James Frederick McCurdy.

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systematized compilation of those announcements which
have to do with the regulation of the ordinary affairs of
life. The distinction, then, is clear that human society,
as represented in Israel, is taken for granted as it stands.
Its ultimate constitution and its established relations are
not interfered with. But the duties which grow out of
these relations are defined and insisted upon. Men are
not held responsible for conditions which they find ready
to hand, but for specific acts of their own free choice.

§ 458. Some radical change in the organization of the
tribes was imperatively demanded for other reasons than
those assigned by the priest of Midian (Ex. xviii. 14, 18).
Even if the clansmen were merely to be held together
until they should reach the borders of Canaan, some more
cohesive principle than the prescriptive tribal government
had to be adopted. And this numerical division and or-
ganization of the people according to local groupings, in
place of tribal associations, marked the first necessary
stage of preparation for the higher and permanent type of
civic administration. For military purposes alone an

1 These are the two key-words of the Old Testament moral revelation.
The former (i"nx) is the guiding subjective principle of right, whether in
God or man. The latter (tasirn) is its outward expression, its practical
efficiency. Since it varies indefinitely with the relations and conditions
of its application in human affairs, the term itself must be rendered and
interpreted variously. It should not always be translated "judgment,"
as is usually done in the modern versions. This is only proper when it
means a decision or adjudication. The original meaning is levelling;
thence comes the sense of adjusting, regulating, deciding. The judicial
usage predominates, since Jehovah is the decider, the adjuster, the judge,
in human affairs. As the name of right conduct it answers, as an abstract,
to " justice."


advance was indispensable. It was impossible that any
general leader could permanently command the services or
the loyalty of the warriors if these were at the absolute
disposal of the clan leaders or the family councils. They
must be habituated to consider themselves as parts of a
greater whole, as owing allegiance to the community and
its leader, and bound to stand together, not merely as
kinsmen or clansmen, but as members of a larger brother-
hood. Again, the rights of property must be conserved as
between man and man, and not merely as between a man
and his tribe or sept.^ Finally, the initiative in legal
processes must be taken by some representatives of the
people rather than by the family or clan alone. The new
principle could not secure these ends directly, but it was
the best means of showing the inadequacy and unfitness
of the old bonds of union, and it pointed the way to some
higher and better state of society that should provide secu-
rity, confidence, and repose to the vexed and harassed

§ 459. It is not to be supposed, however, that the new
type of administration was at once made fully operative.
Such a process, like other social change, must be one of
natural and gradual adjustment. We are to understand
that, in this episode of the journey between Rephidim and
Sinai, the heginnings of a new order of things were made,
and that these were improved upon continually according
to a well-defined aim and upon a fixed principle. I may
again remind the reader of the distinguishing mark of
Hebrew narrative (cf. § 435; 446), — how it summarizes
events, indicates great movements and epochs by single
examples, puts a part for the whole and the whole for a

1 One of the most grievous evils of the tribal system was that any one
accused before his tribesmen would be acquitted or condemned by the
judgment of his kinsfolk alone. Inasmuch, also, as revenge for injuries,
real or supposed, was left to the kin, or ultimately to the clan or tribe,
magisterial government would be desirable so as to mitigate the severity
of vengeance, as well as to punish the offender.


part, foreshortens its historical pictures. In this instance,
the end is given witli the beginning, because the beginning
implied and virtually involved the end.

§ 460. Finally, we must conclude, in the same Avay, that
the old system of organization was not suddenly repealed.
We know, indeed, that it was in force much later, even
after the settlement in Canaan had been accomplished
(e.g. Jud. vi. 34). The two principles were allowed to
work side by side ; that which was inherently the stronger
and more serviceable gradually superseded the other. Nat-
urally, the patriarchal was perpetuated during long ages
for the adjustment of family relations. Indeed, as we have
seen (§ 455), the first officials under the new system were
selected from the heads of the tribes and families. On
the other hand, we do not need to assume that the numeri-
cal division was strictly adhered to. " Thousands, hun-
dreds, fifties, and tens " were, we may suppose, in most
cases, approximations. The very term for " thousand " is
one of the names for a clan or sept (§ 396). This, of
itself, may suggest to us the propriety of not insisting
rigorously on the literal accuracy of Old Testament sum-
marizing numbers.

§ 461. The principle observed was to have justice ad-
ministered within manageable divisions of contiguous
groups, large and small. Details are wanting. We see
here only the germ and first expression of public senti-
ment, the political initiation of the people of Israel. Here-
after something was felt to be standing between the
unregulated freedom of the clansman and the rough jus-
tice or matter of course protection of his kinsman or his
tribe (see Deut. xvi. 18 f . ; xvii. 8 ff. ; xxv. 1 ff.). There
was a public tribunal where there was some chance of each
case being decided wholly on its merits. This ma}' seem
to have been a slight step in advance. But it is the first
step that counts, and the movement taken here was a practi-
cal one. There is no such thing as justice in the abstract.
The kingdom of righteousness would never have been


established if rude men at the threshhold of civilized his-
tory had not been taught justice and self-control from the
discipline of their fellows more advanced than themselves.
From this point of view the system suggested by Jethro is
seen to be a comprehensive type of the social and political
development of Israel.^ But it is more than this. It is
a symbol also of the triumph and reign of law and order
among men, which has furnished the outward conditions of
the progress of righteousness and justice. Thus it seems,
after all, to have been ultimately not less a divine institu-
tion than the legislation on Sinai.

§ 462. But we are expressly notified that the human
and the divine actually co-operated in this first political
experiment of the Hebrew commonwealth. The people
in resorting to Moses came to him " to inquire of God,"
and Moses, in "judging between a man and his neighbour,
made them know the statutes of God and his laws " (Ex.
xviii. 15 f.). As we have seen (§ 457), Jehovah was the
fountain of all practical justice, and both seers and priests
in dispensing justice and pronouncing judgment, did so in
his name, and after inquiring of his will. This funda-
mental aspect of the relation of the people of Israel to
their God overshadows all others. It is in fact the basis
of the Old Testament relisfion. When we think of the
mission and work of the Prophets in Israel, we can only
complete the retrospect by going back to these primary dis-
closures among the tents of the Desert. We are at pres-
ent, however, concerned more particularly with the social
and political aspects of the public administration in Israel.
And immediately after the record of the new organization,
we find the people at Sinai receiving a complete system of
instruction as to the details of life and conduct. The
combination is now seen to be natural. The one in fact

1 Hence it is not surprising to meet the statement that shortly after the
camp breaks up again, Moses finds it necessary to have the assistance of
a council of "seventy elders" (Numb. xi. 16 ff.)- Evidently the organi-
zation was tentative and rudimentary.


implies and requires the other. Indeed, in the summariz-
ing review the political episode is regarded as falling
within the epoch of Sinai (Deut. i. 6, 9 ff.). Its value as
part of the record consists mainly, one would think, in the
relation between it and the disclosures made on the holy
mount. The meaning of this association obviously is that
the precepts of Sinai and its administrative provisions
generally were designed for the stage of society Avhich was
to be reached by virtue of the new civil constitution.

§ 463. A comprehensive glance at the enactments illus-
trates clearly the foregoing observation. The new type
of internal government went beyond the usages and re-
quirements of nomads. It could only be, as it actually
was, brought into complete operation under the conditions
of settled life. Just so was it with the regulations of
Sinai. Beyond its few general moral and religious pre-
cepts, everything applies to the subsequent life of Israel
in Canaan.i Scarcely anj'thing is either specifically or
implicitly adapted to the experiences of the wilderness.
It is unnecessary to demonstrate this assertion. The same
thing is to be said of the prescriptions in Deuteronomy.
Just as the directions of the ritual imply a fixed place of
worship, so the regulations for civil life imply a fixed
abode for the people. The whole system is framed for a
people living in towns and villages, and engaged normally
in tilling the soil. And, as a matter of fact, not only do
many of the statutes expressly contemplate a residence in
a country populous and productive, but the people are con-
tinually reminded of the necessity of observing them in
the land to which they were being conducted. This is,
therefore, the Biblical as well as the sociological view of
the matter.

§ 464. There is little more to be learnt of the develop-
ment of the Hebrew community from the narrative of

1 Even, as it would seem, the Decalogue. See Ex. xx. 10, "the
stranger that is ^Yithin thy gates" {i.e. cities), and v, 12. Cf. note to
§ 474.


the wanderings in the Desert.^ We can only resume the
inquiry at the point where the life of the nation can be
considered to be fairly begun in its permanent home. We
may then, and not till then, practically apply the prescrip-
tion of the Law to the problems of the public and private
life of Israel.

1 The details of the census and muster-roll have only a mechanical
basis and do not rest on any social or political movement. The tribal
principle, moreover, is there still the governing one.



§ 465. Political and social transitions are hard to under-
stand and describe. Contemporaries usually fail to realize
them because of the slowness of the processes. Or they
fail to apprehend and estimate the causes on account of
the multiplicity of the phenomena and the apparent com-
plexity of their interaction. Later ages are at a loss
because of lack of information, or perhaps still more fre-
quently from the absence of intellectual and moral sympa-
thy. The transition in Israel from the nomadic stage to
the usages and achievements of settled life in Canaan is
one of the most misunderstood passages of ancient history.
General observations are first in order, because misappre-
hensions as to the general conditions are widely prevalent.
First of all, it behooves us to guard against the common
error that the transition was brief and ]-apid. The very
opposite is the truth. Rather may it be almost affirmed
that the transition stage was prolonged indefinitely. Cer-
tainly some sections of the population never fully emerged
from the nomadic state. I do not now refer to the minor
traces of tribalism in the permanent beliefs and social
prejudices of the jDCople. These were almost ineradicable,
and they were only slowly extruded by the force of pro-
phetic universalism (§ 399). Actual dwellers in tents,
forming distinct communities, were found up to the very
close of the monarchy, after a residence within Israel
from the very beginning of the settlement ( Jer. xxxv. 6 ff ;
cf. § 416). Larger or smaller communities of shepherds



were scattered over extensive districts, not merely east of
the Jordan, where they formed the prevailing type, but
in Canaan proper as well, particularly in the territory of
Judah. Even when these aggregations clustered about
fixed centres, the manners and traditions of the nomad
still prevailed. The difficulty of abrogating the essential
tribal law of blood-revenge was anticix^ated in the funda-
mental legislation (Ex. xxi. 13). The practice continued
to prevail in the near neighbourhood of Jerusalem in
the earlier days of the kingdom (2 Sam. xiv. 7). The
common speech of the people bears testimony to the per-
manence of the ancient social institutions. " To your
tents, O Israel ! " ^ was the watchword of insurrection in
times long after the encampment had been abandoned as
the centre of national life (1 K. xii. 16; cf. 2 Sam. xx. 1).
In tlie days of Hezekiah (Isa. xxxiii. 20; 701 B.C.), and
even at the close of the Exile (Isa. liv. 2; cf. Jer. x. 20),
the tent is still the symbol of the community. It is only
in New Testament times that it becomes the symbol of an
individual life (2 Cor. v. 1 ; 2 Pet. i. 13 f.).

§ 466. The importance of the tenacity of the nomadic
spirit, along with the persistence of the nomadic habit, is
not easily overestimated. Its suggestions for our imme-
diate purpose are obvious. But its significance is not
exhausted by its influence on the historical development
of later Israel. The perpetual survivals, gaunt and rugged
or kindly and gentle, of the genius of tribalism — in social
usage, in religious belief, in the administration of justice,
in the lingering reminiscences of word and phrase — testify
eloquently and convincingl}^ to a long antecedent history
of the Hebrew community separate from the nations
(Numb, xxiii. 9). This is a monument, variousl}^ in-
scribed, that speaks trumpet-tongued where so many
other voices are silent. The assumption that the Hebrews
had but a brief corporate existence before they appeared

1 A phrase implying a return to the primary independence of nomadic*
life, and a renouncing of allegiance to a centralizing monarch.


on the borders of Canaan can be shown from these memo-
rials, if by nothing else, to be a baseless figment.

§ 467. A clear distinction must, however, be made
between the condition of the population as a whole and
that of the less numerous and influential portion of the
community which retained to the end a preference for the
institutions and manners of the wilderness. This latter
element it is not necessary to take particularly into account
for the study of Hebrew societ}^ except as affording illus-
tration of primitive habits. With regard to the historic
Israel, we may mark as a clear dividing point, in social as
well as in political progress, the era of the establishment of
monarchy. Before this epoch, the condition of Israel in
Palestine may be characterized as semi-nomadic. This crisis,
strictly speaking, marks the limit of the above indicated
period of transition. The tendencies and movements that
made for consolidation and complexity of social structure
multiplied rapidly as soon as a central authority was
established. And, as we have seen (§ 50 ; cf. 188 ff.), a
wide extension of power was not attained by any of the
leaders of Israel till the founding of the kingdom.

§ 468. Centralization w^as, in fact, impossible \vithout
the monarchy. There is probably no instance on record
of a voluntary confederation of tribes, except where the
society has remained essentially of the nomadic type.
When nomads come to exchange the desert for the planta-
tions or bazars or factories of fixed settlements, they break
up into separate communities, and are united, if at all,
only by force. This general fact throws light upon the
original settlement of Palestine by the Canaanites, who
are found to have had the kingly government only in
petty city-states (§ 36 f.). The nomadic origin of these
communities is thus apparent apart from general pre-
sumptive evidence. What would have become of the
Hebrew people if the monarchy had not been instituted
is perhaps problematical. But their fate would in all
likeliliood have been that of their predecessors. As agri-


culturists, tradespeople, and artisans, their continuance
under this semi-nomadic type of society was out of tlie
question. The period of intertribal strife and anarchy,
of which the closing chapters of the book of Judges give
so mournful an account, would have been prolonged until
in sheer weariness the distracted tribesmen had gathered
around their respective local centres of population and
chosen for themselves leaders and "judges" independent
of former associations. The enterprise of Abimelech
(Jud. ix.) would have been repeated with greater suc-
cess than his in many cities, and numerous petty king-
doms would have replaced the ideal of a united Israel.
It was the unifying bond of a common allegiance to
Jehovah, and the perpetual sense of common danger, that
mainly kept the tribes together. But even these would
not have much longer sufficed. How clear a proof is
afforded by even the precarious coherence of the frag-
ments of Israel that the time of the Judges did not extend
over many generations ! To have survived a century and
a half of abnormal distracting and exhausting social vicis-
situdes is itself an evidence of unequalled racial and
national vitality.

§ 469. But we are anticipating some of the results
of a more special examination. What are our data for
determining the character of the Hebrew community and
its gradual development during this period of transition ?
It is fortunate that while no direct delineation of the
manners and usages of the time has been left us, we still
have a twofold illustration of the subject which leaves
nothing to be desired for pictorial and clarif3dng effect.
We have on the one hand the incidental notices of the
historical books, especially of Judges and Samuel ; on the
other, we have the laws and kindred prescriptions, ^^•hich
were framed for the guidance of the people during the
early years of the settlement. The one enlightens us
from without; the other illumines the subject from within.
As to the complementary matter of the growth of the


community, our main recourse will be to trace the neces-
sary workings of the institutions of Israel within the
shifting boundary lines of the families, the clans, the tribes,
and the nation.

§ 470. We naturally first inquire into the social and
political status of the Hebrews at the time when they
entered Canaan. If our conclusions already drawn are
at all well founded, there is no difficulty in making at
least a general answer to the question. What we were
able to gather as to their condition in Egypt indicated
that they were something more than ordinary bands of
desert rovers. We found strong presumptive evidence
of solidarity, of a grade of culture much advanced beyond
barbarism, of such an increase in numbers as would justify
their hope of becoming a nation (§ 436 ff.). Their sub-
sequent life in the wilderness more than confirms the
supposition. Their great need was a better organization
and the inspiration of a national feeling. At least the
beginnings were made in the way of discipline and of
political education (§ 454 ff.). They became habituated
under the direction and training of Moses to a wider
outlook than the bounds of the family or the tribe, to a
richer hojDe than the mere expectation of daily bread.
Just as their survival of the long oppression in Egypt
testifies to their inherent vitality and their numerical
strength, so their triumph over the dangers and disin-
tegrating forces of their long desert wanderings avouches
their increasing fitness to cope with more destructive and
more insidious foes than Pharaoh and his taskmasters.

§ 471. But it would be a cardinal error to confine this
advance to a mere augmentation of military power or of
external resources generally. What was vital and potential
in their development was the awakening and nourishing
of a spirit of heroic endeavour, an assurance of a larger
national destiny than the occupation and retention of the
most eligible oasis of northern Arabia. Without such an
inspiration, the possession of a permanent home in Canaan


would have been to them an impossibility. Now that we
see how they were animated by such a spirit, we perceive
also that the feeling must have been widespread and
general ; that it was, so to speak, a corporate conviction.
What it really had for its vitalizing and nourishing prin-
ciple was a common faith in Jehovah, the God of Israel.
Rude and immature as this faith must have been, it w^as
yet deeply rooted. And — what we are specially to mark
— it was a national feeling. It drew its energizing force
from motives broader and deeper than the interests or the
ambitions of the family or the kin or the clan. Cherished
as it was by individuals, it was not cherished primarily as
a merely personal sentiment. Such a thing was simply
unimaginable in ancient Oriental society, where the single
individual life was an anomaly and a religious as well as
social disability. The family group, the clan, or the
tribe was the horizon of the world into which the early
Hebrew was born. And if his thought and imagination
ranged beyond the widest of these limits, it could only
be because he had already become virtually a citizen of a
state, a component element of a nation. Such an assump-
tion, I repeat, is demanded for Israel at the time of the
occupation of Canaan, and in virtue of the very fact of
that occupation.

§ 472. We are justified in proceeding a step further.
When we recognize accomplished facts universally ad-
mitted, we must be prepared to accept all the necessary
antecedents. The conquest of Canaan by the Hebrews,
while it supports the Biblical presuppositions as to their
political and social status, confirms also the Biblical state-
ments as to the successive stages and the method of the
occupation. The general course of the conquest, as we
gather it from the accounts given in Numbers and Joshua,
is to the following effect. The Hebrews at first made an
attempt upon the southern border of Palestine, and, hav-
ing failed in this, they, after a lengthy period of prepara-
tion, moved upon Canaan from the eastern side. Territory


to the east of the Jordan was taken from a formidable
remnant of the Amorites in Gilead and Bashan, and in
this region the tribes of Reuben and Gad and a portion
of Manasseh received their possessions. Canaan proper
was entered at Jericho. From this point of vantage the
subjection of the country was gradually effected. The
correctness of this view of the matter was taken for
granted in the historical summary given in our first vol-
ume (§ 183 ff.). The reasonableness of the scheme has
commended it to general acceptance by critics and his-
torians. Even those who reject all the details of the
sacred narrative admit at least that the entrance was
made from the eastern side, and that the territory of
Reuben and Gad was occupied and cultivated by Hebrews
before Western Palestine was entered by them.

§ 473. Added assurance may be gained from a few
brief considerations. (1) Canaan proper at the time of
the Exodus could not have been entered successfully from
the south except by an invading force vastly superior in
war to anything which the Hebrews could muster. The
natural defences on the south and west of the hill country,
and the barriers in the way of marching have always prac-
tically decided this question. (2) The phenomenon of
the conquest of Canaan by the Hebrews can only be
explained on the assumption that the decisive movement

Online LibraryJames Frederick McCurdyHistory, prophecy and the monuments (Volume 2) → online text (page 11 of 39)