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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 6: History and Nature


A notable feature of the Old Testament is its historical character. Approximately half its bulk is concerned with tracing the course of events from the far beginnings down into the well-known times of the latest writers; the sources employed were diverse, the methods of varying quality; but the important matter is that, for the authors, it was all history. In this the Hebrews were true heirs of the Orient. One of the great aspects of the ancient East was its consciousness of the flow of time and the significance of history. In this they far surpassed the Greeks, who were too recent and too brief in their national being to have been conditioned by the course of centuries and millenniums. Herodotus, Thucydides, and Polybius accomplished something of first-rank importance, but they lacked what the East possessed as its birthright, a sense of history. Two illustrations will suffice for the present, the first of the extreme sort. The Sumerians preserved records of the kings who lived before the flood and of those who lived after the Flood, and some of the former ruled for as long as thirty-six thousand years! Legends, it is evident; but what of that ? The revealing thing is the belief that human life had run on in regulated channels for thousands and thousands of years. Neither does the other illustration hear critical examination by the modern historian, but it is similarly eloquent of the Orient's deep-rooting in the far past. Nahonidus, last king of Semitic Babylonia, having dug down to the foundation of the temple in Sippar, discovered, he relates, the foundation tablet of "King Naram Sin who lived thirty-six hundred years before my time": an error of more than a thousand years, which, however, does not qualify the significance of the document. By contrast recall the incredible assertion of Thucydides in the beginning of his history that nothing of importance had happened before the Peloponnesian War.

To this rich heritage of insight the Hebrews added their unique facility in narrative and produced the first real history that the world knew. True, it is, in general, of much too narrow Scope, omitting whole large areas of social life which have become of paramount importance to the modern historian; and even within its chosen limits, its record of national fortunes runs off, not uncommonly, into colorful personal episodes, to the neglect of major political developments. Some of it, as well, is deficient in that critical method which modern historiography regards as indispensable. The Hebrew writers never evolved a formal prolegomenon, setting forth the rules and methods governing the science of history; nonetheless, their history possesses amazing qualities of excellence, and at its best is one more of the seemingly miraculous achievements of this original people. Here we meet for the first time history on a world scope; the tenth chapter of Genesis, particularly against the background of the preceding narrative, though made up of lists of names, is yet an astonishing document, revealing the writer's knowledge of the world of his time, and even more remarkable, his recognition of the essential unity of the entire human process. And this was ages before the notion of universal history dawned on the West; and when it did arrive there, the best achievements of Western writers were a direct result of the work of the biblical historians. In the East, too, history became an art, the more excellent in that it was obviously unconscious; it was but the spontaneous expression of the writer's native genius. All the remarkable qualities of Hebrew narrative were invoked to present history with such compelling vividness and reality as to make the biblical story a model for good historical writing. A similar unconscious instinct led the greatest of these historians, the author of the account of David's reign, to a critical selection and sifting of his sources that created, half a millennium before Herodotus, a scientific history on a level with the best standards later set forth by the Greeks.

Yet one further astonishing quality of Hebrew historiography calls for emphasis. These writers were fully in accord with most recent thought in their repudiation of a theory of objective history. They wrote frankly and avowedly from an assumed point of view, which is but another way of saying that they believed that history has meaning. It is perhaps misleading, however, to describe this as an assumed viewpoint; it was not lightly won, but was part and parcel of their deepest convictions, achieved by all that had made them and their nation. It is obvious, then, that their history fulfilled that sine qua non of great historiography, that it must be written against a great background -- an epic theme, as it were. And for their history, that theme was of cosmic scope and scale -- nothing less, in fact, than man's being, in a world of incalculable power and mystery. To the already impressive catalogue of their primacy we must add that the Hebrews were also the first to develop a philosophy of history; and when at length this area of speculation was taken up seriously by Western thinkers, it was in direct succession to and dependence upon Biblical accomplishments. The Hebrew philosophers were convinced that history was not a cycle, not a chaos, nor yet a meaningless tableau where the world "stands at gaze like Joshua's moon in Ajalon." For them, history was a great process; it was going somewhere, but that progress was under the will and direction of the God of goodness whom Israel's faith envisaged: history, they believed, was moving toward the realization of his plans. God had created man for a definite purpose; and when that purpose was thwarted through man's rebellion, again he sent forth the race and established them according to their assigned places. Then presently Israel came into the course of events, and through her the divine purposes attained new relevance and fresh impetus toward their fulfilment.

The engrossment in history was intimately related to the total of their religion. Indeed it is commonly said that Israel's religion was unique in that it was a historical religion. Although this is an excellent comment, it must yet be accepted critically, else it will lead to foolish excess. For it is apparent that most, presumably all, other religions have likewise their historical aspect; they have their great moments and their great achievements which, not less than in Israel, enter into the total of faith. When the Assyrian conquerors boasted of the might of Ashur and Ishtar and the rest of their gods, who went before them in battle and gave them victory, where did they differ essentially from the grateful faith of the Hebrews looking back on the conquests of Joshua or of David? Hammurabi asserted that Ann and Bel raised him to the throne, that is, that they intervened in history; and Mesha recorded the triumphs of Chemosh against Yahweh and his people. But why multiply illustrations? It is apparent that the historical uniqueness of Israel's religion must have been something deeper, or else nothing at all.

It is generally recognized that Yahweh, in the earliest thought of him, was a nature~god in just the same sense as was Enlil or Re or Baal. The account of the great theopliany at the holy mountain is, inter alia, a veiled record of a volcanic eruption (Exod. 19:16-18); and Yahweh's intimate connection with storm and fire and earthquake is evident in subsequent later sources. Moreover, the nature-gods by their function were benefactors of their peoples and on occasion acted in notable fashion to save them, as, for example, Ea did for Ut-Napishtim when the Flood was in prospect. And surely the conduct of Adad was not one whit different from that of Yahweh related in I Sam. 7:10, where he sent thunder and storm to frighten the approaching Philistines and save his people. Moreover, if we are to accept the account of the deliverance at the Red Sea given by the J document, this central event of Israel's faith was the act of a nature-god who sent a wind and drove back the waters.

The distinction wears increasingly thin. Yet there is reality to it; the claim is sound that Israel's was a historical religion. In the final analysis, it is a matter of the attitude and qualities attributed to the god. The nature-god was a personification of forces of the environment; notwithstanding his occasional dramatic intervention in the course of human affairs, his common attitude and relationship was one of remoteness; if we think of the difference between our notions of natural force and religious faith, we shall grasp the matter approximately, although it must be understood that, for early thought, there was no natural force, but only personal or suprapersonal activity. When such a nature-god departed from his fixed and routine functions into the unpredictable conduct of personal relationship, when further he made this connection permanent, attaching himself to the fortunes of a people, then he became a god of history. Leaving behind the relatively fixed and routine functions of the nature-god, he attained the freedom of action and will of a person. It must be recognized that hosts of ancient gods were historic gods, and their cults historic religions; it is implicit in the idea of the national god, of which Israel's world provides numerous examples. The uniqueness of the Hebrew religion was that it carried this intimate relationship farther and higher than did the others; it was supremely the historic religion, and by virtue of this fact attained heights and depths impossible for the others. The great story of Israel's growing knowledge of God as the supreme personality, of her intimacy with him, of her deepening acquaintance with his ways, that is, with pure and exalted ethics, was a direct result of the historic relation. He had chosen Israel, not because they were more in number than any other people, for they were the fewest of all peoples, but because he loved them; and they in turn were to love him. With a mighty arm he had delivered them from the house of bondage, hence they were never to forget the state of the foreigner and of the slaves among them, for they had been slaves in the land of Egypt. The mighty acts of God were both the unity and the apologetic of the nation's faith; he had gloriously manifested himself in a manner that might not be doubted.

In popular thinking, from the Conquest to the Exile, the difference was more apparent than we have made it. For the nation prided itself in the great historic events which were accepted as their God's intervention on their behalf; but Baal, of whom they learned from the Canaanites, was god of the fertility of the land. Here was the distinction drawn in hard lines; Yahweh was God of history, but Baal was a nature-god -- he controlled the weather; he gave rain and dew and lightning and storm; all the produce of the land, as well as the increase of flock and herd and of human homes, was his gift. Little wonder that in peaceful times the people "forgot the Lord their God and served the Baals and Ashtoreths," as the Book of Judges dolefully reiterates; but in time of trouble they cried to the Lord. Both lines of conduct were obviously correct, granted the validity of their theology. Against this dualism better elements, notably the prophets, set themselves. Such is the significance of Elijah's great contest at Mount Carmel: to demonstrate that Yahweh was master of the weather. It was the emphasis also of Hosea, and later of Jeremiah. For orthodox thought, there could be no distinction between nature and history; both were under the control of the one God: Yahweh was god of history and of nature. This conviction so pervades the literature that it is astonishing how certain lines of recent thought overlook the facts and seek to set nature and history in antithesis.

From this point of view the religious history of the time was one of long-drawn struggle of Yahweh with Baal. That victory fell to Yahweh is apparent, though it was not complete until some time after the Exile. Yet the issue is not of such a simple sort; indeed what has already been said should make this clear. There is no clear-cut division between history and nature, for man lives within nature; its moods, its seasons, its variegated form and expression deeply conditioned his life. Think of the profound spiritual experience of the coming of spring in the north. And who does not feel the thrill and challenge of each new day as he sets out in the freshness of the morning to its unknown demands? "Arise each morning like a lion," as a recent writer has pointed out, are the opening words of the famous Jewish legal document, the Shulhan Aruk. What a strange pulsation there is to human life: as night comes on, active scenes are in a few hours deserted; not a soul is in sight except the occasional watchman or late reveller, and whole cities lie silent -- cities of the dead, it might well seem, except that with the turn of the earth and the dawn of new day they revive to another brief and hectic activity.

This is the terrain of the nature-religions, and here is the scope and role of the nature-gods. Their function is that of relating man to nature and nature to man. Yet there is a dualism that cuts right through the relationship, whatever one may wish to say about it philosophically or theologically. Nature is arrayed against itself, in day and night, summer and winter, heat and cold, light and darkness, the desert and the sown, life and death, and a host of such antitheses. And it can well appear that these opposing entities are in constant struggle -- we would probably say, constant tension. Day lingeringly gives up before the advance of darkness, which then rules supreme until the sun in his might again assaults the eastern bastions of night and triumphs once more over his enemy. Similarly the season wanes, the sun's power and supremacy steadily declines until the great advent of the winter solstice, when the baneful process is halted and each succeeding day records the victory of the triumphant sun. Thus it was that the divine combat was integral to the nature-religions, and in this oscillation between day and night, between life and death, the profound truth was portrayed that tragedy is integral to man's being. Yet it was not unrelieved gloom, for tragedy was succeeded by new, vibrant life. And although the cynic might scoff that winter follows summer, just as truly as summer winter, yet, for ancient man, a strong note of optimism ran through the deep reality of his poignant tribulation. Doubtless this was in part merely human reluctance to accept the worst: or, better said, "Hope springs eternal in the human breast"; yet there was more concrete basis for the ancient faith in the victory of life. For did not man and the animals survive the long bleak period? Starvation was a reality for those stern days; many times the Bible mentions the famine that was in the land. Yet the race, and commonly the social group, came through to greet with joy the return of better days. And not these only, but plants and trees likewise had found a way to defy death; by retreating into themselves they also could await the time when again vibrant spring should call them to new activity. Life did triumph; the reign of death was transient, and though weeping might endure for a moment, yet joy came with the new morning. Life is perennially victorious; optimism is written into the nature of things, the invincible optimism which looks tragedy in the face and exults, O grave, where is your victory?

It is apparent, then, that the nature-religions were basically true, in the sense that they dealt with reality and offered answers to deep human needs. Their error was in their incompleteness and in the distortion which inevitably afflicted them. The struggle between Baal and Yahweh did not eventuate in an unqualified triumph and the eradication of all aspects of the nature-cult. When religions exist side by side syncretism always results. But the issue was even more complex, since Yahweh himself was originally a nature-god. In his cultus there were elements that paralleled those which we have discussed. It is revealing to recall that Israel's spring festival, as it came to established form, was of a dual character. The Passover is so intimately associated with the Feast of Unleavened Bread as to be commonly confused in popular thought. The former, with its ceremonial eating of the lamb, is obviously the spring festival of the shepherds, as Unleavened Bread is that of the peasants. In the desert, as truly as in Palestine, the coming of spring was a matter of prime importance. Thus in the long struggle through Israel's life in the land, Yahweh attained victory over Baal by various processes; in part, it was by the use of force and authority -- a summary statement which cloaks the political strife that continued until the Yahwists were able to overwhelm their opponents. Success was won also through accentuation of Yahweh's attributes as a nature-god, as well as by acceptance of the better aspects of the Baal religion, whereby Yahwism became richer. We are steadily learning more and more of Israel's debt to the Canaanites.

The character of ancient thought entailed that the basic dualism of man's existence should express itself in mythology, and this, in turn, in cult. The divine combat and the death and resurrection of the god of the life-process were of the essence of the ritual of the nature-religions. Further, the dualism was seen to be so deeply based that ancient thought traced it back to the very beginning; it was creative. Through the primeval combat the world had come into being, a myth most familiar in the great Babylonian poem commonly called the Epic of Creation, which told how the supreme god had fought and overcome the monster of chaos. The cultic drama then took on cosmic setting; the account of creation -- really of the primeval triumph of the god -- was annually repeated in the great holy day of the nature-religions, the New Year festival. This was no mere historic reminiscence, but a vital religious act pregnant for the well-being of the incoming year. As the god had triumphed before creation, so now again in the cultus he was victorious, insuring that through the new year no foe could successfully defy him. Already in creation, and again in the annual drama of the ritual, he won victory for his people; and each new enemy, whoever he might be in any of the succeeding years, was but a new manifestation of the original cosmic foe overthrown at the beginning of things. Here is the tragedy-infused optimism of the ancient world, a realistic optimism that accepts fully the fact of evil, but awaits, confident, the eventual victory of right.

Drama demands actors. And ancient concepts of psychology and sociology indicated the head of the group -- normally the king -- as protagonist in this sociocosmic struggle. That the king in some way embodied the totality of his realm is widely recognized; he was a sacred personality, as indeed is declared in the biblical stories where David shows great deference for the "anointed of the Lord." In Egypt the pharaoh was a god, but in Hither Asia the king was commonly no more than the god's representative, who stood in a special relation to him.

From this point onward the matter becomes increasingly contentious. It is claimed that there was no uniformity in the concept or the cultus throughout the ancient East, that the rite was not accepted in Israel; and if one pushes further in defiance of this latter denial, identification of the thinking or practice in the literature of the Bible becomes a battleground of diverse views. There can be no denial, however, that this "fertility" cult was known in Israel. We are told specifically in the Book of Ezekiel of women seen in the Temple, in the very act of the ritual weeping for Tammuz, the Babylonian dying god (Ezek. 8:14). Also the Canaanite Baalism, which became prevalent through the times of the Judges and persisted to the end of the kingdoms, was primarily of this nature. But the question is how far such thinking and practice was accepted into what we may call with considerable vagueness the "orthodox" religion. For the note-worthy fact is that not a hint of it is preserved in the so-called historical books. The approach to the question has commonly been through postulating analogies to the established practice of all Hither Asia, a line of reasoning which, in view of the notable independence of Israel's thinking, is recognized to be highly dubious. Yet the case does not rest here; for it must be recognized that the Psalms are historic documents in much the same sense as the prophetic oracles have long been known to be. They are poems out of the living religion as it flourished in Jerusalem for centuries. Still more, the liturgical character of many of them is obvious: they are hymns used in connection with some sort of enacted religious symbolism.

This point having been reached, the way lies wide open except for debated details with which we need not concern ourselves. Psalm 47 is clearly the liturgy of a rite in which God came into his Temple, and to the accompaniment of joyous shouting by his worshippers, took his seat on his throne as king of Israel and ruler of the nations. The poem does not make clear how this divine enthronement was enacted, but similarly indisputable allusions elsewhere show that his part was taken by the king during the time of the monarchy, though by whom in the succeeding centuries is not known. Nor is the occasion of this ritual declared. The nature of the thinking into which it fits indicates, however, that it must have been a festival of one of the solstices, and uniformly it is associated with that of autumn, the time of the great Feast of Tabernacles. Then nature paused between death and life. The old had passed away, the year's activities were at an end, the land lay parched and barren, waiting for the coming of the fertilizing rains which would call it once more to life and joy.

Yet we must beware an excessive "naturalizing" of the rite. Basic understanding of its character and motivations demands some such approach as we have followed. But at this point the distinctively Hebraic feature comes into evidence, for Yahweh was more than a nature-god. To such attributes, with their appropriate rites and myths, there was added, we have seen, the distinctive feature that Yahweh was most of all, in Israel's faith, God of history, and serving him was a historic religion. The Hebrew cultic drama, then, portrayed not alone the cosmic triumph, but also the "great works of the Lord" in Egypt and the wilderness and in Canaan. Is it not striking that the Passover, the spring festival, is one of reminiscence, in which tile devout Jew relives the wondrous experiences of that night when Israel's host went out from Egypt by the mighty hand and outstretched arm of the Lord? Certain of the Psalms also take on here special meaning and relevance; lengthy historical surveys such as Psalms 78, 105, and 106 and brief allusions as in Psalm 76 are evidently liturgies of some undeclared occasion when the victories of the Lord were celebrated. In the cultic drama as it was celebrated in Jerusalem we confront Israel's consciousness that theirs was a historic religion. The nature motifs of the great festival, as known through the contemporary pagan religions, were retained and in some regards sublimated; but to them was added the dramatic affirmation that Yahweh is supremely master of history. He is mighty in the realm of nature: he brings the cycle of the seasons, and the joy of springtime and of harvest; his goodness is to be perceived in the gentle rain from heaven. But most of all he has manifested himself in his choice of a people, in his great deeds on their behalf, and in his mastery of the entire course of history.

Obviously this is not the place to pursue the hosts of alluring questions which here confront one. The central matter stands out with clarity. In a great festival, evidently that of Sukkoth, the king ritually enacted the part of God's coming among his people and ceremonially taking his seat upon his throne in the Temple. Something of the wonder and uplift of the occasion for the devout ancient worshipper we can readily sense to this day. The tabernacle of God was with men and he would dwell among them God had come to his own people, with all that his coming might imply of might, of triumph, of abundance, of inspiration. This was "the day of the Lord" for which the populace perennially waited, as Amos and Malachi and others reveal, though these prophets used it as an occasion of searching of soul, for "who can abide the day of his coming?"

So in Israel there was a continuing expectation of a "new day," a day when the people's fortunes would turn, when want and oppression would be done away with in a glorious dawn of plenty and peace and power. And all was to come about through divine actions; God had once again triumphed over all his foes, the pristine and perennial victory was again accomplished and for the future the way led forward into joy. This was the day which the Lord had made, the day to be realized through his King, his Anointed One, his Messiah.

The messianic hope was of diverse origins and various expression. In a sense, every nation has its messianic expectations, hopes of greatness and glory; and so too Israel. But all this was subsidiary to the central thought gathered about a supranormal event in which that great day would be inaugurated. There was a widespread expectation of the coming of a Wonder Child through whom the difficulties of the present would be erased. It has left numerous traces in the Bible. Isaiah's promise of the birth of Immanuel whose infancy would synchronize with political deliverance was somewhat clearly of this character (Isa. 7:14-17). It is related to the ancient legend of Sargon of Accad, an abandoned baby who, like Moses, was miraculously saved and became leader and ruler of his people. Of similar genius was the idea about the travailing mother of Bethlehem Ephrathah, whose son was to stand as deliverer of the people (Mic. 5:26). But here

we make contact with the prestige of David, for Bethlehem was his native city: the expectation took on aspects of the hope for David's return -- as great deliverer from the Philistine yoke, he could surely solve all the troubles of the future. In any case, the Davidic dynasty was intimately related to the continuing hope, although in the course of the centuries it manifested great variety, with attention turning to the tribe of Joseph or of Levi. Indeed it is revealing to recall that the supporters of the Herodian house also endowed these -- not unduly sublime men! -- with messianic qualities. Yet the standard form of the expectation was that the Messiah would be of the Davidic family. Thus it is apparent that our thinking has led us once more to the area of the supranormal qualities and powers associated with the kingship. The Messiah would be a king, and the king was a messiah. It was a projection of the present on the future, though a sublimated present, transfused and transformed with ritual symbolism and hopes.

The Exile, which for many Jews was indefinitely prolonged through dreary years of Diaspora, was a time when the messianic expectation was of special relevance. Here was an ideal situation for its functioning, and here an occasion to test it out in the actualities of history. The literature of the period is permeated with ardent hopes; and indeed at one point they seemed on the point of realization, with all the incredible accompaniments that the most earnest might desire. For did not Cyrus, king of Persia, in the first year of his reign issue a decree permitting the exiles to return? The dreams of glory with which Second Isaiah heralded the approach of this day created some of the most beautiful as well as the most exalted poetry of the Bible. It is not strange that he invoked the times of Moses, for was this not a second Exodus? Many passages take on meaning when seen as references to the storied days when Israel went out of Egypt and journeyed safely through the great and terrible wilderness. Just so the Lord would now mock the might of Babylon and, overcoming all natural obstacles, would conduct his people home to Zion "with songs and everlasting joy upon their heads."

The comparison demanded one thing further; for that ancient movement went forward under a great leader. And so, it has been cogently argued, the poet looked for a second Moses to be head of the new exodus. However, his usual term is "the servant" of the Lord; as it is used in a group of short lyrics (usually limited to Isa. 42:1-4; 49:16; 50:4-9; and 52:13-53:12), the epithet has been through the centuries, and continues to be, a battleground of exposition. Agreement seems now to be emerging that this mysterious figure who was despised, persecuted, attacked, killed, and buried was in some way related to the sufferer in the cultic drama. One must be cautious of the bold claim that these poems are nothing more than an adaptation of the myth, a sort of Jewish Tammuz liturgy. Yet equally the analogies are too close to be neglected. In the religious rite and in the hopes and convictions associated with it, the seer-poet of the Exile saw parallels to the plight of his people. They had endured their night of blackness; as a nation they had been done to death; but now the horizon was alight with promise of a new day, of a revival, a resurrection, brought about, as always, through the power of God. Current discussion as to whether the "servant" was the nation or an individual rests on a misconception; for it has been well said that he was both. The sufferer in the religious festival was always an individual, though a sort of corporate individual, gathering up into himself the fortunes of the group. The "Servant Songs" are fully within the limits of messianic prophecy, announcing a hope that was realized first in the deliverance from Babylon, then in succeeding fulfilments, always leading onward with deeper insight and hope.

The power and depth and persistence of the messianic hope can be understood only against this rich background. It was more than a political dream; it was not merely a sublimated fancy about a favorite ruling dynasty. It was a religious faith, rooted and nurtured in religious conceptions and evidenced in objective events that everyone knew and experienced. Further, it was annually revived and enforced in a festival of mystic power and sublime spiritual meaning.

The incredible optimism of the Jew through the centuries, dispersed, despised, abused, the victim of brutal mobs and of ignorant fanaticism even to our own day -- yet the Jew refusing to give up, maintaining a health of mind and courage and good cheer at which all may wonder! The secret quite obviously lies in religious faith, but, in particular, in the deep-rooted conviction that God had triumphed over all his foes at the beginning and that each succeeding year but witnesses his renewed victory over the same old enemy in his myriad Hydra-headed form. What matters it whether Haman or Nebuchadnezzar or Antiochus or Hitler? They are all the one foe, and were long ago overcome. Victory belongs to God!

It is difficult for the non-Jew to grasp the depth and breadth of this hope and faith. But for those who can see religious rites in their anthropological as well as in their historical significance, we possess an elucidative parallel in the celebration of Easter. This too is a nature-rite -- it is the Christian spring festival -- transfused with historic meaning in its reminiscences of the passion and resurrection of Jesus, but most of all permeated with religious immediacy and exalted hope. The devout Christian who enters sincerely and profoundly into the sacramental significance of the Easter celebration, for whom also the accompanying symbolism of the springtime is not just casual ornamentation, but shares in some way the essence of the occasion -- such a one joins hands, whether consciously or not, with the sincere Jew in his messianic expectation.

The older concept of Yahweh as a nature-god, specifically his association, as at Sinai, with an active volcano, persisted to lend force and literary expression to many devout utterances; also it took on, with the course of time, a new relevance. The prophet Amos performed his mission about the time of the great earthquake in the middle of the eighth century. At about the same time-to be specific, on June 15, 763 B.C. -- there occurred an eclipse of the sun which through a broad band of the Near East was complete. What the people of the time thought of these terrifying phenomena is not our present concern. Amos employed them as symbols of the coming punishment which God would send upon Israel, and from him they passed into somewhat common prophetic imagery of the coming great day. Somewhere about this point volcanic imagery comes back into use, and we hear of the Lord coming down and the mountains flowing down at his presence. But it must be borne in mind that the great day was "the Day of the Lord," the day celebrated in the Temple "at the turn of the year." Thus apocalyptic imagery came to characterize increasingly the expectations, until at length the sun was supposed to be darkened and the moon turned to blood before the great and terrible Day of the Lord. Mountains would shake and remove from their place, the heavens would be rolled back: and then the Lord would come. The same line of thought, carried a little further, brought the author of the Book of Daniel to describe how thrones were placed and the Ancient of Days seated, with a fiery stream flowing out in front of him, while millions of ministrants stood in his presence or performed his bidding; then "there came with the clouds of heaven one like a son of man, and there was given him dominion and glory and kingdom, that all peoples and nations should serve him" (Dan. 7:9-14).

Interpretation of this symbolism is a matter of very great caution and delicacy. There is now a prevalent vogue of eschatology in Biblical studies -- more definitely the view that the Biblical writers looked forward to a supernatural and catastrophic intervention of divine powers, by which the present world would in some way come to its end, and the new age would be inaugurated; there would be a new world inhabited by redeemed saints. The change from this age to the next would signalize a complete break in the natural order and a termination of history as such. Doubtless the idea has some foundation. Supernatural intervention was much less a problem for ancient thinkers than it has become for us, with our conception of the orderly processes of nature; for the race, as for the individual, "heaven lies about us in our infancy." Moreover, the basic motif of the annual festival, which we have seen to enshrine the messianic hope, was a conviction of the immediate and mighty working of God in the affairs of his people. All this plays right into the hands of the eschatologists. But the situation works its own corrective. As the festival was enacted year after year, just what miraculous irruption of divine power was expected and, according to accepted faith, actually experienced? The cynic might answer, "Nothing at all." Certainly things went on as before. The order of nature was not interrupted, nor was the political status of the people changed. In crassly skeptical terms, no miracle had happened at all. The priests had put on a show, a number of folk had gotten themselves excited, but things were just as they had been! And this persisted right through the time when eschatological imagery was being freely voiced as the meaning and truth about the Day of the Lord. "The sun shall be turned into the darkness and the moon into blood before the great and terrible Day of the Lord comes" -- no one might detect so much as a flicker in the sun's shining, and yet the devout held firmly to the truth of these words, even in the very time when they were alleged to have their relevance!

If we retrace our steps and examine afresh the bases of this eschatological expectation, we shall be in a position to interpret it more soundly. It was the expression of living realities in the world of nature, as well as a reminiscence of epochal events in the nation's history, which were by various lines of thought accepted as symbols and figures of unseen entities of human life. At the annual feast great things happened, part of them in objective nature, part in the hearts of the worshippers, but both alike true in their portrayal of the deep realities of man's being and his place in a world of unplumbed depths of wonder and mystery. Then when the Day of the Lord had come and gone, the devout worshipper returned to his workaday tasks and busied himself in humdrum fashion, one might suppose, with his pots or his merchandise or his fields and flocks, and the world went on as before. Yet not quite as before, just as the devout worshipper in church or synagogue to this day returns, not quite the same as before, but with a quickened faith and conviction, to tasks that no longer are commonplace.

It is apparent what all this signifies. Eschatological imagery is just that: it is imagery. It is symbolic form employed to express the inexpressible. We do it a wrong, and we exaggerate the supernatural thought of its authors when we take it literally as precise formulation of ancient expectations. This conclusion is borne out by a further consideration. Almost without exception the "new age which the cosmic catastrophe was expected to inaugurate is presented as a mundane affair. Life continued on this earth; right here the drama of history played itself forward. Even one of the most supernatural of the pictures of the coming age, that in Daniel 7 to which we have referred, tells that after the awesome "Ancient of Days" had been enthroned, and the books were opened for sentence upon the beasts in anticipation of the coming of the "son of man," the terrible fourth beast was killed, but the others suffered only loss of their political power. Interpreting the symbolism, it indicates the writer's expectation that in the great moment, when final victory was to come supernaturally to "the saints of the Most High," the three empires, Babylon, Media, and Persia, would continue, right into the new age, changed only in that their imperial rule was taken from them. And this, it must be realized, was to come about not through some deep transformation in which they would "become the kingdoms of our God"; instead they would live on as pagan and alien kingdoms. Surely the entire picture is no more than a highly figurative expression of the hope that in this world and within the processes of history the Jewish people, as custodians of the highest religion, would attain permanent national power, supreme throughout the world. The result, it is true, was to be realized through direct action of God. But then the entire Old Testament thought, we have pointed out, was based on a conviction of God's activity in history. There remains still to be reckoned with, some remnant of expectation of miraculous action: it was inescapable in that age; however, as we may note once again, ancient miracles were much simpler than their modern protagonists would have them, and much closer to natural processes. Besides, it was not an unusual expectation, for the miraculous permeated the natural with constant irruption of the wondrous: an insight of profound truth and relevance for even the modern world. Thus through a wealth of colorful imagery the Biblical writers were telling that processes such as have functioned in all ages will ultimately bring a wonderful day when right will be finally and permanently triumphant all the world around. Then, and in this sense, the kingdom of God will become a reality on earth.

Here we reach the climax of the Hebrew philosophy of history. We have noted their conviction that the supreme fact of history is God and his power and purposes. He is directing affairs in some mysterious way such that men and nations retain their freedom and boast only of their own designs, yet through the chaos of a world in flames as well as through the drab days of common times when vested wrong seems invincible, God is bringing to pass his purposes. Briefly, their conviction was that history has meaning and that it is a moral and spiritual meaning -- "spiritual" as related to the highest human values. So much is clear from the writings of the Hebrew historians and from the preaching of the prophets. And the outcome is implied: surely such a process of history moves on to a glorious culmination. Fortunately we are not left to deduction; what we surmise is presented unmistakably, although in colorful imagery, in the eschatological passages. Nature and history, though distinct, converge in the unified meaning that the life of man is moving on to better things.

Yet there remains still another unanswered question. Once history has reached such a culmination, will its linear process then give way to a static condition? Is there nothing more to hope or expect when the kingdom of God has come save only to sit and sing ourselves away to everlasting bliss -- a prospect not particularly attractive to the restless spirit of man? Conclusions here are more conjectural. Various Biblical writers entertained the hope that the Lord would take away the stony heart from his people and give them a heart of flesh, or in differing terms, that he would write his law on their hearts. This might be interpreted in the extreme form that the great eschatological event would completely transform mankind into perfect beings -- if anyone can say what such creatures would be. Then, obviously, when perfection is reached, there is nothing beyond; all one can hope is to maintain his position at that high level. However, our conclusions in regard to the nature of the eschatological event cast very serious doubts upon this. There is ground to believe that the Hebrew thinkers, if we could cross-question them, would reply, "Well now, I never thought about that! But since you raise the question, why certainly there will be the same sort of progress in the new age as is apparent and necessary on this side of it."

The Biblical philosophy of history never envisaged the termination of history and some vague and mythical era or existence "beyond history." The notable wholesomeness and realism, so characteristic of the Hebrew mind, manifested itself here likewise. They conceived of human life as moving on and on to ever better things -- better things in terms of social ethics, and ethics, in turn, in a cosmic setting, as expressive of the deep nature of man and of the world: in their terms, of the will of God. When and how the progress would end and what then would happen, they simply did not trouble to speculate.

Suggested Readings:

CASE, S. J.: The Chris~an Philosophy of History. Chicago, 1943.

FRANKEORT, H.: Kingship and the Gods. Chicago, 1948.

The Problem of Similarity in Ancient Near Eastern Religions. Oxford, 1951.

GASTER, T. H.: Thespis; Ritual, Myth and Drama in the Ancient Near East. New York, 1950.

JOLINSON, A. R.: The Cultic Prophet in Ancient Israel. Cardiff, 1944.

 

 

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