Israel in the Old Testament or Hebrew Bible
1. Geographical Matters
The Red Sea, through which the Israelites went under the leadership of Moses, is without a doubt the northern extension of this body of water, which in former times reached farther inland than the present Gulf of Suez; compare Edouard Naville, The Store-City of Pithom and the Route of the Exodus, 1885; and The Route of the Exodus, 1891.
This savant is entitled to the credit of having identified the station Sukkoth on the basis of the monuments; it is the modern Tell-Mashuta and identical with Pithom, which was the name of the sanctuary at that place. Later the city was called Heroopoils.
The route accordingly went through the modern Wadi-Tumilat to the modern Bitter Sea, North of Suez. It is a more difficult task to trace the route geographically on the other side of the Sea. For it is a question whether "the Mountain of Yahweh," which formed the goal of the journey, is to be located on the Sinai peninsula, or in the land of the Edomites, or even on the western coast of Arabia.
A.H. Sayce and others reject the traditional location of Sinai on the peninsula named after this mountain, and declare that the Israelites marched directly eastward toward the Gulf of Akaba. The reasons for this are found in the work of Sayce, The Verdict of the Monuments, 263 ff. But even if on this supposition a number of difficulties fall away, there nevertheless are many arguments in favor of the traditional location of Sinai, especially the grandeur of the chain itself, for which a rival worth mentioning has not been discovered in the land of the Edomites or in Northwestern Arabia. The Sinai traveler, E. H. Palmer, has also shown how splendidly the surroundings of the Sinai chain, especially the Jebel Musa with the Ras Sufsafeh, is adapted for the purpose of concluding a covenant.
2. The Wilderness Sojourn
The duration of the sojourn in the "desert" is everywhere (as in Am 5:25) given as 40 years. In harmony with this is the fact that only a few of those who had come out of Egypt lived to enter Canaan. The greater part of these 40 years the Israelites seem to have spent at Kadesh. At any rate, there was a sanctuary at that place, at which Moses administered justice, while the different tribes probably were scattered over the prairies and over the tillable districts.
The central sanctuary, which Moses established, was the Tabernacle, which contained the Ark of the Covenant, the sanctissimum. This sacred ark with the cherubim above it represents the throne of God, who is thought to be enthroned above the cherubim. The ark itself is, as it were, His footstool. As in Egyptian sanctuaries not infrequently the most sacred laws are deposited beneath the feet of the statue of the gods, thus the sacred fundamental laws of God (the Decalogue), on two tablets, were deposited in this ark.
This Ark of the Covenant presupposes an invisible God, who cannot be represented by any image. The other laws and ordinances of Moses covered the entire public and private legislation, given whenever the need for these made it necessary to determine such matters. In giving these laws Moses connected his system with the old traditional principles already current among the tribes.
This fact is confirmed by the legal Code of Hammurabi, which contains remarkable parallels, especially to Ex 20 through 23:19. But Moses has elevated the old traditional laws of the tribes and has given them a more humane character. By putting every enactment in the light of the religion of Yahweh, and by eliminating everything not in harmony with this religion, he has raised the people spiritually and morally to a higher plane.
Among the people, the undercurrents of superstition and of immorality were indeed still strong. At the outset Moses had much to contend with in the opposition of the badly mixed mass of the people. And the fact that he was able for the period of 40 years to hold the leadership of this stubborn people without military force is a phenomenal work, which shows at all hands the wonderful cooperation of Yahweh Himself.
However, he did not indeed succeed in raising the entire people to the plane of his knowledge of God and of his faith in God. This generation had to die in the wilderness, because it lacked the sanctified courage to take possession of the land of promise. But the foundation had been laid for theocracy, which must not in any way be identified with a hierarchy.
3. Entrance into Canaan
It was Joshua, the successor of Moses, who was enabled to finish the work and to take possession of the land. Not far from Jericho he led the people over the Jordan and captured this city, which had been considered impregnable. After that, with his national army, he conquered the Canaanitish inhabitants in several decisive battles, near Gibeon and at the waters of Merom, and then went back and encamped at Gilgal on the Jordan.
After this he advanced with his tribe of Ephraim into the heart of the land, while the southern tribes on their part forced their way into the districts assigned to them. Without reasons this account has been attacked as unreliable, and critics have thought that originally the different tribes, at their own initiative, either peaceably or by force, had occupied their land.
But it is entirely natural to suppose that the inhabitants of the country who had allied themselves to resist this occupation by Israel, had first to be made submissive through several decisive defeats, before they would permit the entrance of the tribes of Israel, which entrance accordingly often took place without a serious struggle. That the occupation of the land was not complete is shown in detail in Jdg 1.
Also in those districts in which Israel had gained the upper hand, they generally did not wage the war of annihilation that Moses had commanded, but were content with making the Canaanites, by the side of whom they settled, bondsmen and subjects. This relation could, in later time, easily be reversed, especially in those cases in which the original inhabitants of the country were in the majority.
Then, too, it must be remembered that the latter enjoyed a higher state of civilization than the Israelites. It was accordingly an easy matter for the Israelites to adopt the customs and the ideas of the Canaanites. But if this were done, their religion was also endangered. Together with the sacred "holy places" (bamoth) of the original inhabitants, the altars and the sanctuaries there found also came into possession of the Israelites. Among these there were some that had been sacred to the ancestors of Israel, and with which old memories were associated.
As a consequence, it readily occurred that Israel appropriated also old symbols and religious ceremonies, and even the Baals and the Astartes themselves, however little this could be united in principle with the service of Yahweh. But if the Israelites lost their unique religion, then their connection with the kindred tribes and their national independence were soon matters of history. They were readily absorbed by the Canaanites.
4. Period of the Judges
In such a period of weakened national and religious life, it could easily happen that Israel would again lose the supremacy that it had won by the sword. It was possible that the Canaanites could again bring into their power larger parts of the land. Also energetic and pushing nomadic tribes, such as the Ammonites, the Moabites, or other warlike peoples, such as the Philistines, could bring the country under subjection, as actually did occur in the period of the Judges.
The Book of Judges reports a number of such instances of the subjection of Israel, which did not extend over the whole land, and in part occurred in different sections of the country at the same time. Judah and Simeon, the two tribes in the south, as a rule took no part in these contests, and had their own battles to fight; and the same is true of the tribes East of the Jordan, among whom Northern Manasseh and Ephraim were in closest alliance.
After a longer or shorter period of oppression, there followed in each case a revival of the national spirit against such oppression. And in all these cases the popular hero who became the liberator appealed to the religious consciousness that formed a bond of union between all the Israelirish tribes and their common God Yahweh.
In however wild a manner the youthful vigor of the people may have found its expression on these occasions, they are nevertheless conscious of the fact that they are waging a holy war, which in every case also ended with the victory over the heathen spirit and false worship that had found their way into Israel. The most precious historical monument from these times is the song of Deborah (Jdg 5), which, like a mirror, reflects faithfully the conditions of affairs, and the thoughts of that age.
Judges 17 through 21 belong to the beginning of this period. The first of these old stories narrates the emigration of a large portion of the tribe of Dan to the extreme north of the country and the origin of idolatry in that region (Jdg 17; 18). But the second story, too, both in form and contents, is, at least in part, very old and its historical value is amply protected against the attacks of modern critics by Hos 9:9; 10:9.
This story reports a holy war of revenge against the tribe of Benjamin, which was unwilling to render satisfaction for a nefarious crime that had been committed at Gibeah in its territory. In the feeling of close solidarity and of high responsibility which appears in connection with the punishment of this crime, we still see the influence of the periods of Moses and Joshua.
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International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, which is in the public domain (with minor edits).