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

§ 1. Social Aspect: A Nomad Life

1. The Nomad Life in General. The inhabitants of Palestine and neighboring countries have, from the earliest ages, been divided into two great classes, according as they dwell in permanent or in movable habitations (Gen. 4:17, 20), and this division holds good down to the present day. In all parts of Western Asia, beside the people settled in villages and cities, tribes are now met with dwelling in tents, and “moving about with their flocks according to the demands of the season, the state of the herbage and the supply of water” (KITTO, art. Pasturage). They are nomad tribes leading the same wandering life as their ancestors long centuries before Christ, wearing the same garb, and speaking almost the same language. Their roaming habits, their apparent lack of all civilization, together with the difficulty in past centuries to reach the East, and the great insecurity of travel through the vast deserts of Western Asia, have long prevented Biblical scholars from acquiring a close acquaintance with customs and manners so different from those of Western Europe. But of late most of those obstacles have disappeared: as the means of transportation have become more rapid and less expensive, travels through Eastern lands have been multiplied, the manners and customs of nomad tribes have been studied in their own country, and interesting narratives have placed the result of patient and careful investigation within the reach of Biblical students. In point of fact the nomad life is better known now than ever before, and our greater knowledge of it enables us to realize with peculiar vividness the various features of the patriarchal age, inasmuch as the life and habits of modern nomads are almost in every particular identical with those of the nomads of ancient times (J. L. PORTER, Five Years in Damascus, p. 178, sq.; GEIKIE, The Holy Land and the Bible, chap. xiii).

2. Some Particulars of the Nomad Life described. The first feature common to the nomads of to-day and to the wandering patriarchs of old consists in the use of the tent as a dwelling (Gen. 12:8; 13:3; 18:1, etc.). The tents of Arabs are usually oblong and higher in front than behind. They are formed by setting poles—nine in all—in the ground, and spreading over them a covering made of goat’s-hair cloth and along the border of which ropes are fastened. To keep the whole structure in position, the ropes are stretched to their utmost and fixed by their loops to pegs driven fast into the ground. The interior is divided into two parts by a curtain hanging upon the three central poles: the part on the left, in entering, is reserved for the women and contains the provisions of the household, the cooking utensils, the skin water-bottles, etc.; the part on the right, forms the men’s apartment and is the place where passing guests and visitors are usually received (cfr. Gen. 18:6, 9, sq.; 27:5, sq., etc.).

Dwellings of this description are easily transported, and as such are very convenient for that wandering life which perseveres down to the present day for the same motives as in the times of the patriarchs of old. Among these motives may be reckoned (1) the amount of personal adventure and tribal independence it allows; (2) the means it affords for raising flocks and cattle by moving according to seasons, conditions of pastures, etc.; (3) the harmony it presents with olden traditions and ancestral habits; (4) the natural charms it offers under a blue Eastern sky, etc.

Of course, now, as during the patriarchal age, it is rare to meet solitary tents, for households united by kindred naturally dwell in the same region or move together in their migrations. “In the desert, the tents are often arranged in a circle or quadrangle, so that the cattle can be gathered together into the central space, and thus be more effectually defended against marauders” (VAN LENNEP, Bible Lands, p. 403). When migrating to new pastures the appearance of a large tribe—not unlike the large caravans of Abraham (cfr. Gen. 12:4, sq.; 13:1, sq., etc.); and of Jacob (32:1–8, 13–21; 33:4–14),—is most picturesque, and is thus graphically described by Layard: “We soon found ourselves in the midst of wide-spreading flocks of sheep and camels. As far as the eye could reach, to the right, to the left, and in front, still the same moving crowd. Long lines of asses and bullocks laden with black tents, huge caldrons and variegated carpets; aged women and men, no longer able to walk, tied on the heap of domestic furniture; infants crammed into saddle-bags, their tiny heads thrust out through the narrow opening, balanced on the animal’s back by kids or lambs tied on the opposite side; young girls clothed only in the close-fitting Arab shirt, which displayed rather than concealed their graceful forms; mothers with their children on their shoulders; boys driving flocks of lambs; horsemen armed with their long, tufted spears, scouring the plain on their fleet mares; riders urging their dromedaries with their short, hooked sticks, and leading their high-bred steeds by the halter; colts galloping amongst the throng” (Nineveh and its Remains, vol. i, p. 90).

On the arrival of a tribe at their camping-ground, the pitching of tents occasions a great deal of confusion, every one appearing desirous to outdo his neighbor in vehemence of shouting and of action. This is, however, but a friendly debate on the site of the respective tents, and after it has been settled by no more violent measure than mere yelling, each family begins to raise its temporary dwelling. The camels are made to kneel down, the donkeys to stop in the places fixed upon, and the loads are rolled off their backs. The women next spread the black tent covering, the men rush about with wooden mallets to drive in the stakes and pegs, and in a few minutes the temporary abodes are complete. The women and girls are then sent forth to fetch water, or to collect brushwood and dry twigs for fire, whilst the men, assembling in the tent of the sheikh and crouching in a circle round the entire trunk of an old tree, which is soon enveloped in flames, prepare to pass the rest of the day in that desultory talk relating to stolen sheep, stray donkeys, or successful robberies, which fills up the leisure of an Arab (cfr. LAYARD, Nineveh, vol. ii, pp. 49, 50).

In all encampments the sheikh’s tent can easily be known by a long spear stuck upright in the ground in front of it, and distinguished travellers naturally make for it. As oftentimes, like the patriarchs of old, the sheikh sits under the awning of his tent or the shade of a tree watching for wayfarers, he soon notices that they are approaching, and at once the scene described in Genesis (chap. 18) is renewed in their behalf. With the same formulas as those used by Abraham, they are invited to remain until they have partaken of refreshments; with the same speed, a lamb or a calf is brought in, stretched upon the ground and slaughtered, and with almost the same inconceivable expedition it is dressed and served up with butter and milk, together with the bread baked on the hearth. Finally, if his guests are persons of high rank, the sheikh stands by them while they eat, as Abraham did in the circumstance recorded in Genesis (cfr. L. J. PORTER, Five Years in Damascus, pp. 61, 178).

Of course, only sheikhs can afford to undergo such expenses in welcoming their guests, but all modern nomads feel bound to do all in their power to exercise the duty of hospitality, the sacredness of which is scarcely ever broken in the East notwithstanding the well known dishonesty, treachery and cruelty of the inhabitants of the desert.

In the family circle, the head of the household is absolute lord and master of the lives and property of every member, so that had Abraham sacrificed his son Isaac, he would not have exceeded the authority granted to every father by the nomad tribes (Gen. 22:10). Now, as during the patriarchal age, the chief wife rules indeed over the other women, dispenses the provisions of the household and enjoys the privilege of preparing the meals destined for her husband and his guests, but this does not prevent frequent jealousies and intrigues, and in consequence one of the secondary wives is sometimes dismissed in order to restore peace to the disturbed household (See LAYARD, Babylon and Nineveh, p. 316). The sending of Eliezer to the country of Abraham’s kindred to seek a wife for Isaac is exactly what an Arab chief would do to-day, “and it is very common among the Arabs of Egypt and other countries for a man to marry his first cousin … a union of this kind being generally lasting because of this tie of blood” (LANE, Modern Egyptians, p. 215). The fondness of Orientals for children, and especially for sons, is well known, and now, as in the time of the ancient patriarchs, the birth of a son is considered by the father as most welcome news (Gen. 21:7).

Of course, slavery has existed in the East from time immemorial, and the power of the master over his slaves is unbounded. It should be borne in mind, however, that the husband has no power over his wife’s slaves—whom she may have received as a part of her dowry—unless there be an express agreement on her part to that effect (VAN LENNEP, Bible Lands, pp. 567, 568).

As a natural consequence of their wandering life, the nomads do not collect the remains of their dead in a cemetery; if, however, some of their kindred have already been buried in a particular spot, they regard it as a preferable burial-place for themselves and for the members of their household. Public demonstrations of intense grief over their dead are a very ancient custom with Orientals (cfr. Gen. 23:2, with W. THOMPSON, The Land and the Book, vol. i, p. 243), and the noise of their lamentations is naturally proportionate to the dignity and power of the deceased. It is not unlikely that the funeral rites of a sheikh, witnessed by Wm. Thompson at Hebron and so graphically described by him, bear a close resemblance to the public marks of honor and mourning which surrounded the burial of Abraham, one of the most powerful chieftains of his time (cfr. The Land and the Book, vol. i, p. 245, sq.; and also DEANE, Abraham, pp. 173, 174).

§ 2. Religious Aspect: A Life of Faith

The religious aspect of Abraham’s life is distinctly set forth by the sacred writers when they call him (1) “THE FRIEND OF GOD” (2 Paralip. 20:7; Isaias 41:8; James 2:23), (2) “THE FATHER OF THE FAITHFUL” (Rom. 4:11).

The first of these titles suggests a real, living, personal intercourse of the great patriarch with the Almighty, and it was well deserved by his strong, practical, persevering life of faith as the chosen servant of Jehovah. Various reasons have been alleged to account for the beginning of his belief in the true God whilst surrounded on all sides, even in the house of his father, by Assyrian idolatry, as, for instance, that he was born before Thare became an idolater, that he was himself converted from idolatry by a special revelation from God, etc.; these, however, are but suppositions more or less in harmony with the Biblical data respecting the life of Abraham, and it must be confessed that the origin of his faith in Jehovah is still a matter of conjecture. No less uncertainty prevails as regards the circumstances in the midst of which Abraham’s faith, once begun, acquired the wonderful strength which characterizes it at the very first moment we see it tried by a Divine command (Gen. 12:1, sq.), for it is far from being proved that Abraham’s faith grew stronger and stronger in Ur of the Chaldees under the influence of religions persecutions started by the Assyrian King, Sargon I, and of which we would still hear in legends and traditions (cfr. HANNEBERG, Histoire de la Révélation Biblique, vol. i, p. 52, sq.; DEANE, Abraham, chaps. i, ii).

Be all this as it may, there can be no doubt that, after the Divine call, Abraham ever evinced the most implicit, practical and generous faith. Indeed his life is less admirable for the moral virtues he practised, such as unselfishness (Gen. 13:8, 9; 14:23, etc.); nobility of disposition (14:20); uprightness and courtesy in his dealings with others (Gen. 23), etc.; than for (1) a constant sense of the presence of an unseen God, raising Him altars whithersoever he goes (Gen. 12:7, 8; 13:4, 18, etc.); (2) his trustful love and deep veneration for Jehovah (Gen. 17:3; 18:27; 24:7); (3) an unlimited devotion to God’s service, leaving at once and repeatedly everything (Epistle to the Hebrews 11:8, sq.); believing God’s word notwithstanding all the suggestions of reason to the contrary (Gen. 15:5, 6; Rom. 4:19); willing to sacrifice his dearly beloved son (Gen. 22) and teaching his family and posterity to be faithful to Jehovah (Gen. 18:19).

It is not therefore to be wondered at, if such a life was rewarded by the most splendid blessings (Gen. 21:22b); and first of all by earthly blessings, such as worldly possessions (Gen. 13:6; 24:35), the miraculous gift of an heir (Gen. 24:37); a large posterity (Gen. 25:1, sq., etc.); high consideration from men (Gen. 21:23) and, finally, a robust and long life (Gen. 25:8); and next, by wonderful blessings of the spiritual order, God guiding and protecting him on every occasion (Gen. 13:17; 12:17; 21:22), appearing to him (Gen. 15:1, etc.), conversing familiarly with him and revealing to him His secrets (Gen. 18:17), granting readily his petitions (Gen. 17:18, 20; 18:23, sq.; 20:7, 17), etc.

In virtue of the second title—that of “THE FATHER OF THE FAITHFUL”—given to Abraham in Holy Writ, the great patriarch stands before us as the glorious ancestor of the chosen people of God under the old and the new dispensation. He is, first of all, the natural ancestor of the Jewish nation, through Isaac his son and the heir of all his possessions. Such was from the first the design of God, who in bidding Abraham leave his country, his kindred and his father’s house promised “to make of him a great nation” (Gen. 12:1, 2), to which He would give the Land of Chanaan (Gen. 12:7; 13:15; 15:13). As time went on, the Divine promises multiplied and became more distinct. Abraham was made sure that he would have a son from Sara, that Isaac would be his only heir, and that from him a great and powerful nation should arise (Gen. 18:10; 21:10; 22:17). These various promises were also confirmed, first, by a solemn although transient covenant, as we read in Genesis, 15:18, and next by the permanent covenant, of the circumcision (Gen. 17). There is, therefore, no doubt that Abraham is the glorious ancestor “according to the flesh” of that people chosen of old by Jehovah to preserve here below the true faith (Gen. 17:7, 8) together with the expectation of the future redeemer of the world, but now long rejected to give place to another nation as numerous as the stars of the heavens and walking in the footsteps of the “faithful Abraham” (Gal. 3:9). “According to the spirit,” Abraham is the father of all Christians, God’s chosen people under the new covenant, and in a special manner of those who earnestly strive to live up to their belief after his example (Gal. 3:7, 29; Rom. 4:12). In the Divine plan, Abraham was ever destined to be the father of all those who would through ages share in the blessing immediately granted through him to the Jewish people, for it must be noticed that the promises made by God to Abraham are always universal (Gen. 12:2; 18:17, 18; 22:18), and the covenant of the circumcision has been transformed from the circumcision of the flesh into that of the heart (Rom. 2:29; Galat. 6:15).

But God destined Abraham to become “the father of many nations” even physically, and as a fact, he is not the natural ancestor of the Jews alone, he is also the father of a branch of the Arabs through Ismael (Gen. 16:15; 25:13), of the descendants of Cetura enumerated in Genesis (25:1, sq.), and of the Edomites through his grandson Esau (Gen. 25:23). In Arabia proper, Mussulmans do not hesitate to claim him as their ancestor, the more so because Mohammed, having recognized that all that the Arabs had of good in his time was due to this great patriarch, bethought himself of restoring among them the religion of Abraham (see HANNEBERG, Histoire de la Révélation Biblique, vol. i, pp. 60, 61).

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