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The Jews and the Mosaic Law

By Isaac Leeser (1843).

Chapter 15

The Bible and Paganism.

It has of late grown fashionable among some of the learned men, to assign a high moral character to the Greek and Roman mythology; and even the Guebers [Zoroastrians] have come in for a share of the whitewashing process. It has always been believed, that the latter were the worshippers of the sun and fire; but wonderful to relate, it has been discovered, how long ago I know not, that they did not worship the fire as a deity, but only prayed to it as a symbol of the Creator of the sun and fire, in the same manner as the Roman Catholics yet have image-worship amongst them, in which images are only considered as remembrances of God's power. How far the Guebers were actually acquainted with the attributes, which revelation ascribes to the Creator, I indeed cannot tell, for my knowledge of antiquity (and I confess it without the least hesitation) is very limited. But it appears to me very strange, that the opinion should have been general for so long a time, that the Guebers in reality worshipped the fire, and this at times, when they were masters of Persia, if the contrary were true. Moreover we are told by Mr. Rollin and others, that the Persians believed in a good and evil god, and consequently, their idea of the Creator could not have been that which the Jews, or even the philosophers themselves, call rational. The Hindus also are praised for the simplicity and antiquity of their faith, and we hear a great deal concerning their sacred books. However, according to a late writer, (Mrs. Graham's Letters on India,) they believe: "That the creation of the gods is coeval with that of the world; and when the Supreme Intelligence called the universe into being, he delegated to the gods the creation of mankind, and the formation and government of all mundane objects. Brahma, the creating energy, with Vishnu, the preserver, and Siva, the destroyer, were the greatest of the deities." There is a good deal more about the Indian deities in the letters referred to, but what has been quoted already, is sufficient for our purpose. From the extract just given, it appears, that if it even be admitted, that the Indians believe in a Supreme Intelligence, and consequent Creator of all, they have nevertheless a very crude notion of the government of this world by this Supreme Intelligence. We Jews believe, that God created the world, governs it, and preserves it; that there is no power independent of His will, that every power, even that power superior to man, is accountable to Him, and to Him alone, praised be He for everlasting! This belief presents to our idea an adorable Being, who, though superior in intelligence, power, and happiness to aught which exists, yet disdains not to watch over the welfare of His creatures. The enlightened Indians, on the other hand, believe that the creation of the world was entrusted to mere creatures (for their gods are [as above] creatures of the Supreme Intelligence), of which creating creatures, one if the creator, the other the preserver, and the third the destroyer; a pretty trio, truly! The creator (see the sequel of Mrs. G.'s letters) Brahma has withdrawn from the government of what he made himself; and the preserver Vishnu, is hardly capable of saving things from the destructive power of the destroyer Siva, who, strange to tell, is also considered as the reproducer. There may be, no doubt, a hidden and rational meaning to all this, which appears evidently a strange mixture of truth and fable; but it is useless to extract the beauties of heathenism in this place, and, however instructive it might perhaps be, I am compelled to resign the task to those, who so much admire the system of the Brahmins, and though delighting in the obscure allegories of Indian mythology, reject as unwise the obvious beauties of the Mosaic and prophetic writings. And if even they should succeed in making matters appear rational, we Jews would still continue to point to the book of our blessed lawgiver, and exclaim: "Look at this wonderful work." We also must ever continue to prefer the doctrines and religion taught therein to any other system, since the Mosaic code is so much more explicit, than the law of any other nation, and as religion, to be useful, should be intelligible and accessible to the ploughman, who cultivates the soil, no less than to the philosopher and public teacher, to whom, alas! worldly interest is frequently the sole monitor to induce them to practice outward piety.

That the Brahmins have also what they term sacred writings, which however have evidently no divine origin, proves nothing against the authenticity of the Mosaic writings, which also claim a divine origin; as the very excellence of the latter, their great simplicity, the sublime conceptions contained therein with regard to the Deity, prove, beyond a doubt, their pre-eminence over the former, and consequently, Moses may have been a truly inspired man, and writing by divine direction, if even no other man ever was; and in fact, the very claim any thing sets up to divine origin can only be tested, by its agreeing or disagreeing with the standard of the Pentateuch. So well were the authors of the sacred books of the Israelite convinced of this, that they in no place seek to hide the existence of false, or pretended, prophets. We are even told that there existed in one assembly more than four hundred deceivers and but one who was a prophet of the Eternal. Besides, as the great miracle of the promulgation of the law was no doubt made known to the inhabitants of the East by the ships of Solomon, which traded to Ophir, it is highly probable, that some deceiver, residing there, conceived the plan of offering something to his countrymen which they should obey as an emanation from Heaven, and so it may have happened, that truth in the first instance was made the instrument for the propagation of falsehood. As I have said before, my acquaintance with matters of antiquity is not sufficiently extensive to enable me to determine the age of the writings of the Brahmins; I however do not recollect ever to have read or heard, that it could ever be assumed, that they were of as early a date as the Pentateuch, and it may therefore be actually as I have suggested. Nevertheless, I offer my own hypothesis with extreme caution, and I hope not to be called presumptuous, for daring to venture offering an opinion, which may perhaps have never been suggested before.

The Greeks and Romans, too, had a religion, acknowledging the existence of God, and claiming an obedience to the divine will. But how different was this from the law which has been given to us. Of the Creator they had but a confused idea, and Ovid, one of the most learned Romans, said in one of his poems:

"Sic ubi dispositam, quisquis fuit ille deorum, Congeriem secuit." Metam. i. 32,33.

Meaning, that a God, whoever he might be, ordered the chaos, as Ovid describes. The poet was well convinced that the gods, commonly worshipped by the Romans, were unable to produce the world, and order every thing as it exists; hence his uncertainty, and the "quisquis fuit ille deorum," yet he know not what to call him, or what station to assign to him amongst the immense number of the deities acknowledged by his countrymen.

Jupiter is generally called pater omnipotence; and yet he also appears to have been obliged to submit to inexorable fate, and thus the greatest deity of the Romans had a superior power to direct him, whose decrees could not be disobeyed. For thus says Virgil, (and he had certainly the best means of information on all subjects connected with his belief,) in the first book of the Aeneid:

—"Trojae qui primus ab oris Italiam, fato profugus, Lavinia venit Litora." 1-3.


"Parce metu, Cytherea, manent immota tuorum fata tibi." 257-8.

All the supreme power of Jupiter, therefore, seems to have consisted in his knowing, more than any other god, what the fates had decreed. Homer, in the beginning of the eighth book of the Iliad, introduces Jupiter in the act of consulting the fates, to whom they had decreed the victory, and thus even he was compelled to consult a mightier being than himself — chance or fate — to enable him to know how to act correctly. — Here are the words of Homer as translated by Mr. Pope:

"But when the sun the height of heaven ascends,
The sire of gods his golden scales suspends
With equal hand; in these explored the fate
Of Greece and Troy, and poised the mighty weight.
Pressed with its load, the Grecian balance lies
Low sunk on earth, the Trojan strikes the skies."

Independently of this mystery, there are many other considerations to compel us to consider the Greek and Roman religion immeasurably beneath ours; for their deities were, even by them, not viewed in a very favorable light, and both Homer and Virgil have given us some specimens of this life of the immortals. — The greatest praise Homer ever bestows upon Juno, is his calling her "white-armed, or large-eyes, (ox-eyed rather,) elegant Juno," and the like; and Virgil, in the first book of the Aeneid, describes Venus:

"Dixit, et avertens rosea cervice refulsit,
Ambrosiaeque comae divinum vertice odorem
Spiravere; pedes vestis defluxit ad imos;
Et vera incessu patuit dea." 202-5.

Here no one finds the gods known by any thing but their superior beauty, white arms, large eyes, broad neck, handsome hair, a long robe, and to sum up all in the strongest possible manner, the very gait proved the goddess! Wonderful! And this is all, for no superior intelligence, no power beyond that of mortal men, is ever displayed! But how great is the difference between Virgil's story of the recognition of Venus by her son, and the simple, yet sublime, account of the angel's appearance to Manoah and his wife, where he (the angel) went up in the flame just ascending from the altar, and did wonders, which Manoah and his wife witnessed. (See Judges chap. xiii.)

What kind of life was led by the Grecian gods, according to the poets, may be inferred from some of the concluding lines of the first book of the Iliad. — Vulcan is there represented, as pouring out nectar, first to his own white-armed mother, and next to the whole multitude of the gods; but the land smith did not get much reward for his pains, for

"Vulcan with awkward grace his office plies,
And unextinguished laughter shakes the skies."

Pope's Transl.

There was, moreover, continual strife between Juno and Venus; Jupiter and his wife frequently quarrelled, and some hard names were given from one to the other; the father of the gods was very jealously watched by his spouse, and he was hardly allowed to let a visitor come to him, without exposing himself to an altercation.

Now see the difference between the Bible's and the Greek writers' account of the Divinity. For the God of Israel is always represented, throughout the Jewish canon, as a great, immaculate, and perfect Being; whereas the Greek and Roman gods had all the vices of the Greeks and Romans themselves. Jupiter was confessedly very viciously inclined, and practiced vice whenever he could; and the story of Venus and Mars is certainly not very creditable to them or to the circle of gods, among whom such conduct was not alone tolerated, but even approved. Homer's gods are ranged against one another in battle, and Mars, the brutal god of war, receives a wound from Diomede, and the god retires to Olympus, and complains to father Jove about the wickedness of the Grecian hero.

What must have been the state of religion amongst the people, when they were told the like of their gods, images of whom were stuck in every nook and corner of their houses? Is it a wonder that the Greeks and Romans at length fell to the lowest state of moral depravity? Is it not in this manner easily accounted for, that the very temples of Vesta, Minerva, and Diana became at last places of prostitution? — It may be, and there is hardly any doubt of it, that originally there was some reasonable foundation for the mythology of the ancients — it may be that all the tales about the lives of the gods were only allegorical allusions to some acts, committed by men — it may be that the multiplicity of gods among them, was only emblematical of the universality of the Almighty's providence — it may be that the light of revelation originally given to Adam and Noah was never altogether extinguished, and that it continued to emit now and then a luminous ray, though ever so feeble — all this, and more may be said, and said with truth; but that does not in the least controvert what has been said above; for if we even admit that heathenism was truth disguised, it must nevertheless be self-evident, that this disguised truth could have been known to the priests only, perhaps to the Pontifex maximus alone; but the multitude, those upon whom religion ought always to exercise its chief and best influence, did, (as may be boldly asserted) know nothing of their gods, save, and only that, which was taught them in Homer and other similar books. We therefore find the baneful influence of paganism upon the morals of the people to be so dreadful and almost surpassing belief; we find the Greek and Romans in their very acts, of what they called religious exercises, practicing the most odious profligacies; they were corrupt, but they did justify this corruption by the practices of the gods. I could, if I but would, transcribe some of those practices, but I will not stain my paper with their recital, and must therefore refer the curious to the works of Homer and Virgil themselves. Having said thus much I must beg every learned unbeliever to point out to me one single passage in the whole twenty-four books of our canon of a similar tenor. And for all that, these learned infidels can ask with an air of exultation: "Who can prefer the psalms of David to Homer?" O there are many that do, and they are at the same time ready to admit, that they never could praise Homer half as much as he is generally praised. For this very good reason: Agamemnon, Menelaus, Achilles, and Ajax Telamon are complete ruffians, uttering perhaps at times some pretty phrase, which they never could have spoken, and Odysseus is one of those dishonest politicians, those crafty intriguers, the like of whom so much disfigure the pages of modern history. There can indeed be but little objection to paint vice and barbarity in their true colors, provided they are held up to our detestation: but not such is Homer's aim; every epithet intended to express greatness and preeminence, from godlike down to quick-footed, is lavished upon these heroes, and thus he seems at least to approve of the conduct of the barbarians, whose deeds he recounts. And then, there is hardly a good character in all Homer, if you except the noble Hector and the wise Nestor. — The Greeks had further as many gods and demigods as they had ancient kings, modern heroes, and — trees in their forests! What kind of religion is that, where the augurs looked at the flight of birds, and the haruspices inspected carefully the entrails of the slaughtered ox, before an army could march, or before a battle could be fought? — How much more elevated is the idea, that through prophecy alone, made known to the high-priest by holy inspiration, the Israelites marched out to attack their invaders. After our ancestors had come in sight of the enemy, the priest, who always accompanied the army, but never fought, was to speak as follows: (Deut. chap. xx.): "Hear, O Israel, you approach this day to battle against your enemies; let not your hearts faint, fear not, tremble not, and be not cast down, because of them; for it is the Eternal, your God, who goeth with you, to fight with you against your enemy, to save you: (from danger)! When the priest had finished his address, the officers made the following proclamation: "Whoever there is among you who has espoused a woman, built a house, or planted a vineyard, or who is fearful and fainthearted, let him return home." In this manner every one, who was naturally a coward, every one, who, from the compunctions of a sinful conscience, felt himself unable to enter into the front ranks of the fight, fearing that he should die in battle in punishment of his sins — all these, I say, were admonished to go and return home, for not the multitude gain the victory, but those who, though few in number, are men, whose "knees have never knelt to Baal, and whose mouth has never kissed him." (See the account of Gideon's battle, Judg. chap. vii.) Our religion was thus intended to prove to us that to be virtuous we must first deserve to be so; and to conquer the heathens, we should by superior virtue and greater reliance upon God deserve His assistance.

In fine, whatever hidden, and to Jews unknown, beauties the Greek and Roman rites may have had, our religion would stigmatize as superstition, and as such all the ceremonies of the Roman augurs, Tuscan soothsayers, and Greek oracles were prohibited to us. (See the 18th chap. of Deut.) — I hope to have, in the few foregoing words, said enough to demonstrate, that without even calling in the aid of revelation, our religion is, upon grounds of human reason also, more sublime, more sacred, than the creeds of all nations of antiquity taken together.

I have heard it said that it is highly probable that Moses borrowed his doctrines and laws from the Egyptians, with whose customs he was intimately acquainted. But this assertion, though generally and very confidently brought forward, can be refuted by a single passage from Leviticus, a book, allowed even by the most malignant critics, to be of undoubted antiquity. We read (Lev. chap. xviii.): "And the Eternal spoke unto Moses as follows: Speak unto the children of Israel and say unto them, I am the Eternal your God. You shall not do such things as are done in the land of Egypt, in which you have resided; nor shall you act after the manner of the land of Canaan, whither I am bringing you, nor shall you walk in their ordinances."

Here Moses speaks as explicitly as possible, prohibiting the imitation of Egyptian customs; how can any man, who wishes not to be considered a maniac, then say, that Moses at the same time copied Egyptian customs and forbade their execution? The idea is too absurd, and must, therefore, be rejected by every fair-reasoning man; and where is the man, who, after this, can deny that Moses's law is altogether original, and altogether unconnected with any code either known before or after him?

I have said the Psalms of David are preferable to Homer; and, to exhibit the justice of the preference, I shall transcribe the following two passages, the first from the eighth, and the other from the eighteenth psalm:

"O Eternal God, our Lord, how powerful is thy name in all the earth! Who places thy glory above the heavens. Out of the mouth of babes and sucklings Thou hast established thy reign, to confound thine opponents, to quiet the enemy, and him who seeks vengeance. When I look at the heavens, the work of thy hands, the moon and the stars which Thou hast founded; — what is man, that Thou rememberest him? And the son of Adam, that Thou regardest him? And Thou hast made him a little less (gifted) than angels, and hast crowned him with glory and honor. Thou hast given him dominion over the works of thy hands, and hast placed all things under his feet; sheep and oxen — all, and also the beasts of the field, the birds of the air, and the fishes of the sea, — and the passes through the ways of the ocean! O Eternal God, our Lord, how great is thy name in all the earth!" Psalm viii.

"And the earth shook and trembled, and the foundations of the mountains were loosened, and they quaked, for He was angry. Smoke rose out of His nostrils, fire blazed out of His mouth, coals were kindled from it. And He bent the heavens, and went down, and a cloud of darkness was under His feet. And He rode upon a Cherub, and flew along, and rushed by upon the wings of the wind. And He shrouded himself in darkness, around His pavilion; dark waters, clouds piled upon clouds! From the light before Him passed through His clouds hail and coals of fire. And the Eternal thundered in heaven, and the Most High let His voice resound; — hail and coals of fire. He sent forth His arrows, and scattered them; — and mighty lightning, and confounded them; and the channels of the waters were seen, and the foundations of the universe laid bare, from thy call, O Eternal, from the breathing of the breath of thy anger!" Psalm xviii. v.6, &c.

The extract from the eighteenth psalm is particularly strikingly grand. He (David) describes the power of the incomprehensible God, whose word is sufficient to prostrate all before Him in ruins; He is shrouded in darkness, but light, or rather intense brightness, (נגה) is immediately around Him: there all is light, all is glory, all is gladness; only to man, whilst he is yet mortal, is the Deity clothed in the thick cloud, that rests at his feet. But the flashes of the lightning, the rolling of the thunder, the rattling of the hail, the scalding streams of lava, the burning coals from the volcanoes — all proclaim to us His might and His power. He but speaks and the earth trembles; He but breathes and mountains are split in twain. But does it cost Him any effort, any great exertion? O no, all this happens מנשמת רוח אפך "from the breathing of the breath of thy anger;" by which the Psalmist means: the ease with which a man breathes is well known, and thus easy is it for our God to do this mighty work. Here then we have a picture of the power of the Almighty, we see His great omnipotence displayed in glowing colors; and we are told that all His desire is that we should be good, obedient to His will, submissive to His dispensation, that we ourselves should be made happy, that we may be worthy to enjoy "delights at this right hand for ever:" and can a stronger reason be addressed to the human mind? Can any thing more strongly impel him to obey the will of his God, made known to him for his own happiness alone?

Has Homer any passage to equal the foregoing in sublimity? — Virgil, indeed, attempts a description of Jupiter's power, and says:

— "ille flagranti Aut Atho, aut Rhodopen, aut alta Ceraunia telo Dejicit." Geor. i. 331-3.

Virgil must needs employ a telum, for neither he nor any other heathen had any conception of God's power being manifested by his word alone. God, according to our ideas, however, has no need of any materials in His government of all the world, for He, (as our prayer so elegantly says): "Revives the dead with His word!" — And, though the translation given above is not at all to be compared in brevity and closeness of diction with the Hebrew, it is yet sufficient to prove that a person may be a very good man, and yet dare to prefer David's Psalms to Homer's Iliad, or even to Homer's Odyssey.

I shall now close this chapter with a translation of a portion of our daily prayers, and beg those of my readers, who are Greek scholars, or who possess a translation of the first book of the Iliad, to compare it themselves with the prayer of Chryses addressed to his Sminthean Apollo.

"Thou art mighty for ever, O Lord, Thou revivest the dead, art powerful in helping us, and causing the wind to blow and the rain to descend. — Thou maintainest the living with kindness, and revivest the dead with great mercy, supportest the falling, healest the sick, loosenest the bonds of the captives, and preservest thy truth to those who sleep in the dust. Who is like Thee, Lord of strength, and who can be compared unto Thee, O King, who slayest and bringest to life again, and lettest salvation spring forth!"

Here the unbelievers have something nervous, concise, and energetic, where the wonderful deeds and the great kindness of our Maker are enumerated in a few forcible words, without any ornament whatever. And since they so much admire every thing that is not Jewish, they ought to ransack their classics to produce parallel of even superior beauties to the foregoing. — But they cannot! — Well then, let them admit, that not alone is Moses's law superior to any ancient or modern constitution, but also that our style of writing, both in the Bible and our regular prayers, is as far above what has been written by profane poets and prosaics, as light is preferable to darkness!

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