THE Oriental I have in mind is the Semite, the dweller of the Near East, who, chiefly through the Bible, has exerted an immense influence on the life and literature of the West. The son of the Near East is more emotional, more intense, and more communicative than his Far-Eastern neighbors. Although very old in point of time, his temperament remains somewhat juvenile, and his manner of speech intimate and unreserved.
From the remote past, even to this day, the Oriental’s manner of speech has been that of a worshiper, and not that of a business man or an industrial worker in the modern Western sense. To the Syrian of to-day, as to his ancient ancestors, life, with all its activities and cares, revolves around a religious centre.
Of course this does not mean that his religion has not always been beset with clannish limitations and clouded by superstitions, or that the Oriental has always had a clear, active consciousness of the sanctity of human life. But it does mean that this man, serene or wrathful, at work or at play, praying or swearing, has never failed to believe that he is overshadowed by the All-seeing God. He has never ceased to cry, ‘O Lord, Thou hast searched me, and known me. Thou knowest my downsitting and mine uprising; Thou understandest my thought afar off. Thou hast beset me behind and before, and laid thine hand upon me. Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is high, I cannot attain unto it!’
And it is one of the grandest, most significant facts in human history that, notwithstanding his intellectual limitations and superstitious fears, because he has maintained the altar of God as life’s centre of gravity, and never let die the consciousness that he was compassed about by the living God, the Oriental has been the channel of the sublimest spiritual revelation in the possession of man.
Note the Syrian’s daily language: it is essentially biblical. He has no secular language. The only real break between his scriptures and the vocabulary of his daily life is that which exists between the classical and the vernacular. When you ask a Syrian about his business he will not answer, ‘ We are doing well at present,’ but ‘ Allah mûn ’aim ’ (God is giving bounteously). To one starting on a journey the phrase is not ‘Take good care of yourself,’ but ‘Go in the keeping and protection of God.’ By example and precept we were trained from infancy in this manner of speech. Coming into a house, the visitor salutes by saying, ‘God grant you good morning,’ or ‘The peace of God come upon you.’ So it is written in the tenth chapter of Matthew, ‘And as ye enter into the house, salute it. And if the house be worthy, let your peace come upon it; but if it be not worthy, let your peace return unto you.’
In saluting a day-laborer at work we said, ‘Allah, yaatik-el-afie’ (God give you health and strength). In saluting reapers in the field, or ‘gatherers of the increase’ in the vineyards or olive groves, we said just the words of Boaz, in the second chapter of the book of Ruth, when he ‘came from Bethlehem and said unto the reapers, The Lord be with you. And they answered him, The Lord bless thee.’ Or another scriptural expression, now more extensively used on such occasions, ‘The blessing of the Lord be upon you!’ It is to this custom that the withering imprecation which is recorded in the One Hundred and Twenty-ninth Psalm refers: ‘Let them all be confounded and turned back that hate Zion: let them be as the grass upon the housetops which withereth afore it groweth up: wherewith the mower filleth not his hand, nor he that bindeth sheaves his bosom. Neither do they which go by say, The blessing of the Lord be upon you: we bless you in the name of the Lord.’
In asking a shepherd about his flock we said, ‘How are the blessed ones?’ or a parent about his children, ‘How are the preserved ones?’ They are preserved of God through their ‘angels,’ of whom the Master spoke when he said, ‘Take heed that ye despise not one of these little ones; for I say unto you that in heaven their angels do always behold the face of my Father.’ Speaking of a good man we said, ‘The grace of God is poured upon his face.’ So in the book of Proverbs, ‘ Blessings are upon the head of the just.’
Akin to the foregoing are such expressions as these. In trying to rise from a sitting posture (the Syrians sit on the floor with their legs folded under them), a person, using the right arm for leverage, says, as he springs up, ‘Ya Allah’ (O God [help]). In inquiring about the nature of an object, he says, ‘ Sho dinû? ’ (what is its religion?) And one of the queerest expressions, when translated into English, is that employed to indicate that a kettleful of water, for example, has boiled beyond the required degree: ‘This water has turned to be an infidel’ (kaffer). It may be noticed here that it is not the old theology only which associates the infidel with intense heat.
So this religious language is the Oriental’s daily speech. I have stated in my autobiography that the men whom my father employed in his extensive building operations were grouped with reference to their faith. He had so many Druses, so many Greek Orthodox, so many Maronites, and so forth.
The almost total abstinence from using ‘pious’ language in ordinary business and social intercourse in America may be considered commendable in some ways, but I consider it a surrender of the soul to the body, a subordination of the spirit of the things which are eternal to the spirit of the things which are temporal. In my judgment, the superior culture of the West, instead of limiting the vocabulary of religion to the one hour of formal worship on Sunday, and scrupulously shunning it during the remainder of the week, should make its use, on a much higher plane than the Orient has yet discovered, coextensive with all the activities of life.
Again, the Oriental’s consideration of life as being essentially religious makes him as pious in his imprecations and curses as he is in his aspirational prayer. Beyond all human intrigue, passion, and force, the great avenger is God. ‘ Vengeance is mine, I will repay, saith the Lord. See now that I, even I, am he, and there is no God with me: I kill and I make alive; I wound and I heal; neither is there any that can deliver out of my hand.’
By priests and parents these precepts have been transmitted from generation to generation in the Orient, from time immemorial. We all were instructed in them by our elders with scrupulous care. Of course as weak mortals we always tried to avenge ourselves, and the idea of thar— revenge — lies deep in the Oriental nature. But to us our vengeance was nothing compared with what God did to our ‘ungodly’ enemies and oppressors.
The Oriental’s impetuosity and effusiveness make his imprecatory prayers, especially to the ‘ unaccustomed ears’ of Americans, blood-curdling. And I confess that on my last visit to Syria, my countrymen’s (and especially my countrywomen’s) bursts of pious wrath jarred heavily upon me. In his oral bombardment of his enemy the Oriental hurls such missiles as these: ‘May God burn the bones of your fathers’; May God exterminate your seed from the earth’; ‘May God cut off your supply of bread (yakta rizkak)’; ‘May you have nothing but the ground for a bed and the sky for covering’; ‘May your children be orphaned and your wife widowed ’; and similar expressions.
Does not this sound exactly like the One Hundred and Ninth Psalm? Speaking of his enemy, the writer of that psalm says, ‘Let his days be few, and let another take his office. Let his children be fatherless, and his wife a widow. Let his children be continually vagabonds, and beg; let them seek their bread also out of their desolate places. Let there be none to extend mercy unto him; neither let there be any to favor his fatherless children. Let his posterity be cut off; and in the generation following let their name be blotted out.’
Such were the mutual wishes I so often heard expressed in our neighborhood and clan fights and quarrels in Syria. When so praying, the persons would beat upon their breasts and uncover their heads, as signs of the total surrender of their cause to an avenging Omnipotence. Of course the Syrians are not so cruel and heartless as such imprecations, especially when cast in cold type, would lead one to believe. I am certain that if the little children of his enemy should become fatherless, the imprecator himself would be among the first to ‘favor’ them. If you will keep in mind the juvenile temperament of the Oriental, already mentioned, and his habit of turning to God in all circumstances, as unreservedly as a child turns to his father, your judgment of the son of Palestine will be greatly tempered with mercy.
Does it not seem now perfectly clear why Jesus opened the more profound depths of the spiritual life to his much divided, and almost hopelessly clannish, countrymen, when he said to them, ’Ye have heard that it hath been said, Thou shalt love thy neighbor [in the original, quarib = kinsman] and hate thine enemy: but I say unto you, love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which dcspitefully use you and persecute you; that ye may be the children of your father which is in heaven.’
Here we have the very heart and soul of the Gospel, and the dynamic power of Jesus’ ministry of reconciliation. Yet to many devout Christians, as well as to unfriendly critics of the New Testament, the command, ‘Love your enemies,’ offers a serious perplexity. An ' independent ’ preacher in a large Western city, after reading this portion of the Sermon on the Mount to his congregation, stated that Jesus’ great discourse should be called, ‘The Sarcasm on the Mount.’ Is not love of enemies beyond the power of human nature?
This question is pertinent. And it is an obvious fact that we cannot love by command; we cannot love to order. This mysterious flow of soul which we call love is not of our own making; therefore we cannot will to love. Such a discussion, however, falls outside the scope of this article. What I wish to offer here is a linguistic explanation which I believe will throw some light on this great commandment.
The word love has been more highly specialized in the West than in the East. In its proper English use it means only that ardent, amorous feeling which cannot be created by will and design. In the West the word love has been relieved of the function of expressing the less ardent desires such as the terms to like, to have good will toward, and to be well-disposed toward imply.
Not so in the East. The word like, meaning to be favorably inclined toward, is not found either in the Bible or in the Arabic tongue. In the English version it is used in two places, but the translation is incorrect. In the twenty-fifth chapter of Deuteronomy and the seventh verse, ‘If the man like not to take his brother’s wife,’ should be rendered, ‘If the man consent not’; and in the fourth chapter of Amos, the fifth verse, ‘For this liketh you, O ye children of Israel,’ is in the original, ‘For this ye loved, O ye children of Israel.’ In any standard concordance of the Bible, the Hebrew verb Aheb — to love — precedes these quotations.
So to us Orientals the only word which can express any cordial inclination of approval is love. One loves his wife and children, and loves grapes and figs and meat, if he likes these things. An employer says to an employee, ‘If you love to work for me according to this agreement, you can.’ It. is nothing uncommon for one to say to a casual acquaintance whom he likes, ‘I must say, Sahib [friend], that I love you!’ I know of no equivalent in the Arabic for the phrase,’I am interested in you.’ Love and hate are the usual terms by which to express approval and disapproval, as well as real love and hatred.
From all this it may be seen that when the Great Oriental Teacher said to his countrymen, who considered all other clans than their own as their enemies, ‘Love your enemies,’ he did not mean that they should be enamored of them, but that they should have good will toward them. We cannot love by will and design, but we certainly can wall to be well-disposed even toward those who, we believe, have ill will toward us. He who really thinks this an impossibility gives evidence not of superior ‘critical knowledge,’ but of being still in the lower stages of human evolution.
But the Oriental’s juvenile temperament and his partial disregard for concrete facts have led his Anglo-Saxon cousin to consider him as essentially un veracious. ‘ You cannot believe what an Oriental says.’ ‘The Orientals are the children of the “Father of Lies.” ’ ' Whatever an Oriental says, the opposite is likely to be the truth’; and so forth.
I do not wish in the least to undertake to excuse or even condone the Oriental’s unveracity, any more than to approve of the ethics of American politicians during a political campaign. I have no doubt that the Oriental suffers more from the universal affliction of untruthfulness than does the AngloSaxon, and that he sorely needs to restrict his fancy and to train his intellect to have more respect for facts. Nevertheless I feel compelled to say that a clear understanding of some of the Oriental’s modes of thought will quash many of the indictments against his veracity. His ways will remain different from the ways of the AngloSaxon, and perhaps not wholly agreeable to the latter; but the son of the East — the dreamer and writer of scriptures—will be credited with more honesty of purpose.
It is unpleasant to an Anglo-Saxon to note how many things an Oriental says, but does not mean. And it is distressing to an Oriental to note how many things the Anglo-Saxon means, but does not say. To an unreconstructed Syrian the brevity, yea, even curtness, of an Englishman or an American, seems to sap life of its pleasures and place a disproportionate value on time. For the Oriental, the primary value of time must not be computed in terms of business and money, but in terms of sociability and good fellowship. Poetry, and not prosaic accuracy, must be the dominant feature of speech.
In showing the reason why Jesus taught in parables, biblical writers speak of the indirect method, the picture language, the concealing of the truth from those ‘ who had not the understanding,’ and so forth. But those writers fail to mention a most important reason, namely, the sociable nature of such a method of teaching, which is so dear to the Syrian heart. In view of the small value the Orientals place upon time, the story-teller, the speaker in parables, is to them the most charming conversationalist. Why be so prosy, brief, and abstract? The spectacular charm and intense concreteness of the parable of the Prodigal Son is infinitely more agreeable to the Oriental mind than the general precept that God will forgive his truly penitent children. It was for this, no less than for other reasons, that it was said of Jesus, ‘And without parables spoke he not unto them.’
Just as the Oriental loves to flavor his food strongly and to dress in bright colors, so is he fond of metaphor, exaggeration, and positiveness in speech. To him mild accuracy is weakness. A host of illustrations of this thought rise in my mind as I recall my early experiences as a Syrian youth. I remember how those jovial men who came to our house to ‘sit’ — that is, to make a call of indefinite duration — would make their wild assertions and back them up by vows which they never intended to keep. The one would say, ‘What I say to you is the truth, and if it is not, I will cut off my right arm’ — grasping it — ‘at the shoulder.’ ‘I promise you this,’ — whatever the promise might be, — ‘and if I fail in fulfilling my promise I will pluck out my right eye.’
To such speech we always listened admiringly and respectfully. But we never had the remotest idea that in any circumstances the speaker would carry out his resolution, or that his hearers had a right to demand it from him. He simply was in earnest; or as an American would say, ‘He meant that he was right.'
Such an Oriental mode of thought furnishes us with the background for Jesus’ saying, ‘If thy right eye offend thee, pluck it out and cast it from thee. If thy right hand offend thee, cut it off and cast it from thee.’
To many Western Christians, especially in the light of the Protestant doctrine of the infallibility of the letter of the Bible, these sayings of Christ present insurmountable difficulties. To such the question, ‘How can I be a true disciple of Christ, if I do not obey what he commands?’ makes these misunderstood sayings of Christ great stumbling blocks. Some time ago a lady wrote me a letter saying that at a prayer meeting which she attended, the minister, after reading the fifth chapter of Matthew, which contains these commands, said, ‘If we are true Christians we must not shrink from obeying these explicit commands of our Lord.’
My informant stated also that on hearing that, she asked the preacher, ‘Suppose the tongue should offend, and we should cut it off; should we be better Christians than if we did endeavor to atone for the offense in some other way?’ The preacher, after a moment of perplexed silence, said, ‘If there is no one here who can answer this question, we will sing a hymn.’
The best commentary on these sayings of Christ is given by Paul in the sixth chapter of his Epistle to the Romans. This is precisely what the Master meant: ‘ Neither yield ye your members as instruments of unrighteousness unto sin; but yield yourselves unto God, as those that are alive from the dead, and your members as instruments of righteousness unto God.’ Cutting and mutilation of the body has nothing to do with either passage, nor indeed with the Christian life. The amputation of an arm that steals is no sure guaranty of the removal of the desire to steal; nor would the plucking out of a lustful eye do away with the lust winch uses the eye for an instrument.
With this should be classed also the following commands: ‘ Whosoever shall smite thee on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.’ ‘If any man will sue thee at the law, and take away thy coat, let him have thy cloak also; and whosoever shall compel thee to go a mile, go with him twain.’
From all that I know of Oriental modes of thought and life I cannot conceive that Jesus meant by all these sayings to give brute force the right of way in human life. He himself drove the traders out of the temple by physical force. These precepts were not meant to prohibit the use of force in self-defense and for the protection of property, but were given as an antidote to that relentless law of revenge which required ‘an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ The Master does not preach a gospel of helplessness, but enjoins a manly attitude toward peace and concord, in place of a constantly active desire for vengeance and strife.
Again let me say that an Oriental expects to be judged chiefly by what he means and not by what he says. As a rule, the Oriental is not altogether unaware of the fact that, as regards the letter, his statements are often sadly lacking in correctness. But I venture to say that when a person who is conversing with me knows that I know that what he is saying is not exactly true, I may not like his manner of speech, yet I cannot justly call him a liar.
While on a visit to Syria, after having spent several years in this country, where I had lived almost exclusively with Americans, I was very strongly impressed by the decidedly sharp contrast between the Syrian and the American modes of thought. The years had worked many changes in me, and I had become addicted to the more compact phraseology of the American social code.
In welcoming me to his house, an old friend of mine spoke with impressive cheerfulness as follows: ‘You have extremely honored me by coming into my abode [menzel]. I am not worthy of it. This house is yours; you can burn it if you wish. My children also are at your disposal; I would sacrifice them all for your pleasure. What a blessed day this is, now that the light of your countenance has shone upon us’; and so forth, and so on.
I understood my friend fully and most agreeably, although it was not easy for me to translate his words to my American wife without causing her to be greatly alarmed at the possibility that the house would be set on fire and the children slain for our pleasure. What my friend really meant in his effusive welcome was no more nor less than what a gracious American host means when he says, ‘ I am delighted to see you; please make yourself at home.'
Had the creed-makers of Christendom approached the Bible by way of Oriental psychology, had they viewed the scriptures against the background of Syrian life, they would not have dealt with Holy Writ as a jurist deals with legislative enactments. Again, had the unfriendly critics of the Bible real acquaintance with the land of its birth, they would not have been so sure that the Bible was ‘a mass of impossibilities.’ The sad fact is that the Bible has suffered violence from literalists among its friends, as from its enemies.
For example, in their failure to heal a sick lad (Matthew XVII: 19) the disciples came to Jesus and asked him why they could not do the beneficent deed. According to the Revised and the Arabic versions, the Master answered, ‘Because of your unbelief; for verily I say unto you, If ye have faith as a grain of mustard seed, ye shall say unto this mountain, Remove hence to yonder place, and it shall remove.’ Colonel Robert Ingersoll never tired of challenging the Christians of America to put this scripture to a successful test, and thus convince him that the Bible is inspired. In the face of such a challenge the ‘believer’ is likely to feel compelled to admit that the church does not have the required amount of faith, else it could remove mountains.
To one well acquainted with the Oriental manner of speech this saying was not meant to fix a rule of conduct, but to idealize faith. In order to do this in real Syrian fashion, Jesus spoke of an infinitesimal amount of faith as being capable of moving the biggest object on earth. His disciples must have understood him clearly, because we have no record that they ever tried to remove mountains by faith and prayer.
Of a similar character is the Master’s saying, ‘It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God,’ which has quickened the exegetical genius of commentators to mighty efforts in ‘expounding the scriptures.’ Judging by the vast number of persons in this country who have asked my opinion, as a Syrian, concerning its correctness, and the fact that I have myself seen it in print, the following interpretation of this passage must have been much in vogue.
The walled cities and feudal castles of Palestine, the explanation runs, have large gates. Because of their great size, such gates are opened only on special occasions to admit chariots and caravans. Therefore, in order to give pedestrians thoroughfare, a smaller opening about the size of an ordinary door is made in the centre of the great gate, near to the ground. Now this smaller door through which a camel cannot pass is the eye of the needle mentioned in the Gospel.
I once heard a Sunday-school superintendent explain this passage to his scholars by saying that a camel could pass through this eye of a needle — meaning the door — if he was not loaded. Therefore, and by analogy, if we cast off our load of sin outside, we can easily enter into the kingdom of heaven.
Were the camel and the gate left out, this statement would be an excellent fatherly admonition. There is perhaps no gate in the celestial city large enough to admit a man with a load of sin strapped to his soul. However, the chief trouble with these explanations of the ‘eye-of-the-needle’ passage is that they are wholly untrue.
This saying is current in the East, and in all probability it was a common saying there long before the advent of Christ. But I never knew that small door in a city or a castle gate to be called the needle’s eye; nor indeed the large gate to be called the needle. The name of that door, in the common speech of the country, is the ‘ plum,’ and I am certain the scriptural passage makes no reference to it whatever.
The Koran makes use of this expression in one of its purest classical Arabic passages. The term employed here — sum-el-khiat — can mean only the sewing instrument, and nothing else.
Nothing can show more clearly the genuine Oriental character of this New Testament passage and that of the Teacher who uttered it, than the intense positiveness of its thought and the unrestrained flight of its imagery. I can just hear the Master say it. Jesus’ purpose was to state that it was extremely difficult ‘for them that trust in riches to enter into the Kingdom of God.’ (Mark x : 24.) To this end he chose the biggest animal and the smallest opening known to his people and compared the impossibility of a camel passing through the eye of a needle with that of a man weighted down with earthly things becoming one with God.
Perhaps the one phase of his speech which lays the Oriental open to the charge of unveracity is his much swearing. Of course this evil habit knows no geographical boundaries and no racial limits. However, probably because of their tendency to be profuse, intense, and positive in speech, the Orientals no doubt have more than their legitimate share of swearing. But it should be kept in mind that in that part of the world swearing is not looked upon with the same disapproval and contempt as in America; swearing by the name of the Deity has always been considered the most sacred and solemn affirmation of a statement. It is simply calling God to witness that what has been said is the sacred truth. Thus in the twentyfirst chapter of the book of Genesis Abimelech asks Abraham, ‘Now, therefore, swear unto me here by God that thou wilt not deal falsely with me, nor with my son, nor with my son’s son.’ ‘And Abraham said, I will swear.’
In Syria this custom has undergone no change since the days of Abraham. Swearing is an integral element in Oriental speech. Instinctively the speaker turns his eyes and lifts his hands toward heaven and says, ‘ By Allah, what I have said is right and true. Yeshhedo-Allah [God witnesseth] to the truth of my words.’ In a simitar manner, and as in a score of places in the Old Testament, the maker of a statement is asked by his hearer to swear by God as a solemn assurance that his statement is true and sincere. Of such importance is this mode of speech to Orientals that the Israelites thought of Jehovah Himself as making such affirmations. In the twenty-second chapter of Genesis we have the words, ‘ By myself have I sworn, saith the Lord.’ Further light is thrown on this point by the explanation given to the verse just quoted in the sixth chapter of the Epistle to the Hebrews, where it is said, ‘For when God made promise to Abraham, because He could swear by no greater, he swore by Himself.’
I have no doubt that this thought of God swearing by Himself sprang from the custom of Oriental aristocrats of sealing a vow, or solemnly affirming a statement, or an intention to do some daring deed, by saying, ‘I swear by my head ’ — an oath which, whenever I heard it in my youth, filled me with awe. Thus, also, in the sixty-second chapter of Isaiah we have the words, ‘The Lord hath sworn by his right hand, and by the arm of his strength.’
Among the Mohammedans, swearing ‘ by the most high God ’ and ‘ by the life of the Prophet’ and ‘ by the exalted Koran’ in affirmation of almost every statement, is universal. The Christians swear by God, Christ, the Virgin, the Cross, the Saints, the repose of their dead, the Holy City, the Eucharist, Heaven, great holidays, and many other names. A father swears by the life of a dear child, and sons of distinguished fathers swear by them. ‘By the life of my father, I am telling the truth,’ is a very common expression. The antiquity of this custom is made evident by the passage in the thirtyfirst chapter of Genesis and the fiftythird verse: ‘And Jacob swore by the fear of his father Israel.’ However, the word ‘fear’ does violence to the real meaning of the verse, which the Arabic version rescues by saying, ‘And Jacob swore by the heybit [benignity, or beautiful dignity] of his father.’ He swore by that which he and others loved, and not feared, in his father.
But what must seem to Americans utterly ridiculous is the Oriental habit of swearing by the moustache and the beard, which is, however, one phase of swearing by the head. To swear by one’s moustache, or beard, means to pledge the integrity of one’s manhood. ‘I swear by this,’ is said solemnly by a man with his hand upon his moustache. Swearing by the beard is supposed to carry more weight because, as a rule, it is worn by the older men. To speak disrespectfully of one’s moustache or beard, or to curse the beard of a person’s father, is to invite serious trouble.
I remember distinctly how proud I was in my youth to put my hand upon my moustache, when it was yet not even large enough to be respectfully noticed, and swear by it as a man. I recall also to what roars of laughter I would provoke my elders at such times, to my great dismay.
Here it may easily be seen that swearing in the Orient had so lost its original sacredness and become so vulgar, even as far back as the time of Christ, that He deemed it necessary to give the unqualified command, ‘Swear not at all: neither by heaven, for it is God’s throne, nor by the earth, for it is his footstool: neither by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. Neither shalt thou swear by thy head, because thou canst not make one hair white or black. But let your communication be yea, yea; nay, nay; for whatsoever is more than these cometh of evil.’ This was perhaps the most difficult command to obey that Jesus ever gave to his countrymen.
Of the other characteristics of Oriental speech, I wish to speak briefly of three before I bring this article to a close.
The first is the juvenile habit of imploring ‘in season and out of season’ when asking a favor. To try to exert ‘undue’ influence, virtually to beg in most persuasive tones, is an Oriental habit which to an American must seem unendurable. One of the most striking examples of this characteristic is the parable of the unrighteous judge, in the eighteenth chapter of Luke. ‘ There was in a city a judge, which feared not God, neither regarded man: and there was a widow in that city, and she came unto him saying, Avenge me [the original is ‘do me justice’] of mine adversary. And he would not for a while: but afterward he said within himself, Though I fear not God, nor regard man, yet because this widow troubleth me, I will avenge her, lest by her continual coming she weary me.'
Here is a case — by no means a rare exception in that country — where a judge rendered a verdict against his own best judgment in sheer self-defense. And I must say that, knowing such Oriental tendencies as I do, especially as manifested by widows, I am in deep sympathy with the judge.
Yet it was this very persistence in petitioning the Father of all men which gave mankind the lofty psalms and tender prayers of our scriptures. It was this persistent filial pleading and imploring which made Israel turn again and again to the ‘God of righteousness’ and say, ‘We have sinned,’and ask for a deeper revealing of his ways to them. Job’s cry, ‘Though He slay me, yet will I trust in Him,’may not be the proper language of modern etiquette, but it certainly is the language of religion. In the very parable just quoted, Jesus recommends to his disciples the insistence of the widow as a means to draw the benediction of heaven upon them, and to secure for them justification at the hands of the righteous judge. Honest seekers after spiritual gifts should not be averse to imitating this Oriental trait. They should never be afraid to come to their Father again and again for his gracious blessing, or refrain from ‘storming the gates of heaven with prayer.’
The second characteristic of Oriental speech is its intimacy and unreserve. Mere implications which are so common to reserved and guarded speech leave a void in the Oriental heart. It is because of this that the Orientals have always craved ‘signs and wonders,’and interpreted natural phenomena in terms of direct miraculous communications from God to convince them that He cared for them. Although Gideon was speaking with Jehovah Himself, who promised to help him to save his kinsmen from the Midianites, he asked for a more tangible, more definite sign. We are told in the sixth chapter of Judges, thirty-sixth verse: ‘Gideon said unto God, If thou wilt save Israel by my hand, as thou hast spoken, behold I will put a fleece of wool on the threshing-floor; if there be dew on the fleece only, and it be dry upon the ground, then shall I know that thou wilt save Israel by my hand, as thou hast spoken. And it was so.' But Gideon, still unsatisfied, speaks again in childlike simplicity and intimacy: ‘Let not thine anger be kindled against me, and I will speak but this once: let me make trial, I pray thee, but this once with the fleece; let it now be dry only upon the fleece, and upon all the ground let there be dew. And God did so that night.'
It is not at all uncommon for old and tried friends in Syria to give and ask for affectionate assurances, that they do love one another. Such expressions are the wine of life. Especially when new confidences are exchanged or great favors asked, a man turns with guileless eyes to his trusted friend and says, ‘Now you love me; I say you love me, don’t you?’ ‘My soul, my eyes,’ answers the other, ‘you know what is in my heart toward you; you know and the Creator knows! ’ Then the request is made.
One of the noblest and tenderest passages in the New Testament, a passage whose spirit has fed the strength of the Christian missionaries throughout the ages, is that portion of the twenty-first chapter of St. John’s Gospel where Jesus speaks to Peter in this intimate Syrian fashion. How sweet and natural it sounds to a son of the East! ‘So when they had dined, Jesus saith to Simon Peter, Simon son of Jonas, lovest thou me?’ How characteristic also is Peter’s answer, ‘Yea, Lord; thou knowest that I love thee.’ Then came the precious request, ‘Feed my lambs.’ Three times did the affectionate Master knock at the door of Peter’s heart, till the poor impetuous disciple cried, ‘Lord, thou knowest all things; thou knowest that I love thee. Jesus saith unto him, Feed my sheep.’
The third characteristic of Oriental speech is its unqualified positiveness. Outside the small circles of Europeanized Syrians, such qualifying phrases as ‘in my opinion,’ ‘so it seems to me,’‘as I see it,’ and the like, are almost entirely absent from Oriental speech. Such expressions, also, are rarely used in the Bible, and then only in the New Testament, in which Greek influence plays no small part. Thus in the seventh chapter of his second Epistle to the Corinthians, Paul, in giving his opinion on marriage said, suppose, therefore, that this is good for the present distress,’ and so forth. I am not aware that this form of speech is used anywhere in the entire Old Testament.
The language of the Oriental is that of sentiment and conviction, and not of highly differentiated and specialized thought. When you say to him, ‘I think this object is beautiful,’ if he does not think it is so, he says, ‘No, it is not beautiful.’ Although he is expressing his own individual opinion, he does not take the trouble to make that perfectly clear: if an object is not beautiful to him, it is not beautiful.
From an intellectual and social standpoint, this mode of speech may be considered a serious defect. So do children express themselves. But it should be kept in mind that the Oriental mind is that of the prophet and the seer, and not of the scientist and the philosopher. It is the mind which has proven the most suitable transmissive agency of divine revelation.
When the seer beholds a vision of the things that are eternal, he cannot speak of it as a supposition or a guess, or transmit it with intellectual caution and timidity. ‘Thus saith the Lord.’ ‘The word of the Lord came unto me saying, Son of man, prophesy.’ When we speak of the deepest realities of life, we do not beset our utterances with qualifying phrases. True love, deep sorrow, a real vision of spiritual things transcend all speculative speech; they press with irresistible might for direct and authoritative expression.
This seeming weakness in Oriental speech and in the Bible is in reality tremendous spiritual strength. Through our sacred scriptures we hear the voices of those great Oriental prophets who spoke as they saw and felt; as seers, and not as logicians. And it was indeed most fortunate for the world that the Bible was written in an age of instinctive listening to the divine Voice, and in a country whose juvenile mode of speech protected the ‘rugged maxims’ of the scriptures from the weakening influences of an over-strained intellectualism.