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If Galilee could boast of the beauty of its scenery and the fruitfulness of its soil; of being the mart of a busy life, and the highway of intercourse with the great world outside Palestine, Judaea would neither covet nor envy such advantages. Hers was quite another and a peculiar claim. Galilee might be the outer court, but Judaea was like the inner sanctuary of Israel. True, its landscapes were comparatively barren, its hills bare and rocky, its wilderness lonely; but around those grey limestone mountains gathered the sacred history--one might almost say, the romance and religion of Israel. Turning his back on the luxurious richness of Galilee, the pilgrim, even in the literal sense, constantly went up towards Jerusalem. Higher and higher rose the everlasting hills, till on the uppermost he beheld the sanctuary of his God, standing out from all around, majestic in the snowy pureness of its marble and glittering gold. As the hum of busy life gradually faded from his hearing, and he advanced into the solemn stillness and loneliness, the well-known sites which he successively passed must have seemed to wake the echoes of the history of his people. First, he approached Shiloh, Israel's earliest sanctuary, where, according to tradition, the Ark had rested for 370 years less one. Next came Bethel, with its sacred memorial of patriarchal history. There, as the Rabbis had it, even the angel of death was shorn of his power. Then he stood on the plateau of Ramah, with the neighboring heights of Gibeon and Gibeah, round which so many events in Jewish history had clustered. In Ramah Rachel died, and was buried. *
* This appears, to me at least, the inevitable inference from 1 Samuel 10:2, 3, and Jeremiah 31:15. Most writers have concluded from Genesis 35:16, 19, that Rachel was buried close by Bethlehem, but the passage does not necessarily imply this. The oldest Jewish Commentary (Sifre, ed. Vienna, p. 146) supports the view given above in the text. M. Neubauer suggests that Rachel had died in the possession of Ephraim, and been buried at Bethlehem. The hypothesis is ingenious but fanciful.
We know that Jacob set up a pillar on her grave. Such is the reverence of Orientals for the resting-places of celebrated historical personages, that we may well believe it to have been the same pillar which, according to an eye-witness, still marked the site at the time of our Lord (Book of Jubil. cxxxii Apud Hausrath, Neutest. Zeitg. p. 26). Opposite to it were the graves of Bilhah and of Dinah (c. p. 34). Only five miles from Jerusalem, this pillar was, no doubt, a well-known landmark. by this memorial of Jacob's sorrow and shame had been the sad meeting-place of the captives when about to be carried into Babylon (Jer 40:1). There was bitter wailing at parting from those left behind, and in weary prospect of hopeless bondage, and still bitterer lamentation, as in the sight of friends, relations and countrymen, the old and the sick, the weakly, and women and children were pitilessly slaughtered, not to encumber the conqueror's homeward march. Yet a third time was Rachel's pillar, twice before the memorial of Israel's sorrow and shame, to re-echo her lamentation over yet sorer captivity and slaughter, when the Idumaean Herod massacred her innocent children, in the hope of destroying with them Israel's King and Israel's kingdom. Thus was her cup of former bondage and slaughter filled, and the words of Jeremy the prophet fulfilled, in which he had depicted Rachel's sorrow over her children (Matt 2:17,18).
But westward from those scenes, where the mountains shelved down, or more abruptly descended towards the Shephelah, or wolds by the sea, were the scenes of former triumphs. Here Joshua had pursued the kings of the south; there Samson had come down upon the Philistines, and here for long years had war been waged against the arch-enemy of Israel, Philistia. Turning thence to the south, beyond the capital was royal Bethlehem, and still farther the priest-city Hebron, with its caves holding Israel's most precious dust. That highland plateau was the wilderness of Judaea, variously named from the villages which at long distances dotted it; * desolate, lonely, tenanted only by the solitary shepherd, or the great proprietor, like Nabal, whose sheep pastured along it heights and in its glens.
This had long been the home of outlaws, or of those who, in disgust with the world, had retired from its fellowship. These limestone caves had been the hiding-place of David and his followers; and many a band had since found shelter in these wilds. Here also John the Baptist prepared for his work, and there, at the time of which we write, was the retreat of the Essenes, whom a vain hope of finding purity in separation from the world and its contact had brought to these solitudes. Beyond, deep down in a mysterious hollow. stretched the smooth surface of the Dead Sea, a perpetual memorial of God and of judgment. On its western shore rose the castle which Herod had named after himself, and farther south that almost inaccessible fastness of Masada, the scene of the last tragedy in the great Jewish war. Yet from the wild desolateness of the Dead Sea it was but a few hours to what seemed almost an earthly paradise. Flanked and defended by four surrounding forts, lay the important city of Jericho. Herod had built its walls, its theatre and amphitheatre; Archelaus its new palace, surrounded by splendid gardens. Through Jericho led the pilgrim way from Galilee, followed by our Lord Himself (Luke 19:1); and there also passed the great caravan-road, which connected Arabia with Damascus. The fertility of its soil, and its tropical produce, were almost proverbial. Its palm-groves and gardens of roses, but especially its balsam-plantations, of which the largest was behind the royal palace, were the fairy land of the old world. But this also was only a source of gain to the hated foreigner. Rome had made it a central station for the collection of tax and custom, known to us from Gospel history as that by which the chief publican Zaccheus had gotten his wealth. Jericho, with its general trade and its traffic in balsam--not only reputed the sweetest perfume, but also a cherished medicine in antiquity--was a coveted prize to all around. A strange setting for such a gem were its surroundings. There was the deep depression of the Arabah, through which the Jordan wound, first with tortuous impetuosity, and then, as it neared the Dead Sea, seemingly almost reluctant to lose its waters in that slimy mass (Pliny, Hist. Nat. vi. 5, 2). Pilgrims, priests, traders, robbers, anchorites, wild fanatics, such were the figures to be met on that strange scene; and almost within hearing were the sacred sounds from the Temple-mount in the distance. *
* According to the Jerusalem Talmud (Succ. v. 3) six different acts of ministry in the Temple were heard as far as Jericho, and the smell of the burning incense also could be perceived there. We need scarcely say that this was a gross exaggeration.
It might be so, as the heathen historian put it in regard to Judaea, that no one could have wished for its own sake to wage serious warfare for its possession (Strabo, Geogr. xvi. 2). The Jew would readily concede this. It was not material wealth which attracted him hither, although the riches brought into the Temple from all quarters of the world ever attracted the cupidity of the Gentiles. To the Jew this was the true home of his soul, the center of his inmost life, the longing of his heart. "If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning," sang they who sat by the rivers of Babylon, weeping as they remembered Zion. "If I do not remember thee, let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth; if I prefer not Jerusalem above my chief joy" (Psa 137:5,6). It is from such pilgrim-psalms by the way as Psalm 84 or from the Songs of Ascent to the Holy City (commonly known as the Psalms of Degrees), that we learn the feelings of Israel, culminating in this mingled outpouring of prayer and praise, with which they greeted the city of their longings as first it burst on their view:
Jehovah hath chosen Zion; He hath desired it for His habitation. This is my rest for ever: Here will I dwell, for I desire after it! I will abundantly bless her provision: I will satisfy her poor with bread. I will also clothe her priests with salvation: And her saints shall shout aloud for joy. There will I make the horn of David to bud: I ordain a lamp for Mine anointed. His enemies will I clothe with shame: But upon himself shall his crown flourish. Psalm 132:13-18
Words these, true alike in their literal and spiritual applications; highest hopes which, for nigh two thousand years, have formed and still form part of Israel's daily prayer, when they plead: "Speedily cause Thou 'the Branch of David,' Thy servant, to shoot forth, and exalt Thou his horn through Thy salvation" (this is the fifteenth of the eighteen "benedictions" in the daily prayers). Alas, that Israel knows not the fulfilment of these hopes already granted and expressed in the thanksgiving of the father of the Baptist: "Blessed be the Lord God of Israel; for He hath visited and redeemed His people, and hath raised up an horn of salvation for us in the house of His servant David; as He spake by the mouth of His holy prophets, which have been since the world began" (Luke 1:68-70).
Such blessings, and much more, were not only objects of hope, but realities alike to the Rabbinist and the unlettered Jew. They determined him willingly to bend the neck under a yoke of ordinances otherwise unbearable; submit to claims and treatment against which his nature would otherwise have rebelled, endure scorn and persecutions which would have broken any other nationality and crushed any other religion. To the far exiles of the Dispersion, this was the one fold, with its promise of good shepherding, of green pastures, and quiet waters. Judaea was, so to speak, their Campo Santo, with the Temple in the midst of it, as the symbol and prophecy of Israel's resurrection. To stand, if it were but once, within its sacred courts, to mingle with its worshippers, to bring offerings, to see the white-robed throng of ministering priests, to hear the chant of Levites, to watch the smoke of sacrifices uprising to heaven--to be there, to take part in it was the delicious dream of life, a very heaven upon earth, the earnest of fulfilling prophecy. No wonder, that on the great feasts the population of Jerusalem and of its neighborhood, so far as reckoned within its sacred girdle, swelled to millions, among whom were "devout men, out of every nation under heaven" (Acts 2:5), or that treasure poured in from all parts of the inhabited world. And this increasingly, as sign after sign seemed to indicate that "the End" was nearing. Surely the sands of the times of the Gentiles must have nearly run out. The promised Messiah might at any moment appear and "restore the kingdom to Israel." From the statements of Josephus we know that the prophecies of Daniel were specially resorted to, and a mass of the most interesting, though tangled, apocalyptic literature, dating from that period, shows what had been the popular interpretation of unfulfilled prophecy. The oldest Jewish paraphrases of Scripture, or Targumim, breathe the same spirit. Even the great heathen historians note this general expectancy of an impending Jewish world-empire, and trace to it the origin of the rebellions against Rome. Not even the allegorising Jewish philosophers of Alexandria remained uninfluenced by the universal hope. Outside Palestine all eyes were directed towards Judaea, and each pilgrim band on its return, or wayfaring brother on his journey, might bring tidings of startling events. Within the land the feverish anxiety of those who watched the scene not unfrequently rose to delirium and frenzy. Only thus can we account for the appearance of so many false Messiahs and for the crowds which, despite repeated disappointments, were ready to cherish the most unlikely anticipations. It was thus that a Theudas could persuade "a great part of the people" to follow him to the brink of Jordan, in the hope of seeing its waters once more miraculously divide, as before Moses, and an Egyptian impostor induce them to go out to the Mount of Olives in the expectation of seeing the walls of Jerusalem fall down at his command (Josephus, Ant. xx, 167-172). Nay, such was the infatuation of fanaticism, that while the Roman soldiers were actually preparing to set the Temple on fire, a false prophet could assemble 6,000 men, women, and children, in its courts and porches to await then and there a miraculous deliverance from heaven (Josephus, Jewish War, vi, 287). Nor did even the fall of Jerusalem quench these expectations, till a massacre, more terrible in some respects than that at the fall of Jerusalem, extinguished in blood the last public Messianic rising against Rome under Bar Cochab.
For, however misdirected--so far as related to the person of the Christ and the nature of His kingdom--not to the fact or time of His coming, nor yet to the character of Rome--such thoughts could not be uprooted otherwise than with the history and religion of Israel. The New Testament process upon them, as well as the Old; Christians and Jews alike cherished them. In the language of St. Paul, this was "the hope of the promise made of God unto our fathers: unto which our twelve tribes, instantly serving God day and night, hope to come" (Acts 26:6,7). It was this which sent the thrill of expectancy through the whole nation, and drew crowds to Jordan, when an obscure anchorite, who did not even pretend to attest his mission by any miracle, preached repentance in view of the near coming of the kingdom of God. It was this which turned all eyes to Jesus of Nazareth, humble and unpretending as were His origin, His circumstances, and His followers, and which diverted the attention of the people even from the Temple to the far-off lake of despised Galilee. And it was this which opened every home to the messengers whom Christ sent forth, by two and two, and even after the Crucifixion, every synagogue, to the apostles and preachers from Judaea. The title "Son of man" was familiar to those who had drawn their ideas of the Messiah from the well-known pages of Daniel. The popular apocalyptic literature of the period, especially the so-called "Book of Enoch," not only kept this designation in popular memory, but enlarged on the judgment which He was to execute on Gentile kings and nations." * "Wilt Thou at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?" was a question out of the very heart of Israel. Even John the Baptist, in the gloom of his lonely prison, staggered not at the person of the Messiah, but at the manner in which He seemed to found His kingdom. ** He had expected to hear the blows of that axe which he had lifted fall upon the barren tree, and had to learn that the innermost secret of that kingdom--carried not in earthquake of wrath, nor in whirlwind of judgment, but breathed in the still small voice of love and pity--was comprehension, not exclusion; healing, not destruction.