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the unfortunate, and alert to provide a remedy. We have
spoken of the responsibility and influence of a king in
Israel (§ 534, 559). But even in an Oriental monarchy
the king was the product of the state. The public that
was behind him, as it is behind all rulers in any type of
society, was that to which he listened, that which man-
aged his revenues, which proffered him counsel, which
carried out his commands, well-reasoned or whimsical, and
which kept him in good humour generally (Hos. vii. 3).
He could only be influenced by those who had his ear;
and they, as a rule, were the courtiers, the nobles, the
judges, and the central priesthood. If we wish to learn
the why and wherefore of the fate of moral movements in
ancient Israel, it is to these we must look for the explana-
tion (cf. § 533, 559).

§ 588. The prosperity and comfort of the masses in
Israel were not merely checked by the natural disad-
vantages under which they laboured in the struggle
for existence. The special disabilities above described
would in any case have been removed if there had been
a righteous, independent court of justice to which the
sufferers could appeal. The absence of such tribunals
was the chief organic vice or defect in the constitution of
Israel, as it was certainly the foulest blot upon its historic
reputation. To whom would one in difficulties appeal in

ize, and nothing more. Utopia is not to be found either in the beginning,
or middle, or end of the history of Israel.


liis trouble ? In the olden times, to the head of his clan,
or to the elder of his " city," or, above all, to his priest.^
The last-named had this great advantage over the other
dispensers of justice, that he was naturally resorted to in
any case for the consecration of flesh and wine and the
fruits of the earth, as well as for the offering of stated
sacrifices, and for the still higher function of speaking
in the name of Jehovah. Granting that the priests were
usually invoked merely in questions of propriety or right,
not involving pains and penalties (§ 488), it will appear
what an enormous influence they must have wielded in
the domestic and social economy of the people. Modern
parallels of sacerdotalism suggest themselves. But these
can give only a faint idea of the power of the priesthood
in a community where little or no distinction was made
between the sacred and the secular in any of the affairs of
life (cf. § 61 f., 397).

§ 589. What such functionaries were likely to do in
the administration of justice after the establishment of the
central shrines in the times preceding the monarchy, we
may infer from the example of the sons of Eli, notorious
for greed and dishonesty, as well as licentiousness (1 Sam.
ii. 12 ff.). We may well believe that with the establish-
ment of higher civil powers under the monarchy the
relative judicial influence and activity of the priests
would be seriously abated. Yet it necessarily remained
a perpetual function of the priest to give decisions from
Jehovah. How tins was done at the close of our period
we learn from Micah (iii. 11), who declares that in his day
they did so " for money," while Isaiah denounces them for
giving unreliable or " vacillating " decisions (xxviii. 7).
So much for the kingdom of Judah. For the priests of
the Northern Kingdom, not long before its fall, we have
the arraignment of Hosea (iv. 4 ff.). From the ministers
of the local shrines of Northern Israel no high standard of

1 Cf. Kuenen, National Religions and Universal Beligions (Hibbert
Lectures), New York, 1882, p. 89 ff.


morals was to be expected. But it is mainly the priests
of the central sanctuary at Jerusalem that Isaiah and
Micah have in view. That these functionaries kept up
the worst traditions of their profession in still later times
we learn from Zephaniah (iii. 4) and Jeremiah (vi. 13 ;
viii. 10). Last of all, Malachi, in a withering indictment,
accuses them of " respect of persons " in giving their
decisions ^ (ii. 8 f.).

§ 590. Or the man with a grievance might resort to
the local judges, either directly or on appeal from his
natural family head, or the elders of his city. He would,
indeed, be apt to do so in a matter of urgency (cf. Luke
xviii. 2 ff.). For, while the judicial function of the priest
ended with the giving of the decision, the judge possessed
in addition the executive power. Lideed, this must have
been the cardinal distinction between the two classes.
The priests (and prophets), by the very nature of their
office, were revealers of the will or counsel of " the
highest God" (Gen. xiv. 18), while the "judge" was
primarily rather a " regulator " (cf . § 51) than an arbitra-
tor. Hence the execution of his own sentence is com-
mitted to the judge (Deut. xxv. 1 ff.). In general, among
" judges " no distinction was drawn between the judicial
and the executive function. Nor can we speak of various
classes of courts, such as higher or lower, of appellate or
of concurrent jurisdiction. One might apply to any rec-
ognized authority near at hand (cf. § 486, note). So,
also, an aggrieved person might pass over the lower local
official and apply for redress directly to the king himself

1 I scarcely need to include the order of Prophets among the officials
charged with judicial functions. For, though they frequently gave de-
cisions upon important matters, they did not act so much for individuals
as for communities. Nor did they decide matters of practical controversy
so much as announce proper plans of action in emergency or principles of
the divine government. Notice that in the instance cited above (§ 585)
Elisha does not venture to act as judge, nor even to intercede for the vic-
tim of oppression. The prophets were often, however, venal and partial,
like the priests, in their proper sphere.


(1 K. iii. 16 ff.), or to the officers of his court as his repre-

§ 591. We must accordingly beware of supposing that
there were fixed grades of judicial officers with w^ell-defined
duties for the several ranks. Such a thing is foreign to
the Semitic genius, which does not organize or classify in
any department of civic life, except where a powerful cor-
poration has been self-developed, or where the very exist-
ence of the state demands a well-arranged division of
functions. There were three spheres of public activity in
which some sort of gradation was made for these reasons.
These were the priesthood, the military, and the officers
of the revenue. From the last two classes the king drew
the greater number of his chosen counsellors. In judicial
affairs, just as reliance for practical guidance was placed
mainly upon consuetudinary law, so seniority of rank was
a matter of hereditary position, of wealth, or of favour with
the court. Hence looseness in procedure and an absence
of the sense of responsibility were inherent in the order
of judges in Israel.

§ 592. Such conditions as these gave free play to the
deadly vices that were fostered in the bosom of society.
If the supreme rulers of Israel had appreciated as well as
did the Prophets the vital importance to the state of a
sound judicial system, doubtless some sort of reform of
methods as well as of principles might have been attempted.
But here, again, we see the working out of underlying
national and racial tendencies. Slowly and imperceptibly,
but with terrible certainty, men reap what they sow in
the indivisible spheres of government and social morality.
In an earlier chapter it was pointed out (§ 456 ff .) that the
beginnings of judicial administration were of an element-
ary character, and that they were not matters of divine
revelation, which concerned itself with principles of con-
duct and not with the creation of civil institutions. The
careless or patient acquiescence in the mere survival
of outworn customs, and the indolent adaptation of


ancient usages to new and complex conditions, made the
judicial system of Israel what it was in the days of
the kingdom. These did not constitute "a crime for
the judges" (Job xxxi. 11). But they prepared the way
for the most flagrant abuses and for the inward decay of the
nation. We see, indeed, that great changes went on in
certain directions, notably in the personnel of the ministers
of justice. With the ever-increasing centralization that
marked the history of the kingdom, the officers of the
court, or the " princes " appointed by the king, gained in
authority and in range of jurisdiction, while the local
magistrates, holding an hereditary or an elective office,
proportionately declined. But the change only brought
deterioration instead of progress, as it increased the oppor-
tunities of the abuse of power and of self-aggrandizement
on the part of the central authorities. With these con-
siderations in mind we find it easy enough to fall in with
the counsel : " Where thou seest the oppression of the
poor man, and the violent taking away of justice and
righteousness in the state, do not marvel thereat" (Eccl.
V. 8). And we may trace the evil not merely to its direct
occasion, the false passions of men, but also to the pre-
scriptive system, which encouraged all sorts of disorders in
the unfortunate body politic.

§ 593. But to return to the actual facts of the situation
in the most critical times of Israel's history. No region
of Hebrew life is so thorouglily illustrated for us by com-
petent observers as the sphere of the administration of
justice. And upon none has such unqualified condemna-
tion fallen. Those who cared most for justice, and most
for the essential welfare of the state — the historians,
prophets, moralists, hymn-writers, who have left their im-
pressions, and who were most likely to know the truth and
to set it in its true relations — unite in stern rebuke and
bitter invective, so unreserved and so persistent that it
forms of itself the most extensive moral rubric in the
literature of Israel. There is no space to present the


matter adequately. The following analysis may serve as
a general characterization.

§ 594. The most frequent and virulent source of the
abuse of justice was the venality of its ministers, whether
local judges or the " princes " of the court. To a casual
observer of Oriental life the prevailing ofBcial corruption
is something appalling. To the close inquirer it seems
indigenous and inevitable. To the true servants of
Jehovah it was appalling, but neither inherent nor neces-
sary. It was rather an exotic growth, or a twist aside
from the true bent of Israel's development. When we
consider the social and governmental encouragements to
laxity and neglect (§ 592), and, still further, the seductive
moral atmosphere in which the leaders of the people
moved, we shall marvel at the moral courage of the
Prophets in opposing the dominant evil. We must also
admire their insight in discerning its essential relations to
society, and their ideality in conceiving the possibility of
its being discarded anywhere in the Semitic world. One
illustration may suffice. The common word for a " bribe "
(nnt") is, properly speaking, a "present," and is used of
the propitiatory gifts sent to a superior in order to secure
his protection (1 K. xv. 19 ; 2 K. xvi. 8), or by one who
seeks to evade deserved punishment (Prov. vi. 35 ; cf.
xxi. 14). A similar comljination of meanings is shown by
a less common term (nrnis; cf. Gen. xxv. 6 with Prov.
XV. 27; Eccl. vii. 7). That is to say, a present is for the
most part a sort of bribe. The one meaning leads up to
the other by a sort of social necessity. Presents are the
ordinary preliminaries of visits and negotiations. Their
motive and effect naturally comes to be the influencing of
the beneficiary (Prov. xvii. 8 ; xviii. 16). Citations of
instances from Oriental or Biblical history would simply
overcrowd my pages. Wherever and whenever we get a
glimpse of the inner movements of Semitic society we find
the custom and the motive. We shall only cite further
Jacob's gift to Esau (Gen. xxxii. 13 ; xxxiii. 10 ; cf. xliii.


11; 1 Sam. x. 27; Ps. xlv. 12) and the present of Mero-
dach-baladan to Hezekiah (Isa. xxxix. 1; § 637, 679). In
general Semitic history we may go back some hundreds of
years, and in the casually disclosed correspondence of the
El Amarna tablets the business is seen to be quite over-
done (§ 149 f.). The annals of the Assyrian kings fairly
swarm with instances. It is, therefore, the most natural
thing in the world to send a present to a judge before a
case comes up for hearing ; though publicity was, of
course, not desirable in the transaction (Prov. xxi. 14),
and was usually avoided, as a suggestive proverb informs
us (Prov. xvii. 23). Only public opinion frowning down
upon open and shameful corruption, or the spectacle of
judges repudiating any sort of approach from the side of a
litigant, would seem likely to discredit the custom.

§ 595. The evil, indeed, was dealt with by the lawgiver
of the ancient code, and that in the most reasonable and
persuasive fashion : " Thou slialt take no bribe ; for a
bribe blindeth those that have sight, and perverteth the
cause of the righteous " (Ex. xxiii. 8 ; cf. Dent. xvi. 19).
Yet the abuse was prevalent in the time of the Judges.
In spite of the noble record and example of Samuel, his
sons, judges by his own appointment, became notoriously
venal (1 Sam. viii. 1 ff.). Samuel's protest and challenge ^
on his own behalf (1 Sam. xii. 3 ff.), were of themselves
an indication that his virtues were rare. We may learn
something of the processes of civil justice under the
kingdom by consulting the Prophets. For the Northern
Kingdom Amos asserts (v. 12) that bribery was a preva-
lent evil of his time. For Judah and Jerusalem Isaiah
cries aloud (i. 23 ; v. 23 ; x. 1), and his contempo-
rary Micah sets forth the paradox that judge, priest,
and prophet alike are greedy and corrupt and yet pro-

1 Samuel's custom of taking a small fee or " present " for giving coun-
sel from Jehovah, doubtless followed by other "seers" of the period
(1 Sam. ix. 7 ff.), was of a different nature; but it was a practice very
easily abused.


claim their trust in Jehovah (iii. 5, 11). He lets us
also into the inner methods of those betrayers of the
people (vii. 3).^ Ezekiel's arraignment (xxii. 12 f.) is a
review of the history of the kingdom. The long-continued
prevalence of the abuse is perhaps best shown by the large
place given to it in the proverbial literature of the nation
(Prov. XV. 27; xvii. 8, 23; xviii. 16; xxi. 14; xxv. 14).
The final deliverance on the subject refers to the corrup-
tion practised by the king himself. This alone, it is de-
clared, is sufficient to undermine and ruin the state (Prov.
xxix. 4). We are brought into a somewhat different region
when we turn to the lyrical poetry of the Hebrews. Here
it is not the preacher of righteousness thundering out the
judgment, nor the philosophical observer pointing the
moral. It is rather the sympathetic partisan of the out-
raged and oppressed, who voices their wrongs and their
sufferings, and brings them into relation with the practical
claims of religion upon both the transgressors and their
victims (Ps. xv. 5; xxi v. 4; xxvi. 10; cf. Isa. xxxiii. 15;
§ 599 f.).

§ 596. Sufficient has perhaps been said to set forth the
chief specific sources of the moral and social undoing of
the people of Israel. We find, however, that kindred or
at least concomitant evils, encouraged by the immunity
afforded to wrong-doing, infested and poisoned the national
life. The grosser vices which struck more directly at the in-
dividual character, and indirectly at the welfare of the state,
have already been characterized (§ 296, 320 ff.). Licen-
tiousness and conjugal infidelity, promoted by, and in their
turn promoting, idolatrous practices, were foremost among

1 Translate vii. 3, according to a restored text :

"To make ready their hands for evil,
The noble asks counsel, and the judge answers for hire
And declares to him what his soul lusts for."

This passage and the context were probably written, not by an unknown
prophet, as many recent critics suppose, but by Micah himself iu his later
years under Manasseh.


these sins. To them must be added intemperate indulgence
in strong drink, especially in Northern Israel (Isa. xxviii.
1, 3 ; Amos vi. 6), and that not only among men, but
among the ladies of Samaria (Amos iv. 1). It was also
rife in high places in Judah (Isa. v. 11 ; xxviii. 7 f.). It
is the leaders of the people who play the crowned Bacchus
in the drunken revels of Samaria ; and Isaiah ascribes
to habitual intoxication the incompetency of priests and
prophets in Jerusalem. Dishonesty in business transac-
tions comes perhaps next to the vice of bribery in loosing
social bonds. It is evidenced by the extraordinary earnest-
ness with which suretyship is depreciated in the proverbial
literature (Prov. vi. 1 ff. ; xi. 15 ; xx. 16 ; xxii. 26 f.) ; by
the frequent use of false weights and balances (Hosea xii.
7 ; Amos viii. 5 ; Mic. vi. 10 f . ; cf. Deut. xxv. 13-15 ;
Prov. xi. 1 ; xvi. 11 ; xx. 10, 23), and by various sorts of
special knavery, ranging from the theft of small sacrificial
offerings (Amos ii. 8) to making a " corner " in wheat
(Prov. xi. 26; cf. Amos v. 11; viii. 6). Finally, we must
not lose out of sight the degeneration and corruption of
Hebrew womanhood (cf. § 271). No single general cause
could contribute more to the internal decay and dissolution
of society than the frivolity, extravagance, and luxurious
self-indulgence of the mothers and wives of the citizens.
It is therefore with unerring moral as well as sociolog'ical
instinct that the reforming prophet Isaiah rej)eatedly con-
nects disaster to the state with their evil character and
doings (Isa. iii. 16 ff. ; xxxii. 9 &. ; cf. § 721).

§ 597. We have, I trust, been able to get some light
upon the nature of the " social question " in Israel, and
also to learn why it was so long a " burning question."
The best proof that social unrest and disorder, from the
wrong-doing of those in power, were characteristic of
Israel's history, is to be found in a fact already alluded
to (§ 593). The cause of the unfortunate was not es-
poused by legislators and reformers alone. These might
be suspected of professional prejudice, if not of personal


interest in agitation. The champions and advocates of
the distressed were, above all, those whom we may call the
popular writers of the nation, those who made its songs, its
proverbs, and its moral essays. We have presented to us
here a jjhenomenon of the very highest moment. There
is no practical question which occupies these great thinkers
and patriots as much as this. It is literally harped upon
in season and out of season. Among a people like the
Hebrews, we expect that such a problem would assume a
religious aspect. But we are surprised to find that it is
constantly brought into relation with the widest issues of
the spiritual life, the most fundamental duties, the most
solemn sanctions of religion. Regard for the poor and the
oppressed is, in fact, itself an essential part of religion.
The inference is obvious. If, as will presently appear, the
practical religious life of Israel was mainly conversant with
these social matters, it must have been chiefly from this
habit of mind and bent of soul that the moral and spiritual
sentiment of Israel was fostered and developed. The con-
cluding portion of this inquiry will be devoted to an attempt
to exhibit the phenomenon in its literary and historical
setting, and to justify the inferences which it suggests.

§ 598. Following the principle laid down at the begin-
ning of this series of studies (§ 391), we shall, in order to
get if possible at the innermost circle of the social life of
Israel, take a fresh look at its sociological literature. It
will be very helpful to take a cursory glance at the book
of Psalms from the point of view of a member of the ancient
society itself. (1) As it would strike a contemporary, the
book seems to be largely made up of a sort of partisan
literature. A majority of the Psalms at least would be
quotable against a powerful party, or set, or class in the
state, that is bitterly opposed by the authors of the poems.

(2) This obnoxious party has continually the upper hand.

(3) Its adherents are designated by various epithets whicih
seem to be interconvertible terms. The}^ are "wicked'*
(e.g. Ps. i.; v.; vii.; ix.-xii. ; xiv. ; xxxvii. ; Ixii.-lxiv.),


"malignant" {e.g. vii. ; lii.; liv. ; Ivii. ; Ixxi. ; xciv.; cix.;
cxxiii.-cxxv. ; cxxxix.), ambitious of honours and of influ-
ence in wrong-doing (Ixxv.; xciv.), cynical and frivolous
(xiv. ; XXXV. 16). (4) These moral characteristics are
interchangeable with others which at the first glance seem
merely social and material. The same people who are
called "wicked" are directly or indirectly described as
"rich" (xvii.; xxxvii. ; xlix.; lii.; Iv. 19; Ixxiii.), and, as
such, deserving of equal reprobation. Greed and covetous-
ness (x. 3; xlix. 6 ff., 16) seem to be inseparable in the
Psalms from the possession of riches. (5) The most per-
nicious and far-reaching social abuse — the work of evil
judges (§ 590 ff.) — is duly stigmatized, and the offenders
23ut in an everlasting pillory (Ps. Iviii.). Just because
their function makes them to be as "gods" (Ixxxii. 1, 6), the
moral "foundations of the earth are moved out of course"
through their unjust and partial decisions. Yea, the time
is coming when the outraged people shall rise against them
and hurl them down the sides of the rock (cxli. 6). It is
"crime enthroned which produces mischief according to
statute" (xciv. 20).

§ 599. The poetical books generally, and especially the
Psalms, manifest an attitude towards this social question,
and a spirit and temper different from those of the other
interested books. All the Old Testament writings, it is
true, reveal intense sympathy with the poor and the
unfortunate. But the Psalms above all give a moral qual-
ity to their condition. They are here made a special com-
munity or class, enjoying not merely the protection of
Jehovah, for that was the distinctive doctrine of the
Hebrew legislation (§ 576, 582 f .), but his peculiar favour
as well. If, on the other hand, we desire a minute descrip-
tion of the lot of the poor, we must turn to the book of Job.
No catalogue of social wrongs can be more graphic or more
touching than that furnished in Job xxii. 5 ff., xxiv. 2 ff.
It is there contended just as earnestly as in the Prophets
that their sufferings are due in large measure to the mag-


nates who oppress and rob the helpless, and defy God him-
self in the confidence born of prosperity.^ This is the most
piteous cry that is heard in all ancient literature over the
unrelieved sufferings of the poor and their unavenged

§ 600. Naturally, however, it is rather a judicial tone
that is adopted in the book of Job, the vindication of
whose hero demands that lie should impartially look from
all sides upon the problems of life. In Chapter xxxi. Job
not merely offers a minute justification of his own career,
but at the same time registers the temptations to which an
elder and judge is subject. He even goes so far as to say
that while the wickedness of the world is due to evil
judges, their partiality is tolerated by God's providence
(ix. 24). The book of Proverbs, also, on the whole, views
the matter from the outside, an attitude that befits the
philosophy of life in general. The Prophets, who are
the public and professional partisans of the poor and the
oppressed, occupy themselves perforce in "speaking for"
others, protesting against their wrongs, and showing the
guilt of the leaders of society. But in the Psalms, the
sufferers speak directly for themselves and always as a
part of the afflicted community. The book, as a whole,
is the record of practical life, the breathing out of feeling
and sentiment evoked by the pressure and strain, the
wear and tear, of its mixed and unequal conditions. It
is here especially that the poor and the unfortunate find

Online LibraryJames Frederick McCurdyHistory, prophecy and the monuments (Volume 2) → online text (page 20 of 39)