Ancient History & Civilisation


History—Fiction—Poetry—The Psalms—The Song of Songs—Proverbs—Job—The idea of immortality—The pessimism of Ecclesiastes—The advent of Alexander

The Old Testament is not only law; it is history, poetry and philosophy of the highest order. After making every deduction for primitive legend and pious fraud, after admitting that the historical books are not quite as accurate or as ancient as our forefathers supposed, we find in them, nevertheless, not merely some of the oldest historical writing known to us, but some of the best. The books of Judges, Samuel and Kings may, as some scholars believe,217 have been put together hastily during Or shortly after the Exile to collect and preserve the national traditions of a scattered and broken people; nevertheless the stories of Saul, David and Solomon are immeasurably finer in structure and style than the other historical writing of the ancient Near East. Even Genesis, if we read it with some understanding of the function of legend, is (barring its genealogies)an admirable story, told without frill or ornament, with simplicity, vividness and force. And in a sense we have here not mere history, but philosophy of history; this is the first recorded effort of man to reduce the multiplicity of past events to a measure of unity by seeking in them some pervading purpose and significance, some law of sequence and causation, some illumination for the present and the future. The conception of history promulgated by the Prophets and the priestly authors of the Pentateuch survived a thousand years of Greece and Rome to become the world-view of European thinkers from Boethius to Bossuet.

Midway between the history and the poetry are the fascinating romances of the Bible. There is nothing more perfect in the realm of prose than the story of Ruth; only less excellent are the tales of Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob and Rachel, Joseph and Benjamin, Samson and Delilah, Esther, Judith and Daniel. The poetical literature begins with the “Song of Moses” (Exod. xv) and the “Song of Deborah” (Judges v), and reaches finally to the heights of the Psalms. The “penitential” hymns of the Babylonians had prepared for these, and perhaps had given them material as well as form; Ikhnaton’s ode to the sun seems to have contributed to Psalm CIV; and the majority of the Psalms, instead of being the impressively united work of David, are probably the compositions of several poets writing long after the Captivity, probably in the third century before Christ.218 But all this is as irrelevant as the name or sources of Shakespeare; what matters is that the Psalms are at the head of the world’s lyric poetry. They were not meant to be read at a sitting, or in a Higher Critic’s mood; they are at their best as expressing moments of pious ecstasy and stimulating faith. They are marred for us by bitter imprecations, tiresome “groanings” and complaints, and endless adulation of a Yahveh who, with all his “lovingkindness,” “longsuffering” and “compassion,” pours “smoke out of his nostrils, and fire out of his mouth” (VIII), promises that “the wicked shall be turned into hell” (IX), laps up flattery,* and threatens to “cut off all flattering lips” (XII). The Psalms are full of military ardor, hardly Christian, but very Pilgrim. Some of them, however, are jewels of tenderness, or cameos of humility. “Verily every man at his best state is altogether vanity. . . . As for man, his days are as grass; as a flower of the field, so he flourisheth. For the wind passeth over it, and it is gone; and the place thereof shall know it no more” (XXIX, CIII). In these songs we feel the antistrophic rhythm of ancient Oriental poetry, and almost hear the voices of majestic choirs in alternate answering. No poetry has ever excelled this in revealing metaphor or living imagery; never has religious feeling been more intensely or vividly expressed. These poems touch us more deeply than any lyric of love; they move even the sceptical soul, for they give passionate form to the final longing of the developed mind—for some perfection to which it may dedicate its striving. Here and there, in the King James’ Version, are pithy phrases that have become almost words in our language—“out of the mouths of babes” (VIII), “the apple of the eye” (XVII), “put not your trust in princes” (CXLVI); and everywhere, in the original, are similes that have never been surpassed: “The rising sun is as a bridegroom coming out of his chamber, and rejoiceth as a strong man to run a race” (XIX). We can only imagine what majesty and beauty must clothe these songs in the sonorous language of their origin.*

When, beside these Psalms, we place in contrast the “Song of Solomon,” we get a glimpse of that sensual and terrestrial element in Jewish life which the Old Testament, written almost entirely by prophets and priests, has perhaps concealed from us—just as Ecclesiastes reveals a scepticism not otherwise discernible in the carefully selected and edited literature of the ancient Jews. This strangely amorous composition is an open field for surmise: it may be a collection of songs of Babylonian origin, celebrating the love of Ishtar and Tammuz; it may be (since it contains words borrowed from the Greek) the work of several Hebrew Anacreons touched by the Hellenistic spirit that entered Judea with Alexander; or (since the lovers address each other as brother and sister in the Egyptian manner) it may be a flower of Alexandrian Jewry, plucked by some quite emancipated soul from the banks of the Nile. In any case its presence in the Bible is a charming mystery: by what winking—or hoodwinking—of the theologians did these songs of lusty passion find room between Isaiah and the Preacher?

A bundle of myrrh is my well-beloved unto me; he shall lie all night betwixt my breasts.

My beloved is unto me as a cluster of camphire in the vineyards of Engedi.

Behold, thou art fair, my love; behold, thou art fair; thou hast dove’s eyes.

Behold, thou art fair, my beloved, yea, pleasant; also our bed is green. . . .

I am the rose of Sharon, and the lily of the valleys. . . .

Stay me with flagons, comfort me with apples, for I am sick of love. . . .

I charge you, O ye daughters of Jerusalem, by the roes, or by the hinds of the field, that ye stir not up, nor awake my love, till he please. . . .

My beloved is mine, and I am his; he feedeth among the lilies.

Until the day break, and the shadows flee away, turn, my beloved, and be thou like a roe or a young hart upon the mountains of Bether. . . .

Come, my beloved, let us go forth into the field, let us lodge in the villages.

Let us get up early to the vineyards; let us see if the vine flourish, whether the tender grape appear, and the pomegranates bud forth; there will I give thee my loves.220

This is the voice of youth, and that of the Proverbs is the voice of old age. Men look to love and life for everything; they receive a little less than that; they imagine that they have received nothing: these are the three stages of the pessimist. So this legendary Solomon* warns youth against the evil woman, “for she hath cast down many wounded; yea, many strong men have been slain by her. . . . Whoso committeth adultery with a woman lacketh understanding. . . . There be three things which are wonderful to me; yea, four which I know not: the way of an eagle in the air, the way of a serpent upon a rock, the way of a ship in the midst of the sea, and the way of a man with a maid.”221 He agrees with St. Paul that it is better to marry than to burn. “Rejoice with the wife of thy youth. Let her be as the loving hind and the pleasant roe; let her breasts satisfy thee at all times; and be thou ravished always with her love. . . . Better is a dinner of herbs where love is, than a stalled ox with hatred therewith.”222 Can these be the words of the husband of seven hundred wives?

Next to unchastity, in the way from wisdom, is sloth: “Go to the ant, thou sluggard. . . . How long wilt thou sleep, O sluggard?”223 “Seest thou a man diligent in his business?—he shall stand before kings.”224 Yet will the Philosopher not brook crass ambition. “He that maketh haste to be rich shall not be innocent”; and “the prosperity of fools shall destroy them.”225 Work is wisdom, words are mere folly. “In all labor there is profit, but the talk of the lips tendeth only to penury. . . . A fool uttereth all his mind, but a wise man keepeth it in till afterwards; . . . even a fool, when he holdeth his peace, is counted wise.”226 The lesson which the Sage never tires of repeating is an almost Socratic identification of virtue and wisdom, redolent of those schools of Alexandria in which Hebrew theology was mating with Greek philosophy to form the intellect of Europe. “Understanding is a well-spring of life unto him that hath it; but the instruction of fools is folly. . . . Happy is the man that findeth wisdom, and the man that getteth understanding; for the merchandise of it is better than the merchandise of silver, and the gain thereof than fine gold. She is more precious than rubies; and all things thou canst desire are not to be compared with her. Length of days is in her right hand; and in her left hand riches and honor. Her ways are ways of pleasantness, and all her paths are peace.”227

Job is earlier than Proverbs; perhaps it was written during the Exile, and described by allegory the captives of Babylon.* “I call it,” says the perfervid Carlyle, “one of the grandest things ever written with a pen. . . . A noble book; all men’s book! It is our first, oldest statement of the never-ending problem—man’s destiny, and God’s ways with him here on this earth. . . . There is nothing written, I think, in the Bible or out of it, of equal literary merit.230a The problem arose out of the Hebrew emphasis on this world. Since there was no Heaven in ancient Jewish theology,231 virtue had to be rewarded here or never. But often it seemed that only the wicked prospered, and that the choicest sufferings are reserved for the good man. Why, as the Psalmist complained, did the “ungodly prosper in the world?”232 Why did God hide himself, instead of punishing the evil and rewarding the good?233 The author of Job now asked the same questions more resolutely, and offered his hero, perhaps, as a symbol for his people. All Israel had worshiped Yahveh (fitfully), as Job had done; Babylon had ignored and blasphemed Yahveh; and yet Babylon flourished, and Israel ate the dust and wore the sackcloth of desolation and captivity. What could one say of such a god?

In a prologue in heaven, which some clever scribe may have inserted to take the scandal out of the book, Satan suggests to Yahveh that Job is “perfect and upright” only because he is fortunate; would he retain his piety in adversity? Yahveh permits Satan to heap a variety of calamities upon Job’s head. For a time the hero is as patient as Job; but at last his fortitude breaks, he ponders suicide, and bitterly reproaches his god for forsaking him. Zophar, who has come out to enjoy the sufferings of his friend, insists that God is just, and will yet reward the good man, even on earth; but Job shuts him up sharply:

No doubt but ye are the people, and wisdom shall die with you. But I have understanding as well as you; . . . yea, who knoweth not these things? . . . The tabernacles of robbers prosper, and they that provoke God are secure; into whose hand God bringeth abundantly.

. . . . Lo, mine eye hath seen all this, mine ear hath heard and understood it. . . . But ye are forgers of lies, ye are all physicians of no value. Oh, that ye would altogether hold your peace! and it should be your wisdom.234

He reflects on the brevity of life, and the length of death:

Man that is born of woman is of few days, and full of trouble. He cometh forth like a flower, and is cut down; he fleeth also as a shadow, and continueth not. . . . For there is hope of a tree, if it be cut down, that it will sprout again, and that the tender branch thereof will not cease. . . . But man dieth, and wasteth away; yea, man giveth up the ghost, and where is he? As the waters fall from the sea, and the flood decayeth and drieth up, so man lieth down, and riseth not. . . . If a man die, shall he live again?235

The debate continues vigorously, and Job becomes more and more sceptical of his God, until he calls him “Adversary,” and wishes that this Adversary would destroy himself by writing a book235a—perhaps some Leibnitzian theodicy. The concluding words of this chapter—“The words of Job are ended”—suggest that this was the original termination of a discourse which, like that of Ecclesiates, represented a strong heretical minority among the Jews.* But a fresh philosopher enters at this point—Elihu—who demonstrates, in one hundred and sixty-five verses, the justice of God’s ways with men. Finally, in one of the most majestic passages in the Bible, a voice comes down out of the clouds:

Then the Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind, and said:

Who is this that darkeneth counsel by words without knowledge? Gird up now thy loins like a man; for I will demand of thee, and answer thou me. Where wast thou when I laid the foundations of the earth? declare, if thou hast understanding. Who hath laid the measures thereof, if thou knowest? or who hath stretched his line upon it? Whereupon are the foundations thereof fastened? or who laid the cornerstone thereof; when the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy? Or who shut up the sea with doors, when it brake forth, as if it had issued out of the womb? When I made the cloud the garment thereof, and thick darkness a swaddling band for it, and brake up for it my decreed place, and set bars and doors, and said, Hitherto shalt thou come, but no further; and here shall thy proud waves be stayed? Hast thou commanded the morning since thy days; and caused the dayspring to know his place? . . . Hast thou entered into the springs of the sea? or hast thou walked in the search of the depth? Have the gates of death been opened unto thee? or hast thou seen the doors of the shadow of death? Hast thou perceived the breath of the earth? declare if thou knowest it all. . . . Hast thou entered into the treasures of the snow? or hast thou seen the treasures of the hail? . . . Canst thou bind the sweet influences of the Pleiades, or loose the bands of Orion? . . . Knowest thou the ordinances of heaven? canst thou set the dominion thereof in the earth? . . . Who hath put wisdom in the inward parts, or who hath given understanding to the heart? . . .

Shall he that contendeth with the Almighty instruct him? He that reproveth God, let him answer it.237

Job humbles himself in terror before this apparition. Yahveh, appeased, forgives him, accepts his sacrifice, denounces Job’s friends for their feeble arguments,238 and gives Job fourteen thousand sheep, six thousand camels, a thousand yoke of oxen, a thousand she-asses, seven sons, three daughters, and one hundred and forty years. It is a lame but happy ending; Job receives everything but an answer to his questions. The problem remained; and it was to have profound effects upon later Jewish thought. In the days of Daniel (ca. 167 B.C.) it was to be abandoned as insoluble in terms of this world; no answer could be given—Daniel and Enoch (and Kant) would say—unless one believed in some other life, beyond the grave, in which all wrongs would be righted, the wicked would be punished, and the just would inherit infinite reward. This was one of the varied currents of thought that flowed into Christianity, and carried it to victory.

In Ecclesiastes* the problem is given a pessimistic reply; prosperity and misfortune have nothing to do with virtue and vice.

All things have I seen in the days of my vanity: there is a just man that perisheth in his righteousness, and there is a wicked man that prolongeth his life in his wickedness. . . . So I returned, and considered all the oppressions that are done under the sun: and beheld the tears of such as were oppressed, and they had no comforter; and on the side of their oppressors there was power. . . . If thou seest the oppression of the poor, and violent perverting of judgment and justice in a province, marvel not at the matter, . . . for there be higher than they.241

It is not virtue and vice that determine a man’s lot, but blind and merciless chance. “I saw under the sun that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favor to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.”242 Even wealth is insecure, and does not long bring happiness. “He that loveth silver shall not be satisfied with silver; nor he that loveth abundance, with increase: this is also vanity. . . . The sleep of a laboring man is sweet, whether he eat little or much; but the abundance of the rich will not suffer him to sleep.”243 Remembering his relatives, he formulates Malthus in a line: “When goods are increased, they are increased that eat them.”244 Nor can he be soothed by any legend of a Golden Past, or a Utopia to come: things have always been as they are now, and so they will always be. “Say not thou, What is the cause that the former days were better than these? for thou dost not inquire wisely concerning this”;245 one must choose his historians carefully. And “the thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done; and there is nothing new under the sun. Is there anything whereof it may be said, See, this is new? It hath been already of old time, which was before us.”246 Progress, he thinks, is a delusion; civilizations have been forgotten, and will be again.247

In general he feels that life is a sorry business, and might well be dispensed with; it is aimless and circuitous motion without permanent result, and ends where it began; it is a futile struggle, in which nothing is certain except defeat.

Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, vanity of vanities; all is vanity. What profit hath a man of all his labor which he taketh under the sun? One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh; but the earth abideth forever. The sun also ariseth, and the wind goeth toward the south, and turneth about unto the north; it whirleth about continually, and the wind returneth again according to his circuits. All the rivers run into the sea, yet the sea is not full; unto the place from whence the rivers came, thither they return again. . . . Wherefore I praised the dead which are already dead, more than the living which are yet alive. Yea, better is he, than both they, which hath not yet been, who hath not seen the evil work that is done under the sun. . . . A good name is better than precious ointment, and the day of death than the day of one’s birth.248

For a time he seeks the answer to the riddle of life in abandonment to pleasure. “Then I commended mirth, because a man hath no better thing under the sun than to eat, and to drink, and to be merry.” But “behold, this also is vanity.”250 The difficulty with pleasure is woman, from whom the Preacher seems to have received some unforgettable sting. “One man among a thousand have I found; but a woman among all those have I not found. . . . I find more bitter than death the woman whose heart is snares and nets, and her hands as bands; whoso pleaseth God shall escape her.”251He concludes his digression into this most obscure realm of philosophy by reverting to the advice of Solomon and Voltaire, who did not practise it: “Live joyfully with the wife whom thou lovest, all the days of the life of thy vanity which God hath given thee under the sun.”252

Even wisdom is a questionable thing; he lauds it generously, but he suspects that anything more than a little knowledge is a dangerous thing. “Of making many books,” he writes, with uncanny foresight, “there is no end; and much study is a weariness of the flesh.”253 It might be wise to seek wisdom if God had given it a better income; “wisdom is good, with an inheritance”; otherwise it is a snare, and is apt to destroy its lovers.254 (Truth is like Yahveh, who said to Moses: “Thou canst not see my face; for there shall no man see me and live.”255) In the end the wise man dies as thoroughly as the fool, and both come to the same odor.

And I gave my heart to seek and search out by wisdom concerning all things that are done under heaven: this sore travail hath God given to the sons of man to be exercised therewith. I have seen all the works that are done under the sun; and behold, all is vanity and a chasing after the wind. . . . I communed with mine own heart, saying, Lo, I am come to great estate, and have gotten more wisdom than all they that have been before me in Jerusalem; yea, my heart had great experience of wisdom and knowledge. And I gave my heart to know wisdom, and to know madness and folly; I perceived that this also is a chasing after the wind. For in much wisdom is much grief; and he that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow.256

All these darts of outrageous fortune might be borne with hope and courage if the just man could look forward to some happiness beyond the grave. But that, too, Ecclesiastes feels, is a myth; man is an animal, and dies like any other beast.

For that which befalleth the sons of men befalleth beasts; even one thing befalleth them; as the one dieth, so dieth the other; yea, they have all one breath; so that a man hath no preeminence over a beast; for all is vanity. All go unto one place: all are of the dust, and all turn to dust again. . . . Wherefore I perceive that there is nothing better than that a man should rejoice in his own works; for that is his portion; for who shall bring him to see what shall be after him? . . . Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy might; for there is no work, nor device, nor knowledge, nor wisdom in the grave, whither thou goest.257

What a commentary on the wisdom so lauded in the Proverbs! Here, evidently, civilization had for a time gone to seed. The vitality of Israel’s youth had been exhausted by her struggles against the empires that surrounded her. The Yahveh in whom she had trusted had not come to her aid; and in her desolation and dispersion she raised to the skies this bitterest of all voices in literature to express the profoundest doubts that ever come to the human soul.

Jerusalem had been restored, but not as the citadel of an unconquerable god; it was a vassal city ruled now by Persia, now by Greece. In 334 B.C. the young Alexander stood at its gates, and demanded the surrender of the capital. The high-priest at first refused; but the next morning, having had a dream, he consented. He ordered the clergy to put on their most impressive vestments, and the people to garb themselves in immaculate white; then he led the population pacifically out through the gates to solicit peace. Alexander bowed to the high-priest, expressed his admiration for the people and their god, and accepted Jerusalem.258

It was not the end of Judea. Only the first act had been played in this strange drama that binds forty centuries. Christ would be the second, Ahasuerus the third; today another act is played, but it is not the last. Destroyed and rebuilt, destroyed and rebuilt, Jerusalem rises again, symbol of the vitality and pertinacity of an heroic race. The Jews, who are as old as history, may be as lasting as civilization.

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