Amazing articles on just about every subject...


Israel's Contribution To Universal Religion

( Originally Published 1916 )

It would be a serious mistake to conclude from our study of the predominant tendencies of post-exilic Judaism that all religious life had come to flow in two or three narrow channels. The charming story of Ruth, probably written during the reforms of Nehemiah and Ezra, shows that not all could sympathize with the rigid separation of Israel from her neighbors demanded by strict legalism. This is the narrative of a more spacious time, when Hebrews might intermarry with Moabites without offense and with the happiest results.

The psalms of the Persian, Greek, and Maccabean periods reflect a many-sided religious life of great depth and beauty. The reflective thought embodied in the various sections of the Book of Proverbs shows that not all the teachers of Israel were absorbed in religious institutions and ritual; there was a distinct class of teachers, "the wise," who frequented the haunts of men like the philosophers of ancient Greece. They occupied them-selves with shrewd observations upon the practical results of human conduct, and endeavored to win young men away from the paths of dissipation and all folly to a life of self-directed industry and continence.

The singular little story of Jonah carries us to a broader and loftier level than any of these, even to the thought of God's unlimited mercy, ready to . reach out to the most cruel city of which Israel had any knowledge, in complete compassion he ought to spare Nineveh, in which were more than sixscore thousand persons who could not discern between their right hand and their left hand.

These and other currents of thought we may discern in the varied literature of post-exilic Judaism without going beyond the limits of the Old Testament. If we pass on to the pre-Christian Palestinian writings, outside of the Jewish canon, we find, in addition to the apocalypses, stirring history in I Maccabees, shot through with vital religious faith and purpose no less inspiring than the spirit of the Books of Samuel. The attractive stories of Judith and Tobit unite religious enthusiasm with the charm of well-told tales. Tobit gives the negative form of the golden rule, "What thou thyself hatest, do to no man" (Tob. 4:15).

From the times after the Roman conquest there have been preserved hymns of faith and devotion in the so-called Psalms of Solomon. Here the old hope of a ruler of the line of David, whose government shall be holy, wise, just, is seen to be still burning.

Under the traditional dating of the Old Testament books and the theory that the divine revelation was limited to just those books which were finally included in the Palestinian and Christian canon of Scripture, the period from about 400 B.C. to the opening of the Christian era was conceived as four centuries of silence. We now find these centuries filled with voices that show a rich and varied religious experience continuing in Palestine, despite and often because of untoward outward circumstances.

Not all the Jews of Jesus' day were typical and confirmed Pharisees or Sadducees, else whence the companies of sympathetic followers ? He deliberately disappointed the expectations of the apocalyptic messianic age; he flouted some of the most sacred institutions of the Pharisees; he taught the life of the spirit and eternal salvation which the Sadducess denied. Yet he found a considerable company who were devoted followers to the, end, and a few weeks after his death thousands of the Jewish nation had become his avowed adherents.

There were, then, many among the Jewish people ready to adopt a religion of the most exacting moral and spiritual requirements, very different from the standards most insisted upon by the scribes. These facts should not be overlooked when we attempt to sum up the permanent contributions of the religion of ancient Israel.

Religion has to do with the relation of God and man so that the character of any religion is determined by its conception of God, of man, and of their connection. With these three aspects of the Hebrew religion our study has concerned itself, and under these three heads we may sum up our results in an effort to appreciate Israel's contribution to universal religion.

Through a period of twelve hundred years we have traced the main features of Israel's idea of God, from the time when he was thought of as a local deity, dwelling in the thunder clouds that wreathed the summit of a mountain, known only to a few nomad tribes. In the deliverance and covenant we found the roots of the idea that this God was himself an ethical being and that Israel's relations with him involved moral standards on her part.

Like all periods of transition to more complex civilization, the change from nomad life to settled agricultural conditions involved grave dangers for Israel, not the least of which was the adoption of the agricultural gods of Canaan. The struggle over this issue was prolonged through several centuries, during which the idea of Israel's God was expanded to include the functions of the Canaanite baals in providing the corn and the wine of the people. From time to time various political influences tended to introduce the worship of foreign deities alongside that of Yahweh or in dis-placement of it. The struggle involved in both of these issues tended to fix the idea that Yahweh belonged exclusively to the land of Palestine and the people of Israel, and they to him.

It was a great and difficult step to develop the simple idea of a nomad god, recognized by a small confederation of tribes, to the more complex functions of the deity of an agricultural and mercantile nation and to transfer his sphere of influence to the land of Canaan. The very things necessarily insisted upon in this transfer fixed certain ideas in a way that made further development in Israel's apprehension of God difficult. Through-out the entire period of the monarchy the mass of the people did not get beyond the idea of a national god, and they were always in danger of recognizing the gods of their neighbors in addition to their own deity.

It was in the growth of the ethical interpretation of Yahweh that the great prophets, seeking to understand the complex movement of nations, came to see the moral necessity for one God controlling these movements, not in the interest of one nation, but in the interest of justice and mercy toward all. Approach it as we may, in the last analysis it is man's moral nature through which he comes to know the one God. It was because Amos loved justice that he first came to see clearly the God of nations; it was because Hosea loved unselfishly that he first came to see the God of unchangeable love.

The downfall of the nations was required to bring to conscious expression the vital faith that the individual man is the object of the divine justice and love. 'Nothing less than exile in a distant Iand, a land whose civilization was already old when Israel became a nation, where the heavens above had been mapped from of old, and whose gods had been honored from the dawn of history nothing less than this experience was the condition of bringing to full expression faith in the one Creator of heaven and earth.

More than six centuries separate Sinai and Babylon, Moses and the Great Unknown. Those centuries saw the development, through the succession of the prophets, of the idea of one God, Creator and Preserver, just and merciful, control-ling the affairs of men in the movement of nations and in the fate of individuals. In those centuries there were developed to completion the broad out-lines of the idea of God which are still the basis of the religion of Israel and of the two great religions which have sprung from the Hebrew faith.

Of the three religions which have spread widely through the world, overleaping national and racial boundaries, Buddhism, Mohammedanism, and Christianity, two rest ultimately upon faith in the existence of the God whose nature and character were progressively revealed in Israel within the centuries from 1200 to 500 B.C., and the third is found wanting as a universal religion especially at this point a definite conception of a personal God.

During the five centuries that followed the exile circumstances tended to obscure the universal idea of God, bought, with such a price, and to bring back the old, popular idea of a god belonging peculiarly to Israel or to the faithful remnant of Israel. It would seem that the Jews who were scattered abroad, mingling in the life of Babylonia or Egypt, were able to preserve larger and nobler ideas of God than those living in the tiny community of Judea, now just a little area about Jerusalem. Here, though the larger conception of the great prophets was never wholly lost, all energies needed to be centered on keeping alive and uncontaminated the visible worship of the God not made with hands. It is not strange that he came to be thought of sometimes as little more than the champion of this small group whom he must preserve and whose glory he must restore in order that his own name might not perish from the earth.

Ideas of the nature of God and the nature of man are always interdependent, and this interdependence can be clearly traced in the history of Israel's religion. At the basis of that religion lay an act of deliverance demanding gratitude and a contract demanding fidelity. In the religion's inception justice was dispensed between man and man in the name of God. In the conflict with baalism debasing license on the one hand and control of the appetites on the other were ever in the issue.

At the time of the nation's birth supine yielding to foreign overlords or patriotic union and resistance had to be chosen, and loyalty to Yahweh was the great rallying-cry to manly action. When the nation was divided, the preservation of long-accustomed right or the yielding to despotism and forced labor was a part of the issue, and the prophet of Yahweh stood for the rights of the people. When the contest with Phoenician baalism arose, the ancient rights of the common people were again threatened by despotic ideals, and the prophet Elijah defended the rights of the small landowners against the king.

In the next century national expansion had given opportunity for one class in the community to take cruel and unfair advantage of another class. In this situation the rights of the common people were made the one supreme demand of God in a way that has made the words of Amos, Isaiah, and Micah come ringing down the ages and will make them sound on until society shall be organized, in some way, upon a basis of economic justice, with protection for the weak from the strong and ruthless.

The relation of nation with nation, as involving moral standards, was hardly less prominent in the words of Israel's great teachers than the moral obligation of class to class. Starting with ideals of merciless conquest which must ever prevail when the nation is thought of as the peculiar and especial care of its god, the prophets came to under-stand that, if justice is with God, governments must deal justly in their relations with one another.

A genuine faith in a moral God of nations involves a true internationalism. The ideal of international union by voluntary federation father than by conquest has recently been traced back to the glorious conception found in the Book of Isaiah Egypt and Assyria at peace, with Israel a blessing in their midst, through the common loyalty of all to the one God of the whole earth. Since the day of that concrete picture, empires have continued to be built through conquest, and never till recent generations have experiments in voluntary federation of peoples, united through common ideals, not seeking aggression, been at-tempted on any such scale as pictured in Isaiah. Now at last, after all these centuries, out of the boiling cauldron of world-conflict, practical men are seeking ways and means for the realization of the prophet's dream for humanity.

Israel's ideal for man was one that included more than these things. It was an ideal which could never be satisfied by a righteous economic order or a righteous international system. Hosea knew better than to stop there; he saw that life's solution lies within the heart of man and that only as men come to know the God of limitless mercy can they reach their destiny. Jeremiah saw that there must be the response of the individual heart to the divine heart; that no merely national covenant was safe unless its provisions were written in the hearts of the separate members of the nation, from the least of them even unto the greatest of them.

The author of the poem on the Suffering Servant had learned the deepest lesson of all life the truth that one being can draw another upward only as the one is willing to be despised and rejected, smitten for the sins of others.

At length some of Israel's seers learned that man's full destiny could not be attained in this house of flesh, and came to conceive the individual life in terms more worthy of its capacity, as capable of continuance in higher fulfilment beyond.

Leaders of thought in the present generation are at last apprehending the social message of the religion of Israel; but we listen long and hear faint echo in our generation of the higher truth of Hosea, Jeremiah, and the Suffering Servant, or of the hope of the fulfilment of life in the hereafter.

Such were some aspects of Israel's conception of God and man which make her writings an ever-new revelation of the nature of God and of the possible destiny of man; but high and true conceptions of God and man do not of themselves make a religion, for religion involves conscious relation between God and man.

Human relations are maintained through various forms of intercourse; it may be the ordinary intercourse of business and social life; it may be the sharing of the deepest things of the soul in private converse, public address, or written book, or through the medium of music and art, or, again, through carrying out the purposes of another. Similarly men seek to maintain relations with their gods by 'various forms of intercourse and expression.

Israel inherited a, simple sacrificial system, resting largely on the idea of sharing with the tribal god at the communal meal. In Canaan they came to recognize their God as the giver of all the bounties of crops and fields, and to honor him with varied offerings at different stated feasts. Ready to devote the most precious to him, they were taught that he did not desire the bloody offering of human life such as their neighbors were wont to make.

The sacrificial ritual assumed more and more elaborate detail, but whether the offerings were thought of in the primitive way, as a social meal with the Deity, or as gratitude for blessing, or acknowledgment of sin that must be expiated at cost, mere sacrifices were not the only means of intercourse with the Deity; the less material expression of the heart in prayer and in music and song was early a part of the attempt to maintain deep and true relations with God.

In their zeal for the recognition of God's moral character through carrying out his moral purposes the ethical prophets poured scorn on all sacrifice or hymn, yet their followers saw the need of visible means of intercourse with the Unseen and formulated a purified worship, through which the very ethical principles of the prophets might in part be expressed.

Personal converse, in which God spoke to the heart of the prophet and the prophet answered from the heart, was the basis of the higher prophetic religion. Jeremiah, especially, has permitted us to know the details of his intercourse with his God, to whom he went with every anxiety and complaint and in whom he found consolation when he stood alone among his own kindred and familiar friends.

We may find the elaborate formal worship of post-exilic Judaism tending to defeat its own ends, by its very elaborateness and formality putting God far off from man; but as students of the history of Israel's religion we may not overlook the fact that through this rigid worship and men's utter-most devotion to its maintenance, loyalty to the God not made with hands, eternal in the heavens, was preserved through long centuries of disappointment. These apparently sterile centuries had their own part to fulfil in bringing in the fulness of time when one might declare, "Neither in this mountain, nor in Jerusalem, shall ye worship the Father. God is a Spirit; and they that worship him must worship in spirit and truth." Now, at last, the unseen God was made visible to man in the person of his Son, and the hour was come when the faith which had been developed and sheltered at Jerusalem should be spread throughout all the world.

Home | More Articles | Email: info@oldandsold.com