James Frederick McCurdy.

History, prophecy and the monuments (Volume 2) online

. (page 18 of 39)
Online LibraryJames Frederick McCurdyHistory, prophecy and the monuments (Volume 2) → online text (page 18 of 39)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

a whole upon the fortunes of the people. At the close of
the era we have at present under review, we find the
Northern Kingdom at an end. Judah, according to the
estimate left us by the best contemporaries, is in a most
unpromising condition. Jhe witnesses ascribe the decline
and fall of Israel to a variety of destructive agencies. These
agencies were, in part, enemies who assailed the nation from

i Not blind devotees or mechanical ritualists, as we learn from the
descriptive phrase in ver. 4, "those that know me" (cf. Jer. xxxi. 34).
This psalm — condensed almost to obscurity, and yet in some important
respects the most instructive composition of the Old Testament — is not
only one of the grandest of optimistic prophecies, but an assertion at the
same time of the inward and spiritual character of incorporation into the
true Israel. What an interval of progress between it and the conceptions
of the days of the Judges (Ruth i. 15 ff.)!


without. One naturally asks whether the political ruin of
Israel was not, after all, the work of these external foes.

§ 556. It is a question difhcult to answer, what the
fate of the two kingdoms would have been if their destiny
had been determined by the action of outside nations
alone, and if they had not been a prey to decadence
within. It is hard to say whether, for example, Israel
as a whole was inwardly and morally made better or worse
by the desperate Syrian wars. One indirect benefit at
least was gained, apart from the development among the
people of the patriotic and heroic temper. War with
Damascus and the surrounding nations generally meant
in large degree hostility to their debasing worship. And
so far as the strenuous resistance of their assaults im-
plied and induced greater fidelity to Jehovah, Israel was
thereby vastly the gainer. The relations with Assjaia
were of a somewhat different character. Collision with
that invincible power was not primarily a life and death
struggle. The empire of the Tigris would have been
contented with mere submission and payment of tribute.
And vassalage of the first degree (§ 286) would not have
involved the loss of autonomy. It would certainly be
morally and religiously injurious, tending to weaken popu-
lar faith in the supremacy of Jehovah and to familiarize
the people with foreign modes of thought. But prolonged
acquiescence in the Assyrian overlordship would bring with
it a degree of civil quietude and domestic contentment
utterly out of the question amid the turbulence of stubborn
rebellion. If we are to trust the judgment of the Prophets,
we must, in any case, believe that the decay and dissolu-
tion of Israel generally did not proceed from external
enemies, but from noxious elements within. We have at
an earlier stage summarized these moral principles and
occasions of the dissolution of the state in their outward
aspects and relations (§ 271, 320 ff.). We have now to
inquire how they were connected with the constitution and
internal workings of Hebrew society.


§ 557. It might not be difficult to dispose of the prob-
lem ill a certain fashion by the application of a formula or
the citation of a general principle. We may lay it down
as an axiom that where there is little capacity of political
development or adaptation, the social fabric is in danger
of speedy overthrow. Now our sketch of the outward
history of Israel simply confirms the general estimate of
the political genius of the Semitic peoples given in our
introduction (§ 28 ff.). A ready practical criterion of the
political attainments of Israel may be seen in the fact
that the prosperity and happiness of the people depended
almost entirely upon the character of the rulers, who alone
could give moral effectiveness to measures of internal state
policy, or in the equally striking fact that the political re-
formers were mainly ministers of religion. It was, there-
fore, antecedently improbable that the Hebrew kingdoms
could have either a lengthened or a prosperous history.
Another point of view may be occupied. " Both history
and science show us that social and economic changes to
be permanent must be gradual, and fitted to the mental
and moral conditions of the people." ^ Having already
observed (§ 511) that while among the Semites political
progress was extremely slow, social changes went on with
comparative rapidity, we might accordingly maintain that
the Hebrew national system could not in any case have
become permanent. This position is tenable with the
proviso just indicated (§ 556), that the causes of degen-
eration are internal and inherent, not external and ad-
ventitious. Our most obvious procedure is to take the
theory of the decline of Israel held by the Propliets, and
see whether the causes alleged are characteristic and suffi-
cient. Fortunately, the case is in its main aspects very
simple and easily disposed of. For this very reason it is
the more exemplary and worth exhibiting.

§ 558. It is universally admitted that Israel was a
singular community. Its singularity was due not so much

1 Henry Dyer, The Evolution of Industry (1895), preface.


to its distinctive race characteristics as a supreme develop-
ment of Semitism, but rather to the religious and moral
bias which marked its career (§ 386 ff.), and which made
it, in its highest and most influential types of thought and
life, run counter to the genius of Semitism. Above all, it
was unique in its ideal morality and in its disavowal of
polytheism. A phenomenon so remarkable among Semitic
nations, and so pronounced, must necessarily be the con-
trolling factor in the history of any people manifesting it.
Through lack of representative government and popular
institutions, no Semitic state has long continued to flourish
unless when maintained by adequate physical force (§ 56).
There was but one alternative possibility; namely, that
when material resources were wanting, moral principles
might prolong the life of the state. A general illustra-
tion is afforded by the observation above made that the
national weal always, as a matter of fact, depended, in
Israel, upon the moral excellence of its rulers (cf. § 534).
§ 559. We are thus brought by general considerations
to the same point which we reached (§ 533) in our in-
ductive examination. That is to say, we are to inquire
into the influence of the ruling classes in Israel. And
we see again as clearly as before that the point at issue
is their moral character and conduct. We have already
learned (§ 534 ff.) what these social and political leaders
were. Above all, yet with an authority more or less
limited by that of the religious leaders, stood the absolute
king. On the religious side were the priests and prophets,
more or less subservient to " Jehovah's anointed." In the
political sphere there were the local elders, the judges,
and the princes, nominally responsible to the king, but
in practice allowed as a rule to go their own way. The
social leaders were naturally the officials just mentioned.
But besides these, and continually forcing themselves or
being forced into official positions, were the aristocracy of
wealth, the large property owners and capitalists. Finally,
there must be reckoned the courtiers, the continually in-


creasing throng of those who for purposes of intrigue or
self-indulgence "ate at the king's table." At their liead
were the officers of the royal household. Theoretically
these should have no separate place, since they were
simply personal attaches of the king. Practically, how-
ever, they gradually attained to independent personal
influence of the most decisive kind (Isa. xxii. 15 ff. ; Jer.
xxxvii. 15 ff. ; cf. xxxviii. 25). ^ It is the relations sus-
tained by these magnates to the common people on the
one hand, and to the supreme rulers on the other, that
determined both the political and the moral destiny of
Israel. These relations were practically fulfilled (1) in
the possession and use of property, (2) in the adminis-
tration of justice, and (3) in the observances of religion.

§ 560. Let us take a backward glance, and learn how the
complicated conditions of the later decisive periods were
evolved. Before the clans of Israel came over the borders
of Canaan, their social system was as nearly homogeneous
as it is possible for any organized society to be. There
was no order of nobility supported either by hereditary
right or by the rights of property. Indeed, the hereditary
privilege, which is the life of aristocracy, is bound up with
the possession of fixed property ; and the shifting, pre-
carious character of proprietorship among nomadic and
semi-nomadic peoples renders this condition permanently
impossible. There is accordingly every reason to believe
that just as it was and is with the Arab sheiohs,^ so it was
also with the synonymous Hebrew " elders " of the olden
time, and even with the "princes of the congregation."
Age and repute for wisdom were the (qualifications that
determined the choice, as is attested by the very name

1 These are called "princes" in Jeremiah. In the later days of the
kingdom of Judah this term was thus applied to the king's council.

- We are told by native Arabian authorities that it was something very
remarkable when the chieftainship of a tribe remained in the same family
for four generations. Kremer, Die herrschenden Ideen des Islains (18G8),
p. 31G ; cf. p. 311. Compare what was said in vol. i (p. 404) on the
election of the modern Nestorian mdlik.


" elder," common to all considerable ancient communities
(cf. Job xxxii. 7). Again, the simplicity of living, among
the highest and the lowest alike, made the multiplication
of nobles of any grade out of the question.

§ 561. We have thus to picture to ourselves the social
conditions of Israel in its early settlement as being but
little modified from its primitive uniformity. Only a slight
differentiation was made when the allotment of the new
possessions brought some families and individuals into
greater prominence than others. The clansmen, there-
fore, at this stage, when decisive changes were impending,
were on a pretty even footing. Certain kins or family
groups were, indeed, more powerful than others ; but of
the heads of families as a whole, none were very rich and
none very poor. Nor was any freeman so low as that his
voice might not be heard in council with the highest. But
these relations began to be seriously interfered with by
the first stages of the process of settlement.

§ 562. What, then, were the various classes of the popu-
lation that were to be reckoned with? Besides the free-
men of Israel and their families there were their household
slaves and their clients or gerim (§ 540 ff., 548 £f.).
These latter cannot have been very numerous relatively
to the whole people of Israel. The " mixed multitude "
of the desert wanderings (§ 453) must have been in great
measure absorbed by adoption or got rid of as superfluous.
Yet a constant influx of adventurous or needy strangers
was inevitable during the residence east of Jordan.
And the lust of plunder and of fertile lands must have
brought many outsiders, whole tribes in fact, to join them-
selves to the invaders before the crossing of the river.
Self-interest would impel these to profess the faith of
Israel with all reasonable speed. Thus the armies and
the households of the colonists were strengthened for war
and labour. But the same accession increased the number
of those who were to be provided for in the new domain.
The process of their settlement presented problems more


formidable than the campaigns which decided against the
Canaanites the question of military predominance. It fur-
nished to the social life of Israel the new elements which
gave form, direction, and bias to its development. And
when the determining movements had potentially done
their work, the social aspect of Israel in Canaan differed
a,s greatly from that of Israel in its wanderings as the con-
tour of Palestine, with its mountains and valleys, its slopes
and precipices, differed from the simplicity and monotony
of the desert.

§ 563. The first step in the direction of a landed aris-
tocracy was made by the military leaders. In the nomadic
and semi-nomadic state, the chief who leads his tribe to
successful battle does not thereby gain a permanent eleva-
tion over his fellows. Upon his return to camp he becomes
as before primus inter pares. The possession of land to be
distributed or to be administered gives at once an entirely
different character to the victorious leader. He is now
the disposer of the land or eventually its trustee. That
he himself personally retains a goodly share of the new
possessions is to be expected. But his principal function
in relation to the newly acquired territory is to portion it
out among his family or his companions in arms.^ Thus
the land west of Jordan, as far as it was conquered in his
days, was allotted by Joshua to the clans that had occupied
it under his leadership ; and the remainder was assigned to
be divided among the tribes as they should succeed sever-
ally in acquiring it. In this he followed the example of

1 This is finely set forth in the blessing of Jacob, where the

Online LibraryJames Frederick McCurdyHistory, prophecy and the monuments (Volume 2) → online text (page 18 of 39)