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Bishop Colenso's examination of the Pentateuch examined ; with an appendix online

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Testament has, without doubt, some difficulties in it ; but a
minute philosopher who busies himself in searching them out,
whilst he neglects to contemplate the harmony of all its parts, the
wisdom and goodness of God displayed throughout the whole,


knowledge and of common sense, it may be added that,
as I before remarked, this rule is habitually adopted
in the interpretation of all other ancient writings;
nor — unless, indeed, we insist, as Dr. Colenso appears
to do, on the miraculous transmission, as well as
authorship of the inspired volume — can any reason be
given why The Scriptures should be exempted from the
application of it.

They are not, in fact, exempted. This very rule of
interpreting the sacred text is constantly used by the
most rigorous expositors ; and many passages, identical
in character with those which suggest Dr. Colenso's
difficulty in the case before us, are satisfactorily ex-
plained by means of it. Take, as an instance, 1 Sam.
xiii. 5, w^here v/e read of ^Hhirty thousand chariots'^ in
the army with which the Philistines "came up-*^ to
fight against Israel at Michmash. Of course it is at
once seen that we have here an impossible number,

appears to me to be like a purblind man, who. in surveying
a picture, objects to the simplicity of the design, and the beauty
of the execution, from the asperities he has discovered in the
canvass and the colouring. The history of the Old Testament,
notwithstanding the real difficulties which occur in it, not-
withstanding the scoffs and cavils of unbelievers, appears to me
to have such internal evidences of its truth, to be so corrobo-
rated by the most ancient profane histories, so confirmed by
the present circumstances of the world, that if I were not a
Christian, I would become a Jew. You think this history a
collection of contradictions .... I look upon it to be the oldest,
the truest, the most comprehensive, and the most important
history in the world."— lb. pp. 136, 137.


and that the error is one of the character described in
the above extract. '^ Critically examining^' the passage
accordingly, we find that one manuscript omits D^t^btlE?
(30) in the number of the chariots, and that the
Syriac and Arabic versions give them as 3000. On
further examination, it is suggested that b of bsnb')
having been twice written by mistake, was then inter-
preted 30, and that the present reading originated in
this way; or that the true number may be wb (31),
where S was afterwards taken for ^^^ (1000) .^^ Mean-
while, the substantial fact of the history, viz., that the
Israelites were suffering, at this time, from a formidable
invasion by their warlike neighbours, is wholly un-
affected by these conjectures. Nor will any one, unless
he is under the influence of some foolish superstition
with respect to the transmission of the sacred text, be
in any wise disturbed in his reading of the history by
conjectures of this kind.

But, it may be rejoined, all this proceeds on the
unproved assumption that, in the original manuscripts,
the numbers were not written out in full, but that, for
the expression of them, letters with numerical values
were employed. It is almost certain that such was
indeed the case. But, let us suppose the contrary,
and that the number, in Exodus xii. 37, on which Dr.
Colenso lays such stress, was given at full length. It
would then be written thus, the points being of course

2" Comp. Davidson's Revision of the Hebrew Text of the Old
Testament, in loc.


omitted; n^W m«^-t27ty {i.e. 600,000). But how
closely do these words resemble H^SI m^!2"trty [i,e.
1600) : they only differ by the insertion of 1 in the
latter expression; and how easily might — I do not say
this, but — such a difference escape the most accurate
transcriber ! This instance, in connexion with the
remarks already made, will show you how much force
there is in the observation of our examiner (p. 141)
that "we cannot here have recourse to the ordinary
supposition that there may be something wrong in the
Hebrew numerals/'

But this is not the only possible solution of Dr.
Colenso's obvious difficulty in this instance, which,
once more I beg you to observe, lies on the surface of
tlie history, as most thoughtful readers of Scripture
have long ago seen, and candidly, and unanxiously , ac-
knowledged. Let me here ask you to recall the remark
which I just now made, respecting the groundlessness
of the statement that the number in question is so
involved with the structure of the narrative, that it
cannot, except by processes involving demolition, be
removed from it. This, I repeat, is simply untrue, as
any one may satisfy himself in the course of five minutes'
examination. Bearing this in mind, then, I will ask
you to think of a suggestion, which I make with diffi-
dence, and am willing to withdraw on good cause
being shown, though I think that, at all events, it is
deserving of attention. Might not those passages,
which relate to the numbers — not, observe, to the "num-


berings ^^ — of the people, and wliicli, as you see, can be
withdrawn from the history without affecting one of its
details — have been accurately, and in good faith, in-
serted, when a census of the people was taken after
their establishment in Palestine, at about the time of
the beginning of the monarchy. We know that the
autograph of the Pentateuch, in which Moses wrote
down the history of the people, and their laws,
and which was found in his tent by his mourning
survivors after their long and hopeless search for
him — was not edited and published (may I say?), until
after that settlement of the population, which, accord-
ing to the best estimates we can make of it, must then
have numbered about two and a half millions. Many
additions were unquestionably made to the copy which
Moses wrote ; and may not this, which I am now indi-
cating, have been one of them ? Let me ask that you
will again look, in this view of them, to the passages in
question ; and I think you will agree with me, that
another possible solution of what had been acknow-
ledged as a difficulty, long before that eventful day of
last year when Dr. Colenso began his studies in the
Pentateuch — is hereby suggested; and it is one, observe,
which leaves all the numbers as they stand, though
indeed, under an aspect different from that in which
we have commonly regarded them.

Unto all this I need only add that, when we re-
ceive the books of Closes in their true character, and
take account of only some of the evidences which authen-


ticate tlienij the existence of only one explanation of
Dr. Colenso's difficulty is sufficient for our purpose.
Even if it be received as only possible, and not satis-
factory, it neutralises the use which our examiner has
made of the incongruity between the spaces, &c. of the
wilderness, and the numbers of the people — to destroy
the positive evidence in our possession; and the
seventy or eighty pages of his volume founded on this
one difficulty are bereft of all their plausibility. In
other words, we then see that there is not one
sentence in them which can touch our sure conviction
that the original text, as it came from the lawgiver's
hand, was faultlessly accurate, and that it has been
as nearly as possible accurately transmitted. We know
that of every real difficulty now seen in it an expla-
nation can be found, though we may not be able to
discover it. Nor in the case before us, does any un-
certainty as to where the real explanation lies,
inflict on us the slightest loss. Suppose that, instead
of two millions and a half, we must substitute an un-
known (it must be a large) quantity, as the total
number of the emigrants, what disadvantage do we
thereby suffer ? We read the entire narrative just as
we did formerly, and no shock will be inflicted on
the convictions of any readers, except indeed of those
whose convictions may very advantageously be shaken,
since they may be so delivered from their super-
stitions with regard to the mere words of Holy
Scripture, and may be led from the bare form to the


substance and the spirit of that which has been written
in it for their learning.

Now, however, we must pass on to some further
" difficulties with regard to the circumstances of the
wanderings/^ though they wall require but slight
notice, since the speciousness of some of them is almost
entirely removed by the above considerations concerning
the numbers; and others have been sufficiently dealt
with in the several reviews w^hich have already given
you some idea of the value of this ^^ critical exami-

The first of the group to which then I would here ask
for your attention, you will find in chap, xviii. entitled,
^^ The Danites and Levites at the time of the Exodus."
Dr. Colenso cannot understand ho^v, since Dan had
only one son born to him (Gen. xlvi. 23 ; and Num.
xxvi. 42), and the entire number of Levi's descendants
in the third generation amounted only to sixteen, these
tribes could have numbered anything like the multitudes
mentioned in the census. You, of course, anticipate
me when I say that his difficulty in this instance
arises entirely from his misconception of the numbers
in the original migration. Take into account the
retainers who " went dow^n to Egypt " with these two
sons of Jacob, and who, having all been circumcised,
(Gen. xvii. 10-14; and xxxiv. 15, 16) were therefore
numbered as members of their families ; and, instead
of a difficulty, we find an " undesigned coincidence "
between two widely separated portions of the history.


And I think it is probable the same thing may be said
respecting the alleged " inconsistency between the
number of the Levites at the second census, when
compared with that at the first " (p. 109). Is it not,
in the highest degree, probable that this tribe was the
one which chiefly suffered in the large mortality which
is expressly (Num. xvi.) connected with the sons of
Korah ? This suggests an explanation which appears
to be quite sufficient to neutralise Dr. Colenso's argu-
ment from the inconsistency, without taking into
additional account the general suggestion as given
above with respect to the numbers, or reminding our
examiner that his " inconsistency " might be capable
of an explanation from some other circumstances on
which the history is silent, and which might satisfy
even his notions of agreement.

With regard to his difficulties in chaps, iv. and v.,
concerning the ^'assembling of the congregation at the
door of the tabernacle," and the statement that ''Moses
and Joshua addressed all Israel," his numerous re-
viewers must have surely satisfied Dr. Colenso that, in
this case at least, his error is as ridiculous, as it is pal-
pable. We have only to interpret the statements in
Lev. viii. 1-14, and Deut. v. 1, on the principle fami-
liar to every one who knows the meaning of a
" representative constitution," and not even Dr.
Colenso need be conscious of any difficulty in them.
Innumerable instances of the same language are fami-


liar to every Englishman, as in the following passage,
which one of his critics has quoted from the learned
Selden's Table Talk : " The voices and consent of the
whole clergy were involved in the bishops ; and at this
day {i.e. cir. 1650), the bishops^ writs serve to bring all
these to parliament ; but the bishops themselves stand
for an/^ So, with regard to the Witenagemote it was
considered that, ^^ though the whole peojjle were held to
be present, and their names entered on the record, they
were virtually represented by the Eolderman or Eor, the
Shire-greeve, and some of the chief men, though there
is no appearance of election/^ We have here an abun-
dantly sufficient answer to the futile cavils of these two
chapters. But it may be worth adding, that I dis-
tinctly remember many open spaces in the peninsula
which are singularly adapted, even for such gather-
ings of the whole congregation as those which our
examiner insists we are reading of in the passages
he has brought forward. On the plain of Sebayeh,
for example, where the people were so long encamped
'' before the mount,^^ many scores of thousands might
have been assembled in the presence of a speaker, who
was distinctly visible to all of them, and audible also
by an immense proportion of their number."^ The
naturalness of these very statements, which appear so
incomprehensible to Dr. Colenso, was strongly felt both

2' For a description of this plain, see Scripture Lands, &c.,
Appendix, Note B.


by my companions and myself, on the very ground
which was in the view of the author when they were

Here, too, I am reminded of the strangeness of the
difficulty in connexion with the " daily necessities of
the people/^ which Dr. Colenso hints at in p. 39.
Any of his friends who have travelled through the
desert could have so enlightened him on this point
that he would have felt bound to cancel, at least, half
of what he has there written. And let me here give
you an extract from the " Punjaub Sanitary Report
for 1 86.2," which has been well brought forward in this
connexion. "In our jails all the refuse is buried in
the garden, and, being rapidly decomposed ... no
inconvenience is ever experienced I myself be-
lieve (adds the writer of the Report), that the customs
©f the Asiatics, in this respect, are much more consistent
with true sanitary science than the use of public
latrines which we are trying to introduce. . . . Cer-
tain it is that the practice of the natives of this country
is in strict accordance ivith the Divine ordinance which
was given to the first great camp the world ever saw,
and the general rules, for the preservation of health and
the prevention of epidemic disease and contagion, are as
applicable to the natives of India in these days, as they
were, centuries ago, to the children of Israel.''

Here, once more, the weapon of our assailant is
turned against himself. And the same conversion may
be effected, still more remarkably, in respect of his diffi-


culty (p. 40) as to the priests' conveyance of the ofFal
of the victim to some ^' clean place" beyond the limits
of the encampment. Surely^ we might ask for the
application of some Hebrew, as well as arithmetical lore,
on the part of one who is " critically examining '' this
Jewish document. If, in the present instance, our rea-
sonable demand had been conceded, Dr. Colenso would
not have brought this difficulty forward. He would
then have seen that, in the original, the causative, or
hiphil, conjugation of the verb is used. " He shall cause
the skin of the bullock, &c., even the whole bullock,
to go forth, '^ is an exact version of the original. So in
regard to the passage (Lev. vi. 11) — which, since the
publication of his volume. Dr. Colenso has adduced in
vindication of this example of his errors — we again,
as we must now more emphatically, ask, why did he
not look to it as it stands in his Hebrew Bible ? Then
he would have seen that, in this place too, it is ex-
pressly said, " He (the priest) shall cause the ashes to
go forth without the camp into a clean place.'' In fact,
we may say that, in both cases, the idea of the priest
himself doing the work spoken of, is expressly negatived.
Nor, if we remember that qui facit per alium facit per se
— need the contrary impression be received even by a
reader of our English version. Though, no doubt, if our
translators could have foreseen such a phenomenon as
the publication of this volume, they would have sub-
stituted ^^ he shall cause to go forth '' for " he shall
carry forth," in an e?;acter translation of the passage.


It is in perfect keeping with these specimens of Dr.
Colenso^s " criticism/^ that in regard generally to his
remarks on the observance of the Mosaic institutions
in the wilderness,, he has overlooked the fact that it is
nowhere stated that they were observed during the years
of the 'peoiple^s ^^ wanderings" In the very words
enacting them, they are, in many instances, obviously
prospective, as in the case of the injunctions implying
residence in houses and in w^alled towns. This fact at
once extingaishes another ten pages of his volume, and
so exempts us from the necessity of any further ex-
amination of this part of it. You will find that not
one statement in it, of even the slightest consequence,
in relation to the progress of the people through the
wilderness, and their occupations there, has been un-
noticed. And I think you will agree with me that, thus
far at least, we have seen no reason for abandoning our
conviction that the '^ story" of the Exodus is based
on '^some real historical foundation," and is "to be
regarded as historically true."

III. We come now to the third of the divisions
under which we have classified Dr. Colenso^s " diffi-
culties," and will here consider those which relate to
the enactments of the Mosaic polity, and to the circum-
stances of the conquest.

Under this head we first place his remarks on
the laws respecting slaves. They are introduced by
allusions to the " trivial nature of a vast number of


conversations and commands ascribed directly to Jeho-
vahj especially the multiplied ceremonial minutiae laid
down in the Levitical law.-" Of course the conclusion
meant to be suggested by this incidental reference is,
that the triviality of the " ceremonial minutiae/' &c.,
shows that they are ascribed falsely to Jehovah, and
that the claim in their behalf of Divine inspiration
cannot be conceded. Now, without here adverting to
other considerations — such, e. g. as those which might
occur to any reader of the Epistle to the Hebrews —
an oversight of which is implied in this statement,
this is plain, viz., that Dr. Colenso is here unmindful
of the constantly-increasing reasons for the belief that
"triviaP' is the most inaccurate designation that
could possibly have been applied to those enactments to
which he is referring. Here, since I can only briefly
notice a subject on which you know I have elsewhere
dwelt at length,22 let me just call your attention to the
title of a small work not long since published : " The
Observance of the Sanitary Laivs, divinely appointed^ in
the Old Testament Scriptures, sufficient to ward off
Preventable Disease from Christians as well as Israel-
ites/^ by C. Rich son; With notes by John Sutherland,
M.D. of the General Board of Health. You remem-
ber, too, that Milton says, of the social and political
enactments, ''ascribed directly to Jehovah,^' which of

^^ Scripture Studies, pp. 103-117; 173-193. Appendix,
Note M.


course must be numbered among tlie '^ trivial com-
mands'^ whereof Dr. Colenso speaks,, that —

" In them is plainest taught, and easiest learnt,
What makes a nation happy, and keeps it so."

Such authorities may well cause Dr. Colenso to re-
consider his use of the word ^^ trivial '^ in relation to
those statutory portions of the Pentateuch which he
appears to have had in view when he employed it.
Even his eighteen months' study of the book might
have informed him that men who have most learnedly
and philosophically examined it, give reasons for be-
lieving that every portion, even where it seems most
useless, has important bearings yet to be developed^
on. the welfare of nations as well as of individuals.

In view of such convictions, on the part of such
inquirers. Dr. Colenso's hasty deliverance on the sub-
ject might well have been withheld. Or, at all events,
some better instances, in disproof of such convic-
tions, should have been adduced by him. I venture
to think that "most pious minds, when they read
these words professedly coming from the Holy and
Blessed One (p. 9), ^ If the master (of a Hebrew ser-
vant) have given him a wife, and she have borne him
sons and daughters, the wife and her children shall be
her master's, and he shall go out free by himself,' "
would have attended, as most plainly Dr. Colenso has
not done, to the words immediately following, which,
strange to say, are these — " But if the servant shall



plainly say, I love my master, my wife, and my child-
ren, I will not go out free, then" — will the readers of
Dr. Colenso's volume who have not turned to the
passage believe — that then arrangements are described
by which the man and his wife and children are to be
kept unseparated !

If Dr. Colenso had only so far controlled the shock
given to his feelings by the fourth verse that he could
have gone on to read the fifth and siocth, and especially
if, having Dr. Kalisch^s commentary at hand, he had
read that learned writer's remarks upon the passage,
it is hard to see what other thoughts, except those
of reverent admiration for the wisdom and humanity
of the Mosaic legislation concerning slaves, could have
occurred to him. Then, too, he would probably have
" examined,^' with somewhat closer attention, the next
passage he has brought forward on the subject, this,
viz., " If a man smite his servant or his maid with a
rod, and he die under his hand, he shall surely be
punished. Notwithstanding, if he continue a day or
two, he shall not be punished ; for he is his money."
" I shall never forget (he says, p. 9), the revulsion of
feeling with which a very intelligent Christian native,
VAdth whose help I was translating these words into the
Zulu tongue, first heard them as words said to be
uttered by the same great and gracious Being, whom I
was teaching him to trust in and adore. His whole
soul revolted against the notion that the Great and
Blessed God, the Merciful Father of all mankind, would


speak of a servant or maid as mere ' money/ and per-
mit a horrible crime to go unpunished, because the
victim of the brutal usage had survived a few hours.
My own heart and conscience fully sympathised with
his j but I then clung to the notion that the main sub-
stance of the narrative was historically true, and I re-
lieved his difficulty and my own for the present by tell-
ing him that I supposed, &c.''^

But more need not be quoted, and, indeed, it is
humiliation enough to have been under the necessity
of copying out even thus much of what is, I suppose,
the most remarkable paragraph that has ever been
written by a Bishop of our Church. I venture to say
that no intelligent reader of Scripture has read this
marvellous page, who has not impatiently desired that
could he have had a few words with this same Zulu
native on the occasion which is thus referred to, so that
he might have said to the good man ; — Do you not see,
my friend, that the words by which you and your episco-
pal teacher here are so perplexed suggest a considera-
tion w^hich it was only just and reasonable to take ac-
count of in the case supposed ? " For he is his money''
is here given as the reason for thinking it unlikely that
the master w^ould risk his servant's life in the chastise-
ment he had been administering. Not in contempt of
the servant at all, but in justice to the master, is this
phrase introduced : it is inserted as an indication that
death, if it ensued, was probably accidental. And if any
doubt upon the subject remains in your mind after


again reading the passage in this vieWj you can easily
satisfy yourself that the impression you have gathered
from it is contrary to all the injunctions^ and to the
whole spirit, of the Hebrew laws respecting slaves.
Turn to such passages as these : Exod. xxi. 4-6 ; Lev.
XXV. 49 ; Deut. xv. 12-14. Or, again_, read what is
said in Exod. xx. 10 ; xxi. 26, 27 ; Deut. v. 14 ; xxiii.
16, with respect to foreign slaves. Compare these laws
with those of any other country in which this institution
has existed; and you will be impressed, as every one
who has really " examined" this subject has been, with
the singular humanity and wisdom on the part of the
inspired legislator which is disclosed by them. You wdll
not again charge him wdth encouraging either contempt
or cruelty towards persons in this unfortunate condition.
You will see that, while he kindly and wisely dealt with
w^hat appears to have been an inevitable evil of those
times, and constantly enjoined respect to those suffering
beneath it, he made provision for its gradual extinction.

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Online LibraryGeorge Smith DrewBishop Colenso's examination of the Pentateuch examined ; with an appendix → online text (page 7 of 12)