The Bacchae – The Jews and the Greeks

07 Aug

Thousands of years ago Euripides wrote a play called The Bacchae.[1] In it he portrays worlds in conflict. In his world two distinct and opposing points of view were being played out in real history. The rational (philosophers), represented by a group of men in his play, depicted their dry, rather insensitive understanding of the world. On the opposite end of the pendulum was the more irrational and popular point of view held by the polytheistic culture of the time and represented in Euripides’ play by a group of women. In the end the polytheistic culture (the irrational) wins over the logical premise of the philosophers (the rational), and the women kill the men and cut them in pieces. Gory, yes, but it is a fair representation of history.

The philosophers believed our cosmos is the result of a single underlying principle as opposed to the then current and more popular understanding that it was the result of a conflict of multiple forces—unseen and virtually unknowable. The philosophers, however, believed our world was real and could be understood through rational thought incorporating cause and effect. On the other hand, the religious culture of the day believed in the irrational. In fact, their worldview was that much of all that is cannot be known at all. One might say their perception of the world was an ancient expression of our modern idea that there are no absolutes! They believed in many gods and that our world is really an emanation of these gods or forces in conflict. They thought the gods were unknowable except through their identity with the cycles of nature that seemed to command the cycles of life itself. The purposes of these gods were similar to that of humans; they wanted life, power and the ability to enjoy all the comforts and pleasures they could. Humanity existed to serve them and were rewarded or punished according to how well they lived out that purpose.

At the very same time that The Bacchae played out in the Greek culture, the Hebrews were struggling with the meaning of their existence. Both Israel and Judah were questioning the God of their fathers and looking to the nations around them for true meaning in life. This was the time of the rise of the Assyrian and Babylonian empires. For all intents and purposes, if the opposing worldview won out, how were the sons of Jacob to understand the worldview given them at Sinai?

Unlike the history of the Greeks, the faith of the Jews was undergirded by the coming of the prophets. The prophets foretold that God would punish his children for abandoning their cultural worldview in favor of that of the nations around them. However, the prophets also claimed God would not abandon them, but when they were defeated and exiled in a land their fathers didn’t know, God would perform a thing unheard of up to that time; namely, that the exiles would return to their homeland. During the many centuries that exile was practiced by the conquering nations, no ethnic people were ever permitted to return to the land that was once theirs. If this occurred, it would be a certain sign that the worldview of the conquering empires were not triumphant over the worldview of Judaism, but that the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob had used these nations to punish his children for disobedience, and a forgiving God was now permitting his children to return to the land that was theirs, promised to them by him.

What happened? What does history record? Is there a Bacchae played out in Israel’s history? Do they account for one in their own literature? No! Nothing like this occurred. The Jews returned, just as the prophets had predicted, and through the ministries of Nehemiah and Ezra they turned their lives toward obedience to God. Their world was a real one, not an emanation of God, but physically real. Effect followed cause in that rewards followed obedience, and punishment followed disobedience. What the philosophers could not convey in Greece, the Jews learned in Babylon and brought back with them to the Promised Land of their fathers.

[1] The point of view I am expressing in this blog is largely dependent upon John N. Oswalt’s book The Bible Among the Myths, chapter one. I don’t know if he would fully endorse my conclusions (i.e. if they are an accurate representation of his), but as far as I can see they appear to be the same as I found in his book.

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Posted by on August 7, 2011 in Paganism


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