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The Ideas of the Ancient Hebrews* on the Immortality of the Human Soul.

By Isidore Kaempf.

"And Immortality is a great thought."—Klopstock.

At a time when the most important questions concerning Israel and their religion are constantly discussed, a dissertation like ours cannot be unwelcome to the true Israelite,† especially as up to the present moment it was chiefly non-Israelites, who have thought this subject deserving of a more particular elucidation. It is, however, not our intention to criticise the results of the expositions on the subject in question, made out of the pale of Israel; it is our purpose only to arrive at a satisfactory result by an independent inquiry, quite indifferent whether it coincide with the results obtained upon non-Israelitish grounds or not.

* By this term are meant those who lived before the Christian Era, of whom only the author speaks.

† Although we will and can not gainsay, that the true believing Israelite, to whom tradition is a sacred thing, does not need our demonstrations concerning the subject in question to satisfy himself of its truth, we nevertheless dare to hope, that a result obtained through a free inquiry, agreeing with the dogmas of tradition, will, to say the least, not be disagreeable to him. We trust, therefore, that since a free inquiry can be possible only from a point of view lying out of the limits of tradition, some bold expressions, which we may perhaps here and there employ, may not be misunderstood and explained in a manner different from what we mean by them.

The circumstance already, that the descendants of Jacob became a nation upon the soil of Egypt, authorizes us to assume, that they could not have remained strangers to the idea of the immortality of the human soul. The Egyptians conceded immortality to souls in general—this is evident, in part, from their mythology even. As among most other heathen nations, so also among the Egyptians, polytheism originated chiefly from the notion, that meritorious persons are gifted gifted with a divine principle, and that their soul, after its separation from the body, actually becomes endowed with divinity. So were Osiris and Isis, according to Plutarch, (Plut. de Isid. et Osir. cap. 29.) transformed only into gods out of good spirits. If we now turn to their burial ceremonies, whereof, as is well known, the trial of the dead constituted a principal part,* we will be absolutely convinced that they believed in the immortality of the human soul.† Now, the Israelitish lawgiver was not only educated as an Egyptian prince, and consequently initiated in all the mysteries of the Egyptian priests, but the Israelitish people likewise stood in too close connection with the Egyptians, to remain ignorant of the current of their ideas. If even the greatest portion of the Israelites dwelt in the province of Goshen, many of them were nevertheless found in other provinces, nay, in the very capital, (Exod. 2.11-15,) as per contra many Egyptians lived in Goshen. This appears to have been so, particularly from the words of Moses to Pharaoh, הן נזבח את תועבת מצרים ולא יסקלנו "How should we slay the abomination of the Egyptians before their eyes and they not stone us." (Exod. 8.22.‡) Among these circumstances it could not be otherwise, than that Egyptian notions should gradually find entrance with the Israelites, and maintain their ground among them, as the history of their forty years' wanderings in the desert amply confirms to have been actually the case in many respects. But let us abstract ourselves from the relations which the Israelites bore to the heathen Egyptians, and rather endeavour to obtain a solution concerning the first conceptions of the immortality of the human soul from the Mosaic constitution itself.

* According to Diodorus, of Sicily, the deceased, who was adjudged righteous, was by a universal praise, so to say, canonized and assigned to life immortal among the pious. Diod. Sicul. Biblioth. Christ lib. i. cap. 92.

† Herodotus calls them the first who recognised the human soul as immortal. Herod. lib. ii. c. 123.

‡ Of late several quasi interpreters of Scripture have again attempted to warm up that long-since exploded fancy, that the motive of the persecution of the Hebrews on the part of the Egyptians should have been found in the contempt the latter felt for the former. This interpretation could have sprung only out of ignorance, if not another and worse source; for a person need only to cast but one glance at the Scriptures to discover that the motive of the first persecution of Israel was just the same as that which has proved itself to be the main cause of all the persecutions which this nation has ever experienced up to the present day; that is to say, the avarice and envy of the persecutor. Pharaoh said to his people: "The nation of the children of Israel becomes too great and too mighty for us," (Ex. 10. 9,) and he feared "they might remove from the Land" (Ib. 10.9,) ; but if he had despised them, he would gladly have allowed them to depart. As we have already indicated in the text; Egypt had no ghetto; but we read expressly in Exod. 3.22, that Israelites and Egyptians lived in the same house. It is said in that verse: "Let every (Hebrew) woman ask of her (Egyptian) neighbour, and the dweller of her house," &c. Nay, from the account which profane writings give us of the architecture of the ancient Egyptians, that these did not subdivide their dwellings into rooms, we are justified, if not even compelled, to assume that Egyptians and Hebrews lived together in the self-same room.

The Mosaic code has this in common with the constitutions of many other nations of antiquity, that it establishes the closest union between the STATE and RELIGION; but it is contradistinguished from them in this, that, whilst they viewed the state as the chief concern, and religion as the supporter of the state, it on the contrary looked upon religion as the principal, and the state as the mere servant of religion. This principle of the Mosaic code is fully apparent from all its institutions. Let us explain the matter more fully. The constitution of the state is a republican, or rather a patriarchal one. Wise and experienced men, who possess the confidence of the public, are elected judges. (Deut. 1.13.) Before the tribunals no person is respected; there is neither nobility nor privilege. (Lev. 25. 38-43.) There is nothing said about paying the officers of state; whoever can become useful to his fatherland, shall become so from pure motives. (Num. 14.15.) The tribe of Levi alone, which, owing to its spiritual functions, cannot devote itself to industrial occupations, receives from the other tribes, to which it cedes its share in the land, an indemnity for this cession in the produce of the earth. The country supports no standing army; every male person is a defender of the paternal soil. Nevertheless, in case of war, no pressgang or kidnappers are sent about; but it is left to each man to come voluntarily to the ranks of his country's defenders. (Ibid. 31.3.) Because not coercion, but pure love for the fatherland and its constitution shall be the inducement for its defence.* Nay, before every battle it is the duty of a priest to admonish the patriotically minded, but physically weak warriors, not to over-estimate their powers, but rather remain behind. (Deut. 20.2-10.) Moreover, no offensive war is countenanced, with the exception of those wars with the Canaanites, which were absolutely necessary for the safe existence of the, nation and its constitution; because Israel is to be a people dedicated to God, loving peace, and in nowise desirous of conquests. (Num. 6.26.) In order that a fortunate general may not make an improper use of his position, and seek under the cloak of religion to carry out any ambitious plans for his own advantage: it is made his duty to lay first the motives for his wars before the high-priest, in order to have them duly controlled by the same. (Num. 27.21.) The first thing which to fulfil is made the duty of the nation, after the occupation of Canaan, is to select a city calculated from its position and other circumstances, to serve as the seat of the central worship, whither every male is to perform pilgrimages on the three chief festivals of the year. (Ex. 34.23.) The object of these pilgrimages is not to contend for the price either in a Hippodromos or a Stadium, but as the constitution gives it in explicit words:למען תלמד ליראה ה אלהיך כל הימים "that thou mayest learn to fear the Lord thy God all, the days." (Deut. 14.23.) How far the right of property of the nation to the country extends, is shown us by the following law. Landed property cannot be sold permanently, "for the land is mine, for ye are but strangers and sojourners with me." (Lev. 25.23.) God is, according to this, the feudal Lord, and the inhabitants are his vassals. Notwithstanding this it is recommended to the nation, in respect of its industrial pursuits, to devote itself to agriculture, that it may not, in imitation of its neighbours the Phoenicians, resort to commerce, and thereby come in connection with heathens of other countries.† To protect the land against unlabouring capitalists, the loaning on interest is entirely prohibited. (Lev. 25. 37.) The dignity of the high-priest is at the same time the first dignity in the state;‡ the nation, nevertheless, is empowered under circumstances of emergency ; to invest a meritorious person out of its midst with the royal dignity; so, however, that this titular king dare not permit himself any encroachments upon the constitution; on the contrary, it is the first condition of his ascending the throne to subscribe with his own hand the magna charta of the nation. והיה כשבתו על כסא ממלכתו וכתב לו את משנה התורה "And it shall come to pass that when he sit upon the throne of his kingdom, he shall write for himself a copy of this law," &c. (Deut. 17.18.) He has neither the right to keep an army, nor to accumulate riches, and upon the whole he has to restrict himself in all earthly enjoyments. (Ib. 16-18.) He stands, like every other general, under the control of the high priest, and it is incumbent on him, like upon every other member of the nation, to study diligently the law of the Lord, "in order that he may learn to fear the Lord his God, to observe all the words of this law and these statutes to do them; that his heart be not lifted up above his brethren, and that he turn not from the commandment to the right or to the left." (Ib. 19.20.) Only when he responds completely to all these expectations, is the royal dignity permitted to become hereditary in his family.§

* The legislator depended much upon the native courage of his nation, and history amply proves that he did not deceive himself. Never did the cry "to arms!" resound in vain in the valleys of Israel; there were always, if any thing, too many, rather than too few. (Judg. 7.4.) It was accounted a high honour to be summoned to take part in a war, for which service people proved themselves worthy by always obeying the summons with alacrity; so, on the other side, was it considered a great offence not to be informed of a summons to battle, and in a greater degree to be sent back from the ranks. (Judg. 12.1; 2 Chron. 25.11.) Truly this is no characteristic of an unwarlike people. If now notwithstanding this, with the exception of the wars with the Canaanites, the Israelites held themselves on the defensive, we must seek for the reason of this fact only in the Mosaic constitution, and nowise in the spirit of the people.

† This principle seems also to be the basis of the law of the release year, according to which every seventh year, reckoned from the entrance of the people in Canaan, the fields were not to be cultivated. (Lev. 25. 2‑7.) The fruitfulness of the soil could easily lead to an exportation of grain, and consequently to an intercourse with foreign countries; but since the fields had to lie fallow every seventh year, there was necessarily much hesitation against exporting into foreign parts the annual supplies which might be required at home at those times.

‡ Nevertheless it is without any direct civil power, except the priest be the judge in the last instance, and upon consultation in affairs of war, as above, Ed. Oc. 

§ All these prescriptions have been carried out in the sequel. At the time of the prophet Samuel, the military condition of the Israelites seemed to require a monarchy, when the people chose the brave Saul as their king; but when he would not be satisfied with a constitutional throne, the hereditary right of the royal dignity was denied to his family. Thereupon was the hero and poet-prince David; anointed king of Israel, who understood better his position with regard to the Mosaic constitution, and therefore acquired for himself the hereditary right of the crown in his family. Pedants who arrogate much political knowledge pretend to cast the odium of an hierarchal assumption upon the conduct of Samuel against Saul; this procedure might be pardoned in them if they remained consequent in their judgment concerning similar cases. The conduct of Samuel is the less to be blamed, because it was purely constitutional. Much praise is bestowed upon those Greeks, who denied a compliment to a Persian monarch; according to our conception, we should bestow a greater share of admiration, if we behold a weak, grayheaded man daring to rebuke with firmness, and to confine within his proper limits a crowned general, who, drunk with victory, permits himself encroachments in the constitution of his country.

Wherever now we turn our view in the Mosaic constitution, we discover religion as the only ruling power, to which every thing else is bound to render homage: military fame, a profitable commerce with foreign countries, the splendour of a monarchy, whatever else subserves to the political greatness of a nation—every thing, is sacrificed to religion. And this religion is one that circumscribes its possessor in the narrowest limits in all earthly enjoyments. If he seats himself at table, his very morsels are pointed out by his religion. (Exod. 22.30; 23.19; Lev. 7.23-28;11.1-12, &c.) Does he wish to walk abroad on the Sabbath, it measures for him the steps he may take. (Exod. 16.29.) Does he feel inclined to make himself a garment, it tells him what stuff to use. (Deut. 22.11.) Nay, the innocent hope even (which impelled Grecians and Romans to deeds that live in the history of the world) to be immortalized by means of a statue, is destroyed for him, because his religion prohibits all sorts of statues. (Exod. 20.4.) In a word, its constant watchword is Self-Denial! The question now recurs, what price does this religion offer to its professor for all the sacrifices which it demands of him? The answer to this question shall be the subject of discussion in our next article.