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Elements of animism in the Jewish Bible

 
Andrew
 
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26 November 2009 09:44
 

(The Pedant—inspired by Daystar): 
Animism, very basically, is a belief in the existence of spirits, some of which, by their presence, give life to non-living things. Animate  them.  Movement, to early man, was evidence of life. Trees are a good illustration.
Primitive cultures held that the motion of the leaves and branches of a tree was due to the activity of a spirit which takes up residence in the tree and gives it life.  Evergreen trees—terebinth in the Bible—were especially revered as the dwelling place of spirits. Oaks ran a close second.

It made sense to think that vows and sacrifices made in the presence of a resident spirit would be advantageous to the petitioner…and that prophecy made from beneath a tree or from beside a stream or rock with an indwelling spirit (called oracle) could be trusted. Such places became sacred and the object of pilgrimages.

Thus, In Genesis 12:6-8, we find Abram traveling to Shechem to visit a sacred evergreen (maybe an oak) called the “tree of the Teacher” (the KJV mistranslates this as the “plains of Moreh [Moreh=teacher])—an obvious reference to the fact that oracle was given at one time, if not currently, under this particular tree—a tree already ancient and revered by the time that Abram arrived. It was on this spot that Yahweh appeared to Abram, in consequence of which he built an alter. The connection between a specific and well-known sacred tree, and the appearance of Yahweh, can’t be missed. 
The same must be said about the terebinth (evergreen) of Mamre [Mamre=strength], in Hebron—where Yahweh again appeared to (newly renamed) Abraham, who built another alter (Exodus 13:18 and 18:1).

In Genesis 35:4, Jacob buries the “strange gods” he has rejected in order to worship Yahweh under the tree in Shechem, mentioned above…thus assuring that the “strange gods”, now watched over by a more powerful deity, couldn’t harm him.
In Judges 9:6, the Shechem tree is again mentioned as the location of Abimelech’s coronation—-presumably to have divine witness to the event.
Perhaps the most well-known example of a deity taking up abode in a tree is Moses’ encounter with Yahweh in Exodus 3:2-5. That the burning bush was believed to be the abode of Yahweh is affirmed in Deuteronomy 33:16, which speaks of “Him that dwelt in the bush”.

My favorite is 2Samuel 5:23-24. David asks Yahweh about the attack on the Philistines, and is told that when he hears the sound of marching in the tops of the trees, it will be time for action—“for then is Yahweh gone out before thee to smite the hosts of the Philistines…”. “Marching in the tops of the trees”, of course, is the sound of the rustling of the branches. This passage makes it clear that the belief was that Yahweh would enter the trees and that his presence would be indicated by the rustling.

Streams and springs are another good example of animism: the belief that the motion of water—particularly the strength of rushing water—is evidence of an indwelling spirit.  Once again, remnants of such beliefs can be found in the Hebrew Bible: The name of the location where the Hebrews lived for most of their forty year sojourn in the “wilderness” can be either Kadesh—which means “sanctuary”, or, according to Genesis 14:7, ‘En-mishpat, which means “the spring of decision”—implying a well to which people came to settle disputes. An oracle well. Therefore, at one time, it must have been thought to be the home of a spirit…also hinted at by the name Kadesh—“sanctuary”.

One of the oldest passages in the Bible is a poem (Numbers 21:17-18) sung to a well as if it were a living being:

Spring up, O well,; sing ye to it; O well, which the princes digged, which the nobles of the people delved with their sceptor, with their staves

This can only mean that the well was believed to embody a spirit which caused it to “spring up”.

Rocks and stones are a little different in that they don’t move, but were believed to be living,  nevertheless—and the abode of spirits. Standing rocks (pillars) and those of peculiar shape often became the focal point of sacrificial worship and divine witness. I mentioned the stone that Jacob used for a pillow when he had his ladder dream (Genesis 28:11-22). It was his belief that the indwelling spirit was the source of his dream that caused Jacob to stand the stone on end—make a pillar—annoint it with oil and name the place Beth-el—“house of God”. 
The agreement between Jacob and Laban (Genesis 31:44-48) was “witnessed” by a pillar that Jacob erected for the purpose…and to make doubly sure, he had everyone gather rocks into a heap which were pronounced “a witness between me and thee this day”.

Mountains, as big rocks, particularly active volcanoes, were thought to be the homes of especially powerful spirits.  Mt Sinai, of course, is the most obvious example, but Mt Carmel was the site of two alters (1Kings 18) and sacrifices were offered on Mt Tabor (Hosea 5:1), although not to Yahweh, apparently.

Animism is not the only example of a left-over primitive belief that found it’s way into the Bible, of course.  There are remnants of polytheism, totemism, necromancy, taboo, magic—beliefs common to all early religions.

[ Edited: 26 November 2009 09:59 by Andrew]
 
 
GAD
 
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26 November 2009 18:26
 

Good, interesting and informative post, but it shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone paying attention that the bible is filled cover to cover with myth, legend, astrology, paganism and superstition.

 
 
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26 November 2009 18:50
 

First of all, the word is “altar”, not “alter”. “Alter” means “another”, while “altar” is a place of worship where a sacrifice is made. Second, let us assume that everything you said is true. The way I see the OT is that God accommodates people and meets them on their own terms. So, instead of seeing the OT as the “inspired, infallible and inerrant Word of God”, I see it as a record of the Hebrew people’s experience with God. They thought that gods inhabited trees, etc., so that is how God encountered them.  It is not much different than the way we accommodate our own children’s fantasies in order to make contact with them. “Oh, what did the dolly say to you?” 

With the coming of Jesus, God speaks to us directly.  No more need for “the sound of marching in the mulberry trees.”  The message is clear and direct.

 
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26 November 2009 20:46
 
Bruce Burleson - 26 November 2009 05:50 PM

First of all, the word is “altar”, not “alter”. “Alter” means “another”, while “altar” is a place of worship where a sacrifice is made.

(Andrew):  Dam spell checker!

Bruce Burleson - 26 November 2009 10:18 AM

So, instead of seeing the OT as the “inspired, infallible and inerrant Word of God”, I see it as a record of the Hebrew people’s experience with God.

(Andrew):  How about if we say it’s a record of the Hebrew people’s experience with their concept of God?  I can agree with that.

Bruce Burleson - 26 November 2009 10:18 AM

They thought that gods inhabited trees, etc., so that is how God encountered them.

(Andrew):  A creator God, if He exists, didn’t “encounter” ancient people who practiced animism…He created them that way. 
No Bruce Burleson, it’s just that animism is a logical step in the evolution of almost all (at least ancient) religions…and Judaism is no different. Nothing supernatural necessary.  It’s interesting that so many remnants of it are found in the Jewish Bible.

Bruce Burleson - 26 November 2009 10:18 AM

With the coming of Jesus, God speaks to us directly.  No more need for “the sound of marching in the mulberry trees.”  The message is clear and direct.

(Andrew):  That’s probably why we have so many Christian denominations, huh?

 
 
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26 November 2009 20:58
 
Andrew - 26 November 2009 07:46 PM

(Andrew):  A creator God, if He exists, didn’t “encounter” ancient people who practiced animism…He created them that way.

OK, let’s talk about this. Parents “create” their children, but their children still develop according to natural laws. If God created the initial conditions of the universe, but allowed it to develop according to its own internal logic, why couldn’t he decide to encounter the beings that resulted from that development according to their own capacity to understand?  Why can’t God be just like we are with our own children, accommodating their capacities and assisting them to reach their potential?

 
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26 November 2009 22:30
 
Bruce Burleson - 26 November 2009 07:58 PM
Andrew - 26 November 2009 07:46 PM

(Andrew):  A creator God, if He exists, didn’t “encounter” ancient people who practiced animism…He created them that way.

OK, let’s talk about this. Parents “create” their children, but their children still develop according to natural laws. If God created the initial conditions of the universe, but allowed it to develop according to its own internal logic, why couldn’t he decide to encounter the beings that resulted from that development according to their own capacity to understand?

(Andrew):  He could.  When we’re talking the supernatural, the sky’s the limit.  An all-knowing god could certainly “decide” to be ignorant of the goings-on of his creation, as big a contradiction as that is.  He could also make something so heavy that He couldn’t lift it.  “The Lord works in mysterious ways” is very handy, but it sort of kills any meaningful communication.
The parent/child thingy is not a useful analogy, I don’t think.  Parents are not all-knowing, supernatural beings (although I may have argued that at one point in my childhood).

When I made my remark, I had in mind the standard, personal, Judeo/Christian god who, in addition to being the creator of everything that is, knows all there is to know.  Such a god would have to know when he created us (even before he created us, actually—stretching back into infinity) what we’d be doing—each and every one of us—every second of every day of our lives.  So he’d shirley know if we were worshipping rocks and trees as gods.  He couldn’t just “encounter” it.

Bruce Burleson - 26 November 2009 10:18 AM

Why can’t God be just like we are with our own children, accommodating their capacities and assisting them to reach their potential?

(Andrew):  Your God can be anything that you need Him to be, Bruce Burleson.

 
 
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27 November 2009 16:33
 
Bruce Burleson - 26 November 2009 05:50 PM

The way I see the OT is that God accommodates people and meets them on their own terms. So, instead of seeing the OT as the “inspired, infallible and inerrant Word of God”, I see it as a record of the Hebrew people’s experience with God. They thought that gods inhabited trees, etc., so that is how God encountered them.

Which came first, the chicken or the egg? The way I see it, Bruce, many of your arguments disprove the existence of God, and Jesus as the Divine with it.

 
 
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08 December 2009 01:25
 
Bruce Burleson - 26 November 2009 05:50 PM

First of all, the word is “altar”, not “alter”. “Alter” means “another”, while “altar” is a place of worship where a sacrifice is made. Second, let us assume that everything you said is true. The way I see the OT is that God accommodates people and meets them on their own terms. So, instead of seeing the OT as the “inspired, infallible and inerrant Word of God”, I see it as a record of the Hebrew people’s experience with God. They thought that gods inhabited trees, etc., so that is how God encountered them.  It is not much different than the way we accommodate our own children’s fantasies in order to make contact with them. “Oh, what did the dolly say to you?” 

With the coming of Jesus, God speaks to us directly.  No more need for “the sound of marching in the mulberry trees.”  The message is clear and direct.

In the OT, God was said to speak pretty directly to people.  He told Moses what to say and gave him the laws.  He told lots of prophets what to do and what to say.  Their words were supposedly God’s direct words.  He is recorded as talking directly to lots of people in great detail; e.g., Noah and Job. 

Sorry, I was raised Jewish, and I am sensitive to the Christian perspective that Jews just weren’t ready for all the truth yet until Jesus came and straightened out God’s word for them.  I think Christianity is a very different religion from Judaism in many fundamental ways, though Christianity borrowed many things from the earlier religion.

 
Daniel O. McClellan
 
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28 December 2009 16:20
 
Andrew - 26 November 2009 08:44 AM

(The Pedant—inspired by Daystar): 
Animism, very basically, is a belief in the existence of spirits, some of which, by their presence, give life to non-living things. Animate  them.  Movement, to early man, was evidence of life. Trees are a good illustration.
Primitive cultures held that the motion of the leaves and branches of a tree was due to the activity of a spirit which takes up residence in the tree and gives it life.  Evergreen trees—terebinth in the Bible—were especially revered as the dwelling place of spirits. Oaks ran a close second.

It made sense to think that vows and sacrifices made in the presence of a resident spirit would be advantageous to the petitioner…and that prophecy made from beneath a tree or from beside a stream or rock with an indwelling spirit (called oracle) could be trusted. Such places became sacred and the object of pilgrimages.

Thus, In Genesis 12:6-8, we find Abram traveling to Shechem to visit a sacred evergreen (maybe an oak) called the “tree of the Teacher” (the KJV mistranslates this as the “plains of Moreh [Moreh=teacher])—an obvious reference to the fact that oracle was given at one time, if not currently, under this particular tree—a tree already ancient and revered by the time that Abram arrived. It was on this spot that Yahweh appeared to Abram, in consequence of which he built an alter. The connection between a specific and well-known sacred tree, and the appearance of Yahweh, can’t be missed.

This seems to be taken almost word for word from Oesterley’s Hebrew Religion: Its Origin and Development. Observe:

Andrew - 26 November 2009 08:44 AM

Thus, In Genesis 12:6-8, we find Abram traveling to Shechem to visit a sacred evergreen (maybe an oak) called the “tree of the Teacher” (the KJV mistranslates this as the “plains of Moreh [Moreh=teacher])—an obvious reference to the fact that oracle was given at one time, if not currently, under this particular tree—a tree already ancient and revered by the time that Abram arrived. It was on this spot that Yahweh appeared to Abram, in consequence of which he built an alter. The connection between a specific and well-known sacred tree, and the appearance of Yahweh, can’t be missed.

Page 22 contains the following:

In Gen. xii. 6-8 mention is made of “the terebinth of Moreh”; translated literally this is: “the terebinth of the teacher,” i.e. a tree at which divine teaching was given. What is meant is that the oracle was given there, so that it might well be rendered “the oracle-terebinth.” This tree stood in Shechem, and it was evidently thought of as extremely ancient, since it was there before Abraham came to Canaan. It was on this spot that Yahweh appeared to the patriarch, in consequence of which he built and altar to Yahweh. One cannot fail to recognize a connexion between the mention of a specific, and obviously well-known, tree and the divine appearance there.

The bold is the text you quote verbatim. Your next paragraph is taken from the same page, and the rest is taken from the following pages. You can see the entire book here: http://books.google.co.uk/books?id=iycAZmltlAEC&printsec=frontcover#v=onepage&q=&f=false. This is the same book you cited in the other thread about the evolution of religion. I reminded you there that this book was written in 1930. The original text hasn’t changed in the numerous reprints that have occurred. In fact, the typesetting hasn’t even changed. This book is phenomenally out of date, and the information is also mistaken. אלון refers to any large tree, and it’s plural (for instance, “Oaks of Mamre,” not “Oak of Mamre”). We know this because of the information gleaned from the Ugaritic corpus, which was only discovered a year or two before this book was finishe, and from advancements in Akkadian and comparative Semitics. The name seems simply to be a name, as well. The cultic significance most likely goes back to fertility goddess worship, and there are theophanies recorded in the Bible from all over Israel. The fact that they happen occasionally in places with “oaks” in the name is hardly as significant as the book makes it out to be. The rest of the data you’ve cited is based on the same assumption of religious evolution I spoke about earlier. Here’s an example from page 19:

The existence of a tree in connexion with worship does not permit of any conclusion other than that of a development of some earlier animistic conceptions.

This is a flagrant fallacy based largely on Jungianesque attempts at unifying human spiritualism under generalized themes. Several plants and trees in the Near East represented deity for a variety of reasons. The date palm was considered associated with fertility deities as a result of their productivity in harsh climates and the dependence on them for subsistence. The lotus was a fertility symbol in Egypt due to the nature of its blooming and its beauty. The Assyrian sacred tree, a stylized date palm, is also associated with the fertility of the earth. On the other hand, the veneration of groves of trees is actually a reference to temple ideology. These groves were atop mountains, and were considered sacred space. Many temples of the Mediterranean were built in imitation of groves of trees, undermining the idea that the trees themselves carried some spiritual endowment. Gobekli Tepe, for instance, may use the monoliths to represent trees. The temples of ancient Greece are more explicitly associated with this.

I don’t know any modern scholars who advocate an animistic origin for the association of trees with worship in the Near East. This theory has no evidence in the religions of the ancient Near East, and has plenty of evidence working against it. It seems to derive from a speculative attempt to tie the ancient Near East to shamanism. Eliade and others carried on this theory in the mid-twentieth century.

[ Edited: 28 December 2009 17:15 by Daniel O. McClellan]
 
GAD
 
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28 December 2009 17:15
 
Daniel O. McClellan - 28 December 2009 03:20 PM

there are theophanies recorded in the Bible from all over Israel. The fact that they happen occasionally in places with “oaks” in the name is hardly as significant as the book makes it out to be.

Perhaps so, but in the bible these were already existing places of special importance and spiritual power. The supernatural aside, how about a practical reason, big trees were an easy and convenient marker/monument that were a lot easier to find then a spot in the middle of a field somewhere.   

Many temples of the Mediterranean were built in imitation of groves of trees, undermining the idea that the trees themselves carried some spiritual endowment. Gobekli Tepe, for instance, may use the monoliths to represent trees. The temples of ancient Greece are more explicitly associated with this.

That the trees/groves were considered special is already a positive spiritual statement. That they were imitated in temples is another. Why does that undermine their spiritual endowment? Why not something as simple as the belief in transference of power….....

 
 
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28 December 2009 19:05
 

This is not a scholarly reply to the idea of animism in the Bible, but as a young Jewish girl growing up in the 1960s and 70s, I can attest that there was no left-over feeling of animism in the Judaism I was taught.  Yes, Moses heard the voice of God out of a burning bush, but the point was not that the bush was a particularly holy bush, but that it was burning without being consumed, which proved that God was there.  And the rocks that were set up as altars in various places were not especially imbued with power, but were markers for where miracles or communications with God had occurred.  In these cases, it was the reported acts of God in the locations that made them noteworthy, not the bushes, trees, or rocks themselves.  The Jewish religion is based on the idea of one God, as a stark contrast to other religions of the region that worshiped many gods, including various gods of nature.  Time after time in the Bible, God of the Jews gets very angry with his people for drifting away from monotheism to worship “false gods.”

 
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28 December 2009 19:56
 
GAD - 28 December 2009 04:15 PM

Perhaps so, but in the bible these were already existing places of special importance and spiritual power. The supernatural aside, how about a practical reason, big trees were an easy and convenient marker/monument that were a lot easier to find then a spot in the middle of a field somewhere.

They were at the tops of mountains. That was the significant part, and it had to do with height, not ease of remembering. Natural springs, rivers, and mountaintops formed the centers of civilization, and it was because they made life possible and offered protection.   

GAD - 28 December 2009 04:15 PM

That the trees/groves were considered special is already a positive spiritual statement. That they were imitated in temples is another. Why does that undermine their spiritual endowment? Why not something as simple as the belief in transference of power….....

Because this is retrojecting a belief into a society for which there is no evidence of that belief.

 
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28 December 2009 21:32
 

Here is a definition of animism from Wikipedia:

Animism (from Latin anima “soul, life”) is a philosophical, religious or spiritual idea that souls or spirits exist not only in humans but also in other animals, plants, rocks, natural phenomena such as thunder, geographic features such as mountains or rivers, or other entities of the natural environment.

There is no way that Jewish religion supported the idea that souls or spirits existed in animals, plants, rocks, etc.  The whole contribution of Jewish thinking was that God was separate from his creation.  God can choose to show himself by a burining bush or a pillar of fire or clouds atop a mountain, but these bushes, fires, and storm clouds are not seen as having souls or spirits of their own.  An altar commemorating an act of God does not have a soul or spirit.

Now this is not to say that the Hebrew people didn’t sometimes borrow the traditions of the other people around them.  Most notably the golden calf, but also worship on other high places after Solomon’s temple was built in Jerusalem, etc.  But it seems clear that over and over in the Bible, the Jewish God is reprimanding his people for this sort of misplaced worship. 

So maybe we need to distinguish between core Jewish tenets and actions of the Hebrew people.

 
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28 December 2009 21:32
 
hannahfriend - 28 December 2009 06:05 PM

The Jewish religion is based on the idea of one God, as a stark contrast to other religions of the region that worshiped many gods, including various gods of nature.

No, the Jewish religion started out polytheistic is a polytheistic world. As evidenced by your next statement.

  Time after time in the Bible, God of the Jews gets very angry with his people for drifting away from monotheism to worship “false gods.”

 
 
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29 December 2009 00:13
 

No, the Jewish religion started out as monotheistic in a polytheistic world.  The whole OT revolves around the one god.  It is the first of the 10 commandments.  The most holy prayer of the faith is the Sh’ma which states:  “Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one.”  That’s the prayer that is inside the little decorative mezuzahs that are nailed to the doorposts of Jewish homes (“Thou shalt inscribe them upon thy gates.”)

The idea of one invisible god beyond our understanding, with his multitude of laws for living a righteous life, was very difficult to hold to through thick and thin.  The OT has story after story of the failure of the Jews to follow what God wanted them to do, the calamity that followed, and then the Jews’ return to proper worship. 

I don’t see how you can say that Judaism is polytheistic, unless you’re just saying that some people who lived in the Jewish community disobeyed the guidelines of their holy book.

Basically every definition of Judaism includes one god:

From Answers.com:  Judaism:  The monotheistic religion of the Jews…

From Miriam Webster:  Judaism:  1 : a religion developed among the ancient Hebrews and characterized by belief in one transcendent God who has revealed himself to Abraham, Moses, and the Hebrew prophets

From Yourdictionary.com:  Judaism:  the Jewish religion, a monotheistic religion based on the laws and teachings of the Holy Scripture and the Talmud

 
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29 December 2009 02:12
 
hannahfriend - 28 December 2009 11:13 PM

No, the Jewish religion started out as monotheistic in a polytheistic world.  The whole OT revolves around the one god.  It is the first of the 10 commandments.  The most holy prayer of the faith is the Sh’ma which states:  “Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one.”  That’s the prayer that is inside the little decorative mezuzahs that are nailed to the doorposts of Jewish homes (“Thou shalt inscribe them upon thy gates.”)

The idea of one invisible god beyond our understanding, with his multitude of laws for living a righteous life, was very difficult to hold to through thick and thin.  The OT has story after story of the failure of the Jews to follow what God wanted them to do, the calamity that followed, and then the Jews’ return to proper worship. 

I don’t see how you can say that Judaism is polytheistic, unless you’re just saying that some people who lived in the Jewish community disobeyed the guidelines of their holy book.

Basically every definition of Judaism includes one god:

From Answers.com:  Judaism:  The monotheistic religion of the Jews…

From Miriam Webster:  Judaism:  1 : a religion developed among the ancient Hebrews and characterized by belief in one transcendent God who has revealed himself to Abraham, Moses, and the Hebrew prophets

From Yourdictionary.com:  Judaism:  the Jewish religion, a monotheistic religion based on the laws and teachings of the Holy Scripture and the Talmud

That’s what it is today, but the Jewish god was just one of the gods in the beginning.

Were you taught that god created everything?

Not in the bible. One only need to read Genesis 1:1 - 1:10 to see that there was a water universe of chaos preexisting that god created the heaven and earth within.

The cosmogony written is Genesis (and else where) is clearly taken from the older Enuma elish and mixed with other myths of the time..

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Enuma_elish
http://www.infidelguy.com/heaven_sky.htm

As is the “Firmament” which science has long since proven to be false, which is backed up by the Father religion (Jews) as well as it’s bastard child Christianity.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Firmament
http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/view.jsp?artid=807&letter=C
http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/06079b.htm

 
 
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