Chapter 11 – Of the Oracle
There remains one consideration more of very great consequence, to a right understanding of the Hebrew government. In other governments their civil polity consisted only in an assembly of the people, a senate, with some chief magistrate or magistrates. The Greeks and Romans were used indeed, on more extraordinary occasions, to consult their oracles; and they accounted it very wise and prudent to undertake all great affairs auspicate or augurato, with the approbation of the gods. Their auspices and augurs were officers of state, of reputation and credit, though these wise and polite nations were so far mis-led by their idolatry, as to consult what the events of things would be by the most silly and ridiculous superstitions; by the flying of birds, the pecking of chickens, or the entrails of the beasts to be sacrificed. But none of these governments placed the sovereignty in the gods, whose oracles they consulted; generally they had not the honor of being the tutelar gods of the particular cities which consulted them. Such were the celebrated oracles of Apollo at Delphi, and of Jupiter Hammon in Libya. But the Hebrew government placed the majestas imperii, the sovereignty as king, in Jehovah. Jehovah the one true God was not only their God, and as such the only object of their religion and worship, but he was the King of Israel, and so the proper political head of that nation. And thus, as has been observed, this government is very properly called by Josephus and others, a theocracy; or according Conringius, “The summa potestas, or sovereign authority, consists chiefly in three things, in making laws, declaring war, and appointing magistrates; the supreme direction of all which were placed by the Hebrew constitution in Jehovah himself,” de Rep. Fbra. Ss. vii. 240.
It is manifest, to use the words of the same author that God reserved to himself the power of making laws. The law of the ten commands was thus enacted, And God spake all these words, saying, I am the Lord thy God, which have brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage, Ex 20:1,2. These laws are given the Hebrew nation by Jehovah, not as the maker of heaven and earth, but as their King, who had delivered them out of Egyptian bondage.
In like manner, God publishes also the judgments, the political or judicial laws. And the Lord said unto Moses, thus shalt thou say unto the children of Israel, Ex 20:22. This is a preamble to the following judicial laws from Jehovah to Moses, and by him to the Hebrew nation. Now these are the judgments which thou shalt set before them, Ex 21:1. This authority of making laws was so fully and entirely reserved to Jehovah himself, as king of Israel, that no power was allowed to any magistrate or court of Israel, either to make a new law, or to repeal an old one. It was not allowed to the high-priest, the judge, the senate, the congregation assembled in full Parliament, much less such power lodged in the hands of either of them separately, as has been observed before, and as appears to be a fundamental law of the constitution. Deut 4:1,2 and 12:32.
Jehovah moreover, as King of Israel, commanded their armies. The tabernacle in the camp was the tent of Jehovah, as their general, that thy cloud, says Moses, standeth over them; and that thou goest before them by day-time in a pillar of a cloud, and in a pillar of fire by night, Num 14:14. This glory, or Schechinah, gave orders for their marching or continuing in their camp: For when the cloud was taken up from the tabernacle, then after that the children of Israel journeyed, and in the place where the cloud abode, there the children of Israel pitched their tents; at the commandment of Jehovah the children of Israel journeyed, and at the commandment of Jehovah they pitched, Num 9:17,18. Hence we see the propriety and beauty of those expressions of Moses, And it came to pass when the Ark set forward, that Moses said, Rise up Lord, and let thine enemies be scattered, and let them that hate thee flee before thee; and when it rested he said, return, O Lord, unto the many thousands of Israel, Num 10:35,36. It was therefore a great presumption for the army to march without this direction, especially against it. Moses on such an occasion thus justly expostulates: And Moses said, wherefore now do ye transgress the commandment of the Lord, but it shall not prosper? Go not up, for the Lord is not among you, that ye be not smitten before you enemies, Num 20:41,42. This observation alone is a satisfactory reason why the Hebrews were often smitten before their enemies, though Jehovah was their king and general. A circumstance some have represented, I would hope through ignorance of the true reason, as an unanswerable objection to this great privilege of the Hebrew nation, that God was their King and Governor.
To give but one instance more, the directions for the siege of Jericho, and the manner of taking it at last, which are so largely related in the history of Joshua, are a full evidence how far the oracle or word of Jehovah directed their military affairs.
Finally, the constitution of their judges, superior and inferior, and the cognizance of many causes, some in the first instance, and others on appeal, are another branch of the sovereignty of Jehovah as King of Israel. The use of the oracle in deciding difficult cases in law, is the more observable as it serves to explain the constitution, with respect to appeals. The oracle thus decided the question, how persons defiled by a dead body, were to keep the Passover, Num 9:8,9. Thus also the oracle determined the question of female heiresses, in the case of the daughters of Zelophebad, Num 20:7. And thus, it was the oracle, or word of Jehovah, which declared the punishment of breaking the Sabbath, Num 15:34,35. Hence the last resort in causes judiciary of greater moment and difficulty was in the oracle, not in the private opinion of the high-priest alone, or of the judge alone, or of both jointly with the senate, unless they were fully agreed. If a difficulty arose, the last appeal was to the oracle; in the answer of which, the high-priest did not give his private judgment, but the oracle itself gave final judgment in the case.
But how, you will say, was this oracle given, which was of so high authority in the Hebrew Constitution? Was not this oracle after all the high-priest, who was to consult and report? Had he not an opportunity either of making or reporting oracles in such manner, that a skilful man had great advantages, and might draw to himself and the church the greatest authority, if not the whole power of the nation by it? So some persons would teach you to reason, with a design you should conclude, that the whole Hebrew Constitution was a trick of worldly policy in Moses, to invade the liberties of the Hebrew nation, to draw the power and riches of it into his own family, and to share it among the priest-hood.
How wise and sagacious, are such conjectures as these? When, if the high-priest had such opportunities by his office of consulting the oracle, as are suggested, would it not have greatly affected the power and authority of the judge, that is, of Moses and his own office, and have barred his own posterity for ever from any share in it: For his own posterity could not rise so much as to the honor of a priest, much less to the dignity and authority of an high-priest, whatever that might be. And would not Moses have been an admirable politician indeed, if he had any views of the greatness of his own family, by one constitution to throw the riches and authority of the nation into the hands of the priesthood, and by another constitution to bar his own posterity of the priesthood, and thereby of all share in the riches or power belonging to it? But, to leave these reflections, let it be considered how this oracle was given, what concern the high-priest had in it, and it will be sufficient to shew how groundless such objections are, and with what wisdom the oracle was made so important a part of the nation constitution.
To understand aright how the oracle was given, it will be necessary to observe, it was given in two very different manners; in one of which it is proper you should observe, the high-priest could have no share at all. This was by a voice from the glory or Schechinah directly and immediately, without being consulted at all. It was the Schechinah gave the law on Mount Sinai, and God spake all these words, saying, Ex 20:1. But then the oracle was given in such awful manner, as greatly affrighted the people; And all the people saw the thunderings and the lightnings, and the noise of the trumpet, and the mountain smoking; and when they saw it, they removed, and stood afar of; and they said unto Moses, speak thou with us, and we will hear; but let not God speak with us, lest we die, Ex 20:18,19. In this case the oracle was heard by the whole Hebrew nation, and its voice was attended with that awful solemnity as silenced all suspicion of priest-craft, and gave such credit and authority to Moses, that it was the unanimous desire and request of the whole people, that they might receive the other laws to be given by the oracle from Moses, who was to receive the commands of God from the oracle, and publish them to the people.
It was at this time, and in this manner the oracle enacted all the laws of the Hebrew government, at a time when the whole Hebrew nation had so many, so plain, so great instances of the presence of Jehovah with them, and of the authority of Moses to publish the will of God to them, that they could have no reasonable doubt or suspicion concerning their laws, or whether they were really given by his oracle.
It has been observed that these laws were the whole Constitution of the Hebrew government. That they were so sacred that neither were any of them to be repealed, not were any new laws to be added to them. Thus, Jehovah as lawgiver, gave his law, by his oracle, in such manner as the high-priest had no concern in it at all; and therefore, most certainly, could make no advantage of it.
And hence too it is observable, that when the high-priest did consult the oracle, he had no opportunity of making any new law, or of repealing any law already made; for the oracle itself had previously forbad it, by a fundamental law of the Constitution.
What was it then that the law intended by directing the high-priest to consult the oracle, or to ask council by Urim before the Lord? Which was the second manner in which the oracle was given. Let the direction itself inform us.
When Joshua was appointed successor to Moses, it is directed, 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 shall they come in, both he and all the children of Israel with him, even all the congregation, Num 27:21. It is not material to our enquiry, what the Urim and Thummin were. It is sufficient to know they were something in the breastplate of judgment, a part of the rich garments of the high-priest. So the law, And thou shalt put in the breastplate of judgment the Urim and the Thummin and they shall be upon Aaron’s heart when he goeth in before the Lord, Ex 28:30. The high-priest was to wear the Urim, in the breastplate; but as a learned author observes, “the judge commands him to put it on, the judge asks counsel, not the high-priest; (he means not of his own motion, and for himself, but at direction of the judge, and in his name) not does the high-priest answer. He answers by the Urim, or more properly God himself answers by the Urim,” Houtuyn Monarchia Hebraeor. pg 53
The direction of the law itself that Joshua should stand before Eleazar the priest, who shall ask counsel for him after the judgment of Urim before the Lord seems very plainly to intimate, that the judge, and in like manner, whoever it was for whom the high-priest asked counsel by Urim, was present with the high-priest when he consulted the oracle. For the person for whom the high-priest consulted was to stand before the Lord: that is, as the Hebrew expression to stand before the Lord signifies, they were both of them in presence of the oracle. So that the account which the Talmudists give of the manner of consulting the oracle, seems agreeable to the truth of history, and in this instance to be taken from it: “That the high-priest stood with his face towards the Ark, the person who consulted the Oracle stood at his back, and said, shall I do this thing, or shall I not do it?” Othe Lexicon Rabbinicum Vol. Urium. And Josephus observes from this circumstance, “That as it was lawful for any person who thought fit to be present when the oracle was consulted, that was sufficient to remove all suspicion of imposture from the minds of all those who consulted it, and to give satisfaction to strangers, as well as Hebrews,” Antiq. L. 3. c 10. p. m. S q.
The manner in which the oracle gave its answer, might very easily be understood, if we would keep ourselves to the Hebrew history. It is ever mentioned in Scripture, to be by a voice and in audible words. When the law of the ten commands was given, it is said, God spake all these words, saying, Ex 20:1. In the after-laws the common phrase is, The Lord spake, saying; or asking counsel at the mouth of the Lord. There is one description of the manner in which the oracle gave its answer so clear and so express, that it should seem to want no other explanation; and that no question could well remain, concerning the manner of it. And when Moses was gone into the tabernacle of the congregation to speak with him, (that is, to consult God by his oracle) then he heard the voice of one speaking unto him from off the mercy-seat that was upon the Ark of Testimony from between the Cherubims, and he spake unto him, Num 7:89. When Moses again consulted the oracle, how the Passover should be kept by those who had been defiled by a dead body, the answer of the oracle is thus expressed, And the Lord spake unto Moses saying, Num9:9.
The same form of expression was used when the oracle was consulted after the death of Joshua; Then Israel asked the Lord, saying, who shall go up for us against the Canaanites, first to fight against them? Judges1:1. The answer of the oracle was returned after this manner: And Jehovah said, Judah shall go up, behold I have delivered the land into his hand, Judges 1:2. There is moreover an answer of the oracle to David, so distinct and of such length, that there seems no room left to imagine any other way of answer, than by a voice, and audible words: When David enquired of the Lord, he said, thou shalt not go up, but fetch a compass behind them, and come upon them over against the mulberry trees, and let it be when thou hearest the sound of a going in the top of the mulberry trees, that then thou shalt bestir thyself: for then shall the Lord go out before thee, to sinite the host of the Philistines, 2 Sam 5:23,24.
Hence it may appear, that the common account of the Talmudists that the oracle gave its answer by some inconceivable shining or protuberance of the letters engraved on the jewels of the high-priest’s breastplate, is as contrary to Scripture, as it is ridiculous and incredible in itself; it is indeed so next to impossible, that our judicious Spencer very truly said of it, “It is a Talmudical camel, that no one that is in his wits can ever swallow.” A censure Dr. Prideaux quotes with approbation, Connect. B. I. 155.
Let us then learn how the oracle, when consulted, gave its answer, from that learned author. “None other (besides Moses) was admitted to ask counsel of God, but through the mediating of the high-priest, who in his stead asked counsel for him by Urim and Thummim, that is, by presenting himself with the breastplate on over all his other robes before the veil, exactly over-against the mercy seat, where the divine presence rested; and when he thus presented himself in due manner, according to the prescription of the divine law, God gave him an answer in the same manner as he did unto Moses, that is, by an audible voice from the mercy seat….And for this reason it is, that the Holy of Holies, the place where the Ark and the mercy seat stood, from whence this answer was given, is so often in Scripture called the oracle; because from thence the divine oracles of God were uttered forth to those that asked counsel of him,” Id. Id. 156.
In this oracle then, we see a considerable part of the Hebrew Constitution to direct the counsels 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 such 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 reserve 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. It was a further wise provision to refrain all ambition and all rashness, either of judge, senate, or people, and yet at the same time it gave no dangerous authority to the high-priest over either of them, for he was to ask counsel of the oracle, not of his own head, or for himself; but, as he was directed, by the judge or some other magistrate, for whom he was to ask counsel. The high-priest was to ask counsel only on such questions, and to consult only on such matters as he was directed to by the persons consulting, and who were present with the high-priest when he asked counsel; and who likely, as was before observed, put the question themselves. The high-priest then could publish no false oracles in his own favor, or in favor of the priesthood, to enlarge their power or increase their riches; both which by the way, were made impossible by the Constitution, even for the authority of the oracle. And further, the judge, the senate, or the people, must themselves have prepared such a question for the high-priest to have put to the oracle; for even an oracle cannot answer a question that is never asked. When then whatever was asked of the oracle, was first considered and resolved upon by the judge, senate or people, the question to be proposed by the high-priest must be previously passed by their advice and consent. So that the high-priest in this case was so far from having a dangerous power put into his hands, of imposing upon the judge, senate, or people, by false oracles or forged revelations in his own favor, against the liberties of the nation or the government, that he could not put any question to the oracle, but what was previously resolved upon and put into his hands by those very persons whom he is very ignorantly or very unjustly supposed by this Constitution enabled to impose upon. This is a supposition as groundless and unreasonable, with what confidence so ever it is asserted, as to suppose, that when our acts of parliament have passed both houses and are offered to the royal assent, the person who presents them to the king, or returns the king’s answer, has a power of forging what laws and imposing on the nation what acts of parliament he pleases.
A modern author, for what reason I say not, has most unaccountably misrepresented the true case of this oracle. “The oracle, the dernier resort, he says was the voice of the high-pries, who when he was clothed in his pontisicalibus, it was presumed he could neither be mistaken himself, nor impose upon others; or that on these occasions, he was both infallible and impeccable; or that his voice or oracular decision, was the undoubted organized voice of God… He might alter, he adds, his natural tone, air and action, to humor the conceit that he was under a supernatural divine impression,” Moral Philos. V. I. 272.
Where, think you, could our author find such an account of the oracle? In the whole of which there is not one circumstance of truth, every part of it is not only groundless, but directly contrary to the description, and use of it, in the Hebrew history. The oracle, the dernier resort, he says, was the voice of the priest. Who, I beseech you, told him so? The whole history is positive the oracle was the voice of Jehovah to the high-priest, or rather to the person who asked counsel of the oracle by the high-priest. The utmost that can ever be supposed of the voice of the high-priest is that the high-priest reported what he heard from the oracle. But whoever examines with due attention the manner in which the oracle gave its answers, will have great reason to question at least, whether the high-priest did so much as report the oracle? We have seen that the person who consulted the oracle by the high-priest, stood before the high-priest, when he stood before the Lord; that is, they were together in the presence, when the oracle was consulted. We have seen that the oracle was a distinct audible voice from the Presence, which therefore it is most highly probable, the person who asked counsel, heard plainly and distinctly himself. For our author, I presume, will not deny, that a lay-man may have as good ears as a priest; what need then for the high-priest to report an oracle to one who had heard it himself?
As the person who consulted was with the high-priest in the Presence, and the voice of the oracle must have been loud enough to be heard from the Holy of Holies; for the high-priest did not consult in the Holy of Holies, it being unlawful for him to enter into that most holy place, above once a year; what doubt can there be, whether a person who was with the high-priest, though somewhat behind him, might hear such a voice, as well as the high-priest himself?
“When the high-priest, he says, was clothed in his pontisicalibus, it was presumed he could be neither mistaken in himself, nor impose upon others; or that on these occasions, he was both absolutely infallible, and impeccable; or that his voice or oracular decision, was the undoubted and organized voice of God?” Moral Philos. V. I. 272. But who are they who thus presume? Whoever they are, they presume much more than becomes them. These are presumptions not only without all foundation of reason, but against the plainest and the strongest evidence to the contrary.
The high-priest is never once presumed to be so perfect a man, that he could be neither mistaken himself, nor impose upon others, nor was there the least need he should be either infallible or impeccable on these occasions. For in truth, in consulting the oracle, the answer no ways depended upon any personal abilities of the high-priest. If he had understanding enough to ask a question, which was put into his hands by others to ask, if he had sense enough to report an answer, it was as much as was needful for any part he had in asking counsel of the oracle. Whoever presumed the clerk of the crown, or clerk of parliament infallible or impeccable, because one reads the titles of the bills offered to the royal assent, and the other, according to instructions from the king, pronounces the royal assent?
Every circumstance then of his account appears to be his own groundless presumption, manifestly contrary to the whole account the Hebrew history gives of it. The reader perhaps will observe the morality of falsifying so many facts, in order to find an occasion to reflect on one part of the Hebrew constitution.
The high-priest, he adds, might alter his natural tone, air, and action; but, I pray, for what end or purpose, should he go about to do either? Why, to humor, our author says, the conceit that he was under a supernatural and divine impression. What! Must the high-priest take so much pains to humor a conceit, which no man could have from the Constitution? This is another of our author’s own conceits, and full out as groundless as the rest.
The high-priest was never understood to be under any supernatural or divine imperfection. It is possible, our author might take his conceit from the Sibylline oracles, and mistook the description of an heathen poet for Hebrew history.
Struggling in vain, impatient of her load, And laboring underneath the pond’rous God, The more she strove to shake him from her breast, With more, and far superior force he pressed. Commands his entrance, and without control, Usurps her organs, and inspires her soul. Virgil. AEn. Dryden I. vi 120.
Thus Virgil beautifully describes the oracle of the Sibyl, according to the heathen notions; but the Hebrew oracle was not so, far different is the account of it in the Hebrew history, God is no where represented as usurping the organs, or inspiring the soul of the high-priest. The high-priest only asks a question, before the Presence, over the mercy seat, and receives an answer from thence in a plain audible voice.
Our author has another presumption, in which however he may have been misled by the fabulous chronology of the Egyptians. “While this people (the Jews, he says) were in Egypt, they had been much amazed and surprised with the infallible declarations and decisions of Jupiter Hammon,” Mortal Philos. Vol. I. 268. This presumption is intended to introduce another conceit, that the oracle of Jehovah was an imitation of the oracle of Jupiter Hammon; but it happens in fact untowardly for both conceits, that Jupiter Hammon was not born till above four hundred years after the Jews came out of Egypt. The true chronology of Egypt, restored by the illustrious Sir Isaac Newton, (short chronicles) places Hammon king of Egypt about one thousand and thirty-four years before the birth of Christ; that is, in the times of David, above four hundred and fifty years after the law of Moses.
You may further see the judgment of that illustrious author, concerning the original of heathen oracles. “The year before Christ 1002, Sesac reigns 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; and, I think also in Arabia Felix. And this was the original of the worship of Jupiter Ammon, and the first mention of oracles I meet with in profane history.” And elsewhere he supposes, “ The Greeks in their oracles imitated the Egyptians, for the oracle of Dodona was the oldest in Greece, and was set up by an Egyptian woman, after the example of the oracle of Jupiter Ammon at Thebes,” Newton, Herod II Empire of Egypt, 207. It is true, this error of our author is only an error in chronology; but as it is an error all presumption, and conceits founded upon it, must be erroneous too, and should teach his readers caution never to take his bare words without very sufficient vouchers.
Upon this plan of the Hebrew government, taken from the laws and history of the Hebrews themselves, a few easy reflections will lay a foundation to answer the objections with so much assurance made to the equity and wisdom of it. They will appear to be founded on gross ignorance of the Constitution itself, or on a very unfair or false representation of it. It is a shrewd sign of a very bad cause, that it stands in need of so much falsehood and forgery to support it.