ISRAEL'S EXPERIENCE IN THE WILDERNESS AND EAST OF THE JORDAN -- Num.11-14; 21:21-31; 32:39-42.
Hist. Bible I, 204-29.
Edward Jenks, Hist. of Politics, Chap, III.
Then as they journeyed from the mountain of Jehovah the ark of Jehovah went before them, to seek out a halting place for them. And whenever the ark started, Moses would say,
Arise, O Jehovah,
And let thine enemies be scattered,
And let those who hate thee flee before thee.
And when it rested, he would say,
Return, O Jehovah, to the ten thousand of thousands of Israel. -- Num.10:33, 35, 36.
As an eagle stirreth up her nest, hovereth over her young, taketh them, beareth them upon her wings, so the Lord his God did lead him and there was no strange God with him. -- Deut.32: 11.
Before man made us citizens, great Nature made us men -- Lowell.
Oh, East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet
Till earth and sky stand presently at God's great
But there is neither East, nor West, border nor breed nor birth
When two strong men stand face to face, tho' they come from the ends of the earth.
-- Rudyard Kipling.
The measure of the success of our lives can only lie in the stature of our manhood, in the growth in unworldliness and in the moral elevation of our inner self. -- Henry Drummond.
THE WILDERNESS ENVIRONMENT.
The accounts regarding the experiences of the Israelites in the wilderness lack the unity which characterizes the records of the earlier and later periods. They simply give occasional pictures of the life of the Hebrew fugitives. They must be interpreted in the light of the peculiar background of the wilderness and of the nomadic life which flourishes there to-day as it did in the past. The Hebrews on escaping from Egypt entered the South Country, which extends seventy miles from the rocky hills of Judah southward until it merges into the barren desert. During the later Roman period the northern and northwestern portions of this territory were partially reclaimed by agriculturalists; but in early periods, as to-day, it was pre-eminently the home of wandering, nomadic tribes. This wild, treeless region is divided by rocky ranges running from east to west. Parallel to these are deep, hot and for the most part waterless valleys. In the springtime these valleys are covered by a sparse vegetation; from a few perennial springs flow waters that irrigate the immediately surrounding land; but they soon lose themselves in the thirsty desert. During the summer the vegetation disappears almost entirely, and the struggle for subsistence becomes intense. The nature of the country makes it necessary for its inhabitants constantly to journey from one pasture land and spring to another.
The home of the Hebrews at this time, like that of the modern Arabs, was the tent. The stories that have come down from this period suggest the experiences through which they passed. The constant insistent problem in this region was and is how to secure adequate supplies of food and water. During the greater part of the year the chief food of the people is the milk and curds supplied by their herds. At times, however, these fail to meet the needs even of the modern Bedouin inhabitants of this South Country. They then gather the gum that exudes from the tamarisk tree or the lichens from the rocks. From these they make a coarse flour and bread which keeps them alive until the winter rains again bring their supply of water and pasturage. Some scholars hold that this coarse food was the manna of the Biblical accounts. They argue that later generations, familiar with the barrenness of the wilderness and believing that the Hebrews at this time numbered many thousands, naturally concluded and reported that their ancestors were miraculously fed. At certain periods, also, the meagre fare of the desert dweller is supplemented by the quails which he is able to capture and these are a welcome relief to his monotonous diet. About the perennial springs, which gush forth from the barren rock, there also grew up stories of a miraculous provision for the needs of Jehovah's people; for all springs and especially those in the desert were regarded by the ancients as miracles. Even in more fertile lands the Greeks reared beside such springs temples to the god, whom they thought of as thus signally revealing himself. In the deeper sense each of these early Hebrew stories is historical, for they all record the fundamental thought and belief that through this strenuous, painful period, even as in later crises in their history, Jehovah was guiding his people and giving them not only food and water, but also that training in the school of danger and privation which was essential for their highest development.
Even more insistent than the constant struggle for food and water were the dangers that came from the hostile tribes which already occupied this much-contested territory. For the possession of the springs and pasture lands they fought with the energy and craft that characterize the Bedouin tribes to-day. Hence, to the Hebrews, fresh from the fertile fields of Egypt, their life in the wilderness represented constant hardship, privation, suffering and danger.
INFLUENCE OV THE NOMADIC LIFE UPON ISRAEL'S CHARACTER AND IDEALS.
The wilderness left a stamp upon Hebrew character and life that may be traced even to-day in the later descendants of that race. It tightened their muscles and gave them that physical virility which has enabled them to survive even amidst the most unfavorable conditions. It taught them how to subsist on the most meagre food supply and to thrive where the citizen of a more prosperous land would inevitably starve.
It is probable that in their early nomadic experiences the Hebrews acquired those migratory habits which, intensified by unwonted vicissitudes, have carried them to almost every civilized land. In the wilderness they also learned the art of nomadic warfare which, to win victories, depended not so much upon open attack as upon strategy. The common dangers of the wilderness life tightened the racial and religious bonds that held them together. Only by the closest union could they resist the perils that beset them. Upon the complete devotion of each man to the interest of the tribe hung his fate, as well as that of the community as a whole. Hence arose that devotion to race, that readiness to avenge every wrong and to protect each individual, even if it cost the life-blood of the tribe, which is illustrated in many of the stories that come from this early period. How far has this racial characteristic survived?
In a community thus closely bound together the morality of each individual was guarded with a jealousy unknown in more settled prosperous communities. Thus, for example, adultery from the first appears to have been punished by public stoning. How far has this characteristic survived to the glory of the Jewish race?
The tribal organization also cherished the freedom of each individual. His voice was heard in its council and his rights were carefully protected. The free atmosphere of the desert tolerated no despotism, and the sheik was the servant of all. These fundamental conceptions of government persisted even when, under the influence of a new agricultural environment, the Hebrews established the kingship and monarchy. It was the struggle between these inherited democratic ideals and those of the neighbors who were ruled by despots, that ultimately disrupted the Hebrew kingdom and called forth those great champions of liberty and social justice, the prophets of the Assyrian period. It was this same democratic atmosphere that made possible the work of those prophets, who openly denounced the crimes of king and people. How far have the Jews throughout all their history allied themselves with democratic movements?
THE INFLUENCE OF THE WILDERNESS LIFE UPON ISRAEL'S FAITH.
The pressure of constant danger intensified the sense of dependence upon a power outside and above themselves. It led them to look constantly to Jehovah as their sole guide and deliverer. A continued attitude crystallized into a habit. Hence, throughout their troubled career the Hebrews have been conscious of the presence of God and have found in him their defender and personal friend as has no other people in human history.
As later generations meditated on the perils of the wilderness through which their ancestors passed, they naturally felt that only under the immediate guidance of a divine power could they have escaped. They were familiar with the way in which the caravans travel through the desert: in front of the leader is borne aloft a brazier filled with coals. From this smouldering fire there arises by day a column of smoke that, in the clear air of the desert, can be easily seen afar by any who may straggle behind. At night these glowing coals seem like a pillar of fire, telling of the presence of their leader and protector. With the same vivid imagery, according to some interpreters, the later Hebrews pictured the march of their ancestors through the wilderness, and thereby symbolized the belief that Jehovah was then present and that through his prophet Moses he was personally guiding his people. How far have these Old Testament narratives been thus interpreted by modern western readers? Does it change their spiritual significance to seek to learn their origin and real literary character? Are there still to be found, often in humble walks of life, earnest Christians who have similar deep spiritual experiences and describe them with the same vivid imagery and concreteness? Is the value of our conception of God's presence and activity in human history deepened and strengthened or lessened by the thought that in the past, even as to-day, he accomplished his ends by natural rather than contra-natural methods? Are the faith and institutions of nations and individuals developed most through special revelations or through ordinary, constant, daily training and experience? Is it not true that to us all there come at times experiences akin to those that underlie these wonderful narratives?
THE SIGNIFICANCE OF THE EAST-JORDAN CONQUESTS.
Desert dwellers take little account of the lapse of time. It is not strange that the data regarding the duration of the sojourn in the wilderness are late and exceedingly vague. The number forty in the Bible is the concrete Hebrew equivalent of many. Ordinarily the forty years represent a generation. A period of about forty years accords well with the facts of contemporary Egyptian chronology. If the Hebrews fled from Egypt about 1200, during the period of anarchy following the breakdown of the nineteenth Egyptian dynasty, they could not have entered Palestine much before the middle of the twelfth century, for Ramses III of the Twentieth Dynasty succeeded in re-establishing and maintaining his authority in Southern Palestine until his death about 1167 B.C.
The account of the spies, preserved according to some writers in variant versions by each of the great groups of Hebrew narratives, indicates that the Hebrews attempted but failed to enter Canaan from the south. For tribesmen like the Israelites, chafing under their harsh environment and recalling the prosperity of the land of Egypt, Palestine with its green hills and fertile fields was an irresistible lodestone luring them on to the conquest. The reasons why they failed to enter Canaan from the south are suggested in the narrative of the spies and confirmed by a study of the historical geographical situation. The Canaanite cities of Southern Palestine were built largely with the view to protecting their inhabitants from the ever-lurking nomad invaders. On the other hand the Hebrews had none of the equipment needed to conquer walled cities. More than that the barren hills of the South Country did not furnish the base of supplies necessary to maintain a protracted siege. The early Hebrew narratives imply that certain nomadic tribes, as, for example, the Calebites, the Kenizzites and the Jerahmeelites, independently gained a foothold on the southern borders of Canaan and ultimately assimilated with the Hebrew tribe of Judah when the latter entered Palestine. The earliest Hebrew accounts, however, as well as the logic of the situation indicate that the great body of the Israelites, whose ancestors had been in the land of Egypt, entered Palestine from the east. Throughout all its history the east-Jordan land has witnessed the constant transition of Arab tribes from the nomadic life of the desert to the more settled civilization, of agricultural Palestine. Here on the eastern heights that overlook the Jordan valley and the land of Canaan the traveller still finds the Arab tents and flocks of the nomads beside the plowed fields of the village-dwellers. On the rolling plains of northern Moab and southern Gilead there are few commanding heights or natural fortresses. The important towns, like Dibon and Heshbon, lay on slightly rising hills. The character of the ruins to-day does not indicate that they were ever surrounded by formidable walls. Whether the Hebrews conquered them by open attack or by strategy, as in the case of the town of Ai, is not stated. It is certain, however, that here they first gained a permanent foothold in agricultural Palestine. From the conquered they here learned their initial lessons in the arts of agriculture and became acquainted with that more advanced Canaanite civilization which they later absorbed. Coming fresh from the desert, where only the fittest survived, their numbers rapidly increased in this quieter and more favorable environment. Soon to the constant pressure of the desert population on the east was added that of over-population, so that necessity, as well as ambition, impelled them to cross the Jordan to seek homes among the hills to the west.
THE SIGNIFICANCE OF MOSES' WORK.
The study of the beginnings of Israel's history in the light of its physical, social and economic environment reveals clearly the many powerful forces then at work. At the same time these do not alone explain Israel's later history and the uniqueness of its character and faith. These later facts plainly point back to a strong, commanding personality, who shaped the ideals and institutions of this early people and left upon them the imperishable imprint of his own unique individuality. Although the traditions regarding him have been transmitted for centuries from mouth to mouth, they portray the character and work of Moses with remarkable clarity and impressiveness. Moses was primarily a patriot. He was also a prophet-statesman, able to grasp and interpret the significance of the great crises in the life of his people and to suggest practical solutions. Moreover, he was able to inspire confidence, and to lead as well as direct. In the harsh environment of the wilderness he was able to adjust himself to most difficult conditions. In leading the Hebrew serfs from the land of Egypt, he became indeed the creator of the future Hebrew nation. In the wilderness be trained that child nation. As judge and counsellor, he taught concretely the broad principles which became the foundation of later Hebrew law.
As guardian of the oracle and priest of the desert sanctuary, Moses, like the later prophet of Islam, but with far greater spiritual power and deeper insight, taught his people not only the art of worship, but certain of the great essentials of religion. He it was who formulated in a positive faith the wholesome reaction, which he and his kinsmen felt against the gross polytheism of Egypt. The inspiration of all of Moses' work was his own personal faith. The first great vision of Jehovah's character and purpose that he had received in the land of Midian was doubtless often renewed amidst the same wild, impressive scenes. The exact nature of the deeper, more personal side of his character and faith must be inferred from the close analogies that may be drawn from the memoirs of Isaiah or Jeremiah. At the same time it is a mistake to infer that Moses' beliefs were as lofty as those of the later prophets who stood in the light of a larger experience. On the other hand, it is not just to disregard the fact that Moses, being a prophet, was far in advance of the primitive age in which he lived. Not only did Moses create the Hebrew nation and teach it its first lessons in practical politics and religion, but he it was who first instilled into his race commanding loyalty to the one God, Jehovah, and taught that religion was more than form: that it meant right thinking and doing. Thus Moses was the forerunner of Israel's later prophets, who broke away from the narrow heathen interpretation of religion and defined it in terms of life and service.
THE EARLY STAGES IN THE TRAINING OF THE HUMAN RACE.
It is interesting and important to note that Israel's history was in most respects like that of other growing nations. In the beginning pastoral society and tribal government develop among savages primarily through the domestication of animals. The young of the animals slain in the hunt are kept first as pets: then, when as a result of the thriftless nature of the savages supplies at times become scarce, the pets are slain for food. As pets become more common and population increases, the advantage of breeding for use is apparent, and private property, in distinction from community possessions, appears. The growing herds naturally develop the need of regular service. To meet this need the institutions of permanent marriage and bondage arise and the wife or wives and the slaves perform the added work. With the custom of fixed marriage and the possibility of tracing ancestry through the father, comes in time ancestral government. The Hebrews seem to have had this type of government, even in the days of Abraham; and it lasted until the tribes broke up into clans and families, when they acquired permanent homes and became agriculturists in the land of Canaan.
Many of the characteristics of the tribe disappear almost entirely, as wandering nomads settle in a fixed abode, and the patriarchal rule changes to that of a royal or democratic government. Customs become fixed in formal statutes. Property in land becomes more important than that in herds. War becomes the business of a special army, instead of the frequent duty of all.
But in the tribe there is little competition. All work for the community, or for the family, rather than for individual interests. Each man is primarily responsible, not to the state, but to the head of his family or clan, who in turn answers for his family to the tribal chief.
Certain of these tribal institutions and ideals have left their indelible impress on modern society. The tribe was exclusive. All those not born into the tribe had no right, no welcome there, for their coming would tend to restrict the common pasturage. They would be a burden. Though the tent-dweller might be hospitable to a guest, an alien had no rights except on sufferance. If he were needy and were received, he usually became a serf or slave. And yet this exclusiveness is the germ of our patriotism, a noble trait that may ultimately, but not soon, be replaced by a cosmopolitan love for humanity.
Allied to this is the personal bond, that obtains in the tribe, instead of the territorial unity of the modern state. A Frenchman is such because he is born in France; an Israelite is such because he is the son of Abraham and knows his people as his blood kinsmen.
This personal tie makes for peace and democracy. Building on this Jewish tribal trait, Jesus calls all men brethren because sons of a common Father. His Kingdom of God, likewise, is not territorial. Its citizens are bound together by the tribal bond of a common brotherhood and fatherhood. Thus the lessons, so deeply impressed in the childhood of the race, have a large and growing significance for the present and future.
Questions for Further Consideration.
What reasons may be given to prove that love for humanity is a virtue more useful to modern civilization than patriotism?
Does the movement for universal peace find any encouragement in the teachings ascribed to Moses?
On what grounds can the conquest of Canaan by the Israelites be defended? How did it differ from the taking of Tripoli by Italy? Or of Porto Rico by the United States?
In the light of the oldest records, was Moses' work in your judgment accomplished by natural or supernatural methods?
What were the chief characteristics of Moses? What place does he hold in history?
Is modern socialism in any way a revival of the principles underlying the old tribal organization? How far did Jesus in his idea of the Kingdom of God build on the old tribal idea?
Subjects/or Further Study.
(1) Characteristics of the Wilderness South of Palestine. Hastings, Dict. Bib. III, 505-6. Kent, Bib. Geog. and Hist., 42, 43.
(2) The Religion of Moses. Hastings, Dict. Bib., Extra Vol.631-634; Marti, Old Testament Religion, 36-71.
(3) Compare the tribal organization and customs of the Israelites with those of the American Indian tribes of to-day. Publications of the Indian Association; publications of the Mohonk Conferences.