The Trustworthiness of the Hebrew Traditions
THERE has been of late years a great increase of interest in the history and literature of ancient Israel. If the Old Testament is less studied than in former times as an authority in religious doctrine, as a book among books it is studied more than ever. In Holland, especially, this revival of interest has been most marked. A whole new school of Dutch scholars, with Dr. A. Kuenen at their head, have been subjecting the Hebrew books to almost microscopic examination and criticism. Their endeavor has been to discover the real date, character, and authority of those books, and so to make out the actual course of the history of Israel. To this task they have brought rich resources of learning, and minds at once acute and singularly free from theological prepossessions. The result has been that they have arrived with striking unanimity at a series of conclusions as to the age of the earlier portions of the Bible, which they believe must almost revolutionize the hitherto accepted ideas of the ancient Hebrew monotheism. It is the object of this article not to gainsay their critical conclusions, but to show that they do not involve any such revolution. There is another element in the problem, which seems to have been hardly noticed, — tradition. Let this have its due weight, and then whatever dates be assigned to the written records, yet the great names, events, and religious significance of that wonderful history will remain substantially unaffected.
In order to make the question at issue clear, note, first, wherein has been supposed to lie the value of the earlier Bible histories ; and secondly, exactly how this is supposed to be affected by the new criticism.
The value of those earlier narratives, then, - I speak of it, of course, simply in relation to historical studies, — lay in their giving the story of a very ancient and remarkable outgrowth of comparatively pure religion. According to them, the Jewish people had their very origin as a separate nationality in a literally “ new departure” of monotheism under Abraham. It is not without clinging elements of the heathenism round, yet for that early age it stands out in marvelous elevation. That monotheism continues, though gradually weakening, through successive generations of his descendants : they almost lose it in Egypt, where they sink into a pariah class of forced laborers ; it is revived, almost reinstituted, with a nobler purity and power than ever by Moses, their great leader, lawgiver, and prophet, who, if the later Jewish ideas of him were true, was the loftiest religious teacher of the ancient world. After him come dark and broken centuries, during which the Hebrews are constantly falling away from the religion of Abraham and Moses into all kinds of home and foreign idolatries : but still, from time to time, they are recalled to it; the old monotheism is lifted up again, and restored ; and at last, in the course of ages, the disunited tribes become a nation, the worship of the one God a settled, fervent, national religion, and out of that religion come the noble utterances of the prophets, the long-accumulating treasures of the Psalms, and ultimately the perfect flower of Christ and Christianity. All this idea of the earlier Hebrews has rested not on any extreme theory of the Pentateuch and historical books being inspired, but simply on the belief in their being genuine old-world chronicles: in parts dating, as written records, from the very time of Moses ; and through traditions, virtually indorsed by him, reaching back much earlier still. Thus it was believed that we had, in fairly trustworthy history, at least the main personal and religious facts of that remarkable line of monotheistic development from Abraham downwards.
Now the new criticism of Kuenen and his collaborateurs shows that the Hebrew books containing the story of those earlier ages are not, in their present form, nearly so old as used to be supposed. Deuteronomy is referred to about 620 B. C.; the rest of the Pentateuch to the time of Ezra, B. C. 458. In place of the heretofore accepted idea of Scripture precedence: (1) the Pentateuch with the histories, (2) the Psalms, (3) the prophecies, it is maintained that the true order is : earliest, the prophecies ; secondly, the Pentateuch ; third, and latest, the Psalms. The earliest real records that we have are the earlier prophets — Amos, Hosea, Micah, and the first part of Isaiah — dating from the eighth century B. C. This prophetic era, therefore, they maintain, gives us our first contemporaneous evidence of Hebrew monotheism. It is, in itself, quite a respectable antiquity, but still it does not bring us within five centuries of Moses ; while as for Abraham, if there can now be supposed ever to have been a man of that name, he lies away hack in the nebulous distances of a thousand years. Here comes in the practical effect of the common idea that oral tradition must necessarily be hazy and unreliable. Having relegated everything prior to the prophetic era to the rank of tradition, Kuenen regards all that traditional period as being therefore virtually without history. A few of the greater names and events he admits as having probably survived in the national memory, for example, that the Israelites did come out of Egypt, and that Moses was the leader of that exodus ; but as for any earlier personages, the patriarchs and Abraham, he regards them as wholly mythical. What is more important, however, is that the whole religious character of those traditions prior to the prophetic era is to be ignored, or set aside as merely a later gloss. The eighth century B. C. was the stand-point from which the earlier history was written, and the ideas pervading that history can be only the ideas of the century which composed it. All that tone of monotheism, that pervading monotheistic meaning, giving the impetus to Abraham’s migration and to Moses’ leadership, is merely the retrospective coloring infused by the reforming prophets of King Josiah’s time, or the priestly lawgivers around Ezra. That struggling monotheism of the past thus cleared away, Kuenen constructs his theory of the development of Israelitish religion so as to lead up, as he conceives, more naturally to the state of things disclosed by the prophetic writings. Those writings show a gross and general polytheism on the part of the people, with only the prophets earnestly contending against it ; and his theory is that, in fact, Israel had never previously known anything but polytheism, and was only then for the first time emerging from it. So, the history of what we are accustomed to regard as the peculiar faith of Israel begins only with the prophets; and if we would look still further back, it must he by picturing to ourselves not a far earlier dayspring of comparatively pure religion, but simply rude sun-god and sky-god worships, and dark idolatries shading back into unbroken night.
With regard to the definite conclusions of this new criticism, so far as they relate to the age and order of the various Hebrew books I have nothing to object. I am doubtful, indeed, whether its expounders give quite sufficient weight to what is really part of their own argument, namely, that some of those historical books, though of late compilation as they stand, are actually made up of various and possibly much more ancient literary fragments; but, with this possible exception, I can only bow before their marvelously minute scholarship and perfect honesty, and do not feel able — indeed, do not wish — to gainsay their critical decisions. Let it be that we have no written record provably earlier than the prophetic era, the eighth century B. c. But even if this be so, and if all the earlier story is only tradition, still the question remains, What is the value of those traditions, and what reliance can be placed upon them? It is here that I venture to think Professor Kuenen’s method is open to some reconsideration.
In a recent number of the Atlantic Monthly I have drawn attention to the general subject of the part which tradition played in the ancient world.1 It seems to have been curiously overlooked that oral tradition, prior to the invention, or common use, of writing, filled an entirely different place, and therefore was an entirely different thing from what it is now. In our modern days it is an accident, a mere uncertain remainder of things which have not been forgotten ; but prior to writing, tradition was an instrument, a purposed and often carefully disciplined and guarded method of keeping in mind those things which a people wanted remembered, and wanted truly remembered. I do not maintain that any absolute canon can be established of the trustworthiness of all ancient tradition ; but I showed that memory is perfectly capable of retaining and handing down narratives of almost any length and any minuteness of names and details ; and so I think it must be recognized that, among peoples who seem to have regarded their traditions as sacred or precious, and to have taken some deliberate care in their transmission, especially where they have been transmitted in fixed and stereotyped forms, they approach the quality of actual records, and may be trusted a long way back for the mainlines of history.
Now all this involves a kind of inquiry with regard to the Hebrew traditions into which Professor Kuenen does not appear to have at all entered. He has concentrated his study upon the question when the Hebrew historical records begin; and finding, as he believes, nothing earlier than the eighthcentury prophets, he says, There, then, we must take our stand; that is the earliest point of knowledge. All prior to that is mere story, legend, hearsay. As to these he does not discriminate, or even attempt to do so. Tradition with him is tradition. He does not recognize any difference between that of the nineteenth century after Christ and that of the nineteenth century before Christ. He says distinctly that “ a century was a hundred years then ” — that is, in reference to the survival of national recollections — “ as it is now ; ” and as if to prevent any possible mistake about his meaning, be adds an instance of its application, which I must again quote: “ The oldest accounts of the Mosaic time were as far removed from Israel’s lawgiver as we Dutchmen are from the beginning of the Hoek and Kabeljauw quarrels. Suppose that we knew of the latter only by tradition, which had never been committed to writing up to this time : should we have the boldness to trust ourselves to the historian who now wrote them for the first time, as a safe guide ? ” 2 So that, in fact, this whole field of inquiry into the special quality of the Hebrew traditions remains to be examined. It has not only to be asked at what point we pass beyond the bounds of history, — let us suppose that settled, but when we enter on the traditional region, — Of what kind are the traditions? Are there any marks of special value having been set upon particular elements in them ? Are there any indications of a tendency to national self-glorification or the reverse? Especially, are there any signs of their having been handed down, and at last committed to writing, in set and stereotyped forms? If there are such marks, then the Hebrew traditions must not be brushed aside to make room for abstract evolutionary theories ; they must be treated as worthy of a large and general credit; and while, of course, not to be followed in minor details, and needing careful sifting, they may be fairly trusted as having preserved the great national names, events, and changes, and especially the larger significance of these in the national development.
It is earnestly to be hoped that Dr. Kuenen and his collaborateurs will recognize the necessity for this further inquiry, and themselves take it up. No other critics are so competent to do so. For myself, I cannot pretend to any technical knowledge or ability in that direction. Simply from my deep interest in all old-world records I have been led to this idea of a possible value, heretofore curiously overlooked, even in traditions, and to some general examination of how this idea may apply in one of those directions along which critics and historians are so carefully exploring. But even in this general study of the Hebrew traditions, I cannot help being struck with the presence of various characteristics which should win for them a very high degree of respect, as faithfully preserving the main lines of national history from very early times.
The first of these indications appears in the part which genealogies played in Hebrew life and thought; not in the exact accuracy of those genealogies as they now exist, — that is a secondary consideration, — but in the evident store which the Hebrews set upon pedigree and the handing down of their lines of descent. We find this all through their historical times ; in fact, every one knows that it has always been one of the most marked characteristics of the Jews. Now such characteristics do not grow up to order, or suddenly. Certainly, they do not begin with the invention or use of writing. The genealogies which we find Jewish writers so carefully treasuring and comparing3 as soon as they begin to write history tell, as clearly as the fossil remains of some early geologic period, of one of the main interests of their prehistoric time.
Nor is this general inference in any degree weakened by finding that the genealogies by no means always agree. Genealogies in historic times are constantly found to have most curious discrepancies and difficulties. There are probably not half a dozen pedigrees, even of the greatest English families, reaching back to the Norman Conquest, that do not present quite as irreconcilable perplexities as any of the Jewish lines preserved in the Bible. But there is no real uncertainty about the main names in those great English pedigrees; only as to where exactly they belong. So it is surely fair to believe that the Jews had from immemorial times handed down the main links in their great chains of descent, with something of the same singular and reverent care with which we find those chains regarded as soon as we come upon them in actual history.
But here we are met by a consideration on which great stress is laid by Kuenen and others as at once fatal to any idea of those earlier genealogies being genuine. The persons composing them are all “ progenitors of tribes ;” 4 therefore it is taken for granted, almost as of course, that they cannot have been real historical personages. But why does this follow ? We are told that the Hebrews in the beginning were one of those nomadic tribes of which we have the analogue, perhaps the actual representation, in some of the Arab races of the present day. I turn, then, to Palgrave’s Arabia, — about the best authority on the subject, — and find him writing thus: “Arab nationality, thus far like that of the historical Jew or the Highlander, is, and always has been from the very earliest times, based on the divisions of families and clans.” These clans are generally divided into two branches : one settled down as “ townsmen or peasants; ” the other still remaining pastoral and nomadic. And here is the significant thing: it is the nomadic portions of the tribes which, on the matter of “family demarkation,” “continue to be the faithful depositories of primeval Arab tradition, and constitute a sort of standard rule for the whole nation. Hence, when genealogical doubts and questions of descent arise, as they often do, among the fixed inhabitants or ‘ dwellers in brick,’ recourse is often had to the neighboring Bedouins for a decision unattainable in the complicated records of town life; whereas the living Gwillym of the desert can readily explain every quartering and surcharging of Arab nobility.” 5 The names of the Arab tribes to this day retain the mark of this family origin. They are all like “ the children of Israel.” “ Beni Taghlēb,” “ Beni ’Abs,” “ Benoo Kahtān,” “ Benoo Hajār,” “ Beni Tai,” are a few of the names one comes across in a few pages. Why should it be any way incredible that these preserve the fossil record of real tribal progenitors from some far-back period when this or that son of the original family split off, and went apart with his own little clan of wives, children, and slaves ? I do not for a moment argue that the generations of the patriarchal times, from Moses back to Abraham, are preserved with minute accuracy ; but certainly all Arab analogy confirms the general truthlikeness of such generations, such tribal origins, and such carefully preserved name-marks of ancestral separation ; and therefore, if the Hebrew traditions are otherwise, in the main, natural, there is nothing in the fact of their chief men being “ progenitors of tribes” to hinder their being accepted as fairly outlining a real national descent, and embalming its most memorable personalities.
While thus the extreme stress laid upon genealogical matters by the Hebrews, as among the Arabs of to-day, gives a fair presumption that they have correctly preserved at least the personal framework of their history, we have to look in another direction to gather the spirit in which that framework has been fitted up. It might well have been that the great names of their past should be preserved, and yet that the stories attaching to those names had been so exaggerated as to be historically worthless. But is this the case ? The Hebrew traditions themselves supply the answer. One has only to compare them with, for example, the Greek traditions of the heroic age to become conscious of a certain modest, realistic, almost prosaic quality pervading them. One curious element of exaggeration comes in, as if it were impossible for even the most sober-minded people of antiquity to keep entirely free from it, — I mean the great ages of the primeval time. Yet even those five, or six, or eight hundred years are modest compared with the millenniums and æons by which Persian and Hindoo mythology lengthened out the retrospect towards the origin of all things. This is almost the sole element of glorifying exaggeration in the Hebrew traditions. Even in their furthest past, away beyond what can be called tradition, in the evidently mythical period, we do not find them conceiving of any twilight age of demigods. The one tiny fragment of that kind of mythology — that about the “ sons of God ” taking wives “ of the daughters of men ” — comes in like a bowlder from an altogether different stratum, and by its very contrast only brings into clearer relief the simple humanness of the Hebrew thought of the beginnings of our race. But it is when we come to the traditions proper, from the time of Abraham down, that this quality appears most strikingly. That great figure of their ancestor, with his little clan (three hundred and eighteen men all told), living in his tent, moving away from his own land with his flocks and herds, — there is a marked absence of anything like heroic glorification in the earlier traditions about him. More recent Jewish legends magnify him, as do those of the Arabs ; he becomes, in the later view, a great conquering chief with an army ; hut the primitive Hebrew tradition is entirely free from anything of the kind. So, again, coming downwards towards the historical period, there is a curious spirit of candor, as compared with the general tendency of ancient national tradition. Their annals, handed down orally for centuries, though with evident exaggerations of numbers and colored by their belief in providential aid, are yet on the whole wonderfully moderate and candid. Take the migration from Egypt, for instance : did ever a people, inventing or evolving legends about their past, place themselves in such a miserable light, or construct such a poor part for themselves? That whole story of the Exodus seems to have grown into a kind of national epic, through the sense of its being the crisis of their history, and through their reverence for their great leader. Yet how they tell of their own cowardice, their want of faith, their lapses into sin and idolatry, with a stolid simplicity curiously different from the usual tone of retrospective imagination, and unaccountable, except upon the supposition that the events of that terrible deliverance, in their general perspective at least, impressed themselves upon the national memory, and were handed down with careful fidelity as sacred traditions which they dared not alter. Nor is this characteristic confined to those earlier times. It appears in their later histories, also, when they begin to touch upon those of the great nations round. Rawlinson, the historian of the Five Great Monarchies, shows how different was the tone in their records: “It has always been the practice in the East to commemorate only the glories of the monarch, and to ignore his defeats and reverses.” Again : “ In the entire range of the Assyrian annals there is no case where a monarch admits a disaster, or even a check, to have happened to himself or his generals; and the only way in which we become distinctly aware, from the annals themselves, that Assyrian history was not an unbroken series of victories and conquests is from an occasional reference to a defeat or loss as sustained by a former monarch.” “ The Jewish records,” he says, “ furnish a solitary exception to this practice.” Surely no one can read them without feeling the truth of this. Defeats are narrated almost as carefully as successes. Their ideal king, David, is portrayed in his guilt and his blood-shedding as vividly as in his glory. The later work of the Chronicler appears indeed to he history written for a purpose ; but the traditional materials, in the books of Kings, from which it was evidently worked up, show how different, how honest, the earlier spirit was. In fact, it is in the ages of written records that we perceive the most palpable traces of exaggeration ; and the more we touch here and there the primitive tradition, the more evidence do we find of truth-like and almost stolid simplicity.
1 Abridged from Central and Eastern Arabia. By William Gifford Palgrave. Vol. i. p. 35.
Thus far my suggestions touch the trustworthiness of the historical element alone in the Hebrew traditions. We come to a different and more complicated question in considering the great body of legislation which is interspersed throughout the Pentateuch. Dr. Kuenen regards this as, in the main, dating only from the fifth century B. C. A few chapters, which he thinks may have constituted an original “ book of the Covenant” (Exod. xxi. — xxiii. 19), he ascribes to the early prophetic era, the eighth century B. C., and Deuteronomy to the time of Josiah, B. C. 622 ; but the great body of what came afterwards to be called “ the Daw of Moses ” he attributes to Ezra and the priestly party, the establishers of that hierarchical community which, after the return from exile, took the place of the nation. The various arguments upon which he bases this conclusion centre briefly in this: that we do not find any traces in the earlier times of such laws being observed, nor even of their being known to exist.
There is undoubtedly a great deal of truth and force in this. The earlier prophets do indeed allude to a “ law,” and “commandments,” and “transgressions,” which imply some ancient and traditional legislation, generally known, though little regarded. But no one, in reading those prophets or the historical books, would, from what is told of the people’s life and doings, infer the existence of such a detailed system of enactments as we find in the Pentateuch. It is quite possible, in any case, that many of these may have originated with Ezra, or been modified by him ; but still there are several considerations which render it more likely that his work was not the imposing of a substantially new law, but the collecting, transcribing, and revising the ancient legal traditions of bis people, which had really been what they were called, “ the Law of Moses.”
It would require a treatise to discuss the whole subject at all adequately, but I may outline some of these considerations. The first is negative : that the mere fact that few traces of the most characteristic laws of the Pentateuch are found in the earlier history is no necessary disproof of their having been really given by Moses. It was one thing to promulgate laws in the desert, and quite another to carry them out in the restless, unsettled life of the centuries which followed. But apart from any such explanation, this absence of any attempt to carry out the Mosaic law is almost exactly paralleled in the Vedic legislation. The very ancient system called “ the laws of Manu ” — in part, at least, made up from earlier codes — is of far greater extent than the Jewish ceremonial law, and deals with an even wider variety of subjects ; yet Sir Henry Maine states, as the conclusion of the best scholars, that “ it does not as a whole represent a set of rules ever actually administered in Hindustan, but is an ideal picture of what, in the view of the Brahmans, ought to he the law.” 6
But while thus there is no reason why the Jewish law may not have been substantially a tradition really dating from Moses, there are some points in it which are strongly in favor of such an origin. Many of the provisions and regulations are of a kind that would have no appropriateness, except in a nomadic, desert life. The minute directions for the construction of a tabernacle capable of being taken to pieces and moved from place to place; all the sanitary ordinances, for the disposal of the offal from the sacrifices “outside the camp,” and the unclean being excluded for specified seasons from “ the camp; ” such curious provisions as that every man must have a “paddle” (or little shovel) upon his weapon (Deut. xxiii. 13), — these and many other laws surely not only come from the desert wanderings, but show how minutely the traditions of that time were preserved. Because it will hardly be suggested that these were manufactured antiques, introduced by Josiah’s or Ezra’s scribes, to give color to the use of the name of Moses. Such ideas of historical appropriateness and realism are of a quite later, almost modern origin.
On the other hand, there are a number of the laws, and among them the most singular and characteristic, which, though applicable only after the occupation of Canaan, could hardly have originated after the circumstances of occupation and possession were actually realized. Take the law of the year of jubilee, for instance, with its elaborate provision for the reversion of all land to the original owners each fiftieth year. It is urged that no mention is found of this being carried out in the earlier times. But then Dr. Kuenen himself admits that it was never carried out at all. So of the law allotting forty-eight cities to the Levites, “ which we know,” he says, “ they never possessed but on paper.” Surely it is much more truthlike that such laws should have been conceived by Moses, in his ideal parceling out of a land not yet occupied, than that they should have been drawn up by Ezra, when he was going back to a country where the holding and transfer of land was already, for centuries, fixed and settled past all power of altering. In fact, a great deal of the Mosaic legislation is precisely of this character : breathing a noble purpose ; fine, as an ideal ; just what such a lofty, prophetic mind as that of Moses might well conceive when trying to provide for the future well-being of his people, but not really practicable, and not such as Ezra, in the circumstances of his far later day, would have been at all likely to attempt.
It must be considered, too, how integral a part of a people’s life is its law, and how hard old laws and usages are to alter. The changes which Ezra and his party introduced in the actual life of their time were enough to strain their authority to the uttermost, even with all the prestige of acknowledged though long-neglected tradition to support them. If they were simply innovations of his own devising, their success is almost incomprehensible. Here I cannot help paying my tribute of admiration to the fresh and most living interest with which Kuenen invests this whole crisis of Israelitish history. He brings out with marvelous clearness the conflict of parties: the fervent monotheists, with Ezra and Nehemiah at their head, zealous for the Jahveh worship, eager to realize their ideal of a great religious community of Israel, to replace that nation which had been hopelessly shattered by exile ; the people, stirred by their zeal, yet hardly ready for so sweeping changes, liking some of the old customs, even if they were associated with idolatry, and not seeing why it was such a sin to marry wives from the peoples round. In fact, he depicts the conservative forces against which Ezra had to work so vividly that it is impossible to help asking: Could it be, then, that all this was a really new law he was imposing, and that its ascription to Moses was a mere pious ruse ? I confess I cannot so weigh the forces of national life and feeling. By Dr. Kuenen’s own reasoning I am led to a conclusion the reverse of his. It seems much more likely, much more adequate to such a crisis, that Ezra was really, as the history says (we are in the times of history now), reviving the ancient law of his people. What is there unlikely in the supposition that it had come down for centuries as the Law of Moses, regarded with a traditional reverence almost superstitious, though much of it had never been carried out at all (any more than the laws of Manu) ; and that Ezra now brought out for fulfillment provisions in it which had been overlooked as completely as the prohibition of Suttee in the Vedas had been overlooked by the Hindu priests, who for over two thousand years had been repeating those Vedas ?
But if the acceptance of Ezra’s law bv his own people is a strong argument in the direction of its being substantially an ancient tradition revived, a stronger argument still is its acceptance by the Samaritans. Indeed, Dr. Kuenen’s own account of the alienation of the Samaritans carries within itself a complete refutation of his theory that “the law” was a virtually new thing in the time of Ezra. Mark the facts ! In 536 B. C. the first party of exiles returned from Babylon to Jerusalem, and the rebuilding of the temple was begun. The now mixed population who had remained in Palestine asked to be allowed, as Jews, to join in the work. They were refused and disowned. The refusal drove them into separation and hostility, and gradually they became the bitterest enemies of the Jews. Now, it was not till this alienation had been going on for nearly eighty years that Ezra came to Jerusalem, “ with the law of his God in his hand.” It was a new law, according to Kuenen, “ made known and imposed upon the Jewish nation now for the first time” (vol. ii. p. 231. The italics are his). Elsewhere he calls it the “founding of Judaism ; ” and again he says, “ It is nothing less than a revolution ” (ii. 218). Was it likely that the Samaritans would welcome such a new law? Even among the Jews, it aroused fierce opposition. Some of them, led by the son of the high priest, withdrew in disgust and resentment, and joined the Samaritans, their leader becoming the Samaritan high priest, and the temple on Mt. Gerizim being built for him. Yèt, by and by, these Samaritans are found possessing and cherishing that very law, in the Pentateuch, and insisting that they alone rightly inherit and fulfill it! How comes this? How is it, in fact, that the only Hebrew scriptures they carry down in their separate and rival priesthood, are these (alleged) latest books, the greater part of which, we are told, were only composed among the Jews eighty years after the Samaritans had become a separate and hostile people ? Kuenen’s explanation of this surely serious difficulty is simply this : that “ the Jews being far in advance of them in religious and intellectual development, the Samaritans involuntarily became their disciples ; ” and “ when the five books of Moses had undergone their final redaction . . . they were also adopted by the Samaritans. These books merely required an alteration here and there to serve them as holy records and a canon ” (ii. 250).
Surely this explanation is wholly, almost ludicrously, inadequate. People do not adopt “ holy records and a canon ” in any such easy-going fashion ; at any rate, not from neighbors to whom they have become bitterly hostile. The very facts so ably brought out all point to an original traditional law, already held in reverence for ages, and which the Samaritans carried with them into their separate existence; and if their Pentateuch is really identical with the Thorah promulgated by Ezra, then it only shows how faithfully he must have kept to the ancient tradition for his transcription of it to be accepted and used even by his greatest enemies.
I cannot claim that any of those are entirely new points, although I think they have been very much overlooked in the more modern criticism; but the other argument that I have to adduce is one which, as far as I am aware, has not been in any way noticed heretofore.
Apart from all general questions as to the characteristics of the Hebrew traditions, there is a special interest in considering whether they were transmitted orally in their present form. Supposing that they were only written down and compiled, as we have them, during or after the prophetic age, how were they then found existing by the compilers ? Were they merely outlines of story, floating loosely in the mind of older people, told by each one in his own words, and only fashioned into their present shape by those who wrote them down ; or were they already existing in set, stereotyped forms, in wordings handed down from earlier times ? It is plain that if we should find reason to suppose that the latter was the case, that what the prophetic or priestly editors compiled were fixed oral traditions however fragmentary or imperfect, they would have much more value for us. But have we any traces that would lead to this conclusion ? I believe we have.
It is well known that, in the endeavor to distinguish the different documents embodied in the Pentateuch, one of the indications upon which great stress has been laid is the name by which, in this part or that, the Almighty is spoken of. Thus the Elohistic and the Jehovistic elements of the Pentateuch, including the book of Joshua, have come to be recognized landmarks of historical exploration. But the argument can be carried further. There is, really, a third indication of the same kind, the bearing of which has hardly been perceived, namely, the use of the expression, applied to God, “ of hosts,” as “ Lord of hosts ” (original, Jahveh or Jehovah of hosts) and less frequently “ God of hosts.” I do not mean that this epithet has not been noticed by the Dutch school ; it has been, but with a curious inversion of its real bearing. In fact, it has been taken by them to help a theory with which it can hardly have anything to do, while its actual significance has been overlooked. This may seem a strong statement to make about critics so careful ; but let us look at the facts. Kuenen, as is well known, regards Jehovah or Jahveh as having originally, and in the Mosaic period, been merely a tribal nature-god, only in the later, prophetic era developing into the higher spiritual conception, when the name came to be regarded as a derivative of the verb to be. Now he treats the epithet “ of hosts ” as a survival illustrative of that older idea of a God dwelling in the sky and ruling the stars. These views are in his own Religion of Israel elaborated at too great length to quote, but one of the ablest expounders of the new criticism, Professor Toy, of Harvard University, has lately given this meaning of the epithet “ of hosts ” (as a side illustration of the old heathen idea of Jahveh as the sky-god) in language at once unmistakable and brief. he says, “ From various expressions in the Old Testament we may infer that Yahwe was originally a god of the sky, especially of the thunderstorm. This suits the fine description in Psalm XVIII. [of God riding upon the storm] and many other passages, and the common Old Testament name ‘ the Lord of hosts ; ’ that is, Yahwe, the ruler of the hosts of stars.” Now mark how he proceeds : “In process of time this origin of the deity [that is, as the sky-god] was forgotten; moral qualities were associated with him, his worship was purified, and he became the just and holy God, such as we see him in Amos and the other prophets ; and finally he became the only God.” 7 But both Professor Kuenen and Professor Toy entirely ignore the consideration of when, this “common Old Testament name” first appears. In fact, it is never found at all until the times of the prophets, when the coarser ideas of Jehovah as a skygod had passed away ! Throughout the whole Peutateuch and the continuing traditions of Joshua and Judges the expression “God of hosts” or “Lord of hosts ” never once occurs. It is only when we come to the writings of the higher period that it first appears. Of course this is no proof that when it did thus come into use it had a high spiritual meaning. It seems, in reality, doubtful what its meaning was. But since it does not appear at all until the higher spiritual idea of Jehovah had arisen, it seems rather gratuitous to take it then in its most materialistic meaning, and to throw that back upon the earlier ages as an illustration of how gross were their conceptions of God.
But there is more in this than the simple allocation of an epithet of doubtful meaning to its right and later period. This fact has to be noted : when the expression “ of hosts ” did spring up, it became the favorite national name for God. In almost every one of the prophets, and in the later historical books of the prophetic era, — Samuel, Kings, etc., — we find it frequently. From the eighth or ninth century onwards one may fairly call it, as Professor Toy does, “the common Old Testament name ” for God. Now, is there nothing significant in the fact that, while it thus constantly appears in the original writings of those prophetic centuries, it is entirely absent from those books which are supposed to have been simultaneously edited from older traditions ? Remember that Kuenen’s central idea is that those other traditions were then “ made over,” if not absolutely reconstructed ; that the later and higher religious ideas were read into them, written into them; that the whole monotheistic coloring of Abraham’s and Moses’ time was thus a mere retrospective infusion from the prophetic age. Yet, if so, how comes it that the favorite God-name of that prophetic age never appears in these reconstructed traditions ? Surely it is significant of those traditions having really come down from a quite older time ; not only so, but also of their having come down in a settled and accepted and known form; and, further, of that settled and known form not having been recast into the language and ideas of the prophetic compilers, but having been taken simply and unaltered as it had been handed down, — yes, taken with such reverent care that in all the processes of compiling and recompiling, even at long intervals and probably by many hands, the favorite and habitual name for God during the ages of compilation has not crept in, in one solitary instance.
It would be interesting to inquire whether, in the general language of the Pentateuch, there are to be found such archaisms as it seems natural to expect, if the wording of its traditions had really come down from much earlier times than the prophetic age when the present books are supposed to have been written. I have not, however, sufficient knowledge of Hebrew to enable me to pursue such an inquiry, and, as far as I can gather, the opinions of those who have are curiously divided. The great Hebraist Jahn maintained that there are such archaisms, well marked and numerous ; Gesenius holds the contrary. I leave this question to those who are competent to discuss it, content to contribute to the argument this instance, palpable even to the mere English reader, not of a mere word-form present or absent, but of a well-marked expression, standing for a distinct stage of thought.
Only a few closing words are needed to gather these various suggestions to a point. I do not for a moment claim to have made any complete study of the Hebrew historical books, but I do think I have shown that even as traditions they are deserving of a kind of study which they have not been receiving. If further investigation shall confirm these indications which I have pointed out of their ancient and careful character, and of their having been transmitted and transcribed in the very phraseology of older times, this will not, indeed, justify the place once given to them, and for which some still contend, of infallible histories. But I think it will justify us — I think enough is already visible to do so — in regarding them as, in their main outlines, preserving the real story of the Hebrew development. It justifies ns especially in regarding their peculiar religious coloring, their pictures of a patriarchal monotheism rising and falling and rising again, as being a part of the ancient tradition, and not a gloss of the far-subsequent prophetic times. The ages back of the prophets are no longer a lost, unknown time, whose apparent names and shapes of “seekers after God” are mere myths, constructed backwards from the stand-point of the eighth century. We have not to clear them away, and construct in their place some evolutionary theory of a race slowly rising out of gross polytheism. Instead of this, great names, great religious movements, great historic events, stand out, far off and often dim, yet unmistakably real, against the morning sky of Hebrew antiquity. We may trust the large impression that David left upon the national heart; the portrayal of the tenderer and nobler side of his life as well as the strangely candid traditions of fierce and evil passions in him; and his historical place as the fosterer of an established worship, and at least the founder of its psalmody. We can believe the general account of Samuel and of Saul. We may trace the great outlines of the story of the Exodus, with the grand work of its prophet leader; and even if whole codes of later ages were added on to his, there is quite enough visible alike of his religion and of his laws and of his mighty leadership to leave him, as he has been regarded in the past, one of the loftiest teachers of mankind. Even the stories of the patriarchs are not incredible, having been preserved as connecting links in those genealogical successions which they counted so important, and are invaluable to us for their marvelous photographs of the world’s ancient life. And, back of all, we can see — and, for so early an age, in a curious lifelikeness — that father of monotheism, of whom Max Müller says, “ We want to know more of Abraham ; but even with the little that we do know, he stands before us as a figure second only to one in the whole history of the world.” These great personalities and their main religious characteristics abide secure. We have indeed to feel our way to the central facts of their history through traditions often fragmentary and imperfect, and through much that is local, exaggerated, sometimes mythical, and which it is often a relief to be able to put aside. But there is still enough clearly discernible, alike of divine leadings and human doings, to keep that oldest Hebrew literature in its ancient place, — not as any cast-iron authority either of history or of faith, but as the treasured stories of our faith’s beginnings, and as the noblest testimonies from the world’s ancient life to the eternal verities of religion and to the deep workings of God’s spirit in man.
- The Trustworthiness of Early Tradition, in The Atlantic for July, page 158.↩
- The Religion of Israel, vol. i. p. 17.↩
- The Talmud says that the Jews did not leave Babylon till they had sifted the genealogies “ to the finest ground flour.” — Note by my friend, Dr. Gustav Gottheil, the learned Rabbi of New York, who has kindly gone over the general argument with me, and given me various confirmatory details to strengthen its force.↩
- The Religion of Israel, vol. i. p. 109.↩
- Ancient Law, page 16.↩
- The History of the Religion of Israel, an Old Testament Primer. By Crawford H. Toy. Boston.↩