The Israelites

Long after the building of the Pyramids, but before the dawn of Greek and Roman life, a Bedouin sheikh named Abraham, accompanied by his nephew Lot, migrated from the plains which lie between the Tigris and Euphrates, crossed over the Syro-Arabian desert, and entered Canaan, a country about the size of Wales lying below Phoenicia between the desert and the Mediterranean Sea. They found it inhabited by a people of farmers and vine-dressers, living in walled cities and subsisting on the produce of the soil. But only a portion of the country was under cultivation: they discovered wide pastoral regions unoccupied by men, and wandered at their pleasure from pasture to pasture and from plain to plain. Their flocks and herds were nourished to the full, and multiplied so fast that the Malthusian Law came into force; the herdsmen of Abraham and Lot began to struggle for existence; the land could no longer bear them both. It was therefore agreed that each should select a region for himself. A similar arrangement was repeated more than once in the lifetime of the patriarch. When his illegitimate sons grew up to man´s estate he gave them cattle and sent them off in the direction of the east.

At certain seasons of the year he encamped beneath the walls of cities, and exchanged the wool of his flocks for flour, oil, and wine. He established friendships with the native kings, and joined them in their wars. He was honoured by them as a prince, for he could bring three hundred armed slaves into the field, and his circle of tents might fairly be regarded as a town. Before their canvas doors sat the women spinning wool and singing the Mesopotamian airs, while the aged patriarch in the Great Tent, which served as the forum and the guesthouse, measured out the rations for the day, gave orders to the young men about the stock, and sat in judgement on the cases which were brought before him, as king and father to decide.

He bought from the people of the land a field and a cave, in which he buried his wife and in which he was afterwards himself interred. He was succeeded by Isaac as head of the family. Esau and Jacob, the two sons of Isaac, appear to have been equally powerful and rich.

Up to this time the children of Abraham were Bedouin Arabs—nothing more. They worshipped Eloah or Allah, sometimes erecting to him a rude altar on which they sacrificed a ram or kid; sometimes a stone pillar on which they poured a drink, and then smeared it with oil to his honour and glory. Sometimes they planted a sacred tree. The life which they led was precisely that of the wandering Arabs who pasture their flocks on the outskirts of Palestine at the present day. Not only Ishmael, but also Lot, Esau, and various Abrahamites of lesser note became the fathers of Arabian tribes. The Beni-Israel did not differ in manners and religion from the Beni-Ishmael and Beni-Esau, and Beni-Lot. It was the settlement of the clan in a foreign country, the influence of foreign institutions, which made the Israelites a peculiar people. It was the sale of the shepherd boy—at first a house-slave, then a prisoner, then a favourite of the Pharaoh—which created a destiny for the House of Jacob, separated it from the Arab tribes, and educated it into a nationality. When Joseph became a great man he obtained permission to send for his father and his brethren. The clan of seventy persons, with their women and their slaves, came across the desert by the route of the Syrian caravan. The old Arab, in his course woollen gown and with his staff in his hand, was ushered into the royal presence. He gave the king his blessing in the solemn manner of the East, and after a short conversation was dismissed with a splendid gift of land. When Jacob died his embalmed corpse was carried up to Canaan with an Egyptian escort and buried in the cave which Abraham had bought. Joseph had married the daughter of a priest of Heliopolis, but his two sons did not become Egyptians; they were formally admitted into the family by Jacob himself before he died.

When Joseph also died the connection between the Israelites and the court came to an end. They led the life of shepherds in the fertile pasturelands which had been bestowed upon them by the king. In course of time the twelve families expanded into twelve tribes, and the tribe itself became a nation. The government of Memphis observed the rapid increase of this people with alarm. The Israelites belonged to the same race as the hated Hyksos or Shepherd Kings. With their long beards and flowing robes they reminded the Egyptians of the old oppressors. It was argued that the Bedouins might again invade Egypt, and in that case the Israelites would take their side. By way of precaution the Israelites were treated as prisoners of war, disarmed, and employed on the public works. And as they still continued to increase it was ordered that all their male children should be killed. It was doubtless the intention of the government to marry the girls as they grew up to Egyptians, and so to exterminate the race.

One day the king´s daughter, as she went down with her girls to the Nile to bathe, found a Hebrew child exposed on the waters in obedience to the new decree. She adopted the boy and gave him an Egyptian name. He was educated as a priest, and became a member of the university of Heliopolis. But although his face was shaved and he wore the surplice, Moses remained a Hebrew in his heart. He was so overcome by passion when he saw an Egyptian ill-using an Israelite that he killed the man upon the spot. The crime became known: there was a hue and cry; he escaped to the peninsula of Sinai, and entered the family of an Arab sheikh.

The peninsula of Sinai lies clasped between two arms of the Red Sea. It is a wilderness of mountains covered with a thin, almost transparent coating of vegetation which serves as pasture to the Bedouin flocks. There is one spot only—the oasis of Feiran—where the traveller can tread on black, soft earth and hear the warbling of birds among the trees, which stand so thickly together that he is obliged as he walks to part the branches from his face. The peninsula had not escaped the Egyptian arms; tablets may yet be seen on which are recorded in paintings and hieroglyphics five thousand years old the victories of the Pharaohs over the people of the land. They also worked mines of copper in the mountains, and heaps of slag still remain. But most curious of all are the Sinaitic inscriptions, as they are called—figures of animals rudely scrawled on the upright surface of the black rocks and mysterious sentences in an undeciphered tongue.

Among the hills which crown the high plateau there is one which at that time was called the Mount of God. It was holy ground to the Egyptians, and also to the Arabs, who ascended it as pilgrims and drew off their sandals when they reached the top. Nor is it strange that Sinai should have excited reverence and dread; it is indeed a weird and awful land. Vast and stern stand the mountains, with their five granite peaks pointing to the sky; avalanches like those of the Alps, but of sand, not of snow, rush down their naked sides with a clear and tinkling sound resembling convent bells; a peculiar property resides in the air; the human voice can be heard at a surprising distance, and swells out into a reverberating roar; and sometimes there rises from among the hills a dull booming sound like the distant firing of heavy guns.

Let us attempt to realise what Moses must have felt when he was driven out of Egypt into such a harsh and rugged land. Imagine this man, the adopted son of a royal personage, the initiated priest, sometimes turning the astrolabe towards the sky, perusing the papyrus scroll, or watching the crucible and the alembic; sometimes at the great metropolis enjoying the busy turmoil of the street, the splendid pageants of the court, reclining in a carpeted gondola or staying with a noble at his country house. In a moment all is changed. He is alone on the mountain-side, a shepherd´s crook in his hand. He is a man dwelling in a tent; he is married to the daughter of a barbarian; his career is at an end. Never more will he enter that palace where once he was received with honour, where now his name is uttered only with contempt. Never more will he discourse with grave and learned men in the peaceful college gardens, beneath the willows that hang over the Fountain of the Sun. Never more will he see the people of his tribe whom he loves so dearly, and for whom he endures this miserable fate. They will suffer, but he will not see them; they will mourn, but he will not hear them—or only in his dreams. In his dreams he hears them and sees them, alas, too well. He hears the whistling of the lash and the convulsive sobs and groans. He sees the poor slaves toiling in the field, their hands brown with the clammy clay. He sees the daughters of Israel carried off to the harem with struggling arms and streaming hair, and then—O lamentable sight!—the chamber of the woman in labour—the seated shuddering, writhing form—the mother struggling against maternity—the tortured one dreading her release—for the kings´s officer is standing by the door, and as soon as the male child is born its life is at an end.

The Arabs with whom he was living were also children of Abraham, and they related to him legends of the ancient days. They told him of the patriarchs who lay buried in Canaan with their wives; they told him of Eloah, whom his fathers had adored. Then, as one who returns to a long lost home, the Egyptian priest returned to the simple faith of the desert, to the God of Abraham, of Isaac, and of Jacob. As he wandered on the mountain heights he looked to the west and he saw a desert: beyond it lay Egypt, the house of captivity, the land of bandage. He looked to the east and he saw a desert: beyond it lay Canaan, the home of his ancestors, a land of peace and soon to be a land of hope. For now new ideas rose tumultuously within him. He began to see visions and to dream dreams. He heard voices and beheld no form; he saw trees which blazed with fire and yet were not consumed. He became a prophet; he entered the ecstatic state.

Meanwhile the king had died; a new Pharaoh had mounted on the throne; Moses was able to return to Egypt and to carry out the great design which he had formed. He announced to the elders of the people, to the heads of houses and the sheikhs of tribes, that Eloah, the God of Abraham, had appeared to him in Sinai and had revealed his true name—it was Jehovah—and had sent him to Egypt to bring away his people, to carry them to Canaan. The elders believed in his mission and accepted him as their chief. He went to Pharaoh and delivered the message of Jehovah: the king received it as he would have received the message of an Arab chief—gods were plentiful in Egypt. But whenever a public calamity occurred Moses declared that Jehovah was its author, and there were Egyptians who said that their own gods were angry with them for detaining a people who were irreligious, filthy in their habits, and affected with unpleasant diseases of the skin. The king gave them permission to go and offer a sacrifice to their desert god. The Israelites stole away, taking with them the mummy of Joseph and some jewellery belonging to their masters. Guides marched in front bearing a lighted apparatus like that which was used in Alexander´s camp, which gave a pillar of smoke by day and a flame by night. Moses led them by way of Suez into Asia, and then along the weed-strewn, shell-strewn shore of the Red Sea to the wilderness of Sinai and the Mount of God. There with many solemn and imposing rites he delivered laws which he said had been issued to him from the clouds. He assembled the elders to represent the people, and drew up a contract between them and Jehovah. It was agreed that they should obey the laws of Jehovah, and pay the taxes which he might impose, while he engaged on his part to protect them from danger in their march through the desert and to give them possession of the Promised Land. An ark or chest of acacia-wood was made in the Egyptian style, and the agreement was deposited therein with the ten fundamental laws which Moses had engraved on stone. A tent of dyed skins was prepared and fitted with church furniture by voluntary subscription, partly out of stolen goods. This became the temple of the people and the residence of Jehovah, who left his own dwelling above the vaulted sky that he might be able to protect them on the way. Moses appointed his brother Aaron and his sons to serve as priests; they wore the surplice, but to distinguish them from Egyptian priests they were ordered not to shave their heads. The men of Levi, to which tribe Moses himself belonged, were set apart for the service of the sacred tent. They were in reality his bodyguard, and by their means he put down a mutiny at Sinai, slaughtering three thousand men.

When thus the nation had been organised the march began. At daybreak two silver trumpets were blown, the tents were struck, the tribes assembled under their respective banners, and the men who bore the ark went first with the guides to show the road and to choose an encampment for the night. The Israelites crossed a stony desert, suffering much on the way. Water was scarce; they had no provisions, and were forced to subsist on manna or angel´s bread, a gummy substance which exudes from a desert shrub and is a pleasant syrup and a mild purge, but not a nourishing article of food.

As they drew near the land of Canaan the trees of the desert, the palm and the acacia, disappeared. But the earth became carpeted with green plants and spotted with red anemones like drops of blood. Here and there might be seen a patch of corn, and at last in the distance rounded hills with trees standing against the sky. They encamped, and a man from each tribe was deputed to spy the land. In six weeks they returned bringing with them a load of grapes. Two scouts only were in favour of invasion. The other ten declared that the land was a good land, as the fruits showed—a land flowing with milk and honey; but the people were like giants; their cities were walled and very great; the Israelites were as grasshoppers in comparison, and would not be able to prevail against them.

This opinion was undoubtedly correct. The children of Israel were a rabble of field slaves who had never taken a weapon in their hands. The business before them was by no means to their taste, and it was not what Moses had led them to expect. He had agreed on the part of Jehovah to give them a land. They had expected to find it unoccupied and prepared for their reception like a new house. They did not require a prophet to inform them that a country should be theirs if they were strong enough to take it by the sword, and this it was clear they could not do. So they poured forth the vials of their anger and their grief. They lifted up their voice and cried; they wept all the night. Would to God they had died in the wilderness! Would to God they had died in Egypt! Jehovah had brought them there that they might fall by the sword, and that their wives and little ones might be a prey. They would choose another captain; they would go back to Egypt. Joshua and Caleb, the two scouts who had recommended invasion, tried to cheer them up, and were nearly stoned to death for their pains. Next day the people of Canaan marched out against them: a skirmish took place and the Israelites were defeated. They went back to the desert, and wandered forty years in the shepherd or Bedouin state.

And then there was an end of that miserable race who were always whining under hardship, hankering after the fleshpots of the old slave life. In their stead rose up a new generation—genuine children of the desert—who could live on a few dates soaked in butter and a mouthful of milk a day; who were practised from their childhood in predatory wars; to whom rapine was a business, and massacre a sport. The conquest of Canaan was an idea which they had imbibed at their mothers´ breasts, and they were now quite ready for the work. Moses before his death drew up a second agreement between Jehovah and the people. It was to the same effect as the covenant of Sinai. Loyalty and taxes were demanded by Jehovah; long life, success in war, and fruitful crops were promised in return. Within this contract was included a code of laws which Moses had enacted from time to time, in addition to the ten commandments; and this second agreement was binding not only on those who were present but on their posterity as well.

Moses died; Joshua was made commander-in-chief, and the Israelites began their march of war. This time they approached the land not from the south but from the east.

The river Jordan rises in the Lebanon mountains, half way between Tyre and Damascus; it runs due south, and ends its curling, twisting course in the dismal waters of the Dead Sea. Its basin belongs to the desert, for it does not overflow its banks.

Along the coast of the Mediterranean Sea, parallel to the valley of the Jordan, lies a fertile strip of land without good harbours, but otherwise resembling Phoenicia, from which it is divided by two large promontories, the Tyrian Ladder and the White Cape.

And thirdly, between the naked valley of the Jordan and this corn-producing line of coast there rises a tableland of limestone formation, honeycombed with caves, watered by running streams of no great size, and intersected by ravines and also by flat, extensive valley plains.

The coast belonged to the Philistines, the basin of the Jordan and the pastoral regions on the south to roving Arab tribes; the tableland was inhabited by farmers whose towns and villages were always perched on the tops of hills, and who cultivated the vine on terraces, each vineyard being guarded by a watch tower and a wall; the valley plains were inhabited by Canaanites or lowlanders, who possessed cavalry and iron chariots of war.

The Israelites differed from other Bedouin tribes in one respect—they were not mounted, and they were unable to stand their ground against the horsemen of the plain. The Philistines, a warlike people probably of the Aryan race, also retained their independence. The conquests of the Israelites were confined to the land of the south, the Jordan valley and the mountain regions, though even in the highlands the conquest under Joshua was not complete. However, the greater part of Palestine was taken and partitioned among the Israelitish tribes. Some of these inclined to the pastoral and others to the agricultural condition, and each was governed by its own sheikh. During four hundred years Ephraim remained the dominant tribe, and with Ephraim the high priest took up his abode. At a place called Shiloh there was erected an enclosure of low stone walls over which the sacred tent was drawn. This was the oracle establishment, or House of God, to which all the tribes resorted three times a year to celebrate the holy feasts with prayer and sacrifice, and psalmody, and the sacred dance.

The Levites had no political power and no share in civil life, but they had cities of their own, and they also travelled about like mendicant friars from place to place performing certain functions of religion, and supported by the alms of the devout.

It was owing to these two institutions, the oracle and the monkish order, that the nationality of Israel was preserved. Yet though it escaped extinction it did not retain its unity and strength. So far from extending their conquests, after their first inroad under Joshua the Israelites constantly lost ground. They were divided into twelve petty states, always jealous of one another and often engaged in civil war. The natives took advantage of these dissensions, and subdued them one by one. Now and then a hero would arise, rouse them to a war of independence, and rule over them as judge for a few years. Then again they would fall apart, and again be conquered, sometimes paying tribute as vassals, sometimes hiding in the mountain caves. However, at last there came a change. The temporal and spiritual powers, united in the hands of Moses, were divided at his death. Joshua became the general of Jehovah; the high priest became his grand vizier. Joshua could do nothing of importance without consulting the high priest, who read the commands of the Divine Sheikh in the light and play of Urim and Thummim, the oracular shining stones. On the other hand, the high priest could not issue laws; he could only give decisions and replies. But now a Nazarite or servant of the Church, named Samuel, usurped the office, or at all events the powers, of high priest which belonged to the family of Aaron, and also obtained the dignity of president or judge. He professed to be the recipient of private instructions from Jehovah, issued laws in his name, and went round on circuit judging the twelve tribes.

In his old age he delegated this office to his sons, who gave false judgments and took bribes. The elders of the people came to Samuel and asked him to appoint them a king.

Samuel had established a papacy, intending to make it hereditary in his house, and now the evil conduct of his sons frustrated all his hopes. He protested in the name of Jehovah against this change in the constitution; he appealed to his own blameless life; he drew a vivid picture of the horrors of despotism; but in vain. The people persisted in their demand; they were at that time in the vassal state, and their liege lords, the Philistines, did not permit them to have smiths lest they should make weapons and rebel. Samuel himself had united the tribes, and had inspired them with the sentiments of nationality. They yearned to be free, and they observed that they lost battles because their enemies were better officered than themselves. They saw that they needed a military chief who would himself lead them to the charge, instead of sacrificing a sucking lamb or kneeling on a neighbouring hill with this hands up in the air.

Samuel, still protesting, elected Saul to the royal office. The young man was gladly accepted by the people on account of his personal beauty, and as he belonged to the poorest family of the poorest tribe in Israel, Samuel hoped that he would be able to preserve the real power in his own hands. But it so happened that Saul was not only a brave soldier and a good general; he was also at times a "god-intoxicated man," and did not require a third person to bring him the instructions of Jehovah. He made himself the Head of the Church, as well as of the state, and Samuel was compelled to retire into private life. It is for this reason that Saul´s character has been so bitterly attacked by the priest-historians of the Jews. For what after all are the crimes of which he was guilty? He administered the battle-offering himself, and he spared the life of a man whom Samuel had commanded him to kill as a human sacrifice to Jehovah. Saul was by no means faultless, but his character was pure as snow when compared with that of his successor. David was undoubtedly the greater general of the two, yet it was Saul who laid the foundations of the Jewish kingdom. It was Saul who conquered the Philistines and won freedom for the nation with no better weapons than their mattocks and their axes and their sharpened goads. Saul´s persecution of David is the worst stain upon his life, yet if it is true that David had been in Saul´s lifetime privately anointed king, he was guilty of treason and deserved to die. But that story of the anointing might have been invented afterwards to justify his succession to the throne.

At first David took refuge with the Philistines and fought against his own countrymen. Next he turned brigand, and was joined by all the criminals and outlaws of the land. The cave of Adullam was his lair, whence he sallied forth to levy blackmail on the rich farmers and graziers of the neighbourhood, cutting their throats when they refused to pay. At the same time, he was a very religious man, and never went on a plundering expedition without consulting a little image which revealed to him the orders and wishes of Jehovah, just as the Bedouins always pray to Allah before they commit a crime, and thank him for his assistance when it has been successfully performed.

Saul was succeeded by his son Ishbosheth, who was accepted by eleven tribes. But David, supported by his own tribe and by his band of well-trained robbers, defied the nation and made war upon his lawful king. He had not the shadow of a claim; however, with the help of treason and assassination he finally obtained the crown. His military genius had then full scope. He took Jerusalem, a pagan stronghold which during four hundred years had maintained its independence. He conquered the coast of the Philistines, the plains of Canaan, the great city of Damascus, and the tribes of the desert far and near. He garrisoned Arabia Petraea. He ruled from Euphrates to the Red Sea.

This man after God´s own heart had a well-stocked harem, and the usual intrigues took place. He disinherited his eldest son and left the kingdom to the son of his favourite wife—a woman for whom he had committed a crime which had offended the not over-delicate Jehovah. The nation seemed taken by surprise, and Solomon, in order to preserve the undivided affections of his people, at once killed his brother and his party—a coronation ceremony not uncommon in the East.

The wisdom of Solomon has become proverbial. But whatever his intellectual attainments may have been, he did not possess that kind of wisdom which alone is worthy of a king. He did not attempt to make his monarchy enduring, his people prosperous and content. He was a true Oriental sultan, sleek and sensual, luxurious and magnificent, short-sighted and unscrupulous, cutting down the tree to eat the fruit. The capital of a despot is always favoured, and with the citizens of Jerusalem he was popular enough. They were in a measure his guests and companions, the inmates of his house. They saw their city encircled with enormous walls, and paved with slabs of black and shining stone. Their eyes were dazzled and their vanity delighted with the splendid buildings which he raised—the ivory palace, the cedar palace, and the temple. The pilgrims who thronged to the sanctuary from all quarters of the land, and the travellers who came for the purposes of trade, brought wealth into the city. Foreign commerce was a court monopoly, but the city was a part of the court. Outside the city walls, however, or at least beyond the circle of the city lands, it was a very different affair. The rural districts were severely taxed, especially those at a distance from the capital. The tribes of Israel, which but a few years before had been on terms of complete equality among themselves, were now trampled underfoot by this upstart of the House of Judah. The tribe of Ephraim, which had so long enjoyed supremacy, became restless beneath the yoke. While Solomon yet reigned the standard of revolt was raised; as soon as he died this empire of a day dissolved. Damascus became again an independent state. The Arabs cut the road to the Red Sea. The King of Egypt, who had probably been Solomon´s liege lord, dispatched an army to fetch away the treasures of the temple and the palace. The ten tribes seceded, and two distinct kingdoms were established.

The ten tribes of Israel, or the Kingdom of the North, extended over the lands of Samaria and Galilee. Its capital was Shechem, its sanctuary Mount Gerizim.

Judah and Benjamin, the royal tribes, occupied the highlands of Judea. Jerusalem was their capital; its temple was their sanctuary, and the Levites, whom the Israelites had discarded, were their priests. It is needless to relate the wars which were almost incessantly being waged between these two miserable kingdoms. When the empire of the Tigris took the place of Egypt as suzerain of Syria both Israel and Judah sent their tribute to Nineveh; and as the cuneiform history relates, both of them afterwards rebelled. Sennacherib marched against them and carried off the ten tribes into captivity. Judea was more mountainous, and on that account more difficult to conquer than the land of the North. The Jews, as they may now be called, defended themselves stoutly, and a camp plague broke up the army before Jerusalem. By this occurrence Egypt also was preserved from conquest. At that time Sethos, the priest, was king, and the soldiers, whose lands he had taken, refused to fight. Both the Egyptians and the Jews ascribed their escape to a miracle performed by their respective gods.

Great events now took place. The Assyrian empire fell to pieces, and Nineveh was destroyed. The Medes inherited its power on the east of the Euphrates; the Chaldeans inherited its power on the west. Egypt under the Phil-Hellenes was again spreading into Asia, and a terrific duel took place between the two powers. The Jews managed so well that when the Egyptian star was in the ascendant they took the side of Babylon; and when the Babylonians had won the battle of Carchemish the Jews intrigued with the fallen nation. Nebuchadnezzar gave them repeated warnings, but at last his patience was exhausted and he levelled the rebellious city to the ground. Some of the citizens escaped to Egypt; the aristocracy and priesthood were carried off to Babylon; the peasants alone were left to cultivate the soil.

Previous Next