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Acton Commentary

The miracle of the Jews

On several occasions, Edward Gibbon’s History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire mentions the Jews’ violent antipathy to the idolatry that permeated the world surrounding them. Yet he never seems to have asked himself why many Jews would die rather than pay homage to the Canaanite Ba’al cults or the gods of Greece and Rome.

Obviously this stubbornness owed something to the Jews’ belief that the one God, Yahweh, had commanded them not to worship other gods. The Hebrew Scriptures repeatedly emphasize that the divine law has been decreed by a divine sovereign whom the sovereign’s servants, Israel, must obey. The book of Deuteronomy’s last ten chapters, for example, remind the Israelites that they are required to worship the one true God, warning that the worship of false gods will have terrible consequences.

To ascribe divinity to physical elements such as water, emotions such as envy, or practices such as war was literally non-sense for the Jews.

The Jews’ hostility to idolatry, however, also reflected their radically different conception of God and his relation to the material world, a conception that the philosopher and theologian Claude Tresmontant explored in the 1950s and 1960s. He pointed out that because of their understanding of a transcendent Creator, the Jews recognized that the entities worshipped by the Egyptians, Babylonians, Greeks, and Romans were not what they proclaimed them to be. Idols, the Jews insisted, had no real existence. To ascribe divinity to physical elements such as water, emotions such as envy, or practices such as war was literally non-sense for the Jews.

For the same reason, the Israelites considered it ridiculous to regard rulers, alive or dead, as gods. Man, they believed, had been created by a demanding but loving and good God in his image. Tresmontant stresses the contrast with those Near Eastern mythologies that presented man as the result of “a process in which wicked deeds mingled with acts of generation.”

The Jews also believed that the material world was not evil or beset by demonic contests. “The physical universe,” writes Tresmontant, “is the first thing to be created, and God declares that it is very beautiful and very good.” This universe is presented in the Hebrew Scriptures as ultimately permeated with order—not chaos and incomprehensibility. Much of this universe was thus understandable by the human beings made by this God in his image and similarly suffused with his order.

This belief in a good and ordered world challenged the supposition of the surrounding religions that the material world itself is malevolent—a view that was not clearly rebutted by Greek philosophers such as Plato. The Hebrews insisted that this material world was made for man and that its goodness would unfold under his cultivation.

This Jewish emphasis on the order built into a created world of which man is the apex had two critical consequences. First, Judaism’s audacious confrontation of idolatry and pagan mythology was a powerful affirmation of man’s rationality. Tresmontant explains:

Here we have an intellectual revolution, a liberation, an act of free thought, a rejection of myth, and an effort to use reason, undoubtedly the most important that the human race has known in all its history. When the prophets of Israel bitterly rebuke pagan idolatry, they are doing something strictly rational. When they refuse to sacrifice human children to idols or to myths, they carry their work of the use of reason into practical human conduct…. The inspiration which has led to this intellectual revolution … is not something dictated from without on a servile human instrument. It is a revolution that works from within, and which starts to create a new, holy, reasonable humanity ….

The Jews’ liberation of human reason from mythology and nature-worship amounted to one of humanity’s most powerful “enlightenments.” The Hebrew prophets were not philosophers as the Greeks understood this term, yet they played a major role in opening the human mind to objective reality. Several centuries later, Paul would tell Greeks and Romans that idolatry was a sign of ignorance and stupidity because a god made by human hands could be no god at all.

But what is especially important is the timing of these Jewish insights. As the legal philosopher John Finnis points out, “the Jewish people’s accomplishment” of “reaching their settled and superior understanding of the universe’s origins and natural intelligibility” occurred “centuries earlier than the Greeks reached their own standard and inferior understanding.”

The Jews’ liberation of human reason from mythology and nature-worship amounted to one of humanity’s most powerful “enlightenments.”

The second important consequence of Judaism’s understanding of the created universe was its accent on human freedom. In the Hebrew Scriptures, human mistakes and errors are not caused by capricious Greek and Roman deities manipulating men. Nor did Judaism see human events as determined by fate, which characterized the pagan religions. In Greek lore, every man’s destiny was the result of a thread spun, measured, and cut by the three Fates—Atropos, Clotho, and Lachesis—who themselves (revealingly) were daughters of the god of Darkness, Erebus, and the goddess of night, Nyx.

The Hebrew Bible provides an entirely different account of human events. “The doctrine of freedom,” Tresmontant writes, “is taught throughout the Old Testament. We always find that the God of Israel respects the created freedom which he appeals to, anxiously and earnestly, but which he never forces.” Genesis, for instance, does not portray God as inflicting the Fall upon man. Adam and Eve are banished from paradise because they freely chose to disobey God.

This theme of free will is summarized in the book of Ecclesiasticus, written by the Jewish scribe Ben Sira of Jerusalem sometime in the second century b.c.: “Do not say, ‘Because of the Lord I left the right way’; for hewill not do what he hates. Do not say, ‘It was he who led me astray;’ for he has no need of a sinful man.” (15: 11–12)

The same author follows this rebuff of fatalism with a strong affirmation of the reality of free will and free choice:

It was he who created man in the beginning, and he left him in the power of his own inclination. If you will, you can keep the commandments, and to act faithfully is a matter of your own choice. He has placed before you fire and water: stretch out your hand for whichever you wish. Before a man are life and death, and whichever he chooses will be given to him. (15: 14–17)

These words underline that, in many cases, it really is human beings’ free choices that determine what is done—and nothing else.


This is an extract from Samuel Gregg's, Reason, Faith, and the Struggle for Western Civilization (Washington D.C.: Regnery Gateway, 2019). Used with Permission.

 

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Dr. Samuel Gregg is director of research at the Acton Institute.  He has written and spoken extensively on questions of political economy, economic history, ethics in finance, and natural law theory.  He has an MA in political philosophy from the University of Melbourne, and a Doctor of Philosophy degree in moral philosophy and political economy from the University of Oxford.

He is the author of several books, including Morality, Law, and Public Policy (2000), Economic Thinking for the Theologically Minded (2001), On Ordered Liberty (2003), his prize-winning The Commercial