’Tis the eye of childhood that fears a painted devil.
- Shakespeare, Macbeth
To further pursue some of the questions raised by Julian Jaynes's book The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, I took a look at the Book of Judges. This is one of the more interesting books in the Hebrew Bible, because it contains some material of very early origin. The Song of Deborah, for instance, is sometimes considered the oldest piece of poetry in the Bible.
For our purposes, the question is: What kind of consciousness is represented by the characters portrayed in Judges? Admittedly, the book is a compilation of stories that originated at different times, and no doubt these stories circulated in oral traditions for centuries before finally being written down (possibly in the 6th century BC). The saga of Samson, to take one example, probably originated as a series of legends involving different local folk heroes, which were later compiled into one narrative, more or less like the Herakles/Hercules stories in Greco-Roman mythology.
While there is little likelihood that the various episodes in Judges are historically correct in their details, my assumption is that the basic elements of at least some stories were preserved more or less intact, and can give us a clue to the mentality of people in this era - an era usually dated roughly 1380-1050 BC.
The translation I used, The New Jerusalem Bible, seems to capture the original flavor of the text better than most other translations. All quotations are from this translation.
The first thing to note is that for the most part, the important actions and decisions in Judges are taken not by the human characters, but by their god, Yahweh. Generally speaking, either the people obey the dictates of Yahweh and his angels, or they drift passively into error. Repeatedly we are told that "the spirit of Yahweh was on him" (Judges 3:10) or "Yahweh struck terror into Sisera" (4:15) or "the spirit of Yahweh clothed Gideon around” (6:34) or "God sent a spirit of discord" to disrupt relations between peoples (9:22) or "Yahweh made each man turn his sword against his comrade" (7:22) or “the spirit of Yahweh began to stir him" (13:25) or “the spirit of Yahweh seized on him" (14:19) or “all this came from Yahweh” (14:4). The two latter quotes, both pertaining to Samson, make it quite clear that Samson's motivations are not his own; all of his actions are determined quite explicitly by the spirit of Yahweh.
This is rather similar to the way the heroes of the Iliad are described. Instead of thinking for themselves, they often rely on direct intervention by the gods, who swoop down from heaven to tell them what to say and do.
The characters in Judges are constantly deferring to Yahweh to find out how they ought to behave. This is apparent in the very first chapter, when we are told:
Now after Joshua's death, the Israelites consulted Yahweh, asking, "Which of us is to march on the Canaanites first, to make war on them?" And Yahweh replied, "Judah is to march on them first; I am delivering the country into his hands." (1:1-2)
In Chapter 7, Yahweh instructs Gideon to reduce the number of his troops on a purely arbitrary basis in order to magnify Yahweh's greatness in the coming victory. In Chapter 20, Yahweh serves as the de facto military commander – and does not do a very good job of it, inasmuch as the Israelites are crushed in their first two battles. Despite these massacres, it never occurs to them to question the orders they are receiving; on the contrary, they continue to implore Yahweh for guidance, and his tactics eventually do bring them victory in the third battle.
In Chapter 4, Yahweh similarly serves as the strategist for Barak’s war against Canaan; speaking through the prophetess Deborah, Yahweh says, “Go! March to Mount Tabor and with you take ten thousand of the sons of Naphtali and the sons of Zebulon. I shall entice Sisera, the commander of Jabin's army, to encounter you at the Tolerance of Kishon with his chariots and troops; and I shall put him into your power." Barak, however, will go only if Deborah accompanies him, because, lacking power of prophesy, “I do not know how to choose the day when the angel of Yahweh will grant me success." (4:6-8) He cannot make decisions on his own.
If we set aside our preconceived assumptions and try to look at the text from a fresh perspective, there is something unsettlingly robotic in the way these people blindly and selflessly follow Yahweh's orders. With certain exceptions, it is almost as if they have no will or creative imagination. Consider the reaction of Samson's mother-to-be when she is given the news that she will bear a child.
The Angel of Yahweh appeared to this woman and said to her, "You are barren and have had no child, but you are going to conceive and give birth to a son. From now on, take great care. Drink no wine or fermented liquor, and eat nothing unclean. For you are going to conceive and give birth to a son. No razor is to touch his head, for the boy is to be God's nazirite from his mother's womb; and he will start rescuing Israel from the power of the Philistines." The woman then went and told her husband, "A man of God has just come to me, who looked like the Angel of God, so majestic was he. I did not ask him where he came from, and he did not tell me his name. But he said to me, "‘You are going to conceive and will give birth to a son. From now on, drink no wine or fermented liquor, and eat nothing unclean. For the boy is to be God's nazirite from his mother's womb to his dying day.’" (13:3-7)
This type of thing can, of course, be explained as a holdover from an oral tradition that required constant repetition to drill the story into the listeners' heads. But another explanation is that, in this era, people heard the voice of their god and simply repeated it with little or no personal elaboration.
From the text, it is clear enough that gods were a feature of everyday life in these times. In Chapter 18, we are told of a man who had, in his house, “an ephod, some domestic images, a carved statue and an idol cast in metal.” (18:14) When thieves make off with these items, and also spirit away the local priest, the outraged householder follows them, shouting plaintively, “You have taken away my god, which I have had made, and the priest as well. You are going away, and what have I got left?" (18:24)
There is an implicit acknowledgment of the existence of other gods besides Yahweh, although Yahweh is always depicted as the most fearsome and powerful of them all. Jephthah asks an enemy, "Will you not keep as your possession whatever Chemosh, your god, has given you? And, just the same, we shall keep as ours whatever Yahweh our God has given us, to inherit from those who were before us!" (11:24) Although these words could be interpreted as mere diplomatic niceties, it seems clear enough that the ancient Israelites lived in a world of many gods, each with his own tribe and territory, and that they were surrounded by idols of all descriptions - metal, wood, stone; handheld figurines, life-size effigies, and larger-than-life constructions. They encountered vivid visual reminders of their gods everywhere, on a daily basis.
In that highly visual world, imitation of action often substituted for detailed instruction. "Hurry and do what you have seen me do," Abimelech orders his troops after cutting off a tree branch (9:48). It was a world where visual tokens substituted for verbal discourses; to inform the twelve tribes that his concubine has been murdered, a man chooses the expedient path of dismembering her into twelve pieces and messengering the pieces to various chieftains (19:29).
In all of this, there are few signs of what we would think of as self-awareness. Perhaps the closest approach to an interior monologue is a passage involving the enemy commander Sisera's mother, waiting by a window and expecting her son to return. She says:
"Why is his chariot so long coming? Why so delayed the hoof-beats from his chariot?" The wisest of her ladies answers, and she to herself repeats, "Are they not collecting and sharing out the spoil: a girl, two girls for each warrior; a booty of colored and embroidered stuff for Sisera, one scarf, two embroidered scarfs for me!" (5:28-30)
The hapless mother does not know that Sisera is already dead.
But this level of thought, which is not very deep anyway, is exceedingly rare. More common are moments when one of the Israelites has the temerity to doubt the voice of his god, or is simply confused about its origin or its absence. Gideon requests his god’s voice to "give me a sign that you are speaking to me" (6:17) and later requests other signs (6:36-40). Manoah doesn't know he is speaking to an angel of Yahweh until he sees the angel ascend to heaven (13:11-20). Samson, shorn of his hair, “did not know that Yahweh had left him” (16:20).
There are also a few passages involving petty deceptions - e.g. the devious Ehud (Chapter 3) and the murderous Jael (Chapter 4). But the level of chicanery necessary to pull off these ruses is not high.
On the whole, the tone varies between a dry recital of facts and a naïve, boastful quality of exaggeration, as when we are informed that “forty-two thousand Ephramites fell on this occasion” (12:6) or that Samson tore a lion to pieces with his bare hands (14:6) or “slaughtered a thousand men” armed with only the jawbone of an ass (15:15). In the latter two cases, we are told, he is capable of these heroics only because “the spirit of Yahweh was on him.”
For me, the picture that emerges from Judges is that of a childish mentality that repeats things by rote, engages in small, sneaky deceptions, freely converses with what might be called imaginary friends, seeks quasi-parental “divine” guidance and follows it with little or no question, exaggerates absurdly, throws violent tantrums, lacks empathy, is capable of casual cruelty, seldom or never introspects, exhibits a certain naïve pomposity and bellicosity, and has only a limited sense of personal identity, largely restricted to tribal affiliation, totemic gods, and personal belongings.
It may not be merely a coincidence, or a feature of arrested literary development, that these early texts reflect this childish mindset. It is at least possible that people in this era generally did have a mindset that we would associate with young children today – a mindset characterized by an undeveloped (or underdeveloped) sense of self, very limited capacity for reflection and self-analysis, a reliance on authority figures for guidance, and minimal logical reasoning. And like many children even today, they may have experienced a close connection with the spirit world, relying on psychic impressions, mediumistic communications, and various kinds of augury to tell them what to do.