فصل 05کتاب: تاریخی کوچک از جهان / فصل 5
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THE ONE AND ONLY GOD
Between Egypt and Mesopotamia there is a land of deep valleys and rich pastures. There, for thousands of years, herdsmen tended their flocks. They planted vines and cereals, and in the evenings they sang songs, as country people do. But because it lay between those two countries, first it would be conquered and ruled by the Egyptians, and then the Babylonians would invade, so that the people who lived there were constantly being driven from one place to another. They built themselves towns and fortresses, to no avail. They were still not strong enough to resist the mighty armies of their neighbours.
‘That’s all very sad, but I can’t see what it has to do with history,’ you say, ‘for the same thing must have happened to thousands of small tribes.’ And you’re right. But there was something special about this one, because, small and defenceless though they were, they didn’t just become part of history, they made history and by that I mean they shaped the course of all history to come. And this special something was their religion.
All other peoples prayed to many gods you remember Isis and Osiris, Baal and Astarte. But these herdsmen only prayed to one god, their own special protector and leader. And when they sat beside their campfires in the evening, and sang songs about their deeds and their battles, they sang of his deeds and his battles. Their god, they sang, was better and stronger and more exalted than all the gods of the heathen put together. Indeed, they insisted as the years went by, he was the only god there was. The One and Only God, Creator of heaven and earth, sun and moon, land and river, plant and beast, and of all mankind as well. It was he who raged furiously against them in the storm, but he never abandoned his people. Not when they were persecuted by the Egyptians, nor when they were carried off by the Babylonians. For that was their faith and their pride: they were his people, and he was their God.
You may have already guessed who these strange and powerless herdsmen were. They were the Jews. And the songs of their deeds, which were the deeds of their god, are the Old Testament of the Bible.
One day but there’s no hurry you may come to read the Bible. Nowhere else will you find so many stories about ancient times so vividly told. And if you read them carefully, you may find that you now understand many of them better. There’s the story of Abraham, for example. Do you remember where he came from? The answer is in the Book of Genesis, in chapter 11. He came from Ur in the Chaldees. Ur that mound of rubble near the Persian Gulf, where they dug up all those ancient things like harps and game-boards and weapons and jewellery. But Abraham didn’t live there in the earliest times. He was probably alive at the time of Hammurabi, the great lawgiver, which was as you remember! around 1700 BC. And many of Hammurabi’s strict and just laws turn up again in the Bible.
But that isn’t all the Bible has to say about ancient Babylon. Do you know the story of the Tower of Babel, when the people of a great city tried to build a tower that would reach up to heaven, and God was angry at their pride and stopped them building any higher by making them all speak different languages so that they could no longer understand one another? Well, Babel is Babylon. So now you will be able to understand the story better. For, as you know, the Babylonians really did build gigantic towers ‘the top of which reached even to the heavens’, and they built them so as to be nearer to the sun, the moon and the stars.
The story of Noah and the Flood is also set in Mesopotamia. A number of clay tablets have been dug up, inscribed with cuneiform script telling a story very similar to the one in the Bible.
One of Abraham of Ur’s descendants (the Bible tells us) was Joseph, son of Jacob, whose brothers took him to Egypt and sold him, despite which he became a counsellor and minister to the pharaoh. You may know how the story goes on: how there was a famine throughout the land, and how Joseph’s brothers travelled to Egypt to buy corn. At that time, the pyramids were already over a thousand years old, and Joseph and his brothers must have marvelled at them, just as we do today.
Rather than return to their own country, Joseph’s brothers and their children settled in Egypt, and before long had to toil for the pharaoh as the Egyptians did at the time of the pyramids. In the first chapter of Exodus we read: ‘And the Egyptians made the children of Israel to serve with rigour: and they made their lives bitter with hard bondage, in mortar and in brick . . .’ In the end, Moses led them out of Egypt into the desert probably in around 1250 BC. From there they tried to win back the promised land that is, the land in which their ancestors had lived since the time of Abraham. And finally, after long, cruel and bloody battles, they succeeded. So now they had their own small kingdom, with its capital: Jerusalem. Their first king was Saul, who fought against a neighbouring tribe, the Philistines, and died on the battlefield.
The Bible has lots of good stories about the next kings, King David and King Solomon. Solomon was a wise and just king who ruled soon after 1000 BC, which was about seven hundred years after King Hammurabi and 2,100 years after King Menes. He built the first Temple of Jerusalem, although his architects weren’t Jews, but foreign artisans from neighbouring lands. It was as large and as splendid as any built by the Egyptians or the Babylonians. But in one respect it was different: deep inside the heathen temples, there were images of Anubis with his jackal’s head, or of Baal, to whom even human sacrifices were made. Whereas in the innermost part of the Jewish temple the Holy of Holies there was no image at all. For of the God, whose first appearance in the history of the world was to the people of the Jews God, the Almighty, the One and Only God no image could or might be made. All that was there were the tablets of the Laws with their Ten Commandments. In these God had represented himself.
After Solomon’s reign things went less well for the Jews. Their kingdom split in two: the kingdom of Israel and the kingdom of Judah. Many battles followed, at the end of which one half, the kingdom of Israel, was invaded by the Assyrians in 722 BC, and was conquered and destroyed.
Yet what is so remarkable is that the effect of so many disasters on the few Jews who survived them was to make them even more devout. Men arose among them not priests, but simple people who felt compelled to speak to their people, because God spoke through them. Their sermon was always the same: ‘You yourselves are the cause of your misfortunes. God is punishing you for your sins.’ Through the words of these prophets the Jewish people heard again and again that suffering was God’s way of punishing them and testing their faith, and that one day salvation would come in the form of the Messiah, their Saviour, who would restore their people to its former glory and bring unending joy.
But their suffering was still far from over. You will remember the mighty Babylonian warrior and ruler, King Nebuchadnezzar. On his way to war with the Egyptians he marched through the Promised Land, where he destroyed the city of Jerusalem in 586 BC, put out the eyes of King Zedekiah and led the Jews in captivity to Babylon.
There they remained for nearly fifty years, until, in its turn, the Babylonian empire was destroyed by its Persian neighbour in 538 BC. When the Jews returned to their homeland they had changed. They were different from the surrounding tribes and saw them all as idol worshippers, who had failed to recognise the one true God. So they kept themselves apart and had nothing to do with their neighbours. It was at this time that the Old Testament was first written down as we know it today, 2,500 years later. To those around them, however, it was the Jews who seemed odd, if not ridiculous, with their ceaseless talk of a unique and invisible god, and their strict observance of the most tiresome and inflexible rules and practices ordained by a god whom no one could see. And if the Jews had been the first to distance themselves from other tribes, it was not long before those others were taking even greater care to avoid the Jews, that tiny remnant of a people that called itself ‘chosen’, who pored night and day over their sacred songs and scriptures as they tried to understand why the one and only God allowed his people to suffer so.