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The Jews

Ancient history, from the beginning of historical information to the downfall of the Western Roman Empire (? B.C. - 476 A.D.). The Great Empires: Eastern Nations.
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The peculiar character and history and the persistent vitality of the Hebrew race have made them the most wonderful people in the world. This chosen people of God, as Christians hold them to have been, were never distinguished by numbers, nor by extent of empire. Nearly 4,000 years ago their great ancestor crossed the Euphrates and the Syrian Desert to Canaan. In these closing years of the 19th century we find them, in almost unmingled purity of blood and in their most ancient form of features, physical, intellectual, and moral, alive and flourishing in every part of the world - in central Asia and Africa, in every European capital, in New York, St. Louis, and Chicago. Apart from its religious importance, their literature is remarkable for originality and poetical power. Still marked by his old intensity of character, fierceness in hate and love, fervid genius, indomitable resolution in pursuing his aims, the Jew has attained in modern days eminence in every department of life - art, literature, science, statecraft, and money-making. The career of the Jews in their more ancient times may be very briefly dealt with, so familiar is it to all readers from their own sacred books. Their historical importance consists, of course, in the part which, through their literature, they played in the spread of religious truth - the conservation and conveyance to future ages of the moral and spiritual lessons which were developed and exalted into the Christian creed and practice. Their God was one who, as the special deity of a family that became a nation, taught the unity of the godhead, issued the commands on which all true morality is based, founded spirit-worship in place of nature-worship, and, by preserving His people through all dangers, difficulties, and trials, enabled them to fulfil the mission entrusted to them, and to them alone, among the nations of the world. We may here note that the word "Jews" comes from Yehudism, the name given, after the Babylonish captivity, to the whole people, as chiefly belonging to the tribe of Judah, and that "Hebrews", generally ascribed to Heber, a descendant of Shem and ancestor of Abraham, which is really a national, not an individual, designation, means "those who crossed," ie passed over the Euphrates from Mesopotamia towards Canaan, as the coming nation did in Abraham's person. Premising that the chronology of early Jewish history is in many points uncertain, we note, in swift succession, the salient facts. About 2000 b.c. Abraham, then called Abram, migrated from "Ur of the Chaldees," a city in Babylonia, to Canaan. From his grandson Jacob, called Israel after his wrestling with the angel, the descendants of Jacob's twelve sons were styled "Israelites" or "children of Israel," the name being held to mean "a prince with God." In due course came, perhaps in the 16th century b.c., the migration into Egypt, and the settlement of the people, with great increase of numbers as years passed on, in the land of Goshen, on the right bank of the Pelusiac mouth of the Nile. The deliverance out of Egypt, about 1320 b.c., was a great event, both for the Israelites and the world. It gave the people unity in a national consciousness of being the favoured of Yahveh or Jehovah. About 1274 we have the conquest of Canaan, the "land of promise," under Joshua, and the division of the country amongst the tribes. The Semitic Hebrews, the worshippers of one God, did not utterly destroy or expel the idolatrous Canaanites, of mixed Hamitic and Semitic race, and after Joshua's death there were intermarriages with the natives, disregard of the Mosaic law, disunion among the Israelites, and the subjugation of single tribes by surrounding nations. The government was a theocracy, in which the nation was regarded as under the immediate guidance of Jehovah, through the hereditary high-priesthood in the family of Aaron. The scene of special worship was the Tabernacle, a portable temple or holy tent, containing the Ark of the Covenant, and having its services conducted by the descendants of Jacob's son Levi. In the time of trouble various "Judges," chiefly as military leaders, were raised up, who from time to time rescued their countrymen from the hands of the Amorites, Amalekites, Hittites, Philistines, Midianites, Moabites, Ammonites, and other heathen peoples - the heroes known as Gideon, Jephthah, Samson, and others.

The time came, in the 11th century b.c., when the Philistines had conquered the whole country west of Jordan, and the disorganised and demoralised state of affairs made the people apply to Samuel, the last of the Judges, the first of the prophets, the greatest Hebrew since Moses, to choose for them a visible head in the form of an earthly representative king. The purely theocratic form of government, combined with that of a federal republic, was thus superseded by monarchy, a system which was a decided failure in the person of the first king, the brave, stately, wilful, partly insane Saul. He did effect something in the field against the heathen enemies of Israel, but died at last by his own hand after defeat in battle with the Philistines.

We observe that the prophetic order arose at this time and gained great influence in the state, first as advisers of the civil rulers, and then as a class of men who took charge of the religious destinies of the nation, and expounded the will and purposes of God by word and in their writings. A great event came in the accession of David, progenitor of a line of kings, and of the promised Messiah. His reign of 40 years, 7 years in Hebron over Judah alone and 33 years at Jerusalem over the whole nation, covers the time when the Jews may be fairly said to have established an empire. At this time also Jerusalem became the great and holy city of the Jewish race, the centre of both the national and the religious life of the people. With Joab as his commander-in-chief, David extended his sway over the whole of Palestine, ruling from the north-east end of the Red Sea to Damascus, and making many surrounding peoples tributary. The reign of Solomon, also one of 40 years, was made specially notable by the erection of the first magnificent temple, which had a great influence in the elevation and purification of the Jewish ritual, and in making the national sentiment an unrivalled combination of religion and patriotism. The history of the Jews at this time is entirely peaceful. Lucrative trade was carried on with Phoenicia, Egypt, Arabia, and probably with India and Ceylon. The arts of music, poetry, and architecture were cultivated, and it appears to be the golden age of Jewish history. A grievous falling-off was to come. The people suffered from heavy taxation due to the lavish expenditure of their sovereign. The wise man became in his closing years an ordinary voluptuous and idolatrous Oriental despot, and his death was the signal for political rupture. The kingdom was divided into that of Judah, including the tribes of Judah, Simeon, and a part of Benjamin with the Levites, and that of Israel to the north, including the other tribes, with the capital firstly at Sichem and later at Samaria and Jezreel.

We need enter into few particulars of the history of the two separate kingdoms, generally friendly with each other, sometimes at war. The annals of the kingdom of Israel present us with a series of dynasties succeeding each other by assassination and of wickedness and idolatry in the monarchs and people, vainly denounced by the prophets of the Lord. The more pious portion of the people of Israel were disaffected, and went up to Jerusalem to worship, in scorn of the two calves of gold set up at Dan and Bethel. Among all the royalty of this period and kingdom, Ahab and Jezebel, the Tyrian princess, his wife, are conspicuous for wickedness, and Elijah and Elisha as the prophets of God. The land went down to ruin, and, after being for some time tributary to the kings of Assyria, the kingdom of Israel perished, as we have seen, when Samaria, in 722 b.c., was captured by Sargon, and a large part of the people were carried off and settled in Assyria and Media. Their place was supplied by colonists from beyond the Euphrates, and it was from the mingling and intermarrying of these with the remnant of the Israelites that the people called Samaritans was formed.

The history of Judah presents, upon the whole, a more favourable spectacle. Wickedness and idolatry were again and again combated and checked by kings who were zealous reformers and restorers of the national worship. The country was much harassed by foreign invaders, as under Rehoboam by Shishak of Egypt, under Asa by "Zerah the Ethiopian," under the powerful Jehoshaphat (873-848) by the Moabites, Ammonites, and Edomites, and, as we have seen, by the Assyrians under Sennacherib. The Temple was often robbed of its wealth in gold and silver to buy off invasion or to pay tribute to foreign foes. A remarkable episode was the usurpation of Athaliah (843-837), daughter of Ahab and Jezebel, and wife of Jehoram (848-844), son of Jehoshaphat. She seized supreme power in Jerusalem, and put to death her own grandchildren in order to destroy the line of David; but one of the stock, Joash, was wonderfully preserved, and brought up secretly in the Temple. This wicked woman introduced the worship of Baal, and was then overthrown and put to death by Jehoiada the high-priest, who placed Joash on his ancestral throne. The prophet Isaiah flourished in the latter half of the 8th century b.c., under Ahaz and Hezekiah, the latter of whom was one of the greatest reformers, wielding considerable influence over the kingdom of Israel. His son Manasseh turned the Temple of Jehovah into a shrine of Astarte, the Phoenician goddess, and sacrificed to Baal and Moloch. Carried captive to Babylon, he repented and was restored to his throne. The last of the pious kings was Josiah, in whose reign the prophet Jeremiah came forward against idolatry, and the worship of Jehovah was restored, according to the book of the Law of Moses discovered in the Temple. The kingdom went rapidly to ruin after the death of Josiah in battle with Necho of Egypt at Megiddo (609 b.c.). The Babylonians became virtual masters of the country. Jehoiachin was carried away into captivity with many of his people in 597, and finally, in 588, Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon took and destroyed Jerusalem in the day of king Zedekiah, and the remnant of the people of Judah were carried off into the so-called "70 years' captivity" in Babylonia, a period which is only correct if estimated from the capture of Jerusalem, in the reign of Jehoiakim, in 606.

The prophet Ezekiel, who was one of the captives, gives some account of the condition of affairs in this period of bondage, during which the people were so kindly treated that only those of the lowest class returned along with the priests and Levites. We note that the Israelites, the "Ten Tribes" or "Lost Tribes," exiled nearly a century and a half before, never returned at all, and their subsequent fate has been always a matter of the wildest speculation. We learn from the book of Esther how large a number of Jews, remaining behind in the new abode on the return from captivity, were spread over the great Persian empire. Until about a.d. 1000 Babylonia was a sort of "second land of Israel" to the people, and many important changes in the Jewish worship and creed, including the belief in the immortality of the soul and in the resurrection of the dead, had their origin during the period of the captivity of Judah. It was in 536 b.c. that "Cyrus the Persian" issued his decree for the return of the Jews to Palestine, when the foundations of the Second Temple were laid by Zerubbabel, of the royal line of David, the governor appointed by the king of Persia. Among the beneficial effects of the captivity may be noted the extinction of idolatry among the Jews, the establishment of a more spiritual worship, less reliance upon ceremonial, the practice of the regular reading of the Scriptures, by degrees collected into a "canon," in the ears of the people in the synagogues, and the rise of the scribes who expounded the sacred writings and shared the respect paid to the priests and Levites. The observance of the Sabbath was firmly settled, and the use of private as well as public prayer had its place along with the rites and ceremonies of the older form of worship. The building of the Temple was interrupted for some years by the opposition of the Samaritans, who rejected all the sacred writings except the Pentateuch, and it was not completed until 516. The wasted cities were rebuilt and repeopled, and the complete restoration of the divine worship and of the observance of the Law was effected under Ezra the priest, who headed a second migration in 458 b.c., and Nehemiah, who came to Judea as governor for the Persian king 13 years later.

Down to the fall of the Persian empire the Jews lived peaceably under their own institutions as tributaries of that vast dominion, and the rule of affairs came into the hands of the high-priests. When Alexander the Great overthrew the Persian empire in 331, the conqueror allowed the Jews the free exercise of their religion, and they easily submitted to the new ruler, who enrolled some of them in his armies, and carried off large numbers of them and of the Samaritans to form a population for his newly founded city Alexandria. In 301 Ptolemy Soter of Egypt settled a large number of the people in Alexandria and Gyrene, and in Egypt the Jews attained special honour and prosperity, and thus aroused the jealous hatred which was embittered by the scornful assertion of their claims as the favoured people of God. This further dispersion had great influence in the spread of Judaism, and, in later days, of Christianity, and the Jews now, in close contact with Greek civilisation, gained a new distinction in science and art, while the influence of Greek philosophy promoted the division into sects by which the Jews became distinguished in early Christian times. It was during this period that the Septuagint or Greek version of the Old Testament Scriptures was made for the use of the "hellenising" or Greek-speaking Jews now so widely spread abroad in western Asia and north-eastern Africa.. The Jews of Palestine, after being well treated both under Syrian and Egyptian rule for a century and a half, fell under trouble when Antiochus IV. succeeded to his father's throne in Syria. There were rival Syrian and Egyptian parties, and amid civil dissension the high-priesthood was degraded by becoming an office due to bribery and intrigue, one holder of which paid homage to idolatry in sending offerings to the Tyrian Hercules. This Antiochus, surnamed "Epiphanes" (the Illustrious), a title sarcastically changed by his contemporaries into "Epimanes" (the Madman), attacked Judea in 170, stormed the city, of Jerusalem with a great and wanton slaughter of both sexes and all ages, and then deliberately set about the task of forcing the Jews into paganism. The "Holy of Holies" in the Temple was profaned by a sprinkling of swine's broth, the sacred vessels were carried off, the holy building was dedicated to the Greek deity Zeus Olympius. In every village idol-altars arose, and those who adhered to the faith of their fathers were forced to eat swine's flesh or die. In this awful time of trial the Jewish character, on the whole, shone forth brightly. There were some who yielded, many who fled into other lands, but there were far more who boldly faced martyrdom.

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