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The Jews and the Mosaic Law

By Isaac Leeser (1843).


To Chapter II.

Some unfortunate critic (the Archaeologist in the Monthly Magazine for August, 1814) has attempted to prove that the book of Exodus and a part of Genesis were composed about the time of Jeremiah, mainly on the following grounds: first, because the book of Exodus, chap. 25. contains a description of the candelabras to be used in the temple, which was to consist of seven branches, and Solomon (so says the Archaeologist) was ignorant of this commandment, because he made eleven single candlesticks, each holding one light (1 Kings, chap. vii. v.49,): secondly, because the motto, HOLINESS TO THE LORD, which is ordered in Exodus to be put on all the temple-plate!!! was not upon the utensils of the first temple, but it was in use during the second temple, (by which, I suppose, he wishes to insinuate that the motto was engraved upon the utensils of the second temple); for proof we are referred to Zech. chap. xiv. v.20: and, lastly, as to the book of Genesis, whereas it contains (chap. 36:31) a list of eight kings who reigned in Idumea — לפני מלך מלך לבני ישראל which is rendered in the English version, "before there reigned any king over the children of Israel" — from this it follows, that the book was not written till long after Moses, i.e. after the introduction of royalty among the Israelites; and since the princes of Edom are mentioned in chap. 15:15, of Exodus, the Archaeologist draws another argument against this latter book having been redacted to its present form before Jeremiah. Reader, have you ever heard ignorance presuming to teach wisdom? If not, please to procure for your perusal the 38th volume of Sir R. Phillips's Monthly Magazine, and when you have read, with the utmost attention what is said there, pp. 34, 35, by the learned critic, in relation to the antiquity of the biblical writings, you will agree with me, that hardly a more foolish piece of criticism was even committed to paper, and that no man could be more ignorant of the subject he presumes to discuss, than our would-be learned antiquarian. Let us see what he says in relation to the first reason he gives for his assertion, that Solomon must have been ignorant of what is contained in the twenty-fifth chapter of Exodus — because he made "eleven single candlesticks." I did consult the passage in the seventh chapter of the first book of Kings; but, unfortunately for the Archaeologist's position, the Hebrew word used is המנרות which ought to be translated "the candelabras," but not "the candlesticks;" and, in fact, the verse concludes with — "and the flower-works, and the lamps, and the tongues were gold." I will but briefly state that נר (Ner) means a single lamp; מנרה (Menorah), however, an assemblage of lamps, or candelabras, plural, מנרות, several assemblages of lamps, or simply candelabra; in short, Ner and Menorah bear the same relation in Hebrew as mount and mountain do in English. The ה is equivalent to the English definite article the; and for these reasons המנרות should be translated as I have done, and this must be apparent to every one, even if he be entirely unacquainted with the Hebrew. If the Archaeologist had now but reflected what could be meant by the definite article, he would have come to the conclusion that it alludes evidently to a known form, which form is given in, in continuation, to be flowerwork, lamps, and tongues: and is this not the same as we find recorded and commanded in Exodus, chap. 25?

To his second objection I may answer explicitly, that the critic overshot the mark altogether. The inscription he speaks of, which, by the by, ought properly speaking, to be given in English, HOLY TO THE ETERNAL was ordered to be engraved on the golden plate only, which the high priest wore over the mitre; but I defy the Archaeologist, if he yet lives, or any other person who has adopted his opinions, to produce even the shadow of evidence to prove that this inscription was to be upon any other utensil spoken of in Exodus. Was Solomon now to blame for not doing that for which he had not the least warrant in the Pentateuch? But our critic, to show his complete ignorance, concludes — "but (the motto) was in use on the return from captivity;" and refers to Zechariah, chap. 14:20. This verse, however, speaks not of the utensils in use during the second temple, but relates to the time of the Messiah, for the prophet days: "In that day there shall be upon the bells of the horses, HOLY TO THE ETERNAL;" and if this is taken in connection with the whole of the fourteenth chapter, every intelligent reader will easily discover, without any aid of mine, the time of which Zechariah treats.

It will thus be seen, that the second objection is too puerile to deserve further refutation. We now come to the reason given to prove that Moses was not the author of Genesis. The whole objection rests upon the words, "before there reigned any king of the children in Israel;" but if we insert a single particle, namely, "yet," and read "before there yet reigned," &c. all difficulties will be at once removed; and Moses, then, meant to say, that up to his time eight kings had been reigning over Edom, whereas the Israelites had no king yet. But some one may ask me: "What proof can you produce that your construction is the correct one?" I will then give this as my reason: Saul, the first king of Israel, was chosen about four hundred years after the Exodus; the Israelites resided, at the lowest calculation, two hundred and ten years in Egypt, during all which time there were probably kings in Idumea. I will not adopt the opinion of the critic, the average reign of these eight kings will be found to have been seventy-six years! But allow that the last of these kings lived in Moses's time: the whole duration of their collective reign may then be put down at two hundred and fifty, and the average reign of each at thirty-one years. I will not add one word more, but leave it for all judicious men to decide which hypothesis is the most reasonable.

If, then, the thirty-sixth chapter of Genesis be no objection to its being written by Moses, no argument can be drawn from it against the authenticity of chap. 15:15, of Exodus, because allusion is there made to the dukes of Edom. The Archaeologist is further mistaken in supposing that the Jewish archives, as he is pleased to style our sacred canon, were ever kept in the ark; for in this ark were only the two tables on which the Decalogue was inscribed by superhuman agency; but the Pentateuch itself was kept at the side מצד of the ark. (See Deut. chap. 31:26.) When, therefore, the critic wishes to draw a distinction between the "canon of the ark" and the "canon of the temple" — a distinction entirely unknown to the Hebrews, because in Solomon's time there were only the two tables, (but not nothing, as A. says,) in the ark, and no other archives (1 Kings, chap. 8:9,) — he comes to an altogether erroneous conclusion; for the very assertion of the passage in Kings, "that there was nothing in the ark save the two tables which Moses had placed there in Horeb," proves most incontestably the truth of the opinion I have ventured to advance.

That, during the reigns of Menasseh and his son, who were very wicked, and addicted to idolatry, the study of the law was much neglected, and that, in consequence, the copies of it had become scarce, is extremely probable. When, therefore, Josiah had read the contents of the book which was found in the temple, in the twenty-sixth year of his age, and the eighteenth of his reign, he sent to the prophetess Huldah, to enquire of her if she had received any revelation concerning what God intended to do to the Israelites, because they had transgressed the commandments contained in the book which had been found. What evidence can be produced to establish that this book was not the same that was delivered to the Levites by Moses? I may answer, none whatever. On the contrary, when a person reads the twenty-second chapter of the 2nd Kings, he will, if not predetermined not to be convinced, come to the inevitable conclusion, that the book was the entire Pentateuch, since Josiah observed precepts scattered indiscriminately through the whole law, (particularly Exodus). And if it even will not be admitted, (because the supposition be too bold,) that the book was the autograph of Moses, given to the Levites just before his death, to be kept at the side of the ark, that is inside of the temple, in the holy of holies, to be there as an evidence against the Israelites, — every one must confess that it must have been a similar one.

The Archaeologist is further pleased to inform the world, that "the Hebrew was never the vernacular language of Palestine," and that the Hebrew bible now extant is "a translation from the original language, made for the use of the Babylonian court, to enable it the better to govern the conquered province." If any man were to come forward and say, that the Declaration of Independence is a translation of a Chinese document, written three thousand years before the creation: he could hardly be more absurd than the Archaeologist is in saying, that the Hebrew was not the vernacular tongue of the Jews, but of the Babylonian court. If he had but turned over to the book of Daniel, he would have seen that the language called Hebrew was not the one spoken in Nebuchadnezzar's palace, and that there is a radical difference between the Hebrew and the Chaldean languages; and that the latter was the one spoken and understood by the Babylonians. Daniel, therefore, when he speaks of what occurred in the king's palace, uses the last mentioned language; but when he narrates his visions and prayers, and in the first chapter, he uses his own vernacular tongue, the Hebrew. If, now, the Hebrew was not vernacular in Palestine, how do the Scriptures exist at all in that language? Could the Babylonians possibly have ordered a translation into this language, when they and the Jews were ignorant of it? What should have been the use of it? Turn the matter as you will, you must arrive at the conclusion, that the Hebrew was the language spoken by the Israelites, previous to their abduction to Babylon, and that the Scriptures ever existed in this same language, and in the same style in which we now possess them.

The Archaeologist also says, "that the Decalogue must be an interpolated fragment, introduced after the captivity." His reasons are, first, because Joshua did inscribe the Decalogue existing in his time on a single altar; and, secondly, because the long fling against sculpture would not have been inserted till after the destruction of the brazen serpent. (2 Kings, chap. 18:4.) Let us consider these objections.

1. "Could Joshua inscribe the Decalogue, as now existing, in large legible letters on a single altar?" I answer, yes, for in Exodus, chap. 27:1, we read that the altar made in the wilderness was to be five cubits long, five cubits broad, and three cubits high; let it also be considered that this altar was carried about from place to place, but that the one built by Joshua upon mount Ebal was a permanent structure, built of blocks of entire and unhewn stone, and so large that the whole Deuteronomy was written on it. (Joshua, chap. 8:32.) If we now even admit that only the Decalogue was inscribed on this altar, (which, however, remains to be proven, for not a word is said about the Decalogue,) and that the altar itself was of no larger dimensions than the one made by Moses, it will yet strike every one, that there was room enough for the Decalogue upon a surface of sixty square cubits, if the letters were of any reasonable size.

2. "Could the inhibition against sculpture have been known before Hezekiah?" Again I must answer in the affirmative. "But did not Moses make the brazen serpent?" Certainly; but this was by the special command of God. The reason for this order may perhaps have been this: the Israelites, discontented with the manna, began to murmur, and to desire something which they thought better. (Numb. chap. 21:5.) God, to punish them, sent poisonous serpents amongst them, who killed a "large number of Israel." Being now convinced of their sin, and conscious of their ingratitude towards God and Moses, they besought him to pray for them to the Eternal, to remove the reptiles from them. Moses thereupon was ordered to make a serpent, and fix it upon a staff, that every one bitten might see it, and when seeing it remember his sins, ask forgiveness, and thus obtain a prolongation of life. As we also read in Tractate Rosh Hashanah, chap. iii. ยง 8: "And thus it is also said: 'Make thyself a serpent, and place it upon a staff, and it shall be that every one who is bitten, and looks at it, shall live.' But how could the serpent kill or keep alive any man? The serpent itself could not; but when the Israelites looked towards it on high, and subdued their hearts to their Father in heaven, they were cured; and if not, they perished." This, then, was the object of the brazen serpent; but it was done away with as soon as the occasion for which it was made had passed; and we find no mention made of it till Hezekiah, who destroyed it because the idolaters in his father's time had paid it adoration, contrary to law. In short, the brazen serpent was but a temporary suspension of a negative precept, similar to Elijah's sacrifice on Carmel (see above, page 147); but this precedent was on no account to be imitated; and can any proof be adduced that it ever was by those judges and kings who lived according to the precepts of the law? It will therefore be seen from the foregoing, that the length of the Decalogue is no argument against its identity, and that the "long fling" against sculpture is any thing but interpolated.

The next subject for enquiry is what the Archaeologist says in regard to the feelings towards the Egyptians displayed in the second book, the Exodus, namely. He has discovered that its intention is to rouse hatred towards the Egyptians in the bosom of the Jews, I suppose he means by the narrative of our long sufferings in Egypt. But the insinuation that Jeremiah therefore must have been the author, (so says the Archaeologist,) is as false as the inference is unjust. I do not suppose that any person will doubt, or even doubt, that the situation of the Israelites in Egypt was the most abject and miserable. A historian of our people, intimately acquainted with all that occurred, and confining himself strictly to facts, transmits an account of the hardships of our ancestors to posterity, that the latest descendants of Jacob may learn to know the great wonders and the unbounded mercy of God; in redeeming His people from a state worse than death. How can he be charged with sinister motives in so doing? Shall history not speak what is true, because, forsooth, prejudice might be roused against tyrants and oppressors? Shall vice be unblushingly practiced, and virtue not even dare to raise her voice to denounce the evil? This ought certainly not to be. And the tyrant will ever be abhorred, and the wicked be denounced, as long as men love freedom, and preserve a due regard for virtue.

If, then, the book of Exodus were to give an exaggerated account of our affliction in Egypt, the charge might perhaps be sustained; or if the Pentateuch would even insinuate that if it were lawful to hate the people of that country, the author might then be accused, with some show of reason at least, of displaying too much acrimony. But neither is the case: all our sufferings are described in about fifty verses, and that without comment, which was indeed unnecessary, for the enormities practiced towards us required not many words to make them odious; and so far from our being ordered to hate the Egyptians, we are commanded (Deut. chap. 23:8,) to receive the grandson of an Egyptian proselyte into the congregation, "because we were strangers in his land;" and this surely looks very different from hating our former oppressors. If Jeremiah, now, had altered the Pentateuch, and added just what he pleased, would he have suffered the last passage adduced to remain as a damning record against him? Surely not. Upon the whole, it will be self-evident that all the outcry of the Archaeologist is mere imagination, and the emanation of a mind filled with prejudice, and bent upon weakening the authority of the Mosaic law; and that the whole is no more founded upon truth, than his concluding assertion, or rather insinuation, that Jeremiah quoted at Babylon documents altogether new to him, up to the time of his making the selections for composing the Pentateuch (!); which must be untrue, for Jeremiah never was in Babylon, since we know from his own account, that he fled from Palestine into Egypt. This country he never left afterwards, for he died there; and I defy any person to produce the slightest proof to establish that he ever was in Babylon. The charges made by the Archaeologist against Jeremiah for want of patriotism require no refutation, as every body will no doubt be gladly inclined to acquit him of a crime — for crime it is — of which Jews are but seldom guilty; for a national feeling, deep-rooted and heartfelt, is their principal characteristic. And do not the Lamentations of Jeremiah of themselves sufficiently prove how deeply he felt and mourned for the downfall of Jerusalem?

Since some of my readers may perhaps think this criticism of mine out of place, I deem it necessary to state the following reason as my justification. Having seen by accident the remarks of the critic, I thought to myself, who is this uncircumcised Philistine, that he blasphemes so against our holy law? Again I reflected, and found that his arguments were perhaps as good as can be adduced in favor of his position. I resolved therefore, to refute them, thinking that, by doing so, I should in the best manner possible establish the assertion at the head of the second chapter; and I hope that I have proved almost beyond a doubt that Moses, and Moses alone, must have been the writer of the books which bear his name.

In conclusion, I would remark, that most objections raised against the authenticity of the Bible are predicated upon the lack of understanding of our language and our customs; and it therefore happens that, whether they are urged by a Voltaire, a Paine, a Cooper, or an unlearned man of the lowest degree, they all bear the characteristic of consisting more of assertion without proof than of sound argument. And however formidable they may appear to one who only reads a translated Bible, which naturally must contain more or less inaccuracies, they can weigh but little with one acquainted with the language and habits of the people to whom the Bible was given. Much more might be added; but the length to which the subject has been carried already admonishes me to desist for the present.

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