The Book of Jubilees: Beyond Nature
What is God?
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Here’s a challenge: find a Jew who has read the Book of Jubilees from beginning to end. Here’s another challenge: find a Jew who has read any of the Book of Jubilees. Here’s a third challenge (a little easier than the others but a challenge nevertheless): find a Jew who has heard of the Book of Jubilees.
Jubilees is one of the lesser-known works of the Apocryphal literature period. In fact, only the Ethiopic Church accepted it as part of the Biblical canon. Until the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls during the 1940’s and 50’s we had no direct evidence of a Hebrew version of this book. The only complete texts were in the Ethiopian language of Ge’ez. The modern translations of the text all come from the Ethiopian version. Over a dozen fragments of the text were found in the caves overlooking the Dead Sea, making this one of the most common texts found there. These texts, which were written in Biblical Hebrew style in a script that dated from about 2,100 years ago. Hebrew was the original language and these fragments gave us the first glimpse of the original text.
What is Jubilees about? It is essentially a retelling of the book of Genesis from the moment of creation to the events of the Exodus. In fact, there is a long standing debate on whether this book is a ‘midrashic’ retelling of Genesis or an alternative version of Genesis. Among other things, Jubilees goes into great detail about the events in the life of Abraham. At one point (chapter 12) he enters into a dialogue with his father Terach over the foolishness of worshiping idols, the common custom of the world. ‘For there is no spirit in them, they are dumb forms, and a misleading of the heart. Worship them not. Worship the God of heaven, Who causes the rain and the dew to descend on the earth and does everything upon the earth, and has created everything by His word, and all life is from before His face. Why do you worship things that have no spirit in them? For they are the work of (men's) hands, and on your shoulders do you bear them, and you have no help from them’. Following the death of Abraham’s brother, Terach and Abraham leave their hometown of Ur and settle in the city of Haran. It is in Haran that Abraham experiences his first great revelation:
‘And in the sixth week (a Biblical word for a seven-year cycle), in the fifth year thereof, Abram sat up throughout the night on the new moon of the seventh month to observe the stars from the evening to the morning, in order to see what would be the character of the year with regard to the rains, and he was alone as he sat and observed. And a word came into his heart and he said: “All the signs of the stars and the signs of the moon and of the sun are all in the hand of the Lord. Why do I search (them) out? If He desires, He causes it to rain, morning and evening; and if He desires, He withholds it, and all things are in His hand.” And he prayed that night and said, “My God, God Most High, You alone are my God, and You and Your dominion I have chosen. And You have created all things, and all things are the work of Your hands. Deliver me from the hands of evil spirits who have dominion over the thoughts of men's hearts, and let them not lead me astray from You, my God. And establish me and my seed for ever that we go not astray from now and for evermore.'
It is difficult to truly analyze a text in which we no longer have access to the original, but we shall have to make do with what we have. Abraham has come to the conclusion that idol worship is foolish and harmful. His father agrees with him but can’t quite make the ideological break with the past that his son is willing to do. Abraham then goes one step further than rejecting man-made idols – he rejects even the use of natural phenomena such as signs in the sun, moon, and stars. Previously, a wise person was able to see in the movements of the heavenly bodies indications of the situation concerning rainfall, which was obviously a matter of great importance to them. It would be foolish to ignore such signs, being as their lives depended on wise provisioning based on the coming rainfall. Abraham, in a bold decision of momentous significance, rejects even this non-idolatrous practice.
His rationale is simple. All the heavenly bodies are in the hand of God. If God wants it to rain, it will rain. If God wants to withhold the rains, it won’t rain. All things are in God’s hand. He then asks God to deliver him ‘from the hands of evil spirits who have dominion over the thoughts of men's hearts’ – presumably the idolatrous gods. But what is the connection between studying the natural signs of the heavenly bodies and worshiping idols? Isn’t it possible to study nature for one’s own benefit and not fall prey to the temptations and falsehood of idolatry? Idolatry was the worship of false gods who had no power other than the ability to twist men’s hearts. Nature had obvious power and using that power didn’t require forsaking the worship of the one true God. Why couldn’t monotheism work in conjunction with the use of nature?
This was clearly an important step for the writers of Jubilees. By this point in Jewish history, idolatry was no longer a major issue. It was a matter of the distant past. Monotheism had taken over the Jewish religious mindset. The problem was Hellenism, the Greek cultural system that essentially worshiped the human mind and the human body. Philosophy was king in the Hellenist world. Included in philosophy was the study of nature. The problems lie in acclimating too much to Greek culture and all of its tremendous achievements. If anything is alluded to in this story, it is not the battle with classic idolatry, but with Greek cultural dominance.
But how is there a connection between studying nature and idolatry? How are the forces of nature akin to ‘evil spirits’? Political and cultural allusions aside, there is a connection. The key line to understand this connection is ‘You alone are my God, and You and Your dominion I have chosen’. Monotheism was to be a belief without compromises. There was no room for the worship of the one God and showing a little deference to some other power, god or otherwise. Whether that power was the earth, the stars, or the wisdom of man made no difference. Either one worshiped God or one worshiped something else. There was no room for compromise.
Abraham/Jubilees did not deny the efficacy of studying nature either to understand it or for practical benefit. Of that there was no debate. Studying nature worked. One could determine if the coming year was going to be rainy or not by looking at the stars. The issue at stake was whether one should do so. If the price to pay for these obvious benefits entailed forsaking the recognition of the dominion of God, it just wasn’t worth it. Recognizing the inherent powers of nature, and the implied power of the human mind in figuring out how to use the powers of nature, came at the risk of being pulled after the sway of those powers, being sucked into the whirlpool of a godless world that runs on its own. These were the ‘evil spirits’. They weren’t voodoo or fire worship or a Golden Calf. They were the very forces that ran the world itself, the forces that Abraham and all people were forever immersed within.
What catastrophe lay in wait if Abraham continued to succumb to the temptation of using these powers? The text is clear on this - they ‘have dominion over the thoughts of men's hearts’. Rather than us controlling them, as men might become tempted to believe, they will always control us. We might be able to predict what they will do. We might even be able to manipulate them and restrict them or unleash them with even stronger power. But the more we think we have them under our control, the more they control us. The reason for this is simple but exceedingly profound: they will ‘lead me astray from You, my God’. Those powers, those wonderful, beneficial, practical, and complex powers, will ultimately lead to one an inevitable end – they will turn people away from God.
This battle, the battle between studying and using the forces of nature through the natural intelligence of the human mind, versus the pure faith in God to the exclusion of all else, has permeated Judaism since the time Jubilees was written. It is still there today in our own world. The difference today is that the battle is clearly almost over. The uncontested victor is science and the natural forces. God has been forced to take a back seat, assuming one finds any room at all for God. There is simply too much reason for studying the stars or the atoms or the genes to pass them up in favor of the murky benefits of monotheism. There is no room for compromise. The unfortunate fate of true monotheism is that it fights a hopeless uphill battle against the forces of nature. Perhaps an Abraham can withstand those forces, but he was one man battling the power of destiny.
Perceiving the Image
What image of God is portrayed in this story? On the positive side, it is the image of a deity that resides above the forces of nature. Rain may follow a predictable pattern, but that pattern itself is subject to the will of God. God alone creates all things, even the forces nature. This is the next step in the image of God as the ultimate power. It is a continuation of the Creator image of Elohim and the ‘greatness’ exulted by Nehemiah. All things are in the hand of God, from the rainfall to the path of each subatomic particle. We may be tempted to believe that genes determine human behavior or the shape of tomatoes, but we are only skimming the surface of an infinitely deeper power that lay beneath that genetic veneer. This is the image of the God over nature – the ‘supernatural God’, who is perceivable by all who choose to resist the temptation of treating nature as a god.
How is this image to be perceived? One must be willing to constantly look behind the scenes, behind the almost impenetrable veneer that veils God’s face from almost everything. This Herculean task was not one that Abraham was willing to take on, but it seems to be one that would be forced upon his willing and unwilling heirs. They, and we, would have to confront those forces or nature, to study them and use them, but to draw the line at worshiping them as independent powers. Once that line is crossed, even without bowing down to images but simply calling them ‘forces of nature’ rather than powers of God, it is monotheistic suicide. This is really the modern day battle that the heirs of Abraham face. Understand and use the forces of nature but do not revere them. Always remember that behind them lurks a God who is ‘supernatural’ and worthy of true reverence. This may be a compromise of sorts, but compromises are necessary when new battle lines have been drawn.
The no-compromise position of monotheism didn’t work out in the end. Does it really have to be a battle? Is there a way to live in both worlds - the world of true monotheism and the world of science?
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