The Levites

10 April, 2008

Prince Sechem approached Jacob. He had abducted Jacob’s daughter and married her without Jacob’s consent. Now, deeply in love with his newly taken bride he came to ask for peaceable relations between his people and those of his wife. Levi, one of Jacob’s sons hid his fury with Sechem. He was disgusted by this foreign Prince who had humbled his sister. With a forked tongue he told the Prince, “Of course we can be at peace, we can intermarry, only… in order to be a true husband to my sister you must of course be circumcised. And in fact all of your people must consent to be circumcised. Then we shall truly be as one and you can marry our women folk and we can marry yours.” The Prince loved Levi’s sister so much that he instantly agreed to some state wide genital mutilation. His people were less impressed with the idea, but he was the Prince after all. After an afternoon of much cutting and slicing, the men of Sechem lay down to recover from their impromptu surgery. It was then, in their weakened state that Levi and one of his brothers fell upon the people of Sechem and slaughtered them to a man. They took back with them the spoils of their victory, the herds and asses, the wealth of Sechem, the children and the widows.

Years later, when Jacob lay on his death bed he gave out prophecies to his children. To Levi he said, “Because you were deceitful with Prince Sechem your descendants shall be scattered amongst the tribes of Israel.” And so they were, the Levites lived with all tribes and in all places.

The above is just one story of the origin of the Levites from the Hebrew Bible. Traditionally said to be descendants of one of the sons of Jacob they were nevertheless different from any specific ethnic group. In other part of the bible they are treated more as people holding a job rather then being a family. What was that job? In general they were priests of the Temple in Jerusalem. But in some stories they are specifically not part of the priest overclass, the ones who got the meat, and coin from sacrifices. Instead they were the musicians and dancers, the performers who would enact rituals. If the Ark of the Covenant was about to be wheeled out into battle you can be sure some Levites would be in the procession signing praises to Yahweh who would be sat invisibly on top.

In another story of their origin, during the Exodus many people turned from Moses to follow the Golden Bulls and Aaron. Upon returning from a trip Moses found a group of young likely lads and sent them to kill all those who had followed the Bull. They did so with gusto, killing even members of their own family. In blood they were forged and from then on became the Levites, the zealots of the priesthood.

But perhaps the real origin of the Levites is missing from the books we have left. Enough clues are left behind to point to a possible origin that would not sit well with later generations. We know from the bible that Moses (identified as a descendant of Levi himself) used a staff, given to him by Yahweh, to show the wonders of his god. When facing Egyptians who sent snakes towards him the staff changed into a mighty Serpent which devoured the Egyptian snakes. Later in the wilderness there was a plague and Moses crafted a staff with a bronze Serpent coiled around it. All that saw this Serpent were healed. The Levites were not originally priests of Yahweh, but of a Serpent God. Leviathan.

Leviathan was a primal being, made of chaos. Only Yahweh could tame (or destroy, depending on the story) this seven headed sea creature of the depths, and in doing so Yahweh became the King of the Gods.

But just as there were priests dedicated to the Storm God Yahweh, and priestesses devoted to his wife Asherah, so too were there priests of the ancient enemy. Chaos itself was one to be watched and placated. The Levites were up to the task – zealous killers, loyal brothers, dancers, musicians, and perhaps the ones who kept the seven headed beast safely away from Jerusalem.

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The Father Of Faith

30 March, 2008

Caravaggio’s Sacrifice of IsaacAbraham had been residing in the land of the Philistines for many days when the High God El decided to test him. El said to Abraham “Hey minion of mine, take your son, the only one you love (I know what you think of Ishmael really) and go the land of Moriah. Kill your child and let me smell the sweet scent of his burning flesh.”

“OK” said Abraham, keen to win the Father of the year award.

He left early in the morning, with Isaac and a couple of his boy servants. He cut the wood for the offering and went to the land of Moriah. After three days he saw a mountain and knew that it had to be the one where he was to kill his beloved child. Abraham said to the boys “You stay here, I’m going off with my son to do a bit of praying and then we’ll be back.” Abraham gave the heavy wood to Isaac to carry and they walked up the mountain.

“Phew,” said one of the boy servants, “I thought we were goners for a moment, he’s off to pray and yet doesn’t have a sacrifice, I was sure he was going to kill us!”. “Nah, ” said the other, “that would be absurd.”

Meanwhile Isaac, not always the brightest, had noticed the same thing. “Father, I can’t help but notice that there isn’t any sheep to sacrifice to El.” Abraham replied, “Don’t worry your pretty little head about it, El will provide a suitable sacrifice.”

And they came to the mountain place. Abraham built the alter and arranged the wood. Then he quickly bound Isaac and put him on the alter. He raised his knife and …

Suddenly an Angel of Yahweh called to Abraham. “Wait, wait, stop! Don’t kill your child! I have seen that you were willing to do so and therefore fear the gods. Behold, a handy sheep.” And Abraham saw a ram caught in a nearby thicket. And he sacrificed the ram instead of his son, which is the way things should be when you think about it. And the Angel of Yahweh called to Abraham for a second time and said…

And The High God El said “I swear that because you did this thing and did not withhold your son that I will bless you and multiply your seed like the stars of the sky and like the sand on the shore. That’s loads by the way, you have no idea how many stars there are, seriously Abe. Your seed will possess its enemies gate (if you know what I mean, nudge, nudge), and all nations will be blessed because you listened to me.

And Abraham went back to the servants and they went to Beersheba.

[Based on the E account, italics represent REJ redactor’s part of Genesis 22]

Another Hebrew Flood Story

20 February, 2008

RavenEl, the High God, was upset. He was strolling along with Noah, a most virtuous man, and saw that the world had become corrupted. It wasn’t clear what has caused this corruption but nonetheless El decided to destroy all of the living things since it had worked so well for some of the other Gods. He did have a thing for the unblemished Noah though, and thought he would spare this mortal. El gave Noah detailed instructions on how to build the Ark, how many cubits in length it should be (300), what wood to make it out of (gopher wood), how many people to bring (himself, his wife, his sons and their wives), how many animals to bring (two of each, male and female), how much food to bring (enough for everyone for an unspecified time), how many bathrooms to have (none, like the starship Enterprise), how much to charge at the breakfast bar (50 shekels, it’s a seller’s market), what colour to paint it (light blue) and how much to pay the contractors who did all the work (it didn’t matter, they’d all be dead soon enough).

All the animals and birds came, two by two, into the Ark. Seven days later El split open the fountains of the Deep, and opened the doors in the sky, and the waters flooded in. For forty days and forty nights it rained, and the waters grew strong. All the people and animals and birds died in the flood. After a hundred and fifty days El wondered why it was so quiet and suddenly remembered his favourite Noah. El ate some fibrous nourishment and then passed a wind over the Earth so that the waters decreased. He closed the fountains of the Deep and the trapdoors in the sky. Five months after the start of the destruction the Ark came to rest on the mountains of Ararat. The water kept receding, and three months later the tops of the mountains appeared. Noah let a raven go and it went back and forth until the water dried up. Nevermore would the raven return to Noah. Finally, a year after the start of the flood, the Earth was again dry and El told Noah to leave the Ark, since Noah couldn’t do anything without El’s say so, even though he knew it was safe from the whole raven incident a few months before.

The bewildered animals, birds and humans stepped out onto this newly devastated world and gave thanks to El for not killing every living thing. El said to Noah, “Be fruitful and multiply. I give you dominion over all living things, you can eat what you want as long as you don’t eat the blood. Oh, and if any human kills any other human then they shall be put to death since they killed something in my image. Let’s see, what else…”

“Oh mighty El, ” inquired Noah, “how can we be sure that you wont try to kill us all again with another flood? Or if you don’t, what about another of the Gods, because I’ve heard a lot of stories about how this sort of thing keeps happening.”

“Tell you what little favoured mortal, I shall establish a covenant with you and with all the creatures of the earth. I will put my rainbow in the clouds and whenever I, or anyone else, tries to flood the world we shall see the rainbow, and it will remind us of you and your campy ways. Thus we shall never again try to flood the world. It’s useful to have little reminders like that I find.”

And so the might El, king of all the Gods, finally managed to stop everyone from trying to flood the entire Earth.

Based on the P account contained in Genesis

A Hebrew Flood Story

15 February, 2008

doveYahweh the storm God was upset. The humans had produced many fine women and the Sons of El, the high God, had descended from the sky to enjoy the delights of their flesh. These human women were very attractive to the Gods, mainly because they were the first females they had encountered that they weren’t related to. And so they frolicked, and played, and had fun, and due to having no contraception gave birth to the Nephilim, demigod heroes of renown. These heroes made a lot of noise and engaged in a lot of activity of dubious moral character. Much later people would think these Nephilim were hybrid space aliens, but this tale was long before that came fashionable. Yahweh looked down from the sky at what humanity had become, and he grieved. Their evil was filling the world, and quicker than he imagined possible thanks to the Sons of El and the Nephilim.

“I’ll wipe out these humans from the face of the earth because I regret that I made them.” With a tear in his eye he prepared to whip up a storm. Just then he saw Noah, one of Yahweh’s favourites. “Quickly, ” he said to Noah, “all of your household, get into an ark. And bring 7 pairs of every pure animal, you’ll need them later, and one pair of all the others. Bring the flying birds too.”

Noah did as Yahweh commanded, he brought everyone into the Ark, and Yahweh closed it for him. The flood came upon the earth for forty days, and the waters covered even the highest of mountains. All the animals on the ground died. Even the birds of the air died, the poor sparrow, and eagle, and hawk. Ducks survived of course and floated alongside the ark taunting their non-aquatic brethren. Then the rain was restrained and the flood waters went back from the earth. Noah opened a window and let go a dove which could not find a resting place and so returned. He waited a week and let it go again, and this time it returned with an olive branch in its mouth, and Noah was pleased. Noah hoped that a dove with an olive branch would become some sort of sign of peace after any maniacal genocide had happened. Finally after another week he released the dove again and it didn’t come back. It had either found land or just didn’t want the company of Noah any more and figured a slow lingering death was preferable to talking to the future father of humanity.

Eventually the ark came to rest on land and Noah built an alter to Yahweh. He took some of the pure animals and some of the pure birds of the air and offered sacrifices on the alter. And Yahweh smelled the pleasant smell and said “You know something, you humans are inclined to evil from when you’re young, and it’s not really your fault. Tell you what, I wont try kill all of you again in one big shot. I’ll just kill you in little doses.”

“Thank you oh mighty Yahweh!” said Noah, “and what about giving me the OK to be fruitful and multiply? And maybe show us a rainbow?”

“You’re probably thinking of another flood story to do with El.” said Yahweh. “After all, just because I have promised never again to kill everyone, doesn’t mean that some other God wont try to do just that…”

Based on the J version of the flood story contained in Genesis.

El, father of the gods, had given over to his son, Yahweh, the responsibility of looking after the Garden of Eden. This was a great honour for Yahweh, since he now had to look after the Tree of Life from which the fruits were picked which gave the gods their everlasting life. It was hard work bringing the fruits to the seventy children of El, and after a while Yahweh tired of the work. “Am I a god or not?” he thought, “I shall make myself a worker to do this for me.” And so he fashioned a creature out of the dust and called him Adam, which wasn’t a great name, but Yahweh wasn’t much for naming things. Adam was a good worker and tended the garden of the gods for many years, even eating from the tree of life occasionally so as to not grow old. It would do Yahweh no good if Adam reached retirement age and had to be given a pension. So Adam was eternally young, but as a lowly slave to the gods he grew lonely.

Being a kindly soul, Yahweh decided to create a companion for Adam and created a creature called a niflahoodj. Realising that he was still not very good at naming, Yahweh asked Adam to come up with a name for the creature, and Adam called it a horse. Leaving the two of them alone to get acquainted, Yahweh smiled wondering how they would get along. Returning the next day he was surprised to find Adam was still lonely. At that Yahweh went to work creating more and more creatures, large and small, walking, crawling and flying. After all this effort Adam then had to name all the creatures, quite a task in the days before Linnaean taxonomy.

Eventually, realising that Yahweh would go on for ever creating even stranger deep sea fish that would never be suitable companions, Adam asked straight out for a companion who could talk, so that they could at least have some after dinner conversation. Yahweh thought about it and then created Eve, a woman who would be Adam’s wife as Asherah was Yahweh’s wife. In retrospect it seemed like an obvious thing to do from the start, but Yahweh had a nagging feeling that there was something he had forgotten…

A few days later, Nehushtan, the god of the North, was flying through the Garden when he came upon Eve who was taking a rest. He flew down to her and said “You look tired, is the work here hard?”. “Yes,” she replied, “between doing the gardening and listening to Adam name things it can be quite tiring. He’s already named all the bits of my body, some of them many times over, and it does get a bit boring after a while.”

Nehushtan had pity for Eve and decided that he would explain the birds and the bees (rather than just naming them) to allow herself and Adam to have some fun and excitement during the long nights without television. Eve listened to what Nehushtan said and then ran off to tell Adam about all the new exciting things they could do together. Nehushtan smiled thinking he had done a good deed.

Then, as the heat of the day passed to the cool of the evening, Yahweh came to take a stroll in the Garden. Looking around he saw neither Adam nor Eve and called out to them. “Where could they be hiding?” he thought, wishing he was omniscient like later gods would be. Eventually he caught them having sex behind some bushes. “What are you doing?” he shouted. Eve replied “Nehushtan told us about sex, we thought we would try it.”

Now Yahweh realised his mistake in creating Eve, for now that they knew of sex they would reproduce. And their children would reproduce, and their children, and their children until eventually incest would be seen as icky and the whole world would be covered with humanity. “Well now, you have two choices, you can either have sex but be condemned to die, or eat of the Tree of Life but never again lie together.”

Adam and Eve looked at each other. Eternal life, or sex, children and death. It was a tough choice, but then who would be here today if they had chosen life, and not their own mortality?