Guide for the Perplexed, by Moses Maimonides, Friedländer tr. , at sacred-texts.com
IT is well known that the Patriarch Abraham was brought up in the religion and the opinion of the Sabeans, that there is no divine being except the stars. I will tell you in this chapter their works which are at present extant in Arabic translations, and also in their ancient chronicles; and I win show you their opinion and their practice according to these books. You win then see clearly that they consider the stars as deities, and the sun as the chief deity. They believe that all the seven stars are gods, but the two luminaries are greater than all the rest. They say distinctly that the sun governs the world, both that which is above and that which is below; these are exactly their expressions. In these books, and in their chronicles, the history of Abraham our father is given in the following manner. Abraham was brought up in Kutha; when he differed from the people and declared that there is a Maker besides the sun, they raised certain objections, and mentioned in their arguments the evident and manifest action of the sun in the Universe. "You are right," said Abraham; "[the sun acts in the same manner] as 'the axe in the hand of him that hews with it.'" Then some of his arguments against his opponents are mentioned. In short, the king put him in prison; but he continued many days, while in prison, to argue against them. At last the king was afraid that Abraham might corrupt the kingdom, and turn the people away from their religion; he therefore expelled Abraham into Syria, after having deprived him of all his property.
This is their account which you find clearly stated in the book called The Nabatean Agriculture. Nothing is said there of the account given in our trustworthy books, nor do they mention what he learnt by way of prophecy; for they refused to believe him, because he attacked their evil doctrine. I do not doubt that when he attacked the doctrine of all his fellowmen, he was cursed, despised, and scorned by these people who adhered to their erroneous opinions. When he submitted to this treatment for the sake of God, as ought to be done for the sake of His glory, God said to him, "And I will bless them that bless thee, and curse them that curse thee" (Gen. xii. 3). The result of the course which Abraham took, is the fact that most people, as we see at present, agree in praising him, and being proud of him; so that even those who are not his descendants call themselves by his name. No one opposes him, and no one ignores his merits, except some ignoble remnants of the nations left in the remote corners of the earth, like the savage Turks in the extreme North, and the Indians in the extreme South. These are remnants of the Sabeans, who once filled the earth.
[paragraph continues] Those who were able to think, and were philosophers in those days, could only raise themselves to the idea that God is the spirit of the spheres: the spheres with their stars being the body, and God the spirit. Abu-becr al-Zaig mentions this in his Commentary on the book of Physics.
All the Sabeans thus believed in the eternity of the Universe, the heavens being in their opinion God. Adam was in their belief a human being born from male and female, like the rest of mankind; he was only distinguished from his fellow-men by being a prophet sent by the moon; he accordingly called men to the worship of the moon, and he wrote several works on agriculture. The Sabeans further relate that Noah was an agriculturist, and that he was not pleased with the worship of idols; they blame him for that, and say that he did not worship any image. In their writings we meet even with the statement that Noah was rebuked and imprisoned because he worshipped God, and with many other accounts about him. The Sabeans contend that Seth differed from his father Adam, as regards the worship of the moon. They manufactured ridiculous stories, which prove that their authors were very deficient in knowledge, that they were by no means philosophers, but on the contrary were extremely ignorant persons. Adam, they say, left the torrid zone near India and entered the region of Babylon, bringing with him wonderful things, such as a golden tree, that was growing, and had leaves and branches: a stone tree of the same kind, and a fresh leaf of a tree proof against fire. He related that there was a tree which could shelter ten thousand men, although it had only the height of a man; two leaves he brought with him, each of which was sufficient to cover two men. Of these stories the Sabeans have a wonderful abundance. I am surprised that persons who think that the Universe is eternal, can yet believe in these things which nature cannot produce, as is known to every student of Natural Science. They only mention Adam, and relate the above stories about him, in order to support their theory of the Eternity of the Universe; from this theory they then derive the doctrine that the stars and the spheres are deities. When [Abraham] the "Pillar of the World" appeared, he became convinced that there is a spiritual Divine Being, which is not a body, nor a force residing in a body, but is the author of the spheres and the stars: and he saw the absurdity of the tales in which he had been brought up. He therefore began to attack the belief of the Sabeans, to expose the falsehood of their opinions, and to proclaim publicly in opposition to them, "the name of the Lord, the God of the Universe" (Gen. xxi. 33), which proclamation included at the same time the Existence of God, and the Creation of the Universe by God.
In accordance with the Sabean theories images were erected to the stars, golden images to the sun, images of silver to the moon, and they attributed the metals and the climates to the influence of the planets, saying that a certain planet is the god of a certain zone. They built temples, placed in them images, and assumed that the stars sent forth their influence upon these images, which are thereby enabled (to speak) to understand, to comprehend, to inspire human beings, and to tell them what is useful to them. They apply the same to trees which fall to the lot of these stars. When, namely, a certain tree, which is peculiar to a certain star, is dedicated to the name of this star, and certain things are done for the tree and to the tree, the
spiritual force of that star which influences that tree, inspires men, and speaks to them when they are asleep. All this is written in their works, to which I will call your attention. It applies to the "prophets of Baal," and the "prophets of Asherah," mentioned in Scripture, in whose hearts the Sabean theories had taken root, who forsook God, and called, "Baal, hear us" (1 Kings xviii. 26); because these theories were then general, ignorance had spread, and the madness with which people adhered to this kind of imaginations had increased in the world. When such opinions were adopted among the Israelites, they had observers of clouds, enchanters, witches, charmers, consulters with familiar spirits, wizards, and necromancers.
We have shown in our large work, Mishneh-torah (Hilkot, ‘Abodah-zarah, i. 3), that Abraham was the first that opposed these theories by arguments and by soft and persuasive speech. He induced these people, by showing kindness to them, to serve God. Afterwards came the chief of the prophets, and completed the work by the commandment to slay those unbelievers, to blot out their name, and to uproot them from the land of the living. Comp. "Ye shall destroy their altars," etc. (Exod. xxxiv. 13). He forbade us to follow their ways; he said, "Ye shall not walk in the manners of the heathen", etc. (Lev. XX. 23). You know from the repeated declarations in the Law that the principal purpose of the whole Law was the removal and utter destruction of idolatry, and all that is connected therewith, even its name, and everything that might lead to any such practices, e.g., acting as a consulter with familiar spirits, or as a wizard, passing children through the fire, divining, observing the clouds, enchanting, charming, or inquiring of the dead. The law prohibits us to imitate the heathen in any of these deeds, and a fortiori to adopt them entirely. It is distinctly said in the Law that everything which idolaters consider as service to their gods, and a means of approaching them, is rejected and despised by God; comp. "for every abomination to the Lord, which he hateth, have they done unto their gods" (Deut. xii. 3 1). In the books which I shall name to you later on, it is stated that on certain occasions they offered to the sun, their greatest god, seven beetles, and seven mice, and seven bats. This alone suffices to show how disgusting their practice must be to human nature. Thus all precepts cautioning against idolatry, or against that which is connected therewith, leads to it, or is related to it, are evidently useful. They all tend to save us from the evil doctrines that deprive us of everything useful for the acquisition of the twofold perfection of man, by leading to those absurd practices in which our fathers and ancestors have been brought up. Comp. "And Joshua said unto all the people, Thus saith the Lord God of Israel, your fathers dwelt on the other side of the river in old time, even Terah, the father of Abraham, and the father of Nahor, and they served other gods" (Josh. xxiv. 2). It is in reference to these [idolatrous ideas] that the true prophets exclaim, "They walked after [vain] things, which do not profit." How great is the usefulness of every precept that delivers us from this great error, and leads us back to the true faith: that God, the Creator of all things, rules the Universe: that He must be served, loved, and feared, and not those imaginary deities. According to this faith we approach the true God, and obtain His favour without having recourse to burdensome means: for nothing else is required but to love and fear Him; this is the aim in serving
[paragraph continues] God, as will be shown. Comp. "And now, Israel, what doth the Lord thy God require of thee but to fear the Lord"? etc. (Deut. x. 12). I shall complete this subject later on: now let us return to the theme [of this chapter].
I say that my knowledge of the belief, practice, and worship of the Sabeans has given me an insight into many of the divine precepts, and has led me to know their reason. You will confirm it when I shall give the reason of commandments which are seemingly purposeless. I will mention to you the works from which you may learn all that I know of the religion and the opinions of the Sabeans; you will thereby obtain a true knowledge of my theory as regards the purpose of the divine precepts.
The great book on this subject is the book On the Nabatean Agriculture, translated by Ibn Wahshiya. In a succeeding chapter I shall explain why the Sabeans had their religious doctrines written in a work on agriculture. The book is full of the absurdities of idolatrous people, and with those things to which the minds of the multitude easily turn and adhere [perseveringly]; it speaks of talismans, the means of directing the influence [of the stars]; witchcraft, spirits, and demons that dwell in the wilderness. There occur also in this book great absurdities, which are ridiculous in the eyes of intelligent people. They were intended as a criticism and an attack on the evident miracles by which all people learnt that there exists a God who is judge over all people. Comp. "That thou mayest know how that the earth is the Lord's" (Exod. ix. 29), "That I am the Lord in the midst of the earth" (ibid. viii. 18).
The book describes things as having been mentioned by Adam, in his book; a tree which is found in India, and has the peculiarity that any branch taken from it and thrown to the ground creeps along and moves like serpents; it also mentions a tree which in its root resembles a human being, utters a loud sound, and speaks a word or words; a plant is mentioned which has this peculiarity, that g leaf of it put on the neck of a person conceals that person from the sight of men, and enables him to enter or leave a place without being seen, and if any part of it is burnt in open air a noise and terrible sounds are heard whilst the smoke ascends. Numerous fables of this kind are introduced in the description of the wonders of plants and the properties of agriculture. This leads the author to argue against the [true] miracles, and to say that they were the result of artifice.
Among other fables we read there that the plant althea, one of the Asherot, which they made, as I told you, stood in Nineveh twelve thousand years. This tree had once a quarrel with the mandragora, which wanted to take the place of the former. The person who had been inspired by this tree ceased to receive inspiration: when after some time the prophetical power had returned to him, he was told by the althea that the latter had been engaged in a dispute with the mandragora. He was then commanded to write to the magicians that they should decide whether the althea or the mandragora was better and more effective in witchcraft. It is a long story, and you may learn from it, when you read it, the opinions and the wisdom of the men of that time. Such were in those days of darkness the wise men of Babel, to whom reference is made in Scripture, and such were the beliefs in which they were trained. And were it not that the theory of the Existence
of God is at present generally accepted, our days would now have been darker than those days, though in other respects. I return now to my subject.
In that book the following story is also related: One of the idolatrous prophets, named Tammuz, called upon the king to worship the seven planets and the twelve constellations of the Zodiac: whereupon the king killed him in a dreadful manner. The night of his death the images from all parts of the land came together in the temple of Babylon which was devoted to the image of the Sun, the great golden image. This image, which was suspended between heaven and earth, came down into the midst of the temple, and surrounded by all other images commenced to mourn for Tammuz, and to relate what had befallen him. All other images cried and mourned the whole night; at dawn they flew away and returned to their temples in every corner of the earth. Hence the regular custom arose for the women to weep, lament, mourn, and cry for Tammuz on the first day of the month of Tammuz.
Consider what opinions people had in these days. The legend of Tammuz is very old among the Sabeans. This book will disclose to you most of the perverse ideas and practices of the Sabeans, including their feasts. But you must be careful and must not be misled to think that we have real incidents in the life of Adam, or of any other person, or any real fact in the stories which they relate about Adam, the serpent, the tree of knowledge of good and evil, and the allusion to the garment of Adam which he had not been accustomed to wear. A little consideration will lay open the falsehood of all these accounts; it will show that they have been invented in imitation of the Pentateuch when it became known among the nations. The account of the Creation was heard, and it was taken entirely in its literal sense. They have done this in order that the ignorant may hear it, and be persuaded to assume the Eternity of the Universe, and to believe that the Scriptural account contained facts which happened in the manner as has been assumed by the Sabeans.
It is by no means necessary to point this out to men like you. You have acquired sufficient knowledge to keep your mind free from the absurdities of the Kasdim, Chaldeans, and Sabeans, who are bare of every true science. But I wish to exhort you that you should caution others, for ordinary people are very much inclined to believe these fables.
To the same class of books we count the book Istimachis, attributed to Aristotle, who can by no means have been its author; also the books on Talismans, such as the book of Tomtom; the book al-Sarb: the book on the degrees of the sphere and the constellations rising with each degree: a book on Talismans attributed to Aristotle, a book ascribed to Hermes, a book of the Sabean Isḥak in defence of the Sabean religion, and his large work on Sabean customs, details of their religion, ceremonies, festivals, offerings, prayers and other things relating to their faith.
All these books which I have mentioned are works on idolatry translated into Arabic; there is no doubt that they form a very small portion in comparison to that which has not been translated, and that which is no longer extant, but has been lost in the course of time. But those works which are at present extant, include most of the opinions of the Sabeans and their practices, which are to some degree still in vogue in the world.
They describe how temples are built and images of metal and stone placed in them, altars erected and sacrifices and various kinds of food are offered thereon, festivals celebrated, meetings held in the temples for prayer and other kinds of service: how they select certain very distinguished places and call them temples of Intellectual Images (or Forms); how they make images "on the high mountains" (Deut. xii. 2), rear asherot, erect pillars, and do many other things which you can learn from the books mentioned by us. The knowledge of these theories and practices is of great importance in explaining the reasons of the precepts. For it is the principal object of the Law and the axis round which it turns, to blot out these opinions from man's heart and make the existence of idolatry impossible. As regards the former Scripture says: "Lest your heart be persuaded," etc. (Deut. xi. 16), "whose heart turneth away to-day," etc. (ibid. xxix. 17). The actual abolition of idolatry is expressed in the following passage: "Ye shall destroy their altars, and burn their groves in fire" (Deut. vii. 5), "and ye shall destroy their name," etc. (xii. 3). These two things are frequently repeated; they form the principal and first object of the whole Law, as our Sages distinctly told us in their traditional explanation of the words "all that God commanded you by the hand of Moses" (Num. xv. 25); for they say, "Hence we learn that those who follow idolatry deny as it were their adhesion to the whole Law, and those who reject idolatry follow as it were the whole Law." (B. T. Kidd, 40a.) Note it.