The Departments of Government
- Chapter XIII – The Hebrew Chief Magistrate
- Chapter XIV – The Constitution
- Chapter XV – The Hebrew Senate
- Chapter XVI – The Hebrew Commons
- Chapter XVII – The Hebrew Oracle
- Chapter XVIII – The Hebrew Priesthood
- Chapter XIX – The Hebrew Prophets
The Hebrew Chief Magistrate
Moses did not, by an express law, unalterably determine in what sort of magistrate the supreme executive authority of the Israelitish state should be lodged. On the contrary, he provided beforehand, in his Constitution, for a change in the form of the government and the title and prerogatives of its head, without subjecting the nation to the horrors of a civil war. And the change from the republican to the regal form, was in a subsequent age, actually accomplished without bloodshed or commotion, an event hardly paralleled by any other in history. Still, Moses was far from being indifferent in regard to the name and powers of the civil head of the state. His chief magistrate was a republican president, who had the title of judge, or rather, as Jahn says, governor, and was elective by the people.
A strange notion in regard to the chief magistracy of Israel has been entertained by several very learned authors, viz. that it was the design of Moses that the nation should, if possible, do without a chief executive officer. Such appears to have been the opinion of Harrington, Fleury, Lewis, Michaelis, Smith, and Dupin. Their idea would seem to have been that, considering how difficult it is to control power once entrusted to the hands of an individual, the lawgiver of Israel wished to have the ends of an executive answered in his republic, without setting apart a single person for that tempting distinction, trusting that, on emergencies, men would appear who could discharge the duty required by the occasion, without any other commission than their own preeminent qualifications, instinctively acknowledged by the public voice. In the view of these writers, the judges were all extraordinary magistrates, not unlike the dictators in ancient Rome.
I have called this a strange opinion, because a state without a chief magistrate is as monstrous as a body without a head. But I must add that, notwithstanding the great names by which it is supported, it appears to me wholly without foundation. If I look either to the conduct or the laws of Moses, I can discover no ground for such an idea. Let us first take his acts for our guide in the study of this point. Moses himself was, unquestionably, the chief magistrate of the Hebrew state. Now, when he had finished his course, and the time of his departure was at hand, about to yield up the authority which he had so long and usefully exercised, he was mainly anxious to provide a suitable successor in that office, a man of courage, prudence, piety, and other needful gifts of government.1 He was to be one who should go out and come in before them; that is, he was to have the command of their armies in war, and the direction of their civil affairs in peace. As to the opinion that this was to be an extraordinary magistracy, it is pure assumption. No intimation is given, that it was to last only during the conquest and settlement of Canaan. The reason assigned by Moses for his anxiety in the matter, viz. that the congregation of Jehovah be not as sheep that have no shepherd, seems to me to settle the question beyond doubt or cavil. Sheep without a shepherd would be as appropriate a symbol of Israel without a chief magistrate after the settlement of Canaan, as before it. This reason for the office of leader or head, viz. its great usefulness or importance to the well-being of the body politic, which are inherent and permanent qualities, stamps it as an essential and standing part of the constitution. And this is conformable to the general sentiment and practice of mankind. The wisest nations have ever deemed it convenient to have a first magistrate, either hereditary or elective, either for life or a term of years, who should be the commander-in-chief of their armies, and who should preside over the civil administration. No otherwise can the force of a nation be properly employed for its protection, and its laws duly executed.
1 Numbers 27:15-17.
But, again, if we look at the laws of Moses, we shall come to the same conclusion, viz. that the opinion I am combating is without any solid foundation. Michaelis says, truly, that Moses gave no law imposing an obligation on the people to choose one universal magistrate of the whole nation. Yet he at least does that which is equivalent; he manifestly takes it for granted that the nation would have such a magistrate. Thus in Deuteronomy 17:9, the judge of the whole republic is mentioned in connection with the high priest, and that, not as a military, but as a civil functionary. In the twelfth verse of the same chapter, the word “judge” is used as a title of supreme authority. A still more decisive passage occurs in 2 Samuel 7:11. It is an address which Jehovah, by the mouth of the prophet Nathan, made to king David, concerning his intention to build him a house. The divine speaker, in a distinct allusion to the chief magistrates of Israel, prior to the institution of monarch, says expressly, “I commanded judges to be over my people Israel.” Upon the whole, there can be no reasonable doubt that, as the Lacedaemonians had their kings, the Athenians their archons, and Romans their consuls, so, according to the constitution of Moses, the Hebrews were to have their general judges, or governors of the whole republic. As to what is alleged by some, as a ground of belief that Moses did not intend to have an unbroken succession of chief magistrates, that, prior to the establishment of monarchy, there were times when the nation was without a civil head, and that the authority of some of the judges did not extend to all Israel, but was limited to particular tribes, that is undoubtedly true. But it is a fact which may be ccounted for on more rational grounds than the theory of these writers. It was the result of a neglect, rather than an observance, of the Mosaic constitution, a neglect, in all probability, occasioned by the jealous rivalry between the different tribes, as explained in the last chapter.
In order to a just understanding of the frame and operation of the Hebrew government, it is material to inquire, both what were the powers, and what the limitations of power, appertaining to this magistracy. If we would conceive justly of the office, we must study it, as it was instituted and exercised by Moses and Joshua, in whose history alone we may expect to find an exact and true account of it, since, after the death of the latter, this part of the constitution was very soon altered or neglected, there being no regent or judge in the land.2
2 Judges 19:1.
The supreme authority of the Hebrew state was in Jehovah. God himself was properly king of Israel. With respect to this divine king, Moses, as Conringius says, might not improperly be called his viceroy. It is evident from the whole history, and therefore particular citations are not necessary to prove, that Moses was clothed with very ample powers. He had authority to convene the states-general of Israel, to preside over their deliberations, to command the army, to appoint officers, and to hear and decide civil causes.
But it may be alleged, and it is certainly true, that Moses had an authority depending, in a peculiar manner, on God himself. Let us, therefore, look at this office of chief magistrate as exercised by Joshua. We find a somewhat detailed account of it, in the narrative of his appointment as the successor Moses. The historian says,3 “And the Lord said unto Moses, Take thee Joshua the son of Nun, a man in whom is the spirit, and lay thine hand upon him: and set him before Eleazar the priest, and before all the congregation: and give him a charge in their sight. And thou shalt put some of thine honor upon him, that all the congregation of the children of Israel may be obedient. And he shall stand before Eleazar the priest, who shall ask counsel for him after the judgment of urim before the Lord: at his word shall they go out, and at his word they shall come in, both he, and all the children of Israel with him, even all the congregation. And Moses did as the Lord commanded him: and he took Joshua, and set him before Eleazar the priest, and before all the congregation. And he laid his hands upon him, and gave him a charge, as the Lord commanded by the hand of Moses.”
We learn, still more clearly, the nature of this part of the Hebrew constitution, from the history of Joshua’s accession to the government. “Now, after the death of Moses, the servant of the Lord, it came to pass, that the Lord spake unto Joshua, the son of Nun, Moses’ minister.”4 The object of this address was to encourage him to take upon himself the government of the Israelites.5 Thereupon the new regent immediately issues his orders:6 “Then Joshua commanded the officers of the people, saying, Pass through the host and command the people, saying, Prepare you victuals: for within three days ye shall pass over this Jordan, to go in to possess the land which the Lord your God giveth you to possess it.” Then he summoned the tribes, who had received their inheritance east of the Jordan, and directed them to accompany their brethren, and assist them in taking possession of their portion on the western side of that river.7 Their reply was remarkable, and deserves be inserted at length; as we distinctly see from it their conception of the nature and extent of the authority which was vested in Joshua:8 “And they answered Joshua, saying, All that thou commandest us, we will do, and whithersoever thou sendest us, we will go. According as we hearkened unto Moses in all things, so will we hearken unto thee: only the Lord thy God be with thee, as he was with Moses. Whosoever he be that doth rebel against thy commandment, and will not hearken unto thy words in all that thou commandest him, he shall be put to death: only be strong and of a good courage.”
3 Numbers 27:18-23.
4 Joshua 1:1.
5 Joshua 1:2-9.
6 Joshua 1:10-11.
7 Joshua 1:12-15.
8 Joshua 1:16-18
These are the principal passages relating to the office of chief magistrate among the Hebrews, as it was exemplified in the history of the first two judges. A critical analysis of them establishes several important conclusions.
1. The Hebrew judges held their office for life. There was unquestionably a disadvantage attendant upon this arrangement. On the death of a judge, the supreme executive authority ceased. This often led to anarchy, or at least to great disorders, in consequence of a delay in electing a successor. In virtue of the English maxim of law, that the king never dies, all the rights of the sovereign, on his demise, instantly vest in his heir. Perhaps, however, the disadvantage resulting from the adoption of the opposite principle in the Hebrew polity, was more than counterbalanced by its preventing a degenerate heir, or successor, from giving to idolatry the support of his influence.
2. The office was not hereditary. Moses took no steps to perpetuate this magistracy in his family, or to leave it as a hereditary honor to his posterity. He did not even seek to confine it within his own tribe. All he desired, in his successor, was a man fit for the office, a man in whom was the spirit of prudence, courage, and the fear of God, with all the other gifts of government necessary in an upright, patriotic, zealous, and able chief magistrate. Joshua, the immediate successor of Moses, was of the tribe of Ephraim; Othniel was of Judah; Ehud, of Benjamin; Deborah, of Naphtali; Gideon, of Manasseh; and Samuel, of Levi. The other judges were of several different tribes, and, they being dead, their children remained among the common people, and we hear no more of them. “Let the supreme authority be given to the worthiest,” is the voice of reason. “Let the supreme authority be given to the worthiest,” is echoed back by the Mosaic constitution, as face answers face in water, and the heart of man to man.
3. The chief magistracy of Israel was elective. The oracle, the high priest, and all the congregation, are distinctly recorded to have concurred in the elevation of Joshua to this office.9Jephthah was chosen the chief magistracy by the popular voice.10 Samuel was elected regent in a general assembly of Israel.11 And, for aught that appears, the other judges were raised to this office by the free, unsolicited choice of the people.
4. The authority of these regents extended to affairs of war and peace. They were commanders-in-chief of the military forces of the Israelites, and chief judges in civil causes. That Moses united these functions in his person is undisputed. He administered justice, as well as commanded armies. That Joshua did the same, that his authority was, in these particulars, of an equal extent, is also clear. Moses was directed to put some of his honor upon him, that all the congregation of the children of Israel might be obedient.12 What does this mean, but that, as suggested by bishop Patrick, Moses communicated to Joshua some of his own authority, and made him an associate in the government? But the point is yet clearer from the words, in which the trans-Jordanic tribes recognized Joshua’s authority: “All that thou commanest us we will do, and whithersoever thou sendest us we will go. According as we hearkened unto Moses in all things, so will we hearken unto thee.”13 This is explicit and unequivocal. the authority of Joshua was co-extensive with that of Moses, and comprehended civil as well as military affairs. Most of the succeeding judges had been at the head of armies, had delivered their country from foreign oppression, and were elevated to the chief magistracy in reward of their military exploits. Eli and Samuel, however, certainly were not military men. Deborah was judge, and held her court under a palm tree, before she planned the war against Jabin.14 Of Jair, Ibzan, Elon, and Abdon, it is uncertain whether they ever held any military command. The judges are mentioned in the Mosaic law, in connection with the high priest, as arbiters of civil controversies.15 The command of the army cannot, therefore, be considered as the peculiar, much less the exclusive function of these magistrates. They appear rather to have been appointed for the general administration of public affairs. It is true that martial achievements were, in several instances, the means by which men raised themselves to the rank of judges; but the present inquiry is, not how the office was obtained, but for what ends it was instituted.
The authority of the judge was, without doubt, very great. As general, he had the chief command of the army; as civil head of the state, he convened the senate and congregation, presided in those assemblies, proposed the public business, exercised a powerful influence over their deliberations, and, in all things, acted as viceroy of Jehovah, the invisible King of Israel. He was the fountain of justice, and the executive power of the government was principally lodged in his hands.
9 Numbers 28:19,22.
10 Judges 11:4-11.
11 1 Samuel 7:5-8.
12 Numbers 28:20.
13 Joshua 1:16-17.
14 Judges 4:4-5.
15 Deuteronomy 17:9,12.
5. A contumacious resistance of the lawful authority and orders of the Hebrew judges was treason. This is plain from the address of the eastern tribes to Joshua, in formally recognizing him as the head of the nation, and promising allegiance to his government. “Whosoever be,” they say, “that doth rebel against thy commandment, and will not hearken unto thy words, in all that thou commandest him, he shall be put to death.”16 It is, perhaps, still plainer from Deuteronomy 17:12: “The man that will do presumptuously, and will not hearken unto…the judge, even that man shall die.” And this was consonant to reason and justice; for, the chief authority, both in military and civil affairs, being vested in him, he embodied and represented the majesty of the state. Rebellion against him was rebellion against the supreme power. It was a violation of all order and government, an attempt to frustrate the will of the nation, an act of mutiny and sedition—offenses, which, in all governments, have been regarded and treated as capital crimes.
6. The authority of the Israelitish regents was not unlimited and despotic. It was tempered and restrained by the oracle. This is distinctly affirmed in the history of the appointment of Joshua to the chief magistracy as the successor of Moses.17 It is there said that he should stand before Eleazar the priest, who should ask counsel for him, after the judgment of urim before the Lord. This implies an obligation to follow the counsel, when given. This use of the oracle throws light on some parts of the Hebrew history, which are commonly not well understood. In particular, it suggests the reason why the Israelites were so often conquered and oppressed by their enemies. It was either because of their rashness in trusting to their own wisdom, without asking counsel of the oracle, or because of their neglect to follow the counsels which they received from it. In either case, the behavior of the Hebrews could not be otherwise than highly criminal, under this constitution, and, of course, highly provoking to their divine King. The power of the Hebrew chief magistrates was further limited by that of the senate and congregation. In ordinary cases, it would seem they were not bound to consult the states-general. It was enough, if these did not remonstrate against the measures of the judge—a procedure to which they were by no means backward in resorting, whenever, in their judgment, occasion required it. But, in important emergencies, they summoned a general assembly of the rulers, to ask their advice and consent. This we find to have been repeatedly done by Moses, Joshua, and Samuel.
16 Joshua 1:18.
17 Numbers 27:21.
Still another limitation to the authority of the Hebrew judges was in the law itself. Their power could not be stretched beyond its legal bounds. This is pretty plainly intimated in the address of the people to Joshua, on his accession to the chief magistracy. They say, in effect, that they would be obedient to him, provided he himself would obey the law of Jehovah, and follow the path traced out by his servant Moses.18 This magistracy was always in subjection to the law, nor, as far as appears from the history, did any of the judges ever abuse the power committed to them, unless we except Gideon, who, through his own superstition, gave some slight encouragement to idolatry. As it is a maxim of the British monarchy that the law maketh the king, so, it was a principle of the Hebrew commonwealth, that the law made the judge; and as, under the English constitution, he is not king, where will and pleasure rule, and not the law; so, under the Israelitish constitution, he would not long have continued judge, who, trampling on the law, should have made his own will the rule of his administration.
18 Joshua 1:17.
The observation may appear singular, yet I believe it to be true, that the constitution of Carthage throws light on this part of the constitution of Israel. “The history of the Carthaginians,” observes Michaelis, “will here assist us in forming more accurate ideas of this chief magistrate of the Israelitish republic, and in comparing his office with a well known European one. In the Hebrew language, a judge is called schofet. The Carthaginians, who were descendants of the Tyrians, and spoke Hebrew, called their chief magistrate by that name. But the Latins, who had no such sch, as we have, wrote the word with a sharp s, and, adding a Latin termination, denominated them suffetes. By the historian Liby, they are compared to the Roman consuls. In book 28, chapter 38, he says, ‘Ad colloquium suffetes eorum, qui summus Poenis est magistratus, cum quaestore elicuit.’ There, however, he is speaking, not of the suffetes of the city of Carthage itself, but of inferior ones. But in book 30, chaper 7, he mentions the former in these words: ‘Senatum suffetes, quod velut consulare apud imperium erat, vocaverunt.’ Now such were the judges of Israel, whose history is recorded in the book called by their name.”
No salary was attached to the chief magistracy in the Hebrew government. No revenues were appropriated to the judges, except, perhaps, a larger share of the spoils taken in war, and the presents, spontaneously made to them as testimonials of respect.19 No tribute was raised for them. They had no outward badges of dignity. They did not wear the diadem. They were not surrounded by a crowd of satellites. They were not invested with the sovereign power. They could issue orders, but they could not enact laws. They had not the right of appointing officers, except perhaps in the army. They had no power to lay new burdens upon the people in the form of taxes. They were ministers of justice, protectors of law, defenders of religion, and avengers of crime, particularly the crime of idolatry. But their power was constitutional, not arbitrary. It was kept within due bounds by the barriers of law, the decisions of the oracle, and the advice and consent of the senate and commons of Israel. They were without show, without pomp, without retinue, without equipage—plain republican magistrates. “They were not only simple in their manners, moderate in their desires, and free from avarice and ambition, but noble and magnanimous men, who felt that whatever they did for their country was above all reward and could not be recompensed—who desired merely to promote the public good, and who chose rather to deserve well of their country than to be enriched by its wealth. This exalted patriotism, like everything else connected with politics in the theocratical state of the Hebrews, was partly of a religious character, and those regents always conducted themselves as the officers of God. In all their enterprises, they relied upon him, and their only care was that their countrymen should acknowledge the authority of Jehovah, their invisible King. Still, they were not without faults, neither are they so represented by their historians. These relate, on the contrary, with the utmost frankness, the great sins of which some of them were guilty. They were not merely deliverers of the state from a foreign yoke, but destroyers of idolatry; foes of pagan vices; promoters of the knowledge of God, of religion, and of morality; restorers of theocracy in the minds of the Hebrews; and powerful instruments of divine providence in the promotion of the great design of preserving the Hebrew constitution, and, by that means, of rescuing the true religion from destruction.”
19 Judges 8:24; 1 Samuel 9:7, 10:27.
Such was the chief magistrate of Israel, as created by the constitution of Moses. It will be interesting and not unimportant to inquire into the state of the country during the government of the judges. Very grave errors on this point, and such as are calculated to discredit the wisdom of this constitution, have been committed by authors, otherwise candid and learned. It has been by no means uncommon to represent the four hundred and fifty years during which this consular magistracy lasted, as times of imbecility, confusion, anarchy, barbarism, and crime. Harrington speaks of the Israelitish commonwealth, during this period, as “without any sufficient root for the possible support of it, or with such roots only as were full of worms.” Lowman speaks of “the weak state of the Hebrews,” and Smith, of “the moral and social deterioration of the people,” during the same period. Nothing can be more unfounded or unjust than such representations. This error is probably grounded on another, viz. that of regarding the book of Judges as a complete history of the times of the judges. But such it manifestly is not. The book is exceedingly fragmentary as a narrative, being made up rather of heads of history, than history itself. It is aptly characterized by Jahn as “a mere register of diseases, from which, however, we have no right to conclude, that there were no healthy men, much less that there were no healthy seasons; when the book itself, for the most part, mentions only a few tribes, in which the epidemic prevailed, and notices long periods, during which it had universally ceased.” If anyone will attentively read over the book of Judges, and take the trouble to compare the times of oppression and adversity with those of independence and prosperity, he will find the duration of the former less than one fourth that of the latter. The entire history of one hundred and twenty years of this period is contained in these two brief records: “The land had rest forty years,”20 “the land had rest four score years.”21 Ehud and Shamgar must have governed with prudence and ability, since all the time of their administration was prosperous and peaceable, both within and without. It is quite apparent, therefore, that the Israelites experienced much more of prosperity than of adversity in the time of the judges. Under their government, the nation enjoyed periods of repose, happiness, and plenty, of which the history of other ancient nations affords but few examples. Wherefore, then, change the republican to the regal form? Pride and folly prompted the revolution, a revolution soon repented of with bitter but unavailing regrets, a revolution in which lay buried the seeds of despotism and ultimate dissolution.
20 Judges 3:11.
21 Judges 3:30.
This magistracy of judge, regent, or consul was the true primitive arrangement of the Hebrew constitution. This the wisdom of the divine lawgiver appointed as one of the bonds, whereby the tribes were to be united in the power of their arms, in their national councils, and in the administration of justice. If Moses, in framing his polity, had stopped here, it would have been necessary for anyone, in analyzing and describing it, to arrest himself at the same point. But since he provided for the establishment of the regal form of government among the Hebrews, whenever they should tire of republican simplicity, and since he enacted a fundamental law to define and limit the power of the future kings, the study of the Hebrew chief magistracy involves an examination of the regal office, nor would the analysis of the Mosaic constitution be complete without it. To this labor, therefore, I now address myself.
The law, referred to in the last paragraph, is in these words: “When thou art come into the land, which the Lord thy God giveth thee, and shalt possess it, and shalt dwell therein, and shalt say, I will set a king over me, like as all the nations that are about me: Thou shalt in any wise set him king over thee whom the Lord thy God shall choose: one from among thy brethren shalt thou set king over thee: thou mayest not set a stranger over thee, which is not thy brother. But he shall not multiply horses to himself, nor cause the people to return to Egypt, to the end that he should multiply horses: forasmuch as the Lord hath said unto you, Ye shall henceforth return no more that way. Neither shall he multiply wives to himself, that his heart turn not away: neither shall he greatly multiply to himself silver and gold. And it shall be when he sitteth upon the throne of his kingdom, that he shall write him a copy of this law in a book out of that which is before the priests the Levites. And it shall be with him, and he shall read therein all the days of his life: that he may learn to fear the Lord his God, to keep all the words of this law and these statutes, to do them: that his heart be not lifted up above his brethren, and that he turn not aside from the commandment to the right hand or to the left: to the end that he may prolong his days in his kingdom, he, and his children, in the midst of Israel.”22
22 Deuteronomy 17:14-20.
Agreeably to the provisions of this enactment, the nation was at liberty, whenever it thought fit, to institute the regal form of government; the king was to be chosen by the concurrent voice of the people and the oracle; the sovereign must be a native Israelite; the multiplication of horses was interdicted to him; he was not to have many wives; he might not accumulate and hoard large treasures; he was to be the defender of religion; the law must be the rule of his government; he must regard his people as brethren and equals; and, upon these conditions, the throne was to be hereditary in his family. I propose briefly to illustrate each of these particulars.
1. Monarchy was permitted to the Israelites. Moses was not ignorant of the temper of the orientals. He knew their strong propensity to kingly government, which, at a later period on the world’s history was remarked by the Greeks and Romans. He well understood, also, the general mutability of human affairs. On these grounds, he anticipated, and the law under consideration presupposes, what afterwards took place—a desire in the Hebrew people to have a king, in imitation of the polity of other eastern nations. For the gratification of this desire in a peaceful way, Moses provided in this law. Among the immediate causes of this change in the Hebrew constitution, we may probably, without error, enumerate the effeminacy and cowardice of the people; the disunion and jealousy of the tribes; the formidable power of the Ammonites and the Philistines, from whose incursions the eastern and southern tribes were constant sufferers; the fear that, after the death of Samuel, being left without a supreme regent, and consequently becoming disunited, they would fall a prey to these terrible enemies; the degeneracy of Samuel’s sons; the example of all their neighbors; the idea of the greater respectability of a nation with a king at its head; the desire or the necessity of being always ready for war; a want of faith and constancy in the Hebrew mind; and, more than all perhaps, a weak longing after the pomp and glitter of royalty. But, whatever the cause might be, the change was made. It conduces not a little to the honor of the Hebrews, that they effected it in accordance with the principles of theocracy, and without bloodshed. This is a clear proof that the time of the judges was neither an impious nor a barbarous age.
2. The right of election was left to the people, subject to this limitation, however—that they were not to appoint anyone as king who was not chosen by God. At first view, the two parts of this proposition appear contradictory to each other. But the difficulty vanishes when it is understood as simply implying that the oracle and the states-general must concur in the choice. In some of our state legislatures, United States senators are elected by a separate vote of each house, in which case the two houses must be of accord, or there is no election. The case was analogous in the election of an Israelitish sovereign. The people and the oracle must concur. A fair interpretation of the statute itself will lead to this conclusion. “Thou shalt in any wise set him king over thee, whom the Lord thy God shall choose: one from among thy brethren shalt thou set over thee. Thou mayest not set a stranger over thee, which is not thy brother.”23 That the oracle was to be consulted in the election, this passage places beyond doubt. That the people also were to have a voice in the transaction, it makes almost equally clear. The earnest cautions, addressed to them in reference to the choice of a sovereign, would be absurd, if all liberty of action were absolutely taken from them, and they were simply to receive one, arbitrarily imposed upon them by the will of another.
But the meaning of the statute may be best studied in the actual application of it. In this, as in other instances, the history throws light upon the code. In regard to the institution of the monarchy, and Saul’s elevation to the throne, let anyone attentively read that part of the first book of Samuel, which is contained in chapters 8-11, and he will find set forth in it the following facts. Samuel convoked the general diet of Israel at Mizpeh. Then, after recounting the Lord’s past mercies to them, he reminded them that, in demanding a king, they had rejected Jehovah, who had himself saved them out of all their adversities. He then called them to present themselves before the Lord by their tribes. On the application of the sacred lot, the tribe of Benjamin was taken. Afterward, in a similar manner, the family of Matri was taken; and then, in the same way, Saul, the son of Kish, was selected. Samuel then presented the nominee of the oracle to the representatives of the people for their approval and confirmation. Many of them, probably a majority, gave an affirmative vote. But a powerful minority opposed his investiture with the royal authority, on the ground that they did not believe him possessed of sufficient military talent and experience to lead the Israelitish armies to victory. The narrative inclines me to think that Saul was not inaugurated and invested with the kingly power on this occasion. The circumstances, which seem to me to render this a probable opinion, are the following. Saul assumed neither the state nor the authority of a king, but went back to his agricultural pursuits in Gibeah, as aforetime. No tribute was levied for him, nor any arrangement made for supporting the regal dignity. He received gifts from only a few, while by many he was openly contemned. The mass of the people paid him scarcely any deference at all. Samuel did not let go the reins of government, nor resign his power as chief magistrate of Israel; for his authority was joined to that of Saul in summoning the Israelites to the assistance of Jabesh-gilead, against Nahash, king of the Ammonites. In this war, Saul exhibited military talents of a high order. Nor were the moderation and clemency displayed by him, at its close, towards those who had opposed his elevation to the throne, less signal. His valor, prudence, and magnanimity completely won the confidence and the heart of the nation. Samuel, taking advantage of this favorable temper of the people, convened a general assembly at Gilgal, proposed Saul as king a second time, and obtained a unanimous vote in his favor. Then, for the first time, it is said, that they, that is, the people, made Saul king, and gave themselves up to great and general rejoicing. Immediately after his inauguration, Samuel formally resigned his office as judge, surrendering his authority into the hands of the people, from whom he had received it, and by whom he was honorably exonerated from all charge of blame in his public administration, and the fullest testimony was borne to the purity of his official conduct. Josephus says, that, on the occasion of Saul’s election and inauguration at Gilgal, Samuel anointed him a second time. This seems not improbable, though the circumstance is not mentioned by the sacred historian; for the first anointing was a private transaction, and he was not anointed when elected by the lot. From this time Saul assumed the reins of government, and was regarded as the lawful sovereign of Israel.
How clearly do we see from this detail, that the choice of a king in Israel was neither in the oracle nor the people separately, but in both conjointly, since the decision of the former did not take effect till it was ratified and confirmed by the action of the latter. How manifest is it, that the miraculous designation of magistrates in the Hebrew commonwealth was never understood to exclude the free suffrage of the people in their election. If these things still seem to any irreconcilable, we are able to adduce examples of their coexistence even out of the history of heathen states. It is related by Livy of Tarquinius Priscus and Servius Tullius that, before they were raised to the regal dignity at Rome, the one had his hat taken off, borne aloft into the air, and fitly deposited again in its place by an eagle; and the other had a flame resting on his head, which, after being for some time an object of terror to the beholders, glided off, on his awaking out of sleep, without leaving any trace of its presence on his person. By these portents it was believed that each of them was designated of the deity to be king. Still, neither by themselves nor others were they interpreted as giving them a right to the throne, much less as excluding the popular suffrage from their election, or authorizing the opinion that any man ought to be king of Rome whom the people had not first chosen to reign over them. Certainly I would not be understood, from this illustration, as intending to compare the vain prodigies of the heathens with the true miracles of the Israelites. Yet it should be remembered that each people had a like opinion of each. God raised up judges for his people Israel. That the scripture plainly asserts. But to infer from hence, that the people did not elect them, would be false reasoning, since the fact is unquestionable that they did. So, that God elected Saul to be king of Israel is certain. Yet it is just as certain that the people did, nonetheless for that, themselves elect him likewise. The one certainly is as strong as the other.
The history of David’s elevation to the throne still further illustrates the meaning of the statute under consideration. The house of Saul had, by God’s command, on account of his infractions of the law, been excluded from the succession.24 The prophet Samuel had, by direction of the oracle, privately anointed David as the successor of Saul.25 The subsequent history shows that unction did not, of itself alone, confer a full and valid title to the crown of Israel. When Saul had been slain in a battle with the Philistines, an Amalekite stripped him of his crown, and brought it to David.26 Did David consider himself entitled to wear it? By no means. He assumed neither the crown itself, nor the authority of which it was the symbol. He returned, with his followers, to the city of Hebron, as a private citizen. In that capacity, he abode there for some time, until, as the historian states, “the men of Judah [the citizens, the people of that tribe] came and anointed David king over the house of Judah.”27 Thus did David, by the joint act of the oracle and the people, become king of Judah. The other eleven tribes raised Ishbosheth, a son of Saul, to the sovereign power, and adhered to him for seven years.28 Did David, for that, regard them as guilty of treason? Not in the least. Yet that would have followed inevitably, if his unction by Samuel had given him a legal right to the throne of all Israel. David defended himself (as who would not?) when attacked by the army of Ishbosheth,29 but he made no attempt to reduce the eleven tribes to allegiance to his government by force of arms. When at length they submitted themselves to his scepter, their submission was voluntary. They freely chose him for their king, yet, in doing so, it is remarkable that they distinctly recognized the part which the oracle had previously taken in his election.30 Here, again, we perceive the concurrence of the oracle and the people in the choice of a person to fill the throne of Israel.
It is probable, as we shall see in the sequel, that David, when he was made king, reserved the right of naming his successor. But, notwithstanding this, it is clear that a general diet was held, that Solomon was formally proposed to them, and that they, by their free suffrages, confirmed the royal nomination.31 It was not till after this vote that Solomon was anointed and inaugurated, and the people gave themselves up to the festivities suited to the occasion. The history adds, “Then [i.e., after his election by the congregation] Solomon sat on the throne of the Lord as king, instead of David his father, and prospered; and all Israel obeyed him. And all the princes, and the mighty men, and all the sons likewise of king David, submitted themselves unto Solomon the king.”32 Manifestly, this submission and obedience were rendered to him as having been constitutionally elected to the regal office.
23 Deuteronomy 17:15.
24 1 Samuel 15:11,26,28.
25 1 Samuel 16:13.
26 2 Samuel 1:10.
27 2 Samuel 2:1-4.
28 2 Samuel 2:8,11.
29 2 Samuel 2:12-30.
30 2 Samuel 5:1-3.
31 1 Chronicles 29:20-22.
32 1 Chronicles 29:23-24.
3. The Hebrew sovereign was to be a native Hebrew citizen; he was to be elected from his brethren; no foreigner was to sit on the throne of Israel. This was a politic and patriotic law. A foreigner might change the constitution, or raise us a faction in direct opposition to the national interest. Foreigners were heathens and would be more inclined than Israelites to violate the fundamental law of the state by the introduction of idolatry. But this law was grossly misinterpreted in the later periods of the Jewish history. It was understood as forbidding, on the part of the Hebrews, submission to those foreign powers under whose dominion they had been brought through the overruling providence of God. It was on the ground of this misinterpretation of the law that the Jews proposed that insidious question to our Lord: “Is it lawful to give tribute to Caesar, or not?”33 for they were at that time under a foreign power, Judea being a Roman province. If he had said Yes, they intended to destroy him through the charge of subverting this law of Moses; if he had answered no, they meant to crush him by the power of Rome. But the law had, in reality, no reference to such a case. It referred to free elections. Moses speaks only of kings chosen by the Israelites themselves. A law, such as the later Jews conceived this to be, would inevitably have led to the annihilation of a conquered people. The conquerors, unable to trust their fidelity or rely upon their allegiance, would be driven to the necessity, either of putting them all to the sword, or scattering them by slavery. The Hebrew prophets interpreted the law quite differently from the Hebrew zealots. Jeremiah and Ezekiel exhorted their countrymen, when now a conquered people, to submit quietly to the Chaldeans, and conduct themselves as loyal subjects of the Babylonish government.
33 Matthew 22:17.
4. The Hebrew king was not to multiply horses. As the Israelites made no use of horses in agriculture, and but little as beasts of burden, employing for these purposes oxen and asses, and as they made most of their journeys on foot, and of course did not need them for traveling, this must be understood as a prohibition against maintaining a strong force of cavalry. For defense cavalry was unnecessary. On the West Palestine had the sea. On the North, its barrier was a range of lofty and almost impassable mountains, where a mounted soldiery would be of little use. To the East and South, it was bounded by vast deserts, where an enemy’s cavalry could not subsist, for want of forage. The only object, therefore, for which an Israelitish sovereign could desire to keep any considerable force of this description, would be to make foreign conquests. But it was against the whole scope of the Mosaic law, nay, subversive of its fundamental purpose, that the Hebrews should be conquerors of foreign countries, and their king a universal monarch. And as the keeping of a strong body of horse could hardly fail to engender a spirit of foreign conquest, it was expressly interdicted to the head of the state. He was especially forbidden to attempt the conquest of Egypt in order to obtain horses.
5. The Israelitish sovereign was still further forbidden to marry many wives; so early were women dreaded as the corrupters of royalty. I look upon this law as a prohibition against keeping a numerous harem, or a state seraglio—that inseparable accompaniment of eastern despotism. Besides the inherent tendency of the thing to render kings effeminate and dissolve their hearts in indolence and pleasure, there was a special reason against it in the Israelitish polity. It is incident to the keeping of a harem, as a matter of royal state, that the monarch seek out and collect together the most beautiful women of all nations. But all other nations at that time were idolaters. Moses dreaded the influence of heathen beauties upon the religious principles and character of the Hebrew kings. He feared that it would lead to the introduction and practice of idolatry. How reasonable his fears were, the history of Solomon affords a memorable and melancholy proof. His harem contained a thousand women, many of whom were Moabites, Ammonites, Edomites, Zidonians, and Hittites, besides the daughter of Pharaoh—”strange women.” His wives turned away his heart after other gods. He appears to have built temples for them all, and himself joined in paying divine honors to Ashtoreth, and Milcom, and Chemosh, and Molech. The conduct of Solomon places in a very striking light the wisdom of this statute, at the same time that it shows that none of the laws of Moses were less observed than this. It shows further that the spirit of monarchy, at least in the form in which it has always been found in the East, was repugnant to the genius of the Mosaic legislation.
6. The king was not greatly to multiply to himself silver and gold. Moses dreaded wealth, not less than women, as tending to the corruption of royalty. The possession of great treasure naturally leads to luxury, which is an enemy to virtue. It is, moreover, in a monarch, a great engine of despotism. He may use it for crushing the liberties of the people. The hoarding up of large treasures by the sovereign tends obstruct the circulation of money, discourage industry, and impoverish his subjects. the Israelitish king, observes Lewis, “was allowed to lay up money in the treasury at the temple, for the occasions of the state, but was forbidden to fill his own coffers for his private interest, lest he should squeeze his subjects, and exact more of them than they were able to bear.” There is, undoubtedly, as Michaelis has noticed, a wide and obvious difference between these two sorts of treasure. That laid up in the public treasury, the king could not use, without the consent of the other branches of the government. Of course, he could not pervert it to the purposes of tyranny, on pretense of applying it to the public service. David had collected large treasures for the sanctuary.34 According to the common reckoning, they amounted, in round numbers, to four thousand three hundred and five million dollars, a sum almost beyond belief. Michaelis (in his Commentary on the Age anterior to the Babylonish Captivity, § 7) estimates the shekel at one tenth the value usually assigned to it. This would reduce the amount to four hundred and thirty millions. But Kennicott is of the opinion that, in the enumeration, a cipher too many has crept in. Cutting off that, there still remain forty three million dollars, which, says Michaelis, for David’s time, is still a very great treasure, and only to be accounted for, from the plunder of so many nations.
34 1 Chronicles 22:14.
7. The sovereign of Israel must be the defender of religion. Judaism could exist only in a constant triumph over idolatry. “By the fundamental law of the Hebrew commonwealth, the king was forbidden to introduce any new mode of religious worship. Neither could he, like the kings of other nations, perform the functions of a priest, unless he was of the tribe of Aaron, as was the case with the Asmonean princes. On the contrary, he was required to reign as the representative and vassal of Jehovah, to promote the institutions of religion as a matter of obedience to him, and to attend to the declarations of the prophets, as his ambassadors.”
8. The law, and not the king’s own will and pleasure, was to be the rule of his administration. This point was made very prominent in the statute, as the reader will perceive by recurring to it. The king was required to make, or cause to be made, an accurate transcript of the law out of the book, which was before the priests, the Levites; that is, probably the autograph, kept in the tabernacle. This he must have with him continually, and read therein all the days of his life, to the end that he might learn to keep all the words of this law and these statutes, to do them. He might not “turn to the right hand or to the left.” From this we see that the laws were supreme. The kings were as much bound to serve them as the private citizens. They had no power to make or repeal a single statute. We have here a perfect exemplification of a government of laws. the constitutional king of Israel could not assume and exercise arbitrary power, without first trampling under foot the fundamental law of the state. Moses made him simply the first citizen. He aimed also at making him the wisest, the purest, and the best.
9. The king must be gracious and condescending towards his subjects. His heart must not be lifted up. He must look upon his people, not only as equals, but as brethren. We find the best kings cherishing this sentiment, and acting upon it. When David addressed the states-general, he rose before them, and used this affectionate compellation: “Hear me my brethren, and my people.”35 On this foundation the Hebrew doctors have established the rule that the king must render honor to the general assembly; when it presents itself before him, he must rise from his seat, and receive it standing.
35 1 Chronicles 28:2.
10. All the above conditions being observed by him whom the Israelites should choose for their king, the throne was to be hereditary in his family. This is plain in the concluding words of the statute, which are as follows: “To the end that he may prolong his days in his kingdom, he and his children, in the midst of Israel.” Moses enjoins it upon the king to keep the laws, that he and his posterity may long fill the throne. But it is quite as important to observe, that, although the scepter was hereditary, it was not inalienable. It might be taken from one family and given to another, by the concurrent will of Jehovah and the Hebrew people. Nay, it certainly would be thus transferred, if the king failed to govern according to the laws. The Hebrew crown, then, was elective, not in the sense that every individual king was to be chosen, but only, when occasion required, some particular family. “Consequently, while the reigning family did not violate the fundamental laws, they would continue to possess the throne; but if they tyrannized, they would forfeit it. Moses, who gave this injunction, knew certain elective monarchies, where every individual king was chosen, as in Poland. The kingdom of Edom in his time was undoubtedly of this description; for of eight kings, we find not one who was the son of his predecessor.”
Thus we perceive that the Israelitish kings were not absolute and unlimited sovereigns; they were constitutional monarchs.
Besides that original and fundamental law, which we have just been examining, a special capitulation was sworn to by the kings of Israel. The compact between Saul and the Hebrew people, made when he was chosen to the royal dignity, was drawn up by Samuel. That writing, in which doubtless were specified the rights of the king, was carefully deposited in the sanctuary.1 Of its contents, however, the Bible does not inform us. Still, there can be no doubt that the limitations of the royal power, fixed by it, were numerous and important. This is the more probable, as we find several of the kings of Israel, whose sway was much less limited than that of Saul, yet subject to very great restrictions.
When the eleven tribes submitted to David, we again find express mention made of a compact between him and the people, called a league, or covenant,2 yet, as in the former case, we are ignorant of its specific provisions. There is probable ground for the conjecture that it gave to the king the right of naming for his successor whichever of his sons he might think most capable of filling the throne beneficially to the nation; for this right David not only exercised, but all Israel conceded it to him, insomuch that Bathsheba, instructed by Nathan, said to him, “The eyes of all Israel are upon thee, that thou shouldest tell them who should sit on the throne of my lord the king after him.”3 And we find that bare word of the king, in the last extremity of old age, was sufficient to place Solomon on the throne, in opposition to the wishes of the eldest brother, the general of the army, and the high priest, and to prevent the coronation of Adonijah, even although the ceremony had been commenced.4 This right of setting aside the firstborn by the arbitrary will of the king is not usual in hereditary monarchies, and therefore it is probable that it was conferred upon David by the terms of the capitulation.
The ten tribes proposed to Rehoboam some new stipulations, with view to abridge the royal prerogative, as exercised by Solomon. This was, in fact, a new capitulation, offered to the young monarch by a people yet in possession of their liberty. The king despotically refused their terms. Thereupon the ten tribes refused their allegiance to him and chose a king for themselves, who, no doubt, acceded to the wishes the people, and promised to abide by the stipulations required.5
When Joash was anointed king, mention is again made of a covenant between him and the people.6 But here, again, the history gives us no certain information concerning its contents. Yet there is no doubt that the design of the people, in imposing this capitulation upon their king, is to bring the royal prerogative, stretched beyond all bounds in the preceding reigns, within something like the original limits affixed to it the law of Moses.
1 I Samuel 10:25.
2 2 Samuel 5:3.
3 1 Kings 1:20.
4 1 Kings 1:25-27.
5 1 Kings 12:1-20.
6 2 Kings 6:17.
Upon the whole, it is quite clear that the king of Israel was not an unlimited monarch, as the defenders of the divine right of kings, and the passive obedience of subjects, have been accustomed to represent him. How could he be so, when every tribe was under its own chief, and its own government and common weal, and even exercised the right of war? Saul, the first of the kings, appears to have had very little power. In the beginning of his reign (if his reign commenced at his at election, according to the common opinion, which, however, I doubt, for reasons previously assigned), he still pursued the business of husbandry, apparently laboring with his own hands.7 Afterwards, his army, even in the field, shared with him many of the rights of the supreme power.8 In the reign of David, such was the power of this army that he found it prudent to allow two murders, perpetrated by its general, Joab, to go unpunished, though he did so with extreme reluctance. In this, we may perhaps think that we perceive the marks of a military government, where the army is omnipotent, and while it renders the king independent of the people, still keeps him in subjection to itself. But this was by no means the case. For, in the first place, the army was the people; and both Harrington and Lowman are of the opinion that its officers were, to a great extent at least, the deputies who composed the general diets of Israel. But secondly, the military was so in subjection to the civil power, the king and the army were so limited by the liberty of the people, that the king appears not given to have had the right to demand of the cities of Israel the opening of their gates to his troops. The story, contained in 2 Samuel 20:1-20, seems to warrant this conclusion. Sheba, a rebel, had thrown himself into the city of Abel. Joab besieged it by David’s orders. The citizens declared that they had no share in the rebellion. They did not, however, on that account, open their gates to Joab; but they sent him the rebel’s head, and he quietly retired with his troops. Even Solomon, who carried the royal prerogative to a great height, and ruled quite after the manner of a despot, built cities of his own for his cavalry and his chariots, not venturing to quarter them on the people. In the latter times, from the reign of Hezekiah, we find the kings still more circumscribed in their power, by their privy council.
But notwithstanding the limitations of the royal prerogative, imposed by the law of Moses and the jealousy of the people, there was yet, as Samuel had forewarned his countrymen there would be, a strong tendency to despotism, in the government of the Israelitish kings. Their will often became law, even in matters of the highest importance. How tyrannically did Saul act towards David, and those eighty priests, whom he caused to be put to death, without the shadow of a trial or a crime!9 In the condemnations and pardons pronounced by David, we also perceive the decisions of despotic authority. Solomon went still greater lengths in this respect, even to the deciding on life and death by his bare will and word.10
7 1 Samuel 11:5.
8 1 Samuel 14:44-45.
9 1 Samuel 22:17-18.
10 1 Kings 2:25.
The notion that the king in person should be the supreme judge, a doctrine peculiarly Asiatic, tended strongly to promote the despotism of the Israelitish monarchs. Of the king, therefore, as chief judge, it will be necessary to speak somewhat in detail. It is one of the first ideas of the orientals respecting their king, and what they naturally expect of him, that he should himself administer justice. Hence we are not surprised to find it related by Herodotus that the Medes once obtained a king from the following circumstance. A man who had great reputation for wisdom and integrity, and to whom almost all were wont to resort as an arbiter in cases of dispute, refused at last, from the neglect of his domestic concerns occasioned by it, to decide upon their quarrels, or to listen to their applications for that purpose; and thus he forced them to choose him for their king. The more ancient nations are, and the nearer to their origin, the more prevalent do we find this idea of a king. Indeed, while nations are yet in their infancy, and the number of the people small, it is easier to act upon this doctrine. The king of a thousand families may do what to the king of a million would be impossible.
In a great nation, the king cannot, in his own person, exercise the office of judge, without materially injuring the general interests of the citizens. He cannot have time to inform himself sufficiently of such a multiplicity of lawsuits as he must be called upon to decide. Hence, either many a litigant will not obtain a hearing at all, or causes in general will not be sufficiently investigated, and arbitrary and unrighteous decisions will follow. The mischief is still greater when the king is very gracious and gives free access to all his subjects. In that case, he is apt to be overwhelmed with trifles, and villainy takes advantage of his goodness to effect the ruin of the innocent and the simple. On the other hand, if his subjects have not free access to him, another evil arises, of no less magnitude, for then his ministers may be guilty of the grossest injustice and oppression, and yet the sovereign know nothing about it. In Asia, it is more practicable for the king to be judge in his own person than in Europe, because there, justice is in general very summary, and independent of settled forms. Still, this does not make it less liable to abuse, nor the actual abuse less mischievous in its consequences.
If the first kings of Israel assumed the office of judge, the fault lay in the manners of the East. Moses is not responsible for it. He did indeed ordain that the king should be a daily student of his law, but not that he should discharge the office of a universal judge. It is, undoubtedly, highly useful to a king to be acquainted with civil law, that he may keep his eye on his subordinates, and know whether they decide conformably to it. In this view, it would appear, Moses desired that the king should not be ignorant of jurisprudence, but he did not mean to constitute him the daily judge of his people. Let the following circumstances be considered. Moses himself found, by experience, that it was beyond his power to determine all the disputes among the people, and, therefore, he appointed other judges of various grades; yet, in matters which could not be decided by written law, known usage, or manifest equity, he established an appeal to himself, that, on such occasions, he might consult God, and enact new laws by his direction.11 Could he, then, have thought of imposing on the kings a burden, which he was himself unable to bear? The king was not a prophet, neither did he, like Moses, enjoy the privilege of immediate intercourse with God. Consequently he could not, by a direct consultation with the unerring one, pronounce an infallible judgment. The high priest, according to the constitution of Moses, was the supreme jurist. Certainly, the legislator, who devoted one whole tribe to the study of jurisprudence, and constituted its head the supreme legal authority, could never have intended that the king, occupied as he must be with the cares of government and with the conduct of wars, should in addition be overwhelmed with the investigation of lawsuits, which could not, as a consequence, fail to be decided too much in the summary style of military procedure.
All this was, undoubtedly, in the plan and intention of Moses. Yet, on its actual institution, and as matter of fact, the Israelitish monarchy was not, in this respect, thus wisely regulated. Without inquiry, without trial, without the intervention of any impartial tribunal, Saul, condemned to death eighty innocent priests, and, among them, the high priest himself, together with their wives and children.12 David was far from being a tyrant; yet, on some occasions, he had recourse to judicial procedure equally summary, and without allowing other judges to interfere.13 Even his acts of grace took place without those preliminary and circumstantial inquiries, which, in governments not despotic, are deemed necessary to render them valid, and to prevent artifice and fraud from abusing the royal clemency, to the scandal of justice and the prejudice of the country. O this, a memorable instance is afforded in the pardon of the supposed son of the widow of Tekoah.14 Had the king instituted the least inquiry into the facts of the case, he could not have been inveigled into a condemnation of himself.
11 Exodus 18, Numbers 15:32-36.
12 1 Samuel 21:11-19.
13 2 Samuel 1:5-16, 4:9-12, 14:4-11; 1 Kings 2:5-9.
14 2 Samuel 14:4-11.
In the time of this king, the defect, which had thus attended the administration of justice, broke out into a formidable evil. As long as David was king of Judah alone, it was not beyond his power, in some measure at least, to execute the office of judge. But when he became king of all Israel, and his known humanity and love of justice probably induced too many of his subjects, all of whom had free access to his presence, to bring their causes immediately before him, he found himself overpowered with business, and the course of law became tedious, to a degree till then unknown in the East. The complaint does not appear to have been that unjust decisions were rendered, but that, for want of time to hear them, even clear cases could not be decided. It is probable that the course of law was still rapid, in comparison with what it is with us; but Asia is so much accustomed to summary justice, that the least delay there seems a great grievance. It was not imputed to negligence in David that he did not do more than one man could do, and the tears with which Jerusalem, where he was best known, accompanied him in his flight from Absalom impress us with a favorable idea of his previous government. Absalom, however, availed himself of the opportunity which the tediousness of justice presented him, to seduce the affections of the people from his father. He placed himself at the entrance of the palace and questioned the complainants, who came from the provinces to the capital, concerning their suits. Having heard their statements, he told every one that his case was clear, and that it was greatly to be regretted that the king, oppressed with business, would appoint no one to listen to complaints. At the same time, he expressed a wish that the king would commit the task to him, in which case every man might look for speedy justice.15 By this artifice, for which a departure from the true intent of the Mosaic constitution furnished the occasion, he excited a general rebellion, which was attended with much bloodshed. Without any battle, the universal discontent of the tribes drove David from the throne, nor did he recover it till the blood of many citizens was spilt. It is not mentioned in the history, what measures the king took after his restoration to correct those defects in judicial procedure, which had almost cost him his crown. We know, however, that, in the latter part of his reign, he appointed several thousands of Levites as judges.16 With these he probably filled some of the higher tribunals, which administered justice in the king’s name. The Levites in the provinces are expressly said to have had charge of all matters pertaining to God and the king.17 Of course, they must have had power to administer justice in the king’s name.
Notwithstanding this, however, the king seems to have reserved the right of pronouncing arbitrary sentence, even in cases where life was concerned. The innocent blood, which Manasseh and Jehoiakim are said to have shed,18 renders this more than probable. It is true that blood may be unjustly shed, with all the forms of law, as in the case of Naboth.19 But such instances are rare. If a tyrant shed much innocent blood, it affords ground of presumption that he has the power of pronouncing on life and death in himself. At least European kings, even the most absolute of them, are prohibited from shedding much innocent blood, except, indeed, in the case of the hundreds of thousands whom they sacrifice in unjust wars.
15 2 Samuel 15:2-6.
16 1 Chronicles 23:4, 26:29-32.
17 1 Chronicles 26:30,32.
18 2 Kings 21:16, 24:4.
19 1 Kings 21:1-14.
The mention of war naturally suggests the inquiry, how far the power of the Israelitish sovereigns extended in military matters. On this point, the sacred book leaves us very much in the dark. Whether the king could, of himself alone, and without consulting the states-general, proclaim war, and conclude peace, is a point which must be reckoned among the chasms in our knowledge of Hebrew law. Here it would seem the jus publicum of the Israelites was itself defective, because, on the first choice of a king, they had no ancient usage to guide them, and Moses, who did not himself establish a monarchy, but only permitted its future establishment, had said nothing on this point, but left all to the determination of the Israelites. It is certain that Saul made his first war without consulting the people.20 The case, however, was one of peculiar urgency, so much so, that he may almost be said to have been forced into hostilities, in defense of the threatened liberties of the Gileadites.21 From this case, therefore, nothing positive can be inferred in regard to the general right of the Hebrew sovereigns concerning war.
The royal prerogative extended to ecclesiastical affairs. Indeed, the rights of the kings in reference to matters of this nature were so great as to excite our wonder, especially when we consider that the priests and Levites, as a sort of nobility, were intended to balance the power of the kings. They could condemn even the high priest himself to death. Not only did Saul,22 in his rage and madness, do this; but Solomon23 speaks as if he could have done it, and, out of pure clemency, was satisfied with deposing him. The kings exercised the right of reforming abuses in religion, and gave attention to the management of public worship as the most efficacious means of promoting religion and morality, and so of securing the obedience of the people to the supreme, invisible, divine Sovereign of Israel. Of this exercise of the royal prerogative, we have many examples, of which none are more memorable than those of David and Hezekiah. It was altogether suitable to the Hebrew constitution, in which the worship of one only God was the fundamental principle. Under that constitution, false religion was treason to the state, and it was proper that the kings should have the power of exterminating so dangerous an enemy.
Among the prerogatives of the Hebrew sovereigns must also be placed the right of pardon. That this power should exist somewhere in the state is highly expedient and even necessary. A civil law without all possibility of dispensation would be subject to very great inconveniences, and would be the occasion of sometimes inflicting very grievous wrong. Without a power of sometimes remitting punishments, innocence might suffer by the very law, which was made for its protection. That the right of pardon was exercised by the Israelitish kings is beyond a doubt. Nor has the exercise of it always the effect of mere partiality, but of principle and a consideration of circumstances. David not only pardoned his son Absalom, but, in a supposed case, which was laid before him, he granted a murderer his life, who was represented to have killed his brother, because the mother herself interceded in his behalf, and his father’s race would have been extinct, had he suffered the penalty of the law.24
20 1 Samuel 11:7.
21 1 Samuel 11:2.
22 1 Samuel 22:17-18.
23 1 Kings 2:26-27.
24 2 Samuel 14:4-21.
I now pass to a consideration of the royal revenues. Moses left no ordinance concerning them. With regard to what later laws and usages introduced on this head, the following particulars may be gleaned from the books of the Old Testament. The several branches of the king’s revenue were presents, tithes, royal demesnes, bond service, the right of pasturage in the Arabian deserts, the spoils of vanquished enemies, the tribute of conquered nations, and, in the end, the profits of a lucrative foreign commerce.
1. Presents. Long before the time of the kings, and even before the age of Moses, there sprung up in the east a custom, often mentioned in the Persian history, and noticed by Asiatic travelers, that whoever paid a visit to a person of higher rank carried with him a suitable present. Joseph, as prime minister of Egypt, received such a present from his brethren.25 Saul did not presume to wait on Samuel, the judge, without a present.26 This was, therefore, the most ancient source of a king’s revenue, prior to all tributes and demesnes. That Saul actually enjoyed a revenue of this kind is certain.27 Whether the tax continued to be paid to his successors does not appear. There is no trace of it after the reign of Saul. It is not improbable that David abolished so unseemly an impost, and admitted every petitioner into his presence without subjecting him to any expense.
2. Tithes. In 1 Samuel 8:15-17, mention is made of the tenth of the produce of the fields, the vineyards, and the flocks, as the right of the future king. This, on his actual appointment, was the third tenth which every Israelite had to pay. The first was given to the Levites;28 the second was appropriated to the sacrifice-feasts, to which were invited priests, Levites, friends, orphans, and strangers.29 None but a very fruitful country could have borne the burden of an impost to the extent of three tenths of its produce.
25 Genesis 43:11-25.
26 1 Samuel 9:7.
27 1 Samuel 10:27, 16:20.
28 Numbers 18:21-32, Leviticus 27:30-33.
29 Deuteronomy 12:17-19, 14:22-29, 26:12-15.
3. Royal demesnes. Samuel mentions a demesne, to which the king would have a right; for, says he, “He will take your fields, and your vineyards, and your oliveyards, even the best of them, and give them to his servants,”30 i.e., in lieu of salaries. This seems inconsistent with the Mosaic law, which divided the whole of Palestine among the Israelites and prohibited the alienation of their land. Nevertheless, it is certain that the king had a demesne.31 It is likely, that at first the kings took possession only of the spots, which had not been previously appropriated and improved, of which there might be found a considerable number, particularly beyond Jordan, and about the rills in the Arabian deserts. Still, that will not sufficiently explain the passage, cited a little above; for it is there said, the king would take the best parts of every sort of landed property.
We must, therefore, seek some other mode of providing him with demesnes. It is certain that the kings exercised the right of bestowing the inheritance of state criminals upon other persons.32 It is not improbable that they availed themselves of the same right, to increase the royal demesnes by confiscations. Indeed, we have an instance of this, in the case of Nabal, who was stoned on a false charge of treason, and his estate annexed to the king’s demesnes.33 This mode of increasing their lands must have formed a strong temptation to wicked kings to put innocent persons to death for pretended crimes, in order to seize and appropriate their property. Need we wonder, that, in the Hebrew history, we find so frequent mention of the shedding of innocent blood?
All this is confirmed, and rendered certain, by what we find in Ezekiel. That prophet was favored with a vision of the future reformation of the Israelitish church and state.34 In it he tells us that the prince will then have his own portion, which he must neither alienate nor enlarge. It is very distinctly enjoined upon the king not to take the people’s inheritance away from them by oppression, and not to thrust them out of their possessions. It is further enjoined upon him not to give lands to his family out of the people’s portions, but out of his own. This clearly indicates the practices, and, I may add, the abuses, of preceding times.
The olive and sycamore grounds, in that part of the territory of Judah which lay nearest the sea and was called the lowlands, belonged to the king’s demesnes. It is distinctly stated that David placed one officer over the trees in that district, and another over the oil stores.35
That the kings assigned a part of the royal demesnes to their servants, in lieu of salary, appears unquestionable.36 At a time when the sovereign could be possessed of but little money, this was the natural way of maintaining and rewarding his servants.
30 1 Samuel 8:14.
31 Ecclesiastes 2:4-6, 1 Chronicles 27:26-31.
32 2 Samuel 16:4.
33 1 Kings 21:15-16.
34 Ezekiel 45:7-8, 47:16-18.
35 1 Chronicles 27:28.
36 1 Samuel 8:14, 22:7.
4. Bond service. For the cultivation of their lands, the Israelitish kings, governing a country where slavery was permitted, would naturally require servile labor. Accordingly, we find bond service mentioned by Samuel among the royal rights, established by usage among the neighboring kingdoms, and which would be claimed and exercised by the Hebrew sovereigns, whenever monarchy should be instituted.37 In process of time, these services seem to have been increased and altered, so that they became very burdensome and very distasteful to the Israelites.38 It was probably this which gave occasion, first to the complaints, and then to the rebellion, in the reign of Rehoboam.
5. The right of pasturage in the Arabian deserts. This right belonged to the king, in common with his subjects. We find David taking advantage of this privilege, and keeping large herds of cattle, sheep, goats, asses, and camels, partly in Sharon and partly in Arabia, the greater part of them, no doubt, in the latter place.39 Among the officers who had charge of them, two Arabians are mentioned, Obil the Ishmaelite, superintendent of the camels, and Jaziz the Hagarite, superintendent of the sheep.
6. The spoils of vanquished enemies partly flowed into the royal treasury.40
7. Among the royal revenues must be reckoned the tribute paid by conquered nations. These are often mentioned under the name of gifts.41
8. Commerce. Solomon discovered a new source of royal revenue, which must have been very productive. He engaged in an extensive and lucrative foreign commerce, trading chiefly in gold, silver, precious stones, spices, linen, and horses.42
37 1 Samuel 8:12,16.
38 1 Kings 5:17-18.
39 1 Chronicles 27:29-31.
40 2 Samuel 3:22, 8:11-12.
41 1 Kings 4:21, Psalm 72:10, 2 Samuel 8:6.
42 1 Kings 10.
The Hebrew Senate
This was another department of the Hebrew government and one of the bonds of union between the tribes of Israel. The study of this part of the constitution is not without its difficulty. The persons composing the senatorial council, the powers vested in it, and the functions discharged by it are points involved in no little obscurity. All the information which I find in the sacred books, touching this subject, is embodied in the present chapter.
According to the Hebrew polity, as we have seen, every tribe, and even every city, had its senate of princes, or elders, as well as a more popular assembly. Some such institution seems to be essential in every well-balanced government. A council of sages, venerable on account of their age, wisdom, and dignity, is necessary to check the rashness and haste of popular assemblies. Accordingly, we find that free governments have always had senates of some kind to balance the power of the people, to prepare matters of public business, and to propose measures of state, in some degree of maturity, for the action of the more popular branch of the government. That the commonwealth of Israel had a council of this sort does not admit of a reasonable doubt. This is rendered certain by the frequent mention in the Hebrew history of the princes and elders of Israel, and the distinction, many times made, between the princes and the congregation. We are now to inquire when this body was instituted, what it was, and how long it continued.
Bertram has well observed that the number of seventy elders, appointed by the law of God, was not so much a new institution, as the continuation of a former usage, as God rather confirmed than newly instituted many things at Mount Sinai, which were ancient customs of the fathers. Bishop Sherlock also takes notice “that every tribe had its own princes and judges,” even while they yet remained in Egypt. When Moses was first sent to the children of Israel to inform them that Jehovah had visited them and seen what was done unto them in Egypt, he was commanded to gather the elders of Israel together and deliver the message to them.1 This direction was punctually followed, for it is said, “Moses and Aaron went and gathered the elders of the children of Israel.”2 It is a material observation here, that, besides the princes of tribes, explicit mention is made, in the same period of the Hebrew history, of the heads of families, or clans.3 Of these, as we learn from a subsequent part of the history,4 there were fifty-eight, who, being added to the twelve princes of the tribes, make up the number seventy.
1 Exodus 3:16.
2 Exodus 4:29.
3 Exodus 6:14 seqq.
4 Numbers 26.
There is little doubt that, even before the exodus of Israel out of Egypt, these chiefs of tribes and heads of clans formed a council of state, a kind of provisional senate. They were regarded and addressed as persons of chief dignity in their respective tribes. That they were clothed with some sort of authority is evident from what one of the Hebrews said to Moses: “Who made thee a prince and a judge over us?”5 It is, moreover, apparent that these dignitaries formed an organized body, in whose counsels and resolutions the tribes themselves were united into one nation, since Moses addressed them, not as princes of particular tribes, but as elders of Israel.6 It deserves, also, particular attention, that when the Israelites left Egypt, it was in hosts, or by their armies, that they did it.7 They did not go as a confused and disorderly rabble, but marched in battalions, each under its own officers and its own standard. This observation, though of little moment in itself, is, nevertheless, important for the inference which it supports. Let it be remembered that the Israelites left Egypt in great haste. Now, it would have been impossible for them to go in hosts, or squadrons, if there had not been persons previously known and recognized as commanders. They could not otherwise have known under what standard they were to march, or by what particular officers they were to be led. Obviously, it would not have been practicable to organize an army of two and a half million people, at the instant of departure. It would seem, therefore, that, while the Israelites were yet in Egypt, the princes of tribes must have been acknowledged as general officers of the tribes, and the chiefs of families as subordinate officers commanding their respective clans. It was, in all likelihood, the same seventy, who, at the giving of the law, were summoned to go up unto the Lord, with Moses and Aaron.8 What places it out of all doubt, that these officers were an organized body and acted as a council of state, or senate of sages, is a law contained in the tenth chapter of Numbers.9 Moses is there directed to make two silver trumpets. When both of them were blown, the whole congregation was to assemble; when only one of them, the princes and heads of the thousands of Israel were to come together for the dispatch of public business. But this law was given before the body, which is the principal subject of this chapter, was called into being, and, indeed, before the events occurred which were the special occasion of its institution.
5 Exodus 11:14.
6 Exodus 12:21,28.
7 Exodus 12:41,51.
8 Exodus 24:1.
9 Numbers 10:1-4.
The Israelites lay encamped at the base of Mount Sinai for the space of a year. At the end of that time, the trumpets sounded, the cloud was taken up from off the tabernacle of testimony, and the children of Israel took their journeys out of the wilderness of Sinai. Their first halting place was the wilderness of Paran.10 Here the people complained bitterly for want of flesh. Their murmurs displeased the Lord, and his anger was kindled greatly. Moses also was displeased and greatly afflicted at so unpromising a state and prospect of affairs. He, in his turn, complained that he found the burden of government too heavy for his individual strength. “I am not able,” says he, “to bear all this people alone, because it is too heavy for me.” By divine direction, and in order to alleviate the weight of the burden that oppressed him, Moses instituted a council of seventy elders who might share his functions, support his authority, and promote his views.11 It was a supreme senate, designed to take part with him in the government. As it consisted of persons of age, worth, experience, and respectability, it would serve materially to support his power and influence among the people in general. It would unite a number of powerful families together, from their being all associated with Moses in the government, and would materially strengthen the union of the tribes.
A detailed account of the origin of this body is given in the eleventh chapter of Numbers. The general mode of organizations related in these words:12 “And the Lord said unto Moses, Gather unto me seventy men of the elders of Israel, whom thou knowest to be the elders of the people, and officers over them: and bring them unto the tabernacle of the congregation, that they may stand there with thee. And I will come down and talk with thee there; and I will take of the spirit which is upon thee, and will put it upon them: and they shall bear the burden of the people with thee, that thou bear it not thyself alone. And Moses went out, and told the people the words of the Lord, and gathered the seventy men of the elders of the people, and set them round about the tabernacle. And the Lord came down in a cloud, and spake onto him, and took of the spirit that was upon him, and gave it unto the seventy elders: and it came to pass, that when the spirit rested upon them, they prophesied, and did not cease. But there remained two of the men in the camp, the name of the one was Eldad, and the name of the other Medad: and the spirit rested upon them; and they were of them that were written, but went not out unto the tabernacle: and they prophesied in the camp.”
10 Numbers 10:11-13.
11 Numbers 11.
12 Numbers 11:16-17,24-26.
“Three things,” says Salvador, “are here worthy of note. The candidate for the senatorial office must be a man of the people; he must be an elder of the people; and he must have been previously elevated by the voice of the people to some public trust.” That is to say, he must be a tried man, a man in whom the people put confidence after trial, and a man of experience in public affairs.
The seventy senators, chosen from among the elders and officers, were to be brought to the tabernacle of the congregation, that they might stand there with Moses. In other words, they were to be solemnly inaugurated, and consecrated to this service, that they might be a permanent council, to assist Moses in the government of the people. To give the greater weight to their decisions, God promises that he would talk with Moses, to declare, suggests Bishop Patrick, that he appointed them to be assistants to Moses in the government. The further promise was added that the Lord would take of the spirit, which was upon Moses, and would put it upon them; that is, as again suggested by Bishop Patrick, he would confer upon these men wisdom, judgment, courage, and other needful gifts of government, with which Moses was endowed. To give assurance of the fulfillment of this promise, it came to pass that, when the spirit rested upon them, they prophesied. The spirit of prophecy was a manifest token that they were chosen by God to be coadjutors of Moses, that they were approved by him, and that they had received from him a spirit of government.
Yet these men were not chosen by God alone. The people concurred in the election. This is very evident from the history cited above. The names of the candidates are there said to have been written, or inscribed—a very important statement. In what manner were they inscribed? The text does not inform us, and the field is left open to conjecture. Let it be premised here that, as the senators were to bear the common burden of government with Moses, which concerned all the tribes, and that they were specially intended to prevent mutiny and sedition, it would be highly suitable that there should be an equal number from each tribe, and that they should be persons whom the tribes themselves approved. On this point, Hebrew and Christian writers are unanimous. I now return to the question, How were the names of the candidates inscribed? Did Moses himself write the names of the persons, whom he judged competent and qualified for the senatorial office, and submit them to the approval of the tribes? This would have been to deprive the tribes of one of their fundamental rights, that of designating their own magistrates. Besides, Moses was not charged with appointing the senate, but with assembling it. It is not probable, therefore, that this is what is meant by their names being written. Did the citizens, then, of the respective tribes, themselves elect, by ballot, the persons whom they believed most worthy of the dignity, and best fitted to discharge its functions usefully? This supposition seems the most reasonable. In the selection and appointment of magistrates, Moses demanded, not simply wise men, but such as were known among the tribes. How could this demand be answered, otherwise than by a manifestation of individual opinion? The history of the Acts of the apostles sheds light upon this point, and lends confirmation to this conjecture. The apostles incorporated the principles of the Mosaic constitution into their spiritual society. Needing certain functionaries, they convene the whole body of the disciples, and after the example of their ancient lawgiver, they say to them, “Look ye out seven men, of honest deport, and full of wisdom.”13 The proposition pleased the assembly. Thereupon they themselves selected the functionaries, as suggested; and the apostles, in accordance with a long established national usage, inducted them into office by the solemn imposition of hands. Here, again, I observe by the way, we see the concurrence of the oracle and the people in the election of civil rulers.
13 Acts 6:3.
Such, then, was the general spirit of the law. Without insisting on the correctness of this or that particular mode of selection, the fundamental principle, which is well worthy to arrest our attention, is plain and obvious. The law institutes a great national council, or senate, composed, not of priests, but of civilians; not of men belonging to privileged classes, or possessing vast estates, but of men wise, prudent, able, of good repute, fearing God, and already skilled in affairs of state; not politicians merely, but statesmen, sages, patriots. The name of seniors, or senators, belonged to the members of the great council. It is probable that men of advanced age were commonly chosen into it, yet young men of superior endowments sometimes gained admission. This we learn from the speech of such a one in the Wisdom of Solomon, who boasts that, in spite of his youth, he had obtained an honorable distinction for wisdom among the senators.
The design and functions of this institution are points of chief importance in this inquiry. The law declares, in general terms, that the senators where to bear the burden of the people with Moses, that he might not bear it alone. By this can hardly be meant the ordinary administration of justice, for provision had been made for that in the institution of the Jethronian judges. So far, therefore, as the senate was to assist Moses in judiciary matters, it could only be in those greater and more important causes, which were to be brought before him on appeal, or those difficult questions which the judges of the inferior courts themselves referred to him. But this was not the principal end of its institution. The occasion of its appointment is a proof of this. It was instituted to crush a rebellion. But for such an end, of what use would a mere court of judicature be? On the other hand, a council of sages, a supreme senate, composed of men venerable for their age, and of approved wisdom and integrity, would be of the greatest efficacy. There can be no doubt, therefore, that these seventy were to be permanent assistants of Moses in his councils. They were to aid him with their advice on all occasions, to preserve peace and good order among the people, to strengthen the sentiment of loyalty to the constitution, and to prevent those mutinies and seditions, which, if permitted to break out and rage, would in the end prove fatal to the government and the nation. “In this view,” observes Lowman, “the seventy elders will appear to be designed, not only as a standing court of law and equity, to assist Moses as judge in causes of greater consequence, and in appeals, but to assist the judge with their advice on every occasion. This was properly to bear the burthen of the people together with Moses, that he might not bear it himself alone. For now the judge would not bear all the envy or ill will of the people, when dissatisfied or uneasy with any part of the administration; for the common people, though they know very little of the reasonings of any administration, are yet apt to think every thing wrong, that does not please them, or which is attended with difficulties to themselves or the public. Now, a council of seventy persons, of the most approved wisdom and integrity, would at least share this burthen among them all, instead of throwing the whole on one man. And it would be, moreover, an ease to the judge’s own mind, and make him more resolved in any counsel to be taken or executed, when it should be with the advice and approbation of a multitude of counsellors, in which there is wisdom and safety. And, finally, it was proper to give authority and respect to such orders as should be made by advice of persons, whom the people themselves had approved and chosen, as eminent for their wisdom and integrity. Consider, then, this court as a standing senate, always at hand, or as a constant privy council to the judge, and we have a most wise provision for the easier and better government of the whole nation; and this will make a considerable part of the states-general of the united tribes.”
Still, it must be borne in mind that the senate was not the government; it was only a constituent part of the government. It was but the council of the nation, the head, as it were, of the general diet. In all important questions, its decisions were to be submitted to the congregation, which, by its approbation, enacted them into laws. Of this we have a clear proof in the twentieth chapter of Judges, where the ancients are recorded to have called upon the general assembly of the people to deliberate upon a matter and give their decision. Even when the Hebrews demanded a king, they were far from wishing to change this part of the constitution. Hence it has been observed by the abbé Guenee that “it was always the duty of the king to govern the nation according to the laws. Their authority was neither despotic nor arbitrary. The senate, composed of the most distinguished members of all the tribes, served him as a council. He took their advice in all important affairs; and if any thing occurred, in which the interest of the whole nation was concerned, the congregation, that is to say, the assembly of the people, was convoked. The senate proposed, the congregation decided, and the king executed.” A memorable example of this we have in 1 Chronicles 13:1-8. David, after consulting with his counsellors of state, in regard to the removal of the ark, refers the final decision of the question to the congregation of Israel. They, upon deliberation, approve and enact. Immediately thereupon, David proceeds to execute the decree. But it must not be inferred from hence, that the general assembly never took the initiative, much less that it had not the right of so doing. Moses tells the Hebrews, that on a certain occasion he made a proposition to them, which they approved and accepted, whereas on another occasion they proposed a certain measure to him, which, meeting his cordial approbation, he accepted and executed.14
14 Deuteronomy 1:13,22-23.
Such, then, were the leading powers of the Hebrew senate. Let us inquire by what limitations they were confined within their just bounds. The Jewish law opposed itself invincibly to the existence of great landed proprietors, and thus prevented the members of the senate from uniting the influence of vast territorial estates to that which they derived from their office. The senator received no salary for his services. His age and the conditions of eligibility to the senatorial dignity served as a guarantee of his integrity. The decrees to which he contributed, extended to his children, his friends, and himself. Out of the senatorial seat, he was but a simple Israelite. The office was not hereditary, and the son of a senator was no more, in the eye of the law, than the son of the humblest citizen. These, however, were rather moral than legal restraints. But the sacerdotal magistracy, engaged by its very nature to the guardianship of the law; the prophets, those stern state censors and moralists, who launched the most unsparing denunciations against all who in any way abused the trusts confided to them; the decisions of the oracle; and the necessity of the intervention of the congregation of Israel in important questions, furnished guaranties of a positive and effective character, against the usurpation and tyranny of the Hebrew senate. Here is a system of moral and legal restrictions upon power, to which it would be difficult to find a parallel in other governments. the remark of Blackstone respecting the English constitution is equally applicable to the Hebrew polity, viz. that every branch of it supports and is supported, regulates and is regulated, by the rest. The senate, the congregation, the chief magistrate, the oracle, the Levitical order, and the prophetical office constituted many checks upon each other’s power, so many dikes and embankments to restrain the exercise of tyranny, so many combined forces to give the machine of government a safe direction, and cause it to move in the line of the public liberty and happiness.
It has been a question with some, whether the senate of seventy, constituted by Moses on the occasion of the rebellion in Paran, continued permanent. Calmet endeavored to discredit the continued existence of this council. In this opinion he is followed by Michaelis. But the common and more probable opinion is that it was a permanent body. Bossuet says, “To maintain the law in its vigor, Moses formed an assembly of seventy counsellors, which may be termed the senate of Israel, and the perpetual council of the nation.” The abbé de Fleury observes, “As often as mention is made in the scripture of assemblies and public affairs, the elders (or senators) are put in the first place, and sometimes named alone. Thence comes the expression in the Psalms, exhorting to praise God in the congregation of the people, and in the seat of the elders, that is, the public council.” There is, indeed, a strong antecedent probability against the abolition of this council on the death of Moses; for, as Basnage well suggests, “If that great legislator needed such a council, during his life, it must have been still more necessary to those who succeeded him in the administration of he republic.” Salvador has an able, if not a convincing argument, to prove that the senate is often designated in the sacred books by the lame of its president, or of the general judge, in the same manner as he senate of Venice was called “most serene prince.” Thus, when the Hebrews say that a man judged Israel, he thinks the expression signifies that he governed in concurrence with the senate. The argument by which he supports this view is not without force, but the reader who would judge of it is referred to the original work. Undoubtedly, the senate underwent many changes in the progress of time. It would be interesting, but it does not belong to my present work, to trace these evolutions. I therefore dismiss the subject with the remark that, whatever vicissitudes it experienced, it appears always to have maintained its existence.
A difficulty will have occurred to the reflecting reader, as he has followed me through the above detail. The chapter professes to treat of the Hebrew senate, but, in reality, it has exhibited two distinct councils, one instituted in Egypt, and the other in the wilderness, without attempting to adjust or explain their relation to each other. This is a difficulty, not a little formidable in appearance. Which of these was the senate of Israel? Did the latter supersede the former? Or did they coexist, and in that case, was there any union between them? I have little doubt that Lowman has hit upon the true solution of the difficulty, and I shall here condense the view which he has taken of this part of the Hebrew constitution. His idea is that the original senate, composed of the princes of tribes and heads of families, continued to exist after the institution of the Sanhedrim. The grounds of this opinion are as follows: When the children of Reuben and Gad came with a petition to have their settlement assigned them on the East of Jordan, they came and spake unto Moses and Eleazar the priest, and unto the princes of the congregation.15 Though this was long after the institution of the Sanhedrim, yet the princes of the congregation are assembled to consider the proposal, as they had been before in the case of female succession,16 and as they were afterwards upon the regulation of the marriage of heiresses.17 When Joshua made a league with the Gibeonites, it was confirmed by the princes of the congregation.18 Other instances of the like nature might be cited, but let these suffice. Now, as these persons are described by the titles of princes and chief fathers of the children of Israel, it is plain that the same persons must be meant, who were princes of tribes and heads of families before the institution of the Sanhedrim, and whose rank and authority were not taken away by the formation of that court. They were still the great council or senate of the nation. But what, then, becomes of the Sanhedrim, instituted by Moses? Both classes of officers are spoken of in such a way as to show that they were employed in the great affairs of he nation. Why, then, may we not conceive of the Sanhedrim as a select senate, a sort of privy council, while all the princes of Israel still had session and vote in the great and general council of the nation, which when assembled, was called by the ancient style, the princes of the congregation? This may be the reason why the elders of the Sanhedrim have so little apparent notice taken of them, for, when the general national senate was assembled, they were considered only as particular members of it.
15 Numbers 32:1-2.
16 Numbers 27.
17 Numbers 36.
18 Joshua 9:15.
Lowman conceives that the constitution of the old parliament of Paris may give a pretty accurate idea of the senate of Israel. The kings assembled the great men of the kingdom, and these assemblies were called the king’s court or parliament. The great men who attended these assemblies were styled barons of the kingdom, and afterwards peers of France. They were the bishops, dukes, earls, and all the great tenants, who held immediately of the crown; but as it was not easy to examine fully many of the affairs which came before them, the kings gave commission to men of abilities, to assist with their care and counsels; and these counsellors were called masters of parliament. In the parliament of Paris, then, all the peers of France had session and vote, but the ordinary business was transacted by a select number of counsellors. Somewhat after this manner, it is most likely, the senate of Israel was constituted. The elders of the Sanhedrim formed a select council to assist the chief magistrate on ordinary occasions; but on occasions of greater moment, and especially when the states-general were convened, the national senate of Israel consisted of princes of the tribes, heads of families, and elders of the Sanhedrim. But however this might be, and whoever the persons were who composed the great council of the Hebrew nation, it is clear and undoubted that, under the style of princes, chief fathers, or elders, there was a senate of the whole republic, who assisted the judge with their advice in affairs of moment. And this was second bond of political union between the tribes.
The Hebrew Commons
In treating this subject, three inquiries present themselves, viz. 1. Whether a house of commons, or popular assembly, formed a part of the Hebrew constitution? 2. If so, who composed it? 3. What were its powers?
The first of these interrogatories must be answered in the affirmative. It is an undoubted fact that there was a popular branch in the Hebrew government. This body was called by different titles—as the congregation, the congregation of Israel, all the assembly, all the children of Israel, and the whole congregation of the Lord. Moses was directed to make two silver trumpets, and the following law was enacted respecting the use of them: “And when they shall blow with them, all the assembly shall assemble themselves to thee at the door of the tabernacle of the congregation. And if they blow but with one trumpet, then the princes, which are heads of the thousands of Israel, shall gather themselves unto thee.”1 Other scriptures might be cited, but this passage alone is decisive, and, indeed there is no dispute on this point among those who have written on the Hebrew institutions.
1 Numbers 10:2-4.
In regard to the second question, viz. as to who composed the congregation, there is less unanimity of opinion. Lowman does not doubt, from its being described in expressions so full and emphatic, as “all the congregation of Israel,” “the whole congregation of Jehovah,” and the like, that every free Israelite had a right to vote in this assembly. Harrington is of the same opinion. He says, “While the whole people was an army, Moses could propose to them in body, or under their staves, or standards of their camps; then he needed not, and so he used not, any representative.” Both these writers think that there were different manners of holding this assembly, the people sometimes voting in mass, and sometimes by deputies. The abbé Guenee holds the like view. “The assemblies under Moses,” he observes, “while the Hebrews formed one great army, very much resembled the assemblies of the people at Athens, at Lacedaemon, and at Rome; but afterwards, it would seem, they were often composed of deputies, of representatives of the people, not unlike the parliaments of England and the states of Holland.” Salvador, the learned Jewish author, is of the same way of thinking. He regards it as the inalienable right of every Hebrew citizen to have session and vote in the general assembly, basing it, however, upon the false principle, borrowed from Rousseau, that the people, properly so called, have that in common with the Deity, that they cannot be rigidly represented but by themselves. Jahn also expresses the opinion that, at least upon very important occasions, as many of the common people as chose to attend, took part in the deliberations and resolves of this body.
I cannot concur in the view of these learned men. More just and scriptural appears to me the opinion of Michaelis, that the Hebrew people never voted as a pure democracy, but always, in the wilderness, as well as after their settlement in Canaan, by known and authorized representatives. His argument in support of this view seems to be conclusive, and I therefore present it in his own words: “From various passages in the Pentateuch, we find that Moses, at making known any laws, had to convene the whole congregation of Israel; and in like tanner, in the book of Joshua, we see, that when diets were held, the whole congregation were assembled. If on such occasions every individual had to give his vote, everything would certainly have been democratic in the highest degree; but it is scarcely conceivable how, without very particular regulations made for the purpose (which, however, we nowhere find), order could have been preserved in an assembly of six hundred thousand men, their votes accurately numbered, and acts of violence prevented. If, however, we consider that, while Moses is said to have spoken to the whole congregation, he could not possibly be heard by six hundred thousand people (for what human voice could be sufficiently strong to be so?), all our fears and difficulties will vanish; for this circumstance alone must convince any one, that Moses could only have addressed himself to a certain number of persons, deputed to represent the rest of the Israelites. Accordingly, in Numbers 1:16, we find mention of such persons. In contradistinction to the common Israelites, they are there denominated ‘those wont to be called to the convention.’ In the 16th chapter of the same book, verse 2, they are styled ‘chiefs of the community, that are called to the convention.’ I notice this passage particularly, because it appears from it, that two hundred and fifty persons of this description, who rose up against Moses, became to him objects of extreme terror; which they could not have been, if their voices had not been, at the same time, the voices of their families and tribes. Still more explicit, and to the point, is the passage, Deuteronomy 29:9, where Moses, in a speech to the whole people, says, ‘Ye stand this day all of you before the Lord your God, your heads, your tribes (that is, chiefs of tribes), your elders, your scribes, all Israel, infants, wives, strangers that are in your camp, from the hewer of wood to the drawer of water.’ Now, as Moses could not possibly speak loud enough to be heard by two millions and a half of people (for to so many did the Israelites amount, women and children included), it must be manifest, that the first-named persons represented the people, to whom they again repeated the words of Moses. Whether these representatives were on every occasion obliged to collect and declare the sense of their constituents, or whether, like the members of the English house of commons, they acted in the plenitude of their own power for the general good, without taking instructions from their constituents, I find nowhere expressly determined; but, methinks, from a perusal of the Bible, I can scarcely doubt, that the latter was the case. Who these representatives were, may, in some measure, be understood from Joshua 23:2, and 24:1. They would seem to have been of two sorts. To some, their office as judges gave a right to appear in the assembly; and these were not necessarily of the same family in which they exercised that office. Others, again, had a seat and a voice in the diet, as the heads of families.”
But the particular constitution of the popular branch of the Hebrew government, as to the persons composing it, is a matter comparatively indifferent. The material part of the inquiry, which will be found eminently worthy of our attention, relates to the functions which that body exercised. These were of a grave and important kind, and such as to evince the supremacy of the popular will under this constitution. A few instances, chosen out of many, will illustrate the powers confided to this department of the government. We shall find them broad and comprehensive, extending to the election of magistrates, the management of foreign relations, the adjudication of civil and criminal causes, and the care of ecclesiastical affairs.
In the nineteenth chapter of Exodus, we have a deeply interesting account of the manner in which God was chosen king of the Hebrew people, and the laws adopted, which he proposed for their government. Moses, having received a commission to make the proposition to the nation, “came and called for the elders of the people, and laid before their princes all these words, which Jehovah commanded him. And all the people answered together, and said, All that Jehovah hath spoken we will do. And Moses returned the words of the people unto Jehovah.” Here we have an account of the form in which questions were proposed and resolved in the national legislature. It is the just and philosophical remark of Lowman on this passage, that legal forms explain the true powers of any part of a constitution much better than general arguments. Let the reader observe how closely this form of voting resembles that called a ragatio among the Romans. A proposal from the senate to the people was in these words: “Is it your will, O Romans, and do you resolve it?” To which the response, if affirmative, was: “We will, and resolve it.” In the above election, the elders only are mentioned by name, but it is manifest from the expression, “all the people answered and said,” that it was the act of the general diet of Israel. The term “elders” was not restricted to any one class of functionaries, and it is certainly a select assembly, which, on this occasion, responded to the proposal of Moses, yet it is stated in the broadest terms, “all the people answered.” The appointment of Joshua to be the successor of Moses appears, from the record of it in the twenty-seventh chapter of Numbers, to have been made, or at least confirmed, by the popular vote in the national diet. He was to be set before “all the congregation,” and, when thus proposed, he appears to have been elected by their vote to the chief magistracy of Israel.
So also Saul, though designated to the regal office by the lot, was nevertheless chosen king by the great national diet—the congregation the people. Afterwards, to quiet the dissatisfaction of certain malcontents, “Samuel summoned the people by their representatives to Gilgal,” says the historian, “and there they made Saul king before the Lord in Gilgal.”2 When Adonihan, in anticipation of his father David’s death, endeavored to seize upon the supreme authority, the latter, by a royal edict, caused Solomon to be proclaimed king. But he immediately summoned the parliament of the realm, and proposed Solomon as his successor, and the history adds, “They made Solomon, the son of David, king the second time. … Then Solomon sat on the throne, … and all Israel obeyed him”—evidently as being the sovereign of their own choice.3 Josephus informs us that, when Moses announced the appointment of Aaron to the priesthood by Jehovah, he took pains to impress the assembly kith a sense of his brother’s great merits, whereupon, he adds, the Hebrews gave their approbation to him whom God had appointed. Jeroboam is expressly said to have been made king by the congregation of Israel.4
These instances sufficiently evince the authority of the popular voice, through its representatives, in the election of the national rulers.
2 1 Samuel 10:17-27.
3 1 Chronicles 29:22-23.
4 1 Kings 12:20.
The management of the foreign relations of the nation belonged, in part, to the congregation. This is evident from what occurred in the case of the Gibeonites, soon after the passage of the Jordan. Joshua, deceived by their plausible tale, made with them a treaty of peace, which was confirmed by the oath of the senate of princes. But when the imposition was discovered, the congregation was loud in its complaints, and could with difficulty be induced to give its assent to the arrangement. It seems a fair inference from this relation that a convention of peace, though made by judge and senate, still needed the ratification of the people, in their national assembly, in order to its full and binding authority.
The jurisdiction of the congregation extended also to civil causes. The question of female succession, in default of male heirs, was, by petition from the daughters of Zelophehad, laid before Moses, the priest, the princes, and all the congregation. Their father, they alleged, had died without sons, and their request was that they might be constituted his heirs. The question, being a novel one, was referred, by the other departments of the government, to the oracle. The response was that the demand of the young women was reasonable and ought to be granted. Thereupon a decree was passed to that effect, and a law was enacted to settle the matter of female succession for all after ages. Here is the oracle of Jehovah. Here is the senate of princes. And here, finally, is the congregation of all Israel.5 The body before which this question is brought, was an assembly of the states-general of Israel, composed judge, senate, and commons; and the history of the affair shows plainly that questions of this nature were properly, according to the Hebrew constitution, brought before them.
To the congregation belonged likewise the right of taking cognizance of criminal matters. It was expressly charged with judging between the slayer and the avenger of blood: “Then the congregation shall judge between the slayer and the revenger of blood according to these judgments. And the congregation shall deliver the slayer out of the hand of revenger of blood, and the congregation shall restore him to the city of his refuge, whither he was fled: and he shall abide in it unto the death of the high priest, which was anointed with the holy oil.”6 It matters not whether the congregation here spoken of was provincial or national, for, whatever rights were vested in the lower assembly would undoubtedly inhere in the higher.
5 Numbers 27:1-9.
6 Numbers 35:24-25.
An instance of the power of the Hebrew commons in criminal questions occurs in the history of Saul, and is too interesting to be passed silence.7 Upon a certain occasion, Saul had given an order, forbidding his army to taste food, during a day’s encounter with the Philistines. Whoever violated the prohibition was devoted to certain death by the oath of the king. Jonathan, to whose prudence and valor, under God, the victory was entirely owing, ignorant both of the order and the anathema, and worn down with the fatigues of battle, had eaten a little wild honey. Upon his confession of the fault, Saul fiercely exclaims, “God do so to me, and more also; for thou shalt surely die, Jonathan.” This is very positive, and seems irreversible. Yet the people step in, and say, “Shall Jonathan die, who hath wrought this great salvation for Israel? God forbid! As Jehovah liveth, there shall not an hair his head fall to the ground. So the people rescued [literally, redeemed] Jonathan.” Bishop Patrick truly observes on this place that the people did not rescue Jonathan by violence or force. Yet his further opinion, and that of the learned Grotius, that the rescue was effected by petition, seems not at all consistent with the expressions employed. “As Jehovah liveth, there shall not an hair of his head fall to the ground,” has very little the sound of a humble request to a master. It is more like the voice of conscious authority, clear and strong in the expression of an undoubted right. Neither is the expression “redeemed Jonathan,” properly descriptive of an act of mutiny or rebellion. There remains, then, but the conclusion that it was an exercise of rightful authority, whereby the unconscious offender was pardoned, and the sentence of death reversed, in the general court of Israel. It is thus that Lowman interprets the procedure.
Ecclesiastical affairs were also, to some extent at least, subject to the jurisdiction and control of the Hebrew commons. When David wished to remove the ark to Jerusalem, he would nod do so without a formal vote of the congregation to that effect.8 On the accession of Solomon to the throne, when Abiathar was deposed from the office of high priest, and Zadok elevated to that dignity, it was “all the congregation,” the great assembly of the people, that established the latter in the high-priesthood, and caused him to receive the sacerdotal unction, which constituted a chief part of the inaugural ceremony.9
7 1 Samuel 14:42 seqq.
8 1 Chronicles 13:2-4.
9 1 Chronicles 29:20-22.
In the brief digest of the English constitution, which Montesquieu has given in the sixth chapter of the eleventh book of his Spirit of Laws, he makes the following remark: “Whoever shall read the admirable treatise of Tacitus on the manners of the Germans, will find that it is from them the English have borrowed the idea of their political government. This beautiful system was invented first in the woods.” On referring to the passage in Tacitus, cite by the learned jurist, it will be found that the historian says, “Ordinary affairs were treated in the council of chiefs; great affairs, in the assembly of the people; yet so that those matters, on which it belonged to the people to decide, were debated by the chiefs.” On this Salvador has well observed that Montesquieu might have traced the idea of the English constitution to a higher source, and made it rest upon bases more sacred in the eyes of modern nations. This beautiful system of government invented in the woods indeed! Its true source is the inspired legislation of Moses. Besides their military chiefs (the council to which Tacitus referred), the Hebrews had a senate of civilians, as well as a house of commons. They recognized three distinct crowns—the crown of the priests, the crown of the law, and the crown of the king; in other words, the sacerdotal or conservative power, the legislative power, and the executive power. Besides, how many of the English have ever read Tacitus? Whereas the Bible, found in every house, has exercised the greatest influence over their manners and institutions, and has produced more than one point of resemblance between the ancient people of Israel and the first nation of modern times, which has comprehended the whole power of law, and has founded its polity on the principle that laws ought to govern, rather than the will and pleasure of the prince.
The Hebrew Oracle
The fact that the original sovereignty of the Hebrew state, though by the free consent and suffrage of the people, was vested in Jehovah, distinguished this government from all others ever known among men. This circumstance would naturally lead us to look for some peculiarity of organization in the political structure. Nor does the history of the government, contained in the writings of its founder, disappoint such expectation. This organic peculiarity appears in the oracle of Jehovah, as an essential part of the civil constitution.
We have already seen that there was a strong theocratic element in the Israelitish constitution—so strong, indeed, that the government has been commonly called a theocracy. In what manner and through what agencies, did this element in the government make itself practically felt? The general answer to this question is: It was by means of the oracle of Jehovah. With the view of shedding, if possible, some light on this obscure but interesting point, I propose to inquire briefly into the nature and functions of the Hebrew oracle, to institute a comparison between it and the oracles of pagan antiquity, and to vindicate the wisdom and benevolence of such an institution, against the sneers and sophistries of infidelity, by showing its admirable adaptation to the infant state of the world and the church.
The oracle played a conspicuous and most important part in the establishment and administration of the Jewish theocracy. That incomparable summary of the Mosaic code, and of all moral duty—the Decalogue—was uttered, amid terrific thunderings and lightnings, from the mysterious symbol of the Divinity, in an articulate voice, which reached every ear, and penetrated every heart, and awed every understanding of the mighty multitude that crowded around the base of mount Sinai. So also all the rest of the political, civil, moral, and religious laws of the Hebrews were dictated by the oracle, though they were afterward, as observed by Dr. Spring, in his “Discourses on the obligations of the World to the Bible,” passed upon and adopted by the legal assemblies of the nation. The oracle, in the form of the cloudy pillar, regulated the motions of the Israelitish armies: “For when the cloud was taken up from the tabernacle, the children of Israel journeyed; and when the cloud rested, there the children of Israel pitched their tents; at the command of Jehovah they journeyed, at the command of Jehovah they pitched.”1 How far the oracle directed the military affairs of the Hebrews plainly appears in the history of the Canaanitish wars, and particularly in the story of the siege and capture of Jericho.2 In the earlier periods of the commonwealth, the oracle was constantly appealed to on questions of civil and ecclesiastical law, in settling principles of state policy, and generally in affairs of moment, appertaining to the pubic administration. “In the time of Moses,” observes Michaelis, “the oracle was unquestionably very conspicuous. God himself gave laws to the Israelites; decided difficult points of justice; was constantly visible in the pillar of cloud and fire; and inflicted punishments, not according to the secret procedure of providence, but in the most manifest manner.” The constitution of the Hebrew judges, both higher and lower, the election of civil rulers, the cognizance of many causes, some in the first instance, and others on appeal, were branches of the sovereignty of Jehovah, as King of Israel. The use of the oracle in deciding difficult cases in law is the more worthy of note, as it serves to explain the constitution with respect to appeals. It was thus that the oracle decided the question, how persons defiled by a dead body should keep the Passover.3 Thus also the oracle determined the question of female succession, in the case of the daughters of Zelophehad.4 And thus it was the oracle, again, which declared he punishment of Sabbath breaking.5 Hence it may be seen that the last resort both in civil and criminal cases, especially when new and difficult questions were involved, was in the oracle, and not in the opinion of the high priest alone, nor of the judge alone, nor of both conjointly with the senate and congregation, unless they were fully agreed. If a difficulty arose, the last appeal was to the oracle, in whose decision the high priest did not give his private judgment, but the oracle itself gave final judgment in the case.
1 Numbers 9:17-18.
2 Joshua 6.
3 Numbers 9:6-10.
4 Numbers 27:1-9.
5 Numbers 15:32-36.
The person charged with consulting the oracle was the high priest. An objector may here ask, “Did not this open the door to corruption? Might not an ambitious pontiff abuse such a trust to unrighteous ends?” This difficulty may be best met by explaining to whom the consultation of the oracle was permitted, the occasions on which it might be consulted, and the probable manner of the consultation.
The oracle could not be interrogated by any mere private individual, not even by the high priest himself in his personal capacity. This was permitted only to the chief magistrate or other high functionary of the government. The occasions on which the advice of the oracle could be asked, must be of a public nature. The matter of consultation must relate to a question of public policy, of public morals, or of religious faith. Neither could the consultation take place in a clandestine way. The person proposing the question to the high priest remained with him during the ceremony. Josephus affirms that any person who chose might be present on such occasions.6
6 Numbers 27:21.
This would be an effectual guard against collusion and an ample guarantee for the fairness of the transaction. The office of the high priest, in this particular, was that of a mediator, or middle man. He was herein simply the channel of communication between the Hebrew state and its Divine head. It is remarkable that there is not an instance on record, in the Jewish annals of a high priest, who abused this trust to unworthy objects.
The opinion of learned and judicious authors, as to the manner of taking the sense of the oracle, is this: The high priest clothed in his pontifical garments, and having on the breastplate of judgment, in which were the mysterious urim and thummim, symbolical of the clearness and fulness of the oracular responses, presented himself before the veil of the tabernacle, over against the mercy seat, the immediate residence of the Divine presence. The magistrate who came to consult the oracle stood directly behind him and propounded the question, which was repeated by the priest. The answer was returned in an audible voice, in terms explicit, direct, and unambiguous. This explains the reason why the holy of holies, where the mercy seat stood, is so often called the oracle. It was because from thence God returned answers to those who came to ask counsel of him, on behalf of the public conscience or the public administration.
That the responses were returned in an articulate voice, seems probable from several expressions of holy writ. When the ten commandments were given on Sinai, it is said, that “God spake all these words.”7 In regard to the subsequent laws, it is declared that “Jehovah spake unto Moses, saying.”8 When Moses went into the tabernacle to learn the divine will, it is recorded of him that “he heard the voice of one speaking to him from off the mercy seat.”9 Similar forms of expression are used in reference to the like occasions in after ages, from all which the conclusion seems warranted that the responses of the Hebrew oracle were rendered in an audible voice, and without secrecy, craft, or ambiguity of any kind.10
7 Exodus 20:1.
8 Exodus passim.
9 Numbers 7:89.
10 Numbers 9:9; Judges 1:1-2, 20:18,23,28; 1 Samuel 10:23; and many other places.
I have said above that the person charged with consulting the oracle was the high priest. The observation, however, ought not to be omitted, that there were two ways in which the oracle expressed its will, in one of which the high priest had no share. This was by a voice from the shekinah directly. It was in this way that the Ten Commandments were given, in which case the oracle was heard by the whole Hebrew nation. In this manner, also, the other civil laws given at Sinai were dictated to Moses. What the exact nature of the phenomenon called the shekinah was, we cannot with certainty determine. “We can only say, that it appears to have been a concentrated glowing brightness, a preternatural splendor, an effulgent something, which was appropriately expressed by the term glory; but whether, in philosophical strictness, it was material or immaterial, it is probably impossible to determine.”
But notwithstanding this, it still remains true that the ordinary mode of consulting the oracle was through the high priest, by urim and thummim. It is not material to the illustration of this part of the Israelitish constitution that we should know precisely what these terms mean. Yet it may gratify the reader to be informed of the several opinions entertained by the learned on this point. All that the scripture says concerning urim and thummim is that they were something put by Moses into the breastplate of the high priest. The breastplate was a piece of cloth doubled, of a span square, in which were twelve precious stones, set in sockets of gold, and having the names of the twelve tribes of Israel engraved on them. In this, then, the urim and thummim were placed. Four principle opinions have obtained as to what they were. The first is that they were two small images, which, enclosed within the fold of the breast plate, gave out the oracular answers. This is the idea of Philo Judaeus, in which he has been followed by later writers. But it is too heathenish a conceit to be for a moment entertained. It has been well characterized as “a Talmudical camel, which no one in his wits can ever swallow.” A second opinion is that the urim and thummim consisted in a peculiar radiance, or shining light, with which certain of the letters, engraven on the breastplate, were invested, when a question had been put, so that these luminous characters, being properly arranged, gave the answer to the inquiry. This was the notion of Josephus. Dr. Prideaux has triumphantly refuted it, but his answer is too long to be inserted here. A third opinion is that of Michaelis, in which he is followed by Jahn. These writers think that the urim and thummim were simply a sacred box. They suppose it probable that three stones were used, one of them marked with an affirmative, a second with a negative, and a third blank; and that Moses commanded these to be kept within the doubling of the breastplate of the priest. This of course would require the question always to be put in such a way that it could be answered with a simple Yes or No. But there are various responses in the scriptures inconsistent with the truth of this theory, especially that contained in 2 Samuel 5:23-24, where explicit and detailed directions are given. The fourth opinion is that of Prideaux, who thinks that by urim and thummim we are not to understand anything visible and corporeal, but only a divine virtue and power, given to the breastplate in consecration, of obtaining oracular answers from God, whenever counsel was asked of him by the high priest in the prescribed manner. Amid this conflict of opinion, one thing seems sufficiently evident, that the answers were rendered in an audible voice, and that the breastplate, bearing the names of the twelve tribes, invested the high priest with his true representative character, and thus enabled him successfully to ask counsel of God.
In comparing the Hebrew oracle with the oracles of paganism, my remarks will embrace the period of their respective institution; the times, occasions, and conditions of consulting them; the machinery of consultation; and the nature of the responses uttered by each.
Infidel writers have represented the Hebrew oracle as a mere imitation of those of pagan institution—a graft from one system of imposture into another, but little better. Morgan says that “while the Jews were in Egypt, they had been dazzled by the infallible declarations of Jupiter Ammon.” Sir Isaac Newton, however, places the birth of Ammon more than 400 years after the Exodus of Israel out of Egypt. These are the words of this illustrious chronologist: “The year before Christ 1002, Sesac reigned in Egypt. He erected temples and oracles to his father in Thebes, Ammonia, and Ethiopia; and thereby caused his father to be worshiped as a god in those countries. This was the original of the worship of Jupiter Ammon, and the first mention of oracles I meet with in profane history. The Greeks, in their oracles, imitated the Egyptians; for the oracle of Dodona, which was the oldest in Greece, was set up by an Egyptian woman after the example of the oracle at Thebes.” Thus it appears, according to this high chronological authority, that, instead of the Jewish oracle being an imitation of the pagan oracles, the reverse was the fact. The latter drew their original from the former.
The Hebrew oracle could be consulted at all times when the occasions of the state required, the Grecian only on particular days of a particular month in the year. It is obvious to remark what an advantage this gave to the priests of those lying divinities to anticipate the questions to be proposed and to frame skillful and deceptive replies.
The Hebrew oracle could be consulted only by some high public functionary, and when questions of moment, relating to the government of the republic, demanded resolution. The Grecian oracles refused not their utterance to any persons, nor upon any occasion, provided only that the fee was sufficiently ample to cause them to break silence.
This leads me to remark upon another distinction between the two institutions. No money was ever received for consulting the Jewish oracle. The offer of it would have been an insult to him whose voice was heard in its responses. The Grecian oracles were sources of vast revenues to the priests. The wealth of the Delphian oracle exceeded that of the most opulent states and princes. Its treasury blazed with uncounted jewels and groaned beneath the masses of gold and silver that filled its capacious vaults.
Another point of difference appears in the machinery of consultation and the character of the responses. Nothing can be more simple than the method of consulting the divine oracle, nothing less ambiguous than its answers. But what endless mystery, and mummery, and cumbrous rites of divination accompanied the responses of the heathen oracles. These were always so contrived as to be susceptible of a double interpretation. In proof of this, the reader’s attention is directed to the response of the Delphian oracle to Croesus, the powerful monarch of the Lydian empire, respecting the issue of his war with Cyrus. Its purport was that he should overturn a great empire and that the Persians would not conquer him till they had a mule for their prince. History has recorded the result. The wily priests had well considered their answer. They knew nothing of the issue. How could they? But they must clutch the treasures of Lydia’s richest sovereign. To this end, they must flatter his pride. And they must maintain the credit of their oracle, whichever way fortune might decide the contest. With demoniac cunning did they frame the response to answer all these ends. When the unhappy Lydian, lured to his ruin by their lying flatteries, dared to reproach them with their deception, with insulting scorn they replied, “Ungrateful fool! you have overturned a great empire, even that over which you reigned, and your throne and scepter have been wrested from you by the mule of our oracle, even Cyrus, who, his father being a Persian and his mother a Median, fills the measure of its import.” Behold the system! Behold the commentary! Each worthy of the other, and both of that infernal craft and policy in which they had their origin. One hardly knows against whom to feel the greater indignation, whether against the contrivers of such a system of delusion, or the bold blasphemer, who dares to liken it to that oracle of eternal truth, whose immaculate responses were fitly symbolized by a legend which signifies, “Lights and Perfections.”
Infidels have indulged in a superabundance of malignant and silly ridicule over this divine oracle, but with their usual want of inquiry and reflection. I admit that it is an extraordinary institution. I admit that it is altogether without a parallel in the history of the world. But this is no argument against either the fact or the wisdom of it. No other civil society has ever been formed for precisely the same objects, nor existed under exactly the same circumstances. No other civil polity ever proposed, as its main end, the overthrow of idolatry, the preservation of true religion in the world, and the education of mankind for a more spiritual and universal dispensation of grace. Add to this, that the human race was then, as it were, in its infancy and nonage. It had but few abstract ideas. It was, for the most part, confined in its mental operations to sensible objects. In such a state of things, philosophy itself would teach us to look for just such an institution as the Hebrew oracle. And when we find it making its appearance in the Jewish church, enlightened reason is prepared to exclaim in the language of revelation, “Oh the depths of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God.”
The oracle was the institution of all others, adapted to the mental condition, habits, and needs of the Hebrew people. It operated as a salutary check to the ignorance and rashness of both rulers and people. By powerfully impressing the imagination through the senses, it supplied the place of a strong, realizing conception of an infinite and omnipresent spirit, which was wanting in that minority and pupilage of the nation. It served to detach their affections and their trust from the pompous and alluring idolatries of their heathen neighbors. This sensible manifestation of the Deity—the cloud of glory shooting up to mid-heaven in a column of massy splendor, or resting in luminous folds ever the mercy-seat in the holy of holies—is so far from being incredible, that, while scripture affirms its truth, reason and philosophy declare its expediency. The divine oracle with its attendant visible glories—the ark, the mercy-seat, the cherubim, the luminous cloud, the breastplate of judgment, with its mystical urim and thummim, and the audible responses of the Deity—formed a school, designed, with admirable wisdom and condescension, for tutoring the infant intellect and heart of the world, and training them up to a full spiritual maturity and strength. “To pour contempt, therefore, on these extraordinary appearances, as absurd and romantic fables, would be as unphilosophical and as ungrateful, as it would be for a child, when arrived at manhood, to censure and despise those condescending methods, by which parental wisdom and love had molded and carried forward his childhood to manly vigor and understanding.” Let us not be guilty of the folly, the injustice, we may say, of measuring the intellectual and religious wants of a comparatively rude and infant state of society, by those of our own more cultivated, more enlightened, more spiritual, more manly, and Christian age of the world. And while we admire the beauties of the dawn, and adore the wisdom and benevolence of those early pencilings of spiritual light, let us rejoice and be grateful that the full-orbed sun has arisen upon us in all his splendor.
“In the oracle, then,” to conclude this chapter in the words of Lowman, “we see a considerable part of the Hebrew constitution to direct the councils of the united tribes, the political wisdom of which is seldom remarked in the civil government of that nation. There was a congregation of all Israel, or assembly of the people, that all things might be done with general consent. There was a senate of wise and able persons, to prepare things by previous deliberation and consultation, that things might not be concluded rashly in a popular assembly, before they were maturely considered and examined by men of wisdom and experience. There was a judge to assemble the states-general on proper occasions, to preside in their assemblies, and to command the armies of the united provinces, and to see the national resolutions duly executed. And finally, here was an oracle, which was to be consulted by the high priest on great occasions, that no rash resolutions of the people, senate, or judge, might be brought into execution, in cases of moment and difficulty; but they were to ask counsel of God or to obtain the royal assent of Jehovah, as king of Israel, by his oracle. This was a wise provision, to preserve a continual sense in the Hebrew nation of the principal design of their constitution, to keep them from idolatry and to the worship of the one true God, as their immediate protector; and that their security and prosperity depended upon adhering to his counsels and commands.”
The Hebrew Priesthood
I use the term “priesthood” here in an enlarged sense. I include, under that designation, the whole tribe of Levi, as possessing a sacerdotal or sacred character. It is of this tribe that I now propose to treat, in its constitution, its functions, and its revenues. No part of the Mosaic institution has been either more grossly misunderstood or more wickedly misrepresented. It is proper, therefore, to examine it in the relations just indicated.
The tribe of Levi had an organization quite different from that of the other tribes. These were settled in distinct provinces, and had each a government of its own. This had no landed property, did not live together, and was without an independent government. Its members were dispersed through all the territories of Israel, drew their livelihood from the other tribes, and were subject to the government of the province in which they lived.
How this happened, it is interesting to inquire. On the departure of the Israelites from Egypt, all their firstborn males were sanctified to the Lord, and destined to the altar. But the difficulty of obtaining from each family its firstborn son, the difficulty of detaching them from their private interests, as citizens of such a tribe or such a town, rendered this mode impracticable. Moses, therefore, without in the least changing the original principle, substituted, for this service, the tribe of Levi, in place of all the firstborn. But why was this tribe chosen? And, of all its members, why did Aaron and his sons obtain the priesthood? Two circumstances dictated the preference of the tribe of Levi—the smallness of its numbers and the zeal which it had displayed in punishing the Israelites for their idolatry in the matter of the golden calf. The talent, eloquence, and eminent public services of Aaron, which had already won the admiration and gratitude of his countrymen, pointed him out as the person most worthy of being raised to the second dignity in the state.
It is remarkable, and deserves attention, as showing the democratic character of this government, that the tribe of Levi, though designated by Jehovah to the service of the temple, received its legal institution from the Hebrew people, as represented in the states-general of Israel. In the first instance, Moses, with the senate and the congregation, consecrated the high priest and his associates, thus evincing, that it belonged to the general diet to choose the chief pontiff from among the priests most distinguished for their ability and merit, and to establish him in his charge.1 Afterwards, the whole assembly of the children of Israel was convoked to induct the Levitical order into their office. The people, by their representatives, laid their hands upon the Levites, and the high priest consecrated them in the name of the children of Israel, as an offering freely made by them to Jehovah their King.2
From the above detail it appears that the designation and institution of the high priest belonged, not to the council of priests, but to the senate, and must receive the confirmation of the people through their deputies. But this will still more clearly appear from some examples in the Israelitish history. Aaron had four sons. Two of them died without issue. Of the other two, Eleazar obtained the high-priesthood.3 But this dignity was not necessarily hereditary in his family, for, under the judges, it passed into the family of his brother. As to the motive for this change, and the manner in which it was made, the Bible is silent. But it informs us distinctly of the circumstances which restored the dignity to the family of Eleazar. Abiathar, having taken part against Solomon, was deposed, and Zadoc elevated to the pontificate in his place. By whom was this done? It was the congregation of Israel that chose, anointed, and established Zadoc in this office.4 Josephus cannot be accused of partiality to democratic ideas, and still less of depreciating the rights of the priests, yet he admits that this dignity was, and of right ought to be, conferred by the people. When the nephew of the high priest Onias publicly reproaches his uncle with his conduct, he tells him that it is strange that, having been elevated by the people to the honor of the high-priesthood, he should have so little concern for the welfare of his country. It was the people who gave the pontificate to Judas Maccabeus. It was the people, again, who conferred the same dignity upon his brother Simon. In short, the great principle of the ancient Hebrews, in which we recognize the germ of the modern idea of the three powers, was that there were three crowns in Israel, viz. the crown of royalty, the crown of the priesthood, and the crown of the law. The first was bestowed upon David and his descendants; the second was given to Aaron and his sons; but the third, which was superior to both the others, was the inheritance of all Israel. The king, the priest, the judge, all the magistracies, were the creatures of the law; and the law was enacted by the people. The constitution, in its parts, was pervaded with the democratic spirit.
1 Leviticus 8:2-5.
2 Numbers 8:5-22.
3 Numbers 20:26.
4 1 Chronicles 29:22.
I pass now to the inquiry concerning the functions of the sacerdotal scribe. Morgan and other skeptical writers have wished to discover in the Levites a government of priests, intent solely on the enjoyment of sovereign power, and the exorbitant enrichment of their own order. But this idea is without foundation, and against truth, being wholly repugnant to the genius and scope of the institution.
The Levites were not a mere spirituality. Certainly they were ministers of religion, and charged with all the functions appertaining to the public worship of Jehovah. But so close was the relation between the law and the religion of the Hebrews, that all ecclesiastical persons were at the same time political persons. The entire tribe of Levi was set apart to God, the King of this commonwealth. Politically speaking, they were Jehovah’s ministers of state. Hence this tribe, as constituted by Moses, was not only a priesthood, appointed to the service of the altar, but also a true temporal magistracy, having important and vital civil relations. The burden of government was, in great measure, laid upon its shoulders. Besides performing the ceremonies of public worship, it was destined to preserve in its integrity, and to interpret in the seat of justice, the text of the fundamental laws, to teach these laws to all Israel, to inspire the people with a love for them, to oppose all its own authority and influence against any and every attempt to overthrow them, and to bind firmly together all the parts of the body politic.
Let the reader transport himself, in imagination, to the age when Moses lived; let him look at the circumstances in which he found himself; let him consider the difficulties to be overcome by him; and this institution will readily become its own interpreter.
In the midst of men ignorant, debased by slavery, and prone to superstition; in the midst of twelve distinct republics, governed by their own assemblies, senates, and magistrates, Moses felt deeply the necessity of some means both of elevating the people and of uniting in close and strong bonds all these different parts of the body politic—some means which would continually recall their regards to the same end and prevent the evils to which federative republics are so liable, where the individual interests of the several members are apt to overpower and bear down the general interest and welfare. To obtain this agency, Moses gave to the tribe of Levi the particular organization under which we find it. He distributed it throughout all the other twelve tribes, and assigned to it certain specific duties. The high priest, as president of the tribe and supreme interpreter of the text of the law, had his permanent residence at the capital of the nation. Thus the center of the particular system of conservatism and union corresponded with the center of the republic itself. From this center, the system spread itself out to the utmost extremities of the nation. Everywhere, its influence was exerted to inspire a love of law and order, to promote peace, to cement the bonds of social and political union, to insure a constantly progressive civilization—in a word, to place continually before the eyes of all their countrymen that law to which their own individual interest and happiness were indissolubly united.
Let us look at another difficulty which met the Jewish lawgiver in the framing of his constitution, and particularly in the organization of this magistracy. The individuals to compose it must be taken from among men, who, instead of watching over the preservation of the text of the law, would quite as likely hasten to change it according to their own caprices, and, instead of teaching it to others, would themselves, perhaps, tear and lacerate its provisions, beyond the possibility of recovery. To parry this danger, and at the same time to establish the institution upon natural guaranties, Moses had recourse to the power of private interest. By making the functions of the Levites hereditary, he was enabled to unite their essential interests to those of the other tribes, by a combination which would, as it were, compel them to fulfil the objects of their charge. He excluded them from all inheritance in the soil of Israel and made them wholly dependent, in their private interests, upon the rest of the people. Thus the Levite would be led to attach himself to the law, on which his own livelihood depended. He would seek the peace and welfare of the state, because they were the necessary conditions of his own. Self-interest would prompt him to respect the law, in order that others might respect it. Self-interest would lead him to publish it, that the precepts which consecrated his own right might not be forgotten. Self-interest, in fine, would cause him to watch over its entire execution, thus making of this tribe a true and powerful instrument of conservatism.
But while the tribe of Levi, as it came from the hand of Moses, constituted a true civil magistracy, it was far from being, as Morgan would have us believe, the tyrant of the state. No, the state had but one master under the constitution of Moses, and that was the law. To this the sons of Levi were as much bound to submit as the other citizens. “Lex major sacerdotio,”—the law is greater than the priesthood—was the principle of the Hebrew polity. How vast, how radical, herein, the difference between the priesthood of Egypt and the priesthood of Israel! The former made the laws themselves, changed them at will, and concealed the books in which they were written from all profane eyes. The latter were simply charged with preserving the laws intact, with keeping them constantly exposed to the eyes of the people, and with teaching them all to all exactly.
If Moses, as is alleged, had really intended to form a government of priests, clothed with absolute powers, would he, being of a sane mind, have pursued the course that he did? Would he have begun by striping the priests of the power conferred by territorial estates? Would he have continued by depriving them of the authority derived from the command of the military forces of the nation? Would he have ended by withholding from them the influence which illusion always enables he knowing to wield over the ignorant? Moses was no stranger to these things. He had seen them all, and he had seen their almost omnipotence in Egypt. These are capital points in the argument, and it is idle to attempt either to deny or evade their force. Moses took away from his priesthood the power derived from property, the power derived from military command, the power derived from illusions. What, then, did he leave it? Nothing but the power of the law, a law which they did not make, which they could not change, and which they were themselves bound to obey. Here, surely, is no basis of tyranny. Here is no foothold for despotism. Here is no germ or aliment of ecclesiastical oppression. The Hebrew priests could become despots and tyrants only by overthrowing the constitution which gave them being, and on which their whole livelihood depended.
One of the most important of the civil functions of the sacerdotal order, under the Hebrew constitution, was that of acting as judges. This required for its performance a large proportion of its members. No less than 6,000 of them, in the time of David, acted as judges and genealogists. “The declaration of Moses on this point,” says Michaelis, “is perfectly clear, Deuteronomy 21:5. ‘On the mouth of the priest shall every controversy and every stroke depend.’ It was, in an especial manner, the business of the priests, in all disputes of a more serious nature, to pronounce the final decision, and lay down the law, much in the same manner as it is of our judicial faculties and tribunals of appeal.” The words of Moses in his valedictory ode and benediction to Israel (Deuteronomy 33:9-10)—”He who said unto his father and to his mother, I have not seen him, neither did he acknowledge his brethren, nor knew his own children, and shall teach Jacob thy judgments, and Israel thy law”—must undoubtedly be meant of teaching these laws in the seat of judgment, inasmuch as the expressions employed refer to that impartiality which is so essential an attribute of a good judge.
The Levites were also the literati of all the faculties. They were by birth obliged to devote themselves to the sciences. They formed a sort of literary aristocracy, whose influence was intended to counteract the hasty measures likely to result from the strongly democratic character of the government. They acted as physicians, as teachers, as transcribers of books, as writers of contracts and other law papers, as chroniclers and historians, as astronomers, and as mathematicians employed in the service of the state.
The tribe of Levi, then, comprehended the learned of all names, the sages and professors of law and jurisprudence, of medicine and physiology, of the physical and mathematical sciences—in short, of all the so-called liberal arts and sciences, the possession and application of which constitute the civilization of a country. It was to be the chief instrument of a continuing and progressive mental, moral, and religious culture of the people. Its business was to produce, preserve, and perfect all the necessary sources and conditions of national civilization; to form and train up the people of the country to be obedient, free, useful citizens and patriots, living to the benefit of the state, and prepared to die for its defense.
Such, in a political point of view, were the noble functions, such the strongly conservative character of the sacerdotal order, under the Mosaic constitution. Yet the Hebrew priesthood was far from having obtained a range of powers equal in extent and magnitude to that embodied in the college of Roman pontiffs. Within the jurisdiction of this latter body were included, besides what belonged to religious affairs, adoptions, marriages, funerals, wills, oaths, consecrations, the care of the public annals, the arrangement of the calendar, and, in conference with the jurisconsults, the determination of the rules and forms of judicial procedure.
The revenues of the tribe of Levi next claim our attention.5 These were undoubtedly liberal, but they have been greatly overrated and overstated by men who would neither weigh the advantages they gave in return, nor take the trouble to inform themselves of the real nature, extent, and value of their services to the state. Morgan, in particular, has indulged in the wildest and most extravagant calculations, and, as Michaelis says, has called falsehood to his aid, with a view to exaggerate the amount of the already too great income of his supposed spirituality. What, then, was the provision which the law made for the priests and Levites, as near as we can ascertain it from the history? The tribe of Levi, at the time of the enumeration in the wilderness, contained 22,000 males, or, probably about 12,000 arrived at adult age. The other tribes numbered 600,000 capable of bearing arms. Consequently, the Levites constituted about a fiftieth part of the whole nation. Besides cities to dwell in, this tribe was to receive a tenth of all the produce of the land, both fruit and cattle. From this it would appear that the income of each individual Levite was equal to the average income of five other Israelites. But if we should conclude from hence that this was the actual proportion, we should deceive ourselves.
5 I make a general reference here to the passages which relate to this subject, viz. Numbers 18; Leviticus 2, 7, 27:30-33; Exodus 23:19; Deuteronomy 26:2-10; Exodus 13:13, 30:11 seqq.; Leviticus 23:19,20; Deuteronomy 18:4; Exodus 4:20.
A variety of circumstances tended to diminish the tithe accorded to Levites. 1. They were themselves obliged to hand over a tenth of it to the priests. 2. The whole land of Israel was not titheable; no woodlands, no timber, paid any tithe at all. 3. Even the cattle which constituted an important, if not indeed the most important part of the Israelitish husbandry, paid only a tithe of the young. When the tenth lamb, calf, kid, &c. were paid as tithe, the remainder of the flock and the herd paid nothing more, in wool, milk, butter, or flesh. Hence it is plain that the whole country of the Hebrews by no means paid a tenth of its produce to the Levites. The greater part of the soil, indeed, as all the woodlands and pasture grounds, either paid nothing at all, or so slight a percentage as to be really of little account. 4. The rendition of the tithes was left entirely to the conscience and the loyalty of each individual Israelite. No compulsory process could be instituted to compel a payment of them, neither did the priests or the magistrates have any superintendence or oversight of the matter. It will readily be imagined that the law must have been often but partially complied with, and sometimes wholly eluded. That this was actually the case appears from a command issued by king Hezekiah,6 and from the censures addressed by the prophets to the Hebrew people.7 5. If one or more of the tribes abandoned themselves to idolatry, the Levites lost the revenues accruing to them from such tribes. This undoubtedly often happened. The condition of the Levites could not have been one of much prosperity or abundance at the time of the idolatry of Micah, when one of them, belonging to the tribe of Judah, was obliged to go about the country, seeking for some employment, and was glad to find it, even in the service of an idolatrous Israelite, on condition of receiving his food, one suit of clothes, and ten shekels of silver (about five dollars) by the year. A memorable example of the loss of revenue to the sacerdotal tribe from religious apostasy, we have in the history of the reign of Jeroboam, when the Levites, driven out from their habitations to make room for idolatrous priests, took refuge in Judah and Jerusalem.8 6. Another considerable subtraction must be made from the income of the Levites, if an opinion of Joseph Scaliger and Salvador is well founded. I am not, indeed, convinced that their idea is correct; neither am I convinced that it is erroneous. I shall therefore state the opinion, which they have advanced, and leave the reader to examine and judge for himself. It is well known, that, besides the tithe for the support of the Levites, the Israelites were required to pay a second tithe, which, however, was not properly of the nature of a tax, since it was to be consumed by the people themselves, at the offering-feasts and other entertainments, in the place which the Lord should choose, to put his name there. To these, besides other friends, they were admonished to invite Levites, widows, orphans, strangers, poor people, and their own servants, thus giving them an occasional season of festivity. There is also, apparently, mention made of a third tithe for every third year, to be expended in similar festive entertainments at home.9 Three opinions have obtained respecting this last mentioned tithe. One is that it was really an additional tithe, distinct from the other two. For this notion, however, there does not appear to be any sufficient foundation. The second opinion, which, as it is the more common, seems, I confess, to be the more probable, is that what seem to be two tithes were in reality one and the same, and the law in Deuteronomy 14:28-29 is merely a direction, requiring that so much of the second tithe as should not have been consumed in offering-feasts at the place of the altar, should, during the third year, be expended in similar entertainments at home. The third opinion is that of Scaliger and Salvador, referred to above. It is that every third year the tithe of the Levites did not belong to them exclusively, but was to be shared by them with three other classes of persons, viz. widows, orphans, and strangers. Upon the whole, it is manifest that the income of a Levite must have fallen very far below that of five common Israelites.
But it may be suggested that very important elements have been omitted in making the above estimate. I reply that so far as the Levites proper are concerned, nothing has been excluded. The priests enjoyed other revenues, to which I am now going to turn my attention. In the first place, they had a tenth of the tithe of the Levites. Then there were the first fruits of the earth, the firstlings of cattle, the redemption money for the firstborn of men, portions of every sacrifice of which the blood came not into the holy of holies, all things devoted, all matters of vow, the skins of the burnt offerings, and some other minor sources of income.10 I do not mention the half-shekel poll tax, ordered at the numbering of the Israelites in the wilderness, because I am convinced that was paid but once prior to the captivity, and that the Jews under the second temple, in making it an annual tribute, went beyond the requisition of the law of Moses.
6 2 Chronicles 31:4.
7 Jeremiah 8:10, Malachi 3:8.
8 2 Chronicles 11:13-14.
9 Deuteronomy 14:28-29, 26:12.
10 Numbers 28:5-32, Leviticus passim.
The items of income, enumerated above, undoubtedly formed a very considerable sum total, which came into the hands of the priests. The question is, did it all belong to them as their private property, which they were at liberty to expend in whatever way they pleased? The thing is impossible, and those who think so, err egregiously. They confound two things, which are distinct in themselves and ought to be carefully distinguished—the minister and the ministry; and they imagine analogies between the Hebrews and other nations, which have no existence except in their own fancy. The tabernacle first, and the temple afterwards, were not, like our churches, wholly religious in their design and use. On the contrary, they had a character and a purpose eminently political. Public worship was certainly performed there. But there also the states-general held their sessions, and there the national treasure was kept. The Israelite who consecrated anything to Jehovah must not be supposed to have devoted it to the priest in person, but simply to have made use of his ministry to convey it into the sacred treasury, which was no other than the national treasury. Not to the priests themselves, therefore, but to Jehovah belonged whatever came into their hands. A liberal sum was, doubtless, allowed for the support of their families, but, after this had been taken out, the rest became a part of the public treasure.
This is what I had to say on the constitution, the functions, and the revenues of the sacerdotal tribe among the Hebrews. Three considerations the Levites rendered to the rest of the Israelites for whatever they received from them: 1. The tribe of Levi gave up to the other tribes their whole share of the promised land, except so much as was sufficient to afford them a place of habitation. 2. They parted with the right of an independent government, such as the other tribes enjoyed, and completely sunk their political existence. 3. They gave up themselves to the national service, as ministers of religion, ministers of state, magistrates, teachers of the people, and literati of all the faculties, as explained in a former part of this chapter—services the most laborious, responsible, and useful to the commonwealth. For all this, they received a simple annuity, liberal it may be, but depending solely upon the national faith for its payment, while they divested themselves of all power of re-entry in case of non-payment. Let the benefits surrendered and the services performed be weighed in just balances, and the rent-roll of the tribe of Levi will appear rather below than above the demands of reason and justice.
The Hebrew Prophets
The right understanding of the prophetical office among the Hebrews will throw much light on the Mosaic constitution, and strikingly evince the popular character of the Israelitish government. On this point, far be it from me to disturb the faith which we have inherited from our fathers, or to unsettle, in any mind, the received opinion concerning the true divine inspiration of the Hebrew prophets. I believe, with implicit and unquestioning faith, the testimony of Paul, that “all scripture is given by inspiration of God,”1 and the testimony of Peter that “holy men of God spake as they were moved by the Holy Ghost.”2 Nevertheless, to foretell future events, and to impart religious truth and spiritual lessons, were not the whole duty and office of a prophet under the constitution of Moses.
Doubtless, the most important functions of the Hebrew prophets were, in the strict sense, religious in their character. The office of the prophets was much more like that of our modern clergymen than was office of the priests, who had, in fact, but few points of resemblance to the ministry instituted by Christ.3 The prophets were the preachers of the ancient church. According to Augustine, they were the philosophers, divines, instructors, and guides of the Hebrews in piety and virtue. These holy men were the bulwarks of religion against the impiety of princes, the wickedness of individuals, and every kind of immorality. But by far the most important part of their commission was to foretell the coming and kingdom of the Messiah, with their attendant circumstances, and, by slow degrees, yet with constantly increasing clearness, to acquaint their countrymen with the approaching change of their economy, and with the nature of the new, more spiritual, and universal dispensation, which was to succeed it.
1 2 Timothy 3:16.
2 2 Peter 1:21.
3 A single fact is decisive of this, viz. their living in cities by themselves. How could Christian pastors discharge their appropriate functions, how could they fulfill the command to watch for souls, if they dwelt in isolated towns, twenty, thirty, or fifty miles apart, instead of living as now among their respective flocks?
Still, as hinted above, the duties of the prophets were not wholly religious. Their relation to the civil state was not, indeed, fixed by any constitutional provision or legal enactment. They did not form a component part of the political system. They were not a branch of the machinery of government. Yet their authority and influence in affairs of state was by no means inconsiderable. They were, so to speak, the privileged state-moralists, guardians, and popular orators of the republic. Coleridge speaks of them as uniting the functions and threefold character of the Roman censors, the tribunes of the people, and the sacred college of augurs. The historian Schlosser says, “We hear, in the prophets, the voice of true patriots, who, standing upon a provision of the law of Moses, spake the truth to the people, to the priests, and to the kings.” Horne speaks of them as possessing great authority in the Israelitish state, and as highly esteemed by the pious sovereigns, who undertook no important affairs without consulting them. Alexander represents their influence in the government as very powerful, not indeed by official, formal action, but as special divine messengers, whose authority could not be disputed or resisted by any magistrate, without abjuring the fundamental principles of the theocracy. Milton compares them to the orators of the Greek democracies. The lines which this sage and learned poet puts into the mouth of our Savior, both from their truth and appositeness, deserve to be cited here.
“Their orators, thou then extoll’st, as those The top of eloquence—statest, indeed, And lovers of their country, as may seem; But herein to our prophets far beneath, As men divinely taught, and better teaching The solid rules of civil government, In their majestic, unaffected style, Than all the oratory of Greece and Rome. In them is Plaines taught and easiest learnt, What makes a nation happy, and keeps it so, What ruins kingdoms and lays cities flat.”
Nobly said, and truthfully too! The prophetical writings abound with the finest lessons of political wisdom. I know of no compositions more worthy of the profound study of statesmen and legislators than the writings of the Hebrew prophets. In seven verses of his forty-seventh chapter, beginning at the seventh verse, the prophet Isaiah, as Coleridge has observed, revealed the true philosophy of the French Revolution of 1789, more than two thousand years before it became a sad, irrevocable truth of history. A collection of political maxims, forming an excellent manual for statesmen, might be culled from the books of e Hebrew prophets—a collection which would surprise even diligent students of the scriptures by the number, the variety, the purity, and the deep and comprehensive wisdom of its counsels.
But it is time to look at the institution of the prophetical office, as it is related in the Hebrew history. The record is contained in Deuteronomy 18:9-22. I cite the passage in a somewhat abbreviated form, retaining, however, all the material parts of it. “When thou comest into the land which Jehovah, thy God, giveth thee, thou shalt not learn to do after the abominations of those nations. There shall not be found among you any … that useth divination, or an observer of times, or an enchanter, or a witch, or a charmer, or a consulter with familiar spirit, or a wizard, or a necromancer. … Jehovah, thy God, will raise unto thee a prophet from the midst of thee, of thy brethren, like unto me; unto him ye shall hearken. … But the prophet, which shall presume to speak a word in my name, which I have not commanded him to speak, or that shall speak in the name of other gods, even that prophet shall die. … When a prophet speaketh in the name Jehovah, if the thing follow not, nor come to pass, that is the thing which Jehovah hath not spoken, but the prophet hath spoken it presumptuously: thou shalt not be afraid of him.”
On this passage I offer the following observations.
1. At the time when this law was given, it was the custom of mankind to pry into future events. No propensity was stronger or more general than this, and religion was universally regarded as the means gratifying this curiosity. Indeed, it was looked upon as a chief service, which religion owed to her votaries, to give them information concerning the future. The nations by whom the Hebrews were surrounded, had their various ways of peering into futurity, some of which are enumerated in this law. If no means had been provided whereby the Israelites could foreknow things to come, it would have been very difficult, considering the prying curiosity of those early ages, to keep them from despising their own religion and resorting to the divinations of their idolatrous neighbors. All this is noticed by Origen, as a ground of necessity for the establishment of the prophetical office in the Hebrew commonwealth. To keep the Israelites from being carried away by the torrent of superstition which overflowed and corrupted the nations, true religion was provided with an institution which should really furnish that knowledge which false religion pretended to give. A constant succession of the prophets would be a powerful means of weaning God’s people from superstitious practices, and of keeping them from consulting diviners to discover what would befall them. And this is precisely what God promises in the passage under consideration.
2. This interpretation, which is the obvious and natural one, confutes that which restricts the words to a prophecy respecting the Messiah. Some interpreters do so restrict their import because they are expressly applied to our Savior by Peter.4 Certainly the passage has reference to Christ, since the apostle affirms it. But who is ignorant of the fulness of meaning, which often inheres in the words of holy scripture? Bishop Middleton has well expressed the principle, which is applicable here. He observes that there are many passages in the Old Testament which are capable of a twofold application, being directly applicable to circumstances then past, or present, or soon to be accomplished, and indirectly to others which divine providence was about to develop under a future dispensation. Bloomfield, while pointing out the peculiar resemblances between Moses and Christ, admits that, after all, this reference may not have been directly in view, and accordingly, that this may be of the number of those passages to which Bishop Middleton refers as being capable of a twofold application. Dr. J. A. Alexander says that one of the most plausible interpretations of this passage is that it contains the promise of a constant succession of inspired men, of which succession Christ himself was to be the greatest. The word plausible here is rather ambiguous, but it is evident that the learned professor inclines to the belief that the interpretation is just as well as plausible. This is the decided opinion of Michaelis, in which I fully concur. Beyond a doubt, there is a double reference in the passage, viz. to the Messiah, and to the whole line of divinely inspired prophets under the Hebrew theocracy. One of these references did not quit the purpose of Peter, while the other did. He takes that which is in point, without alluding to that which is not. But this use of the one reference is not, upon any just principles of interpretation, exclusive of the other. If a single prophet only is intended, and that one the Lord Jesus Christ, the context seems to be without meaning, and the whole passage out of joint. The words, then, are to be regarded as a record of the institution of a permanent order of men in the Israelitish commonwealth, of whom Jesus Christ, as he would resemble Moses in being the minister of a new dispensation and in his intimate communication with God, would at the same time be the greatest and the most illustrious.
4 Acts 3:22.
3. Two tests only of the truth or falsity of the claim to prophetical inspiration are here recognized, viz. first, whether the prophet spake in the name of Jehovah or of false gods; and, secondly, whether or not a future event, foretold by him, happened according to his word. Miracles could not be demanded of him in proof of a divine commission to speak in the name of Jehovah. The power of working wonders did not inhere in his official designation. As long, therefore, as a pretending prophet was not convicted of being a lying prophet, he was to be tolerated, and was to go unpunished, although he should have threatened calamity or even destruction to the state. Whoever prophesied in the name of the true God must be borne with until an unfulfilled prediction proved him to be an impostor. The trial of Jeremiah, as related in the twenty-sixth chapter of his prophecies, casts a strong light upon this subject. He had publicly foretold the destruction of Jerusalem. For this he was seized and arraigned before the princes, or senate, as worthy of death. He offered no other defense than that the Lord had sent him to speak as he had, and he was willing to die in attestation of the truth of what he affirmed; only he added, by way of warning, that, if they put him to death, they would surely bring innocent blood upon themselves. He had done nothing, which, by the law of Moses, merited death, or even censure. He had predicted evil to the state, but that was not a crime, unless he had spoken it presumptuously. He might, indeed, be a false prophet, in which case he would be worthy of death, but as yet there was no proof of it. If it was not a crime to be a prophet, it was not a crime to predict calamity, for nations do not always experience good fortune. It was his duty to foretell the truth, just as it had been revealed to him, whether it was agreeable or disagreeable. It is remarkable that there were prophets among his accusers; how many is not stated, but apparently not a few. The court, after hearing the case, rendered a judgment of acquittal, on the ground both of law and precedent. They aver, in their judgment, that Jeremiah had spoken in the name of Jehovah, as the law required, and that the fact of his foretelling evil cannot be imputed as a crime, since other prophets had done the same without rebuke, of which they cite a memorable instance. And so the case was dismissed, and the accused set at liberty. The history of the procedure is very interesting, and the reader is requested to peruse it for himself.
4. So far as the right of interdiction by man was concerned, this law gave a very broad liberty to the exercise of the prophetical office. Undoubtedly there could be no right, in the sight of God, to assume this office, without a true divine commission and a supernatural divine inspiration. But, so far as his fellow citizens were concerned, every man, whatever his birth, tribe, calling, or fortune might be, could say, “I am a prophet.” He could proclaim to the people the consequences of their iniquities, and freely censure the conduct of the magistrates, of the priests, of the senators, of the kings, of all. He could speak, preach, exhort, reprove, and fulminate; and no man had the right to close his mouth. On the contrary, both citizens and rulers were bound to listen to him, when his voice was raised against corruptions and abuses, and in favor of the just and the right. There is no need to cite examples of the boldness and energy with which the prophets reproved the sins of all, from the highest to the lowest. Nathan dared to say to David, “Thou art the man.”5 Isaiah addressed the rulers as rebellious, as companions of thieves, as loving bribes, and as following after rewards.6 Ezekiel speaks of the princes as resembling wolves ravening for their prey, in their eagerness to shed blood and get dishonest gain.7 Zephaniah represents the princes of Israel as roaring lions, her judges as ravening wolves, her prophets as treacherous persons, and her priests as doing violence to the law.8 Malachi charges upon the whole nation the crime of robbing God.9
5 2 Samuel 12:7.
6 Isaiah 1:23.
7 Ezekiel 22:27.
8 Zephaniah 3:3-4.
9 Malachi 3:8.
5. This liberty, however, was restrained by a severe penalty to be inflicted upon the false prophet. The prophet who presumed to speak without a commission from God was to be punished with death. The falsity of his claim to the prophetic inspiration could be evinced by proving, either that he had prophesied in the name of strange gods, or that he had uttered a prediction which was falsified by the event. The reader who would see the justice of so severe a penalty fully vindicated is referred to articles 252 and 253 of Michaelis’Commentaries on the Laws of Moses. The assumption of the prophetic office without authority was a species of treason in the Israelitish state; and besides this, mischiefs of a fearful magnitude flowed both from the public predictions of false prophets, and from the secret practice of superstitious art, such as fortune telling, astrology, and divinations of all sorts.
6. The passage under consideration affords solid ground for belief in the supernatural inspiration of the true prophets of Jehovah. What legislator, not bereft of the last spark of justice and humanity, would punish with death a mere error in judgment? Yet this charge is in effect brought against Moses by those who represent the Hebrew prophets as nothing more than sagacious men, whose natural perspicacity enabled them to foresee and predict future events, men endowed, in a superior degree, with the faculties of reason, imagination, and genius. Could there be a clearer proof, if not that the prophets were supernaturally inspired, at least that Moses and his countrymen thought so? Unless, indeed, we are willing to suppose, that the lawgiver himself rather deserved the punishment which he threatened against the violators of his law.
Upon the whole, there can be no doubt that the prophetical office was designed to be a great and influential element in the Hebrew government. The seventy elders, chosen as assistants to Moses in the valley of Paran, were divinely inspired men, and spake to the people under the influence of the Holy Spirit. From the very foundation of the state, teachers supernaturally enlightened were appointed to instruct the people in religion, virtue, and law; and, in the darkest periods of the Hebrew history, God left not himself without inspired witnesses to the truth. At length there appeared what have been called schools of the prophets, that is, companies of young men, taught and disciplined under the direction of Samuel and other aged prophets who succeeded him. Not that the art of prophecy became a branch of Hebrew education. Three principal objects, we may reasonably conjecture, the youths who frequented these schools had in view—the improvement of their minds, growth in piety, and knowledge of the Mosaic law. From among the persons thus disciplined and instructed, the prophets were ordinarily, though not uniformly, selected by God, who communicated to them, in addition to the qualifications for the prophetical office thus acquired, the gift of inspiration. It was of the utmost importance that the prophets should have an ample and accurate acquaintance with the laws of Moses, and it was, on many accounts, better that they should acquire this by their own study than by immediate inspiration.
It would naturally be expected that, under a law like that which we have been examining, the prophets, true and pretended, would form a numerous body in the state. And such was undoubtedly the case. Every city had its prophets, who, says Calmet, in the public assemblies on the Sabbath, at the new moons, and in the solemn convocations, preached to the people, and reproved the various disorders and abuses which appeared in the nation. Ezekiel has indicated, in a manner extremely elegant and poetical, the duties of a prophet under the Mosaic economy.10 The prophets served as a counterpoise to the influence of the priests, the magistrates, and the senate itself, which rarely omitted, on important occasions, to call for the advice of one or more of the most renowned of these inspired men.
Among such a crowd of popular preachers and orators, it will readily be imagined that multitudes were mere pretenders, and that there was but a feeble minority of divinely commissioned prophets. The mass spake without divine light and guidance. Profaning the name of Jehovah, and sacrificing the welfare of the state to their private interest, they ignominiously sold both their consciences and their discourses. Every page of the prophetical writings proves this. “Thy prophets,” cries Jeremiah, “have seen vain and foolish things for thee; and they have not discovered thine iniquity, to turn away thy captivity.” In the same strain, Ezekiel inveighs against the prophets who daubed with untempered mortar, and divined lies; and he speaks of a conspiracy of prophets who ravened the prey like a roaring lion and filled their lands with treasure and precious things. But what if some abuses grew out of the prophetical institution? It is better, as Salvador says, to give free course to torrents of vain words, than to arrest a single one about to be uttered by a true messenger from heaven.
10 Ezekiel 33:2 seqq.
In the foregoing pages, I have offered an analysis of the Hebrew constitution, such as I conceive it to have been, when it came from the hand of the inspired Hebrew lawgiver. The constitution contained a provision that, when the Israelites came into the promised land, it should be submitted to the people, and formally accepted by them all. They were to be assembled in an amphitheater formed by two mountains—Ebal, a bleak, frowning rock, towering on one side, and Gerizim, springing up covered with verdure and beauty on the other. The one height was a prophetic monument of the prosperity and loveliness which would follow the observance of these institutions, the other of the barrenness and desolation which a disregard of the constitution would inevitably bring upon the nation. There the tribes, when the proper time came, were ranged in order, and listened to its provisions; and there they signified their acceptance of it by an act of free choice, which was binding on them and their children forever.
The Hebrew constitution, in its substance and its forms, in its letter and its spirit, was eminently republican. The power of the people was great and controlling. This point is clear, even on a superficial examination of the subject. But not only so, it had also important and striking analogies with our own constitution, and with that other free constitution, from which ours, in its most essential features, was taken—a constitution which Montesquieu erroneously represents as drawn from the woods of Germany, but which Salvador, and truly without doubt, regards as derived from the Hebrew fountains. Whoever attentively considers the Hebrew and British constitutions, and still more the Hebrew and American constitutions, cannot but be impressed with the resemblance between them. Their fundamental principles are identical, and many of the details of organization are the same or similar.
The rights of every person in the Hebrew state, from the head of the nation to the humblest stranger, were accurately defined and carefully guarded. Even Ahab, an unprincipled tyrant, dared not invade the field of a vinedresser, though the want of it was so keenly felt as to make him refuse his ordinary food; and his still more tyrannical and principled queen, Jezebel, knew no method of compassing the same end, but through the perverted forms of law and justice.1 Every man was, in a political sense, on an equality with the most exalted of the nation. The rulers were raised to the dignities which they enjoyed by the free suffrages of their fellow citizens. The laws, though proposed by God, were approved and enacted by the people, through their representatives, in the states-general of Israel. The Israelites exercised the right of meeting in primary assemblies, of discussing questions of public policy, and of petitioning their rulers for the redress of grievances. Every Hebrew citizen was eligible to the highest civil dignities, even to that of the royal purple. The whole nation constituted a republic of freemen, equal originally even in property, equal in political dignity and privilege, equal in their social standing, and equally entitled to the care and protection of the government.
1 1 Kings 21.
The Hebrew polity was essentially a system of self-government. It is the government of individual independence, municipal independence, and state independence—subject only to so much of central control as was necessary to constitute a true nationality and to provide the general defense and welfare. Centralization was eminently foreign to its spirit. The local governments loom out under the Mosaic institution; the central government is proportionately overshadowed. Herein the Hebrew constitution remarkably resembles our own, and as remarkably differs from other ancient polities. All the ancient Asiatic governments, and most of the European, were great centralizers. With them, almost everything originated and terminated in a center. The Greek democracies can scarcely be regarded as an exception to this rule; the Roman commonwealth certainly was not.
Public opinion was a powerful element in the Hebrew government. This gave shape and force both to the national and provincial administrations. Let anyone read the Hebrew history with this in his mind, and he will see proofs of it in every page. If called upon for a single decisive proof of the strength of the popular will under this constitution, I would select the change in the government from the republican to the regal form. Samuel was against this change. The oracle was against it.2 The council of Moses was against it. The opinion and practice of a long line of illustrious chiefs were against it. It is a reasonable presumption that a strong party of the wisest spirits of the state was against it. Yet the change was made. How and why? The people willed it; the people decreed it; and so it was. What more pregnant argument could there be of the authority and energy with which the collective will of the nation uttered and enforced its resolves? The quiet submission of the whole nation to the will of the majority, after the intense excitement of the struggle through which it must have passed, reminds me more strongly than anything else in history, of a presidential election among ourselves, which is ever accompanied with a like convulsion of the public mind, and a like subsequent acquiescence and repose of the defeated party.
2 The oracle did, indeed, give its assent, but reluctantly.
It is an admitted fact that the tendency of all the modern improvements in government is to equalize the conditions of men, and so to bring about that general social intercourse by which many of the most important principles and habits are formed and fixed, and the masses of society are elevated, humanized, and refined. To secure these great ends, many bloody wars have been waged, and countless treasures expended. But all these struggles and expenditures have not yet, in the particulars just indicated, brought modern society to that point where Moses fixed his people, in an age when even the Greeks and the Romans were still savages and barbarians. Privileged classes, enjoying the benefit of milder laws and special exemptions, were unknown to the Mosaic constitution. Neither patent of nobility nor benefit of clergy found any place among its provisions. And civil liberty—according to the notion of it presented in the excellent definitions of Blackstone, Paley, and other approved writers on public law, that it is no other than natural liberty, so far restrained by human laws (and no farther), as is necessary and expedient for the general advantage of the public, that it is the not being restrained by any law but what conduces in a greater degree to the public welfare, and that it consists in a freedom from all restraints except such as established law imposes for the good of the community—liberty, I say, thus regulated by law, with the superadded idea that the restraining laws should be equal to all, was as fully developed and secured by the Hebrew constitution as by any other known system of government in the world. The great natural rights of personal security, in respect to life, limb, health, and reputation; of personal liberty, in respect to locomotion, residence, education, and the choice of occupation; and of private property, in the free use, enjoyment, and disposal of all acquisitions, without any control or diminution, save by the laws of the land; were recognized and guarded, in the amplest manner, by the laws and constitution of Moses. And these absolute and paramount rights were protected, and their inviolability maintained, by other subordinate rights—the right of representation in the congregation of Israel, the right of a speedy and impartial administration of justice through the courts, and the right of petitioning the public authorities for the redress of wrongs where other means of establishing the right were inadequate to the purpose. Such were the liberties of a Hebrew citizen, such the barriers by which they were defended, such the inestimable system of public polity and law which spread its ample and beneficent protection over the humblest and meanest, as well as the most exalted and honored member of the commonwealth of Israel.
The two greatest interests of a state, and yet the two interests most difficult to be harmonized—permanence and progress—were as wisely provided for and as effectually secured by the Mosaic system of government as by any other civil constitution in the world—the former, by regulations respecting the distribution and tenure of landed property; the latter, by the three annual assemblages of the nation, where there was kept up a continual circulation of ideas between all parts the country; and both, by the institution of the Levitical order, which as at once conservative and progressive—conservative, by its duty to teach, interpret, and maintain the laws; progressive, by its obligation to devote itself to the cultivation of science and letters.
Is it not a fact well worthy to arrest attention, that, in the midst of barbarism and darkness, hearing no sounds but those of violence, and seeing no soil which was not drenched with blood, a legislator should have founded a government on principles of peace, justice, equality, humanity, liberty, and social order, carried out as far as in the freest governments now existing among men? This would be an inexplicable mystery on any other theory than that of a supernatural revelation to the lawgiver. The reality of the divine legation of Moses might be rested on this argument alone. And whoever holds to the divinity of his mission, and therefore necessarily believes that a constitutional and representative democracy is a form of government stamped with the seal of the divine approbation, while the monarchy was a concession to the folly of the people, will thence derive a new and forcible argument to cherish and defend the precious charter of our own liberties, since its type and model came originally from the depths of the divine wisdom and goodness.
I have sometimes imagined all the legislators of America gathered into one vast assemblage, and the Jewish lawgiver appearing suddenly in their midst. “Gentlemen,” he might say to them, “at length my word is fulfilled. What you boast of doing now, I accomplished, as far as in me lay, in a distant age. I broke the doors of the house of bondage, and proclaimed the principle of universal equality among men. I substituted for castes and privileged classes, a nation of freemen, and for arbitrary and capricious impositions, the reign of law, equal and universal. I preferred peace to war, general competence and happiness to the false glory of arms, substantial blessings to airy nothings. My highest efforts were constantly directed to procure for all the citizens the greatest equality practicable, both of the labors and enjoyments of life; for the whole commonwealth of Israel, lands well cultivated, good habitations, rich herds, and a population healthy, numerous, enlightened, pious, and contented. It is false, what ignorance and irreligion have charged against me, that I held in abhorrence, after the example of Egypt, foreign nations. No other legislator in the world has ever shown to the stranger an equal justice, an equal tenderness, with myself. Nor is this all. I earnestly labored to secure a universal intellectual equality. Far from being jealous of the superiority which God and the discipline of my faculties had given me, I nourished the animating hope that all the lights which I possessed would one day become the common property of all, even the humblest of my fellow creatures. Laws, not men, were the rulers of my republic; consent, not force, the basis of my government. Conquests and servitude, magnificent palaces and servitude—behold a brief but true picture of the governments by which I was surrounded. It is a libel upon my name and memory to charge me with having framed my institutions upon the model of those stupendous systems of fraud and tyranny. By the wisdom of my counsels and the energy of my policy, I overthrew, at a blow, the whole degrading apparatus of political jugglery and priestly despotism. I reduced the speculative ideas of my own and the preceding ages to a single sublime principle of simplicity. I recognized the happiness and well-being of the people as the one supreme law of political philosophy. By the institutions founded upon this principle, I impressed a new character upon my age and species; I gave a new impulse to man, both in his individual and social energies: I fixed upon my labors the indestructible seal of a divine wisdom and benefice. Forward, then, gentlemen, without fear or faltering, in the doctrine of Jehovah—in those great principles of free and equal government, which, taught by the Divine Spirit, I first promulgated to the world; and to which, after so many ages of tyranny and misgovernment, you have at length returned. Cling to these principles, legislators of a world that had no being when I founded my republic. Give them a broader development, a higher activity; and the civilization, the prosperity, the happiness flowing from them, shall outstrip your fond hopes, and more than realize the brightest vision of bard or prophet.”
Such is the spirit that speaks to us, of this distant age and clime, in the Mosaic constitution. It is a spirit of faith, hope, charity. There are some who entertain apprehensions concerning the issue of our political experiment and who doubt the capacity of the people for self-government. For myself, I have no such fear. My faith in our institutions has been strengthened by my study of the Hebrew constitution. I have seen with surprise and delight that the essential principles of our constitution are identical with those of a political system which emanated from a superhuman wisdom and was established by the authority of the supreme ruler of the world. I accept this knowledge as a pledge, that these principles are destined, in the good providence of God, to a universal triumph. Men are capable of governing themselves; such is the decision of the infinite intelligence. Tyranny will everywhere come an end; humanity will recover its rights; and the entire race of mankind will exult in the enjoyment of freedom and happiness. Futurity is big with events of momentous import—events, I verily believe, compared with which the grandest and the sublimest, hitherto inscribed upon the rolls of fame, are but as insignificant trifles. But this better future, for which our nature sighs, and to which it is evidently tending, “is not a tree transplanted from paradise, with all its branches in full fruitage. It was not sowed in sunshine. It is not in vernal breezes and gentle rains that its roots are fixed, and its growth and strength insured. With blood was it planted. It is rocked in tempests. Deep scars are on its trunk, and the path of the lightning may traced among its branches.” But, through storm and darkness, amid blood and carnage, the political redemption of our race holds on its course. Liberty and law, Christianity and science, religion and learning, are yet to enjoy a universal triumph, to sway a universal scepter. The day is to come when human nature, relieved from the pressure imposed upon it by the abuses of ancient dynasties, shall start afresh, with unimpeded and elastic tread, on its destined race of improvement and perfectibility. Thanks be to God for that rainbow of promise, with which the civil polity of Moses has spanned the political heavens!