Egyptians and Canaanites: Wisdom of Solomon on worship of animals and images (first century BCE)

Citation with stable link: Philip A. Harland, 'Egyptians and Canaanites: Wisdom of Solomon on worship of animals and images (first century BCE),' Last modified October 13, 2022, http://philipharland.com/Blog/?p=8964.

Ancient author: Author of the Wisdom of Solomon, parts of chapters 1, 6, 11-16 (link to Greek text; link to full translation).

Comments: Presenting itself as an address to kings ruling over other peoples (ethnē) – though in reality more fitting for an internal Israelite or Judean audience – the writing known as the Wisdom of Solomon (perhaps written in the first century BCE) focusses its attention on asserting the favoured position of the Israelite or Judean people (as most in line with the Israelite god’s Wisdom personified) and the inferior position of those peoples who, historically, had most run-ins with the Israelites: especially the Egyptians but also the Canaanites (in the latter case predecessors of what a Greek or some others under their influence might call “Phoenicians” or possibly Syrians in the author’s time). As such, this provides in literary form a sort of encounter between peoples from one particular Israelite or Judean perspective, as well as an assertion of the superiority of Israelites in an ethnic hierarchy (at least in relation to legendary enemy peoples and, by inference, other contemporary non-Judean peoples or “Gentiles”).

This is not descriptive, ethnographic writing in the Greek tradition, by any means. Yet the author (who nonetheless does write in Greek) is very much interested in negatively characterizing and stereotyping Egyptians and Canaanites. He is participating in ethnographic culture and ethnic competition understood more broadly. In particular, he hones in on the customs of both of these peoples with respect to the gods. On the one hand, the author repeatedly joins in the common Greek tendency to caricature and strongly critique “animal worship” among Egyptians. On the other, the author characterizes the Canaanites as a violent people who engage in ritual murder of children, as well as some other unsavoury activities. In both cases, the critique centres on misguided notions about the gods (and refusal to recognize the true, Israelite god with his personifed Wisdom). Particularly central in the critique is the practice of representing gods in the form of images, and the Wisdom of Solomon happens to provide us with one of the most extensive cases of a Judean author theorizing the origins of images. This is what a Judean would call “worship of images,” sometimes transliterated as “idolatry” (idōlatria). The Israelite god’s punishment of both the Canaanites (by ejection from the land) and the Egyptians (by sending plagues involving animals and pests to free the slaves) is seen to be just retribution corresponding to the faulty customs that these peoples adopted. So writings like this provide us with important glimpses into encounters between peoples in the ancient context.

Source of the translation: Adapted from Michael A. Knibb, “Wisdom of Salomon,” A New English Translation of the Septuagint (©2007 by the International Organization for Septuagint and Cognate Studies, Inc. Used by permission of Oxford University Press. All rights reserved.)

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[Framing: Addressing kings in control of peoples] 

1 Love righteousness, you who judge the earth; think about the Lord in goodness, and seek him with sincerity of heart; because he is found by those who do not test him, he reveals himself to those who do not distrust him. For crooked thoughts separate from God, and his power, when it is tested, convicts the foolish, because wisdom will not enter a soul that plots evil or wisdom will not reside in a body involved in sin. (5) For a holy and disciplined spirit will flee from deceit and depart from senseless thoughts and be ashamed when unrighteousness approaches.  . .  [material omitted].

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6 Hear therefore, you kings, and understand; learn, you judges of the ends of the earth; give ear, you that have dominion over populations and boast of many peoples (ethnē), because your  dominion was given you from the Lord and your dominance from the Most High. He will examine your deeds and inquire into your counsels, because, being servants of his kingdom, you did not judge rightly or keep the law or walk according to the counsel of God. (5) Terribly and swiftly he will come upon you, because a severe judgment falls on those in high places. For the least may be pardoned in mercy, but the mighty will be mightily tested, for the Sovereign Lord of all will not give way to anyone or have regard for greatness, because he himself made small and great and takes thought for all alike, but a strict inquiry awaits the powerful.
To you therefore, you princes, my words are addressed, that you may learn wisdom and not fall into error. . . [material omitted].

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[Comparison of Israelites and Egyptians, with a digression on Canaanites]

11 She [Wisdom personified as a woman] prospered their [Israelites’] actions by the hand of a holy prophet [Moses]. They [Israelites] journeyed through an uninhabited wilderness and in trackless places pitched their tents; they withstood their adversaries and defended themselves against their enemies. They thirsted and called upon you, and water was given them out of flinty rock, and a remedy for their thirst out of hard stone. (5) For through the very things by which their enemies [Egyptians] were punished, they themselves were benefited in their need. Instead of the perennial spring of a river, stirred up with defiled blood in rebuke for the decree to kill the infants, you unexpectedly gave them abundant water, having shown by their thirst at that time how you punished their opponents. For when they were tested, although they were being disciplined in mercy, they learned how the impious, being judged in anger, were tormented. (10) For these you put to the test like a father giving a warning, but the others you examined like a stern king passing sentence.

Whether far away or near, they were alike distressed, for a double grief took hold of them, and a groaning at the memory of what had occurred. For when they heard that through their own punishments the others were being benefited, they took notice of the Lord. For they mockingly disowned the one who long before had been cast out and exposed, but at the end of events they marvelled at him, having thirsted in a way not like the righteous.

[Egyptian animal worship parallels God’s punishments through plagues]

(15) In return for their senseless and wicked thoughts through which they were led astray to worship irrational reptiles and worthless vermin, you sent on them a multitude of irrational creatures to take vengeance in order that they might learn that a person is punished by the very things by which the person sins. For your all-powerful hand, which created the world out of formless matter, was not at a loss to send out on them a multitude of bears or bold lions or newly-created unknown monsters, full of fury, either breathing out blasts of fiery breath or belching forth smoke or flashing terrible sparks from their eyes, which were able not only to wipe them out by the harm they did but even to destroy them by their terrifying appearance alone.

(20) Even without these they could have fallen by a single breath, being pursued by justice and scattered by the breath of your power, but by measure and number and weight you ordered all things. For it is always in your power to show great strength, and who can withstand the might of your arm? Because the whole world before you is like a speck that tips the scales and like a drop of dew that falls on the ground in the morning. You have mercy on all, because you can do all things, and you overlook the sins of human beings that they may repent. For you love all things that exist and detest none of the things that you have made, for you would not have formed anything if you had hated it. (25) How would anything have endured if you had not willed it? Or how would anything not called into existence by you have been preserved? You spare all things, because they are yours, O Sovereign Lord, you who love human beings.

[Detestable customs of the Canaanites and colonization of their land]

12 For your incorruptible spirit is in all things. Therefore you reprove little by little those who fall into error, and by reminding them of the things through which they sin you warn them in order that, being freed from wickedness, they may believe in you, O Lord. For even the ancient inhabitants of your holy land, because you hated them for practising the most detestable things – acts of poisonings and impious rites, (5) merciless slaughters of children, sacrificial feasting on human flesh and blood – those initiates in the midst of a society (thiasos) and parents who murder helpless lives, you willed to destroy by the hands of our fathers in order that the land that is the most precious of all before you might receive a worthy colony of servants of God [modifications of NETS]. But even these you spared as being human beings, and you sent wasps as forerunners of your army in order to destroy them little by little. It was not that you were unable to give the impious into the hands of the righteous in battle or to wipe them out at a stroke by terrible beasts or by your stern word. (10) But judging them little by little you gave them an opportunity to repent, though you were not unaware that their origin was evil and their wickedness inborn and that their way of thinking would never change.

For they were an accursed descent group (sperma) from the beginning, and it was not through fear of anyone that you granted them pardon for the things in which they sinned. For who will say, “What have you done?” Or who will withstand your judgment? Who will accuse you for the destruction of peoples (ethnē) that you made? Or who will come before you to plead as an advocate for unrighteous human beings? For neither is there any god beside you, whose care is for all, to whom you must prove that you did not act unjustly, nor can any king or prince look you in the face concerning those whom you have punished. . . [section omitted].

[Egyptian animal worship]

(23) Therefore those who lived unrighteously in a life of folly you tormented through their own abominations. For they went far astray on the paths of error, taking as gods the most despised and loathsome of animals being deceived like foolish infants. (25) Therefore, as though to unreasoning children, you sent your judgment as a mockery. But they, not taking warning from a playful rebuke, will experience the deserved divine judgment. For through those animals at which in their suffering they became incensed, which they had thought to be gods, being punished by means of them, they saw and recognized as the true God the one whom before they denied knowing; therefore the utmost condemnation came upon them.

[Origins of worshiping images, and critique of related customs]

13 For all human beings who were ignorant of God were foolish by nature, and from the good things that are seen they were unable to know the one who is, nor, though paying attention to his works, did they recognize the craftsman, but either fire or wind or swift air or the circle of the stars or turbulent water or the luminaries of heaven they thought to be gods that rule the world. If it was through delight in their beauty that they took these things to be gods, let them know how much better than these is their Sovereign Lord, for the first author of beauty created them. And if they were amazed at their power and working, let them perceive from them how much more powerful is the one who formed them. (5) For from the greatness and beauty of created things is their Creator correspondingly discerned. But nevertheless little blame attaches to these people, for perhaps they go astray while seeking God and wishing to find him. For being conversant with his works, they make their search and are persuaded by the sight, because the things that are seen are beautiful. But again, not even they are to be pardoned; for if they had the power to know so much that they could investigate the world, how is it that they did not more quickly find the Sovereign Lord of these things.

(10) But wretched, with their hopes set on dead things, are those who designated as gods the work of human hands, gold and silver fashioned with skill, and representations of animals or useless stone, the work of an ancient hand. If some carpenter saws down a tree that is easy to handle, skillfully strips off all its bark and, working it in an attractive way, forms a useful vessel that serves life’s needs and uses up the cast-off pieces of his work for the preparation of his food and has his fill and, taking a cast-off piece of wood from them, a stick crooked and full of knots, carves it with care in his idle moments and shapes it with skill gained in leisure, it is this he forms into the image of a human being or makes like some worthless animal, smearing it with vermilion and colouring it red with paint and smearing over every blemish in it, (15) and having made for it a niche worthy of it, he sets it in a wall and secures it with iron. Thus he takes thought for it that it may not fall down, knowing that it is unable to help itself, for it is an image and has need of help. But when he prays about his possessions, his marriage and his children, he is not ashamed to address a lifeless object, and for health he calls upon that which is weak; for life he prays to that which is dead; for aid he supplicates that which is utterly inexperienced; for a good journey that which cannot take a step; for means of livelihood and work and success with his hands, he asks strength of that which has no strength at all in its hands.

14 Again, one preparing for a voyage and about to travel over raging waves calls upon a piece of wood more fragile than the ship that carries him. For it was longing for gain that planned it, and wisdom the craftsman that built it, but it is your providence, Father, that pilots it, because you have made a way in the sea and a safe path in the waves, showing that you can save from everything so that even a person who lacks skill may put to sea. (5) It is your will that the works of your wisdom should not be without effect; therefore human beings trust their lives even to the smallest piece of wood and passing through the billows on a raft come safely through. For even in the beginning, when arrogant giants were perishing, the hope of the world fled for refuge on a raft and, piloted by your hand, left to the world the seed of a new generation. For blessed is the wood through which righteousness comes, but the handmade image (or: idol) is accursed, and the one who made it, because he worked it, and the corruptible thing was named a god. For equally hateful to God are the impious and their impiety, (10) for what was done will be punished together with the one who did it.

Therefore there will be a visitation also upon the images (or: idols) of the peoples (ethnē), because, though part of the divine creation, they have become an abomination, a stumbling-block for the lives of human beings and a trap for the feet of the foolish. For the invention of images was the beginning of fornication, and the discovery of them the corruption of life. For they did not exist from the beginning, nor will they last forever. For through human conceit they entered the world, and because of this a speedy end was planned for them.

(15) For a father, tormented by unexpected grief, having made an image of the child who had been quickly taken away, now honoured as a god what was once a dead human being and handed on to his dependants mysteries and sacred rites. Then, when the impious custom had grown strong with time, it was kept as a law, and at the command of princes carved images were worshipped. When people could not honour them in their presence because they lived far off, they imagined their appearance from afar and made a visible image of the king whom they honoured, that through diligence they might flatter the absent one as though present. But the ambition of the craftsman impelled even those who did not know the king to a higher pitch of worship. For he, perhaps wishing to please his ruler, skillfully forced the likeness into a more beautiful form. (20) But the majority of the population, drawn by the charm of his work, now counted as an object of worship the one whom a little before had been honoured as a human being. And this became a trap for human life, because people, enslaved either by misfortune or tyranny, bestowed on objects of stone and wood the incommunicable name.

Then it was not enough to go astray concerning the knowledge of God, but though living in great strife through ignorance, they call such great evils peace. For whether performing ritual murders of children or secret mysteries or frenzied revels connected with strange laws, they no longer keep either their lives or their marriages pure, but they either kill one another by treachery or grieve one another by adultery. (25) And all things are an overwhelming confusion of blood and murder, theft and deceit, corruption, unfaithfulness, tumult, perjury, turmoil of those who are good, forgetfulness of favours, defilement of souls, sexual perversion, disorder in marriages, adultery and debauchery. For the worship of images (or: idols) that may not be named is the beginning and cause and end of every evil. For they either rave in a state of euphoria or prophecy lies or live unrighteously or readily commit perjury, for because they trust in lifeless images, when they swear wicked oaths, they expect to suffer no harm. (30) But on both accounts justice will pursue them: because they thought wrongly about God through devoting themselves to images and in deceit swore unrighteously through despising holiness. For it is not the power of those by whom they swear, but justice for those who sin that always pursues the transgression of the unrighteous.

[Contrasting worshippers of images to worshippers of the Israelite god]

15 But you, our God, are kind and true, long suffering and ordering all things with mercy. For even if we sin, we are yours, knowing your might, but knowing we are considered yours, we will not sin; for to know you is perfect righteousness, and to recognize your might is the root of immortality. For neither has the artful inventiveness of human beings led us astray, nor the fruitless toil of painters, a figure stained with varied colours, (5) whose appearance arouses yearning in fools so that they long for the unbreathing form of a dead image. Lovers of evil things and worthy of such objects of hope are those who make or long for or worship them.

For a potter, laboriously kneading soft earth, moulds each single article for our service, but out of the same clay he fashions both the vessels that serve clean uses and the contrary ones, all alike, but what will be the use of each of them of either sort the worker in clay decides. And, toiling perversely, he moulds a futile god out of the same clay, he who a little before came into being out of the earth and after a short while returns whence he was taken, when the soul, which was lent him is demanded back. But his concern is not that his health is likely to fail or that his life is brief, but he sets himself up against goldsmiths and silversmiths and imitates moulders of bronze and considers it a glorious thing that he moulds counterfeits. (10) His heart is ashes, his hope cheaper than earth, his life more ignoble than clay, because he did not know the one who moulded him and infused him with an active soul and breathed into him a life-giving spirit, but he considered our life to be a game, and our existence a festival held for profit, for, he says, one must make money wherever one can, even by evil. For this man more than any knows that he sins when, from earthly material, he makes fragile vessels and carved images.

But most foolish, and with lives more miserable than that of an infant, are all the enemies of your people who oppressed them, (15) because they even thought all the images (or: idols) of the peoples were gods, although they have neither the use of eyes for seeing nor nostrils for drawing breath nor ears to hear nor fingers for feeling, and their feet are of no use for walking. For a human being made them, and one whose spirit is borrowed moulded them; for no human has the power to mould a god like himself. Instead, being mortal, he makes a dead thing with lawless hands, for he is better than the objects of his worship in that he had life, but they never had life. And they worship the most detestable animals for, when compared for lack of intelligence, they are worse than all others, nor, viewed as animals, are they beautiful so that one would desire them, but they have escaped both the approval of God and his blessing.

16 Therefore they [implied Egyptians] were deservedly punished through similar creatures and were tormented by swarms of vermin. Instead of which punishment you benefited your people and prepared quails for food, a delicacy to satisfy the desire of appetite, in order that those people, when they desired food, might reject even the demands of appetite because of the hideousness of the creatures sent among them, but these, by our people, having suffered want for a short time, might partake of delicacies. . . [sections omitted].

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