Friday, September 2, 2016

Fun with Abraham and Zarathustra

Very few modern commentators will deny that the story of Jesus was told in such a way that besides convey absolute truth, it also responded to the hippest beliefs in the Greco-Roman world.

For instance, the signature Christian phrases "Savior of the World," "King of Kings" and even "Son of God" were not coined by Paul as is commonly thought, but came straight out of the Roman Imperial cult, and see our article on the name Homer for a lengthy look at Greek legacy in the New Testament.

Though doubtlessly conveyed from a very ancient past, the story of Abraham was written in its present form during the Babylonian exile and at that time, Babylon was wholly Zarathustrian in precisely the same way that the world in Jesus' time was totally Greco-Roman.

The Hebrew Old Testament is as much as response to its Babylonian world as the Greek New Testament was to its Greco-Roman world
Zarathustrianism, brilliant in its own right, was an intermediate phase between natural polytheism and the monotheism nowadays commonly ascribed to Abraham, and the story of Abraham from Ur (which means Light or Wisdom) of the Chaldeans (an ethnically diverse learned class of Babylon, comparable to the Levites of Israel) most probably came about as both a respectful review of Zarathustrianism and a formal objection to some of its tenets.

It's not clear to which extend the literary Zarathustra represents an actual historical individual, but it's altogether quite probable that the function of the literary character of Zarathustra in the Avesta marks a level of complexity, just like Abraham in the Torah, namely the level associated with an unrestricted global currency of ideas. As we made clear in our article on the name Abraham, the world-wide exchange of ideas pretty much began with the domestication of the camel, which explains why the camel is so important in the Abraham cycle.

In the name Zarathustra

Zarathustra, the celebrated
inventor of monotheism
It's not wholly clear what the name Zarathustra means but scholars generally agree that it consists of two parts and that the second part means camel. In other words: Like Abraham, Zarathustra too reflects international exchange.

The first part of the name Zarathustra is the mystery bit; we don't even know for sure whether it's "Zarath-" or "Zara-", which means that the second part is either ushtra, meaning camel, or thushtra, which, we can't help notice, has some phonetic similarity to the name Terah, which belongs to Abraham's father but which doesn't seem to mean much in Hebrew.

But Abram and his family were natives of Chaldea and their names may in fact be not Semitic but Indo-European and transliterated into Hebrew in such a way that they seem Semitic (something similar was done to Levite names such as Moses and Aaron, which were most probably originally Egyptian names, made to look Semitic).

The Greeks appear to have thought that the first part of the name Zarathusthra was "Zara-" because they transliterated it as Zoroaster (zoro aster = Gold Star, the second part being similar to the name Esther, also Persian). Whatever the "Zarath-" or "Zara-" part of the name Zarathustra might have meant, it bears an uncanny resemblance to the name Sarah, belonging to Abraham's wife and half sister. Some scholars even believe that the first part of the name Zarathustra contains a Vedic element har, which immediately brings to mind the name of Abraham's brother Haran (the -an part being a very common Hebrew formative extension).

Perhaps the Hebrew authors were bound by historical events and names and all these similarities are coincidences, but probably more likely is that the Hebrew authors reflected the real past of mankind in forms they chose freely. More attractive still is the possibility that these names reflect concepts that stem from very deep antiquity, when language was being formed by the same forces that formed the rest of humanity.

The kinship of Abraham and Zoroastrianism is nevertheless clearly and respectfully demonstrated by Matthew, in whose nativity account the infant Christ was tracked down via the cosmology of Zoroastrian priests long before anybody else had any idea what was going on (Matthew 2:1).

Happy days are here again

The primary symbol of Zarathustrianism is the Faravahar, the famous winged disk that still dominates the symbology of modern Iran. It is thought to depict a fravashi, a person's private spirit, perhaps not unlike the personal angel recognized by the New Testament authors (Matthew 18:10, Acts 12:15).

The Faravahar depicting a depicting a fravashi

It's unclear what the word fravashi precisely means but it's generally considered to derive from the element var-, which may mean to choose (so that fravashi means He Who Chooses), or to cover (so, He Who Covers). That's again significant because (1) the name Lot means precisely that: Covering, and (2) the ab-part of the name Abram means father, which in turn may stem from a verb that means to chose, or rather "having the statutory right to chose".

The Bible also obviously recognizes personal angels of whole nations (Exodus 23:23, Daniel 10:20) and although the origin of the Faravahar is formally obscure, it may very well represent the spirit of free global exchange; the fravashi of Abraham, so to speak.

The meaning and etymology of the name Abraham are obscure and much debated, but one possibility is that is contains the element 'abar, meaning to use wings or feathers (in order to protect), from the majestic root 'br, meaning to be strong or firm. This verb is also the root of the divine name Abir (the Mighty One; Genesis 49:24).

The Faravahar is commonly depicted with a little man sitting in the disk. This is thought to be Asshur, the chief deity of Assyria. It's not clear what idea the divine name Asshur may originally have reflected, but in Hebrew it is nearly identical to the name Asher (son of Jacob with Zilpah, and thus great-grandson of Abraham) and means to go straight (just) or to be happy, as in the statement be'asheri kay asheruny: in my happiness they'll deem me happy (Genesis 30:13). Abraham's son-of-the-promise was named Isaac, meaning joy, which clearly reflects the same or a similar sentiment.

Both Asshur and Isaac possibly reflect the insight that comedy is a very safe vault to store wisdom in. Had the wisdom of the Hebrews been stored in any other medium than the riveting stories of Abraham, Moses and David, but, say in mathematical symbology or long lists of statements, it would have not survived. In that sense the Ark of the Covenant is as important as the Covenant itself.

Fun with the name Abraham

Abraham, the father of all believers
 (Galatians 3:29)

The etymology of the name Abraham is an admitted enigma; the Jewish Encyclopedia even laments that "the form 'Abraham' yields no sense in Hebrew," which is a bit curt and if anything demonstrative of a failing imagination. But it's true that no degree of imaginativeness can render the name Abraham the meaning of Father Of Many Nations.

When the Lord changed Abram's name to Abraham (by apparently inserting the letter he before the final mem) He said, "For I will make you the father of a multitude of nations" ('ab hamon goyim; "father of a multitude of nations" -- Genesis 17:4-5) and for millennia people have concluded that Abraham must mean Father Of A Multitude.

In recent times we've recognized that this is nonsense. When we name our dog Charlie because that seems a good idea at the time, it's by no means insinuated that Charlie means "good idea at the time." The name Abraham isn't remotely similar to the phrase 'ab hamon goyim.

The 'ab- part of our name Abraham is traditionally thought to correspond to the Hebrew word 'ab (meaning "father" as used in our phrase 'ab hamon goyim), but that too is without any base. The original name Abram could indeed be construed to be 'ab plus rum and translated with Father of Elevation, but if the new name Abraham starts with 'ab, we're left with rhm, which doesn't occur elsewhere in the Bible.

This means either that Abraham is the father of something that nobody in the Bible ever mentions, or that rhm isn't a Hebrew word. The latter option is much more probable, and strongly suggests that the first part of the name Abraham is not Hebrew either, and certainly not 'ab, meaning father.

The second word of our phrase 'ab hamon goyim is the noun hamonwhich does not express simply a large number of people or nations, but the rain-like noise that emerges from a unified but seething throng. The third word is the plural of goymeaning nation, tribe or any culturally distinct entity.

The phrase 'ab hamon goyim positively does not mean that Abraham would be the biological ancestor of the horde of conflicting political nations we recognize today, but rather the bee-busy mentality from which all global exchange stems. Both the words 'ab and hamon demonstrate not a multifariousness but a unitedness, and the whole phrase much rather reflects convergence and unification than expansion and divergence. The phrase 'ab hamon goyim should be understood as a sanctified (that is natural and organic) alternative to the rejected (that is artificial and mechanic) tower of Babel.

Abraham is not a border-maker; he is a border-breaker, the embodiment of the second law of thermodynamics, the world-wide free exchange of knowledge and skills. His patriarchy is one of consilience; in him are summed up the peacemakers of which Jesus said they would be called Sons Of God (Matthew 5:9).

Read our article on the familiar Hebrew word shalom for a look at the actual, fundamental meaning of the often misunderstood Biblical concept of peace. Abraham was famously considered righteous and he met the King of Righteousness (Melchizedek) at Salem (from the same root as shalom, which is no coincidence; Genesis 14:18).

More fun with the name Abraham

As stated above, the original name Abram could be construed as purely Semitic and consist of 'ab, meaning father, and rum meaning elevation. But Abram originated in Chaldea, and although Chaldea was Semitic, it was situated on the border with the Indo-European realm: Persia, where Zoroastrianism came from. The root rum was widely attested of all over the Semitic language area, and there is some indication that it was used in Persia as well. The 'ab-part may therefore be Zoroastrian as well and since Abram was called Hebrew, which literally denotes someone who wades through and arrives on the dry side, what readily jumps to mind is the word Abas.

Abas is the Avestan word for "the waters" which in Zoroasterianism clearly corresponds to the Torahic waters of the first three days of creation. This word Abas comes from a proto-Indo-Iranian stem ap- meaning water, and the name Abram, all together, might have been designed to specifically remind of the two, later three, great water walks of the Bible:

  • The Spirit of God hovering over the prime ordeal waters (Genesis 1:2), 
  • Noah and company floating on the great flood (Genesis 7:17), 
  • Jesus' walk on water (as obvious fulfillment of the previous two; Matthew 14:25).

The name Abraham, therefore, may be not merely an extended version of Abram, but rather a completely different name, a semi-similar sounding Semitic answer to an Indo-European original, as different as Bart and Burt (Bart is Aramaic, short for Bartholomew, means Son Of Talmai; Burt is the old English word "beorht" meaning bright and is related to Robert).

Still, in all its mystery, the name Abraham clearly contains a marvelous wink to the Hebrew sensitivity for word play. As noted above, to a creative audience, the first part of the name Abraham could be construed to be similar to Abir, meaning "strength" and the final bit could be taken for the personal pronoun ham, meaning "their".

In Genesis 17:4-5 God says (liberally paraphrased): "My covenant (beritis with you, and you will manifest international exchange. No longer will you manifest Self-Enrichment, but you will be Their Strength; because I have made you the manifestation of international exchange."

Also noted above, the literal difference between the names Abram and Abraham is the insertion of the letter he in between the R and the M. This same letter occurs twice in the Lord's personal Name, YHWH, as if the Lord poured His own Spirit into the heart of Abram when He made him Abraham.

But it gets better.

The first letter of the name Abraham is the 'aleph, which sometimes serves as a mere cosmetic addition to a word without essentially changing it. The final letter of our name is the mem, which at the end of a word also often serves to mark a grammatical construction without essentially altering the meaning.

When we drop the 'aleph at the beginning and the mem at the end, what's left is the root brh, from whence comes the noun berit, meaning covenant.

In other words: the meaning of the name Abraham is generally listed to be obscure, but that's not because we have no ideas. Rather the opposite...

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