James Frederick McCurdy.

History, prophecy and the monuments (Volume 2) online

. (page 19 of 39)
Online LibraryJames Frederick McCurdyHistory, prophecy and the monuments (Volume 2) → online text (page 19 of 39)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

known guilds of " sons of the Prophets " ^ which played so

1 It is scarcely necessary to remark that the term " son " used in such
cases of members of guilds or professions (§ 431 ; W. R. Smith, Prophets,


large a part in the later history of the kingdom (1 K. xx.
35; 2 K. ii. ; iv. ; v. 22; vi. 1; ix. 1; cf. Am. vii. 14).
That the professions of elder or judge should be special-
ized and differentiated in a similar manner was simply
inevitable with the increasing complexity of city life and
the various functions which such officials had to perform
(§ 486 f.). We thus see fulfilled all the main conditions
tending to establish, consolidate, and perpetuate through-
out the realm of Israel families of influence, of wealth,
position, and professional prestige. Add to this a more
general motive tliat dominated every Hebrew, the desire
to maintain the family unimpaired, and we have the socio-
logical basis of that spiritual and civil aristocracy which
was the moral controlling force of the nation.

§ 571. It will not be assumed by the reader that such
an aristocracy was at any time very numerous. Indeed,
the rule may apply in Israel that the influence exerted by
powerful families was in inverse ratio to their number.
Or, to put it more accurately, class influence is least when
the number of well-to-do families is greatest. When in
the earlier conditions none were very rich and none very
poor (§ 560 f . ), social influence in the strict sense was at
its lowest. But the process of selection, indicated by the
progress and the success of the favoured families, went on
according to clearly defined principles. Long-continued
possession of estates antecedes the accumulation of wealth.
Property and social standing increase the clientele. Suitors
as well as dependants attach themselves. The household
enlarges by afliliation and adoption. A family group ab-
sorbs or displaces rivals or collaterals. Family connec-
tion, however remote, is now highly prized and utilized
to the full. The common ancestral hero or heroes, act-
ual or feigned, lend dignity to the whole connection.^

p. 85 ; 388 f.) is employed because of the prevailing hereditary character
of the occupation.

^ Cf. Meyer, GA. II, § 56, with reference to the development of early
Hellenic families.


Mutual aid to relatives and clients conjfirms the alli-

§ 572. With this self-aggrandizing development of the
prosperous kinship goes hand in hand the decline of un-
appreciated outsiders. This deterioration is slow but sure.
" Wealth accumulates, and men decay." The capital of the
country is small and is not being increased. There is no
normal or continuous export trade to bring money into the
country except that of agricultural products, whose limit
of supply is speedily and early reached. When all live
simply and frugally, as in the good old days, there is
enough for all. But luxury demands more than enough,
and always succeeds in getting it. Its success involves
the impoverishment of the common man. "• Fiat money,"
of no value in any age of the world without money's worth
behind it, is not issued in Israel even for temporary relief.
War, famine, pestilence, come upon the nation (cf. § 264).
The concomitant privation, suffering, anxiety, and terror
strike hardest upon the lower middle class and the very
poor. Their lingering consequences swell further the roll
of the destitute and the helpless.

§ 573. The normal distribution of the population,
according to wealth, in a fairly prosperous community,
shows us, " a few rich ; a considerable number of well-to-do ;
a large number of busy, fairly well-housed, and fully nour-
ished working people, who are engaged in all the arts of
life ; and a moderate proportion of poor." ^ In Israel, the
last-named class became too numerous for the welfare of
the state. Their case, and that of the unfortunate gen-
erally, occupies so much space in the national Hebrew
literature, that it must have formed a most important
practical issue in the national history. In giving to its
consideration the attention it deserves we have contrasted
it with that of the rich and powerful. It is necessary to
go further and show that the antithesis is more than for-

1 E. A. Atkinson, The Industrial Progress of the Nation, New York,
1890, p. 222.


mal or theoretical, that a chasm had been created between
the rich and influential and the poor and insignificant,
which widened and deepened ever till it rived the com-
munity in twain.

§ 574. We must see that the question is fundamentally
a moral one, like all the greater issues of Hebrew history.
The determining cause of the social catastrophe was not
so much the growth of a wealthy party whose affluence
involved the depletion of the masses. The question was
not ultimately one of money and its transfer to the coffers
of a few leading men. Such matters were merely incidental
to the play of greater forces than any known to the material
world. Underlying the inequality of fortune, and largely
accountable for it, was the hidden work of evil tendencies
and motives. What the Hebrew commonwealth needed
most of all was the conserving force of righteousness
among its leaders. Character was to it, as to all element-
ary communities, of more account than outAvard possessions.
Character could not, perhaps, largely increase the capital
of the people, but it could conserve it and secure that it
be wisely distributed. All great moral revolutions either
spring from social questions or are mainly promoted by
them. It is these that bring out the possibilities of
human nature by the stress and strain of some of the
strongest and most persistent of passions known to men —
ambition, emulation, avarice, greed. Thus it practically
has come to pass that the welfare and prosperity of a
country may be gauged and its fate forecast by the con-
dition of its proletariat.

§ 575. Those who, in any age or country, are owners
of capital, are morally bound not to hoard it or squander it
or increase it unduly, but so to direct its employment — in
other words, the work of the toiling majority — so as to ful-
fil the end of all labour, the furthering of the common
weal. In the early days of Israel, before the growth of
large cities and the development of any general trade,
domestic or foreign, there were few gross temptations to


do otherwise than what was just or right in this matter.
Ordinary trade and exchange were very slight and were
in the hands of a few travelling merchants and market-
men. The landed proprietors simply gave employment to
their own retainers or hired servants, and it was their in-
terest to have their employees well provided for. But the
development of an industrial and commercial population,
and the changes brought about generally by the increase
of wealth and luxury (§ 571 f.), created a large and ever-
increasing class of people who were thrown sooner or later
upon the tender mercies of the rich. To people in distress
in the fully developed Hebrew community there were two
recourses. One was to sell some or all the members of
the family into slavery. The other was to borrow money
on usury. The latter was ordinarily the more severe
ordeal of the two. Its usual issue was the beggary of
the debtor, who then became the slave of the creditor,
without the chance of the favourable conditions available
in the former case.

§ 576. Such consequences of extreme poverty were so
deplorable, that to prevent them, the taking of usury and
even of moderate interest, from an}' but aliens, was forbid-
den by statute (Ex. xxii. 25 ; Deut. xxiii. 19 f.). The result
of the jDrohibition naturally would be, in a community where
there was no commercial credit, that little borrowing of
money was done at all, except under galling necessity.
Lending to the poor was, indeed, urged as a humane and
even as a religious obligation. But lending either money
or goods, from a sense of duty or from pure benevolence,
was not more fashionable even in the best ages of Israel
than it is now. Relieving by actual gifts was also directly
and indirectly enjoined as a duty to Jehovah himself. For
the benefit of the poor it was ordained that the cultivated
land, the vine3'ards and olive yards, should lie fallow every
seventh year (Ex. xxiii. 10 f.). The Feast of Weeks was
to be a time of general relief and solace to the poor
(Deut. xvi. 10 f.). And the tithing of every third year


was expressly set apart for the help of those who had no
inheritance, for "the stranger, the fatherless, and the
widow" (Dent. xiv. 28 f . ; of. xxvi. 12 f . ; of. § 552).

§ 577. In the old purely agricultural and pastoral
times, it was doubtless possible to relieve the wants of
the destitute without the irksome obligation of undue
self-sacrifice. In the first place, the number needing re-
lief was comparatively small. Again, the means of relief
were near at hand, at least for the most obvious cases.
Food was to be had in the well-to-do neighbour's grain
field or vineyard, if the beneficiary would but content
himself with merely gathering in the hands, or with eat-
ing on the spot all that he might take (Dent, xxiii. 24 f . ;
cf. xxiv. 19).^ These beneficent provisions were doubtless
in man}' cases carried into effect, and we may assume that
mendicancy, which it was their main aim to prevent, was
in this age almost unknown.^ National calamities, of
which there were many, were borne by all classes alike.

§ 578. With the new conditions under the kingdom
(§ 521 ff.), and the establishment of an aristocracy of
place and wealth, came the breaking of the bonds of
brotherhood. The process we cannot trace in detail.
The literature of the whole period until the Exile reveals
to us these characteristics of the times in both of the
kingdoms : oppression of the poor ; the taking of usury ;
the disregard not merely of brotherly rights, but even
of the claims of humanity ; the practical al)rogation of
all the kindly traditions and enactments which distin-
guish the Mosaic legislation from other ancient codes.
Hand in hand with the neglect and the abuse of the poor

1 These specific provisions are found first in tlie Deuteronomic code ;
but they are exactly in the spirit of the "Book of the Covenant," and are
doubtless a reflex of the best usage of the early period.

2 The manner in which David's band of "those who were in debt or
distress " expected to be relieved by Nabal (1 Sam. xxv.) is an indication
of the dependence of the one class of the community upon the other at the
close of the ancient period. In the times of the established kingdoms such
wholesale relief would be given only to religious companies (2 K. iv. 42).


and unfortunate by the rich and prosperous, went the
abuse of justice in the local and provincial courts, the
perpetrators being often the same in the one case and in
the other. We shall, to be sure, have to beware of assum-
ing that the oppression and moral degeneration were gen-
eral. We must avoid, above all things, the employment
of Hebrew rhetorical hyperbole in a calm historical re-
view. But we shall find, as a matter of fact, that this
was the great theme and burden of the prophetical and
poetical literature, which constitutes the centre and heart
of the Old Testament. By registering the counts in this
long and solemn indictment of the responsible men in Israel,
we shall learn, as we can in no other waj^ the secret of the
social and moral struggle, whose issue was to be the eter-
nal enthronement of freedom, righteousness, and mercy.

§ 579. The abuses that shattered the framework of
Hebrew society may be divided into the general cate-
gories of private and public wrong-doing, though it will
naturally be difficult to distinguish sharply between the
two classes. The most obvious and serious evils which
would come under the latter group, corruption and in-
justice among the judges and the officers of the court,
are so closely interwoven with the whole social fabric,
that we can hardly make anything more than a formal
distinction in their presentation. In taking our survey of
this tragic and memorable season, we shall have to range
freely over the literature of Israel. We shall have to bring
under one rubric the most various forms and styles : —

" The statesman's great word
Side by side with the poet's sweet coimneiit." ^

For lawgiver, prophet, psalmist, and moralist alike agonized
with the burden that was crushing the life of the nation
and breaking its heart.

§ 580. We may begin with the most fundamental insti-
tution, the ownership of land and fixed property. If it

1 Browning, Saul, xiii.


was a recognized principle that every person, or rather
every family/ should be the independent possessor of a
freehold in land (§ 5G6), it follows that any attempt to
deprive the proprietors of their holdings was an encroach-
ment on such a right. The Hebrew theory of the matter
is characteristic. It might fairly be argued in a given case
that the dispossession of the owners was accomplished
under tlie forms and with the sanction of consuetudinary
law, and that therefore it could not be wa-ong. The plea
would not satisfy a true Hebrew publicist. He would be
ready with the reply that the transfer might have been
made, as in the case of a foreclosed mortgage, according
to the terms of an explicit covenant, and yet it Avould be
illegal, because it would conflict with a higher proprietor-
ship. The owner of the land, while a freeholder, was yet
a tenant. He, to be sure, did not pay any rent, as his own
retainers never paid rent to him, such a system being un-
known to this stage of social development. He as the head
of his " family " was a tenant of the Owner of the soil.

§ 581. The land had not been held communistically;
hence the proprietor was not responsible to the community,
whether family group, or clan, or tribe, or nation. Nor
was it the property of the king, to whom the holder was to
pay an annual tribute or tax for its use, as in ancient Egypt
and modern India. No ; the land had been seized in the
name of Jehovah, and was thenceforth administered for
him. True, "the earth was Jehovah's and its contents,
the world and the dwellers therein." But " Jehovah's
land " in a special sense was the soil which his people cul-
tivated, whose produce was dedicated to him, where his
altars were reared, and his name continually invoked.
The occupant of any portion of that soil accordingly stood
in the closest of relations to him ; and the alienation of
such property by fraud or violence was not simply wrong
done to the immediate cultivator, but despite against the

1 Comp. W. H. Bennett, " Economic Conditions of the Hebrew Mon-
archy " in The llnnl-n; vol. HI (1893), p. 128.


supreme, ultimate Lord of the land, with whom the soil
itself and his true worshippers were indissolubly united.
Hence the sacrilege and impiety of land-grabbing and kin-
dred practices.

§ 582. From this point of view we can now understand
the motive of the provision for the destitute, the fatherless,
and the stranger, made from the superfluity of the prosper-
ous man's estate (§ 576). The poor and even the guests
in Jehovah's land (§ 552) are the subjects of his care, and
entitled to a share of what the soil brings forth under
Jehovah's nurture. That is to say, if the occupant has
rights against any intruder because he is Jehovah's tenant.,
he has also obligations to the wards of the nation, because
he is, after all, only Jehovah's trustee.

§ 583. How large this twofold obligation looms before
the open-eyed reader of the Old Testament! A curse is
pronounced upon him " who removes his neighbour's land-
mark," or boundary stone (Deut. xxvii. 17). This simply
follows up an explicit command based upon the plea that it
is a landmark " which they of old time have set " (Deut.
xix. 14). Unlike some of the injunctions of the Mosaic
code, which had no discoverable practical application in the
lives and manners of the people, this provision finds an echo
in the most popular elements of the national literature.
Thus, in the book of Proverbs, the prescription of the law
is repeated with the same plea annexed (Prov. xxii. 28).
And the whole case is presented besides in memorable
words : " Remove not the old-time landmark ; and into the
fields of the fatherless do not intrude. For their God is
mighty ; he will plead their cause against thee " (Prov.
xxiii. 10 f.). But it is when the matter comes within the
cognizance of the Prophets that its full significance is
revealed. In the Northern Kingdom the expropriation of
Naboth, accomplished by his judicial murder (1 K. xxi.
1-16), rises, under the moral indignation of Elijah, to the
dignity of a national tragedy, whose catastrophe is the
death of the offenders, inflicted with poetic justice, and


the subversion of their dynasty (2 K. ix. 24 ff.). In the
kingdom of Judah, in spite of its moral advantages (§ 271,
276 f.), the evil became rampant and intolerable. The two
prophets of the close of the period now under review place
it in the forefront of the iniquities which excite the dis-
pleasure of Jehovah and presage the ruin of the state ; which
bring, moreover, desolation upon the inheritances that have
been increased by assiduous plotting, unscrupulous usurpa-
tion, and insatiable greed (Isa. v. 8 ff. ; Mic. ii. 1 ff.).

§ 584. Of the processes by which such rapacity secured
its nefarious ends, we are not particularly informed. We
are, however, justified in including therein many of the
special forms of evil which make up the burden of the end-
less complaints of those who were set for the defence of the
oppressed and for the salvation of Israel. For inasmuch
as personal possessions were an indispensable condition of
the nurture and survival of the family, their alienation was
the cardinal social wrong, the most comprehensive form of
civic calamity. We may therefore imagine that the loan
of money upon " usury " and with " pledges" resulted, in a
multitude of cases, directly or indirectly, in the loss of the
precious patrimony of house and field. Personal security
by a pawn was extremely common from the earliest history
of Israel (Gen. xxxviii. 17 ff.). Its employment in the
most trivial transactions shows better than anything else
the rudimentary character of business dealings and meth-
ods, and at the same time that appreciation of property
which has always distinguislied the Hebrew race. In ordi-
nary transactions its tendency was to gradual impoverish-
ment. A society where the most common form of pledge
was one's upper raiment, which served the borrower for his
night-covering (Ex. xxii. 26 f. ; Deut. xxiv. 10 ff., 17),^ and

1 Notice that in Deut. xxiv. tlie word "pledge" (v. 10) i.s exjDlained by
"garment" (v. lo) which had not previously been mentioned. This is
evidence that the movable property possessed by the majority of debtors
consisted of what was absolutely necessary for life, and nothing besides,
else it would be given in pledge instead of raiment (cf. xxiv, G).


in which at the same time a taste for fine and showy rai-
ment was indigenous,^ must have contained a large percen-
tage of the miserably poor.^ The poetical and prophetical
Avriters of all periods show, from their several points of
view, how the number was increased and how the poor
were made poorer, by the merciless enforcement of the
pawnbroker's claim (Job xxii. 6 ; xxiv. 3 ; cf. Prov. xx.
16 ; xxvii. 13 ; Amos ii. 8 ; Ezek. xviii. 7, 12, 16 ; xxxiii. 15).
Such experiences on the part of the indigent led inevitably
in very many cases to the last stage of distress, — the
alienation of the family domain. This left the hapless vic-
tim homeless and helpless. The only recourse for the pres-
ervation of the life of his household was servitude, with
little or no hope of release at the end of the seventh year,^
in spite of the enactments of the Mosaic law.

§ 585. From these and many other tokens it becomes
clear that for the common man in Israel it was often a
great question not simply how he was to make a living,
but how he was to maintain his personal freedom. The
first serious misfortune of life — so easily occasioned by
sickness, or the failure of crops, or a raid from over the
border, or the knavery or trespass of a dishonest neigh-
bour — was to many a one a sentence to life-long servitude.
Statutes had been made for the relief of the debtor or for
the mitigation of his lot. And yet his condition often
became practically hopeless. While hard for himself, it

1 Comp. Van Lennep, Bible Lands, their modern Customs and Man-
yiers ilhtstrative of Scripture, New York, 1875, p. 507 f. ; Nowack, HA. p.
124 f ., 128 ff.

2 The Prophet's habit of untanned leather was doubtless not merely a
protest against extravagance and display in costume, but also an expres-
sion of sympathy with the poor and their plain attire (cf. 2 K. i. 8 and
Matt. iii. 4 ; vii. 15 and xi. 8 ; Luke vii. 25),

3 The fact that no mention is made of such release of bondmen till
the very close of the Judaic kingdom (Jer. xxxiv.) is presumptive evidence
that the merciful provisions of Ex. xxi. 2, Dent. xv. 12, were more honoured
in the breach than in the observance. Moreover, Jer. xxxiv. 14 expressly
says of the Deuteronomic statute : " Your fathers hearkened not unto me,
neither inclined their ear."


was apt to be still harder for his children. A case is cited
as though it was an every-day occurrence (2 K. iv. 1 ff.).
A God-fearing man of the time of Elisha had died when
in pecuniary difficulties. His widow is confronted by
"the creditor," who seizes her sons to make them his
slaves. Against the tyrant there is no redress. All that
is left to the sympathetic prophet is to procure for her the
means of satisfying his claim. A similar instance appears
to be alluded to as typical in the prophetic style (Mic. ii. 9),
Avith the additional horror that the children are sold out
of Jehovah's land. The custom of selling the persons of
debtors is so common that it is used as the basis of a wide-
reaching metaphor (Isa. 1. 1). And the historical picture
of a much later time (Neh. v. 3 ff.), which shows us a
wholesale seizure of estates by usurious creditors, was
doubtless but an extension under favouring circumstances
of a system which prevailed in the days of the kingdom in
many localities within a wider territory.

§ 586. A question naturally arises. How were such
exactions and oppressions habitual, or at any time possible
or consistent with the humanitarian spirit (cf . § 546 f .) which
was an outgrowth of the higher life of Israel ? It is not
sufficient to say that the ameliorating or prohibitive pro-
visions of the legal codes were merely idealizing schemes
without practical significance. They were devised to
remedy evils already gross and noxious, and onl}^ second-
arily to prevent possible moral degeneration. The " Book
of the Covenant " and the Deuteronomic code, which sub-
stantially agree, as our citations have shown, in their
treatment of the land and labour question, were, to be sure,
apparently never actually canonized into the statute law
either of the tribal or of the monarchical regime. ^ Yet

1 The opinion tliat all the minute regulations of the Pentateuchal codes
could have been put in force as part of the judicial administration of
Israel implies a misunderstanding of Oriental government, and indeed of
ancient society generally. So much was possible as the social and moral
development of the ruling classes of the people was able to adapt and util-


they were known and urged upon both king and people
by the ministers of Jehovah. And their letter and spirit
alike would have prevailed against the sel.^sh and per-
nicious practices of the rich and powerful, were it not for
another great and evil feature of Hebrew life and morals,
whose consideration brings us from the category of private
into that of public wrongs (§ 579).

§ 587. The essential evil was that there was no potent
public conscience, educated by frugality, self-denial, and
the fear of God, alive to the needs of the suffering and

Online LibraryJames Frederick McCurdyHistory, prophecy and the monuments (Volume 2) → online text (page 19 of 39)