The patriarchs might be called family kings -- the divinely appointed rulers of households. They were the earliest sovereigns under God of which we have any account. Their authority was gradually extended by the union of households, whose retinue of servants was often large, and their wealth very great. The founder and leader of the patriarchal line chosen by God from the wealthy nomades, or wandering farmers of the fruitful valleys, was Abram. A worshipper of the Infinite One, he married Sarai, a maiden of elevated piety and personal beauty. And doubtless they often walked forth together beneath the nightly sky, whose transparent air in that latitude made the stars impressively --
|The burning blazonry of God!|
Upon the hill-tops around, were the observatories and altars of Chaldean philosophy, whose disciples worshipped the host of Heaven. In the serenity of such an hour, with the white tents reposing in the distance, and the |soul-like sound| of the rustling forest alone breaking the stillness, it would not be strange, as they gazed on flaming Orion and the Pleiades, if they had bowed with the Devotee of Light, while --
|Beneath his blue and beaming sky,
He worshipped at their lofty shrine,
And deemed he saw with gifted eye,
The Godhead in his works divine.|
But a purer illumination than streamed from that radiant dome, brought near in his majesty the Eternal, and like the holy worshippers of Eden, they adored with subdued and reverent hearts, their infinite Father.
There is great sublimity and wonderful power in the purity and growth of religious principle, in circumstances opposed to its manifestation. The temptations resisted -- the earnest communion with each other -- the glorious aspirations and soarings of imagination, when morning broke upon the summits, and evening came down with its stars, and its rising moon, flooding with glory nature in her repose. These, and a thousand lovely and touching scenes of that pastoral life, are all unrecorded. The great events in history, and bold points in character, are seized by the inspired penman as sufficient to mark the grand outline of God's providential and moral government over the world, and his care of his people.
Just when it would best accomplish his designs, which are ever marching to their fulfillment, Jehovah called to Abram, and bade him go to a distant land which he would show him. With his father-in-law, and with Lot, his flocks and herds, he journeyed toward Palestine. When he arrived at Haran, in Mesopotamia, pleased with the country, and probably influenced by the declining health of the aged Terah, he took up his residence there. Here he remained till the venerable patriarch, Sarai's father, died. The circle of relatives bore him to the grave, and kept the days of mourning. But the dutiful daughter wept in the solitary grief of an orphan's heart. A few years before she had lost a brother, and now the father to whom she was the last flower that bloomed on the desert of age, and who lavished his love upon her, was buried among strangers.
Then the command to move forward to his promised inheritance came again to Abram. With Sarai he journeyed on among the hills, encamping at night beside a mountain spring, and beneath the unclouded heavens arching their path, changeless and watchful as the love of God -- exiles by the power of their simple faith in him. Soon as they reached Palestine, Abram consecrated its very soil by erecting a family altar, first in the plain of Moreh, and again on the summits that catch the smile of morning near the hamlet of Bethel.
Months stepped away, rapidly as silently, old associations wore off, and Abram was a wealthy and happy man in the luxuriant vales of Canaan. His flocks dotted the plains, and his cattle sent down their lowing from encircling hills. But more than these to him was the affection of his beautiful wife. Her eye watched his form along the winding way, when with the ascending sun he went out on the dewy slopes, and kindled with a serene welcome when at night-fall he returned for repose amid the sacred joys of home.
At length there came on a fearful famine. The rain was withholden, and the dew shed its benediction no more upon the earth. He was compelled to seek bread at the court of Pharaoh, or perish. Knowing the power of female beauty, and the want of principle among the Egyptian princes, he was afraid of assassination and the captivity of Sarai which would follow. Haunted with this fear, he told her to say that she was his sister -- which was not a direct falsehood, but only so by implication. According to the Jewish mode of reckoning relationship, she might be called a sister; and Abram stooped to this prevarication under that terrible dread which, in the case of Peter, drove a true disciple of Christ to the brink of apostacy and despair.
[Illustration: Results of Prevarication. Peter denying his Master.]
But his deception involved him in the very difficulty he designed to escape. The king's courtiers saw the handsome Hebrew, and extolled her beauty before him. He summoned her to the apartments of the palace, and captivated by her loveliness, determined to make her his bride. During the agonizing suspense of Abram, and the concealed anguish of Sarai in her conscious degradation, the hours wore heavily away, until the judgment of God upon the royal household brought deliverance. Pharaoh, though an idolater, knew by this supernatural infliction, that there was guilt in the transaction, and called Abram to an account. He had nothing to say in self-acquittal, and with a strange magnanimity, was sent away quietly, with his wife and property, followed only by the reproaches of Pharaoh, and his own wakeful conscience.
Abram returned to Palestine, became a victor in fierce battles with a vastly outnumbering foe, and was in possession of a splendid fortune.
Whether in Egypt, or in his tent on the plains of Palestine, Abram, with all the patriarchs, was a true gentleman. We may doubt whether any modern school of refinement in manners could furnish any nobler examples of dignity and civility in personal learning and manners, than were the rich dwellers in ancient Palestine. Subjects fell prostrate before sovereigns; equals, when they met, inclined the head toward the breast, and placed the right hand on the left breast. Of the Great King it is written, |Come, let us bow down; let us worship before the Lord our Maker.|
Jehovah appeared to Abram in a glorious vision, talking with him as friend to friend. He fell on his face in the dust, as did the exile of Patmos ages after, while a voice of affection and hope carne from the bending sky: |I am the Almighty God; walk before me and be thou perfect.| The solemn covenant involving the greatness and splendor of the people and commonwealth that should spring from the solitary pair, was renewed; and as an outward seal, he was named Abraham, The father of a great multitude -- and his wife Sarah, The princess. Still he laughed at the absurdity that Sarah would ever be a mother, and invoked a blessing on Ishmael, but evidently said nothing to her upon a subject dismissed as incredible from his thoughts. For when the celestial messengers were in the tent, on their way to warn Lot, she listened to their earnest conversation, concealed by the curtains, and hearing that repeated promise based on the immutability of God, also laughed with bitter mirth at her hopeless prospect in regard to the marvelous prediction. And when one of the Angels, who was Jehovah veiled in human form, as afterward |manifest in the flesh,| charged her with this unbelief and levity, the discovery roused her fears, and approaching him, without hesitation, she denied the fact. He knew perfectly her sudden apprehension, and only repeated the accusation, enforced by a glance of omniscience, like that which pierced the heart of Peter.
The group separated, and two of those bright beings went to Sodom. The next morning Abraham walked out upon the plain, and looked toward the home of Lot. He saw the smoke as of a great furnace going up to the calm azure, from the scathed and blackened plains, where life was so busy and joyous a few hours before! With a heavy heart he returned to his tent, arid brought Sarah forth to behold the scene. She clung with trembling to his side, while she listened to the narration of the terrible overthrow of those gorgeous cities, and the rescue of her brother's household, and beheld in the distance the seething and silent grave of millions, sending up a swaying column of ebon cloud, like incense, to God's burning indignation against sin.
They left the vale of Mamre, and journeyed to Gera, where, with a marvellous forgetfulness of the past, the beauty of Sarah again led them into deception and falsehood, and with the same result as before. Abimelech, the king, would have taken her for his wife as Abraham's sister, had not God appeared in a dream, threatening immediate death. Upon pleading his innocence, he was spared, and expostulating with his guest, generously offered him a choice of residence in the land; but rebuked Sarah with merited severity.
Prophecy and covenant now hastened to their fulfillment. Sarah gave birth to a son, and with the name of God upon her lips, she gave utterance to holy rapture. With all her faults, she was a pious and noble woman. She meant to train him for the Lord, and therefore when she saw young Ishmael mocking at the festival of his weaning, she besought her husband to send away the irreverent son, whose influence might ruin the consecrated Isaac. Hagar, with a generous provision for her wants, was a fugitive; and the Most High approved the solicitude of a mother for an only child, around whose destiny was gathered the interest of ages, and the hopes of a world.
And now, with the solemn shadows of life's evening hours falling around her, and a heart subdued by the discipline of Providence, in the fulness of love which had been rising so long within the barriers of hope deferred, she bent prayerfully over the very slumbers of that fair boy, and taught him the precious name of God with the first prattle of his infant lips. How proudly she watched the unfolding of this bud of promise! When, in the pastimes of childhood, he played before the tent door, or, with a shout of gladness, ran to meet Abraham returning from the folds, her calm and glowing eye marked his footsteps, and her grateful aspirations for a blessing on the lad, went up to the Heaven of heavens. At length he stood before her in the manliness and beauty of youth, unscarred by the rage of passions, and with a brow open and laughing as the radiant sky of his own lovely Palestine.
[Illustration: Hagar in the Wilderness.]
It was a morning which flooded the dewy plains with glory, and filled the groves with music, when Abraham came in from his wonted communion with God, and called for Isaac, and told him to prepare for a three days' journey in the wilderness. How tenderly was Sarah regarded in this scene of trial! Evidently no information of the awful command to sacrifice the son of her old age was made to her. She might have read something fearful in the lines of anxious thought and the workings of deep emotion in the face of Abraham. But he evaded all inquiries on the subject, |clave the wood,| and accompanied by two of his young men, turned from his dwelling with a blessing from that wondering mother, and was soon lost from her straining vision among the distant hills. Upon the third day he saw the top of Mount Moriah kindling in the rising sun, and taking Isaac alone, ascended to the summit, whereon was to be reared an altar, which awakened more intense solicitude in heaven, than any offering before or since, except on Calvary, where God's |only be-gotten and well-beloved Son| was slain. There is no higher moral sublimity than the unwavering trust and cheerful obedience of this patriarch, when the very oath of the Almighty seemed perjured, and the bow of promise blotted from the firmament of faith!
But he believed Jehovah, and would have clung to his assurance, though the earth had reeled in her orbit, and every star drifted from its moorings. He prayed for strength, with his hand on the forehead of his submissive son.
|He rose up, and laid
The wood upon the altar. All was done,
He stood a moment -- and a deep, quick flush
Passed o'er his countenance; and then he nerved
His spirit with a bitter strength, and spoke --
'Isaac! my only son' -- the boy looked up,
And Abraham turned his face away, and wept.
'Where is the lamb, my father?' O, the tones,
The sweet, the thrilling music of a child!
How it doth agonize at such an hour!
It was the last, deep struggle -- Abraham held
His loved, his beautiful, his only son,
And lifted up his arm, and called on God
And lo! God's angel staid him -- and he fell
Upon his face and wept.|
The years fled, the good old Abraham died, and Isaac succeeded him to the patriarchal honors. He had two sons, Esau and Jacob. The elder brother was irreligious, and married a heathen wife. God had rejected him, and promised to Jacob the birthright; in other words, he was to be the chief patriarch, through whose descendants the Messiah should come. He was his mother's favorite boy, while Isaac clung to Esau.
When the fond father became weak and blind from age, feeling that death was near, one day he called Esau, and told him as he might die suddenly, to get him venison, and prepare for the solemn occasion of receiving his parting blessing, which should secure the privileges and pre-eminence of the first-born. The hunter went into the fields, and Rebekah recollected that Jacob had purchased the birthright of his brother for a mess of pottage one day when he came in from the chase faint with hunger and exhaustion. She determined by a stroke of management to secure the patriarchal benediction. She sent him to the flocks after two kids, which were prepared with the savory delicacy his father loved, dressed him up in Esau's apparel, covering his hands and neck to imitate the hairiness of the rightful heir, and sent him to the beside of the dying Isaac. When the patriarch inquired who he was, he replied, |I am Esau, thy first-born.| This was beyond belief, because even the skillful hunter could scarcely, without a miracle, so soon bring in the game, and dress it for his table. Jacob was called to his side, and he felt of his hands; the disguise completed the delusion, although his voice had the milder tone of the young shepherd to that father's ear. He repeated the interrogation concerning his name, then embracing him, pronounced in a strain of true poetry, the perpetual blessing of Jehovah's favor upon his undertakings, and his posterity. The stratagem had succeeded, and Jacob hastened to inform his mother of the victory, just as Esau entered. When Isaac discovered the mistake, he trembled with excitement, while his son cried in anguish, |Bless even me also, O my father!| That cry pierced the breaking heart of the aged man, but it was a fruitless lament, He was inflexible, and Esau wept aloud over his blasted hopes; plotting at the same time, in his awakened enmity, the murder of Jacob.
This scene of deception, disappointment, and providential working, the introductory picture brings vividly before us.
The patriarchs were generally shepherds, and when we read in the Bible of shepherds, we have but a poor impression of their business, if we think only of the keeping of the small flocks kept in the fenced fields and yards of modern farmers. They made their wealth chiefly by feeding immense flocks and herds. They had extensive open plains; and were obliged to watch the animals to prevent their being lost, stolen by robbers, or devoured by ferocious beasts. When it was at all safe, the shepherds and their flocks slept in the fields, beneath the open sky, or under the sheltering trees.
[Illustration: The Welcome to a Wayward Son.]
If the country was infested by dangerous men or animals, the owners of the flocks built the fold or sheep-cote. This enclosure was sometimes merely a rude pen. The walls were of wood or stone, with a thatched roof -- if they had any at all. The shepherd follows a wayward sheep, and brings him back to a place of safety.
Thus the Good Shepherd of souls, whose disciples, like the flocks of the East, |know his voice,| with his rod of affliction restrains the wandering and keeps securely the trusting ones.
Occasionally a rich land owner would make an expensive fold -- a kind of town or fortress for his flocks. Keeping the sheep in the air, it was believed improved the texture of the wool, making it softer and firmer than when exposed to the sweating and vapors which would necessarily result from crowding them often and long into enclosures.
Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, were among the richest shepherds of antiquity, and stand alone in moral grandeur of character, so far as we have any records of the Hebrew husbandmen.
The great enemy of the sheep the world over, is the wolf -- a cunning, savage, and daring creature. A lamb of the flock seems to be a dainty feast for him. He relishes even a child; the human delicacy is quite as delicious as the other. A mother, with three children, was once riding in a sledge in a desolate region, when a pack of wolves came running after her. She drove rapidly on, but they came nearer and nearer, until their hot breath fell on her face. In her terror, she threw one of the children to the hungry wolves, hoping thus to pacify or check them until she could get out of their reach. Soon, however, they came galloping on, surrounding her sledge, and she flung another upon the snow. A brief delay, and they were once more around her, and the last child was given to the beasts; and then she reached her home in safety.
When she told the story to her neighbors, an exasperated peasant hewed her down with an axe, because she fed the wolves on her own offspring, selfishly saving by the sacrifice, her own life.
How like the destroyers of human virtue, and the great destroyer himself! Wolves in sheep's clothing, stealing upon unguarded victims, and glorying in the destruction of all that is |lovely and of good report.| for the transitory present and endless future!
We now turn to the annals of a patriarchal life which is entirely new, and intensely interesting -- the only record of the kind in the Bible.
The inspired history introduces him in the following words: |There was a man in the land of Uz, whose name was Job.| This region was in Eastern Arabia, and probably near the home of Abram when he was summoned by God to leave his idolatrous friends and neighbors in |Ur of the Chaldees.|
It is thought he lived not far from the time of the great founder of the Hebrew patriarchy. Job was probably a descendant of Nahor, Abram's brother. He was a devout, rich, and benevolent Gentile patriarch. The princely fortune of this |greatest of all the men of the East,| is indicated by an inventory of his flocks and herds. He had |seven thousand sheep, and three thousand camels, and five hundred yoke of oxen, and five hundred she asses.| His household was also |very great.| This mighty man was a humble servant of God; and Satan could not bear to see his influence and prosperity; and he determined to make him the shining mark of his enmity to God and man.
The mysterious account of his entrance upon the cruel work of attempted ruin, is in the following words: |Now there was a day when the sons of God came to present themselves before the Lord, and Satan came also among them.| The saints of that early age were called |Sons of God,| but the meaning seems to be that either Satan was permitted to appear in a gathering of angels who, returning from their ministries of love, were reporting to their king, and awaiting new instructions, or, it is designed only to represent the real character and power of the tempter, in contrast with the loyalty of God's servant.
The whole narrative bears the marks of a real history; and Jehovah is not limited by our ideas of what he can consistently do. |My ways are not your ways, nor my thoughts your thoughts, saith the Lord.|
The devil charged Job with selfish motives in serving God. He could afford to be religious with such rare and splendid prosperity. To show to the universe Satan's lying malice, his loyal subject's holy character, and to comfort his people in all the ages following, while the discipline purified and beautified the sufferer, he told the adversary to try the patriarch with a change of circumstances -- the severest trials; only his body must not be touched.
The gratified fiend hastened away to his attack upon the unsuspecting friend of God, over whom he anticipated a great victory. The patriarch's family was large, and evidently a united and happy one. They had their anniversary festivals, which were hallowed by religious services; the faithful and affectionate father offering sacrifices on such occasions. The Lord was recognized amid the most joyful scenes of social life; and not, as in many prosperous households of Christian name in all the ages since, excluded from the circle of pleasure like an unwelcome, unworthy guest.
[Illustration: The Cruel Husbandman.]
The birthday seems to have been the favorite anniversary; and at the very moment Satan left Jehovah, the children were assembled at the house of the oldest brother. Job was not there. He may have gone away for awhile, or not yet have joined the rejoicing company.
For a messenger rushed into his presence with the startling intelligence that the lawless Sabeans living in the region, had fallen upon the servants keeping the oxen and asses, and slaying them, had taken the animals away. No sooner had the devil obtained permission to engage, in the wicked enterprise, than he found ready agents among men. And before the evil report was finished, another terrified, excited servant, came in, saying that the lightning of heaven had consumed the seven thousand sheep.
This intelligence was falling from the lips of the only shepherd who escaped the devouring fire, when a third messenger entered, pale with alarm, and announced the raid of three companies of Chaldeans upon the keepers of the three thousand camels, killing all but the bearer of the news, and driving off the beasts of burden. The trembling man was interrupted by the sudden appearance of the fourth servant, wild with terror, crowning the crushing tidings already received, by telling Job that a gale from the wilderness had swept down upon the eldest son's dwelling, where the whole family were, excepting the patriarch, and thrown walls and roof into a common wreck, burying his ten children under the fragments.
We cannot easily imagine the stunning effect of these reports, following each other like successive claps of thunder from a cloudless sky. Satan was watching the effect, ready to exult over the first expression of repining and rebellion. But how sublime the resignation of the loyal heart of the childless, homeless, and penniless sufferer! After the eastern custom in time of affliction, he cut off his hair, rent his robe, fell upon the ground, and worshipped. The lips, tremulous with sorrow, uttered the often-quoted and beautiful words: |The Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.| No disloyal act, or foolish complaint against Jehovah, gratified the expectant enemy of God and man. But Satan was not satisfied with the trial of faith. He was allowed to appear before God, and in answer to the questioning respecting the patriarch's lofty yet meek submission, basely and meanly declared that if he had been permitted to torture the body, he should have succeeded in proving Job to be a hypocrite. The Lord had purposed to silence the devil, and thoroughly try and sanctify his own child. So he told the tempter to do what he pleased, only he must spare life.
Suddenly poor Job was covered with burning ulcers, which defiled his form until he scraped it with a piece of broken pitcher. While sitting in the dust, a wretched mass of corruption, he found a new tempter in the person of his wife: She asked him if he could still |retain his integrity,| and urged him to |curse God and die.| Beautifully again his breaking heart uttered its loyalty. Charging her with folly, he inquired: |What! shall we receive good at the hand of God, and shall we not receive evil?|
The scene of sorrow is now changed. Job had three friends living in the country not far off, who were clearly intelligent, noble men. They heard of his calamities, and started on a visit of condolence. When they came in sight of him, he was so changed that at first they did not know him. They wept aloud, rent their robes, and scattered dust on their heads, to express their overwhelming grief. There he sat, in miserable poverty and disease, and all around him the ruins of his just before magnificent fortune, and the bodies or graves of his sons and daughters. They approached him, and could say nothing, but sat down with him seven days and nights without speaking a word -- an awful, expressive silence. At length Job could refrain no longer, but in his despondency, began to bewail his birth, and wish he had at least died in earliest infancy. Then was opened a long, eloquent, and wonderful discussion by the mourning company upon the providence and grace of God.
Jehovah at length spake from the rolling cloud, borne on the |wings of the wind,| and indicated his dealings with a fallen race, pointing the debaters for illustrations of power, wisdom, and glory, to his works of creation, from the |crooked serpent| to |Orion and the Pleiades,| floating in the nightly sky -- the wonders of ocean, earth, and air.
Among the animals to which reference is made, there are three conspicuous ones, about which naturalists disagree -- they cannot certainly tell us what they were. These are the unicorn, supposed by many to be the rhinoceros of the present day; the behemoth, thought to be the hippopotamus or river-horse; and the leviathan, which answers very well to the whale.
The description of the war horse is the finest ever written, and given in a few words; and yet he had not been seen amid the wildest storm of battle, bearing his rider to the flaming mouths of ordnance, and through the leaden hail of numberless infantry arms. |Hast thou given the horse strength? hast thou clothed his neck with thunder? Canst thou make him afraid as a grasshopper? the glory of his nostrils is terrible. He paweth in the valley, and rejoiceth in his strength, he goeth on to meet the armed men. He mocketh at fear, and is not affrighted; neither turneth he back from the sword. The quiver rattleth against him, the glittering spear and the shield. He swalloweth the ground with fierceness and rage: neither believeth he that it is the sound of the trumpet. He saith among the trumpets, Ha, ha; and he smelleth the battle afar off, the thunder of the captains, and the shouting.|
He alludes to a very beautiful wonder of his forming skill -- |the treasures of the snow.| Few persons imagine the marvels of the fleecy storm that whiten the earth in winter. What a variety of perfect crystals! and how delicate their form and finish! The ice is made of crystals, and often gives out aeolion music at the touch of winter. Even the frost makes fine drawings on the window panes of leaves and flowers.
But the people of Palestine and the regions around it, know little of our northern winters. The cold season is brief, and the occasional snow storms light, and of short duration.
After God had finished his sublime appeal, Job bowed his head low before him, and declared that all he had known of him before, compared with what he had learned since he was afflicted, was no more than hearing about him; |for,| he added, |now mine eye seeeth thee; wherefore I abhor myself, and repent in dust and ashes.|
Then the Lord rebuked Job's friends, because they had judged him harshly, and |had multiplied words without knowledge,| directing them to offer a sacrifice for him.
The patriarch prospered again under Jehovah's smile, and became greater in wealth, and family, and influence, than he was when Satan assailed him. The deceiver and persecutor does not appear again in the annals of the devout Arabian; disappointed and enraged, he turned his malice against others more easily conquered and led captive by his wiles.
How awakening the thought that he still goes about |as a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour.| But with loving trust in God, he can only repeat his fruitless effort to destroy, preparing the way for richest blessings.
[Illustration: Nathan Reproving David]
[Illustration: David's Charge to Solomon.]