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tional the Bible narratives containing the history of the
patriarchs. A modest suggestion may not be out of place.
At least the religious history is self-consistent and satis-
factory in the telling. The cult of Jehovah, with the
essential accompanying observances, was undeniably a
distinctive attribute of Israel before the entrance into
Canaan. The legislation of Sinai could not and did not
confer such an endowment, however much it developed
and deepened it. It had already been possessed and
cherished in Egypt. But no one will maintain that it


could have had its beginnings in Egypt — a country for-
eign morally and intellectually both to Israel and to the
genius of its religion. It must therefore have begun
earlier than the time or times of the settlement in Egypt.
The Bible tells a story which sets forth in broad outline,
and in a concrete personal drapery, the early progress of
that religion. The worship of Jehovah was taken up and
fostered by men in a simpler state of society than even
that of Israel in Egypt before the Exodus. Its arena was
the land of Canaan, a region in the olden times most
closely connected with Egypt. It was to Canaan, more-
over, that the descendants of the first votaries of the
religion returned, after the Exodus, as to an ancestral
home. The main difficulty, I apprehend, that stands in
the way of the acceptance of the cardinal elements of the
patriarchal history, is this outstanding personal, individu-
alistic role assigned to the early exponents of the relig-
ion of Jehovah. There seems to be present perhaps too
much of that heroic type of narrative, such as we are accus-
tomed to associate with the mythical elements of ancient
literature generally. If we could substitute for the persons
of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and their kindred, the names of
clans, or even of families, much of the difficulty would
probably vanish.

§ 445. It will be granted, I think, that the sacred
narrative fills a necessary place. The framework of the
social fabric of Israel in early days is not complete with-
out some such foundation as that supplied by the condi-
tions of the Bible story. But are we not at liberty to
give a larger interpretation to the patriarchal narratives
which will furnish a just and sufficient theory of the his-
tory of Israel and its religion in pre-Mosaic times ? There
is much that should commend such an interpretation to
the sober judgment of a critical age. Abraham and his
descendants in the time of historical influence were of
course only the heads of the leading families in their
respective clans. They were men of force of character,


and some of them according to the record were men of
religious faith. But devout and heroic men were a pre-
requisite to the rise and progress of Israel, if there was
to be a race and religion of Israel at all, — a race and
religion with the promise and potency of the moral trans-
formation of the world. Such men are necessarily out-
standing representatives of their class.

§ 446. Add to this the consideration (cf. § 435) that
Hebrew narrative is eclectic and partial. It makes up by
the brilliancy of its colouring and the vividness of its
portraiture for the absence of grouping, shading, and per-
spective. An epoch is characterized by one or two inci-
dents ; a race or order of men by one or two instances ; a
rule of life by one or two examples ; a national struggle
or political or social revolution by one or two episodes.
Its style and manner are naturally most strikingly exem-
plified in the treatment of those stages of the national life
which are commemorated more by tradition than by docu-
mentary records. The concrete and the personal are the
more appreciated, the more the historical background has
become indistinct and shadowy. Hence the figures of the
ancient heroes of the race fill up more and more the ever-
narrowing avenues of the retrospect. It is not an undis-
ciplined fancy, but a just historic imagination, which
discerns behind and about these gigantic forms a living
and moving social environment which was as indispensable
to them as they were to it. With this interpretation of
the patriarchal narratives we find that the early history
of Israel is a consistent unity, harmonizing with sociolog-
ical and historical principles. At the same time, it serves
as the necessary foundation of the succeeding national

§ 447. On the other hand, we must not depreciate the
personal significance of the patriarchs. While they were
the children of their time, of their race, of their circum-
stances and physical surroundings, yet as founders and
pioneers they were separated from them and stood apart.


This is, after all, the real meaning of their exceptional
career. One family, conscious of its great destiny and
inspired by faith and trust in Jehovah, refused to be held
by its tribal associations, and formed a new social begin-
ning for itself. The movement was promoted decisively
when Jacob and his sons quitted their old-time pasture-
grounds, cut loose from their environment, and pitched
their tents in Eg3'pt. Here a fresh start was made unfet-
tered by the social bonds and entanglements inseparable
from their residence in Canaan.^ A change of condition
was mainly what made this event critical. But such a
change was potentially significant enough to create a
new era.

§ 448. The distinction between Israel in Canaan in the
olden time and Israel in Egypt was mainly this. In
Canaan in the patriarchal stage a process of selection
went on continually. In other words, the family was of
more importance than the clan, in spite of the operation
of the social usages of the country and its peoples. In
Egypt, where the clan began its separate career untram-
melled, the individual family lost its relative importance
and became subordinate to the clan. Families and kins
were speedily differentiated and retained their several
names and badges. But the community was all the while
developing with them and giving them countenance, unity,
and dignity. Through change of place and occupation, and
through family alliances, the original clan was divided,
and Israel soon came to be constituted of several clans or
tribes. These were varied indefinitely as to actual descent
by intermarriage, and yet, according to the rule of paternal

1 Of such influences an instructive instance is furnished in Gen. xxxiv.
We learn from this account, how the family of Israel must have been en-
larged from neighbouring aliens who adopted the naturalizing rite. " Jacob "
was then plainly a clan as well as a family head, and as such was trans-
ferred to a new home and arena in the grazing lands of Egypt. Of affilia-
tion with Canaanites, an example is furnished in Gen. xxxviii. 1 f. Nor
must we overlook the statement of Gen. xiv. 14, which puts Abraham at
the head of a powerful clan.


and filial right (§ 428), the autonomy of the original fami-
lies was preserved in the male line, so that the heads of
the families who came down to Egypt gave their names
perpetually to the several divisions. But these divisions
were no longer social units as families or even kins, but
closely associated political units, each with its own council
of elders, its own local sanctuary, and its own priesthood.
Nothing more, I may observe, is here assumed than what
is necessary to explain the growth and conservation of the
Hebrew community.

§ 449. We are now at length in some degree prepared
to deal with the condition of Israel at the critical era of the
Exodus. A new stage is now about to be entered upon.
The nation, if we may so call it, is coming under the
influence of that majestic personality, that supereminent
genius, that "man of God," with whom but few of the
sons of men have vied in intellectual and moral grandeur.
We may therefore well call this new age of Israel the
Mosaic age. It is apparently the common belief that
Moses made of Israel a nation out of a herd of slaves.^
This opinion is erroneous, at least in the vague and un-
discriminating form in which it is usually held. That
Hebrew society as a whole greatly deteriorated during
the later stages of the Egyptian residence is certain ; but
no less certain is it, as we have seen above, that large
sections of it retained their tribal organization with their
distinctive social and religious culture.^ These furnished

1 Such a view, equivaleut to the belief in a certain sort of magical power
on the part of the great legislator, is set forth and expounded by Dr. A.
M. Fairbairn, The City of God, 2 ed. (1886), p. 110 ff. Wellhauseu, also,
in consequence of depreciating the pre-Mosaic career of Israel, was at one
time obliged to exaggerate the political effect of the part played bj^ Moses.
See Skizzen nnd Vorarbeiten (1884), I, p. 9 f. In his latest work, how-
ever, his depreciation of the religious influence of Moses has apparently
led him to detract from the importance of his political achievements.
See IJG. p. 30.

2 Miriam and her song, whose essential originality it is vain to dispute
(see Driver, Introduction, p. 27), are perhaps the best concrete evidence
of the condition of the leading class in Israel before the Exodus. A


a rallying-point and nucleus for such of the members of
the community as had been scattered through the exigen-
cies of poverty and servitude, and yet had not strayed far
from the tents of IsraeL The work of Moses was mainly
regenerative and disciplinary. It was constructive, to be
sure ; but it was constructive largely because it was recon-
structive. The evolution of Hebrew society, which was
slowly accomplished under the impulse of his presiding
mind, was marvellous and unique. But it was after all an
evolution, not a creation. It was moreover only made
possible by his becoming himself a factor in the process,
standing within and not without the sphere of operation.
What Moses aimed to do for the Hebrew people was to
energize them, to organize and unify them. This he
in some measure accomplished directly for his own

§ 450. But most of the unexampled influence of Moses
was exerted indirectly and upon subsequent ages. It will
be seen that but little of the legislation with which he is
credited was intended for the tribes during their nomadic
life. He in fact did not at first expect that the wilderness
would long detain them. The revelations of Sinai were
made for a people already in fixed abodes ; and the law-
giver hoped that but a few months would intervene before
the occupation of Canaan would begin. In truth, but little
in the way of special new legislation was needed by Israel
in the Desert. And this of itself is strong negative evi-
dence for the view that no serious outward disturbance
had taken place in the social relations of the refugees in
Egypt. What was chiefly needed of permanent value was
personal self-reliance and courage, and "j^ersuasion of the

society which could furnisli the antecedents of this episode, wliich pro-
duced the poet, the singer, and the class to which they belonged, can
hardly be called degraded. We must beware of thinking of such cases as
isolated. Culture was no more sporadic or self-evolved in Old Testament
times, or lands, or peoples, than it is in our own times and among con-
temporary nations.


reality and significance of the warrant of Jehovah for
re-entering the ancestral domain. It was thought at first
that a few months of desert life would harden their temper
and prepare them for the risks and stress of military
service. Hence they Avere led not by the way of the
Philistines, northeastward, but southward through the
peninsula of Sinai. Finally, when it came to the question
of an actual irruption into Canaan, they were found to be
still unready. Steadfastness, more than courage in the
field, was required for the perilous enterprise. The re-
newal of the whole vital force of the people was found to
be necessary. Their late habitual environment demanded
its due. Nothing could be done hastily or suddenly. A
whole people cannot be remade in a day or a year. Their
spirit had been crushed by wholesale subjection to the
rulers of the land, and they recoiled from the dangers
which the freer and more independent desert inhabitants
were accustomed to face. A new generation had to grow
up inured to the perils of a life in the wilderness.

§ 451. Upon this new generation Moses impressed
something of his own energy and faith. To speak of
Moses making a "nation" of this people, in the strict sense
of the term, is inaccurate, because a nation could not be
made in the Desert (§ 46). He could, however, and he
did, infuse into the people a new spirit of confident self-
reliance, or more properly reliance upon Jehovah. He
thus could and did make real and active within them the
old beliefs which had not yet been fully learnt before, and
which indeed could never be fully learnt except through
practical experience of their validity. Their great inward
need was unity of sentiment and purpose. Their chief
outward disability was the lack of corporate unity. Pro-
found and far-reaching were the means employed to secure
both. The former was achieved by means of a common
ritual ; the latter through an improved administration.
We have seen above that in Egypt each of the clans had
its own priesthood and local sanctuary (§ 448). This in


nowise conflicted with the general adherence to the cult of
Jehovah. It only meant that in the rudimentary state of
society the family groups which made up the clan were
held together by their participation in common religious
observances (§ 397; 402 f.). And of whatever simple
rites the worship consisted, they were necessarily restricted
in practise to the manageable circle of the clan and its
dependents. The great triumph of Moses in the religious
sphere was to make the ritual a matter of united observ-
ance. That is to say, he instituted a single priesthood and
a common sanctuary for all the tribes. It was only in
accordance with the fitness of things that his own tribe
should be charged with the priestly functions, and that his
ow^n brother should become the chief of the priests. For
purposes of government this meant that the general civil
administration and the religious should be closely allied.
§ 452. The other movement contemplated a redistri-
bution and concentration of the governing power. This
matter of internal government requires a somewhat close
examination. It has been mentioned (§ 36) that the
sheich of a nomadic tribe does not exercise absolute
authority, nor even exercise primary jurisdiction. He is
the arbiter, the leader in war, the judge on final appeal.
Otherwise he is simply primus inter pares, and the pre-
siding member of the council of elders. An association
of several tribes or larger clans introduced no essential
change in the constitution of this elementary democracy.
The choice of a leader in war or in important negotiations
was the only distinction conferred upon any one such
chief above the rest. Moses, however, was confronted
with an altogether exceptional governmental problem.
He had to deal with a people whose normal social de-
velopment had been rudely interrupted. As a result,
very unequal degrees of social order were manifested
among the several sections of the community. Tribal
discipline and coherence had become suspended among
large masses of the people, even where the bonds of the


family or the kin had not been severed. The restoration
of the body politic to order and right relations was ren-
dered peculiarly difficult by the dislocations and inner
disturbances due to the peregrinations of the whole com-
munity. We realize better the chances of increasing
confusion and disorder when we remember that the tent
was the family rendezvoiis, and that during the critical
early months of the desert life the encampment was shifted

§ 453. A disturbing element of great ultimate influ-
ence on the expansion of Israel was the so-called " mixed
multitude." Such an appendage to the camp was an
inevitable accompaniment of any considerable desert com-
munity. It had the expectation and desire of becoming
formally incorporated into the organized body to which it
attached itself (§ 550). We are not to regard it as an
undisciplined horde. Nor was it a miscellaneous con-
glomeration of nondescript outlaws and refugees. On the
contrary, it certainly represented in large measure small
independent communities, remnants of tribes that were
perhaps once powerful, but were now in danger of extinc-
tion from the vicissitudes of the desert. They had become
clients or wards of Israel, receiving protection and render-
ing service in return, besides acknowledging Jehovah.

§ 454. The consolidation of such a badly assorted gath-
ering, constantly on the move and much larger than an
ordinary desert community, would have been quite out
of the range of possibility if it were not for certain
favouring conditions. One of these was the impetus that
had been given to a common national sentiment by the
successful passage of an arm of the Red Sea, and the
signal overwhelming defeat of the Egyptian pursuers
under the auspices of the accredited messenger and
prophet of Jehovah. Food and water granted to Israel
from the same potent source seemed to guarantee even
to the parasitic retinue, as well as to Israel proper, the
chief desiderata of desert life. Again, the necessity of


defence against predatory tribes or rivals for the possession
of oases promoted that military spirit which is the strong-
est external cohesive principle of nomadic life. And suc-
cess in conflicts with foes like the Amalekites created an
enthusiasm which promoted greatly, while it lasted, the
growing sentiment of comradeship and unity. Men who
before had been disheartened and aimless now felt them-
selves bound together in the satisfying of a common desire
and the putting forth of united efforts. Gratitude, depend-
ence, confidence, and trust bound them at the same time
to Moses their leader, and to Jehovah their God. As far
as sentiment was concerned, as distinct from permanent
qualities and virtues, everything was propitious for a
beginning in popular government.

§ 455. How greatly this was needed is clear from the
fact that, although under the new conditions men of the
various tribes were continually brought into contact with
one another, there were no common courts of justice or
arbitration, to which resort could be had for the ratifying
of any agreement or the adjustment of any dispute outside
the limits of the sing^le tribal division. Hence Moses him-
self was constantly in demand as a judge, referee, and
counsellor. The first decisive step was taken towards
making a nation of Israel in a very few weeks after the
crossing of the Red Sea. The time was propitious. A
certain real preparation had been made among the people
by the partial experience they had had of settled life in
Egypt (cf. § 441 f.), as well as by their observation of the
workings of Egyptian jurisprudence. The essential matter
in the new system was that the administrative function
should be divided and in a certain degree delegated.
Moses, from beinof a grreat tribal chief over other chiefs,
should become the head of a commonwealth. The revolu-
tion was started by the introduction of a principle which
ran quite across that of the tribal organization. In the
latter there was the council of elders for general purposes
of administration. Also within each clan the heads of the


kins or family groups settled minor affairs and controver-
sies. Their warrant was their personal authority ; and
this rested on seniority or on a consent of the kinsmen,
determined informally by obvious marks of fitness in those
chosen to stand in the front. In any case, the choice came
from below and not from above. The system now initiated
was radically diverse. Instead of recognizing the sacred
divisions of the tribe or the clan, or even those of the kin
or the household, the principle of local relation was intro-
duced. Groups, larger and smaller, were made according
to residence or vicinage. Hence the basis of division was
to be made numerical. Over the several sections rulers
were appointed by Moses. " And Moses chose men of
worth out of all Israel, and set them as heads over the
people : rulers ^ of thousands, rulers of hundreds, rulers of
fifties, and rulers of tens. And they used to judge the
people regularly ; the difficult cases they brought to
Moses, but the minor cases they adjudicated themselves
(Ex. xviii. 25 f.). At the same time these rulers were
in a certain sense representative, since, according to the
reminiscence in Deuteronomy (i. 13), the people were
invited by Moses to co-operate in selecting them. More-
over, the two systems were made to fit into one another,
since the first choice at least was made from those who
were already at the head of the tribal divisions (Deut. i.
15; cf. xvi. 18).

§ 456. This memorable institution presents some feat-
ures of great interest. The first thing to be noticed is
that it was introduced before the arrival of Israel at Sinai ;
that is to say, it was preliminary to the specific ordinances
which were to regulate the concerns of civic and religious
life among the people of Jehovah as a nation. In other
words, it was prerequisite to a settled mode of living gen-
erally. Observe, further, that it was understood to be
strictly of human devising. The same claim is not put
forward for it that appears regularly in behalf of the sev-

1 The word is usually equivalent to " prince."


eral portions of the Sinaitic legislation. The latter were
obtained directly in personal interviews with Jehovah upon
his sacred seat. The former is expressly ascribed to a sug-
gestion from the father-in-law of Moses. Jethro was, to
be sure, a priest, and, as such, might seem authorized to
deliver these counsels as an oracle from Jehovah, espe-
cially as he had presided, on the day preceding, at a sacri-
fice to the God of Israel, whose supreme sovereignty he
rejoiced to acknowledge (Ex. xviii. 10 ff.). But his act
as a counsellor of Moses is, by the narrator, entirely dis-
associated from his function as a priest, and it would,
naturally, be only in the character of their official repre-
sentative that he would have presumed to declare the
divine will to the people of Israel.

§ 457. The distinction just pointed out is one of wide
range and deep significance. It is only specific statutes
and decisions that are ascribed by the sacred writers di-
rectly to Jehovah. Political and social forms and institu-
tions are either expressly or implicitly treated as popular
movements. It was so with the later government by
"judges," and with the still later monarchical system.
Nor was it otherwise after the Captivity. The matter
is worthy of fuller discussion. It can only be pointed out
here that the distinction is in perfect harmony with the
whole spirit of Revelation, and with the Biblical concep-
tion of the relation of the Deity to humanity. Human
society is evolved out of primitive human relations. It is
a product of practical skill, of adaptation, and contrivance,
the slowly attained result of endless compromises and
makeshifts. No social institution is of direct divine ap-
pointment. The matter of Revelation is the unfolding and
illustration of priyieiples within the sphere of morals, of
conscience, of conduct. The divine will is declared for
the enlightenment and guidance of men within the social
and political relations in which they stand, and which are
in themselves, as mere institutions, without moral signifi-
cance. The "law," or, rather, the teaching of Jehovah, is


a revelation of the righteousness and justice ^ which are
the foundation of his throne (Ps. Ixxxix. 14; xcvii. 2).
As a body of " j)recepts," " statutes," " commandments,"
"judgments," it is a record of the actual decisions of
Jehovah revealed through his representatives the Proph-
ets. It is, of course, not confined to the Pentateuch,
though that portion of the Old Testament contains a

Online LibraryJames Frederick McCurdyHistory, prophecy and the monuments (Volume 2) → online text (page 10 of 39)