Kingdom of Priests


Yesterday, groggy from fasting, I read a draft of an essay for a friend. I hope I was helpful in giving some comments to him. I can go relatively easily without the food and maybe the water (from dawn to dark) but not without the coffee. His essay dealt in part with the issue of secondary causes and their role in God’s overseeing of creation — a favorite theme with advocates of theistic evolution. The following occurred to me only later, when I was marveling at the synchronicity of it all.

I was fasting because it was the 17th day of the month of Tammuz, a communal fast day beginning the period of three weeks of mourning that culminate in the observance of Tisha b’Av, the 9th day of the month of Av. More on that later, I hope. But for now a word on 17 Tammuz, and on secondary causes.
The fast commemorates a number of tragic events in Jewish history. One was the Israelites’ fashioning and worship of the Golden Calf. Now for the synchronicity. It just so happens (doesn’t it always?) that in reading this morning I came across an interesting tradition about the Golden Calf. A view in the Talmud, tractate Sanhedrin (63a), notes that but for a single letter in the text of the Torah, vav, signifying plurality at the end of a verb, God would have wiped the Jews out entirely in response to the provocation represented by the Calf.
The verse in question is Aaron’s command to the people, in reference to the Calf: “These be thy gods, O Israel, which brought [plural] thee up out of the land of Egypt!” (Exodus 32:4). The Jews weren’t so foolish as to think this particular gold statue had brought them up out of Egypt. Had they been so foolish, God would have decided to put an end to them. Instead, it represented the plurality of forces that the Jews required (so they thought) as intermediaries in their relationship with God. It was these forces, these “gods,” that the One God used to bring the Jews up out of Egypt.
According Maharsha (1555-1631), who comments on the Talmud, this means the Jews were harkening back to any early stage in man’s devolution from primordial monotheism. In Maimonides’ telling (Mishneh TorahLaws of Idolatry 1:1-2), it all began with Enosh:

During the times of Enosh, mankind made a great mistake, and the wise men of that generation gave thoughtless counsel. Enosh himself was one of those who erred.

Their mistake was as follows: They said God created stars and spheres with which to control the world. He placed them on high and treated them with honor, making them servants who minister before Him. Accordingly, it is fitting to praise and glorify them and to treat them with honor. [They perceived] this to be the will of God, blessed be He, that they magnify and honor those whom He magnified and honored, just as a king desires that the servants who stand before him be honored. Indeed, doing so is an expression of honor to the king.

After conceiving of this notion, they began to construct temples to the stars and offer sacrifices to them. They would praise and glorify them with words, and prostrate themselves before them, because by doing so, they would – according to their false conception – be fulfilling the will of God.

This was the essence of the worship of false gods, and this was the rationale of those who worshiped them. They would not say that there is no other god except for this star.

It was this stage — where people began to associate God with intermediary forces in nature and worship those forces, assuming that this would please God, since after all such forces are His creations too — that led to the later abandonment of God:

As the years passed, [God’s] glorious and awesome name was forgotten by the entire population. [It was no longer part of] their speech or thought, and they no longer knew Him. Thus, all the common people, the women, and the children would know only the image of wood or stone and the temples of stone to which they were trained from their childhood to bow down and serve, and in whose name they swore.

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch writes about the verse in Exodus that I quoted earlier: “they revealed their illusion that the efficacy of God Himself required the partnership of this intermediary” — namely, the “gods” represented by the Golden Calf. This fell short of literally worshipping another god, to the exclusion of the One God. But it was a tragic error nevertheless, so much so that three thousand plus years later, Jews still mourn and fast over it.
Theistic evolutionists who want to find a rationale to justify Darwinism as a doctrine compatible with Christianity or Judaism often whip out the concept of secondary or intermediate forces, seizing on the idea to justify the embrace of Darwinism. Why couldn’t natural selection be such a force?
There’s much to say on the subject, and this is not the place. My colleague John West’s recent dialogue with Catholic physicist Stephen M. Barr of First Things over at Evolution News & Views is relevant.
For now the point of interest lies in the Hebrew Bible’s warning that we must take care about not misunderstanding God’s relationship to the forces in nature that He employs. Jewish tradition takes for granted that God created such forces (in Maimonides’ phrase) “with which to control the world.” But in the traditional narrative, the generation of Enosh erred in focusing their attention on those forces, making a fetish of them, leading ultimately to a situation where most of the people in the world forgot about God and worshiped nature instead entirely to His exclusion.
That was the state of things when Abraham came on the scene with a mission to oppose idolatry. Rabbi Hirsch in his Torah commentary writes (on Exodus 6:3), “By the entrance of the ‘Abrahamitic Nation,’ the old ideas were to be reawakened, and mankind saved from the depressing effects of this materialism.”
The theistic evolutionary case for approving Darwinism is based on precisely the sort of erring fetishization of nature that got the generation that worshiped the Calf into such tragic trouble. The Jewish mission, in Rav Hirsch’s view, is precisely to reverse such errors.
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