The Origin and Permanent Value of the Old Testament Part 2

Moreover, it is evident that the spiritual revelation which is in part recorded in the Bible was not limited to the Israelitish race or to the twelve centuries represented by the Old and New Testaments. The biblical writers themselves assume this fact. According to the early Judean prophetic narratives, Enoch, who lived ages before Abraham and Moses, was a worshipper of Jehovah (Gen. iv. 26). Cain and Abel are both represented in the familiar story of Genesis iv., as bringing their offerings to Jehovah. One of the chief teachings of the earliest stories in the Old Testament is that men from the first knew and worshipped God and were held responsible for their acts according to their moral enlightenment. History, science, and the Bible unite in testifying that the revelation of spiritual truth to mankind was something gradual, progressive, and cumulative; also that it is dependent upon the ability of men to receive it. This capacity of the individual to receive is, after all, the determining factor in the process of divine revelation; for God's truth and his desire to impart it are always the same. Hence, whenever conditions favor, or national or private experiences clarify the vision of a race or group of men, a revelation is assured.

[Sidenote: _Antiquity of human civilization and religion_]

In the light of ancient history and the result of recent excavations it is possible, now as never before, to study the varied influences and forces employed by God in the past to open the spiritual eyes of mankind to see him and his truth. The geological evidence suggests that man, as man, has lived on this earth, fifty, perhaps one hundred thousand years.

Anthropology, going farther back than history or primitive tradition, traces the slow and painful stages by which early man learned his first lessons in civilization and religion. From the beginning, man's instincts as a religious being have asserted themselves, crude though their expression was. The oldest mounds of Babylonia and Egypt contain ruins of ancient temples, altars, and abundant evidence of the religious zeal of the peoples who once inhabited these lauds. The earliest examples of human literature thus far discovered are largely religious in theme and spirit.

[Sidenote: _Primitive unfolding of the innate religious instinct_]

All these testify that early man believed in a power or powers outside himself, and that his chief passion was to know and do the will of his god or gods. Jesus himself bore witness in the opening words of the prayer which he taught his disciples, that this is the essence of religion. It was natural and inevitable that primitive man, with his naive view of the universe, should believe not in one but in many forces or spirits, and that he should first enthrone the physical above the ethical and spiritual. It is the instinctive tendency of the child to-day. The later identification of the divine powers with the sun, that gave light and fertility to the soil, or with the moon, that guided the caravans by night over the arid deserts, or with the other heavenly bodies, that moved in majestic array across the midnight sky, was likewise a natural step in the evolution of primitive belief.

[Sidenote: _Reasons why Babylonia developed an early civilization_]

Civilization and religion in antiquity developed, as a rule, side by side. The two great rivers, the Tigris and the Euphrates, commanding the trade of the north and the south; proximity to the desert with its caravans of traders going back and forth from the Euphrates to the Nile; the rich alluvial soil, which supported a dense population when properly drained and cultivated; and the necessity of developing in a higher degree the arts of defence in order to maintain the much contested territory,--these were a few of the many conditions that made ancient Babylonia one of the two earliest if not the oldest centre of human civilization. The commercial habits and the abundance of the plastic clay, which could easily be moulded into tablets for the use of the scribe, also fostered the early development of the literary art. The durability of the clay tablets and the enveloping and protecting qualities of the ruined mounds of ancient Babylonia have preserved in a marvellous way its early literature. The result is that we can now study, on the basis of contemporary documents, this early and yet advanced chapter in that divine revelation, the later culmination of which is recorded in the Bible.

[Sidenote: _Progress during the period of city states_]

It begins as far back of Moses as he is removed from us in point of time. Its political background at first is the little city states of Babylonia, each with its independent organization and its local schools of artists, whose products in many respects surpass anything that comes from the hands of later Semitic craftsmen. Each city had its temple, at which the patron god of the local tribe and district was worshipped. In some places it was the moon god Sin, as at Haran and Ur beside the desert; elsewhere, as at Nippur, Bel, or at Eridu near the Persian Gulf, Ea, the god of the great deep, was revered. In the name of the local deity offerings were brought, hymns were sung, and traditions were treasured, which extolled his might. The life of these little city states centred about the temple and its cult. To make it more glorious the artisans vied with each other, and the kings made campaigns that they might dedicate the spoils to the deity.

[Sidenote: _The growth of extensive empires_]

In time, perhaps as early as 4000 B.C., certain more energetic and ambitious kings succeeded in conquering neighboring cities; they even broadened their boundaries until they ruled over great empires extending to the Mediterranean on the west and the mountains of Elam on the east.

In the name of the local god, each went forth to fight, and to him was attributed the glory of the victory. Naturally, when the territory of a city state grew into an empire, the god of that city was proclaimed and acknowledged as supreme throughout all the conquered territory. At the same time the local deities of the conquered cities continued to be worshipped at their ancient sanctuaries, and many a conquering king won the loyalty of his subjects by making a rich offering to the god and at the temple of a vanquished foe.

[Sidenote: _Its effect in developing the pantheon and popular theology_]

The logical and inevitable result of political union was the development of a pantheon, modelled after the imperial court, with the god of the victorious city at its head and the leading deities of the other cities in subordinate positions. When, during the latter part of the third millennium before Christ, Babylon's supremacy was permanently established under the rule of Hammurabi. Marduk, the god of that city, was thus placed at the head of the Babylonian pantheon. The theologians of the day also recast and combined the ancient legends, as, for example, those of the creation, so as to explain why he, one of the later gods, was acknowledged by all as supreme. A relationship was also traced between the leading gods, and their respective functions were clearly defined. Corresponding to each male deity was a female deity: thus, the consort of Marduk was Ishtar, while that of Bel was Belit.

Furthermore, the ancient myths appear to have been, coordinated, so that from this time on Babylonian, theology presents a certain unity and symmetry, although one is constantly reminded of the very different elements out of which it had been built up.

[Sidenote: _Development of ethical standards and laws_]

Parallel to the evolution of Babylonian religion was that unfolding of ethical ideals and laws which finds its noblest record and expression in the remarkable code of Hammurabi (about 2250 B.C.). In its high sense of justice; in its regard for the rights of property and of individuals; in its attitude toward women, even though it comes from the ancient East; and above all in its protection of widows and orphans, this code marks almost as high a stage in the revelation of what is right as the primitive Old Testament laws, with which it has points of striking resemblance.

[Sidenote: _A general comparison between the religions and laws of Egypt and Babylonia_]

The evolution of ancient Egyptian civilization and religion was parallel at almost every stage with that of Babylonia, only in the dreamy land of the Nile the pantheon and the vast body of variant myths were never so thoroughly coordinated. The result is that its religion forever remains a labyrinth. Since all interest centred about the future life, instead of commercial pursuits, there is no evidence that the Egyptians ever produced a legal code at all comparable with that of Hammurabi.

They did, however, develop a doctrine of sin which anticipates that of the Hebrew prophets. While the Babylonians conceived of sin as simply the failure to bring offerings, or to observe the demands of the ritual, or, in general, to pay proper homage to the gods, the Egyptians held that each individual was answerable, not only to the state, but also to the gods, for his every act and thought.

[Sidenote: _Significance of this early religious progress_]

If they admitted of a comparison, it would be safe to say that the Babylonian religion and law in the days of Hammurabi were as far removed from the crude belief in spirits and the barbarous cults and practices of primitive man as the teachings of Jesus were from those of the kingly Babylonian lawgiver and his priestly advisers. Humanity's debt is exceedingly great to the thousands of devoted souls who, in ancient Babylonia and Egypt, according to their dim light, groped for God and the right. In part they found what they sought, although they never ceased to look through, a glass darkly.

[Sidenote: _Its arrest and decline_]

The sad and significant fact is that from the days of Hammurabi to those of Nebuchadrezzar, Babylonian religion, law, and ethics almost entirely ceased to develop. No other great kings with prophetic insight appear to have arisen to hold up before the nation the principles of justice and mercy and true piety, The old superstitions and magic also continued in Babylonia as in Egypt to exercise more and more their baneful influence.

Saddest of all the priesthood and ceremonialism, which had already reached a point of development commensurate and strikingly analogous to that of later Judaism, became the dominant power in the state, and defined religion not in terms of life and action, but of the ritual, and so constricted it that all true growth was impossible. Hence the religions of the Babylonians and Egyptians perished, like many others, because they ceased to grow, and therefore degenerated into a mere worship of the letter rather than the spirit.



[Sidenote: _Advent of the Hebrews_]

Modern discovery and research have demonstrated that the truth revealed through the Babylonians and with less definiteness through the people of the Nile was never entirely lost. Such a sad waste was out of accord with the obvious principles of divine economy. As the icy chill of ceremonialism seized decadent Babylonia and Egypt, there emerged from the steppes south and east of Palestine a virile, ambitious group of nomads, who not only fell heir to that which was best in the revelation of the past, but also quickly took their place as the real spiritual leaders of the human race. Possibly their ancestors, like those of Hammurabi, belonged to that wave of nomadic emigration which swept out of overpopulated northern Arabia about 2500 B.C., part of it to settle finally in Babylonia and part in Palestine.

[Sidenote: _Why were they the chosen people?_]

Whatever be the exact date of their advent, the much mooted and more fundamental question at once presents itself, Why were the Hebrews "the chosen people"? It is safe to assert at once that this was not arbitrary nor without reason. Moreover, the choice was not that of a moment, but gradual. Rather the real question is, By what divine process were the Israelites prepared to be the chosen people that their later prophets and the event of history declare them to be? Certain definite historical reasons at once suggest themselves; and these in turn throw new light upon the true relation of the Old Testament to divine revelation as a whole.

[Sidenote: _Their preparation to be the chosen people: genius for religion_]

There is undoubtedly a basis for what Renan was pleased to call, "the Semitic genius for religion." It is a truly significant fact that the three great conquering religions of the world, Judaism, Christianity, and Mohammedanism, sprang from Semitic soil. To this might be added the religion of Babylonia, which, was unquestionably the noblest of early antiquity. In general the Semitic mind is keen, alert, receptive, and intuitional rather than logical. Restless energy and the tendency to acquire have also tended to make them leaders in the widely different fields of commerce and religion. The patriarch Jacob is a remarkable example of these combined qualities and results. By day he got the better of his kinsmen, and by night he wrestled with God. These combined and highly developed characteristics of mind and nature at least suggest why the Semites have furnished the greatest prophets and prophet nations for the moulding of the faith of the world.

[Sidenote: _Inheritance through their Arabian antecedents_]

In contrast with contemporary Semitic nations, and especially the highly civilized Babylonians, the Hebrews were fortunate in their immediate inheritances through Arabian or Aramean ancestors. The wandering, nomadic life leaves no place for established sanctuaries, with their elaborate ceremonial customs and debasing institutions inherited from more primitive ages. Instead, that life imposes limitations that make for simplicity. The mysteries and constant dangers of the wild desert existence also emphasize the constant necessity of divine help. The long marches by night under the silent stars inspire awe and enforce contemplation. The close unity of the tribe suggests the worship of one tribal god rather than many. From the desert the ancestors of the Hebrews brought strong bodies, inured to hardship, and a grim austerity that found frequent expression on the lips of their prophets and a response in the minds of the people, when luxury threatened to engulf them. They also inherited from their desert days those democratic ideas and high ideals of individual liberty which, enabled Elijah and Isaiah to stand up add champion the rights of the people even though it involved a public denunciation of their kings.

[Sidenote: _Contact with Babylonian civilization_]

On the other hand, the Israelites undoubtedly became in time the inheritors of the best in religion and law that had been attained by the older Semitic races. Their late traditions trace back their ancestry to ancient Babylonia. Already for long centuries, by conquest and by commerce, the dominant civilization of the Euphrates valley had been regnant in the land of Canaan, The Tell-el-Amarna letters, written from Palestine in the fourteenth century, employ the Babylonian language and system of writing, and reveal a high Semitic civilization, closely patterned after that of Babylonia. When the Israelites settled in Canaan and began to intermarry and assimilate with the older inhabitants, as the earliest Hebrew records plainly state (_cf_. Judg. I.), they found there, among the Canaanites, established civil and religious institutions and traditions which were largely a reflection of those of Babylonia. Also, when in the eighth and seventh centuries Assyrian armies conquered Palestine, they brought Babylonian institutions, traditions, and religious ideas. We know that during the reigns of Ahaz and Manasseh these threatened to displace those peculiar to the Hebrews.

Again, during the Babylonian exile the influence of the same powerful civilization upon the thought and religion of Israel was also strongly felt. Thus the opportunities, direct and indirect, for receiving from Babylonia much of the rich heritage that it held were many and varied.

[Sidenote: _Heirs of the older Semitic civilizations_]

Certain parts of the Old Testament itself testify that the wealth of tradition, of institutions, of laws, and religious ideas, gradually committed to the Semitic ancestors of the Hebrews and best preserved by the Babylonians, was not lost, but, enriched and purified, has been transmitted to us through its pages. A careful comparison of the biblical and Babylonian accounts of the creation and the flood leaves little doubt that there is a close historical connection between these accounts. Investigation reveals in language, spirit, and form many analogies between the laws of Hammurabi and those of the Old Testament which suggest at least an indirect influence. Many of the ceremonial institutions of later Judaism are almost identical with those of Babylonia. While it is exceedingly easy to over or under estimate this influence, it is a mistake to deny or ignore its deep significance.

[Sidenote: _Recipients of all that was best in earlier revelation_]

Thus one of the chief elements in the providential training of the Hebrews as the heralds and exponents of the most exalted religious and ethical truths revealed before the advent of the Prophet of Nazareth was the fact that they were the heirs and interpreters of the best that had been hitherto attained. Babylonia, Egypt, and later, Persia and Greece, each contributed their noblest beliefs and ideals. In the Israelites the diverse streams of divine revelation converged. The result is that, instead of many little rivulets, befouled by errors and superstitions, through their history there flowed a mighty stream, ever becoming broader and deeper and clearer as it received fresh contributions from the new fountains of purest revelation that opened in Hebrew soil.

[Sidenote: _In close geographical relations to the earlier civilizations_]

Clear evidences of the divine purpose to be realized through the obscure peasant people who lived among the uplands of central Canaan are found in a study of the characteristics of the Old Testament world. It is indeed the earliest and one of the most significant chapters in divine revelation. Most of its area is a barren wilderness, supporting only a small nomadic population. The three fertile spots are Babylonia, Canaan, and Egypt. The first and last are fitted by nature and situation to be the seats of powerful civilizations, destined to reach out in every direction. Canaan, on the contrary, is shut in, with no good harbors along the Mediterranean; and its largest river system leads to the Dead Sea, far below the surface of the ocean,--an effective negation to all commerce. Although thus shut in by itself, Canaan lies on the isthmus of fertile land that connects the great empires of the Nile and the Euphrates. On the east and south it is always subject to the influences and waves of immigration, that come from the Arabian desert. It attracted from their nomadic life the ancestors of the Israelites, and during their early period of development gave them a secluded home. When they were ready to learn the larger lessons in the stream of life, Egypt and the great empires of the Tigris and Euphrates valley contended for them, conquered and ultimately scattered them throughout the then known world. While their conquerors, Egypt, Assyria, Babylonia, Persia, Greece, and Rome, the greatest powers of the ancient world, took from them their gold and their freedom, from the same conquerors they appear to have received the infinitely more precious treasures of tradition and thought.

[Sidenote: _Trained by remarkable national experience_]

Great as was their heritage from the past, the truth that came through the Hebrews themselves constitutes by far the greatest and most significant part of that revelation which the Old Testament records.

Their history suggests the ways in which, Jehovah opened the spiritual eyes of the people. From the beginning to the present day it has been characterized by a series of crises unparalleled in the life of any other race. Experiences, intense and often superlatively painful, have come to them in rapid succession, forcing them to think and develop. The little street Arab, alert, resourceful, uncanny in his prematurity, is a modern illustration of what grim necessity and experience can produce.

It was in the school supremely adapted to divine ends that Jehovah, trained his people to be his spokesmen to the world.

[Sidenote: _Guided by unique spiritual teachers_]

Other peoples, however, had their crises and yet had no such message as did the Israelites. What made the crises in the history of the Israelites richly fruitful in ethical and spiritual truth was the presence within their midst of certain devoted, responsive teachers, and especially the prophets, who guided them in their time of peril, interpreted its significance, and appealed to the awakened conscience of the nation. Like begets like. At the beginning of Israel's history stands the great prophet Moses, and during the long centuries that followed the voice of the prophets was rarely hushed.

[Sidenote: _Taught by inspired prophets_]

In seeking the ultimate answer to our question, How were the Israelites prepared to be the chosen people, we are confronted by a miracle that baffles our power to analyze: it is the supreme fact that the Spirit of the Almighty touched the spirit of certain men in ancient Israel so that they became seers and prophets. This is their own testimony, and their deeds and words amply confirm it. The experiences of men to-day also demonstrate its possibility. Indeed it is not surprising, but most natural, that the one supreme Personality in the universe should reveal himself to and through human minds, and that the most enlightened men of the most spiritually enlightened race should be the recipients of the fullest and most perfect revelation. It is the truth that they thus perceived, and then proclaimed by word and deed and pen, that completed the preparation of the chosen people, for it was none other than the possession of a unique spiritual message that constituted the essence of their choice. Furthermore, as the greatest of the later prophets declares (Is. xl.-lv.), that divine choice did not mean that they were to be the recipients of exceptional favors, but rather that they were called to service. By the patient enduring of suffering and by voluntary self-sacrifice they were to perfect the revelation of God's character and will in the life of humanity.

Chapter end

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