Prolegomena to the History of Ancient Israel, by Julius Wellhausen, , at sacred-texts.com
Before proceeding to consider the rise of those prophets who were the makers of the new Israel, it will not be out of place here to cast a glance backwards upon the old order of things which perished with the kingdom of Samaria. With reference to any period earlier than the century 850-750 B.C., we can hardly be said to possess any statistics. For, while the facts of history admit of being handed down with tolerable accuracy through a considerable time, a contemporary literature is indispensable for the description of standing conditions. But it was within this period that Hebrew literature first flourished—after the Syrians had been finally repulsed, it would seem. Writing of course had been practiced from a much earlier period, but only in formal instruments, mainly upon stone. At an early period also the historical sense of the people developed itself in connection with their religion; but it found its expression in songs, which in the first instance were handed down by word of mouth only. Literature began with the collection and writing out of those songs; the Book of the Wars of the Lord and the Book of Jashar were the oldest historical books. The transition was next made to the writing of prose history with the aid of legal documents and family reminiscences; a large portion of this early historiography has been preserved to us in the Books of Judges, Samuel, and Kings. Contemporaneously also certain collections of laws and decisions of the priests, of which we have an example in Ex. xxi. xxii., were committed to writing. Somewhat later, perhaps, the legends about the patriarchs and primitive times, the origin of which cannot be assigned to a very early date, 1 received literary shape. Specially
remarkable is the rise of a written prophecy. The question why it was that Elijah and Elisha committed nothing to writing, while Amos a hundred years later is an author, hardly admits of any other answer than that in the interval a non-literary had developed into a literary age. How rapid the process was may be gathered from a comparison between the singularly broken utterances of the earlier oracle contained in Isa. xv. xvi. with the orations of Isaiah himself.
We begin our survey with that of the family relations. Polygamy was rare, monogamy the rule; but the right of concubinage was unlimited. While a high position was accorded both by affection and custom to the married wife, traces still existed of a state of society in which she was regarded as property that went with the inheritance. The marriage of relations was by no means prohibited; no offence was taken at the circumstance that Abraham was the husband of his sister (by a different mother). Parents had full power over their children; they had the right to sell and even to sacrifice them. In this respect, however, the prevailing usage was mild, as also in regard to slaves, who socially held a position of comparative equality with their masters, and even enjoyed some measure of legal protection. Slavery, it is plain, had not the same political importance as with the Greeks and Romans; it could have been abolished without any shock to the foundations of the state.
Throughout this period agriculture and gardening continued to be regarded as man's normal calling (Gen. iii. iv.); the laws contained in Exod. xxi.-xxiii. rest entirely upon this assumption. To dwell in peace under his vine and under his fig-tree was the ideal of every genuine Israelite. Only in a few isolated districts, as in the country to the east of Jordan and in portions of Judah, did the pastoral life predominate. Art and industry were undeveloped, and were confined to the production of simple domestic necessaries.
Commerce was in old time followed exclusively by the Canaanite towns, so that the word "Canaanite" was used in the general sense of "trader." But by and by Israel began to tread in Canaan's footsteps (Hos. xii. 8, 9), 1 The towns grew more influential than the
country; money notably increased; and the zeal of piety was quite unable to arrest the progress of the change which set in. The kings themselves, from Solomon onwards, were the first to set the bad example; they eagerly sought to acquire suitable harbours, and in company or in competition with the Syrians entered upon large commercial transactions. The extortions of the corn-market, the formation of large estates, the frequency of mortgages, all show that the small peasant proprietorship was unable to hold its own against the accumulations of wealth. The wage-receiving class increased, and cases in which free Hebrews sold themselves into slavery were not rare.
On all hands the material progress of the commonwealth made itself felt, the old simplicity of manners disappeared, and luxury increased. Buildings of hewn stone began to be used even by private individuals. The towns, especially the chief ones, were fortified; and in time of war refuge was sought in them, and not as formerly in woods and caves. Even in the time of David the Israelites always fought on foot; but now horses and chariots were regarded as indispensable. The bow came to be the principal weapon of offence, and a military class appears to have sprung up.
The monarchy retained in the kingdom of the ten tribes its military character; the commander-in-chief was the first person in the kingdom. In internal affairs its interference was slight; with systematic despotism it had little in common, although of course within its narrow sphere it united executive and legislative functions. It was little more than the greatest house in Israel. The highest official was called "master of the household." The court ultimately grew into a capital, the municipal offices of which were held by royal officials. The provinces had governors who, however, in time of war withdrew to the capital (1 Kings xx.); the presumption is that their sole charge was collection of the revenue.
The state was not charged with affairs of internal administration; all parties were left free to maintain their own interests. Only in cases in which conflicts had emerged in consequence could the king be approached. Ruling and judging were regarded as one and the same; there was but one word for both (2 Kings xv. 5). Still, the king was not altogether the only judge; there were, in fact, a number of independent
jurisdictions. Wherever within a particular circle the power lay, there the right of judging was also found, whether exercised by heads of families and communities or by warriors and powerful lords. It was only because the king was the most powerful that he was regarded as the judge of last resort; but it was equally permitted to apply to him from the first. Of method and rule in these things there was but little; a man was glad to find any court to receive his complaint. Of course without complaint one got no justice. The administration of justice was at best but a scanty supplement to the practice of self-help. The heir of the murdered man would not forego the right of blood revenge; but his family or the commune gave him aid, and in case of need took his place, for bloodshed had at all hazards to be atoned for.
The firm establishment of civil order was rendered all the more difficult by the continual wars and violent changes of dynasty which ever and anon made its very existence problematical. Power, which is more important than righteousness to a judicatory, was what the government was wanting in. In the simpler social conditions of the earlier time a state which was adapted merely for purposes of war might easily be found to work satisfactorily enough, but a more complex order of things had now arisen. Social problems had begun to crop up; for the poor and the proletariat the protection of a thoughtful government had come to be required, but was not forthcoming.
But these defects did not check all progress. The weakness of the government, the want of political consolidation, were insufficient to arrest intellectual advance or to corrupt the prevailing moral tone and feeling for justice; in fact it was precisely in this period (the period in which the main part of the Jehovistic history must have been written) that the intellectual and moral culture of the people stood at its highest. Even when the machinery of the monarchy had got out of order, the organisation of the families and communes continued to subsist; the smaller circles of social life remained comparatively untouched by the catastrophes that shook the greater. Above all, the national religion supplied the spiritual life with an immovable basis.
The favourite illustrations of the power of religion in the Israel of that period are drawn from the instances of great prophets who raised kings out of the dust and smote them to it again. But the influence and importance of these is generally exaggerated in the accounts we
have. That among them there occasionally occurred manifestations of such power as to give a new turn in history is indeed true; a figure like that of Elijah is no mere invention. But such a man as he was a prophecy of the future rather than an actual agent in shaping the present. On the whole, religion was a peaceful influence, conserving rather than assailing the existing order of things. The majority of the prophets were no revolutionists; rather in fact were they always too much inclined to prophesy in accordance with the wishes of the party in power. Besides, in ordinary circumstances their influence was inferior to that of the priests, who were servants of royalty at the chief sanctuaries, but everywhere attached to the established order.
The Torah of Jehovah still continued to be their special charge. It was not even now a code or law in our sense of the word; Jehovah had not yet made His Testament; He was still living and active in Israel. But the Torah appears during this period to have withdrawn itself somewhat from the business of merely pronouncing legal decisions and to have begun to move in a freer field. It now consisted in teaching the knowledge of God, in showing the right God-given way where men were not sure of themselves. Many of the counsels of the priests had become a common stock of moral convictions, which, indeed, were all of them referred to Jehovah as their author, yet had ceased to be matters of direct revelation. Nevertheless the Torah had still occupation enough, the progressive life of the nation ever affording matter for new questions.
Although in truth the Torah and the moral influence of Jehovah upon the national life were things much weightier and much more genuinely Israelitic than the cultus, yet this latter held on the whole a higher place in public opinion. To the ordinary man it was not moral but liturgical acts that seemed to be truly religious. Altars of Jehovah occurred everywhere, with sacred stones and trees—the latter either artificial (Asheras) or natural—beside them; it was considered desirable also to have water in the neighbourhood (brazen sea). In cases where a temple stood before the altar it contained an ephod and teraphim, a kind of images before which the lot was cast by the priest. Of the old simplicity the cultus retained nothing; at the great sanctuaries especially (Bethel, Gilgal, Beersheba) it had become very elaborate. Its chief seasons were the agricultural festivals—the passover, the feast of weeks, and most especially the feast of the ingathering at the close
of the year. These were the only occasions of public worship properly so called, at which every one was expected to attend; in other cases each worshipper sought the presence of God only in special circumstances, as for example at the beginning and at the end of particular undertakings. The cultus, as to place, time, matter, and form, belonged almost entirely to the inheritance which Israel had received from Canaan; to distinguish what belonged to the worship of Jehovah from that which belonged to Baal was no easy matter. 1 It was the channel through which also paganism could and did ever anew gain admittance into the worship of Jehovah. Yet that publicity of the cultus which arose out of the very nature of Jehovah, and in consequence of which the teraphim even were removed from the houses to the temples, cannot but have acted as a corrective against the most fatal excesses.
As for the substance of the national faith, it was summed up principally in the proposition that Jehovah is the God of Israel. But "God" was equivalent to "helper;" that was the meaning of the word. "Help," assistance in all occasions of life,—that was what Israel looked for from Jehovah, not "salvation" in the theological sense. The forgiveness of sins was a matter of subordinate importance; it was involved in the "help," and was a matter not of faith but of experience. The relation between the people and God was a natural one as that of son to father; it did not rest upon observance of the conditions of a pact. But it was not on that account always equally lively and hearty; Jehovah was regarded as having varieties of mood. To secure and retain His favour sacrifices were useful; by them prayer and thanksgiving were seconded.
Another main article of faith was that Jehovah judges and recompenses, not after death (then all men were thought to be alike), but upon the earth. Here, however, but little account was taken of the individual; over him the wheel of destiny remorselessly rolled; his part was resignation and not hope. Not in the career of the individual but in the fate of families and nations did the righteousness of Jehovah find scope for its manifestation; and this is the only reason why the religion could dispense with the conceptions of heaven and hell. For the rest, it was not always easy to bring the second article into correlation with the first; in practice the latter received the superior place.
It need hardly be said that superstition of every kind also abounded. But the superstition of the Israelites had as little real religious significance as had that poetical view of nature which the Hebrews doubtless shared in greater or less degree with all the other nations of antiquity.
464:1 Even the Jehovistic narratives about the patriarchs belong to the time when Israel had already become a powerful kingdom; Moab, Ammon,, and Edom had been subjugated (Gen. xxvii. 29), and vigorous frontier wars were being carried on p. 466 with the Syrians about Gilead (Gen. xxxi. 52). In Gen. xxvii. 40 allusion is made to the constantly repeated subjugations of Edom by Judah, alternating with successful revolts on the part of the former; see Delitzsch on כאשׁר.
465:1 "Canaan (i.e., Ephraim Canaanised) has deceitful balances in his hand, and p. 466 loves to overreach. Ephraim indeed saith, I am become rich, I have gained wealth; but all his profits will not suffice for (expiation of) the guilt which he has incurred."
469:1 The description of the cultus by the Prophet Hosea shows this very clearly. It is obvious enough, however, that the object was to serve Jehovah, and not any foreign deity, by this worship.