The Hebrew Theocracy

  • Chapter VIII: Special Designs of the Hebrew Government
  • Chapter IX: Idolatry


Special Designs of the Hebrew Government

In order to lay down a true plan of the Hebrew government, it will be necessary to inquire whether, besides the common ends of government—the protection of the life, liberty, property, and happiness of the governed—the lawgiver had any special views in its institution. If so, the government would naturally be adjusted to those ends; and it can hardly be understood, without a knowledge of the particular views, which it was intended to answer. Now it is certain that such special designs entered into the mind of the Jewish lawgiver and modified his system of government.

By the free choice of the people, Jehovah was made the civil head of the Hebrew state. Thus the law-making power and the sovereignty of the state were, by the popular suffrage, vested in him. It is on this account that Josephus and others after him have called the Hebrew government a theocracy. Theocracy signifies a divine government. The term is justly applied to the Mosaic constitution. Yet there is danger of being misled by it, and thence of falling into error respecting the true nature and powers of the Hebrew government. It may be too broadly applied. There was a strong infusion of the theocratic element in the Hebrew constitution. Still it was but an element in the government, and not the whole of the government. In other words, the Hebrew government was not a pure theocracy. It was a theocracy, but a theocracy in a restricted sense. Every student of the Hebrew history knows that the Hebrew people, like other nations, had their civil rulers, men who exercised authority over other men, and were acknowledged and obeyed as lawful magistrates.

What, then, was the true province of the theocracy? What were its leading objects? These objects, as I conceive, without excluding others, were chiefly two. One was to teach mankind the true science of civil government. It corresponds with the goodness of God in other respects, that he should make a special revelation on this subject. I hold it to have been an important part of the legislation of the Most High, as the lawgiver of Israel, to show how civil authority among men should be created, and how it should be administered, so as best to promote the welfare and happiness of a nation, and also how the relations between rulers and ruled should be adjusted and regulated. But another object of the theocratic feature of the Hebrew government, and the leading one undoubtedly, was the overthrow and extirpation of idolatry. The design was, first, to effect a separation between the Israelites and their idolatrous neighbors, and, secondly, to make idolatry a crime against the state, that so it might be punishable by the civil law, without a violation of civil liberty. A fundamental purpose of the Mosaic polity was the abolition of idolatrous worship, and the substitution in its place, and the maintenance, of true religion in the world. The only agency adequate to the production of this result, as far as human wisdom can see, was this very institution of the Hebrew theocracy.

The design of the present chapter is to examine and unfold the true nature and bearing of this element of the Hebrew constitution.

In Exodus 19:4-6, we find this remarkable and important record. God there addresses the Israelites thus: “Ye have seen what I did unto the Egyptians, and how I bare 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.”

The nature of this covenant is still more clearly disclosed in a further account of it, in the twenty-ninth chapter of Deuteronomy. “Ye stand this day,” says Moses in an address to his countrymen, “your captains of your tribes, your elders and your officers, and all the men of Israel; that ye should enter into covenant with Jehovah thy God, and into his oath that he maketh with thee this day, that he may establish thee this day for a people unto himself (for ye know how we have dwelt in the land of Egypt, and how we came through the nations that 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 from Jehovah our God, to go and serve the gods of those nations.” Here we have what Lowman, not inaptly, calls the original contract of the Hebrew government. Two principles constitute the sum of it; viz. (1) the maintenance of the worship of one God, in opposition to the prevailing polytheism of the times; and (2) as conducive to this main end, the separation of the Israelites from other nations, so as to prevent the formation of dangerous and corrupting alliances.

Without stopping to inquire critically into the meaning of the several expressions here employed, the general sense of the transaction is plainly to this effect: If the Hebrews would voluntarily receive Jehovah for their king, and would 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, he would govern the Hebrew nation by laws of his own framing, and would bless it with a more particular and immediate protection.

This view is confirmed by the testimony of St. Paul, if bishop Warburton has correctly interpreted a passage in his letter to the Galatians.1 Speaking of the law of Moses, the apostle says, “It was added because of transgressions.” It was added. To what was it added? To the patriarchal religion of the unity, says the learned prelate. To what end? Because of transgressions, that is, according to the same authority, the transgressions of polytheism and idolatry, into which the rest of mankind were already absorbed, and the Jews themselves were hastening apace.

1 Galatians 4:21.

To this agrees the opinion of Maimonides, the most learned and judicious of the Hebrew doctors. He observes that the first intention of the Mosaic law, as is clearly evident from many parts of the Scriptures, was to eradicate idolatry, and to obliterate the memory of it, and of those who were addicted to it; to banish everything that might lead men to practice it, as pythons, soothsayers, diviners, enchanters, augurs, astrologers, necromancers, etc.; and to prevent all assimilation to their practices. He assigns this general reason for many of the laws, that they were made to keep men from idolatry—incantations, divinations, soothsaying, passing through the fire, and the like.

Idolatry had now reached its most gigantic height, and spread its broad and deadly shadow over the earth. To preserve the doctrine of the unity, in the midst of a polytheistic world, was the fundamental design of the Mosaic polity. To this all other purposes, however important in themselves, or useful in their general action, were both subordinate and subservient. If this were a design worthy the wisdom and goodness of God, none of the means adapted to promote it can be beneath his contrivance, or can, in the least degree, derogate from the dignity and perfection of his nature.

This single observation sweeps away at once the foundation of most of the silly ridicule, with which infidels have amused themselves in their disquisitions on these venerable institutes. Statutes, which at first sight, and considered apart from their true relations and intentions, seem frivolous, and unworthy the wisdom and majesty of God, assume quite a different air, and appear in a light altogether new, when viewed as necessary provisions against the danger of idolatry.

Let me illustrate this observation with a few examples. In the nineteenth chapter of Leviticus2, we find the following law: “Ye shall not round the corners of your heads, neither shalt thou mar the corners of thy beard.” This law has called forth many a sneer from men, who, without any remarkable claim to such a distinction, arrogate to themselves the exclusive title of free thinkers. But to those who really think with freedom and candor, it will appear a direction, not only proper, but important, when it is known that it was aimed against an idolatrous custom, which was extensively prevalent, when the law was given. Herodotus says that the Arabians cut their hair round in honor of Bacchus, who is represented as having worn his in that manner, and that the Macians, a people of Libya, cut their hair so as to leave a rounded tuft on the top of the head, just as the Chinese do at the present day. Bochart, cited by Patrick, notes that the Idumaeans, Moabites, Ammonites, and other inhabitants of Arabia Deserta, are called “circumcised in the corners,” that is, of the head. The hair was much used in divination among the Greeks. Homer represents it as a common custom for parents to dedicate the hair of their children to some god, which, when they came to manhood, was cut off, and offered to the deity. In accordance with this custom, Achilles, at the funeral of Patroclus, cut off his golden locks, which his father had dedicated to the river god Sperchius, and cast them into the flood. Virgil represents the topmost lock of hair as sacred to the infernal gods. Idolatrous priests, ministers of a false religion, made the mode of cutting the hair and beard, forbidden by Moses, essential to the acceptable worship of the gods, and efficacious in procuring the several blessing prayed for by the worshippers. It was to eradicate idolatry, which was, so to speak, the hinge on which the whole law turned, that Moses introduced this prohibitory statute into his code.

In the twenty-third chapter of Exodus,3 the following statue occurs: “Thou shalt not seethe (boil) a kid in his mother’s milk.” Dr. Clarke thinks that the sole design of this law was to inculcate a lesson of humanity. It is probable, however, that it was directed against an ancient custom of idolatry. Dr. Cudworth cites a manuscript comment of a Karaite Jew on this place, to the effect that the ancient heathen were accustomed, when they had gathered in all their fruits, to take a kid, and boil it in the dam’s milk, and then, in a magical way, to sprinkle with it their trees, fields, gardens, and orchards, thinking thereby to make them more fruitful. Spencer has shown that the same idolatrous custom, prompted by a similar motive, prevailed among the ancient Zabii.

A similar reason there was for the statute, which forbade the wearing of “garments mingled of linen and woolen.”4 Maimonides informs us that he found it enjoined in old magical books that the idolatrous priests should clothe themselves in robes of linen and woolen mixed together, for the purpose of performing their religious ceremonies. A divine virtue was attributed to this mixture. It was supposed that it would make their sheep produce more wool, and their fields better harvest.

2 Leviticus 19:27.

3 Exodus 23:19.

4 Leviticus 19:19.

On the same ground rested the law, which enjoined that “the woman shall not wear that which pertaineth unto a man, neither shall a man put on a woman’s garment.”5 Maimonides found it commanded in the books of the idolaters that men, in the worship of Venus, the Astarte or Ashtaroth of the Phenicians, should wear the dress of women, and that women, in the worship of Mars, the Moloch of the East, should put on the armor of men. Macrobius cites the old Greek author Philocorus, as saying, concerning the Asiatics, that, when they sacrificed to their Venus, the men were dressed in women’s apparel, and the women in men’s to denote that she was esteemed by them both male and female. It was a common practice of idolatry to confound the sexes of the gods, making the same deity sometimes a god, and sometimes a goddess. The Cyprians represented their Venus with a beard and scepter, and of masculine proportions, but dressed as a woman. The Syrians worshipped her under the form of a woman, attired as a man. At Rome, they had both a male and female Fortune, also, as Servius and Lactantius tell us, an armed Venus. This doctrine of a community of sexes in their gods led the idolaters to confound, as far as possible, their own sex, in their worship of them. Hence the custom, so widely diffused, of men and women wearing a habit different from that of their sex, in performing religious rites. Julius Firmicus describes this manner of worship as common among the Assyrians and Africans. From them it passed into Europe. It was practiced in Cyprus at Coos, at Argos, at Athens, and other places in Greece. At Rome, it does not appear ever to have become a common practice, but we read of Clodius dressing himself as a woman, and mingling with the Roman ladies in the feast of the Bona Dea.

The law which prohibited the sowing of a field with mixed seeds6 was based on a like reason. It is true that Michaelis and Dr. Clarke regard this prohibition as simply a prudential maxim of agriculture, designed to make the Israelites careful to have their seed as pure as possible, and so to prevent the evils of negligent and slovenly farming. More reasonable appears the opinion of Maimonides, Spencer, and Patrick, who regard the statute in question as directed against idolatry, the very name and memory of which the Mosaic law sought to blot out and destroy. Maimonides interprets Leviticus 19:19 as forbidding the grafting of one species of tree into another, and says that the prohibition was designed to guard the Israelites against a most abominable end corrupting practice of idolatry. The Zabii performed this kind of grafting, especially of olives into citrons, as a religious rite, accompanying it, at the moment of insertion with the most indecent actions. Dr. Spencer observes that it was a rite of idolatry to sow barley and dried grapes together. By this action the idolaters consecrated their vineyards to Ceres and Bacchus, and expressed a dependence on these deities for their fruitfulness. It was, in effect, a renunciation of the care and blessing of the true God, and a declaration of their hope in the favor of idol gods. Bishop Patrick well remarks that, if the Israelites had followed this custom, it would have made the corn and the grapes that sprang up from such seed, impure, because polluted by idolatry.

These laws, and others which infidelity has dared to reproach and ridicule as frivolous, did the divine wisdom enact, in order to eradicate idolatry, and establish the fundamental truths of the existence and unity of the living God. The design of them was, to keep the Israelites from walking in the ordinances and manners of the nations, which were cast out before them.7 And to this end they were well adapted. It was essential, that the idolatrous ceremonies of the gentiles should be prohibited, because, if they had been permitted, they could not fail to lead to idolatry.

5 Deuteronomy 22:5.

6 Leviticus 19:19, Deuteronomy 22:9.

7 Leviticus 18:3, 20:53.

We find a very remarkable law in Leviticus 17:1-7. It forbids, even on pain of death, the killing of any animal for food, during the abode of the Israelites in the wilderness, unless it was at the same time brought to the altar, and offered to the Lord. This certainly appears, at first view, not only harsh and rigorous, but even unjust and tyrannical. But it was aimed against idolatry, which as we shall soon see, was treason in the Hebrew state, and therefore justly punishable with death. The statute is thus translated by Michaelis: “Whoever among the Israelites killeth an ox, sheep, or goat, either within or without the camp, and bringeth it not before the convention-tent, to him it shall be accounted bloodguiltiness; he hath shed blood, and shall be rooted out from among his people; and this, in order that the children of Israel may bring to the door of the convention-tent their offerings which they have hitherto made in the field, and give them unto the priest, to be slain as feast offerings in honor of Jehovah; that his priest may sprinkle the blood on the altar of Jehovah, and burn the fat as an offering perfume in honor of him; and that no man may any more make offerings to satyrs, running after them with idolatrous lust.” “The reason and design of this law,” observes the same writer, “we have no need to conjecture; for Moses himself expressly mentions it. Considering the propensity to idolatry, which the people brought with them from Egypt, it was necessary to take care lest, when any one killed such animals as were usual for sacrifices, he would be guilty of superstitiously offering them to an idol. This precaution was the more reasonable, because, in ancient times, it was so very common to make an offering of the flesh it was intended to eat. And hence arose a suspicion, not very unreasonable, that whoever killed animals, usually devoted to the altar, offered them of course; and, therefore, Moses enjoined them not to kill such animals otherwise than in public, and to offer them all to the true God; that so it might be out of their power to make them offerings to idols, by slaughtering them privately; and under the pretense of using them for food.” This law was expressly repealed on the entrance of the nation into the promised land,8 when the enforcement of it would have become a hardship and a tyranny.

8 Deuteronomy 12:15.

There is a part of the Mosaic code to which I must call the reader’s attention in this connection; I mean that which concerns clean and unclean meats. The law upon this point has ever been most open to the ridicule of unbelievers. It descends to so minute a detail, that men, ignorant of its true nature and end, have, on account of its apparent unfitness to engage the concern of God, hastily concluded against its divine original. But if they would but take the trouble to reflect that the purpose of separating one people from the contagion of universal idolatry was a design not unworthy of the governor of the universe, they would see the brightest marks of divine wisdom in an institution which took away from that people the very grounds of all commerce, whether of trade or friendship, with foreign nations. Doubtless the design of this institution, as of most others in the Mosaic system, was manifold. Among the ends to be answered by it, a not unimportant one was to furnish the chosen tribes a code of wholesome dietetics. That considerations of this nature entered into the legislator’s mind, is the unanimous opinion of the best interpreters, both Jews and Christians. Maimonides labors, with great zeal and learning, to prove the correctness of this view of the law. Dr. Adam Clarke speaks of the animals denominated unclean as affording a gross nutriment, often the parent of scorbutic and scrofulous disorders, and of those called clean as furnishing a copious and wholesome nutriment, and free from all tendency to generate disease. M. de Pastoret, a celebrated French writer, notices the constant attention of Moses to the health of the people as one of the most distinguishing traits in his character as a legislator. The flesh of the prohibited animals, that of the swine especially, was certainly calculated to aggravate, if not to produce, that shocking malady, the leprosy, which was endemic in the East, and prevailed, to a frightful extent, among the inhabitants of Palestine. Purposes of a moral nature also entered, beyond all question, into the general design of the law. The distinction of meats tended to promote the moral improvement of the Israelites by impressing their minds with the conviction that as they were a “peculiar,” so they ought to be a “holy nation,” by prohibiting the eating of flesh whose gross and feculent nature might stimulate vicious propensities, and by symbolizing the dispositions and conduct to be encouraged and cultivated, or to be abhorred and avoided. Dr. Townley cites, as concurring in this view, Levi Barcelona, Eusebius, Origen, Justin Martyr, Tertullian, and others.

But, though this law aimed to promote the health and morals of the Hebrews, such considerations did not exhaust the scope and intention of it. Its leading design was to counteract idolatry, by separating the Israelites from their idolatrous neighbors, and so preventing the infection of their example in religion and manners. This opinion does not rest on mere conjecture; nor even on the basis of logical deduction from admitted premises. The main intention of the law is unequivocally declared in the twentieth chapter of Leviticus9: “Ye shall not walk in the manners of the nation, which I cast out before you; … ye shall therefore put difference between clean beasts and unclean, and between unclean fowls and clean; … and ye shall be holy unto me.” The wisdom of this provision, considering the end in view, is most admirable. “Intimate friendships,” observes a sagacious writer, “are in most cases formed at table; and with the man with whom I can neither eat nor drink, let our intercourse in business be what it may, I shall seldom become as familiar as with him, whose guest I am, and he mine. If we have, besides, from education, an abhorrence of the food which each other eats, this forms a new obstacle to closer intimacy. Nothing more effectual could possibly be devised to keep one people distinct from another. It causes the difference between them to be ever present to the mind, touching, as it does, upon so many points of social and every day contact. It is far more efficient, in its results, as a rule of distinction, than any difference in doctrine or worship, that men could entertain. It is a mutual repulsion, continually operating. The effect of it may be estimated from the fact that no nation, in which a distinction of meats has been enforced as part of a religious system, has ever changed its religion.”

    9 Leviticus 20:23-26.

It is perfectly evident from the history of the Israelites that their entire isolation from other nations was the only means, save a miraculous control of their understanding and will, of abolishing idolatry among them. Polytheism was then the universal religion of mankind; and the Jews, as Michaelis has observed, often appear to have had their heads turned, and to have been driven, as if by a sort of frenzy, to the belief and worship of many gods.

Yet this circumstance, strange as it now appears, when duly considered, forms no just ground even of wonder, much less of any supercilious self-complacency on our part. Opinions are extremely infectious, as we ourselves have but too many proofs, in the thousand extravaganzas of the times. Let us not flatter ourselves, that, had we lived then, we should have been superior to the most absurd and besotted follies. Even Solomon, a learned man and a philosopher, to say nothing of his inspiration, incredible as it seems to us, built idol temples, and sacrificed to strange gods. The Jews in our day are exposed to a similar influence from Christianity, which is powerfully felt by them. Their peculiarities are invaded by Christian institutions and manners. In our country, for example, the festival of Christmas is extensively observed by them, though it is, strictly speaking, no more a part of their religion or manners, than the festival of Baal-peor. I was myself once invited to the celebration of this festival in a Jewish family. On my venturing to call the attention of my host to the incongruity of such an observance by a Jew, be admitted it, and added that he had said the same thing to his children that very morning, when they had asked him for Christmas presents. Their reply to him was, “that all children received presents that day, and they wanted them as well.” This conversation let much light into my mind on the defection to idolatry of the ancient Israelites.

Another point. Those who wonder at frequent lapses of this people, forget that idolatry did not consist simply in the worship of those “dead things called gods of gold and silver,” or of “some vile beast laid over with vermilion set fast in a wall.” On the contrary, idolatry touched all the infirmities of the human heart. The splendid festival of the idol worshipper veiled the most voluptuous practices, and initiated into the most infamous mysteries. The heart of the Israelite was of flesh, sensual and carnal, like that of other men. Idolatry was an appeal to his susceptibility of sensual impressions and pleasures. It was a stealth into dark and voluptuous rites. It offered a ready ailment to the secret and wavering passions of the rebellious Hebrews. Hence their frequent lapses into the vile rites of their idolatrous neighbors, despite the clear proofs, with which they had been favored, of the unity and sovereignty of the divine being. That madness of debauchery which was exhibited in the city of Gibeah10 reveals the true source of so obstinate an attachment to the idolatry, which consecrated such vices.

10 Judges 19:22-25.

The idolatry of the ancient Israelites had, moreover, this material circumstance of mitigation. They never, at the very height of their polytheistic madness, formally renounced the worship of Jehovah. The follies of idolatry are endless, and among them a leading one was the belief in what Warburton calls “gentilitial and local gods.” The former accompanied the nations, by whom they were worshipped, in all their migrations; the latter were immovable, fixed to the spots where they were adored, or, as the learned prelate has quaintly expressed it, “the one class were ambulatory, the other stationary.”

Those principles led to an intercommunity of worship, so that the adoption and worship of a new deity was by no means looked upon as a necessary renunciation of those worshipped before. Thus it is recorded of the mixed rabble of idolaters, with whom the king of Assyria, after the conquest and removal of the ten tribes, had peopled Samaria, that “they feared Jehovah, and served their own gods.”11 So also Sophocles makes Antigone say to her father, that “a stranger should both venerate and abhor those things, which are venerated and abhorred in the city where he resides.” Celsus gives, as a reason for such complaisance, the doctrine that the several parts of the world were, from the beginning, parceled out to several powers, each of whom had his own peculiar allotment and residence. It was the same idea that led Plato to adopt and advocate the maxim that nothing ought ever to be changed in the religion we find established in a country.

In accordance with this principle, the Israelites combined the worship of idols with the worship of the true God, who, in amazing condescension, assumed the title of a tutelary local God, and chose Judaea as his peculiar regency. Thus, when the people “made a calf in Horeb,”12it was evidently designed as a representative of the God who had wrought deliverance for them; for Aaron proclaimed a feast to Jehovah, not to Isis or Osiris. So Jeroboam, when he set up the golden calves at Dan and Bethel,13 does not give the slightest intimation of a formal intention to renounce the worship of Jehovah. And Jehu, one of his successors, while he still persists in the sin of Jeroboam, the son of Nebat, that is, in the worship of the calves, actually boasts of being a zealot for Jehovah.14 Instances of the like nature are scattered throughout the Old Testament Scriptures; and they prove conclusively, as Warburton has observed, that “the defection of Israel did not consist in rejecting Jehovah as a false god, or in renouncing the law of Moses as a false religion; but in joining foreign worship and idolatrous ceremonies to the ritual of the true God. To this they were stimulated, as by various other motives, so especially by the luxurious and immoral rites of paganism.”

11 2 Kings 17:4, Psalm 106:19.

12 Exodus 32:4, Psalm 106:19.

13 1 Kings 12:28-33.

14 2 Kings 10:16.


These observations naturally lead us to the inquiry, whether the suppression of idolatry was a design worthy to engage the care of the divine mind—in other words, whether idolatry was matter of mere harmless speculation, or a fountain of dangerous immoralities, and a prolific source of evils to the human race, whenever and wherever it has prevailed.

The religious sentiment has ever been paramount, either for good or for evil, in its action both upon societies and individual. “Wherewith shall I come before Jehovah, and bow myself before the high God; shall I come before him with thousands of rams, or with ten thousands of rivers of oil; shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?”1 is the piercing cry, which our universal nature has sent up to heaven, in all ages of the world. Let the thirty thousand gods of the Greeks and Romans, the costly temples reared for their worship, and the countless hecatombs that smoked upon their altars; let the long and painful pilgrimages of whole armies of devotees to the shrine of their idolatry, and their innumerable and cruel self-tortures, inflicted in the vain hope of thereby securing the divine favor; above all, let the rivers of human blood, shed to glut the rapacity of some sanguinary deity, which have drenched the soil of every nation under heaven, attest the truth of this observation.

1 Micah 6:6-7.

“Religion, says Coleridge, “true or false, is, and ever has been, the center of gravity in a realm, to which all other things must and will accommodate themselves.” The sense which mankind have ever entertained of the power of the religious principle in molding human character, plainly appears in the pains taken by the ancient lawgivers to impress upon those for whom they legislated, an idea of their inspiration by some deity. Monos, lawgiver of the Cretans, often retired to a cave, where he boasted of having familiar conversations with Jupiter whose sanction he claimed for his legislation. Mneves and Amasis, renowned legislators of Egypt, attributed their laws to Mercury. Lycurgus claimed the sanction of Apollo for his reformation of the Spartan government. Pythagoras and Zaleucus, who made laws for the Crotoniates and Locrians, ascribed their institutions to Minerva. Zathraustes, lawgiver of the Arimaspians, gave out that he had his ordinances from a goddess adored by that people. Zoraster and Zamolxis boasted to the Bactrians and the Getae of their intimate communications with goddess Vesta. And Numa amused the Romans with his conversations with the nymph Egeria.

These facts demonstrate a universal persuasion of the controlling energy of the religious sentiment over men’s minds and practices. It cannot, indeed, be otherwise than that the ideas which men entertain of the gods they worship, should constitute a capital element in the formation of their moral character. Like gods, like worshippers. It is vain to expect that the virtue of the devotee will exceed the virtue of the divinity. The worshippers of a bloody Mars, a thievish Mercury, an incestuous Jupiter, and a voluptuous Venus, could hardly help being sanguinary, dishonest, and licentious.

“Gods partial, changeful, passionate, unjust, whose attributes were rage, revenge, and lust,” could never become the authors of the opposite virtues in those by whom they were adored. Whatever sanctions they might annex to their laws, their example would always prove more powerful than their terrors.

Plato excluded poets from his republic, dismissing even Homer, with a garland on his head, and with ointment poured upon him. His object, in this otherwise unaccountable rigor, was that they might not corrupt the right notions of God with their fables. If we consider the absurdity, as well as the immorality, of their fictions, we shall hardly be disposed to blame him. They distinguished the gods in their places and ways of living, in the same manner as they would different sorts of animals. Some they placed under the earth, some in the sea, some in woods and rivers; and the most ancient of them all they bound in hell. Some are set to trades; one is a smith, another is a weaver, one is a warrior and fights with men; others are harpers; and others, still, delight in archery and the chase. Gods of the sea, the rivers, the woods, the hills, and the valleys; gods of smithery, music, and the chase; gods of wine, war, and love—what more besotted could be imagined? The father of the gods himself is fast bound by the fates, so that he cannot, contrary to their decrees, save his own offspring. Not seldom does he resort to policy and craft, nay to the basest disguises and hypocrisies, to accomplish his purposes, which are often of the most shameful nature. Storm, darkness, fear, rage, madness, fraud, and the vilest passions were invested with divinity. Unbounded lusts and disgraceful amours were ascribed by the poets to almost all the gods. There was scarcely a member of the Olympian senate who would now be admitted to decent society among mortals. No wonder that Plato shut out from his commonwealth a class of writers whose extravagant and teeming fancy he regarded as the source of these monstrosities.

It was a principle of polytheism that the supreme God, after he had made the world, retreating, as it were, wholly into himself, had committed the government of it to subordinate deities, and did not interfere in the regulation of human affairs. Thus the temporal blessing of health, long life, fruitful seasons, plenty, safety, victory over enemies, and such like advantages, were to be sought from these demons, or idols. And these blessings were to be obtained, and the opposite evils averted, not by the practice of virtue and beneficence, but by the use of some magical ceremonies, or by the performance of certain senseless and barbarous rites of worship. That this was a fundamental doctrine of idolatry we have undoubted proofs, both from sacred and profane writers. King Ahaz, in 2 Chronicles2, says, “Because the gods of the kings of Syria help them, therefore will I sacrifice to them, that they may help me.” The Prophet Hosea3 represents the Jews of his time as saying, “I will go after my lovers (the idol gods), that give me my bread and my water, my wool and my flax, mine oil and my drink.” To a reproof from Jeremiah for their idolatry, they replied, “As for the word that thou hast spoken unto us in the name of the Lord, we will not hearken unto thee. 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.”4 Here they aver, in substance, that as long as they had worshipped the queen of heaven, all had gone well with them, and her, therefore, they would worship, and to her sacrifice, in spite of his admonitions. To the like purport is the declaration of Plato. In his work De Anima Mundi, speaking of the punishment of wicked men, he says, “All these things hath Nemesis decreed to be executed in the second period by the ministry of vindictive terrestrial demons, who are overseers of human affairs, to which demons the supreme God hath committed the government of this world.”

2 2 Chronicles 28:23.

3 Hosea 2:5.

4 Jeremiah 44:16-18.

But was not this a harmless philosophical dogma? By no means. It was a doctrine, not more false in point of fact, than pernicious in its results. It was a denial of the providence of God. The disbelief of this great truth gave plausibility, attractiveness, and energy to the whole system of idolatry. The supreme being was thought to be too exalted in his dignity to take any concern in human conduct, too remote from this sublunary scene to regard its vicissitude with any interest, too much absorbed in the contemplation of his own infinite perfections to care for the perfection of inferior beings, too much engrossed in the enjoyment of his own independent happiness to feel any desire for the happiness of creatures. Hence his existence came to be, either totally forgotten, or regarded with indifference. However the case might have been with a few philosophic and contemplative minds, to the generality of mankind the true God was as though he were not. They referred not their conduct to his direction, for his power had nothing to do with their happiness or misery. He had delegated to demons the government of this world. The agency of these inferior beings controlled its affairs; their will determined the blessings or calamities of life. While, therefore, it was wise and safe to neglect the supreme being, it was unwise and unsafe to treat with a like indifference the subordinate deities, to whom he had committed the administration of human affairs. Thus men came to think that they were not to expect the blessings of life from the favor of the one true God, by imitating his purity and goodness, but from a Jupiter, stained with crimes that would doom a mortal to the gibbet or the penitentiary; from a Mercury, a thief and a patron of thieves; from a Bacchus, the god of drunkenness; from a Mars, the instigator of war and bloodshed; or from a Venus, the patroness of all manner of voluptuousness and debauchery. Hence they became, almost necessarily, as corrupt in practice, as they were erroneous and groveling in their opinions. The principles of moral goodness were well-nigh extinguished in the human heart, and the practice of the moral virtues had almost disappeared from the earth. And intemperance, ferocity, lust, fraud, and violence might have brought a second deluge upon the race, had not the truth of God stood pledged against the repetition of so dire a calamity.

But further, and worse. Idolatry did not simply lead to vicious practices, it even consecrated vice in its sacred rites. Incredible as it may seem, uncleanness formed a part of the religious worship paid to the gods. Persons of both sexes prostituted themselves in honor of Venus, Priapus, Astarte, Baal-peor, and other filthy and loathsome deities. Of these obscene rites, as constituting a part of the religion of idolaters, we have the clearest proofs in authors of undoubted credit. Strabo informs us that a single temple at Corinth maintained more than a thousand religious prostitutes. Herodotus tells us that women of this description abounded among the Phenicians, Babylonians, and other eastern nations. He even says, that by an express law, founded on an oracle, it was ordained that all the women of Babylon should, at least once in their lives, repair to the temple of Venus, and prostitute themselves to strangers. Strangely enough as it seems to me, an eminent and for the most part judicious author, has labored to prove that this custom must have been conducive to the virtue of chastity. Facts, however, contradict the theory of this learned writer. Babylon, by the testimony of both sacred and profane authors, was one vast sink of pollution. Its inhabitants made a particular study of all that could delight the senses, and excite and gratify the most shameless passions. The women of Cyprus sacrificed their chastity before marriage, to Venus. The Egyptians had religious prostitutes, who were consecrated to Isis. The Isiac rites, transported to Rome, became a mere cloak for licentiousness. Tiberius caused the images of Isis to be thrown into the Tiber. But her worship was too alluring to be suffered to die out and disappear. It was, therefore, subsequently revived in full force, and Juvenal speaks of it in an indignant strain. Selden, De Diis Syriis, has fully shown the impurities of the ancient idolatrous worship. Baccus, Osiris, and Ceres were adored with rites which modesty forbids to explain. That these religious obscenities were practiced in the days of Moses, is manifest from the history of the Israelites, who committed fornication with the daughters of Moab.5 The immorality was perpetrated at a sacrificial festival, the Moabitish women exposing themselves in honor of Baal-peor, who was the same as the Prapus of the Romans. It is further evident from a law of Moses, forbidding a father to prostitute his daughter, “to cause her to be a whore.”6 This law must be understood as prohibiting the exposure of a daughter as an act of religion, for surely no man, not even the vilest and most abandoned, could prostitute a child to purposes of common whoredom.

5 Numbers 25:1-3.

6 Leviticus 19:29.

The necessary consequences of religious doctrines and ceremonies, like those described in the preceding paragraph, was the extinction of all true religious principle, and even of all the principles of moral virtue and goodness. They gave intensity to the depraved appetites of human nature. They put the bridle upon the neck of lust, and caused men to run riot in every species of impurity.

But the ancient mythologists represented their deities under, if possible, a still more malign and repulsive light. The learned professor Meiners says that the more ancient Greeks imagined their gods to be envious of human felicity. Whenever any extraordinary success attended them, they were filled with terror, lest the gods should bring upon them some dreadful evil. Herodotus attributes to Solon, in his interview with Croesus, the formal declaration, “The gods envy the happiness of men.” The Egyptian monarch Amasis grounds the withdrawment of his friendship from Polycrates, tyrant of Samos, on the notoriously envious nature of the divine being. The sage Artabanus warns Xerxes that even the blessing which the gods bestow, are derived from an envious motive. A similar doctrine prevailed at Rome, agreeably to which the great Fabius, as Livy informs us, remonstrated with the Roman people against an election to the consulship in his old age, urging, among other reasons, that some divinity might think his past successes too great for mortal, and turn the tide of fortune against him. In accordance with this doctrine, we find even the reflecting Tacitus expressing the opinion that the gods interfere in human affairs but to punish.

As a necessary consequence, almost the whole of the religion of the ancient pagan world consisted in rites of deprecation. Fear was the leading feature of their religious impressions. Hence arose that most horrid of all religious ceremonies—the rite of human sacrifice. Of this savage custom, Archbishop Magee, in one of the notes appended to his discourses on Atonement and Sacrifice, asserts and proves that there is no nation mentioned in history, which we cannot reproach with having, more than once, made the blood of its citizens to stream forth, in holy and pious ceremonies, to appease the divinity, when he appeared angry, or to move him, when he appeared indolent.

“Conformably with this character of their gods,” adds the same learned prelate, “we find the worship of many of the heathen nations to consist in suffering and mortification, in cutting their flesh with knives, and scorching their limbs with fire. The cruel austerities of the gymnosophists, both of Africa and India; the dreadful sufferings of the initiated votaries of Mithra and Elersis; the frantic and savage rites of Bellona; and the horrid self-mutilations of the worshippers of Cybele, but too clearly evince the dreadful views entertained by the ancient heathens of the nature of their gods.”

Undoubtedly, then, it became the wisdom, the justice, and the goodness of the one true God to check these spreading and direful evils, to bring men back from their polytheistic follies to the belief and worship of himself, and to let them know that he had not parted with the administration of providence, nor given over the disposal of temporal blessings to any subordinate beings whatsoever, so that health, plenty, and all kinds of prosperity were to be sought from him alone and expected as the sole gift of his sovereign bounty. And here we may take notice, in passing, of an opinion of Origen, in which Spencer and others of the learned concur that it was a very wise procedure in Moses to enforce the observance of his laws by the hope of temporal good and the fear of temporal evil. Such hopes and fears were, if not a source of idolatry, at least a means of strengthening it. The Hebrew lawgiver turned this battery, if I may be allowed the expression, against the enemy. In the name of Jehovah, Israel’s divine king, he promised temporal blessings to the obedient, and threatened temporal calamities to the disobedient. Thus the very things which before had been motives to idolatry now became motives and aids to true religion. It may be said without irreverence that a story of necessity was laid upon the true God to proceed in this manner. How could he effectually check the propensity to idolatry; how could he show that he had not delegated to demons the government of the world; how could he vindicate his own incommunicable sovereignty and omnipotence, but by doing, in reality, what the false gods pretended to do?

Upon the same principle it was, I think, that prophecy, in the more restricted sense of foretelling future events, was so much employed under the Hebrew government. The ability to peer into the future was claimed by the ministers of the ancient idolatrous worship, and the people, confiding in their pretensions, consulted them upon all occasions. To meet and overcome the power of superstition in that direction, it would seem natural, and, indeed, almost necessary, that the true God should show, by infallible tokens, that the past, the present, and the future were all one to him.

But the pestilent virus of idolatry was too deeply seated to be eradicated by such agencies as these. The question, then, naturally arises: What just and rational means were adequate to the suppression of it? Opinions are not to be bound by legal enactments; and to enforce mere theological dogmas by the arm of the civil law, would be a gross breach of civil liberty. It would be strange indeed, if a code, to which the world is indebted for most of the true principles of civil freedom, violated that freedom, in a fundamental article of it. And, in truth, however certain ignorant or prejudiced writers may have represented the matter, the constitution of Moses is chargeable with no such inconsistency.

How, then, was Moses able to suppress idolatry, without infringing the principle here announced? By the introduction of the theocratic system into his inspired legislation. “One God only shalt thou serve,” was the first great principle of the Hebrew polity. To the end that this fundamental truth of religion might become a vital element of Hebrew thought, faith, and manners, the one true God became also the covenanted king, the civil head of the Hebrew state. Thus to the Israelite the Deity was both a celestial and a terrestrial sovereign, his God and his king. Viewed as to a main design of it, then, the theocracy was a divine institution, employed the more effectually to supplant idolatry, without a violation of that precious principle of civil liberty, that mere opinions, whether theological, ethical, or political, were not to be cramped and restrained by the pains and penalties of the civil law.

“The records of the Hebrew polity,” observes Coleridge, with a just discrimination, “are rendered far less instructive as lessons of political wisdom by the disposition to regard the Jehovah in that universal and spiritual acceptation, in which we use the word as Christians; for relatively to the Jewish polity the Jehovah was their covenanted king.”

What, then, was the theocracy? God condescended to assume the title and relation to the Hebrew people of chief civil ruler. He established a civil sovereignty over them. He issued his edicts as a civil magistrate. the manner in which the compact, giving reality to this relationship, was formed, deserves particular notice. It is detailed in the nineteenth chapter of Exodus. Moses, acting under a divine commission, proposed to the nation the question, whether they would receive Jehovah for their king, and submit to his laws. The suffrage of the people appears to have been entirely free in this matter. By their own voluntary consent Moses made God their king. Thus idolatry and everything leading to idolatry or growing out of it, became a crime against the state—became, in fact, “crimen læsai majestatis,” high treason, or rebellion. As such, it was justly punishable with death—all governments agreeing in this, that treason is the highest of civil crimes. The punishment of idolatry by law had, then, plainly, this capital quality of justice, that it was punishing the act of those who had chosen the government under which they lived, when freely proposed to them. Their own suffrages had made it a political offense. Hence idolatry is called by the Hebrew writers “the transgression of the covenant.” It was a breach of the fundamental compact between the Hebrew people and their chosen king. The theocracy made religious apostasy a state crime, which it could not be, without infringing liberty, under any other constitution.

It is a material consideration that Moses nowhere deduces God’s right to give laws to the Hebrew nation from his being the one only God, but from his having by miraculous interpositions and works of power, laid the foundation of their state. In confirmation of this view, the reader’s attention is invited to a remarkable passage in Deuteronomy.7 I give the passage, as translated by Michaelis: “When thy son asketh thee in after times, whence come all the statutes and laws, which Jehovah thy God hath given thee? thou shalt say to him, we were in Egypt slaves to the king; but Jehovah, with a strong hand brought us out of Egypt, and did before our eyes great miracles whereby he punished the Egyptians, and Pharaoh and his house; and he brought us out, to give us the land, which he had by oath promised to our fathers: Therefore he commanded us to keep all these laws.” Here the right of legislating for the Hebrews is, in express terms, grounded on the favors which God had bestowed upon them, and not upon his absolute sovereignty as creator and universal lord.

7 Deuteronomy 6:20-24.

What God says to the Israelites in Exodus 20:2-3, is to the same effect: “I am Jehovah, thy God, which have brought thee out of Egyptian bondage; thou shalt have no gods before me.” It would have been quite consonant with sound theology to say, “I Jehovah am God alone; therefore thou shalt have no gods but me.” This fundamental article of religion is taught in many parts of the Mosaic writings. But the opinions of the Israelites were not to be fettered by legal enactments, and yet idolatry must be prohibited on pain of civil punishment. God, therefore, as Michaelis has observed, addressed a people strangely prone to polytheism, to this effect: “Lest you should absurdly suppose, that there are many gods, who can hear your prayers and recompense your offerings, know that I alone have delivered you from Egyptian tyranny, have made you a people, and am the author and founder of your state: Therefore let no gods but me be worshipped among you.”

But it ought never to be forgotten that, although God, by what he wrought for the Israelites, had acquired all the right to be their sovereign, that any man could possibly have, still he neither claimed nor exercised that right in an arbitrary and despotic way. Moses, by his direction, permitted the people freely to choose whether they would accept Jehovah as their king, and obey the laws which he might give them. When they had formally assented to this, God was considered as the king, but not before. The whole world, indeed, was under his moral rule; his dominion as creator embraced all the tribes of earth, but Israel was his peculiar property, whose people had chosen him for their king. The passages of scripture to this effect are surprisingly pointed and striking. The history of the election by the Israelites of Jehovah to be the head of their state, contained in the nineteenth chapter of Exodus, has been before explained and commented on at length. Other passages are no less remarkable. Thus, in Deuteronomy 33:5, it is said, “God was king in Jeshurun, when the heads of the people, and the tribes of Israel were gathered together.” This seems a plain reference to the account in Exodus, and a plain an intimation, that God was made king by the vote of the assembled nation. So when the Israelites first desired a man for a king, God said to Samuel, “They have not rejected thee, they have rejected me, that I should not reign over them.”8 Again, when they were to receive this king, the record is: “Thus saith Jehovah, God of Israel, I brought up Israel out of Egypt, and delivered you out of the hand of the Egyptians, and out of the hand of all kingdoms, and of them that oppressed you; and ye have this day rejected your God, who himself saved you out of all your adversities and your tribulations, and ye have said unto him, Nay, but set a king over us.”9

8 1 Samuel 8:7.

9 1 Samuel 10:18-19.

What is the issue? We have seen the monstrous doctrines, pollutions, and crimes of idolatry. We have seen the justice, wisdom, and goodness of the purpose to put a stop to such dreadful evils. We have seen the nature and ground of God’s claim to the sovereignty of the Hebrew state. We have seen that the government was a voluntary compact between the sovereign and the citizens. We have seen that idolatry under this constitution was a state crime, was in fact high treason. We have seen that the whole scope and hinge of the Hebrew polity was the overthrow of idolatry, and that the theocratic element was introduced into it expressly to further that design. Let the reader consider and weigh these things, and, if he be candid and unbiased, if his mental vision be not warped and clouded by prejudice, he will own, that to have imposed the penalty of death upon the worship of false gods can no longer appear in the light of inquisitorial tyranny.


It will be proper to conclude this chapter with a brief sketch of the religious and moral doctrines of Judaism.

There is one God, says the Jewish lawgiver, and there is none besides him. He is the sole object of religious trust and worship, Himself the supreme being, and the necessary source of all other beings; there is no other that can be compared with him. A spirit, pure, immense, infinite—no material form can be a fit symbol of his nature. He framed the universe by his power; he governs it by his wisdom; he regulates it by his providence. Nothing escapes his omniscient glance; nothing can resist his almighty power. The good and evil of life are alike dispensed by his righteous hand.

A public worship of this God is instituted. Ministers to preside over it are appointed. Sacrifices and offering and a splendid ceremonial are established. But all this pomp is nothing in his eyes, unless prompted and animated by the sentiments of the heart. The worship which he demands, before all and above all, is the acknowledgment of our absolute dependence and of his supreme dominion, gratitude for his benefits, trust in his mercy, reverence for his authority, love towards his excellence, and submission to his law.

What purity and beauty in the moral doctrines of this code! Equity, probity, fidelity, industry, compassion, charity, beneficence—in a word, everything that makes men respectable in their own eyes, everything that can endear them to their fellows, everything that can assure the repose and happiness of society—are placed among the number of human duties.

Where else, in all antiquity, are to be found ideas of God and his worship so just and sublime, religious institutions so pure and spiritual, ethical doctrines so conformable to the sentiments of nature and the light of reason? Recall the picture, presented in a former part of this chapter, of the religious and moral condition of the ancient world. What false and grotesque notions of the divine nature! What extravagant, impure, and cruel rites! What objects of adoration! From the heavenly orbs to the meanest plant, from the man distinguished for his talents or his crimes to the vilest reptile—everything has its worshippers. Here, chastity is sacrificed in the temples. There, human blood flows upon the altars, and the dearest victims expire amid flames, kindled by superstition. Again, nature is outraged by beastly amours, and humanity brutalized by vices that cannot be named without offense. Everywhere the people are plunged into a frightful ignorance, and the philosophers themselves grope in doubt and uncertainty.

Wherefore this difference? But one cause, adequate to the result, can be assigned. All the pagan nations had for their guide only the feeble and tremulous light of human reason. Among the Hebrews, a higher, even the pure and eternal reason, had pierced the darkness, scattered its shades, and poured a divine illumination into the mind of prophet, priest, lawgiver, judge, and king. Thus was the intellect of the nation enlightened, and its heart purified. Thus were its manners humanized, its morals elevated, its institutions liberalized. Thus was the nation educated for its great mission of guidance and of blessing to all the nations of the earth, in all the periods of their history.

The Hebrew government was a government of tutelage. No form of polity has ever approached it in grandeur, purity, simplicity, and beneficence. Had men been more perfect, it would have stood forever. But human inconstancy wearied even of a perfect government; mortal passions corrupted even a divine institution; and the commonwealth of Israel, like the empire of Rome, at length fell beneath the weight of its own vices, and disappeared from the brotherhood of nations. It lives only in history, a monument at once of the divine goodness and equity.