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The Jews and the Mosaic Law

By Isaac Leeser (1843).

Chapter 3

Moses an Authentic Historian.

Having in the preceding chapter endeavored to establish, to the best of my limited abilities, that Moses was the author of the books which are known by his name: we must now proceed to the second point of enquiry:

"Is Moses entitled to credibility, as a historian?"

Our conviction or knowledge may be referred as proceeding from three causes: first, we are convinced of any thing, that is, we know it to be true, because we were eye-witnesses, or have other personal knowledge of the fact; secondly, because we hear it related by persons, who profess to have seen or experienced it, and in whose veracity we place confidence; and lastly, because we read events described in books, and though the author, or what is the same, the narrator, himself be not present, to tell us his narrative by word of mouth, we may nevertheless believe confidently, first, that the professed author was an eye-witness of the described event, or that his source of information was undoubted; and lastly, that his narrative is in conformity with truth, or, what is the same, that the events related actually occurred.

The limited faculties of man will not allow him, to be an eye-witness of many things; and, since he cannot be at different places at the same moment of time, he must receive, whatever happens out of his presence, upon the good faith of others; for he would assuredly be, and ever remain, woefully uninformed of the affairs of life and the discoveries of science, should he reject every thing as untrue, which did not fall under his own personal observation.

Since our acquaintance with external facts can only commence from the time of our birth, we are thereby prevented from having personal knowledge of what occurred before our time; we cannot resort to eye-witnesses for information, as every human being alive is comparatively of but recent date. If therefore we wish to be informed of what took place before our time, we must needs seek this information from books; secondly, from those who have read them, in case we cannot read them ourselves, and lastly from monuments and popular tradition.

Of all the above sources of information, or conviction, that is undoubtedly the safest, which results from our own actual observation and the perception of our senses; the second best is that, which is derived from living witnesses, who impart to us what they know by experience; and the last is that, which is drawn from books, monuments and tradition.

Though, generally speaking, to see is to believe; we will yet frequently find, that we may be deceived, although we have the thing to be investigated actually before us. The reason of this is, that many things, presented to our view, are not sufficiently known or understood by us, to enable us to form a correct judgment; and even when this is not the case, we are frequently so much biased by prejudice, as to suffer it to warp our judgment to such a degree, that we are led to judge altogether erroneously, though under other circumstances we would be able to form a strictly correct opinion, if our feelings were not enlisted, on the one side or the other.

When we derive our information from living witnesses, we are too apt to suffer our judgment to be swayed by the feelings of our informants, particularly, if our interest coincides, with theirs; so, on the contrary, we are often, from no other cause than private pique, predisposed to differ altogether with our informants, because we may prefer finding them, or their friends, in the wrong, or shut our ears against conviction, from a mere spirit of contradiction. But as we are here not so much personally engaged, as if we were the actors, or immediate spectators, we will frequently, upon reflection, be disposed to alter our opinions, and bring them down to a proper standard of reasoning, much oftener at least, than if our feelings were more immediately enlisted, by our personal observation or actual participation.

When at last books, monuments, or traditions, are our guides to knowledge, though we may even here be more inclined to one side, than the other, we will yet certainly, and almost invariably, be enabled to form a more correct opinion, than in the first two cases.

Thus we see, that each mode of acquiring information has its advantages and disadvantages; and indeed it often happens, that though we ourselves are unjust towards a third person, our neighbors will understand our dispute better, and, however favorably inclined towards us, will decide in his favor: — and again, posterity will esteem a man great and glorious, whom his contemporaries suffered to starve.

I am inclined to believe, that the foregoing will be sufficient to show, that we may derive positive information without ocular evidence, or else, that our mind must be a blank, and ignorant of the most important concerns of life, and of those things, which are the most conducive to our happiness. In fact, the world in general has ever thought so, since, from time immemorial, history has afforded instruction and amusement, and has been generally received as true; besides, the example of great deeds has roused many a noble mind into activity, which might otherwise have lain dormant, or exhausted its vigor in works, if not pernicious, at least useless to society.

But some one may ask: "How far is it reasonable to rely upon any thing I hear, or find related in books? What rule am I to observe, to guard myself against being imposed upon?" Here let us pause a moment, and reflect: how does it appear to our conviction, that any thing has actually occurred, and that our impression of any supposed fact is not a phantom of the imagination? First, from the effect the occurrence has produced; secondly, from preceding, accompanying, or subsequent circumstances; and lastly, from the impression it made at the same time upon others, if others there were, to witness the occurrence at the same time with us. — For instance, let us suppose, that a number of persons should be assembled in a well built house, and that this had the appearance of being a structure which could endure for ages. Now let us imagine, that a sudden concussion of the earth were to rend this building asunder, and bury the persons there assembled amidst the tumbling ruins; that only one should be dug out alive, and recover his recollection by degrees, after weeks of sickness and mental darkness, and then, finding himself surrounded by strangers, call for those who were with him when the earthquake took place; now even assume, that he receive at first an evasive reply, as for instance, that they would soon come; is it not highly probable, that his own returning reason will soon convince him of the reality of the case? His being where he is, will tell him, upon reflection, that something dreadful must have taken place, and the sudden tumbling of the strong walls, the shock, which he himself experienced, will force upon him the melancholy conclusion, that he shall see his friends no more; and no matter how faint his knowledge of the actual occurrence of the earthquake may be at first, the effect it had upon him will undoubtedly teach him that it actually did occur. — In the second case; you are in a room, and hear a conversation, to which you pay no particular attention; to be sure, you hear it, but yet do not think it of consequence enough to charge your memory with it. After some time suppose a friend comes to you, and asks: "Do you recollect what such a one said on that day?" At first, you will barely recollect that a conversation took place at all; but if he draws your attention to various circumstances, which accompanied this conversation, you will very probably recollect the whole or the essential part at least, which would have been absolutely impossible, but for the accompanying circumstances.— In the third place, let us suppose that a sudden meteor flashes before our eyes, but that its transit is so quick as to leave us in doubt if we are mistaken in our impression or not; but if we hear others say that they too saw a meteor, we shall then be convinced of the truth of our first although imperfect impression.

In the same manner may historical correctness be tested; first, by effects; secondly, by circumstances which are known to have taken place; and thirdly, by general impression, except when it is contrary to previously well attested facts. — Historical effect is every thing produced by events related in, or made known by, history; thus is the independence of the United States an effect or consequence, in the first instance of the Declaration of Independence, and in the next, of the subsequent war. — In this class may also be reckoned what are called the remains of antiquity, as ruins, ancient buildings, monuments, and manuscripts. — To the second class belong conversations, said to have been held by persons, who are no more in being, which derive their claim to authenticity, merely from the known character of those persons; further, such incidents as have been transmitted to us in historical records, which are rendered probably from the peculiar manner, lives, and character of persons or even nations. Of the former, I will only mention the few words said to have been spoken by Julius Caesar, when he discovered Brutus amongst his assassins; and of the latter, the conduct of Alexander of Macedon at the temple of Jupiter Ammon, and his conduct subsequently thereto, after he believed himself, and obliged others to believe, that he was the son of a god. — In the last class I would reckon all traditions and popular stories, which are more or less worthy of credit, as they can be more or less fortified by either monuments &c., known circumstances, or lastly, probability.

When the effect produced by a certain reported event is yet in existence, no man in his sober senses will doubt a fact so well authenticated. For instance, it is said, that in the seventy-ninth year of the Christian era, the city of Pompeii was destroyed or rather buried, by the volcanic ashes of Vesuvius. If any one even might have been inclined to doubt this, had it merely been reported, it is now rendered certain beyond a possibility of being disputed, as the buried city was actually discovered about a hundred years ago, since which time many streets have been re-opened. No man, therefore, can now doubt, that a similar fate has befallen, or may yet befall other places. — About a century ago an island was formed in the Grecian Archipelago, after a terrible convulsion of nature. This island yet exists, and the account of its emersion from the waves is consequently believed. — It will therefore be readily acknowledged, that the rareness and even improbability of a thing, can be no argument against its possibility, and whatever is authenticated and verified by undoubted effects must be received as true, no matter if the event be in accordance with the ordinary course of nature or not.

If then profane history is verified by the remains of antiquity, why should we reject the account Moses has left us? Why will you, who deny the truth of the word of God, be more indulgent to the records of the Grecians and Romans, than to sacred history? Is there not a more noble monument of the historical truth of the Pentateuch, than Grecian marble, or Egyptian granite, namely, we ourselves, the Jews? — Answer me, are not the dispersions of Israel sufficient testimony of the existence of Moses, of the wonderful deliverance of the children of Jacob, and of the conquest of the Holy Land under the guidance of Joshua? — Will you believe that Sesostris reigned, Themistocles fought, Socrates and Plato taught philosophy, and Demosthenes spoke — and will you, can you deny that Moses lived? That through him the law was given? And that the history of the Israelites is faithfully narrated in the subsequent biblical writings?

"Well," some of you will say, "we grant the possibility, even the probability of the plain matters of fact in the Bible, but we will not admit the truth of the miracles; and as these are so much interwoven with natural occurrences throughout the Bible, they are enough to throw discredit upon the whole."

But if there is a God who created all things, and governs all, and sustains all by His will, — and there is a God! exclaims all nature — to whom all owes its origin — we must admit that miracles are within the scope of possibility; for, should not the Creator be able to order things differently, and yet preserve all in being, if He deems it proper? Since then miracles are possible, since we even see that extraordinary events occur daily; can we possibly doubt, that God could change water into blood for particular purposes, when He, in his unerring wisdom, thought it necessary towards the accomplishment of his almighty will? Could He not send frogs, or as some suppose, crocodiles, to plague the inhabitants of Egypt, when they refused to obey His will? Could He not let water flow out of a rock, when He determined to do so?

I admit, that God has ordained nature to work so harmoniously, that, to our impression, the slightest impediment would destroy the beautiful fabric. But does that change, or diminish, or circumscribe His ability, to order it otherwise? Can He not dry up every fountain? Can He not split mountains asunder? Can He not command the sea to produce habitable land in its vast and deep centre? And should He not be able "to give bread, should He not be powerful enough to provide food for His people?" Why then, let me repeat the question, will you not accept the Mosaic writings as the true chronology of times gone by? Will you reject them, because of their antiquity? Will you leave such a blank in the history of the world, from its creation to Herodotus? Forbid it science, forbid it reason, forbid it justice! Rather join with us and say:

"Moses is true, and his law is true!"

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