Sacred Texts  Bible  Critical Views  Index  Previous  Next 
Buy this Book at

Prolegomena to the History of Ancient Israel, by Julius Wellhausen, [1885], at


Under King Jeroboam II., two years before a great earthquake that served ever after for a date to all who had experienced it, there occurred at Bethel, the greatest and most conspicuous sanctuary of Jehovah in Israel, a scene full of significance. The multitude were assembled there with gifts and offerings for the observance of a festival, when there stepped forward a man whose grim seriousness interrupted the joy of the feast. It was a Judæan, Amos of Tekoa, a shepherd from the wilderness bordering on the Dead Sea. Into the midst of the joyful tones of the songs which with harp and tabor were being sung at the sacred banquet he brought the discordant note of the mourner's wail. For over all the joyous stir of busy life his ear caught the sounds of death: "the virgin of Israel is fallen, never more to rise; lies prostrate in her own land with no one to lift her up." He prophesied as close at hand the downfall of the kingdom which just at that moment was rejoicing most in the consciousness of power, and the deportation of the people to a far-off northern land.

There was something rotten in the state of Israel in spite of the halcyon days it enjoyed under Jeroboam II. From the indirect results of war, from changes in the tenure and in the culture of the soil, from defective administration of justice, the humbler classes had much to suffer; they found that the times were evil. But it was not this that caused Amos to foresee the end of Israel, not a mere vague foreboding of evil that forced him to leave his flocks; the dark cloud that threatened on the horizon was plain enough—the Assyrians. Once already at an earlier date they had directed their course south-westwards, without, however, on that occasion becoming a source of danger to the Israelites. But now that the bulwark against the Assyrians, Aram of Damascus, was falling into ruins, a movement of these against Lebanon in the time of Jeroboam II. opened to Israel the alarming prospect that sooner or later they would have to meet the full force of the irresistible avalanche.

p. 471

What then? The common man was in no position truly to estimate the danger; and, so far as he apprehended it, he lived in the firm faith that Jehovah would not abandon His people in their straits. The governing classes prided themselves on the military resources of Israel, or otherwise tried to dismiss from their minds all thought of the gravity of the situation. But Amos heard the question distinctly enough, and did not hesitate to answer it: the downfall of Israel is imminent. It was nothing short of blasphemy to utter anything of this kind, for everything, Jehovah Himself included, depended on the existence of the nation. But the most astounding thing has yet to come; not Asshur, but Jehovah Himself, is bringing about the overthrow of Israel; through Asshur it is Jehovah that is triumphing over Israel. A paradoxical thought—as if the national God were to cut the ground from under His own feet! For the faith in Jehovah as the God of Israel was a faith that He intervenes on behalf of His people against all enemies, against the whole World; precisely in times of danger was religion shown by staying oneself upon this faith. Jehovah might indeed, of course, hide His face for a time, but not definitively; in the end He ever arose at last against all opposing powers. "The day of the Lord" was an object of hope in all times of difficulty and oppression; it was understood as self-evident that the crisis would certainly end in favour of Israel. Amos took up the popular conception of that day; but how thoroughly did he change its meaning! "Woe to them who long for the day of the Lord!—What to you is the day of the Lord,? It is darkness, not light." His own opposition to the popular conception is formulated in a paradox which he prefixes as theme to the principal section of his book:—"Us alone does Jehovah know," say the Israelites, drawing from this the inference that He is on their side, and of course must take their part. "You only do I know," Amos represents Jehovah as saying, "therefore do I visit upon you all your sins."

If the question, Whereon did Jehovah's relation to Israel ultimately rest? be asked, the answer, according to the popular faith, must substantially be that it rested on the fact that Jehovah was worshipped in Israel and not among the heathen, that in Israel were His altars and His dwelling. His cultus was the bond between Him and the nation; when therefore it was desired to draw the bond still closer, the solemn services of religion were redoubled. But to the conception of Amos Jehovah is no judge capable of accepting a bribe; with the utmost indignation

p. 472

he repudiates the notion that it is possible to influence Him by gifts and offerings. Though Israel alone has served Him he does not on that account apply any other standard to it than to other nations (chaps. i. ii.). If Israel is better known to Him, it does not follow that on that account He shuts His eyes and blindly takes a side. Neither Jehovah nor His prophet recognises two moral standards; right is everywhere right, wrong always wrong, even though committed against Israel's worst enemies (ii. 1). What Jehovah demands is righteousness,—nothing more and nothing less; what He hates is injustice. Sin or offence to the Deity is a thing of purely moral character; with such emphasis this doctrine had never before been heard. Morality is that for the sake of which all other things exist; it is the alone essential thing in the world. It is no postulate, no idea, but at once a necessity and a fact, the most intensely living of personal powers-Jehovah the God of Hosts. In wrath, in ruin, this holy reality makes its existence known; it annihilates all that is hollow and false.

Amos calls Jehovah the God of Hosts, never the God of Israel. The nation as such is no religious conception to him; from its mere existence he cannot formulate any article of faith. Sometimes it seems as if he were denying Israel's prerogative altogether. He does not really do so, but at least the prerogative is conditional and involves a heavy responsibility. The saying in iii. 2 recalls Luke xii. 47. The proposition "Jehovah knows Israel" is in the mouth of Amos almost the same thing as "Israel knows Jehovah;" save only that this is not to be regarded as any merit on Israel's part, but as a manifestation of the grace of Jehovah, who has led His people by great deeds and holy men, and so made Himself known. Amos knows no other truth than that practical one which he has found among his own people and nowhere else, lying at the foundation of life and morality, and which he regards as the product of a divine providential ordering of history. From this point of view, so thoroughly Israelitish, he pronounces Israel's condemnation. He starts from premisses generally conceded, but he accentuates them differently and draws from them divergent conclusions.

Amos was the founder, and the purest type, of a new phase of prophecy. The impending conflict of Asshur with Jehovah and Israel, the ultimate downfall of Israel, is its theme. Until that date there had subsisted in Palestine and Syria a number of petty kingdoms and nationalities, which had their friendships and enmities with one another,

p. 473

but paid no heed to anything outside their own immediate environment, and revolved, each on its own axis, careless of the outside world, until suddenly the Assyrians burst in upon them. These commenced the work which was carried on by the Babylonians, Persians, and Greeks, and completed by the Romans. They introduced a new factor, the conception of the world,—the world of course in the historical sense of that expression. In presence of that conception the petty nationalities lost their centre of gravity, brute fact dispelled their illusions, they flung their gods to the moles and to the bats (Isa. ii.). The prophets of Israel alone did not allow themselves to be taken by surprise by what had occurred, or to be plunged in despair; they solved by anticipation the grim problem which history set before them. They absorbed into their religion that conception of the world which was destroying the religions of the nations, even before it had been fully grasped by the secular consciousness. Where others saw only the ruin of everything that is holiest, they saw the triumph of Jehovah over delusion and error. Whatever else might be overthrown, the really worthy remained unshaken. They recognised ideal powers only, right and wrong truth and falsehood; second causes were matters of indifference to them, they were no practical politicians. But they watched the course of events attentively, nay, with passionate interest. The present, which was passing before them, became to them as it were the plot of a divine drama which they watched with an intelligence that anticipated the dénouement. Everywhere the same goal of the development, everywhere the same laws. The nations are the dramatis personæ, Israel the hero, Jehovah the poet of the tragedy. 1

The canonical prophets, the series of whom begins with Amos, were separated by an essential distinction from the class which had preceded them and which still continued to be the type of the common prophet. They did not seek to kindle either the enthusiasm or the fanaticism of the multitude; they swam not with but against the stream. They were not patriotic, at least in the ordinary acceptation of that word; they prophesied not good but evil for their people (Jer. xxviii. 8). Until their time the nation had sprung up out of the conception of Jehovah; now the conception of Jehovah was casting the nation into the shade. The natural bond between the two was severed, and the

p. 474

relation was henceforward viewed as conditional. As God of the righteousness which is the law of the whole universe, Jehovah could be Israel's God only in so far as in Israel the right was recognised and followed. The ethical element destroyed the national character of the old religion. It still addressed itself, to be sure, more to the nation and to society at large than to the individual; it insisted less upon a pure heart than upon righteous institutions; but nevertheless the first step towards universalism had been accomplished, towards at once the general diffusion and the individualisation of religion. Thus, although the prophets were far from originating a new conception of God, they none the less were the founders of what has been called "ethical monotheism." But with them this ethical monotheism was no product of the "self-evolution of dogma," but a progressive step which had been called forth simply by the course of events. The providence of God brought it about that this call came at an opportune period, and not too suddenly. The downfall of the nation did not take place until the truths and precepts of religion were already strong enough to be able to live on alone; to the prophets belongs the merit of having recognised the independence of these, and of having secured perpetuity to Israel by refusing to allow the conception of Jehovah to be involved in the ruin of the kingdom. They saved faith by destroying illusion.

The event which Amos had foreseen was not long in coming. The Israelites flew spontaneously, like "silly doves," into the net of the Assyrians. Zechariah ben Jeroboam was overthrown after a short reign, Shallum his murderer and successor was also unable to hold his own, and was followed after the horrors of a civil war by Menahem ben Gadi (745 B.C.). But Menahem, in the presence of domestic (and perhaps also foreign) assailants, 1 had no other resort than to purchase

p. 475

by payment of a great tribute the assistance of King Tiglath-pileser II., who at that time was giving new force to the Assyrian predominance in these regions. By such means he succeeded in attaining his immediate end, but the further consequence was that the rival party in the state turned for support to Egypt, and Palestine now became the arena of conflict between the two great world-powers.

Menahem transmitted his kingdom to Pekahiah; Pekahiah was murdered about 735 B.C. by Pekah, and Pekah himself shortly afterwards was overthrown. All this happened within a few years. It would have been possible to conjecture the state of the country in these circumstances, even if we had not been informed of it by means of the prophetical book of Hosea, which dates from the time when the Assyrians had begun indeed to tamper with the country, but had not yet shown their full design. After the death of Jeroboam II. there had been wild outbursts of partisan war; none of the kings who in quick succession appeared and disappeared had real power, none established order. It was as if the danger from without, which was only too obviously threatening the existence of the kingdom, had already dissolved all internal bonds; every one was at war with his neighbour. Assyrians and Egyptians were called in to support this or that government; by such expedients the external confusion was, naturally, only increased. Was there any other quarter in which help could yet be sought? The people, led by the priests, turned to the altars of Jehovah, and outdid itself in pious works, as if by any such illusory means, out of all relation to the practical problem in hand, the gangrene of anarchy could possibly be healed. Still more zealous than Amos against the cultus was Hosea, not merely on the ground that it had the absurd motive of forcing Jehovah's favour, but also because it was of heathenish character, nature-worship and idolatry. That Jehovah is the true and only helper is certainly not denied by Hosea. But His help is coupled with the condition that Israel shall undergo a complete change, and of such a change he sees no prospect. On this account the downfall of the state is in Hosea's view inevitable, but not final ruin, only such an overthrow as is necessary for the transition to a new and fair recommencement. In Hosea's prophecies the relation between Jehovah and

p. 476

[paragraph continues] Israel is conceived of as dissoluble, and as actually on the point of being dissolved, but it has struck its roots so deep that it must inevitably at last establish itself again.

The first actual collision between Israel and Assyria occurred in 734. Resin, king of Damascus, and Pekah, king of Samaria, had united in an expedition against Judah, where at that time Ahaz ben Jotham occupied the throne. But Ahaz parried the blow by placing himself under the protection of the Assyrians, who perhaps would in any case have struck in against the alliance between Aram and Israel. Tiglath-pileser made his first appearance in 734, first on the sea-coast of Palestine, and subsequently either in this or in the following year took up his quarters in the kingdom of the ten tribes. After he had ravaged Galilee and Gilead, he finally concluded a peace with Samaria conditionally on his receiving the head of King Pekah and a considerable yearly tribute. Hosea ben Elah was raised to the throne in Pekah's place and acknowledged by the Assyrian as a vassal For some ten years he held his position quietly, regularly paying his dues. But when at the death of Tiglath-pileser the Syro-Palestinian kingdoms rebelled en masse, Samaria also was seized with the delirium of patriotic fanaticism (Isaiah xxviii.). Relying upon the help of Seve, king of Ethiopia and Egypt, Hosea ventured on a revolt from Assyria. But the Egyptians left him in the lurch as soon as Shalmaneser IV., Tiglath-pileser's successor, invaded his territory. Before his capital had fallen, Hosea himself fell into the hands of the Assyrians. Samaria offered a desperate resistance, and succumbed only to Sargon, Shalmaneser's successor (721). Energetic measures were adopted by the victor for the pacification of the country; he carried all the inhabitants of mark into captivity to Calachene, Gozanitis, and Armenia. Much light is thrown upon the conditions of the national religion then and upon its subsequent development by the single fact that the exiled Israelites were absorbed by the surrounding heathenism without leaving a trace behind them, while the population of Judah, who had the benefit of a hundred years respite, held their faith fast throughout the period of the Babylonian exile, and by means of it were able to maintain their own individuality afterwards in all the circumstances that arose. The fact that the fall of Samaria did not hinder but helped the religion of Jehovah is entirely due to the prophets. That they had foreseen the downfall of the state, and declared in the name of religion that it was inevitable, was a

p. 477

matter of much greater historical importance than the actual downfall itself.


473:1 In very much the same way the threatened and actual political annihilation of Ionia led to the rise of Greek philosophy (Xenophanes, Heraclitus).

474:1 It is not inconceivable that the wars carried on by Tiglath-pileser II. against Hamath had some connection with his interventions in favour of Menahem. The kingdom of Hamath, which may have been threatened by Jeroboam II., may have availed itself of the state of matters which followed his death to secure its own aggrandisement at Israel's expense; in correspondence with this attack from the northern side another by Judah in concert with Hamath may well have been made from the south. In this way, though not without the aid of pure hypothesis, it might be possible to fit into the general historical connection the fragmentary Assyrian notices about Azariah of Judah and his relations to Hamath; the explanations suggested by the Assyriologists have hitherto been total failures. But in that case it would certainly be necessary to assume that the Assyrians were badly informed as to p. 475 the nature of the relations between Hamath and Judah, and also as to the individual who at that time held the throne of Judah. Uzziah (= Azariah), who in his old age had become a leper, could only nominally at best have been king of Judah then.

Next: 7. The Deliverance of Judah.