Chapter 4: God and Man

The Old Testament, Keystone of Human Culture
by William F. Irwin

Chapter 4: God and Man

Basic to the issues we have been discussing is the reality of a knowledge of God; and basic likewise to the Old Testament is the assumption — rather, the conviction — that such had been attained. Entailed questions ramify afar, for revelation is the foundation of all religion as well as of its organization in theologies.

The problem is very old. Doubtless since man first became conscious of himself and of his mysterious environment, he has sought by whatever means seemed promising to know whether or not his world was friendly to him, and on what conditions. The devices employed in early religion are familiar to every student of the subject. Inferences from common events must have quickly entered into consideration, being so intimately a part of ordinary prudence; and with the personalist interpretation of environment, supposed action by that environment would have the same relevance as action by another person. In course of time, unusual events were studied as of special significance; and from this into portents of one sort or another the way was easy: earthquakes, ec1ipses, abnormal births, abnormal weather, celestial phenomena, and then ritualistic phenomena, such as the structure of a sacrificed animal, the spread of oil on water, and so on in manifold ramifications. But in addition it was widely believed that certain individuals possessed special powers of communication with the nonhuman world.

This sort of thought and practice persisted into Old Testament times. David’s guidance by the wind in the trees (II Sam. 5:24) is a revealing incident. So common as to be almost standard through an early period was the use of Urim and Thummim, which are generally believed to have been a sort of sanctified dice by whose chance fall divine direction was determined. A bulk of comparable material could be deduced, but it would scarcely reward the labor. For the important matter is how Israel gradually transcended, and then sloughed oil such primitivism. It is not strictly historical to refer first to the stories in the Pentateuch; but at least they are relevant as showing how a later time thought of the founding of Hebrew religion. There were certain great, privileged individuals, Abraham, Moses, Joshua, to whom God spoke in an immediate fashion in days of long ago. The Judges were only a little lower, for the spirit came powerfully upon them and they acted, so we are expected to believe, in certainty of their divine guidance. But it de- serves notice that a mysterious figure of “an angel (of the Lord)” is in some cases the means of communication with the unseen. And since the Old Testament word for angel, as that of the New Testament, means also messenger, it is a legitimate suspicion that these narratives preserve reminiscences of the growing significance of the prophetic movement, which comes into clear focus just a little later in First Samuel.

However that may be, the records are at this point moving over into a new conception of revelation. The legendary was slowly relegated to the remote past; belief in the validity of dreams and in portents continued for some time, and doubtless among certain classes permanently. But in the historic period the phenomena which were believed to provide revelation fall in the main into three classes; one is perhaps guilty of some measure of compulsion in so treating all the facts, but since no significant harm is done, we need not be too concerned. And in any case, as a going process revelation came through the priests, the prophets, and the wise men.

In the priesthood there was a growing tradition of religious precepts that were accepted as of divine origin and authority. But, when we push the matter back to the rise of these directives, we come face to face with the basic character of the priest as the personal attendant and minister of the god. He was precisely on a par with the servants and attendants of noblemen and royalty; in just the same way he ministered to the god. The fact that his lord was a presence at most visible in the image made no difference in the basic concepts. Like the cupbearers and other valets of the ancient world, his close association with his lord gave him opportunity to learn his character and his will. But it will be apparent that the valet had the advantage that his master could and did speak to him by an audible voice. Denied this direct revelation of the god’s will, the priest depended on some ancient theory equivalent to our adage that actions speak louder than words. He learned from what the god did. Stories such as the sudden death of Uzzah when he touched the ark, or of the tragedy of Aaron’s sons when they offered “strange fire,” are eloquent of the growth of the priestly tradition. Briefly, the priest secured his revelation by the astute use of his normal wits!

The method has illuminating illustration in the procedure of the Babylonian augurs, who, it would appear, worked out an organization for reporting unusual occurrences to central priestly agencies, So that if even a fox jumped into a vineyard, the fact was solemnly recorded as data in accord with which, first, to relate important events and, later, to predict them. If we might concede the priests’ theory that “coming events cast their shadows before” in signs and portents, then it would appear that the augur priest was an ancient scientist, carefully gathering his data, discovering their meaning by observation, and then proceeding to the conclusion that similar phenomena have always a similar result. This characterization is further enhanced by the activity of the magician, illegitimate priest as he was, who is commonly recognized to have been in some way ancestor of the modern scientist.

Similar was the means of revelation through the wise men, as they themselves would have admitted. They were primarily students of the course of human life. Their observations were made by completely normal human faculties, and their conclusions were deduced by ordinary process of thought. But the prophet, as distinct from both priest and sage, received his revelation deep in his own consciousness by means that for him were genuinely supernatural. In a mystical experience, which commonly in earlier expressions of prophecy was of the extreme form loosely described as ecstasy, he was convinced that he bridged the gulf between the seen and the unseen. Indeed for him there was no such gulf for his experiences took on the vividness and realism of sense phenomena. It is apparent that prophecy was thus not a personal choice, but something to which one was called; only certain persons were psychologically capable of such trances. How prevalent the phenomenon was in early prophecy we have little means of knowing. It is clear, however, that physical stimuli were employed to induce the condition, and the nervous breakdown of King Saul implies that the experiences were so frequent as to become, in some cases, pathological. But in the great age of prophecy, the eighth to sixth centuries, physical rneans seem to have been abandoned, and the whole ecstatic phenomenon was sublimated toward quieter mystical experiences induced by deep meditation. The view once prevalent that every oracle of the canonical prophets was preceded by a trance is now generally abandoned. This raises the interesting question of the authority in the prophet’s own mind for his utterances not so sanctioned. Not to labor the issue, we may conclude that he depended upon his proven character as spokesman for the Lord, and in his own mind distinguished between ideas on the ground of their compulsive power.

It is important to recognize that notwithstanding our easy castigation of certain ancient individuals as “false prophets,” the distinguishing mark of all three classes of religious leaders was, in the main, their high sincerity. Prophet and priest fully believed himself the minister and spokesman of the Lord. Yet for our approach to the matter it is of scarcely less moment to observe that the three depended in the final analysis upon somewhat common, and not infrequently normal, phenomena of thought and feeling. The word of the Lord came through the common things of the common days. And the elevation of the religious leaders, their ethical and religious insights, are explicable in the end only on the basis of their own susceptibility to better impulses. Here they join hands; their differences are only in their mode of approach to reality. There is much more to be said on this point; we shall return to it presently. It is, however, relevant to comment that just as for most primitive men, environment spoke to Israel through its religious leaders. Yet comparison of the two serves as vivid illustration of the French proverb that the more things are the same, the more they differ. More to the point is the fact that the study of Israel’s contemporary cultures provides numerous parallels to the conduct of the Hebrew priest, and several to aspects of prophecy. Still the uniqueness of Israel’s religions insights only stands out the more clearly.

To seek to delineate the content of these insights would take us back over ground already covered — all too hastily, let it be granted. The great convictions were of the reality and immediacy of a God of righteousness and love, and the unparalleled conceptions of the exalted nature of man and his duty under God — or in terms more congenial to the modes of thought of the wise men, conduct that best fulfills and expresses his high being. In the latter area, that of ethics, parallels with the ancient world multiply. Efforts have been put forth to show that Israel’s legal handling of similar situations was more humane. Perhaps; the important matter, however, is the principles to which right conduct was related — a sort of ancient prolegomenon of ethics. Here the humane quality is clearly evident. It is striking in Deuteronomy; we have noted the frequent argument that “you shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt,” therefore you must show consideration for the indigent and underprivileged. Yet the thought is by no means limited to Deuteronomy, but permeates much of the legislation in general. The vitality of the ethics was a contribution of the prophets. It would be approximately accurate to claim that their principles of social justice had been known and legislated in the Orient for more than a thousand years before Amos. But the Hebrew prophets took these standards and kindled them with a fire that is not yet extinguished, nor shows signs of dying out. And for them the facts were obvious and inescapable; true to the people’s genius, all rooted back in Israel’s vision of God. Because he is holy and just and righteous, man must do justice and love mercy. The wrath of God is revealed against all unrighteousness. This burning passion, incarnate in living, earnest, determined men, constitutes one of the glories of the Bible.

With the passing of years all three groups of religious leaders accumulated bodies of teachings. They were preserved orally for varying periods, though one must be cautious of a current vogue of bringing the time of writing down to a late date. Eventually the various collections were assembled, edited into at least one unity — the one we possess — and then passed through a process of general and official acceptance which is known as canonization. The process, it is commonly recognized, was not complete until Christian times; but as it developed it transformed the concept of revelation. An attitude arose comparable with earlier thought about the patriarchal period. Genuine revelation was pushed into the past: it was recorded in the sacred writings; the contemporary religious leader and thinker could be no more than a commentator.

The situation was much like ours today. The tendency to relegate authoritative revelation to the past is an expression of the normal demand for what has established and proven itself. And the function of the commentator, or whatever we choose to call him, has continued to offer religious guidance in established doctrines. Jews make much of the place of reason as applied to the Scriptures in guidance of the community; and Christians speak of the presence of the Spirit in the church to “guide into all truth.” The ideas are much the same; the authoritative word of God needs constant interpretation and application. Both religious groups would thus assent to the familiar saying that “God has yet more light and truth to break forth from his sacred word.”

By these varying modes: by living word, by tradition, by accepted Scripture, the folk of Old Testament times were satisfied they possessed a valid revelation of the character and will of God. And this was the rule of life for nation and individual; to depart from the accepted ways was sin. For our analytical thought, sin was of two sorts, ritual and ethical; but it is highly dubious that any such distinction existed in early times — each was a transgression of the will of God. It was the prophetic movement that raised the issue; we hear of it first in a passage of uncertain date in Samuel’s alleged denunciation of Saul (I Sam. 15:22-23), and it is the theme of the famous antiritual utterances of the eighth- and seventh-century prophets. The intensity with which infidelity was regarded we may realize not only in the stern measures of Nehemiah and Ezra, but also in a terrible passage in Deuteronomy, chapter 13, that decrees death by communal stoning for anyone who dares even suggest apostasy. All the horrors of subsequent religious persecution — of the wicked theory that men’s beliefs may and should be conformed by punitive action — here finds support. But to understand though scarcely condone, we must realize the seriousness of the issue before the community in those times.

We must not suppose that all the Lord’s people were saints. There is abundant evidence that there were rogues and scoundrels then as now. Yet social pressure was strong, and also the notion of group solidarity. The nation took on a character which we are to envisage as a very moderate expression of the high concepts put forth by the three accepted exponents of the way of the Lord; or perhaps it is better said that hee nation trailed far behind such ideals. Yet in the perspective of the on-going ages, those unattained standards were of incalculable importance; they were the high level toward which devout souls aspired, the standard by which contemporary life was ever judged, a ferment and stimulus provoking to better things.

For the recalcitrant, there was death at the hands of the community-commonly by the brutal method of stoning, that is, pelting with rocks until the poor wretch went down under them, and then was finally pounded to death. Less serious cases called only for “cutting off from the people,” apparently a sort of ostracism. But the penitent sinner could find restoration through offerings and restitution. More engrossing of our thought is the question of what was going on in the mind of the penitent. Probably the great mass of worshippers through the entire period considered that something of moment was happening in the ritual, and that the expiatory sacrifice really was efficient in wiping away sin. It deserves note, however, that a few at least cut right across this procedure to a belief in the free forgiveness and grace of God. The repudiation of sacrifice in Ps. 51:16-17 is famous; in similar mood Ps. 32:5 relates:

I acknowledged my sin to thee

and my iniquity I did not hide

I said, I will confess my transgressions to the Lord;

and thou didst forgive my sinful iniquity (Ps. 32:5).


But, by whatever means, the Hebrew believed that relations of grace and of confidence might be re-established: that God was of great kindness and love. And this, for the devout, was, on its highest level, the experience of salvation: not deliverance or welfare or the like — though these are comprised within the scope of the term — but most of all an assurance of God’s gracious attitude and concern toward the individual, not less than toward the nation. The expressions of this in the Psalms, the great treasury of devotion, in its individual prayers and thanksgivings, are many and famous. One may delay over just one which in quaint fashion reveals the engrossing piety of its author, some unknown saint of the long ago.

I wakened before dawn and shouted; I hoped in thy words;

my eyes were wakeful before the watches of the night, to meditate on thy sayings (Ps. 1 19:147-48).

A man of similar piety reminded his readers that “Many are the afflictions of the righteous,” adding devoutly, “but the Lord saves him out of all of them.” But did he? If so, how? One of the acute problems that engrossed biblical thought was what we call the problem of evil. How is it that suffering exists in a world created by a good and all-wise God? The Hebrew answer is familiar, for it is provided by the famous story of the fall of man. God put the first pair in the sacred garden, giving them wide privileges but strictly restraining them, “Of the fruit of the tree which is in the midst of the garden ye shall not eat, neither shall ye touch it lest ye die” (Gen. 3:3). And they went straightway and did just that! They were seduced by the wicked snake, it is true; but nonetheless they had the power to refuse: the snake merely persuaded them. There we have human freedom, pure and unalloyed. And out of it came all our ills, so the writer tells us. But something else came also, for this mysterious tree was “the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.”

It is idle to seek to exhaust the depths of the concept here. But it is clear that this is the Hebrew form of a widespread myth of the theft of divine prerogatives and their appropriation by man. Most of us are familiar with the Creek form of the story. Prometheus stole fire from the gods and gave it to man: for this he was chained to a rock in the Caucasus while an eagle ate incessantly at his living liver. But the idea certainly did not originate with the Greeks; it is oriental. Ea’s befriending of man and the concept which developed in course of time of Osiris as the patron of civilization who suffered at the hands of Seth are treatments of the same problem. The East and, in particular, Israel’s thinkers speculated on the mysterious quality that sets man apart in all creation. He possess gods — or better, in Hebraic phrase, he has secured knowledge of good and evil. For this he suffers. Through this he sins. Yet otherwise he would be less than man.

To be human demands freedom; we must assert our will and purposes, if need be against all creation, saying only, “This is my way.” What monstrous arrogance; ludicrous finitude claiming to direct its steps in a vast and mysterious universe! Who but God himself can know enough to decide his course of action? But it is just this that the Hebrew thinkers asserted of frail and finite man: he is made in the image of God. He is a free person, with all that such blending of finitude and freedom entails in the way of error and iniquity and pain.

But indeed the great thinker who wrote the Dialogue of Job pushed the matter still further. The exegesis of this book is still beset with acute difficulty; there exists no consensus as to its main purport, and, not least, the figure of the intermediary between God and Job remains shrouded in uncertainty. But in any case it would appear that the author advanced the bold concept that God himself suffers. Pain and woe are in the deepest nature of things; though unpleasant, they are in essence good, for only through them can life attain its highest. To live is to suffer; and the more intensely one participates in life’s highest, the more he is susceptible of pain.

Yet there could have been but a few choice intellects that penetrated to such understanding. For the rest, it was much that they recognized so clearly how large a part of the woe that has blackened human history is of human creation. Certain individuals through their wilful sin or by foolishness bring suffering on themselves, soon or late, and also on others. The sin of Adam left an entail for all his descendants; that of David brought plague on the people (II Sam. 24:15). The profound truth of vicarious suffering, so notably portrayed in the Servant Songs (Isa. 50:4-9; 53:2-9), was deeply interwoven into Israel’s religious thought. Further, a disciplinary function of suffering was recognized: it was sent not in punishment, but for guidance. The author of the first speech of Elihu reveals deep understanding when he remarks of the sufferer:

He is chastened also with pain upon his bed

and continual strife in his bones. . .

If there be with him . . . an interpreter to show man what is right for him,

then God is gracious to him . ( Job 33:19-24).

Yet it was characteristic that all this should have been set in a cosmic system responsive to the conscious decision of a personal God. When the nation sinned, God sent defeat and other disasters: such is the clearly enunciated teaching of the Book of Judges, and such, too, is the warning of the prophets. God apportions good or ill in accord with human conduct. But the realism of the Hebrew mind insured that such oversimplification should not finally suffice. Presently men came to see that the facts of life are far too complex for any such formulation. The considerable body of literature that deals with this problem is familiar to every reader of the Old Testament. Notably certain psalms sought a deeper explanation that would accord with experience. Some of these efforts do not impress us; they are little more than a reaffirmation of the dogma that retribution overtakes the wicked in this life; they concede only that the mills of the gods may grind slowly. The conviction of the author of Psalm 73 is:

Surely thou dost set them in slippery places. . .

How are they become a desolation in a moment (Ps 73:18-19).

But the effort to find a satisfying response to the troubles of the righteous was somewhat better. This same poet goes on:

Nevertheless I am continually with thee; thou dost hold my right hand.

Thou wilt guide me with thy counsel

and afterward wilt receive me with honor {Ps. 73:23-24).

The classic treatment of the problem, as everyone knows, is in the Dialogue of the Book of Job. The author represents Job as moving on through despair and resentment to a dawning concept of the place of suffering in the world and to faith and hope, at length expressed in the notable words:

He knows the way that I take;

when he has tried me, I shall come forth as gold (Job 23:10).

Israel did not evolve some logical formulation which might be considered a complete explanation of suffering. But with their conviction of the moral reality in the universe and their recognition of unseen but transcendent values in life, it was not strange that at the farthest outreach of their thought these thinkers should assert a solution in the direction of such values, even if they, as we also, could not formulate precisely the nature of that solution. More simply, Israel’s answer was in her religious faith.

However, the problem of human freedom which has thus intruded itself upon our attention demands further examination. It was not simple for Hebrew thinkers; as it I not for us. We recall the experience of the Pharaoh of the Exodus, who doubtless would have released his Hebrew slaves, but always at the critical moment the Lord hardened his heart. And lest there be doubt of the divine interference, the Lord is represented as explaining, “In very deed for this cause have I made thee to stand to show thee my power and that my name may he declared throughout all the earth” (Exod. 9:16). The king was not free; his decisions were determined by God in the interests of ultimate divine plans. A writer in the Book of Proverbs, indeed, gathers up such speculation into a general statement:

The heart of the king is in the hand of the Lord;

as watercourses he turneth it whithersoever he will (Prov. 21:1).

 That goes far in a doctrine of determinism. Jeremiah’s oracle in the potter’s house, also, is famous for its similar interpretation. The Lord was the great potter, shaping the nations to his desire (Jeremiah, chap. 18). And the vision of Micaiah ben Imlah is likewise to be considered. He claimed to have witnessed a lying spirit going out from the presence of the Lord, which now, he charged, was misleading King Ahab’s official prophets in order to seduce him to his death (I Kings, chap. 22). The philosophy of Ecclesiastes, too, will suggest itself at this point; his cosmic wheel of fate, by the revolutions of which all events come round in their proper sequence, is patently a theory of determinism. Yet all these, and the rest of similar sort that may be adduced, are subject to qualification. Certainly Ecclesiastes considered himself free to choose when lie undertook his experiments relative to the worth of life. It is claimed, in fact, that his discussion throughout is aimed at asserting human freedom. But, however that may be, there can be no doubt that he regarded man as somehow standing outside the universal process and able to survey it critically in full intellectual freedom. He realized the compulsive force of circumstance, but in some way, for him, man was free to choose his course even though not able to achieve his ends. It is notable, too, in regard to the stories of the Pharaoh and of Ahab that the monarch’s normal freedom is clearly implied. Why did the Lord go to all the trouble of sending a lying spirit if lie could instead merely have decreed that Ahab should think it right to go to Ramoth Gilead ? And the interference in the Pharaoh’s decisions was obviously an abnormal, divine act. The situation seems to clarify itself thus: with their notable realism, the Hebrews regarded human freedom as obvious and axiomatic. Yet, having said that, they recognized that they had not exhausted the problem. For they held firmly to a divine purpose and process in history. And history is only human life in the large. Hence if God is shaping human ends, he must at times interfere in individual thought and will. For one phase of this there was a ready explanation; the prophets by profession sought to subordinate their minds to divine impulse. Hence God could through them intervene in human affairs. For the rest, no clear answer was given as to how God could direct history. The important matter, however, is that, although holding firmly to a belief in human freedom, Israel nonetheless realized that it was a complex and contentious problem.

But it will be recognized that about this point a more comprehensive issue was forcing itself on Hebrew thought. The question why the mind takes a certain course in given circumstances is the open door to the entire psychological problem which we have been prone to regard as a contribution of the Hellenic genius. Yet Israel’s thinkers by and through their own intellectual habits turned their inquisitive eyes backward upon themselves to inquire how their minds behaved.

With their characteristically direct approach to reality, they never seriously doubted the validity of human mental processes or the power of the mind to apprehend truth. They were familiar with the fact of deception, both of the ordinary sort, where some malicious individual presents as truth what actually is false, and of the more insidious kind referred to just now that was attributed to the interference of an unfriendly spirit. This latter, it will be recognized was a subjective experience. And it is well to realize that in this they were dealing with experiences common to us as well. Our thinking, at times even our senses, can play most callous tricks on us, so that we are positive of having seen or heard things that in reality never occurred. For us, a solution may be sought in psychology ; the Hebrews found it in external spirits. The observation is the same; the explanation differs. To this extent, then, the Hebrew thinkers were ready to concede a dubious character to human processes of knowledge. But, in the ordinary, one might trust the evidence of his senses and the concepts which his mental processes deduced from sense experience. Knowledge was basically a matter of sense perception. But again Israel avoided oversimplification. The prophets speak much of a knowledge of God — it is a phrase used often by Hosea in particular — yet they had left far behind the simple faith that he was to be experienced by ordinary sight and hearing. Nonetheless, the senses, along with the mental processes that compound experience into knowledge, provided for the Hebrew an indubitably valid understanding of reality — up to the point of the limitations of these; for there were areas of truth that for one reason or another lay outside the normal knowing process.

The Hebrew psychological system is familiar, perhaps dangerously so, for it has been misinterpreted. The threefold division into body, soul, and spirit, apparent in the New Testament, seems to carry back into the Old as well, for one can easily assume that it is met with in the creation stories, to speak of no other. And beyond dispute Hebrew has different words corresponding to these assumed entities. Yet there is also through the Old Testament frequent reference to organs or parts of the body to which are ascribed special functions, or, in some cases, near- independence, in human consciousness and action. It is an idea that again points us to the New Testament, for it is suggestive of Paul’s famous debate among the members of the body as to relative importance (I Cor. 12:12 -26). But actually the concept of personality was by no means as chaotic as this would suggest. There is no doubt that all members were subordinate to the central consciousness, whatever that was. Yet the function of the organs calls for some attention. A remarkable fact is that no mention is made anywhere of the brain. In those days when heads were somewhat commonly smashed, the Hebrews must have been familiar with the strange jellylike matter that fills the skull; but the odd fact is that they never ascribed any function to it or even considered it deserving of a name. Perhaps this was because it seems a thoroughly passive substance; in any case, as a modern commentator has facetiously remarked, the Hebrews had no brain ! But they speak frequently of the heart, which is sometimes clearly the organ we mean by that word but often is only vaguely one’s insides. To this they attributed much of the function of the brain. But the liver also, the kidneys, and the bowels were for them important centers of human consciousness and volition. It is commonly held that some or all of these were associated with the emotions, and, although there is in this a measure of truth, yet the contrast of mouth and kidneys (Jer. 12:2) paralleled elsewhere with that of mouth and heart (Isa. 29:13; Ezek. 33:31) reveals the looseness of the concept. Further, we recall the familiar passage: “My kidneys also instruct me in the night season” (Ps. 16:7).

It becomes apparent that there was no clear division of organic functions. And although the difference of the emotional, rational, and volitional aspects of consciousness were to some degree recognized, there was no clear analysis, if even any admission of the desirability of such analysis. This deficiency, as it must seem to us, was in actuality related to Israel’s major attainment in the understanding of personality. For it is evident on closer study that the threefold division of the personality is likewise more apparent than real. Although it is true that the Hebrew word translated “soul” commonly denotes the appetites, and in other cases the physical life, and although that rendered “spirit” can mean something approximating our idea of personality, actually such distinction is not consistent, if indeed it was ever consciously applied. At the most, the terms signify not different entities, but different aspects of the personality; and even so, they were in later times treated as practically synonymous. And thus man is of two, not three, aspects: the body, which is the organism in its physical being and functions, and the soul-spirit that accounts for all the rest, comprising as it does whatever rises into consciousness-for the Hebrew had another explanation for what we are accustomed to speak of as the subconscious. But between these two there is no separation or antithesis; they are hut complementary aspects of a single whole. The human personality is a single, indivisible unit. It has been well said that, for the Hebrew, man is not an incarnate spirit — that is, a Greek idea; he is an animated body. Israel admitted no dualism of mind and body with a sort of antithesis and rivalry between them; but man was one single unified organism and personality. As we have seen, these ancient thinkers were fully aware of the conflict that perpetually is joined within the human consciousness, our nobler impulses forever struggling against the selfish and bestial in our nature. In later times the biblical phrases yetser tobh and yelser ra’ (the good will and the bad will) were much in use in discussions of man’s contradictory instincts. But Israel’s thinkers refused to solve the problem by the simple device of postulating a divine origin for the one and a material or diabolical for the other. For man was one; and his conduct, be it high or low, was his own to determine in accord with the dictates of his whole nature.

Important as was Israel’s attainment in her conviction of the unity of the human personality, it must yet be freely recognized that her psychological interests did not carry into a study of the responses of the organism. Of the nervous system they knew nothing; to the complicated interrelation between body and mind they gave but elementary attention. It is to be admitted that Israel’s genius was not scientific. For the science of the ancient East we must look to Egypt and Babylonia, from whom Israel took her concepts, modifying them profoundly, it is true, in their religious aspects, but making little change in their scientific content. The Hebrews’ achievement in their own peculiar sphere was so notable that the most ardent Judeophile need not hesitate to concede the vast areas where Israel accepted a status of secondhand scholarship.

Yet, however this may be, there is an aspect of the Hebrews’ knowledge of psychology that calls for no apology. That is their understanding of human motivation and its emergence in conduct. It is typical of the attitude of the Old Testament as a whole that the rampant wickedness of the time of the Flood is traced to “the whole imagination of the thoughts of the heart” of the people of the time. And it is to this quality that the narratives owe much of their contemporaneity, a psychological interest which, although admittedly less than that of modern story-tellers, is a worthy antecedent. The heroes of Hebrew story walk before us not as painted figures of imagined perfection; their biographers reveal with ruthless candor their foibles aud selfishness. Sometimes it is by a revealing incident, commonly, however, by a telling analysis of what the subject of the story “thought in his heart” — but, by whatever means, the writers succeed in portraying the inmost nature of the men and women who under their hands move across the scene before us.

This sense of the centrality of character and the ability to sketch an(l develop the characters of their heroes is one aspect of the notable excellence of Hebrew narrative. A high place must be accorded the story of Joseph, who in a spirit of revenge, it might seem, dealt harshly with his brothers, but whose real magnanimity the evolution of the plot reveals. The writers tell us, too, of Abraham, “the prince of God,” who yet was so frightened in a crisis that he had his wife screen him with a lie — or was it only half a lie ? And Moses, the paragon of meekness as well as of piety, lost his temper and so was debarred from entering the land. King Saul of the independent spirit that would not be servile to any priest-prophet however revered gradually deteriorates before our eyes through a mental breakdown. The vital David, hero of Israel, of whose shortcomings the less said the better; pompous Solomon; Rehoboam, whose dream was to make himself a despot; Elijah, the perpetually untamed Gileadite; imperious Jezebel, defiant to the last; the headlong Jehu, whose murderous impetuosity simmered down into mediocrity — striking individuals as they all are, their records are not less noteworthy for the insights of the nameless men who penned them.

However with such psychic equipment as we have sketched, man, according to Hebrew thought, undertook the joys and tasks of life and confronted its problems. Knowledge, then, was a direct experience or, at most, a result of experience, that brought the individual into direct contact with objective reality. Epistemological dualism was unheard of; man could and did know reality by immediate contact. Yet the limitation of knowledge, that is, the limitation of the human potentiality of knowledge, was fully recognized. In considerable part, this was apparently nothing but a reflex of the imperfect science of the time. Man was surrounded by a vast and mysterious world that he possessed no method or means of investigating. There was no answer to the problems of the heavens above and the teeming phenomena of the world beneath but the leap of the mind into speculation which had already produced the multiform vagaries of polytheistic theology. But Israel grew noticeably weary of the uncharted areas of pure imagination, as much of this gradually came to be considered. Ecclesiastes, we have already pointed out, displayed a really scientific mood, even if his methods must be adjudged crude. Israel’s contact with Babylonian astronomy likewise was mentioned above; hence Ecclesiastes’ investigation must not by any means he thought of as a pioneer scientific venture. But it is close to that in its application of an empirical method, however imperfect, to the problems of psychology and philosophy.

His results were none too impressive; and certainly we may describe them as unhappy for himself, for they served only to corroborate his conviction that “all is vanity.” But in how much worse position he was when he attempted the whole problem of man and the world! To his credit as a thinker, he claimed no success. On the contrary, he felt himself narrowly confined in an intellectual ghetto from which there was no egress: in simple terms, he was ignorant of the nature of things; lie knew it, yet saw no way of correcting it. His failure was so complete that he came to believe he suffered from some personal obstruction. It was God himself who, jealous of his prerogatives, was withstanding the free course of human investigation. It is a mood closely parallel to that of the Tower of Babel story, except only that Ecclesiastes is not inhibited by the piety of the other; he would push into the abode of the divine, restrained only by misgivings for his safety. He wants most of all to know and understand. It is to his credit that a considerable part of his pessimism is directly due to intellectual frustration. We shall doubtless feel somewhat qualified respect for his explanation of this situation; yet we may not be too severe in our disdain, for, like most thinkers, he merely took over uncritically considerable of the thought of his time. Ben Sira expresses well a characteristic attitude, “Seek not out things that are too hard for thee . . . but what is commanded thee think thereon. . . for more things are showed thee than men understand” (Ecclus. 3:21-23). “The heaven and the heaven of heavens belong to God,” another writer asserted, “but the earth has he given to the sons of men” (Ps. 115:16). To pry into the secrets of the divine was blasphemous impiety. The view was fostered by the conviction that knowledge is power; there were realms of truth reserved for divine exploitation, by virtue of which superhuman wonders were wrought; but for man to appropriate such was cosmic larceny! Out of this attitude grew Israel’s conscience against traffic with magic-workers of whatever sort, a restraint that seems to carry a reminiscence of the primeval tragedy when our first parents took sinfully of the forbidden tree of knowledge.

The orthodox attitude, then, was that God had revealed to man as much of the ultimate nature of things as was good for him. Indeed, even the commonplace knowledge of practical things such as, for us, lies close to scientific discovery was, for the devout at least, also a matter of divine revelation. One writer, we saw, tells how the practice of the peasant in his tillage and care of his crops was taught to him by the Lord (Isa. 28:23-29). It is a view which, obviously, looks back to the primeval myth of the divine schooling of man in the ways of civilization, and forward to the whole basic theory of the wise men, a matter of such high importance for an understanding of Israel’s concept of the relations of God and man that it must now be given some little examination.

The Orient had long concerned itself with the pursuit of “Wisdom,” an entity which, at first highly utilitarian, presently came to comprise the total of the intellectual culture of the age. The wise man was the educated as well as sagacious man. The Hebrew sages were fully conscious of the activity and results of their colleagues; from quite early in the history of Israel’s life in Palestine we begin to hear of the importance of the “wise” who must be regarded as in some way a bequest of the great Canaanite civilization. And there is a revealing passage in the account of Solomon’s wisdom that compares him with famed sages of the non-Hebrew world:

Solomon’s wisdom excelled the wisdom of all the children of the East, and all the wisdom of Egypt. For he was wiser than all men, than Ethan the Ezrahite, and Heman and Chalcol and Darda, the sons of Mahol; and his fame was in all the lands round about (I Kings 4:30-31).

Yet Israel’s wisdom movement traversed a history parallel to that in “the lands round about.” From an early engrossment in practical ends it was compelled by force of circumstance to consider wider implications and values. Yet even the cultural interest from Solomon’s time onward continued to be, so our too meager evidence would indicate, largely utilitarian. It was the Exile, that most profound experience of the Hebrew people, which, touching and transforming all aspects of Jewish life, compelled a new and deeper concept of wisdom. Highly revealing for us, then, is a lyric passage dating from somewhere in this late period:

Happy is the man that findeth wisdom and the man that gaineth understanding

For the gaining thereof is better than the gaining of silver

and the profit thereof than fine gold.

She is more precious than rubies

and all the things of desire are not comparable to her (Prov. 3:13-15).

The striking feature of this is the repudiation of precisely those good things which earlier sages had accepted as the ends of life: gold, silver, rubies, things of desire. Since the days of the Egyptian sage Ptahhotep these had been prized as the mark and content of life’s worth. But here some Hebrew thinker — rather, it appears, the entire late school of Hebrew sages — asserts boldly that there is something else in life which far transcends them, or through which at most these can best be enjoyed. It is evident that, in rejection of tangible good, the writer speaks of the unseen, finer things of life, all the beauty and goodness and intellectual elevation which redeem us from our brute heritage. But in view of the oft-emphasized aphorism that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, it is certain that the author thinks of religious faith and conduct as holding also an honored, if not primary, place among such human treasure. We should greatly err if we were to claim that at ~is point the idea first dawned on human thought through the insight of this Hebrew poet. But it does mark clear gain to have it formulated and emphasized as here.

However, we move on to a striking development of the theme. All students of the Old Testament are familiar with the words

The Lord possessed me in the beginning of his way

before his works of old.

I was set up from everlasting, from the beginning

before the earth was.

When there were no depths I was brought forth

when there were no fountains abounding with water. . . .


And so the writer runs on through a poetic survey of the wonders of creation, to the concluding thought:

When he established the heavens I was

there .

when he marked out the foundations of the earth:

then I was by him as a master-workman

and I was daily his delight,

rejoicing always before him:

rejoicing in his habitable earth,

and my delight was with the sons of men (Prov. 8:22-31).

It is Wisdom that speaks: wisdom which just now we have seen to he the finest attainment of human aspiration. But this same Wisdom here declares herself as preexistent, associating with God in creation, so that without her “was not anything made that was made.”

Much energy has been wasted in speculating whether the writer here conceives of an actual person associated with God before the world was and how such heresy could ever have been expressed by a devout Jew. But is it not as obvious as the nose on a face that in this poetic passage the writer is employing imagery to express an idea which he hoped others would have enough intelligence to grasp? This mysterious pre-existent personification is nothing but an aspect of the character of God; by virtue of his being this sort of a God he made the world. He took, we might say, this attribute and built it into the nature of things as they are, most of all into the being of man. Here is the answer to the baffling fact that the writer has used the same word for the human quality and for this supernal, pre-existent reality. They are, he undertakes to say with emphasis, one and the same thing. It is human because it was first divine and was so made a pervasive quality of God’s whole creation. All our best achievements, all our highest hopes and aspirations, all that the mind and soul of man has attained or even dreamed, this ancient thinker asserts, is in accord with the deepest nature of things. For the ultimate reality in the physical world is the wisdom of God!

Now, it will be apparent that we have here a remarkable parallel to the notion of universal ideas that took so important a place in Plato’s speculation as well as to the Stoic thought of the pervasive divine reason. But what does the similarity signify? For we have already pointed out that the biblical passage is late, and, though we cannot date it within a couple of centuries, it is probably not earlier than Plato and may easily be as late as Zeno. Once more, then, we confront the perplexing question of a possible Greek influence upon Israel in one of its most notable attainments. But the answer is even more clear than in our previous dilemma. If borrowing is to be asserted — observe, if it is to be — then the direction was clearly from East to West, not the reverse. For this concept is so firmly rooted in the thought of the ancient East, which had speculated for many centuries upon divine wisdom and the divine word, that there can be not a doubt that this notable exposition of the theme in the Book of Proverbs is Israel’s own. The Hebrew thinkers have here, as so often, sublimated and transcended their oriental heritage, making it their own and making it a new thing in the process. But they needed no Greek, not even Plato, to teach them about the wisdom of God.

But we have not yet exhausted the concept. We turn again to the great poem in Proverbs:

Doth not wisdom cry

and understanding put forth her voice?

On the top of the high places by the way, where the paths meet, she standeth,

beside the gates, at the entry of the city, at the coming in at the doors, she crieth


“Unto you, O men, I call,

and my voice is to the sons of men.

O ye simple understand prudence,

and ye fools be of an understanding heart. . .

Receive my instruction and not silver,

and knowledge rather than fine gold.

For wisdom is better than rubies,

and all the things that may be desired are not to be compared unto her” (Prov. 8:1-11).


Wisdom we first saw as a human attainment, then as a cosmic quality immanent in the world and in human life. Here we discover the nexus of the two. In poetic terminology, she stands in the busiest concourse of human affairs, wherever man may be, and there accosts all and sundry. Receive instruction; choose the better things of life; final satisfaction cannot be found in material things, but only in the uncharted region vaguely known as the spiritual realities of life. This pervasive, immanent quality of life and the world has been ever active in human life, individual and collective, in leading, persuading, and inducing men to higher and better things. Through this function of the divine wisdom immanent in man the whole long story has come about of our groping progress from our brute ancestry, our slow attainment of civilization, and our unceasing outreach for ever better things in thought and practice.

Here, then, is the ultimate nature of man. He was made in the image of God and but little lower than God; but also he is infused and impelled and fashioned by the wisdom of God himself. By nature man may be related to the brute, but vastly more significant is his kinship with God and participation in the wisdom of God. Here is that concept familiar in the words quoted by a later thinker: “In him we live and move and have our being.” All the talk of certain modern schools of theology about the lost condition of man apart from God would have been to the Hebrew thinker just so much crackling of thorns under a pot. For him such a being never has existed. Always from the first to be human was to possess the divine wisdom. And the difference among men, the distinction of wise and fool, of righteous and sinner, has been in the measure with which the individual has heard and then given willing obedience to the appeals of wisdom.

And here is the notable supremacy of the Hebrew thought above its apparent parallel in Plato. His was a republic for philosophers; these only could enter into the accumulated heritage of finer racial treasures. But for the Hebrew thinker, the appeal of wisdom was to all men wherever and whatever they might be; in particular it called to the simple and foolish for whom Plato would have had only a place of menial service.

Yet there is still more for our purpose in this concept. It is apparent that here is the bondage between the human and divine; by this means God and man have come into relationship. All that we have achieved as we have left behind our savage origins and have climbed higher and yet higher in civilized life has been through the leadings of the divine wisdom. And this, it is to be noted, came not through some heaven-rend mg voice or awful theophany, but within the individual consciousness, as our better nature, comprised of the in-dwelling divine wisdom, strove against our brute ancestry, ever warning. “Receive my instruction and not silver, and knowledge rather than fine gold.” The whole of history is thus gathered up for the Hebrew thinker in a single formula. And here is the doctrine of divine revelation. It has all come by this quiet, unspectacular, but effective means. Man is but little lower than God; and the divine in us has been slowly overcoming the bestial.



Suggested reading:


COATES, I. R. (translator and editor): Bible Key Words from Gerhard ard Kittel’s “Theologisches Worterbuch.” New York, 1951.

FICHRODT, W.: Man in the Old Testament. London, 1950.

MACDONALD, D. B.: The Hebrew Philosophical Genius. Princeton, 1936.

MORGENSTERN, J .: ” Universalism,” Universal Jewish Encyclopedia, vol. X. New York, 1943.

RANKIN, 0. S.: Israel’s Wisdom Literature. Edinburgh, 1936.

ROBINSON, H. W.: Inspiration and Revelation in the Old Testament. Oxford, 1946.

Suffering, Human and Divine. New York, 1939.

ROWLEY, H. H. (editor): Studies in Old Testament Prophecy. Edinburgh, 1950.

SMITH, J. M. P.: The Moral Life of the Hebrews. Chicago, 1923.

The Origin and History of Hebrew Law. Chicago,1931.

WILLOUGHBY, H. R. (editor) : The Study of the Bible Today and Tomorrow. Chicago, 1947.