Henry Ward Beecher.

Bible studies in the Old Testament : readings in the early books of the Old Testament, with familiar comment online

. (page 6 of 39)
Online LibraryHenry Ward BeecherBible studies in the Old Testament : readings in the early books of the Old Testament, with familiar comment → online text (page 6 of 39)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


of God. When the lightning flashed they thought it was
his eye flashing over the earth. When they heard the
thunder they thought it was his voice, and they said,
" God is speaking." In their infancy men looked at all the
facts about them with uninstructed eye and undeveloped
philosophy, and the best that they got out of them is put
down in the sacred writings, and is precious and valuable.
Here is the history of the beginnings of the human race.
You have a chance to measure the difference between man
at the beginning of time and man in our day.

Is it not a striking fact that not only at that ancient
period but away down to the time of Christ, immortality
was not known to the Jews ? There is not a trace of it, not
a word concerning it, in the five books of Moses. It is not
wrought into precept or statement ; it is not made a
sanction or an authority ; it is not mentioned in any way ;
it is utterly unknown in the early Scriptures ; and even in
the later prophets the allusions to it are dubious.

Take this history, then, as a twilight inspiration of the
nascent race, as a record of their progress, as a disclosure
of their development, of the simplicity and beauty of their
lives, and it has a moral power as well as great beauty and
transcendent excellence. Let it stand to show what men's
ideas were at the beginning of their history. Let the his-
torical documents of the Bible, the simple statements of
the Old Testament, not be damaged by being interpreted
according to the laws of modern science. Let them re-
main as instructive allegories, or as the best account that
could be given in those early days, of phenomena which
men could not understand.

I read the accounts in this old Book with ever-grow-
ing pleasure. I read them with more profit than I did in
childhood, when I held, in common with the uninstructed
church, that they were exact inspirations and revelations.
I now walk in those dim aisles of antiquity, and hear the
lisping syllables of primitive man, and behold the way of
God toward him, and draw lessons as to how we are to
deal with the savage and the wants of men from seeing


how God dealt with nascent man, — for the bottom of
society represents the beginnings of the world. There is
degradation in the commvinities in which we dwell; nay,
the primitive animal instincts of man are in our very
selves; and we have need of the wisdom that comes from
the inspection of the divine method as God infuses himself
into institutions and policies and manhood itself, by adapt-
ing his truth to the conditions and wants of mankind.

Remember Him who spake as never man spake, saying
to his disciples, " I have many things to tell you, but ye are
not able to bear them now." Christ adapted his instruction
to his disciples, even so late as that period when he was on
the earth, according to the measure of their understand-
ings, and not according to the largeness and fullness of
the truth as he understood it ; and how much more may
we presume that the same thing would have been done by
God's providence when the human race was but as a babe
in its cradle, unknowing and incapable of knowledge !

And if, according to the measure of their knowledge,
the race in times gone by were responsible not only for
conduct but for character ; if the law of cause and effect
was just as powerful in the moral kingdom from the
beginning as the law of cause and effect is in the physical
kingdom ; if they, in accordance with the small light they
had, were under condemnation for disobedience, — as all
these ancient histories show that they were, — how much
more responsible are we, how much more shall we be
amenable to the law of cause and effect, and how much
more shall we be under condemnation — we, upon whom
has come the knowledge that has been gathered through
successive ages, that has accumulated, and that has rolled
down upon us, if we do not therewith lay the foundations
of purified life, and furnish the motives of a nobler man-
hood !


" Looking unto the promise of God, he wavered not through unbelief,
but waxed strong through faith, giving glory to God, and being fully
assured that, what he had promised, he was able also to perform. Where-
fore also it was reckoned unto him for righteousness. — Rom. iv. 20-22.

It is indispensable, if we take the full comfort of sacred
Scripture, that we should wholly get rid of that natural
but very incorrect idea that it is something, in all its nature
and parts, which is perfect, — unless we reckon imperfec-
tion as an element of perfection, as we must. For if it be
true that the scheme of creation in the mind of God is to
evolve from the lowest conditions a race from ignorance,
little by little, to more knowledge, and from a low estate
of virtue, step by step, to a higher ; if, in other words, it is
a part of the divine plan that the beginnings of things
shall be infantine, then it is indispensable that the econ-
omy of these beginnings shall have the nature of imper-

It is therefore entirely in accordance with this whole
divine plan, and it takes nothing from the sanctity of
Scripture, to find that in the early periods there is the rec-
ord of much that bears unmistakably the stamp of imper-
fection. Otherwise it would not be a truthful or a fitting
record. If you represent men as having observed, before
the era of observation was developed ; if you speak of men
as naving discriminated between the physical and the
spiritual, before the time came when human nature was
able to do this ; if you describe the early simplicity of the

Sunday evening, November 17, 187S. Lesson: Heb. xi. 1-16.


pastoral lives of a people according to the conditions of
men in civilized society, — you carry doubt and unbelief back
upon these early periods to every man that is philosoph-
ical, that loves truth and is sensitive to it : but if ancient
records come down to us bringing memorials of earlier days
having all the mistakes of imperfection in them, they carry
their own evidence of being a transcript of those rude,
unknowing, superstitious times.

So we may, in some sense, say that imperfectness is one
of the signs of genuineness. As the history of a child, if
written, will be a history of prattle, of misunderstanding, of
obliquity in various ways ; as in order to be a true history
it must contain an account of these imperfections, so the
earlier records of a remote people may well be expected to
bear in themselves these evidences of veracity.

The Arabian, the Persian, the Jew, the Christian, the
Mohammedan, all hold in sacred reverence the name of
Abram. This name is more celebrated than any other in
universal history. We marvel at this, for Abram was not
a military hero. He was not a founder of cities. He was
not the king of an empire. Nor was he, for aught that we
know, a great thinker, nor a teacher, in any particular sense
of the term. No line fell from his pen. No golden sen-
tence has been preserved from his lips. Unlike Confucius,
or Zoroaster, or Buddha, or Moses, he founded no system
either of philosophy, of religious belief, or of worship. He
was a wandering shepherd, and nothing more than that.
If you would see his living image, as it exists to-day in real
life, go to the original, the Bedouin sheik with his turbaned
head, his cloak, and his long spear. This wild chief of t'Ae
wandering tribes of the East may not be your conception
of Abram which is founded upon the pictures of modern
artists, but without doubt it is the very life-form of the

The history of this great chief is very simple ; it would
seem, at first, as though there were but little in it for com-
ment ; and yet, upon consideration, there is in it more than
can be encompassed in any discourse — more than the plan


of these Bible lectures will permit me to enter upon. I
must skeletonize it.

He was called by name, first, Abram — " Father of Ele-
vation" or "Great Father"; but in later life Abraham —
" The Father of Multitudes," owing to the promise which
was made to him, that his posterity should be as numerous
as the stars in the heavens, or as the sands upon the sea-
shore. He was " the father " pre-eminent. He was the
founder of a nation, without being, at the same time, a
pretender to anything that he was not. He did not pro-
fess to be a god, or a demigod. In regard to heroes, the
founders, the lawgivers of all lands of antiquity, you shall
find in their history the beginnings enshrouded in the pre-
tense that they were in intimate communion with God, in
the same sense in which holy men are in communion with
him. Not so Abram. He never moved out of the simple
sphere of the shepherd life. But he is known universally
as "the father," and is termed familiarly in the literature of
many nations yet, not "Abram," nor " Father of the Faith-
ful," nor " Father of Multitudes," only, but " The Father."
And it is a little remarkable that, reaching down through
the space of thousands and thousands of years, we find,
when the new system came in, and the last great Teacher
appeared, that he taught us to begin the very approach to
God with the phrase, "Our Father, which art in heaven."
This is antiquity connected with the later periods of life.

Abram was the ninth descendant of Shem, son of Noah.
After the increase of Noah's posterity in Armenia they
came down from the mountainous country into what is
called Mesopotamia, the southern part of it — Chaldea.
Abram is said to have dwelt in Ur with his father and
brethren. An Ur used to be located at a point where the
Tigris and Euphrates empty into the gulf ; but there were
three or four or five places by that name, and the best
knowledge we have of it is that it was probably the Ur
lying far to the north of the mouths of the Tigris and the
Euphrates — that it was in the upper part, near the Arme-
nian mountains.


Abram's family were idolaters. Legend says that Terah,
his father, was a maker of idols. Abram was seventy years
old when he heard that inward Voice, the call of God, com-
manding him to leave all his associates and associations,
and go forth, the great emigrant of antiquity. His first
move was only a march of a day or two, from Ur to Ha-
ran, which lies to the west of Ur. For five years he dwelt
there, where his father died. Then the impulse returned,
which was to him as a voice of God calling him a second
time; and he set his face westward. Is it not remarkable
that since the great incursions from the North to the
South in Asia and Europe, emigration has been from the
East toward the West — never from the West toward the
East, as if men followed the sun — as if they sought to see
what fields he saw in his constant circuits ?

Abram passed the Euphrates. The ford probably re-
mains where this patriarch describes it as being. It is
probable that his journey took him not far from Damascus,
and thence southward until he reached the river Jabbok,
along which his grandson, Jacob, found his path on his
return from the same region in Padan-Aram.

What this " call " was that Abram heard, no man can now
define. The impulse, we cannot doubt, was a high and
sacred one ; but it was the impulse of an emigrant — not
that of a conqueror who, with a sense of ambition and
conscious power, went forth to subdue new territories.
He went out, with his small band, as an emigrant, with
the promise that he should have a great posterity. It lay
in the future. Compare the feelings of this great original
patriarch in going forth from Mesopotamia with the feel-
ings with which thousands and tens of thousands have left
their homes in days since — the Pilgrims that left England,
and came, over the stormy sea, and landed on the shores of
New England ; those emigrants that, dropping further
down, early made their home in Virginia ; those other
emigrants that streamed out from the Eastern states and
found the great basin of the Ohio, the plains of the Rocky
and Sierra Nevada mountains, and California itself; and


the stream that has never ceased to flow, simply with the
latent hope of bettering their condition, without half the
conviction that belonged to Abram — of a call from God, and
the divine assurance that he should be the founder of a
great nation in which all the earth should be blessed.
Nevertheless, these emigrants go on laying foundations,
suffering hardship, accumulating treasure, and establishing
institutions, whose full benefit will be known only to their
children or to their children's children.

Whether in the dreams of sleep, whether in some appear-
ance to the senses, or whether under the influence of vivid
imagination so strong that his subjective state became
objective — whether in one or other of these ways this call
of God was made to Abram, we are not now to determine.
All we know is that we are to suppose not that God spoke
in an audible voice out of the heavens to him, but only that
Abram received spiritual impulse, knowledge, and strength,
which set him upon his journey. He was the father of

It is not difficult to trace the route which he pursued,
because it was the route of the great caravans. There
were but few routes of travel at that time. The East is not
even now diversified with highways. Roads are almost
unknown there ; and those that exist are for the most part
not for wheels but for the camel and the ass. Roads for
wagons and chariots in the Orient are still unknown in any
such sense as that in which we have them in this country.

Entering the country of Canaan not far below the issu-
ing of the Jordan into the Sea of Galilee, Abram's first
point of rest was taken under a tree. He spread his
tent — he who, except in Egypt, never, to the end of his
life, dwelt under a roof. There, as shepherd, he lived for
a brief period. Then, that his flocks might have the bene-
fit of larger pasturage, he moved south to Bethel. After
that, still going south, he went to Mamre. While there
famine overtook him, and he descended into Egypt, the
great granary of the East. How long he dwelt there we
cannot ascertain accurately. That he remained there until


he had greatly increased his household, and enlarged his
possessions of silver and gold and flocks, we are definitely
informed. Here occurred one of those episodes which are a
blemish upon his memory — undoubtedly a blemish, but not
such a blemish as criticism in modern times has made it to
be. His wife was his sister by his father, but not by the
mother. It is probable that she was more nearly in the
relation of what we call a niece than in that which we
esteem as a sister. At any rate, she seems to have been
beautiful ; and in going down to Egypt, fearing that the
king would imprison her in his harem, and that in order to
possess the wife he would slay the husband, Abram be-
sought her to represent that she was his sister and not
his wife, thus deceiving the king. He was rebuked after-
wards when on the king's learning the truth she was re-
stored unharmed to him; and they dwelt peacefully in

Years afterwards, Abram returned from thence to Gerar
in the southern part of Palestine, where Abimelech was
still king. Strangely enough, to those who read with criti-
cism, precisely the same story is told of Abram and his
wife in relation to Abimelech, — as though he twice repre-
sented that she was his sister and not his wife, and as
though the second time she was restored to him with a
rebuke. Is it probable that this thing took place twice ?
No. It is far more likely that two different documents,
each giving this account, have been embraced in the Mosaic

We find substantially the same literary error occurring
in the New Testament. In one of the gospels an account
is given of a visit of Christ to Nazareth, as though it
occurred at one period of his life, and in another it is
declared that he visited it at another and later period of
his life. The two records are precisely the same. Those
who advocate the verbal and literal inspiration declare
that there was no mistake in the reckoning — that he did go
twice thus to Nazareth. It is said that on Sunday, twice, he
went into the Synagogue ; that a book was given him both


times ; that he opened it at the same place both times, and
read the same Scripture, and gave the same interpretation ;
that both times he was set upon and dragged out ; that
both times there was an attempt to throw him down a
precipice ; and that both times he escaped out of their
hands. Thus men resort to inconsistencies and absurdi-
ties instead of simply saying that both visits were one, that
one Evangelist who gave the account was correct, but that
the other was mistaken as to the date.

In regard to another occurrence in Christ's ministry
there is a discrepancy — his driving out from the Temple
the money changers and those that sold doves and beasts.
One of the Evangelists puts it at the beginning of his
ministry, and another at the close. Verbalists, in order to
save themselves from saying that there was a mistake of
date in either narrative, say that it occurred twice. They
tell us that Christ went into the Temple on two occasions
and said the same thing both times, and drove out the
same men that sold doves and animals, and the same money
changers. There is no reason why men should sacrifice
their common sense, and insist upon putting the Scripture
to a rack that would ruin it if they could succeed in press-
ing against it this doctrine of verbal, absolute, literal in-

The patriarch returned from Gerar to Bethel. It was
here that the memorable discussion took place between the
herdsmen of Abram and the herdsmen of Lot. Lot was
Abram's nephew. They appear for a time to have dwelt
together with common possessions ; but in consequence of
the increase of the amount of property and in the number
of herdsmen and servants there began to break out jeal-
ousies and contentions. The nobility of the patriarch is
made manifest in the settlement of this question. It might
very well be employed as a type of the proper settlement of
controversies in later days of the church. He says to Lot,
"The country is before you. Make your choice. If you
will go to the south I will go to the north ; or if you will
go to the north I will go to the south. Let there be no


contention between us. Take your way and I will let you
alone, and I will take my way and be let alone." So Lot
went down to the interior of the luxuriant plains where
Sodom and Gomorrah lay ; and he derived the natural con-
sequences — relaxation and corruption ; while Abram kept
to the hills, rude, rugged, harsh, in many respects, but giv-
ing vigor, manhood, simplicity, and virtue. Abram was
evidently a broad-minded, able manager, for in whatever
place he sojourned it is recorded that his possessions and
his household increased.

Not far from the time of this division, not many years
after it, one of those events took place which developed
the greatness of the patriarch. It seems that there had
been, from the east and the northeast, an invasion of the
great king, Chedorlaomer, who had taken possession of all
the cities of the plain and the country far around, and
taxed them. He had no right in these places any more
than England has in India, but he did what England has
done ; he took with a strong hand and held under tribute
nations that he had no business with. It is recorded that
the king gathered his forces and swept the people and
their possessions away with him, traveling by the line of
the Jordan clear up toward Damascus.

Then it was that Abram gathered together the three
hundred servants born in his own household, with such
confederates as he could, and, marching day and night,
surprised the king and his forces, routed them, followed
them, and scattered them utterly, bringing back the herds
and the captives, and restoring them to their homes.

It is memorable that on the return he met Melchizedek,
King of Salem ; and it is very remarkable that this priestly
king, so far as can be gathered from the original, was a
worshiper, not of Abram's Elohim or Jehovah, but of
another God. He was not in agreement with Abram ; but
he was truly religious, probably a worshiper of one God,
and therefore, under whatever name, of Abram's God.

When this king offered, if Abram would restore the
captives, to give him the goods, the old chief towered too


high to accept anything as payment. Said he, " I will not
take anything that is thine, lest thou shouldst say, I have
made Abram rich." So he took nothing, and sent all
back to their original possessors.

The remaining events in Abram's history are few, but
of transcendent importance. It had been promised to him
tliat he should be the father of many generations. Yet he
was now ninety years old, and no child had been born to
him. Then comes, not so much the history of Abram, as the
record of one of the customs of the country and the race.
By his wife's wish he married, in a secondary way, the
bondwoman Hagar ; and by her was born a son, Ishmael.
The history of Hagar and Ishmael, if it has not given rise
to a great deal of doctrine, has given rise to a great deal
of art, of romance — for it is a romance ; and the pictorial
story in the old Scripture compares favorably with the
efforts of modern art.

But Sarai, the wife, after she had arrived at an extreme
old age, gave to her lord and master a direct and legitimate
heir, in Isaac. Then broke out in Abram's peaceful family
jealousies and difficulties, such as polygamy always entails,
and always will entail. The result was, as might be
expected, that the wife was mightier than the husband,
and she drove forth Hagar and her child, and Abram's
reputation as master in his own household was at a dis-
count. In reality, Hagar was a great deal better off in
the wilderness with her son than she would have been in
Abram's tent with that woman to despotize over her. To
go forth into the wilderness in that day was not so hard a
thing. She went forth from no house, from no luxuries,
simply from a tent. She went forth from nothing to
nothing; and although history records a temporary suffer-
ing at first, it also records relief and prosperity almost
immediately ; for Ishmael became the father of a great

After this occurred one of the most striking events in
the history of Abraham (for from the birth of his son he
took the name "Father of Multitudes"). He was moved


by the voice of God (whatever that voice may have been :
whether it came to him in a dream, whether it was a
vision, an impression received by him, or what it was, I do
not undertake to say) to follow the example of all the
nations around about him that on great occasions were
offering their children to the gods.

We have a half-instance of this in the later history of
Jephtha and his daughter. That military chieftain dedi-
cated to sacrifice the thing that first should meet him
coming out from his house on his return from battle, if he
should have victory. Under memorable circumstances
parents were accustomed to dedicate their firstborn to the
gods, and the dedications consisted in sacrifice.

Such was the impulse that was brought to bear upon
Abraham. He had received the promise that he should be
the father of many generations ; but the fullfillment of
direct posterity was delayed until he was a very old man ;
when Isaac was born he was impelled to dedicate him to
his God, and when he was well grown — under the absolute
paternal right of life and death in the household, common
to the time — to consummate the dedication by final sacri-
fice. The simple narrative of how Abraham took his
son and laid him upon the altar is too exquisite to be
touched with the finger of commentary. I think there is
nothing in any literature comparable to the father and
son on their way to the sacrifice. Abraham bound Isaac
on the altar, and stretched forth his hand to slay him,
when he heard a Voice calling upon him to forbear. A
ram caught in the thicket was offered up by Abraham in
place of his son. The faith which, it is said in the New
Testament, led Abraham to believe that God was able to
give him Isaac back from the dead, reveals the feelings
that were in the father's mind. He was under the impres-
sion that in spite of the promise of a multitudinous
posterity, God had called him to give up his son ; and his

Online LibraryHenry Ward BeecherBible studies in the Old Testament : readings in the early books of the Old Testament, with familiar comment → online text (page 6 of 39)