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Bible Dictionaries

Watson's Biblical & Theological Dictionary


or ZABAEANS, or ZABIANS or SABIANS. The Sabians mentioned in Scripture were evidently a nation, or perhaps a wandering horde, such as fell upon Job's cattle, Job 1:15; men of stature, Isaiah 45:14; a people afar off, Joel 3:8 . But we speak here of the Zabians as a sect, probably the first corrupters of the patriarchal religion; and so called, as is believed, from tsabiim, the "hosts," that is, of heaven; namely, the sun, moon, and stars, to whom they rendered worship; first immediately, and afterward through the medium of images; this particularly distinguished them from the magi, whose idolatry wa confined to the solar orb, and its earthly representative, the fire. If the above derivation be right, the Zabians were originally Chaldeans, though afterward the same sect arose in Arabia. Their study of the heavenly bodies led them, not only to astronomy, but to astrology, its degenerate daughter, which was for many ages the favourite pursuit of the oriental nations.

The following account is abridged from Dr. Townley's "Essays:"—The Zabii, or Zabians, were a sect of idolaters who flourished in the early ages of the world, considerable in their numbers, and extensive in their influence. The denomination of Zabii given to these idolaters, appears to have been derived from the Hebrew צבא , a host; with reference to the צבא השמים , or, host of heaven, which, they worshipped; though others have derived it from the Arabic tsaba, "to apostatize," "to turn from one religion to another;" or from צביים , or the Arabic Tsabin, "Chaldeans," or "inhabitants of the east." Lactantius considers Ham, the son of Noah, as the first seceder from the true religion after the flood; and supposes Egypt, which was peopled by his descendants, to have been the country in which Zabaism, or the worship of the stars, first prevailed. That the worship of the heavenly bodies prevailed in the east at a very early period, is certain from the words of Job, who thus exculpates himself from the charge of idolatry: "If I beheld the sun when it shined, or the moon walking in brightness, and my heart hath been secretly enticed, or my mouth hath kissed my hand; this also were an iniquity to be punished by the judge: for I should have denied the God that is above," Job 22:26-28 . It would appear that the idolatrous opinions of the Zabii originated with the posterity of Ham, at a very early period after the flood, in Egypt or Chaldea; but spread so rapidly and extensively, that in a very short time nearly the whole of the descendants of Noah were infected with their pestiferous sentiments and practices. Maimonides says, "This people," that is, the Zabii, "had filled the whole world." Their first and principal adoration was directed to the host of heaven, or the stars. They were ignicolae, or "worshippers of fire." The city of Ur, in Chaldea, seems to have had its name from the inhabitants being devoted to the worship of fire. They dedicated images to the sun and the other celestial orbs, supposing that, by a formal consecration of them to those luminaries, a divine virtue was infused into them, by which they acquired the faculty of understanding, and the power of conferring prophecy and other gifts upon their worshippers. These images were formed of various metals, according to the particular star to which any of them was dedicated. They also regarded certain trees as being appropriated to particular stars, and, when idolatrously dedicated, as being possessed of very singular virtues. From these opinions sprang the adoption of astrology by them, in all its various forms. They maintained the doctrine of the eternity of the world. "All the Zabii," says Maimonides, "believe in the eternity of the world; for, according to them, the heavens are God." Holding the eternity of the world, they easily became Pre-Adamites, affirming that Adam was not the first man. They also fabled concerning him, that he was the apostle of the moon, and the author of several works on husbandry. Of Noah, they taught, that he was a husbandman, and was imprisoned for dissenting from their opinions. They add, that Seth was another of those who forsook the worship of the moon. They held agriculture in the highest estimation, regarding it as intimately connected with the worship of the heavenly bodies. On this account, it was deemed criminal, by the major part of them, to slay or feed upon cattle. Goats were also reputed to be sacred animals, because the demons whom they worshipped were said to appear in the woods and deserts in the forms of goats or of satyrs. Of their superstitious practices, some were dangerous, as the sacrifices of lions, tigers, and other wild beasts. Certain of their rites were cruel, as the passing of their children through the fire, and branding themselves also with fire. Some of their practices were loathsome and disgustful; such as eating blood, believing it to be the food of demons, &c. Others were frivolous and tedious; as offering bats and mice to the sun, various and frequent ablutions, lustrations, &c. Some of them were obscene and beastly, as the rites practised on engrafting a tree, or to obtain rain. Many of the rites were magical. These Maimonides divides into three kinds:—"The first is that which respects plants, animals, and metals. The second consists in the limitation and determination of the times in which certain works ought to be performed. The third consists in human gestures and actions, as leaping, clapping the hands, shouting, laughing, lying down, or stretching at full length upon the ground, burning particular things, raising a smoke, and, lastly, repeating certain intelligible or unintelligible words. Some things cannot be completed without the use of all these rites." It is generally acknowledged that some traces of Zabianism are still to be found both among the Hindoos and Chinese in the east, and the Mexicans and other nations in the south. The Guebres, or Parsees, who inhabit Persia, and are scattered through various parts of Hindostan, are the acknowledged worshippers of fire, or the supreme Deity under that symbol. "That the Persians," says Hyde, "were formerly Sabians or Zabii, is rendered probable by Ibn Phacreddin Angjou, a Persian, who, in his book ‘Pharhangh Gjihanghiri,' treating of the Persians descended from Shem, says in the preface, ‘Their religion, at that time, was Zabianism; but at length they became magi, and built fire temples.' And the author of the book ‘Mu'gjizat Pharsi,' adopts the same opinion: ‘In ancient times, the Persians were of the Zabian religion, worshipping the stars, until the time of Gushtasp, son of Lohrasp.' For then Zoroaster reformed their religion."

The modern Sabians, who inhabit the country round about Mount Libanus, believe the unity of God, but pay an adoration to the stars, or the angels and intelligences which they suppose reside in them, and govern the world under the supreme Deity. They are obliged to pray three times a day, and they fast three times a year. They offer many sacrifices, but eat no part of them; and abstain from beans, garlic, and some other pulse and vegetables. They greatly respect the temple of Mecca and the pyramids of Egypt, fancying these last to be the sepulchres of Seth, and of Enoch and Sabi, his two sons, whom they look on as the first propagators of their religion. At these structures, they sacrifice a cock and a black calf, and offer up incense. Their principal pilgrimage, however, is to Haran, the supposed birth place of Abraham. Such is the account of this sect given by Sale, D'Herbelot, and Hyde.

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Bibliography Information
Watson, Richard. Entry for 'Zabii'. Richard Watson's Biblical & Theological Dictionary. 1831-2.

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