Prolegomena to the History of Ancient Israel, by Julius Wellhausen, , at sacred-texts.com
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Reprinted from the "Encyclopædia Britannica"
p. 428 p. 429
According to the Book of Genesis, Israel was the brother of Edom, and the cousin of Moab and Ammon. These four petty peoples, which may be classed together as the Hebrew group, must at one time have formed some sort of a unity and have passed through a common history which resulted in their settlement in south-eastern Palestine. The Israelites, or rather that section of the Hebrew group which afterwards developed into Israel, appear at first to have been the immediate neighbours of Edom, and to have extended westwards towards the border of Egypt. As regards the ethnological position of the Hebrews as a whole, tradition has it that they had connexions not only with the Aramæans of Osrhoene (Nahor), but also with certain of the old half-Arab inhabitants of the Sinaitic peninsula (Kenites, Amalek, Midian). To the Canaanites, whose language they had adopted, their relation was that of foreign conquerors and lords to a subject race (Gen. ix, 26).
Some fifteen centuries before our era a section of the Hebrew group left its ancient seat in the extreme south of Palestine to occupy the not distant pasture lands of Egypt (Goshen), where they carried on their old calling, that of shepherds and goatherds. Although settled within the territory of the Pharaohs, and recognising their authority, they continued to retain all their old characteristics,—their language, their patriarchal institutions, their nomad habits of life.
But in course of time these foreign guests were subjected to changed treatment. Forced labour was exacted of them for the construction of new public works in Goshen, an exaction which was felt to be an assault upon their freedom and honour, and which in point of fact was fitted to take away all that was distinctive of their nationality. But they had no remedy at hand, and had submitted in despair, until Moses at last saw a favourable opportunity of deliverance. Reminding his oppressed
brethren of the God of their fathers, and urging that their cause was His, he taught them to regard self-assertion against the Egyptians as an article of religion; and they became once more a united people in a determination to seek refuge from oppression in the wilderness which was the dwelling-place of their kindred and the seat of their God. At a time when Egypt was scourged by a grievous plague, the Hebrews broke up their settlement in Goshen one night in spring, and directed their steps towards their old home again. According to the accounts, the king had consented to the exodus, and latterly had even forced it on, but it was none the less a secret flight.
To a not very numerous pastoral people such an undertaking presented no great difficulty. Nevertheless its execution was not to be carried out unimpeded. The Hebrews, compelled to abandon the direct eastward road (Exod. xiii. 17, 18), turned towards the south-west and encamped at last on the Egyptian shore of the northern arm of the Red Sea, where they were overtaken by Pharaoh's army. The situation was a critical one; but a high wind during the night left the shallow sea so low that it became possible to ford it. Moses eagerly accepted the suggestion, and made the venture with success. The Egyptians, rushing after, came up with them on the further shore, and a struggle ensued. But the assailants fought at a disadvantage, the ground being ill suited for their chariots and horsemen; they fell into confusion and attempted a retreat. Meanwhile the wind had changed; the waters returned, and the pursuers were annihilated 1
After turning aside to visit Sinai as related in Exodus, the emigrants settled at Kadesh, eastwards from Goshen, on the southern borders of Palestine, 2 where they remained for many years, having at the well of Kadesh their sanctuary and judgment-seat only, while with their flocks they ranged over an extensive tract. In all probability their stay at Kadesh was no involuntary detention; rather was it this locality they
had more immediately had in view in setting out. For a civilised community of from two to three millions such a settlement would, of course, have been impossible; but it was quite sufficient for the immediate requirements of the Goshen shepherds, few in number as they were and inured to the life of the desert. That attempts may have been made by them to obtain possession of the more fertile country to the north is very likely; but that from the outset they contemplated the conquest of the whole of Palestine proper, and that it was only in expiation of a fault that they were held back at the gate of the promised land until the whole generation of the disobedient had died out, is not historically probable.
We can assign a definite reason for their final departure from Kadesh. In the district to the east of Jordan the (Canaanite) Amorites had, sometime previously, driven the Ammonites from the lower Jabbok and deprived the Moabites of all their territory to the north of the Arnon; on the plateau opposite Jericho Heshbon had become the capital of Sihon, the Amorite king. This sovereign now set himself to subdue southern Moab also, and not without success. "Fire went out from Heshbon, flame from the stronghold of Sihon, devoured the cities of Moab upon the heights of Arnon. Woe to thee, O Moab! thou art undone, O people of Chemosh!" From these straits the Moabites were rescued by their cousins, the nomads of the wilderness of Kadesh. The Israelites came forward on behalf of what was at once the common Hebrew cause and their own particular interest; they took the field against the Amorites, vanquished them in battle, and broke up the kingdom of Sihon. The consequence was that the land to the south of the Arnon remained in the undisputed possession of Moab, while the victors themselves became masters of the territory immediately to the north. Settled thus between Moab and Ammon their kinsmen, the Israelites supplied the link that was wanting in the chain of petty Hebrew nationalities established in the south of eastern Palestine.
The army that went out against the Amorites from Kadesh was certainly not exclusively composed of men who, or whose fathers, had accomplished the passage of the Red Sea Israel was not a formed nation when it left Egypt; and throughout the whole period of its sojourn in the wilderness it continued to be in process of growth. Instead of excluding the kindred elements which offered themselves to
it on its new soil, it received and assimilated them. The life they had lived together under Moses had been the first thing to awaken a feeling of solidarity among the tribes which afterwards constituted the nation; whether they had previously been a unity in any sense of the word is doubtful. On the other hand, the basis of the unification of the tribes must certainly have been laid before the conquest of Palestine proper; for with that it broke up, though the memory of it continued. At the same time it must not be supposed that all the twelve tribes already existed side be side in Kadesh. The sons of the concubines of Jacob—Dan and Naphtali, Gad and Asher—manifestly do not pertain to Israel in the same sense as do those of Leah and Rachel; probably they were late arrivals and of very mixed origin. We know, besides, that Benjamin was not born until afterwards, in Palestine. If this view be correct, Israel at first consisted of seven tribes, of which one only, that of Joseph, traced its descent to Rachel, though in point of numbers and physical strength it was the equal of all the others together, while in intellectual force it surpassed them. The remaining six were the sons of Leah:—Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah; Issachar, Zebulon. They are always enumerated in this order; the fact that the last two are also invariably mentioned apart from the rest and after Joseph has its explanation in geographical considerations.
The time of Moses is invariably regarded as the properly creative period in Israel's history, and on that account also as giving the pattern and norm for the ages which followed. In point of fact the history of Israel must be held to have begun then, and the foundations of a new epoch to have been laid. The prophets who came after gave, it is true, greater distinctness to the peculiar character of the nation, but they did not make it; on the contrary, it made them. Again, it is true that the movement which resulted in the establishment of the monarchy brought together for the first time into organic unity the elements which previously had existed only in an isolated condition; but Israel's sense of national personality was a thing of much earlier origin, which even in the time of the judges bound the various tribes and families together, and must have had a great hold on the mind of the nation, although there was no formal and binding constitution to give it support. When the Israelites settled in Palestine they found it inhabited by a population superior to themselves both in numbers and in civilisation, which they did not extirpate, but on the contrary gradually subdued and absorbed.
[paragraph continues] The process was favoured by affinity of race and similarity of speech; but, however far it went, it never had the effect of making Israelites Canaanites; on the contrary, it made Canaanites Israelites. Notwithstanding their inferiority, numerical and otherwise, they maintained their individuality, and that without the support of any external organisation. Thus a certain inner unity actually subsisted long before it had found any outward political expression; it goes back to the time of Moses, who is to be regarded as its author.
The foundation upon which, at all periods, Israel's sense of its national unity rested was religious in its character. It was the faith which may be summed up in the formula, Jehovah is the God of Israel, and Israel is the people of Jehovah. Moses was not the first discoverer of this faith, but it was through him that it came to be the fundamental basis of the national existence and history. 1 The exigencies of their position severe a number of kindred clans from their customary surroundings, and drove them into his arms. He undertook the responsibilities of their leader, and the confidence of success which he manifested was justified by the result. But it was not through any merit of his that the undertaking (of which he was the soul) prospered as it did; his design was aided in a wholly unlooked-for way, by a marvellous occurrence quite beyond his control, and which no sagacity could possibly have foreseen. One whom the wind and sea obeyed had given him His aid. Behind him stood One higher than he, whose spirit wrought in him and whose arm wrought for him,—not for his personal aggrandisement indeed, but for the weal of the nation. It was Jehovah. Alike what was done by the deliberate purpose of Moses and what was done without any human contrivance by nature and by accident came to be regarded in one great totality as the doing of Jehovah for Israel. Jehovah it was who had directed each step in that process through which these so diverse elements, brought together by the pressure of necessity, had been caused to pass, and in the course
of which the first beginnings of a feeling of national unity had been made to grow.
This feeling Moses was the first to elicit; he it was also who maintained it in life and cherished its growth. The extraordinary set of circumstances which had first occasioned the new national movement continued to subsist, though in a less degree, throughout the sojourn of the people in the wilderness, and it was under their pressure that Israel continued to be moulded. To Moses, who had been the means of so brilliantly helping out of their first straits the Hebrews who had accompanied him out of Egypt, they naturally turned in all subsequent difficulties; before him they brought all affairs with which they were not themselves able to cope. The authority which his antecedents had secured for him made him as matter of course the great national "Kadhi" in the wilderness. Equally as matter of course did he exercise his judicial functions, neither in his own interest nor in his own name, but in the interest of the whole community and in the name of Jehovah. By connecting them with the sanctuary of Jehovah, which stood at the well of Kadesh, he made these functions independent of his person, and thus he laid a firm basis for a consuetudinary law and became the originator of the Torah in Israel. In doing this he succeeded in inspiring the national being with that which was the very life of his own soul; through the Torah he gave a definite positive expression to their sense of nationality and their idea of God. Jehovah was not merely the God of Israel; as such he was the God at once of law and of justice, the basis, the informing principle, and the implied postulate of their national consciousness.
The relationship was carried on in precisely the same manner as that in which it had been begun. It was most especially in the graver moments of its history that Israel awoke to full consciousness of itself and of Jehovah. Now, at that time and for centuries afterwards, the highwater marks of history were indicated by the wars it recorded. The name "Israel" means "El does battle," and Jehovah was the warrior El, after whom the nation styled itself. The camp was, so to speak, at once the cradle in which the nation was nursed and the smithy in which it was welded into unity; it was also the primitive sanctuary. There Israel was, and there was Jehovah. If in times of peace the relations between the two had become dormant, they were at once called forth into fullest activity when the alarm of danger was
raised; Israel's awakening was always preceded by the awakening of Jehovah. Jehovah awakened men who under the guidance of His spirit placed themselves at the nation's head; in them His proper leadership was visibly expressed. Jehovah went forth with the host to battle, and in its enthusiasm His presence was seen (Judg. v. 13, 23). With signs and wonders from heaven Jehovah decided the struggle carried on upon earth. In it He was always upon Israel's side; on Israel was His whole interest concentrated, although His power (for He was God) reached far beyond their local limits.
Thus Jehovah was in a very real sense a living God; but the manifestations of His life in the great crises of His people's history were of necessity separated by considerable intervals of time. His activity had something abrupt and tumultuary about it, better suited for extraordinary occasions than for ordinary daily life. Traces of this feeling appear very prominently in the later stages of the development. But although the relations between Israel and Israel's God came most strongly into prominence in times of excitement, yet it did not altogether die out in the periods of comparative repose. It was in the case of Jehovah just as in the case of the human leaders of the people, who did not in times of peace wholly lose the influence they had gained in war. Jehovah had His permanent court at the places of worship where in times of quietude men clung to Him that they might not lose Him in times of trouble. His chief, perhaps in the time of Moses His only, sanctuary was with the so-called ark of the covenant. It was a standard, adapted primarily to the requirements of a wandering and warlike life; brought back from the field, it became, as symbol of Jehovah's presence, the central seat of His worship. The cultus itself was more than a mere paying of court to Jehovah, more than a mere expedient for retaining His sympathies against times of necessity; the Torah of Jehovah, the holy administration of law, was conjoined with it. This had first of all been exercised, at the instance of the priest of Midian, by Moses at the well of Kadesh; it was continued after him, at the sanctuary, within the circle of those who had attached themselves to him and were spiritually his heirs. In cases where the wisdom or the competency of the ordinary judges failed, men turned direct to the Godhead, i.e., to the sanctuary and those who served it. Their decisions, whether given according to their own lights or by lot (according to the character of the question), were not derived from any law,
but were received direct from Jehovah. 1
The execution of their decisions did not lie with them; they could only advise and teach. Their authority was divine, or, as we should say, moral, in its character; it rested upon that spontaneous recognition of the idea of right which, though unexpressed, was alive and working among the tribes—upon Jehovah Himself, who was the author of this generally diffused sense of right, but revealed the proper determinations on points of detail only to certain individuals. The priestly Torah was an entirely unpolitical or rather prepolitical institution; it had an existence before the state had, and it was one of the invisible foundation pillars on which the state rested.
War and the administration of justice were regarded as matters of religion before they became matters of obligation and civil order; this is all that is really meant when a theocracy is spoken of. Moses certainly organised no formal state, endowed with specific holiness, upon the basis of the proposition "Jehovah is the God of Israel;" or, at all events, if he did so, the fact had not in the slightest degree any practical consequence or historical significance. The old patriarchal system of families and clans continued as before to be the ordinary constitution, if one can apply such a word as constitution at all to an unorganised conglomeration of homogeneous elements. What there was of permanent official authority lay in the hands of the elders and heads of houses; in time of war they commanded each his own household force, and in peace they dispensed justice each within his own circle. But this obviously imperfect and inefficient form of government showed a growing tendency to break down just in proportion to the magnitude of the tasks which the nation in the course of its history was called upon to undertake. Appeal to Jehovah was always in these circumstances resorted to; His court was properly that of last resort, but the ordinary authorities were so inadequate that it had often enough to be applied to. Theocracy, if one may so say, arose as the complement of anarchy. Actual and legal existence (in the modern sense) was predicable only of each of the many clans; the unity of the nation was realised in the first instance only through its religion. It was out of the religion of Israel that the commonwealth of Israel unfolded itself,—not a holy state, but the state. And the state continued to be, consciously, rooted
in religion, which prevented it from quitting or losing its rapport with the soil from which it had originally sprung. With the intermediate and higher stages of political organisation, with the building of the upper structure, however, religion had no concern; they were too far removed from the foundation. The derivative, which did not carry immediately in itself its own title to exist, was a matter of indifference to it; what had come into being it suffered to go its own way as soon as it was capable of asserting its independence. For this reason it always turned by preference to the future, not in a utopian but in a thoroughly practical way; by a single step only did it keep ahead of the present. It prepared the way for such developments as are not derived from existing institutions, but spring immediately from the depths in which human society has its secret and mysterious roots.
The expression "Jehovah is the God of Israel," accordingly, meant that every task of the nation, internal as well as external, was conceived as holy. It certainly did not mean that the almighty Creator of heaven and earth was conceived of as having first made a covenant with this one people that by them He might be truly known and worshipped. It was not as if Jehovah had originally been regarded as the God of the universe who subsequently became the God of Israel; on the contrary, He was primarily Israel's God, and only afterwards (very long afterwards) did He come to be regarded as the God of the universe. For Moses to have given to the Israelites an "enlightened conception of God" would have been to have given them a stone instead of bread; it is in the highest degree probable that, with regard to the essential nature of Jehovah, as distinct from His relation to men, he allowed them to continue in the same way of thinking with their fathers. With theoretical truths, which were not at all in demand, He did not occupy himself, but purely with practical questions which were put and urged by the pressure of the times. The religious starting-point of the history of Israel was remarkable, not for its novelty, but for its normal character. In all ancient primitive peoples the relation in which God is conceived to stand to the circumstances of the nation—in other words, religion—furnishes a motive for law and morals; in the case of none did it become so with such purity and power as in that of the Israelites. Whatever Jehovah may have been conceived to be in His essential nature-God of the thunderstorm or the like—this fell more and more into the background as mysterious and transcendental; the subject was not one for inquiry. All stress was laid upon His activity within the
world of mankind, whose ends He made one with His own. Religion thus did not make men partakers in a divine life, but contrariwise it made God a partaker in the life of men; life in this way was not straitened by it, but enlarged. The so-called "particularism" of Israel's idea of God was in fact the real strength of Israel's religion; it thus escaped from barren mythologisings, and became free to apply itself to the moral tasks which are always given, and admit of being discharged, only in definite spheres. As God of the nation, Jehovah became the God of justice and of right; as God of justice and right, He came to be thought of as the highest, and at last as the only, power in heaven and earth.
In the preceding sketch the attempt has been made to exhibit Mosaism as it must be supposed to have existed on the assumption that the history of Israel commenced with it, and that for centuries it continued to be the ideal root out of which that history continued to grow. This being assumed, we cannot treat the legislative portion of the Pentateuch as a source from which our knowledge of what Mosaism really was can be derived; for it cannot in any sense be regarded as the starting-point of the subsequent development. If it was the work of Moses, then we must suppose it to have remained a dead letter for centuries, and only through King Josiah and Ezra the scribe to have become operative in the national history (compare sections 8 and 10). The historical tradition which has reached us relating to the period of the judges and of the kings of Israel is the main source, though only of course in an indirect way, of our knowledge of Mosaism. But within the Pentateuch itself also the historical tradition about Moses (which admits of being distinguished, and must carefully be separated, from the legislative, although the latter often clothes itself in narrative form) is in its main features manifestly trustworthy, and can only be explained as resting on actual facts.
From the historical tradition, then, it is certain that Moses was the founder of the Torah. But the legislative tradition cannot tell us what were the positive contents of his Torah. In fact it can be shown that throughout the whole of the older period the Torah was no finished legislative code, but consisted entirely of the oral decisions and instructions of the priests, as a whole it was potential only; what actually existed were the individual sentences given by the priesthood as they were asked for. Thus Moses was not regarded as the promulgator once for all of a national constitution, but rather as the first to call into activity the actual sense for law and justice, and to begin the series of oral decisions which were continued after him by the priests. He was the founder of the nation out of which the Torah and prophecy came as later growths. He laid the basis of Israel's subsequent peculiar individuality, not by any one formal act, but in virtue of his having
throughout the whole of his long life been the people's leader, judge, and centre of union.
A correct conception of the manner in which the Torah was made by him can be derived from the narrative contained in Exod. xviii., but not from the long section which follows, relating to the Sinaitic covenant (chap. xix. seq.). The giving of the law at Sinai has only a formal, not to say dramatic, significance. It is the product of the poetic necessity for such a representation of the manner in which the people was constituted Jehovah's people as should appeal directly and graphically to the imagination. Only so can we justly interpret those expressions according to which Jehovah with His own mouth thundered the ten commandments down from the mountain to the people below, and afterwards for forty days held a confidential conference with Moses alone on the summit. For the sake of producing a solemn and vivid impression, that is represented as having taken place in a single thrilling moment which in reality occurred slowly and almost unobserved. Why Sinai should have been chosen as the scene admits of ready explanation. It was the Olympus of the Hebrew peoples, the earthly seat of the Godhead, and as such it continued to be regarded by the Israelites even after their settlement in Palestine (Judg. v. 4, 5). This immemorial sanctity of Sinai it was that led to its being selected as the ideal scene of the giving of the law, not conversely. If we eliminate from the historical narrative the long Sinaitic section which has but a loose connection with it, the wilderness of Kadesh becomes the locality of the preceding and subsequent events. It was during the sojourn of many years here that the organisation of the nation, in any historical sense, took place. "There He made for them statute and ordinance, and there He proved them," as we read in Exod. xv. 26 in a dislocated poetical fragment. "Judgment and trial," "Massa and Meribah," point to Kadesh as the place referred to; there at all events is the scene of the narrative immediately following (Exod. xvii. = Num. xx.), and doubtless also of Exod. xviii.
If the legislation of the Pentateuch cease as a whole to be regarded as an authentic source for our knowledge of what Mosaism was, it becomes a somewhat precarious matter to make any exception in favour of the Decalogue. In particular, the following arguments against its authenticity must be taken into account. (1) According to Exod. xxxiv. the commandments which stood upon the two tables were quite different. (2) The prohibition of images was during the older period quite unknown; Moses himself is said to have made a brazen serpent which down to Hezekiah's time continued to be worshipped at Jerusalem as an image of Jehovah. (3) The essentially and necessarily national character of the older phases of the religion of Jehovah completely disappears in the quite universal code of morals which is given in the Decalogue as the fundamental law of Israel; but the entire series of religious personalities throughout the period of the judges and the kings—from Deborah, who praised Jael's treacherous act of murder, to David, who treated his prisoners of war with the utmost cruelty—make it very difficult to believe that the religion of Israel was from the outset one of a specifically
moral character. The true spirit of the old religion may be gathered much more truly from Judg. v. than from Exod. xx. (4) It is extremely doubtful whether the actual monotheism which is undoubtedly pre-supposed in the universal moral precepts of the Decalogue could have formed the foundation of a national religion. It was first developed out of the national religion at the downfall of the nation, and thereupon kept its hold upon the people in an artificial manner by means of the idea of a covenant formed by the God of the universe with, in the first instance, Israel alone (compare sects. 6-10).
As for the question regarding the historical presuppositions of Mosaism, there generally underlies it a misunderstanding arising out of theological intellectualism-an attribute found with special frequency among non-theologians. Moses gave no new idea of God to his people. The question whence he could have derived it therefore need not be raised. It could not possibly be worse answered, however, than by a reference to his relations with the priestly caste of Egypt and their wisdom. It is not to be believed that an Egyptian deity could inspire the Hebrews of Goshen with courage for the struggle against the Egyptians, or that an abstraction of esoteric speculation could become the national deity of Israel. It is not inconceivable indeed, although at the same time quite incapable of proof, that Moses was indebted to the Egyptian priests for certain advantages of personal culture, or that he borrowed from them on all hands in external details of organisation or in matters of ritual. But the origin of the germ which developed into Israel is not to be sought for in Egypt, and Jehovah has nothing in common with the colourless divinity of Penta-ur or with the God-forsaken dreariness of certain modern Egyptologists. That monotheism must have been a foreign importation, because it is contrary to that sexual dualism of Godhead which is the fundamental characteristic of Semitic religion, is an untenable exaggeration which has recently become popular out of opposition to the familiar thesis about the monotheistic instinct of the Semites (Nöldeke, Literar. Centralbl., 1877, p. 365). Moab, Ammon, and Edom, Israel's nearest kinsfolk and neighbours, were monotheists in precisely the same sense in which Israel itself was; but it would be foolish surely in their case to think of foreign importation.
Manetho's statements about the Israelites are for the most part to be regarded as malicious inventions: whether any genuine tradition underlies them at all is a point much needing to be investigated. The story of Exod. ii. 1 seq. is a mythus of frequent recurrence elsewhere, to which no further significance is attached, for that Moses was trained in all the wisdom of the Egyptians is vouched for by no earlier authorities than Philo and the New Testament. According to the Old Testament tradition his connexion is with Jethro's priesthood or with that of the Kenites. This historical presupposition of Mosaism has external evidence in its favour, and is inherently quite probable.
430:1 Exod. xvi. 21, 24, 25, 27, 30, 31. According to the Old Testament the exodus took place 480 years before the building of Solomon's temple, and 960 years before the end of the Babylonian captivity. These figures are "systematic" or at least systematised, but even so they are certainly more trustworthy than the combinations of the Egyptologists.
430:2 The site of Sinai (= Horeb?) hardly admits of ascertainment. The best datum would be the sanctuary of Jethro, if we could identify it with Midian (Jakut, iv. 451), which lies on the Arabian coast of the Red Sea obliquely facing the traditional Sinai. With regard to Kadesh, see Quarterly Statement of the Palestine Exploration Fund (1871), pp. 20, 21.
433:1 Jehovah is to be regarded as having originally been a family or tribal god, either of the family to which Moses belonged or of the tribe of Joseph, in the possession of which we find the ark of Jehovah, and within which occurs the earliest certain instance of a composite proper name with the word Jehovah for one of its elements (Jeho-shua, Joshua). No essential distinction was felt to exist between Jehovah and El, any more than between Asshur and El; Jehovah was only a special name of El which had become current within a powerful circle, and which on that account was all the more fitted to become the designation of a national god.
436:1 They were consulted chiefly on points of law, but also on all sorts of difficulties as to what was right and to be done, or wrong and to be avoided.