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Religion And Law

( Originally Published 1916 )

Isaiah's faith that Yahweh would not suffer his city and temple to be captured was remarkably vindicated when, in the year 701, the hosts of Sennacherib suddenly withdrew from Palestine. Hezekiah the king and the people, too, must now have been much under the influence of the great Jerusalem prophet who had stood calm in his confident faith when it was clear that no human hand could deliver the land from its invaders. A brief general statement in the narrative of Kings suggests a sweeping destruction at this time of the places of worship outside of Jerusalem and of the ancient Canaanite symbols associated with them. Later conditions suggest that the destruction could- hardly have been as complete as this indicates, yet there can be no question of the genuineness of Hezekiah's attempt to carry out the will of God, as interpreted by Micah, as well as by Isaiah.

Whatever may have been the reforms that Hezekiah undertook and supported throughout the remainder of his reign, they were nullified when his son Manasseh entered upon his long years of rule. He is credited with restoration of the old Canaanitish practices and with the introduction of some foreign ideas as well. Solomon had provided places of worship for his foreign wives hard by Jerusalem. Ahab had added to Israel's tendency to recognize the old lords of the land or to worship Yahweh after the manner of their cult, the royal recognition of the Tyrian Baal. Manasseh introduced ideas and practices characteristic of the more distant Euphrates valley, when he set up altars for the gods of the heavenly bodies in the courts of the temple.

It was customary in ancient Babylonia , to arrange the images of the deities of conquered peoples as a kind of court of subject princes about the god of a victorious city. Some such idea as this may have been in Manasseh's mind when he introduced altars of other gods into the temple courts, but these were the gods of the race to which he was subject, and it seems, rather, that he sought to secure the favor of Assyria and her gods in addition to that of his own deity, whose deliverance during Hezekiah's reign had not assured the independence of Judah for many years.

It is very difficult to maintain pure henotheism in the vicissitudes of international conflicts. When one's own people are in dire need and the followers of other gods are more numerous and mightier, it seems prudent to seek the favor of these gods as well as of one's own. Manasseh seems to have been very cosmopolitan in his selection, if we are right in inferring from the name of his son Amon that he recognized the Egyptian god of this name as well as the lords of Assyria and Babylonia.

From a relatively early time in the national history of Israel the effort had been made to suppress those who used the widespread practices of augury and enchantment to secure the favorable action of spirits. Ecstatic practices there might be among the accredited prophets of Yahweh, but the followers of his religion were early comparatively free from the chicanery and base dominance of those who practiced enchantment and claimed to be possessed by familiar spirits. All such debasing and misleading superstition was encouraged by Mai Manasseh's fostering of Canaanitish worship and his introduction of foreign religious ideals.

Child sacrifice had been familiar to Israel ever since her settlement among the Canaanites, who practiced it so freely, and it had been adopted from time to time by men of Israel. The idea lying behind this practice may be a noble one willingness to devote that which is dearest to the god. It is so pictured in the story of Abraham ready to sacrifice Isaac, and in Micah's dramatic presentation of penitent Israel questioning whether the most precious possession should be offered in expiation of the soul's sin.

The early Judean code in Exodus, provides that the first-born sons shall be redeemed, adopting the principle that all first-born belong to God, but modifying it in its application to human children. The story of Abraham's sacrifice told in the northern history is similar in its teaching, since the lamb is substituted for Isaac. It is clear that the religious consciousness of Israel could not abandon the deep-seated tendency to human sacrifice except on a theory of substitution. King Ahaz does not accept the theory and sacrifices his son in the fire. Micah's substitute of justice, kindness, and humility was much less likely to be acceptable than the more tangible one of the early law. Manasseh's support of all debasing superstition was especially marked by the practice of child sacrifice.

Allusions to current conditions in Zephaniah and the earlier sermons of Jeremiah indicate that Manasseh's religious eclecticism continued to prevail for some twenty years after his death. Prophetic messages from the very years of his reign are almost lacking, probably because his welcome to a large number of cults could not tolerate any teachers who insisted on the exclusive recognition of one God in Judah. Of the innocent blood which he shed till he had filled Jerusalem, that of loyal prophets may well have been a part. Late tradition recounts the sawing asunder of Isaiah, whose life may have extended into the early years of Manasseh's reign and then have been violently ended. Micah probably continued to prophesy until the early years of this tragic time.

To ambitious rulers eager to bring their nation into full association with other peoples the exclusive demands of Yahweh as interpreted by the great prophets from Elijah to Micah seemed hostile to the state. To the people the prophetic insistence on morality rather than religious rites now time-honored must have seemed nothing short of impious. The priests whose living depended upon the abundance of sacrifices, of which they received a portion, and whose mercenary character had been so bitterly denounced by Micah, and the prophets who interpreted the divine purpose as a profession, found their livelihood threatened by the type of teaching given by Isaiah and Micah. Political policy, religious conservatism, and vested interests three mighty forces in any age were all opposed to the reforms undertaken by Hezekiah. Under Hezekiah's son Manasseh all these interests enjoyed a riot of revenge for their temporary restraint, and the reaction brought conditions worse than those which the prophets had attacked.

Still, as we noted in the last chapter, there must have been loyal followers of the great prophets who jealously treasured their sermons. If such men attempted to work in public, they were soon cut off. Among them there were some who believed that the worship of the one true God of Israel could be safeguarded by law. They would not attempt such an impossible thing as substituting justice, mercy, and humility for accustomed forms of worship. Rather, they would point out how such traits might be realized in the accustomed worship, modified and purified.

Filled with the ideals of the prophetic historians who in north and south had gathered the ancient traditions of their people into the two great histories that told the story of the rise of Israel as Yahweh's peculiar people, and prizing, too, the brief codes of law that these histories embodied, these men set themselves to compose a complete legal manual for the everyday life of the Hebrews. This was designed to secure the recognition of the one righteous God in a purified sacrificial worship and to apply his principles to the duties of daily' life.

They made the law code of Exodus, chapters 20 to 23, the basis of their work, embodying with it other legal matter that had been handed down orally or in writing and evolved altogether a noble code of law, admirably adapted to meet just the needs that had come to such complete dominance in the reign of Manasseh.

In one respect they felt forced to nullify what their basic code permitted, the erecting of altars to Yahweh in various places (Deuteronomy, chap-ter 12; Exodus 20: 24). To earlier generations the worship of Yahweh in any place hallowed by his peculiar presence in the stories of the past, or even in the local high place of any village of his people, seemed the right and acceptable practice. Our study has shown that such local worship was likely to become confused with that of the baal of the place and was certainly saturated with the licentiousness of Canaanite nature-worship.

Despite the foreign cults which had been introduced into the temple at Jerusalem, it seemed to the compilers of the new code that worship here might be so controlled as to be kept pure, and so they limited sacrificial worship to the central sanctuary. This required provision for killing and eating meat away from the altar. In earlier times all eating of meat had been a sacrificial act, but now the only requirement made is that the blood shall be poured out on the earth as water.

Worship of any but the one God is to be stamped out by the death penalty, as Jehu had attempted to destroy worship of the Tyrian Baal and as Manasseh had suppressed the public activities of the Yahweh prophets. The laws are especially directed against the worship of sun and moon and all the host of heaven, and also against child sacrifice, divination, and sorcery, just the practices which the narrative of Kings connects so prominently with Manasseh's reign.

The code does not, however, confine itself to matters of worship and its purification. It is permeated throughout with the moral conception of God and of human obligation which the prophets had made paramount in their teaching. It does not suggest, as they did, an antithesis between worship and righteousness, but contemplates a spirit of justice and mercy in worship as well as other departments of human activity. The slave, sojourner, fatherless, and widow shall share in the joyous harvest festivals with the freeman and his family. Lost property shall be carefully guarded for its owner; building law provides against unnecessary accident; the hired servant is to be paid promptly; bribery and injustice to the defenseless are forbidden; a general tax for the support of the poor is imposed upon the fruit of the land.

That noble decalogue which we commonly style the Ten Commandments probably assumed the familiar form in which it appears in Exodus 20:I17 at about the time of which we are now speaking. In contrast with the earlier codes of chapters 34 and 20: 2223 :19, it shows the control-ling interest of eighth-century prophecy, making moral requirements more prominent than ritual. It has not yet crystallized into absolutely fixed form, for in Deuteronomy chapter 5, it appears in slightly different form, the most notable variation being in the humanitarian ground there urged for the observance of the Sabbath.

In Deuteronomy the Decalogue serves to introduce a long address which is itself introductory to the great code we have been discussing. The address as a whole insists above all else upon the unity of Yahweh and his supremacy in heaven and earth, and upon his justice and his mercy manifested toward Israel in her past history. On Yahweh's character and on his love for 'Israel is based the exhortation to obey the great laws that follow.

Previous codes had been brief and often fragmentary guides for conduct, but in this new law-book the effort is made to offer a complete guide for the daily life of the Hebrew, based on the best thought and practice of both the priests and the prophets.

It was probably while Manasseh still reigned, when the purer practice of the Jerusalem temple was being confused by the introduction of foreign cults, and when the voice of true prophecy was stopped by force, that men who shared the human longing for ritual which the prophets had flouted, and who combined with this the prophets' insight into the truly ethical character of God, compiled the great law code of Deuteronomy and prefixed to this the great hortatory address of chapters 5-II.

This work marked a new stage of thought in Israel's religious development, nothing less than regulating the entire life of the individual by divinely sanctioned law.

The occasion was not favorable for the publication of such a book, the existence of which, for the time, it was necessary to keep quite secret. Apparently it was laid away somewhere about the temple, while the conditions fostered by Manasseh continued to prevail during the brief reign of his son and the opening years of his grandson's rule. Then the voice of true prophecy was once more permitted in public; Zephaniah and Jeremiah began to condemn existing conditions in unsparing terms.

By this time there had come to be complete skepticism on the part of some who denied that Yahweh acted at all, either for good or for ill; but the young king, who had now reached manhood, was, in some way, moved to act for the repair of the dilapidated temple. In the course of the work undertaken the law-book composed some years before was brought to light. Whether its compilers were still living we do not know, but now at length the time was favorable for their book to be adopted as the authoritative law of the land. The reforms carried out by the young and ardent Josiah, as described in the Books of Kings, were just those contemplated by the law of Deuteronomy so far as this law could be applied by royal action.

The idolatrous priests and altars, vessels, and symbols, that were in Jerusalem and Judea, even the altars of Yahweh in Judea and in the territory that once pertained to Northern Israel, were defiled, so that worship might be strictly limited to the Jerusalem temple, as 'the new law rigidly ordained. Such provisions for enforcing the outward forms of religion were open to legal enforcement; the inner spirit of the law and its application to individual relations were quite another matter. Nevertheless, now for the first time, the nation was outwardly recognizing Yahweh alone through-out all its borders, and was worshiping him with rites that were freed from the cruel and debasing practices characteristic of the baalism of Canaan. The agricultural feasts and other elements of ritual learned from the Canaanites were now at last a part of the worship of the austere God of the desert, but freed from their old excesses of wine and prostitution they were transformed into harmony with the character of the God who demanded control of the bodily propensities, but had now come to be officially recognized as the giver of the corn and wine of fruitful Canaan.

We regarded it as one of the most notable steps in the progress of Hebrew religious thought when the God of Sinai was conceived as dominant in Canaan too. We counted it an even greater advance step when Amos clearly recognized that the God of Israel was really the God of nations, shaping history according to just purposes. It is a hardly less notable step in progress when we find that the worship of this God has been able to take into itself the old nature-worship of Canaan and to retain its elements of beauty and truth, while so largely removing its less worthy elements.

While Josiah lived this ideal condition in the outward form of religion was no doubt maintained. The king was supported in his exclusive recognition of Yahweh by the prosperity which his people now enjoyed. Assyria, the ancient oppressor, was tottering to her ruin, and, for the time, no other nation interfered to prevent Josiah from extending his rule over the territory of Northern Israel; the mixed population settled there by the Assyrians a century before had already sought to learn the worship of Yahweh as that of the god of the land (II Kings 17:24-33)

Assyria's weakness proved, however, the opportunity of Egypt, whose king determined to annex all Syria, including Palestine. Seeking to stay this step, Josiah met his death fighting bravely in defense of his country's independence. Under Egyptian suzerainty Josiah's unworthy son followed in the vassal steps of his great-grandfather, Manasseh, and reintroduced a great variety of foreign cults. Ezekiel, in 8:9-18, gives vivid pictures of the temple practices as he had known them at about this time.

Like many another promising reform undertaken since, the effects of that of Josiah and the law of Deuteronomy were quickly swept away by the returning surge of all that had been eradicated with such great effort. Despite the shock of the defeat and death of Josiah, who had seemed almost the complete fulfilment of the hope of an ideal ruler on the throne of his ancestor David, the prophetic party was strong enough to place upon the throne a son of Josiah who was in sympathy with the reform, but Pharaoh Necho, returning from the conquest of Northern Syria, took this prince in bands to Egypt and put in his place one who accepted complacently all foreign innovation.

Nevertheless, ground had been gained that could not be wholly and permanently lost. It was much that, for twelve or fifteen years, a law requiring such pure religious and ethical practices had been the actual standard of the state. Henceforth it will be an ideal standard for many, and though the superstitious practices that Deuteronomy had condemned come sweeping back for a time, they are doomed to disappear from among the Jewish people and to be replaced by a type of worship as pure as that demanded by this code.

It is true that reform by law alone cannot deal with the roots of conduct and that such reform, by royal or other external authority, cannot last when that authority is changed or weakened; yet moral and spiritual advances which do not take shape in institutions and laws are likely to remain intangible and evanescent. The Book of Deuteronomy was a most remarkable attempt to formulate new moral and spiritual ideals into a tangible social order intelligible to the ordinary man. It was a most remarkable effort also to use all that was worthy in the existing state and religious order for the realization of a social and religious life that should make possible for the people as a whole the ideals of the prophets which, as yet, only the select few had been able to apprehend.

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