Every human culture has a religion, and all religions have their roots in sun worship. All culture’s religions have their roots in an earlier culture’s religion, save for the first hunter-gatherer culture. All culture’s religions have their start or origins in polytheism and animism, and this includes the three dominate modern theistic religions of the West. For example,…
I have a particular fondness for the Jewish priestly blessing, having recited it for many a many of years, even well after coming to the realization that all gods known to humankind are human imagined and believed in. But, since coming to this realization, I have had difficulty with saying even my most favorite of blessings, this birkat kohanim or nesiat kapayim (the Jewish priestly blessing), all because of the god-figure it invokes. Today, though, while watching a rabbi invoke this blessing upon an open-hearted willing atheist, I had a sudden epiphany, if you will.
The blessing, as is traditionally said today, goes like this:
“y’varekh’kha adoshem v’yish’m’reckha
Yahweh will bless you and protect you
yaer adoshem panayv eleykha viychuneka
Yahweh will shine his face towards you and bend kindly to you
yisa adoshem panayv eleykha v’yasem l’kha shalom
Yahweh will lift his face towards you and give to you peace”
I know those words by heart, having said them so many times myself – for a time, religiously – but never have I seen them in such the same way. While listening to this rabbi say this blessing, I realized the imagery that these words naturally invoked, and had to ask myself: Is this blessing originally a sun-god blessing? And, if so, where does this blessing actually originate from? Jewish religious practice has its roots in Canaanite and Egyptian religious traditions. So, is ancient Jewish polytheism the source? Or, is it Canaanite or Egyptian in origin?
The earliest recording of the blessing is on silver tablets dated to the 7th century BCE. This is well before the first scroll writings were written some 200 plus years later. They were in what appears to be tombs, which corresponds to Egyptian religious burial custom. This is not really surprising when considering that a segment of the Israeli-Judean population arrived by exodus from Egypt many many moons back. There are many Jewish customs that are either Canaanite in origin or Egyptian, all depending upon the custom.
Well, with a little research, so it turns out to be with the priestly blessing that has had such a fond place within my heart over the years. There is an Egyptian version of this blessing that well precedes the Jewish one, and it goes like this:
“The Great One shall Praise you
The face of the Great God will be Gracious over you
He will give you pure bread with his two hands”
This translation is given to us by Sharon Keller, PhD, from an inscription in a “Letter to the Dead” papyrus written near the end of the 3 millennium BCE. Such inscriptions were placed into tombs, which is also the way the Jewish priestly blessing was originally made and used, before being expanded to a blessing for those still living, as well. So, this raises a big question: which “Great One/God” is the Egyptian blessing referring to? Well, at the end of the 3rd millennium BCE, the greatest god of the pantheon was plain and simply Amun-Ra, the sun god.
So, no wonder the words of this Jewish blessing speak as if it is referring to the sun above us. My epiphany of the day, as I’d said. The sun represents light, knowledge, life, and the continuance of more days to come. Ancient Jewish polytheistic religion, the monarchy time period, recognized the day as starting with the rise of the sun. With the rise of ancient Jewish henotheistic religion, the priestly theocratic temple cult, the start of the day was recognized as beginning with the night. Thus, the sun emphasized seasonal religion became replaced over time by the moon emphasizing calendrical religion in Jewish Semitic tradition.
So, now seeing this clearly and having a bit of confirmation to my questioning suspicion, for those of us who are Jewish without God – meaning still culturally Jewish but without belief in the fictive theistic traditions of our people – this actually lends us an opportunity to secularize or humanize this beautiful blessing for a 21st century audience in a way were we are truly saying what it is that we mean. I’ll explain how. As I said before, Jewish religious tradition is based historically on Canaanite and Egyptian religious traditions. There is a Jewish word that points to the Canaanite mythological sun god, and it is the word shemesh.
As I said at the beginning of this writing, all culture’s religious traditions have their roots in sun worship, in the human personification of the sun as a form of god that serves a particular life-fulfilling function or purpose. Jewish religion is no exception to this, just closely read the ancestral myths attentively to be convinced. Before the rise of historically recorded human religion the worship of the sun, moon, and earth was already there. The night was to be fear, for it represented both danger and death. The setting of the sun meant darkness, a time where humans easily became predator’s prey. The rising of the sun meant life, the time of the day where all is illuminated and it is easy to protect oneself and others. In our time, we have a better understanding and mastery of earth and sky, and no longer need to worship natural objects in personified forms.
Thus, we now can modify this ancient blessing to fit a modern time, and still retain the powerful imagery and meaning that it naturally invokes from within us:
“y’varekh’kha shemesh v’yish’m’reckha
the sun will bless you and protect you
yaer shemesh panayv eleykha viychuneka
the sun will shine its face towards you and bend kindly to you
yisa shemesh panayv eleykha v’yasem l’kha shalom
the sun will lift its face towards you and give to you peace”
Allow me, now, to end this post with a touch of historical clarification about Jewish religious history. The history not shared in religious schools, but in the ground beneath us as we dig up artifacts and ruins in detailed scientific study and thirst for knowledge. For the record, El/Elohim is the sky god of the ancient Semitic polytheistic religions, which includes the traditions of Judah and Israel. Elohim is the “head of the pantheon”, as it is said, the “top most highest god of all the gods”, and was the high god of the ancient Israeli pantheon.
With the rise of the Judean and Israeli monarchies and trading with Transjordan nomads, the storm god Yahveh became the Jewish and Hebrew national high god – a blending of Yahveh and Elohim characteristics into one. After the exodus of a priestly cast of Jews from Egypt into Judah and Israel and the rise of theocratic temple cult, they brought with them the re-introduction of the sky god Elohim name and predominantly used it as the generic name for the Jewish national high god Yahveh.
It would be with the priestly theocratic temple cult religion that an emphasis upon nationalistic henotheistic religious adherence in Jewish Israel take place, thereby eradicating the early monarchy and pre-monarchy acceptance of polytheistic beliefs. From here would rise the numerous priestly laws based on time, dates, and numbers that would eventually become the foundation of modern Jewish halakhah (religious law).
From Jewish polytheism of pre-monarchy and monarchy times, arose Jewish henotheism in the Middle East of late monarchy and priestly theocratic times, which would eventually lead to the fall of the Jewish temple cult in the 1st century CE (A.D.). A few hundred years prior to this, the rabbinic movement would take form to usher in a completely redacted Torah, TaNaKh, Mishna, and Talmud for modern, now, monotheistic Judaism. The Jewish national god is still the national god, but now the only god and the god of the entire universe.
#Jewish #Polytheism #Henotheism #Monotheism #PriestlyBlessing #Egyptian #Canaanite #Judaism