The Old Testament, Keystone of Human Culture by William F. Irwin
William A. Irwin was Professor of Old Testament Languages and Literature at Southern Methodist University, formerly Professor of Old Testament Languages and Literature at the University of Chicago. He is the author of The Problem of Ezekiel, and The Intellectual Adventure of Ancient Man, and many other books. This material was published by Abelard-Schuman, London and New York, 1959. Prepared for Religion-Online by Paul & Shirley Mobley.
Chapter 3: What is Man?
It is said that, for the Ancient Hebrew, there were three realities: God, man, and the world. The remark is, however, less profound than it may appear; for what more is there? And how could he have taken account of less, being the person that he was? But, in any case, it is now time to turn to the second of these entities.
Israel was fully aware of that most critical question of all man's thought -- the problem that man is to himself. The Hebrew thinkers meditated upon this strange two-legged creature that struts about in such a pompous mood, arrogantly rivaling the gods yet knowing full well that he is much less than divine, conscious of his close relation with the beasts but refusing to be a brute, and always -- even in his proudest moments -- haunted with a sense of insufficiency and with the knowledge that the nemesis which dogs his every footstep will ultimately overtake him. And what, then, of all he has hoped and done? In itself such thinking is not remarkable, for even primitive man had early learned to ask questions about his origin and nature. But the uniqueness of Israel's thought is in the elevation of its conclusions, an answer to the problem of man that even in this modern day some regard as superior to much of recent thought as well as to the aberration which Greek speculation fastened upon Western culture.
The consciousness of the problem was widely diffused among Hebrew thinkers, if we may judge from frequent allusion and formal discussion. One of the notable passages of more extensive treatment is Psalm 90, which in majestic wording sketches the agelessness of the world, and the eternity of the divine, by contrast with which man is transient, frail, and fallible:
But as for man:
Thou carriest them away as with a flood;
Scarcely less deserving of mention is the explicit formulation of the question in Psalm 8:
O Lord our Lord, how excellent is thy
In the immensity and might of the physical universe, man is so fleeting and so little; yet, as we shall see, man, so this thinker maintains, holds a place of unique significance.
One influence that stimulated Israel's interest in the problem was the obvious similarity that exists between man and the beasts. We are told that in his three thousand proverbs Solomon "spoke of birds and of beasts and of creeping things" (I Kings 4:32-33). But this had been a very old interest in the Orient, where fables of plants and animals of the sort familiar to the modern world under the title Aesop's Fables had long been employed in teaching and speculation about the nature of man. The well-known fable of Jotham in chapter 9 of Judges is the clearest illustration of this that we possess from Israel, but certain passages in the Book of Proverbs, some prophetic figures, and, most of all, this clear statement in the account of Solomon's career demonstrate that the Hebrew thinkers recognized our kinship with the lower animals. But then what? Is man nothing but a more intelligent brute? In view of the freedom of Israel's skeptical thought, it is not surprising that the question found answer in the affirmative. Nor shall we think it remarkable that our familiar acquaintance, Ecelesiastes, is the one to voice this with frankness. He states his conclusion:
I said in my heart in regard to the sons of men that, since God has created them and he sees that they are in their nature but beasts, the fate of the sons of men and the fate of beasts is one: as this dies, so dies that; they have all the same spirit, and man has no superiority above the beasts, for all is futile. . . .
Who knows whether the spirit of man goes upward, and the spirit of the beast goes down into the earth? (Eccles. 3:1-21).
There we have frank and complete repudiation of man's higher claims. Our life, just like that of the animals, is told in purely biological terms. And when death overtakes us, nothing has happened but biological and then chemical dissolution. But the very terms of Ecclesiastes' pessimism reveal that the consensus of Hebrew thought was against him. He is clearly at pains to criticize and repudiate an accepted belief.
Similar is the mood of the "friends" in the Book of Job, although their traditional piety is far from the radicalism of Ecclesiastes. But at least it is apparent that they too assign man a lowly place. Bildad, indeed, alludes to man that is a maggot, and the son of man that is a worm" (Job 25:6). And Eliphaz, in a comparable utterance, stresses the frailty and transcience of human life:
. . . .them that dwell in houses of clay, whose foundation is in the dust, who are crushed before the moth !
It means, indeed, just the opposite of the view of Job's friends. For it is clear that it is the writer himself who, as a worm, is less than human --- so he claims. The characteristic belief of Israel, indeed, finds nowhere more challenging formulation than in the Psalter, and most notably in that Eighth Psalm, from which we quoted a moment ago. The relevant passage is rendered in the King James translation:
What is man that thou art mindful of him, and the son of man that thou visitest
But the word here rendered "angels" is 'elohim, the familiar and regular term for God. And nowhere does it certainly mean angels. There is no evidence whatever that would support the action of the seventeenth-century translators at this point; it rests only on dogmatic presuppositions which precluded their rising to the boldness of the Hebrew concept. The passage says as clearly as may be: "Thou hast made him a little lower than God"! The essential meaning of the passage, as well as its astonishing character, is very little altered if we should admit, in accordance with some recent thought, that "man" is here the half-mythical, primeval man.
In few regards is the uniqueness of Hebrew thought more evident than in this concept of the basic character of human life. Indeed to this day (not merely until the time of King James' translators), we have but inadequately approached the majesty of the conception that man is in his nature but "a little lower than God." And such a view was propounded by a people who had no less painful cause than our own generation to know the depraved possibilities of the human heart, and who, on the other hand, maintained an unrivaled faith in a transcendent God. But yet the paradox --- for them, man is but "a little lower" and "crowned with glory and honor." Here is none of the contamination of flesh, of the essential badness of matter, of the evil of the world and all that it signifies: ideas which we have erroneously fathered upon the Orient, and which in turn have distorted our religious thinking for two millenniums. But they are Greek and not Hebrew, traceable not to Moses but to Plato True, the Hebrew would grant the terms of our familiar hymn, "Frail children of dust, and feeble as frail"; but in that feebleness there was no taint of worthlessness. On the contrary, man is of exalted origin; and his destiny, by implication, is likewise one of majesty. Echoing the words of the creation story, our psalmist goes on: "Thou madest him to have dominion over the works of thy hands; thou hast put all things under his feet" (Ps. 8:6).
It is, indeed, in the accounts of the Creation that we find the basic and almost complete statement of the Hebrew answer to the problem of man. God made him in his own image. Or, in another narrative, he was shaped by divine hands from dust of the earth, and then God blew into his nostrils the breath of life, and man became a living being. There is at once both man's earthy and his divine nature. But the important thing to emphasize is that our mention of such antithesis is un-Hebraic. For Israel it was a single and consistent idea. God had made the world also; and on all that he made, step by step, he pronounced the judgment that it was good. The world, like man, came fresh from the hands of the Creator, trailing clouds of glory. Such was Hebrew and Jewish thought throughout. However bad the troubles that might fall, however thick the gloom, yet Israel's basic conviction was that the world was permeated with its divine origin and high purpose.
There exists an unsolved problem as to the ultimate nature of matter. Our theology has postulated a dogma of creatio ex nihilo. But certainly this is not asserted in the Old Testament. On the contrary, a question has arisen whether Gen. 1:1 does not actually imply the reverse. The sentence is of unusual Hebrew construction. And it has been boldly asserted that the correct meaning is that given by the Chicago translation: "When God began to create the heavens and the earth, the earth being a desolate waste, with darkness covering the abyss and the spirit of God hovering over the water, then God said, 'Let there be light!' " That is, matter was not created but was preexistent. The world is of dual origin: a shapeless chaotic mass of matter, on the one hand, and God and his work on the other. Unfortunately, further references in the Old Testament to the origin of the world fail to clear up the problem, and we are compelled to leave it in this uncertainty. But the situation does not qualify the major emphasis which we have sought to make at this point. For even if Israel did actually think of matter as eternal and pre-existent still there is nowhere any suggestion of stigma upon it as matter. Instead it was worthy to be the medium and content of God's work of creation, so that in the end the complete work was "very good."
But the thought carries still further. It deserves repetition that man as a creature of flesh bore thereby no stain of uncleanness or unworthiness. Of man’s sinfulness we must speak in a moment, and it was very real for Israel's thought. But it did not derive from his fleshly being. God had made man, and in those primeval days of more than Elysian bliss he had associated freely with our first parent, a being of just our nature. But, further, God had given to the first couple the injunction: "Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth, and have dominion." It is a command that remained basic in subsequent Hebrew life. However black the present and future, the devout Israelite might not seek racial release by abstention from begetting children and through them children's children. Jeremiah, it is true, had taken that course, but to that extent he stood apart from his people. God had commanded, "Be fruitful and multiply." Apart from some practice of ritual fasting and other restraint, there was no asceticism in Israel, with but the exception of the Essenes, who fall in a period so late that they may not be cited as typically Hebraic. Celibacy and a special "immaculate conception" are ideas that have come into our religious tradition from sources other than the Old Testament. For Israel, every conception was immaculate; it was instituted of God and, to their simple scientific ideas, was in detail a direct gift from him. True, they knew well the biological sequence; nonetheless, it was the Lord who gave conception or, it might be, withheld it. Children were a blessing of the Lord and a sign of his grace.
The bases of these exalted concepts of man and the world are not such as to permit of conclusive analysis. Indeed, we seem here to deal with a mood rather than with a reasoned position; for Israel's thinkers were deeply conscious of the darker side of human nature. They had painful occasion to know the badness of their environment, both physical and racial. Nonetheless, they held firm the faith that man is a being essentially of noble nature set in a world that is essentially good. It has been our habit to comment on the liberty of the Greek mood that looked the gods in the face in a relationship similar to that between equal humans. And what was it that brought the Greeks to this? Was it that they, too, were Mediterranean folk, who reveled in the long and cheerful sunshine of the region, and that they, like Israel, were a mountain people, living a socially atomistic life in their secluded valleys? Are we, then, to search in environment rather than in racial heritage of reasoned processes of thought for the source of such ideas of God and man? However that may be, it is apparent that Israel's position here transcends that of Greece in that her God was exalted far beyond the human weaknesses of the Greek deities. But environment does not tell all, for Israel was unique in the Orient. The Syrians and Moabites also were mountain dwellers in the Mediterranean world, and there is no need to delay over the inferiority of their religious achievement. We are driven to hold that the Hebrews' concept of man cannot be understood in isolation, but only as a part of their whole remarkable system of thought. They recognized that man is superior to the brutes --- even the tempered pessimism of Ecclesiastes cannot hide his admission of the fact --- and then, realizing a strange quality in human character that is more than biological and that, for them, as we shall presently see, was nothing less than a divine endowment, they were brought to the conclusion that man's nature somewhere between the brute and the divine could be only " little lower than God."
Yet every Bible reader will recall the contrite confession in the Fifty-first Psalm:
Notwithstanding its false use in support of a doctrine of total hu man depravity --- which is completely un-Hebraic --- the passage is one of great depth and meaning, highly significant for an understanding of the full biblical doctrine of man. These ancient thinkers were fully convinced of the reality of "original sin," though at risk of repetition it most be pointed out that this is very different from total depravity, and also distinct from the idea of inherited racial guilt. This devout soul in the great Penitential truly expresses in matchless fashion our proneness to wrong-doing, which is so deeply ingrained that it can be regarded as nothing else than a part of our nature The thought receives elucidation in the famous story of the guilty couple in the Garden (Gen. 3). It is of far reaching relevance, such that no one may hope to exhaust it; also it is profound in its mythical presentation of the truth that freedom and evil are inseparable, hence to be human entails a state of sin.
Yet this is not to minimize Israel's thought of man's sinfulness, for it is one of the great and creative ideas of tile Bible. Nowhere has there been such a sense of the depravity of sin as among this people; and we in turn have entertained a comparable view only by virtue of our Hebraic heritage. The sinfulness of sin, if one may clarify through the obscurity of redundancy, was the counterpart of the transcendence of God. Here again is an eloquent paradox. All Israel's thought traces back ultimately to her great confession, "The Lord our God, the Lord is one." The idea of sin was very old in the Orient, as doubtless it was in human life long prior to the rise of the earliest oriental cultures. But there is a great gulf between that and Israel's thought. The simpler notion is of action which displeases the deity. And when that deity is merely the enlarged stature of a man, with much of human caprice, then sin can have little if any of moral relevance. At the most, the general Orient had moved noticeably in the direction of a transcendent concept of sin. But, for Israel, sin was offense against a supernal holiness and righteousness that far transcends our highest attainments or even understanding. True, this holiness was a Person : for Israel, other thought was impossible; but his exalted nature suffused all their thinking, transforming personal affront into moral evil. There remained the personal relationship in even the deepest individual experiences of guilt; the great Penitential confesses:
Against thee, thee only, have I sinned, and done that which is evil in thy sight (Ps. 51:4).
And another psalmist, expressing human fallibility, says:
Thou hast set our iniquities before thee, our secret sins in the light of thy countenance [Ps. 90:8].
By contrast with the pure light of that ineffable presence; "All our righteousnesses are but filthy rags."
And there, in such a paradox, is Israel's thought of man. He was made in the image of God, but a little lower than he, worthy to companion with him, but yet so far removed that the highest human attainments, even the best aspirations, are acceptable only by divine grace. The paradox merits repetition; for in it, beyond a doubt, lies the source of Israel's best and highest thought and her unceasing moral striving. Yet we must set limits and guards to the concept, for emphasis on the transcendence of God has led into devious ways in the history of theology, not least within our own times. God was exalted, yet he was not separated from man. God and man were alike in nature. Even if man's frailties were such as to make the resemblance a caricature, nonetheless he was in the image of God. God is in the heavens; God is far other than man. But it is entirely false to Old Testament thought to claim that he was "wholly" other. Israel's thinkers would have repudiated such an idea with indignation. There were exceptions, it is true, such as are represented by Ecclesiastes and the "friends" in the Book of Job. But the cynicism of the former resulted in a grotesque caricature; and the latter are properly held up for censure, by the great author of the dialogue, as a little weak in their logic.
Certain trends in current theology seek to explain sin as in essence pride: man is a creature of empty and excessive self-assurance, proud of every conceivable possession, material or other, and even proud of his humility. It is no part of our present task to assess this idea, but only to point out that whatever its source or worth, it is not Israel's concept of sin. Instead the remarkable fact is that in both Testaments the common word for sin means basically "missing the mark." There are other words as well; but the entire view is indicated by this simple, realistic approach to the problem. Man is of high origin and possibilities; but too often he misses his mark. The mistake might be, and commonly was, disastrous; but still it was only a missing of the mark. Man aimed at something, but hit what was not of first importance. More perverse "missing" was spoken of as rebellion; yet too, guilt might be entailed by accident, or unconsciously through forgetting God by absorption in other interests.
What then could man hope in this life ? One answer we have already noted. Ecclesiastes admitted no outcome but complete despair. Man dies like the brute --- and that is the end! Even while he lives he is able to accomplish nothing so that the best answer to the problem of life is "Live it as comfortably as you can; and don't think much about it." But it is obvious that such a view would not satisfy the great stream of Israel's thinkers whom we may call with admitted inaccuracy "the orthodox." In time they came to accept the belief long cherished in Egypt and doubtless well known throughout Israel that death is not the end but the beginning. It is a portal through which man goes out into a larger life. This belief came so late in the Old Testament period that little can be said about it. One of our very few treatments of the theme speaks briefly of "everlasting life" (Dan. 12:2); another summons: "Awake and sing, ye that dwell in the dust" (Isa. 26:19). Contentious as the view is, one may make bold to assert that this belief, or hope, is an important theme of the Book of Job. For those who will dissent, evidence is immediately at hand; for there is nothing so emphatically denied by Job as hope beyond death. But to stop with this is to confess a failure to understand the favorite methods of the author. Certainly in chapter 14, where the denial is most clear, he has Job wistfully entertain the possibility that after his descent into She'ol he may yet enjoy the favor of God. And the great passage that in the present fragmentary condition of the book comes near the culmination of the Dialogue, chapter 19:25-27, can best be understood as postulating experience "away from the flesh." However, the debatable nature of these views is eloquent of the entire situation. And it is an enticing question why Israel continued so late to reject the faith she had long known. We do not know; but it is suggested that the reason lay in an intimate relationship with the pagan cults against which earlier Israel had been compelled to struggle.
For Israel, through the greater part of the Old Testament period, man's destiny, then, was a mundane affair. His personal good was to be found in this life, and his achievement, whatever it might be, related only to this world. He had a sort of survival, however, in his family. So it was that children were prized even more than is common in human society. The tribe and nation also were vehicles to carry his significance into far-distant times and, as such, commanded his loyalty. The idea is not strange to us, unless in its formulation; for it is essentially the motivation that in our age impels hosts of men to give themselves freely on the battlefield: they do so for an idea, for the survival of human freedom, that is, for the persistence of our culture with its possibilities and promise of a much better culture arising therefrom. But apart from such hopes, the Israelite sought meaning and satisfaction within the days of his own years.
The wholesomeness of Israel's thinking insured that basic in the conception of the good life was a sufficiency of material things. The Hebrews were no starving saints or unwashed ascetics. They accepted the good things of life with zest. The emphasis of the prophets and other religious leaders on intangible values must not obscure for us the fact that all alike recognized the indispensability of at least reasonable physical provision, if life was to be satisfying. This was the hope and promise of the land into which the nation had come by divine promise: it was "a good land, a land of wheat and vines and figs and pomegranates, a land of olive trees and honey; a land in which thou shalt eat bread without scarceness: thou shalt not lack any good thing in it; a land whose stones are iron and out of whose hills thou mayest dig copper" (Dent. 8:7-9). Poverty and suffering could be borne through faith in unseen realities, but they were not desirable. Equally a desire for great wealth was only seldom encouraged. The enthusiasm of the historian of Solomon's reign appears to measure the king's happiness in direct relation to his wealth. Similarly Job's prosperity is presented as an item of his good fortune, though literary needs may here have enhanced the mood. Elsewhere we find rather an ideal of moderation. One writer deprecates alike wealth and poverty (Prov. 30:7-9); and the Deuteronomist's attitude just now cited must be qualified with his warning: "when thou hast eaten and art full, then beware lest thou forget the Lord thy God" (Deut. 6:11-12; cf. 8:11ff.). Such an ideal of the happy mean in all life was expressed by Ecclesiastes; we can imagine he wrote it with his tongue in his cheek!
Be not righteous overmuch, neither make thyself overwise; why shouldst thou destroy thyself ? Be not overmuch, wicked, neither be thou foolish; why shouldst thou die before thy time?. It is good that thou take hold of this and withdraw not thy hand from that (Eccles. 7:16-18).
But it is possible that older Hebrew ideas have at this point been crystallized by the impact of Greek thought.
Then, as we have seen, for the Hebrew, life was not full and complete unless he was husband of a good wife and with her parent of several children; indeed, we should rather say, of many children, for one poet voices the common ideal thus:
Lo, children are a heritage of the Lord. ..
Of the quality of a good wife we are left in no doubt. She is sensible, industrious, thrifty, a good manager; and, not least, she rises early, apparently in order to let her husband sleep in! (Prov. 31:10 or 31). That she is also a good mother in much the sense that we understand is admitted.
As a final element in his happiness, one hoped for a long life. All this is nowhere more eloquently set forth than in the first speech of Eliphaz in the Book of Job:
He will deliver thee in six troubles,
But obviously the good life entailed as well rigid standards of ethics. We have several summaries of these, more or less partial. Those in Psalm is and in Job, chapter 31, are famous; the latter has been highly praised. A more brief statement will serve our present purpose:
acter, fails so much as to suggest the distinctive feature of Hebrew ethics. The good man found his place as a member of a good society. For in Israel's thought, society, not less than the individual, had a character of its own and entailed thereby its reward or retribution. A person's welfare and happiness were thus bound up in the status of his group. His own merit or lack of it had relevance for the general character, as his activity had power to shape it. Yet it was society that determined his fate. Even outstanding personal character could not absolve him from society's doom or debar him from sharing in its welfare. We shall see presently how the individual gradually emerged to a relative independence, yet to the end Israel's ethical thought remained highly socialized.
Of the culture of the mind less is said. Yet we should err if we then concluded that Israel was indifferent to it. On the contrary, it is an ideal highly praised. We think of Solomon, intrinsic in whose greatness was the fact that the Lord gave him "largeness of heart as the sand that is upon the seashore." The prophets and other religious leaders were so engrossed in their campaign for reform that they say little of this quality which actually takes so large a place in their own lives and activities. But in the Wisdom Literature the appeal of learning and the life of the mind is clearly and forcefully presented. The outlines of this intellectual culture we have in part seen already, and more must be added presently. But we may summarize this secular aspect of the good life in a, perhaps, dangerously concise phrase, that Israel along this line thought of it as that of the cultured gentleman --- in much the sense that we give to these words in their better connotation: a man of easy circumstances, of good home life and unimpeachable integrity, gracious to his acquaintances, and possessing opportunity for satisfying intellectual pursuits.
Yet it is apparent that to leave the description with this would be a gross misrepresentation of Hebrew thought. For the good life was basically and supremely the religious life. All we have said takes its place in this larger whole. Again we may cite a famous summary; the ideal was for man "to do justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with his God" (Mic. 6:8). It was the religious orientation that brought meaning and abiding satisfaction into life. The fear of the Lord was the beginning of wisdom --- of the finest values of life. In his faith in God the devout Hebrew found the final answer to life's enigma: a conviction that he was individually of worth in the eyes of God, hence might expect divine guidance and help, a faith which meant a rich experience of mystic relationship with the divine, a faith, too, in God's plans and purposes for the nation and for the world through which the individual participated in issues far transcending his transience and found meaning in an eternal cosmic process. Certainly we must not look for such a faith in every ancient Hebrew whose thoughts we can scan; the ignorant peasant out on the hills of Israel could scarcely be expected to shape his world view in such terms. But here we are concerned primarily with the best that Israel attained. And we shall see more of this cosmic outlook in a few moments.
Such was the good life. And denial of it in faith and conduct was sin. In turn, salvation, apart from its national connotations, was the attainment of this life. The directness and simplicity of Israel's thought insured that for most of the Old Testament period conversion and salvation alike were matters of volition. If one were a sinner, then the rational thing was to change his conduct. "Cease to do evil; learn to do well," Isaiah had demanded (Isa. 1:16-17). "Turn ye, turn ye from your evil ways; why will ye die?" was a later formulation of the same idea (Ezek. 33:11). Apparently it was as simple and easy as that. Yet Israel's thinkers realized well the constraining power of ingrained habit. It was as inescapable as the leopard's spots or the Ethiopian's skin (Jer. 13:23). Israel's doings would not permit her to return to the Lord (Hos. 5:4). "Every imagination of the thoughts of the heart" of man in some circumstances "was only evil continually" (Gen. 6:5). The sin of the Judeans was written with a pen of iron upon the tablets of their heart (Jer. 17:1). Circumstance and heredity likewise exerted a conducive influence upon conduct. When Israel came into the land, their relations with the Canaanites became a powerful inducement to participation in the pagan cults: when they had eaten and were full, then it was more than possible they would forget the Lord their God (Deut. 6:11-12).
Hence it was that through the course of centuries Israel's thinkers were impelled to a more profound understanding of the problems of human conduct. More and more they realized that it rises from the deep springs of the personality, not out of some casual circumstance. The generous man does generous things, whereas the churl will be churlish (Isa. 32 :6-8). In Old Testament phrase it is a question of the human "heart." The classic expression of the problem is that by Paul in the seventh chapter of the Epistle to the Romans: a sense of futile strife with one's self voiced at length in the despairing cry, "O wretched man that I am, who shall deliver me from this body of death?" But Paul's utterance, though evidently rooted in his own experience, was by no means novel. He was in this regard, as in so much else, the direct heir of his Jewish ancestry. For the thinkers of the long post-Exilic period turn, on various occasions in diverse times, to the glowing hope of a day when the Lord should change men's hearts and enable them to do the right.
I will sprinkle clean water upon you and you shall be clean; from all your filthiness and from all your idols will I cleanse you. And I will give you a new heart, and will put a new spirit in you. 1 will take away the stony heart out of your body and will give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes. Then you shall keep my ordinances and obey them (Ezek. 36:25-27).
In this time, too, was voiced the ideal of the law written on the heart, than which there is no more profound understanding of the regeneration of human life.
I will put my law in their inward parts and will write it upon their heart. And I will be their God and they shall be my people. They shall no more teach each one his neighbor and his brother, Know the Lord, for they shall all know me from the least of them to the greatest. For I will forgive their iniquity and their sin I will remember no more (Jer. 31:33-34).
There in notable formulation is Israel's doctrine of the grace of God. In earlier thought, the Lord had been a temperamental being whose sense of injured dignity might be too deep for mollification. Forgiveness was a conjectural matter. We are familiar with the threat that the sins of the fathers should be visited upon tile children to the third and fourth generation --- although in fairness we must remember that these were the recalcitrant, or, in biblical phraseology, "them that hate me." The prophets likewise speak of sins that will not be forgiven as long as their perpetrators may live (Isa. 22:14); or they regard divine forgiveness of the repentant as problematic: "It may be that the Lord, the God of Hosts, will be gracious to the remnant of Joseph" (Amos 5:15). But with the maturing of Israel's thought the emphasis was upon the unbounded grace of God. "Like as a father pitieth his children, so the Lord pitieth them that love him, for he knoweth our frame, he remembereth that we are dust" (Ps. 103:13-14). Still more: not alone was lie ready to forgive the penitent, but he was himself the enabling power to vitalize human penitence; in just the sense that the words came to hold in a later time, he saved his people from their sins.
Along these several lines, then, we find Israel's concept of divine salvation. With a wide scope of detailed concepts, it was in essence to live in the grace of God. And this experience was of unmeasured possibilities.
The patriarchal stories preserve records very familiar to us of favored individuals who in some peculiar way walked with God and were accepted into an intimate relationship. Abraham even yet is reputed as "the friend of God." With him Moses also talked as a man talks with his friend. But it is notable that such experiences were confined to the legendary past. In the clear light of history we deal with a different experience. The spirit of God might "rush upon" some chosen and worthy individual and equip him for notable service. Such was the qualification of the national champions in the Book of Judges. A comparable experience is implied in stories of the tenth --- and ninth --- century prophets. They were "men of God," an appellation that in its Hebrew possibilities as well as in the episodes related of them carries evidence of their exceptional status.
It is worthy of note, however, that even these sources are not untouched with legendary embellishments. We come rather to Israel's true concept of the nature of a "walk with God" in the careers of the writing prophets. It is important to realize that the prophetic experience was essentially one of personal relationship with the divine. In the quiet of his inner life the prophet heard the words of the Lord; he lived under a sense of the divine choice and commission and of an intimate relation that brought him guidance, and support, and utterance, through the common days of his career. Illustrations are too familiar to require long delay. We think of Amos' experience of being "taken" from his peasant's work and sent to prophesy to Israel; of Micah's being full of the spirit of the Lord; of the occasion when the Lord spoke to Isaiah "with strength of hand" (Isa. 8:11). But the career of Jeremiah is peculiarly rich in this regard. It is clear that the account of his call to his high office as recorded in chapter i of his book is to be under-stood in the light of what we know of the awakening of a thoughtful adolescent to the personal religious realities and tasks of life. And the famous passages of the book which reveal his inner doubts and struggles through his active years again are intimately related to present-day religious experiences.
Briefly, then, Hebrew thought at its best, we may say, understood that the individual can hear the voice of God deep in his own consciousness and may, through the unexplored mediums of the mystical experience, commune with him in silence. Such is clearly the view of the psalmists also; from a host of relevant passages we cite only the confession of the author of Psalm 73. He was deeply perplexed and troubled by the seeming injustice of God's rule of the world; the arrogant wicked lived in bounty, while the just were plagued all the day long and chastened every morning. Consideration of this was too painful for him, he says, "until I went into the sanctuary of God and considered their latter end" (vs. 17). And there satisfying answer came to him, not by audible voice, we are to observe, nor heaven-sent theophany, but in quiet meditation on the realities of religion arid of life. However, we must be on guard against reading our very modern conceptions into ancient religious attitudes. The ritual of the Temple cult was of an importance far beyond what is commonly realized. In God's house, the devout Hebrew felt he had come physically into the presence of God; through the public worship and the ministrations of the priests God spoke to him. Yet it is important to recognize that such was by no means the total of Israel's religious experience. As far back as the story of Moses
before the burning bush, there is evident a belief that the experience of God was not limited to routine channels. Alone, far from worshippers and religious symbols, the timid Moses was transformed into a hero of faith by a religious experience that bears familiar marks for the thought of the modern world. And this continues in succession through Samuel, Elijah, and most, if not all, of the canonical prophets, and onward into the quiet experience of simple saints briefly told in numbers of the Psalms.
With the passage of time, however, and under stress of social and national crisis which always fosters apocalyptic expectations, wishful thinking turned back to concepts not unlike those found in the patriarchal stories. It is no accident that the pseudepigraphic literature is fathered on the heroes of that remote time, for it seeks to revive the largely abandoned, supernatural concept of God's dealing with man. Once again we find favored individuals who stand in a special, almost superhuman relation to God; to them come angelic ministrants with messages direct from the heavenly throne and to them are given visions of the heavenly world arid glimpses of divine plans. This type of thinking, rather than the concepts of the great prophets, when carried over into later religious ideas, has continued until the present to make a peculiar appeal to minds which for lack of knowledge of the history of ideas, or for whatever other reason, are susceptible to cabalistic computations and imagery.
Viewed 67569 times.