Wilderness Tragedies--Nadab and Abihu--Korak and the Earthquake--the Spies--Horrors of War--Rahab--Fall of Jericho--Achan--Death of Joshua-- Defeat of Sisera--Gideon and the Desperado Abimelech--Story of Jephthah--Samson and His Exploits-- Tragedy in the Tribe of Benjamin.
There were terrible adventures in the wilderness; for there was treason in high places, and it was punished in spectacular style. The sons of Aaron-- Nadab and Abihu--so eloquently mentioned by Browning in One Word More--together with their father and Moses and seventy elders, went up the mountain and saw the glory of God.
And they saw the God of Israel; and there was under his feet as it were a paved work of a sapphire stone, and as it were the body of heaven in his clearness.
Yet later Nadab and Abihu, who had seen the King in His beauty, offered up strange fire near Sinai, and instantly perished. So quickly forgotten then and now is the Divine Revelation; forgotten by those especially chosen to receive it.
Miriam, the Prophetess, sister of Moses and Aaron, may perhaps be pardoned for family jealousy when Moses married a black girl, an Ethiopian; but her method of revenge was strange, and the punishment accurately fitted the crime. Together with Aaron she started a sedition and was smitten
with leprosy; as much as to say, If you think you are better than your sister-in-law because you are white, you shall be even whiter by contrast, white as snow. The leprosy was removed at the entreaty of Moses, but it gave Miriam something to think about.
Korah, a Levite, with two hundred and fifty princes, men of renown, started an open rebellion against Moses. The latter felt this defection in the priest tribe, and he said sharply: "Ye take too much upon you, ye sons of Levi." The next day, in the presence of the whole congregation Moses called upon the people to keep away from Korah and his friends; there was an instant and dramatic separation, as if Korah had some horrible and contagious disease, and the doomed men stood out in appalling loneliness.
And it came to pass, as he had made an end of speaking all these words, that the ground clave asunder that was under them:
And the earth opened her mouth, and swallowed them up, and their houses, and all the men that appertained unto Korah, and all their goods.
They, and all that appertained to them, went down alive into the pit, and the earth closed upon them; and they perished from among the congregation.
And all Israel that were round about them fled at the cry of them; for they said, Lest the earth swallow us up also.
The shrieks of the sinking rebels must have rung in the people's ears for many days; yet they were soon ready to rebel and to worship other gods, which
is the way of all flesh. The famous story of Balaam and his ass would seem to indicate that in spiritual insight a donkey may have more intelligence than a man.
There were also frightful plagues, devastating pestilences, one of which carried off fourteen thousand and seven hundred; there was the scene of the serpent in the wilderness. Yet these wonders made no permanent impression, for the children of Israel, like those of other nations, were more interested in their food than in their souls, Moses needed all his meekness, all his self-control, to deal with them.
Spies were sent out into the Promised Land, and with the exception of two stout-hearted men, Joshua and Caleb, they brought back an evil report. They said:
It is a land that eateth up the inhabitants thereof; and all the people that we saw in it are men of a great stature.
And there we saw the giants, the sons of Anak, which come of the giants; and we were in our own sight as grasshoppers, and so we were in their sight.
The time came, however, to advance; and from now on the history of Israel is like the history of other countries, a succession of wars. The progress of the world has been made through bloodshed, wholesale slaughter, with innumerable and unspeakable individual cruelties. The triumphs of Israel are no exception; they came at the expense of their antagonists and through their own losses. Children were brutally murdered and captive women became
the spoil of the Chosen People. The Promised Land was won; a land flowing with milk before the Israelites appeared; then the milk turned to rivers of blood. War was what it always has been; crops and property were destroyed, babies butchered, greed and sensuality were unrestrained. The soldiers of Israel were "thorough" and carried out the policy of extermination amid the braying of trumpets and psalms of thanksgiving. So far back as we can trace events since Adam, man has lived under a curse.
There was really nothing exceptional in the fate of Damocles; in the midst of our feasting the sword is ever over us, suspended by a single thread.
As Moses was a statesman, Joshua was a soldier. His predominant qualities were strength and courage. He was an invader by divine right. Still on the east of the Jordan, he sent out two spies to enter the first important city near the other bank, the city of Jericho. They went into the house of Rahab, a harlot; women of this profession were known in the beginning of history, for mention is made of them in the book of Genesis. Rahab had the two men on the roof of her house, and covered them with the stalks of flax; when the king of Jericho enquired for them she put the messengers on a false scent. Rahab had heard the story of the drying up of the Red Sea, and the conquests of the men of Israel; she believed in them with all her heart; she knew that the doom of Jericho was at hand. She begged for
the life of her family, was told to mark the window of her house with a bit of red, and keep everybody indoors; then the house and the inmates would be spared. Such marking of friendly houses was common in the recent war.
Her house was on the town wall, and she let the spies down from the outside window by a cord; they escaped to the mountain, hid there three days, and returned in safety to Joshua.
Thus Rahab acquired immortality; she is mentioned with respect in the Letter to the Hebrews and in the Letter of James. She has frequently appeared in imaginative literature. In our time women of her profession are often idealised, and made the heroines of fiction and drama. There are writers who seem to have a sentimental admiration for people of this class.
The children of Israel passed through the river of Jordan, following the ark of the Lord. The method was slightly different from that in which they had crossed the Red Sea. There they passed between two walls of water; here on one side the water was amassed in a heap, and on the other it ran off entirely and disappeared. Perhaps the only person who was not surprised by the event was Rahab; she remembered the story of the Red Sea and knew that for the Israelites a stretch of water was no obstacle.
Shortly after they had arrived in safety on the Canaan side, a curious thing happened; the fall of manna ceased and has never been seen since. They
were now to have a table prepared for them in the presence of their enemies.
Joshua had a vision of a strange captain who came to meet him, which is not surprising, as many in the recent war saw plainly similar apparitions.
The gates of Jericho were closed. Six days in succession the Hebrew men-at-arms walked once entirely around the town, preceded by seven priests carrying in silence trumpets of rams' horns, followed by the Ark of God, which in turn had a rear-guard; as the inhabitants looked from the walls at the grim and silent host they must have felt extremely nervous. On the seventh day the invaders circumvented the city seven times--presumably at the double-quick--and then the priests blew a tremendous blast, the army gave a mighty shout, and down went the walls! With the exception of Rahab and her family, every living thing in the city was slain by the Israelites, and Jericho wiped off the map of Canaan.
The soldiers were told to take no booty for themselves, but one man, Achan, found his avarice stronger than his fear of the mighty God; he hid valuables in his tent. Then came a terrifying casting of lots. The twelve tribes were drawn, and Judah was taken. What a relief for the others, and what consternation in the heart of Achan! The families of Judah were drawn, and the Zarhites were taken; man by man they were drawn, and Zabdi was taken; his household was drawn, and his grandson Achan was taken.
And Joshua said unto Achan, My son, give, I pray thee, glory to the Lord God of Israel, and make confession unto him; and tell me now what thou hast done; hide it not from me.
Achan confessed. He and his entire family were stoned and then burned. A great heap of stones was raised over him to commemorate his sin and its punishment. The heap was still there when the chronicler wrote his narrative.
The Canaanites did not yield up their fair land without a struggle; they were brave in battle, like soldiers everywhere, and they fought desperately, but they had no more chance than Hector against Achilles. Their hour had struck. The familiar military tactics appear, strategy and ambush; and there were traitors who espoused the Hebrew cause, some of whom were kept indefinitely as hewers of wood and drawers of water. The sun stood still over Gibeon, stood still in the midst of the heaven, and set only with the fortunes of the town. Then comes a touch worthy of Marlowe's Tamburlaine. Five kings had hid in a cave; when they were brought out, Joshua called forward his captains and told them to put their feet on the necks of the kings. After this indignity the five were slain and hanged on five trees, which had never borne such royal fruit before.
So the invaders went on their way, houghing horses, destroying armed hosts, butchering women and children and burning cities; the pillar of fire and pillar of smoke were now of their own making, and
marked their progress continually. Finally the land was divided up and perforce submitted to the peace of victory.
Here and there the Canaanites made those bloodless conquests that subdued nations often win of their conquerors; some of the Israelites adopted the gods of their foes, and others made marriages with the daughters of the land. So it has ever been.
The time came for Joshua to die. He made an impressive farewell speech, full of warnings against transgression, full of promises to the faithful, and he said, "Behold, this day I am going the way of all the earth." The brave old warrior, who, like Cromwell, carried the law in one hand and the sword in the other, made a covenant with his people and submitted to death with a calm and steadfast mind.
After the death of Joshua the people became corrupted by following the religion of their enemies; victories came to an end. Eglon, the king of the Moabites, got the upper hand and held Israel in subjection eighteen years. This led to the first political assassination recorded in the Bible. King Eglon was a very fat man, "and he was sitting in a summer parlour, which he had for himself alone." A revolutionist named Ehud entered, saying that he had a message from God. As the heavy monarch got up out of his chair, Ehud pushed a dagger into the nearest part of his anatomy, which stood out conspicuously; the fat closed over the handle, and
Eglon fell. Ehud left the room quietly, closing and locking the door after him; the king's attendants, thinking he did not wish to be disturbed, left him alone long enough for Ehud to make good his escape and rouse his people. The Moabites were thoroughly beaten, and there came eighty years of peace. The Israelites attempted some loose form of general government, under judges, who are first mentioned in the second chapter of the book. It is interesting to note that women seemed to have full political equality, for one of the most famous judges was Deborah, who was a poet as well as a statesman, and who celebrated the treacherous murder of Captain Sisera by a splendid battle-hymn:
The inhabitants of the villages ceased, they ceased in Israel, until that I Deborah arose, that I arose a mother in Israel......
Awake, awake, Deborah; awake, awake, utter a song; arise, Barak, and lead thy captivity captive, thou son of Abinoam.......
And the princes of Issachar were with Deborah......
For the divisions of Reuben there were great thoughts of heart.
Why abodest thou among the sheepfolds, to hear the bleatings of the flocks? For the divisions of Reuben there were great searchings of heart.
They fought from heaven; the stars in their courses fought against Sisera.
The River of Kishon swept them away, that ancient river, the river Kishon. O my soul, thou hast trodden down strength.
Then were the horsehoofs broken by the means of the prans-ings, the pransings of their mighty ones......
Blessed above women shall Jael the wife of Heber the Kenite be, blessed shall she be above women in the tent.
He asked water, and she gave him milk; she brought forth butter in a lordly dish......
The mother of Sisera looked out at a window, and cried through the lattice, Why is his chariot so long in coming? Why tarry the wheels of his chariots?
Her wise ladies answered her, yea, she returned answer to herself,
Have they not sped? Have they not divided the prey; to every man a damsel or two; to Sisera a prey of divers colours, a prey of divers colours of needlework on both sides, meet for the necks of them that take the spoil?
So let all thine enemies perish, O Lord; but let them that love him be as the sun when he goeth forth in his might.
It is interesting to note that Sisera's mother was interested in fine needlework; she seems especially to have admired the skill of the Jewish women.
Forty years of rest followed the defeat of Sisera; then the Israelites made their accustomed deviation into idolatry, and the victorious Midianites ruled over them seven years. They were finally delivered by the cautious and sceptical Gideon, who must have tried God's patience with his doubtings, questionings and bargainings, but who for some reason was rewarded. His faith, like that of many others, depended wholly on facts and figures. I cannot regard him as a hero; he took no chances. For a considerable less display of doubt, Moses was forbidden to enter the Promised Land. The calculating shrewdness of human nature, the desire to invest only with assured profit, are sharply revealed in the character of Gideon.
The book of Judges abounds in brilliant short stories; the adventures of Gideon are thrilling, and those of that ruffian, his son Abimelech, even more so. This ambitious and reckless young man conspired against his brothers even as Edmund conspired against Edgar in King Lear. Instead of buying a birthright, like Jacob, he took it by audacity and force; for although he was conspicuously lacking in religion and morality, he never lacked courage. His creed was that of Napoleon--Might makes Right. Dominion and authority belong to those who are ready and willing to take advantage of opportunity. So at this point in Israel's history a conscienceless, melodramatic and picturesque daredevil appears on the scene and wins headship by a coup d'état. It is a stirring story, the story of Abimelech the Adventurer.
Gideon had seventy legitimate sons and also Abimelech, born of his maidservant in Shechem. When the father was dead Abimelech visited his own mother's relatives and put before them this question of government: Is it better to have seventy rulers or one? He drew them over; they gave him money, by which he secured a gang of hired cut-throats--"wherewith Abimelech hired vain and light persons, which followed him." He began his turbulent career by butchering his seventy brothers, with the exception of clever Jotham, who hid himself. Abimelech was then formally crowned king.
But Jotham, who was a persuasive orator, stood
on an elevation, and, poised a-tiptoe for flight, he pronounced a sylvan allegory to the multitude, beginning authoritatively, for he felt himself to be the legitimate heir:
Hearken unto me, ye men of Shechem, that God may hearken unto you.
The trees went forth on a time to anoint a king over them; and they said unto the olive tree, Reign thou over us.
But the olive tree said unto them, Should I leave my fatness, wherewith by me they honour God and man, and go to be promoted over the trees?
And the trees said to the fig tree, Come thou, and reign over us.
But the fig tree said unto them, Should I forsake my sweetness, and my good fruit, and go to be promoted over the trees?
And the trees said unto the vine, Come thou, and reign over us.
And the vine said unto them, Should I leave my wine, which cheereth God and man, and go to be promoted over the trees?
Apparently it was as hard to get good men to go into politics as it is now in America; and they refused for the same reason.
Then said all the trees unto the bramble, Come thou, and reign over us.
And the bramble said unto the trees, If in truth ye anoint me king over you, then come and put your trust in my shadow: and if not, let fire come out of the bramble, and devour the cedars of Lebanon......
If ye then have dealt truly and sincerely with Jerubbaal and with his house this day, then rejoice ye in Abimelech, and let him also rejoice in you:
But if not, let fire come out from Abimelech, and devour the men of Shechem, and the house of Millo; and let fire come out
from the men of Shechem, and from the house of Millo, and devour Abimelech.
(Jerubbaal was another name for Gideon; Millo was a fort near Shechem; Shechem itself was an important town in sacred history, the first Canaan city visited by Abraham, the scene of the crowning of Abimelech, later of Rehoboam, and the place where Jesus spoke with the woman of Samaria.)
Jotham let this prophecy of civil war sink into the people like a poisoned arrow; it was a more powerful speech than if he had indulged in vituperation or jealous rage. And after three years there was dissension between Abimelech and his people; an agitator named Gaal, who lacked the courage of his convictions at the critical moment, induced the people to rise against Abimelech. That resolute man had no difficulty in defeating Gaal and the rebels, and took fierce vengeance on Shechem. A small party escaped and hid in a stronghold of the house of the god Berith. But Abimelech, who feared neither God nor man, adopted the same method that brought such terror to the heart of Macbeth. He and every man in the army carried a bough on their shoulders, and advanced like a moving forest; as they drew near to the place of refuge, they set fire to it, using their boughs as fuel; so was fulfilled literally and impressively the prophetic allegory of Jotham. In a subsequent fight, Abimelech had his skull cracked by a stone dropped from a woman's hands; and he commanded his armour-bearer to slay
him, that he might not die in disgrace. He was consistently masculine; he died as he lived, by the sword.
Social inequalities, characteristic of all communities in time of peace, are annihilated by the common danger in time of war. As Abimelech, the son of a housemaid, had risen to be king, so Jephthah, the son of a harlot, who had been expelled from his father's house by his legitimate brothers, was sent for when Israel was attacked by the Ammonites. For in war the question is not, Who was your mother? but, What can you do? and Jephthah was a mighty man of valour. He was proud and clever enough to tell the ambassadors that if he agreed to lead them in battle they must acknowledge him as ruler after the victory. To this they agreed; and we see in the history of Israel, as elsewhere, how a powerful leader may rise from humble origin. Jephthah, like the wise man he was, tried to avoid open hostilities with the children of Ammon, and a spirited correspondence took place between him and their king; when negotiations failed, he smote them, hip and thigh. If only he had not made his famous vow!
Jephthah and his nameless daughter are immortal figures of tragedy; they conquer more people every day than Jephthah did on the happiest and saddest day of his life. She died for her country, and for her father's honour; every year thereafter the
daughters of Israel celebrated her heroism with public lamentation.
Before her death she went upon the mountain with other young girls to bewail her virginity. Perhaps she showed more courage in this prolonged and solemn contemplation than if she had begged for instant sacrifice.
Just what she was bewailing I did not fully understand when I first read the story in my childhood, but I was impressed by it, and still more impressed by the sensation I caused in a room full of people one evening when I regarded my maiden aunt, who for some reason seemed to be depressed, and suddenly in a general silence I shot this question at her: "Are you bewailing your virginity?"
The Ephraimites, jealous of Jephthah's glory, and forgetting his grief, started a civil war against him, in spite of his attempts to remonstrate. Like a true statesman, he never resorted to war if it were possible to avoid it. Jephthah won the battle, which was the cause of another never-to-be-forgotten incident. The men of Gilead stood at the passages of the river Jordan, and when the fugitive Ephraimites came up, pretending to be of another tribe, and desiring permission to cross over, an interesting philological test was made.
. . . The men of Gilead said unto him, Art thou an Ephraimite? If he said, Nay;
Then said they unto him, Say now Shibboleth: and he said
Sibboleth; for he could not frame to pronounce it right. Then they took him and slew him at the passages of Jordan: and there fell at that time of the Ephraimites forty and two thousand.
When one hears the English language to-day mispronounced, misaccented, and treated with vulgar carelessness by those natives who ought to respect it, one wishes there might be some public test and drastic penalty. "Sibboleth" for "Shibboleth" is surely no worse than "weat" for "wheat."
About twenty-five years after the death of Jeph-thah, the sinister shadow of the Philistines begins to spread across the Promised Land; it will be remembered their country stood directly in the path of the Israelites when they escaped from Egypt, and it was owing to this obstacle that the Hebrews made a wide detour. They inhabited a part of the sea-coast on the southwest portion of Canaan, though their army seems to have been much more important than their navy. The original hindrance was prophetic; they were to give Israel trouble many years; for the Israelites surrendered to the Philistine gods before surrendering to their men-at-arms. The Philistines had beaten and ruled the Hebrews forty years when Samson was born. He hated the foreigners as Hannibal hated Rome, and it was destined that he should trouble them.
An angel of the Lord appeared to Manoah and his wife, predicted that they would have a son, that he must be a Nazarite, and keep the vows; after
which the angel ascended to heaven before their astonished eyes.
The word Nazarite means Separated, and the rules which a Nazarite must obey were set forth with precision in the sixth chapter of Numbers.
He shall separate himself from wine and strong drink, and shall drink no vinegar of wine, or vinegar of strong drink, neither shall he drink any liquor of grapes, nor eat moist grapes, or dried.
All the days of his separation shall he eat nothing that is made of the vine tree, from the kernels even to the husk.
All the days of the vow of his separation there shall no razor come upon his head.....he shall be holy, and shall let the locks of the hair of his head grow.
You see he was forbidden even grape juice; and he must neither shave nor have his hair trimmed.
Samson is the champion athlete of the Bible and, like most athletes, was then and is now enormously popular. College undergraduates are often ridiculed for their worship of football players; but they are merely following afar off the manner of the world. Men who are physically powerful have ten times more admirers than those who are intellectually distinguished; this fact is more evident to-day than in the age of the cave man. Never have prize-fighters been more popular than now. Samson has always been an appealing figure. Although ideally unfitted for the position, he was appointed Judge, and judged Israel for twenty years. Like most heavyweight athletes, he was a good fellow
and good-naturedly generous when not opposed; but he was not conspicuous for intellectual brilliancy; his head was as solid as the muscles on his arms. He was fond of betting and an easy prey to women; his humour expressed itself in practical jokes. He never had his hair cut but once, and found that even more expensive than it is to-day.
Like most stupid people, he took the easiest way and followed his instincts. He saw a Philistine girl and wanted to marry her; in response to the expostulations of his father, he merely replied: "Get her for me; for she pleaseth me well."
It is interesting to notice that this Philistine foreign wife betrayed him to the Philistines; prophetic of the later conduct of Delilah. Samson paid his bet in grim fashion, and then left his wife to herself. It is characteristic of him, however, that he came back to her, his desire always being stronger than his wit; and when he found his "best man" had taken her, he destroyed the harvest of the Philistines with illuminated fox tails. His method of destruction showed more originality than the results thereof; for on a subsequent occasion he slew a thousand Philistines with the jawbone of a certain animal, which is by no means the last illustration of what widespread havoc can be wrought by an ass.
Another woman nearly proved his destruction; and he would have been lost if he had not had the unusual advantage of being able to walk out of the locked gates of the city, taking them with him as he
went. Delilah finally succeeded in compassing his downfall; she did it not by cleverness, but by persistently being herself. I remember as a boy, Samson's giving her his secret seemed to me inexplicable; how could he be such a fool? He not only knew the necessity of keeping his strength, but her absolute treachery had been proved in his presence three times. My father had found it impossible to explain the situation to me, though I noticed it seemed natural enough to him. One must have lived some time in the world in order to understand how natural it was; it happens every day. Samson was not the only fool in the world.
It was not until he became blind that he really saw the truth. Good health often blunts one's perceptions. Do you remember the infinitely melancholy words of Gloucester, when in response to a sympathetic enquiry, he said:
I have no way, and therefore want no eyes:
I stumbled when I saw.
Either Delilah did not tell the Philistines the reason of his weakness, or they were stupid enough to forget it; they should have kept the prison barber at him every day. I suppose, however, they enjoyed watching his feats of strength, which they made him perform in public for their amusement; he willingly acquiesced in satisfying their curiosity, knowing that it was necessary to keep in condition.
Milton made a glorious poem out of Samson's
sufferings. He understood them. He, too, had suffered both by blindness and women. Milton never forgot his first wife, and in the colloquy between the captive giant and Delilah, who had the assurance to visit him, there is more than a touch of autobiography.
After the Philistines came general anarchy; no king had as yet been appointed, and no judge had succeeded Samson. "Every man did that which was right in his own eyes," which means they all did wrong.
A quarrel over one woman started a terrific civil war, which nearly annihilated the tribe of Benjamin. This horrible story, a duplicate of what happened in Sodom, illustrates the unnatural wickedness in Israel, and the sacredness of hospitality, according to which the safety of a guest was considered more important than the welfare of the family. The tale is told with Russian intensity; and the battle that followed the death of the woman is set forth in detail. The children of Benjamin, who were on the defensive, had a number of sharpshooters.
Among all this people there were seven hundred chosen men lefthanded; every one could sling stones at an hair breadth, and not miss.
The city of Benjamin was taken by a stratagem; much slaughter resulted. Now the other tribes had all taken a vow that not one of them would give his daughter to a man of Benjamin in marriage. Later,
their hearts softened toward the outcast tribe, and the method by which--while still the vow was kept inviolate--the surviving warriors of Benjamin secured wives is rude, violent, and decidedly interesting.