From My Life: Poetry and Truth - Book 4, pages 157-162


Suppose a natural and all-encompassing religion originates and then develops on a particular and self-revealing path. The lands, to which we apply our imagination, the way of life and the personalities of the people would be most suited to the purpose. At the very least we do not find any other place in the whole wide world where conditions were more favorable or encouraging for this to occur. If we assume that natural religion developed early in the human spirit, then there must be much delicacy of intention inherent to it: it resides in the conviction of a universal force guiding the world order. Such a religion, revealed by the deities to this or that people, would carry within it a belief in a providence, which the divine being grants to a certain favored human, family, tribe or race. This faith seems to develop rigorously out of the human psyche. It requires tradition, custom, and security derived since ancient times.

Beautiful in its development, the Israelite tradition finds its basis in these first men, who placed their faith in this particular guiding force. They are represented as heros of faith, who recognize their trust in a higher being. They acknowledge their dependence upon it, blindly following each and every law, never doubting or growing tired as they await the eventual fulfillment of its promise to them.

Once a particular, revealed religion establishes the concept that it is more favored by the gods than any other, it also firmly sets the ground for its separation from the rest. The first humans appear to have been closely related however their occupations soon separated them.* The hunter was the freest of them all. From his line evolved the warrior and the overlord. Those, who built farms, tilled the soil,and constructed residences and barns


to store what they produced, had time for thinking because their existences promised longevity and security. The shepherds seemed to have the most unlimited existence. There were no set boundries for their possessions. Herds multiplied endlessly and expanded their space on which they would graze. Almost from the beginning these three forms of existence seemed to regard each other with irritation and contempt. Shepherds were deemed abominable to the city dwellers, so they sequestered themselves even further. The hunters disappeared from sight into the mountains and only reappeared later as conquerors.

The patriarchs belonged to the shepherd class. Their way of life in the seas of the desert and the meadows gave them a sense of broad and free existence. They lived under the clouds of heaven with all the nocturnal stars and they experienced the grandeur. More than the active and capable hunter, more than the self-assured, careful and house residing farmer, they needed unshakeable belief that a god would draw them to his side, visit them, share in their existence, guide and save them.

There are other factors we must consider, thus we must examine the history. As human, beautiful and serene the religion of the patriarchs might seem, there are also times of savagery and depravity from which the human has ascended and into which he may once again sink.

It is natural that hatred is reconciled by blood and by the death of a defeated enemy. We may well imagine men declaring peace on the battlefield surrounded by rows of the dead. Perhaps slaughtering animals to form an alliance


occurs as a natural result of the previous battle. It's not too far-fetched to imagine men, who see the gods as helpful agents, opponents or bystanders, attempt to draw the gods to them through their dead in order to reconcile with them and garner their favor. If we stay with the theme of sacrifice and examine the art of offering as it was practiced in the ancient times, we find a custom which may be foreign to us but which arose as the result of war, namely animals of all kinds slaughtered, hewn into two equal halves and placed on either side of a path with those who wished to form a covenant with the deities in the middle.*

There is another bias running in a wonderous yet ominous way throughout this beautiful world that everything which is dedicated to the gods and praiseworthy must die. This too can probably be traced back to customs of war surviving into peacetime. A city mightily defended by its residents would be threatened with the same vow. It would be taken by storm and nothing would be left alive; certainly not the men and many times the women, the children, and the cattle suffered the same fate.* In a hasty and superstitious manner, by design or coincidence, they become promised offerings to the gods. In this case even those who might have been spared, including their own children, become blood offerings to attone for the sins of such insanity.*

Such a barbaric form of worship could not have originated in Abraham's mild and truly paternal character. Instead it is the gods, who, while tempting us, seem to have taken on those traits which men are inclined to attribute to them,


order Abraham to commit a horrible act. He must offer up his son as a pledge to the new covenant. In accordance with past custom he not only must slay and burn his son but divide him into two halves and station himself between the smoking entrails to await the new promise of the favor-granting gods. Without hesitation and in blind trust Abraham prepares himself to fulfill the command. The wishes of the gods must be satisfied. Abraham's testing is now over. The stakes could not have risen any higher. Then Sara dies and this presents the opportunity for Abraham to take symbolic ownership of the land of Canaan. He needs a grave and this is the first time that he seeks a piece of property on this earth. Some time earlier he may have sought out a bifurcated cave opposite the grove of Mamre. He purchases the cave with the surrounding land and in accordance with the laws he observes, this possession becomes very important for him. It's more important than he himself might have considered because it means he, his sons, and grandchildren will also remain there. It leads to claims on the entire land and the inclination of all his descendants to gather there and thus establish true ownership. From here on multiple family scenes pass by. Abraham still keeps himself separate from the residents and when Ismael, the son of the Egyptian maid, also marries a daughter of this land then Isaac must marry a kinswoman of equal rank.

Abraham sends his servant to Mesopotamia to relatives whom he left there. The clever Eleasar arrives unannounced and in order to bring back the proper bride he tests the maidens at the stream for their willingness to serve. He requests some water


and Rebecca also provides water for his camels without being asked. He gives her gifts, presents his suit and she does not reject him so he takes her back to his master's house and she is wed to Isaac. But here too they wait a long time before offspring is produced. First there are several years of testing before Rebecca is blessed and the same schism, which resulted from Abraham's double marriage to two mothers, arises again. Two boys of opposite temprament battle under the heart of their mother. They are brought forth into the world. The elder is spirited and powerful; the younger delicate and clever. The first was the father's favorite and the second was the mother's. The battle for supremacy, which had started at birth, continued. Esau is quiet and indifferent to the first-born status fate has dealt him. Jacob does not forget that his brother is holding him back. Mindful of any opportunity to win the advantage, Jacob bargains for his brother's birthright and takes it with his father's blessing. Esau is furious and vows to kill his brother. Jacob flees in order to seek his fortune in the land of his ancestors.

Now for the first time in a noble family there appears a member who has no reservations about gaining through intellect and cunning what has been denied him by nature and circumstance. It is often noted and discussed that the holy scriptures never portray this or that patriarch favored by god as a model of virtue. Indeed these are men with various character traits and flaws. However each has one attribute which cannot fail to reach god's heart. This is the unshakeable belief that god takes special interest in him and his family.


Universal and natural religion requires no faith. There is simply the conviction that there is a great, generating, ordering and guiding essence hidden behind nature, which manifests itself to us.* There is the conviction that even if an individual chooses to let go of the threads which lead him through life he can return to them at any time. It's completely different for a formal religion, which tells us that a mighty Being has selected and will bless a particular individual, group, people or country. Such religion is grounded in faith, which must be unshakeable if it is to remain intact. Any doubt is deadly to formal religion. One can always return to a conviction but not to faith. There is endless testing and delay in the fulfillment of repeated promises whereby the forefathers' capacity for faith is placed in the brightest light.

Even Jacob makes his way in this faith and although he does not win our approval because of his cunning and deceit, he gains it through his deep and abiding love for Rachel, whom he courts during his hasty retreat in much the same way as Eleasar won Rebecca for his father. Through him the promise of a mighty race shall unfold and come to fruition. He shall have many sons around him but they and their mother will cause him much heartache.

For seven years he works for his beloved without impatience or vacillation. His father-in-law, who like Jacob is cunning and will achieve his ends no matter the cost, deceives Jacob and makes him pay for what he has done to his brother.


Go to pages 163-168


Text provided by the Lockwood Library, State University of New York at Buffalo.
Imaging and translation by Susan Kriegbaum-Hanks