Max Beer March 1908

Studies in historic Materialism

Chapter I - The rise of Jewish Monotheism (continued.)

Source: Social Democrat,Vol. XII, No. 3, March, 1908, pp.117-119;
Transcribed: by Ted Crawford.

Religion is the first systematic attempt of man to put himself into relation with, and to find an interpretation of, the spiritual, physical and social forces of the universe, which appeared to man to be at once powerful and incomprehensible. Religion, being the result of the mental activity of primitive man, the emotional factors predominated in the formulation of its tenets. Religion may, indeed, be defined as a theory of the universe conceived by emotion and as a practice of life born of a very limited power of man over the material world. It is a primitive philosophy of life. It took its rise whenever and wherever man awakened to the necessity of influencing and comprehending his surroundings. His religion was therefore determined by his peculiar mental development and by his special environments. In primitive societies, in which man is not yet differentiated and individualised, his mental development and his environments are practically the same as those of his gens, clan, or tribe.

The chief spiritual, physical, or social force upon which the welfare of the primitive man appeared to depend was hypostatised and raised to the rank of a powerful being whose favour or advice could be gained or whose anger could be assuaged by worship or sacrifice. That hypostatised force was his highest lord and god, who was withal a powerful tribal chief or a powerful king; taller, mightier, and wiser than any man he had known, but still of the genus homo, who could be measured by the yard, looked at, spoken to, and called upon. The idea of infinity and of an abstract spiritual force is a comparatively late creation of the human mind.

Besides the chief deity there were minor gods as personifications of minor forces.

The original religion of the Hebrew tribes bears the same characteristics. It was a religion of desert nomads, fashioned after the physical characteristics of the regions of their migrations and after the needs of their social organisation. It was physical, social, and polytheistic. The supreme deity was the personification of the physical cataclysms of the desert. Yahve was originally associated with storm and whirlwind and lightning, as well as with the virtues of a Bedouin leader, with prowess, intrepidity, and fierceness in war. His images, graven and molten, and clad in ephods, were found in the tents, or in the places of worship of the Beni Israel. Besides the Yahve worship was the serpent worship, traces of which are to be met with in the Old Testament; then there were the Teraphim or minor gods. A good insight into the polytheistic cults of the Hebrew tribes is given in JUDGES, chapters 17 and 18, relating the story of Micah's house of gods and of their capture by the Danites who had been in quest of gods. Taking the story itself, without the evident interpolations and apologies of the later chronicler, it proves beyond doubt that its hero, far from having any consciousness of sin, fully believed that he had done an act of piety by dedicating a certain amount of silver to the making of graven and molten images. “And the man Micah had an house of gods, and made an ephod and teraphim.” Even the prophet Hosea adhered to the same religious conceptions, for, when reproving the Israelites for their sins, threatens them that they “shall abide many days without an image, and without an ephod, and without teraphim” (chap. 3, v.4). In conformity with those views the Israelites thought the gods of other tribes to be as genuine and powerful as Yahve. Chemosh gave victory to Moab, Ashur to Assyria, Malkam to the Ammonites, Dagon to the Philistines. Moreover, they believed that a Hebrew leaving his tribe or his settlement for another was bound to worship other gods. David, complaining of his relentless persecution by Saul, cried, “For they have driven me out this day from abiding in the inheritance of Yahve, saying, Go, serve other gods.” (I. SAMUEL, chap. 26, v.19.) Similar views are to be found in RUTH.

This, then, was the essence of the religion of the Beni Israel on their entering Canaan and in the first centuries after the conquest of their new settlements.


(To be continued.)