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New Heaven, New Earth

Cosmos, Chaos and the World to Come: The Ancient Roots of Apocalyptic Faith

by Norman Cohn
Yale University Press, 271 pp., $30.00


We live in an apocalyptic age. All around us, and not only in the West, groups of people are huddling together, rejecting the outside world, and awaiting an imminent Last Day, when the elect (themselves) shall be justified, rewarded, and avenged on their enemies and on unbelievers. A time of tribulation, usually imagined with a good deal of gusto—a time of wars and rumors of wars, false prophets, allegorical beasts, pestilences, and every form of nastiness—will be followed by the coming of a new heaven and new earth, the direct rule of God, and endless bliss for the devout minority (with tremendous sufferings for their enemies) in a world freed of all evil. Those who believe in such promises rarely make much study of earlier apocalyptic movements. Thus it is that each succeeding congregation of the elect is unfazed by their melancholy record of 100 percent failure to come true.

Professor Norman Cohn has done more than anyone else to illuminate these curious areas of human thought and history. The Pursuit of the Millennium (1957) is only the best known of his studies; he says himself, “Those questions have been preoccupying me, on and off, for almost half a century.” He now turns to the question of the origins of this pattern of thought and belief. Is it possible to point to a particular time and place as having given birth to it? The chase takes him back to the very beginnings of Western thought, to Egypt and Mesopotamia and Vedic India, to Zoroaster and the Hebrew Bible. It turns out that there is a much more definite answer to the question of origins than we might have guessed.

In ancient Egypt, and in the many cities of Mesopotamia, a set of ideas held sway which had much in common. It can be found, less central but still important, in India in the days of the Rig Veda; the Norsemen show it in connection with the god Thor. The neighbors of the Hebrews in Palestine held it, too; and so, Cohn makes it pretty clear, did the early Hebrews themselves, with the result that traces of it can still be descried, despite all attempts at censorship, in the Old Testament. The people of all these early societies, menaced as they were both by the harshness of nature and by the hand of human enemies, imagined the gods themselves as engaged in a constant struggle to maintain the order of the world against unceasing attack. The best efforts of the human race, in addition, were necessary to assist the gods in their cosmic task. That was the great function of ritual. It also was a vital reason for morally right behavior, since that, too, strengthened the good order of the universe against its assailants.

The resemblance went considerably further. In Babylon we find a combat myth, which was recounted every New Year’s Day as part of the temple ritual: it told how the primeval sea monster Tiamat and her legions, which terrified the other gods, were defeated by the warrior god Marduk, who then split her in two and made heaven and earth out of the halves. He remained a mighty defender in the cosmic struggle, which constantly succeeded in upholding, against constant attack, the proper shape and running of the world. In Vedic India the role of divine warrior was played by the mighty god Indra (“he of the thousand testicles” from his inexhaustible potency), who defeated the fearful demons Vritra and Danu and brought the ordered world into existence, separating heaven and earth, fixing the primordial mountain in the cosmic waters, and dividing the existent from the non-existent. Both the great warrior gods Marduk and Indra were thus also creators.

In the north the mighty Thor with his hammer had to wage constant war on the giants, who from the boundaries never ceased to threaten the world. In Egypt there was the monster Apophis, who every day tried to ambush and stop the setting sun: should he once succeed, the world would be lost. There was also the dark god Set, lord of the desert and enemy of order, and countless minor demons that assailed all living people at every turn and could be repelled only by constant vigilance. Ra and Osiris fought on the side of order and civilization against its supernatural enemies, and the ceaseless cult ceremonies of the temples, centering on the divine figure of Pharaoh, played a vital role in strengthening the benevolent divinities.

We come closer to the modern world when the spotlight is turned on to ancient Palestine. The neighbors of the Hebrews are much better known to us nowadays, since the discovery and decipherment of the texts from the ancient city of Ugarit, which give a vivid insight into the beliefs of the people of the land of Canaan. The high god was El, but the fighting god was Ba’al, the only one to dare to accept the challenge of the sea monster Yam, a typical representative of chaos, and to do battle with Mot, the evil embodiment of the desert and of drought. Ba’al and his ferocious sister Anat fought constantly to keep off the ever present threat of chaos and destruction. All this is splendidly described in the Ugaritic texts, which date from the years c. 1400–1200 BCE. Less universally conceded, but in my opinion convincing, is the claim that just such a pattern can still be made out at places in the Hebrew Bible. Yahweh was originally the tribal deity of the Hebrews, a warrior god who fought against monsters and against national enemies, but who was subordinate to the high god El. We find him praised in the same terms as a Marduk or a Ba’al, as the conqueror of the great monsters of the sea:

Thou didst divide the sea by thy strength; thou brakest the heads of the dragons in the waters.

Thou brakest the heads of leviathan in pieces, and gavest him to be meat to the people inhabiting the wilderness.

Thou didst cleave the fountain and the flood…

(Psalm 74:13–15)

Other psalms, 29 and 93, also celebrate Yahweh as thundering in victory upon the waters, and the monstrous figure of leviathan recurs elsewhere. Like all such monsters who stand for cosmic disorder, of which the sea is a constant symbol, it is not enough to defeat it once: its menace is still there. Thus we find Isaiah prophesying the future:

In that day the Lord with his sore and great and strong sword shall punish leviathan the piercing serpent, even leviathan that crooked serpent; and he shall slay the dragon that is in the sea.

(Isaiah 27:1)

We even find a clear indication of the respective position of El and Yahweh:

When the most High [El Elyon] divided to the nations their inheritance, when he separated the sons of Adam, he set the bounds of the people according to the number of the children of Israel.

For the Lord [Yahweh]’s portion is his people; Jacob is the lot of his inheritance.

He found him in a desert land, and in the waste howling wilderness; he led him about, he instructed him, he kept him as the apple of his eye…

So the Lord alone did lead him, and there was no strange god with him.

(Deuteronomy 32:8–10, 12)

That is, in Cohn’s words, “when El Elyon, i.e., El the Most High, parcelled out the nations between his sons, Yahweh received Israel as his portion.” And it seems no less clear that “in other [Biblical] accounts of Yahweh’s warlike deeds the influence of the Ba’al myth is obvious.” Yahweh was to go on winning more victories and so confirming the world order and strengthening his own people. This stormy deity was in time merged with El, becoming himself Most High, supreme god, creator of the world, and protector of the oppressed.

For the Lord is a great God, and a great King above all gods.

In his hand are the deep places of the earth: the strength of the hills is his also.

The sea is his, and he made it…

(Psalm 95:3–5)

He ruled on Mount Sion as Ba’al ruled on Mount Zaphon; and in the time of the kingdom his temple in Jerusalem and the rites performed there did not differ much from those of the neighboring peoples (“the building itself was constructed and decorated in the Canaanite mode”). The rituals of the Temple, which, like a Mesopotamian temple, symbolized the cosmos, made the usual animal and cereal offerings and aimed to strengthen Yahweh in his defense of the cosmic order.

So far, all seems essentially unsurprising. Common sense, after all, accepted that other nations had their gods, who no doubt did the best they could for their peoples. Even in the severely scrutinized and monotheistic Hebrew Bible we find the Hebrew leader Jephtha saying to the king of Ammon, “Wilt thou not possess that which Chemosh thy god giveth thee to possess? So whomsoever the Lord our God hath dispossessed before us, them will we possess” (Judges 11:24). No doubt, too, the order and goodness of the world, and one’s own place in it, was as much at risk on the cosmic as on the everyday level, in a world in which crops failed, floods and plagues came without warning, and cities and peoples regularly went down into slavery and destruction. It was reasonable to suppose that one’s own deity, hard at work on behalf of his people, could use such support as one could give him. But in fact the Hebrews were to develop their theology in new and original directions, unparalleled in the ancient world, and far less obviously sensible; and those ideas were to be of incalculable importance for the future. How did it happen?

For a few generations, c. 1000–925 BCE, the Jerusalem kingdom flourished. David and Solomon set a standard which none of their successors was able to match; and of course they left a haunting memory to later generations. The division of the kingdom, failures against neighboring peoples, the conquest by Assyria, the eventual destruction of the Temple, and the taking off of the most able people of the nation into Babylonian captivity: this dismal catalog of disappointments posed a problem on the theological level. How was it to be explained?

From about 750 BCE the prophets, from Hosea on, urged a new theology: Yahweh must be the only god acknowledged in any way by the Israelites; the key to the understanding of recent history was the recidivist tendency of the Israelites to polytheism and idolatry. That made possible a theory of the history of the people which stood the obvious explanation of things on its head: the disasters of Israel and Judah, so far from showing (as to common sense they clearly did) that their god was less powerful than those of other nations, were in fact planned by him as part of his own purposes. Nations like Assyria, which seemed to be in control, were merely acting out the designs of Yahweh, and the whole story was really about Israel and Judah, not about Assyria and Babylon at all. It followed that the people of Israel must have been both adept and pertinacious at enraging their patron.

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