At Babylon there was a collection of captive kings, each of whom was assigned his daily allowance and his throne. In this palace of shadows the unfortunate Jehoiachin ended his days. But the Jewish people were not treated as captives or as slaves, and they soon began to thrive.
When the ten tribes seceded they virtually abandoned their religion. They withdrew from the temple which they had once acknowledged as the dwelling of Jehovah; they had no hereditary priesthood; they had no holy books; and so as soon as they ceased to possess a country they ceased to exist as a race. But the Jews preserved their nationality intact.
Moses had been an Egyptian priest, and the unity of God was a fundamental article of that religion. The unity of God was also the tenet of the more intelligent Arabs of the desert. Whether therefore we regard that great man as an Egyptian or as an Arab, it can scarcely be doubted that the views which he held of the Deity were as truly unitarian as those of Mohammed and Abdul-Wahhab. It is, however, quite certain that to the people whom he led Jehovah was merely an invisible Bedouin chief who travelled with them in a tent, who walked about the camp at night and wanted it kept clean, who manoeuvred the troops in battle, who delighted in massacres and human sacrifice, who murdered people in sudden fits of rage, who changed his mind, who enjoyed petty larceny and employed angels to tell lies—who, in short, possessed all the vices of the Arab character. He also possessed their ideal virtues, for he prohibited immorality and commanded them to be hospitable to the stranger, to be charitable to the poor, and to treat with kindness the domestic beast and the captive wife.
It was impossible for Moses to raise their minds to a nobler conception of the Deity; it would have been as easy to make them see Roman noses when they looked into a mirror. He therefore made use of their superstition in order to rule them for their own good, and descended to trumpetings and fire-tricks which chamber moralists may condemn with virtuous indignation, but which those who have known what it is to command a savage mob will not be inclined to criticise severely.
When the settlement in Canaan took place the course of events gave rise to a theory about Jehovah which not only the Israelites held but also the Philistines. It was believed that he was a mountain god and could not fight on level ground. He was unlike the pagan gods in one respect, namely, that he ordered his people to destroy the groves and idols of his rivals, and threatened to punish them if they worshipped any god but him. However, as might be supposed, although the Israelites were very loyal on the mountains, they worshipped other gods when they fought upon the plains. Whenever they won a battle they sang a song in honour of Jehovah and declared that he was "a man of war," but when they lost a battle they supposed that Baal or Dagon had trodden Jehovah under foot. The result of this was a mixed religion: they worshipped Jehovah, but they worshipped other gods as well. Solomon declared when he opened the temple that Jehovah filled the sky, that there were no other gods but he. But this was merely Oriental flattery. Solomon must have believed that there were other gods because he worshipped other gods. His temple was in fact a Pantheon, and altars were raised on the Mount of Olives to Moloch and Astarte. After the reign of Solomon, however, the Jews became a civilised people; a literary class arose. Jerusalem, situated on the highway between the Euphrates and the Nile, obtained a place in the Asiatic world. The minds of the citizens became elevated and refined, and that reflection of their minds which they called Jehovah assumed a pure and noble form: he was recognised as the one God, the Creator of the world.
During all these years Moses had been forgotten, but now his code of laws (so runs the legend) was discovered in a corner of the temple, and laws of a higher kind adapted to a civilised people were issued under his name. The idols were broken, the foreign priests were expelled. It was in the midst of this great religious revival that Jerusalem was destroyed, and it may well be that the law which forbade the Jews to render homage to a foreign king was the chief cause of their contumacy and their dispersal. It was certainly the cause of all their subsequent calamities: it was their loyalty to Jehovah which provoked the destruction of the city by the Romans: it was their fidelity to the law which brought down upon them all the curses of the law.
The reformation in the first period had been by no means complete: there had been many relapses and back-slidings, and they therefore readily believed that the captivity was a judgment upon them for their sins. By the waters of Babylon they repented with bitter tears; in a strange land they returned to the god of their fathers and never deserted him again. Henceforth religion was their patriotism. Education became general: divine worship was organised: schools and synagogues were established wherever Jews were to be found.
And soon they were to be found in all the cities of the Eastern world. They had no land, and therefore adopted commerce as their pursuit; they became a trading and a travelling people, and the financial abilities which they displayed obtained them employment in the households and treasuries of kings.
The dispersion of the Jews must be dated from this period and not from the second destruction of the city. When Cyrus conquered Babylon he restored to the Jews their golden candlesticks and holy vessels, allowed them to return home, and rendered them assistance partly from religious sympathy—for the Jews made him believe that his coming had been predicted by their prophets—and partly from motives of policy. Palestine was the key to Egypt, against which Cyrus had designs, and it was wise to plant in Palestine a people on whom he could rely. But not all the Jews availed themselves of his decree. The merchants and officials who were now making their fortunes by the waters of Babylon were not inclined to return to the modest farmer life of Judea. Their piety was warm and sincere, but it was no longer combined with a passion for the soil. They began to regard Jerusalem as the Mohammedans regard Mecca. The people who did return were chiefly the fanatics, the clergy, and the paupers. The harvest, as we shall find was worthy of the seed.
Beneath the Persian yoke the Jews of Judea were content, and paid their tribute with fidelity. They could do so without scruple, for they identified Ormuzd with Jehovah, took lessons in theology from the doctors of the Zend-Avesta, and recognised the Great King as God´s viceroy on earth. But when the Persian empire was broken up Palestine was again tossed upon the waves. The Greek kings of Alexandria and Antioch repeated the wars of Nebuchadnezzar and Necho. Again Egypt was worsted, and Syria became a province of the Graeco-Asiatic empire. The government encouraged emigration into the newly conquered lands, and soon Palestine was covered with Greek towns and filled with Greek settlers. Judea alone remained like an island in the flood. European culture was detested by the doctors of the law, who inflicted the same penalty for learning Greek as for eating pork. They therefore resisted the spread of civilisation, and Jerusalem was closed against the Greeks.
In the Hellenic world toleration was the universal rule. An oracle at Delphi had expressed the opinion of all when it declared that the proper religion for each man was the religion of his fatherland. Governments, therefore, did not interfere with the religious opinions of the people, but on the other hand the religious opinions of the people did not interfere with their civil duties. We allow the inhabitants of the holy city of Benares to celebrate the rites of their pilgrimage in their own manner, and to torture themselves in moderation, but we should at once begin what they would call a religious persecution if they were to purify the town by destroying the shops of the beef-butchers and other institutions which are an abomination in their eyes. Antiochus Epiphanes was by nature a humane and enlightened prince; he attempted to Europeanise Jerusalem; he could do this only by abolishing the Jewish laws; he could abolish their laws only by destroying their religion; and thus he was gradually drawn into barbarous and useless crimes of which he afterwards repented, but which have gained him the reputation of a Nero.
At first, however, it appeared as if he would succeed. The aristocratic party of Jerusalem were won over to the cause. A gymnasium was erected, and Jews with artificial foreskins appeared naked in the arena. Riots broke out. Then royal edicts were issued forbidding circumcision, and keeping of the Sabbath, and the use of the law. A pagan altar was set up in the Holy of Holies, and swine were sacrificed upon it to the Olympian Jove. The riots increased. Then a Greek regiment garrisoned the city; all new-born children that were found to be circumcised were hurled with their mothers from the walls; altar pork was offered as a test of loyalty to the elders of the Church, and those who refused to eat were put to death with tortures too horrible to be described. And now the Jews no longer raised riots: they rebelled. The empire was at that time in a state of weakness and disorder, and under the gallant Maccabees the independence of Judea was achieved. Yet it is only in adversity that the Jews can be admired. As soon as they obtained the power of self- government they showed themselves unworthy to possess it, and in the midst of a civil war they were enveloped by the Roman power, which had extended them its protection in the period of the Maccabees. The senate placed Herod the great, an Arab price, upon the throne.
Herod was a man of the world, and his policy resembled that of the Ptolemies in Egypt. He built the Temple at Jerusalem and a theatre at Caesarea, in which city he preferred to dwell. The kingdom at his death was divided between his three sons: they were merely rajahs under the rule of Rome, and the one who governed Judea having been removed for misbehaviour, that country was attached to the pro-consulate of Syria. A lieutenant-governor was appointed to reside in the turbulent district to collect the revenues and maintain order. The position of the first commandant whom Russia sends to garrison Bokhara will resemble that of the procurator who took up his winter quarters at Jerusalem.
Those Jews of Judea, those Hebrews of the Hebrews, regarded all the Gentiles as enemies of God; they considered it a sin to live abroad, or to speak a foreign language, or to rub their limbs with foreign oil. Of all the trees, the Lord had chosen but one vine; and of all the flowers but one lily; and of all the birds but one dove; and of all the cattle but one lamb; and of all the builded cities only Sion; and among all the multitude of peoples he had elected the Jews as a peculiar treasure, and had made them a nation of priests and holy men. For their sake God had made the world. On their account alone empires rose and fell. Babylon had triumphed because God was angry with his people; Babylon had fallen because he had forgiven them. It may be imagined that it was not easy to govern such a race. They acknowledged no king but Jehovah, no laws but the precepts of their holy books. In paying tribute they yielded to absolute necessity, but the tax-gatherers were looked upon as unclean creatures; no respectable men would eat with them or pray with them; their evidence was not accepted in the courts of justice.
Their own government consisted of a Sanhedrin or Council of Elders, presided over by the High Priest. They had power to administer their own laws, but could not inflict the punishment of death without the permission of the procurator. All persons of consideration devoted themselves to the study of the law. Hebrew had become a dead language, and some learning was therefore requisite for the exercise of this profession, which was not the prerogative of a single class. It was a rabbinical axiom that the crown of the kingdom was deposited in Judah, and the crown of the priesthood in the seed of Aaron, but that the crown of the law was common to all Israel. Those who gained distinction as expounders of the sacred books were saluted with the title of rabbi, and were called scribes and doctors of the law. The people were ruled by the scribes, but the scribes were recruited from the people. It was not an idle caste—an established Church—but an order which was filled and refilled with the pious, the earnest, and the ambitious members of the nation.
There were two great religious sects which were also political parties, as must always be the case where law and religion are combined. The Sadducees were the rich, the indolent, and the passive aristocrats; they were the descendants of those who had belonged to the Greek party in the reign of Antiochus, and it was said that they themselves were tainted with the Greek philosophy. They professed, however, to belong to the conservative Scripture and original Mosaic school. As the Protestants reject the traditions of the ancient Church, some of which have doubtless descended viva voce from apostolic times, so all traditions, good and bad, were rejected by the Sadduccees. As Protestants always inquire respecting a custom or doctrine, "Is it in the Bible?" so the Sadduccees would accept nothing that could not be shown them in the law. They did not believe in heaven and hell because there was nothing about heaven and hell in the books of Moses. The morality which their doctors preached was cold and pure, and adapted only for enlightened minds. They taught that men should be virtuous without the fear of punishment and without the hope of reward, and that such virtue alone is of any worth.
The Pharisees were mostly persons of low birth. They were the prominent representatives of the popular belief, zealots in patriotism as well as in religion—the teaching, the preaching, and the proselytising party. Among them were to be found two kinds of men. Those Puritans of the Commonwealth with lank hair and sour visage and upturned eyes, who wore sombre garments, sniffled through their noses, and garnished their discourse with Scripture texts, were an exact reproduction, so far as the difference of place and period would allow, of certain Jerusalem Pharisees who veiled their faces when they went abroad lest they should behold a woman or some unclean thing; who strained the water which they drank for fear they should swallow the forbidden gnat; who gave alms to the sound of trumpet, and uttered long prayers in a loud voice; who wore texts embroidered on their robes and bound upon their brows; who followed minutely the observances of the ceremonial law; who added to it with their traditions; who lengthened the hours and deepened the gloom of the Sabbath day, and increased the taxes which it had been ordered should be paid upon the altar.
On the other hand, there had been among the Puritans many men of pure and gentle lives, and a similar class existed among the Pharisees. The good Pharisee, says the Talmud, is he who obeys the law because he loves the Lord. They addressed their god by the name of "Father" when they prayed. "Do unto others as you would be done by" was an adage often on their lips. That is the law, they said; all the rest is mere commentary. To the Pharisees belonged all that was best and all that was worst in the Hebrew religious life.
The traditions of the Pharisees related partly to ceremonial matters which in the written law were already diffuse and intricate enough. But it must also be remembered that without traditions the Hebrew theology was barbarous and incomplete. Before the captivity the doctrine of rewards and punishments in a future state had not been known. The Sheol of the Jews was a land of shades in which there was neither joy nor sorrow, in which all ghosts or souls dwelt promiscuously together. When the Jews came in contact with the Persian priests they were made acquainted with the heaven and hell of the Zend-Avesta. It is probable, indeed, that without foreign assistance they would in time have developed a similar doctrine for themselves. Already in the Psalms and Book of Job are signs that the Hebrew mind was in a transition state. When Ezekiel declared that the son should not be responsible for the iniquity of the father nor the father for the iniquity of the son, that the righteousness of the righteous should be upon him, and that the wickedness of the wicked should be upon him, he was preparing the way for a new system of ideas in regard to retribution. But as it was, the Jews were indebted to the Zend-Avesta for their traditional theory of a future life, and they also adopted the Persian ideas of the resurrection of the body, the rivalry of the evil spirit, and the approaching destruction and renovation of the world.
The Satan of Job is not a rebellious angel, still less a contending god: he is merely a mischievous and malignant sprite. But the Satan of the restored Jews was a powerful prince who went about like a roaring lion, and to whom this world belonged. He was copied from Ahriman, the God of Darkness, who was ever contending with Ormuzd, the God of Light. The Persians believed that Ormuzd would finally triumph, and that a prophet would be sent to announce the gospel or good tidings of his approaching victory. Terrible calamities would then take place; the stars would fall down from heaven; the earth itself would be destroyed. After which it would come forth new from the hands of the Creator; a kind of Millennium would be established; there would be one law, one language, and one government for men, and universal peace would reign.
This theory became blended in the Jewish minds with certain expectations of their own. In the days of captivity their prophets had predicted that a Messiah or anointed king would be sent, that the kingdom of David would be restored, and that Jerusalem would become the headquarters of God on earth. All the nations would come to Jerusalem to keep the feast of tabernacles and to worship God. Those who did not come should have no rain; and as the Egyptians could do without rain, if they did not come they should have the plague. The Jewish people would become one vast priest-hood, and all nations would pay them tithe. Their seed would inherit the Gentiles. They would suck the milk of the Gentiles. They would eat the riches of the Gentiles. These same unfortunate Gentiles would be their ploughmen and their vine-dressers. Bowing down would come those that afflicted Jerusalem, and would lick the dust off her feet. Strangers would build up her walls, and kings would minister unto her. Many people and strong nations would come to see the Lord of Hosts in Jerusalem. Ten men in that day would lay hold of the skirt of a Jew saying, "We will go with you, for we have heard that God is with you." It was an idea worthy of the Jews that they should keep the Creator to themselves in Jerusalem, and make their fortunes out of the monopoly.
In the meantime these prophecies had not been fulfilled, and the Jews were in daily expectation of the Messiah—as they are still, and as they are likely to be for some time to come. It was the belief of the vulgar that this Messiah would be a man belonging to the family of David, who would liberate them from the Romans and become their king; so they were always on the watch, and whenever a remarkable man appeared they concluded that he was the son of David, the Holy One of Israel, and were ready at once to proclaim him king and to burst into rebellion. This illusion gave rise to repeated riots or revolts, and at last brought about the destruction of the city.
But among the higher class of minds the expectation of the Messiah, though not less ardent, was of a more spiritual kind. They believed that the Messiah was that prophet, often called the Son of Man who would be send by God to proclaim the defeat of Satan and the renovation of the world. They interpreted the prophets after a manner of their own: the kingdom foretold was the kingdom of heaven, and the new Jerusalem was not a Jerusalem on earth but a celestial city built of precious stones and watered by the Stream of Life.
Such were the hopes of the Jews. The whole nation trembled with excitement and suspense; the mob of Judea awaiting the Messiah or king who should lead them to the conquest of the world; the more noble-minded Jews of Palestine, and especially the foreign Jews, awaiting the Messiah or Son of Man who should proclaim the approach of the most terrible of all events. There were many pious men and women who withdrew entirely from the cares of ordinary life, and passed their days in watching and in prayer.
The Neo-Jewish or Persian-Hebrew religion, with its sublime theory of a single god, with its clearly defined doctrine of rewards and punishments, with its one grand duty of faith or allegiance to a divine king, was so attractive to the mind on account of its simplicity that it could not fail to conquer the discordant and jarring creeds of the pagan world as soon as it should be propagated in the right manner. There is a kind of natural selection in religion; the creed which is best adapted to the mental world will invariably prevail, and the mental world is being gradually prepared for the reception of higher and higher forms of religious life. At this period Europe was ready for the reception of the one-god species of belief, but it existed only in the Jewish area, and was there confined by artificial checks. The Jews held the doctrine that none but Jews could be saved, and most of them looked forward to the eternal torture of Greek and Roman souls with equanimity, if not with satisfaction. They were not in the least desirous to redeem them; they hoarded up their religion as they did their money, and considered it a heritage, a patrimony, a kind of entailed estate. There were some Jews in foreign parts who esteemed it a work of piety to bring the Gentiles to a knowledge of the true God, and as it was one of the popular amusements of the Romans to attend the service at the synagogue a convert was occasionally made. But such cases were very rare, for in order to embrace the Jewish religion it was necessary to undergo a dangerous operation and to abstain from eating with the pagans—in short, to become a Jew. It was therefore indispensable for the success of the Hebrew religion that it should be divested of its local customs. But however much the Pharisees and Sadducees might differ on matters of tradition, they were perfectly agreed on this point, that the ceremonial laws were necessary for salvation. These laws could never be given up by Jews unless they first became heretics, and this was what eventually occurred. A schism arose among the Jews: the sectarians were defeated and expelled. Foiled in their first object, they cast aside the law of Moses and offered the Hebrew religion without the Hebrew ceremonies to the Greek and Roman world. We shall now sketch the character of the man who prepared the way for this remarkable event.
It was a custom in Israel for the members of each family to meet together once a year that they might celebrate a sacred feast. A lamb roasted whole was placed upon the table, and a cup of wine was filled. Then the eldest son said, "Father, what is the meaning of this feast?" And the father replied that it was held in memory of the sufferings of their ancestors, and of the mercy of the Lord their God. For while they were weeping and bleeding in the land of Egypt there came his voice unto Moses and said that each father of a family should select a lamb without blemish from his flock, and should kill it on the tenth day of the month Abib, at the time of the setting of the sun; and should put the blood in a basin, and should take a sprig of hyssop and sprinkle the door-posts and lintel with the blood; and should then roast the lamb and eat it with unleavened bread and bitter herbs. They should eat it as if in haste, each one standing with his loins girt, his sandals on his feet, and his staff in his hand. That night the angel of the Lord slew the first born of the Egyptians, and that night Israel was delivered from her bonds.
When the father had thus spoken the lamb was eaten, and four cups of wine were drunk, and the family sang a hymn. At this beautiful and solemn festival all persons of the same kin endeavoured to meet together, and Hebrew pilgrims from all parts of the world journeyed to Jerusalem. When they came within sight of the Holy City and saw the Temple shining in the distance like a mountain of snow, some clamoured with cries of joy, some uttered low and painful sobs. Drawing closer together, they advanced towards the gates singing the Psalms of David, and offering up prayers for the restoration of Israel.