Guide for the Perplexed, by Moses Maimonides, Friedländer tr. , at sacred-texts.com
IF we hear a person speaking whose language we do not understand, we undoubtedly know that he speaks, but do not know what his words mean; it may even happen that we hear some words which mean one thing in the tongue of the speaker, and exactly the reverse in our language, and taking the words in the sense which they have in our language, we imagine that the speaker employed them in that sense. Suppose, e.g., an Arab hears of a Hebrew the word abah, he thinks that the Hebrew relates how a man despised and refused a certain thing, whilst the Hebrew in reality says that the man was pleased and satisfied with it. The very same thing happens to the ordinary reader of the Prophets: some of their words he does not understand at all, like those to whom the prophet says (Isa. xxix. 11), "the vision of all is become unto you as the words of a book that is sealed"; in other passages he finds the opposite or the reverse of what the prophet meant; to this case reference is made in the words, "Ye have perverted the words of the living God" (Jer. xxiii. 36). Besides, it must be borne in mind that every prophet has his own peculiar diction, which is, as it were, his language, and it is in that language that the prophecy addressed to him is communicated to those who understand it. After this preliminary remark you will understand the metaphor frequently employed by Isaiah, and less frequently by other prophets, when they describe the ruin of a kingdom or the destruction of a great nation in phrases like the following:--"The stars have fallen," "The heavens are overthrown," "The sun is darkened," "The earth is waste, and trembles," and similar metaphors. The Arabs likewise say of a person who has met with a serious accident, "His heavens, together with his earth, have been covered"; and when they speak of the approach of a nation's prosperity, they say, "The light of the sun and moon has increased," "A new heaven and a new earth has been created," or they use similar phrases. So also the prophets, in referring to the ruin of a person, of a nation, or of a country, describe it as the result of God's great anger and wrath, whilst the prosperity
of a nation is the result of God's pleasure and satisfaction. In the former case the prophets employ such phrases as "He came forth," "came down," "roared," "thundered," or" caused his voice to be heard": also "He commanded," "said," "did," "made," and the like, as will be shown. Sometimes the prophets use the term "mankind" instead of "the people of a certain place," whose destruction they predict: e.g., Isaiah speaking of the destruction of Israel says, "And the Lord will remove man far away" (Isa. vi. 12). So also Zephaniah (i. 3, 4), "And I will cut off man from off the earth. I will also stretch out mine hand upon Judah." Note this likewise.
Having spoken of the language of the prophets in general, I will now verify and prove my statement. When Isaiah received the divine mission to prophesy the destruction of the Babylonian empire, the death of Sennacherib and that of Nebuchadnezzar, who rose after the overthrow of Sennacherib, he commences in the following manner to describe their fall and the end of their dominion, their defeat, and such evils as are endured by all who are vanquished and compelled to flee before the victorious sword [of the enemy]: "For the stars of heaven, and the constellations thereof, shall not give their light: the sun is darkened in his going forth, and the moon shall not cause her light to shine" (xiii. 10); again, "Therefore I will shake the heavens, and the earth shall remove out of her place, in the wrath of the Lord of hosts, and in the day of his fierce anger" (xiii. 13). I do not think that any person is so foolish and blind, and so much in favour of the literal sense of figurative and oratorical phrases, as to assume that at the fall of the Babylonian kingdom a change took place in the nature of the stars of heaven, or in the light of the sun and moon, or that the earth moved away from its centre. For all this is merely the description of a country that has been defeated: the inhabitants undoubtedly find all light dark, and all sweet things bitter: the whole earth appears too narrow for them, and the heavens are changed in their eyes. He speaks in a similar manner when he describes the poverty and humiliation of the people of Israel, their captivity and their defeat, the continuous misfortunes caused by the wicked Sennacherib when he ruled over all the fortified places of Judah, or the loss of the entire land of Israel when it came into the possession of Sennacherib. He says (xxiv. 17): "Fear, and the pit, and the snare, are upon thee, O inhabitant of the earth. And it shall come to pass, that he who fleeth from the noise of the fear shall fall into the pit; and he that cometh out of the midst of the pit shall be taken in the snare: for the windows from on high are open, and the foundations of the earth do shake. The earth is utterly broken down, the earth is clean dissolved, the earth is moved exceedingly. The earth shall reel to and fro like a drunkard." At the end of the same prophecy, when Isaiah describes how God will punish Sennacherib, destroy his mighty empire, and reduce him to disgrace, he uses the following figure (xxiv. 23): "Then the moon shall be confounded, and the sun ashamed, when the Lord of hosts shall reign," etc. This verse is beautifully explained by Jonathan, the son of Uzziel; he says that when Sennacherib will meet with his fate because of Jerusalem, the idolaters will understand that this is the work of God; they will faint and be confounded. He therefore translates the verse thus: "Those who worship the moon will be ashamed, and those who bow down to the sun will be humbled, when the kingdom of God shall reveal
itself," etc. The prophet then pictures the peace of the children of Israel after the death of Sennacherib, the fertility and the cultivation of their land, and the increasing power of their kingdom through Hezekiah. He employs here the figure of the increase of the light of the sun and moon. When speaking of the defeated, he says that for them the light of the sun and moon will be diminished and darkened: in the same sense their light is said to increase for the victorious. We can frequently notice the correctness of this figure of speech. When great troubles befall us, our eyes become dim, and we cannot see clearly because the spiritus visus is made turbid by the prevailing vapours, and is weakened and diminished by great anxiety and straits of the soul: whilst in a state of gladness and comfort of the soul the spiritus visus becomes clear, and man feels as if the light had increased. Thus the good tidings that the people shall dwell in Zion, and in Jerusalem, and shall weep no more, etc., conclude in the following manner: "Moreover, the light of the moon shall be as the light of the sun, and the light of the sun shall be sevenfold, as the light of seven days, in the day that the Lord bindeth up the breaches of his people, and healeth the stroke of their wound" (Isa. xxx. 19, 26); that is to say, when God will raise them up again after they had fallen through the wicked Sennacherib. The, phrase" as the light of seven days" signifies, according to the commentators," very great light": for in this same sense the number "seven" is frequently used in Hebrew. I think that reference is made by this phrase to the seven days of the dedication of the temple in the reign of Solomon; for there was never a nation so great, prosperous, and happy in every respect, as Israel was at that time, and therefore the prophet says, that Israel's greatness and happiness will be the same as it was in those seven days. Speaking of wicked Edom, Israel's oppressor, Isaiah says: "Their slain also shall be cast out, and their stink shall come up out of their carcases, and the mountains shall be melted with their blood. And all the host of heaven shall be dissolved, and the heavens shall be rolled together as a scroll: and all their host shall fall down, as a leaf falleth off from the vine, and as a fig falleth from the fig-tree. For my sword shall be bathed in heaven; behold, I shall come down upon Idumea, and upon the people of my curse, to judgment," etc. (Isa. xxxiv. 3-5). Will any person who has eyes to see find in these verses any expression that is obscure, or that might lead him to think that they contain an account of what will befall the heavens? or anything but a figurative description of the ruin of the Edomites, the withdrawal of God's protection from them, their decline, and the sudden and rapid fall of their nobles? The prophet means to say that the individuals, who were like stars as regards their permanent, high, and undisturbed position, will quickly come down, as a leaf falleth from the vine, and as a fig falling from the fig-tree. This is self-evident; and there would be no need to mention it, much less to speak on it at length, had it not become necessary, owing to the fact that the common people, and even persons who are considered as distinguished scholars, quote this passage without regarding its context or its purpose, [in support of their view of the future destruction of the heavens]. They believe that Scripture describes here what will, in future, happen to the heavens, in the same manner as it informs us how the heavens have come into existence. Again, when Isaiah told the Israelites--what afterwards became a well-known fact--that Sennacherib, with his
allied nations and kings, would perish, and that the Israelites would be helped by God alone, he employed figurative language, and said: "See how the heavens decay and the earth withers away, and all beings on the earth die, and you are saved"; that is to say, those who have filled the earth, and have been considered, to use an hyperbole, as permanent and stable as the heavens, will quickly perish and disappear like smoke; and their famous power, that has been as stable as the earth, will be destroyed like a garment. The passage to which I refer begins: "For the Lord hath comforted Zion; He hath comforted all her waste places," etc. "Hearken unto me, my people," etc. "My righteousness is near: my salvation is gone forth," etc. It continues thus: "Lift up your eyes to the heavens, and look upon the earth beneath; for the heavens shall vanish like smoke, and the earth shall wax old like a garment, and they that dwell therein shall die in like manner; for my salvation shall be for ever, and my righteousness shall not be abolished" (Isa. li. 3-6). The restoration of the kingdom of Israel, its stability and permanence, is described as a creation of heaven and earth. For Isaiah frequently speaks of the land of a king as if it were the whole Universe, as if heaven and earth belonged to him. He therefore comforts Israel and says: "I, even I, am he that comforteth you," etc. "And I have put my words in thy mouth, and I have covered thee in the shadow of mine hand, that I may plant the heavens, and lay the foundations of the earth, and say unto Zion, Thou art my people" (li. 12-16). In the following verses, Isaiah declares that the dominion of Israel will continue, whilst that of the renowned and mighty people will cease: "For the mountains shall depart," etc. (liv. so). In order to express that the kingdom of the Messiah will be permanent, and that the kingdom of Israel will not be destroyed any more, he says, "Thy sun shall no more go down," etc. (lx. 20). In metaphors like these, which are intelligible to those who understand the context, Isaiah continues to describe the details of the exile, the restoration, and the removal of all sorrow, and says figuratively as follows: "I will create new heavens and a new earth; for the first shall be forgotten, and their memory shall be blotted out." He explains this in the course of the speech, by pointing out that by the phrase, "I will create," he means that God will give them perpetual gladness and joy in place of the previous grief and mourning, which shall no longer be remembered. I will now describe the sequence of the ideas, and the order of the verses in which these ideas are contained. The prophet begins as follows: "I will mention the loving-kindnesses of the Lord," etc. (lxiii. 7). He then gives (1) an account of God's past kindness to us, concluding with the words, "And he bare them and carried them all the days of old" (ver. 9). (2) Next follows our rebellion: "But they rebelled, and vexed his holy spirit," etc. (ver. 10); (3) the dominion of our enemies over us: "Our adversaries have trodden down thy sanctuary; we are like those over whom thou hast never ruled," etc. (vers. 18, 59); (4) and the prophet's prayer on our account: "Be not wroth very sore," etc. (lxiv. 9). (5) The prophet then describes how we deserved these punishments, and how we were called to the truth but did not respond: "I offered myself to be sought of them that asked not for me," etc. (lxv. i); (6) promises mercy and pardon: "Thus saith the Lord, As the new wine is found in the cluster," etc. (ver. 8); (7) predicts evil for our oppressors: "Behold, my servant shall eat, but ye shall
be hungry," etc. (ver. 13); (8) and moral improvement of our nation to such a degree that we shall be a blessing on the earth, and the previous troubles will be forgotten: "And he shall call his servants by another name: that he who blesseth himself in the earth, shall bless himself in the God of truth; and he that sweareth in the earth, shall swear by the God of truth; because the former troubles are forgotten, and because they are hid from mine eyes. For, behold, I create new heavens, and a new earth: and the former shall not be remembered, nor come into mind. But be ye glad and rejoice for ever in that which I create: for, behold, I create Jerusalem a rejoicing, and her people a joy. And I will rejoice in Jerusalem, and joy in my people," etc. (lxv. 15-19). The whole subject must now be clear and evident; for the words, "I create new heavens, and a new earth," etc., are followed by the explanation, "I create Jerusalem a rejoicing, and her people a joy," etc. The prophet then adds that the seed and name of Israel will be as permanent as their faith and as the rejoicing in it, which God promised to create and to spread over the whole earth: for faith in God and rejoicing in it are two possessions which, once obtained, are never lost or changed. This is expressed in the words: "For as the new heavens and the new earth, which I will make, remain before me, saith the Lord, so shall your seed and your name remain" (lxvi. 22). But of other nations, in some instances, the seed remains, whilst the name has perished; so, e.g., many people are of the seed of the Persians or Greeks, without being known by that special name; they bear the names of other nations, of which they form part. According to my opinion, we have here a prophecy that our religion, which gives us our special name, will remain permanently.
As these figures are frequent in Isaiah, I explained an of them. But we meet with them also in the words of other prophets. Jeremiah, in describing the destruction of Jerusalem in consequence of our sins, says (iv. 23): "I beheld the earth, and, lo, it was without form, and void," etc. Ezekiel (xxxii. 7, 8) foretells the destruction of the kingdom of Egypt, and the death of Pharaoh, through Nebuchadnezzar, in the following words: "And when I shall put thee out, I will cover the heaven, and make the stars thereof dark; I will cover the sun with a cloud, and the moon shall not give her light. All the bright lights of heaven will I make dark over thee, and set darkness upon thy land, saith the Lord." Joel, the son of Pethuel (ii. 10), describes the multitude of locusts that came in his days as follows: "The earth shall quake before them: the heavens shall tremble: the sun and the moon shall be dark, and the stars shall withdraw their shining." Amos (viii. 9, 10), speaking of the destruction of Samaria, says: "I will cause the sun to go down at noon, and I will darken the earth in the clear day; and I win turn your feasts," etc. Micah (i. 3, 4), in relating the fall of Samaria, uses the following well-known rhetorical figures: "For, behold, the Lord cometh forth out of his place, and will come down, and tread upon the high places of the earth. And the mountains shall be molten," etc. Similarly Haggai (ii. 6, 7), in describing the destruction of the kingdom of the Medes and Persians: "I will shake the heavens and the earth, and the sea, and the dry land: and I will shake all nations," etc. When [David] (Ps. lx. 4) describes how, during the expedition of Joab against the Edomites, the nation was low and weak, and how he prayed to God for His assistance, he says: "Thou
hast made the earth to tremble; thou hast broken it: heal the breaches thereof: for it shaketh." In another instance he expresses the idea that we need not fear when we see other nations die and perish, because we rely on God's support, and not on our sword and strength, in accordance with the words: "A people saved by the Lord, the shield of thy help" (Deut. xxxiii. 29); he says (Ps. xlvi. 2): "Therefore will we not fear, though the earth be removed, and though the mountains be shaken in the midst of the sea."
The following figurative language is employed in Scripture in referring to the death of the Egyptians in the Red Sea: "The waters saw thee; they were afraid: the depths also were troubled, etc. The voice of thy thunder was in the heaven: the lightnings lightened the world; the earth trembled and shook" (Ps. lxxvii. 17-19). "Was the Lord displeased against the rivers?" etc. (Hab. iii. 8). "There went up a smoke out of his nostrils," etc. (Ps. xviii. 9). "The earth trembled," etc. (Judges v. 4, in the Song of Deborah). There are many other instances; but those which I have not quoted can be explained in accordance with those which I have cited.
Let us now consider the words of Joel (iii. 3-5): "And I will show wonders in the heavens and in the earth, blood and fire, and pillars of smoke. The sun shall be turned into darkness, and the moon into blood, before the great and terrible day of the Lord come. And it shall come to pass, that whosoever shall call on the name of the Lord shall be delivered, for in Mount Zion and in Jerusalem shall be deliverance," etc. I refer them to the defeat of Sennacherib near Jerusalem; but they may be taken as an account of the defeat of Gog and Magog near Jerusalem in the days of the Messiah, if this appears preferable, although nothing is mentioned in this passage but great slaughter, destruction, fire, and the diminution of the light of the two luminaries. You may perhaps object: How can the day of the fall of Sennacherib, according to our explanation, be called "the great and the terrible day of the Lord?" But you must know that a day of great salvation or of great distress is called "the great and terrible day of the Lord." Thus Joel (ii. 11) says of the day on which the locusts came over the land, "For the day of the Lord is great and terrible, and who can abide it?"
Our opinion, in support of which we have quoted these passages, is clearly established, namely, that no prophet or sage has ever announced the destruction of the Universe, or a change of its present condition, or a permanent change of any of its properties. When our Sages say, "The world remains six thousand years, and one thousand years it will be waste," they do not mean a complete cessation of existing things; the phrase "one thousand years it will be waste" distinctly shows that time will continue: besides, this is the individual opinion of one Rabbi, and in accordance with one particular theory. But on the other hand the words, "There is nothing new under the sun" (Eccles. i. 9), in the sense that no new creation takes place in any way and under any circumstances, express the general opinion of our Sages, and include a principle which every one of the doctors of the Mishnah and the Talmud recognises and makes use of in his arguments. Even those who understand the words "new heavens and a new earth" in their literal sense hold that the heavens, which will in future be formed, have already been created and are in existence, and that for this reason the present tense "remain" is used, and not the future "will remain." They support their
view by citing the text, "There is nothing new under the sun." Do not imagine that this is opposed to our opinion. They mean, perhaps, to say that the natural laws, by which the promised future condition of Israel will be effected, have been in existence since the days of the Creation, and in that they are perfectly correct. When I, however, said that no prophet ever announced "a permanent change of any of its properties," I intended to except miracles. For although the rod was turned into a serpent, the water into blood, the pure and noble hand into a leprous one, without the existence of any natural cause that could effect these or similar phenomena, these changes were not permanent, they have not become a physical property. On the contrary, the Universe since continues its regular course. This is my opinion; this should be our belief. Our Sages, however, said very strange things as regards miracles: they are found in Bereshit Rabba, and in Midrash Koheleth, namely, that the miracles are to some extent also natural: for they say, when God created the Universe with its present physical properties, He made it part of these properties, that they should produce certain miracles at certain times, and the sign of a prophet consisted in the fact that God told him to declare when a certain thing will take place, but the thing itself was effected according to the fixed laws of Nature. If this is really the meaning of the passage referred to, it testifies to the greatness of the author, and shows that he held it to be impossible that there should be a change in the laws of Nature, or a change in the will of God [as regards the physical properties of things] after they have once been established. He therefore assumes, e.g., that God gave the waters the property of joining together, and of flowing in a downward direction, and of separating only at the time when the Egyptians were drowned, and only in a particular place. I have already pointed out to you the source of this passage, and it only tends to oppose the hypothesis of a new creation. It is said there: R. Jonathan said, God made an agreement with the sea that it should divide before the Israelites: thus it is said, "And the sea returned to its strength when the morning appeared" (Exod. xiv. 27). R. Jeremiah, son of Elazar, said: Not only with the sea, but with all that has been created in the six days of the beginning [was the agreement made]: this is referred to in the words, "I, even my hands have stretched out the heavens, and all their host have I commanded" (Isa. xlv. 12); i.e., I have commanded the sea to divide, the fire not to hurt Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah, the lions not to harm Daniel, and the fish to spit out Jonah. The same is the case with the rest of the miracles.
We have thus clearly stated and explained our opinion, that we agree with Aristotle in one half of his theory. For we believe that this Universe remains perpetually with the same properties with which the Creator has endowed it, and that none of these will ever be changed except by way of miracle in some individual instances, although the Creator has the power to change the whole Universe, to annihilate it, or to remove any of its properties. The Universe, had, however, a beginning and commencement, for when nothing was as yet in existence except God, His wisdom decreed that the Universe be brought into existence at a certain time, that it should not be annihilated or changed as regards any of its properties, except in some instances; some of these are known to us, whilst others belong to the future, and are therefore unknown to us. This is our opinion and the basis of our
religion. The opinion of Aristotle is that the Universe, being permanent and indestructible, is also eternal and without beginning. We have already shown that this theory is based on the hypothesis that the Universe is the necessary result of causal relation, and that this hypothesis includes a certain amount of blasphemy. Having come thus far we will make in the next chapter a few remarks on passages in the first chapters of Genesis. For the primary object in this treatise has been to expound as much as possible of the Scriptural account of the Creation (ma‘aseh bereshit), and the description of the heavenly chariot (ma‘aseh mercabah). But let us premise two general observations.
First, the account given in Scripture of the Creation is not, as is generally believed, intended to be in all its parts literal. For if this were the case, wise men would not have kept its explanation secret, and our Sages would not have employed figurative speech [in treating of the Creation] in order to hide its true meaning, nor would they have objected to discuss it in the presence of the common people. The literal meaning of the words might lead us to conceive corrupt ideas and to form false opinions about God, or even entirely to abandon and reject the principles of our Faith. It is therefore right to abstain and refrain from examining this subject superficially and unscientifically. We must blame the practice of some ignorant preachers and expounders of the Bible, who think that wisdom consists in knowing the explanation of words, and that greater perfection is attained by employing more words and longer speech. It is, however, right that we should examine the Scriptural texts by the intellect, after having acquired a knowledge of demonstrative science, and of the true hidden meaning of prophecies. But if one has obtained some knowledge in this matter he must not preach on it, as I stated in my Commentary on the Mishnah (Ḥagigah, ii. 7), and our Sages said distinctly: From the beginning of the book to this place--after the account of the sixth day of the Creation--it is "the glory of God to conceal a thing" (Prov. xxv. 2).
We have thus clearly stated our opinion. It is, however, part of the Divine plan that every one who has obtained some perfection transmit it to some other persons, as will be shown in the chapter on Prophecy. It is, therefore, impossible for a scholar to possess knowledge of these problems, whether it be through his own researches or through his master's teaching, without communicating part of that knowledge to others; it cannot be done in clear words; it must be done sparingly byway of hints. We find in the words of some of our Sages numerous hints and notes of this kind, but mixed up with the words of others and with other subjects. In treating of these mysteries, as a rule, I quote as much as contains the principal idea, and leave the rest for those who are worthy of it.
Secondly, the prophets employ homonymous terms and use words which are not meant to be understood in their ordinary signification, but are only used because of some other meaning which they admit, e.g., "a rod of an almond-tree (shaked)," because of the words which follow, "for I will hasten (shaked)" (Jer. i. 11, 12), as will be shown in the chapter on Prophecy. According to the same principle Ezekiel in the account of the Divine Chariot employs, as we have stated the term ḥashmal (Ezek. i. 4); also regel egel (v. 7), neḥoshet kalal (v. 7), and similar terms; Zechariah (vi. 1) likewise
adopts this method, and says: "And the mountains were mountains of neḥoshet (brass)," and the like.
After these two remarks I will proceed to the chapter which I have promised.