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1. From the Earliest Times till Samuel.

There was no ancient people but believed in the power of certain personages to consult the Deity and to reveal His will. Every man could sacrifice; but not every man could render in return the oracle of God. This pertained to select individuals or orders.14 So the prophet seems to have been an older specialist than the priest, though in every tribe he frequently combined the latter's functions with his own.2121   It is still a controversy whether the original meaning of the Semitic root KHN is prophet, as in the Arabic KâHiN, or priest, as in the Hebrew KôHeN.

The matters on which ancient man consulted God were as wide as life. But naturally at first, in a rude state of society and at a low stage of mental development, it was in regard to the material defence and necessities of life, the bare law and order, that men almost exclusively sought the Divine will. And the whole history of prophecy is just the effort to substitute for these elementary provisions a more personal standard of the moral law, and more spiritual ideals of the Divine Grace.

By the Semitic race—to which we may now confine ourselves, since Israel belonged to it—Deity was worshipped, in the main, as the god of a tribe. Every Semitic tribe had its own god; it would appear that there was no god without a tribe:2222   Cf. Jer. ii. 10: For pass over to the isles of Chittim, and see; and send unto Kedar, and consider diligently; and see if there be such a thing. Hath a nation changed their gods? From the isles of Chittim unto Kedar—the limits of the Semitic world. the traces of belief in a supreme and abstract Deity are few and ineffectual. The tribe was the medium by which the god made himself known, and became an effective power on earth: the god was the patron of the tribe, the supreme magistrate and the leader in war. The piety he demanded was little more than loyalty to ritual; the morality he enforced was only a matter of police. He took no cognisance of the character or inner thoughts of the individual. But the tribe believed him to stand15 in very close connection with all the practical interests of their common life. They asked of him the detection of criminals, the discovery of lost property, the settlement of civil suits, sometimes when the crops should be sown, and always when war should be waged and by what tactics.

The means by which the prophet consulted the Deity on these subjects were for the most part primitive and rude. They may be summed up under two kinds: Visions either through falling into ecstasy or by dreaming in sleep, and Signs or Omens. Both kinds are instanced in Balaam.2323   Numbers xxiv. 4, falling but having his eyes open. Ver. 1, enchantments ought to be omens. Of the signs some were natural, like the whisper of trees, the flight of birds, the passage of clouds, the movements of stars. Others were artificial, like the casting or drawing of lots. Others were between these, like the shape assumed by the entrails of the sacrificed animals when thrown on the ground. Again, the prophet was often obliged to do something wonderful in the people's sight, in order to convince them of his authority. In Biblical language he had to work a miracle or give a sign. One instance throws a flood of light on this habitual expectancy of the Semitic mind. There was once an Arab chief, who wished to consult a distant soothsayer as to the guilt of a daughter. But before he would trust the seer to give him the right answer to such a question, he made him discover a grain of corn which he had concealed about his horse.2424   Instanced by Wellhausen, Skizzen u. Vorarb., No. v. He required the physical sign before he would accept the moral judgment.

Now, to us the crudeness of the means employed,16 the opportunities of fraud, the inadequacy of the tests for spiritual ends, are very obvious. But do not let us, therefore, miss the numerous moral opportunities which lay before the prophet even at that early stage of his evolution. He was trusted to speak in the name of Deity. Through him men believed in God and in the possibility of a revelation. They sought from him the discrimination of evil from good. The highest possibilities of social ministry lay open to him: the tribal existence often hung on his word for peace or war; he was the mouth of justice, the rebuke of evil, the champion of the wronged. Where such opportunities were present, can we imagine the Spirit of God to have been absent—the Spirit Who seeks men more than they seek Him, and as He condescends to use their poor language for religion must also have stooped to the picture language, to the rude instruments, symbols and sacraments, of their early faith?

In an office of such mingled possibilities everything depended—as we shall find it depend to the very end of prophecy—on the moral insight and character of the prophet himself, on his conception of God and whether he was so true to this as to overcome his professional temptations to fraud and avarice, malice towards individuals, subservience to the powerful, or, worst snares of all, the slothfulness and insincerity of routine. We see this moral issue put very clearly in such a story as that of Balaam, or in such a career as that of Mohammed.

So much for the Semitic soothsayer in general. Now let us turn to Israel.

Among the Hebrews the man of God,2525   איש אלהים to use17 his widest designation, is at first called Seer,2626   רֹאֶה or Gazer,2727   חזֶה the word which Balaam uses of himself. In consulting the Divine will he employs the same external means, he offers the people for their evidence the same signs, as do the seers or soothsayers of other Semitic tribes. He gains influence by the miracles, the wonderful things, which he does.2828   Deut. xiii. 1 ff. admits that heathen seers were able to work miracles and give signs, as well as the prophets of Jehovah. Moses himself is represented after this fashion. He meets the magicians of Egypt on their own level. His use of rods; the holding up of his hands that Israel may prevail against Amaleq; Joshua's casting of lots to discover a criminal; Samuel's dream in the sanctuary; his discovery for a fee of the lost asses of Saul; David and the images in his house, the ephod he consulted; the sign to go to battle what time thou hearest the sound of a going in the tops of the mulberry trees; Solomon's inducement of dreams by sleeping in the sanctuary at Gibeah,—these are a few of the many proofs, that early prophecy in Israel employed not only the methods but even much of the furniture of the kindred Semitic religions. But then those tools and methods were at the same time accompanied by the noble opportunities of the prophetic office to which I have just alluded—opportunities of religious and social ministry—and, still more, these opportunities were at the disposal of moral influences which, it is a matter of history, were not found in any other Semitic religion than Israel's. However you will explain it, that Divine Spirit, which we have felt unable to conceive as absent from any Semitic prophet who truly sought after God, that Light which lighteth every man who cometh into the world, was present18 to an unparalleled degree with the early prophets of Israel. He came to individuals, and to the nation as a whole, in events and in influences which may be summed up as the impression of the character of their national God, Jehovah: to use Biblical language, as Jehovah's spirit and power. It is true that in many ways the Jehovah of early Israel reminds us of other Semitic deities. Like some of them He appears with thunder and lightning; like all of them He is the God of one tribe who are His peculiar people. He bears the same titles—Melek, Adon, Baal (King, Lord, Possessor). He is propitiated by the same offerings. To choose one striking instance, captives and spoil of war are sacrificed to Him with the same relentlessness, and by a process which has even the same names given to it, as in the votive inscriptions of Israel's heathen neighbours.2929   Cf. Mesha's account of himself and Chemosh on the Moabite Stone, with the narrative of the taking of Ai in the Book of Joshua. Yet, notwithstanding all these elements, the religion of Jehovah from the very first evinced, by the confession of all critics, an ethical force shared by no other Semitic creed. From the first there was in it the promise and the potency of that sublime monotheism, which in the period of our "Twelve" it afterwards reached.3030   Cf. Kuenen: Gesammelte Alhandlungen (trans. by Budde), p. 461. Its earliest effects of course were chiefly political: it welded the twelve tribes into the unity of a nation; it preserved them as one amid the many temptations to scatter along those divergent lines of culture and of faith, which the geography of their country placed so attractively before them.3131   So in Deborah's Song. It taught them to prefer religious loyalty to material advantage, and so inspired them with high motives for self-sacrifice and19 every other duty of patriotism. But it did even better than thus teach them to bear one another's burdens. It inspired them to care for one another's sins. The last chapters of the Book of Judges prove how strong a national conscience there was in early Israel. Even then Israel was a moral, as well as a political, unity. Gradually there grew up, but still unwritten, a body of Torah, or revealed law, which, though its framework was the common custom of the Semitic race, was inspired by ideals of humanity and justice not elsewhere in that race discernible by us.

When we analyse this ethical distinction of early Israel, this indubitable progress which the nation were making while the rest of their world was morally stagnant, we find it to be due to their impressions of the character of their God. This character did not affect them as Righteousness only. At first it was even a more wonderful Grace. Jehovah had chosen them when they were no people, had redeemed them from servitude, had brought them to their land; had borne with their stubbornness, and had forgiven their infidelities. Such a Character was partly manifest in the great events of their history, and partly communicated itself to their finest personalities—as the Spirit of God does communicate with the spirit of man made in His image. Those personalities were the early prophets from Moses to Samuel. They inspired the nation to believe in God's purposes for itself; they rallied it to war for the common faith, and war was then the pitch of self-sacrifice; they gave justice to it in God's name, and rebuked its sinfulness without sparing. Criticism has proved that we do not know nearly so much about those first prophets, as perhaps we thought we did. But under their God they made Israel. Out of their work grew20 the monotheism of their successors, whom we are now to study, and later the Christianity of the New Testament. For myself I cannot but believe, that in the influence of Jehovah which Israel owned in those early times, there was the authentic revelation of a real Being.


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