, and which again is almost unintelligible to a polytheistic mind.
I think I mentioned earlier that in a tribal organization of society, the gods are local epiphanic gods. Like the nymphs and the satyrs and the fauns of later mythology, they are immediate deities of trees and stones and mountains. When tribes are organized into nations, the gods become an aristocracy, and usually sit on tops of mountains. When the nations grow into world empires, where the ruler thinks of himself as the ruler of the world, then you do get a kind of monotheism in which all the effective gods retreat into the stars except usually one supreme god. All through history you find this type of monotheism associated with world rulers: with an early pharaoh of Egypt, Akhnaten, who practically wrecked his empire in quest of his one god, and the early rulers of Persia, Cyrus and Darius, who were very fervent and devout monotheists. But that kind of imperial monotheism is totally different from the revolutionary monotheism of the Bible.
Imperial monotheism is a very eclectic religion that tends to identify local cults with the service of the supreme god, as they are all the same god anyway. A liberal-minded person in the late Roman Empire, for example, might even go to the point of collecting gods, and would have no objection what ever to having statues of Jehovah and Jesus in his collection. That is, he would think of any number of gods as equally ways of reaching the truth of one God. That is again an attitude of mind that is totally opposed to the kind of monotheism one finds in the Bible, where God has a specific name and a specific role in history, and is not simply a god in whom every other conception of deity may be absorbed.
Another feature of the same revolutionary mentality, I think, is the tendency to do precisely what the Israelites did, to build up a sacred book, and to mark it off clearly from other books that are apocryphal or secular or in some other respect peripheral. The conception of a sacred canon is something that seems to have grown up uniquely with the Israelite tradition. It's possible that there is a scene in the Bible that catches the moment of its birth. In II Kings 22, we have one of the last kings of Judah, and one of the few kings that the narrator approves of. One of the first things he does is to repair the Temple, and in the course of repairing the Temple, a document is found, the book of the law. In verse 8, 'And Hilkiah the high priest said unto Shaphan the scribe, I have found the book of the law in the house of the Lord. And Hilkiah gave the book to Shaphan, and he read it'. Then they report this fact to the king, verse 11: 'And it came to pass, when the king had heard the words of the book of the law, that he rent his clothes'. And then he said: verse 13, 'enquire of the Lord for me, and for the people, and for all Judah concerning the words of this book that is found: for great is the wrath of the Lord that is kindled against us, because our fathers have not hearkened unto the words of this book, to do according unto all that which is written concerning us'. Now what is of special significance in this passage is the king's conviction that it was a matter of the highest importance for the people as a whole to know the contents of a written document. We're a long way from democracy here, but democracy is founded on the basis of public access to documents, so you can see history turning a rather decisive corner at this point. Such a book would have to be in the first place a law book, because it is the laws which are almost invariably regarded as sacred, as of divine origin and as something that it concerns everyone to know.
Now it's been practically the only thesis in Biblical scholarship that the majority of Biblical scholars are agreed on that this book of the law which was then discovered either was or was very closely related to the existing Book of Deuteronomy. And that means, therefore, that the Book of Deuteronomy was the germ, the core, out of which the entire canon developed. It was probably later than that that the priests began to conflate the older accounts which they already had in temple records, and which survive in such things as the earlier account of Creation and the Genesis stories. The authors of Samuel and Kings are known as the Deuteronomic historians because they follow the general dialectic of Deuteronomy in their historical attitudes.
The Book of Deuteronomy itself seems to have been influenced by the writings and teachings of prophets who came before it, or at least before the time of its discovery. That seems to leave us with the conclusion that such people as David and Solomon had never heard of Moses, that the notion of the contract at Mount Sinai which gave the Israelites the law is a post-Deuteronomic idea and grew up some time after this discovery of the book by Josiah in the 7th century B.C.
The notion of a canon, of books that seem to belong together as especially sacrosanct, seems to be taking shape. We don't know very much about the way it operated, but that it was there seems inescapable. And there's a curious symbolic contrast between the fact that the successful and prosperous empires of Egypt and Babylon and Assyria produced the great temples, whereas the Israelites, who were never lucky at the game of empire, produced a book. To the people who wanted the kind of success that Assyria, Persia and Babylon had, production of a book must have seemed a good deal like a booby prize. But if you think of the relative durability of a book and a monument, you'll see that the facts are very different.
There's a wonderful scene in the Book of Jeremiah where Jeremiah's secretary is reading to what is practically the last king of Judah a prophecy of Jeremiah consisting very largely of denunciations of the king's very foolish and obstinate policy of resistance to Babylon. We're told that it was a cold day, and there was a fire burning in the room in the palace. Every so often, the infuriated king would cut a piece off the scroll with his knife and throw it in the fire. Well, that means that it was a papyrus scroll, because if it had been parchment, it would not only have bankrupted the prophet, but it would also have been tough enough to spoil the king's gesture. But we have the contrast between the prophecy of Jeremiah, entrusted to the most fragile and combustible material that the ancient world produced, and the king's palace, built presumably out of the stones of Solomon's palace, which had taken him thirteen years to build. After 2500 years, not the slightest trace remains of the king's palace, whereas the book of Jeremiah remains in reasonably good shape.
The contrast between producing a book which can be wiped out by the merest breath of accident and the great stone monuments that are there to endure forever and actually crumble in a few years, is rather like the difference between life and death perhaps, because any form of life can also be snuffed out very quickly.
The final item in this list of revolutionary characteristics I'm discussing is the tendency to regard your near neighbor, who is separated from you only by a very slight heresy, as a much deadlier and more detestable enemy than the agreed-on common enemy. Early Christianity, for example, didn't so much attack the pagans as the Gnostics or the Arians, whom they called pagans. In a Marxist struggle for power today, the people attacked are not capitalist reactionaries: it is the Trotskyites or supporters of the Gang of Four who are called agents of the bourgeois counter-revolution.
And with Judaism similarly, there is a much greater bitterness against the Northern Kingdom for its secession, and later on with the Samaritans who occupied the same place, than there is against, say, the Persians.
The word 'canon' is an interesting one. In the prophecy of Ezekiel, Ezekiel is told to take a reed and measure the Temple of God. The word for reed is qaneh and it's from that word ultimately, through Greek intermediaries, that we get our word 'canon'. And so symbolically, at least, there seems to be some connection between this symbol of measuring the Temple and constructing a verbal canon. If you look at the 11th chapter of Revelation, you will see that it begins with the angel giving the narrator a reed like a rod and telling him to measure the Temple of God. Immediately following is the account of the martyrdom of the two witnesses who, as we saw, are connected with Moses and Elijah, the two pillars of Scripture, the symbolic law and prophets.