A secular covenant – Québec humaniste Vol. 12, No 3
Québec humaniste Vol. 12, No 3)
I believe it is now possible to demonstrate, beyond a reasonable doubt, that a geostrategic alliance concluded in the Middle Bronze Age (2100-1550 BCE) during an expansionist phase of Mesopotamia gave birth to the concept of divine covenant; the fundamental notion on which continues to rest all theological reflections.
I have been investigating the idea of a secular covenant for the last fifteen years. At first I found the idea intriguing, nothing more. I was only curious to see if the historical context supported such a suggestion. Against all expectations, the more I read, the more I reflected, and the more the arguments seemed to support this idea. Since I have not found any study on this subject, I have set myself the goal of pushing the limits of it in order to see what would be the objections and how far I could take it.
Here is the outline of this thesis which resists a thorough examination and which is verified in multiple ways. To date, I have found no major flaws. It meets the criteria of plausibility, efficiency and irrefutability. In short, it sticks so well to reality that I hope you will find it deserves to be very seriously considered.
A collection of ancient myths
It is now believed in academic circles that it was under King Josiah, a little before the destruction of the first Temple of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar, during the 6th century BCE and the exile of the Jews in Babylon that the reform, which led to the production of the Bible took place.
Due to the supernatural events related in the story, its faulty chronology and the total absence of archaeological evidence supporting the existence of early monotheism, experts have come to refute all historiographical aspects of the narratives of The Old Testament and only see them as myths and legends. But if this minimalist interpretation has finally gained acceptance within historical and theological academic circles, one must also acknowledge that this view is in sharp contrast with what the Jewish tradition has asserted for centuries, if not millennia.
This seemingly insoluble dialectic has unfortunately created a profound chasm between the critical and believing minds. So much so that the first ones have thrown the baby with the bath water while the latter entrenched themselves behind their blind faith.
What I discovered is fascinating: at a time when the structure of political treaties was not yet fully established, Abraham’s account (Genesis 12-25) describes the circumstances surrounding the establishment of a geostrategic alliance with a Mesopotamian king.
If the biblical account does not leave us with this impression, it is because we are facing an astonishing literary illusion. Indeed, as long as we approach the narrative of the Covenant from the perspective of a religious experience, the brain cannot establish the necessary inferences to grasp its deeper meaning. Yet the key to the enigma lies right in front of our eyes. The power of autosuggestion makes the brain read what it has been taught rather than what is written. Ever since childhood, we have been taught that “God” made a covenant with Abraham, and this is what our brain reads in this narrative.
In order to understand what I am saying and justify our questioning of past presuppositions and acquired knowledge on the Old Testament, it is important to understand that all those who have approached these narratives, did so from the perspective of the religious experience. One should therefore not be surprised to arrive at an incomplete conclusion when departing from a flawed premise.
A confounding literary illusion
One of the great enigmas of the Bible concerns the origin and meaning of the names Elohim (“God”) and Yahweh (“Lord”) that are found in the texts. Indeed, why two names for one and the same god?
The Documentary hypothesis, developed by Julius Wellhausen more than a hundred years ago, better known as JEDP, claims that these names come from different geographical locations. The name Yahweh, or Jehovah (J) would come from the south, while the name Elohim (E) would come from the north. It would follow that the texts we inherited would be the product of an amalgam. The Documentary hypothesis thus invites us to divide the texts according to the use of the names Elohim and Yahweh in order to find the so-called “original” texts.
But if the Documentary hypothesis has already produced some interesting results, it is also very seriously contested, because none of these alleged texts has ever been found. It also does not produce consistent results for the text we are interested in, Gn 12-25. The problem is that Wellhausen leads with the presupposition that the terms Elohim and Yahweh call upon one and the same figure, that is “God”. Now, if this presupposition is true for all the biblical accounts, it can be shown that that of the Covenant is an exception.
It may be noted that if God manifests occasionally in an immaterial form, it appears much more often in an anthropomorphic form. I argue, therefore, that it is better to approach this text as a logical block that refers to two distinct characters: a mighty king (Yahweh) and a local deity (Elohim). To elevate this king to the status of deity is to lose sight of this important distinction, and with it the fact that the anthropomorphic figure originally referred to a human being and the immaterial figure to a divinity.
It is over time that the amalgam between Yahweh, the anthropomorphous being and Elohim, the immaterial one, has taken place. In fact, what really should surprise us is that the text of the Covenant maintains a certain coherence even when we perceive Yahweh and Elohim as one and the same entity.
In order to find the original meaning of the text and to counter the literary illusion of which we are victims, we must:
distrust the names found in the text in order to focus on identifying and dissociating the anthropomorphic figure from the immaterial one;
understand that the anthropomorphic figure in the text refers to a powerful Mesopotamian king who seeks to subdue the inhabitants of the Valley of Sodom and that the immaterial figure refers to an unrelated deity.
Destined to nullify and reverse the slow evolutionary process that led the early Israelites to unite Yahweh and Elohim in their psyche, this simple but revealing exercise restores the text to a meaning that not only greatly increases its coherence and psychological plausibility, but also testifies to its authenticity.
The remaining editorial “noises” that go against a perfectly harmonious reading are therefore very easily isolated and eliminated because they become obvious. They are the inescapable product of the many transcriptions carried out under a theological thrust supporting the deification of the “lord” of the Covenant.
The submission of Sodom, a geostrategic imperative
The religious perspective remains strangely silent as to the reasons that motivate Yahweh to conclude a covenant with Abraham. On the other hand, the secular perspective is unequivocal. It quickly leads us to understand that the reason for the establishment of a covenant is clearly established in Gn 14. It is learned that the inhabitants of the valley of Sodom, subject to a king of Mesopotamia, revolt after twelve years of servitude. Unfortunately, the despot won’t be long in bringing a punitive campaign against them. But as Lot, Abraham’s nephew, was taken prisoner during the round-up, Abraham launches on the heels of the oppressors whom he attacks at night with his men, recovering men and booty. Abraham is finally honored by the inhabitants of Sodom. As a hero, Abraham exercises a moral ascendancy over the inhabitants of Sodom who are indebted to him.
This chapter is very often neglected within the framework of religious studies as it is considered irrelevant. Indeed, it speaks of despots, not of God! Many, such as Thomas Römer, a leading authority at Collège de France, even go so far as referring to this text as “erratic”.
Let’s not forget, however, that trade between Egypt and Mesopotamia has always been important. It is therefore expected that this “lord” would have sought to secure control over Canaan, an obligatory passage for trade. But given the distance between Canaan and Mesopotamia would have make any counterattack difficult and risky, we should not be surprised to see that the diplomatic channel was privileged by the “lord” in Gn 15. This is why a covenant was concluded with Abraham in exchange for his absolute loyalty and respect for the laws.
The inhabitants of Sodom who seek to regain their freedom still refuse to submit and continue to show hostility towards this distant authority. When the “lord” threatens to destroy Sodom in Gn 18, Abraham negotiates in their favor. The “lord” agrees to be lenient if some choose to bend. But the Sodomites immediately refuse and instead choose to send a clear message: they sodomize the representatives of the “lord” in order to avenge the pain felt by the submission that they underwent during these twelve years of servitude. Understanding that there is nothing to do with these inhabitants, the “lord” will reduce the city to ashes in Gn 19 in order to make an example for the whole kingdom.
The “perfect” heir
To ensure a lasting stability in the region, it is imperative that Abraham produces an heir worthy of the Covenant. Now, Abraham is married to his half-sister Sarah, as is the custom of endogamy, which allows the preservation of power and heritage in the hands of the same family. As he is unable to have a child with his half-sister, it is finally the Egyptian servant Hagar who will give him a son: Ishmael.
The religious perspective does not make it possible to understand why this first son is not suitable for God. We have to rely on tradition, which claims he was not a good fellow. But a careful reading shows that the text is silent and makes no comment in this sense. The secular perspective leads us to understand that a son with Egyptian blood may be a problem. Indeed, one could not be certain of his allegiance to Mesopotamia in case of conflict with Egypt. The “lord” will not leave the choice to Abraham: it is from Sarah that the heir of the Covenant must be born.
Years have passed before the “lord” sees Abraham again. Worried to find that his ally has not yet had a child with Sarah, he decides to take matters into his own hands and visits Sarah in the tent (Gen 18:9 / Gen 21:1). The religious perspective tells us that it is the spirit of God who visits Sarah to make her fertile. Now, the secular perspective is clear: the “lord” visits Sarah to impregnate her. The text goes on and confirms that Isaac comes into the world nine months later. As Sarah is the half-sister of Abraham by their father Tera, Isaac carries within him the genes of the family. He is not only the legitimate son, but also the “perfect” heir of the promise.
Muslims 1, Jews/Christians 0
Ishmael is undoubtedly the elder of Abraham and therefore his natural heir. As the “lord” has every interest in ensuring that Abraham respects his wishes, he orders him to sacrifice his son, his only one, whom he loves.
The religious perspective leads us to consider Isaac as the beloved son, the “legitimate” son born of Sarah by the will of God. The text of the Bible states that the son asked in sacrifice is actually Isaac. But here, the Muslims agree on the same story, but not on the name of the son asked in sacrifice. They can not explain why, but in the Muslim tradition it is not Isaac but rather Ishmael whom God asks to sacrifice.
This point of contention is important because it confirms that tradition has not always been clear and that a certain ambiguity must have persisted for a very long time. This is why I believe that the name of Isaac was inserted in the writings at a late period by priests who were anxious to “clarify things”. Seeing that Abraham is ready to execute his own son in order to obey him, the “lord”, as a good diplomat, will show compassion and spare Ishmael. Abraham, relieved of such a trial, will show reverence and loyalty to his “lord”.
A context conducive to deification
The most recent work by researchers such as Smith, Grabbe, Lewis, and Finkelstein confirms that the development of monotheism could not have occurred until late, just before the Babylonian Exile (6th century BCE). They also tell us that Yahweh originally had much more affinity with the ancient local deities (Baal, El, and Astarte) than what the Jewish tradition would allow us to believe today. On this aspect of knowledge, we agree.
As long as Yahweh is considered a “new” god, no answer is possible. On the other hand, they flow as soon as the story is approached from the perspective of an earthly covenant. It should be remembered, however, that the account of Exodus shows that Yahweh was not known by that name in the time of Abraham (Ex 6: 3). It must therefore have been known by another name.
Archaeological evidence confirms that Baal Berith (literally “Lord of Covenant” in Hebrew) was a local deity venerated at Shechem between the 17th and 11th centuries AEC. This deity was also known as El Berith “God of the Covenant.” If we are to believe the Jewish tradition, Abraham would have settled at Shechem precisely at the time when the temple of Baal Berith was built. At that time, the Israelites celebrated the cult of the ancestors.
Now, if this name refers to a generous and benevolent king who donated the land of Canaan to Abraham and his descendants in exchange for the respect of his laws, would it be surprising that his memory was celebrated under the name of Baal Berith? Then, due to the importance of such a covenant for the people, his memory will be elevated to the rank of deity and will be called El Berith (“God of the Covenant”) to be venerated in the same way as the others local deities (Baal, El, Astarte).
YHWH, the incarnation of a whole pantheon
Baal Berith was celebrated for some centuries, at a time when Baal, El and Astarte were the main deities of Canaan. It was not until much later that the name of Yahweh appeared. Blinded by theological presuppositions, scholars have not yet understood that Yahweh / Elohim is a new name for Baal / El Berith. I suggest that this change of name was motivated by the desire to integrate the characteristics of several deities into one, in order to increase their power. The concept of compound deity was common in Egypt while Canaan was a vassal of that state. Moreover, no one suspects that the theophoric particle Yah can be derived from the expression beliya which means “my lord” in Akkadian (the language used at the time in Babylon as well as for diplomatic correspondence with Egypt). In Hebrew, this expression is understood as “Lord Yah”.
The expression el we astarte found in Ugarit and which literally means “El and Astarte”, testifies that El, deity at the head of the pantheon and Astarte, associated with fertility, were venerated together. This pairing of male / female deities may allow us to better understand the origin of the tetragrammaton יהוה (YHWH – rendered Yahweh in English). We can easily note that the tetragrammaton can be obtained by the contraction of the expression baal yah we baalah, literally “Lord Yah and his consort” (in Hebrew בעליה ובעלה), by simply removing the term baal (בעל) to retain only the four letters that form the tetragrammaton, namely YHWH (יהוה).
If YHWH actually refers to a compounded deity that incorporates the characteristics of a plurality of deities, it is also understandable why the term Elohim, which means “gods”, is always plural.
2 plus 2 makes four and 30 plus 30 makes 100
All those who have studied the chronology of the Old Testament broke their teeth. This is one of the reasons cited by historians for denying the historical aspect. Now, if Abraham lived in the Middle Bronze Age and made a covenant with a Mesopotamian king, it is a safe bet that he would have also resorted to the sexagesimal system (base 60) used in Babylon at that time.
I have discovered that biblical chronologies are not faulty, but that they simply result from a simple conversion error that can be corrected.
I explain in my book that the scribes of Nabonid were subjected to mere conversion errors in the 6th century BCE, precisely at the time when the Bible was assembled. Thus all the post-diluvian dates in the Bible must be corrected.
The above chart illustrates how biblical and historical chronologies can be harmonized using the factor 6/10. It obliges us to an unprecedented and absolutely fascinating statement: Biblical stories fit perfectly with history and have simply been transmitted in the respect of their tradition.
A kick in the anthill!
The hypothesis of a secular covenant is confirmed at all levels: not only by textual and syntactic analysis (stakes, causal links, motivations, etc.) but also by etymology, sociology, archeology, chronology, dendrochronology, and so on.
It is certain that such results are surprising. No one – including myself – could have expected such a generous harvest. Yet already in the fourth century BCE, when the biblical texts were not yet fully fixed, the Greek philosopher Evhemerus advanced the idea that many gods came from powerful deified kings. He did not think he had seen so well.
It is on this covenant that the theology of all the great prophets rests, and it is in the name of this “lord” that fundamentalists continue to impose their moral; to foment hatred against the disbelievers; and to claim land.
It is now up to us to create the necessary safe space needed so the difficult public debate can take place by calling on the competent authorities, confronting them with their own texts, and urging them to respond publicly to the epistemological questions on the nature of this ” Lord”.
Thank you for sharing this article to ensure it is widely distributed. And if you know of any intellectual who might be interested in this work, I would be grateful if you could make them aware of it.