Treatise of Zera Yacob, Chapter IX

November 16, 2012 § 3 Comments

I know that God answers our prayers in another way, if we pray to him with our whole hearts, with love, faith and patience: during my childhood I was a sinner for many years, I neither thought of the work of God nor prayed to him; I made many sinful acts that rational nature forbids; because of my sins I fell into a trap from which man cannot free himself [by himself;] I began to be despondent and the terror of death overcame me. At that time I turned to God and I began to pray to him that he free me, for he knows all the ways of salvation. I said to God: “I repudiate my sin and I search for your will, O Lord, that I may accomplish it. But now forgive me my sin and free me.” I prayed for many days with all my heart; God heard me and saved me completely; I for my part praised him and wholeheartedly turned to him. And I said Psalm CXIV [116:1]: “I love! For God listens to my entreaty.” I thought that this psalm was written for me. I then said: “No, I shall not die, I shall live to recite the deeds of God.”

There are people who constantly accused me in the presence of the king and said: “This man is your enemy, and the enemy of the Frang;” and I knew that the king’s wrath was inflamed against me. One day the king’s messenger came to me, and said: “Come quickly to me; thus spoke the king.” I was very much frightened, but I could not flee, because the king’s men were guarding me. I prayed the whole night with a grieved heart; in the morning I rose and went up to the king. But God had made his heart soft, he received me well and mentioned nothing of the things I was afraid of. He only questioned me on many points concerning the doctrine and the [sacred] Books and he said to me: “You are a learned man, you should love the Frang, because they are very learned.” I answered: “Yes, they truly are;” for I was afraid and the Frang are really learned. After this the king gave me five measures of gold, and sent me away peacefully. After leaving [the king,] as I was still marvelling [at my fate,] I thanked God who had treated me so well. When Walda Yohannes accused me, I ran away, but I did not pray as before that [God] rescue me from the peril, because I was able to flee; man ought to do everything possible without tempting God needlessly. Now I praise Him; because I fled and am now living in a cave, I find ample opportunity to turn myself wholly to my creator; I am able to think of those things which eluded me previously and to know the truth that gives great joy to my soul. And I say to God: “I deserved the affliction which made me know your judgement.” I have learnt more while living alone in a cave than when I was living with scholars. What I wrote in this book is very little; but in my cave I have meditated on many other such things. I praise God for the wisdom he gave me and the knowledge of the mysteries of creation; my soul is drawn by him and despises everything except the meditation of God’s work and of his wisdom.

Everyday I recited the Psalter of David with a heart dilated [with joy;] and this prayer helps me considerably and raises my thoughts to God. And when in the Psalter of David I encounter things that do not agree with my thought, I interpret them and I try to make them agree with my science and all is well. While praying in this manner, my trust in God grew stronger. And I said: “God, hear my prayer, do not hide from my petition. Save me from the violence of men. For your part, Lord, do not withhold your kindness from me! May your love and faithfulness constantly preserve me. I invoke you, O Lord; do not let me be disgraced. So I shall always sing of your name, that day after day you will fulfil my desire. Turn to me and pity me. Give me your strength, your saving help, to me your servant, this son of a pious mother, give me one proof of your goodness. For the sake of your name, guide me, lead me! Rescue me from my persecutors, for the goodness you show me. Let dawn bring proof of your love, for one who relies on you. Protect me and lead me into the land, do not let me fall into the hands of my enemies. Let me hear [your] joy and exultation; do take away my hope. Counter their curses with your blessing, and let them know that you have done it.” I was praying day and night with all my heart this and other similar prayers.


This chapter is more autobiography and testimony than philosophy, but I have a few remarks nevertheless.

The first paragraph, in which Zera Yacob says that sin can bind us so that we can no longer free ourselves from its influence, and that we then require God’s intervention, and that God did so intervene in his life, is reminiscent of Augustine’s account of his conversion in Book VIII of the Confessions:

For the law of sin is the violence of custom [i.e. habituation], whereby the mind is drawn and holden, even against its will; but deservedly, for that it willingly fell into it. Who then should deliver me thus wretched from the body of this death, but Thy grace only, through Jesus Christ our Lord? (VIII.v.12)

I cast myself down I know not how, under a certain fig-tree, giving full vent to my tears; and the floods of mine eyes gushed out an acceptable sacrifice to Thee. And, not indeed in these words, yet to this purpose,
spake I much unto Thee: and Thou, O Lord, how long? how long, Lord, wilt Thou be angry for ever? Remember not our former iniquities, for I felt that I was held by them. I sent up these sorrowful words: How long, how long, “to-morrow, and tomorrow?” Why not now? why not is there this hour an end to my uncleanness?

So was I speaking and weeping in the most bitter contrition of my heart, when, lo! I heard from a neighbouring house a voice, as of boy or girl, I know not, chanting, and oft repeating, “Take up and read; Take up and read. ” Instantly, my countenance altered, I began to think most intently whether children were wont in any kind of play to sing such words: nor could I remember ever to have heard the like. So checking the torrent of my tears, I arose; interpreting it to be no other than a command from God to open the book, and read the first chapter I should find. For I had heard of Antony, that coming in during the reading of the Gospel, he received the admonition, as if what was being read was spoken to him: Go, sell all that thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven, and come and follow me: and by such oracle he was forthwith converted unto Thee. Eagerly then I returned to the place where Alypius was sitting; for there had I laid the volume of the Apostle when I arose thence. I seized, opened, and in silence read that section on which my eyes first fell: Not in rioting and drunkenness, not in chambering and wantonness, not in strife and envying; but put ye on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make not provision for the flesh, in concupiscence. No further would I read; nor needed I: for instantly at the end of this sentence, by a light as it were of serenity infused into my heart, all the darkness of doubt vanished away. (VIII.xii.28–29)

“What I wrote in this book is very little; but in my cave I have meditated on many other such things.” I always this this passage is so tragic—if only Zera Yacob had written more!

The final paragraph contains a whole series of quotations or paraphrases from the Psalms:  55:1; 40:11; 31:17; 61:8; 86:16–17; 31:4; 142:6–7; 143:8; 109:27–8. Looking at the sources, I’m reminded of Paul’s manner of quoting in his letters: the quotes are not exact, and are drawn from various places and then joined or fused together. In other words, Zera Yacob, like Paul, is drawing at will on his profound knowledge of scripture rather than looking things up. (But I should say that it’s hard for me to judge the accuracy of Zera Yacob’s quotations very well, since some of the apparent discrepancies may have to do with translation or variations in manuscripts.)

It is particularly clear in this chapter that, although he is not a Christian, Zera Yacob is a devout man.

Back to chapter VIII; forward to chapter X.


Treatise of Zera Yacob, Chapter VIII

November 10, 2012 § Leave a comment

The will of God is known by this short statement from our reason that tells us: Worship God your creator and love all men as yourself. Moreover our reason says: Do not do unto others that which you do not like to be done to you, but do unto others as you would like others to do unto you. The decalogue of the Pentateuch expresses the will of the creator excepting [the precept] about the observance of the Sabbath, for our reason says nothing of the observance of the Sabbath. But the prohibitions of killing, stealing, lying, adultery: our reason teaches us these and similar ones. Likewise the six precepts of the Gospel are the will of the creator. For indeed we desire that men show mercy to us; it therefore is fitting that we ourselves show the [same] mercy to the others, as much as it is within our power. It is the will of God that we keep our life and existence in this world. It is by the will of the creator that we come into and remain in this Life, and it is not right for us to leave it against his holy will. The creator himself wills that we adorn our life with science and work; for such an end did he give us reason and power. Manual labour comes from the will of God because without it the necessities of our life cannot be fulfilled. Likewise marriage of one man with one woman and education of children.

Moreover there are many other things which agree with our reason and are necessary for our life or for the existence of mankind. We ought to observe them, because such is the will of our creator, and we ought to know that God does not create us perfect but creates us with such a reason as to know that we are to strive for perfection as long as we live in this world, and to be worthy for the reward that our creator has prepared for us in his wisdom. It was possible for God to have created us perfect and to make us enjoy beatitude on earth; but he did not will to create us in this way; instead he created us with the capacity of striving for perfection, and placed us in the midst of the trials of this world so that we may become perfect and deserve the reward that our creator will give us after our death; as long as we live in this world we ought to praise our creator and fulfil his will and be patient until he draws us unto him, and beg from his mercy that he will lessen our period of hardship and forgive our sins and faults which we committed through ignorance; and enable us to know the laws of our creator and to keep them.

Now as to prayer, we always stand in need of it because [our] rational nature requires it. The soul endowed with intelligence that is aware that there is a God who knows all, conserves all, rules all, is drawn to him so that it prays to him and asks him to grant things good and to be freed from evil and sheltered under the hand of him who is almighty and for whom nothing is impossible, God great and sublime who sees all that is [above and] beneath him, holds all, teaches all, guides all, our Father, our creator, our Protector, the reward for our souls, merciful, kind, who knows each of our misfortunes, takes pleasure in our patience, creates us for life and not for destruction, as the wise Solomon said: “You, Lord, teach all things, because you can do all things and overlook men’s sins so that they can repent. You love all that exists, you hold nothing of what you have made in abhorrence, you are indulgent and merciful to all” [Wisdom 11:23–25]. God created us intelligent so that we may meditate on his greatness, praise him and pray to him in order to obtain the needs of our body and soul. Our reason which our creator has put in the heart of man teaches all these things to us. How can they be useless and false?


is “worship God your creator and love all men as yourself” really a precept of reason? Zera Yacob offered an argument for the existence of God back in chapter III. And in chapter IV he briefly addressed the further matter of worship:

He is intelligent who understands all, for he created us as intelligent from the abundance of his intelligence; and we ought to worship him, for he is the master of all things. If we pray to him, he will listen to us; for he is almighty.

And what about the Golden Rule? Jesus taught it, but I am not so sure about reason, and I would like more of an argument there. Empathy and mutual aid are natural, certainly, but so are vengeance and rivalry.

I’ve talked before about how there are lots of good rules that are not deliverances of pure reason, and I think observance of the Sabbath is another good example. Unlike murder and theft, observing the Sabbath is only required because God tells us to do it. It’s like taking out the trash as a kid—you only have to do it if your parents tell you to. Still, you do have to do it if they tell you to, and likewise we’re supposed to observe the Sabbath, not because we’re told to do so by reason, but because we’re told to do so by God. Moreover, it’s good that he told us to do that. If everyone else works seven days a week, then it’s pretty hard to take one day off yourself. But if God (or any other authority) makes everyone take a day off, then great! Everyone gets a day off.

The following is an interesting passage, because it raises a question about how Zera Yacob understands the relationship between what we should do, what reason tells us, and what God wills:

But the prohibitions of killing, stealing, lying, adultery: our reason teaches us these and similar ones. Likewise the six precepts of the Gospel are the will of the creator. For indeed we desire that men show mercy to us; it therefore is fitting that we ourselves show the [same] mercy to the others, as much as it is within our power. It is the will of God that we keep our life and existence in this world. It is by the will of the creator that we come into and remain in this Life, and it is not right for us to leave it against his holy will.

Zera Yacob evidently thinks that whatever reason reveals to be right, God wills—perhaps because reason simply reveals the will of God? In the last chapter, Zera Yacob referred to “the will of the creator revealed through the light of reason,” and see also the first sentence of the present chapter. The last sentence of this quote may suggest that, ultimately, we should do things precisely because God wills that we do them; indeed just below Zera Yacob says that “We ought to observe [things which agree with our reason], because such is the will of our creator.” As Plato observed in the Euthyphro, there must be some reason why God commands one thing rather than another, so it cannot simply be that we should do things merely because God says so. On the other hand, and as I pointed out just above, God, like a parent, can make certain things obligatory in virtue of his authority. Maybe that’s all Zera Yacob is getting at in the last line above: it is wrong to abandon the life your creator gave you in the same way that you could be said to wrong your parents by committing suicide. But on the whole it is a shame that Zera Yacob does not say more about what we would now call moral epistemology and metaethics; probably we must just accept that he has not really worked out a theory on such matters.

Regarding manual labour, we may note that in Ethiopia, as in many ancient and medieval societies, manual labour and technical trades were looked down on.

In the second paragraph, Zera Yacob offers a brief theodicy (a “justification of the ways of God to man,” in Milton’s words). God could have made us perfect, but did not do so because he wanted us to perfect ourselves and deserve our blessedness. As usual, Zera Yacob doesn’t develop the idea in detail, but in contemporary philosophy of religion, this is known as a “soul-making theodicy.”

Back to chapter VII; proceed to chapter IX.

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