Yesterday, I started The Savage in Judaism: An Anthropology of Israelite Religion and Ancient Judaism, by Howard Eilberg-Schwartz. It’s not exactly what I expected. I thought it would be about the depiction of the “savage” (e.g., remote tribes, Canaanites) in the Hebrew Bible and rabbinic Judaism. Actually, it’s about the fields of anthropology and biblical studies, and how they’ve compared and contrasted the biblical religion with primitive, “savage” cultures. Some scholars have drawn parallels between the biblical religion and primitive societies, sometimes to discredit the Bible, sometimes for other reasons (e.g., to connect the Native Americans with Israel). Others have tried to demonstrate that the biblical religion is superior to the cultures of the “savages,” implying that humanity would degenerate to human sacrifice and sensual religion without the light of God’s revelation.
Two things stood out to me in yesterday’s reading:
1. Eilberg-Schwartz (whom I’ll abbreviate as “ES”) talks about European missionaries in the sixteenth-seventeenth centuries, who noted parallels between Native American societies and the ancient Israelite religion that the Hebrew Bible promotes. Both shared a belief in a creator God, had a story about a flood, and maintained similar religious hierarchies and purity regulations. Their conclusions were that the Native Americans were part of the lost ten tribes of Israel, or were influenced by Israelites, or were heirs to the religion of Adam and Eve, which became corrupted after God scattered the nations at the Tower of Babel incident (Genesis 11:1-9).
I’ve heard these sorts of things in the past. In Beyond Star Wars, William Dankenbring cites an article about a man who visited a Native American tribe and heard them speaking Hebrew names for God. During my Thanksgiving vacation, a relative of mine talked about a copy of the Ten Commandments in Hebrew, which was discovered in the United States. The Mormons posit some connection between the Native Americans and Jews who left Jerusalem after the fall of the city in 587 B.C.E. And my mom, who has a degree in African-American studies, has noted similarities between African tribal customs and the laws in the Bible.
I’m not sure what an anthropologist would do with cross-cultural similarities. Would she dismiss the idea that one culture influenced the other, saying instead that there’s something in humans that leads them to structure their world in similar ways?
2. ES talks about the Enlightenment, and how deists during that time tried to dismiss all organized religion as “savage.” Christians often attributed the miracles of other cultures to Satan, leading people to logically ask: “If we can’t believe in the miracles of other cultures, then why should we accept the ones in Christianity?” And deists were saying that perhaps we didn’t need a lot of religious fluff (e.g., priests, holy books) but should focus on the simple truths that are evident through reason: that there’s a God, that we should love others, maybe that we’ll be judged in the afterlife for our deeds.
This brings to mind recent discussions in the blogosphere. Under my post, Answer (Not) A Fool, Russell Miller asked, “If we are expected to use our judgement, why do we need a bible in the first place??” And ex-fundamentalist Ken Pulliam, in his post Am I Just Biased Against the Supernatural?, asks why Christians expect us to accept the miracles of the Bible, while they dismiss the miracles in other cultures and religions.
I’m not exactly in a place that would satisfy conservative Christians and atheists, or even myself, for that matter. But here are ways that I approach these issues nowadays:
a. I find that I’m somewhat like a deist: I prefer to focus on the basics rather than the doctrines and practices that divide religions. I believe that there’s a supreme being who expects us to abide by a moral code of love, and I notice that concept (in some way, shape, or form) in all sorts of cultures and creeds. But I still read the Bible, placing myself in the stream of Judaism and Christianity. Why? I believe that this supreme being teaches me lessons through the stories, prophecies, and laws that I find in the Bible, so I keep on studying it. It’s like AA meetings: people experience something of value in them, so they keep coming back.
b. Unlike deists and atheists, however, I don’t dismiss miracles. Who’s to say that God doesn’t touch people’s lives in different cultures and religions?