Chapter 1: The Hebrews in Their World

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

Chapter 1: The Hebrews in Their World

Israel came late into the course of Oriental history. When the Hebrew tribes broke into Palestine in the fourteenth century B.C. in the invasion that was to prove the beginning of their career as a nation, the glory of Egypt was already waning. Her imperial greatness and her intellectual creativeness had become matters of the past. Sumer was but an echo of half-forgotten history, though Its remarkable achievements had passed into the rich treasure of Semitic-Babylonia. But of this, too, the great age was gone, save only as the glories of Hammurabi were later to he revived for a brief period by Nebuchadnezzar. By the time of Israel's first great era of constructive thinking in the age of the prophets, Assyria had reached almost its zenith, soon to totter to its eternal doom. The fruitful period of Israel's maturity, too often lightly dismissed as "late," paralleled in time the greatness of the Aehaemenids in one direction and in the other the supremacy of Athenian leadership in the age of Pericles, later the career of Alexander, and then the dominance of Hellenism throughout the East. Of these matters we shall speak in a moment.

It is no surprise to find that, heir as she consciously and obviously was of the achievements of he Orient and continuing her vigor into what we commonly speak of as the Classical age, Israel's intellectual life bridges two worlds. Her primitivism is apparent, perhaps the most striking feature brought into relief by the critical studies of the last hundred years. It would serve no good end to delay over lt here; suffice it that a large portion of the popular concepts of the ancient East find their parallels, if not direct survivals, in Israel's outlook on the world. It is clear that the founders of the Hebrew nation and their heirs and successors for many generations brought with them and continued to live in the pervasive thought-life of the world of their times.

But if this were all or even the significant aspect of Hebrew thinking, there would be no occasion for discussing it. Israel was a small nation, relatively unimportant among the powers of the ancient East; in so far as she conformed to the pattern of her contemporaries she has now no better claim on our attention than have Edom, Moab, and Damascus. We do scant justice to historic reaIity-indeed, we fail completely to understand the genius of lsrael-if we do not recognize wherein, and the extent to which, she differed from her neighbors and contemporaries, great and small alike. For rooted and molded in the cultures of the ancient East, Israel yet far transcended them and attained a world of thinking and of concepts much like our own. In this area the differences that separate us are much less than those that set Israel off from the peoples with whom she was in close contact, both in space and in time. Or, to put it in other terms, the boundary between the ancient world and the modern is to be traced, not in the Aegean or the middle Mediterranean, but in the pages of the Old Testament, where we find revealed attainments in the realms of thought, facility in literary expression, profound religious insights, and standards of individual and social ethics, all of which are intimately of the modern world because, indeed, they have been of the vital motivating forces which made our world of the human spirit.

Nor should this situation astonish us. In a peculiar sense Israel was the Great Divide of human history. There are, we must recognize, those who would claim this distinction for ancient Greece; and in some very significant regards they are right. Yet, more deeply it is true of Israel. She stood central in the world of time; and strikingly this is related to her geographic centrality. The visitor to present-day Jerusalem is shown in one of the rooms of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher a brass plate fixed in the floor, which for the fancy of an earlier age marked the center of the world! He smiles, doubtless with superior indulgence, at the naive concept of a pre-Copernican (lay, but comes presently to realize that, in a way never dreamed of in that age, the idea is true. From a more remote time the view is found in the Book of Ezekiel: "This is Jerusalem; I have set her midway among the nations and the countries that are around her" (Ezek. 5:5). Palestine lay at the heart of the ancient world; and it is sobering to consider how central it still is, in the vastly enlarged world of the scientific age.

The great northward thrust of the desert of Arabia, creating-if we choose thus to think of it-the so-called Fertile Crescent, with Babylonia at one extreme of the arc and Palestine at the other, entailed the channeling of traffic down the narrow corridor of Syria and Palestine. The great cultures of the ancient world lay at the two ends, Babylonia near where the sweep of the Zagros Mountains terminates its length of eastern bulwark and barrier to the Semitic world, and Egypt nestling among her brooding deserts at the northeast corner of Africa in the perennial delight of her sunny clime and her life-giving river. Through these lands Stone-Age man had tramped and lodged for countless hundreds of thousands of years, leaving pathetic remnants of his savage life that have persisted to our day: remains of his stone industries, ruined traces of his homes, bits of his artistic expression, pitiful burials into which he gathered the needed treasures of his departing life, and through all, evidence of his groping for meaning and significance and some adequate answer to the riddle of existence.

Babylonia was rich in its alluvial soil, the age-long deposit of the Euphrates and the Tigris, those two great rivers that year after year unceasingly carried their load of silt to a resting-place, first in the Persian Gulf, then in the swamps that were slowly forming, and at length in the plain which gradually emerged from the waters, though at inundation each year it once again was claimed by the floods that had made it. Here came the Sumerians some time in the early half of the fourth millennium, and here they built their remarkable civilization. They created a system of writing that was to dominate Hither Asia for centuries, and then, though gradually giving way before more facile methods, still survived as a living means of communication to a total of more than three thousand years. They brought into being a great literature which made a deep impress on subsequent cultures; its echoes reverberate to our own distant time. They were great in architecture, discovering principles and methods that became a heritage for all time; their art, in some of its expressions, is of surprising truth and realism; they wrestled with the incipient problems of mathematics and of science. More significantly, they gave serious thought to the deeper problems of man's being. Yet ultimately the importance of Sumer was rooted in the soil. The inexhaustible fertility of the alluvium gave birth to great cities, and in them to characteristic motivations toward wider horizons, not least of which were industries and export trade. From the plain, ancient caravans went out, apparently east and north and south as well as to the west. The asses of the time were much less efficient than the camels that were to come into use many centuries later; nonetheless Sumerian commerce ventured far, blazing many a path followed by the merchants and adventurers of long succeeding ages.

A brilliant achievement of Sumer was the impulse given to the Stone-Age cultures of Egypt, which, soon after 3000 B.C., responded with the sudden upward surge of the first dynasties and then the majesty and enduring wonder of the Pyramid age, great in its architecture and engineering, notable for the realism and yet the impassive dignity of its art, and memorable for the brilliance and varied richness of its thronging life. For five hundred years the god-Pharaohs ruled a wealthy and vibrant realm; to all it must have seemed that its bases were as enduring as the rich earth from which it sprang. Yet slowly the permanence tottered, then collapsed. But Egypt's "tumbling joy of life" vented itself afresh in a "Middle Kingdom," still more in the far-flung pomp and splendor of the Empire that established Egypt's sway through all Syria and Palestine and far up the Nile. In its declining days the despised Aperu slaved on the mighty works of the pharoah, until hardy spirits among them made a bold bid for freedom and exodus under their shepherd deliverer.

In all this time, history was running in broader and deeper course throughout the Near East. The Sumerian dominance was interrupted, then terminated by two great movements of the Semitic peoples best known by the personal names of Sargon and Hammurabi, standing though they do some five centuries apart. Hammurabi with his famous code of laws attained a position in social evolution not unlike that of Justinian ages later. His personal repute has suffered sadly since the records from Man revealed the cold-blooded scheming of this selfish master of Realpolitik. Still, Hammurabi's Babylon marked the zenith of its ancient glories in stability and wealth, in literature and thought and the varied outreach of the human spirit. Soon his kingdom reeled under the blow of a far-raiding band of Hittite invaders from Asia Minor, then succumbed to Kassite horsemen from the eastern mountains. They were one more of the ceaseless ethnic upheavals from central Asia which for ages past had poured and were yet through many future centuries to continue to pour their human tide downward through Iran into the Fertile Crescent or westward across the Urals into Europe. The Kassite rule was a retrogression; but the life of Hither Asia had become rich and complex. Assyria on the middle Tigris was already laying the foundations for that imperial sway which presently was to overrun all the civilized world. Hurrians -- the Horites of Biblical record -- soon after 2000 B.C. established themselves midway on the Tigris, and from there spread throughout the Crescent. The Hyksos broke out of their northern homes, and passing down the length of Syria-Palestine, made fast their hated rule upon Egypt. A Hittite empire arose on the ruins of the older kingdom, and from the highlands of Asia Minor stood poised to swoop when it might upon wealthier lands, or sent wandering emigrants afar, like those who sold their cave at Hebron to Abraham. The Canaanites had long held Syria and Palestine, succeeding earlier races whose life stretched back and back, no one knows how many hundreds of thousands of years; through more than a millenium they built a notable civilization, of which the most important and most enduring element was the alphabet, lineal ancestor of those of the modern world. At length weakened by inroads of Horite and Hyksos, of Amorite and Egyptian and Philistine, they fell, under the continued pressure of Hebrews in the south and soon after of Arameans in the north.

The earliest East had run its course. There was a lull, while these little folk established themselves. Then the day of Assyria arrived. It was foreshadowed in notable campaigns of the thirteenth and of the twelfth centuries, but broke in savage fury on all Hither Asia in the ninth. Again there was delay; it seemed that Assyria might be swept out of existence by the mountain folk of what we now call Armenia; but from the third quarter of the eighth century until the destruction of Nineveh in 612 B.C., the Assyrian empire was the supreme political fact of the Near East. At its greatest, just before decline set in about the middle of the seventh century, the empire included within its borders the ancient imperial powers, Egypt, and Babylonia, besides much else that made up the total area from the Persian Gulf in a great arc through western Iran and Armenia as far as Cilicia, and all of Syria and Palestine. When the cruelties of a hundred years found retribution, and Nineveh fell to her foes, "to heaps and ruins they turned it," as the Chronicle relates in seemingly casual terms borrowed from the boastful records of the mighty monarchs themselves.

 The Assyrian period of Israel's history was the great age of prophecy. Hosea and Amos warned of conditions which foreshadowed the annihilation of the northern kingdom in 722; Isaiah interpreted the terrifying events as God's scourge of recalcitrant Judah and lived to see them reach their climax in the siege of Jerusalem in 701. A hundred years later Jeremiah and then Ezekiel told of impending judgments; but now the prime political reality was a revived Babylon and its great king Nebuchadnezzar, famed to this day for his threefold deportation of Jewish people into Babylonian captivity.

Babylon's dominance was of short duration. In 538 came Cyrus and the line of Achaemenid monarchs: Darius, Xerxes, Artaxerxes, and the others, ruling, from the fabled glories of royal Persepolis, over an empire vaster than yet had been. It stretched from the western approaches to India all the way across Iran and Mesopotamia, through Asia Minor, to the Aegean, where it struggled long, with sword and silver, against the Greeks. It ruled all Syria and Palestine, and intermittently Egypt as well.

This was the time of the restoration and rebuilding of Judaism in Palestine. Cyrus issued a decree permitting the captives to return. The result was not unlike the sequel of the Balfour declaration in our own times: initial indifference on the part of many, a growing interest fostered in part by external circumstances, then in spite of hostility from the people of the land, steady increase in numbers and power, crowned at length by the establishment of a Jewish state. But this took much longer than its modern counterpart. First the East was to witness the decay of the Achaemenids, their overthrow by the brilliant and daring young Alexander, and the division of his eastern holdings between two orientalized Macedonian dynasties, the Ptolemies in Egypt and the Seleucids in Asia. They spent themselves, rotting away in self-seeking pleasure that commonly fills the vacuum left by a lack of meaning in life.

We may pause to ponder, that while these royal morons disported themselves in beastly passion in Antioch and Alexandria, a petty hill town of their domains, age-old Jerusalem, followed its Temple services that went their quiet way, day after day, year in and year out; and there, groups of thoughtful men reflected upon the nature of human life, reasoning that "The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom," that "The law of the Lord is perfect, converting the soul," or fervently ejaculated, "Oh, how I love thy law! It is my mediation all the day."

Between two such worlds a great gulf is fixed. And when those who had seen things not seen, by which alone life is redeemed, were apparently overwhelmed by military might, some unknown thinker committed to writing the strange symbolism of the ultimate triumph of right, which we now have in the Book of Daniel. And at about that point one breaks off the survey of Israel's world, just before he would be obliged to relate the coming of the Romans to the East.

Such were the facts, and such the forces that created the centrality of Israel's land. Up and down its narrow valleys and across its great plain went the pomp and panoply of the ancient world, and its more commonplace traffic as well: rich argosies from far Babylon, carrying the wares down to Egypt; royal messengers of the great kings who ruled in Persepolis, bearing decrees for the officer in charge at the frontier station of Assouan; plenipotentiaries of Hatti and of Egypt, seeking a modus vivendi in the political stresses of the thirteenth century; conquerors with their chariots and footmen and their tale of atrocities behind and yet before; wandering bands of foot-loose adventurers, seeking a good land where they might strike roots into the soil-all these and hosts of others were led among the Palestinian hills where went the great trunk roads of the ancient world, camped in the plains, bartered in the little cities, or stayed to lay permanent claim to some hit of the land. For the northward thrust of the Arabian desert decreed that the highways of the nations should wind their ways, not direct across Arabia, but by the longer route around the Fertile Crescent. Hence it was that when Israel made her first violent inroad into the land, the cupidity of a common soldier was unable to resist the lure of a "wedge of gold and a goodly Babylonish garment" (Josh. 7:21), true symbol of the traffic that had saturated the land for centuries past. Even today, if one stands in the valley by Ibleam, where the converging lines of Gilboa and Carmel literally funnel traffic into a narrow pass, the lulls seem still to reverberate to the hoof beats of the centuries. Or perhaps he looks out from the hills where once Megiddo defied the armies of imperial Egypt, and listens while afar beneath the moon there comes to him across the wide plain the distant tinkling of camel bells, from the caravans journeying as they did long before Abraham, carrying their goods down into Egypt. If he is in a sensitive mood he may enter the Wadi Arab with bated breath, at each turn of the narrow glen almost expecting to meet face to face Thutmose's confident chariots moving northward to battle, as they did on that April morning nearly thirty-five centuries ago.

It is a wonderful little land-scarce more than a hundred and fifty miles from Dan to Beersheha and perhaps fifty across at Jerusalem, though much less from Haifa through Tiberias. History cries out of every hillside and from every city, storied in the past. Already when Israel entered it was a very old land wrapped in its tales of great deeds of days gone by. A brooding sense of tile ages is one of its great things, potent now as it was when the Hebrew seer in mystic vision beheld the enthroned "Ancient of Days." Yet one must not overlook its physical charm- indeed he is uncertain at the end whether he has seen more than physical reality, in the all-pervading presence of the past. Its brilliant sunlight, its limpid air lift the expectant spirits, and the shouts of peasants at work on the land come soft in the springtime air. Then the fields of Esdraelon slope up toward Galilee in an immense checkerboard of green and brown, while through a break in the hills distant Hermon looks down from its snows upon the idyllic scene. From the steep slopes of Carmel above Haifa the gaze follows down across the city with its white walls and red roofs and dark upreaching pinnacles of the cypresses, looking like so many church spires. Beyond is the harbor, deep with the blue of the Mediterranean, and to the right the white sweep of a semicircle far round to Accho, where the coast falls away in the distance, and sea and sky and shore blend in one mysterious whole. No one can forget the view from a spot halfway up the Galilee hills toward Safed, where he looks down upon the whole valley of the upper Jordan, with Hermon beyond, and upon the two little lakes that seem like sky-blue jewels caught in the tawny setting of the hills.

It is a land of many moods, sensitive to the moving season. In the springtime it lies glorious in its profusion of flowers and a forward look of hope and joy, yet one may watch on a belated day the black tempest beating up from the Jordan to overwhelm Moreh, envelope Tabor, and assault with its chariots of wrath the bulwarks of Galilee. Later the growing crops stand rich in green, then gold, and the landscape becomes vital with the joy of harvest. As summer wanes the pulsing life falters, and except for the olive groves and vineyards and a few spots blessed with sources of water, the ground lies bare and sere as the desert, a naked land, trodden by the foot of flock and herd and dotted with scattered black tents of the Bedouin. Then one may watch across the great plain while evening declines over the shoulder of the hills of Israel, silhouetting the high lookout of Elijah's Place of Sacrifice and picking out with its last rays the church-crowned summit of Tabor; he may follow the gliding cloud shadows over the wide slope toward Galilee, and cling entranced to the fleeting tints of rose and gold and violet that enshrine the friendly heights while the last rays of the westering sun, far out over the Sea, touch lightly with a ruddy promise of hope and joy the last summits of the hills.

Southward the road leads through many a glen and past many a rocky slope. At one point it swings round the summit of a hill where the traveler delays to gaze far to the west, across a sea of lesser heights, to a thin line of white merging imperceptibly into the deep blue of the Sea, highroad of the imagination to wonders afar. In Palestine, said George Adam Smith, one goes up on his high places: those high places with their distant vistas and luring thoughts of worlds of romance and glory! Here and there one glimpses a quiet vale with a single tree overhanging a well, the typical "peaceful valley"; or he may see the flocks waiting under the midday sun, as they did in biblical times, while the shepherds draw water for them. Yet on the whole the beauty is not tranquil. It is a rugged and strong land, a land whose charm is austere: rocky hills climbing their juniper studded slopes steeply to the sky-line, narrow glens, hasty watercourses, but ever the sudden view from a hilltop over peopled valleys and far regions where mellowing distance clothes the hills in a veil of allurement and entices one on to things that the eye hath not seen nor the ear heard.

One of the most amazing of these outlooks is from the summit of the ridge north of Olivet-from Mount Scopus, well named the "mountain of outlook." There one looks downward across the ever-descending hills of the Wilderness of Judah lying beneath and seeming more a relief map than an actual landscape. On and on range the barren, yellow hills, until in the distance one feels rather than sees the deep depression of the Jordan bed, and catches a sparkle from the waters of the Dead Sea. Beyond, the mountains of Moab stand blue and mysterious. To the west, the vista leaps across the plateau of Judea, until hidden from view it takes its sudden drop to the foothills and the plain, the land of the hated Philistines along the Great Sea. But wait! At one 5 feet the mountain descends steeply to the deep valley where the Kidron far below wends its way, companying with a road along the ancient course by which David fled from Absalom, and hosts of travelers and pilgrims, before and since, have come and gone. From the valley the mountain rises sharply, carrying the eye upward to the proud old city that has crowned that spot of ground for more centuries than any other human habitation can claim. How absurdly near and small it looks, as one gazes down into it, indecently searching the Sacred Area, where prophet and priest and apostle have moved and taught. Jerusalem: how the word thrills! Jerusalem-that kills her prophets and stones them that are sent to her; but Jerusalem, too, the Holy City, with power to stir men's hearts as no other can!

It is a land where alone one may understand the haunting sensuous beauty of the Bible, a land where poetry seems to spring from the stony hillsides, where poets lived and walked whose words are known and cherished more than those of any others, and, rendered into hosts of tongues of which they never heard, are loved and repeated the world around.

Still, it was the more prosaic aspect of Palestine as the highway of the nations that constituted its unique opportunity, which of all peoples Israel alone was endowed to seize. The traffic of those ancient roads with its color and romance, and pomp and might, brought much of undeclared import. Here at the crossroads of the world the Hebrew people were sensitive to stirrings of thought through all the vast area from the plains and mountains of Iran to the mysterious regions where the upper Nile springs forth from central Africa. Darius' famous Passover decree for the Jewish garrison of Yeb on the island of Elephantine came by royal post along the ancient routes of Mesopotamia through the ravines and plains of the land of Israel almost under the shadow of the rocky heights of Judea. Jeremiah knew of the conditions of his fellow citizens, captives in Babylonia, and Nehemiah in the palace in Susa received news of conditions in the homeland. Perhaps more impressive is the evidence of modern excavation, revealing as it does the influences that beat upon this little land in every age from all the cultures of the ancient East. We turn again to the Bible and in chapter after chapter, find scarcely less notable marks of Israel's intimate converse with all her neighbors. Formerly this was an occasion of theological contention and religious perplexity, hut seen more deeply it is a matter of which to boast. The Bible was not the ingrown musing of some remote peasant folk; it was the achievement of a people whose painful destiny it was to live at the crossroads of the ancient world; it gathered up the best that that ancient world had created and, under the genius of a people who were uniquely fitted for their task, transmuted all into forms and expressions of their own incomparable convictions.


Suggested reading

Frankfort, H. (editor) : The Intellectual Adventure of Ancient Times, Chicago, 1946

 Olmstead, A. T.: History of Assyria. Ncw York, 1923.

______: History of the Persian Empire, Achaemenid Period. Chicago, 1948

Smith, G. A.: The Historical Geography of the Holy Land. London, 25th ed., 1932.

Steindorff, G, and Seele, K. : When Egypt Ruled the East. Chicago, 1945.

Wilson, J. A.: The Burden of Egypt. Chicago, 1951.

Woolley, Sir Leonard: The Sumerians. Oxford, 1928.

Wright, G. F.: The Old Testament Against Its Environment. Chicago, 1950.

Wright, G. F. and Filson, F. V.: The Westminster Atlas to the Bible. Philadelphia, 1945