return to religion-online

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 8: The Hebrews and the Bible


Merely in terms of its creative influence upon human society, far and away the greatest of the great books is the Bible. And what better criterion of worth is there ? Opinions of critics, however high their repute, are only personal opinions. But the test of the ages is irrefutable. Only that which has proven its worth to countless hosts of succeeding generations can live on through the centuries; the weak and the Sectarian and the ill-founded fall by the way. Here is the sheer miracle of it: a literature that long antedated our glorious gains in science and the immense scope of modern knowledge, which moves in the quiet atmosphere of the ancient countryside, with camels and flocks and roadside wells and the joyous shout of the peasant at vintage or in harvest -- this literature, after all that has intervened, is still our great literature, published abroad as no other in the total of man's writing, translated into the world's great languages and many minor ones, and cherished and loved and studied so earnestly as to set it in a class apart.

Some there may be who will lightly scoff at such assurances. More than half the world ostensibly cares little for the Bible, and in that large section potent leadership is exerted by those who have known and repudiated it. Does it not appear that the great book of the present and, much more, of the future, is the work of a Jew, basically motivated by the great stirrings of social concern that moved the prophets, yet writing a work of far different portent? Is it not probable that the future will honor, not the Bible, but Das Kapital? Perhaps one is guilty of bias when he confesses a tendency to smile at the notion; it is so out of focus as to be amusing. However, more pertinent is the remark that Mein Kampf was likewise, only a few years ago, with its perverted morals and twisted thinking, the defiant inspiration of a whole great people -- or at least of those who had arrogated the right to speak for that people. The analogy is so close that to point the application would be tiresome.

Yet those who love the Bible commonly are oblivious of its historic uniqueness. In one of its own phrases, the Bible has been "wounded in the house of its friends"; for it has been so set apart as of distinct genius, as of divine origin and planning -- which there is no thought here to deny -- that few have recognized its greatness as a human document. Yet it stands head and shoulders above its nearest rival; its separateness inheres, not in theories of its origin and nature, but in the solid facts of its worth and of its impact upon human society in the way both of rebuke to the low and bestial and of exaltation of an impossible ideal, toward which, nonetheless, it has attracted and impelled.

How this has come about is clear upon a moment's reflection. Refined through the sifting process commonly called canonization but now realized to have been merely a growing recognition of what was of worth, cherished in crisis after crisis when individual and even national life was at stake, accepted by the nascent church, which presently added its own documents and formed the Christian Bible, then carried by both Jews and Christians in their far dispersion, the Bible became the supreme book of the Western world. Largely inspired and shaped by it were the great works of Augustine, Maimonides, and Thomas Aquinas, Dante's Divine' Comedy, Milton's Paradise Lost and others which everyone recognizes to have had potent influence in the making of our Western mind. Yet the simple and almost unrecorded effects were of even greater significance: its quiet formative influence as Sabbath after Sabbath it was read and expounded in synagogue or church, or still more unostentatiously was studied for private interests or private devotions.

The leavening influence of Jewish communities, exerted upon the crude societies of medieval Europe, is becoming more clearly recognized. It has long been known that Spanish Jewry was brilliant, but the pervasive and creative influence of the Jews through northern Europe and in the New World is a matter that, when given its due, still excites attention as a novelty. And the Jews have been a "people of the Book." Christian missionaries carried the Book to our savage ancestors and by its precepts and example slowly tamed their rude cultures. It became the inspiration of the cathedrals, the theme of art, the plot of drama, the basis of epic and lyric, of essay and story; and constantly, our speculative thought, our wrestle with the enigma of being, has been permeated with the biblical convictions. Recognizing fully the complex nature of society, it can yet with little exaggeration be claimed that the culture of the Western world is a Bible culture. The claim is open to attack from two sides. There is occasion to scoff that our society with its monumental iniquities is biblically based. Likewise the erudite may smile at the complete ignoring of our debt to Greece, or even to Rome. Such considerations are all valid; still it remains that the Bible has been the vital, creative force operative through these Centuries, shaping our life far more deeply than all else. The native genius and character of the several peoples of the Western world; the profound significance of the Greek intellect still potent in the analytic mood of the present; the constructive, organizing genius of Rome: all these and much more have gone into the making of the modern dwelling of the human spirit. Nonetheless, the affirmation will not be evaded that the biblical influence has been, and is, of a more potent sort; for it strongly grips human emotions, the driving force in achievement, and sets them aflame with a supreme ideal which by its very loftiness thrills and mocks us.

Nor is this but a matter of the past. It must be realized that notwithstanding the far-reaching — and commendable -- influences of the Renaissance, the Bible and biblical thought are the most vital elements in this modern, confused world. Three great issues confront us, the socioeconomic structure often simplified in terms of the stress of capital and labor, the crucial issue of peace and war, and the rivalry of "communism" and "democracy," which in part is but an aspect of the socioeconomic, but ramifies far beyond. All three are biblical issues, in the sense that biblical ideals are, consciously or otherwise, the potent motivation without which there might well be no struggle at all. The first is a projection of the preaching of Amos and Isaiah and their demands for society's equitable sharing of the assets of society; the second is the long outreach of the insights and hopes of biblical thinkers who, in an age of rampant power politics when war was the normal and perennial occupation of rulers, dreamed of a time when nation should not take up sword any more against nation, but in idyllic peace, as it were, the lion would lie down with the lamb. And the issue between imperialist communism and the West is basically the problem of the nature of man: does the individual have rights and transcendent possibilities, such as the Bible taught, or is he a mere cog in a heartless machine? It is by no means the first time in history that theological doctrines have been political facts of the first order. Nonetheless it is sobering to realize that biblical insights as an issue of current world stress are in imminent danger of being fought over, not with the arguments of scholars, but with all the horrible devices of modern war. Whatever the immediate outcome, of one thing we may rest assured: no question is settled until it is settled right -- again a biblical thought, though framed in secular terms.

The source of the Bible's power to stir men's minds and fire their imaginations is no secret, except as all things human are ultimately clothed in deepest mystery. The Bible is a creation of sheer beauty. True, there are tawdry passages from weaker writers, but here we speak of the characteristically biblical portions. The wonder of it has been obscured for most readers by the fact that it comes to them in their own language, hence is accepted, half unconsciously, almost as modern literature. And indeed this is the astonishing feature of it, that it can and does function as writing of the present day. But when we set it in its true historical context, compare it with the literature of its time, then we realize the sheer incredulity of its having arisen in such an age. Here we see unknown writers in the hills of ancient Judah, seated in simple homes that from the point of view of our present-day luxury might be regarded as little better than hovels, surrounded with furnishings more bare and austere than those of a medieval monastery, equipped with simple reed pens and rolls of papyrus, or perhaps with broken sherds of old pots, as they slowly indite in awkward, ancient Hebrew characters, words that have run like fire and are potent at this distant day.

The fact to be grasped firmly is that the writers of the Bible were literary artists of the first order. They were also the first that may be thus characterized, for the best that their world had produced was but inept and rude by comparison. This is not to disparage a tradition of poetry which as far back as Sumerian times possessed form and power and in the hands of Israel's immediate predecessors produced models from which the Hebrew poets could work. Nor is it to overlook the royal records of imperial Assyria, or the human tales from a thousand years of Egypt's achievements. All these had merit; here and there they possess their "purple patches" that reveal a real sense of the meaning of literature. But their best, Israel far transcended. Here is the really significant primacy of the Bible as literature; it was first in quality! At their farthest outreach, the writers of the wider Orient but approached a region where the Hebrew authors moved with ease and surety as masters in their own home. In Israel we find first and in high expression that infallible mark of literature, a sense of "the power and beauty of words," as it has been called, "words for their own lovely and intrinsic sake" -- a feeling for the magic they possess when, put together in simple phrase, they create something new; rich overtones and nuances, flights of the spirit that break through formal expression and linger delicate as the breath of dawn. It is the realm of art: the effort to express by one's chosen medium the inexpressible, something of the wonder and mystery with which human life is suffused and sub merged. Here they excelled; with simple, commonplace words they wove together a texture of rich beauty and living imagination. They took any common bush by the roadside and set it afire with light and flame that is not of the workaday world. The astonishing feature is that out of utterly common themes and in simple phrasing they evoked pictures and dreams and hopes that have stirred countless hearts through the lengthening centuries. What a drab and repulsive topic that is, for example, a doting old fellow who stands with one foot in the grave, obsessed with foolish fears, his limbs trembling, his toothless mouth hanging open in the inanity of "second childhood": but see what the writer has done with it in the twelfth chapter of Ecclesiastes, running on to a culmination that is of the pure essence of poetry!

Before the silver cord is loosed
and the golden bowl is broken
And the pitcher is smashed at the fountain
and the wheel broken at the well
And the dust returns to the earth as it was
and the spirit returns to God who
gave it:
Vanity of vanities, says Koheleth,
all is vanity (Eccles. 12:6-8).

Of comparable genius is that great sermon which makes up the hortatory chapters of the Book of Deuteronomy. The author quite clearly is carried away by the balance and beauty and rhythms of his words; he loves their cadences, he piles them up in synonyms, he heaps up phrases and clauses, rushing on with the compelling impetus of expression until at times he seems half-lost in the rich fabric of his weaving; yet all is subsumed to his serious didactic purpose, but so transformed by the magic of feeling that his prose breaks its bonds and is transmuted into poetry. Hear the resounding rhythms, the balanced periods, and altogether the charm of wording of this simple bit of homiletic warning:

 And it shall be when the Lord thy God shall bring thee into the land which he swore to thy fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, to give thee great and goodly cities which thou buildedst not, and houses full of all good things, which thou filledst not, cisterns hewed out, which thou hewedst not, vineyards and olive groves which thou plantedst not, and thou shalt eat and be full -- then beware lest thou forget the Lord thy God who brought thee from the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage ( Deut. 6:10-11).

 Or we may turn to a note of geographic description, where the Hebrew love of their wonderful little land is similarly touched with a light that is not on land or sea. Again we feel the beat of the rhythms, and the resounding repetitions that give a sense of form and balance such as is of the measured being of poetry. The imagery is of the simple peace of the countryside of long ago, but with power to awake idyllic pictures:

For the Lord thy God bringeth thee into a good land, a land of brooks of water, of fountains and springs flowing forth in valleys and hills; a land of wheat and barley and vines and figs and pomegranates; a land of olives, of oil and honey; a land in which thou shalt eat bread without want, thou shalt lack nothing in it; a land whose stones are iron, and out of whose hills thou canst dig copper (Deut. 8:7-9).

 The glory of Old Testament prose, however, is the superb narratives that make up the major hulk of the books from Genesis to Second Kings. It grows trite to repeat that they were a new achievement of the ancient world; the stories from other oriental lands of the time were crude and commonplace by comparison. But Israel created a narrative literature which has lived through intervening ages to the sophisticated present, still standing high in the catalogue of the story-teller's art. How the Hebrews came to do this, lifting literature from its drab earthy levels to the status of a fine art, can be answered only in terms of the mystery that enshrines all genius. Briefly, they were that sort of people. Doubtless their history contributed much -- their national heritage and the discipline which the centuries brought; other peoples had comparable advantages and comparable stern molding, but save for their names, they are lost in the following years. We are driven to conclude that Israel's genius was a birthright; it was a racial characteristic.

Nonetheless it is remarkable to find these ancient authors employing all the modern devices of the literary craftsman, surprise and suspense, rapidity and delay, humor and solemnity, vividness, realism, untempered callousness, dramatic shift of scene -- all permeated with their feeling for what is intrinsically interesting, what makes a good story. The compactness of the Hebrew tale is frequently amazing. The brutal tragedy of Jezebel's death is told, with harrowing details and unfeeling ruthlessness, in the compass of six short Biblical verses:

Jehu came to Jezreel, and Jezebel heard of it. She painted her eyes and dressed her head, and looked out a window. As Jehu came in through the gate, she said, Is all well, Zimri, murderer of his master? He looked up to the window, and said, Who is on my side? Who? There looked out at him two or three eunuchs, and he said, Throw her down. And they threw her down, and her blood was sprinkled on the wall and on the horses. And he trod her under foot. Then he went in and ate and drank; and he said, See now about that cursed woman, and bury her, for she was a king's daughter. So they went out to bury her, but they found of her only the skull and the feet and the hands (II Kings 9:30-35).

 

What a picture of cold horror, alleged to be just retribution upon this wicked old woman! He gave not a thought to her as she fell in her blood at his feet; he did not pause to kill her, but merely drove over her, went and ate a good dinner, then casually gave orders to throw her in a grave!

The unconscious art of the narrators is well manifested in the story of Abraham's servant going to find a wife for Isaac (Genesis 24). There is no delaying over the enticing adventures of the long journey from the Palestinian Negeb to upper Mesopotamia: "The servant took ten camels of the camels of his master, having all good things of his master in his hand, and departed. And he came to Mesopotamia to the city of Nahor." Then a picture, caught with one hold sweep of the pen: "He made his camels lie down outside the city, by a well of water, at the time of evening, the time when women go forth to draw water." One can almost see the stately procession of those oriental women, dignified as queens, in the peace of the oriental evening coming down the slope from the little city, each with her graceful water-jar on her shoulder, while around the tree-sheltered well lie the ten great hulking beasts still saddled with their baggage and gaudy with the beads and trinkets that camel-drivers have always loved.

Action moves on; Rebecca comes to the well in exact answer to the old servant's prayer, and almost before he had finished speaking, fulfilling his petition to the letter, while he stood looking on amazed. But it was her turn to be astonished when he gave her a golden earring of half a shekel's weight and two bracelets of ten shekels of gold. With what excitement she ran home to tell her family! She had a brother, Laban,, who shared her astonishment at the gold: "And it came to pass when he saw the ring and the bracelets," that he ran out to the man where he was still standing by the well, and he said, "Come in, thou blessed of the Lord" -- when he saw the ring and the bracelets!

So they made him comfortable with all the consideration of oriental hospitality; and they set food before him, but he said, "I will not eat until I have told my errand." How they must have stared in astonishment: this man with every mark of wealth and breeding has an errand for them! What can he possibly know about them? But he went on, "I am Abraham's servant" . Abraham, that impractical relative obsessed with some silly dream, who had gone out into the unknown -- how many years ago was it? One almost forgot; anyhow the distance had swallowed up both him and his dream, and they had long since written him off as a total loss: probably killed by some of the wild folk out there: you can never trust those foreigners. And now like a bolt from the blue this man with his gold and his ten camels, and his dignity -- and an errand for them . . "I am Abraham's servant and the Lord has blessed my master greatly, and he has become rich: and he has given him flocks and herds, and silver and gold, and menservants and maidservants, and camels and asses. And Sarah, my master's wife, bore him on in his old age . ."

Who has not been stirred by the vivid events of the collapse of Absalom's revolt, and the deep pathos of David's lament? With the rebels dispersed and the insurrection at an end, the first responsibility was to get news to the king, waiting anxiously through the day at the base camp in Mahanaim. The young priest Ahimaaz offered himself as a courier; but Joab refused, for the tidings of victory were confused with news of Absalom's death. He called an Ethiopian and told him to run with news of what he had seen. The impatient Ahimaaz still begged permission, and at length Joab relented, perhaps believing that the first courier would hold his lead and so make the report.

But Amimaaz chose a better route and outdistanced him. In course of tine he came in sight from the city; the watchman on the gate-tower spied him and announced, "I see a man running." The old king, broken not so much by his years as by the tragedy of recent weeks and the anxiety of the day, had sat for hours in the gateway, waiting word of the safety of his erring son. As his veteran troops had marched out to battle he had commissioned them, "Deal gently for my sake with the young man Absalom." Now the long day was wearing to an end; at last news; he replied to the watchman, "If he is alone, he brings tidings." In a moment the Ethiopian also came in sight, but as the distance shortened the watchman recognized the first runner: "I think the running of the first is like the running of Ahimaaz, the son of Zadok." Snatching at any ground of hope, the king replied, "He is a good man and brings good news."

At length within shouting distance, Ahimaaz called, "All is well," then, out of breath, launched on a formal announcement of victory. But the king brushed it aside, "Is the young man Absalom safe?" Now Ahimaaz was confronted with the predicament which Joab foresaw, for he knew well that at that moment Absalom's still warm body lay beneath a great heap of stones where the victorious troops had killed, and in this fashion entombed him; he evaded the issue: "When Joab, the king's servant, sent me, your servant, I saw a great commotion, but I do not know what it was." What a deadly chill the words struck to the heart of the anxious David; he commanded, "Stand aside." Then the Ethiopian came, blurting out his words through gasping breath, "Tidings for my lord, the king, for the Lord has avenged you of all them that rose up against you." But again the king cut in sharply, "Is the young man Absalom safe?" This courier is only a courier; he stands farther from the royal family and the restraints which such association imposed. In allusive fashion such as the Orient affects, he told the blunt truth: "The enemies of my lord the king, and all who rise against you for evil, be as that young man is!" The tragic moment was too poignant for comment; the author relates simply, "The king was greatly moved; and he went up to the chamber over the gate, and wept. And as he went he said, O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom! Would that I had died for you! O Absalom, my son, my son!"

For its literary art, the greatest of all the biblical stories is that of Joseph. It has been the source and inspiration of great literature, down to classic presentation in our own time. But whether these later accounts attain the greatness of the original remains an open question. It possesses a unity, a delicate interweaving of the threads of its theme, that is in danger of being obscured by more voluminous treatment. For to all the other arts and skills of the Hebrew narrator the story of Joseph adds two qualities that lift it into the class of modern story-telling. It possesses magnificent character delineation: the great theme is the princely magnanimity of Joseph, envied by his lesser brothers, his life threatened, then at length spared only through the dubious device of selling him into slavery in Egypt; and there, his fortunes going from bad to worse, he was, for no fault of his own but indeed because of his integrity, hurled into an oriental prison to lie hopeless until some dubious chance should release him. Yet he maintained his good cheer. At length the process of years brought him power and opportunity. Then -- but that is the story.

The other notable feature is the writer's skill with his plot, for the intricacy of his story amounts to nothing less. The tangled thread of events slowly wove their destined pattern. Chance, it seemed, brought two important functionaries of the court into the prison with Joseph. He interpreted their dreams, and matters came out as he had foretold; but his long affliction was not yet ended, for the Pharaoh's butler, in the quaint phrase of the Hebrew writer, "did not remember Joseph, but forgot him." Then the Pharaoh himself dreamed, perplexing dreams that baffled all the wisdom of Egypt and held the court in day-long commotion until the butler remembered. In one of these sudden reversals of fortune which the Orient loves, Joseph was hurried from prison, almost to a throne. In gratitude for his brilliant interpretation of the dreams, the Pharaoh took off his signet ring and put it on Joseph's hand, and long inured though he was to prison garb, arrayed him in fine linen, made him ride in the second chariot and declared, "I am Pharaoh, and without you may no man lift his hand or foot in all the land of Egypt."

So the predicted years of plenty came in, and Joseph, in accord with his own plans, bought all the surplus of the land and stored it. Then at length the famine years arrived and Joseph opened the stores and sold to the Egyptians. But the famine was in all lands, even up in the land of Canaan. So one day there stood before this polished Egyptian vizier, as he went about his duties overseeing the sale of food, a group of unkempt Palestinian shepherds. Years had intervened, but there was no mistaking them; they were his brothers! Now was his chance. How would he employ it? He spoke roughly to them, "You are spies." But with loud expostulations, "No, no: we are honest men. We have come to buy grain. We are twelve brothers, all sons of one man; the youngest is with our father in the land of Canaan, and one has disappeared." Little did they realize that they were answering Joseph's gnawing question of all these years; his father, now an old man, was still alive. He threw them in prison, then after three days, with mock religiosity he released them, explaining that he stood for justice; but one of their number must remain a hostage while the rest went home with food for their households. On their return they must bring Benjamin, else by the life of Pharaoh, surely they were spies. Safe behind the barrier of language, they reasoned among themselves that all this trouble had come on them because of that sin of twenty years ago when they showed no pity to their little brother: "Did I not say to you, Do not sin against the boy, but you would not listen? So his blood is now required of us." Little did they realize that the princely Egyptian who dealt with them through an interpreter had learned Hebrew at his mother's knee. And now to hear it again after all these years was more than he could bear; he went aside and wept, then returned to them.

They set off, all except Simeon imprisoned in Egypt, and plodded along through the day beside the slow-pacing donkeys. At evening, in the flimsy khan in the desert, they opened their sacks to give grain to the animals. And there was their money, neatly stowed in the top of each sack! They looked at each other in apprehension: some sinister design was reaching out to engulf them. And so they came to their father and told him of their adventures and in particular of the suspicions and demands of the inquisitive ruler. His decision was prompt and incisive:

"Benjamin will not go." Thus they delayed until food ran low, and their father reprimanded them for their tardiness. The answer was ready, "The man said we might not return without Benjamin; and you have refused to let Benjamin go." Life's complexity had gotten too much for the old man: querulously he complained, "Joseph is lost, and Simeon is lost, and now you would take away

Benjamin also. All these things lie upon me. Why did you have to tell the man that you had a brother?" But now if it must be, they were to take a little gift, some nuts and almonds, a little honey and spicery and balm and myrrh. What pathetic realism: the rustic's tribute -- how trivial as gifts for the lord of all the land of Egypt! But would they be to this one? And note the depth of anxiety in the troubled old man's parting blessing, "God Almighty give you favor with the man that he may release your other brother and Benjamin also. And I -- when I am bereaved, still more bereavement comes on me."

The brothers were taken to Joseph's house in deepening fears. Perplexed, they reasoned among themselves, "The man is going to make some attack upon us so that he may enslave us and take our donkeys"! We can see the author smiling behind his pen at the countryman’s foibles: the exquisite vizier of all Egypt casting envious eyes on those mangy, ragged creatures, worn with three grueling journeys through the desert! The men sought to ingratiate themselves with the steward of the house; they explained about the money found in their sacks: they had brought it all back, besides more money for their further purchase. They were less than half satisfied by his easy reassurance, "All is well. Your God, the God of your father, gave you treasure." But at least it was good to have Simeon released to join them. They made ready their rustic gift for Joseph. When he came his first words were of "that old man your father, is he well? Is he still living?" He saw Benjamin, his one full brother of that polygamous household; carrying his part in the self-assigned drama, he enquired; "Is this the younger brother of whom you spoke?" He succeeded in saying, "God be good to you, my son," before he had to hurry into his private room to gain control of himself.

Next morning the well-instructed steward had the men’s sacks filled, but with more than grain, and sent them off. What a relief! How they must have congratulated themselves, that, after all, their fears had been groundless. But they were scarcely out of the city when overtaken by the steward and his retinue, noisily hurling charges of some mysterious crime. Presently through the hubbub his meaning became clear: one of them had stolen a silver cup belonging to his master. It was preposterous; why certainly they hadn't! They tried reasoning, they tried expostulation; the scene became noisy and confused, then one brother, in confident innocence, challenged, "Look through our stuff. If you find it, then the man who has it is to be killed, and the rest of us will be your slaves." But no; he objects that would not be just; he'll accept the offer on the understanding that only the guilty one will become his master's slave. So the bags of grain were unloaded off the patient donkeys. He knew well he would find the cup just where he had put it, but playing his part he started at the eldest. He opened and examined Reuben's sack; it wasn't there. Nor was it in Simeon's; nor in Judah's The brothers looked their growing satisfaction. But what is this? He had come at last to Benjamin's -- and there it was! Triumphantly he drew it out, while the brothers looked on crestfallen and alarmed. Doubtless they glared at Benjamin and growled under the breath, "The young scamp! Why couldn't he have kept his bands off the man's silverware? Now see the mess we re in."

Joseph was awaiting them, strolling casually about his home. He commented, "You men shouldn't have done this. I knew all the time what you were about; you see I have second sight. You can't get away with such conduct with me. But it is agreed that only the guilty man remains as my slave. The rest of you are free. You may take your provisions and your donkeys, and go home."

The drama has reached its crisis. This is the point toward which events have been carefully directed by Joseph -- that is, by the author. It was necessary for him to play his assigned part of the harsh, callous Egyptian governor; he had to be brusque, even harsh with the brothers; only so could he find the answer to his question. And now once again after the lapse of twenty years circumstances permit them to serve their own interests at the expense of a younger brother. What will they do? Have the years taught them anything? It is Judah who speaks. And one searches far to find in any literature a more moving passage than his plea to the wronged brother whom he does not recognize. He tells of their first visit, when in answer to Joseph's questioning they had spoken of their old father and the son of his old age in whom his life seemed bound up; how it was only under duress of circumstance that at length he had most reluctantly agreed to Benjamin's coming on this second visit; he had reminded them of his long-dead favorite wife, whose other son had gone away and was supposedly killed by a wild beast, but in any case he was never seen again; and now if any harm should come to Benjamin, it would bring down his hoar head with sorrow to the grave. Judah himself had gone surety with his father for his young brother’s safety. "So now," he pleaded, "let the boy go home to his father. I'll remain and be your slave all my life, hut only let the boy go. If we come back without him, even before we arrive, when my father sees that the boy is not with us, he will die. I ask only that I may serve you in his place, so that he may go home."

What further was needed? Joseph could not control himself, but commanded that all should leave him: "And there stood no man with him while Joseph made himself known to his brothers." Still wondering what would be the result of Judah's plea, they waited in fear. Then, in perfect Hebrew they heard him . . what is this? "I am Joseph"? Surely not! It was impossible; this grand Egyptian their long-lost brother whom they had wronged? But indeed he had said, "I am Joseph. Is my father still alive?" The golden thread that had run through the story . . exiled in a far land, his father growing older with each passing year, was it possible that he might yet see him before it was too late? Here we catch the meaning of his studiously casual questioning of the brothers each time they came, "That old man of whom you spoke, your father, is he still alive? Is he well?" And so, now while the truth slowly dawns on the brothers, all the floodgates of years of repressed longing were loosed. They talked together of the old home and the loved ones of years gone; they wept together until the whole palace heard the sound of it, and it was noised about, "Joseph's brothers have come to him." But his obsessing concern reasserted itself, "Go up and tell my father, The Lord has made me master of all the land of Egypt." The deep insight of the Hebrew authors! All life's little triumphs lack something of their fulness until one can go up and tell his father, The Lord has made me master of all the land of Egypt.

What need to pursue it further: the wagons sent up to bring Jacob down to the son he had long given up for lost; his incredulity, then sudden devout realization that life had been far better to him than he dared hope; the arrival in Egypt; Joseph's proud introduction of his old peasant father to the majestic Pharaoh; then the years of peaceful joy before at length Jacob was gathered to his fathers, and Joseph likewise, and his brothers and all that generation went the way of all flesh.

 Hebrew poetry manifests the same basic qualities as the prose. It is Hebrew literature: it is marked by all that is distinctively Hebraic, simplicity with depth, clarity, familiar imagery, a sense of the pictorial; yet beyond or through this is the distinctive quality of poetry, its transcendence of forms and words in the presentation of thoughts, feelings, impressions, vague hopes and intimations which slip through mere form and escape, to be captured tenuously only in the splendrous world of the emotions. Biblical poetry possesses a sensuous charm that soars beyond thought and matter, carrying one away into realms of pure beauty. By no accident, but by its intrinsic nature it has become the vehicle of expression of the deepest hopes and yearnings of the heart of man.

All the arts are earth-bound; they must grapple with form and matter in their outreach toward expression. Poetry has rules and methods. Yet Hebrew poetry was diverse from our standard verse. Its meter was not concerned with the regular succession of long and short or of stressed and unstressed syllables, but with an established number of major vocal stresses in each line. Commonly it worked out to an approximate equality of syllables, but this was incidental. It will at once be apparent that this type is not unknown in English, though it is unusual. Instead of rhyme, which provides some expression of balance, so essential to poetic expression, Hebrew employed what is called parallelism, a system of balancing statements, normally within a single line. Thus the caesura is more marked in the Hebrew line than in Western poetry; and the genius of parallelism is that the second member of the line and the third, if there is one, repeats the first in a sort of echoing or balancing expression. Sometimes the parallel member adds a marked element to the thought, but normally it amounts to very little more than repetition in differing words. So described, the device would appear awkward and stodgy; in reality it is highly effective, providing all that rhyme does for later poetry, and probably much more. Considerable study has been given to the types of parallelism, but for the present purpose it suffices to mention that in addition to the forms already mentioned, not infrequently it takes the form of denial or disparagement of the opposite of the first statement; thus,

A wise son makes a glad father;
but a foolish son is a sorrow
to his mother (Prov 10:1)

The line is the basic element of Hebrew poetry. It is composed generally of two, but not infrequently of three separate elements, commonly called stichs; the line is thus distich or tristich. Scansion is a matter of these stichs; the most common meter is that of three major vocal beats in a stich. If this structure is repeated in the balancing stich, the meter is spoken of as 3:3; or if a tristich line, then 3:3:3. Sometimes a line of six beats has two caesuras, hence is 2:2:2. A famous measure features an unequal balance, normally three beats balanced by two, that is, 3:2. It is sometimes called the dirge measure, since it is the meter, for example, of the Book of Lamentations; but this is too restrictive; in reality it is widely invoked in more emotional poems, and occurs often merely as a release from a uniform 3:3 measure. It may also be found as 2:3, and even 2:2. A more rare meter is the 4:4, with its variations 4:3 and 3:4; though it is frequently highly possible that these 4's should really each be broken down into 2:2. The Hebrew poets maintained a high degree of freedom. A chosen measure is not slavishly followed, but artistic release is sought by means of frequent variation, sometimes in accordance with the varying mood of the advancing thought, but not infrequently, it would appear, for no reason other than change.

In some poetry, structural analysis carries no farther; then the lines follow one another with no observable sense of total form. But in general, added charm is provided by groupings of the lines in larger units, which sometimes are marked off by refrains, yet more commonly are to be detected only by logical separation. The couplet is most frequent, two lines bound together as a unit in the advancing thought, from which the author moves on to its development in the next couplet. More rare, but still frequent, is the triad, a similar unit of three lines. Then elementary mathematics suggests correctly that there ought to be a quatrain. Frequently such units are in reality nothing but the combination of two couplets; yet genuine quatrains occur, where no such division is permissible. That ends the simple forms, -- the strophes, they are called. And most biblical poetry is so brief that no further structure is possible. But poems such as in the Book of Job, sometimes continuing to the length of two or three chapters, offer opportunity to study the matter further. It is found that the couplets and triads sometimes group themselves in larger units, which may be called stanzas, moreover that the pattern is intimately related to the changing mood and advancing thought in such a way that occasionally structure provides an important exegetical resource.

Along with a notable repertoire of minor, but rich, devices -- assonances, alliteration, punning, chiasmus, various figures of speech -- these were the tools with which the Hebrew poet worked. It is the finished product, however, toward which our expectation is steadily directed. And the result is not disappointing. The extant literature is all more or less immediately of religious relevance, yet there was considerable secular writing that has disappeared, the quality of which we can estimate from what we know. But in itself biblical poetry is of a wide scope, amounting at one extreme to secular writing, though by its editing and orientation given relevance to Israel's dominant faith. It is, then, not an exaggerated claim to speak first of Israel's nature poetry. For such there was, anachronistic though it may seem. There was here a feeling for nature such as was manifest among no other ancient people. True it found expression, not as in modern times, in mere expressions of the wonder and charm of the world about them, but in terms of religious faith and devotion. This was inescapable in view of Israel's concept of the intimate relationship between God and nature; but at the same time it imparted to their understanding of the inanimate world, and to their poetic expression of it, a beauty and elevation, and withal a majesty such as, one may venture the judgment, to rank them with the best poets of any age. The Hebrew, too, felt.

A presence that disturbs . . . with the
joy
Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime
Of something far more deeply interfused,
Whose dwelling is the light of setting
suns,
And the round ocean and the living air, And the blue sky, and in the mind of
man: . .

Indeed, it was only by virtue of his profound debt to the long Hebrew tradition in our Western culture that Wordsworth was able to rise to such concepts. Israel's sense of the wonder of nature as interfused with a presence is well illustrated in a passage that portrays the might and majesty of the sea, that enemy on which the Hebrew characteristically looked with suspicion and fear, but which is here sublimated into an expression of the power of God:

They that go down to the sea in ships,
that do business in great waters:
these see the works of the Lord
and his wonders in the deep.
For he commandeth and raiseth the stormy wind
which lifteth up the waves thereof.
They mount up to the heavens;
they go down again to the depths:
their soul melteth away because of
trouble.
They reel to and fro and stagger like a
drunken man
and are at their wits' end.
Then they cry unto the Lord in their
trouble
and he bringeth them out of their distresses.
He maketh the storm a calm
so that the waves thereof are still.
Then they are glad because they are quiet.
So he bringeth them unto their desired haven (Ps. 107:23-30).
 

Similar is the mood of the striking description in Psalm 65, which, if we may illustrate the greater by the less, has been the inspiration of our fine hymn, "For Those in Peril on the Sea":

By terrible things thou wilt answer us
in righteousness
O God of our salvation,
Thou that art the confidence of all the
ends of the earth
and of them that are afar off upon
the sea:
Who by his strength setteth fast the
mountains,
being girded about with might;
Who stilleth the roaring of the seas,
the roaring of their waves
and the tumult of the peoples.
They also that dwell in the uttermost
parts
are afraid at thy tokens:
thou makest the outgoings of the morning and the evening to rejoice (Ps. 65:5-8).
 

It is a passage which in its wording, its imagery, and its exalted feeling comes close to the essence of pure poetry.

Can one find more effective expression of the awesome majesty of the mountains than in the simple couplet of some unknown Hebrew poet:

In his hand are the deep places of the
earth;
The strength of the hills is his also (Ps.95:4)
.

For quieter mood, for the charm of the peaceful landscape beneath the favor of a bounteous heaven, drinking in rest and refreshment from the quiet autumn rain, we turn once more to Psalm 65; it runs on:

Thou visitest the earth and waterest it,
thou greatly enrichest it . . .
Thou waterest its furrows abundantly,
thou settlest the ridges thereof,
thou makest it soft with showers,
thou blesseth the springing thereof.
Thou crownest the year with thy goodness
and thy paths drop fatness (Ps 65:9-11)
 

Intimately related in Hebrew thought is that tonic which for us has become commonplace. For the Hebrews, weather and landscape were intermingled as in actuality they are, and both were transfused with a sense of the sublime. Here is a brief scrap that says much more than merely that rain falls in Palestine:

The land where you arc going over to take possession is a land of hills and valleys, and drinks water from the rain of the heavens, a land which the Lord your God cares for; the eyes of the Lord your God are always upon it from the beginning to the end of the year (Deut. 11:11-12).

 Famous, too, is Psalm 29, now recognized to have derived much from Canaanite mythology; it is one more example of how Hebrew thought transcended its foreign originals. Under the accepted figure of the "voice of the Lord" it relates the course of a thunderstorm crashing across the mountains and reverberating into the distances of the wilderness. Of far different sort, suggesting rather the charm of a spring morning, is this idyllic bit, expressive of the Hebrew's sense of personal relation with his physical environment,

You shall go out with joy
and be led forth with peace.
The mountains and the hills
shall break forth before you
into singing
and all the trees of the field
shall clap their hands (Isa. 55:12).

It is reminiscent of that justly famous couplet in the Book of Job:

When the morning stars sang together
and all the sons of God shouted for
joy (Job 38:7).

But Israel created as well great love poetry; we have the remains of it now in the Song of Songs. That it was unique, practically without parallel in the world of its time, every student of the ancient Orient knows. One goes far to find anything with which to compare it; its quality is distinctive. From the first words of this collection of lyrics one finds himself in a world of romance, transfused with all the beauty and lure of the Orient. The poems possess a sensuous charm, mingled with the beauties of nature and the wonder and mystic experience of the springtime, when nature awakes to new life and joy and activity.

I was asleep, but my heart was awake:
hark! my lover is knocking, saying,
Open to me, my sister, my love,
for my head is filled with dew
and my locks with the mists of the night. . .
I rose to open to my lover,
and my hands dripped myrrh,
and my fingers flowing myrrh
upon the bolts of the lock (Song of Sol. 5:2-5).
And again:
The voice of my lover!
See, he comes,
leaping over the mountains,

skipping over the hills! .
My lover answered, he said to me,
Rise, my love,
my beautiful one, and come;
for, see, the winter is past,
the rain is over and gone,
the flowers appear on the earth,
the time for song has come
and the voice of the turtle dove
is heard in our land. . .
O my love, in the clefts of the rock,
in the covert of the steep place,
Let me see your beauty,
let me hear your voice (Song of Sol.2:8-14)
.

The passage is suggestive of that other in which the majesty of Hermon looks down upon the springtime beauty of the northern plain:

Come from Lebanon, my bride;
my sister come from Hermon!
Come down from the top of Amana,
from the top of Senir, of Hermon,
from the lions' dens
from the leopards' mountains.
You have ravished my heart, my sister,
my bride,
you have ravished my heart
with one glance of your eyes,
with one ringlet from your neck (Song of Sol. 4:8-9).

But the Hebrew poets' consciousness of animate beauty was of wide scope. it is a far cry from the idyllic charm of the Song of Songs to the grace and power of the war horse, described in a passage of which it has been written that "there is nothing more sublime in any literature":

The glory of his snorting is terrible!
He paweth in the valley and rejoiceth
in his strength.
He goeth out to meet the armed men.
He mocketh at fear and is not dismayed, neither turneth he back from the
sword.
The quiver rattleth against him,
the flashing spear and the javelin.
He swalloweth the ground with fierceness
and rage.
He will not turn aside at the blast of the trumpet;
but as often as he heareth the trumpet
he saith, Aha!
He smelleth the battle afar off,
the thunder of the captains and the
shouting (Job. 39:20-25).

 

Deserving of mention also is the couplet which by a negation tells much of a pervasive zest of life and delight in physical well-being such as is frequently ascribed to the Greek temper:

 Not in the strength of the horse does
(the Lord) delight,
nor with the legs of a man is he
pleased (Ps. 147:10).

 

Hebrew laments are marked by deep feeling and the power to transmit their mood of woe. The Book of Lamentations plunges one at once into the tragedy which had overtaken the Jewish people, and without momentary release moves forward through poem after poem descriptive of the blackness of days when

 

. . .grief is poured out on the ground
for the ruin of the daughter of my
people,
because babe and suckling swoon
in the city streets.
To their mothers they say,
Give me food and drink;
Swooning as though deadly wounded
in the city' streets,
their lives ebbing away
on their mothers' breasts (Lam. 2:11-12).

 

Well meriting its wide repute is the exquisite little elegy in which David is reputed to have bewailed the tragedy of Mount Gilboa. It is a poem of great charm and delicacy of expression.

You mountains of Gilboa:
on you be neither dew nor rain,
you fields of death!
For there was the shield of the mighty
befouled,
the shield of Saul as unanointed with
oil.

 

Saul and Jonathan,
beloved and beautiful while alive,
in death not divided;
Swifter than eagles,
stronger than lions!. . .
I am in distress for you,
my brother Jonathan;
you were very dear to me (II Sam. 1:21-26).

 

Yet the greatness of Hebrew poetry is realized only in its true relevance and context, where it is concerned with themes uniquely of the Hebraic genius. And those are the themes of which we have spoken, the mystery of the all-pervading Personality, the mystery of man's beig, his destiny and his duty. Indeed one may welll comment that lacking such depth, their literature would have been negligible. Even the amazing modernity of its skill, its wealth of artistic embellishment, would not suffice to make it great literature, if it had nothing to say. Such, indeed, is the damnation of the ephemeral writing of our own time; in fact, of much of our entire artistic expression in whatever medium. Art, which should be concerned with the deepst, the inexpressible things of life, boasts instead that its motivation is merely the amusement of the artist. Fortunately the actuality is better than this; real art is being produced today; but to the extent that this concept holds, we are an age that has lost its way and, like Ecclesiastes, is merely busying itself with trivialities in order, as he said, to keep from thinking -- one wonders if the real objective is to hide an inability to think. But precisely at this point is the clue to the perennial freshness and vitality of the Bible; its concern is with the deepest issues of human life, issues which persist age after age and are new with each new generation.

The Book of Psalms is a treasury of such writing. It has been called the classic of the inner life. It covers the entire range of man's experience of unseen reality. One might take as a symbol of the whole the majestic words of the poem on the mystery of man's being and circumstance:

 

Lord, thou hast searched me and known
me. . .
thou dost discern my thought from
afar. . .
Behind and before thou hast confined me
and hast set thy hand upon me.. . .
Where shall I go from thy spirit?
Where shall I flee from thy presence? .. .
If I take the wings of the morning
and dwell far beyond the sea,
even there thy hand will guide me
and thy right hand hold me.
I will praise thee
for thou art wonderful in awe;

wonderful are thy works.
My bones were not hidden from thee
when I was made in secret
My form thy eyes did see;
in thy book all was written (Ps. 139:1-16).
 

Comparable in its depth is the great Penitential, probably the most poignant expression ever written of man’s sense of his unworthiness in presence of the eternal realities in which he exists:

Have mercy upon me, 0 God;
in the greatness of thy compassion
blot out my transgressions!
Wash me completely from my iniquity,
and cleanse me from my sin.
For I know my transgressions,
and my sin is ever before me.
Against thee, thee alone,
have I done what is evil in thy sight,
so that thou art right when thou speakest,
and just when thou dost condemn (Ps.51:1-4).

We may not go on to survey the variety of moods of the Psalter, the idyllic confidence and peace of Psalm 23, "the shepherd Psalm," the boasting assurance of Psalm 27, the wistful longing of Psalms 42 and 43, the exhilarating joy of the pilgrims in the "Songs of the Ascents," Psalms 120-134, the grateful faith of Psalm 103. Among such wealth of treasures we delay over one only, which with its characteristic thought and phrasing serves as an effectual conclusion to our brief study:

 The Lord is good to all
and his compassion is over all his
works.
All thy works shall give thanks to thee,
0 Lord,
and thy saints shall bless thee. . .
Thy kingdom is an everlasting kingdom
and thy dominion is for all generations.
The Lord upholds all who fall
and supports all who are bowed down.
The eyes of all look to thee
and thou givest them their food in its time.
Thou openest thy hand
and satisfiest the desire of every living
thing.
The Lord is righteous in all his ways,
and gracious in all his works (Ps. 145:9-17).

 

Suggested Reading:

 BEVAN, F. R., and SINGER, C. (editors): The Legacy of Israel. Oxford, 1927.

GOLDMAN, S.: The Book of Books. New York, 1948

INNIS, K. E.: The Bible as Literature. London, 1930.

MACDONALD, D. B.: The Hebrew Literary Genius. Princeton, 1933.

MUIR, W.: Our Grand Old Bible. London, 1911.

NOYES, C.: The Genius of Israel. New York, 1924.

PEAKE, A. S. (editor): The People and the Book. Oxford, 1925.

PRITCHARD, J. B. (editor) : Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament. Princeton, 1950.

VON DOBSCHUTZ, F.: The Influence of the Bible on Civilization. New York, 1914.

Viewed 74165 times.