Max Beer June 1908

Studies in historic Materialism

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

Source: Social Democrat,Vol. XII, No. 6, June, 1908, pp.249-255;
Transcribed: by Ted Crawford.

With the unfolding of the social struggle between the rich and poor, between the expropriators and expropriated, a new mission fell to the prophets of Yahve. They were not only, like their famous predecessors Elijah and Elisha, the standard-bearers of the old faith, but also the protagonists of social justice and righteousness. They became the leaders of the impoverished masses. And both currents of thought, the religious and the social, combined to create a revolutionary and far-reaching conception of Yahve and his laws. Henceforth the Yahve prophets were no more the miracle workers and soothsayers of old, but ethical preachers, social agitators and dis­turbers of the established order. They came either from the lower strata of society, like Amos the shepherd, or from the educated priestly caste, like Isaiah and Jeremiah. Their central ideas were everywhere the same, and their speeches, stimulated by the intense sufferings of the people, attained to a degree of power and beauty never reached by the older miracle-prophets.

The religious and social ideas of the new prophets were undoubtedly revolutionary. The old Yahve was a physical God whose worship was a conscious, ceremonial act. On the other hand, the ethics of the old society were unconscious; nobody speculated about them; solidarity, mutual help, social justice were the natural outcome of tribal organisation; the people had as yet no occasion to gain consciousness of them and to hypostatise them into attributes of Yahve. They became subjects of discussion only after the process of disintegration had begun, after the fraternal bonds that knitted society together had been severed. And this process coincided with the apostasy from Yahve and the attachment to Baal. It may be said that, as a rule, the landowners and rich peasants either turned to Baal or adhered to the old mode of worship of Yahve. They sacrificed either to Baal or to Yahve, and made their pilgrimages in the customary manner; their religious conception was the conservative and legitimate one, which consisted in sacrifices and offerings. With the rich sided the majority of the priesthood, whose office it was to carry out those religious ceremonies. There is no need to ascribe selfish motives to their conservatism and their attach­ment to the rich of the land. For they legitimately regarded the cult as the essence of religion, and the rich did not fail to conform to it. On the other hand, the poor could not remain satisfied with the traditional conception of religion. In their ranks Yahve began to be looked at in another light. In their struggle against the rich they remembered the old times, when a spirit of fraternity and equality knitted society together; and it was the time when Yahve's rule over Israel was undisputed. Bereft of their soil and of their voice in the management of society, the physical attributes of Yahve lost all meaning to the poor. All the more they turned their attention to the ethical aspects of social life, and began to see in Yahve chiefly a god of justice and loving-kindness. Such a god could not accept the offerings of the exploiting rich. In their eyes moral conduct was better than sacrifice of cattle and fruits. That the social struggle took the form of religious and ethical controversies was due to the fact that religion was the visible guide of life, while eco­nomic changes have always been very difficult to perceive. The inchoate, but intense, feelings of the poor found eloquent expression in the harangues of the prophets. The latter formulated the new conception, which germinated in the depths of the people, and which produced a revolution in religious thought.

Amos, the shepherd, reproved his people. "For they know not to do right, and store up violence and robbery in their palaces. …. I hate, I despise, your feast days, and I will not smell on your solemn assem­blies. Though ye offer me burnt offerings and your meat offerings, I will not accept them …. Hate the evil, and love the good and establish judgment at the gate …. Let justice run down like water, and righteousness as a mighty stream. Have ye offered unto me sacrifices and offerings in the wilder­ness 40 years?"

And MICAH warns them, "Woe to them that devise iniquity ….  and covet fields and take them by violence; and houses and take them away; so they oppress a man and his house ….  Hear this, ye heads of the house of Jacob, that abhor judgment and pervert all equity. They build up Zion with blood, and Jerusalem with iniquity          …. Will Yahve be
pleased with thousands of rams, or with ten thousands of rivers of oil? He has shewn thee, O man, what is good; and what doth the Lord require of thee, but to act justly, and to love mercy and to walk humbly with thy God?"

The cause of the poor, the feelings of the expropriated, the new ethical conception of Yahve, the whole mental revolution that had been going on in Palestine found an eloquent and educated interpreter in ISAIAH: "Woe unto them that join house to house, that lay field to field, till there be no place, that they may live alone in the midst of the earth! …. To what purpose is the multitude of your sacrifices unto me? I delight not in the blood of bullocks, or of lambs, or of goats …. Put away the evil of your doings from before mine eyes. Learn to do well; seek justice, relieve the oppressed, judge the fatherless, plead for the widow …. Zion shall be redeemed with justice, and her converts with righteousness."

The growth of private property, the means by which it was promoted, and the effects it produced on society are clearly indicated in those quotations, which could be easily multiplied. Likewise clear is the prophetic conception of Yahve as the giver of ethical laws and protector of the poor. The new conception had ripened enough to render superfluous all references to the new physical qualities of Yahve upon which Elijah insisted. With the prophets Yahve ceased altogether to be a physical and tribal deity and became an ethical and universal power. His limitations had disappeared, his tribal character was gone, and his blessings and punishments did not depend on his arbitrary relation­ship to Israel, but on the moral conduct of man. Yahve had chosen Israel because he found them to be good. "I remember thee," says JEREMIAH in the name of Yahve, "the kindness of thy youth, when thou wentest after me in the wilderness, in the land that was not sown. …. " The relationship of Yahve to Israel was thus interpreted to be a purely ethical one. Yahve might just as well have become the protector of any other people if its conduct had been ethical. After Israel had gone astray its relationship to Yahve ceased, no matter how elaborate was its worship and how abundant were its sacrifices.

This thought is expressed by Amos (chapters and 2), who showed Yahve's judgment upon Syria and all the countries of the eastern littoral of the Mediterranean. And ISAIAH included in his prophecy Ethopia, Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, Arabia, i.e., the whole known world of his times. "Behold, Yahve maketh the earth empty and maketh it waste ….  because they (the inhabitants thereof) have transgressed the laws …. This is the hand that is stretched out upon all the nations."

This conception was thoroughly revolutionary. It must have been looked upon as sheer blasphemy or atheism by the conservatives and rich as well as by the priesthood.  It was also anti-national, since it severed Yahve from Israel, it put Israel on the same level with other nations, and it made Yahve cosmo­politan and universal. Moreover, the insistence on social justice carried war into Hebrew society. No wonder the prophets struggled at first with might and main against the assumption of such a task. But their love of the people, their adherence to Yahve overbore their reluctance. Once they decided for the new mission the prophets equipped themselves with the knowledge their office demanded. They inquired into the internal position of the country, and their speeches bear ample evidence that their investigations were to some purpose. They inquired likewise into the foreign relations of Palestine and into world politics in general, since Yahve was in their eyes an international God. And in these investigations they were aided by the geographic position of Palestine. To the south of Palestine lay Egypt, to the east the Assyrian and Babylonian Empires. The rivalries between the Nile Valley and the Euphrates Valley were constant and bitter. Palestine formed the gate from Africa to Asia and from Asia to Africa The Hebrews could, under those conditions, not remain isolated and live their own life, but had to take sides. Their land was, there­fore, often invaded either by the Egyptians or by the Assyrians and Babylonians. This unenviable position had, however, a stimulating effect on the mentality of the Hebrews. It brought them in touch with world-wide problems that required diplo­macy from their rulers. On the prophets the effect of those geographic environments was completely in harmony with their religious and ethical conceptions. Yahve was for them a universal god who once had a predilection for Israel and who was still prepared to love them if they kept his laws. Looking from this point of view upon world politics they interpreted the imperial rivalries of Egypt and Assyria as having some reference to Palestine. In their eyes the religious crisis in Israel was the central fact of history, and as Yahve was the power that shaped the affairs of the universe, Egypt and Assyria were but the tools in his hand to punish or to help Israel. For though their conception was international they always turned to Israel as the nation which was destined to solve the religious and social crisis for the whole world.

"O Assyrian," cried ISAIAH, in the name of Yahve, "the rod of mine anger, and the staff in their hand is mine indignation …. In that day (of judgment) shall there be a highway out of Egypt to Assyria and the Assyrian shall come into Egypt, and the Egyptians shall serve with the Assyrians. In that day shall Israel be the third with Egypt and with Assyria. Whom Yahve shall bless, saying, Blessed be Egypt my people, and Assyria the work of my hands, and Israel mine inheritance …. And many people shall go and say, Come ye, and let us go up to the mountain of Yahve, to the house of the God of Jacob; and he will teach us of his ways, and we will walk in his paths; for out of Zion shall go forth the law, and the word of Yahve from Jerusalem. And he shall judge among the nations, and shall rebuke many people; and they shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning-hooks: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more."

In their   longing for social justice and international harmony, in their broad outlook on the affairs of the world, in their gloomy predictions of crises and wars, in their dire expectation of a universal catastrophe, and, finally, in their glowing picture of the mental and material salvation of man, the prophets bear a striking resemblance to some present-day leaders of extreme Marxist views. To read one of the great chapters of Isaiah with its harrowing description of the misery of the poor and of the insatiable wealth-grabbing of the rich, of the greatness of the socio-ethical idea of Yahve and of its final and approaching realisation is to listen to one of the eloquent addresses of a modern Marxist orator. And they are both born of the struggles and sufferings of their times. The social conflict in our Hebrew history must have been extremely intense, and the physical and spiritual condition of the Hebrew must have been thoroughly sound con­sidering the loftiness of the religious ideal and the greatness of its protagonists which they produced. The product of this historical life is the second Isaiah, whose ideas and ideals form the preliminary stage of Christianity.


(To be continued.)