VARDIS FISHER'S "TESTAMENT OF MAN"
Valley of Vision
|Valley of Vision Abelard Press, New York, 1951 (426 pages)
After five prehistoric novels, the Testament of Man vaults into history, to that critical moment when the concept of a single God was beginning to take shape. The Hebrew tendency toward monotheism had an antecedent in the Egypt of Ahknaton, but it was the particular set of conditions around the time of the monarchy of David and Solomon, when monotheism first took root in a rude, semi-desert nation on the fringes of civilization, which would determine the future course of western history. This pivotal sixth novel looks not only at the birth of one God but at the mentality that surrounded and resulted from it.
Solomon, after murdering a rival claimant to the throne, his brother Adonijah, inherits a fledgling backward kingdom from his warrior-chieftain father, David. To that kingdom he brings a vision: to propel Israel into the ranks of the great nations. For this, he needs to tax, to build, to create a certain splendor: the standard by which other states will judge and accept Israel as one of themselves. With those foreign nations he must have trade and diplomatic relations. Above all, he must bring to his country of shepherds and squalid farmers—for much of the land is miserly in its fruits—a more cosmopolitan outlook, a broadening of customs, an acceptance that there are other beliefs and ways of life in the wider world besides its own.
The god of the Israelites is Yah, which Fisher, following a prominent line of scholarly thought, sees as derived from a desert tribal god, possibly of the Kenites of Sinai, carried into Canaan during the course of Hebrew migrations. (Today, much of the Israelite make-up is regarded as having been of the same racial stock as the Canaanites, inhabiting the same general area.) This deity, as reflected in much of the Old Testament, is harsh, demanding, vengeful. He commands that in war his conquering people must slay man, woman and child; he forbids any indulgence in luxury, sensual pleasure, wealth and ostentation. Rebellious sons are to be stoned. Women will have few rights compared to men. Yah is the god of pastoral patriarchs with their rigid mores and austere lifestyles, carried uneasily into a land promising more of the fruits of life, inhabited by an older, softer, agricultural people with their more tractable gods and their hedonistic lifestyles and fertility rituals. By the time of the Davidic monarchy, belief that Yah is the mightiest of the gods is beginning to evolve toward belief that he is the only god, a process that will take centuries to complete.
Inevitably, the Israelites are absorbing many ingredients of the wider Canaanite culture. Just as inevitably, this process is hotly resisted by a conservative element: the prophet who claims to speak for Yah. Ahijah stands in direct line from Yescha of the preceding novel, The Divine Passion. He is Solomon’s personal nemesis, a fanatic visionary who condemns all the king’s changes and ambitions. This war between prophet and king will become the central thread of Israel’s history. Solomon accuses Ahijah of wanting to lead the people back into the desert. But the prophet fears the loss of ancient virtues; the distinctive Israelite integrity he believes in can be maintained only by remaining "apart, aloof and unmixed." Consequently, the laws handed down to Moses are unchangeable and must never be compromised. And to provide a philosophical underpinning to this immutability and separateness, Ahijah proclaims the concept of "the chosen people." Upon the children of Israel Yah has set a special task of righteousness which will lead them to ascendancy over all the nations.
To Solomon, such ideas are anathema, and ominous. "If we were to isolate ourselves in aloof and haughty superiority . . . other kings would march in and exterminate us." He fears that men like Ahijah promise Israel a joyless existence, an eternal slavery "to the tribal laws of desert patriarchs." Indeed, if Solomon had his way, he would introduce a Mother figure like Astarte, the Phoenician fertility goddess, to his people’s worship. In the ancient world, one of the marks of a powerful god was thought to be the liberal bestowal of water on his people’s land to make it rich and productive; yet Yah’s Judah is largely a waterless wilderness. Reflecting the outlook of agricultural societies, Solomon sees women as the womb of life; goddesses bring rain, fruits and flowers. He goes so far as to wonder whether Yah is so angry and unforgiving because he doesn’t have a wife. The Israelite god was perhaps the only male deity of the entire ancient world who was not associated with a female consort, even before he took on a monotheistic character. Israel had a divine Father, but, unlike other nations, never a divine Mother. Or if it did, she was later suppressed from memory.
The conflict between Solomon and Ahijah, and the latter’s eventual triumph, Fisher represents as the pivotal moment of the long development traced through the earlier novels. Yescha in The Divine Passion stood at the fork in the road; Ahijah is leading western man irrevocably down it. This is the final victory of the Father figure over the Mother figure. The desert Hebrews have elevated the Sun god to an unassailable position. Their primary emotions toward him are fear and obedience. In the face of the father’s jealousy and wrath, the son has chosen castration, symbolized physically by circumcision, emotionally by the strongly anti-sexual stance all the prophets adopted, and their suppression of the female principle in both deity and the world. Yescha’s crisis of personal isolation has been expanded into the isolation of culture and belief which Ahijah is urging upon his fellow Israelites. It is an isolation which will intensify their sense of ‘sin,’ enforcing still further the impulse to critical self-examination and righteous obedience to divine commandment.
Among Solomon’s many wives was a princess of Egypt. Fisher makes Khate the most interesting character of the novel. Homely, but possessing a magnetic intelligence, grace and level-headedness, she is the king’s refuge and joy—and the source of much of his wise justice. Khate personifies the ‘female’ input which the Hebrews so sorely lack, the lost mother figure. And she represents the influence of Egypt on the development of Hebrew thought. Some scholars maintain that the world’s first genuine expression of monotheism arose from Akhnaton, that mystic Pharoah a century or so before the traditional date of the Exodus who declared that Aten was the sole deity. Though his religious revolution was crushed following his death, certain of its ideas survived and produced a stream of thought represented by Khate’s declaration that God "is in all things, a force for good, the spirit of compassion, mercy, forgiveness. . ." She tells Solomon that God is both male and female, hates war and doesn’t want men to kill one another. God constitutes Love, precisely because of this embodiment of the union of both sexes. The question of how great a role such early ideas from Egypt played in the evolution of Jewish monotheism as well as in the whole of ancient-world religious and ethical thought (including that of Greece), is a thorny but fascinating one.
The Valley of Vision is a novel brimming with ideas, refreshing in its unabashed originality and fearless examination of sacrosanct preconceptions. Its content, in 1951, was more than controversial. It was a denial, such as no previous fiction writer had had the audacity to do, of some of the most cherished beliefs in contemporary society: the purity of early Jewish monotheism and the integrity of the biblical record. Some of the first reviews were scathing in their denunciation. Old Testament scholars had long been making the same denial, but they were not working in the medium of popular fiction. They had shown that the early Israelites were not monotheistic, and had borrowed much from the Canaanite surroundings to produce the Jewish religion of later times. Solomon himself set up temples to other gods besides Yahweh, and even something as simple as the existence of Hebrew names containing the element "-baal" indicates a deference to Canaanite deities.
The novel examines topics like the origins of Passover and the Sabbath, circumcision, human and animal sacrifice. The Israelites as well as the Canaanites are known to have offered human sacrifice of first-born children (as part of the "first fruits") to their gods, and although later prophets did their best to suppress the practice, it continued intermittently right up to the eve of the Exile. Fisher strives to present a picture of the ethical atmosphere of the age. There was no belief in life after death, no punishment for sins in another world, no resurrection. Religion was largely a matter of ritual, motivated by fear of the gods, with little or no moral basis. The idea that sin against a neighbor was also a sin against God was as yet unknown.
As for Solomon himself, most of the biblical account is invention and embellishment, an attempt by later writers to produce a glorious past to equal the other great nations of the Near East. The numbers of his wives, his sacrifices, the details of his riches and his victories in war are beyond possibility. Israel had neither such population nor resources. Even the famous judgment later attributed to him as an example of his wisdom, the identification of the disputed baby’s real mother, was in circulation in most of the countries of the East long before Solomon’s time. That he was not a benevolent ruler is likely: crushing taxes and the forced draft of thousands of laborers to carry out his projects (if any of them are historical) are sufficient attestation; that he was morally unscrupulous is borne out even by the biblical record. Yet, as Fisher points out, all kings of the time were despots, cruel and barbarous, and in an ethically primitive age they had few checks on their greed and ambitions save those imposed by their enemies. But Fisher chooses to accentuate the humanity that must have been in Solomon to some degree. He may indeed have had something of the wry cynicism Fisher gives him, for Israel at this time would have been a difficult land to rule in the face of powerful neighbors, fanatical hostility from within, and the frictions generated by rival religious tendencies in society.
Fisher concludes his appended Notes and Commentary to The Valley of Vision (a practice he had begun in the previous novel to provide scholarly support for his portrayals) with these observations: Solomon "precipitated the struggle between kings and prophets that was to rend Israel for the better part of a thousand years, and leave its indelible mark on the institutions, customs and religions of the western world. . . . The rigid way triumphed under the Maccabees; and the Christians in taking over so much of Judaism gave a ‘desert psychology’ to agricultural peoples. . . . The great significance of Solomon in world history can be formulated in the question: What would the world be like today if Ahijah had lost and Solomon had won?"
The conflict between Solomon and Ahijah in The Valley of Vision has now progressed to the stage of conflict between whole cultures. The great philosophical rivalry of the ancient world was between Greek and Jew, philosophy and scripture, reason and revelation. One enthroned the ultimate capacity of the human mind, the other the glory and leadership of God. Military conflict came with the Maccabean uprising which began in 167 BCE when Antiochus IV, Seleucid king of Syria which included Judea, tried to suppress the practice of the Jewish religion. But while this is often presented as a war of liberation from foreign oppression—it resulted in an independent Jewish state which lasted a century—it can also be seen as a civil war among the Jews themselves. For many of the Jews of the time had adopted the Greek outlook and way of life and collaborated with the Seleucids in their attempt to suppress the revolt.
Fisher illuminates the sharp division in Jewish society. On the one hand stood the community of the Pious, with their adherence to the Torah (the first five books of the Hebrew bible, embodying the Mosaic Law) and their antagonism toward any assimilation with non-Jewish culture. Against them stood those hellenized Jews who believed that Greek civilization was the highest of humanity’s achievements and the path of the future. For them, their countrymen’s fanatical devotion to ancient, obscure writings created an oppressive, ritual-ridden society, a kind of national insanity. It stood in the way of progress. As one Greek observer in the novel expresses it: "Intelligence must be free, but your people have set everything down in writing. It is sacred, infallible and changeless. How do you think you can progress now that you have sentenced yourselves to the surmises and guesses and riddles of your ancestors?" (The same question, of course, can be addressed to fundamentalists of all faiths today.) Moreover, they feared that Israel would never enter the community of nations. "All other peoples hate us for our pretensions and arrogance, and would destroy us root and branch."
Those fighting for their religious liberty felt themselves to be defenders of a higher truth than the earth-bound Greeks could ever achieve. "Hellas loves beauty but Israel loves righteousness." They were convinced that the Jews were God’s chosen instrument: their suffering was a sacrificial offering that would move other nations to moral repentance and lead them to accept Israel’s God. Such beliefs were rejected by the hellenized community as madness and the height of self-glorification.
At the center of the story stand Philemon and Judith—Greek man and Jewish woman—a pair of ‘star-crossed’ lovers caught up in the philosophical debate and the fratricidal bloodletting. The divided community is represented by Reuben, the Jew converted to the Greek vision of freedom and inquiry, and Hosah, the scholar whose life is spent in meticulous observance of prescribed conduct and a search to glean true meaning from the sacred writings. Both are fanatics—and bitter enemies. Philemon stands between them trying to arbitrate, to see the positive in both positions. He is a devotee of Greek philosophy, but he nevertheless believes that Hosah’s devotion to something higher than himself, even were it untrue, can be ennobling and help harmonize the disorder of the world. Job, Hosea, and the poetry of the Psalms he considers among mankind’s greatest writings. Desperately Philemon argues for the right of both sides to go their own way.
This is one of Fisher’s conclusions in the novel: that the two world views are fundamentally irreconcilable. Society, if it does not follow one way or the other, will live in an uneasy truce between the conflicting pulls in its midst. Fisher points out that with the triumph of the Maccabees the Jews firmly chose their particular direction, one that was inherited by Christianity and became the dominant philosophy of the western world until modern times.
This novel contains more ‘history’ than any other in the series, for it follows in often exciting style the course of the Maccabean revolt, with its many battles in the rugged valleys and deserts of Judea. At the same time it is a true novel of ideas, and its characters spend a great deal of time discussing them. Philemon, Judith and others may come perilously close to losing their genuineness in the author’s need to express the various viewpoints, but Fisher succeeds in keeping them human and sympathetic because of the intense emotion which invests all their actions and beliefs, and because the clash of outlooks is brought home so vividly to the reader that we are caught up in seeing it as a truly fundamental and history-shaping question.
There are two figures in the novel which for Fisher represent the two furthest poles in the opposition of Greek and Jew. One was long dead at the time of the Maccabees, but he is Philemon’s guiding spirit: the hellenistic philosopher Epicurus (341-271). He epitomized the Greek tendency toward a realistic outlook on the world: rely on the evidence of your senses, he said; eliminate any belief that gods or supernatural forces care about or intervene in the affairs of the world and you free yourself from fear and superstition. This together with a moderate, even austere lifestyle brings tranquility and thus happiness. In such an atmosphere is human progress most likely to be achieved.
At the other end of the pole stands the seer-sage Amiel, in direct line from the prophets Ahijah and Yescha in previous novels. From Amiel’s fevered meditations comes the Book of Daniel, that apocalyptic vision which became one of the most influential of the world’s writings by bringing messianism to full growth. Amiel envisions a coming king who will lead Israel to dominance over all the peoples of the world. He imagines many signs and characteristics of this messiah, but he is unsure exactly what face he will present: will he be the lowly symbol of Israel as the "suffering servant" or a conquering hero? (Between the time of Amiel and Joshua of the next novel the popular mind would largely adopt the latter.) To these visions Amiel adds new beliefs about a resurrection of the body, about angels, about a great upheaval on earth soon to occur.
All these ideas entered the broad swirl of religious thought inhabiting Judea over the next two centuries and passed, with important transformations, into early Christianity. Such visionaries as Amiel created a ‘mythical future’ toward which people’s thoughts and expectations now turned. However, the delaying of this apocalypse (for it never actually came) laid an additional emphasis on the Jewish sense of ‘sin.’ God’s withholding of these miraculous events could only be due to the people’s continuing wickedness. From this it was only a short step—which the Christians took—to envisioning the messiah himself as a sacrificial atoning figure, suffering for the sins of all people, which would allow the new age to be ushered in. The latter was an idea which ultimately derived, through channels which will become more evident in the following two novels, from the world of Yescha and The Divine Passion.
Part Four will review the pivotal novel of the Testament of Man, Jesus Came Again: A Parable, about the figure of Jesus as the root of Christianity, and the question of this figure’s historical existence.
PART FOUR: Jesus Came Again: A Parable