Toward Understanding the Bible by Georgia Harkness
Georgia Harkness was educated at Cornell University, Boston University School of Theology, studied at Harvard & Yale theological seminaries and at Union Theological Seminary of New York. She has taught at Elmira College, Mount Holyoke, and for twelve years was professor of applied theology at Garrett Biblical Institute. In 1950 she became professor of applied theology at the Pacific School of Religion, in Berkeley, California. Published by Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York, 1954. Copyright, 1952, 1954, by Georgia Harkness. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.
Chapter 2: The World of the Bible
In the previous chapter we indicated something of the importance of the Bible to our culture, and traced the outlines of its literary and historical framework. The question was opened up as to what is meant by the Bible as the revealed Word of God. We shall deal further with this matter later on, but we must now examine a little more closely the setting in which the Bible was written, and thus get a better perspective of the movements through which God "visited and redeemed his people."
To do this, it will be necessary to take a glance at the kind of world -- physical, psychological, and social -- in which the Hebrew people lived. They lived in a very different world from ours -- a world which inevitably conditioned the nature of the experiences they had and the literature they produced. The marvel is that living in so different a world, they could still say so much that today "speaks to our condition."
The Physical Setting
The biblical world, meaning that section of the earth’s surface which the people of the Bible knew about or had something to do with, covers a considerable territory though still a small part of the world as we now know it. It stretches from Spain on the west to the Persian Gulf on the east; from the Black and Caspian Seas on the north to the southern end of the Red Sea. The outermost fringes of this section, however, were known only by hearsay, if at all, by most of the people of Bible times. The part of this section in which their fortunes were cast comprised Palestine at the center; the Tigris-Euphrates Valley, eastern arm of the Fertile Crescent around the Arabian desert; Egypt and the Sinai Peninsula to the southwest; and the north shore of the Mediterranean, which does not appear much in the Old Testament but was an important sphere of missionary journeys in the New. Each of these sections had a culture and, back of the culture, physical features which played a very important part in the destinies of the Hebrew people.
We shall now take a look at each of these areas. The reader is advised at this point to find a Bible that contains maps and study them, locating at least the places mentioned below. Even an elementary knowledge of biblical geography helps to make many things come alive.
The land which we call Palestine (from the Philistines, who occupied much of it until the Hebrews dislodged them) is hardly ever so called in the Bible (There are references in Exod. 15:14 and Isa. 14:29, 31 to what is translated Palestina in the King James Version, but Philistia in the Revised Standard. Philistia itself bordered the Mediterranean.) It is known rather as Canaan, or spoken of by its main divisions, the land of Israel in the north and of Judah in the south. It occupies a territory 150 miles long and 80 miles wide, about the size of the state of Vermont, and is in nearly the same latitude north of the equator as our state of Georgia. It has a very broken configuration, and most of the soil is poor, hard to make a living from. The Jews who have gone there in recent years have done an amazing job of applying modern methods of agriculture to make it productive, but this was not so in Bible times. It is cut through the middle, to the east of center, (The eastern boundary has varied at different times, and the section east of the Jordan is now known as Transjordania.) by the Jordan River which makes a very crooked, rapid descent from Mount Hermon in the north to lose itself in the Dead Sea, 1,300 feet below sea level, east of the mountainous section where Jerusalem is situated. About one third of the way down, the Jordan spreads out to form a beautiful lake, the Sea of Galilee.
In this north central Galilee section, where Nazareth is located and Jesus spent his boyhood, are rolling hills with pleasant vineyards and olive groves. To the southwest of it, the fertile Plain of Esdraelon, tramped across by many armies, connects the Jordan area with the Mediterranean. In the central section, south of the Plain of Esdraelon, is Samaria. This was the seat of the Northern Kingdom, and the city of Samaria was its capital until it fell before the Assyrian hosts in 722 B.C. In New Testament times this section was occupied by the despised Samaritans, with whom most of the Jews had no dealings.
South of Samaria lay Judea whose capital was the holy city of Jerusalem. This is rocky, barren territory, and its people always had to struggle to make a living. In this section, about the size of Rhode Island, some of the most momentous events in the history of the world took place, including two events transcending all others -- the birth and death of Jesus. Bethlehem is five miles south of Jerusalem. Down a steep road to the northeast lies Jericho, in the fertile valley of the Jordan, near where the river empties into the Dead Sea. The writer remembers the hair-raising experience of "going down from Jerusalem to Jericho" in a rattle-trap automobile which may have had brakes but appeared to have none, and coming out near Jericho to see luscious grapes in bunches a foot long. To the east of Judea proper is the wilderness of Judea to which Jesus may have withdrawn -- waterless, treeless, cut by deep gorges which made it a place of desolation. To the south of Judea is the Negeb, another desert wilderness, which merges to the southwest with the Sinai Peninsula where the Hebrews lived as nomads for a considerable period after their escape from Egypt, before they entered Palestine from the east.
Along the Mediterranean coast of Judea lay the Plain of Philistia, for the possession of which much fighting was done. Its cities of Gaza, Gath, Ashdod, and Ashkelon have a familiar sound to those acquainted with the stories of Saul and Samson. North of Philistia was the Plain of Sharon, where the port city of Joppa was situated, and in New Testament times, Caesarea. This plain extends from the coast to the hills of Samaria. On Sharon’s northern border, near the western end of the great Plain of Esdraelon which stretches southeast from the Mediterranean to the Jordan Valley, stands Mount Carmel where the prophet Elijah had his famous contest with the priests of Baal. Still farther north is the Plain of Acre where the modern port of Haifa is located, and beyond Acre lay Phoenicia with its important capital, Tyre. This wealthy commercial city, though it was never under Hebrew political control, was allied by ties of trade as well as geographical propinquity. Modern Beirut, in Lebanon which lies to the north of Palestine, is in the area which used to be Phoenicia and which sent forth the first great merchant fleets to sail the Mediterranean world.
The northernmost city of Canaan was Dan, the southernmost Beersheba, hence the expression "from Dan to Beersheba." When we do not want anything told, we are apt to quote from David’s lament over Saul and Jonathan,
Tell it not in Gath,
The setting of Jesus’ encounter with the woman at the well becomes very clear when we read, "He left Judaea, and departed again into Galilee. And he must needs go through Samaria," (John 4:3, 4) while the Parable of the Good Samaritan gets its point from the neighborly act of a member of a neighboring but alien group. Statements such as,
My soul thirsteth for thee, my flesh longeth for thee,
As the mountains are round about Jerusalem,
become more vivid when we see these figures of speech in relation to the physical situation of the people who first sang these hymns.
The physical contours of the country laid their stamp upon its people. The people of the Southern Kingdom, in Judea, were rugged fighters, and "men to match the mountains," at least in physical stamina and courage, not infrequently appeared. The people of Samaria and Galilee were more prosperous, and inclined to be more peace-loving. The Phoenicians were fairly shoved into the ocean by the proximity of the Lebanon mountains, while the Hebrews never took to the sea. Then as now, the country was too small for the population, and the diaspora, or dispersion, of the Jews to other lands was caused by economic as well as political and military factors.
We now return to the geographical feature of the Holy Land that had the greatest influence on its destiny: the strategic location of Palestine between the great contending powers, Assyria and Babylon to the east and Egypt to the southwest. This meant that Israel was a buffer state between them, whose possession was eagerly sought by strong neighbors as a step toward larger prey. Much of Israel’s political history is written in terms of attempts by force of arms, diplomacy, or tribute money to keep her independence. But this location also meant that a great caravan route, the only feasible way to get past the Arabian desert, lay across her territory. This greatly increased cultural penetration in a day when travel was difficult and there were no newspapers or radios. Cultural intermingling inevitably took place on the frontier between a nomadic society to the south and a settled, advanced civilization to the southwest and northeast. More than she realized, Israel borrowed from her neighbors, whose physical setting we must now examine.
The Mesopotamian Valley
A story is told of a woman whose emotions were so easily stirred that she wept "whenever she heard that blessed word Mesopotamia." To the Hebrews the Mesopotamian section was anything but blessed, though often the occasion of weeping. Their tears have been immortally expressed in the hymn of lament from their Exile,
By the rivers of Babylon,
The word Mesopotamia means "between the rivers." And between two very great rivers it is, the Tigris and the Euphrates. Rising in the highlands of Armenia and fed by mountain snows, they flow southeasterly to meet at a point seventy miles from the Persian Gulf, to which they carry much silt. The water from these two rivers redeems from barrenness land that would otherwise be desert, and creates a fertile valley from which one of the great civilizations of the ancient past emerged.
We have noted that this section is often called the Fertile Crescent. The crescent is somewhat skewed, but if one consults a topographical map, it is unmistakably there. It stretches from Palestine through Syria, through Upper Mesopotamia, which was the seat of Assyrian power, and Lower Mesopotamia, where Babylon was located, to terminate at the Persian Gulf. One of its southernmost points is Ur of the Chaldees from which, it is said, "By faith Abraham . . . went out, not knowing whither he went.’’ (Heb. 11:8, A.R.V.) Situated to the south of the crescent, bounded by Palestine toward the sea and the Tigris-Euphrates Valley on the north and east, is the Arabian Desert. This section we now call the Middle East, and Iraq, prized for its oil wells, occupies the greater part of the Tigris-Euphrates Valley.
In Bible times, however, the oil had not been discovered nor had its commercial values been dreamed of. What the people needed most was water for themselves, their grasslands and their crops, and canals and reservoirs were developed with much engineering skill to drain off the flood waters and irrigate the land. In the northern part of the valley arose the great Assyrian Empire with its capital city at Nineveh, which one can scarcely mention without thinking of Kipling’s "Recessional,"
Lo, all our pomp of yesterday
It was the Assyrian armies that conquered Samaria and put an end to the Northern Kingdom in 722 B.C. But it was not long before the center of power had begun to move southward, and it was the Babylonians, under King Nebuchadrezzar, (Called in the Bible Nebuchadnezzar) who conquered Jerusalem in 586 B.C. and took the best part of the Hebrew people into exile in Babylon. Babylonia, situated on a broad low plain between the rivers at their widest points, was very fertile and had developed an advanced culture as early as 3500 B.C. From this region comes the famous Code of Hammurabi which, dating from long before the time of Moses, shows high ethical discernment regarding the establishment of justice in human relations.
Egypt and the Sinai Peninsula
We must now look to Israel’s neighbors to the southwest and the south. We shall begin with Egypt, which was the cradle of civilization in the ancient world. Primitive though much of it now seems, it was here that "the dawn of conscience" (Note Professor J. H. Breasted’s excellent book by this title.) took place. The Sphinx and the Pyramids still stand, in the midst of dirt and sordidness, as monuments to a great past. Water is the key to this early greatness, for without the Nile there would have been no Egypt.
The Nile, nearly 4,000 miles long, rises just north of the equator and flows northward to empty into the Mediterranean after forming a large delta on which is situated the important city of Alexandria. The waters of the Nile never fail, for one of its tributaries, the White Nile, is fed by Lake Victoria Nyanza, the second largest lake in the world, and the other, the Blue Nile, receives the heavy summer rains from the mountains of Abyssinia. Meeting at Khartoum they create a fertile valley 10 to 30 miles wide, which is in sharp contrast to the desert of Sahara, just west of it. Along this narrow stretch of fertile land arose the great early temples at Luxor and Karnak and the great cities of Thebes, Memphis, and Cairo. In the southeastern part of the Nile delta, about halfway between Cairo and the sea, lay the land of Goshen. It was here, in all probability, that the Hebrew people were in bondage to the Pharoahs until by the hand of God, under the leadership of Moses, they escaped across the Bitter Lakes (north of the main part of the Gulf of Suez and a long way north of the Red Sea) to begin their wilderness wanderings.
These wanderings were not, as the term might suggest, simply an aimless attempt to find the way out of the wilderness. Rather, the people, who were shepherds, lived as nomads in the Sinai Peninsula, pasturing their flocks and moving from place to place as the need for pasturage demanded. They eked out a bare living, and it is no wonder that they sometimes longed for "the fleshpots of Egypt" and again felt very grateful to God for some unexpected deliverance from hunger. The peninsula is triangular in shape, bounded on the southwest by the Gulf of Suez and on the southeast by the Gulf of Akabah. It was formerly thought that Mount Sinai, where Moses is said to have received the Ten Commandments, lay to the south near the apex of this triangle, but it is now more generally believed to have been in the east in the Mount Seir Range north of the Gulf of Akabah. In any case, the people must have worked their way across this wide expanse of the Sinai Peninsula and northward to Moab which is east of the Dead Sea, then after Moses’ death, still farther northward to where they could cross the Jordan near Jericho.
The North Mediterranean World
The land north of the Mediterranean is very different from the scene just noted. Nevertheless, it is part of the biblical world, and in the days of the founding of the early Church, it was a very important part.
North of Palestine lay Syria. (Ancient Syria contained what is now both Syria and Lebanon, and modern Beirut is in Lebanon.) In Bible times Syria had two very important cities, Damascus and Antioch. Damascus, a great trading center on the western border of the Fertile Crescent, is a very ancient city -- perhaps the oldest anywhere in the world which still exists -- while Antioch is famous for the fact that here the followers of Christ were first called Christians. One cannot go much farther north than Antioch without bumping into the Taurus Mountains, the watershed that separates the Euphrates Valley from Asia Minor and hence the Orient from the Occident. There is a pass near the northeast corner of the Mediteranean, just south of which is the city of Tarsus where Paul grew up. The Romans were great roadbuilders, and in the first century a highway ran from Ephesus, the principal city on the Aegean coast, through Antioch in Pisidia, Iconium, Lystra, Derbe, and Tarsus, to Antioch in Syria. It is easy therefore to see why Paul chose the route he did when he traveled inland to carry the gospel, though we are not to suppose that even on the best highway the times afforded he traveled in the comfort of a Ford car. Aside from the sea journeys we are not told what conveyance he and the others used in their travels abroad preaching the gospel, but it is probable that for the most part they walked and rode donkeyback.
And a long way, for those times, they traveled, for north of the Aegean Sea lies Macedonia, the main cities of which were Philippi, Thessalonica, and Berea. All these received visits; and letters to the churches that were founded in two of them gave names to books of the New Testament. The two main cities of Greece were Athens, the center of philosophy, art, and culture, and Corinth, a wealthy and inclined-to-be-wicked city at the isthmus which connects the Peloponnesus with the mainland. Paul reached both of these, and the Corinthian church became one of his chief joys and headaches. He knew about Spain, and in a letter to the church at Rome said that he planned to visit them on the way to Spain, which he never reached. Apparently he was imprisoned at Rome during the persecutions under Nero and there gave up his life for his faith. His last letter, written from prison to the church at Philippi, is rich with wise counsel and spiritual victory in the conviction that "to live is Christ, and to die is gain."
The Social Setting of the Old Testament
Even more briefly we must now take a glance at the social situations reflected in the Bible, pausing to comment only on those features most essential to its understanding.
The social setting did not, of course, remain static during the long period covered by Bible history. Certain elements, however, remained fairly common throughout. Among these are the central place of the family in social organization, the inferior status of women in the household (though not so low as in many other Oriental cultures), the sharp lines of cleavage drawn between the Hebrews and all other peoples whether enemies or simply neighboring groups, the intense conviction that their social and political fortunes were bound up with their religious status and destiny.
Shepherds. -- Hebrew history begins, as has been intimated, in nomadic life. Whether authentic history is taken to begin with the migrations of Abraham from Ur of the Chaldees or in the exodus from Egypt under the leadership of Moses, our first real picture of the Hebrews is as a group of shepherds trying to find pasturage for their flocks. With the tendency of the biblical writers to regard all events as coming directly from the hand of God, the economic forces which apparently led to these migrations take on a religious coloring. This appears in such vividly told stories as the separation of Abraham and Lot because their herdsmen quarreled, Jacob’s journey eastward to Haran to get a wife from among his mother’s people and his long service in tending the flocks of his uncle Laban, the famine that sent Jacob’s other sons to Egypt for food when Joseph had become Pharaoh’s overlord. Reflected in these stories is a picture of patriarchal society with the father of the household the dominant head of the clan, and with few friendly dealings with neighboring clans.
With the exodus from Egypt, society continued to be nomadic. But with a difference. It was the genius of Moses, one of the world’s great statesmen, that organized a group of loosely related clans into a nation and inspired the people with a new sense of their national destiny under divine law and leadership. Whether or not the story of the giving of the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai amid thunder and lightning and great pictorial drama is to be taken literally, there is little question that the Hebrews entered Canaan with a clearer sense both of their covenant relation to their deity and of their moral and social obligations to each other than they had possessed prior to Moses’ leadership.
Warriors. -- The entrance into Canaan is marked by two vitally important changes. In the first place the Hebrews, in order to conquer the land, were forced to become a warlike people. If they were going to live there at all, they had to overcome the former occupants who naturally resented their intrusion. This period of conquest gave opportunity for a series of warlords, called in the Bible "judges," to seize power and become local despots, without any central authority to unite the people. Things were pretty crude and cruel in those days.
Farmers. -- The second great change that came with the entrance into Canaan was the shift from a nomadic to an agricultural society. There were no longer great open spaces in which to keep moving from place to place. The Canaanites before them were farmers, and farmers the Hebrews had to become. From this fact arose all sorts of legal provisions -- prohibitions against removing one’s neighbor’s landmark (there were no surveyors with compasses in those days or recorded deeds of landholdings), injunctions to bring the first fruits of the land as a gift to God, provisions for observing the harvest festivals, ordinances as to slaves and "the stranger within the gates." A more serious result of this shift to an agricultural society was the tendency to adopt the Canaanite (and before that, Babylonian) fertility cults of Baal and Ashtoreth, and to forsake the worship of Yahweh for a deity they thought might be more economically useful to them by increasing their herds and crops. Against this tendency the prophets had repeatedly to protest.
Tradesmen. -- Agriculture, primitive in its methods till very recent times, has remained the chief occupation of the people of Palestine. There were, of course, smiths and traders of various sorts, as well as a large group of the priesthood. But the Jews had to leave Palestine, later on, in the "dispersion" to Babylon, to Alexandria, and then to the world, to become the commercial people they have notably been through the centuries. There is more than an accidental connection between the national homelessness of Jews through twenty centuries and the trading acumen for which, according to one’s mood, they may either be praised or criticized. The next time you buy something of the Jewish merchant down the street, remember that if Palestine had been big and fertile, like the plains of our Middle West or a Southern plantation, in all probability the Jews would have stayed there instead of becoming enterprising, and often persecuted, wanderers over the face of the earth.
Monarchy. -- The other aspect of the conquest period -- the tendency to disunion under petty tyrants -- could not last, or the Hebrew people would soon have perished in civil war or become prey to their powerful neighbors. As we noted in Chapter One, the period of the judges was followed by the monarchy which meant more political cohesion, though it was soon to be cohesion around two centers instead of one. The twelve tribes were divisions of the people under the assumption of a common ancestry in Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and then in Jacob’s twelve sons. Such lineal descent was doubtless more assumed than actual, for geographical propinquity entered into the constituency of the tribes. But this framework made it possible for the people to hold together, first with all the Hebrews under one king, then with the ten tribes of the Northern Kingdom under one monarch and the tribes of Judah and Benjamin to the south under another.
Under the monarchy the rich became richer and the poor became poorer. This tendency is, of course, always latent in any social organization, but became overt and acute at this period of Israel’s history. As we saw earlier, the contrast was enhanced by the glitter and display and magnificent building programs of some of the monarchs who exacted hard labor and heavy taxes from the people. It was almost constantly accented by the need of military defense and tribute money to stave off their strong and covetous neighbors. Parallels with our own day are not difficult to find. Parallels continue in the matter of a great deal of drunkenness, licentiousness, and secularism on the one hand, and on the other, internal bickerings among the leaders as to the best policy of protection from their enemies.
It was a combination of such internal weakness and outer attack that led to the eventual collapse of both kingdoms. The Northern Kingdom never recovered. The Assyrian king who conquered it scattered large numbers of the inhabitants all over his other realms, where they became the "ten lost tribes" of Israel. (The contention of the present Anglo-Israelites that the ten lost tribes reached England has, therefore, no historical foundation.) To fill their places he imported colonists from other parts of his kingdom, who married with those who were left and formed the mixed-breed Samaritans of the New Testament. The destiny of the Hebrews continues onward through the people of the Southern Kingdom, who after their exile in Babylon returned in considerable numbers, though not as a whole, to resettle Jerusalem and its environs and rebuild the Temple as the center of their faith and fortunes.
Exile.--The Exile was of profound significance in the history of the Hebrews. Religiously, it meant that the faithful among them, though lamenting their absence from Zion, discovered that they could worship God in a strange land. The messages of Ezekiel and the Second Isaiah were delivered against this background. (Some Old Testament scholars think that the message of the Second Isaiah, beginning with chap. 40, was written in exile while others date it later.) The emergence of the synagogue as a substitute for the Temple as the place of worship occurred in this era. After their return, the priests had a much stronger influence than before, and the great ideals of the prophets were in large measure lost sight of. The Exile marks, therefore, both a broadening and a narrowing of the Hebrews’ religious outlook. The Exile had also an important cultural influence. For the first time, the Jews who were carried to Babylon were exposed to a fertile country where they found wealth, art, culture, and ample commercial opportunities. Many of them liked it and did not care to go back. Others who had fled to Egypt to avoid being deported found there also a congenial home. In both places they seem to have been reasonably well treated and given much freedom. This period marks therefore the beginning of the scattering (diaspora) of the Jews and the shift, for many of them, from an agricultural to a commercial way of life.
But what of those who returned ? Not all the inhabitants had left, for those deported were chiefly "the better element," the ruling class and artisans. There were numerous problems of adjustment between the poorer settlers who had been left behind and those who came back. After twenty years they got the Temple rebuilt, but it was at least a century and a half before, under the vigorous governorship of Nehemiah, they rebuilt the city wall and restored Jerusalem enough to make it habitable. From then on Judea was a small, semiautonomous state with the holy city as its center. Its fortunes after Alexander’s conquest and later as a Roman province have already been noted.
The Social Setting of the New Testament
A brief word must be said about the social setting of the New Testament. Palestine in the time of Jesus had largely a peasant society. It consisted mainly of small farmers and, near the sea of Galilee, of fishermen, with artisans like carpenters and tanners, with enough shepherds to make the symbols of the lost sheep and the good shepherd meaningful, and with small-town merchants to provide for the exchange of the few goods needed to meet the simple requirements of the people. It was occupied territory. There was little wealth, and most of what existed was in the hands of the tax-collectors and other foreign officials.
The priests, and in particular the high priests, had much power. The Sadducees, aristocrats who wished to stand in with the Roman authorities, were probably in most cases well-to-do as well as influential, for they controlled the temple worship and hence the temple riches. Their rivals, the Pharisees, strict champions of the Mosaic law, like the scribes who were its official interpreters, had much ecclesiastical, though less of temporal, authority.
The common people accepted as a matter of course the control of these political and religious groups, save for chronic grumblings against those who touched their pocketbooks most directly, the hated publicans or tax-collectors. While many longed for the restoration of Judah to its former glory and sighed hopefully for a political messiah to sit again on the throne of David, the Zealots who wished to throw off the Roman yoke by violent revolution were a relatively small group. Slavery was the accepted practice, though there is little evidence of its grosser features. Debt and harsh measures to collect the debt were common. The Jews had no dealings with the Samaritans. In short, the Palestine of Jesus’ day was a mildly stratified, largely rural, society in which are to be discerned all the familiar social forces of political and ecclesiastical dominance, religious formalism, extremes of poverty and wealth, economic insecurity, racial cleavage, an acceptance of the status quo with mixed reactions of acquiescence and revolt. While Jesus’ world was in some respects very primitive in comparison with today’s, in its fundamental temptations to the human spirit it was amazingly like ours.
The Religious Setting
The most noteworthy aspect of the religious setting of Hebrew history is the presence of two tendencies, apparently contradictory, yet actually synthesized and running jointly throughout. These are the tendencies to take on the religious coloring of the times and to make of their experience something new and unique in human history.
One sees these tendencies in the extent to which early Hebrew religion resembles primitive religion elsewhere, yet has distinctive features of its own. It does not begin in monotheism, but rather in henotheism, a form of polytheism which assumes the existence of other gods but holds that there is a particular relationship with their own. Their god Yahweh (usually translated Jehovah, though less accurately) had entered into a covenant with them, they believed. It is this covenant that kept the Hebrews a deeply religious people through many temptations and apostasies, and enabled them in the midst of much that is primitive to keep looking higher.
There is a good deal of animism about early Hebrew religion; that is, the Hebrews believed that spirits dwelt in such inanimate objects as trees, springs, wells, stones, and mountains. Doubtless many of their "sacred places" were adopted by the Hebrews from tribes whom they dispossessed. But to them such natural phenomena as the oaks where Abraham met God (Gen. 12:6ff; 18:1 A.R.V.) or the burning bush where Moses heard God speak (Exod. 3:1-5) had a special sanctity. Stones were often set up after some great event like Jacob’s vision at Bethel (Gen. 28:10-22) or Joshua’s leading of the people across the Jordan, (Josh. 4:1-9) not only as commemorative monuments but also as shrines.
Good spirits, in the form of angels of Yahweh, came to visit men. But so did evil spirits, a host of them, as in Saul’s seizure which the boy David soothed by his playing of the harp (I Sam. 16:23) and in the large numbers of demon-possessed persons whom Jesus healed. It was believed that God spoke to people in dreams, as in Jacob’s dream, (Gen 28:12) on which is based the beautiful Negro spiritual, "We Are Climbing Jacob’s Ladder." Less credible was the widespread belief that the will of God or the truth of a situation could be discerned by the Urim and Thummim, that is, by the casting of lots. (Deut. 33:8, I Sam. 14:41) And still less attractive are vestiges of witchcraft, as in Saul’s visit to the witch of Endor, who, according to the story, called up for him the spirit of the deceased Samuel. (I Sam 28:3-19)
There is not a little magic mixed in with Hebrew religion. A good example of imitative magic is seen in the case of Moses’ putting a brass serpent on a pole so that the people being bitten by serpents could be healed by looking up at it. (Num. 21:4-9) There is transfer magic also in the idea of the scapegoat, by which the sins of the people were loaded onto a goat that was then sent off into the wilderness. (Lev. 16:20-22) That the Christian faith could make these primitive acts symbolic of the most holy of all relationships, the death of Christ for our redemption, is evidence of the spiritual vitality of our religion. In similar vein, the blood covenant was originally a desert rite for uniting two parties by sprinkling some of an animal’s blood -- the seat of life -- on both. When sprinkled on the altar and on the worshipers, blood became to the Hebrews a symbol of their sacred covenant with Yahweh. (Exod. 24:18) This idea, given a deep Christian meaning, survives in the belief that the blood of Christ saves us from sin.
The Hebrews were not idolaters, except as they fell into idolatry through apostasy from their faith through Canaanite influence and had to be rebuked for it. But there is fetishism in the teraphim, or household gods which Rachel stole when she left her father’s house and sat upon for safekeeping. (Gen. 31:19, 30-35) The ark of the covenant, the most revered emblem of the Hebrew religion which was carried with them in their travels and later placed in the Holy of Holies in the Temple, also takes on the nature of a fetish when we read of its being carried into battle and bringing good luck to the Hebrews and bad luck to the Philistines who seized it. (I Sam. 5) Taboo, the aversion to touching anything very holy or unclean, is another aspect of early religion and culture. This too is illustrated by the ark, which no profane hands could touch, for when Uzzah attempted to steady it on its journey, he fell down dead. (I Chron. 13:9, 10)
Enough has been said to suggest how deeply the religion of the Hebrews was enmeshed with the beliefs and practices of other early nomadic and agricultural peoples. The glory of our Hebrew-Christian faith is that from such crude beginnings so much that is high and glorious has come.
It will be necessary to leave till later any detailed tracing of the growth of the Hebrew religion, and its culmination in the insights of the prophets and still higher insights of Jesus. It should be evident that God was moving in the experience of these Semitic people, leading, teaching, strengthening, chastening, inspiring them. Everything that happened, including their sufferings and some things that we should call their sins, they attributed to God’s hand. Their upward climb to a sublime ethical monotheism and a Christian faith in redemption through the love of "the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ," gives evidence enough that in the Bible is the record of God’s progressive self-disclosure.
There is much rich truth in the Bible that one misses unless he sees it as God’s long process of working in wisdom and love with his people. It simply cannot be read as all on one level without losing sight of the ups and downs, which on the whole are ups, by which the people rose and fell and rose again in their discernment of God and obedience to his will. Though it is right to say that we find in the Bible the progressive revelation of God, it might be more accurate to say that the Bible shows how patiently and mercifully God always works with men, adapting his instruction to the ever-changing panorama of human experience. It shows likewise how human beings, weak and fallible and often sinful -- pretty poor material at times, it seems -- could persist in the quest for God and goodness. This gives us guidance and hope. Because we have the Bible, we can know what for our time and every time is the Way, the Truth, and the Life.
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