And yet it was just this scanty population which has left so deep an impress on the thoughts and religion of mankind, and the narrow strip of territory they inhabited which formed the battle-ground of the ancient empires of the world. Israel was few in numbers, and the Canaan it conquered was limited in extent; but they became as it were the centre round which the forces of civilisation revolved, and towards which they all pointed. Palestine, in fact, was for the eastern world what Athens was for the western world; Athens and Attica were alike insignificant in area and the Athenians were but a handful of men, but we derive from them the principles of our art and philosophic speculation just as we derive from Israel and Canaan the principles of our religion. Palestine has been the mother-land of the religion of civilised man.
The geographical position of Palestine had much to do with this result. It was the outpost of western Asia on the side of the Mediterranean, as England is the outpost of Europe on the side of the Atlantic; and just as the Atlantic is the highroad of commerce and trade for us of to-day, so the Mediterranean was the seat of maritime enterprise and the source of maritime wealth for the generations of the past. Palestine, moreover, was the meeting-place of Asia and Africa. Not only was the way open for its merchants by sea to the harbours and products of Europe, but the desert which formed its southern boundary sloped away to the frontiers of Egypt, while to the north and east it was in touch with the great kingdoms of western Asia, with Babylonia and Assyria, Mesopotamia and the Hittites of the north. In days of which we are just beginning to have a glimpse it had been a province of the Babylonian empire, and when Egypt threw off the yoke of its Asiatic conquerors and prepared to win an empire for itself, Canaan was the earliest of its spoils. In a later age Assyrians, Babylonians, and Egyptians again contended for the mastery on the plains of Palestine; the possession of Jerusalem allowed the Assyrian king to march unopposed into Egypt, and the battle of Megiddo placed all Asia west of the Euphrates at the feet of the Egyptian Pharaoh.
Palestine is thus a centre of ancient Oriental history. Its occupation by Babylonians or Egyptians marks the shifting of the balance of power between Asia and Africa. The fortunes of the great empires of the eastern world are to a large extent reflected in its history. The rise of the one meant the loss of Palestine to the other.
The people, too, were fitted by nature and circumstances for the part they were destined to play. They were Semites with the inborn religious spirit which is characteristic of the Semite, and they were also a mixed race. The highlands of Canaan had been peopled by the Amorites, a tall fair race, akin probably to the Berbers of northern Africa and the Kelts of our own islands; the lowlands were in the hands of the Canaanites, a people of Semitic blood and speech, who devoted themselves to the pursuit of trade. Here and there were settlements of other tribes or races, notably the Hittites, who had descended from the mountain-ranges of the Taurus and spread over northern Syria. Upon all these varied elements the Israelites flung themselves, at first in hostile invasion, afterwards in friendly admixture. The Israelitish conquest of Palestine was a slow process, and it was only in its earlier stages that it was accompanied by the storming of cities and the massacre of their inhabitants. As time went on the invaders intermingled with the older population of the land, and the heads of the captives which surmount the names of the places captured by the Egyptian Pharaoh Shishak in the kingdom of Judah all show the Amorite and not the Jewish type of countenance. The main bulk of the population, in fact, must have continued unchanged by the Israelitish conquest, and conquerors and conquered intermarried together. The genealogies given by the Hebrew writers prove how extensive this intermingling of racial elements must have been; even David counted a Moabitess among his ancestors, and surrounded himself with guards of foreign nationality. Solomon's successor, the first king of Judah, was the son of an Ammonite mother, and we have only to read a few pages of the Book of Judges to learn how soon after the invasion of Canaan the Israelites adopted the gods and religious practices of the older population, and paid homage to the old Canaanite shrines.
A mixed race is always superior to one of purer descent. It possesses more enterprise and energy, more originality of thought and purpose. The virtues and failings of the different elements it embodies are alike intensified in it. We shall probably not go far wrong if we ascribe to this mixed character of the Israelitish people the originality which marks their history and finds its expression in the rise of prophecy. They were a race, moreover, which was moulded in different directions by the nature of the country in which it lived. Palestine was partly mountainous; the great block of limestone known as the mountains of Ephraim formed its backbone, and was that part of it which was first occupied by the invading Israelites. But besides mountains there were fertile plains and valleys, while on the sea-coast there were harbours, ill adapted, it is true, to the requirements of modern ships, but sufficient for the needs of ancient navigation. The Israelites were thus trained on the one hand to the habits of hardy warriors, living a life of independence and individual freedom in the fastnesses of the hills, and on the other hand were tempted to become agriculturists and shepherds wherever their lot was cast in the lowlands. The sea-coast was left to the older population, and to the Philistines, who had settled upon it about the time of the Hebrew exodus from Egypt; but the Philistines eventually became the subject-vassals of the Jewish kings, and friendly intercourse with the Phoenicians towards the north not only brought about the rise of a mixed people, partly Canaanite and partly Israelitish, but also introduced among the Israelites the Phoenician love of trade.
Alike, therefore, by its geographical position, by the characteristics of its population, and by the part it played in the history of the civilised East, Palestine was so closely connected with the countries and nations which surrounded it that its history cannot be properly understood apart from theirs. Isolated and alone, its history is in large measure unintelligible or open to misconception. The keenest criticism is powerless to discover the principles which underlie it, to detect the motives of the policy it describes, or to estimate the credibility of the narratives in which it is contained, unless it is assisted by testimony from without. It is like a dark jungle where the discovery of a path is impossible until the sun penetrates through the foliage and the daylight streams in through the branches of the trees.
Less than a century ago it seemed useless even to hope that such external testimony would ever be forthcoming. There were a few scraps of information to be gleaned from the classical authors of Greece and Rome, which had been so sifted and tortured as to yield almost any sense that was required; but even these scraps were self-contradictory, and, as we now know, were for the most part little else than fables. It was impossible to distinguish between the true and the false; to determine whether the Chaldaean fragments of Berossos were to be preferred to the second and third hand accounts of Herodotus, or whether the Egyptian chronology of Manetho was to be accepted in all its startling magnitude. And when all was said and done, there was little that threw light on the Old Testament story, much less that supplemented it.
But the latter part of the nineteenth century has witnessed discoveries which have revolutionised our conceptions of ancient Oriental history, and illuminated the pages of the Biblical narrative. While scholars and critics were disputing over a few doubtful texts, the libraries of the old civilised world of the East were lying underground, waiting to be disinterred by the excavator and interpreted by the decipherer. Egypt, Assyria, and Babylonia have yielded up their dead; Arabia, Syria, and Asia Minor are preparing to do the same. The tombs and temples of Egypt, and the papyri which have been preserved in the sandy soil of a land where frost and rain are hardly known, have made the old world of the Egyptians live again before our eyes, while the clay books of Babylonia and Assyria are giving us a knowledge of the people who wrote and read them fully equal to that which we have of Greece or Rome. And yet we are but at the beginning of discoveries. What has been found is but an earnest of the harvest that is yet in store. It is but two years since that the French excavator, de Sarzec, discovered a library of 30,000 tablets at Tello in southern Chaldaea, which had already been formed when Gudea ruled over the city in B.C.2700, and was arranged in shelves one above the other. At Niffer, in the north of Babylonia, the American excavators have found an even larger number of tablets, some of which go back to the age of Sargon of Akkad, or 6000 years ago, while fresh tablets come pouring into the museums of Europe and America from other libraries found by the Arabs at Bersippa and Babylon, at Sippara and Larsa. The Babylonia of the age of Amraphel, the contemporary of Abraham, has, thanks to the recent finds, become as well known to us as the Athens of Perikles; the daily life of the people can be traced in all its outlines, and we even possess the autograph letters written by Amraphel himself. The culture and civilisation of Babylonia were already immensely old. The contracts for the lease and sale of houses or other estate, the documents relating to the property of women, the reports of the law cases that were tried before the official judges, all set before us a state of society which changed but little down to the Persian era. Behind it lie centuries of slow development and progress in the arts of life. The age of Amraphel, indeed, is in certain respects an age of decline. The heyday of Babylonian art lay nearly two thousand years before it, in the epoch of Sargon and his son Naram-Sin. It was then that the Babylonian empire was established throughout western Asia as far as the Mediterranean, that a postal service was organised along the highroads which led from one city of the empire to another, and that Babylonian art reached its climax. It was then, too, that the Babylonian system of writing practically took its final form.
The civilisation of western Asia is, as has been said, immensely old. That is the net result of modern discovery and research. As far back as excavation can carry us there is still culture and art. We look in vain for the beginnings of civilised life. Even the pictures out of which the written systems of the ancient East were developed belong to a past of which we have but glimpses. Of savagery or barbarism on the banks of the lower Euphrates there is not a trace. So far as our materials enable us to judge, civilised man existed from the beginning in "the land of Shinar." The great temples of Babylonia were already erected, the overflow of the rivers controlled, and written characters imprinted on tablets of clay. Civilisation seems to spring up suddenly out of a night of darkness, like Athena from the head of Zeus.
This is one of the chief lessons that have been taught us by Oriental archaeology. Culture and civilisation are no new thing, at all events in the East; long before the days of classical Greece, long before the days even of Abraham, man was living in ease and comfort, surrounded by objects of art and industry, acquainted with the art of writing, and carrying on intercourse with distant lands. We must rid ourselves once for all of the starveling ideas of chronology which a classical training once encouraged, and of the belief that history, in the true sense of the word, hardly goes back beyond the age of Darius or Perikles. The civilisations of Babylonia and Egypt were already decrepid when the ancestors of Perikles were still barbarians.
Another lesson is the danger of forming conclusions from imperfect evidence. Apart from the earlier records of the Old Testament, there was no literature which claimed a greater antiquity than the Homeric Poems of ancient Greece; no history of older date than that of Hellas, unless indeed the annals of China were to be included, which lay altogether outside the stream of European history. Criticism, accordingly, deemed itself competent to decide dogmatically on the character and credibility of the literature and history of which it was in possession; to measure the statements of the Old Testament writings by the rules of Greek and Latin literature, and to argue from the history of Europe to that of the East. Uncontrolled by external testimony, critical scepticism played havoc with the historical narratives that had descended to it, and starting from the assumption that the world of antiquity was illiterate, refused to credit such records of the past as dwarfed the proportions of Greek history, or could not be harmonised with the canons of the critic himself. It was quite sufficient for a fact to go back to the second millennium B.C. for it to be peremptorily ruled out of court.
The discoveries of Oriental archaeology have come with a rude shock to disturb both the conclusions of this imperfectly-equipped criticism and the principles on which they rest. Discovery has followed discovery, each more marvellous than the last, and re-establishing the truth of some historical narrative in which we had been called upon to disbelieve. Dr. Schliemann and the excavators who have come after him have revealed to an incredulous world that Troy of Priam which had been relegated to cloudland, and have proved that the traditions of Mykenaean glory, of Agamemnon and Menelaos, and even of voyages to the coast of Egypt, were not fables but veritable facts. Even more striking have been the discoveries which have restored credit to the narratives of the Old Testament, and shown that they rest on contemporaneous evidence. It was not so long ago that the account of the campaign of Chedor-laomer and his allies in Canaan was unhesitatingly rejected as a mere reflection into the past of the campaigns of later Assyrian kings. Even the names of the Canaanite princes who opposed him were resolved into etymological puns. But the tablets of Babylonia have come to their rescue. We now know that long before the days of Abraham not only did Babylonian armies march to the shores of the Mediterranean, but that Canaan was a Babylonian province, and that Amraphel, the ally of Chedor-laomer, actually entitles himself king of it in one of his inscriptions. We now know also that the political condition of Babylonia described in the narrative is scrupulously exact. Babylonia was for a time under the domination of the Elamites, and while Amraphel or Khammurabi was allowed to rule at Babylon as a vassal-prince, an Elamite of the name of Eri-Aku or Arioch governed Larsa in the south. Nay more; tablets have recently been found which show that the name of the Elamite monarch was Kudur-Laghghamar, and that among his vassal allies was Tudkhula or Tidal, who seems to have been king of the Manda, or "nations" of Kurdistan. Khammurabi, whose name is also written Ammurapi, has left us autograph letters, in one of which he refers to his defeat of Kudur-Laghghamar in the decisive battle which at last delivered Babylonia from the Elamite yoke.
The story of Chedor-laomer's campaign preserved in Genesis has thus found complete verification. The political situation presupposed in it -- however unlikely it seemed to the historian but a few years ago -- has turned out to be in strict harmony with fact; the names of the chief actors in it have come down to us with scarcely any alteration, and a fragment of old-world history, which could not be fitted into the scheme of the modern historian, has proved to be part of a larger story which the clay books of Babylonia are gradually unfolding before our eyes. It is no longer safe to reject a narrative as "unhistorical" simply on the ground of the imperfection of our own knowledge.
Or let us take another instance from the later days of Assyrian history, the period which immediately precedes the first intercourse between Greece and the East. We are told in the Books of the Chronicles that Manasseh of Judah rebelled against his Assyrian master and was in consequence carried in chains to Babylon, where he was pardoned and restored to his ancestral throne. The story seemed at first sight of doubtful authenticity. It is not even alluded to in the Books of the Kings; Nineveh and not Babylon was the capital of the Assyrian empire, and the Assyrian monarchs were not in the habit of forgiving their revolted vassals, much less of sending them back to their own kingdoms. And yet the cuneiform inscriptions have smoothed away all these objections. Esar-haddon mentions Manasseh among the subject princes of the West, and it was just Esar-haddon who rebuilt Babylon after its destruction by his father, and made it his residence during a part of the year. Moreover, other instances are known in which a revolted prince was reinstated in his former power. Thus Assur-bani-pal forgave the Egyptian prince of Sais when, like Manasseh, he had been sent in chains to Assyria after an unsuccessful rebellion, and restored him to his old principality. What was done by Assur-bani-pal might well have been done by the more merciful Esar-haddon, who showed himself throughout his reign anxious to conciliate the conquered populations. It is even possible that Assur-bani-pal himself was the sovereign against whom Manasseh rebelled and before whom he was brought. In this case Manasseh's revolt would have been part of that general revolt of the Assyrian provinces under the leadership of Babylon, which shook the empire to its foundations, and in which the Assyrian king expressly tells us Palestine joined. The Jewish king would thus have been carried to Babylon after the capture of that city by the Assyrian forces of Assur-bani-pal.
But the recent history of Oriental archaeology is strewn with instances of the danger of historical scepticism where the evidence is defective, and a single discovery may at any moment throw new and unexpected light on the materials we possess. Who, for instance, could have supposed that the name of the Israelites would ever be found on an Egyptian monument? They were but a small and despised body of public slaves, settled in Goshen, on the extreme skirts of the Egyptian territory. And yet in 1886 a granite stela was found by Professor Flinders Petrie containing a hymn of victory in honour of Meneptah the son of Ramses II., and declaring how, among other triumphs, "the Israelites" had been left "without seed." The names of all the other vanquished or subject peoples mentioned in the hymn have attached to them the determinative of place; the Israelites alone are without it; they alone have no fixed habitation, no definite locality of their own, so far at least as the writer knew. It would seem that they had already escaped into the desert, and been lost to sight in its recesses. Who could ever have imagined that in such a case an Egyptian poet would have judged it worth his while even to allude to the vanished serfs?
Still more recently the tomb of Menes, the founder of the united Egyptian monarchy, and the leader of the first historical dynasty, has been discovered by M. de Morgan at Negada, north of Thebes. It was only a few months previously that the voice of historical criticism had authoritatively declared him to be "fabulous" and "mythical." The "fabulous" Menes, nevertheless, has now proved to be a very historical personage indeed; some of his bones are in the museum of Cairo, and the objects disinterred in his tomb show that he belonged to an age of culture and intercourse with distant lands. The hieroglyphic system of writing was already complete, and fragments of obsidian vases turned on the lathe indicate commercial relations with the AEgean Sea.
If we turn to Babylonia the story is the same. Hardly had the critic pronounced Sargon of Akkad to be a creature of myth, when at Niffer and Telloh monuments both of himself and of his son were brought to light, which, as in the case of Menes, proved that this "creature of myth" lived in an age of advanced culture and in the full blaze of history. At Niffer he and his son Naram-Sin built a platform of huge bricks, each stamped with their names, and at Telloh clay bullae have been discovered, bearing the seals and addresses of the letters which were conveyed during their reigns by a highly organised postal service along the highroads of the kingdom. Numberless contract-tablets exist, dated in the year when Sargon "conquered the land of the Amorites," as Syria and Canaan were called, or accomplished some other achievement; and a cadastral survey of the district in which Telloh was situated, made for the purpose of taxation, incidentally refers to "the governor" who was appointed over "the Amorites."
Perhaps, however, the discovery which above all others has revolutionised our conceptions of early Oriental history, and reversed the critical judgments which had prevailed in regard to it, was that of the cuneiform tablets of Tel el-Amarna. The discovery was made in 1887 at Tel el-Amarna on the eastern bank of the Nile, midway between the modern towns of Minia and Siut. Here is the site of the city built by Khu-n-Aten, the "Heretic" Pharaoh, when the dissensions between himself and the Theban priesthood became too acute to allow him to remain any longer in the capital of his fathers. He migrated northward, accordingly, with his court and the adherents of the new creed which he sought to impose upon his subjects, carrying with him the archives of the kingdom and the foreign correspondence of the empire. It was this foreign correspondence which was embodied in the cuneiform tablets. They make it clear that even under Egyptian rule the Babylonian language and the Babylonian system of writing continued to be the official language and script of western Asia, and that the Egyptian government itself was forced to keep Babylonian secretaries who understood them. The fact proves the long and permanent influence of Babylonian culture from the banks of the Euphrates to the shores of the Mediterranean, and is intelligible only in the light of the further fact that the empire of Sargon of Akkad had been founded more than two thousand years before. Nothing but a prodigiously long lapse of time could explain the firm hold thus obtained by a foreign language, and a system of writing the most complex and difficult to learn that has ever been invented.
The tablets further prove the existence throughout the Oriental world of schools and libraries where the Babylonian language and characters could be taught and learned and its voluminous literature stored and studied. The age of Khu-n-Aten, which is also the age of Moses, was essentially a literary age; a knowledge of reading and writing was widely spread, and an active correspondence was being constantly carried on from one part of the civilised world to the other. Even the Bedawin shekhs, who acted as free-lances in Palestine, sent letters to the Pharaoh and read his replies. The archive-chambers of the cities of Canaan contained numberless documents contemporaneous with the events they recorded, and the libraries were filled with the treasures of Babylonian literature, with legends and stories of the gods, and the earlier history of the East. Doubtless, as in Babylonia, so too in Palestine there were also in them contracts and inventories of property, dated in the Babylonian fashion by the events which characterised the years of a king's reign. The scribes and upper classes could read and write, and therefore had access to all these stores of literature and historical materials.
There is no longer any reason, therefore, for doubting that Moses and his contemporaries could have read and written books, or that the Hebrew legislator was learned in "all the wisdom of the Egyptians." If we are to reject the historical trustworthiness of the Pentateuch, it must be on other grounds than the assumption of the illiterateness of the age or the impossibility of compiling at the time an accurate register of facts. The Tel el-Amarna tablets have made it impossible to return to the old critical point of view; the probabilities henceforward are in favour of the early date and historical truth of the Old Testament narratives, and not against them. Accurately-dated history and a reading public existed in Babylonia long before the days of Abraham; in the age of Moses the whole Eastern world from the Nile to the Euphrates was knit together in the bonds of literary intercourse, and all who were in contact with the great nations of the East -- with Egypt, with Babylonia, or with Assyria -- came of necessity under its influence and held the book and its author in the highest reverence.
But besides thus revolutionising our ideas of the age that preceded the Hebrew Exodus, the Tel el-Amarna letters have thrown a welcome light on the political causes of the Exodus itself. They have made it clear that the reaction against the reforms and government of "the Heretic King" Khu-n-Aten was as much national as religious. It was directed quite as much against the foreigner who had usurped the chief offices of state, as against the religion which the foreigner was believed to have brought with him. The rise of the Nineteenth dynasty marks the triumph of the national uprising and the overthrow of Asiatic influence. The movement of which it was the result resembled the revolt of Arabi in our own days. But there was no England at hand to prevent the banishment of the stranger and his religion; the Semites who had practically governed Egypt under Khu-n-Aten were expelled or slain, and hard measure was dealt out to such of their kinsfolk as still remained in the land. The free-born sons of Israel in the district of Goshen were turned into public serfs, and compelled to work at the buildings with which Ramses II. was covering the soil of Egypt, and their "seed" was still further diminished by the destruction of their male offspring, lest they should join the enemies of Egypt in any future invasion of the country, or assist another attempt from within to subvert the old faith of the people and the political supremacy of the Theban priests. That the fear was not without justification is shown by the words of Meneptah, the son of Ramses, at the time when the very existence of the Egyptian monarchy was threatened by the Libyan invasion from the west and the sea-robbers who attacked it from the Greek seas. The Asiatic settlers, he tells us, had pitched "their tents before Pi-Bailos" (or Belbeis) at the western extremity of the land of Goshen, and the Egyptian "kings found themselves cut off in the midst of their cities, and surrounded by earthworks, for they had no mercenaries to oppose to" the foe. It would seem that the Israelites effected their escape under cover of the Libyan invasion in the fifth year of Meneptah's reign, and on this account it is that their name is introduced into the paean wherein the destruction of the Libyan host is celebrated and the Pharaoh is declared to have restored peace to the whole world.
If the history of Israel thus receives light and explanation on the one side from the revelations of Oriental archaeology, on the other side it sometimes clears up difficulties in the history of the great nations of Oriental antiquity. The Egyptologist, for instance, is confronted by a fact towards the explanation of which the monuments furnish no help. This is the curious change that passed over the tenure of land in Egypt during the period of Hyksos rule. When the Fourteenth dynasty fell, a large part of the soil of Egypt was in the hands of private holders, many of whom were great feudal landowners whose acknowledgment of the royal supremacy was at times little more than nominal. When, however, the Hyksos were at last driven back to Asia, and Ahmes succeeded in founding the Eighteenth dynasty, these landowners had disappeared. All the landed estate of the country had passed into the possession of the Pharaoh and the priests, and the old feudal aristocracy had been replaced by a bureaucracy, the members of which owed their power and position to the king. The history of Joseph accounts for this, and it is the only explanation of the fact which is at present forthcoming. Famine compelled the people to sell their lands to the king and his minister, and a Hyksos Pharaoh and his Hebrew vizier thus succeeded in destroying the older aristocracy and despoiling the natives of their estates. It was probably at this period also that the public granaries, of which we hear so much in the age of the Eighteenth dynasty, were first established in Egypt, in imitation of those of Babylonia, where they had long been an institution, and a superintendent was appointed over them who, as in Babylonia, virtually held the power of life and death in his hands.
One of the main results, then, of recent discovery in the East has been to teach us the solidarity of ancient Oriental history, and the impossibility of forming a correct judgment in regard to any one part of it without reference to the rest. Hebrew history is unintelligible as long as it stands alone, and the attempt to interpret it apart and by itself has led to little else than false and one-sided conclusions; it is only when read in the light of the history of the great empires which flourished beside it that it can be properly understood. Israel and the nations around it formed a whole, so far as the historian is concerned, which, like the elements of a picture, cannot be torn asunder. If we would know the history of the one, we must know the history of the other also. And each year is adding to our knowledge; new monuments are being excavated, new inscriptions being read, and the revelations of to-day are surpassed by those of to-morrow. We have already learnt much, but it is only a commencement; Egypt is only now beginning to be scientifically explored, a few only of the multitudinous libraries of Babylonia have been brought to light, and the soil of Assyria has been little more than touched. Elsewhere, in Elam, in Mesopotamia, in Asia Minor, in Palestine itself, everything still remains to be done. The harvest truly is plentiful, but the labourers are few.
We have, however, learnt some needful lessons. The historian has been warned against arguing from the imperfection of his own knowledge, and rejecting an ancient narrative merely because it seems unsupported by other testimony. He has been warned, too, against making his own prepossessions and assumptions the test of historical truth, of laying down that a reported fact could not have happened because it runs counter to what he assumes to have been the state of society in some particular age. Above all, the lesson of modesty has been impressed upon him, modesty in regard to the extent of his own knowledge and the fallibility of his own conclusions. It does not follow that what we imagine ought to have happened has happened in reality; on the contrary, the course of Oriental history has usually been very different from that dreamed of by the European scholar in the quietude of his study. If Oriental archaeology has taught us nothing else, it has at least taught us how little we know.