CHAPTER 5.—THE ISRAELITES DISCOVER MONOTHEISM AND SPEND MOST OF THE REST OF THEIR HISTORY TRYING TO BACK OUT OF IT.
WITHOUT EXCEPTION, ALL the great ancient civilizations were polytheistic: they believed in a god for every occasion. Religion was therefore a very complicated business, because it had to take into account the fact that what pleased one god might easily send another into a funk that would result in three years of drought or a rise in utility rates. The safest thing to do was just to keep bribing all the gods and hope it made them happy. If all else failed, you could try sacrificing a virgin. Gods always liked virgins. If you were looking for a recession-proof business to invest in, you couldn’t do better than getting into the sacrificial-virgin trade. You might also do a sideline in temple prostitutes.
Some time around 2000 B.C., when Egypt had already been going full tilt for more than a thousand years, a Mesopotamian named Abram came up with a brilliant new theory in theology. What if, instead of an unknowable number of gods, there was only one God?
It was a Copernican revolution in religion. The idea might or might not be true, but it sure did simplify the calculations.
On the other hand, it didn’t necessarily endear him to the local establishment, whose prosperity depended on the god-bribing business. It doesn’t take a mathematical genius to figure out that one God with one temple won’t employ as many specialists as dozens of gods with dozens of temples. Centuries later, when Akhenaten, the pharaoh of all Egypt, attempted to promulgate his own form of monotheism, he made himself so unpopular that the Egyptian priests spent the next several dynasties trying to pretend he had been some sort of used-car salesman who accidentally wandered into the palace. And Abram did not have the sort of authority that Akhenaten had.
So Abram left his comfortable townhouse in Ur of the Chaldees and set out for parts unknown. He believed that God was leading him, but he may also have cast more than one glance over his shoulder to see who was following him.
What Abram told his family and retainers was that God had promised to lead him to his ultimate home, a land bursting with every good thing, which God would give to Abram and his descendants forever. So God led and Abram followed, and finally he ended up in Palestine.
We can imagine what Abram must have been thinking. “This? This is it? I leave the most sophisticated city in the world because you promise me a land that will be mine forever—and you bring me here? To this hick podunk backwater where the cultural event of the season is a high-school production of ‘Hello, Dolly’? I left the department stores and five-star restaurants of Ur for this?”
We can imagine Abram thinking those things, but what he actually said to God was “Thank you very much.” He wasn’t called the Friend of God for nothing.
So Abram settled in Palestine and started calling himself Abraham, using the local pronunciation of his name and making himself right at home. And we should like to say that he lived happily ever after, but that never happens in history. “Happily ever after” happens in fairy tales only because the storytellers wisely end their stories before they get to the part where the handsome prince starts to find the jousting scores more interesting than he does the princess, and the princess starts to drown her sorrows in mead. History, on the other hand, keeps going.
Abraham’s family continued to live in Palestine, a little nest of monotheists among the normal people, until in the time of Abraham’s grandson Jacob there was a rotten famine in the land. Fortunately for Jacob, he had a son who had made something of himself in Egypt, after having been sold as a slave in one of those little outbreaks of sibling rivalry that, as every father of a large family knows, always end up with somebody being sold as a slave. Simply by being more virtuous than all the Egyptians put together, Jacob’s son Joseph had risen to be Prime Minister in the government down there. (This, incidentally, marks the very last time such an office was ever assigned on the basis of virtue.) He was thus in a position to wangle an invitation for his father and brothers to settle in the land of Goshen, a new tract-housing development in northern Egypt that was desperate for buyers at the time.
All this stuff matters because Jacob had changed his name to Israel, although (as often happens when people try to change their own names) people kept calling him Jacob no matter how often he corrected them. His family therefore called themselves the Children of Israel, and their descendants were destined to have a greater impact on the course of world events than any other backwater hick tribe in history.
The Israelites prospered and multiplied in Egypt until a pharaoh from the Know-Nothing party came to power. Promising to “protect Egyptian jobs” and “get tough on immigration,” the new king decided to tackle the Jewish question by killing all the newborn male infants. Doubtless the pharaoh merely intended to share the benefits of enlightened modern family planning with his Israelite subjects, but they took it the wrong way. They were also unhappy about his full-employment program, which involved making bricks without straw, a task whose very hopelessness guaranteed that the Israelites would never be out of work. There is simply no pleasing some people.
The discontent of the Israelites found its voice in Moses, an Israelite who had had the benefit of a thorough acquaintance with Egyptian court life. Thus, for example, he knew exactly at what times of day it was permitted to walk into the throne room and denounce the pharaoh. This was an enormous time-saver. Other lobbyists had to worm their way through the bureaucracy for months or years to get an appointment, but Moses could just walk in any time he wanted and thunder ominously, “Let my people go!” Nobody ever chopped his head off or anything.
It took ten plagues’ worth of divine intervention, but eventually the Israelites did leave Egypt and head back to Palestine—a trip that should have taken them about two weeks, but instead took them forty years, because they refused to stop and ask for directions.
While wandering in the desert, the Israelites stopped at Mount Sinai, or Horeb, where God gave Moses the Tablets of the Law. Moses came down the mountain with the stone tablets in hand, only to discover that the Israelites had already given up on him and his God, and had decided to worship the Midianite gods, who knew how to throw a party. Moses was so furious that he hurled the tablets to the ground, where they shattered into a thousand pieces. God had to pick up all the bits of stone and glue them back together like a jigsaw puzzle, and the result is still known as the Mosaic Law today. This is an example of that sophomoric humor Dr. Boli warned you about in Chapter 3.
Eventually the Israelites did reach Palestine, which very inconveniently turned out to be already inhabited by Canaanites who had cheekily named the place Canaan after themselves. The Israelites never did quite succeed in displacing the Canaanites, whose gods demanded human sacrifice, sacred prostitution, and orgies—a religion of which the Israelites could never disguise their envy. The God of Israel demanded things like justice and mercy. Why couldn’t Israel have fun-loving gods like the ones the Canaanites worshiped? Was a little orgy once in a while too much to ask? A god who kept a staff of temple prostitutes on hand was a god who knew how to have a good time.
Thus the history of Israel for the next thousand years is depressingly repetitive. The Israelites turn away from their own God and start going to their neighbors’ parties, until God has finally had enough of them and decides to smack them around a bit. Then they remember who they are and go back to God for a little while, but as soon as the present danger is lifted they’re back at the orgy again. Whoever said “History is written by the winners” had obviously never read the Old Testament. The Israelite historians had the job of recording one disastrous conquest after another. It was a good day when the Israelites were only being enslaved rather than massacred.
Yet through all these disasters, a small band of prophets kept the monotheistic idea of Abraham alive, even when all the other Israelites were cheerfully fricasseeing their children to please Moloch. And that one idea, though it was hanging by a thread more than once during the centuries, would eventually burst out of Palestine and ruin everything (see Chapter 10, Christianity Ruins Everything).