Index Previous Page Next Page

The Hebrews or Jews.

The people called Hebrews, or Jews, have had a greater influence on the world than all the great empires of the ancient East with which they were so closely connected. They were once men of the Arabian desert, where they lived a wandering life as shepherds with their flocks and herds. As we have seen, one of their earliest shepherd chiefs was Abraham, and the Bible tells how he "went down into Egypt to sojourn there." Centuries after Abraham, as we know from the Old Testament, some of the Hebrew tribes became slaves in Egypt, "where Joseph was made governor over all the land."

Moses (c. 1250 B.C.), the great national hero, led the tribes out of their captivity in Egypt (the Exodus) towards the "promised land" of Canaan, and gave them the Ten Commandments. In Canaan the Hebrew tribes settled with their flocks and herds, though they were not yet masters of the land (see Book of Judges). There they were threatened by a more civilized and warlike people called the Philistines, whom the early Greeks had driven out of Crete. ("Palestine is Philistine" in an altered form.) By this time rich and highly civilized kings were ruling at Damascus. They used the alphabetic writing which they learnt from the Phonicians, and in time their language (called Aramaic) spread throughout the Bible Lands, and it was the language spoken later by Our Lord.

After their settlement in Palestine the Hebrews chose a king called Saul (about 1000 B.C.), who was still a nomad, living in a tent like his forefathers. The next king, David, preferred to live in a strong castle at Jerusalem; he was great as warrior and great as poet, for he was the author or inspirer of religious songs called Psalms. His son Solomon loved the luxurious ways of the Eastern despots; he built a great palace and a great Temple -- the House of God "garnished with precious stones for beauty." Today not a stone of the Temple remains, though we can still see it with the mind's eye as we read of it in the Second Book of Chronicles (chap. iii.).

The Bible story tells how Hiram, king of Tyre, helped Solomon to build the Temple. The Phoenicians had, like the Hebrews, come from the desert. By this time they were the great sailors and traders (Old Testament: Ezekiel xxvi-xxviii) of the Mediterranean, and they founded their towns all along its coasts. They were probably already trading as far as Cornwall, and importing from thence tin to make bronze.

In time there arose among the Hebrews great religious leaders, or prophets, who, like Amos, clad in his sheepskin, denounced the luxury of the northern tribes, and tried to destroy the local gods, "or baals," and to restore the worship of Jehovah.

Jerusalem, the ancient capital of the Jews, was besieged by the warlike Assyrians under their king Sennacherib, but the city was saved by a pestilence which broke out in the king's terrible army (701 B.C.); the prophet Isaiah roused his people from despair, and taught them that their God was not a mere local god, but the Lord of the world.

Later on, Nebuchadnezzar destroyed Jerusalem itself {586 B.C.), and exiled the people to Babylon. The Hebrew nation seemed thus to be wiped out, only 400 years after the time of Saul.

"By the rivers of Babylon,

There we sat down, yea, we wept,

When we remembered Zion (Jerusalem) ...

How shall we sing Jehovah's song

In a strange land?" -- Ps. cxxxvii, 1-4.

There, in sorrow and exile, the scattered people learnt the great lesson of one God of righteousness ruling all men as their loving Father.

Some fifty years later a Persian king, who then held Babylon, allowed the Hebrews to return to Jerusalem, where they rebuilt their city and Temple. Here, on rolls of papyrus, with Egyptian pen and ink, they set themselves to edit the writings which we call the Old Testament -- our greatest legacy from the ancient East. Thus, the once primitive shepherd people of the desert -- who never founded an empire -- became the greatest religious teachers of the world.