H.G. Wells > A Short History of the World > 22. Priests and Prophets in Judea
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H.G. Wells (1866–1946).  A Short History of the World.  1922.

XXII.  Priests and Prophets in Judea


THE FALL of Assyria and Babylon were only the first of a series of disasters that were to happen to the Semitic peoples. In the seventh century B.C. it would have seemed as though the whole civilized world was to be dominated by Semitic rulers. They ruled the great Assyrian empire and they had conquered Egypt; Assyria, Babylon, Syria were all Semitic, speaking languages that were mutually intelligible. The trade of the world was in Semitic hands. Tyre, Sidon, the great mother cities of the Phœnician coast, had thrown out colonies that grew at last to even greater proportion in Spain, Sicily and Africa. Carthage, founded before 800 B.C., had risen to a population of more than a million. It was for a time the greatest city on earth. Its ships went to Britain and out into the Atlantic. They may have reached Madeira. We have already noted how Hiram co-operated with Solomon to build ships on the Red Sea for the Arabian and perhaps for the Indian trade. In the time of the Pharaoh Necho, a Phœnician expedition sailed completely round Africa.   1
  At that time the Aryan peoples were still barbarians. Only the Greeks were reconstructing a new civilization of the ruins of the one they had destroyed, and the Medes were becoming “formidable,” as an Assyrian inscription calls them, in central Asia. In 800 B.C. no one could have prophesied that before the third century B.C. every trace of Semitic dominion would be wiped out by Aryan-speaking conquerors, and that everywhere the Semitic peoples would be subjects or tributaries or scattered altogether. Everywhere except in the northern deserts of Arabia, where the Bedouin adhered steadily to the nomadic way of life, the ancient way of life of the Semites before Sargon I and his Akkadians went down to conquer Sumeria. But the Arab Bedouin were never conquered by Aryan masters.   2
  Now of all these civilized Semites who were beaten and overrun in these five eventful centuries one people only held together and clung to its ancient traditions and that was little people, the Jews, who were sent back to build their city of Jerusalem by Cyrus the Persian. And they were able to do this, because they had got together this literature of theirs, their Bible, in Babylon. It is not so much the Jews who made the Bible as the Bible which made the Jews. Running through this Bible were certain ideas, different from the ideas of the people about them, very stimulating and sustaining ideas, to which they were destined to cling through five and twenty centuries of hardship, adventure and oppression.   3
  Foremost of these Jewish ideas was this, that their God was invisible and remote, an invisible God in a temple not made with hands, a Lord of Righteousness throughout the earth. All other peoples had national gods embodied in images that lived in temples. If the image was smashed and the temple razed, presently that god died out. But this was a new idea, this God of the Jews, in the heavens, high above priests and sacrifices. And this God of Abraham, the Jews believed, had chosen them to be his peculiar people, to restore Jerusalem and make it the capital of Righteousness in the World. They were a people exalted by their sense of a common destiny. This belief saturated them all when they returned to Jerusalem after the captivity in Babylon.   4
  Is it any miracle that in their days of overthrow and subjugation many Babylonians and Syrians and so forth and later on many Phœnicians, speaking practically the same language and having endless customs, habits, tastes and traditions in common, should be attracted by this inspiring cult and should seek to share in its fellowship and its promise? After the fall of Tyre, Sidon, Carthage and the Spanish Phœnician cities, the Phœnicians suddenly vanish from history; and as suddenly we find, not simply in Jerusalem but in Spain, Africa, Egypt, Arabia, the East, wherever the Phœnicians had set their feet, communities of Jews. And they were all held together by the Bible and by the reading of the Bible. Jerusalem was from the first only their nominal capital; their real city was this book of books. This is a new sort of thing in history. It is something of which the seeds were sown long before, when the Sumerians and Egyptians began to turn their hieroglyphics into writing. The Jews were a new thing, a people without a king and presently without a temple (for as we shall tell Jerusalem itself was broken up in 70 A.D.), held together and consolidated out of heterogeneous elements by nothing but the power of the written word.   5
  And this mental welding of the Jews was neither planned nor foreseen nor done by either priests or statesmen. Not only a new kind of community but a new kind of man comes into history with the development of the Jews. In the days of Solomon the Hebrews looked like becoming a little people just like any other little people of that time clustering around court and temple, ruled by the wisdom of the priest and led by the ambition of the king. But already, the reader may learn from the Bible, this new sort of man of which we speak, the Prophet, was in evidence.   6
  As troubles thicken round the divided Hebrews the importance of these Prophets increases.   7
  What were these Prophets? They were men of the most diverse origins. The Prophet Ezekiel was of the priestly caste and the Prophet Amos wore the goatskin mantle of a shepherd, but all had this in common, that they gave allegiance to no one but to the God of Righteousness and that they spoke directly to the people. They came without licence or consecration. “Now the word of the Lord came unto me;” that was the formula. They were intensely political. They exhorted the people against Egypt, “that broken reed,” or against Assyria or Babylon; they denounced the indolence of the priestly order or the flagrant sins of the King. Some of them turned their attention to what we should now call “social reform.” The rich were “grinding the faces of the poor,” the luxurious were consuming the children’s bread; wealthy people made friends with and imitated the splendours and vices of foreigners; and this was hateful to Jehovah, the God of Abraham, who would certainly punish this land.   8
  These fulminations were written down and preserved and studied. They went wherever the Jews went, and wherever they went they spread a new religious spirit. They carried the common man past priest and temple, past court and king and brought him face to face with the Rule of Righteousness. That is their supreme importance in the history of mankind. In the great utterances of Isaiah the prophetic voice rises to a pitch of splendid anticipation and foreshadows the whole earth united and at peace under one God. Therein the Jewish prophecies culminate.   9
  All the Prophets did not speak in this fashion, and the intelligent reader of the prophetic books will find much hate in them, much prejudice, and much that will remind him of the propaganda pamphlets of the present time. Nevertheless it is the Hebrew Prophets of the period round and about the Babylonian captivity who mark the appearance of a new power in the world, the power of individual moral appeal, of an appeal to the free conscience of mankind against the fetish sacrifices and slavish loyalties that had hitherto bridled and harnessed our race.  10



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