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June 25, 2012 § 1 Comment

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Treatise of Zera Yacob, Chapter VI

June 18, 2012 § Leave a comment

There is a further great inquiry, [namely:] all men are equal in the presence of God; and all are intelligent, since they are his creatures; he did not assign one people for life, another for death, one for mercy, another for judgement. Our reason teaches us that this sort of discrimination cannot exist in the sight of God, who is perfect in all his works. But Moses was sent to teach only the Jews, and David himself said: “He never does this for other nations, he never reveals his rulings to them.” Why did God reveal his law to one nation, withhold it from another? At this very time Christians say: “God’s doctrine is only found with us;” similarly with the Jews, the Mohammedans, the Indians and the others. Moreover the Christians do not agree among themselves: the Frangtell us: “God’s doctrine is not with you, but with us;” we hold the same thing, and if we would listen to men, God’s doctrine has reached only a very few people. We cannot even ascertain to which of these few it goes. Is it not possible for God to entrust his word to men whenever it pleases him? God in his wisdom has not allowed them to agree on what is false, lest it appears to them as the truth. When all people agree on one thing, that thing appears to be true; but it is not possible that all men agree on falsehood, just as by no means do they agree on their faith. I pray [you,] let us think why all men agree that there is a God, creator of all things? Because reason in all men knows that all we see was created, that no creature can be found without a creator and that the existence of a creator is the pure truth. Hence all men agree on this. When we examine the beliefs taught by men, we do not agree with them, because we find in them falsehood mixed with truth. Men quarrel among themselves; one says: “This is the truth;” another says: “No, that is false.” All of them lie when they claim to attribute to the Word of God the word of men. I kept on reflecting and said to myself: “Even if the faith of men does not come from God, it is however necessary for them and produces good effects, since it deters the wicked from doing evil and comforts the good in their patience.” To me such a faith is like a wife who gives birth to an illegitimate child, without the knowledge of the husband; the husband rejoices taking the child for his son, and loves the mother; were he to discover that she bore him an illegitimate child, he would be sad and would send her out with her child. Likewise, when I found out that my faith was adulterous or false, I became sad on account of it and of the children that were born from this adultery, namely: hatred, persecution, torture, bondage, death, seeing that these had forced me to take refuge in this cave.

However, to say the truth, the Christian faith as it was founded in the days of the Gospel was not evil, since it invites all men to love one another and to practice mercy towards all. But today my countrymen have set aside the love recommended by the Gospel and turned away towards hatred, violence, the poison of snakes; they have pulled their faith to pieces down to its very foundation; they teach things that are vain; they do things that are evil, so that they are falsely called Christians.


Zera Yacob claims that “it is not possible that all men agree on falsehood, just as by no means do they agree on their faith.” But this is not right. Sometimes everyone (or nearly everyone) does agree on something that is false. For example, everyone used to think that the earth was flat. Whether people all believe about something also changes over time. Thus at one point everyone thought the earth was flat, and slowly more and more people came to believe that it was round. So it is quite possible for everyone to agree on a falsehood, and also for there to be a lot of disagreement about both truths and falsehoods. Zera Yacob thinks that everyone believes in “a God, creator of all things”, and says we all agree about this because it is revealed by reason. As will be obvious to modern readers, not everyone does (nor did all people ever) believe this. Does this mean that it isn’t clear to reason after all? Well, that depends. To decide that, we would have to talk about Zera Yacob’s specific argument more (I discussed it very  briefly in my comments on chapter III). But it is in fact quite possible for people to disagree even about truths of pure reason. This is because the arguments are often hard to follow (think of mathematics and logic, for example)), and anyways we aren’t very disinterested inquirers, especially when we’re arguing about matters of morality and religion. So even if Zera Yacob is wrong when he says that everyone agrees that there is a God who created all things, he could be right in his argument that there is such a God.

Why would God reveal himself to some people and hide himself from others? This is an old and a hard question for believers. There are also different (not necessarily incompatible) ways one might try to answer it. And the answers will depend in part on the religion in question. For example, the Christian might point to the Great Commission (Matthew 28:16–20):
Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them.And when they saw him they worshiped him, but some doubted. And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore andmake disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
Or, with Paul, we could say that God is God, and he can do what he wants (Romans 9:20–26):

But who are you, O man, to answer back to God? Will what is molded say to its molder, “Why have you made me like this?” Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lumpone vessel for honorable use and another for dishonorable use? What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, in order to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory—even us whom he has called, not from the Jews only but also from the Gentiles?As indeed he says in Hosea,

“Those who were not my people I will call ‘my people,’ and her who was not beloved I will call ‘beloved.’” “And in the very place where it was said to them, ‘You are not my people,’ there they will be called ‘sons of the living God.’”
There are other things one might say as well. A good exercise to leave the reader with!

Finally, notice that although Zera Yacob had criticized Christian moral teachings in the previous chapter, here he’s quite complimentary about Christianity in its original form. This is not too surprising, since his criticism of Christianity had mostly focussed on fasting and monasticism, which are fairly peripheral features of Christianity, and arguably are largely cultural accretions rather than reflections of basic tenets.

Back to chapter V; proceed to chapter VII.

Treatise of Zera Yacob, Chapter V

June 11, 2012 § Leave a comment

Ethiopian monks at Lalibela

To the person who seeks it, truth is immediately revealed. Indeed he who investigates with the pure intelligence set by the creator in the heart of each man and scrutinizes the order and laws of creation, will discover the truth.

Moses said: “I have been sent by God to proclaim to you his will and his law;” but those who came after him added stories of miracles that they claimed had been wrought in Egypt and on Mount Sinai and attributed them to Moses. But to an inquisitive mind they do not seem to be true. For in the Books of Moses, one can find a wisdom that is shameful and that fails to agree with the wisdom of the creator or with the order and the laws of creation. Indeed by the will of the creator, and the law of nature, it has been ordained that man and woman would unite in a carnal embrace to generate children, so that human beings will not disappear from the earth. Now this mating which is willed by God in his law of creation, cannot be impure since God does not stain the work of his own hands. But Moses considered the act as evil; but our intelligence teaches us that he who says such a thing is wrong and makes his creator a liar. Again they said that the law of Christianity is from God, and miracles are brought forth to prove it. But our intelligence tells us and confirms to us with proofs that marriage springs from the law of the creator; and yet monastic law renders this wisdom of the creator ineffectual, since it prevents the generation of children and extinguishes mankind. The law of Christians which propounds the superiority of monastic life over marriage is false and cannot come from God. How can the violation of the law of the creator stand superior to his wisdom, or can man’s deliberation correct the word of God? Similarly Mohammed said: “The orders I pass to you are given to me by God;” and there was no lack of writers to record miracles proving Mohammed’s mission, and [people] believed in him. But we know that the teaching of Mohammed?) could not have come from God; those who will be born both male and female are equal in number; if we count men and Women living in an area, we find as many women as men; we do not find eight or ten women for every man; for the law of creation orders one man to marry one woman. If one man marries ten women, then nine men will be without wives. This violates the order of creation and the laws of nature and it ruins the usefulness of marriage; Mohammed, who taught in the name of God, that one man could marry many wives, is not sent from God.

These few things I examined about marriage. Similarly when I examine the remaining laws, such as the Pentateuch, the law of the Christians and the law of Islam, I find many things which disagree with the truth and the justice of our creator that our intelligence reveals to us. God indeed has illuminated the heart of man with understanding by which he can see the good and evil, recognize the licit and the illicit, distinguish truth from error, “and by your light we see the light, oh Lord!” If we use this light of our heart properly, it cannot deceive us; the purpose of this light which our creator gave us is to be saved by it, and not to be ruined [by it.] Everything that the light of our intelligence shows us comes from the source of truth; but what men say comes from the source of lies and our intelligence teaches us that all that the creator established is right. The creator in his kind wisdom has made blood to flow monthly from the womb of women. And the life of a woman requires this flow of blood in order to generate children; a woman who has no menstruation is barren and cannot have children, because she is impotent by nature. But Moses and Christians have defiled the wisdom of the creator; Moses even considers impure all the things that such a woman touches; this law of Moses impedes marriage and the entire life of a woman and it spoils the law of mutual help, prevents the bringing up of children and destroys love. Therefore this law of Moses cannot spring from him who created woman.

Moreover our intelligence tells us that we should bury our dead brothers. Their corpses are impure only if we follow the wisdom of Moses; they [are] not, however, if we follow the wisdom of our creator who made us out of dust that we may return to dust. God does not change into impurity the order he imposed on all creatures with great wisdom, but man attempts to render it impure that he may glorify the voice of falsehood. The Gospel also declares: “He who does not leave behind father, mother, wife and children is not worthy of God.” This forsaking corrupts the nature of man. God does not accept that his creature destroy itself, and our intelligence tells us that abandoning our father and our mother helpless in their old age is a great sin; the Lord is not a god that loves malice; those who desert their children are worse than the wild animals that never forsake their offspring. He who abandons his wife abandons her to adultery and thus violates the order of creation and the laws of nature. Hence what the Gospel says on this subject cannot come from God. Likewise the Mohammedans said that it is right to go and buy a man as if he were an animal. But with our intelligence we understand that this Mohammedan law cannot come from the creator of man who made us equal, like brothers, so that we call our creator our father, But Mohammed made the weaker man the possession of the stronger and equated a rational creature with irrational animals; can this depravity be attributed to God?

God does not order absurdities, nor does he say: “Eat this, do not eat this; today eat, tomorrow do not eat; do not eat meat today, eat it tomorrow,” unlike the Christians who follow the laws of fasting. Neither did God say to the Mohammedans: “Eat during the night, but do not eat during the day,” nor similar and like things. Our reason teaches us that we should eat of all things which do no harm to our health and our nature, and that we should eat each day as much as is required for our sustenance. Eating one day, fasting the next endangers health; the law of fasting reaches beyond the order of the creator who created food for the life of man and wills that we eat it and be grateful for it; it is not fitting that we abstain from his gifts to us. If there are people who argue that fasting kills the desire of the flesh, I shall answer them: The concupiscence of the flesh by which a man is attracted to a woman and a woman to a man springs from the wisdom of the creator; it is improper to do away with it; but we should act according to the well-known law that God established concerning legitimate intercourse. God did not put a purposeless concupiscence into the flesh of men and of all animals; rather he planted it in the flesh of man as a root of life in this world and a stabilizing power for each Creature in the way destined for it. In order that this concupiscence lead us not to excess, we should eat according to our needs, because overeating and drunkenness result in ill health and shoddiness in work. A man who eats according to his needs on Sunday and during the fifty days does not sin, similarly he who eats on Friday and on the days before Easter does not sin. For God created man with the same necessity for food on each day and during each month. The Jews, the Christians and the Mohammedans did not understand the work of God when they instituted the law of fasting; they lie when they say that God imposed fasting upon us and forbade us to eat; for God our creator gave us food that we support ourselves by it, not that we abstain from it.


“To the person who seeks it, truth is immediately revealed.” This is incredibly over-optimistic. Nevertheless the attitude is fairly characteristic of moral philosophers. When students ask “who is to say what is right and what is wrong,” philosophy professors will often say “you have to! You have to think it through for yourself!” In fact almost nobody is intelligent, knowledgeable, and dispassionate enough to simply work out the answers to moral questions for themselves with any reliability.

Regarding Zera Yacob’s discussion of marriage, it’s worth noting that monasticism was (and still is) very prominent in Ethiopia. (The picture at the head of this post is one I shot of a couple of monks in Lalibela in 2002.)

Marriage is an interesting case to think about in a bit more detail, because it’s really not nearly so straightforward as Zera Yacob supposes, and that shows the limits of this kind of a priori moral philosophizing. Marriage is, no doubt, suitable for human beings, and, as a matter of equity, it seems fair that each person should have one and only one spouse. But that’s hardly the end of the question. Let’s take at what Paul says about marriage in 1 Corinthians 7:25–35:

Now concerning the betrothed, I have no command from the Lord, but I give my judgment as one who by the Lord’s mercy is trustworthy. I think that in view of the present distress it is good for a person to remain as he is. Are you bound to a wife? Do not seek to be free. Are you free from a wife? Do not seek a wife. But if you do marry, you have not sinned, and if a betrothed woman marries, she has not sinned. Yet those who marry will have worldly troubles, and I would spare you that. This is what I mean, brothers: the appointed time has grown very short. From now on, let those who have wives live as though they had none, and those who mourn as though they were not mourning, and those who rejoice as though they were not rejoicing, and those who buy as though they had no goods, and those who deal with the world as though they had no dealings with it. For the present form of this world is passing away. I want you to be free from anxieties. The unmarried man is anxious about the things of the Lord, how to please the Lord. But the married man is anxious about worldly things, how to please his wife, and his interests are divided. And the unmarried or betrothed woman is anxious about the things of the Lord, how to be holy in body and spirit. But the married woman is anxious about worldly things, how to please her husband. I say this for your own benefit, not to lay any restraint upon you, but to promote good order and to secure your undivided devotion to the Lord.

Whatever the situation in Ethiopia, this isn’t terribly doctrinaire. But the key point is that Paul thinks there are special circumstances (namely the coming of Christ) that make it wise not to marry. If you don’t agree with Paul about those special circumstances, then of course you won’t see marriage his way either. The facts change things.

Polygamy is an interesting case, too (or more specifically polgyny, since polyandry is very uncommon). No doubt some men will suffer if other men monopolize multiple women. But is everyone entitled to a spouse? No doubt many women would rather be the second or third wife of a high-status man than the first wife of a low-status man. That’s unfortunate for low status men, but why should women be compelled to marry them? Well, there’s a practical reason: lots of single men with no access to women are a social hazard. This is, historically speaking, quite likely one of the reasons monogamy is in fact so widely practiced. (For an engaging discussion of such matters, see The Moral Animal by Robert Wright.) To my mind this is a better—though less obvious—justification for monogamy than Zera Yacob’s. Again, the historical and social context matters, and in un-obvious ways.

An implication: one of the reasons not to be too dismissive of the revelation in favour of one’s own `wisdom’ is that, most of the time, most of us don’t know why we do what we do, or why we should (or shouldn’t) do it.

Back to chapter IV; proceed to chapter VI.

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