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

§ 1. General Remarks about the Mosaic Law

1. Main Purposes. If we except the Christian law, no legislation was ever enacted for higher and better purposes than the Mosaic law, the record of which occupies a large portion of the books of Exodus and Numbers and almost the whole of the books of Leviticus and Deuteronomy. It aimed, first of all, at organizing into a civilized nation hordes of slaves but recently delivered from the most abject servitude, and, as such, very little fitted for the duties and privileges of personal freedom and national independence. It aimed, in the second place, at making Israel a monotheistic nation, and indeed succeeded in making it the sole monotheistic nation of antiquity, that is, the sole nation of the ancient world, which possessed the correct idea of the Divinity. But more particularly was the Mosaic law intended to fashion the Jewish people into “a priestly kingdom and a holy nation” (Exod. 19:6), bound to be holy because Jehovah then God is holy, destined to offer to the true God the only sacrifices acceptable to the Divine Majesty, and to preserve and spread among all the nations of the earth, together with the belief in Jehovah, the expectation of the promised Redeemer of the world. Of course some of these purposes could be obtained but slowly and gradually, and this is why the student of the Mosaic law should never consider it was its purpose to bring all things at once to perfection, but rather to correct old abuses as far as allowed by the present religious and moral condition of the Jewish nation, and usually to suggest, and even at times simply foreshadow, the perfection which was to be introduced into the world by Christianity.

2. General Features. At the basis of the Hebrew commonwealth, the Mosaic law placed a theocratic constitution in virtue of which Jehovah was to be not only the God but also the King of Israel, as He was indeed the founder of the state and the proprietor of the land which He would bestow upon His people. In accepting freely this order of things, the Jews acknowledged themselves as Jehovah’s tenants, holding their lands on well-defined terms of vassalage, foremost among which was their faithfulness to the exclusive worship of the one great and invisible Creator. The social compact in Israel was not therefore primarily between the people at large and one or several members of the community, but between the entire nation and its God, and as long as this fundamental relation of Jehovah to His people was fully secured, it mattered but little in the eyes of Moses what manner of political organization was in vigor among the Hebrews. Hence while retaining the time-honored organization of the people into tribes, families and houses, under their respective heads (cfr. Josue 7:14), he did not consider as incompatible with the Jewish theocracy the monarchical form of government which he foresaw would one day exist in Israel (Deuter. 17:14, sq.).

As a natural consequence of this same theocratic character of the Jewish polity, Moses looked upon all the members of God’s people as being equally His subjects, and, in consequence, he granted to all equal civil rights. Differently from the Egyptians, they were to constitute but one great caste, that of husbandmen cultivating their own inalienable property; and although the Levites formed in the Jewish state a distinct class analogous in several ways to the priestly caste of Egypt, yet, differently from the Egyptian priests, they were forbidden to own lands and prevented from accumulating riches and exercising any influence which might endanger the liberties of the people. With the same high regard for civil freedom, the Jewish lawgiver made but few changes in all that concerned the organization and government of the natural basis of society,—the family. He deprived, however, the father of the right of life and death upon his household, and restricted the practice of divorce. The regulations of the Mosaic law respecting the poor, the slaves, the strangers, the travellers, the working-classes, etc., bespeak also the greatest regard for man’s life, individual rights and personal freedom. Its deep concern for the religious education of children, and the strict practice not only of justice but also of equity in business transactions, is no less remarkable.

When we pass from the civil to the criminal code of the Jews we find that it also is permeated with the theocratic spirit. “Each breach of the law was an act of disobedience to God’s holy will, and not merely an offence against society; the rewards of obedience and the punishment of sin had reference to the covenant under which the people lived” (SMITH, Old Testament History, p. 220). In virtue of this same theocratic character of the Mosaic law, crimes directly against God, such as idolatry, blasphemy, etc., were naturally considered as most heinous, and many others, usually beyond the cognizance of ordinary codes, were really amenable to the tribunal of Jehovah, the great King of Israel and the all-knowing Judge of men’s deeds. Many offences were indeed punishable with death—which was inflicted by stoning, by fire, or by the sword—but no torture could be resorted to in order to force the confession of crimes, no cruelty was allowed after the guilt of a man had been proven, and in opposition to the political custom of Asia, the punishment of a father did not entail that of his children. The other forms of punishment were (1) scourging, which was not to exceed forty stripes of the lash at a time; (2) mutilation, and (3) various fines. But whatever the punishments threatened or the rewards promised, the chief object of the criminal code in Israel was “disciplinary, and to this its retributive element was subordinate” (SMITH, ibid, p. 221). It should also be noticed that some customs—such as that of retaliation applied to malicious or accidental wounding—which appear to us extremely severe, not to say barbarous, were indeed allowed to exist, but only as minor evils destined to be mitigated as soon as the conditions of a more settled life would permit.

As Jehovah was the real King of Israel, so was He also its Supreme Judge, who intervened at times to mete out to the transgressors of His Law the chastisements which they deserved. But however numerous and striking these instances of direct Divine judgment in Jewish history, it remains true that the ordinary application of laws was among the Hebrews, as among all other nations, intrusted to a judiciary whose members acted as ministers of the Head of the State. The Law required that they should be “able, godly, truthful and incorrupt” (SMITH, ibid, p. 275), and this is why they were selected from among the elders of Israel, and also later on, from among the Levites, that is, from the best instructed and most independent members of the community. As the representatives of God’s power and majesty they are oftentimes called “gods” in Holy Writ, and their persons and characters were held sacred by all the Jews. After the settlement in Chanaan, they rendered justice in the gates of the cities, so that trials were actually held in public.

The last general feature to be mentioned here in connection with the Mosaic law is its religious character. Viewed from this standpoint, the Mosaic legislation will ever appear the greatest effort of antiquity to promulgate and maintain the belief in, and worship of, one only God, for such was unquestionably the object of its dogmatic teaching, and of many of its moral precepts and ceremonial enactments. The chief dogma of Israel is absolute Monotheism, which—as might naturally be expected—is inculcated in such a manner as to imply a formal opposition to Egyptian idolatry (cfr. Exod. 22:2, sq., the wording of which points back to the custom long witnessed by the Hebrews in Egypt of worshipping countless images of the Divinity and of its various attributes). Many moral precepts of the Mosaic law—however closely this law may resemble Egyptian legislation in other respects—tend no less manifestly to enforce among the chosen people the exclusive worship of Jehovah (cfr. for instance, Exod. 23:13, 24; Deuter. 7:2, sq.; 17:2–7); and it is not unlikely that the entire omission of the rewards and punishments in the next life from the Pentateuch, as a sanction of the moral law, must be explained by the desire of the Jewish lawgiver not to recall, even indirectly, to the Israelites the idolatrous practices with which the Egyptians had surrounded the burials and tombs of their dead. But it is more particularly in connection with the ceremonial enactments of the Mosaic law that the desire of the great lawgiver of Israel to guard his people against Egyptian idolatry appears evident, for, whilst he borrowed from Egypt many of the externals of Jewish worship, he is very careful to divest them of their polytheistic character (cfr. W. SMITH, The Pentateuch, Authorship, etc., p. 289, sq.). As this ceremonial law plays a very important part in the history of the Jewish nation, and is described with many details in the sacred narrative, we now proceed to give, though briefly, its principal features.

§ 2. The Tabernacle and its Ministers

1. The Tabernacle (Exod. 36–40). The centre of public worship in Israel was the Tabernacle, or Tent, which Jehovah, as God and King of His people, wished to have among them. Erected by means of the free-will offerings of the Israelites it ever reminded them that they were a theocratic nation, since their God, like the chieftain of a tribe, resided in their midst, and in a portable building, whose form exhibited at the same time several features of the more solid and more majestic temples of Egypt. This portable temple was surrounded by an oblong court wherein were found the Altar of Holocausts, and between it and the Sacred Tent itself the laver of brass at which God’s ministers washed their hands and feet on entering the Tabernacle. The Tabernacle itself, called also the Sanctuary, was placed toward the western end of the court, and was an oblong rectangular tent, 52 feet long by 17 feet in height and width. It was divided by a magnificently embroidered veil, into two parts: the Holy Place and the Holy of Holies. The Holy Place contained, beside the sacred utensils, (1) the table whereon the twelve loaves of proposition were placed every Sabbath day, (2) the golden candlestick with its seven branches, and (3) the small portable altar of wood covered with gold, called the Altar of Incense. Whilst the simple priests were allowed to enter the Holy Place for the exercise of their sacred functions, only Moses and the high priest had the privilege of penetrating into the mysterious darkness of the Holy of Holies, which contained nothing but the Ark of the Covenant. This ark was a wooden chest three feet nine inches in length by two feet three inches in width and height, and, as the symbol of the covenant between Jehovah and His people, it contained the two stone tables of the Law. Its lid, made of the purest gold, was called the Mercy Seat, or propitiatory, because it was considered as the throne whence Jehovah exercised mercy and forgiveness towards His people; it was also overshadowed by the outstretched wings of two symbolical figures which the Bible calls Cherubim. This Biblical description of the Ark shows that it resembled in a striking manner the Naos, or portable wooden chapel which was found in the sanctuary of every Egyptian temple and which contained the image of a deity over whom two symbolical figures extended their wings. But however close this resemblance, it should never make us forget that a most important difference existed between the Jewish ark and the Egyptian naos; whilst the latter contained an image of the deity to whom it was dedicated, the former offered to the eyes of the Hebrews no visible representation of Jehovah (Exod. 25, sq.).

2. The Ministers of the Tabernacle (Exod. 28, 29; Levit. 8, 9; Numb. 3, 4). For the service of His Tabernacle, God selected the whole tribe of Levi, apparently as a reward for the zeal in favor of religious unity which they had exhibited on the occasion of the idolatrous worship of the golden calf (Exod. 32:25, 29). Moreover, as Moses belonged to this tribe, he might naturally depend more on them than on any other tribe in Israel to establish and forward His religious institutions among the chosen people.

Although the special mission of the whole tribe seems to be described as that of mediating between Jehovah and His people (Numb. 18:22, 23), it is probable that, from the beginning, a distinction was established between the sons of Aaron and the rest of the tribe; the former and their descendants alone were the priests of Jehovah, the latter and their descendants were simply the assistants of the priests and retained the distinctive name of Levites.

The simple Levites were dedicated to the service of Jehovah in the person of His priests, by solemn ceremonies which are detailed in the book of Numbers (8:5–22), and which were not repeated at the induction of each Levite into his office. Besides their general function of assisting the sons of Aaron in the discharge of their priestly duties, the Levites were charged to carry the Tabernacle and its vessels, to keep watch about the sanctuary, etc., and other like duties which required a man’s full strength, and hence they did not enter upon their functions before the age of thirty.

The sons of Aaron, together with their male descendants, were the only lawful priests of Jehovah. If properly qualified for the exercise of the priestly ministry, they had to be individually consecrated by special ceremonies, which lasted seven days and which consisted in sacrifices, purifications, the putting on of the holy garments, the sprinkling of blood, and anointing with oil. During their ministrations, they wore vestments in several respects similar to those of the Egyptian priests, and the principal of which were: fine linen drawers, a close-fitting tunic, also of white linen, and reaching to the feet, a long linen girdle confining the tunic round the waist; upon their heads they wore a kind of a tiara, formed by the foldings of a linen cloth, and of a round turban-like shape. Their manifold duties were briefly as follows: In the court of the Tabernacle they kept ever burning the fire on the Altar of Holocausts and offered various sacrifices to God; in the Holy Place they were charged to offer the morning and evening sacrifice of the incense, to take care of the golden candlestick and its lights, and to place, every week, on the table the loaves of proposition; independently of these functions connected with the Tabernacle, they also acted as judges, and as teachers and interpreters of the law. Finally, for their maintenance, they had a considerable share in the victims offered to Jehovah, and received dues of various kinds, such as first-fruits, one-tenth of the tithes of the produce of the country paid to the Levites, the redemption-money for the first-born of man and beast, etc.

At the head of the whole Jewish priesthood was Aaron with the title and dignity of High Priest, which were to pass to his son Eleazar and his male descendants. The high priest was to be a person especially sacred, as was clearly set forth by the gold plate which was attached to his tiara and on which was engraved “Holy to the Lord,” and hence any bodily imperfection or blemish excluded him from the office. He was consecrated in the same manner as the simple priests, with this difference, however, that the sacred oil was poured upon his head. His special garments were: (1) the Robe of the Ephod, which the high priest wore in place of the close-fitting tunic of the simple priests. It was a robe of woven work, without sleeves, drawn over the head through an opening, and its skirt was set with a remarkable trimming of pomegranates alternating with golden bells; (2) the Ephod, a short cloak made of two parts, one covering the back and the other the breast and upper part of the body; they were clasped together on the shoulder with two onyx stones, on each of which were engraved the names of six of the tribes; (3) just above the very fine girdle of the high priest which gathered around the waist both the Robe of the Ephod and the Ephod itself was the Breastplate. This was an ornament of embroidered cloth, set with four rows of precious stones, three in each row, and on each stone was engraved the name of one of the tribes of Israel. It was about ten inches square in size and had its two upper corners fastened to the two onyx stones on the shoulders, whilst the two lower ones were fixed to the ephod. Within the Breastplate, or “Breastplate of Judgment,” were the Urim and Thummim, whose meaning, now so mysterious to us, was so well known to the Hebrews as not to require any explanation from the sacred writer. They were most likely analogous to the small figure of sapphire which the Egyptian supreme judge (who was ordinarily the high priest) wore suspended from his neck when delivering judgment, and which was a representation of the goddess worshipped under the character of Truth and Justice (W. SMITH, The Pentateuch, authorship, credibility, etc., p. 298, sq.). When using them, the Jewish high priest appealed not to a pagan deity but to Jehovah, who by their means was pleased to make known to Israel His true and just judgment (cfr. 1 Kings, 28:6; 14:3, 18; etc.).

Besides the right of presiding over the court of judgment (Deuter. 17:9) and of consulting the Divine Oracle (Numb. 27:21), the high priest enjoyed the exclusive privilege of officiating on the great Day of Atonement, and of entering on that same day into the Holy of Holies. He held his office for life, and was naturally recognized as the supreme administrator of sacred things and the final arbiter of all religious controversies.

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