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Chapter II. Historical Setting.

In the previous chapter it has been necessary to deal with the chronicler as the author of the whole work of which Chronicles is only a part, and to go over again ground already covered in the volume on Ezra and Nehemiah; but from this point we can confine our attention to Chronicles and treat it as a separate book. Such a course is not merely justified, it is necessitated, by the different relations of the chronicler to his subject in Ezra and Nehemiah on the one hand and in Chronicles on the other. In the former case he is writing the history of the social and ecclesiastical order to which he himself belonged, but he is separated by a deep and wide gulf from the period of the kingdom of Judah. About three hundred years intervened between the chronicler and the death of the last king of Judah. A similar interval separates us from Queen Elizabeth; but the course of these three centuries of English life has been an almost unbroken continuity compared with the changing fortunes of the Jewish people from the fall of the monarchy to the early years of the Greek empire. This interval included the Babylonian captivity and the return, the establishment of the Law, the use of the Persian empire, and the conquests of Alexander.


The first three of these events were revolutions of supreme importance to the internal development of Judaism; the last two rank in the history of the world with the fall of the Roman empire and the French Revolution. Let us consider them briefly in detail. The Captivity, the rise of the Persian empire, and the Return are closely connected, and can only be treated as features of one great social, political, and religious convulsion, an upheaval which broke the continuity of all the strata, of Eastern life and opened an impassable gulf between the old order and the new. For a time, men who had lived through these revolutions were still able to carry across this gulf the loosely twisted strands of memory, but when they died the threads snapped; only here and there a lingering tradition supplemented the written records. Hebrew slowly ceased to be the vernacular language, and was supplanted by Aramaic; the ancient history only reached the people by means of an oral translation. Under this new dispensation the ideas of ancient Israel were no longer intelligible; its circumstances could not be realised by those who lived under entirely different conditions. Various causes contributed to bring about this change. First, there was an interval of fifty years, during which Jerusalem lay a heap of ruins. After the recapture of Rome by Totila the Visigoth in a.d. 546 the city was abandoned during forty days to desolate and dreary solitude. Even this temporary depopulation of the Eternal City is emphasised by historians as full of dramatic interest, but the fifty years' desolation of Jerusalem involved important practical results. Most of the returning exiles must have either been born in Babylon or else have spent all their earliest years in exile. Very few can have been old enough to have 8 grasped the meaning or drunk in the spirit of the older national life. When the restored community set to work to rebuild their city and their temple, few of them had any adequate knowledge of the old Jerusalem, with its manners, customs, and traditions. “The ancient men, that had seen the first house, wept with a loud voice”22   Ezra iii. 12. when the foundation of the second Temple was laid before their eyes. In their critical and disparaging attitude towards the new building, we may see an early trace of the tendency to glorify and idealise the monarchical period, which culminated in Chronicles. The breach with the past was widened by the novel and striking surroundings of the exiles in Babylon. For the first time since the Exodus, the Jews as a nation found themselves in close contact and intimate relations with the culture of an ancient civilisation and the life of a great city.

Nearly a century and a half elapsed between the first captivity under Jehoiachin (b.c. 598) and the mission of Ezra (b.c. 458); no doubt in the succeeding period Jews still continued to return from Babylon to Judæa, and thus the new community at Jerusalem, amongst whom the chronicler grew up, counted Babylonian Jews amongst their ancestors for two or even for many generations. A Zulu tribe exhibited for a year in London could not return and build their kraal afresh and take up the old African life at the point where they had left it. If a community of Russian Jews went to their old home after a few years' sojourn in Whitechapel, the old life resumed would be very different from what it was before their migration. Now the Babylonian Jews were neither uncivilised African savages nor stupefied Russian helots; they 9 were not shut up in an exhibition or in a ghetto; they settled in Babylon, not for a year or two, but for half a century or even a century; and they did not return to a population of their own race, living the old life, but to empty homes and a ruined city. They had tasted the tree of new knowledge, and they could no more live and think as their fathers had done than Adam and Eve could find their way back into paradise. A large and prosperous colony of Jews still remained at Babylon, and maintained close and constant relations with the settlement in Judæa. The influence of Babylon, begun during the Exile, continued permanently in this indirect form. Later still the Jews felt the influence of a great Greek city, through their colony at Alexandria.

Besides these external changes, the Captivity was a period of important and many-sided development of Jewish literature and religion. Men had leisure to study the prophecies of Jeremiah and the legislation of Deuteronomy; their attention was claimed for Ezekiel's suggestions as to ritual, and for the new theology, variously expounded by Ezekiel, the later Isaiah, the book of Job, and the psalmists. The Deuteronomic school systematised and interpreted the records of the national history. In its wealth of Divine revelation the period from Josiah to Ezra is only second to the apostolic age.

Thus the restored Jewish community was a new creation, baptised into a new spirit; the restored city was as much a new Jerusalem as that which St. John beheld descending out of heaven; and, in the words of the prophet of the Restoration, the Jews returned to a “new heaven and a new earth.”33   Isa. lxvi. 22. The rise of the 10 Persian empire changed the whole international system of Western Asia and Egypt. The robber monarchies of Nineveh and Babylon, whose energies had been chiefly devoted to the systematic plunder of their neighbours, were replaced by a great empire, that stretched out one hand to Greece and the other to India. The organisation of this great empire was the most successful attempt at government on a large scale that the world had yet seen. Both through the Persians themselves and through their dealings with the Greeks, Aryan philosophy and religion began to leaven Asiatic thought; old things were passing away: all things were becoming new.

The establishment of the Law by Ezra and Nehemiah was the triumph of a school whose most important and effective work had been done at Babylon, though not necessarily within the half-century specially called the Captivity. Their triumph was retrospective: it not only established a rigid and elaborate system unknown to the monarchy, but, by identifying this system with the law traditionally ascribed to Moses, it led men very widely astray as to the ancient history of Israel. A later generation naturally assumed that the good kings must have kept this law, and that the sin of the bad kings was their failure to observe its ordinances.

The events of the century and a half or thereabouts between Ezra and the chronicler have only a minor importance for us. The change of language from Hebrew to Aramaic, the Samaritan schism, the few political incidents of which any account has survived, are all trivial compared to the literature and history crowded into the century after the fall of the monarchy. Even the far-reaching results of the conquests of Alexander do not materially concern us here. Josephus 11 indeed tells us that the Jews served in large numbers in the Macedonian army, and gives a very dramatic account of Alexander's visit to Jerusalem; but the historical value of these stories is very doubtful, and in any case it is clear that between b.c. 333 and b.c. 250 Jerusalem was very little affected by Greek influences, and that, especially for the Temple community to which the chronicler belonged, the change from Darius to the Ptolemies was merely a change from one foreign dominion to another.

Nor need much be said of the relation of the chronicler to the later Jewish literature of the Apocalypses and Wisdom. If the spirit of this literature were already stirring in some Jewish circles, the chronicler himself was not moved by it. Ecclesiastes, as far as he could have understood it, would have pained and shocked him. But his work lay in that direct line of subtle rabbinic teaching which, beginning with Ezra, reached its climax in the Talmud. Chronicles is really an anthology gleaned from ancient historic sources and supplemented by early specimens of Midrash and Hagada.

In order to understand the book of Chronicles, we have to keep two or three simple facts constantly and clearly in mind. In the first place, the chronicler was separated from the monarchy by an aggregate of changes which involved a complete breach of continuity between the old and the new order: instead of a nation there was a Church; instead of a king there were a high-priest and a foreign governor. Secondly, the effects of these changes had been at work for two or three hundred years, effacing all trustworthy recollection of the ancient order and schooling men to regard the Levitical dispensation as their one original and antique 12 ecclesiastical system. Lastly, the chronicler himself belonged to the Temple community, which was the very incarnation of the spirit of the new order. With such antecedents and surroundings, he set to work to revise the national history recorded in Samuel and Kings. A monk in a Norman monastery would have worked under similar but less serious disadvantages if he had undertaken to rewrite the Ecclesiastical History of the Venerable Bede.


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