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promised them freedom, and that He would lead
them back to the land of their fathers. The elders
lent a willing ear to the joyful news; but the masses,
who were accustomed to slavery, heard the words
with cold indifference. Heavy labour had made
them cowardly and distrustful. They did not even
desire to abstain from worshipping the Egyptian
idols. Every argument fell unheeded on their obtuse
minds. " It is better for us to remain enthralled as
bondmen to the Egyptians than to die in the
desert." Such was the apparently rational answer
of the people.

The brothers appeared courageously before the
Egyptian king, and demanded, in the name of the
God who had sent them, that their people should be
released from slavery, for they had come into the
country of their own free will, and had preserved
their inalienable right to liberty. If the Israelites
were at first unwilling to leave the country, and to
struggle with the uncertainties of the future, Pharaoh
was still less inclined to let them depart. The mere
demand that he should liberate hundreds of thou-
sands of slaves who worked in his fields and build-
ings, and that he should do so in the name of a God
whom he knew not, or for the sake of a cause which
he did not respect, induced him to double the labours
of the Hebrew slaves, in order to deprive them of
leisure for thoughts of freedom. Instead of meeting
with a joyful reception, Moses and Aaron found them-
selves overwhelmed with reproaches that through
their fault the misery of the unfortunate sufferers
had been increased. The King only determined to


give way after he and his country had witnessed
many terrifying and extraordinary phenomena and
plagues, and when he could no longer free him-
self from the thought that the unknown God was
punishing him for his obstinacy. In consequence of
successive calamities, the Egyptian king urged the
Israelites to hasten and depart, fearing lest any
delay might bring destruction upon him and his
country. The Israelites had barely time to supply
themselves with the provisions necessary for their
long and wearisome journey. Memorable was the
daybreak of the fifteenth of Nisan (March), on which
the enslaved people regained their liberty without
shedding a drop of blood. They were the first to
whom the great value of liberty was made known,
and since then this priceless treasure, the foundation
of human dignity, has been guarded by them as the
apple of the eye.

Thousands of Israelites, their loins girded, their
staves in their hands, their little ones riding on asses,
and their herds following them, left their villages
and tents, and assembled near the town of Rameses.
Strange tribes who had lived by their side, shepherd
tribes akin to them in race and language, joined
them in their migration. They all rallied round the
prophet Moses, obeying 'his words. He was their
king, although he was free from ambition, and he may
well be called the first promulgator of the doctrine of
equality amongst men. The duty devolving on him
during this exodus was more difficult to discharge
than his message to the king and to the people of
Israel. Only few amongst these thousands of newly
liberated slaves could comprehend the great mission
assigned to them. But the masses followed him
stolidly. Out of this horde of savages he had to
form a nation ; for them he had to conquer a home, and
establish a code of laws, which rendered them capable
of leading a life of rectitude. In this difficult task,
he could reckon with certainty only on the tribe of


Levi, who shared his sentiments, and assisted him in
his arduous duties as a teacher.

Whilst the Egyptians were burying the dead
which the plague had suddenly stricken down,
the Israelites, the fourth generation of the first
immigrants, left Egypt, after a sojourn of several
centuries. They journeyed towards the desert which
divides Egypt from Canaan, on the same way by
which the last patriarch had entered the Nile country.
But Moses would not permit them to go by this
short route, because he feared that the inhabitants of
Canaan, on the coast of the Mediterranean, would
oppose their entry with an armed force ; he also
apprehended that the tribes, whom their long bondage
had made timorous, would take to flight on the first
approach of danger.

Their first destination was Mount Sinai, where
they were to receive those laws and precepts for the
practice of which they had been set free. Pharaoh
had, however, determined to recapture the slaves
who had been snatched from his grasp, when, in a
moment of weakness, he had allowed them to de-
part. When the Israelites saw the Egyptians ap-
proaching from afar, they gave way to despair, for
they found themselves cut off from every means of
escape. Before them was the sea, and behind them
the enemy, who would soon overtake them, and
undoubtedly reduce them again to bondage. Crying
and lamenting, some of them asked Moses, "Are
there no graves in Egypt that thou hast brought
us out to die in the desert?" However, a means
of escape unexpectedly presented itself, and could
only be regarded by them as a miracle. A hurri-
cane from the northeast had driven the water of
the sea southwards during the night, so that the bed
had for the greater part become dry. Their leader
quickly seized on this means of escape, and urged
the frightened people to hurry towards the opposite
shore. His prophetic spirit showed him that they


would never again see the Egyptians. They rapidly
traversed the short distance across the dry bed of the
sea, the deeper parts of the water, agitated by a storm,
forming two walls on the right and the left. During
this time, the Egyptians were in hot pursuit after the
Israelites, in the hope of leading them back to
slavery. At daybreak, they reached the west coast
of the sea, and, perceiving the Israelites on the other
side, they were hastening after them along the dry
pathway, when the tempest suddenly ceased. The
mountain-like waves, which had risen like walls on
both sides, now poured down upon the dryland, and
buried men, horses, and chariots in the watery deep.
The sea washed some corpses to the coast where the
Israelites were resting in safety. They here beheld
a marvellous deliverance. The most callous became
deeply impressed with this sight, and looked with
confidence to the future. On that day they put their
firm trust in God and in Moses, His messenger.
With a loud voice they sang praises for their won-
derful deliverance. In chorus they sang

" I will praise the Lord,
For He is ever glorious.
The horse and his rider He cast into the sea."

The deliverance from Egypt, the passage through
the sea, and the sudden destruction of their resentful
enemy were three occurrences which the Israelites
had witnessed, and which never passed from their
memories. In times of the greatest danger and
distress, the recollection of this scene inspired
them with courage, and with the assurance that
the God who had redeemed them from Egypt, who
had turned the water into dry land, and had de-
stroyed their cruel enemy, would never desert them,
but would " ever reign over them." Although the
multitude did not long retain this trustful and pious
disposition, but fell into despondency at every new
difficulty, the intelligent portion of the Israelites were,


in subsequent trials, sustained by their experiences at
the Red Sea.

The tribes, delivered from the bonds of slavery,
and from the terrors of long oppression, could
peaceably now pursue their way. They had yet
many days' journey to Sinai, the temporary goal of
their wanderings. Although the country through
which they travelled was a sandy desert, it was not
wanting in water, and in pasture land for the shep-
herds. This territory was not unknown to Moses,
their leader, who had formerly pastured the flocks
of his father-in-law here. In the high mountains of
Sinai and its spurs, the water in the spring-time
gushes forth copiously from the rocks, forms into
rills, and rushes down the slopes towards the Red
Sea. Nor did the Israelites suffer through want of
bread, for in its stead they partook of manna.
Finding this substance in large quantities, and living
on it during a long time, they came to consider its
presence as a miracle. It is only on this peninsula
that drops sweet as honey exude from the high
tamarisk trees, which abound in that region. These
drops issue in the early morning, and take the
globular size of peas or of coriander seeds; but in
the heat of the sun they melt away. Elated by their
wonderful experiences, the tribes now seemed pre-
pared to receive their holiest treasure, for the
sake of which they had made the long circuitous
journey through the desert of Sinai. From Re-
phidim, which lies on a considerable altitude, they
were led upwards to the highest range of the moun-
tain, the summit of which appears to touch the
clouds. 1 To this spot Moses led the Israelites in the
third month after the exodus from Egypt, and ap-

! The situation of Sinai is not to be sought in the so-called Sinaitic
peninsula, but near the land of Edom, on the confines of which was
the desert of Paran. Neither Jebel Musa, with the adjacent peaks of
Jebel Catherine and Ras-es-Sutsafeh, nor Mount Jerbal, was the true
Sinai. See " Monatsschrift," by Frankel-Graetz, 1878. p. 337.


pointed their camping ground. He then prepared
them for an astounding phenomenon, which appealed
both to the eye and the ear. By prayer and absti-
nence they were bidden to render themselves fit
for lofty impressions, and worthy of their exalted
mission. With eager expectation and anxious hearts
they awaited the third day. A wall round the
nearest mountain summit prevented the people from
approaching too close. On the morning of the
third day a heavy cloud covered the mountain top ;
lightning flashed, and enveloped the mountain in
a blaze of fire. Peals of thunder shook the sur-
rounding mountains, and awakened the echoes. All
nature was in uproar, and the world's end seemed to
be at hand. With trembling and shaking, the old
and the young beheld this terrifying spectacle. But
its terror did not surpass the awfulness of the words
heard by the affrighted people. The clouds of
smoke, the lightning, the flames and the peals of
thunder had only served as a prelude to these por-
tentous words.

Mightily impressed by the sight of the flaming
mountain, the people clearly heard the command-
ments which, simple in their import, and intelligible
to every human being, form the elements of all cul-
ture. Ten words rang forth from the mountain
top. The people became firmly convinced that the
words were revealed by God. Theft and bearing
false witness were stigmatised as crimes. The voice
of Sinai condemned evil thoughts no less than evil
acts ; hence the prohibition, " Thou shalt not covet
thy neighbour's wife . . . nor any possession of thy
neighbour." The Indians, the Egyptians, and other
nations famous for their colossal structures, had,
during more than two thousand years, gone through
many historical experiences, which shrink into utter
insignificance, when compared with this one mo-
mentous event.

The work accomplished at Sinai by an instan-


taneous act remained applicable to all times by
asserting the supremacy of ethical life and the
dignity of man. This promulgation of the Law
marked the natal hour of the " distinct people,"
like unto which none had ever existed. The sublime
and eternal laws of Sinai coming from a Deity
whom the senses cannot perceive, from a Redeemer
who releases the enthralled and the oppressed
were revealed truths treating of filial duty, of spotless
chastity, of the inviolable safety of human life and
property, of social integrity, and of the purity of

The Israelites had been led to Mount Sinai as
trembling bondmen ; now they came back to their
tents as God's people of priests, as a righteous
nation (Jeskurun). By practically showing that the
Ten Commandments are applicable to all the con-
cerns of life, the Israelites were constituted the
teachers of the human race, and through them all
the families of the earth were to be blessed. None
of the others could then have surmised that even
for its own well-being an isolated and insignificantly
small nation had been charged with the arduous
task of the preceptive office.

The Sinaitic teachings were not of an ephemeral
nature, even in regard to their form. Being en-
graven on tables of stone, they could be easily
remembered by successive generations. During a
long period these inscribed slabs remained in the
custody of the Israelites, and were called " the
Tables of the Testimony," or " the Tables of the
Law." Being placed in an ark, which became a
rallying centre, round which Moses used to assemble
the elders of the families, these tables served as a
sign of the Sinaitic Covenant. They formed a link
between God and the people who had formerly been
trodden under foot, and who were now bidden to
own no other Lord save the One from whom the Law
had gone forth. It was for this reason that the ark,

CH. I. THE LAW. 23

as the repository of the tables, was designated " the
Ark of the Covenant." The ethical truths of Sinai
became henceforth the basis for a new system of
morality, and for the national constitution of the
Israelites. These truths were further developed in
special laws which had a practical bearing upon the
public and private affairs of the people. Slave-
holders and slaves were no longer to be found
amongst the Israelites. The selling of Israelites as
slaves, and perpetual servitude of an Israelite became
unlawful. A man who forfeited his liberty was liable
to be held in service during six years, but in the
seventh year he regained his freedom. Wilful murder
and disrespect to parents were punishable with death.
The sanctuary could give no protection to criminals
condemned to die. The murder of a non-Israelitish
slave involved condign punishment. A gentile slave
ill-treated by his master recovered his liberty. A man
committing an offence on the virtue of a maiden was
bound to make her his wife, and to pay a fine to the
father of the injured woman. Equitable and humane
treatment of the widow and the orphan was en-
forced ; a similar provision was ordained for the
benefit of strangers who had joined one of the tribes.
The Israelites, in fact, were bidden remember their
former sojourn in a foreign land, and to refrain from
inflicting upon strangers the inhuman treatment
which they themselves had formerly endured.

This spirit of equity and brotherly love, pervading
the ancient code of laws, could not at once change the
habits of the people. The duties involved in these
laws were too spiritual and too elevated to have such
an effect. Moses having temporarily absented him-
self to make preparations for the reception of the
Sinaitic law, the dull-witted portion of the people
imagined that their God was abandoning them in
the desert, and they clamoured for the rule of a visible
Godhead. Aaron, who had taken the lead in the
absence of Moses, timorously yielded to this impe-


tuous demand, and countenanced the production of
a golden idol. This image of Apis or Mnevis received
divine homage from the senseless multitude who
danced around it. Moses, on descending from
Mount Sinai, ordered the Levites to put to death
some thousands of the people. Nothing but the
exercise of extreme rigour could have repressed
this worship of idols.

With the object of protecting the people from a
relapse into idolatry, and of supporting them during
their state of transition from barbarism, they were
allowed to form a conception of the Deity though
not by means of an image through some material
aid which would appeal to the senses. On Sinai
they had beheld flashes of lightning with flames of
fire, and from the midst of a burning cloud they had
heard the Ten Commandments. An emblem of this
phenomenon was now introduced to remind the
people of the presence of the Deity as revealed at
Sinai. It was ordained that a perpetual fire should
be kept alight on a portable altar, and be carried
before the tribes during their migrations. Not the
Deity Himself, but the revelation of the Deity at
Sinai, should thereby be made perceptible to the
sense of vision. The performance of sacrificial rites
was a further concession to the crude perceptions of
the people.

The spiritual religion promulgated at Sinai did
not intend sacrifices as the expression of divine ador-
ation, but was meant to inculcate a moral and holy
life; the people, however, had not yet risen to this
conception, and could only be advanced by means of
education and culture. The other ancient nations
having found in sacrifices the means of propitiating
their deities, the Israelites were permitted to retain
the same mode of divine service ; but its form was
simplified. The altar became an integral part of the
sanctuary, in which no image was tolerated. The
only objects contained therein were a candelabrum,


a table with twelve loaves, symbolising the twelve
tribes ; and there was also a recess for the Ark of the
Covenant. Altar, sanctuary and sacrificial rites
required a priesthood. This primaeval institution, too,
was retained. The Levites, as the most devoted
and best informed tribe, were charged with sacerdotal
functions, as during the sojourn in Egypt. The
priests of Israel, unlike those of the Egyptians,
were precluded from holding landed property, as
such possessions might have tempted them to misuse
their prerogatives and neglect their sacred duties.
For this reason it was prescribed that their subsist-
ence should be derived from the offerings made by
the people. Collaterally there existed a custom, dating
from remote patriarchal ages, which demanded that
the first-born son of every family should attend to
the performance of sacrificial rites. This preroga-
tive could not be abruptly abolished, and continued
for some time alongside of the Levitical priest-
hood, though both of them stood in the way of
the pure Sinaitic teachings. The materialism of the
age demanded indulgent concessions, combined with
provisions tending to the refinement of popular
habits. Only through the aid of the spiritually gifted
could the understanding of the subordinate nature of
sacrifices be preserved in the consciousness of the

During the forty years of their wandering in the
desert, the Israelites sought pastures for their flocks
within the mountain region and its neighborhood.

During these migrations Moses instructed the
people. The older generation gradually passed
away. Their descendants, obedient to the teachings
of the lawgiver and his disciples, formed a docile,
pious, and valiant community, and became proficient
in the knowledge of their laws.

Moses now surrounded himself with councillors,
who were the chiefs of seventy families. This
system became a model for later forms of adminis-


tration. The Council of Elders participated in
important deliberations, and assisted in the manage-
ment of public business. On the advice of Jethro, his
father-in-law, Moses appointed inferior and higher
judges, who respectively had under their jurisdiction
ten, a hundred, and a thousand families. The people
had the right of electing their own judges, whose
appointment they then recommended to Moses.
These judges were charged to maintain strict im-
partiality in cases of litigation between members of
the tribes of Israel, or between Israelites and
strangers. Nor was it within the discretion of the
judges to make distinctions between persons of
high and low degree. They were also commanded
to keep their hands clean from bribes, and to give
their verdicts according to the principles of equity,
" for justice belongs unto God," and has its source in
God himself. Brotherly love, community of interests,
equality before the law, equity and mercy were the
high ideals which he held before the generations
which he had trained. The inculcation of these laws
and teachings marked an eventful era in the nation's
history. As such it was characterised by the prophets,
who called it " the bridal time of the daughter of
Israel," and the season of "her espousals, when she
went after her God in the land which was not sown."
Israel's wanderings had nearly come to a con-
clusion and the younger generation was well fitted
for the attainment of the object of its settlement.
A further sojourn in the desert would have inured
the people to habits of restlessness, and might have
reduced them for ever to the nomadic condition of
the Midianites and the Amalekites. They appear to
have made an unsuccessful raid in a northern direc-
tion, along the old caravan roads. In a second defeat
some of them were captured by their enemies. But
this discomfiture was apparently avenged by com-
batants belonging to the tribe of Judah, who were
aided by men of the tribe of Simeon, and by Kenites,
with whose assistance they seized several cities.


The other tribes were prepared to effect an
entrance into the country by following a circuitous
route on the eastern side. This expedition might
have been shortened if the Idumeans, who dwelt on
the mountain ranges of Seir, had permitted the
Israelites to pass through their territory. Appa-
rently the Idumeans were afraid that the invading
Israelites would dispossess them of the land, and
they therefore sallied forth to obstruct the direct
road. Their opposition forced the tribes of Israel to
make a long detour round the country of Idumea,
and to turn to the east of the mountain ranges of
Seir in order to approach Canaan from the opposite
side. Not being permitted to attack the Idumeans
and the kindred tribes of the Ammonites, the Israel-
ites had to traverse the border of the eastern desert
in order to reach the inhabited regions at the source
of the Arnon, which flows into the Dead Sea.

Moses now sent conciliatory messages to Sihon,
to request that the people might pass through his
territory on their way to the Jordan. Sihon refused
his consent, and marched an army to the borders of
the desert to oppose the advance of the invaders.
The Israelites of the new generation, animated with
youthful prowess, put themselves in battle array, and
routed the hostile troops, whose king they slew at

This victory was of incalculable importance to the
Israelites; it strengthened their position and in-
spired them with self-reliance. They at once took
possession of the conquered district, and henceforth
abandoned their nomadic life. Whilst the Israelites
felt confident of success in conquering the Land
of Promise, the Canaanites, on the other hand,
were terror-stricken at the defeat of the mighty
Sihon. The Israelites could now move about
freely, being no longer incommoded by the narrow
belt of the desert, nor by the suspicions of un-
friendly tribes. Dangers having given way to a


state of security, this sudden change of circum-
stances aroused in their bosoms virtuous emotions,
together with ignoble passions.

The people of Moab now perceived that their
feeble existence was threatened by their new
neighbours. Balak, their king, felt that he could
not cope with the Israelites in the open field of battle,
and he preferred to employ the arts of Balaam, the
Idumean or Midianite magician, whose maledic-
tions were supposed to have the power of calling
down distress and destruction on an entire people
or on a single individual. Balaam having been struck
with amazement at the sight of Israel's encamp-
ment, the intended maledictions were changed on
his lips into blessings. He averred that no " en-
chantment avails against Jacob, and no divination
against Israel," a glorious future having been assured
to that people. But he advised the king to have
recourse to a different charm, which might have a
pernicious effect upon the Israelites, namely, to
beguile them to the vice of profligacy by means
oi depraved temple maidens.

Balak accepted this advice. The Israelites, during
their migrations, had lived on friendly terms with
the wandering Midianites, and entertained no sus-
picions when admitting the latter into their encamp-
ments and tents. Counselled by Balaam and insti-
gated by Balak, many Midianites brought their

Online LibraryHeinrich GraetzHistory of the Jews (Volume 1) → online text (page 3 of 46)