AN ANCIENT HERITAGE
We have a common sky. A common firmament encompasses us. What matters it by what kind of learned theory each man looketh for the truth? There is no one way that will take us to so mighty a secret.
Symmachus, on replacing the statue of victory in the roman forum, a.d. 384
Great Seekers never become obsolete. Their answers may be displaced, but the questions they posed remain. We inherit and are enriched by their ways of asking. The Hebrew prophets and the ancient Greek philosophers remain alive to challenge us. Their voices resound across the millennia with a power far out of proportion to their brief lives or the small communities where they lived. Christianity brought together their appeal to the God above and the reason withininto churches, monasteries, and universities that long survived their founders. These would guide, solace, and confine Seekers for the Western centuries.
THE WAY OF PROPHETS:
A HIGHER AUTHORITY
When we do science, we are pantheists;
when we do poetry, we are polytheists;
when we moralize we are monotheists.
Goethe, Maxims and Reflections
From Seer to Prophet: Moses' Test of Obedience
The future has always been the great treasure-house of meaning. People everywhere, dissatisfied with naked experience, have clothed the present with signs of things to come. They have found clues in the lives of sacrificial animals, in the flight of birds, in the movements of the planets, in their own dreams and sneezes. The saga of the prophets records efforts to cease being the victim of the gods' whims by deciphering divine intentions in advance, toward becoming an independent self-conscious self, freely choosing beliefs.
The Mesopotamians experimented with ways to force from the present the secrets of the future. Diviners watched smoke curling up from burning incense, they interpreted the figures on clay dice to give a name to the coming year. They answered questions about the future by pouring oil into a bowl of water held on their lap and noting its movement on the surface or toward the rim.
The Hebrew scriptures leave traces of how they too sensed the divine intention, and gave today's experience the iridescence of tomorrow. Jacob "dreamed, and behold a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven; and behold the angels of God ascending and descending on it. And behold, the Lord stood above it, and said, 'I am the Lord God of Abraham thy father, and the God of Isaac; the land whereon thou liest, to thee will I give it, and to thy seed.' " And the chief priest used the Urim and Thummim, sacred stones carried in his breastplate. These gave the divine answer, by whether the "yes" or the "no" stone was first drawn out.
David consulted just such an oracle, manipulated by the priest Abiathar, before going into battle against Saul. When the "yes" stone appeared, forecasting his victory over the Philistines, he advanced in battle.
"A man who is now called a 'prophet' (nabi)," we read in the Book of Samuel, "was formerly called a 'seer.' " The "seer" was one who saw the future, and his influence came from his power to predict. The priest-predictor who admitted his clients into the intentions of the gods was held in awe when his predictions came true. The prophet had a different kind of power. He was a nabi ("proclaimer" or "announcer") and spoke with the awesome authority of God himself. So, the ancient Hebrew prophets opened the way to belief. "I will raise them up a Prophet from among their brethren, . . ." declared the Lord, "and will put my words in his mouth; and he shall speak unto them all that I shall command him" (Deuteronomy 18:18). They used the words "mouth" and "nabi" interchangeably. Our English "prophet" (from the Greek: a speaker before, or for) carries the same message.
While the seer forecast how events would turn out, the prophet prescribed what men should believe, and how they should behave. In ancient Israel the two roles at first were not always easily distinguished. But seers, mere forecasters, came to be displaced by prophets, touched by the divinity for whom they spoke.
It was this transformed role that opened the way to the discovery of belief, toward the self-consciousness that awakened people to their freedom to choose, and their responsibilities for choice. The history of ancient
Hebrew prophecy is a saga of this unfolding self. The seers, adept at interpreting signs and omens, sometimes drew on their own dreams and visions of ghosts and spirits for sights of the future. The seer could see things on earth that others could not see. But the prophet carried messages from another world. It is not surprising, then, that this "Man of the Spirit" heard his message in ecstasy and so seemed "touched" with madness.
His ecstasy was commonly a group phenomenon, sometimes expressed in song. This view of the prophet as messenger of God is distinctively biblical. With it came distrust of the techniques and tricks of the seer-the ways of the pagan Canaanite.
When you come into the land that the Lord your God is giving you, don't follow the disgusting practices of the nations that are there. Don't sacrifice your children in the fires on your altars; and don't let your people practice divination or look for omens or use spells or charms, and don't let them consult the spirits of the dead. . . . In the land you are about to occupy, people follow the advice of those who practice divination and look for omens, but the Lord your God does not allow you to do this.
Instead, he will send you a prophet like me [Moses] from among your own people, and you are to obey him. (Deuteronomy 18:9-22)
When the founding prophet, Moses, spoke to the Pharaoh he spoke for God:
"Thus said Yahweh." And it was through the prophets that God governed His people. What proved crucial for the future of belief in the West was the Hebraic ideology that came with the Mosaic religion. The single all-powerful, all-knowing, benevolent God would impose on mankind the obligation of belief-and eventually of choice. This "ethical monotheism" would create its own conundrums.
When the prophet brought no mere blueprint of the future but the commandments of God, he offered a new test of the believer, the Test of Obedience. Moses, who had seen God face-to-face, brought the Ten Commandments direct from God on Sinai. The first five commandments-prohibiting the worship of alien gods, forbidding idolatry and blasphemy, commanding observance of the Sabbath and honor to parents-affirmed the traditions of their society. But the remaining five commandments, all cast in the negative-prohibiting murder, adultery, theft, false testifying, and the coveting of neighbors' goods-emphasize the freedom of the hearer to choose a way of right belief and so avoid sin. The Ten Commandments thus made obedience the mark of the believer. This idea would become, millennia later, the very heart of Islam (from Arabic, for "resignation," surrendering to God's will).
But another distinctive element of the Mosaic religion would open the gateways of belief. The intimate God of Moses had mysteriously shared powers with his creatures. He even treated his people as his equals by covenanting with them. The supreme paradox was that this all-powerful Creator-God sought a voluntary relation with his creatures. And the relation between God and his chosen people, the Children of Israel, was to be freely chosen on both sides. "If you listen to these commands and obey them faithfully, then the Lord your God will continue to keep his covenant with you and will show you his constant love, as he promised your ancestors." This peculiar covenant relationship between God and his creatures proclaimed God's preference for a freely given obedience. This signaled the divine intention that man's life should be ruled by his choices and was the historic Hebrew affirmation of free will. As the ancient Hebrews were His chosen people, so He was their chosen God.
About the eighth century b.c. the oracles of the Hebrew prophets were written down by the prophets or their scribes. Then the prophets assumed a role beyond the community where they lived to whom God had first addressed
His message. The prophet's oracles now addressed all who would know his words-even far beyond his own time and place. So the utterances of prophets became an enduring prophetic literature. And the words of the prophets became a body of divine teachings valid for people everywhere. Thus writing expanded tribal revelations into a world religion. Such a transformation had occurred before when the utterances of Zarathustra (late second millennium b.c.) became the foundations of Zoroastrianism. It would occur later, too, with the recording of the words of Jesus, and then with the utterances of Mohammed in the seventh century.