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General Survey

( Originally Published 1916 )

The great central beliefs of the Hebrew religion he at the basis of the teachings of Jesus, Paul, and the others who had a part in the founding of Christianity. If we try to imagine how the work of Tesus would have differed if he had appeared-in Greece or Rome instead of in Palestine, we can appreciate to some extent the significance of the Hebrew foundation on which he built.

In Palestine Jesus could assume that his hearers believed that there was one God and only one. When Paul spoke in Athens, he was obliged to meet the needs of those who lacked the Jews' perception of the spiritual Being who made the world and all things therein; when he wrote to the Christians in Rome, he discussed the folly of the peoples who worshiped the created rather, than the Creator; but when Jesus spoke to the peasants and fishermen among the Galilean hills or on the shores of their lake, he could enter at once upon the highest themes of God's character, purposes, and will for man. These hearers stood upon the lofty ground of ethical monotheism, while the men of other lands, even the most cultured lands, were in the darkness of polytheism, worshiping beings with passions like their own.

The advance of science with its revelation of the essential unity of all things visible has now made polytheism unthinkable among educated men, and philosophy has found in man's moral capacities reason for inferring a moral spirit central in the, universe. But the humble men of Galilee to whom Jesus addressed himself already believed that God was one and that he was just and merciful. They believed this because they had been educated in the Jewish home and synagogue where such faith was the commonplace of instruction.

The classic nations with all their marvelous civilization had not attained this clear vision, the truth of which our modern science and philosophy may help to validate. When Paul went abroad, as we have seen, he met those who knew no such broad and inclusive religious views of life, but in his own thinking and commonly in his arguments he started from the high ground attained in his ancestral religion and thence reached up and out.

The purpose of the present study is to trace the origin and growth of the religion that so sharply distinguished Israel from the other nations of the ancient world and made her one of the world's chief teachers.

Nineteen hundred years after the coming of Christ Israel's faith persists, in almost the precise form it had attained then, as one of the world's distinct religions, with some millions of adherents who have clung to it through every vicissitude. Out of this faith, with added elements and some vital changes, sprang Christianity; to Judaism and Christianity another great religion, Mohammedanism, owes its central doctrines of the unity of God and of his moral nature. To study the origin and growth of the Hebrew religion is, then, to trace back to its sources one of the most widespread and continuous streams of influence known to human history.


The decipherment of the Egyptian and Babylonian inscriptions, with the excavations and other researches conducted in Bible lands, has made possible a study of all phases of Hebrew history from a new point of view.

We now know Israel as a comparatively late comer in the truly ancient world of which she formed a part. We can see that she inherited much from the nations which had attained a high degree of cultural development a thousand or even two thousand years before there was a Hebrew nation. We trace back the history of the Tigris-Euphrates valley, whence the Hebrews believed that their ancestors originally came, to a time fully five thousand years ago, and the history of the Nile valley, whence the Hebrews believed that their ancestors came forth to accept Yahweh as their God, to a still earlier period.

The land of Canaan, where the tribes settled by the twelfth century B.C., there to be slowly consolidated into a nation, had been dominated by Babylonia for many centuries prior to 1700 B.C., so that the Babylonian written language continued in use there for many generations longer, though the political control of the land had passed to Egypt. For nearly four centuries preceding the Hebrew exodus from Egypt and settlement in Canaan the Pharaohs had held sway over the petty states into which the land was divided.

Canaan itself has yielded very little of early inscriptions, yet we are able to form a fairly clear picture of the Canaanite civilization which Israel found on crossing the Jordan and which she largely absorbed. References in the Babylonian and Egyptian inscriptions, letters found in Egypt that were sent from local governors in Canaan a few generations before the Hebrew settlement, recent excavations of old Canaanite towns Gezer, Megiddo, Taanach and references in the Old Testament writings have all helped to make this picture possible.

In the effort to get still farther back to the roots of Israel's life, her ideas and practices have been carefully compared with all that can be gathered from ancient evidence and from the customs of the tent-dwelling Arabs of today, who still preserve many of the religious usages of antiquity. These various lines of investigation make it possible to distinguish in a measure those elements in the Hebrew religion which are original and distinctive from those which were a part of the people's general heritage as a branch of the Semitic race or were borrowed from the Canaanites.

Our concern with those aspects of her religion that Israel shared with her neighbors and kinsfolk is incidental, since our chief purpose is to discover and trace the distinctive elements of the Hebrew religion. In these we judge that the secret is to be found of that which has enabled this religion to maintain its identity for three thousand years and to become, too, the basis of those two great missionary religions, Mohammedanism and Christianity.

Another source of the new point of view in studying the history of Hebrew civilization is the rearrangement of the Old Testament writings in the general order of their composition. Five generations of minute and painstaking study, in which the work of each scholar has been subjected to the most searching criticism and all available evidence has been constantly re-examined, have resulted in a general consensus of scholarly opinion as to the order of growth of the Old Testament writings. The positive results of this foundation work upon the principal sources for the history of the Hebrew religion will be assumed in the discussions of succeeding chapters. These results are briefly indicated in the table of "Chronology of Hebrew Literature" at the opening of the volume.


Consideration of Israel's inheritance must begin with the rejection of the idea, which has been wide-spread in recent times, that there is a primitive tendency toward monotheism in the Semitic race. Wherever we are able to get a glimpse of the most ancient Semitic life, whether under the simple conditions of the desert camp or in the rich cities of Babylonia and Phoenicia, worship is rendered to many beings. Paton classifies the spiritual beings whom the early Semites worshiped, aside from their ancestor-worship, as: powers inhabiting physical objects, such as Ba'al-Shamem, "owner of the sky," Shemesh, "the sun," Sin, "the moon," baals of animals, trees, springs, mountains, etc. ; powers presiding over departments of human life, such as Gad, "fortune," 'Anath, the goddess of War, 'Ashtar (Ishtar, Ashtoreth, Astarte), the goddess of reproduction; powers presiding over mental states, such as Gil, "joy," Wadd, "love." The first were known as baals, "owners"; the second were called by names expressing kinship or authority, brother, father, lord, or master; the third were styled spirits, as taking possession of man.

A prevalent tendency toward henotheism or monolatry, the recognition of one god for one place dr tribe or nation, may indeed be observed among the ancient'Semites as in early Egypt; but this belief generally tended to develop toward polytheism rather than toward monotheism. When one city in Babylonia or Egypt became politically dominant, its god assumed in the mind of the people a certain supremacy as a monarch over the gods of the conquered cities, whose deities were subordinated but not denied existence. With the development of kingdoms the confusions occasioned among the gods are hardly less perplexing than the mixtures in governments and peoples that arise from political, conquest and absorption. If a new city with a hitherto insignificant god becomes supreme, it may be necessary to add to the god's proper name that of some god famous of old in order duly to glorify the upstart.

In the oldest and greatest seat of Semitic culture, Babylonia, such processes early mingled with other tendencies of religious growth to produce a most elaborate pantheon. In Egypt the course of theological confusion that had grown out of twenty centuries of consolidation of the nomes, each with its separate god, was temporarily interrupted by a royal monotheist about 1440 B.C. This Pharaoh, who styled himself Ikhnaton ("Aton is satisfied"), endeavored with all his power to stop the recognition of all other gods than Aton, the god of the sun disk. He even forsook his ancient capital, Thebes, and built an entirely new capital as a center for the dissemination of solar monotheism. Immediately after his death, however, Egypt returned to its old gods, and its religion became more and more debased in subsequent centuries.

While the religion of Israel may show some traces of Egyptian influence, it seems impossible to discover any direct connection between Ikhnaton's brief and abortive attempt to establish monotheism and the rise of Hebrew monotheism some centuries later. Whether or not Marti is right in regarding Ikhnaton's faith as purely intellectual in its origin, it did not spring from any such pro-found experience of the power of God within as that of the Hebrew prophets. The claims of the Egyptian sole god could be satisfied chiefly by reforming worship a thing which could be accomplished for the time by the exercise of despotic power while the claims of the Hebrew god, as set forth by the great prophets, were made upon the heart of man and required the transformation of all life. A study of the history of the Hebrew religion shows its monotheism to be the result of an inner development of the religion itself, not the externally imposed philosophy of any one thinker.

Although the great founder of Israel's religion and the people about him had come out of Egypt, their religion was established by their deliverance from the Pharaoh, and most of its inherited elements bear quite distinctly the marks of the Semitic culture of Southwestern Asia rather than that of the Nile.

The ancestors of Israel had been nomads from time immemorial, before any part of them were forced to taskwork in Egyptian city-building, and all indications point to the unchanging nomad ideas and practices as those that chiefly marked their life in the wilderness after the exodus. Many such tendencies persisted long after the adoption of agricultural and city life in Canaan.

Although the nomads recognize many spirits, they do not develop elaborate sacrificial systems. On pitching camp they may think it prudent to offer some propitiation to the spirits of the place and, on quite special occasions of festival or need, may share their feast of flesh with the tribal god, or make an offering to propitiate some offended deity, but elaborate sacrificial ritual with its stated offerings and libations develops with settled life. When Israel had long been settled in Canaan, great prophets decried the elaborate worship of their day, urging a return to the relative absence of offerings in the wilderness period. The early law, even after settlement in the land, permitted only a rude altar of earth or unhewn stone. We note first as Israel's inheritance from her nomad ancestors familiarity with simple, primitive forms of sacrifice in which many details of her later system were found in germ. She became familiar with a more developed ritual system among the Canaanites after crossing the Jordan.

Circumcision, which in later ages became so distinctively a rite of the Jews, seems to have been a general practice of the peoples in and about Canaan and of the Egyptians also; the Philistines, who had come into Canaan from the northwest, were distinguished from the rest as uncircumcised.

Mourning customs which persisted in Israel down to the time when she had attained her highest religious development are traced by modern students back to the times when men, in fear of the spirit of the deceased, sought by loud lamentations to frighten it away, or, by rending garments, throwing ashes on their heads, and mutilating their bodies, to render themselves unrecognizable in case the spirit of the dead man should return to its old surroundings. Even in modern Christian civilizations mourning customs are peculiarly persistent, so that we need not wonder if the rigid conventions of Israel in this matter were a part of her primitive Semitic heritage.

Many passages in the Old Testament indicate how natural it was for the Hebrews to associate the divine presence with such objects as stones, trees, springs, mountains. A stone might be set up as a beth-el (house of God), and the neighbor-hood of an oak or a spring was an especially appropriate place for a vision of God. The roots of such conceptions may be traced to early animistic ideas, in accordance with which the natural object was the abode of the spirit. ' The persistence of the association may be seen in Palestine and among the Arabs today. The spring or tree is still the shrine to which the people come in times of need to invoke the spirit of some deceased saint whose fame is connected with the place. Such sacred trees are often covered with bits of weather-beaten rags, fragments of the garments of petitioners who seek to come into communion with the saint's spirit and to obtain health, children, or other boon. These modern inhabitants of the land are Mohammedans, nominally monotheists of the strictest sort. Practically they seem to have more faith in local spirits than in the great and distant Allah. Such tendencies, which may be traced back to the nomad ancestors of Israel or the pre-Hebrew Semites of Canaan, explain much in Israel's religious history that has often been perplexing.

The simplicity of worship which was the people's nomad heritage was a part of the simplicity of all life that must always distinguish the denizens of, the desert and its border lands from the neighboring city-dwellers. As the absence of elaborate sacrificial ritual characteristic of the days of wandering seemed to later prophets a true standard in reference to worship, so the rejection of all the refinements and luxuries of Canaan seemed to some religious reformers of later Israel the ideal life. Both the Nazarites, whom Amos counted as holy men sent of God, and the Rechabites, whose steadfastness Jeremiah chose as an example, refused to partake of the fruit of the vine, so characteristic of the agricultural life of Canaan.

The simplicity of life among the ancestors of the Hebrew nation was an ideal made winsome in the beautiful stories of the patriarchs, written at a time when comparative wealth and luxury had become prevalent. Idealized as these stories then were, shot through with moral and religious conceptions that belonged to a later age and were no part of the genuine nomad heritage, they were yet true to that inheritance in their loyalty to simplicity in worship and in all life.

The primitive Semitic nomad religion is not in itself characterized by the moral influence of the divine powers upon their worshipers, however much the memory of its simplicity might furnish a moral motive in a later age. Israel's conception of God's distinctly moral nature and demands is not even in its germ a part of her common Semitic heritage. It was not the Semitic race as a whole which attained and gave to the world the idea that the one God is in his essence moral. It is not because the Hebrew faith is the doctrine of monotheism but because it is the doctrine of ethical mono-theism that it is of supreme significance in the history of civilization.


Before passing on from a preliminary survey of Israel's heritage from her early nomad ancestors, to a more detailed study of the rise and development of her own religion, it will be well to pass the great stages of the nation's history in rapid survey.

a) The pre-Mosaic period (before 1200 B.C.).

The Ammonites, Moabites, Edomites, and Hebrews form the Hebraic group of Semites. The progenitors of these peoples seem to have moved down southwesterly from Mesopotamia to the borders of Canaan about the fifteenth century B.C. °Ammon found permanent settlement on the comparatively well-watered and fertile lands between the Jordan and the desert, Moab on the arable tableland east of the Dead Sea, and Edom in the rocky fastnesses to the south of the Sea. In the meantime it is quite possible that some of the future tribes of Israel made their way into Canaan, but the major part seem to have continued a nomad life in the regions to the south and not far from the borders of Egypt. It is Israel's heritage from this stage of development that we have been chiefly considering.

At length a part at least of the progenitors of the future nation of Israel, driven by need of food, found its way across the border of Egypt and later was forced into task-service under the Pharaoh, Rameses II.

b) The Mosaic period (ca. 1200 - 1160 B.C.).

Not far from the year I200 B.C. those who had been enslaved made their escape from Egypt. Their leader in this movement, known as Moses, had previously spent years among the Kenites in the regions between Egypt and Canaan. The people, uniting with kindred tribes who had probably remained outside of Egypt and with the Kenite tribe into which Moses had married, waged successful war with the Amalekites, another nomad group, and maintained themselves for many years with the fountain of Kadesh as their center. At length conditions east of the Jordan were favorable for an attack, and Moses led his people around the borders of Edom and Moab to the districts east of the Jordan. Here they succeeded in dispossessing the Amorites who, it would seem, had recently crowded the Ammonites away from the Jordan valley to the borders of the desert. A part of the Hebrew tribes made their permanent abode here to the west and north of Ammon.

c) The settlement in Canaan (ca.1160 - 1040 B.C.). —The greater part of the Hebrews eventually. crossed the Jordan and found settlement among the Canaanites; Judah with the Kenites and a remnant of the tribe of Simeon occupied that portion of the central mountain ridge which lay between Jerusalem on the north and the scene of their former wilderness life on the south. Ephraim, Manasseh, and one or two smaller tribes obtained the more fruitful hill country to the north of Jerusalem and south of the plains of Esdraelon and Jezreel, which cut across the mountain ridge of Canaan from, the Mediterranean to the Jordan just south of the Sea of Galilee.

In the hills of Galilee, to the north of Esdraelon, another group of tribes found a foothold, though intermingling greatly with the former inhabitants.

The Canaanites still held the fruitful plain which separated the two northern groups of tribes, and also the stronghold of Jerusalem with a line of towns, reaching down to the Mediterranean plain, that cut Judah off from her northern kinsmen. To the west of Judah, on the coast plain, lay the group of allied city-states of the Philistines, a people who had entered Canaan from the north-west at about the time of Israel's entrance from the east.

In this era Egypt, torn with internal dissensions, had ceased to exercise any control over Canaan, and the Israelites, Philistines, and older inhabitants were left to contend with one another for control. It is not possible to trace the order of events for the next century, but the older sources make it clear that Israel's final predominance was won in part by alliance and absorption of the Canaanites, in part by desperate struggle.

d) The united kingdom (ca. 1040–940 B.C.).-War with the Philistines was the immediate occasion of the uniting of all the tribes under the first king, Saul. David's successful completion of this series of contests, with his conquests of Ammon, Edom, Moab, and his alliances with Phoenicia and other neighbors, gave Israel real national unity and complete dominance for the time. Jerusalem, which David captured and made his capital, was most favorably situated, lying as it did between the northern and the southern tribes. Solomon retained through his long reign most of the territory which his father had won, and he engaged in foreign trade on a scale that gave the capital much magnificence for so small a state.

e) The divided kingdom (ca. 940 722 and 586 B.C.) The liberty-loving tribes of the north, objecting to the despotic rule and severe taxation of the Judean Solomon, revolted after the king's death. They accepted one of their own number, Jeroboam, as their ruler and left to Solomon's son Rehoboam only Judah and the tiny tribe of Benjamin, whose territory lay close to Jerusalem. Depleted Simeon, which had met severe calamity in the period of conquest, had now disappeared as a separate tribal unit.

The relatively strong Northern Kingdom now waged a life-and-death struggle with the Aramean or Syrian power, whose center was at Damascus. Sometimes it was in alliance with Judah, sometimes hostile to it. At length, after two centuries, the more distant and formidable kingdom of Assyria deported a portion of the Israelites, settled pagan peoples conquered elsewhere among the remnant, and made the mixed population thus formed an integral part of the Assyrian Empire.

Judah, in a more sheltered position, continued to abide in the land, sometimes independent, some-times tributary to Assyria, Egypt, or Babylonia, until revolt against her Babylonian overlord, Nebuchadrezzar, led to her destruction in 586 B.C. with the deportation of many thousands of her inhabitants to Babylonia.

f) The exile (586–538 B.C.) After 586 B.C. some 50,000 of the best elements of the Jews were living in Babylonia, and many others were voluntary exiles in Egypt, whither they had fled. In Palestine the peasantry still remained on the Judean hills as a distant and insignificant part of Nebuchadrezzar's great kingdom. In the course of a few years some of those who had fled to Egypt returned, but otherwise conditions continued largely unchanged until Cyrus the Persian conquered Babylon in 538 B.C.

g) The Persian age (538-332 B.C.).--Cyrus marks a new era in human history with his policy of respecting the racial and national traits of the peoples who made up his great empire. Under him, and later under Darius, who organized the empire, the Jews were permitted to rebuild Jerusalem and the temple and to enjoy the local rule of a descendant of the line of David as governor of the sub-province of Judea.

The greater part of the Jews preferred to remain in Babylonia, where they had now become established in the business life of that commercial district; it was chiefly " the people of the land," those left behind, who rebuilt the city and the temple.

At length, about a century after Cyrus' con-quest, an eastern Jew, Nehemiah, who had risen to a position of trust in the Persian court, was appointed governor of Judea with authority to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem and make the city defensible. The carrying out of his mission made possible the separation of Jewish life and worship from that of the neighboring peoples, especially the half-pagan Samaritans. These were the mixed descendants of the old northern Israelites and the peoples whom the Assyrians had forcibly settled among them three centuries before.

h) The Greek age (332–168 B.C.).—When, in 332 B.C., Alexander of Macedon marched from his conquest of Phoenicia to Egypt, Judea fell under Greek rule and, after Alexander's death, became a bone of contention between the Egyptian and Syrian divisions of his empire. For more than a century it remained much of the time under the Ptolemies of Egypt, and then, for a generation, continuously under the Seleucids of Syria, until the mad attempt of the king, Antiochus Epiphanes, to force complete Hellenization upon the Jews led to desperate revolt.

i) The Maccabean era (168 - 63 B.C.). The uprising against Syria was led by an aged priest who was soon succeeded by his son, Judas Maccabeus. Judas, by a series of brilliant victories, gained control of Jerusalem and re-established there the Jewish worship which Antiochus had stopped. After the death of Judas in battle, his brothers carried on the struggle and ultimately gained full independence from Syria, a position retained by their descendants until the eastward advance of Rome brought Pompey to Damascus and thence to Jerusalem. During their rule the Maccabees extended their territory to include essentially the area of the old united kingdom of David and Solomon.

j) The Roman age (63 B.C. - 70 A.D., 135 A.D., and beyond). The year 63 B.C. marks the beginning of Rome's control over Palestine. Pompey, whose aid was sought by rival claimants for the Jerusalem throne, brought the country under Roman supervision almost without a struggle.

In the troubled days of the overthrow of the Roman Republic and the strifes that followed, Palestine experienced many vicissitudes before it came under the rule of Herod as a rex socius of Rome. This Herod was a descendant of the ancient Edomites, who had been forcibly incorporated into Judaism by one of the Maccabean rulers.

With the death of Herod in 4 B.C. his kingdom was divided among three of his sons, who were allowed only the minor title of tetrarch. The failure of the oldest to rule Judea successfully led to the sending of a Roman procurator in 6 A.D.

Sixty years later the corruption of the procurators and their inability to understand the Jewish temper led to the outbreak of a four years' war that ended with the destruction of Jerusalem in the year 70 A.D. The temple worship ceased from that day, but the other observances of the Jewish religion continued in other parts of the land.

Many rabbis established themselves as a religious college and court at Jamnia on the coast plain, and there that discussion and application of the Law which later developed into that great body of authoritative Jewish writings known as the Talmud was continued. Throughout the land, too, the synagogues, which had become the great force for popular religious instruction, continued for centuries to shape the life and thought of children and adults alike.

In 132 A.D. desperate revolt inspired by messianic hopes broke out. After three years of frightful carnage and devastation, Israel's struggles for political independence ceased. The impressive ruins of synagogues in Galilee, dating from the second and third centuries A.D., indicate that even the last war for independence could not destroy the Hebrew religion in the land. Many generations earlier, however, the Jews had carried their synagogue and their ancient writings with them throughout the civilized world; the future of Judaism had come to rest with the Dispersion and so to be independent of the outward changes in Palestine or any other one land.

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