D. S. (David Samuel) Margoliouth.

Religions of Bible lands online

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Margoliouth, D. S. 1858-194
Religions of Bible lands


Edited by the Rev.








Laudian Professor of Arabic, Oxford






Of works dealing with Comparative Religion the
first place for learning, acuteness, and suggestive-
ness is probably to be assigned to J. G. Frazer's
Golden Bough; it is indeed a grammar of the
subject, containing paradigms and categories to
which it is ordinarily easy to refer religious
practices and doctrines. The religions to which the
following sketches refer are treated in the classical
works of Tiele and De La Saussaye ; in the former
they are described by one who was an expert in all,
in the latter by a series of specialists : the History
of Religion by Dr. Allan Menzies is on a smaller
scale, but covers the same ground as these great
classics. Of works dealing especially with the
Religion of the Semites the unfinished Lectures of
the lamented Robertson Smith are the best repre-
sentative ; much of the matter has still to be
collected from the notes by which various collec-
tions of inscriptions have been elucidated; except,
indeed, in the case of the Assyrian Religion, on


which there are many treatises, the latest in English
being probably that by Mr. L. W. King, whose
other works also provide valuable material. A text
and translation of the chief Babylonian Myths and
Epics form the latest volume of the Keilinschrift-
liche Bibliothek. For the Religion of Egypt the
scholarly and brilliant treatises of E. W. Budge are
most helpful; portions of the subject are dealt
with by Maspero in his Mythological Essays, and
in the treatises of Brugsch, Wiedemann, and von
Strauss und Torney. For the Religion of Persia the
History of the Par sis, by D. F. Karaka, as the work
of a believer, is peculiarly instructive ; otherwise the
material contained in the contributions of Darm-
steter, Mills and West to the Sacred Boohs of
the East is probably the best available.

The nature of these Manuals scarcely permits of
constant references to authorities. I hope, however,
that there is no statement below for which some
good authority could not be cited, though, where
there is a question of weighing probabilities, the
writer has had to trust his own judgment.




1. Bible Lands.

2. Their "Articles of Religion ".

3. Method of Study.


Semitic Religions

1. Sources.

2. Class— Polytheism.

3. Names of Gods.

4. Mixture of Gods.

5. Character of Gods.

6. Duties towards Gods :—
(a) Residences of the Gods.

(c) Servants of the Gods.

(d) Food of the Gods.

(e) Sympathy.
(/) Entertainment.

7. Prophecy.

8. Cosmogony.

9. Morals.

(b) Gifts to the Gods.

10. Future Life.



The Religion of Egypt


The Mummy.
Animal Worship.
Gods of Egypt.
The Sun God.

6. Other Deities.

7. Festivals.

8. Sacred Books.

9. Mysticism.



The Religion of Persia



Sacred Books.

The Tower of Silence.

Clean and Unclean.

The Worship of Fire.

Dualism : Ormuzd, Ahriman.

7. Vestiges of Polytheism.

8. Religious Operations.

9. Theory of a Future State.

10. Cosmogony.

11. Spirit of Mazdeism.


1. Bible Lands. — By Bible Lands we mean coun-
tries in which considerable portions of the Old Testa-
ment history were enacted, or whose inhabitants
exercised considerable influence on the Israelitish

The study of the religions dominant in these
countries is of importance for the right understand-
ing of those parts of the Old Testament in which
foreign practices are condemned, and also for the
better comprehension of the ceremonies permitted or
encouraged in the Biblical books. In a system
which assumed an attitude of fierce hostility towards
other systems attention is necessarily directed to
what was similar and what was dissimilar in their
respective institutions.

According to the Biblical narrative the founder of
the Israelites came from a place probably in Mesopo-
tamia. He and his descendants for two generations
lived in the nomad state in Palestine, occasionally
visiting other countries. Their descendants grew into
a nation in the Egyptian Delta, whence they returned
and seized the land of Canaan, expelling the inhabi-


tants from their cities. This process, which was not
without vicissitudes, culminated in their supremacy
on both sides of Jordan, and over a great variety of
States. After many centuries they were transplanted
by kings of Assyria and Babylonia to the east of
the Euphrates, whence a portion of the nation was
restored to Palestine by Persian kings. The latest
name mentioned in the Old Testament is that of a
contemporary of Alexander the Great.

Bible Lands are therefore chiefly the lands either
comprised in or adjacent to Canaan. Phoenicia, Phil-
istia and Syria were sufficiently famous to be men-
tioned by the classics of the West ; many more of the
nations or States mentioned in the Old Testament as
near neighbours of the Israelites receive notice in As-
syrian monuments, and some in yet older Egyptian
documents. Of the seven nations whom the Israelites
claimed more especially to have displaced, one, the
Hittites, played a prominent part in ancient history.

Although the sentiments cherished by the Israelites
towards the races that they found established in
Canaan on their return thither were fiercely hostile,
the evidence of language might prove them to be their
kin. Whatever may be the origin of the name Abra-
ham, his sons and grandsons have Semitic names.
The name by which the nation contrasted itself with
foreigners, the Hebrews, has an obvious Semitic
etymology ; like Perseans, it means the people from
the opposite bank or shore. Equally Semitic is the
name of their bitter enemies the Philistines ; their


collective appellation means the wanderers or exiles,
a word which is familiar in one of the South Semitic
dialects, and the sense of which was still known when
the Septuagint translation of the Bible was made.
The language of Canaan was also the language of the
Phoenicians, with whom the Israelites had relations,
sometimes friendly and sometimes hostile, and of
Moab, which incurred the fierce hatred of Israelite
legislators. Of the names of places current in Pales-
tine before the Israelitish immigration there are but
few which must be interpreted from non- Semitic
sources. Of the names recorded in the Book of
Joshua the greater number are without doubt Semitic

Being then so closely akin to the Canaanites, the
Chosen Race had a natural sympathy with the re-
ligions which they found in vogue, and, as we learn
from the Bible, were ever ready to return to them.

The further back the Aramaic language is traced
.the closer is its resemblance to the idiom of the
Canaanites. The Bible represents the Syrians as
cousins of the Israelites, and brings them into close
and on the whole friendly relations with the latter
at many periods. The Syrian language became the
second mother-tongue of the Jews at the time of the
exile, and a variety of it is still the vernacular of
some of the Jewish communities in the East. It
is even possible that during the time of Israelitish
independence there were communities whose native
language was Syriac rather than Canaanitish. Hence


Syria may be treated as a Bible Land without

The oldest monuments of the Semitic language are
in Assyrian, of which Babylonian is a dialect. Ee-
peated excavations have enabled scholars to trace
the existence of this idiom to a period that might be
regarded as fabulous. Largely mixed with a foreign
vocabulary and with the characteristic Semitic sounds
softened and confused, and defaced by a system of
writing in which the root-system is obliterated, it is
nevertheless a branch of the Semitic stock. The
nations who employed it constituted a great world-
power — one whose influence was felt by the Oanaan-
ites long before and also long after the Israelitish
immigration, and the names of whose gods were
in consequence familiar to the Israelitish prophets.
Yet the title Bible Land seems scarcely appropriate to
a country in which the greater part of the Israelitish
race disappeared from history, and which the restored
community abandoned, taking with them no feeling
but abhorrence.

To the land of Egypt there are many allusions in
the Old Testament, and some of the writers display
a familiar acquaintance with Egyptian customs. Al-
lusions to Egyptian religions seem to be intentionally
avoided, and detestation of Egypt was for a long
time a leading motive in Israelitish policy. Towards
the end of the history of independent Israel this
feeling vanished, and Egypt became the home of
many Jewish exiles from the time of Jeremiah,


becoming at a much later time the place where
Israelitish ideas mingled with and became modified
by the discoveries of the Greeks. After Canaan
Egypt is the land which affects Biblical history most.

The Persian Empire is associated with the restora-
tion of the national existence of the Jews, and many
of the episodes of the later Biblical history passed in
Persian cities. To the religion of the Persians the
Jews are not disinclined to acknowledge certain
obligations, and to the similarity of their religious
beliefs the latter probably owed the special favour
with which they were treated by the former. Liberal
treatment by the ruling Power has almost invariably
had the effect of rendering the Israelites expansive
and ready to adopt ideas unconnected or even at
variance with their own religious system. Whereas,
therefore, the cruelties which they associated with
the names of Egypt at the commencement of their
history and of Babylon at the end of it rendered
them averse to the practices of these countries, the
benefit which they had derived from Persia caused
them to regard the cult of that country with tolera-
tion. The difficulties of dating the documents of the
Israelites render the detection of borrowings from
Persia peculiarly difficult. But in regarding Persia
as a Bible Land for our present purpose we are
clearly justified.

2. Their "Articles of Religion ".—The drawing
up of articles of religion is invariably a late process ;
beliefs and practices exist long before it occurs to any


one to codify the former or to analyse the latter.
Thus when we learn that the Jewish articles of faith
are 613, we may infer that they were not drawn up
till the Jews had learned to count by letters, that
number standing clearly in some relation to the
numerical value of the Jewish name for the law ;
and counting by letters was learned by them from
the Greeks. These articles then were not drawn up
till many centuries after the national religion had
been practised. In the case of the religions with
which we are dealing we possess no such handbooks ;
we must, therefore, be on our guard against trying to
know more than the worshippers knew about their
cults. Most of all we must remember that the
distinction between the real and the imaginary, be-
tween truth and falsehood, is one that belongs to a
late period of human progress ; and one which is
differently appreciated by different minds even in
civilised times. Hence in drawing up an account of
an ancient religion we must expect to find many con-
tradictory propositions.

The philosopher Nietzsche has with great justice
compared the savage consciousness to the dreaming
state : sensations are ascribed to imaginary causes,
and in the assignment of those causes there are no
laws of chronology, nor of space, nor even of identity ;
a dead man can act as well as a living one ; even
between the subject and the object there is no clear
line of demarcation. The gods may be thought of
sometimes as mortal, sometimes as immortal ; as


many, and as one ; as passionless, and as passionate ;
when man has begun to reflect he will discover an
inconsistency between these epithets, but while he is
still in the dream state he is unconscious of it.

When,however, reflection has commenced, theology
begins to take the place of religion. This means that
the creations of dreamland are subjected to the
categories by which experiences of the waking state
are interpreted. Systems so evolved often give rise
to official religions, but do not greatly affect the mass
of those who have neither time nor inclination for
abstract thought. Hence the speculations of priests
are ordinarily regarded as an unsafe source for the
study of a nation's religion. The comparison of the
practice of different communities is thought to be a
safer guide both to the original purpose of a practice
and to the instinct which fostered it. This does not
prevent the possibility of the religion of a race de-
veloping in one direction rather than another, but it
is rare that national religions can with justice be de-
clared to be pervaded by some distinct dogma. On
the other hand, the reasons for practices are per-
petually shifting, and while we are not justified in
attributing to those who maintain them at any parti-
cular time the most enlightened of current explana-
tions, we are also not entitled to attribute to them
the naive reason which originally gave rise to the
practice. Hence a description of a religion, so long
as it is confined to names and customs, may well be
accurate ; when it exceeds those regions, it runs the


risk of ascribing to a community what is the property
of certain individuals.

3. Our Method therefore will be to collect and
explain the chief names which the records of these
religions furnish us. Familiarly employed by the
worshippers, they were associated with certain ideas ;
frequently we can place ourselves in the position of
the worshippers, and see things through their eyes.
Even where the records are exceedingly imperfect, we
have rarely (for this purpose) to deplore much more
than the loss of names ; the real has a history, and an
endless series of facts attaching to it : the characters
of fiction have no ancestry and no contemporaries.


1. Sources. — The original home of the Semites
appears to have been Arabia, whence by a series of
migrations they spread into Assyria, Syria and
Palestine. One branch of the Palestinian family,
the Phoenicians, sent colonies over the whole coast
of the Mediterranean. So far as we can trace the
history of the Semites by the aid of comparative
grammar, before the first of these migrations they
had already acquired a fair degree of civilisation.
The names for the domestic relationships and for
some political institutions are common to the whole
Semitic family ; so also are the names for some of
the objects and processes which enable men to live
in comfort. But religions are ordinarily conserva-
tive, and to understand some rites and practices we
have to go back in thought beyond the documents
which we possess. Vestiges are to be found of a
state of savagery which the Semites, ere the first
migration, would seem to have outgrown.

The physical features of Arabia caused its inhabi-
tants from early times to be divided into nomad
communities and settled communities. The fertile


regions developed a luxurious town-life, whereas the
desert retained its charm for the Bedouin. Probably
the ranks of each of these divisions were constantly
recruited from those of the other. The need for
more means of subsistence drove the increasing
population to make fresh directions, as the Arabs
call nations ; and for enterprises of the sort which
required numbers the members of many tribes would

We should naturally seek the oldest Semitic re-
ligion in Arabia, and among the Bedouins. Their
religions, however, were abolished by Mohammed
and his successors, and we know little about them
beyond what the Arabic antiquarians thought fit to
preserve. These authors lived for the most part
some generations after the abolition of the old wor-
ships, with which many of them had little sympathy.
Their information is, therefore, meagre, and has
ordinarily to be received with caution.

Of the ancient States that occupied the fertile
portions of Arabia many monuments have been
discovered ; some that can be dated go back to the
eighth century B.C., and it is probable that many are
far earlier. They are not exclusively religious in
character, but for the most part give some informa-
tion that throws light on the cults that prevailed.
Many are tablets which either record gifts to the
gods or commemorate answers to prayers.

For the religions of the Syrian States we possess
documents of about the same age as the earliest


that can be dated of the last named. They are
inscriptions composed by vassals of the Assyrian
kings, the very names of whose States would with-
out these inscriptions be unknown. Occasional
monuments are preserved from the succeeding
centuries, till about the time of the Christian era
they become common, and continue so till about
the break-up of paganism.

For about the same period we possess a series of
monuments in dialects of the Phoenician language,
the greater number being from the neighbourhood
of Carthage, and being worded in precisely the
same style, save for the difference in the names
of the persons who caused them to be written.
One inscription of importance is provided by Israel's
near neighbour Moab.

Earlier than all these are the Tell-el-Amarna
tablets, a series of letters addressed by persons
resident in Palestine to residents in Egypt ; they
were composed in the fifteenth century b.c. Their
contents, which are often obscure, are chiefly polit-
ical ; but they contain precious information about
the prevalent religions also.

Of all the Semitic countries the only one which
has left a religious pagan literature is Assyria. A
large collection of texts still exists in the Assyrian
language, not unfrequently translated from the
original Sumerian or Accadian, consisting of epics,
theogonies, psalms and prayers. From these texts
we obtain the same sort of information concerning


the Assyrian worship as we get from Greek and
Indian authors about the ideas and practices of
their respective countries. Whereas the greater
number of Semitic deities are for us mere names,
those of Assyria have some sort of history and

Besides these monuments the Bible is itself a
source of information about the religions of Bible
Lands. It is true the Israelites were forbidden to
mention the gods of their neighbours (Exodus xxiii.
13) ; and acquaintance with the religious practices
of the "idolaters" was regarded by the pious as
in itself a danger. Copyists of the Old Testament,
where the name "god" was given to an idol, were
in the habit of altering it to " horror " or " abomina-
tion ". With the Prophets a foreign religion was not
a subject for sympathetic study but for mockery and
detestation. Still the rule of Exodus was not con-
sistently carried out. Numerous places were called
after pagan deities (e.g., Beth-Shemesh, Beth-Dagon,
Beth-Lehem, Beth-Anoth, Beth-Chanan, Anathoth,
Ashteroth Karnaim), and though some of these were
altered by pious monotheists, the greater number
retained their old names. Moreover, by the side of
the stern monotheists of whom Moses is the type
there were always persons who shared the tolerance
of Aaron. One of the Judges (xi. 24) went so far as
to admit that the Moabites got their country from
Chemosh just as the Israelites got theirs from
Jehovah. Another text implies that sacrifices to


the former deity were effectual (2 Kings iii. 27).
Even Abraham is made to identify the deity of
Melchizedek, King of Salem, with his own (Gen. xiv.
22). Such political operations as treaties, alliances,
and even truces, could not be made binding without
the witness of gods, and on such occasions the exist-
ence of foreign deities had to be recognised. Visitors,
whose presence was not discouraged by the Israelites,
whether they came for commerce or for the perfor-
mance of definite services, were sure to let something
be known of the religion which they followed at
home. Hence the Biblical legislation and remon-
strance, even where they condemn foreign practices
most severely, sometimes manifest some acquain-
tance with their externals. Bible statements as to the
localities of particular cults are not unfrequently
confirmed by the evidence of monuments. With
more than the externals of foreign religions it is not

Finally, some of the classical (Greek and Eoman)
writers were interested in foreign religions, and
either wrote about them themselves, or encouraged
the production of translations from original treatises
bearing on the subject. Lucian (ob. circ. 180 a.d.,
himself a Syrian from Samosata) has left a treatise on
the Syrian goddess. A portion of a work on Phoeni-
cian religion by Sakkun-yathan ("the gift of Sakkun")
was translated by Philo of Byblus, and is preserved
by Eusebius. Doubts concerning the Phoenician
origin of this work have been dispelled by the fact


that the sense of both parts of the author's name,
till recent times unknown, has been ascertained
owing to fresh finds of inscriptions in the Phoenician
language. Greek historians and geographers occa-
sionally record observations which the study of in-
scriptions tends to confirm. They are of course free
from the animus which is everywhere apparent in
the accounts given by Israelites of these matters.

2. Glass. — The Semitic religions belong to the
class called Polytheism. Eespect was paid to a variety
of objects, real or imaginary, supposed to be possessed
of the will and the power to help or hinder men's
designs. Beal objects thus respected might be
either fetishes, i.e., pieces of matter to which this
power was attributed, being detached or detachable,
or objects in nature such as the sun, the moon, the
earth, a mountain, lake or tree. The belief that all
these are possessed of volition similar to our own is
sometimes called animism, and the race have eman-
cipated themselves from it by a process similar to
that by which children emancipate themselves from
the notion that chairs and tables possess volition
similar to their own. The imaginary object of
worship is the conjectural cause of visible or sen-
sible operations. If the plant, e.g., be not thought
to have a will of its own, it may yet be supposed
to be under the direction of a being similar to our-
selves. The natural process in which the plant is
concerned will then be produced by a quasi-human
agency, though the plant itself is no longer credited


with intelligence and volition. This belief is inter-
mediate between the naive supposition that the plant
is an agent and the scientific belief that the processes
which affect the plant are illustrations of laws. Pro-
gress consists in the constant substitution of the notions
of force and law for agencies with human wills.

The course of progress does not ordinarily do
away with the naive beliefs entirely. The Semitic
religions as known to us exhibit therefore side by
side ideas which appear to date from very different
eras of human progress. That objects close at hand
were not themselves capable of volition was detected
very early ; but in the case of distant objects, the
sun, moon and stars, it took longer to find this out.
But even in their case the idea that they were agents
was presently discarded for the supposition that
they were the possessions or the abodes of, or under
the direction of, agents of another sort. These agents
were usually thought of in human form, it being
difficult for the grown man to associate volition with
any other figure. The respect and worship paid to
images of gods was therefore ordinarily symbolic ;

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