While there is no evidence that Pompey understood it, the emptiness he observed upon his intrusion into the Holy of Holies did demonstrate - dramatically - what was so unusual, so holy, about Jewish beliefs.
"The progress of religion is defined," writes the philosopher A. N. Whitehead, "by the denunciation of gods." Under King Josiah in Judah in the seventh century BCE and with the support of Deuteronomy (a text newly "discovered" during Josiah's reign), the Hebrews "denounced" - became atheists with respect to - all gods except one. This was the "Yahweh-alone" movement. Altars - some of which had even shared Yahweh's temple - to Milcom, Chemosh, Ashtoreth, Tammuz and two particularly popular area gods, Baal and Asherah, were, according to II Kings, "abolished"; "defiled"; "shattered"; "burned down"; "beat...to dust;" their priests slain. Monotheism was, thus, established.
By the time of Pompey's arrival, the Holy of Holies is, therefore, empty of any trace of worship of other gods.
The Jews also "denounced" the tangible, easily accessible, form in which all gods had been presented. Other temples in the Egyptian/Greek/Roman world featured in their holiest places, their sanctuaries, statues depicting the deities to whom the temples were dedicated. The Jewish religion - with its prohibition, introduced in Exodus and underlined in Deuteronomy, against "graven images" - rested on a more abstract, more elusive view of God.
That prohibition is apparently not absolute. While the second commandment forbids "any likeness of what is in the heavens above, or on the earth below," God's design instructions, later in Exodus, for the Ark that is to be placed inside this chamber include "two cherubim of gold." Nonetheless, Yahweh himself is scrupulously not represented here - or anywhere.
Indeed, God is very, very rarely seen in the Hebrew Bible, often going out of his way - by coming in a cloud, by ordering people not "to gaze" - to remain invisible. The Holy of Holy is empty - and this is how that emptiness would primarily be understood by those who respected its holiness - of images of God. This is Tacitus' perspective on Pompey's invasion of the Jewish temple: "This incident gave rise to the common impression that it contained no representation of the deity."
Whitehead's "progress of religion" is continuing here. God - a forceful, occasionally violent character in the earliest books of the Bible - becomes, through his invisibility, more ethereal. Consider this intriguing scene involving the prophet Elijah from I Kings:
There was a great and mighty wind, splitting mountains and shattering rocks by the power of the Lord; but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind - an earthquake; but the Lord was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake - fire; but the Lord was not in the fire.
This is a God who is spending considerable time being "not." Indeed, the only evidence in this scene that he is not "not" is a "soft murmuring sound" Elijah hears after all the hubbub, followed by a "voice" from a cave. Yahweh, the seldom seen, is now Yahweh, the barely heard.
The Holy of Holies is emptier because God appears to be growing imperceptible.
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A couple of sources: Whitehead, Adventures of Ideas, and, for background on Josiah and Deuteronomy, Finkelstein and Silberman, The Bible Unearthed.
It’s the apotheosis of plausible deniability.The perfection of the institutional lie.
“Nyeti nyeti” (not this, not this) sayeth the Vedas or some such Sanskrit liturgy. Atman and God are that of which we can have no experience and hence no refutation. So much is uncertain in this world, we desire something irrrefutable. You posit It, and It exists. Your neighbors do the same, get the same result, back you up and become more cooperative. C’est voila: Society.
My understanding ot the meaning of atheism dictates that it is incorrect to use it to describe disbelief in all gods but one. Am I being too literal?
Okay. Is your point that the Jewish understanding of God as “not,” the developing notion of God as imperceptible, eventual leads to God as nothing?
–A. S. Hayes
I love the sound of this, but you are probably right. Disbelievers?
I do think this movement — these denunciations — lead away from certain kinds of gods. Such losses tend not to get computed.
The Romans considered the early Christians atheists because they didn’t worship their ancient gods. They weren’t really concerned with belief, though. It was about practice. They were especially concerned with the worship of the genius of the emperor. Atheist seems to be the right term, but its meaning probably needs some unpacking.
[...] Well the folks over at Future of the Book are working on it. Check out this text by Mitchell Stephens where, after selecting a section from the left hand margin, you are basically able to click into a specific part of the post and offer feedback. (Here’s a particularly interesting back and forth on one section.) Pretty cool, I’d say. Even cooler is that they’re planning to release this as a WordPress plugin at some point. Talk about being able to debate certain points within the whole. [...]
I just couldn’t resist commenting – what a fantastic feature.
Is God “growing imperceptible” or has Jewish theology become more sophisticated?
I think Deuteronomy may protest too much, as the impulse toward syncretism, I suspect, was natural and ongoing. Polytheism doesn’t just give way to radical monotheism without a protracted, ongoing struggle.
The phrase “became atheists with respect to” here is a legitimate usage, I’d say. It’s certainly a common rhetorical tack, e.g. Richard Dawkins’s “We are all atheists about most of the gods that societies have ever believed in. Some of us just go one god further.”
Hi How is it possible to have multiple threads in one line?
content note: The Whitehead quote troubles at first, but its implications are compelling, and I hope you explore them elsewhere. Progress (nb: as distinct from evolution) always offers trouble; things do seem to fluctuate along a mono-poly continuum–cults do rise and fall. But behind the notion Whitehead articulates, there’s the prospect of an ecology of belief–the unfolding or evolution of the frameworks of disbelief that all religions must fabricate. A picture of how *this* process occurs may well provide an historiographic scheme for any account of atheism.
Put more directly, is Atheism a species of the disbelieving that any religion must cultivate, or is it sui generis?
interface note: I’m not sure what I think of this commenting format, as it encourages shotgun blasts of commentary before the whole essay has been digested. You may well have elsewhere disposed of the question I offer above, in which case I’ve added little value to the work. Of course, I could exercise some restraint, and read the whole thing before returning to comment–but if used in that way, this interface has little to offer in comparison with paper-based editorial practice.
In response to the notion that this format has little to offer vs. paper-based editorial practice, I disagree. What is missing from paper is simultaneity. I can read your comment at the same time as a hundred others. And we can all contribute independently, without coordination between parties.
This format does still battle against shotgunning comments before the full argument is made. This treatment grows out of another experiment in which only a single paragraph was presented at a time, which faced the shotgunning issue to the extreme. We’re still working out ways to weave a conversation out of individual comments and threads. Thanks for your insight.
“growing imperceptible” is really nice, yet also somewhat misleading. For example the prophets regularly declare “this is the word of YHWH” both tendencies are present in the literature…
And those cherubim were to depicted in a passionate embrace.
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