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Outlines Of Jewish History -Rev. Francis E. Gigot D.D.

1. Birthplace. The man selected by God to be the ancestor of the chosen people was Abraham, or as he was first called, Abram. He was the youngest son of Thare, the ninth descendant from Sem, and was born in “the land the Chaldeans” (Acts 7:4), whereby is meant the southern part of the country fertilized by the Tigris and the Euphrates. As Chaldæa is strictly an alluvial region, its aspect is that of a level plain whose monotony is unrelieved by mountain or hill. But its natural fertility is wonderful, and with its former large and industrious population (Gen. 10:10), it must have presented in Abraham’s time a great contrast with its present barren and depopulated condition. Among its many cities was “Ur of the Chaldees” the birthplace of Abraham, and whose long disputed site has been recently identified with Mugheir, some six miles distant from the right bank of the Euphrates, and about 125 miles northwest of the Persian Gutf. In the time of Abraham, Ur was most likely a thriving seaport, for recently discovered inscriptions; whilst proving that: Mugheir was formerly called. Ur, “constantly Speak of the ships of Ur and of the brisk commerce of its inhabitants” (BLAIKIE, Heroes of Israel, p. 9). The ruins of Ur are extensive, consisting mostly of low mounds, near the northern end of which are the remains of a Chaldean temple built in brick, partly sunburnt and partly baked, and dedicated to Hurki, the moon-god, from whom the town derived its name. As Ur was for long centuries used as a cemetery-city, because of the notions entertained about its great sanctity, its ruins present mainly the aspect of a city of tombs.

2. Wanderings. The wanderings of Abraham began during the lifetime of his father. For some unknown reason—perhaps simply because of the restlessness natural to nomads—the family of Thare left their settlement at Ur, and under his leadership started towards the land of Chanaan (Gen. 11:31). Proceeding northward, the emigrants naturally followed the road which is along or near the banks of the Euphrates, because it presented no special difficulty for the conveyance of either man or cattle. For upwards of 170 miles they moved along the rich plain of Sennaar and passed by the great cities of Arach, Chalanne and Babylon; next they entered a highland region, and about 200 miles northwest of Babylon crossed the river Khabur, whence they easily reached Haran, the frontier town of Babylonia. There the family of Thare settled, captivated by the great fertility of the plain in the centre of which Haran is built. There, also, after his father’s death, Abraham received the Divine call recorded in Genesis (chap. 12:1, sq.) bidding him leave his own country and the idolatrous house of his father (Josue 24:2, 3) and repair to another land (cfr. CRELIER, Genèse, p. 153).

Accordingly, Abraham, now seventy-five years old, leaving his brother Nachor in Haran (Gen. 24:10), proceeded on his journey with his wife Sarai, and his nephew Lot. Both Abraham and Lot had prospered in Haran, and their large possessions and retinue formed a long caravan which moved slowly towards the Euphrates (Gen. 12:4, 5). Having crossed this river—probably at the ford still in use near Zeugma—they naturally took the old track or road to Damascus across the great Syrian desert. They stopped but a little time in Damascus (Gen. 15:2, 3) and then resumed their southwesterly road by one of the ordinary caravan routes which passed, as they still pass, through Palestine to Egypt. Thus did Abraham reach the land of Chanaan, but not knowing yet whether this was the land of promise, “he passed through the country into the place of Sichem” as far as the turpentine tree of Moreh (cfr. Gen. 12:6; 34:4). Here it was that Jehovah appeared to Abraham and promised to his seed this very land; here it was also that the grateful patriarch erected his first altar to Jehovah (Gen. 12:7).

But the plain was small, and not without proprietors. This led Abraham to pass southward to a mountain east of Bethel, a fine district for pasturage, which, however, soon proved insufficient for his numerous flocks. He therefore went southward to “the Negeb,” “the dry” region which forms the southern limit of the Holy Land, till the pressure of famine compelled him to go down into Egypt, the fertile granary to which the Bedouins of the present day repair willingly under similar circumstances (Gen. 12:8, sq.).

Compelled to withdraw from Egypt under Pharao’s orders, Abraham went back to his former camping-ground near Bethel, where he soon separated from Lot, his nephew, who hitherto had accompanied him in all his wanderings, and where he was greatly encouraged by a more explicit promise of Jehovah that his seed should possess the Holy Land. Thence he removed and took up his abode under the terebinths of Mambre, an Amorrhite prince (Gen. 14:13), near Hebron (Gen. 12:20–13).

After a long residence at Mambre, Abraham resumed his wanderings, and proceeding towards the south he “dwelt between Cades and Sur, and sojourned in Gerara,” a place now known as Umm el Jerar. Here, or not far from it, at Bersabee—about 25 miles south of Hebron—he sojourned for a long time, highly respected by the Philistine authorities, who considered him as a powerful chieftain not to be interfered with. But although Bersabee afforded plenty of roaming space for his flocks and several wells for their watering, Abraham finally removed to Hebron: the death of Sara could not be very distant, and in preparation for her demise he wished to secure for himself and his descendants a burial place in the locality whose possession had been several times promised him for his posterity (Gen. 20:1; 21:22–34).

3. Outward Relations. The first class of people with whom Abraham came in contact during his long wanderings after reaching the holy land, are those tribes which, under the general name of Chanaanites, were “at that time in the land” (Gen. 12:6). His general relations with them present a twofold aspect: (1) he ever remains separated from the surrounding tribes, professing to be a stranger among them (Gen. 23:4), not accepting any gift from their hands (Gen. 14:23), not willing to have any intermarriage between his race and theirs (Gen. 24:3), etc.; (2) there is no trace in his actual dealings with them of the unrelenting enmity of later ages. This, however, should not be accounted for by community of creed and identity of religious worship, but rather by the fact that Palestine was then but thinly peopled and offered many tracts of unappropriated grounds fit for pasturage. Dwelling in their towns and satisfied with their immediate neighborhood, the Chanaanites did not interfere with a chieftain no less really powerful than ostensibly peaceful and disinterested.

Abraham’s relations with the Egyptians were naturally of shorter duration than with the Chanaanites, and their brief description in Genesis (chap. 12:11–20) is quite in harmony with recent Egyptian discoveries. Thus the fears of Abraham for his own life, if Sarai was known to be his wife, are illustrated in the Egyptian “Tale of Two Brothers,” where we are told that a King of Egypt sent two armies to bring a beautiful woman to him and to murder her husband. The notification to the king of Abraham’s arrival with his beautiful sister, is in perfect accordance with the extant reports made under similar circumstances by officers posted on the Egyptian frontier. In like manner, the well-known customs of the country required that Sarai’s supposed brother should be offered presents calculated to secure his ready consent to her future marriage with Pharao. Finally, it is generally admitted that all the animals mentioned in the Bible as presented to Abraham by Pharao, were then known in Egypt (See VIGOUROUX, Bible et Découvertes Modernes; GEIKIE, Hours with the Bible, vol. i, pp. 320–322).

Few things found in the Biblical records have appeared more strange and incredible than Abraham’s relations with Melchisedech. In this connection, Genesis (chap. 14:18–20) tells us that on his return from a victorious battle against eastern kings who had invaded Palestine, Abraham was met by Melchisedech, the King of Salem and priest of the most high God, received his blessing and gave him the tithes of all the spoil. This sudden introduction of a Chanaanite personage bearing a Semitic name, at once king and priest, without any mention of his parentage, place of birth, successor in office, etc., has ever appeared most mysterious and supplied matter for more or less improbable conjectures. Quite lately, however, an unexpected light has been thrown upon several points connected with Melchisedech, which enables us to realize the historical character of this illustrious type of our Lord (Heb. 5:6, 10). Among the cuneiform tablets discovered in 1887 at Tell el-Amarna on the Nile, were found despatches going back to a time long before the Exodus and addressed to the kings of Egypt by the governor of Jerusalem. From some of them we learn that Semitic words were then current in Palestine, that the town over which this official ruled as an ally to Egypt was Uru’ Salim, and that his office was not hereditary, nor dependent on the appointment of the Egyptian monarch, but filled by the direct oracle of a God whom he calls the Mighty King and who had his shrine in Uru’ Salim. As appointed by a direct divine oracle, the ruler over Jerusalem was naturally at the same time the priest of the God to whom he would offer a sacrifice of thanksgiving for the glorious victory of Abraham, and in whose name he would bless this illustrious patriarch. Abraham, recognizing Jehovah in the God worshipped by Melchisedech, willingly gave to this king and priest the tithes of all the spoil.

The last class of Abraham’s outward relations which we intend briefly to mention here are those which this patriarch had for long years with the Philistines, who, apparently at that time, were a pastoral tribe under the leadership of a king bearing the official title of Abimelech. In reaching their country, Abraham—according to his general agreement with Sara—gave out that she was his sister, and in consequence she was taken to become the wife of Abimelech. The narrative of this second seizure, whilst bearing much general resemblance with the preceding narrative of Sara’s capture in Egypt, differs from it in several important particulars, such as the explanation now given of his conduct by Abraham (Gen. 20:11–13), and the kind manner with which Abimelech deals with him (Gen. 20:14–18). The sojourn of Abraham in the land of the Philistines is also marked by the first act of appropriation on the part of his servants—the digging of the wells of Bersabee—which was indeed resented by the pastoral population of the tribe, but which simply led to a firmer alliance between him and the Philistine authorities (Gen. 21:22–34).

4. Domestic Life. In connection with the members of Abraham’s household we notice first of all that Agar, one of his female slaves—probably one of the gifts of Pharao (cfr. Gen. 12:16; 16:1)—appears as a secondary wife of the patriarch. She became such at the instigation of Sarai, according to a custom still known in the East, and in virtue of which children born in this manner are considered as legitimate offspring and treated as the children of the mistress of the establishment. Agar having conceived, forgot her condition to the extent of despising her barren mistress, but she had to “run away” from Sarai’s resentment. The angel of Jehovah found her in the wilderness of Sur—which separated Palestine from Egypt her native land—assured her that Jehovah had heard her affliction, and that Ismael her son, would be a free, indomitable son of the desert. Whereupon Agar returned to her mistress, and in due time bore a son to Abraham (Gen. 16). Evidently Ismael became dear to the old patriarch and was treated by him as the heir of the Divine promise, up to the birth of Isaac from Sarai. This explains how Abraham was so reluctant to expel him as requested by Sarai, who could not bear the idea that the son of a bond-woman should share the paternal inheritance, but it makes it difficult to realize how despite his paternal love he consented to dismiss Ismael and his mother with a scanty supply of bread and a bottle of water, unless we admit that under the name of bread other provisions are included. However this may be, the picture of the sufferings of the youth in the desert of Bersabee is true to life (GEIKIE, p. 343), and had not the angel of Jehovah intervened in his behalf, Ismael would have perished from thirst. Saved from a cruel death, the lad grew up in the wilderness of Pharan which forms the northeastern division of the peninsula of Sinai, was married to an Egyptian woman and became the ancestor of numerous nomadic tribes spread over the deserts of Northern Arabia between the Red Sea and the Euphrates (Gen. 16; 37:25, 28).

But however dear to Abraham were Ismael and his mother, two other members of his family lay closer to the heart of the patriarch, viz., Sara his half-sister and wife (Gen. 20:11, 12) and Isaac the son of promise and the heir of all things (Gen. 25:5). Of course, the history of Sara is that of Abraham, whom she accompanied in all his wanderings, yet her independent action appears in connection with family affairs, such as Abraham’s connection with Agar and the difficulties between her and Agar, between Isaac and Ismael. Her ironical laughter at the promise of a child (Gen. 18:10), her trembling denial of that laughter (Gen. 18:15), her laughter of thankful joy for the birth of Isaac (Gen. 21:6), are traits of her character to be noticed. It was probably at Bersabee that she brought forth Isaac, and on the eighth day the child was circumcised according to the Divine command. When two or three years old Isaac was weaned, and it was soon after the festival celebration which marked this event, that God declared that through Isaac alone Abraham would be the ancestor of the chosen people (Gen. 21). And yet the time came when Jehovah asked from the patriarch the sacrifice of this beloved son, but was satisfied with Abraham’s firm faith and ready obedience (Gen. 22:1–19).

The time came also when a suitable partner was to be provided for Isaac, and in consequence, Abraham ever anxious to keep his seed separate from the idolatrous Chanaanites, sent his chief servant the Damascene, Eliezer, to Mesopotamia, where Nachor had remained. In this connection, the sacred narrative pictures Eliezer’s departure, meeting with Rebecca, petition for her hand in behalf of his young master, etc., with a faithfulness to Oriental life which has never been surpassed (Gen. 24).

The mutual attachment of Abraham and his nephew Lot deserves also a mention here. On the one hand, Lot follo s willingly his uncle whithersoever he goes (to Damascus, Sichem, Egypt, etc.), and consents to depart from him only when their common interest requires it manifestly (Gen. 13:5, sq.). On the other hand, Abraham willingly gives Lot his choice of the best land before him (Gen. 13:9, sq.), and after the actual departure of his nephew, shows himself ever ready to come to his help as is exemplified in the promptitude with which Abraham “the Hebrew” (i. e., the one who came from beyond the Euphrates) started to rescue him when made captive by the eastern kings who had invaded Chanaan (Gen. 14:1–16).

Finally, it is in connection with another wife of Abraham, named Cetura, by whom he had several children, that we learn the prudent measures to which he resorted to preclude all discussion about his inheritance between his lawful heir and his other children. To the latter “he gave gifts, and separated them from Isaac his son, while he yet lived, to the east country” (Gen. 25:1–6).

5. Death and Burial-Place. Abraham was 175 years old when “he was gathered to his people.” Isaac and Ismael, his sons, buried him by the side of his beloved wife, Sara, in the cave of Machpelah (Gen. 25:7–10).

As we already noticed, this burial-place was bought by the holy patriarch on the occasion of the death of Sara, and its purchase is recorded in Genesis (chap. 23) with great minuteness, and also with perfect faithfulness to Eastern customs. Then, as now, the order of the transactions was ceremony, compliment, and then business; then, as now, the sellers offered anything, everything, as a gift, but all are politely declined; then, as now, every article must be specified in the deed (the field, the cave, the trees), all rights must be paid in current money, and then the deed “is made sure” (HENRY A. HARPER, From Abraham to David; see also DEANE, Abraham, p. 150, sq.).

The mosque at Hebron is built over the cave of Machpelah, and even the mosque is guarded with the most jealous care by the Mussulmans, a few great personages being the only ones who were allowed to visit it for several centuries. The only visitor of the cave itself who has left a credible account of his inspection is the rabbi Benjamin, of Tudela, who in 1163 was allowed to examine it. He says: “The Gentiles have erected six sepulchres in this place, which they pretend to be those of Abraham and Sarah, of Isaac and Rebecca, and of Jacob and Lia … if any Jew come, who gives an additional fee to the keeper of the caves, an iron door is opened and with a burning candle in his hand, the visitor descends into a first cave which is empty, traverses a second in the same state, and at last reaches a third, which contains the six sepulchres, one opposite the other. All these sepulchres bear inscriptions.… A lamp burns in the cave and upon the sepulchres, continually both night and day.” Whatever may be thought of this description by one who visited the cave during the occupation of Palestine by the Christians, it may be said with great probability that the cave “resembles the rock-cut sepulchres of Palestine, with a square antechamber carefully quarried, and two interior sepulchral chambers, to which access has been made at a later period through the roofs” (C. R. CONDER, Survey Memoirs, vol iii, p. 346).

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