CHAPTER 1 – Chief Design, and Principal Intention of the Civil Government of the Hebrews
To lay down a true plan of the Hebrew government, it will be requisite previously to consider, what particular views the Lawgiver might have in it. If any particular ends were designed to promote which the plan of the government itself was to be adjusted, those designs will help to explain many parts and constitutions of the government, as it will show the great wisdom of the legislature, which has made the plan in its several parts most fit and proper to serve and secure those ends.
The Hebrew Government appears not only designed to serve the common and general ends of all good governments, to protect the property, liberty, safety, and peace of several members of the community, in which the true happiness and prosperity of national societies will always consist, but moreover to be an holy people to Jehovah, and a kingdom of priests, (Exod 19:6): for thus Moses is directed to tell the children of Israel, Ye have seen what I did unto the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles wings, and brought you unto myself. Now therefore, if ye will hear my voice indeed, and keep my Covenant, then ye shall be a peculiar treasure unto me above all people; for all the earth is mine, and ye shall be unto me a kingdom of priests and an holy nation, (Exod 19:3,4,5,6). We learn what this Covenant was in a further account of it: Ye stand this day all of you before the LORD your God, your Captains of your Tribes, your Elders, and your Officers, and all the men of Israel; that you should enter into covenant with the LORD thy God, and into his oath, which the LORD thy God maketh with thee this day; that he may establish thee today for a people unto himself, and that he may be unto thee a God, as he hath said unto thee, and as he hath sworn unto thy fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob: For ye know, adds Moses, how we have dwelt in the land of Egypt, and how we came through the nations which ye passed by; and ye have seen their abominations and their idols, wood and stone, silver and gold, which were among them, lest there should be among you, man, or woman, or family, or tribe, whose heart turneth away this day from the LORD our God to go and serve the gods of these nations, Deut 29:10,12,13,16,17,18.
One principal design of the original contract of the Hebrew Government was to prevent idolatry. Without any enquiry into the critical meaning of these expressions severally, everyone may easily see this general intention of them; that the Covenant of Jehovah with the Hebrew people, and their oath by which they bound their allegiance to Jehovah their God and King, was, that they should receive and obey the laws which he should appoint as their supreme Governor, with a particular engagement to keep themselves from the idolatry of the nations round about them, whether the idolatry they had seen while they dwelt in the land of Egypt, or had observed in the nations by which they passed into the promised land. In keeping this allegiance to Jehovah, as their immediate and supreme Lord, they were to expect the blessings of God’s immediate and particular protection in the security of their liberty, peace, and prosperity, against all attempts of their idolatrous neighbors; but if they should break their allegiance to Jehovah, or forsake the Covenant of Jehovah, by going and serving other Gods, and worshipping them, then they should forfeit these blessings of God’s protection, and the anger of Jehovah should be kindled against the land, to bring upon it all the curses that are written in this Book, Deut 29:25-27.
The true sense then of this solemn transaction, between God and the Hebrew nation, which may be called the original contract of the Hebrew Government, is to this purpose: if the Hebrews would voluntarily consent to receive Jehovah their Lord and King, to keep his covenant and laws, to honor and worship him as the one true God, in opposition to all idolatry. Then, though God as Sovereign of the world rules over all the nations of the earth, and all nations are under the general care of his providence, he would govern the Hebrew nation by peculiar laws of his particular appointment, and bless it with a more immediate and particular protection. He would secure to them the invaluable privileges of the true religion, together with liberty, peace, and prosperity, as a favored people above all other nations. It is for very wise reasons you may observe, that temporal blessings and evils are made so much use of in this Constitution, for these were the common and prevailing inticements to idolatry; but by thus taking them into the Hebrew Constitution, as rewards to obedience and punishments of disobedience, they became motives to true religion, instead of encouragements to idolatry.
The idolatrous nation worshipped subordinate beings, whom they own subject to the supreme; but they believed they had the immediate direction of the blessings of life, that they gave health, long life, fruitful seasons, plenty and prosperity. This we are told, by Maimonides, was a doctrine taught by the Sabians in their books, as well as in their instructions to the people.
One of the oldest of the prophets has so fully expressed this reason of the Hebrew Constitution, that we need no further evidence of it. For their mother hath played the harlot, she that conceived them hath done shamefully; for she said, I will go after my lovers, that give me my bread and my water, my wool, and my flax, mine oil, and my drink…For she did not know that I gave her corn, and wine, and oil and multiplied her silver and gold, which they prepared for Baal. Therefore will I return, and take away my corn in the time thereof, and my wine in the season thereof; and will recover my wool and my flax, given to cover her nakedness, Hos 2:5,8,9.
The prophet Jeremiah gives the same reason why the Jews fell into the idolatrous practice of burning incense to the Queen of Heaven. But we will certainly do whatsoever thing goeth forth out of our own mouth, to burn incense unto the Queen of Heaven, and to pour out drink offerings unto her, as we have done; we, and our fathers, our kings, and our princes, in the cities of Judah, and in the streets of Jerusalem: for then had we plenty of victuals, and were well, and saw no evil. But since we left off to burn incense to the Queen of Heaven, and to pour out drink-offerings unto her, we have wanted all things, and have been consumed by the sword and by the famine, Jer 44:17,18.
This common doctrine of idolatry, that several blessings of life came from some demon or idol, to whom the authority and power of bestowing temporal blessings were committed, was of so general and powerful influence, that it became the wisdom of an institution designed to preserve the faith and worship of the one true God, against idolatry, to assert, that God was the Author of every blessing of life, that he had not parted with the administration of providence, or given over the disposal of those blessings to any subordinate beings whatsoever; so that health, long life, plenty of all kinds of prosperity, were to be sought for from him, as his gift, and only from his blessing and protection.
Whoever has just notions of the great evils of idolatry to the dishonor of the Supreme Sovereign and Governor of the world, to the corruption of the essential principles of true religion and virtuous practice, as idolatry directed so many barbarous, immoral and inhuman rites, and encouraged such enormous acts of vice, as acts of religion, of which some or other of the idols they worshipped were examples, and were esteemed to patronize them. It will appear to them a design worthy the goodness, as well as the wisdom of God, to put some stop to such a dangerous evil. Especially when it was so general and prevailing, that all flesh had corrupted its way, and all nations of the earth were running eagerly into it. Even the Egyptians, a people so famed for wisdom and good understanding, were as senseless and as corrupt in their idolatry, as any of their neighbors. The Hebrews, themselves, whatever former care had been taken to preserve the knowledge of the true God and true religion in the family of Abraham, were so addicted to this common corruption of religion, and were so ready to fall into it, that there seemed no other way left to put any stop to the progress of idolatry anywhere, or to preserve the true religion in any people, but by some constitution formed on this plan, and which might effectually carry on this design in the several parts of it. And this, the goodness and wisdom of God made a principal design in the Constitution of the Jewish Government.
Another design of the Hebrew Government was to keep the Hebrews from intercourse with idolators.
More effectually to answer this chief design, there was another subordinate intention in the Constitution of this government. It was of no small consequence, to keep this nation separate from other nations, and from such intercourse with idolators as might end in an apostacy from their own religion to the idolatry of their neighbors. There is then a law in general given by Moses, in which he is directed to say in God’s name to the children of Israel, I am the LORD your God. After the doings of the land of Egypt, wherein ye dwelt, shall ye not do: and after the doings of the land of Canaan, whither I bring you, shall ye not do: neither shall ye walk in their ordinances. Ye shall do my judgments, and keep my ordinances, to walk therein: I am the LORD, Lev 18:2-4.
Further, Moses having recited the many and great abominations committed by the Canaanites, on the loss of the right knowledge of the one true God and the true religion. Through the corruption of idolatrous doctrines and practices, it is added, defile not ye yourselves in any of these things: for in all these the nations are defiled, which I cast out before you. And again, therefore shall ye keep mine ordinance, that ye commit not any one of these abominable customs, which were committed before you, that ye defile not yourselves therein, I am Jehovah your God, Lev 18:24,30. For the same purpose it is repeated, And ye shall not walk in the manners of the nation, which I cast out before you, for they committed all these things, and therefore I abhorred them. But I have said unto you, ye shall inherit their land, and I will give it unto you to possess it, a land that floweth with milk and honey. I am the LORD your God, which hath separated you from other people… and ye shall be holy unto me: for I the LORD am holy, and have severed you from other people, that ye should be mine, Lev 20:23,24,26.
It had appeared by notorious examples, how easily the Hebrews themselves were to be enticed into idolatry, by frequenting the company of idolaters, and by conversing too much and too familiarly with them, while Israel abode in Shittim: the people began to commit whoredom with the daughters of Moab. And they called the people unto the sacrifices of their gods: and the people did eat, and bowed down to their gods, Num 25:1,2. So easy was the passage from feasting with them on their sacrifices, to joining with them in their idolatry. Thus Israel joined himself to Baal-peor, vs. 3.
Such an example of prevailing idolatry, is justly given, as a sufficient reason for a careful separation of the Hebrew people from idolatrous neighbors, in order to prevent so very dangerous temptations in future times. Moses therefore thus exhorts Israel, Your eyes have seen what the LORD did because of Baal-peor: for all the men that followed Baal-peor, the LORD thy God hath destroyed them from among you. But ye that did cleave unto the LORD your God are alive every one of you this day. Behold, I have taught you statutes and judgments, even as the LORD my God commanded me, that ye should do so in the land whither ye go to possess it. Keep therefore and do them; for this is your wisdom and your understanding in the sight of the nations, which shall hear all these statutes, and say, Surely this great nations is a wise and understanding people, Deut 4:3-6.
Among the laws here spoken of, there are some, the wisdom of which appear principally if not solely, as they were chosen and commanded to this end, to separate the Hebrews from their idolatrous neighbors, by a prohibition of every idolatrous rite. The law itself for prohibiting inter marriages with idolaters expressly gives this reason for it, neither shalt thou make marriages with them; thy daughter thou shalt not give unto his son, nor his daughter shalt thou take unto thy son. For they will turn away thy son from following me, that they may serve other gods: so will the anger of the LORD be kindled against you, and destroy thee suddenly, Duet 7:3,4.
Many other laws, which at first view seem to be of small importance and concern, for the enacting of which some look for no reason at all, but the alone will of the Lawgiver, will appear in this view, of concern and importance, sufficient for the wisdom of God to take notice of, when he gave his laws to this nation. The most judicious of the Hebrew doctors, Maimonides, has very well explained several of the Mosaical laws upon this single consideration. He gives this general reason for many laws, “That they were made to keep men from idolatry, and such false opinions, as are akin to idolatry; such as the pretences to incantations, divinations, foretelling things by the stars, or by the possession of some spirit or demon, or consulting with such persons.” He farther justly observes, “That such things as are supposed to be effected by any magic actions, or are founded on any dispositions or influences of the stars, necessarily induce men to reverence and worship them.” He observes, “many of the magic rites consisted in certain gestures, actions, or the use of certain words, and mentions several examples of such superstitions; among the rest, a remarkable rite to prevent a storm of hail.”
However trifling some of the Mosaical laws may appear at the first view, and unworthy of the wisdom of God to enact them as laws; yet the case will appear quite otherwise, when they are considered as necessary provisions against the danger of idolatry.
The law, for instance, that appoints, Ye shall not round the corners of your heads, neither shalt thou mar the corners of thy beard, Lev 19:27, will thus appear directions of importance, when it was to prevent a magical custom of the idolatrous priests, who made this sort of cutting off their hair and beards essential to their worship; and used them as things of consequence, in order to procure from their idols the several blessings they desired and prayed for. A prohibition of such idolatrous and magical ceremonies was not so trivial or below the care of a wise Lawgiver, who had a design in the Constitution of the Hebrew Government, to keep that people from all idolatrous customs.
In like manner, we may easily perceive a reason, why the law should direct, Neither shall a garment of linen and woolen come upon thee, Lev 19:19; when we understand, that such mixed garments of linen and woolen were the proper habits of idolatrous priests; and which, according to the professed doctrines of their idolatrous worship, were supposed to have some powerful, magical virtue in them.
For the same reasons we can easily understand the wisdom of appointing by law, that the woman shall not wear that which appertaineth unto a man, neither shall a man put on a woman’s garment; for all that do so are abomination unto the LORD thy God, Deut 22:5; when it was an idolatrous constitution of their neighbors, as Maimonides found it in a magic book, that men ought to stand before the Star of Venus in the flowered garments of women; and women were to put on the armor of men before the Star of Mars, as Bishop Patrick on the place truly represents its meaning.
The same idolatrous custom is observed by Macrobius, that men worshipped Venus in wormen’s habits, and women in the habits of men.
There is no reason then, we see, to imagine that these laws, which were to distinguish the Hebrew people from the idolatrous nations, were made only out of hatred to their neighbors, and to all their customs and manners, good or bad, innocent as well as idolatrous. It appears on the contrary to be plainly quite another reason. It was from a wise care of their preservation from such idolatrous customs, as there was very great reason to fear, would prove a dangerous temptation to lead them into idolatry, and which were hardly to be used without it. All reflections, with how much confidence soever on the Hebrew laws, as if they were established upon no better motives than the hatred of their neighbors, will appear in this view groundless, and without all foundation; when the true reason shall appear so wise, so plain, and so natural.
These two views then, to preserve in the Hebrew nation the knowledge and worship of the one true God, and to preserve it from the spreading evils of idolatry, by separating it from the society of idolaters, by forbidding all use of idolatrous rites and customs, may be looked upon as considerable intentions in the Constitution; according to which, we are to examine and to judge of the equity and wisdom of the Constitution itself. Neither of which can be so well judged of, without taking these intentions into consideration. If we regard the Hebrew Constitution, only as an institution of religion and religious worship, or only as a civil polity and a form of civil government, we shall widely mistake the true nature of it. It is evident beyond question, the Mosaical account of it represents it as a Theocracy, in which Jehovah is God and King; and in which true worship of the only true God was to be preserved against idolatry, and the nation in obedience to the laws of this institution, should enjoy liberty, peace, prosperity, and happiness in the protection of a wise and powerful government.
It may be proper to observe here, that these designs appear in themselves worthy the wisdom and the goodness of God; that he should take care in some proper way to put a stop to so prevailing a course of idolatry. If the design shall appear in itself manifestly wise and good, the proper means to effect it will appear to be equitable, wise, and good also. Some seem not to perceive, at least are not willing to own this. The more fully then to make us sensible of it, let us briefly observe some of the many great evils of idolatry, which this Hebrew Constitution was intended and formed to prevent.
One of the chief and most influencing principles of idolatry, was a false persuasion that the temporal blessings of life, health, length of days, fruitful seasons, victory in wars, and such advantages, were to be expected and sought for as the gifts of some inferior and subordinated beings, as guardians of mortal men; or from some secret influences of the stars, and heavenly bodies, supposed inhabited, and animated by some powerful beings, or gods, whose protection and favor were to be obtained by the use of some magical ceremonies, gestures, and words, or by some senseless or some barbarous rites of worship.
Thus men came not only to lose the true knowledge of the one, only God, and of his immediate providence, and that all these blessings could therefore come from his alone, who was best pleased and best worshipped by virtue, goodness, righteousness, and true holiness; but they became necessarily vicious and corrupt in practice, as well as principle. They came to think they were not to expect the blessings of life from the favor of the one true God, a being himself of infinite purity, righteousness, and goodness, by reverencing and by imitating him; but from the favor of a Jupiter, who with all his fine titles is represented in his history, to have been as intemperate, as lustful, and as wicked as any the worst of men; or from a Mercury, a patron of thieves and robbers; or from a Bacchus, the god of intemperance and drunkenness; or from a Venus, the patroness of all manner of uncleanness, and debauchery.
The known principles and the most sacred ceremonies and mysteries in the idolatrous worship of such deities, actually showed what encouragement was given to all manner of vice. They extinguished all religious principles of moral virtue and goodness, and gave additional strength to men’s natural inclinations, to intemperance, lust, fraud, violence, and every kind of unrighteousness and debauchery.
The Phalli, and the Mylli, known religious rights in the worship of Bacchus, Osiris, and Ceres, were such obscene ceremonies, that modesty forbids to explain them. It may be sufficient to mention the known custom of virgins before marriage, sacrificing their chastity to the honor of Venus, as a lascivious goddess, as the historian, Justin, expresses it, lest she alone should appear lascivious. A custom, according to the historian, which was especially used in Cyprus, which was in the neighborhood of Canaan.
Idolatry had introduced another most cruel custom of human sacrifices: This prevailed among the Phenicians, the Tyrians, and the Cathaginians, a Tyrian colony; on which inhuman custom the forementioned historian makes this remark, that they used a bloody and wicked rite of religion, as a remedy. They offered men for sacrifices, and brought young children to the altars, at an age that usually moves the compassion of an enemy; and endeavored to obtain the favor of the gods by the blood of those, for whose lives prayers were more generally used to be made to the gods.
This cruel custom, how inhuman soever, such were the evil effects of idolatry, soon became almost universal; and spread itself among the Greeks, the Gauls, and the German nations.
Among the Canaanites, it was a known custom to offer their children to Moloch, likely the same idol with Adramelec, and Anameleck. Some learned men have indeed been willing to believe, that passing through the fire to Moloch, might mean a sort of purification, rather than actual burning them in the fire; but besides the testimony of historians in general to the practice of other nations, the Scriptures plainly mean consuming them to death by fire. So it is described by the prophet Ezekiel, and have caused their sons, whom they bare unto me, to pass through the fire to devour them, Ezek 23:37. Did they cause them to pass through fire, only to purify them, and to preserve them alive? No, certainly; but to devour or to consume them. The same prophet elsewhere determines this meaning, Thou hast slain my children, and delivered them to cause them to pass through the fire, Ezek 16:21. It is charged as an act of idolatry in Ahaz, that he caused his son to pass through the fire, according to the abomination of the heathen, 2 Kings 16:3. This is explained in another place, that he burned his children in the fire, after the abomination of the heathen, 2 Chron 28:3. And it is expressly said of Adrameleck, and Anameleck, the idols of Sephervaim, that they burned their children in the fire, to them, 2 Kings 17:31.
If we consider the many other abominable immoralities of the Canaanites, by which they defiled themselves, as they are enumerated in the prohibition of them to the Hebrew nation, we may easily perceive, that a nation which had defiled themselves in so many and so great abominations, did well deserve an exemplary punishment from the righteous judge of the earth; that it was wise,
as well as just, to show in their punishment that their idols were not as they imagined and falsely believed, the givers of long life, peace, and worldly prosperity; but that the one true God was alone the Supreme Disposer of all the blessings of providence; and that none of the idol gods, in whom they trusted, could save them out of his hand, or deliver them, when God should visit their iniquities.
May we not also perceive a kind design, in giving some remarkable instances of providence, for the punishment of so gross immoralities, the effects of idolatrous principles and practice, and for the encouragement of such acknowledgment and worship of the true God, as was best preservative against these abominations, by some observable instances of particular protection and favor; to let such worshippers of the true God know, that by keeping themselves from those abominations, the natural and usual effects of idolatry, they were to hope for the continuance of such particular protection and favor in all after-times?
Hence it may appear, the severity with which the Hebrew history acquaints us, the Canaanites were punished, and the title whereby the Hebrews held their land, whom God cast out before them, were no ways inconsistent with the justice, or wisdom, or goodness of God, as some have insinuated. The question is really brought to this one point, whether such abominable immoralities, as followed naturally and universally from their idolatrous principles and forms of worship, were not highly criminal, so criminal as to deserve a punishment? that it became the justice and wisdom of the Governor of the world, to put some stop to them, to prevent them in some measure by forming and establishing a Constitution in which knowledge and worship of the one true God should be preserved in opposition to idolatry, a perpetual source of innumerable vices and immoralities. Idolatry, you see then, appears in the natural fruits of it, not only an error of the understanding, not at all a matter of harmless speculation, but a fountain of very dangerous immoralities, which led men naturally and even with the encouragements of religion, into intemperance, uncleanness, murders, and many vices, inconsistent with the prosperity and peace of society, as well as with the happiness of private persons. When God shall punish such iniquities, he punishes men for their wickedness, not for their errors. He punishes men for such wickedness, as deserves to be punished, whatever pretended principles or real dictates of conscience it may proceed from. No man sure, can reasonably account it injustice in a government to punish sodomy, bestiality, or the frequent murder of innocent children, what pretences soever men should make to conscience or religion, in vindication of them. The most unnatural sins were countenanced by the mysteries of idolatrous worship; the use of that obscene ceremony the Phalli, owed its original to the memory of the sin against nature, and to the history of a god hallowing it by his own act. Can any man reasonably call such a restraint of vice persecution, when not to endeavor by all means to restrain it would argue a great neglect, weakness, and folly, in any administration of government whatsoever.
If then a punishment for so heinous crimes and immoralities will be just and wise in itself, which way can any man find out to make it unjust or unwise in the supreme Governor of the world? How can it be unjust in him, to appoint such persons as he shall think most fit, to execute such righteous judgment by his commission? The common rights of nations, and any personal claim of the Hebrews, are altogether out of this question; the history plainly shows, they made no personal or national claim at all to the land of Canaan; but that God cast out the people before them, for all their abominations; that it was not their own power, but the hand of God, which brought them out of the land of Egypt, and into the promised land. So that whole is considered as the immediate act of God himself, for the proof of which the history gives a long series of miracles, in Egypt, at the Red Sea, for many years in the wilderness, at the taking of Jericho, and settling the Hebrew nation in the possession of the promised land.
And here let us just observe, what will be shown more fully hereafter, that this very way of punishing the Canaanites for their many great abominations by the Hebrew nation, to whom God gave the possession of their land, has some peculiar marks of wisdom; which may show it fit to be preferred to many other ways; such as pestilential distempers, fire from heaven, or a flood, ways in which God had punished the wickedness of the world in former times. For this was a very fit means for the cure, as well as the punishment of idolatry, to destroy the root of these great evils, as well as to execute righteous judgment on those who had committed them. This was a design every way worthy of the wisdom and goodness of God. Sure then, no ways inconsistent with his justice. The protection of the Hebrew nation, and the favor of God to them as a peculiar people, was a visible and standing confutation of idolatry, it showed, that Jehovah, the one true God, the King of Israel, had himself an immediate hand in the administration of particular providence; that he had not given it out of his own hands into the hands of any inferior beings whomsoever, which error was the great foundation of idolatry. It further showed the power of Jehovah, the true God, manifested in the protection of his people, superior to the power of all the idols of the heathen; and that none of the false gods they worshipped could be compared to Jehovah.
This is a question then not to be argued from the common rights of men, and nations; for no such rights, either of invasion or conquest, are so much as pretended to in the most distant manner. We see the only point in question, is, What are the rights of God’s supreme authority? What is consistent with the wisdom of his Government, how far he may punish the greatest immoralities with temporal evils? Ask the sacred history, it will tell you, the Hebrews set up no title to the land of Canaan, either civil or religious in their own right; it only makes the rights of the Sovereign of the world as extensive as the rights of the chief magistrates in every government are allowed by the laws of nature and nations to be over their own subjects. The Scriptures on this question only assert that God gave a commission to execute his sentence, which was either a forfeiture of lands, or life, for a long commission of crimes that deservedly incurred a forfeiture of both.
Did the Hebrew nation really have such a commission from God, or not; were they truly directed by a divine oracle; were such wonders really wrought before their eyes, and were such unquestionable instances of divine favor and protection in a long series for many years, as the Hebrew history relates? These are all questions of fact. But in all such questions general and abstract reasonings can have no place, where the facts themselves are naturally and morally possible, as everyone may perceive they are in this case. If the Supreme Governor of the world has a right to give such commission, if it is not unjust to use the hands of men, instead of a plague or fire from heaven, to punish the wickedness of men, the only question that can remain in such a case is this, Whether in fact the Hebrew nation did really receive such a commission from Jehovah, or not? Thus far then the whole will rest upon the evidence of the Mosaic revelation. There I shall leave it. It is not the design of this dissertation to enter into an argument, in which many, as I apprehend, have already given so full satisfaction.