Ancient History & Civilisation


The birth of the Bible—The destruction of Jerusalem—The Babylonian Captivity—Jeremiah—Ezekiel—The Second Isaiah—The liberation of the Jews—The Second Temple

Their greatest contemporary influence was on the writing of the Bible. As the people fell away from the worship of Yahveh to the adoration of alien gods, the priests began to wonder whether the time had not come to make a final stand against the disintegration of the national faith. Taking a leaf from the Prophets, who attributed to Yahveh the passionate convictions of their own souls, they resolved to issue to the people a communication from God himself, a code of laws that would reinvigorate the moral life of the nation, and would at the same time attract the support of the Prophets by embodying the less extreme of their ideas. They readily won King Josiah to their plan; and about the eighteenth year of his reign the priest Hilkiah announced to the King that he had “found” in the secret archives of the Temple an astonishing scroll in which the great Moses himself, at the direct dictation of Yahveh, had settled once for all those problems of history and conduct that were I being so hotly debated by prophets and priests. The discovery made a great stir. Josiah called the elders of Judah to the Temple, and there read to them the “Book of the Covenant” in the presence (we are told) of thousands of people. Then he solemnly swore that he would henceforth abide by the laws of this book; and “he caused all that were present to stand to it.”115

We do not know just what this “Book of the Covenant” was; it may have been Exodus xx-xxiii, or it may have been Deuteronomy.116 We need not suppose that it had been invented on the spur of the situation; it merely formulated, and put into writing, decrees, demands and exhortations which for centuries had emanated from the prophets and the Temple. In any event, those who heard the reading, and even those who only heard of it, were deeply impressed. Josiah took advantage of this mood to raid the altars of Yahveh’s rivals in Judah; he cast “out of the temple of the Lord all the vessels that were made for Baal,” he put down the idolatrous priests, and “them also that burned incense unto Baal, to the sun, and to the moon, and to the planets”; he “defiled Topheth, . . . . that no man might make his son or his daughter to pass through the fire to Molech”; and he smashed the altars that Solomon had built for Chemosh, Milcom and Astarte.117

These reforms did not seem to propitiate Yahveh, or bring him to the aid of his people. Nineveh fell as the Prophets had foretold, but only to leave little Judah subject first to Egypt and then to Babylon. When Pharaoh Necho, bound for Syria, tried to pass through Palestine, Josiah, relying upon Yahveh, resisted him on the ancient battle-site of Megiddo—only to be defeated and slain. A few years later Nebuchadrezzar overwhelmed Necho at Carchemish, and made Judah a Babylonian dependency. Josiah’s successors sought by secret diplomacy to liberate themselves from the clutch of Babylon, and thought to bring Egypt to their rescue; but the fiery Nebuchadrezzar, getting wind of it, poured his soldiery into Palestine, captured Jerusalem, took King Jehoiakim prisoner, put Zedekiah on the throne of Judah, and carried 10,000 Jews into bondage. But Zedekiah, too, loved liberty, or power, and rebelled against Babylon. Thereupon Nebuchadrezzar returned, and—resolving to settle the Jewish problem once and for all, as he thought—recaptured Jerusalem, burned it to the ground, destroyed the Temple of Solomon, slew Zedekiah’s sons before his face, gouged out his eyes, and carried practically all the population of the city into captivity in Babylonia.118 Later a Jewish poet sang one of the world’s great songs about that unhappy caravan:

By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion.

We hanged our harps upon the willows in the midst thereof.

For there they that carried us away captive required of us a song; and they that wasted us required of us mirth, saying, Sing us one of the songs of Zion.

How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?

If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning.

If I do not remember thee, let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth; if I prefer not Jerusalem above my chief joy.119

In all this crisis the bitterest and most eloquent of the Prophets defended Babylon as a scourge in the hands of God, denounced the rulers of Judah as obstinate fools, and advised such complete surrender to Nebuchadrezzar that the modern reader is tempted to wonder could Jeremiah have been a paid agent of Babylonia. “I have made the earth, the man and the beast that are upon the ground,” says Jeremiah’s God, . . . “and now have I given all those lands into the hand of Nebuchadrezzar, the King of Babylon, my servant. . . . And all nations shall serve him. And it shall come to pass, that the nation and kingdom which will not serve the same Nebuchadrezzar, the King of Babylon, and that will not put their neck under the yoke of the King of Babylon, that nation will I punish, saith the Lord, with the sword, and with the famine, and with the pestilence, until I have consumed them by his hand.”120

He may have been a traitor, but the book of his prophecies, supposedly taken down by his disciple Baruch, is not only one of the most passionately eloquent writings in all literature, as rich in vivid imagery as in merciless abuse, but it is marked with a sincerity that begins as a diffident self-questioning, and ends with honest doubts about his own course and all human life. “Woe is me, my mother, that thou hast borne me, a man of strife, and a man of contention to the whole earth! I have neither lent on usury, nor men have lent to me on usury; yet every one of them doth curse me. . . . Cursed be the day wherein I was born.”121 A flame of indignation, burned in him at the sight of moral depravity and political folly in his people and its leaders; he felt inwardly compelled to stand in the gate and call Israel to repentance. All this national decay, all this weakening of the state, this obviously imminent subjection of Judah to Babylon, were, it seemed to Jeremiah, Yahveh’s hand laid upon the Jews in punishment for their sins. “Run ye to and fro through the streets of Jerusalem, and see now, and know, and seek in the broad places thereof, if ye can find a man, if there be any that executeth judgment, that seeketh the truth; and I will pardon it.”122 Everywhere iniquity ruled, and sex ran riot; men “were as fed horses in the morning; every one neighed after his neighbor’s wife.”123 When the Babylonians besieged Jerusalem the rich men of the city, to propitiate Yahveh, released their Hebrew slaves; but when for a time the siege was raised, and the danger seemed past, the rich apprehended their former slaves, and forced them into their old bondage: it was a summary of human history that Jeremiah could not bear silently.124 Like the other Prophets, he denounced those hypocrites who with pious faces brought to the Temple some part of the gains they had made from grinding the faces of the poor; the Lord, he reminded them, in the eternal lesson of all finer religion, asked not for sacrifice but for justice.125 The priests and the prophets, he thinks, are almost as false and corrupt as the merchants; they, too, like the people, need to be morally reborn, to be (in Jeremiah’s strange phrase) circumcised in the spirit as well as in the flesh. “Circumcise yourselves to the Lord, and take away the foreskins of your heart.”126

Against these abuses the Prophet preached with a fury rivaled only by the stern saints of Geneva, Scotland and England. Jeremiah cursed the Jews savagely, and took some delight in picturing the ruin of all who would not heed him.127 Time and again he predicted the destruction of Jerusalem and the captivity in Babylon, and wept over the doomed city (whom he called the daughter of Zion) in terms anticipatory of Christ: “Oh, that my head were waters, and mine eyes a fountain of tears, that I might weep day and night for the slain of the daughter of my people!”128

To the “princes” of Zedekiah’s court all this seemed sheer treason; it was dividing the Jews in counsel and spirit in the very hour of war. Jeremiah tantalized them by carrying a wooden yoke around his neck, explaining that all Judah must submit—the more peaceably the better—to the yoke of Babylon; and when Hananiah tore this yoke away Jeremiah cried out that Yahveh would make yokes of iron for all the Jews. The priests tried to stop him by putting his head into the stocks; but from even that position he continued to denounce them. They arraigned him in the Temple, and wished to kill him, but through some friend among the priests he escaped. Then the princes arrested him, and lowered him by ropes into a dungeon filled with mire; but Zedekiah had him raised to milder imprisonment in the palace court. There the Babylonians found him when Jerusalem fell. On Nebuchadrezzar’s orders they treated him well, and exempted him from the general exile. In his old age, says orthodox tradition,128a he wrote his “Lamentations,” the most eloquent of all the books of the Old Testament. He mourned now the completeness of his triumph and the desolation of Jerusalem, and raised to heaven the unanswerable questions of Job:

How doth the city sit solitary that was full of people! how she is become as a widow! she that was great among the nations, and princess among the provinces, how is she become tributary! . . . Is it nothing to you, all ye that pass by? Behold, and see if there be any sorrow like unto my sorrow. . . . Righteous art thou, O Lord, when I plead with thee: yet let us talk with thee of thy judgments: Wherefore doth the way of the wicked prosper? Wherefore are all they happy that deal very treacherously?129

Meanwhile, in Babylon, another preacher was taking up the burden of prophecy. Ezekiel belonged to a priestly family that had been driven to Babylon in the first deportation from Jerusalem. He began his preaching, like the First Isaiah and Jeremiah, with fierce denunciations of idolatry and corruption in Jerusalem. At great length he compared Jerusalem to a harlot, because she sold the favors of her worship to strange gods;130 he described Samaria and Jerusalem as twin whores; this word was as popular with him as with the dramatists of the Stuart Restoration. He made long lists of the sins of Jerusalem, and then condemned her to capture and destruction. Like Isaiah, he doomed the nations impartially, and announced the sins and fall of Moab, Tyre, Egypt, Assyria, even of the mysterious kingdom of Magog.131 But he was not as bitter as Jeremiah; in the end he relented, declared that the Lord would save “a remnant” of the Jews, and foretold the resurrection of their city;132 he described in vision the new Temple that would be built there, and outlined a Utopia in which the priests would be supreme, and in which Yahveh would dwell among his people forever.

He hoped, with this happy ending, to keep up the spirits of the exiles, and to retard their assimilation into the Babylonian culture and blood. Then as now it seemed that this process of absorption would destroy the unity, even the identity, of the Jews. They flourished on Mesopotamia’s rich soil, they enjoyed considerable freedom of custom and worship, they grew rapidly in numbers and wealth, and prospered in the unwonted tranquillity and harmony which their subjection had brought to them. An ever-rising proportion of them accepted the gods of Babylon, and the epicurean ways of the old metropolis. When the second generation of exiles grew up, Jerusalem was almost forgotten.

It was the function of the unknown author who undertook to complete the Book of Isaiah to restate the religion of Israel for this backsliding generation; and it was his distinction, in restating it, to lift it to the loftiest plane that any religion had yet reached amid all the faiths of the Near East.* While Buddha in India was preaching the death of desire, and Confucius in China was formulating wisdom for his people, this “Second Isaiah,” in majestic and luminous prose, announced to the exiled Jews the first clear revelation of monotheism, and offered them a new god, infinitely richer in “lovingkindness” and tender mercy than the bitter Yahveh even of the First Isaiah. In words that a later gospel was to choose as spurring on the young Christ, this greatest of Prophets announced his mission—no longer to curse the people for their sins, but to bring them hope in their bondage. “The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me; because the Lord hath anointed me to preach good tidings unto the meek; he hath sent me to bind up the broken-hearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of “the prison to them that are bound.”133 For he has discovered that Yahveh is not a god of war and vengeance, but a loving father; the discovery fills him with happiness, and inspires him to magnificent songs. He predicts the coming of the new god to rescue his people:

The voice of him that crieth in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill shall be made low; and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough places plain.* . . . Behold, the Lord God will come with strong hand, and his arm shall rule for him. . . . He shall feed his flock like a shepherd; he shall gather the lambs with his arm, and carry them in his bosom and shall gently lead those that are with young.

The prophet then lifts the Messianic hope to a place among the ruling ideas of his people, and describes the “Servant” who will redeem Israel by vicarious sacrifice:

He is despised and rejected of men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief; . . . he was despised, and we esteemed him not. Surely he hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows; yet we did esteem him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities; the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed. . . . The Lord hath laid on him the iniquity of us all.134

Persia, the Second Isaiah predicts, will be the instrument of this liberation. Cyrus is invincible; he will take Babylon, and will free the Jews from their captivity. They will return to Jerusalem and build a new Temple, a new city, a very paradise: “the wolf and the lamb shall feed together, and the lion shall eat straw like a bullock; and dust shall be the serpent’s meat. They shall not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain, saith the Lord.”135 Perhaps it was the rise of Persia, and the spread of its power, subjecting all the states of the Near East in an imperial unity vaster and better governed than any social organization men had yet known, that suggested to the Prophet the conception of one universal deity. No longer does his god say, like the Yahveh of Moses, “I am the Lord thy God; . . . thou shalt not have strange gods before me”; now it is written: “I am the Lord, and there is none else, there is no god besides me.”136 The prophet-poet describes this universal deity in one of the great passages of the Bible:

Who hath measured the waters in the hollow of his hand, and meted out heaven with the span, and comprehended the dust of the earth in a measure, and weighed the mountains in scales, and the hills in a balance? Behold, the nations are as a drop of a bucket, and are counted as the small dust of the balance; behold, he taketh up the isles as a very little thing. All nations before him are as nothing, and they are counted to him less than nothing, and vanity. To whom, then, will ye liken God, or what likeness will ye compare with him? It is he that sitteth upon the circle of the earth, and the inhabitants thereof are as grasshoppers; that stretcheth out the heavens as a curtain, and spreadeth them out as a tent to dwell in. Lift up your eyes on high, and behold who hath created these things.137

It was a dramatic hour in the history of Israel when at last Cyrus entered Babylon as a world-conqueror, and gave to the exiled Jews full freedom to return to Jerusalem. He disappointed some of the Prophets, and showed his superior civilization, by leaving Babylon and its population unhurt, and offering a sceptical obeisance to its gods. He restored to the Jews what remained in the Babylonian treasury of the gold and silver taken by Nebuchadrezzar from the Temple, and instructed the communities in which the exiles lived to furnish them with funds for their long journey home. The younger Jews were not enthusiastic at this liberation; many of them had sunk strong roots into Babylonian soil, and hesitated to abandon their fertile fields and their flourishing trade for the desolate ruins of the Holy City. It was not until two years after Cyrus’ coming that the first detachment of zealots set out on the long three months’ journey back to the land which their fathers had left half a century before.138

They found themselves, then as now, not entirely welcome in their ancient home. For meanwhile other Semites had settled there, and had made the soil their own by occupation and toil; and these tribes looked with hatred upon the apparent invaders of what seemed to them their native fields. The returning Jews could not possibly have established themselves had it not been for the strong and friendly empire that protected them. The prince Zerubbabel won permission from the Persian king, Darius I, to rebuild the Temple; and though the immigrants were small in number and resources, and the work was hindered at every step by the attacks and conspiracies of a hostile population, it was carried to completion within some twenty-two years after the return. Slowly Jerusalem became again a Jewish city, and the Temple resounded with the psalms of a rescued remnant resolved to make Judea strong again. It was a great triumph, surpassed only by that which we have seen in our own historic time.

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