Amazing articles on just about every subject...

Religion And National Life

( Originally Published 1916 )

Saul's heroic struggle against the Philistines, despite early victories, ended in defeat and death. It remained for the next king, David, to become the successful founder of the Hebrew monarchy.

Later tradition made of David a man of lofty spiritual insight such as was actually attained in Israel only after long generations of development. David was a musician and poet, a general and states-man of no mean ability; he was also a loyal adherent of Yahweh, whose will he desired to execute, but in his understanding of that will he was a child of the era into which he was born, at the close of the days of the Judges.

One of the early narratives represents him as being told to go and serve other gods when he was driven across the border of Judea, since he would no longer be on Yahweh's territory. We have already noted that he had in his home a teraphim or household god, evidently an image which could be mistaken for David himself when it was covered in the bed. As king he permitted the savage blood-vengeance of the Gibeonites to fall upon seven of Saul's sons, whose dead bodies hung a gruesome sight from spring till autumn, in order to appease God's wrath and so relieve a famine that had oppressed the land.

Of David's outlaw life as chief of a band of freebooters, of his ruthless methods in warfare, and of his adultery with Bathsheba and his dastardly murder of her husband we need only remind our-selves in order to realize the primitive morals of this early hero. According to a portion of the narrative which many critics count a later tradition, David repented when the prophet Nathan led him to see the true nature of his sin. Even if the penitence be wholly historical, the narrative always puzzles those who are told that David was a man after God's own heart and who do not realize how crude was the apprehension of the divine will in David's age.

Despite the rudimentary character of morals and religion indicated by the early records of the times, the era was one of vital advancement for the religion of Israel. The political unification of all Canaan and the bringing of the ark to the newly won capital city meant a centralized recognition of Yahweh such as had not been known in the generations of struggle for the land. When the king brought the ark to Jerusalem, himself clad in a priest's garment, offering sacrifices and dancing or whirling like a dervish before the sacred symbol, he gave state recognition to the Yahweh religion such as had not been possible in the generations that preceded. Jerusalem was started then on the course of history that makes it today the most sacred spot in the world to loyal Jews and Christians alike, and second only to Mecca in the devotion of Mohammedans.

The fact that one who thus recognized Yahweh won victory for his people on all sides doubtless confirmed the faith of the mass of the Israelites that the wilderness God really ruled in Palestine, as nothing else could have done. David's victories with his public honoring of the God of Israel gave one of the greatest-blows that the local gods of Canaan had received. The building of the temple by Solomon was a most impressive further step in the same direction. It is difficult to over-estimate the wide influence of such visible marks of loyalty to the nation's God in the early days of national unity and strength.

We are not, however, to suppose that Solomon's temple at once became the one legitimate sanctuary in the land. Contemporary evidence shows clearly enough that the worship of Yahweh continued to be carried on at the old high places, and that it was characterized by the old debasing practices, so that to all outward appearances it differed but little from the worship of the Baalim and Ashteroth; nor was the one God the sole object of worship at Jerusalem itself.

The policy of foreign alliance sealed by royal marriages, that David had begun, was greatly developed by Solomon. This necessarily meant a recognition of foreign deities at the nation's capital; the marriage alliances would have proved a fruitful source of international discord if the princesses had been refused the right to worship their own deities. The high places that Solomon built for his foreign wives remained visible witnesses of the worship of other gods three centuries after he and the splendors of his court had passed.

Another aspect of Solomon's reign which tended to nullify the effect of the building of the temple is suggested by the statements in I Kings 6:38 and 7 : I that he was seven years in building the Lord's house and thirteen in building his own. The temple was in fact the royal chapel crowning a great collection of buildings whose extent and character placed a heavy drain upon the resources of a small and young kingdom. The northern tribes saw their labor expended year after year to beautify Jerusalem, which was far more closely identified with Judah than with their local interests and associations. The whole policy of Solomon, who sought to maintain his kingdom by establishing strongholds throughout the land and whose ambitions outstripped the resources of his state, meant for the people away from the immediate neighborhood of the capital loss of liberty, economic and political, such as they could not long endure.

Tradition, which represents David as listening to the guidance of priests interpreting the oracle and of prophets interpreting the moral character and will of God, is silent as to such guidance at Solomon's ,court; it pictures, rather, the prophetic influence which had formerly been active for national unity, now favoring division of the kingdom.

The separation that came shortly after Solomon's death left the temple as the sanctuary of the South-ern and smaller Kingdom, made up of the two tribes that remained loyal to the house of Solomon and of their dependents. The Northern Kingdom adopted two old sanctuaries, about which many sacred traditions clustered, as its special seats of worship. The Jerusalem temple was much of a modern innovation connected with the hated taxation and despotism of Solomon's reign, and doubtless many of the forces of religious as well as political conservatism were with the Northern Kingdom. Even the golden calves may, have found many defenders as the good old religious symbols under which God ought to be worshiped.

After some fifty years of vicissitude for Northern Israel, Omri came to the throne, a ruler who possessed something of the military and political ability of David. Entering into alliance with the old associate of David and Solomon, Phoenician Tyre, he married his son Ahab to Jezebel, the daughter of the Tyrian king. This masterful woman was not content merely to worship her father's god in her new home; she must needs propagate his faith there, so she introduced and made most popular among her husband's subjects the worship of the Tyrian Baal.

Phoenician religion was very similar to the old Canaanite worship, yet we should clearly distinguish the struggle with the Lord or Baal of Tyre, which Jezebel introduced, in the ninth century, from the earlier contest with the local baals of Canaan. They had their prestige, as we saw, through their long connection with the soil and their supposed power to bless or curse the farmer who tilled the land of their several districts. Baal of Tyre came into the land under royal patronage and as the mighty god of a great commercial city whose ships sailed the distant seas and brought back great treasure. In comparison with the Phoenicians the people of Israel were poor and provincial. Those who continued to worship only Yahweh in the simple sanctuaries at Bethel and Dan must have seemed very provincial to the thousands who followed their queen in the cult of her potent god in his temple at the new capital, where Ahab had built his palace.

Jezebel's restless, ambitious spirit did not stop with the introduction of a new fashion of worship. She found her husband disposed to respect the ancient rights of his subjects, however much he might be vexed when one of them refused to exchange or sell his ancestral vineyard which the king wanted to add to his pleasure estate in the fair valley of Jezreel. To the daughter of the king of Tyre such a situation was simple of solution; trump up a false charge against the man, suborn some witnesses, secure conviction and execution, and let the property revert to the crown.

At the crisis when a religion and its associated despotism, foreign to the people of Israel, threatened to establish all that they had revolted against when they split the kingdom, there appeared one of the most significant personalities in the history of Israel's religion. Many picturesque tales clustered about his memory and were treasured by his loyal followers, until at last a number of them found permanent preservation in our Books of Kings. Though the tales are early their character makes it difficult always to distinguish the actual course of events. Enough is clear, however, to make it evident that their hero, who bore the name "Yahweh is God" (Elijah), came from the region across the Jordan, where the ancient pastoral life of Israel had been more fully preserved than in Western Palestine, and that he dared face king and priests with a twofold demand: (I) that Yahweh alone should be recognized in Israel, and (2) that the ancient rights of the people should be respected even by the king.

It is worthy of note that it was on the occasion of Ahab's violation of a subject's right of property, rather than upon the direct issue of Baal-worship, that Elijah denounced in awful terms the coming overthrow of the dynasty. It is significant that the two demands in Yahweh's name were associated in the person and work of the one prophet, Elijah.

In an earlier chapter we have sought to find the roots of ancient Israel's belief in an ethical God, her faith that her God was himself righteous and required righteous dealings among men. We found in the Mosaic age various roots from which this faith may have sprung. In the years of struggle for the land and of the formation of the kingdom it is difficult to find evidence of advance in this direction. Indeed, as we have seen, the influences of Canaanite civilization and of the rude contests waged tended to make other aspects of religion dominant, yet there is adequate evidence that the Hebrew religion never lost its ethical tendency.

In the old oracular poem properly ascribed to the time of the united kingdom (Gen. 49:227) the fate of the tribes is interpreted as due to Yahweh's protecting care or to the violation of his righteous will. An act of lawlessness has cost Reuben his birthright, and the dividing and scattering of Simeon and Levi are due to their violence, probably their treachery in breaking covenant and slaying the Shechemites (Gen., chap. 34) ; Judah holds the royal scepter and Joseph enjoys the blessing of his father's God, who controls the sources of fruitfulness, which had formerly been under the power of the baals of the land.

The narrative of David's court and family life, now forming a considerable part of II Samuel and composed not long after the events narrated, reveals perhaps more clearly than the poem of Genesis, chapter 49, the ethical interpretation of religion " the thing that David had done displeased Yahweh." "And Yahweh struck the child that Uriah's wife had borne unto David, and it was very sick." Even if we must drop out from between these two sentences the whole story of Nathan's rebuke and David's confession of sin, as reflecting the still higher ideals introduced by Hosea and Isaiah, the confessedly early narrative of David's family life still retains the consciousness that God cares for the maintenance of moral standards among men.

Elijah does not come as a preacher of ideals that are wholly new or have been wholly lost in the generations immediately preceding; yet he does stand forth in his great struggle against the rulers of his people as the forerunner of the great prophetic teachers who, a century later, carry his principles far beyond what he taught.

A historical study of the development of Israel's religion gives added meaning to the New Testament emphasis upon Elijah, with his simple message of righteousness, as the forerunner of the deeper and higher revelation that was to follow.

The rebellion of the greater 'part of the nation against the house of David was the assertion of human rights against extravagant and despotic monarchism. The united kingdom made possible freedom from foreign oppression; the division of the kingdom checked internal oppression. Both political changes are ascribed by Israel's historians to the influence of prophets. The spirit that makes human rights the end and holds government and rulers accountable to God for the realizing of this end is the true spirit of Hebrew prophecy, and this comes to dramatic expression in Naboth's vine-yard. It was only on condition of learning the lessons which Elijah enforced that Israel could play an important part in the advancement of civilization.

It was not much later than the time of Elijah's work in the north that a writer, or group of writers, in the kingdom of Judah gathered together the old songs and tales of the people and arranged them in such a way as to tell a connected story from the creation of man, through the origin and development of the chosen people, to the organization of the kingdom. The dominant thought of the whole was Yahweh's continuous control in accordance with the principles of righteousness.

Religious motives made Israel a nation, and it was religious motives that led, two centuries later, to the attempt to tell the story of the nation's origin. The religious outlook attained by the Judean writers in the ninth century B.C. gave this first great attempt at writing connected history a scope that makes it one of the most important landmarks in the story of the world's literature. Four centuries later the Greeks would independently develop true historical literature; but the glory of first writing this had long since been acquired by the historiographers of Judah.

In the early Judean history a childlike tradition of the creation of life is made introductory to the great drama of human sin, suffering, and salvation. Man and woman created by Yahweh for pure fellowship with one another and with their Creator, through the desire of the eye and of the palate and the desire to know evil as well as good, defy their Creator's will and break the bond of fearless fellowship with him; human life becomes a struggle of toil and pain. Sin once sown soon bears its hateful fruit of envy, murder, and all corruption. After many generations, at Yahweh's call, one goes forth from country and kindred in the east to the land of Canaan, there to receive revelations of the divine will and to enjoy fellowship with God in righteous and generous relations with man. The descendants of this man continued for many years in the land, reinforced by further kindred elements from the old home in Mesopotamia, until a portion of them go down into Egypt and dwell there.

The writers of Judah gathered traditions of many origins, but in our present study neither their source nor the amount of historical truth which they may preserve primarily concerns us. We are interested, rather, in the advance that the document shows its writers to have made upon the religious ideas of the century of the united kingdom.

The conception of God embodied in the narratives is in some aspects childlike indeed. He manipulates clay and shapes a man, breathing life into his nostrils; he walks and talks with men and comes down to earth to see what is being done by the builders at Babel. Yet, from the religious point of view, the heritage of Hebrew and general Semitic tradition is molded by ideas that show a great advance upon those of previous generations. Not only is God thought of as guiding human life in the formation of man and the course of human history, but his purposes include man's moral life. His obedient followers are characterized by hospitality to the stranger, self-sacrificing generosity to a younger relative when a conflict of interests arises, persistence in seeking the divine blessing, faithfulness to a human master, and respect for the marriage relation. For Joseph to be unfaithful and sin with his master's wife would be to commit "great wickedness and sin against God."

The old stories, it is true, do not show an appreciation of all the virtues that might be insisted upon by the later Hebrew prophets or Christian teachers. Abraham lies about his wife and does not dream of chivalrous protection, and the writer does not seem to count it a sin; Jacob exhibits some of the worst vices of his race and but few of its virtues, yet he seems to be the special object of divine care. Negative examples such as these indicate the undeveloped character of ethical thinking revealed by the narratives, but do not vitiate their general worth as giving positive pictures of primitive virtues most winsomely presented.

Continuing through the exodus period, this early strand of Hebrew history is the source for much of our knowledge of the work of Moses already considered. It contains a brief code of laws, in Exodus, chapter 34, which it seems to regard as the Decalogue written on the two tables; yet even this early collection of commands is of such a nature that it must have been formulated after the settlement in Canaan, so that it represents the legal side of religion a little later than the time of Moses. These laws deal with matters of cultus and not of morals; they limit worship to the one God, proscribe molten images, direct the observance of the seventh day, and the feasts of unleavened bread, of weeks, and of ingathering at the end of the year, and deal with other similar matters. As was indicated in chapter iii, some of these laws would hardly be applicable to nomad life.

A genuine confidence in God's watchful care and in his just judgments characterizes this document, which it is customary to style the Judean prophetic history. It is justly counted as a part of the prophetic literature of the nation and shows how men of prophetic spirit, in the ninth century before Christ, interpreted God's character and will as revealed in human history.

A generation or two after the composition of the Judean history men of the Northern Kingdom, who were akin in spirit to the Judean writers, made a compilation of early traditions with less of emphasis upon Judah and more upon the tribes of the north. Their interest and purpose were not so broadly historical as those of the Judean writers, being centered even more upon the religious aspects of the past. The dominant personalities through whom God exercised his guidance and the methods of God's communication with them are of supreme interest to these writers.

The writers of the north had advanced consider-ably in their theological thinking beyond those of the Judean history. Bald anthropomorphisms have been removed from the stories; such scenes as the coming down of the Deity to the Garden, Babel, or Sodom, and the wrestling of Jacob at Penuel, have generally disappeared. God, instead, reveals himself through angelic messengers or dreams.

Some of the less worthy moral aspects of the stories have also vanished or been modified; Abraham's misrepresentation concerning Sarah is explained on the ground that she was indeed his sister, the daughter of the same father, though not of the same mother. To us this may not seem to mitigate his conduct, but it does seem to show some dawning consciousness on the part of the narrator that a great religious hero ought not to be guilty of falsehood. In Abraham's treatment of Hagar and Jacob's questionable dealings with Laban the responsibility is thrown back upon the Deity, for Abraham does not expel Hagar until he receives a command, and God's intervention rather than Jacob's cunning is the cause of Laban's worsting.

A notable advance is suggested by the story of the golden calf in Exodus, which seems to indicate that this mode of representing Yahweh is condemned at the time of composition, a century and a half after Jeroboam's setting up of the golden calves at Dan and Bethel. The great prominence of prophets and the emphasis upon their leader-ship of the people in paths of blessing, together with the whole spirit of the document, fully justify the description of it as the Ephraimite prophetic history.

This history contained a much longer law code than the Decalogue of Exodus, chap. 34, which was referrred to above. This second collection of laws, now found in Exodus 2o:2223:19, is commonly styled the. Book of the Covenant; it includes the ritual laws of chapter 34, a considerable body of case laws dealing with civil matters (21:1-22:16), and miscellaneous commands concerning both worship and social duties. In the matter of worship, sacrifice to Yahweh in various places is presupposed, in contrast to the insistence of Israel's later law that such worship must be limited to Jerusalem alone. However, the recognition of any other deities is so drastically proscribed that one feels that the code must have been influenced by Elijah's struggle against the Tyrian Baal and the reform which followed anyone sacrificing to another god is to be utterly destroyed and the names of other gods must not even be spoken.

The laws dealing with social relations mark a great advance upon anything we have previously noted in the moral ideals of Israel's religion. Not only do these regulations denounce such matters as false witness and wrongs done to the poor and unprotected members of the community; they provide that the owners of the land shall leave its fruits for the poor one year in seven, that every seventh day shall be granted to servant and beast of burden for rest, and that active kindness shall be shown even to one's enemy.

Peters well suggests that these prophetic histories "bore the same relation to the actual religion of the people which the works of a few spiritual-minded thinkers, chiefly monks, bore to the actual religion of the mass of the people in Italy or France or Germany or England in the Dark Ages." Their composition does, however, indicate that certain men, probably considerable schools of men, in both Israel and Judah, were progressively attaining and trying to spread among their countrymen high ideals of the divine movement in history and of the character of God and of his followers. They show, too, that these thinkers had gone very far along the road from early Semitic polytheism toward monotheism.

In view of the fact that Elijah and the writing prophets of the following era appear usually alone and in opposition to all that prevails in the religious and moral practices of the people, and even in opposition to most men belonging to the prophetic order, it is especially significant to find in the prophetic histories of the two kingdoms evidence that there was progress in the ethical religious thinking of Israel which found effective expression in the writings of the groups of unnamed historians of both kingdoms.

Home | More Articles | Email: