A Short History of Religions: Part-2
By Mohammad Asghar
The Birth of Monotheism
Those wise men of the past were more clever then their predecessors. One such man, known to us as Abraham, is believed to have established a religion that called humans to worship a single God. In which period of human history did Abraham exist is not known, but it is widely believed that he was the founder of monotheism.
Abraham’s followers, known as Hebrews, are believed to have lived in Palestine around 1500 B.C. People in the rest of the world, including those of India, continued to practice polytheism with all devotions.
The story of the people of the Arabian Peninsula was, however, a different one. Although they believed that they were the descendants of Abraham’s son Ismail, but they practiced, and nourished polytheism with all vigor they had at their disposal. Their opposition of, and the repulsiveness towards, monotheism emanated from a belief that convinced them that their progenitor was a polytheist and, as such, they deemed it to be their duty to protect their religion even at the cost of their lives.
But their resoluteness to preserve their faith at any cost proved ineffective in the face of a determined and persistent assault launched against it by its opponents, and it disappeared from the soil of the Arabian Peninsula some fourteen hundred years ago.
While the Hebrews were practicing monotheism, a famine struck hard the southern part Palestine, where poverty had always ruled supreme. Driven by hunger, most of them left their homeland and settled down in Egypt’s Province of Goshen, close to the Nile River. Others, who were unwilling to undertake the tortuous journey, relocated themselves in the northern part of Palestine, thence called Canaan, as well as Israel. Here, their number multiplied rapidly. The aborigines of Canaan appear to have converted to monotheism over a certain period of time.
At the time of their migration, dynastical Pharaohs ruled Egypt. Some of them worshipped sun and other celestial objects, while others claimed that they themselves were gods. Living for a long time among the polytheist Egyptians, the Hebrews gave up monotheism, and took to worshipping various gods, as did their distant ancestors in the land of Canaan.
For the entire time they lived in Egypt, the Hebrews remained enslaved to the successive Pharaohs. They served the Pharaohs’ needs; built different edifices and performed all hard works for them by sacrificing their own lives. They received little or no compensation for the works they performed, nor were they appreciated for the artistic and creative abilities they possessed.
As life is more precious for every living being than anything else, the Hebrews continued to live in Egypt, despite being subjected to grueling tasks. With the passage of time, their number became very large.
The Hebrews’ burgeoning number alarmed the Pharaohs. They rightly believed that if they continued to increase their number as rapidly as they were doing, a day might come when the Hebrews would outnumber the indigenous Egyptians, thereby upsetting the kingdom’s demographic composition. This scenario, in its own turn, had the potential of creating severe social and economic consequences for the country’s rulers.
The anticipation of a disaster, likely to befall Egypt in an unknown future, spurred one Pharaoh after another to take measures that were intended to make Egypt free of the Hebrews.
The measures called for harsher treatment of the Hebrews. They were also to be harassed not only by the Pharaohs’ army, but also by the common Egyptians. They were to be treated like slaves. Their slave-status made them inferior to the Egyptians, with the result that whenever any calamity struck the country, Hebrews were required to sacrifice themselves in order to save the lives of their masters.
While Hebrews of all ages were suffering under the Egyptians’ yoke, there arose, among them, some wise men, who knew how to free them from their shackles. Asked by people of all tiers to lay out their plan, the wise men declared: Let us all migrate to Israel where, they told their audience with the intention of inducing them to the perilous journey, milk and honey flowed in abundance. Delighted by the prospect of living a pain-free and happy life, all Hebrews decided to leave Egypt under the leadership of their wise men.
And most of the Hebrews did leave Egypt one day. Their wise men, who knew where Israel was located, led them on their journey. They walked and walked, and then arrived at the edge of a marsh that was very wide and deep. It was located on a stripe that separated the Mediterranean Sea from the Red Sea, with Egypt in its west and the ancient city of Ailat on its east.
Having come into existence after the Hebrews’ migration from Palestine to Egypt, due to an increase in the level of water of the Mediterranean Sea, it acted for a long time as a natural barrier between Egypt and the land of Palestine (see the map covering the kingdoms of Israel and Judah of the period 722-586 B.C to note the stripe’s probable location).
The marsh presented itself as a great challenge to the Hebrew travelers, as without crossing it, it would have been impossible for all of them to reach their destination. Greatly disheartened by the enormity of the obstacle, the Hebrews resigned to their fate, and pitched tents in its neighborhood, while their wise men hurdled together to find a solution of the problem (It seems probable that a few “enterprising” Hebrews from Israel, as well as from Palestine, somehow crossed this marsh and reached Egypt from time to time, hence some newer breed of Egyptian Hebrews’ familiarity with the existence of Israel. They, however, had not anticipated the seriousness of the problem the marsh posed to the humans).
While the Hebrews remained stranded on the Egyptian side of the marsh, trying to find ways and means for crossing the water, a severe earthquake, having its epicenter in the Mediterranean Sea, struck the area. Under its tremendous impact, a good quantity of the marsh’s water spilled over its surrounding dry land. It caused a flush flood, which washed away a good number of the Hebrews to the sea. The rest of the marsh’s water flowed back into the stirred Mediterranean Sea to compensate for the water pulled away from it by the impact of the earthquake
As a result of the above act of nature, and the reactions that followed it, the marsh became almost dry, and this enabled the Hebrews to cross it on foot, and with ease. This marsh eventually dried up, and it became a part of the Sinai desert. (Perhaps, it was the same stripe that was excavated to create the Suez Canal in order to connect the Mediterranean Sea with the Red Sea, in 1869 A. D).
Resuming their march on the other side of the almost dried-up marsh, some of the Hebrews settled down in Palestine, which lay on their route; while the majority had their eyes fixated on Israel. Enduring all the hurdles and hardships that their journey entailed, they eventually reached their destination one day.
The Hebrews of Israel were not prepared to let a large number of people settle down on their land. Nor they knew who they were. Finding themselves in a difficult and distressing situation, the Egyptian Hebrews put into use their knowledge of genealogy. Through its effective use, they convinced their would-be hosts that they were, in fact, their cousins and that in view of their blood connection; they ought to be given the right to cohabit Israel together with them.
Accepting the story the Egyptian Hebrews told them, the Israeli Hebrews allowed them to live on their land. However, as the former were polytheists and the latter practiced monotheism, a bond of brotherhood failed to grow in these two groups of the long separated cousins due to irreconcilable differences in their respective religious doctrines. In fact, the former’s arrival in Jerusalem laid the foundation of a traumatic schism that not only disrupted its citizens’ lives frequently; it also proved hugely instrumental in changing the history of the world at a later date.
As time continued on with its journey, Israel saw a huge growth in its population. Time caused its old generations to disappear; in their place, it installed new ones. It also helped men develop their brains so that they could keep pace with its speed.
Developed brains also caused their possessors to crave for leadership as well as for wealth. Known to their compatriots as the wise men, their intelligence helped them create for themselves such positions in their societies as were likely to yield them their desired results. Ultimately, their successes created in them one of men’s meanest weaknesses, which we now know by the name of Greed.
Though time brought about a marked change in the thinking process of the people of Israel, but it failed to unite most of the Egyptian polytheists with their monotheist cousins. As a result, both the polemical groups never ceased to argue on the varied percepts of their respective religions. Their arguments often led them to bloody fights and skirmishes, thus unsettling the lives of their entire community.
The wise men observed the situation for some time, but when the squabbling among the people appeared to them to be taking a dangerous and devastating turn, they decided to act. Their action plan called for converting the polytheists to monotheism, supposedly founded by Abraham, some say, approximately 3,500 years ago.
The wise men approached the polytheists, but they refused to convert. In order to achieve their goal, the wise men became story-tellers. They invented a character by the name of Moses, around whom they weaved all kinds of fables that are available for us to read today in the book, called Torah.
Because the new generation of the Egyptian Hebrews, born and brought up in Israel, had some faint ideas of how their forefathers were treated by the Egyptian Pharaohs, and also of the hazards they endured on their way to their present homeland, the story-tellers’ fables that evolved around the character of the fictitious Moses and the miracles he supposedly performed to rescue them from the Pharaoh’s tyrannical clutches had on them their intended impact.
Their minds and resistance weakened over a certain period of time by the combined weight and effects of myth and fear, the polytheists agreed to convert to monotheism, but declined to worship the deity the monotheists had been worshipping for a long time.
The wise men resolved the problem by inventing a new deity, whose name was Jehovah. He appeared unto Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, by the name of God Almighty, but it was not his real known, as a result of which, the followers of the Abrahamic monotheism did not worship him.
Not only the polytheists, but also the monotheists were satisfied by the wise men’s discovery of a new God, as both of them had become dependent on their wisdom and knowledge. The conversion of the polytheists to monotheism united the Israelis under the auspices of a new religion, which came to be known as Judaism, a word clearly related to the worship of a zealous and vicious God, by the name of Jehovah. Today, the followers of Judaism are known as Jews.
Religious differences of the two religious groups thus fully eradicated from Israel, the wise men turned to ruling its Jewish population. But, as the concept of a government, headed by a President or a Prime Minister, could not even be remotely thought of at the time, the wise men became priests, a title that enabled them to exercise their authority over the populace from within the four walls of their temples.
The smartest among the priests became the Chief Priest. He had the same power as does a President or a Prime Minister of our time. To make their rule effective and successful, the priests adopted and implemented all those rules and laws, which, they had told the Hebrews, God Jehovah had given Moses on Mount Sinai. Known as the Ten Commandments, these rules became the basis of their power and authority.
Firmly enthroned on their seat of power in Jerusalem, and with the entire population of Israel effectively under their control, the priests maintained complete peace and tranquility in their land with an iron hand. This, however, did not bring about much change in the lifestyle of the impoverished Jews. But it did, indeed, afford the priests all the comforts that came to them automatically by virtue of power and authority they wielded on Israel, and on its people.
As the time passed, there arose many Jewish prophets in Israel. Some of them became its kings. The governance of Jerusalem by the Jewish kings lasted until 586 B. C.
During the time various Jewish kings’ were ruling Jerusalem, the priests continued to maintain their religious grip over the masses, thereby enjoying all the privileges they had reserved for themselves. Even when the foreign kings and governors became its rulers after 586 B. C., the Jewish priests’ influence over the people remained undiminished.
However, apart from keeping the ordinary folks enslaved to their religious authority, the priests were not known to have ever done anything else that could have changed the quality of the commoner’s life. Consequently, when the priests were having all their fingers dipped in milk and honey, the common folks passed their days in grinding poverty.
What the Jewish priests had done a long, long time ago still continues to be present in our modern societies. Even now, in many of the world’s societies, priests are treated with more respect than it is given to scientists and sociologists; the priests’ words receive more attention than those of the scholars and philosophers.
One of the impacts the priests’ role is having on some of our present-day societies is there for everyone to see: It has been creating enough dangerous forces that can hasten the causation of the so-called Dooms Day, without giving us any inkling of its arrival.
Mohammad Asghar writes from USA.
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