The Origin and Permanent Value of the Old Testament Part 9

[Sidenote: _The priestly codes_]

The influences represented by Ezekiel and the Holiness Code have given us the remaining laws of the Old Testament. These are found in Leviticus i-xvi., xxviii., and, excepting Exodus xx.-xxiii., xxxiv., in the legal sections of Exodus and Numbers. They deal almost entirely with such ceremonial subjects, as the forms and rules of sacrifice, the observation of the annual religious festivals, and the rights and duties of priests. Many of them incorporated laws and customs as old or older than the days of Moses. An early and important group, technically known as the Priestly teaching (Lev. i.-iii., v.-vii., xi.-xv.; Num. v., vi., xv., xix. 14-22), is repeatedly designated as _the torah of the burnt-offering_ (Lev. vi. 9), or _the torah of the meal-offering_ (vi, 14), or _the torah of the unclean and clean beast or bird_ (xi. 46, 47).

It is evidently based upon the _toroth_, or decisions, rendered by the priests concerning the various ceremonial questions thus treated. The recurring phrase, _according to the ordinance_, probably refers to the fixed usage observed in connection with the first temple.

[Sidenote: _Their date_]

The atmosphere and point of view of these priestly laws as a whole are the exilic and post-exilic periods. The ritual has become much more elaborate, the position of the priests much more prominent, and their income far greater than before the exile. The distinction between priest and Levite, which was not recognized before the exile, is clearly defined. The annual feasts have increased, and their old joyous character has largely disappeared under the dark shadow of the exile.

Sin-offerings, guilt-offerings, trespass-offerings, and the day of atonement (practically unknown before the fall of Jerusalem in 586 B.C.) reflect the spirit of the later Judaism which sought to win Jehovah's favor by its many sacrifices. Within these priestly codes there is also evidence of development. The older collections, such as the priestly teachings, were probably made early in the Babylonian exile. Others represent the gradual expansion and supplementing of these older groups, the process apparently continuing until the days of Nehemiah and Ezra.

The whole, therefore, is the fruit of the remarkable priestly literary activity between 600 and 400 B.C., and possibly extending even later.

[Sidenote: _Adoption of the priestly law about 400 B.C._]

The Jewish community which Nehemiah found in Palestine was still living under the Deuteronomic law, and apparently knew nothing of the very different demands of the priestly codes. His reform measures recorded in Nehemiah v. and xiii., as well as his effective work in repairing the walls, prepared the way for the sweeping innovations which followed the public acceptance of the new law-book, brought according to tradition by Ezra. Five out of the eight regulations specified by the oath then taken by the leaders of the nation (Neh. x. 30-39) are found only in the priestly codes; one of them, indeed, is not presented elsewhere in the Old Testament. Henceforth the life of the Jewish race is moulded by these later codes. It is, therefore, safe to conclude that they constituted the essence of the new law-book solemnly adopted by the Jewish community as its guide somewhere about 400 B.C.

[Sidenote: _Aim and characteristics of the priestly narratives_]

Inasmuch as the interest of the priests centred in ceremonial institutions and the history of the law rather than about individuals and politics, it was natural that they also should write their own history of the race. Their general purpose was to give an introduction and setting to their laws. As might be anticipated, this priestly history incorporates the traditions of the late priestly school, and therefore those current long centuries after the events recorded transpired. As in the case of the prophetic narratives, the aim is not primarily historical, but doctrinal. The peculiar vocabulary, language, and theological conceptions are those which distinguish the post-exilic priestly editors of the latest Old Testament laws.

[Sidenote: _Their sketch of the earlier history_]

Their history begins with the majestic account of creation in Genesis i.

1 to ii. 4a. God does not form man from the dust, as in the primitive prophetic account, but by a simple word of command; and by progressive acts of creation he realizes his perfect plan, which culminates in the creation of mankind. The literary style is that of a legalist: formal, precise, repetitious, and generic. The ultimate aim of the narrative is to trace the origin of the institution of the Sabbath back to the creation. The genealogical history of Genesis v. connects this account of creation with the priestly version of the flood story which leads up to the covenant with Noah. The priestly genealogical histories of Genesis x. and xi. 10-27 trace the ancestry of the Hebrews through Abraham. Regarding this patriarch these later historians present only a brief sketch; in Genesis xvii., however, they expand their narrative to give in detail the origin of the rite of circumcision, which they associate with him. Jacob is to them chiefly of interest as the father of the ten tribes.

[Sidenote: _from Egypt to Canaan_]

The history of the experiences of the Hebrews in Egypt is briefly outlined as the prelude to the traditional institution of the feast of the passover. Sinai, however, is the great goal of the priestly narratives, for about it they group all their laws. It is their concrete method of proclaiming the antiquity and divine origin of Israelitish legislation. The period of the wilderness wandering is also made the background of many important legal precedents. The priestly history concludes with an account of the conquest of Canaan and the allotment of the territory to the different tribes.

[Sidenote: _The lack of historical perspective_]

In these late priestly narratives the historical perspective is sometimes considerably shortened and sometimes lengthened. Moreover, their representation often differs widely from that of the parallel but much earlier prophetic histories. The original traditions have also assumed larger proportions, and the supernatural element is much more prominent. This is evidently the result of long transmission, in an age that had largely lost the historic sense, and among the priestly exiles, who were far removed from the real life of Palestine.

[Sidenote: _Variations between the older and later narratives_.]

The wide variations between the older prophetic and late priestly accounts of the same events might be illustrated by scores of examples.

The following parallel account of the exodus will suffice:

[Sidenote: _Early Judean Prophetic Account_]

Ex. xiv. l9b. Then the pillar of cloud changed its position from before them and stood behind them. (20b) And the cloud lighted up the night; yet throughout the entire night the one _army_ did not come near the other. (21b) And Jehovah caused the sea to go back by a strong east wind all the night, and made the bed of the sea dry. (24b) And it came to pass in the watch before the dawn that Jehovah looked forth through the pillar of fire and of cloud upon the host of the Egyptians, (25) and he bound their horsemen.

[Sidenote: _Late Priestly Account of the Exodus_]

(21a, c) Then Moses stretched out his hand over the sea, and the waters were divided, (22) so that the Israelites went into the midst of the sea on the dry ground; and the waters were a wall to them on their right hand and on their left. (23b) And the Egyptians went in after them into the midst of the sea, all Pharaoh's horses, his chariots, and his horsemen. (26) Then Jehovah said to Moses, Stretch out thy hand over the sea, that the waters may come again upon the Egyptians, upon their chariots and their chariot wheels, so that they proceeded with difficulty. Then the Egyptians said, Let us flee from before Israel; for Jehovah fighteth for them against the Egyptians. (27b) But the sea returned to its ordinary level toward morning, while the Egyptians were flying before it. And Jehovah shook off the Egyptians into the midst of the sea, (28b) so that not one of them remained. (30) Thus Jehovah saved Israel that day out of the power of the Egyptians; and Israel saw the Egyptians dead upon the sea-shore.

(27a) So Moses stretched forth his hand over the sea, (28a) and the waters returned and covered the chariots, and the horsemen, even all the host of Pharaoh that went in after them into the sea. (29) But the Israelites walked upon dry land in the midst of the sea, the waters being a wall to them on their right hand, and on their left. [Footnote: "Student's Old Testament," Vol. I., 175, 176.]

[Sidenote: _Inferior historical value of the priestly narratives_]

No one can doubt for a moment that the older, simpler, and more natural version is, from the historical point of view, the more accurate.

The normal man to-day has outgrown the craving for the grotesquely supernatural. The omnipotent, omniscient, loving Creator, who reveals himself through the growing flower, commands our admiration as fully as a God who speaks through the unusual and extraordinary.

Everything is possible with God, and the man is blind indeed who would deny the Infinite Being, who is all and in all, the ability to pass beyond the bounds of that which we, with our extremely limited vision, have designated as natural. The real question is, How did God see fit to accomplish his ends? Our judicial and historical sense unhesitatingly inclines to the older and simpler narratives as containing the true answer. In distinguishing these different strands of narrative, it must be acknowledged that modern biblical scholarship has performed a service invaluable alike to the student of literature, of history, and of revelation.

[Sidenote: _Recognition of their defects and real value_]

In passing, it is instructive to note that, almost without exception, Ingersoll's once famous examples of the mistakes of Moses were drawn from the priestly narratives. It is safe to predict that had that learned jurist been introduced, when a boy, to the Old Testament, as revealed in modern light, he would have enjoyed a very different popular fame. In the divine economy, however, even the sledge-hammer of ridicule may play an important role in shattering false claims and the untenable theories which obscure the real truth. It is wholesome to apply the principle of relative values to the Bible, since one cannot fully appreciate the best without recognizing that which is inferior. These priestly narratives come from a school which, in its reverence for the form and the letter, had began to lose sight of the vital and spiritual.

Its still later product is that ritualistic Judaism which stands in such unfavorable contrast to the perfected spiritual revelation which came through Jesus. At the same time, the recognition of the defects of the late priestly school should not deter us from appreciating the rich religious teaching of a narrative like the first chapter of Genesis, nor from accepting its great message, namely, that through all natural phenomena and history God is revealing and perfecting his gracious purpose.

[Sidenote: _The ecclesiastical history of Chronicles and Ezra-Nehemiah_]

The long ecclesiastical history found in I and II Chronicles and the original sequel of these books, Ezra and Nehemiah, were written from the same general point of view as the late priestly narratives, but in a much later period. The same peculiar literary style and conceptions, which recur throughout these four books, show clearly that they are from one author and age. Since they trace the history to the beginning of the Greek period and speak of the kings and events of the Persian period as if they belonged to the distant past, it is evident that the anonymous author, who is usually designated as the Chronicler, lived after the conquests of Alexander. The internal evidence all points to the middle of the third century before Christ as the date of their composition.

[Sidenote: _Its general point of view_]

From the author's evident interest in the ritual of the temple, and especially its song service, it would appear that he belonged to one of the guilds of temple singers that became prominent in the post-exilic period. His history centres about the sanctuary and its services. Since Judah, not Israel, is the land of the temple, Northern Israel is almost completely ignored. Like the late priestly historians, his chief aim is to trace the origin of the ceremonial institutions back to the beginnings of Hebrew history. Thus he represents the song service and the guilds of singers as having been established in the days of David.

Living as he did under the glamour of the great Persian and Greek empires, he, in common with his contemporaries, idealized the past glories of his race. As we compare his versions of early events with the older parallel accounts of Samuel and Kings, we find that iron has become gold, and hundreds have become thousands, and defeats are transformed into victories. No mention is made of the crimes of such kings as David and Solomon, since they are venerated profoundly as the founders of the temple.

[Sidenote: _Sources of I and II Chronicles_]

The basis of I and II Chronicles is the prophetic history of Samuel and Kings; from these the author quotes _verbatim_ chapter after chapter, according as their contents are adapted to his purpose. This groundwork he supplements by introducing the priestly traditions current in his own day. Possibly he quotes also from certain somewhat earlier written collections of traditions, for to those, following the example of the author of Kings, he frequently refers his readers for further information. In some cases these later traditions may have preserved authentic, supplemental data; but when the representation of Chronicles differs, as it frequently does, from that of Samuel and Kings, the older and more sober prophetic history is undoubtedly to be followed.

[Sidenote: _The older sources quoted in Ezra-Nehemiah_]

In Ezra and Nehemiah the author has preserved some exceedingly valuable historical material, for he has quoted, fortunately, long sections from two or three older sources. Oae is the document in Ezra iv. 7 to vi. 14, the original Aramaic of which is retained. This appears to have been a temple record, dating from the middle or latter part of the Persian period, and tells of the interruption of the temple building in the days of Darius and the finding of the original decree of Cyrus sanctioning the restoration of the shrine of Jerusalem. Still more important is the wonderful memoir of Nehemiah quoted in Nehemiah i., ii., iv. to vii. 5, xii. 31, 32, 37-40, and xiii. 4-31. Here we are able to study the events of an exceedingly important period through the eyes of the man who, by his able and self-sacrificing efforts, did more than any one else to develop and shape later Judaism. Less important, yet suggestive, citations are taken from the priestly traditions regarding the work of Ezra. The final editor has apparently rearranged this material in order to give to the work of Ezra the scribe such precedence over that of Nehemiah the layman, as, from his later Levitical point of view, he deemed proper. Restoring what seems to have been the original order (_i.e._, Ezra vii. viii., Neh. vii. 70 to viii. 18; Ezra ix., x.; Neh.

ix., x.) and studying it as the sequel of Nehemiah's essential pioneer work, the obscurities of this period begin to disappear and its significant facts to stand out in clear relief.

[Sidenote: _Value of the writings of the priestly school_]

Thus we find that, quoting largely as he does, from much older sources, the author of this great ecclesiastical history of Judah and the temple has given us, in Ezra and Nehemiah, some exceedingly important historical data. His writings also clearly reveal the ideas and institutions of his own day; but otherwise it is not as history that his work is of permanent value. Rather it is because, in common with all the great teachers who speak to us through the Old Testament, he believed firmly in the moral order of the universe, and that back of all events and all history is an infinitely powerful yet just and merciful God who is constantly revealing himself to mankind. While these later priestly writers were not in such close touch with fact and life as were the prophets, and while they were subject to the defects of all extreme ritualists and theologians, they were faithful heralds of truth to their own and later generations. Behind their symbolism and traditions lie certain great universal principles which amply reward an earnest quest.



[Sidenote: _Role of the sages in Israel's life_]

In the days of Jeremiah and Ezekiel (Jer. xviii. 18; Ezek. vii. 26) three distinct classes of religious teachers were recognized by the people: the prophets, the priests, and the wise men or sages. From their lips and pens have come practically all the writings of the Old Testament. Of these three classes the wise men or sages are far less prominent or well known. They wrote no history of Israel, they preached no public sermons, nor do they appear to have been connected with any sanctuaries. Quietly, as private teachers, they appealed to the nation through the consciences and wills of individuals. Proverbs viii. 1-5 reveals their methods:

Doth not wisdom cry, And understanding put forth her voice?

On the top of high places by the way, Where the paths meet, she standeth; Beside the gates, at the entry of the city, At the coining in at the doors, she crieth aloud: Unto you, O men, I call; And my voice is to the sons of men.

O ye simple, understand prudence; And ye fools, be of an understanding heart.

At the open spaces beside the city gates, where legal cases were tried, at the intersections of the streets, wherever men congregated, the sages of ancient Israel could be found, ready and eager to instruct or advise the inexperienced and foolish.

[Sidenote: _Their functions_]

Chapter end

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