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Wild People and their Gods, reading Thomas Cahill’s “The Gift of the Jews”

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Thomas Cahill is a popularizer, who does, however, come up with insights in the overview of early religion that he provides in The Gift of the Jews: How a Tribe of Desert Nomads Changed the Way Everyone Thinks and Feels, (New York: Nan A. Talese/ Anchor Books, a Division of Random House,  Inc., 1998).

Abraham’s God is not anthropomorphic, in the sense of being a glorified ancestor or as a super-charged human being, writ large and complete with human flaws. You have, for example, Zeus filled with lust and Aphrodite, jealous and vengeful. The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob was not a cultural god, for the worship of beauty and art, sounding out merely distant concerns of fate, without taking a real relationship with humans. Abraham’s God tested him personally to the limit and required the complete reorientation of Sarah and his life.

His father, Terah, left Ur in Chaldea, left the Sumerian pantheon, the Annunaki presided over by An and Enlil, and especially, the Moon god, Sin and the fertility goddess, Ishtar. The raging human hormones must have distorted the image of both gods and humans. Cahill is not certain what the temple prostitutes did with the victims of their sexual rituals, whether or not they were sacrificed, as they think happened to a king of Uruk and his household. These rituals involved male prostitutes for the temple of Ishtar and female ones for the Temple of the Moon, Nanna-Sin. (I wonder if our word “sin” could be derived from the name of this moon god?)

Abraham, like Terah, his father, was being called by a God of seeing, unblinded, perhaps, by the sexual drive and the primordial fertility anxiety. Yet the issue with Abraham and Sarah is also one of fertility. Sarah calls Abraham’s God, “‘God of Seeing’ and ‘the Living-One-Who-Sees-Me'” (page 71). Thomas Cahill argues that Abraham and Sarah’s relationship with God becomes more intense and the father and mother of faith receive a sense of their own individuality, (even if it cannot yet reflect the self-knowledge of Socrates, I would add). Cahill continues that the flip side of incipient monotheism is the possibility of individual, interpersonal relationships (page 71-72).

To hark back to Sumerian polytheism: Thomas Cahill argues that the Great Mother goddess of the earth as the original god of humankind is almost certainly wrong. “Heaven and its spectacles were the first objects of devotion and deification (page 48). She “probably came to special prominence with the invention of agriculture” (also page 48).

Cahill’s rendition of the story of Gilgamesh and Enkidu in the famous Sumerian epic piqued my interest. What was a wild man before taming? Taming would still relegate such a one to the wild animal world. Was Enkidu civilized by the woman, called a prostitute, Shamhat? It seems she just made him side with human beings, whereas before he had been one with the animals against them (page 27).

Gilgamesh himself is described as the son of Uruk, a goring wild bull and son of the lofty cow, the wild cow, Ninsun (page 22). It’s intriguing to think about the time when cows were still wild, because they are so domesticated today, even if we still fight bulls and bulls still represent a clear and present danger.

We know about breaking in a wild horse. Bull-riders have a little more trouble. But what a time it must have been, when cows were still lofty and wild. Enkidu is a wild man, who left the animals, because of Shamhat, but I wonder if he was civilized to any degree? I believe that even as for us, it was God calling Abraham to point out in which direction our real humanity lies.


Written by peterkrey

January 29, 2010 at 7:35 pm

One Response

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  1. Hey Dad,

    I love this. It’s really fascinating. I love how you even mentioned the Annunaki. I learned about the sacred marriage between the king and Ishtar and how it could result in the kings death. One of my teachers thought it was the main reason for Gilgamesh denying Ishtar when she professed her love for him because he knew it would mean his death. I agree that it was something very special that pulled Abraham out of Mesopotamia. The God of Abraham, Jacob and Issac did seem more concerned with humanity than the drive of lust and power and glory. This is a great piece. It caught my interest right away. Some think that those Annunaki were the nephelim of the bible.

    Mark your son

    January 30, 2010 at 9:38 pm

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