The Wars Of Yahweh
( Originally Published 1916 )
Intermingling of the tent-dwelling Bedawin and the village-dwelling agriculturalists is a constant phenomenon in Canaan. The traveler meets occasional Bedawins in and about Jerusalem itself, and six or eight miles away on the borders of the wilderness of Judea he may chance upon a considerable encampment of their black goats'- hair tents. East of the Jordan nomad camps and stone-built towns, with their surrounding grain fields, are closely associated. Sometimes the settled inhabitants in these regions are forced to evacuate their villages and seek other homes when the Bedawin raids upon their fields and stock become unendurable. The true nomad prefers his bed in the open tent to any closer shelter, but the fruits of settled agricultural life also attract him irresistibly. When a season of drought makes his usual pasture lands unequal to the support of his flocks, his pressure upon the more settled districts becomes especially severe.
Nomad life from before the dawn of history down to the present day has of necessity been essentially the same, even in its details. The constant ebb and flow of its tide, too, against the borders and far up into the inlets between the towns and cultivated fields of Canaan is ever the same. About the year 1400 B.C. the governor of Jerusalem wrote to his king, the Pharaoh of Egypt: "The king has no longer any territory, the Habiri have devastated all the king's territory. If troops come this year, the territory will remain my lord, the king's, but if no troops come the territory of my lord, the king, is lost." Three hundred years later, when Israel had found settlement in the land, "because of Midian the children of Israel made them the dens which are in the mountains, and the caves, and the strongholds. And so it was when Israel had sown, that the Midianites came up, and the Amalekites, and the children of the east; they came up against them; and they encamped against them, and destroyed the increase of the earth, till thou come unto Gaza, and left no sustenance in Israel, neither sheep, nor ox, nor ass. For they came up with their cattle and their tents; they came in as locusts for multitude; both they and their camels were without number; and they came into the land to destroy it."
So it has been from time immemorial to the present; sometimes it is a night's raid that sweeps back before the dawn; sometimes it is a coming with flocks and tents and a more or less permanent settlement in the land. Despite the persistence of nomad life in Arabia and about its borders, there is always a passing over, near the borders, from pastoral to agricultural life, from the tent village to the stone village. The town-dwellers are fain often to make the best terms they can with their new and undesired neighbors.
Thus it is possible to observe to some extent, even today, the kind of social changes that Israel experienced when she moved from Kadesh to the plateaus and slopes east of the Jordan valley, and then across the Jordan into Canaan. At first she was able to capture but few walled towns and settled chiefly in the open. country. Here, presumably, her tents often continued to be her dwellings. Only after several generations, partly by capture, more often by peaceful penetration and covenant with the earlier inhabitants, did she really come to possess and dominate the land. In this process it was necessary to learn the culture of the soil and all the arts of settled life from those who were ultimately subdued and absorbed.
Among the Canaanites the proper propitiation of the local baals who controlled the fruitfulness of the soil was an important part of the art of agriculture. In accepting Yahweh at Sinai as the covenant God of all the associated tribes Israel had by no means reached the point of denying the existence of other deities. In Canaan crop troubles would be frequent enough to prove that the Hebrew farmer who did not fully recognize by the appropriate rites the long-established baals of the land was reaping only the consequences of his impiety. It may be true, as has been suggested, that anyone who withheld the customary sacrifice would be forced by the majority to perform it or to leave the community to prevent him from bringing misfortune upon his neighbors.
It was doubtless during this period of transition that Israel adopted the observance of the harvest and vintage festivals which later formed a prominent part of her worship of Yahweh, much as Christianity spreading in pagan Europe adopted the practices of old heathen festivals and turned them into Christian memorial days. Long centuries passed before Israel as a whole came to ascribe the fertility-giving functions of the local baals to the God of Sinai. In part the people worshiped the baals, in part Yahweh, and sometimes they did not discriminate much between the two.
Worship of the lords of fertility involved in vine-growing Canaan, as in the Dionysiac festivals of the Greeks, wild excess of wine and all that went with it. In the Canaanite religion the Ashteroth, goddesses of fertility, were worshiped no less than the Baalim. Chastity was sacrificed in their honor and sacred harlots were connected with the sanctuaries. Still further, the offspring granted by the deities must be sanctified by offering the first-born. Not only were the offspring of flocks and herds thus devoted, but child sacrifice was a regular Canaanite practice. The excavations at the old Canaanite city of Gezer, for example, have given gruesome evidence of this, and many passages in the Old Testament show how familiar the Hebrews were with the practice and how at times they adopted it, although their religious leaders strongly opposed it.
Both economic considerations the effort to secure by divine favor good crops, multiplying flocks, and abundant offspring and the gratification of bodily appetites united to draw the Hebrews to the worship of the Baalim and Ashteroth of Canaan, even though they might continue to recognize Yahweh as the great god who had delivered them from Egypt, and had cared for them in the wilderness. Four centuries after the en-trance into Canaan the prophet Hosea was bitterly denouncing Israel for supposing that it was Baal and not Yahweh who gave the grain, new wine, and oil.
In looking back we may see that the adoption of Canaanite worship with its gross excesses was humanly inevitable in the transition from the simple austere life of the wilderness to the relatively complex and luxurious life of Canaan. The ability to accept the good and reject all the evil from a higher stage of material civilization is never widely prevalent in an age of transition. To some strict religionists, as we noted in the first chapter, the only course open was to reject all the distinctive practices of Canaan as evil.
The old narrative of Micah's sanctuary and the migration of the Danites, preserved as an appendix to the Book of Judges, throws much light on the primitive conditions of Yahweh-worship in the early days of Israel in Canaan. We find that an image is desirable and no object of offense as connected with this worship, and that a sanctuary may be set up by any individual or tribe. To officiate at such a sanctuary a member of the tribe of Levi is desirable, but does not seem to be counted necessary. There is no indication in the story that any of these features gives offense to the narrator or participants, although they are directly opposed to those Old Testament laws which prohibit images, limit the sanctuary to Jerusalem, and strictly confine the priesthood to one family group out of the tribe of Levi. It seems clear that such laws were unknown at the time of this narrative.
Subsequent records indicate that ideas similar to those of the old story as to images, place of worship, and priestly functions persisted for generations after Dan's conquest of Laish, even among the best and leading men of the nation, such as Samuel, David, Elijah. The development of the stricter rules of worship will be considered in later chapters.
At Shiloh, in the tribe of Ephraim, the tent of meeting was pitched, or some more permanent and elaborate structure raised, to shelter the ark. Here the sacred symbol of God's presence rested for many years, except when it was taken forth as a palladium into battle in time of direst need. After the capture of the ark by the Philistines and its singular return, it remained long in comparative neglect until David's time.
A survey of the era of the conquest shows that, from certain points of view, there was a retrogression from the Mosaic age. The separation of the tribes into three or four groups not only forced each group to make good its position in the land with comparatively little help from the others, but tended to weaken loyalty to the God of the confederation, who, even in Moses' lifetime, had probably not drawn away the loyalty of the people wholly from old family and tribal deities.
Once during the century between Moses and Samuel we have record of a considerable number of the tribes acting together. This was in the great battle on the plain of Esdraelon, described in the contemporary "Song of Deborah." Even on this occasion nearly as many tribes are condemned for failing to come to the battle as are praised for participating, and some are unmentioned, as though their co-operation was not to be expected. Judah, it would seem, was too fully separated from all the tribes of the north to be thought of as sharing in their struggles. Amid all this separation and consequent weakness the fact stands out clearly in the old victory ode that "To the help of Yahweh" was the cry that could rouse the tribes to any sort of united effort. This fact was significant with promise for the next stage of the people's development.
Even in the first century of transition to settled agricultural life we may recognize the preparation of the people for real religious advance. We have seen the transition fraught with the gravest dangers that the Canaanite life would efface or change beyond recognition the faith that had made a promising beginning at Sinai and Kadesh, and we must recognize that the Canaanite religion brought in elements of worship which continued to be a grave detriment to Israel's religion; yet there was a genuine enrichment of the Mosaic religion from the elements absorbed. This enrichment consisted in part in recognition of human dependence upon divine power in all the new and varied experiences of daily life in agriculture and town affairs. Life was religious among the Canaanites; their places of worship were everywhere in the land. More than a hundred sanctuaries are mentioned, Paton states, in the older writings of the Old Testament, most of which can be shown to have been primitive shrines of the land of Canaan.
Ultimately Yahweh displaced the Canaanite deities at these shrines, and thus the people came slowly to think of him and to worship him in connection with the personal and local affairs of their daily life. It was impossible for the mass of the people even to come to know the great and awful Deity of Sinai's thunder clouds, the God of all Israel, as concerned in their ordinary life and industry, except by the road they traveled of first mingling with his worship that of, the agricultural Canaanites.
The Israel of the time of the conquest was a primitive people without much capacity for large generalizations. Even today the more primitive adherents of the great monotheistic religions of Mohammedanism and Christianity find their religious faith quickened at the local shrines of the saints who touch their consciousness more closely than a universal God.
The forms of worship adopted were demoralizing in the extreme, and yet, after the long struggle of Yahweh and the Baalim, much of the Canaanite ritual was preserved in purified form in the religion of Israel, and its ceremonies became a mighty force; they played a great part in preserving, through darkest days, faith in a God not made with hands, eternal in the heavens.
When Israel had largely made good her position among the earlier inhabitants of Canaan, she was threatened with absorption by the strong coalition of the Philistine city-states that had recently been formed on the coast plain. At this juncture there appeared the most significant figure that had arisen since Moses' death, a century or more before, the seer or prophet Samuel. More or less in association with Samuel there appeared also companies of religious enthusiasts, known as "sons of the prophets," moving about the land with music and song. These figures were symptomatic of a larger religiopatriotic spirit springing up among the people.
Samuel realized the work that must be done, and he recognized in the unawakened giant, Saul, the man through whom the new enthusiasm might be united in effective action. He succeeded in bringing Saul under the contagious enthusiasm of one of the companies of prophets and left him to find his opportunity for action. The time was ripe, and the occasion soon came which made Saul the permanent leader of a far greater coalition of the tribes than that of Deborah's time.
Again, loyalty to the covenant God of Israel played a large part in making possible united action by the tribes. Since this united action resulted in the establishment of the monarchy, and ultimately in complete political supremacy in Canaan, the nation may justly be said to have been born from the religion of Yahweh. The successful founding of the kingdom made it clear to all that the God who had once delivered from Egypt now ruled in Canaan.
The struggles of Israel that marked the century and a half between the departure from Kadesh and the firm establishment of the monarchy tended, no doubt, to emphasize one side of God's nature at the expense of other aspects. We may see in our own day the outbreak of a great war producing a revival of religious faith and worship, affecting many who have been absorbed in industrial activities or pleasures; but the type of religion is exceedingly one-sided. The Lord worshiped is a God of war, invoked, it may be, as a national God, or at best as arbiter among the struggling nations, hardly as the compassionate father of all. Since this is so, we can understand how Yahweh must have appeared chiefly as God of hosts in the days of the life-and-death struggle between the times of Moses and of David.
A poetic fragment quoted in the Book of Num-, bers is ascribed to the Book of the Wars of Yahweh. This lost book, whose name we know only from this incidental reference, was presumably made up of songs growing up in connection with the struggle for Canaan, and may well have contained many odes similar to the Deborah song, and ascribing Israel's victories to the aid of her God.
The stress laid by this age on Yahweh as the God of battles is no direct advance in ideal upon the Mosaic time, yet it was by such rude and narrow paths that the people came to general recognition of the God of Sinai as one able and willing to care for them in the land of Canaan. This recognition was really a very great advance, for on the intellectual side of religion there was perhaps no more difficult step for an ancient Semitic people to take than to dissociate a god permanently from his traditional home. Such dissociation, however, was a necessary advance if monotheism was to be attained.
With the appearance of Samuel and the companies of prophets near the close of this era we take up the history of that phase of Israel's religion which was destined to be the great factor in its higher and universal development. Like nearly all origins, the source of prophecy is obscure. In the narrative concerning Samuel and Saul the statement occurs that he who is now called a prophet was aforetime called a roeh, "seer," and the story indicates that seers were looked upon as a sort of diviners, accustomed for a piece of silver to give aid in finding lost objects or in case of any similar need.
Samuel becomes distinguished in the story from seers of this kind and proves worthy of the title prophet in its late Hebrew sense as a spokesman of God, devoted to the best interests of his people and enlightened to direct their history into new channels. At the same time he is practically priest, officiating at the local sanctuary. In his day priest and seer had not yet been fully distinguished. The chief function of each was to ascertain the divine will and purpose. So far as there was distinction, it was probably chiefly in the means of ascertaining the hidden future. The priest would gain his knowledge by casting the sacred lot or by observing the organs of the sacrificial victims, while the seer would cultivate ecstacy and trance.
The companies of prophets, through whom Samuel works in part, have not appeared in the traditions of earlier times, but henceforth are met occasionally in the history. Samuel is not one of these, and in his action and speech he exhibits nothing of the extravagant emotion characteristic of the early members of the prophetic order. He resembles much more closely Moses, whom the later writers style a prophet, or Isaiah, who did his work three centuries later.
Some have thought of the companies of prophets as of Canaanitish origin, and this may be the case. The word translated "prophet," nabi, quite probably refers by derivation to ecstasy, and the prophesying ascribed to the companies of Samuel's time seems to have been of an ecstatic sort. In the old story of the non-Israelite prophet, Balaam, unnatural excitement seems to have been regarded as the appropriate condition for oracular utterance. Saul when he joins the company of prophets lies all night stripped of his garment, and even as late as Elisha a minstrel might be called on to induce a trance condition in a prophet. The bands of prophets that appear in Israel thus shared the external characteristics of the prophets found among other peoples.
In later Hebrew usage prophet meant a spokesman, one who uttered the message given to him by God. In this sense Moses was more truly a forerunner of the great prophets of Israel than the bands of prophets of Samuel's day. The greater prophets appear as lone figures, not as members of prophetic gilds, and they are notable among the great religious leaders of the world for their relative freedom from trance and ecstatic experience.
The age of transition from the wilderness to settled life was one necessarily of much confusion, marked by the loss of certain virtues and the adoption of many vices, and yet it is possible to trace, through all its obscurity, essential steps in the education of Israel toward the apprehension of the one God whose beneficent control shapes both the history of the nation and the daily life of man in his home and work.