Ancient History & Civilisation


The “Book of the Law”—The composition of the Pentateuch—The myths of “Genesis”—The Mosaic Code—The Ten Commandments—The idea of God—The sabbath—The Jewish family—Estimate of the Mosaic legislation

To build a military state was impossible, Judea had neither the numbers nor the wealth for such an enterprise. Since some system of order was needed that, while recognizing the sovereignty of Persia, would give the Jews a natural discipline and a national unity, the clergy undertook to provide a theocratic rule based, like Josiah’s, on priestly traditions and laws promulgated as divine commands. About the year 444 B.C. Ezra, a learned priest, called the Jews together in solemn assembly, and read to them, from morn to midday, the “Book of the Law of Moses.” For seven days he and his fellow Levites read from these scrolls; at the end the priests and the leaders of the people pledged themselves to accept this body of legislation as their constitution and their conscience, and to obey it forever.139 From those troubled times till ours that Law has been the central fact in the life of the Jews; and their loyalty to it through all wanderings and tribulations has been one of the impressive phenomena of history.

What was this “Book of the Law of Moses”? Not quite the same as that “Book of the Covenant” which Josiah had read; for the latter had admitted of being completely read twice in a day, while the other needed a week.140 We can only guess that the larger scroll constituted a substantial part of those first five books of the Old Testament which the Jews call Torah or the Law, and which others call the Pentateuch.141* How, when, and where had these books been written? This is an innocent question which has caused the writing of fifty thousand volumes, and must here be left unanswered in a paragraph.

The consensus of scholarship is that the oldest elements in the Bible are those distinct and yet similar legends of Genesis which are called “J” and “E” respectively because one speaks of the Creator as Jehovah (Yahveh), while the other speaks of him as Elohim.* It is believed that the Yahvist narrative was written in Judah, the Elohist in Ephraim, and that the two stories fused into one after the fall of Samaria. A third element, known as “D,” and embodying the Deuteronomic Code, is probably by a distinct author or group of authors. A fourth element, “P,” is composed of sections later inserted by the priests; this “Priestly Code” is probably the substance of the “Book of the Law” promulgated by Ezra.142a The four compositions appear to have taken their present form about 300 B.C.143

These delightful tales of the Creation, the Temptation and the Flood were drawn from a storehouse of Mesopotamian legend as old as 3000 B.C.; we have seen some early forms of them in the course of this history. It is possible that the Jews appropriated some of these myths from Babylonian literature during the Captivity;144 it is more likely that they had adopted them long before, from ancient Semitic and Sumerian sources common to all the Near East. The Persian and the Talmudic forms of the Creation myth represent God as first making a two-sexed being—a male and a female joined at the back like Siamese twins—and then dividing it as an afterthought. We are reminded of a strange sentence in Genesis (v, 2): “Male and female created he them, and blessed them, and called their name Adam”: i.e., our first parent was originally both male and female—which seems to have escaped all theologians except Aristophanes.

The legend of Paradise appears in almost all folklore—in Egypt, India, Tibet, Babylonia, Persia, Greece, Polynesia, Mexico, etc.145 Most of these Edens had forbidden trees, and were supplied with serpents or dragons that stole immortality from men, or otherwise poisoned Paradise.147Both the serpent and the fig were probably phallic symbols; behind the myth is the thought that sex and knowledge destroy innocence and happiness, and are the origin of evil; we shall find this same idea at the end of the Old Testament in Ecclesiastes as here at the beginning. In most of these stories woman was the lovely-evil agent of the serpent or the devil, whether as Eve, or Pandora, or the Poo See of Chinese legend. “All things,” says the Shi-ching, “were at first subject to man, but a woman threw us into slavery. Our misery came not from heaven but from woman; she lost the human race. Ah, unhappy Poo See! Thou kindled the fire that consumes us, and which is every day increasing. . . . The world is lost. Vice overflows all things.”

Even more universal was the story of the Flood; hardly an ancient people went without it, and hardly a mountain in Asia but had given perch to some water-wearied Noah or Shamash-napishtim.148 Usually these legends were the popular vehicle or allegory of a philosophical judgment or a moral attitude summarizing long racial experience—that sex and knowledge bring more grief than joy, and that human life is periodically threatened by floods,—i.e., ruinous inundations of the great rivers whose waters made possible the earliest known civilizations. To ask whether these stories are true or false, whether they “really happened,” would be to put a trivial and superficial question; their substance, of course, is not the tales they tell but the judgments they convey. Meanwhile it would be unwise not to enjoy their disarming simplicity, and the vivid swiftness of their narratives.

The books which Josiah and Ezra caused to be read to the people formulated that “Mosaic” Code on which all later Jewish life was to be built. Of this legislation the cautious Sarton writes: “Its importance in the history of institutions and of law cannot be overestimated.”149 It was the most thoroughgoing attempt in history to use religion as a basis of statesmanship, and as a regulator of every detail of life; the Law became, says Renan, “the tightest garment into which life was ever laced.”150 Diet,* medicine, personal, menstrual and natal hygiene, public sanitation, sexual inversion and bestiality152—all are made subjects of divine ordinance and guidance; again we observe how slowly the doctor was differentiated from the priest153—to become in time his greatest enemy. Leviticus (xiii-xv) legislates carefully for the treatment of venereal disease, even to the most definite directions for segregation, disinfection, fumigation and, if necessary, the complete burning of the house in which the disease has run its course.154* “The ancient Hebrews were the founders of prophylaxis,”156 but they seem to have had no surgery beyond circumcision. This rite—common among ancient Egyptians and modern Semites—was not only a sacrifice to God and a compulsion to racial loyalty, it was a hygienic precaution against sexual uncleanliness.158 Perhaps it was this Code of Cleanliness that helped to preserve the Jews through their long Odyssey of dispersion and suffering.

For the rest the Code centered about those Ten Commandments (Exodus, xx, 1-17) which were destined to receive the lip-service of half the world. The first laid the foundation of the new theocratic community, which was to rest not upon any civil law, but upon the idea of God; he was the Invisible King who dictated every law and meted out every penalty; and his people were to be called Israel, as meaning the Defenders of God. The Hebrew state was dead, but the Temple remained; the priests of Judea, like the Popes of Rome, would try to restore what the kings had failed to save. Hence the explicitness and reiteration of the First Commandment: heresy or blasphemy must be punished with death, even if the heretic should be one’s closest kin.161 The priestly authors of the Code, like the pious Inquisitors, believed that religious unity was an indispensable condition of social organization and solidarity. It was this intolerance, and their racial pride, that embroiled and preserved the Jews.

The Second Commandment elevated the national conception of God at the expense of art: no graven images were ever to be made of him. It assumed a high intellectual level among the Jews, for it rejected superstition and anthropomorphism, and—despite the all-too-human quality of the Pentateuch Yahveh—tried to conceive of God as beyond every form and image. It conscripted Hebrew devotion for religion, and left nothing, in ancient days, for science and art; even astronomy was neglected, lest corrupt diviners should multiply, or the stars be worshiped as divinities. In Solomon’s Temple there had been an almost heathen abundance of imagery;163 in the new Temple there was none. The old images had been carried off to Babylon, and apparently had not been returned along with utensils of silver and gold.164 Hence we find no sculpture, painting or bas-relief after the Captivity, and very little before it except under the almost alien Solomon; architecture and music were the only arts that the priests would allow. Song and Temple ritual redeemed the life of the people from gloom; an orchestra of several instruments joined “as one to make one sound” with a great choir of voices to sing the psalms that glorified the Temple and its God.165 “David and all the house of Israel played before the Lord on harps, psalteries, timbrels, cornets and cymbals.”166

The Third Commandment typified the intense piety of the Jew. Not only would he not “take the name of the Lord God in vain”; he would never pronounce it; even when he came upon the name of Yahveh in his prayers he would substitute for it Adonai—Lord.*Only the Hindus would rival this piety.

The Fourth Commandment sanctified the weekly day of rest as a Sabbath, and passed it down as one of the strongest institutions of mankind. The name,—and perhaps the custom—came from Babylon; shabattu was applied by the Babylonians to “tabu” days of abstinence and propitiation.168 Besides this weekly holyday there were great festivals—once Canaanite vegetation rites reminiscent of sowing and harvesting, and the cycles of moon and sun: Mazzoth originally celebrated the beginning of the barley harvest;Shabuoth, later called Pentecost, celebrated the end of the wheat harvest; Sukkoth commemorated the vintage; Pesach, or Passover, was the feast of the first fruits of the flock; Rosh-ha-shanah announced the New Year; only later were these festivals adapted to commemorate vital events in the history of the Jews.168a On the first day of the Passover a lamb or kid was sacrificed and eaten, and its blood was sprinkled upon the doors as the portion of the god; later the priests attached this custom to the story of Yahveh’s slaughter of the firstborn of the Egyptians. The lamb was once a totem of a Canaanite clan; the Passover, among the Canaanites, was the oblation of a lamb to the local god.* As we read (Exod., xi) the story of the establishment of the Passover rite, and see the Jews celebrating that same rite steadfastly today, we feel again the venerable antiquity of their worship, and the strength and tenacity of their race.

The Fifth Commandment sanctified the family, as second only to the Temple in the structure of Jewish society; the ideals then stamped upon the institution marked it throughout medieval and modern European history until our own disintegrative Industrial Revolution. The Hebrew patriarchal family was a vast economic and political organization, composed of the oldest married male, his wives, his unmarried children, his married sons with their wives and children, and perhaps some slaves. The economic basis of the institution was its convenience for cultivating the soil; its political value lay in its providing a system of social order so strong that it made the state—except in war—almost superfluous. The father’s authority was practically unlimited; the land was his, and his children could survive only by obedience to him; he was the state. If he was poor he could sell his daughter, before her puberty, as a bondservant; and though occasionally he condescended to ask her consent, he had full right to dispose of her in marriage as he wished.169 Boys were supposed to be products of the right testicle, girls of the left—which was believed to be smaller and weaker than the right.170 At first marriage was matrilocal; the man had to “leave his father and mother and cleave to his wife” in her clan; but this custom gradually died out after the establishment of the monarchy. Yahveh’s instructions to the wife were: “Thy desire shall be to thy husband, and he shall rule over thee.” Though technically subject, the woman was often a person of high authority and dignity; the history of the Jews shines with such names as Sarah, Rachel, Miriam and Esther; Deborah was one of the judges of Israel,172 and it was the prophetess Huldah whom Josiah consulted about the Book which the priests had found in the Temple.173 The mother of many children was certain of security and honor. For the little nation longed to increase and multiply, feeling, as in Palestine today, its dangerous numerical inferiority to the peoples surrounding it; therefore it exalted motherhood, branded celibacy as a sin and a crime, made marriage compulsory after twenty, even in priests, abhorred marriageable virgins and childless women, and looked upon abortion, infanticide and other means of limiting population as heathen abominations that stank in the nostrils of the Lord.174 “And when Rachel saw that she bare Jacob no children, Rachel envied her sister; and said unto Jacob, Give me children, or else I die.”175 The perfect wife was one who labored constantly in and about her home, and had no thought except in her husband and her children. The last chapter of Proverbs states the male ideal of woman completely:

Who can find a virtuous woman? For her price is far above rubies. The heart of her husband doth safely trust in her, so that he shall have no need of spoil. She will do him good and not evil all the days of her life. She seeketh wool, and flax, and worketh willingly with her hands. She is like the merchants’ ships; she bringeth her food from afar. She riseth also while it is yet night, and giveth meat to her household, and a portion to her maidens. She considered! a field, and buyeth it; with the fruit of her hands she planteth a vineyard. She girdeth her loins with strength, and strengtheneth her arms. She perceiveth that her merchandise is good; her candle goeth not out by night. She layeth her hands to the spindle, and her hands hold the distaff. She stretcheth out her hand to the poor; yea, she reacheth forth her hands to the needy. . . . She maketh herself coverings of tapestry; her clothing is silk and purple. Her husband is known in the gates, when he sitteth among the elders of the land. She maketh fine linen, and selleth it; and delivereth girdles unto the merchant. Strength and honor are her clothing; and she shall rejoice in time to come. She openeth her mouth with wisdom, and in her tongue is the law of kindness. She looketh well to the ways of her household, and eateth not the bread of idleness. Her children arise up and call her blessed; her husband also, and he praiseth her. . . . Give her of the fruit of her hands; and let her own works praise her in the gates.*

The Sixth Commandment was a counsel of perfection; nowhere is there so much killing as in the Old Testament; its chapters oscillate between slaughter and compensatory reproduction. Tribal quarrels, internal factions and hereditary vendettas broke the monotony of intermittent peace.176Despite a magnificent verse about ploughshares and pruninghooks, the Prophets were not pacifists, and the priests—if we may judge from the speeches which they put into the mouth of Yahveh—were almost as fond of war as of preaching. Among nineteen kings of Israel eight were assassinated.177 Captured cities were usually destroyed, the males put to the sword, and the soil deliberately ruined—in the fashion of the times.178 Perhaps the figures exaggerate the killing; it is unbelievable that, entirely without modern inventions, “the children of Israel slew of the Syrians one hundred thousand footmen in one day.”179 Belief in themselves as the chosen people180 intensified the pride natural in a nation conscious of superior abilities; it accentuated their disposition to segregate themselves maritally and mentally from other peoples, and deprived them of the international perspective that their descendants were to attain. But they had in high degree the virtues of their qualities. Their violence came of unmanageable vitality, their separatism came of their piety, their quarrelsomeness and querulousness came of a passionate sensitivity that produced the greatest literature of the Near East; their racial pride was the indispensable prop of their courage through centuries of suffering. Men are what they have had to be.

The Seventh Commandment recognized marriage as the basis of the family, as the Fifth had recognized the family as the basis of society; and it offered to marriage all the support of religion. It said nothing about sex relations before marriage, but other regulations laid upon the bride the obligation, under pain of death by stoning, to prove her virginity on the day of her marriage.181 Nevertheless prostitution was common and pederasty apparently survived the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah.182 As the Law did not seem to prohibit relations with foreign harlots, Syrian, Moabite, Midianite and other “strange women” flourished along the highways, where they lived in booths and tents, and combined the trades of peddler and prostitute. Solomon, who had no violent prejudices in these matters, relaxed the laws that had kept such women out of Jerusalem; in time they multiplied so rapidly there that in the days of the Maccabees the Temple itself was described by an indignant reformer as full of fornication and harlotry.183

Love affairs probably occurred, for there was much tenderness between the sexes; “Jacob served seven years for Rachel, and they seemed unto him but a few days for the love he had to her.”184 But love played a very small rôle in the choice of mates. Before the Exile marriage was completely secular, arranged by the parents, or by the suitor with the parents of the bride. Vestiges of capture-marriage are found in the Old Testament; Yahveh approves of it in war;185 and the elders, on the occasion of a shortage of women, “commanded the children of Benjamin, saying, Go and lie in wait in the vineyards; and see and behold if the daughters of Shiloh come out to dance in dances; then come ye out of the vineyards, and catch you every man his wife of the daughters of Shiloh, and go to the land of Benjamin.”186 But this was exceptional; usually the marriage was by purchase; Jacob purchased Leah and Rachel by his toil, the gentle Ruth was quite simply bought by Boaz, and the prophet Hosea regretted exceedingly that he had given fifty shekels for his wife.187 The word for wife, beulah, meant owned.187a The father of the bride reciprocated by giving his daughter a dowry—an institution admirably adapted to diminish the socially disruptive gap between the sexual and the economic maturity of children in an urban civilization.

If the man was well-to-do, he might practise polygamy; if the wife was barren, like Sarah, she might encourage her husband to take a concubine. The purpose of these arrangements was prolific reproduction; it was taken as a matter of course that after Rachel and Leah had given Jacob all the children they were capable of bearing, they should offer him their maids, who would also bear him children.188 A woman was not allowed to remain idle in this matter of reproduction; if a husband died, his brother, however many wives he might already have, was obliged to marry her; or, if the husband had no brother, the obligation fell upon his nearest surviving male kin.189 Since private property was the core of Jewish economy, the double standard prevailed: the man might have many wives, but the woman was confined to one man. Adultery meant relations with a woman who had been bought and paid for by another man; it was a violation of the law of property, and was punished with death for both parties.190 Fornication was forbidden to women, but was looked upon as a venial offense in men.191 Divorce was free to the man, but extremely difficult for the woman, until Talmudic days.193 The husband does not seem to have abused his privileges unduly; he is pictured to us, all in all, as zealously devoted to his wife and his children. And though love did not determine marriage, it often flowered out of it. “Isaac took Rebecca, and she became his wife; and he loved her; and Isaac was comforted after his mother’s death.”194 Probably in no other people outside of the Far East has family life reached so high a level as among the Jews.

The Eighth Commandment sanctified private property,* and bound it up with religion and the family as one of the three bases of Hebrew society. Property was almost entirely in land; until the days of Solomon there was little industry beyond that of the potter and the smith. Even agriculture was not completely developed; the bulk of the population devoted itself to rearing sheep and cattle, and tending the vine, the olive and the fig. They lived in tents rather than houses, in order to move more easily to fresh pastures. In time their growing economic surplus generated trade, and the Jewish merchants, by their tenacity and their skill, began to flourish in Damascus, Tyre and Sidon, and in the precincts of the Temple itself. There was no coinage till near the time of the Captivity, but gold and silver, weighed in each transaction, became a medium of exchange, and bankers appeared in great numbers to finance commerce and enterprise. It was nothing strange that these “money-lenders” should use the courts of the Temple; it was a custom general in the Near East, and survives there in many places to this day.196 Yahveh beamed upon the growing power of the Hebrew financiers; “thou shalt lend unto many nations,” he said, “but thou shalt not borrow”197—a generous philosophy that has made great fortunes, though it has not seemed, in our century, to be divinely inspired.

As in the other countries of the Near East, war captives and convicts were used as slaves, and hundreds of thousands of them toiled in cutting timber and transporting materials for such public works as Solomon’s Temple and palace. But the owner had no power of life and death over his slaves, and the slave might acquire property and buy his liberty.198 Men could be sold as bondservants for unpaid debts, or could sell their children in their place; and this continued to the days of Christ.199 These typical institutions of the Near East were mitigated in Judea by generous charity, and a vigorous campaign, by priest and prophet, against exploitation. The Code laid it down hopefully that “ye shall not oppress one another”;200 it asked that Hebrew bondservants should be released, and debts among Jews canceled, every seventh year;201 and when this was found too idealistic for the masters, the Law proclaimed the institution of the Jubilee, by which, every fifty years, all slaves and debtors should be freed. “And ye shall hallow the fiftieth year, and proclaim liberty throughout all the land unto all the inhabitants thereof: it shall be a Jubilee unto you; and ye shall return every man unto his possession, and ye shall return every man unto his family.”202

We have no evidence that this fine edict was obeyed, but we must give credit to the priests for leaving no lesson in charity untaught. “If there be among you a poor man of one of thy brethren, . . . thou shalt open thine hand wide unto him, and shalt surely lend him sufficient for his need”; and “take thou no usury” (i.e., interest) “of him.”203 The Sabbath rest was to be extended to every employee, even to animals; stray sheaves and fruits were to be left in the fields and orchards for the poor to glean.204 And though these charities were largely for fellow Jews, “the stranger in the gates” was also to be treated with kindness; the sojourner was to be sheltered and fed, and dealt with honorably. At all times the Jews were bidden to remember that they, too, had once been homeless, even bondservants, in a foreign land.

The Ninth Commandment, by demanding absolute honesty of witnesses, put the prop of religion under the whole structure of Jewish law. An oath was to be a religious ceremony: not merely was a man, in swearing, to place his hand on the genitals of him to whom he swore, as in the old custom;205 he was now to be taking God himself as his witness and his judge. False witnesses, according to the Code, were to receive the same punishment that their testimony had sought to bring upon their victims.206 Religious law was the sole law of Israel; the priests and the temples were the judges and the courts; and those who refused to accept the decision of the priests were to be put to death.207 Ordeal by the drinking of poisonous water was prescribed in certain cases of doubtful guilt.208 There was no other than religious machinery for enforcing the law; it had to be left to personal conscience, and public opinion. Minor crimes might be atoned for by confession and compensation.209 Capital punishment was decreed, by Yahveh’s instructions, for murder, kidnaping, idolatry, adultery, striking or cursing a parent, stealing a slave, or “lying with a beast,” but not for the killing of a servant;210 and “thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.”211 Yahveh was quite satisfied to have the individual take the law into his own hands in case of murder: “The revenger of blood, himself shall slay the murderer; when he meeteth him, he shall slay him.”212 Certain cities, however, were to be set apart, to which a criminal might flee, and in which the avenger must stay his revenge.213 In general the principle of punishment was the lex talionis: “life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burning for burning, stripe for stripe”214—we trust that this was a counsel of perfection, never quite realized. The Mosaic Code, though written down at least fifteen hundred years later, shows no advance, in criminal legislation, upon the Code of Hammurabi; in legal organization it shows an archaic retrogression to primitive ecclesiastical control.

The Tenth Commandment reveals how clearly woman was conceived under the rubric of property. “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s house, thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor anything that is thy neighbor’s.”215Nevertheless, it was an admirable precept; could men follow it, half the fever and anxiety of our life would be removed. Strange to say, the greatest of the commandments is not listed among the Ten, though it is part of the “Law.” It occurs in Leviticus, xix, 18, lost amid “a repetition of sundry laws,” and reads very simply: “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.”

In general it was a lofty code, sharing its defects with its age, and rising to virtues characteristically its own. We must remember that it was only a law—indeed, only a “priestly Utopia”216—rather than a description of Jewish life; like other codes, it was honored plentifully in the breach, and won new praise with every violation. But its influence upon the conduct of the people was at least as great as that of most legal or moral codes. It gave to the Jews, through the two thousand years of wandering which they were soon to begin, a “portable Fatherland,” as Heine was to call it, an intangible and spirtual state; it kept them united despite every dispersion, proud despite every defeat, and brought them across the centuries to our own time, a strong and apparently indestructible people.

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