1902 Encyclopedia > Bible > [Old Testament] Struggle and Progress of Spiritual Religion. Priests, Prophets, etc.

(Part 2)


Struggle and Progress of Spiritual Religion. Priests, Prophets, etc.

Religion of Israel

The pre-Christian age of the Biblical religion falls into a period of religious productivity and a subsequent period of stagnation and mainly conservative traditions. The period of productivity is also a period of contest, during which the spiritual principles of the religion of revelation were involved in continual struggle with polytheistic nature-worship on the one hand, and, on the other hand, with an unspiritual conception of Jehovah as a God whose interest in Israel and care for His sanctuary were independent of moral conditions. In this long struggle, which began with the foundation of the theocracy in the work of Moses, and did not issue in conclusive victory until the time of Ezra, the spiritual faith was compelled to show constant powers of new development, -- working out in ever clearer form the latent contrasts between true and false religion, proving itself fitter than any other belief to supply all the religious needs of the people, and, above all, finding its evidence in the long providential history in which, from the great deliverance of the Exodus down to the Captivity and the Restoration, the reality of Jehovah’s kingship over Israel, of His redeeming love, and of His moral government, were vindicated by the most indisputable proofs. As it was only the deliverance from Egypt and the theocratic covenant of Sinai that bound the Hebrew tribes into national unity, the worship of Jehovah was always acknowledged as the national religion of Israel. But from Joshua to Samuel national feeling was far weaker than tribal jealousy; and in the political disintegration of the people the religion of Jehovah seemed ready to be lost in local superstitions.

Priests and Prophets

During this period the chief centre of monotheism was the sanctuary and priesthood of the ark; and it was from the priestly circle that Samuel arose to reunite the nation by recalling it to the religion of Jehovah, and thus to prepare the way for the splendid age of David and Solomon. But though Samuel was by education a priest, it was not as a priest, but as a prophet that he accomplished this work. In all ages a priesthood is conservative, not creative; and it was only as a growing and creative power that the still undeveloped spiritual religion could live. While it was the business of the priests faithfully to preserve religious traditions already acknowledged as true and venerable, that characteristic of the prophet is a faculty of spiritual intuition, not gained by human reason, but coming to him as a word from God himself, wherein he apprehends religious truth in a new light, as bearing in a way not manifest to other man on the practical necessities, the burning questions of the present. Unlike the priesthood, the prophets never formed a regular guild. It was an axiom that the gift of prophecy was bestowed by the inward and immediate call of Jehovah. But from the time of Samuel we find a regular succession of prophets working out the spiritual problems of the national faith with ever increasing clearness, and gathering round them, sometimes in regularly formed communities, a circle of disciples and sympathisers which, though never, perhaps, numerically considerable, embraced the names of David and other leaders of Hebrew history, and impressed the stamp of prophetic influence on every part of the national life. From this time the priests hold only the second place in the history of the Old Testament religion; sometimes they even appear as the opponents of the prophetic party, whose progressive ideas are distasteful to their natural conservatism and aristocratic instincts. But on the whole, the more enlightened ministers of the central sanctuary continued to share with the prophets the task of upholding a lofty religious tradition, and not unfrequently both characters were united in one person. It was, in fact, only through the priests that the ideas of the prophets could receive public sanctions in the ordinances of religion, as it was only through rulers like David or Hezekiah, or Jehu, that they could influence the political conduct of affairs.

False Views of Prophesy

A just insight into the work of the prophetic party in Israel was long rendered difficult by traditional prejudices. On the one hand, the predictive element in prophecy received undue prominence, and withdrew attention from the influence of the prophets on the religious life of their own time; while, on the other hand, it was assumed, in accordance with Jewish notions, that all the ordinances, and almost, if not quite, all the doctrines of the Jewish church in the post-canonical period, existed from the earliest days of the theocracy. The prophets, therefore, were conceived partly as inspired preachers of old truths, partly as predicting future events, but not as leaders of a great development, in which the religious ordinances as well as the religious beliefs of the Old Covenant advanced from a relatively crude and imperfect to a relatively mature and adequate form.

The proof that this latter view, and not the traditional conception, is alone true to history depends on a a variety of arguments which cannot here be reproduced. That the religious ideas of the Old Testament were in a state of growth during the whole prophetic period became manifest as soon as the laws of grammatical-historical exegesis were fairly applied to the Hebrew Scriptures.

The Prophets and the Law

That the sacred ordinances were subject to variation was less readily admitted, because the admission involved a change of view as to the authorship of Pentateuch; but here also the facts are decisive. For example, the law in Exod. xx. 24, ff., contemplates the worship of Jehovah on other altars than that of the central sanctuary (cf. Deut. xxxiii. 19). This practice, accordingly, was followed by Samuel, and was fully approved by Elijah (1 Kings xix. 14). But the worship of Jehovah on the high places or local sanctuaries was constantly exposed to superstitious corruption and heathen admixture, and so is frequently attached by the prophets of the 8th century. It was undoubtedly under their influence that Hezekiah abolished the high places. The abolition was not permanent; but in the reign of Josiah, the next reforming king, we find that the principle of a single sanctuary can claim the support not only of prophetic teaching, but of a written law-book found in the temple, and acknowledged by the high priest (2 Kings xxii, xxiii.) The legislation of this book corresponds not with the old law in Exodus, but with the book of Deuteronomy. But perhaps the clearest proof that, during the period of prophetic inspiration, there was no doctrine of finality with regard to the ritual law any more than with regard to religious ideas and doctrines, lies, in the last chapters of Ezekiel, which sketch at the very era of the Captivity an outline of sacred ordinances for the future restoration. From these and similar facts it follows indisputably, that the true and spiritual religion which the prophets and like-minded priests maintained at once against heathenism and against unspiritual worship of Jehovah as a mere national deity without moral attributes, was not a finished but a growing system, not finally embodied in authoritative documents, but propagated mainly by direct personal efforts. At the same time these personal efforts were accompanied and supported by the gradual rise of a sacred literature.

Rise of a Sacred Literature

Though the priestly ordinances were mainly published by oral decisions of the priests, which are, in fact, what is usually meant by the word law (Torah) in writings earlier than the Captivity, there can be no reasonable doubt that the priests possessed written legal collections of greater or less extent from the time of Moses downwards. Again, the example of Ezekiel, an the obvious fact that the law-book found at the time of Josiah contained provisions which were not up to that time an acknowledged part of the law of the land, makes it probable that legal provisions, which the prophets and their priestly allies felt to be necessary for the maintenance of the truth, were often embodied in legislative programmes, by which previous legal tradition was gradually modified. Then the prophets, especially when they failed to produce immediate reformation, began from the 8th century, if not still earlier, to commit their oracles to writing; and these written prophecies—circulating widely in a nation which had attained a high degree of literary culture, and frequently cited by later seers—disseminated prophetic teaching in a permanent form. Long before this timer music and song had been practiced in the prophetic circle of Samuel, and were introduced under David into the service of the sanctuary. Another important vehicle of religious instruction was the written history of the nation, which could not fail to be generally set forth in the theocratic spirit in which all loftier Hebrew patriotism has its root. And, indeed, the literary diffusion of spiritual ideas was not confined to the direct efforts of priests and prophets.

Popular Religion

In spite of the crass and unspiritual character of the mass of the people, the noblest traditions of national life were entwined with religious convictions, and the way in which a prophet, like Amos, could arise untrained from among the herdsmen of the wilderness of Judah, shows how deep and pure a current of spiritual faith flowed among the more thoughtful of the laity. Prophecy itself may from one point of view be regarded simply as the brightest efflorescence of the lay element in the religion of Israel, the same element which in subjective form underlies many of the Psalms, and in a shape less highly developed tinged the whole proverbial and popular literature of the nation; for in the Hebrew commonwealth popular literature had not yet sunk to represent the lowest impulses of national life.

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