The Book of Jubilees: Beyond Nature

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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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