Copyright © 1982, 2013, Victoria University
LECTURE TRANSCRIPT: PROGRAM 7
This text is a transcript of the full lecture of Prof. Frye on Oct. 14, 1980. Only the bold parts are used in this version.
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Please note: This lecture was split in two programs; the second part can be found under program 8 ‘Pastoral and Agricultural Imagery: part two’
PASTORAL AND AGRICULTURAL IMAGERY: PART ONE
I was speaking of the pattern of imagery in the Bible and of its various categories, and particularly of the way in which three phases of history are reflected in Biblical imagery. And we saw that it is a characteristic of this type of image that the group form and the individual form are metaphorically identified with each other.
The ambiguity of the symbolism attached to the Messiah is that in each category he is regarded as both master and victim, as the shepherd of the flock and at the same time the sacrificial lamb. In the same way, his human function is that of a king, but he's a spiritual king, and in the physical world he is only a mock king put to death. In the urban phase we saw that the city is identified with the bride, Jerusalem, and the Temple that is the house of the god in the middle of the city is identified in the Gospels and in the Book of Revelation with the body of Christ. Jesus says in the Gospels: 'Destroy this temple and I will raise it up in three days'. And the Book of Revelation was insistent that in the New Jerusalem there is no Temple because the Body of Christ has replaced it.
There are various ramifications of this imagery that we need to look at. For one thing, the archetypes, so to speak, the original models of these three phases of Israelite civilization are established before the time that Israel appears on the historical scene: that is, before the time of Abraham. Almost the first story of the Bible is the story of the rivalry between the two sons of Adam, Cain and Abel. Cain is a farmer and Abel is a shepherd.
Disputes between a farmer and a shepherd are thousands of years older than the Bible. They go back to Sumerian times, but usually in Sumerian times it's the farmer who has the best of the argument, as would be very natural for a country that's dependent entirely on irrigation and is primarily an agricultural country. But in the Old Testament, the original pastoral relationship of wandering herds is idealized as the time when Israel was united with its God, and we find that idealizing of the pastoral life in the 23rd Psalm, in the imagery of the Good Shepherd attached to Christ and elsewhere.
Abel was murdered by Cain. He was a shepherd and his offering, we are told, was accepted by God; whereas Cain was a farmer, and his offering of the firstfruits of the crops was not accepted. We are not really told why this is so, but it establishes the types of a later liturgical pattern. The primary sacrifice is the sacrifice of the lamb, and that is the one that is first laid down for us in the story of Abraham's command to sacrifice his son Isaac, where at the last minute he is stopped from doing so and a ram is substituted. That story indicates that for Israel the sacrifice of a lamb is to replace the sacrifice of a son or of a human being.
And that is confirmed later on by the story of the Passover, which is the primary rite in the Jewish liturgy. The Passover offering is the offering with blood, which is the fundamental reason, at least insofar as there is a reason, why Abel's sacrifice is acceptable and Cain's is not. Eventually of course, the farmer's offerings of firstfruits were added and the calendar developed three major festivals: the Passover, which is pastoral in imagery; the festival of the harvest, which developed into the Jewish and Christian Pentecost; and the vintage festival, which became the feast of booths and, eventually, of the New Year in Judaism. But this imagery of harvest and vintage becomes established rather later, and apparently the story of Noah has something to do with the establishing of an agricultural pattern of life.
That is, after the Flood, Noah institutes a tremendous massacre of animals in honor of God, and God, we are told, highly approves of the smell: he says, 'That smells pretty good: I'd better take the curse off the ground that I put on it at the time of Adam's fall'. Then he promises Noah that there will be an unfailing cycle of seedtime and harvest, the basis of an agricultural program of life. So Noah turns into a farmer.
His first accomplishment—human nature being what it is—is to discover wine and get drunk. But nevertheless, the harvest and the vintage remain apocalyptic symbols, along with the symbolism of the Good Shepherd and of the city. And if we look through the Gospels we see very frequently how fond Jesus is of these metaphors of harvest and vintage for the coming of the last day, and the extent to which the animal elements of body and blood are identified with the corresponding vegetable ones of bread and wine. That comes into the pattern of the Eucharist that Jesus is recorded as establishing at the Last Supper, where he specifically identifies the wine with his blood.
After the pastoral period of the patriarchs, Israel descends into Egypt. There, God promises Moses from the burning bush that he will lead his people into a land flowing with milk and honey, which are not vegetable products. But what they eventually come into is a Promised Land in which they enter upon an agricultural economy. That of course meant that they were exposed to what the Old Testament writers regarded as contamination from the agricultural rites of the surrounding peoples.
It is with a certain amount of reluctance that Israel enters the Promised Land and embarks on an agricultural economy. If you look, for example, at Joshua 5:12: 'And the manna ceased on the morrow after they had eaten of the old corn of the land; neither had the children of Israel manna any more; but they did eat of the it of the land of Canaan that year'. Corn is seventeenth-century English for any kind of grain. And the first symbol of Cancan was an enormous bunch of grapes which the spies brought back from the Promised Land. In fact the word 'Canaan' itself means more or less 'the red land, and its Greek equivalent is phoenicia. It is supposed to have derived its name from another source, the purple dye from the murex shell fish. But the association of redness with the earth and the agricultural economy is fairly consistent throughout the Bible.
As for the urban life, the Israelites are represented first of all as apparently desert dwellers like the Bedouins. Yet their leaders, Abraham and Moses, are described as having come from the cities, one from Mesopotamia and the other from Egypt. There even seems to be some evidence that the word 'Hebrew', which used to be a somewhat pejorative term when used by outsiders, originally meant something more like 'proletariat' than the conventional name for a people. And certainly that is the role in which they appear in Egypt.
In any case, they are compelled to live beside neighbors with agricultural rites. I mentioned the law about not boiling a kid in its mother's milk, suggesting that it was a negative ritual, something that the Israelites were forbidden to do because their neighbors did it. That is true also of the various agricultural cults which had to do with encouraging the fertility of the soil by various rituals founded on the principle of sympathetic magic. That is, if you want it to rain, you pour water on the ground: that kind of imitation by magic and a ritual is the basis of what might have been called the dying god cult.
I take the phrase 'dying god' from Frazer, who investigated this question back in the 1890s. His thesis has been refuted so often that it is now time for it to come back into style again. He speaks of many Mediterranean religions as having been founded on the cult of a god who was fundamentally a god of the fertility of the earth, and more particularly of the vegetable fertility, though it is connected with animals as well. He was as a rule a male god, though there are exceptions, such as Persephone in Greek religion; and he is represented as related to a female principle of whom he is sometimes the son, sometimes the lover and sometimes the victim. he has various names in various countries. His name in Babylonia was Tammuz; in Syria, Adonis; in Asia Minor, Attis; in Egypt, Osiris; in Greece, Dionysus or sometimes Hyacinthus.
Now the myth associated with this god usually tells of his death. He is a victim either of the female principle he's attached to or of something representing the dead or sterile part of the year. Thus Adonis is killed by a boar who apparently represents the winter. In Ezekiel 8:14 we are shown one of the central rites of these dying god cults. Ezekiel represents himself as being in Babylon along with the captive Jews, and as being shown in a vision what is happening in the Temple of Jerusalem. The death of the god was each year ceremonially and ritually mourned by a group of women who represented the female principle of the dying god; and the female goddess represented in her turn the continuing fertility of the earth, which remained dormant throughout the winter or the late part of the summer. It was the chorus of women representing this female principle—the mother or the mistress, whichever she was thought of as being—that formed a central part of the ritual for the dying god. In verse 14, the angel who is showing Ezekiel all this in a vision 'brought me to the gate of the Lord's house which was towards the north; and, behold, there sat women weeping for Tammuz'. That is, they were carrying on the cult of the dying god. That ritual maintained itself in surrounding countries down to the time of Christ; and even in the very late Book of Daniel, the persecution of the Jews just before the Maccabean rebellion is associated with the cult of the god beloved of women, that is, Tammuz or Adonis.
The cult was extremely common all over the Mediterranean. You can't look in Classical literature without seeing that. Theocritus of Sicily has an idyll on the festival of Adonis; and the cult of Attis, whose female principle was Cybele, was transferred to Rome during the Punic Wars of Hannibal, largely for political reasons. There it took the form, as most of these cults did, of a three-day spring festival. On the first day, an effigy representing the god was hung on a tree, and the effigy was supposed to die. The second was the day when the god was absent from the world, and the priests lashed themselves into orgiastic frenzies and castrated themselves as part of their sacrifice to their god: there's an ode of Catullus about that, which is a very powerful and very terrible poem. And then on the third day there was a ritual procession to the marshes or somewhere where the reborn god was supposed to be discovered.
There were other rituals of the same general type, connected with promoting the fertility of the soil. Again the women took the initiative in these cults, and would grow plants in pots and bring them along by forced growth. They would then throw the pots with the plants in them into the water as a rain charm. These were known as gardens of Adonis, and the throwing of the plants into the water was a regular part of the fertility ritual. You would expect the Hebrew prophets to take a very dim view of this practice. If you look at Isaiah 17:10-11: 'Because thou hast forgotten the God of thy salvation, and hast not been mindful of the rock of thy strength, therefore shalt thou plant pleasant plants, and shall set it with strange slips: in the day shalt thou make thy plant to grow, and in the morning shalt thou make thy seed to flourish: but the harvest shall be a heap in the day of grief and of desperate sorrow'. So the gardens of Adonis were obviously familiar to the Israelites, and the prophet here is attacking the practice as something that has nothing to do with the Israelite religion.
One of the great confrontations between the two cults is that between Jehovah and the fertility god Baal of the Syrians on the top of Mount Carmel. There is a great contest between Elijah and the priests of Baal as to which god is capable of bringing rain. I Kings 18 contains a wonderful scene in which the priests of Baal first of all knock themselves out trying to get their god to deliver rain out of an absolutely cloudless sky. And Elijah makes fun of them in the most approved charitable manner in verse 27: 'And it came to pass at noon, that Elijah mocked them and said, Cry aloud: for he is a god; either he is talking, or he is pursuing, or he is in a journey, or peradventure he sleepeth and must be awaked'. 'Pursuing' is a euphemism which means, perhaps he is making water after all. But the priests are thereby moved to greater and greater efforts. In verse 28: 'And they cried aloud, and cut themselves after their manner with knives and lancets till the blood gushed out upon them'. This is sympathetic magic again: if you prick yourself and the blood flows, it suggests that what you need very badly at that point is rain.
Similarly, in Hosea 7:14—only here the King James translation lets you down, because the King James translators didn't know very much about dying god cults—'And they have not cried unto me with their heart when they howled upon their beds'. Then the King James Bible has: 'they assemble themselves for corn and wine', but that's wrong. What Hosea is saying is that they gashed themselves for corn and wine: that is, they cut themselves until the blood flowed.
Now the root of all this, which you can trace in the Bible also, is that the firstfruits of the crop should be offered to the god. It is assumed that the god, like the God of Noah, lives off the smell of the offerings: and he has to be fed first, otherwise disaster will result. Some of these cults seem to involve an original cult where the sacrificial victim was a human being. The human being might have been the leader of a society, the divine king, according to Frazer, or his eldest son, or later on, a criminal or a prisoner taken captive in battle.
And so we find a certain sequence of sacrificial victims. The original victim would be the divine king himself. That is, the king would be regarded as containing within himself the fertility of the land over which he rules, so that it would be only common sense to put him to death as soon as his strength begins to fail, because his virility and the fertility of his country are bound up together by sympathetic magic. But if you're going to put him to death as soon as his strength fails, there's no sense letting all that divinity go to waste; and so there could be a ritual banquet at which his body was eaten and his blood drunk, so that the divine essence passed into the body of his worshippers.
Well, whether that rite ever existed or not as an historical fact could not matter less. The point is that it is symbolically the right one to have there at the beginning of the sequence. Then follows the sacrifice of the king's eldest son, because it leads to a certain amount of social insecurity—for reasons I don't need to go into—if you keep putting a king to death as soon as his strength is alleged to fail. That is the stage recorded in the story of Abraham's order to sacrifice his son Isaac, an order which at the last moment is rescinded and the sacrifice transferred to the ram.
This is incorporated into the Israelite code, in the list of commandments given in Exodus 34. This is a set of commandments much older than the more familiar Ten Commandments in Exodus 20. Verse 19 says: 'All that openeth the womb is mine; and every firstling among thy cattle, whether ox or sheep, that is male'. Then it goes on to say that 'the firstling of an ass thou shalt redeem with a lamb: and if thou redeem him not, then shalt thou break his neck. All the firstborn of thy sons thou shalt redeem'. That is, every first-born son is technically an offering to God. But the actual sacrifice is not to be carried through: he is to be redeemed, usually by a lamb, that being the pattern established in the story of Abraham and Isaac and in the story of the Passover.
We can see at work here the principle that offering to God as a sacrifice what you most want yourself gets to be inconvenient after awhile, so various substitutions are made. In fact, it is one of the motifs in Greek mythology associated with Prometheus. Prometheus' real sin was in persuading men that the gods didn't want any of the real meat when they offered a sacrifice: they'd be quite content with the entrails and the offal. And they were not. And so, every so often there comes the feeling that the deity wants the full payment and without cheating.
We get an example, which is ascribed again to one of the surrounding nations, in II Kings 3:27. Here Israel is attacking the central city of Moab, one of their neighboring enemies—'neighbor' and 'enemy' were practically the same word in the ancient world. And we are told that 'when the king of Moab saw that the battle was too sore for him, he took with him seven hundred men that drew swords, to break through even unto the King of Edom'—who was his ally at the time— 'but they could not. Then he took his eldest son that should have reigned in his stead and offered him for a burnt offering upon the wall. And there was great indignation against Israel: and they departed from him, and returned to their own land.' So when he is in a desperate situation, he makes the original offering of his own eldest son that should have reigned in his stead. And the last sentence is very clearly a clumsy editorial effort to conceal the fact that in the original story the stratagem worked, and the Israelites were in fact driven off.
The sacrifice of human beings in that context is what is prohibited in the Bible. Archeologists have discovered an inscription by this King Mesha of Moab who sacrificed his eldest son, and it's obvious from that inscription that his piety towards his god Chemosh was just as authentic as the Israelite piety towards Jehovah. But that was how his mind worked and how, in some context, the Israelite mind would have worked too: we are also told that after Jericho was taken by Joshua, a curse was put on the city that whoever rebuilt it would have to sacrifice his eldest son at the beginning and his youngest son at the end of the rebuilding of the city. Which is a terrible curse: the only thing is that trade routes are much more important than children; and Jericho is apparently one of the world's oldest inhabited sites. So the city was rebuilt, and the person who rebuilt it sacrificed his eldest son to begin the operation and his youngest son to finish it.
I suspect that the original cannibal feast, which is original in the sense of being symbolically original, may not have actually been practiced by any society. I think human beings only tend to cannibalism when they run out of other supplies of protein. And even a ritual banquet as solemn as that one would be might not have been carried through in quite so literal a way: we don't know. In any case, the Israelites were extremely familiar with the cult of human sacrifice, particularly the sacrifice of firstborn sons. And although that is condemned, they are much more neutral on the question of a sacrifice which is to fulfill a vow or a sacrifice of a prisoner taken in a war. That may be a sacrifice not merely acceptable to God but actually demanded by him. We find such a story in the Book of Judges, in the 11th chapter.
We notice that in the commandment in Exodus 34, female animals, whether animal or human, are lawfully ignored. But in the story of Jephthah, it says that he made a vow to sacrifice to God the first thing he saw when he came back from his battle if he won the battle. Notice that the psychological basis of sacrifice is very frequently a bargaining basis. The formula is do ut des—I give that you may give. That is what prayer in Homer, for example, very largely consists of. It consists of reminding the gods very pointedly that they have been very well fed by the hero's sacrifices in the past, and if they wish the supply to be continued, they'd better come through with some more victories. This is a typical folktale of a rash-vow type, where Jephthah says he will sacrifice the first thing that comes to meet him returning from the battle if he's victorious. And of course, the first thing to meet him is his only daughter.
In 11:37, his daughter says that he has to go through with the sacrifice, seeing that he has made the vow. 'And she said unto her father, Let this thing be done for me: let me alone two months, that I may go up and down upon the mountains, and bewail my virginity, I and my fellows. And he said, Go'. Then, at the end of the chapter, we are told that it was a custom in Israel that the daughters of Israel went yearly to lament the daughter of Jephthah four days in the year. So there are two things to notice there: one is her virginity, which makes her the unblemished and consequent, acceptable sacrificial victim; and the other is the fact that she becomes the center of a cult of mourning women. So the original religion associated with this story is clearly something much older than the Mosaic Code.
If you look at the Book of Zechariah, the second to last book in the Old Testament, right at the end in 12:10: 'And I will pour upon the house of David, and the inhabitants of Jerusalem, the spirit of grace and of supplication: and they shall look upon me whom they have pierced, and they shall mourn for him, as one mourneth for his only son, and shall be in bitterness for him, as one that is in bitterness for his firstborn. In that day shall there be a great mourning in Jerusalem as the mourning of Hadad-rimmon in the valley of Megiddon'.
Now Hadad-rimmon is simply another fertility god of this type, whose cult took the form of his death's being mourned by a group of women. One thing that is interesting about this prophecy in Zechariah is that the phrase 'they shall look upon me whom they have pierced' is quoted in the Gospel of John, which means that the authors of the Gospels were thoroughly familiar with the symbolism of dying god cults, and incorporated that symbolism into their accounts of the Passion. You remember that Jesus is followed to his execution by a mourning chorus of women, whom he addresses as 'daughters of Jerusalem'.
In the Book of Micah which is in the middle of the minor prophets, there is another reference which contains a verse often regarded—I think with considerable justification—as one of the great moral breakthroughs in history. In 6:6 Micah says: 'herewith shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before the high God? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with cakes of a year old? Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, or with ten thousands of rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul? He hath showed thee, 0 man, what is good: and what doth the Lord require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God?'
Now what is fascinating about that seventh verse is that the question of whether one should not fall back on the original demand of the firstborn son as the sacrificial victim was still familiar enough for the prophet to refer to it as a moral problem. Of course what he was saying was that this whole bargaining basis of sacrifice, of making a reparation for something held done wrong and so forth, is utter nonsense and that one has to get to a new level of apprehension altogether. But before he says that, he says that it is possible that people around him are still wondering whether, in the event of a sufficiently difficult situation, they ought not to fall back on the original rite.