Treatise of Zera Yacob, Chapter VII

September 3, 2012 § Leave a comment

I said to myself: “Why does God permit liars to mislead his people?” God has indeed given reason to all and everyone so that they may know truth and falsehood, and the power to choose between the two as they will. Hence if it is truth we want, let us seek it with our reason which God has given us so that with it we may see that which is needed for us from among all the necessities of nature. We cannot, however, reach truth through the doctrine of men, for all men are liars. If on the contrary we prefer falsehood, the order of the creator and the natural law imposed on the whole of nature do not perish thereby, but we ourselves perish by our own error.

God sustains the world by his order which he himself has established and which man cannot destroy, because the order of God is stronger than the order of men. Therefore those who believe that monastic life is superior to marriage are they themselves drawn to marriage because of [the might of] the order of the creator; those who believe that fasting brings righteousness to their soul, eat when they feel hungry, and those who believe that he who has given up his goods is perfect, are drawn to seek them again on account of their usefulness, as many of our monks have done. Likewise all liars would like to break the order of nature: but it is not possible that they do not see their lie broken down. But the creator laughs at them, the Lord of creation derides them. God knows the right way to act, but the sinner is caught in the snare set by himself. Hence a monk who holds the order of marriage as impure will he caught in the snare of fornication and of other carnal sins against nature and of grave sickness. Those who despise riches will show their hypocrisy in the presence of kings and of wealthy persons in order to acquire these goods. Those who desert their relatives for the sake of God lack temporal assistance in times of difficulty and in their old age; they begin to blame God and men and to blaspheme. Likewise all those who violate the law of the creator fall into the trap made by their own hands. God permits error and evil among men because our souls in this world live in a land of temptation, in which the chosen ones of God are put to the test, as the wise Solomon said: “God has put the virtuous to the test and proved them worthy to be with him; he has tested them like gold in a furnace, and accepted them as a holocaust.” After our death, when we go back to our creator, we shall see how God made all things in justice and great wisdom and that all his ways are truthful and upright.

It is clear that our soul lives after the death of our flesh, for in this world our desire [for happiness] is not fulfilled: those in need desire to possess, those who possess desire more, and though man owned the whole world, he is not satisfied and craves for more. This inclination of our nature shows us that we are created not only for this life, but also for the coming world; there the souls which have fulfilled the will of the creator will be perpetually satisfied and will not look for other things. Without this [inclination] the nature of man would be deficient and would not obtain that of which it has the greatest need. Our soul has the power of having the concept of God and of seeing him mentally; likewise it can conceive of immortality. God did not give this power purposelessly; as he gave the power, so did he give the reality. In this world complete justice is not achieved: wicked people are in possession of the goods of this world in a satisfying degree, the humble starve; some wicked men are happy, some good men are sad, some evil men exult with joy; some righteous men weep. Therefore after our death there must needs be another life and another justice, a perfect one, in which retribution will be made to all according to their deeds, and those who have fulfilled the will of the creator revealed through the light of reason and have observed the law of their nature will be rewarded. The law of nature is obvious, because our reason clearly propounds it, if we examine it. But men do not like such inquiries; they choose to believe in the words of men rather than to investigate the will of their creator.


The opening of this chapter is reminiscent of Romans 1:18–25:

For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse, for although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things. Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonouring of their bodies among themselves, because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever!

In my comment on chapter VI, I already talked about Zera Yacob’s optimistic view of human reason. Again he is too optimistic here. Besides the limits on our time and intellect, we are built to deceive ourselves, especially in moral matters, and the truth will often elude us despite our best efforts.

In this chapter Zera Yacob also seems overly optimistic about our natural inclinations. He argues here that our natural drives reveal the folly of ascetecism, but even non-ascetics feel temptation. Maybe it’s foolish not to marry if that is only going to lead you to use prostitutes, but married men are also tempted to stray, and that does not mean that monogamy is folly. (Well, some cynics will say that it does mean that, but Zera Yacob wouldn’t.) Life is hard, and even the upstanding face trials, as Zera Yacob himself here insists: “the chosen ones of God are put to the test.”

However, I’m perhaps being a bit unfair. Zera Yacob has already argued against asceticism and various other things in earlier chapters. So maybe in this chapter he’s just pointing to some consequences of going wrong in these areas. That would be perfectly fair.

Zera Yacob’s argument for life after death depends upon the point that life is hard, even for the just: “It is clear that our soul lives after the death of our flesh, for in this world our desire is not fulfilled.” This is a fairly famous argument now, because C. S. Lewis made it in Mere Christianity:

The longings which arise in us when we first fall in love, or first think of some foreign country, or first take up some subject that excites us, are longings which no marriage, no travel, no learning, can really satisfy. I am not now speaking of what would be ordinarily called unsuccessful marriages, or holidays, or learned careers. I am speaking of the best possible ones. There was something we grasped at, in that first moment of longing, which just fades away in the reality. I think everyone knows what I mean. The wife may be a good wife, and the hotels and scenery may have been excellent, and chemistry may be a very interesting job: but something has evaded us.

The Christian says, “Creatures are not born with desires unless satisfaction for those desires exists. A baby feels hunger well, there is such a thing as food. A duckling wants to swim: well, there is such a thing as water. Men feel sexual desire: well, there is such a thing as sex. If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world. If none of my earthly pleasures satisfy it, that does not prove that the universe is a fraud. Probably earthly pleasures were never meant to satisfy it, but only to arouse it, to suggest the real thing. If that is so, I must take care, on the one hand, never to despise, or be unthankful for, these earthly blessings, and on the other, never to mistake them for the something else of which they are only a kind of copy, or echo, or mirage.

But the argument isn’t a good one, at least not after Darwin. It’s very natural that we would have restless desires, because going for more is generally safer than just settling for less. The more women you sleep with, the more children you can leave behind. And so on. Also, it would be absurd to imagine that all our our desires might be satisfied after death. I’m sure the reader will be able to think of some desires of his own that he would not expect God to satisfy.

But some people do feel, with Zera Yacob, that “after our death there must needs be another life and another justice, a perfect one, in which retribution will be made to all according to their deeds.” Some people think that if there were not, then life would be absurd. For example, William Lane Craig claims that

if God does not exist and there is no immortality, then all the evil acts of men go unpunished and all the sacrifices of good men go unrewarded. But who can live with such a view?

I’m not totally unsympathetic to this, but I’m not all that impressed by it, either. For one thing, even if the fact that the evil thrive and the good suffer is a paradox of moral life, it is only one among several (the most famous is moral luck), and it is not clear to me that God or eternal life makes any difference to many of them. There just seem to be some paradoxes lurking in human thought generally, and in moral thought in particular. In fact religion can introduce new puzzles: the problem of evil is at least as difficult as the idea that there might not be perfect justice.

I’ve added further (and more sympathetic) comments on chapter VII here.

Back to chapter VI; proceed to chapter VIII.

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