As the provider of the regular inundations, Hapi was portrayed in murals and sculptures as a rotund hermaphrodite with feminine breasts and masculine genitals, thus presumably endowed with the power of self-generation. In Mesopotamia, where the threat of soil salination by rising groundwater was felt most acutely, the good river deity was perceived to be countered by the lurking Tiamat, an evil goddess of the briny subterranean waters, who threatened to poison the Earth.
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Since animal husbandry was integrated with irrigated farming in the riverine domain, animal gods were worshiped by the hydraulic societies along with the river gods. When mollified, these awesome gods could provide calm seas, gentle winds, and safe passage. When enraged, they could sweep the ships of seafarers off course and lead them astray, smash them against rocky shoals, or swallow them up entirely. The people of the maritime domain, who depended on the sea for their livelihood, tended to establish cultic sites on high promontories or other conspicuous landmarks from which the sea could be observed and its mood predicted.
Such landmarks, in turn, were visible from the sea and thus could serve to aid navigation. The desert people naturally worshiped their own deities—among them the all-seeing god of the sun and the god or goddess of the moon,10 the twain assumed to preside over the clear skies by day and by night, respectively.
Desert dwellers also honored the mysterious mountain gods who lived in the bowels of the Earth and whose spirits lurked in caves. These capricious gods, with their pent-up powers, were thought to lie dormant for long periods of time, only to awaken suddenly and cause the Earth to tremble, cliffs and boulders to shatter, volcanoes to erupt, swirling winds to kick up dust that would blot out daylight, and dry streams to gush forth with torrents of frothing water.
The societies in the various domains did not live in isolation from one another. Rather, they were aware of and influenced by the cultures of their neighbors. In none of the various domains, however, did monotheism arise spontaneously. This view deviates from a prevalent notion that monotheism originated in the desert, influenced, as it were, by the seeming monotony, immutability, and sense of eternity that pervades that landscape.
That insight evidently arose among the Israelites, very probably as a consequence of their exposure to the various environments and cultures and religions of all the disparate domains of the ancient Near East. Inklings of that realization had occurred before the Israelites enunciated it, but only with them did it reach its apotheosis in the form of a full-fledged doctrine of universal monotheism.
Of particular relevance to understanding the Bible are the Semitic languages, which evidently had a common origin, but diverged over three or so millennia B. The languages of the Akkadians, Assyrians, and Babylonians are known as East Semitic although they borrowed their systems of writing, the hieroglyphics, from the non-Semitic Sumerians. Arabic is considered to be a South Semitic language. These distinctions are somewhat arbitrary, however, as the related languages evolved not in isolation but in continuous interaction with one another, as well as with the non-Semitic languages of the region, including Egyptian, Hittite, Persian, and Sumerian.
The two main Semitic languages that have survived the vicissitudes of time and that are very much alive today are Arabic and Hebrew. Of the many words that are common to these languages, a number have acquired, over the centuries, a telling difference in nuance. Both languages originated with tribes whose mode of life was primarily pastoral. In time, the ancient Hebrew language, undoubtedly influenced by the language and culture of the Canaanites among whom the Israelites settled, adapted to serve the needs of a farming and urban community.
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Arabic, however, continued for many centuries to serve a desert or pastoral people. Although it eventually gained universality and became a highly sophisticated language of commerce, poetry, science, and philosophy, Arabic has retained elements of its original vocabulary and structure. The staple whereas that of farmers is grain raised in the field and its derivatives—flour and baked bread.
The letter lamed derives its shape from that implement. The terms melamed teacher and lomed learner are of the same root, implying that teaching is akin to prodding.
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The Hebrew word adam man is related to adamah earth , adom red , and dam blood , as well as to adim fertile component of the soil in Arabic. The typical soil in Canaan, known in Latin as terra rossa, has a deep red color. It is related to the A very significant word Arabic term gism, which carries the same essential meaning. The answer is that the ancients did not fully understand the process that causes invisible vapor to condense into clouds and then to fall as rain. Nor did they see how rain-bearing clouds could form spontaneously.
In the absence of physics, they turned to faith. So a euphemism became identified with the most important natural gift, for which the people prayed constantly. The chronology of their origin and early wanderings is uncertain, but those who give credence to the biblical account estimate that it may have taken place during the early or middle part of the second millennium B. Then, impelled by a severe and prolonged drought, they migrated to the western riverine domain of Egypt, where—according to the dramatic story that was indelibly imprinted in their ancestral memory—they sojourned and were enslaved for several generations.
After the Exodus from Egypt and the wanderings in Sinai, the Israelites entered Canaan from the east and strove to settle in its pastoral and rainfed domains. As they spread throughout the hill country and approached the coastal plain, they inevitably encountered another invading group: the Philistines. As the Israelites moved westward toward the coast while the Philistines moved eastward from the coast, the two nations inevitably met and clashed. At first, the Philistines appear to have had the advantage, thanks to their technological superiority, having entered the Iron Age before the Israelites acquired the resources and skills to do so.
Within a few generations, however, the Israelites apparently were able to catch up with and even surpass the Philistines and overpower them.
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Rather than adopt the religion of any of them, they integrated all those influences and gave them a new form and meaning. Their originality was manifested in the coalescence of observations and ideas and in the interpretation given them. The concept of one omnipresent and all-powerful force, a great common denominator unifying the entire realm of nature, was a radical departure from the prevailing polytheistic view.
Its genesis could not have been a sudden, unanimous, and irreversible revelation. Instead, it must have been a painstaking process, the monotheistic idea first dimly perceived by a few and resisted by the many, and then accepted only gradually and reluctantly, after repeated advocacy by religious and political leaders in successive generations. There is abundant evidence of that process in the exhortations of the Hebrew prophets against those who were all too prone to revert to the worship of the locally popular nature gods.
Eventually, however, the unified vision of God and nature took hold until it became a major ideological force that, over time, transformed the cultural foundations of not merely the region, but indeed the entire Western world. The wanderings of the early Israelites throughout the domains of the ancient Near East and their encounters with practically all its cultures were necessary preconditions for them to conceive the notion of monotheism.
A necessary condition, however, is not always a sufficient condition. The culminating experiences that gave sharp focus to a vague ideology and concrete form to a new religion apparently did not take place in any of the five natural domains, but subsequently in two additional cultural domains: the urban and the exile domains. As with a chemical reaction, the presence of the right elements may not precipitate a new compound unless the reaction is catalyzed by a generative charge—a spark, as it were—that impels those elements to conjoin. Judaic monotheism began to coalesce into a formally organized, coherent religion in the city of Jerusalem, the capital of the Davidic dynasty.
The consummation of monotheism was prompted by the urgent needs of a fledgling, beleaguered monarchy, for which a unifying principle was an essential instrument of state policy aimed at rallying a loose collection of bickering tribes and forging it into a cohesive nation motivated and mobilized to fend off its enemies. At a crucial moment in history, a monarchy needing a centralizing appeal and a nation willing to rally to it converged. Still, the process was not complete.
The political and ecclesiastical imperative of unity did not eliminate all vestiges of indigenous polytheism. The Israelite tribes remained in Canaan for some centuries, but never united completely. As a result of internecine divisions, their nation split into the northern kingdom of Israel, with its capital in Samaria, and the southern kingdom of Judah, with its capital of Jerusalem. Consequently, each half-nation was so weakened as to be unable to withstand the onslaught of powerful invaders.
The leadership of the northern kingdom was expelled from Samaria by the Assyrians in B.
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The leadership of the southern kingdom eventually met a similar fate, meted out by the Babylonians who had succeeded the Assyrians in B. That disaster could have spelled the end of the southern nation of Judah, as it had the northern nation of Israel. Instead, by a most improbable anomaly, the Judean nation survived.
The destruction of the Temple took the practice of the religion based, as it was, on ceremonial sacrifices out of the exclusive control of the priestly caste and forced a reexamination and redefinition of the ethical and spiritual basis of the Yahwistic creed.
Since the reading of the Writ was, in principle, accessible to all literate members of the community everywhere not merely to a hereditary priesthood in a certified location , it began to have a democratizing and universalizing effect. The process of compiling the Bible required a heroic intellectual effort— indeed, a labor of love and of faith—aimed at the collection, correlation, and recomposition of the disparate, fragmentary oral memories and written scrolls that had been preserved from earlier centuries in the different domains.
The faith in Yahweh was vindicated and reinforced when the Babylonian Empire itself was vanquished, scarcely two generations after the exile from Jerusalem, by the rising power of Persia in the east.