Modern discovery and research have demonstrated that the truth revealed through the Babylonians and with less definiteness through the people of the Nile was never entirely lost. Such a sad waste was out of accord with the obvious principles of divine economy. As the icy chill of ceremonialism seized decadent Babylonia and Egypt, there emerged from the steppes south and east of Palestine a virile, ambitious group of nomads, who not only fell heir to that which was best in the revelation of the past, but also quickly took their place as the real spiritual leaders of the human race. Possibly their ancestors, like those of Hammurabi, belonged to that wave of nomadic emigration which swept out of overpopulated northern Arabia about 2500 B.C., part of it to settle finally in Babylonia and part in Palestine.
[Sidenote: Why were they the chosen people?]
Whatever be the exact date of their advent, the much mooted and more fundamental question at once presents itself, Why were the Hebrews "the chosen people"? It is safe to assert at once that this was not arbitrary nor without reason. Moreover, the choice was not that of a moment, but gradual. Rather the real question is, By what divine process were the Israelites prepared to be the chosen people that their later prophets and the event of history declare them to be? Certain definite historical reasons at once suggest themselves; and these in turn throw new light upon the true relation of the Old Testament to divine revelation as a whole.
[Sidenote: Their preparation to be the chosen people: genius for religion]
There is undoubtedly a basis for what Renan was pleased to call, "the Semitic genius for religion." It is a truly significant fact that the three great conquering religions of the world, Judaism, Christianity, and Mohammedanism, sprang from Semitic soil. To this might be added the religion of Babylonia, which, was unquestionably the noblest of early antiquity. In general the Semitic mind is keen, alert, receptive, and intuitional rather than logical. Restless energy and the tendency to acquire have also tended to make them leaders in the widely different fields of commerce and religion. The patriarch Jacob is a remarkable example of these combined qualities and results. By day he got the better of his kinsmen, and by night he wrestled with God. These combined and highly developed characteristics of mind and nature at least suggest why the Semites have furnished the greatest prophets and prophet nations for the moulding of the faith of the world.
[Sidenote: Inheritance through their Arabian antecedents]
In contrast with contemporary Semitic nations, and especially the highly civilized Babylonians, the Hebrews were fortunate in their immediate inheritances through Arabian or Aramean ancestors. The wandering, nomadic life leaves no place for established sanctuaries, with their elaborate ceremonial customs and debasing institutions inherited from more primitive ages. Instead, that life imposes limitations that make for simplicity. The mysteries and constant dangers of the wild desert existence also emphasize the constant necessity of divine help. The long marches by night under the silent stars inspire awe and enforce contemplation. The close unity of the tribe suggests the worship of one tribal god rather than many. From the desert the ancestors of the Hebrews brought strong bodies, inured to hardship, and a grim austerity that found frequent expression on the lips of their prophets and a response in the minds of the people, when luxury threatened to engulf them. They also inherited from their desert days those democratic ideas and high ideals of individual liberty which, enabled Elijah and Isaiah to stand up add champion the rights of the people even though it involved a public denunciation of their kings.
[Sidenote: Contact with Babylonian civilization]
On the other hand, the Israelites undoubtedly became in time the inheritors of the best in religion and law that had been attained by the older Semitic races. Their late traditions trace back their ancestry to ancient Babylonia. Already for long centuries, by conquest and by commerce, the dominant civilization of the Euphrates valley had been regnant in the land of Canaan, The Tell-el-Amarna letters, written from Palestine in the fourteenth century, employ the Babylonian language and system of writing, and reveal a high Semitic civilization, closely patterned after that of Babylonia. When the Israelites settled in Canaan and began to intermarry and assimilate with the older inhabitants, as the earliest Hebrew records plainly state (cf. Judg. I.), they found there, among the Canaanites, established civil and religious institutions and traditions which were largely a reflection of those of Babylonia. Also, when in the eighth and seventh centuries Assyrian armies conquered Palestine, they brought Babylonian institutions, traditions, and religious ideas. We know that during the reigns of Ahaz and Manasseh these threatened to displace those peculiar to the Hebrews. Again, during the Babylonian exile the influence of the same powerful civilization upon the thought and religion of Israel was also strongly felt. Thus the opportunities, direct and indirect, for receiving from Babylonia much of the rich heritage that it held were many and varied.
[Sidenote: Heirs of the older Semitic civilizations]
Certain parts of the Old Testament itself testify that the wealth of tradition, of institutions, of laws, and religious ideas, gradually committed to the Semitic ancestors of the Hebrews and best preserved by the Babylonians, was not lost, but, enriched and purified, has been transmitted to us through its pages. A careful comparison of the biblical and Babylonian accounts of the creation and the flood leaves little doubt that there is a close historical connection between these accounts. Investigation reveals in language, spirit, and form many analogies between the laws of Hammurabi and those of the Old Testament which suggest at least an indirect influence. Many of the ceremonial institutions of later Judaism are almost identical with those of Babylonia. While it is exceedingly easy to over or under estimate this influence, it is a mistake to deny or ignore its deep significance.
[Sidenote: Recipients of all that was best in earlier revelation]
Thus one of the chief elements in the providential training of the Hebrews as the heralds and exponents of the most exalted religious and ethical truths revealed before the advent of the Prophet of Nazareth was the fact that they were the heirs and interpreters of the best that had been hitherto attained. Babylonia, Egypt, and later, Persia and Greece, each contributed their noblest beliefs and ideals. In the Israelites the diverse streams of divine revelation converged. The result is that, instead of many little rivulets, befouled by errors and superstitions, through their history there flowed a mighty stream, ever becoming broader and deeper and clearer as it received fresh contributions from the new fountains of purest revelation that opened in Hebrew soil.
[Sidenote: In close geographical relations to the earlier civilizations]
Clear evidences of the divine purpose to be realized through the obscure peasant people who lived among the uplands of central Canaan are found in a study of the characteristics of the Old Testament world. It is indeed the earliest and one of the most significant chapters in divine revelation. Most of its area is a barren wilderness, supporting only a small nomadic population. The three fertile spots are Babylonia, Canaan, and Egypt. The first and last are fitted by nature and situation to be the seats of powerful civilizations, destined to reach out in every direction. Canaan, on the contrary, is shut in, with no good harbors along the Mediterranean; and its largest river system leads to the Dead Sea, far below the surface of the ocean, -- an effective negation to all commerce. Although thus shut in by itself, Canaan lies on the isthmus of fertile land that connects the great empires of the Nile and the Euphrates. On the east and south it is always subject to the influences and waves of immigration, that come from the Arabian desert. It attracted from their nomadic life the ancestors of the Israelites, and during their early period of development gave them a secluded home. When they were ready to learn the larger lessons in the stream of life, Egypt and the great empires of the Tigris and Euphrates valley contended for them, conquered and ultimately scattered them throughout the then known world. While their conquerors, Egypt, Assyria, Babylonia, Persia, Greece, and Rome, the greatest powers of the ancient world, took from them their gold and their freedom, from the same conquerors they appear to have received the infinitely more precious treasures of tradition and thought.
[Sidenote: Trained by remarkable national experience]
Great as was their heritage from the past, the truth that came through the Hebrews themselves constitutes by far the greatest and most significant part of that revelation which the Old Testament records. Their history suggests the ways in which, Jehovah opened the spiritual eyes of the people. From the beginning to the present day it has been characterized by a series of crises unparalleled in the life of any other race. Experiences, intense and often superlatively painful, have come to them in rapid succession, forcing them to think and develop. The little street Arab, alert, resourceful, uncanny in his prematurity, is a modern illustration of what grim necessity and experience can produce. It was in the school supremely adapted to divine ends that Jehovah, trained his people to be his spokesmen to the world.
[Sidenote: Guided by unique spiritual teachers]
Other peoples, however, had their crises and yet had no such message as did the Israelites. What made the crises in the history of the Israelites richly fruitful in ethical and spiritual truth was the presence within their midst of certain devoted, responsive teachers, and especially the prophets, who guided them in their time of peril, interpreted its significance, and appealed to the awakened conscience of the nation. Like begets like. At the beginning of Israel's history stands the great prophet Moses, and during the long centuries that followed the voice of the prophets was rarely hushed.
[Sidenote: Taught by inspired prophets]
In seeking the ultimate answer to our question, How were the Israelites prepared to be the chosen people, we are confronted by a miracle that baffles our power to analyze: it is the supreme fact that the Spirit of the Almighty touched the spirit of certain men in ancient Israel so that they became seers and prophets. This is their own testimony, and their deeds and words amply confirm it. The experiences of men to-day also demonstrate its possibility. Indeed it is not surprising, but most natural, that the one supreme Personality in the universe should reveal himself to and through human minds, and that the most enlightened men of the most spiritually enlightened race should be the recipients of the fullest and most perfect revelation. It is the truth that they thus perceived, and then proclaimed by word and deed and pen, that completed the preparation of the chosen people, for it was none other than the possession of a unique spiritual message that constituted the essence of their choice. Furthermore, as the greatest of the later prophets declares (Is. xl.-lv.), that divine choice did not mean that they were to be the recipients of exceptional favors, but rather that they were called to service. By the patient enduring of suffering and by voluntary self-sacrifice they were to perfect the revelation of God's character and will in the life of humanity.
[Sidenote: Jesus' relation to the Old Testament]
The Old Testament, therefore, is the final record of a revelation extending through thousands of years, finding at last its most exalted expression in the messages of the Hebrew prophets, and its clearest reflection in the thoughts and experiences of the priests, sages, and psalmists of ancient Israel. In varied literary forms and by many different writers the best fruits of that revelation have been preserved. Ancient traditions, songs, proverbs, laws, historical narratives, prophecies, and psalms, each present their precious truth. The Israelitish race, however, never fully completed the work to which it was called. A master was needed to distinguish between the essential and the non-essential, to simplify and unify the teachings of the Old Testament as a whole, and to apply them personally to individual life, A man was demanded to realize fully in his own character the highest ideals of this ancient revelation. A divinely gifted prophet was required to perfect man's knowledge, and to bring him into natural, harmonious relations with his Eternal Father. The world awaited the advent of a Messiah who would establish, on the everlasting foundations of justice and truth and love, the universal kingdom of God. These supreme needs were met in fullest measure by the Master, the perfect Man, the Prophet, and the Messiah, whose work the New Testament records.
[Sidenote: Points of likeness and contact between the two Testaments]
While there are many superficial points of difference in language, literary form, background, and point of view between the Old and the New Testaments, these are insignificant in comparison with the essential points of likeness and contact. Each Testament is but a different chapter in the history of the same divine revelation. The one is the foundation on which the other is built. The writers of the New constantly assume the historical facts, the institutions, and the teachings of the Old. Although in Greek garb, their language and idioms are also those of the Old. On many themes, as, for example, man's duty to society, Jesus said little, for the teachers of his race had fully developed them and there was little to add. Repeatedly by word and act he declared that he came not to destroy the older teachings, but simply to bring them to full perfection. The Old Testament also tells of the long years of preparation and of the earnest expectations of the Israelitish race; the New records a fulfilment far transcending the most exalted hopes of Hebrew seers. The same God reveals himself through both Testaments. One progressively unfolding system of religious teachings, one message of love, and one divine purpose bind both together with bonds that no generation or church can break.