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The Deliverance And The Covenant

( Originally Published 1916 )

The deliverance from Egypt and the events following in the wilderness marked for the Hebrews the beginning of their national religion. The national historians differed as to whether their ancestors had known God as Yahweh before their sojourn in Egypt, but they agreed that he became their national God and they his people by the deliverance and the covenant at his sacred mountain. To the prophet Amos this was the proof that Yahweh had known Israel alone of all the families of the earth; to Hosea it was the father's care for a tenderly loved child. These and other prophets pointed back to the wilderness as the place where Israel was won a pure bride and where her religious practices were simple and uncorrupted.

The national historians, writing centuries later than the events, ascribed to this period a formulation of laws and an organization of worship that is quite out of harmony with the prophets' direct appeals to the consciousness of the nation and with the subsequent history as indicated in the earliest sources.

To determine with certainty just which elements of the Hebrew religious belief and practice date from the wilderness period and which are of later origin is impossible with present knowledge; yet most recent writers agree that a source of the differences which mark off the religion of Israel from all others is to be found in the experience of the deliverance from Egypt and the covenant at the mountain.

Budde emphasizes the covenant, a contract voluntarily made, as the basis for the moral appeal in the religion. When a god is thought of as be-longing always to a tribe or people, as, for example, Asshur, god of Assyria, Marduk, god of Babylon, Chemosh, god of Moab, the deity cannot cast off his people if they are unfaithful to him. He may show his anger by permitting them to suffer defeats and losses, but in the end his glory and theirs are indissolubly united; their destruction might leave him without any to pay him honor, and might even obliterate his name from the earth. In the case of Israel and Yahweh there was no such inherent connection. He had voluntarily chosen them when he existed apart from and independent of them, and they had voluntarily accepted him as their God. It was a marriage, a contract, a covenant. Now if either party breaks a contract the other is free.

Paton emphasizes the threefold account of Yahweh's appearance to Moses when tending the flock of his father-in-law as agreeing in the central point of the revelation of Yahweh's determination to deliver Israel from Egypt and to give her the land of Caanan. He finds in this two new and vital points: the first of these is the fact that a deity upon whom the people had no vital claim had compassion upon them when they were oppressed. This, he says, "was a new sort of divinity in the Semitic world"; "he was a god with a moral character who transcended the ancient limitations of tribal religion." The second point is that the deliverance shows this deity more powerful than other gods no local baal limited in action to one district. "In these two new ideas that were destined to work a revolution in the history of religion," he adds, "we cannot fail to recognize a genuine revelation of God to Moses."

Whether Israel's ancestors had previously known their God as Yahweh or not, the coming of the conception of God's character and nature as of one willing and able to deliver the oppressed tribes from mighty Egypt may well be counted the true birth-day of the Hebrew faith. The nation's later religious teachers made no error in laying the stress they did upon the exodus.

Montefiore, following Wellhausen in part, makes prominent the establishing of the sanctuary at Kadesh and the giving of decisions there upon matters brought for settlement; he infers that Moses thus taught social morality as a part of Yahweh's religion, and he finds that the Mosaic religion contained the conception that Yahweh was just, as well as powerful, that he alone was to be worshiped by all the tribes of Israel and would not only lead them to victory, but, through his interpreters, would become Israel's lawgiver and judge.

We may find truth in each of these views; a combination of their truths will probably give us a more adequate conception of the real significance of Moses and of his period than any one of them alone.

The contract or covenant idea of Israel's relation to her God gives her religious teachers in subsequent centuries ground for most effective demand for an exclusive devotion to the national God, a demand which appeals to some of the best elements of man's moral nature. The thought of this God as not belonging by nature to Israel proves a basis also for ultimate monotheism. Of itself, however, this one source affords no complete and adequate explanation.

Emphasis upon the compassion of Yahweh in the deliverance from Egypt is equally justified by the teaching of Israel's prophets and equally vital in any satisfactory explanation of the origin of the Hebrew religion. Again, there is ground for stressing the significance of Moses' work in establishing justice among men as the representative of God. We may recognize that the holding of a tribunal at a shrine, in the name of a god, was familiar to the nomad Arabs generally and that Moses' activity in this respect was no new and distinctive feature in the Yahweh religion; yet we may well believe that the priestly function of Moses in giving judicial decisions at the sanctuary served to supplement his prophetic teaching of God's compassionate choice and the influence of the covenant idea as one of the sources of Israel's later religion.

We must draw our conclusions as to the character of the social morality fostered by the work of Moses from later indications, since we cannot with certainty trace individual laws back to his time. It is true that Peters, in his recent Religion of the Hebrews, ably defends the Mosaic authority of the essence of the Ten Commandments found in Exod. 20:1-17 and Deut. 5:6-21, but most scholars are convinced that even this brief code contains elements that belong to a later era of social development.

The exact era when particular laws were first enunciated in Israel is a matter of quite secondary importance in comparison with the fundamental questions which we have been considering. The discovery of the law code of King Hammurabi, who ruled Babylon centuries before the time of Moses, has shown that the laws of the Pentateuch would hardly be Moses' most distinctive contribution, even if they had all been formulated by him. In some cases the close parallelism between these older Babylonian laws and those of Israel shows that at some stage the Hebrews received from the Canaanites or other Semites ideas of legal justice that were far more ancient than the age of Moses. In other instances Israel's code even represented a less highly developed stage of social justice than that of ancient Babylonia. In the matter of mitigating the cruelty of penalties, however, the Hebrew laws show an advance upon those of Hammurabi.

In the present study the great law codes will be considered in the era when they were certainly already formulated and made known to the people. In connection with the era of Moses we limit our consideration to the ethical spirit lying at the roots of Israel's later legal system. Peters notes that the moral commands of the Decalogue, the sixth to the tenth, can all be paralleled in the famous confession of the Egyptian religion by which the soul of the dead was to vindicate himself before Osiris, averring that he had not stolen, murdered, etc. He thinks that Moses may have derived a suggestion of a sacred law from Egypt. The view that intercourse with the Egyptians might be the source of Moses' ideas of morality was already advocated many years ago, and more recent study of the ethical side of Egyptian religion tends to strengthen the inference.

Hundreds of years before the exodus, at about the time of Hammurabi, when social justice had been embodied in so excellent a law code in Babylon, social prophets had appeared in Egypt and social justice had even become the official doctrine of the state. In Ikhnaton's brief monotheistic reform a few centuries later "truth" and "justice" appear as prominent ideals.. Although Egypt had already returned to her old gods several generations before the Hebrew exodus, the ideal of god as a just judge not accepting a bribe, uplifting the insignificant, [protecting] the poor," was one that animated the prayers of the poor in Egypt at the time of the Hebrew oppression and deliverance. We may reasonably infer that some Egyptian ethical influence was united with the experiences of the wilderness, where Yahweh was thought to dwell upon the cloud-enshrouded summit of his sacred mountain, in the preparation of Moses for the revelation which he received at the flaming bush, and that this helped to fit him for his administration of justice at the Kadesh sanctuary. This administration, as we have noted, helped to fix at the very roots of the Hebrew religion the jdea of Yahweh as one who cared for human rights.

Of religious institutions, practices, and objects, we have noted in the previous chapter that simple sacrifices, the rite of circumcision, and the tendency to associate mountains, springs, stones, and trees with the divine presence and revelation to man, were a part of the people's racial heritage.

The simple spring festival of the Passover, with its lamb consumed between evening and morning, is to be recognized as a part of the ritual that dates back to the life of the wilderness. It resembles closely the sacramental meal of Arabian paganism in its general form and in some details and well illustrates that primitive form of Semitic sacrifice where nothing is offered as tribute to the god, but where he shares the communal meal with his people. The original character of the ceremony is accordingly preserved in the Lord's Supper of Christianity, although modified in form; it is a "sacrament" and a "communion."

Other of Israel's annual feasts show by their character or history that they are of later origin. Feasts of harvest and vintage, for example, find place only in agricultural life. The Sabbath, too, as a day of cessation from regular labor is an institution which the nature of nomad life renders impracticable. Hebrew literature connects the Sabbath with the new moon, and Babylonian writings show that the times of the moon's changes had a certain significance as days when some sorts of activity were taboo, much as in the case of Friday among the superstitious today. That the Hebrew Sabbath was connected with the phases of the moon in its origin seems clear, and it may have been a modified form of the Babylonian shabattum, or time of the moon's change. Babylonian ideas had a far more direct opportunity to influence Israel after the settlement in Canaan than during the wilderness period; hence this line of consideration also favors the probability that it was after the period considered in the present chapter that the institution of the Sabbath appeared in Israel. In any case its distinctive significance in the Jewish religion is hardly to be traced to the Mosaic era.

Of religious places and objects the mountain of Yahweh, known to different Hebrew writers Sinai and Horeb, is first to be noted. Here Moses had his vision at the bush, and hither he led his people to meet with the God who had wrought their deliverance from Egypt. Christian tradition has placed the mountain in the little peninsula between the two arms of the Red Sea, but a careful study of all the Biblical data makes it more probable that it was one of the volcanic peaks south of the Dead Sea, and hence nearer to the fountain of Kadesh, which would lie to the westward of the mountain. Here some of the awe-inspiring aspects of nature must have united with the memory of recent experiences in Egypt and at the Red Sea to impress the people with the majesty and power of the God who made his especial abode upon this mountain summit and yet had been able to bring calamities to the Egyptians, distant many days' journey across the desert. While their God's power must have been thus recognized from the outset as not limited to the one district, here was his peculiar abode where he especially revealed himself to his chosen interpreter.

After the people had crossed the Jordan, their poets still for long delighted to picture Yahweh as coming in the majesty of cloud, lightning, and thunder from his storm-wreathed mountain seat to the deliverance of his people. Centuries after the settlement in Canaan, in his loneliness and despair, the true prophet of Yahweh, Elijah, journeyed to Horeb for a new vision of the God who had at first revealed himself there.

For the mass of the people to conceive their . God as going with them and taking up his abode in Canaan where other lords were already established as firmly as Yahweh on Sinai-Horeb was exceedingly difficult. The portable ark and the tent of meeting which sheltered it helped to impress upon the people that Yahweh's presence accompanied them wherever they journeyed and encamped. The old song for the taking up and setting down of, the ark is counted one of the earliest literary fragments of Israel and very probably dates from the period of the wilderness:

Rise up, O Yahweh,
And make thine enemies to flee,
And let them fly who hate thee.

Return, O Yahweh,
And bless the myriads
Of Israel's clans.

At any rate the ark of Yahweh's presence seems clearly to come from the Mosaic time. Here again there is the possibility of suggestion from a some-what similar object in Egyptian religious symbolism.

The contents of the ark have been the object of much speculation in recent years. If the Decalogue in any form dates back to the Mosaic era, we may accept the later tradition that it was inscribed upon stone tablets placed in the ark. It has been recently argued in favor of the Mosaic character of the "Ten Words" that there was no favorable opportunity for the replacing of any earlier contents of the ark by such tables between the time of Moses and the time of written reference to the tables in the ark. Others surmise that the chest originally contained some uninscribed sacred stone or stones, a beth-el an earlier relic which Moses adopted as a symbol somewhat as Mahomet, despite his lofty doctrine of the spiritual Deity, still retained the Kaaba or sacred stone of Mecca. All this is uncertain inference; the ark itself and the tent of meeting are all of which we can feel at all sure as symbols of God's presence when Israel moved away from the sacred mountain.

Late priestly tradition constructed in imagination an elaborate portable sanctuary, the tabernacle, after the model of Solomon's temple, and arranged the wilderness camp symmetrically with this as the center. The earlier history knows only a tent of meeting, pitched without the camp, whither individuals went to consult God and where Moses went to speak with him face to face.

The stay at Sinai was comparatively brief; the spring of Kadesh, whose name "Sacred" or "Sanctuary" suggests the ancient character of the place as one of the sacred springs of which mention has been made, formed the center of Israel's life during the major part of the wilderness period. Here, as we have seen, Moses laid the foundation of Israel's social morality as he dispensed justice in the name of Yahweh.

While critical study of the sources of Hebrew history follows the earlier prophets of the nation in denying to the Mosaic age the elaborate theocratic organization of society and worship ascribed' to it in later tradition, the true sources of the highest development of Hebrew religion are to be found in the work of Moses. In the name of the God of power and compassion he led the tribes out of bondage to freedom, brought them into voluntary covenant relation with this God, established his worship with the simple forms congenial to a life of nomad character, taught the people that this God was not limited in his presence to one sacred spot, and for many years administered justice as the agent of the Deity.

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