The Dead Sea Scrolls: Fate
What is God?
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Fate is a subject that has probably intrigued human beings since they first began thinking about the significance of life. We have an odd relationship with fate. On the one hand, we want things to be in the hands of some god/deity/power that can do anything and can make things right. On the other hand, we want to be in control of our own lives, and not leave things in the hands of something other than ourselves. In general, there are three views concerning fate. The extreme fatalistic view says that everything is under the sway of the force called fate, whatever its cause may be. At the other extreme is the completely random view, which says that things just happen for no reason or cause whatsoever. Lying in the middle is what is generally understood as the Biblical view, which sees fate controlling everything other than the choices of those beings that possess freedom of the will.
None of these views have anything remotely resembling empirical support other than the intuitive sense that they are correct. Free will appears to be clearly stated in the Torah, and is widely attested to in almost all Jewish and Christians sources and many Moslem sources. The random view is largely supported by the contentions of modern science, specifically the conclusions of quantum mechanics. Ironically, the modern scientific view is almost identical to the ancient fatalistic view with the difference being whether there is a supernatural force guiding the fate of everything or no guiding force at all other than the laws of physics.
Most modern Jews would be surprised to learn that predestination was a Jewish belief at one time. But there are so many sources in Scripture that back this view up that it is impossible to disregard. These views may have reached their crescendo in late second temple times with the communities that wrote the sectarian documents of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Among them is the Thanksgiving Scroll, a series of Psalm-like hymns that reveals a great deal about the sect’s theology.
Included in this scroll are passages that express an extremely strong belief in predestination. ‘And I am dust and ashes, what can I plan without Your desire, and what can I consider without Your will? How can I become strong without You establishing me, and how can I understand without Your forming me? How can I speak without You opening my mouth, and how can I answer without You instructing me. Behold You are the minister of the mighty and the king of the honored and the Lord of all spirit and the guide of all action. Without You nothing will be done, and nothing is known without Your will’ (10: 5-9).
Another of these hymns takes a similar position on predestination: ‘You alone created the righteous, and from the womb you prepared him for the time of desire to keep your covenant and to walk in all (paths), and to have mercy upon him with Your great mercies, and to open up all the anguish of his soul to everlasting salvation and peace that lacks nothing. And You raise his glory from the flesh; but the evil You created from the extremes of Your wrath and from the womb you sanctified them for the day of killing’ (15:15-18).
These are not isolated thoughts in obscure scrolls. If anything, they expressed the views of the community that wrote them, which may very well have been a prevalent outlook at the time. But the modern outlook is puzzled when it hears statements like these. Why would anybody want to believe that their personal choices are not really their own? Why would a person want to think that they have no power to act independently and to make their own ethical decisions? Does a righteous person feel better about their deeds if they know that their righteousness was all part of God’s plan and not their own doing? How is creating the wicked for the purpose of punishing them really fair? Shouldn’t they get a chance to not be wicked? Doesn’t creating the righteous ‘from the womb’, make them inherently not really righteous? These are difficult questions to answer. How are we to approach this crucial issue with an open mind?
It is more than a little ironic that the modern scientific view is really a revival of the old outlook of predestination. Instead of God controlling human choice there are genes in the cells and chemicals in the brain. A moral choice is not a choice at all. It is a predetermined genetic disposition expressed through chemical neurotransmitters that comes out in the form of what looks like a choice. Free will, that mysterious product of Biblical religion and philosophical speculation, is nothing more than an evolutionary veneer that makes us believe we possess something that we really don’t. Modern secularists may not tolerate a non-existent God messing with their thoughts, but they have no problem with chromosomes and chemicals doing exactly the same thing.
However, there is a crucial difference between the predestination found in second temple Judaism and the mechanistic chemical reaction-brain of today. The motivation of today’s version is to demote human beings to a status that is no greater than that of a rock. We are just glorified rocks, strutting around like we own the place, but in reality just as subject to the laws of physics as a rock is bound to remain a rock. The ancients were not trying to make us into rocks with feelings. They were trying to exalt God.
When the author of that Thanksgiving hymn declared that ‘I am dust and ashes’, asking ‘how I can plan or speak or understand or act without Your enabling it to happen’, it was not a statement of human worthlessness as much as an affirmation of God’s greatness. God’s dominion over human choice elevates human choice to the domain of the divine. We are the instruments of God’s will. When we make what we believe to be free will choices, we are really carrying out a vital link in the divine plan. Every decision we make has been destined for us eons ago in the timeless vaults of God’s mind. This may take the ultimate responsibility out of human choice, but by the same token it elevates those choices into revelations of the divine will.
These scrolls had the righteous and the wicked and their rewards and punishments, but still left everything in the hand of God. How did they accomplish this? A moral decision was not seen as a personal quest of the person who made it. It was one more revelation of God’s will. God and God alone revealed the ways of God. Creating righteous people and wicked people was one more way of revealing the ways of God. It wasn’t about the individual receiving reward or punishment. It was about revealing the ways of God. Among those ways was the primacy of good and the abhorrence of evil. These are components of God’s plan no less than the laws of nature and the oneness of all things. Revealing them is an essential part of the great plan. That is how we fit into the great scheme of things.
So do we have free will in the end? Do the righteous have any merit in being righteous? Are the wicked guilty for being evil? Yes, and no. Yes, because they did make those choices and bear the consequences of being the revealer of what happens to one who makes such a choice. No, because ultimately, according to this line of reasoning, the choice was thrust upon them by factors beyond their control. There is free will from the limited vantage point of a human being, who cannot see beyond the limited horizon of the mind. But free will is an illusion when seen from the higher vantage point of the Creator and Shaper of all.
Judaism, by and large, rejected this perspective, seeing the fatalistic attitude as one that would discourage human initiative and self worth. Free will was elevated to a supreme position in Judaism – an essential factor in human greatness and human failure. But it came at a price. By elevating free will to god-like potential, it had to diminish the role of God accordingly. God had to suffer a drop in status if human beings were to gain. The result is a God who must await our choices and decide the fate of things only after we have cast our vote. Slowly and subtly, this outlook pushed God to the outside. It was almost an act of fate that things would reach the point of God having no power to act, only to observe things with His non-existent eyes from a non-existent perch in the non-existent heavens.
Perceiving the Image
There is an obvious reason why these people favored the image of a God who controls all things, including human destiny and will, rather than the alternative image of a God who works in conjunction with our free choices. The first image leaves God at the helm; the second slowly takes it away from Him. Those backwards scroll writers may have been onto something in their monastic enclaves near the Dead Sea or wherever these things were composed. They knew that perceiving God was an all-or-nothing conflict. Either God was everything or God was nothing. The God-is-everything view includes fate and predestination. It relegates us to the role of the performer in a play directed by something other than us. But it does enable us to perceive that Director and to gain a little understanding about the show being directed. They knew that perceiving God was everything, and that everything else was a sideshow, a very complex distraction. If surrendering human free will to the power of fate was the price that had to be paid to truly perceive God, it was well worth the sacrifice.
To see the world through the prism of fate is to see everything through the eyes of God. The reason we reject this perception is that we want to see things through our own eyes and not through the eyes of God. But this image of God, the image of a God who directs fate to such a degree that even our personal choices are manipulated to reveal the divine plan, is just as valid a perspective. We are not the only thing in the universe. Why should our perspective count for more than the perspective of God, who created it all, including us? God is fate; acknowledging fate is to look through God’s eyes at the world. It is an unusual image, one that goes contrary to our personal experience. But personal experience is not the only experience. God also experiences the world.
Fate is one of those archaic beliefs that can never really go away. Why is fate so objectionable but also so innate to our reality? Is it really a reflection of the same feeling concerning God – objectionable but innate?
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