Zoroastrians believe in a creator g-d named Ahura Mazda. This creator has minions–magical beings reflecting all of the forces of nature and creation (in lieu of a separate g-d for each of these as most polytheistic religions have). A second g-d, called Angra Mainyu, causes chaos, disorder, and destruction. At some future point Ahura Mazda will send the Saoshyant, a prince, who supposed to be born by virgin birth. The Saoshyant is to restore balance and raise the dead from their graves back to life. This will be the “End of Days” and time as we know it is supposed to stop. In the meantime, the followers of the creator deity are rewarded after death in a heaven and those who follow the chaotic deity are punished with a term in a perdition. Does this sound familiar?
Its similarity to modern Judaism is gripping. Like the Jews, the Zoroastrians made no images of their deities. The Zoroastrians do not even build temples. Unlike Judaism, their practice in ancient times was based on strange rituals and rites that involved magic (like today’s magic shows). Nevertheless, the two religious traditions were similar enough that Jews acculturated to Zoroastrianism, and it has stuck with us.
The Symbol of Zoroastrianism
When the Macedonians conquered Persia, Zoroastrianism spread like a wildfire throughout the Hellenistic world, the entire Mediterranean Sea at this time. Mystery Cults, secret religious societies, everywhere adopted Zoroastrian ideas. The Mithraic and Dionysian Cults were distinctly Zoroastrian in nature. Christianity and, later, Islam are all but mirror images of Zoroastrianism in their approach to the world. Magical saviors, an evil mythological character, and the end of time are all characteristics of these faiths.
Jews in their eagerness to join the crowd, or perhaps through the inclusion of converts, slowly began to adopt the mystery cults as well. A complicated process began within the proto-Pharisaic and Essene movements to read Zoroastrian ideas into the Jewish scriptures. As a result Zarathustra became a prophet who is never named in the scriptures. Today’s Talmudic Passover Seder is arranged based upon the symposium developed by the Dionysian Cult.
The Jewish prophets speak of a time when a king of Davidic descent, will be restored to the throne. The metaphorical and symbolic way in which the prophets speak to us allows for many different interpretations of what they are saying. It is unclear whether these prophecies were ever meant to come true or not. In many cases much of what the prophets predicted did come to pass, but much of it did not. In the Torah all of the prophecies and predictions came true within a few generations of the time when they were given by the prophet. It stands to reason that any prophecies that did not come to pass within the generations to follow will simply pass into history. These wonderful possibilities might have come to pass if the Israelites had been a righteous people, but alas they did not meet His standards and many setbacks befell the Jewish People in the years that followed the return from the Babylonian Exile.
A Magi Priest
As a Karaite I prefer to follow the “peshat” or plain meaning of the text. Unfortunately, most Karaites also accept Zoroastrianism and do not observe the peshat but also read into the text Zoroastrian ideas. Consider the fact that the word “meshiach” is never once used to describe the forthcoming Davidic king. There is never a single direct reference to an end of days or an afterlife (excepting the book of Daniel, more on this in another post). It is well known that Yehezkiel Chapter 37 (Ezekiel) tells of a vision of bones rising from the dead. In this vision it is clear that YHVH is showing Yehezkiel a vision and that the entire scene is meant to be taken as a metaphor. The bones represent the Israelites, for they are dead to YHVH and are dispersed through the world due to their lack of faith, this is how they became dead to Him. He then states that He will bring them back to Him and they will be alive to Him again (forgiven) and that He will restore them to the land and give them another chance to live as He commanded.
Nowhere does the scripture indicate that this a future event wherein the dead will literally rise from the graves. The use of the word grave and the symbolism of death is clearly to exaggerate and illustrate how YHVH feels toward the Israelites. Death is both permanent and unclean, if one has contact with a dead human body you become ritually impure and unclean. In this vision we find out that YHVH will undo the apparently permanent state of dejection in which the Israelites found themselves during Yehezkiel’s life, and will cleanse them of their impurity.
The symbolism of rebirth indicates that He is willing to offer us His blessings whenever we chose to observe His laws as He gave them to Moshe and as Moshe wrote them. The use of the bones as symbols is too close to the Zoroastrian belief system (which may have based many of its beliefs upon Jewish beliefs in the first place) and Israelites to this day read into the passage that this is some future literal event that will take place. How easily idolatry finds its way into our hearts and minds, no wonder the Israelites of Yehezkiel’s time were dead to YHVH.
The scriptures refer to specific events and describe, using metaphorical imagery, the messages of hope and the warnings to the Jewish People before and during the exile. But the Jewish people began to interpret them as referring to some distant future. The prophets are all referring to specific events and happenings during their lives and offer warnings of horrors to come (and hope for salvation even after these horrors) if the Israelites do not follow the laws. These passages can be misinterpreted to mean something else quite easily if one does not know to what they refer.
When I was a child I loved the song Yankee Doodle, one of America’s oldest and proudest patriotic songs:
Yankee Doodle went to [town/London]
a riding on a pony,
Stuck a feather in his hat
and called it macaroni.
Yankee Doodle keep it up,
Yankee Doodle dandy,
Mind the music and the step
and with the girls be handy.
George Washington During the French and Indian War
The song, although borrowed for use by Americans originally mocked the colonial soldiers who served beside the British regulars in the French and Indian Wars (Seven Years’ War). The song indicates that “Yankee Doodle” is an unsophisticated man who thinks that by putting a feather in his cap would be like a proper Englishman wearing a fashionable, if flamboyant, wig. In the chorus the implication seems to be (and with the girls be handy) that Yankee Doodle subscribes to an alternative lifestyle. None of which can be gleaned from the lyrics today because we lack the historical context, knowledge of the slang of the time, and the circumstances surrounding the song’s creation.
A biblical example of this, books that never once refer to an end of days suddenly contain end times prophesies. As an example in Yeremiyahu (Jeremiah) 12:16 we find:
And it shall come to pass, if they will diligently learn the ways of My people to swear by My name: ‘As the LORD liveth,’ even as they taught My people to swear by Baal; then shall they be built up in the midst of My people. [Translation Courtesy Mechon-Mamre]
This passage is very clear. It speaks to the Canaanites saying that any Canaanite who would swear in YHVH’s name as they had taught the Israelites to swear in the name of Baal, will be welcomed into the nation of Israel as Israelites. This refers to the time when the Jews returned from the Babylonian Captivity. It can be extended to serve as a more general statement that any non-Jew may join themselves to the Nation of Israel, as did Ruth, by swearing in the name of the Living G-d. It is a stark reversal of His previous policy regarding the Canaanites from the Torah.
How is this passage an end times prophecy? There is no reference to any single event, (even the return of the Israelites) there is no statement that connects this to the dead rising from their graves, no statement connecting it to a coming Meshiach. It does not use the words “end of days,” nor does this appear anywhere in the scriptures. When one has to work very hard to derive a religious belief from the scripture by cross connecting different passages taken out of their historical and biblical context, it is clear that one is not following the “Peshat” or plain meaning of the text.
Another example is that of the Meshiach. The word Meshiach refers to an anointed king of Israel. The scriptures tell us that one day one from among the seed of David will rule over the Israelites once again. The Torah tells us that having a king is optional in the first place, that is we may chose to have one or we may choose not to; we may also choose instead to have a Shofet, a ruler or Judge, and/or government by a Knesset [Republic]. In this case it may be that YHVH was communicating a bright future to the Israelites so that they would suffer out the exile and return. What ever the case, it did not come to pass. Today we do not know who is a legitimate descendant of David and anyone of thousands of people can lay claim to this lineage.
At this point we have no direct references to a magical Meshiach, the resurrection of the dead, the end of time, or an afterlife [excepting only the book of Daniel–again, more on this in a later post]. Why does anyone believe in these doctrines? They must be observing the teachings of the silent prophet: Zoroaster. Yet, the Persians were foreign invaders and, although initially friendly to the Jews, were ultimately oppressors. Why should we observe their beliefs? The scriptures warn us not to:
Envy thou not the oppressor, and choose none of his ways.