A history of the move from asking 'Why?' to 'How?'
'The Seekers: The Story of Man's Continuing Quest to Understand his World'
Web posted on: Tuesday, October 13, 1998 5:23:03 PM EDT
(CNN) -- In his previous national bestsellers, "The Discoverers" and "The Creators", Daniel J. Boorstin first told brilliantly how e discovered the reality of our world, and then he celebrated man's achievements in the arts. He now turns to the great figures in history who sought meaning and purpose in our existence.
From Seer to Prophet: Moses' Test of ObedienceThe future has always been the great treasure-house of meaning. People everywhere, dissatisfied with naked experience, have clothed the present with signs of things to come. They have found clues in the lives of sacrificial animals, in the flight of birds, in the movements of the planets, in their own dreams and sneezes. The saga of the prophets records efforts to cease being the victim of the gods' whims by deciphering divine intentions in advance, toward becoming an independent self-conscious self, freely choosing beliefs.
The Mesopotamians experimented with ways to force from the present the secrets of the future. Diviners watched smoke curling up from burning incense, they interpreted the figures on clay dice to give a name to the coming year. They answered questions about the future by pouring oil into a bowl of water held on their lap and noting its movement on the surface or toward the rim.
The Hebrew scriptures leave traces of how they too sensed the divine intention, and gave today's experience the iridescence of tomorrow. Jacob "dreamed, and behold a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven; and behold the angels of God ascending and descending on it. And behold, the Lord stood above it, and said, `I am the Lord God of Abraham thy father, and the God of Isaac; the land whereon thou liest, to thee will I give it, and to thy seed.'" And the chief priest used the Urim and Thummim, sacred stones carried in his breastplate. These gave the divine answer, by whether the "yes" or the "no" stone was first drawn out. David consulted just such an oracle, manipulated by the priest Abiathar, before going into battle against Saul. When the "yes" stone appeared, forecasting his victory over the Philistines, he advanced in battle.
"A man who is now called a `prophet' (nabi)," we read in the Book of Samuel, "was formerly called a `seer.'" The "seer" was one who saw the future, and his influence came from his power to predict. The priest-predictor who admitted his clients into the intentions of the gods was held in awe when his predictions came true. The prophet had a different kind of power. He was a nabi ("proclaimer" or "announcer") and spoke with the awesome authority of God himself. So, the ancient Hebrew prophets opened the way to belief. "I will raise them up a Prophet from among their brethren..." declared the Lord, "and will put my words in his mouth; and he shall speak unto them all that I shall command him" (Deuteronomy 18:18). They used the words "mouth" and "nabi" interchangeably. Our English "prophet" (from the Greek: a speaker before, or for) carries the same message.
While the seer forecast how events would turn out, the prophet prescribed what men should believe, and how they should behave. In ancient Israel the two roles at first were not always easily distinguished. But seers, mere forecasters, came to be displaced by prophets, touched by the divinity for whom they spoke.
It was this transformed role that opened the way to the discovery of belief, toward the self-consciousness that awakened people to their freedom to choose, and their responsibilities for choice. The history of ancient Hebrew prophecy is a saga of this unfolding self. The seers, adept at interpreting signs and omens, sometimes drew on their own dreams and visions of ghosts and spirits for sights of the future. The seer could see things on earth that others could not see. But the prophet carried messages from another world. It is not surprising, then, that this "Man of the Spirit" heard his message in ecstasy and so seemed "touched" with madness. His ecstasy was commonly a group phenomenon, sometimes expressed in song.
This view of the prophet as messenger of God is distinctively biblical. With it came distrust of the techniques and tricks of the seer -- the ways of the pagan Canaanite.
When you come into the land that the Lord your God is giving you, don't follow the disgusting practices of the nations that are there. Don't sacrifice your children in the fires on your altars; and don't let your people practice divination or look for omens or use spells or charms, and don't let them consult the spirits of the dead ... In the land you are about to occupy, people follow the advice of those who practice divination and look for omens, but the Lord your God does not allow you to do this. Instead, he will send you a prophet like me [Moses] from among your own people, and you are to obey him. (Deuteronomy 18:9-22)
When the founding prophet, Moses, spoke to the Pharaoh he spoke for God: "Thus said Yahweh." And it was through the prophets that God governed His people. What proved crucial for the future of belief in the West was the Hebraic ideology that came with the Mosaic religion.
The single all-powerful, all-knowing, benevolent God would impose on mankind the obligation of belief--and eventually of choice. This "ethical monotheism" would create its own conundrums.
When the prophet brought no mere blueprint of the future but the commandments of God, he offered a new test of the believer, the Test of Obedience. Moses, who had seen God face-to-face, brought the Ten Commandments direct from God on Sinai. The first five commandments -- prohibiting the worship of alien gods, forbidding idolatry and blasphemy, commanding observance of the Sabbath and honor to parents -- affirmed the traditions of their society. But the remaining five commandments, all cast in the negative -- prohibiting murder, adultery, theft, false testifying, and the coveting of neighbors' goods -- emphasize the freedom of the hearer to choose a way of right belief and so avoid sin. The Ten Commandments thus made obedience the mark of the believer. This idea would become, millennia later, the very heart of Islam (from Arabic, for "resignation," surrendering to God's will).
But another distinctive element of the Mosaic religion would open the gateways of belief. The intimate God of Moses had mysteriously shared powers with his creatures. He even treated his people as his equals by covenanting with them. The supreme paradox was that this all-powerful Creator-God sought a voluntary relation with his creatures. And the relation between God and his chosen people, the Children of Israel, was to be freely chosen on both sides. "If you listen to these commands and obey them faithfully, then the Lord your God will continue to keep his covenant with you and will show you his constant love, as he promised your ancestors." This peculiar covenant relationship between God and his creatures proclaimed God's preference for a freely given obedience. This signaled the divine intention that man's life should be ruled by his choices and was the historic Hebrew affirmation of free will. As the ancient Hebrews were His chosen people, so He was their chosen God.
About the eighth century B.C. the oracles of the Hebrew prophets were written down by the prophets or their scribes. Then the prophets assumed a role beyond the community where they lived to whom God had first addressed His message. The prophet's oracles now addressed all who would know his words--even far beyond his own time and place. So the utterances of prophets became an enduring prophetic literature. And the words of the prophets became a body of divine teachings valid for people everywhere. Thus writing expanded tribal revelations into a world religion. Such a transformation had occurred before when the utterances of Zarathustra (late second millennium B.C.) became the foundations of Zoroastrianism. It would occur later, too, with the recording of the words of Jesus, and then with the utterances of Mohammed in the seventh century.
A Covenanting God: Isaiah's Test of Faith
The prophetic movement that set Western thought on the path of belief and of choice began around 750 B.C. and would last for about five hundred years. It brought no mere commandments but a call to faith. And the literature of prophecy, collected at various times, would give substance to the religion of Israel. The Hebrew prophets were quite different from the earlier cult prophets who had lived near the temples and joined in the rites with the priests--or the court prophets at the royal sanctuaries who predicted the desired victory for the king. Those "professionals" had included many who would be stigmatized as false prophets.
The great Hebrew prophets who opened paths to belief were a varied breed. They could be described as amateurs. For most were not priests. While their utterances had no authentic seal of a sacred profession, each had been called in his own way, and so had his own "vocation," a personal invitation to speak for God. Each directed the voice of God toward the peculiar ills of his time and place. All reminded the people of Israel of how they were failing to live up to their covenant with their chosen God.
The words of the first of this line of classical Hebrew prophets to be preserved in writing were no longer directed only to the king. They already aimed at a wider audience. Amos was an orator directly addressing a whole people. "I am not the kind of prophet who prophesies for pay," Amos explained, "I am a herdsman, and I take care of fig trees. But the Lord took me from my work as a shepherd and ordered me to come and prophesy to his people Israel" (Amos 7:14-15). He preached in a time of prosperity, when the wealthy lived in luxury and the poor were oppressed and overtaxed. Religion, he complained, had become mere ritual. He spoke for social justice and the simple faith of Yahweh. In the Book of Amos we hear God's terrifying judgment on Israel, and foresee its destruction by fire and famine if its people do not repent.
"There will be wailing and cries of sorrow in the city streets. Even farmers will be called to mourn the dead along with those who are paid to mourn. There will be wailing in all the vineyards. All this will take place because I am coming to punish you." The Lord has spoken.... For you it will be a day of darkness and not of light. It will be like a man who runs from a lion and meets a bear! Or like a man who comes home and puts his hand on the wall--only to be bitten by a snake! (Amos 5:16-19)
The people of Israel must choose their way. "Make it your aim to do what is right, not what is evil, so that you may live. Then the Lord God Almighty really will be with you, as you claim he is. Hate what is evil, love what is right, and see that justice prevails in the courts." The succeeding prophets, after their fashion, carded a similar message to their times.
Hosea, following Amos, preached to the northern kingdom of Israel. He attacked their idolatry and forecast the dire consequences for Israel if the people did not mend their ways and return to their God. This prophetic lesson was allegorized in his unfaithful wife, Gomer, who had prostituted herself just as the people Israel had sold themselves to the Canaanite fertility gods. But Hosea too concludes with God's covenant-bound promise to give a new life to a repentant Israel.
The Book of Isaiah, the longest of the prophetic books, collects the writings of poets of several periods. The prophet now is no longer only a preacher of reform in the ways of Israel today; he also reveals God's role in history. We hear how He punishes some nations and rewards others. The southern kingdom of Judah, Isaiah warns, is threatened not only by its own sins of disobedience but by the attacks of neighboring Assyria, "the rod of God's wrath." Isaiah's next prophecies come from the time when the people of Judah, the southern kingdom, were in exile in Babylon. They have been punished enough for their sins.
"Comfort my people," says our God. "Comfort them!
"Arise, Jerusalem, and shine like the sun;
Now God promises victory to Israel.
"I have trampled the nations like grapes, and no one
And He announces a New Creation.
"I am making a new earth and new heavens. The events of the past will be completely forgotten.... The new Jerusalem I make will be full of joy, and her people will be happy." (Isaiah 65:17-18)
Isaiah's God, then, is the God not only of Israel but of all history. "Heaven is my throne, and the earth is my footstool" (Isaiah 66:1). "I am coming to gather the people of all the nations. When they come together, they will see what my power can do and will know that I am the one who punishes them" (Isaiah 66:18-19). Jeremiah's warnings (late seventh century--early sixth century B.C.) that Israel would be punished for idolatry were drastically fulfilled by the fall of Jerusalem to the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar, by the destruction of the Temple, and by the Babylonian exile of the people of Judah.
But a change of heart, God promises, will save the people. "I will make a new covenant with the people of Israel and with the people of Judah. It will not be like the old covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand and led them out of Egypt. Although I was like a husband to them they did not keep that covenant.... I will put my law within them and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people. None of them will have to teach his fellow countryman to know the Lord, because all will know me, from the least to the greatest" (Jeremiah 31:31-34).
The last of the great prophets, Ezekiel, deported by the conquerors, had carried the message of faith in Yahweh and personal responsibility. The fall of Jerusalem in 587 B.C. and the destruction of the Temple were the fate of idolatry.
The Lord spoke to me and said, "What is this proverb people keep repeating in the land of Israel?
`The parents ate the sour grapes,
"As surely as I am the living God," says the Sovereign Lord, "you will not repeat this proverb in Israel any more. The life of every person belongs to me, the life of the parent as well as that of the child. The person who sins is the one who will die." (Ezekiel 18:1-4)
Only the choice of Yahweh and not the merit of the people made Israel a special people. And since Yahweh is everywhere, the duties of the believer go with him wherever he may be.
Ezekiel too sees Israel redeemed in a New Covenant, a kind of new creation. This he foresees in the famous figure of the Valley of Dry Bones, when the Lord commands:
"Prophesy to the bones. Tell these dry bones to listen to the word of the Lord. Tell them that I, the Sovereign Lord am saying to them: I am going to put breath into you and bring you back to life. I will give you sinews and muscles, and cover you with skin. I will put breath into you and bring you back to life. Then you will know that I am the Lord." (Ezekiel 37:4-6)
The survival of the faith of Yahweh did not require a fixed sanctuary. That faith could live in the heart of a believer anywhere.
Struggles of the Believer: Job
While Moses with his commandments posed the test of obedience and the Hebrew prophets posed the test of faith, the search for meaning was not so simple. The Seeker would not be merely a receptive audience. He would put his faith to the test of experience. The classic travail of this test is in the tale of Job. And his struggles would foreshadow the problems of all later Seekers.
The Book of Job in the Old Testament embroiders an old folk tale of a just man who suffers unaccountably and seeks explanation from his God. Yahweh Himself had boasted to Satan (the Accuser) in his heavenly council. "Did you notice my servant Job? There is no one on earth as faithful and good as he is. He worships me and is careful not to do anything evil." And Satan replied, "Would Job worship you if he got nothing out of it?" Satan suggests that Job's virtue and piety are explained only by his desire for the reward of prosperity. Job has already received the reward of his virtue in a rich farm, a beautiful family, and the respect of all his neighbors. "You bless everything he does," Satan insists, "and you have given him enough cattle to fill the whole country. But now suppose you take everything he has -- he will curse you to your face!"
Yahweh then allows Satan to put the man's faith to the test. Job's cattle are stolen, his sheep are struck by lightning. His children are all killed in a desert storm. And, finally, Satan covers Job's body with sores. Still Job does not curse God, but he does curse the day he was born. And he asks, "Why let men go on living in misery? Why give light to men in grief?. Instead of eating, I mourn, and I can never stop groaning."
Three friends then come to Job, and each in turn gives his reasons for Job's suffering. Each has another way of saying that Job is being punished. "Can anyone be righteous in the sight of God or pure before his Creator?" asks Eliphaz. "God does not trust his heavenly servants; he finds fault even with his angels. Do you think he will trust a creature of clay, a thing of dust that can be crushed like a moth?" Bildad suggests that Job's children must have sinned and so God only punished them as they deserved. Zophar insists that Job must have sinned even when he did not know it. "God is punishing you less than you deserve." Job himself does not admit to sin, and does not curse God but only complains of God's capriciousness. There seems to be no understanding of the ways of God. In a second round of dialogues, these friends recite the punishment of the wicked, while Job retorts that on the contrary the wicked do prosper. In still another round, the friends once again accuse Job of sins he had not recognized. But Job demands an opportunity to present his case directly to God. Still Job does not curse God but extols the Wisdom "not to be found among men."
When God finally responds to Job's complaint of God's capriciousness it is not by assertions of His power, but by reminders of His glory and the wonders of His creation. He appeals not to revelation but to experience. And He reminds Job that he is addressing the Creator God.
Who are you to question my wisdom
Job, have you ever in all your life
Unashamedly God boasts the rhythms and glories of nature, along with the bizarre miscellany of his creatures:
Who is it that feeds the ravens
Was it you, Job, who made horses so strong
Look at the monster Behemoth;
Can you catch Leviathan with a fishhook
Touch him once and you'll never try it again. (Job 41:18)
Finally Job confesses that the Lord is "all powerful; that you can do everything that you want..."
I talked about things I did not understand,
The Lord finally accepts Job's confession, truer than the words of his friends. And blesses Job with a greater prosperity than he had ever known before--fourteen thousand sheep, six thousand camels, two thousand head of cattle, and a thousand donkeys. Now he has seven sons and three daughters, and no other women in the world are as beautiful as Job's daughters. He lived a hundred and forty years, enjoying his grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
Why is Job not punished for questioning God's ways? Nor is he ever told why he had suffered. Was God now rewarding his faith -- or only his independent spirit? Could God have admired Job's courage in challenging his maker? Or was God only reminding Job that God's ways were beyond his understanding? Did God enjoy wrestling with his creatures?
This problem that haunted Western thought -- Why would a good God allow evil in the world He had created? -- was one that Judeo-Christian man had made for himself. It was plainly a by-product of ethical monotheism: a "trilemma" created by the three indisputable qualities of an all-knowing, all-powerful, and all-benevolent God. "If God were good," observed C. S. Lewis, "He would wish to make His creatures perfectly happy, and if God were almighty He would be able to do what He wished. But the creatures are not happy. Therefore God lacks either goodness, or power, or both." Some have chosen a more radical solution. "The only excuse for God" said Stendhal, "is that he does not exist."
Reluctant to abandon belief in their God, Western Seekers have exercised ingenuity and imagination. Not until the seventeenth century did the philosopher Leibniz give a name to this troublesome problem. "Theodicy" (from Greek theos, God, and dike, justice), he called the study aimed to justify God's ways to man. And ever since Job, thoughtful men and women have been tantalized by the meaning of evil. They would deny neither their God nor the facts of their suffering lives. Where would they turn?
Copyright © 1998 Daniel J. Boorstin.
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