Human nature is ever the same, and the motives and feelings which swayed the generations who have mouldered back to dust are still felt and acknowledged.
While we thus attempt to trace the outlines of the domestic history of these individuals, we cannot but feel that there is a surpassing beauty and excellence in the character of Abraham. He bore the fresh impress of a renovated world, and was truly worthy of the pre-eminence which is always allotted to him. Isaac seems to have dwelt in quiet, peaceful prosperity. Inheriting great wealth, dwelling until mature age with his parents, there seem to have been few occasions in which the prominent traits of the character are displayed. His life offers less of interest, less to excite, less to praise and less to blame than either Abraham's or Jacob's. The father's energy, patience, faith and obedience had prepared the way for the prosperity of the son; and Isaac, nursed in affluence and cherished by maternal affection, seems to have exhibited less energy, enterprise and decision than either his father or his descendants. His premature blindness doubtless conduced to this inactive life. Yet he trusted and obeyed the God of his father, though he enjoyed neither the exalted faith of Abraham, nor was he favoured with the enlarged prophetic views of Jacob.
In all the trials and infirmities of Jacob—from the day in which he left his father's house until the hour in which "he gathered his feet in his bed and died" in Egypt—we see the evidence and the growth of true piety, of enlarged faith. He was encompassed with infirmities, and these infirmities betrayed him into sins, which brought in their train the sorrows which, through Divine grace, purified and sanctified him. Thus his character excites our increasing love and sympathy, and his advancing piety our veneration.
From the glimpses we obtain of the families of Nahor, Bethuel, and Laban, we trace a gradual departure from Jehovah among the descendants of Shem. Nahor and Abraham were possessors of like faith. They both worshipped the God of their fathers—of Shem, of Noah, of Methuselah, of Enoch, of Seth, of Adam. Bethuel's household still remained a household of faith, but in Laban we see the beginning of a departure from the true God. The first steps towards idolatry were taken. There was the resort to a sensible representation,—some image probably used as a symbol of the true God at first, but certainly ensnaring the heart, and ending in idolatry. Thus the gods of Laban, which Rachel stole, were leading him and his family rapidly to idol-worship, and to forgetfulness of the true God. Still he had not sunk into gross idolatry. Laban still pledged himself, and invoked the name of the God of Abraham and of Nahor, and of their fathers, when he entered into covenant with Jacob. He had not yet altogether abjured the worship of Jehovah: he had begun to mingle a false worship with it, and thus prepared the way for the full apostasy of his descendants.
That the chosen people might be kept from the taint of idolatry, Jacob left Laban; yet Rachel had stolen her father's images—and there is then great significance in that act by which Jacob renewed his covenant with God, when called upon to build the altar at Bethel.
"And Jacob said unto his household, and to all that were with him, Put away the strange gods that are among you and be clean, and change your garments: and let us arise and go up to Bethel; and I will make there an altar unto God, who answered me in the day of my distress, and was with me in the way which I went. And they gave unto Jacob all the strange gods which were in their hand, and all their ear-rings which were in their ears; and Jacob hid them under the oak which was by Shechem."
Probably the ear-rings were used as heathen charms or amulets. While idolatry, as a leprosy, was thus beginning to infect the household, he saw the need of their purification; and there seems no accidental connection between this searching out and putting away of idolatry in the household of Jacob and the following death of Rachel: "With whomsoever thou findest thy gods, let him not live."
The cherished wife of Jacob, deeply tainted with the superstitions by which her family were corrupting the religion of Jehovah, may have been thus removed to prevent further contagion. While the apostle may refer to this example in his promise: "Nevertheless she shall be saved in child-bearing, if she continue in the faith." And this sin may have excluded Rachel from the sepulchre of Abraham. The plague-spot disappears from this time, and the purification of the household was availing. For many generations, whatever their other sins, the children of Jacob were kept from idolatry.
THE INFLUENCE OF WOMEN UPON THE DESTINY AND CHARACTER OF MAN, AS EXEMPLIFIED IN THE LIFE OF MOSES.
There were designs of infinite wisdom to be accomplished by the long sojourn of the children of Jacob in Egypt. The people of Israel were appointed to guard the name and worship of Jehovah, until He who was to bring life and immortality to light should rise from among them. Until the "Star" that was to come from Jacob should shed its glorious radiance over this darkened earth. When all the children of men were departing from God, He chose this family to perpetuate the memory of his works and his mighty acts in preserving the first history of the race, and to prepare the way for the fulfilment of the designs of infinite mercy toward a sinful and apostate world. By miracles and judgments, by type and prophecy, by altars and sacrifices, he kept before this people the mysterious promise given in the hour of transgression.
From this family was to descend him who was to be the light of the Gentiles, and the glory of Israel, him who was at once the Almighty Saviour, the everlasting Father, the wonderful Counsellor, the man of sorrows and acquainted with grief, who bore our sickness, and took upon himself our iniquities. And while from the family of Israel that high spiritual influence was to emanate, which was to renovate men's moral nature and change the aspect and condition of the race, restoring the knowledge of the true God; and again, through the great atoning sacrifice, opening the gates of eternal life and bringing spiritual blessings to all mankind,—the character of the children of Israel, their civil institutions, their legislation, their history, their laws, their literature, were to leave their impress upon all the nations of the earth.
The apostle accounts it the chief honour of the Jews that unto them were committed the oracles of God. They were employed to transcribe and preserve the inspired books. From them went forth those who first announced the great truths of a Saviour crucified and a Comforter promised. For successive ages the nation of Israel stood surrounded by the heathen world,—stood the witnesses of the faithfulness of Jehovah, the monuments of his truth and power, the only nation upon the face of this earth who worshipped the true God.
Thick moral darkness shrouded all other lands—the nation of Israel alone had light in their dwellings, and the beams of the rising Sun of righteousness fell upon them and revealed the gross darkness around them.
And he who had chosen the people of Israel for such a high purpose, in infinite wisdom devised the means to fit them for their destination, and he guided and guarded them in each stage of their national existence. Egypt was one of the first kingdoms founded after the deluge, and it is probable that those who repeopled it after this event, had retained many impressions of the former world. Her monuments, yet remaining, attest the high antiquity of her arts and sciences, and her early advancement in refinement and civilization.
Her priests and wise men were the instructors of the ancient world, and the philosophers of Greece resorted to Egypt to study legislation and philosophy, and Egypt imparted to Greece, and Greece to Rome, the arts and sciences by which they refined and elevated Europe.
God designed Egypt to be the nursery of the nation of Israel. The granary of the ancient world offering abundant sustenance, he brought Jacob and his sons into it as one family, and here they remained until they multiplied and increased, and became like the stars of heaven for number; and He who led them into Egypt ordained all the events of their national history so as to promote his own eternal plans.
The patriarch led his children, with their flocks and herds,—the wealth of a pastoral people,—into this land as the invited guests of Pharaoh, the monarch of Egypt. And as he bowed before the king, the aged patriarch taught him at once the brevity of man's life and the unsatisfying nature of all earthly enjoyments, as recalled at the close of a long pilgrimage: "Few and evil have been the days of the years of my pilgrimage." Pharaoh received the aged man with respect, and showed him all honour; while in consideration of the pastoral habits of his sons, a portion of land, separate from the Egyptians, was allotted them for a place of abode. Thus they were kept a distinct, unmingled people, and enabled to maintain their own peculiar institutions, practise the rites of their own religion, and preserve the worship of the God of Abraham. And in all the oppression which they here sustained, we do not find that their religion was ever persecuted or their rites forbidden. And as Egypt was the cradle of the nation of Israel, so it was to be the school in which the children of Jacob were to form a national character. The wandering, pastoral tribes, transformed into an agricultural people and settled residents, and instructed in the arts of civilized life, were fitted to take possession of the allotted heritage. After fostering their infancy and feebleness, the monarchs of Egypt gradually changed their course as the increasing numbers of the Israelites excited jealous apprehension. Yet all this varying policy and every cruel edict advanced the designs of Jehovah and promoted the welfare of his chosen people. The cruelty of the Egyptians alienated the hearts of the Israelites from the nation and from the land of Egypt, and kept freshly before them the remembrance of the inheritance promised. While considered as strangers, treated as aliens, and surrounded by enemies, the bonds of brotherhood were more closely drawn, and they clung together, a distinct and separate people.
The tribes were one nation. While the people of Israel were oppressed, they were not enslaved. They were tributary, but not reduced to personal bondage. They dwelt together in that portion of Egypt assigned to them. They spoke their own language. They seem to have regulated their internal affairs by their own elders. They maintained their own worship. Their family relations were unbroken. They must have amassed riches, for they brought great wealth out of Egypt, as the offerings at the tabernacle show—and although in part this may have been received from the restitution which the conscience-smitten Egyptians offered upon their departure, all could not have been thus derived. The whole narrative of the Israelites shows that they were rich in silver and gold, and possessed much cattle. Yet all their property was personal—they owned no land. And much of the tribute was, doubtless, exacted as rent, paid by many in personal labour; and while they thus erected, perhaps, the proudest monuments of Egyptian art by this enforced labour, they were acquiring the various knowledge needful to a nation; while their very task-masters, by compelling them to acquire the habits of industry, to which a pastoral people are always averse, were school-masters, needful though harsh, teaching them to develop their energies and forcing them to exercise patience and to acquire skill.
Learning and wisdom have departed from Egypt. She has long been the basest of kingdoms. The race of the Pharaohs has passed away. She has been for ages governed by slaves. Temple and palace are in ruins. Her tombs, sacred and precious, have been pillaged; And the bones of her great and noble ones, her priests and kings, feed the fire by which the wandering Arab prepares his food. Yet many monuments of her ancient arts remain, interesting as attesting her power, grandeur, and high advancement in civilization, and still more valuable as corroborating the sacred history and throwing light on many passages of the inspired word,—at once showing the former residence of the Israelites in Egypt, the close connection of these ancient people, and affording proofs of that wisdom which selected Egypt for the cradle and school of the chosen race.
The Egyptians, gradually after the flood, lost the knowledge of Jehovah and departed from his worship.
At the time Joseph married the daughter of the priest of On, the Egyptians could not have sunk into that gross idolatry which contrasted so strangely with their wise legislation and scientific attainments; and their priests are supposed to have concealed, under mystic symbols, mysterious truths, which they imparted to the initiated, while they taught a grosser system to the common mind. While in Egypt the Israelites seem never to have been exposed to the debasing immoralities which prevailed among the nations around the promised land.
The children of Jacob sojourned in the land of Ham four hundred years. When Jehovah called his people out of Egypt they were fitted to receive the laws and institutions which he designed to give them, and to take the high position he assigned them among the nations of the earth. And lest, during their long sojourn in the wilderness, they should lose the arts of civilized life, they were employed in the construction of the tabernacle. By the minute enumeration of all that was required for the completion of this work, we see that the erection involved an extensive acquaintance with the mechanical arts, and of those, too, which indicate a high degree of advancement in the luxuries of polished life. Thus the generation born in the wilderness were instructed, and preserved from degenerating into mere shepherds, hunters, or warriors. The restless were occupied, and the work proved a bond of union for the whole people, exciting the interest and employing the energies of all the different classes of the great multitude.
The long ages of the sojourn of the children of Jacob were drawing to a close. The iniquity of the Canaanites was now full; the children of Israel were prepared to be numbered among the nations of the earth; and the events dictated by the craft and policy of men were ordained to promote the infinite designs of Jehovah. For four hundred years the descendants of Jacob had dwelt in Goshen. From a pastoral they were already become an agricultural people; they had learned to prize the comforts of an established life, of quiet, peaceful homes, of pleasant places of abode. Dwelling in the richest portion of Egypt, protected from all foreign aggression, they there enjoyed abundance, peace, and prosperity, to which their wanderings in the desert furnished a sad contrast.
The policy of Egypt had excluded the Israelites from her crimes. The energy, the love of change and adventure, which a martial life imparts, were unfelt; and had not oppression driven the Israelites from Egypt, the promise of that goodly land destined for their race had hardly induced the nation to leave their present abundance and protection. Thus, by the various dispensations of his providence, Jehovah was at once preparing a guide, leader, ruler, and future lawgiver for his people, while by the continued vexation, oppression, and cruelty of the Egyptian rulers, he was suffering them to alienate the affections of the children of Jacob from a country which had become the native land of the Israelites, which was the birth-place of generation after generation.
At the time Miriam, the sister of Moses, appears before us, the children of Israel had reached the fourth generation. A family had become a nation, a people in the bosom of another, dwelling together, distinct, separate, too numerous to be easily or safely held in subjection, too valuable as tributaries to be relinquished. Thus to hold them safely in bondage and to prevent their further increase, it became the settled policy of Egypt to oppress and degrade them. As their jealous apprehensions were at length awakened, by a policy as profound as it was cruel, the Egyptian monarchs endeavoured, in destroying the sons of this people, to force the daughters of Israel to intermarry with their oppressors, that they might obtain the wealth of the sons of Jacob, while the name and memory of his family would be swept from the earth. Yet dwelling, as the Israelites did, in a separate province, it was not easy for Pharaoh to find those who would execute his purposes; and the first efforts to cut off the race of the chosen, failed. He was however so intent upon their extermination, that he did not hesitate to direct that all the male children of the Israelites should be cast into the river as soon as they were born.
While there were so many to court the favour of the monarch and ever ready for the darkest deeds, how could the sons of the Hebrews now escape? When Moses was born, his mother hid him three months; and when concealment was no longer possible, she sought for the babe a strange place of safety—in the very element which was indicated for its destruction. The slender ark is framed by the mother's hands, and deposited among the flags on the bank of the Nile. The morning was perhaps dawning, and the sky yet gray, when the anxious mother withdrew.
In a few hours after, the chant of the boatmen is suddenly hushed, and the passing labourers shroud their heads in token of reverence, as, surrounded by her attendants, the daughter of Pharaoh approaches the river. The slight ark, with its precious burden, floating among the reeds, attracts her eye, and, as her maidens draw it from the water, the wail of the desolate infant strikes her ear.
"The babe wept"—and full fountains of womanly tenderness were broken up in the heart of the princess of Egypt. "This is one of the Hebrew children," said she; and as she drew him from the waves, she resolved to save and adopt the child.
Miriam, the sister, had lingered near to watch, if not to save the child. We may fancy the Hebrew maiden at a little distance, eagerly bending forward, and gazing with intense and breathless interest. And when the princess announces her intention to protect the infant, in all the gladness of childhood she bounds forward, and, mingling with the royal train, asks, "Shall I go and call to thee a nurse of the Hebrew women, that she may nurse the child for thee?" And Pharaoh's daughter said unto her, "Go;" and the maid went and brought the child's mother!
Thus had the God of Israel overruled all the designs of evil to his people, by providing in the very family of Pharaoh a shelter and a home for the child—doomed by the impious monarch to destruction—but designed by Jehovah to be the saviour of his people. He who was thus drawn from the water was the ordained deliverer, guide, legislator, and prophet of Israel.
As Jehovah had appointed him to this high vocation, he not only guarded his life, thus threatened, but made the instruments intended for the extermination of the race the means of the full accomplishment of all its mysterious destiny.
The child thus adopted into the royal family was not only saved from death, but was thus placed under influences most propitious for the attainment of all the various knowledge which could fit him for the high station to which he was destined. That helpless infant was not only to be the deliverer of Israel, but by his political institutions, his legislative enactments, his moral precepts, his inspired teachings, he was to mould the character of his own people, and to influence other nations down through all coming ages. High was the honour allotted him as the deliverer and the lawgiver of Israel—still higher that as the prophet of the Lord. He was the promulgator of the great moral laws of the universe, originally engraven on the hearts of men, but now so effaced by sin as to be scarcely legible;—he was to establish those institutions which were to perpetuate the name and the worship of Jehovah among the children of men; and that memorial which, by a long line of types and sacrifices, was at once to prefigure and prepare for the great atoning sacrifice, offered for a lost world.
Of all the fallen sons of Adam, none were ever destined to a station of more arduous responsibility, of more extensive and long-continued influence than that appointed to this Hebrew infant; and He who had marked out his destiny ordained the means which were to prepare him for it. Transplanted into the family of Pharaoh, he was there instructed in all the "wisdom of the Egyptians," and Egypt (as we know) was the fountain of ancient learning, science, and philosophy. While Jehovah communicated by direct inspiration to Moses, yet the mind of the ruler and leader of Israel had been prepared by that instruction which develops the capacity, expands the mind, and enlarges the apprehension to receive and understand the institutions Jehovah gave his people, and he was thus enabled to co-operate with an enlightened mind in all the designs of God. But if the schools of Egypt imparted that intellectual attainment, mental discipline and knowledge of legislation in its various forms, so necessary for the lawgiver, there were other influences which were needful for the perfection of the character. There was a knowledge higher and holier than that ever taught by priests or Grecian philosophers,—a wisdom beyond that of the Egyptians, "the knowledge of the Lord," the God of his fathers, and the first great truths of religion should be breathed into the soul in the whispers of parental love. The earthly parent should lead the child to the feet of the great Creator.
And then in the formation of a character which was to leave its impress upon all future ages to the close of time, the affections were to be cultivated, the sympathies awakened, and all that is pure and kind and elevated in the nature of man drawn forth. And where is the influence which so gently moulds the character, refining, softening, and elevating it, as the affectionate, intelligent sister? As a man advances in life, the continual influence and association of virtuous and accomplished women is felt in all the relations he is called to sustain.
We see in the various circumstances of the life of Moses a Divine recognition of the value of the family relation and of the importance of the influence of women in the formation of character.
Before Moses was admitted to the schools of Egyptian learning, before he was exposed to the snares and the splendours of a court, before he was called to a throne, he had learned lessons of the deepest wisdom from the lips of his parents. One higher than the royal of earth spoke through the princess, when she said, "Take this child and nurse it for me, and I will give thee wages." And faithfully did the mother fulfil her charge. She strove to imbue the soul of her child with living faith, while upon that infant heart she impressed the maxims of eternal truth—she imparted those lessons of trust and confidence, and inculcated that deep conviction of the power of truth, which led the man, by the grace of God, in the prime and flush of life, to refuse to be called the son of Pharaoh's daughter, choosing rather to suffer affliction with the people of God than to enjoy the pleasures of sin for a season.
Had that mother been unfaithful to her high trust, had she infused into that infant heart lessons of ambition and worldliness, he had perhaps failed in the hour of trial, and another had led the tribes of Israel to the chosen land. A little band guarded Moses; the princess of Egypt, the mother of Moses, and his sister Miriam. Each one exerted her peculiar influence upon his character, while his future destiny attested the varied power of these influences and their relative value.
As the saviour of the young Hebrew, as his protectress and adopted mother, the daughter of Pharaoh had a large claim upon him, and to her he was indebted for many of those high attainments which fitted him for his office. The slight incidental notices of the daughter of Pharaoh give us a delightful impression of her character.
There is something higher and nobler than a princess. She was a true woman, filled with all the quiet sympathies and kind affections of her sex, and possessing an energy and a persevering constancy which led her to fulfil her generous purposes, and made her impulses bear the fruits of benevolent action.
Such women show what women should be, and such women in all ages make the influence of their characters to be felt. To her fostering care Moses owed life and advancement, education, honour, the standing of a prince, the polish and the refinement of the court. She proved her appreciation of knowledge, and we may well infer her own cultivated intelligence from the care with which she provided for the instruction of her charge. She showed that she could feel and that she cherished all the sympathies of domestic love, by providing for their indulgence, by allowing their continuance, and yielding to their claims, even though she was a princess of Egypt, the daughter of the haughty Pharaoh, and her adopted child belonged to a race studiously oppressed, degraded, and exposed to all contumely, and while, doubtless, she was no stranger to the prejudices which led her countrymen to look upon the sons of Israel as an outcast and despicable race. Still the bonds of national affection, of kindred and brotherhood, were all respected. The whole narrative shows that Moses was never alienated from his family, never taught to forget that he was a Hebrew. His patroness felt that there were holy ties never to be disregarded nor trampled upon.
And while the princess of Egypt surrounded her infant charge with right influences, while she provided wisely for his intellectual culture, she likewise brought the influence of her own personal character to bear upon him. The influence of a pure woman, who unites refinement to intelligence, and adds to them the polish of the court without its corruption, would be as powerful as it would be salutary, and when to the higher qualities, mental and moral, the polished refinement and graceful attention to all the proprieties of life are imparted, a high finish is given to the character. Nor was that acquired grace and courtly manner a thing of frivolous import. It exerted an important influence upon the future destiny of the individual. The successful leaders of great multitudes have often owed almost as much to that high bearing and dignified demeanour which should be the distinct badge of those who are numbered with the great, as to their skill and discernment; and while treated in the court of Pharaoh as a scion of royalty, the young Hebrew acquired that air of conscious authority to which inferior minds always defer. He gained there that knowledge of courtly splendour and gayety which forced in him the conviction of their perfect insufficiency for the high demands of the spiritual nature, and that knowledge of the heart of man and its depraved qualities most needful to one who was at once to lead and control a multitude, and who was to stand before kings as the envoy of Jehovah.
The Israelites never seem to have entered the Egyptian armies. It would have been contrary to the policy of the kings either to have encouraged a martial spirit or to have placed arms in the hands of this multitude; yet as one of the family of Pharaoh, Moses led the armies of Egypt. And needful it was that the future leader of Israel should be well instructed in all the tactics of war—should understand all the providing for, the ordering, and the encamping of vast hosts. It was perhaps only by arduous military service that he could have developed that capacity indicated by the vast skill with which an army of six hundred thousand men, encumbered with their wives and little ones, could be encamped in regular order, whether marching or resting. Ever desiring peace and acting on the defensive, yet ready to repel aggression, for forty years the nation of Israel were encamped as the hosts of an army. Each tribe with its own banner, marching and countermarching, taking down and putting up their tents, with all the skill and regularity of a disciplined army, and often engaged in actual warfare. He who could thus order and regulate such a host must have possessed the skill and science of the general. While the habits of long command, added to the consciousness of authority and Divine reliance, enabled him to prevent or control turbulent outbreaks.
While the legislator of Israel owed so much to the fostering care of the daughter of Pharaoh in preparing him for his high destination, we cannot but feel a deep interest in her who so unconsciously contributed toward an influence and prepared an instrumentality quite adverse to the apparent interests of her people. We cannot but hope that, while she thus hastened the accomplishment of promise and prediction, she was herself led to the knowledge and worship of Israel's God.
Might not one who thus adopted the brother, encircle in her affection the sister whose affectionate entreaty gave the babe a mother for its nurse? The fraternal affection which marks the family seems to indicate more than occasional intercourse. Between Miriam and her brother there was that sympathy which always results from an intimate association. The princess of Egypt may have imparted to Miriam many of the accomplishments of the courtly circle, for we find that she was skilled in music, that she led the dance; while, in return, Miriam may have imparted that higher knowledge and those deep truths of which her people were the appointed conservators, and the daughter of Pharaoh may have tasted the blessings which were held in trust for future ages.
Miriam was the only sister of Moses, and she first appears as watching the fate of that child in whose destiny all the ages and all the nations of earth were to have an interest. The tender care which watched the cradle on the Nile continued through life, and from the day Moses was saved, down to the day when Miriam died in the wilderness, she seems ever associated with her brothers in all their efforts and designs. The influence of the sister is peculiarly her own. It is felt in early life in its softening, refining, and purifying tendency—in diverting opening manhood from rude sports or gross pursuits to the enjoyments of a more elevated and pure nature, and shedding a charm around the pleasures of home; while, if no other ties intervene, the bonds of affection grow stronger with each successive year.
We cannot trace the course of Miriam's life. She appears before us for a season and then we lose sight of her for many years. She may have passed them in the retirement and obscurity of her rural home in the land of Goshen. She may have been counted in the train of the princess of Egypt and shone in the court of Pharaoh. Princes may have flattered her and nobles sued for her love. She seems never to have married,—yet her heart may have had its own history of love, perhaps unrequited, disappointed, or sacrificed at the altar of prudence, of conscience, or, it may be, ambition. Oh what a tale of suffering and of enjoyment would the history of one human heart present, if faithfully recorded!
Years had passed: childhood was gone—youth was fleeing. The brother had attained a high distinction in the court of Egypt. He had tasted the pleasures of wisdom and the enjoyments of science and knowledge, while, as the adopted child of Pharaoh's daughter, he stood before the people, the prospective heir to the crown.
Thus, in the prime of life, endowed with the richest gifts of mind and the attractions of manly beauty, adding the polish of the courtier to the wisdom of the philosopher—and all the adventitious advantages of royal birth received by his adoption—there lay before the young Hebrew a bright vista of prospective glory and honour and earthly happiness.
But not to sit on the throne of Egypt had Jehovah raised this child of the chosen people from the death designed by their oppressor. Not to fit him for the throne of Egypt had he surrounded him with all that was propitious to intellectual and moral attainments and guided and watched each step of his course from his infancy.
Deep and inscrutable must have seemed the designs of Jehovah, as, when all was brightest, the dark clouds gathered around this favoured son of the Hebrews, and all the promise and purpose of his saved life seemed defeated. The hour of trial came—probably, as it generally comes, suddenly and unexpectedly. It was the hour which was to test his principles and prove his faith. The hour in which all the allurements of sense, the gratification of ambition, and (it may have seemed) the claims of grateful affection, were brought into conflict with the stern claims of duty and principle, and in this hour he did not fail. He chose rather to suffer affliction with the people of God, than to enjoy the pleasures of sin for a season. He refused to be called the son of Pharaoh's daughter. His choice was made. He abjured the throne and left the court. What disappointment must have fallen upon hearts who had looked to his exaltation as a pledge of good for his race, and who saw in his downfall the prolonged dominion of tyranny and persecution!
Yet Moses was not permitted to remain in peace, although he had sunk into obscurity. He who was to lead the hosts of Israel through the great and terrible wilderness—who was to endure toil, labours, and privation, needed the nerve, the hardihood, the physical training, which could not be gained in the luxurious courts of the Pharaohs, or in the quiet, and, doubtless, comfortable and abundant homes of the husbandmen of Goshen. Amid the enjoyments of home, the pleasures of study, he need not have regretted the loss of a throne.
For many years he, who had been trained in luxury and elegance, led the flocks of Jethro, and knew all the privations and the endurances of the shepherd in the desert. And while his frame was thus hardened and invigorated, while he learned to forego pleasure and endure bodily toil, his soul was nourished by solitary meditation and high communion with God. The philosopher can find instruction and interest in the works of creation, but only he who adds the adoration of the worshipper to the wisdom of the philosopher is prepared to study the works of Jehovah aright.
What deep thought, what high imaginings, what profound reverence must have filled the soul of the Hebrew shepherd as he watched the stars in the silence and loneliness of the desert. As he sat, a solitary and banished man, under the shadow of the rocks of the wilderness, how strange, how incomprehensible must have seemed the events of his past life. The visions of his youth, the splendour and warlike pomp of the army or the pageant of courts, must have come over his soul like a dream. Even to us how strange seems this long sojourn in the wilderness, this enforced inactivity and apparent uselessness. Yet the God of Israel was promoting his own designs both among his people and in the heart of him who was to be their leader—weaning them from their place of abode, and preparing them for their departure, and fitting Moses to be their leader, guide, ruler, and lawgiver. Each dispensation of his providence, each passing occurrence, all the thoughts, the emotions, the solitary meditations, the reverential communion, the occasional intercourse with the few dwellers of the desert,—like the strokes, slight and almost imperceptible in their effect, which the block receives from the hand of the sculptor,—all were fitting the apparently exiled Hebrew for his high vocation as a prophet and legislator.
And it is often thus. For many years may Jehovah be preparing his instruments for that event to which he destines them, and which they may then speedily accomplish. Yet this work in the soul, by which man is prepared to co-operate with his Maker, is silent, unseen, unmarked, so that often we may account this time as lost. And man, ignorant of his future destiny, and of the state to which he is to be called, will ever find it his true wisdom carefully to fulfil the present duty and to aim at deriving instruction and benefit from each dispensation of Divine providence, and from the ordering of each event of his life.
In the careful provision made for the training of Moses, in the various instrumentalities used to prepare him for his appointed trust, we are taught that by no miraculous intervention does God supersede the necessity of the improvement of the faculties he has bestowed. The more enlightened the understanding, the more the powers of reason are cultivated, the more intelligently can man serve his Creator, and the more entirely does he co-operate in the designs of Infinite Wisdom. God does not bestow, by direct inspiration, that wisdom or knowledge which is to be gained by the diligent cultivation of the natural faculties, to save man the fatigue and labour of the acquirement. Those upon whom he has most richly bestowed the gifts of spiritual wisdom have been most careful to cultivate their natural endowments.
Both Paul and Moses were learned before they were inspired, but God did not supersede the use of the powers of the mind by the higher gift of the Spirit. The providential dealings of God are adapted to the laws of the human mind, and in the government of his creatures he never violates the principles which he has established.
The occupation of the shepherd was at length to be abandoned. By oppression and suffering and ignominious exactions, the children of Israel were prepared to leave their homes—the land in which they had dwelt for centuries—and venture across the sea and into the desert. When we remember that husbandry had been the national occupation, when we consider how strong is the instinct which binds man to the land of his birth and the graves of his fathers, and how strong is that bond which attaches one to the spot he has cultivated, to the land he has ploughed and sowed and reaped, we cannot wonder at the coercion needful to rouse a people whose energies were all depressed, and who had been held in check and kept stationary for ages.
But the people were ready to depart. The oppression of Pharaoh had prepared the way for the display of the Divine faithfulness and power. Jehovah sent his ambassador from the desert to the court of the King of Egypt, to demand their freedom. During his long exile, most who had known Moses in his early days, had passed away; and the few that were left would hardly recognise in the shepherd of the desert, with his staff for his badge of office—bearing the marks of toil and exposure, of deep thought and solitary meditation—the young and gallant prince, the courtier and the warrior of former days. She who had cherished him had probably been laid in the tomb of her royal race, and the name and the memory of Moses may have been forgotten in the palace and the court. Yet there he stood, before the throne which might have been his seat, the ambassador of the King of kings, bearing the stern message of Jehovah—"Let my people go, that they may hold a feast unto me in the wilderness." Yet wo after wo was denounced and executed—pledge after pledge given and violated—and not until one long wail over the dead and dying resounded through the land were the children of Israel permitted to leave the land of Egypt. The loss of three millions of subjects, of their labour, their tribute, and the removal of all their personal property, would weaken and impoverish the kingdom. Every motive of policy and pride urged the monarch to resist the demand, and thus he suffered the penalty due to his contumelious defiance of the God of Israel, while the judgments inflicted upon him strengthened the faith of the Israelites. The expulsion of the Moors and of the Jews from Spain, the banishment of the Huguenots from France, furnish similar though not parallel cases, in modern ages; and these show that the loss of peaceful, industrious subjects to a kingdom is like taking the life-blood from the system. Centuries have passed, yet these nations have not recovered—and thus Egypt must long have felt her loss.
After the tribes of Israel had passed through the Red Sea, the sister of Moses again appears before us. When he poured forth that chant of triumphant thanksgiving—the oldest song of nations—Miriam gave a response worthy of the sister of the leader of the hosts encamped before the Lord. With timbrel she led the daughters of Israel in the dance. And well might the prophetess of Israel teach the dance of ancient Egypt to the daughters of her people on this occasion. The representations preserved in painting and sculpture show that this was not the gay and voluptuous movement of modern days, but rather a succession of graceful gestures, regulated by music, expressive of joy and emotion. Thus the maidens of Israel offered praise and adoration; nor was it unseemly in the warlike monarch of after ages thus to worship before the ark of the Lord, although his pious act provoked the ridicule of the daughter of Baal.
From this time until the day of her death, Miriam is found co-operating with her brothers in their designs and efforts. However the earlier years of her life had passed, she had attained to a high distinction among her people. While she seems to have neither claimed nor exerted authority, her rank and position, in her sphere, were as well defined and as elevated as that of her brothers. Throughout the whole narrative we find proofs of the high consideration with which she was regarded.
While in early life her influence as a sister had refined and softened the rudeness and roughness of their boyhood and youth, and similar associations with the brothers in mature years had enlarged her mind and imparted intelligence and strength to her understanding.
During the long sojourn in the wilderness, Miriam, "the prophetess of Israel," was probably the counsellor of the mothers and the instructress of the daughters of her people; while between the sister and the brothers there ever seems to have subsisted the most tender, confidential friendship.
But, alas for imperfect woman! There was a time in which the dark passions and malignant tempers of our evil nature so triumphed in the hearts of Miriam and Aaron, that they arrayed themselves against Moses. The dissension which troubled the camps of their leaders threatened to spread and involve the multitude of Israel in all the evils of rebellion and civil war.
During his exile, Moses had married the daughter of the priest of Midian. The descendant of Abraham, Jethro was a worshipper of the God of his fathers, and we have recorded proofs of his piety and wisdom. Yet the marriage of Moses was not apparently in accordance with the views either of his brother or sister. There is a selfish tenderness sometimes exhibited, which leads the dependent mother or single sister to regard with jealousy one who claims a closer tie, and Miriam may not have been free from the infirmities of weaker natures. Yet the notices, slight as they are, of the "Ethiopian" woman, perhaps impress few minds favourably; and we cannot but feel that in herself she may not have been all that the friends of the lawgiver of Israel could have wished in a wife. Bred in the seclusion of the wilderness, she was probably deficient both in the intelligence and the accomplishments which distinguished Miriam. And Miriam and Aaron seem at last to have cherished feelings of bitterness toward their sister-in-law, which were fast extending to the brother himself.
They evidently disliked the foreigner. They may have compared the toil-worn daughter of Midian with the high-bred maidens of Egypt, who in former days would have welcomed the addresses of one numbered with the princes of Egypt, or with the daughters of his own people, as offering an alliance more worthy the ruler of Israel; and Miriam, elevated by the distinction conferred upon her as the prophetess of Israel, conscious of superiority in all feminine accomplishments, seems to have forgotten the love of a sister and to have lost the humility befitting a woman. Domestic bitterness was fast preparing the way for political disaffection, and the dark clouds which had gathered around the tents of the leaders threatened to burst upon the whole camp of Israel.
Then Jehovah himself interposed. As the principal offender, the prophetess of Israel was publicly rebuked before all the congregation of the Lord; and then, as a leper, expelled from the camp, shut out from all human associations, in shame and solitude, Miriam, diseased and suffering, lay for seven days. In this time she doubtless humbled herself and repented of her sin. Yet, during this interval, the vast multitude showed their respect by remaining stationary; and while Aaron confessed their sin, Moses interceded for his faulty, erring, but still be loved sister.
If the conduct and fault of Miriam are to be censured and deplored, it is to be confessed that it was not peculiar to the sister of the leaders of the hosts of the Lord. Women of later ages, conscious of intellectual superiority, elevated by position, or merely distinguished by usefulness, have sometimes been proud enough to despise the inferior of their own sex, and to arrogate to themselves the power allotted to man; and their awakened pride and vanity have introduced strife and confusion into the counsels of those who were appointed to guide the people of God.
There is meaning in this record of the faults of those whose hearts had been, from infancy to age, knit together. While God has implanted the natural and domestic affections, they are still to be guarded, cherished, and cultivated. The jealousies, the petty strifes of domestic life, the little dislikes, the unguarded tempers of those who dwell together, have sometimes alienated hearts that have been united from childhood. The love that has grown strong by the mutual endurance of oppression, toil, privation, and danger, has been turned to gall by the infusion of the constant droppings of domestic strife. Pure, unselfish love is the spontaneous growth of a holy heart. It must be nurtured and tended, or it will wither and die in our corrupt nature.
The afflictions and punishments which harden the hearts of those who reject God, bring such as love his laws and character to submission and penitence. Miriam was restored to her former usefulness, probably better fitted for her high position, while the hearts of the brothers seem united anew to each other and to her; and the authority of Moses, vindicated by God, was strengthened by his own forbearing love and disinterested gentleness. And from thenceforth, while a due subjection was observed, there seems to have been an entire co-operation between them.
Miriam died in the wilderness of Zin, and the brothers buried her. There is a peculiar sadness in this separation, occurring, as it evidently did, not long before the close of their various pilgrimages.
As we follow the inspired narrative, we are naturally impressed by the care with which Jehovah selects and prepares those whom He intends as the instruments of advancing the welfare of his people and his own glory; and while this may be more clearly traced in the case of the highly distinguished legislator and prophet of Israel, we may be assured that it extends not less certainly to the lowest and the humblest.
The influences by which the lawgiver of Israel was so early surrounded, we are willing to accept as a divine attestation to the power and value of female culture in the formation of the character.
Three women are brought distinctly before us, as connected with the early history of Moses. The mother's high duty and privilege it was (as it ever is) to instil into his opening mind those great truths and first principles which are at the foundation of all excellence. Had the nurse of Moses been an Egyptian idolatress, the character of the man had doubtless been very different. While Moses owed all his worldly advancement to the princess of Egypt, he derived other advantages from being brought under the familiar influence of one who preserved, amid the corruptions of a court, the best sympathies of our nature. A knowledge of human character and a power of adaptation to all the circumstances of his eventful life were thus imparted, and which could be hardly elsewhere acquired, yet they were very needful to one who was to fill the office allotted to him.
God has graciously ordered that while the parents and guardians are to pass away, there are early ties which are enduring. Where families are properly regulated, added years strengthen the bonds of natural affection. Through all the vicissitudes of his life, the brother and sister of Moses clung to him. We first see Miriam watching the cradle-ark in which the infant was concealed, and she never appears except some event in his career brings her into view. Yet, through their long lives she was his companion and helper, participating in his labours, soothing his sorrows, and aiding and encouraging him in his work. She is a type of a large class—we mean the daughters and the sisters who are not wives. Her life shows that a woman may be honourable, useful, distinguished, and happy, and yet remain single—that the holy duties of the wife and the mother are not the only duties. How many homes would be comparatively unblessed but for the presence of a dutiful daughter or a loving sister! How largely our own age is indebted to women as teachers; women, who, like the prophetess of Israel, while assisting their brothers to proclaim the oracles of God, devote themselves to the instruction of their own sex, and bless men by instructing women!
DEBORAH—THE INFLUENCE OF WOMAN.
The book of Judges gives a concise view of the people of Israel for a period of four hundred years, extending from the death of Joshua to the birth of Samuel.
It is peculiarly interesting as showing how God deals with the nations of the earth in visiting national sins with national punishments. It has ever been the painful office of the historian to record the crimes and misfortunes of mankind, and to present the outbreaks of society rather than to note its gradual advance and improvement, or to dwell upon the periods of peaceful prosperity. Like the records of a court of justice, it presents the criminals and the offences and those implicated, while the thousands of peaceful citizens are never brought to view. The flow of human life is, like that of a mighty river, unmarked during its mild course; but when it bursts its bounds and overflows its channel and spreads a wide destruction, it is watched with interest and its desolating ravages are all recorded.
Of the many women who have attained honour and celebrity amidst the intrigues of courts and cabinets and the revolutions of empires, few have retained the purity and the peculiar virtues of their sex. Deborah seems to have united the sagacity and courage of man to the modest virtues of woman. She appears before us affecting no pomp, assuming no state. The wife of Lapidoth—one known only as the husband of Deborah, but thus known never to be forgotten—she abode with her husband in their own dwelling, under that palm-tree distinguished, when Samuel wrote this book, as "the palm of Deborah," between Ramah, where Rachel died, and Bethel, where Jacob worshipped. "And all the children of Israel came up to her there for judgment."
The people of Israel had departed from God and from the laws of Moses, and for twenty years they had been mightily oppressed by Jabin. During this long period no priest called the people to repentance, no prophet was commissioned to promise them relief.
We may imagine Deborah dwelling among her people, a devout, strong-minded, enlightened woman. She saw their sins, she participated in their trials, and she warned those around her of the evil of departing from Jehovah. She recalled His past acts of judgment and of mercy. She was well acquainted with the laws of Moses, and she recognised in the punishment of the people the fulfilment of prophecy.
The influence of such a woman—a woman instructed in the religion of Jehovah—a woman of faith and of prayer—would be felt, first, in her own family, or in her immediate circle of friends; and then would commence the reformation and the repentance and putting away of past sins and the return to the God of Israel. And as the influence spread, the circle extending, the whole nation would seem to have been affected, and they naturally resorted to one whose wisdom and piety were so well established, when any questions of their law, either civil or religious, were to be settled. Thus the children of Israel came up to her for judgment. They came to her—for her feet abode within her own dwelling. Her influence extended throughout all the borders of her land, but her presence still blest her own house. The prophetess of Israel was still the wife of Lapidoth, and her only authority was that of piety, wisdom and love. A more beautiful instance of a woman's true, legitimate influence cannot be given. Quietly, unostentatiously exercised, it penetrated through the nation and brought them back to Jehovah, and prepared the way for the removal of their yoke.
For many years she was doubtless employed in reclaiming and instructing her people. Through this influence the children of Israel were prepared to assert their liberty; and then Deborah was inspired to call upon "Barak the son of Abinoam," to gather an army, and take his station on Mount Tabor, where the Lord would deliver the enemies of Israel into his hands. She did not propose to attend—certainly not to lead—the army; but, giving her message, her counsel and her prayers, would still abide under the palm-tree and remain with her husband. But the appointed general knew so well the value of her presence in inspiring the people with confidence, and felt so much the need of her prayers, that he refused to go unless she sanctioned the expedition with her attendance. "And Barak said unto her, If thou wilt go with me, I will go; but if thou wilt not go with me, then I will not go."
Thus appealed to, the answer was immediate: "I will surely go with thee; notwithstanding the journey that thou takest shall not be for thine honour, for the Lord shall sell Sisera into the hands of a woman."
Mount Tabor, chosen for the encamping-place of the army of Barak, still rises like a tall cone in the vast plain of Esdraelon, which, stretching across the land to the sea, has since been the battle-ground of nations. From the wide plain on its lofty summit, Deborah and Barak could look over almost all the land. The view of the hills of Judea, of the sea of Tiberias, and of a country of wide extent, still repays the toil of those who climb to its summit.
But since the days of Deborah and of Barak, Tabor is generally supposed to have witnessed another scene. The Man of grief, who bore our sins and took upon himself our sorrows, climbed its steep ascent with his favoured disciples—And Moses and Elias appeared unto him there, and there "they talked with him." Of what? Not of the battle of Deborah and Barak with Sisera—although they stood where the leaders of Israel had watched the hosts of their enemies encompassing them. It was a converse of high things, not meet for us to know. And there he was transfigured before his wondering disciples, and his "raiment became exceeding white as snow, so as no fuller on earth can white them." And there was a cloud that overshadowed them, and a voice out of the cloud, This is my beloved Son—hear him. Alas! the Divine command has been ill obeyed. Tabor yet retains the remains of a fortress and preserves the marks of warfare; but no trace of the meeting there of the great lawgiver and reformer of Israel with Him who came both to fulfil and to abolish. No temples have yet been there erected to Him whose mission was far above all who were sent either to announce or prepare for his forthcoming.
From Mount Tabor the leaders and hosts of Israel watched their enemies gathering from afar and encompassing them. With the chariots of iron, so much dreaded by the Israelites, came the archers, and the spearmen, and the multitude that were with them—all assembled to surround and to destroy the allies of Barak.
But when Deborah gave the signal, "Up! for this is the day in the which the Lord hath delivered Sisera into thine hands: is not the Lord gone out before thee?" Barak went from Mount Tabor with ten thousand men. The victory was complete—"Jehovah triumphed, His people were free." The hosts of the enemy were vanquished. The river Kishon, that ancient river, swept them away. And the victory was celebrated by a song of most triumphant, yet grateful exultation, in a strain of the loftiest, purest poetry, such as the prophets and psalmists of Israel alone could pour forth:—
Praise ye the LORD for the avenging of Israel, When the people willingly offered themselves. Hear, O ye kings! Give ear, O ye princes! I, even I, will sing unto the LORD; I will sing praise to the LORD God of Israel. LORD, when thou wentest out of Seir, When thou marchedst out of the field of Edom, The earth trembled, and the heavens dropped, The clouds also dropped water. The mountains melted from before the LORD, Even that Sinai from before the LORD God of Israel. In the days of Shamgar the son of Anath, In the days of Jael, the highways were unoccupied, And the travellers walked through byways. The inhabitants of the villages ceased, They ceased in Israel, Until that I Deborah arose, That I arose a mother in Israel. They chose new gods; Then was war in the gates: Was there a shield or spear seen Among forty thousand in Israel? My heart is toward the governors of Israel, That offered themselves willingly among the people. Bless ye the LORD! Speak, Ye that ride on white asses, Ye that sit in judgment, And walk by the way! They that are delivered from the noise of archers in the place of drawing water, There shall they rehearse the righteous acts of the LORD, Even the righteous acts toward the inhabitants of his villages in Israel: Then shall the people of the LORD go down to the gates. Awake, awake, Deborah! Awake, awake, utter a song! Arise, Barak! And lead thy captivity captive, thou son of Abinoam. Then he made him that remaineth have dominion over the nobles among the people: The LORD made me have dominion over the mighty. Out of Ephraim was there a root of them against Amalek; After thee, Benjamin, among thy people; Out of Machir came down governors, And out of Zebulun they that handle the pen of the writer. And the princes of Issachar were with Deborah; Even Issachar, and also Barak: He was sent on foot into the valley. For the divisions of Reuben There were great thoughts of heart. Why abodest thou among the sheepfolds, To hear the bleatings of the flocks? For the divisions of Reuben There were great searchings of heart. Gilead abode beyond Jordan: And why did Dan remain in ships? Asher continued on the sea shore, And abode in his breaches. Zebulun and Naphtali were a people that jeoparded their lives Unto the death in the high places of the field. The kings came and fought, Then fought the kings of Canaan In Taanach by the waters of Megiddo; They took no gain of money. They fought from heaven; The stars in their courses fought against Sisera. The river Kishon swept them away, That ancient river, the river Kishon. O my soul, thou hast trodden down strength. Then were the horsehoofs broken By the means of the prancings, the prancings of their mighty ones. Curse ye Meroz! said the angel of the LORD, Curse ye bitterly the inhabitants thereof; Because they came not to the help of the LORD, To the help of the LORD against the mighty. Blessed above women Shall Jael the wife of Heber the Kenite be, Blessed shall she be above women in the tent! He asked water, and she gave him milk; She brought forth butter in a lordly dish. She put her hand to the nail, And her right hand to the workmen's hammer; And with the hammer she smote Sisera, she smote off his head, When she had pierced and stricken through his temples. At her feet he bowed, he fell, he lay down: At her feet he bowed, he fell: Where he bowed, there he fell down dead. The mother of Sisera looked out at a window, And cried through the lattice, Why is his chariot so long in coming? Why tarry the wheels of his chariots? Her wise ladies answered her, Yea, she returned answer to herself, Have they not sped? have they not divided the prey; To every man a damsel or two; To Sisera a prey of divers colors, A prey of divers colors of needlework on both sides, Meet for the necks of them that take the spoil? So let all thine enemies perish, O LORD! But let them that love him be as the sun when he goeth forth in his might.
One such strain preserved from any other ancient nation would establish their claims to the highest order of poetic genius, and lead to the most industrious and painful research for all that could throw light upon their literature. It comes over the soul now like the full burst of martial music. It stirs the blood and quickens the pulses with its strain of triumph, while it melts us to pity, as it brings before us so graphically, with such exquisite power—yet such slight allusion—the distress and desolation of Israel. It is a finished picture of the age. We see the judges, those that ride on white asses (still reserved for royal stables) that walk by the way; while it gives us a full character of Sisera and the mother who trained him. We see the mother—haughty, proud, avaricious, surrounded by "her wise ladies," who are flatterers rather than counsellors—ready to exult in the rapine and plunder of the army of her son; her natural fears awakened by his delayed return, yet hushed and soothed by the enumeration of the spoil. No feeling of pity softening the love of vengeance,—the desire for the plunder of a conquered people engrossing all.
And in Sisera we see the proud, cruel, licentious spoiler—all the powers of his evil nature called into exercise by success and the long indulgence of every evil passion and gross appetite—arrogant, oppressive and cruel in success; abject, cowardly and overreaching in adversity. We can well imagine the state of an oppressed people ruled by such a man at the head of a licentious soldiery. And harsh as may seem some of the expressions of Deborah, in her joyous outbursts of praise and thanksgiving, they arise from the ineffable miseries, the deep degradation, the oppressive cruelties, to which all the daughters of Israel would have been exposed had he been triumphant; and a mother in Israel might well exult in a deliverance from one whose desolating track was marked by lust and carnage.
We do not love to dwell on the treachery of Jael—we do not feel called upon to justify the act, although Deborah might well rejoice in the deliverance of her people from so stern a foe, so foul an oppression. Sisera appears as abject in the hour of defeat as he had been insolent and arrogant and cruel in the hour of triumph.
After Israel was restored to liberty we hear no more of Deborah; but "the land had rest forty years." She again returns to her own sphere, to the unostentatious, yet all-pervading usefulness of domestic life. No honours, no triumphs, no statues were awarded to her. No monuments seem to have been erected to her memory. The palm-tree was her fitting memorial; delighting the eye, affording shade, shelter and nourishment; asking and securing nought from man, watered by the dew and rain of heaven, and rejoicing in the beams of the sun—still pointing to heaven while sheltering those beneath it.
Jehovah seems to permit such examples to stimulate woman to usefulness and to vindicate their capacity; and thus there ever have been and are still Deborahs—mothers in Israel—those who, dwelling under their own roof, in the seclusion of domestic life, yet send forth an influence which extends far and wide.
The sound, rational piety of such women, and their lives of humble faith, of prayer, and of consistent usefulness, have often awakened a high tone of religious feeling and led to extensive revivals of pure religion.
Without departing from their allotted sphere, without forgetting the delicacy and proprieties demanded from their sex, they have been greatly instrumental in elevating the moral and religious standard of a community by their faithfulness in reproving the erring and reclaiming the backsliding, while by their kindly sympathy and effectual co-operation, they have aided, encouraged, and, by their prudent, judicious counsel, guided—the appointed leaders of Israel.
Although the family of Jeroboam were soon swept from the throne of Israel, yet those who succeeded still pursued the policy by which he had been governed; and through all the contention and bloodshed which marked the reigns of different dynasties, they all persisted in the idolatry established by him. "They all did evil in the sight of the Lord, and walked in the way of Jeroboam and in his sin, wherewith he made Israel to sin." But of Ahab, the son of Omri, it is written that "he did more to provoke the God of Israel than all that were before him." He pursued the path which had been marked out by his predecessors when he married, and he found in his wife an efficient aid. By the strength of her mind, by the energy of her character, by the introduction of an idolatry at once more corrupt and more ensnaring, she did more to complete and seal the apostasy of Israel than all who had gone before her.
The name of Jezebel has descended to us as one of the most opprobrious epithets which can be applied to a woman. Little did the haughty queen who bore it imagine what a reproach and offence it was to become for future ages, in unknown lands, and among unborn nations.
We think of her always as old, withered, thirsting for blood, and incapable of the finer sentiments and all the softer emotions of human kind. There was a time in which she shone as the centre of a splendid and luxurious court, where minstrels sang to her and poets praised her and princes flattered her, while statesmen confessed her influence and cabinets adopted her plans. Fascinating, artful, able, ambitious, and unprincipled, she may be regarded as chief among many of the most celebrated of this class of her sex of ancient or modern days.
There have been queens, not of heathen lands and barbarous Asia, but of refined and christianized Europe, upon whose memories rest quite as dark shadows as those which cover the character of the Queen of Israel. It is sad to remember how many of the most atrocious acts which disgrace the annals of our race are to be traced to the influence of female ambition, jealousy, hate, or revenge. Larger possessions than that of the vineyard of Naboth have been obtained by perjury and blood; and few modern courts could consistently condemn the principles or the policy by which the monarchs of Israel attempted to consolidate and perpetuate their dominion. In the estimation of many statesmen and many historians, greatness has sanctified all the means by which power is either to be attained or preserved, and the splendour of the court has fully atoned for all the oppression of the people.
While she was fitted to co-operate with her husband, and ready to promote his designs and to embrace the policy which had guided the court of Israel, she soon assumed and ever maintained that influence which the stronger mind, the more powerful will, ever exerts over the inferior and weaker. Through all his reign, Ahab ever deferred to her; and while she goaded him onward in his career of crime, she stimulated and upheld him by her daring defiance of the commands and threatenings of the prophets of the Lord. She possessed all the energy, power, and constancy which ever belongs to minds of a high order, and which fit them for greatness in virtue or crime—insuring widespread usefulness or leading to desperate wickedness. She never was turned from her course. She never faltered, trembled, or hesitated in the pursuit of her object. She witnessed, unawed and unmoved, miracles of judgment and of mercy. She saw unpitying a land consumed by drought and a people perishing by famine; and when the parched earth drank the showers of heaven, while she rejoiced, she was neither softened nor made penitent by the blessing.
Ahab could not entirely divest himself of every national characteristic, or the remembrances and associations of his faith and his people. There still clung to him some remains of the fear of the "Lord God of his fathers," some feelings of reverence and awe for the name and worship of Jehovah. No such compunctions troubled Jezebel. When Elijah visited Ahab, the impious monarch quailed before him and trembled at the denunciation of Divine wrath. Jezebel answered his reproofs by scorn and threats, and her menaces drove the prophet from the altar where he had triumphed.
Yet her history is replete with sad interest. While it declares the certain ruin which follows national sins and national corruption, it displays also much of the wonderful forbearance of Jehovah. As we retrace his dealings even with the guilty house of Ahab and the apostate people of Israel, we are reminded of One who, ages after, wept over Jerusalem. "Oh, if thou hadst known, in this thy day, the things which belong to thy peace—but now they are hidden from thine eyes."
During the earlier years of the reign of Ahab, while Jezebel was engaged with all zeal and activity in proselyting the people of Israel to the worship of Ashtaroth and Baal, she was constantly resisted by the prophets sent as messengers from Jehovah. And many miracles of mercy and of judgment, wrought before her by the power of the Lord God of Israel, should have convinced her of the truth of His messengers—His indisputable claim to be the God—the Lord God. She resisted all—not from the want of evidence or the power of believing, but from the perverseness of a determined will and a hardened heart. Yet he who styles himself a God merciful and gracious, long strove with her, though at last she provoked him to depart and leave her to her chosen way.
The seizure of the vineyard of Naboth seems to have consummated the iniquity of Jezebel, while it brought all the distinguishing traits of her character into full light.
Judah was a land of rocky hills and narrow though fertile valleys. The possessions of Israel were broader and more luxuriant; and in the beautiful plain of Jezreel the kings of Israel had built their favourite city of Samaria. In that city, Ahab erected the temple consecrated to Baal, and there he maintained four hundred and fifty priests for his service, while the Queen of Israel kept four hundred in the groves consecrated to Ashtaroth. "But the vineyard of Naboth the Jezreelite was hard by the palace of Ahab, King of Samaria."
The King of Israel desired the vineyard of Naboth, either to enlarge his grounds or to add to their beauty and variety. Yet, despotic and unprincipled as he was, the laws of possession were so fixed, the rights of property so established, that, on the refusal of Naboth to sell his inheritance, he dared not use violence; and he sank into sullen despondency.
It has ever been characteristic of wives like Jezebel to maintain their ascendency by arts and blandishments, and by ministering to every corrupt propensity of their husbands. With the watchfulness of a devoted wife, she saw the vexation of her husband.
"Why is thy countenance so sad?"
"And he said unto her, Because I spake unto Naboth the Jezreelite, and said unto him, Give me thy vineyard for money; or else, if it please thee, I will give thee another vineyard for that."
Naboth had said, God forbid that I should give the inheritance of my fathers unto thee.
The faithful Israelite may have recoiled from the thought of its passing into the hands of the unholy worshippers of Baal and Ashtaroth and being polluted by their orgies. But Ahab did not give the denial in its full force. He represents Naboth as simply refusing. "I will not give thee my vineyard."
We seem to see the actors before us, in the spirited, yet simple narration, as it proceeds. Ahab, heavy, sullen, morose—with clouded brow and furrowed cheek. Jezebel, with her flashing eye, her queenly gait, her haughty aspect, and all the workings of pride and craft and ambition expressed in her faded but still striking features. With what utter contempt would she look upon the husband who sank into despondency because he had not the skill to devise, or the will to perpetrate, the iniquity which would insure the attainment of his desires!
"Dost thou govern Israel? Arise, and eat bread, and let thine heart be merry. I will give thee the vineyard of Naboth the Jezreelite."
And a darker plot, or one more artfully devised, has seldom been unravelled among all the iniquitous intrigues of courts and statesmen. Naboth was doubtless a true worshipper; and for once Jezebel professed all honour to the laws of Jehovah. He was arraigned and tried by the laws of Moses—long trampled upon and disused. And all the solemnities of religion were resorted to, to aid her plans and advance her purpose.
Falsely arraigned, accused, and condemned, Naboth was executed, and his sons perished with him. The hands of his brethren were imbrued in their blood. She who managed the plot found other agents to execute her designs. With impious hypocrisy, she insulted heaven by ordaining a solemn fast, for God and the king had been blasphemed. These transactions display the deep depravity of the Queen of Israel, while they show the influence of her character and example upon her people. The very ministers of justice were made the abettors of her guilt; and law, with all its formalities and solemnities, was made to sanction crime. How many sins were committed to gratify one idle, covetous desire! God was insulted and defied and blasphemed; justice was corrupted; and falsehood, perjury, and murder were all used to accomplish the wicked will of Jezebel. And how many victims have been thus arraigned, and perished thus, in later days! This deed awoke the vengeance of Jehovah. Even as Ahab took possession of his blood-stained field, the prophet of the Lord met him and denounced the doom of the perpetrators of the dark crime. All were to perish, and all were to die deaths of blood and shame. Husband, wife, parents, and children—all, to the latest generation, were to be cut off—to be rooted out of the earth as an abominable stock, and to rot in the sight of the heavens. Ahab humbled himself, as he received the message of the prophet, and showed an outward reverence: and his doom was so far softened that the destruction of the family was not immediate: but Jezebel seems still as bold and unmoved as ever. Jehoshaphat, the King of Judah, entered into alliance with Ahab, and visited his court to witness the splendour and share the hospitalities of Jezebel; and while both were warring against Syria, Ahab was slain in battle.
Jezebel doubtless would have scouted the folly of those who saw the fulfilment of both prophecy and sentence in the dogs licking the blood from the chariot and the armour, as they were washed in the pool, which probably was on the lands of Naboth; yet she might have foreseen thus her certain fate—and as Ahab had died, so she should die. Her doom was yet deferred. She long survived her husband, and prosperity and such honours as attend the prosperous were her's. She was the daughter, wife, and the mother of kings. Her sons ruled Israel. Her daughter sat on the throne of Judah. She dwelt in royal state at Jezreel, and enjoyed possessions which had been obtained by revolting crimes. Ahab had died a bloody death. Jehoshaphat was gathered to his fathers; the King of Syria perished by the hands of his servant; and Elijah was taken up to heaven—but Jezebel still lived.
What were the occupations of her old age? Was she still busy, restless, and intriguing? Or did the past haunt her with dark remembrances of shame and crime, and the avenging future cast its shadow over her soul? Did the stern decree of the prophet ring in her ears, and late remorse drive her to the dark cruelties of her bloody idolatry, in the idle hope of expiation? Such an old age could not have been happy. She was left to fill up the measure of her iniquity, while memory told of past sins, and conscience whispered of the coming retribution, and the avenging justice of heaven hung like a dark cloud over her guilty house. Past the season of pleasure, deprived of the power she had so abused, without the honour and sacred reverence due to virtuous age, she may have had a foretaste of her future retribution, though surrounded by all the splendour of royalty, with trembling and abject slaves ministering to all her wants.
One son after another quietly took possession of the throne of Israel, and Jezebel may have derided the prophecy of Elijah; yet the sentence, long delayed, was fully executed. The hour of foretold vengeance arrived. In one day, the King of Israel was dethroned and murdered, and the race of Ahab was swept from the face of the earth. The last act of her life was worthy of Jezebel herself,—of the Queen of Israel in the days of her prime. She heard of the death of Jehoram and of the insurrection of Jehu. Neither the timidity of a woman nor the yearnings of a mother had a place in her soul. In the hour of carnage, surrounded by all the horrors of death, the pride of her nature prevailed, and all the daring of her character was displayed. She forgot neither the proprieties due to her rank nor the embellishments needful for her person. With the vanity of the woman and the pride of a queen, "she painted her face and tired her head," and then haughtily presenting herself before the murderer of her children, she uttered a maddening taunt and defiance. By the hands of her servants she was cast from the windows of the palace of Israel into the very grounds which had been the vineyard of Naboth; and as she was dashed to the earth, the wheels of the chariot of the destroyer of her race passed over her, and the feet of the horses trampled upon her. "And the dogs ate Jezebel by the walls of Jezreel." Thus her doom was accomplished!
There have been many like her. Her crimes have been sometimes equalled in atrocity. Her ruling passions were pride and ambition; and she doubtless clung to the idols of her land from the unbounded license their worship gave to sensuality, and the opportunities it afforded, in its feasts and festivals, for display and gayety.
But she clung more tenaciously to her idolatry from motives of self-interest and national aggrandizement. It was the test of loyalty for Israel. It was in perfect consistency with such a character to turn away from all evidence and to reject what she did not wish to believe. In the expressive language of the Bible, she "hardened her heart;" and doubtless, like skeptics of later days, she could ascribe what she could not disprove to the working of natural causes, or to the arts of priestcraft.
We can all stifle the convictions of conscience and contemn the principles which conflict with our interest or our inclination; and there are in every station unconscious imitators of the Queen of Israel.
The pious king of Judah not only formed a political alliance with Israel, but he even permitted, and probably encouraged, his son, and the heir to his throne, to marry the daughter of the impious Ahab and the idolatrous Jezebel. Jehoshaphat saw not the Queen of Israel as we see her—as unlovely as she was unholy. Dazzled by the splendour of her court, won by her grace and queenly bearing, he may have overlooked her crimes. The most unprincipled have sometimes carefully and successfully cultivated much that gives grace and attraction to social life. Some, whose hearts have been utterly selfish and callous, and whose lives have been one dark record of crime and cruelty, have yet shone as the centres of splendid circles, diffusing all around them pleasure and gayety. And men, themselves unstained, have been won by these fascinations to a close association with those whose principles were worthy only of reprobation, and whose association should have been shunned as in the last degree contaminating.
The intimacies between those who love and worship God and those who reject him are ever full of danger. And while the courtiers of Ahab and the flatterers of Jehoshaphat may have applauded the liberal policy of the King of Judah, and his freedom from the bigotry of the prophets who would reform Israel, he was pursuing a course which was to involve his family in calamity and bring corruption into his kingdom. Jerusalem and Samaria were not very remote from each other, and the kings of Israel and Judah seem at this period to have maintained frequent personal intercourse: an intercourse which appears not to have elevated the moral character of Israel, while it surely led to the deterioration of the piety of Judah; for when godly persons mingle freely with the impious,—especially if this intercourse originates from mere motives of ambition or worldly expediency,—the former will be much more ready to sink to the level of the worldling than to raise the worldling to their own.
The influence of this association with the depraved court of Israel doubtless had its effect upon the heart of Jehoshaphat. He was not drawn into idolatry, but he probably was less zealous in the service of Jehovah and in the vindication of his ways. He may have rather sympathized with the monarchs of Israel in their attempts to establish their own faith and maintain their own authority, than with the persecuted people of Israel in their efforts to preserve the worship of their fathers. While he regretted the idolatry of Jezebel, he may have censured what would be called the uncourtly intolerance or the bigoted zeal of the prophets, who uttered such denunciations and threatenings against the reigning family. Perhaps he pointed out to the few faithful Israelites whom he might meet in the train of Ahab or at the court of Israel the propriety of a more gentle mode or a more conciliating policy. As the friend of Ahab, he betrayed the cause of God, and upheld his iniquities. In all the persecutions they sustained, we do not find that the prophets of the Lord ever sought a refuge among their brethren of Judah. Hardly could they have expected shelter and protection from the king who was allying his own family with the house of Ahab. They found shelter among the heathen; they were nourished by miracles; they were hid in the coverts of the rocks, and were fed by ravens, while Jehoshaphat and his court were rejoicing in the alliance of Jehoram with Athaliah—the royal son of Judah with the royal daughter of Israel; and the worshippers of Jehovah and the devotees of Ashtaroth and Baal were mingled in their train.
There might have been heavy forebodings and low, suppressed murmurs among those who remembered the statutes of the Lord, and who recalled his dealings with his people; but the multitude could rejoice in the splendour and the festivities of the occasion; the court could exult in the pomp and display; and wise politicians could talk of the benefits to the two countries of speaking one language, springing from a common origin, and preserving their own national integrity, and yet presenting one united front to the common enemy. And Jehoshaphat may have hailed this marriage as the master-stroke of his policy, while religiously-disposed courtiers whispered that a scion of Israel, transplanted to Judah and nurtured by Jehoshaphat, under the influences of Zion, must indeed prove a plant of righteousness in this garden of the Lord.
Did Jezebel fear this? Did this strong-minded, politic, crafty woman feel that her daughter was placed under influences which might draw her from the idols of her mother, and make her recreant to the policy of her father's house?
Jezebel was too strong in the consciousness of her own power, to fear that her children would oppose her wishes or her plans. All experience proves that the wife exerts a powerful influence upon the character of her husband. Even where she has apparently little mental strength, she may possess great moral power, for evil or for good. This influence pervades her family, and is felt even while it is despised and disavowed. When holy and pure, it is as reviving, strengthening, invigorating as the pure breath of the morning. When it has its source in a selfish, polluted heart, it comes like the midnight miasma or the blast of the desert, prostrating and destroying all over which it passes.
The character of the mother often determines the course and the destiny of her children. She imprints her own moral lineaments upon her offspring. She moulds their habits and she transfuses into them the feelings, motives, and principles which actuate herself. The influence of the mother is often so perpetuated in her daughters that the individual seems multiplied as she is faithfully reflected by them. Where the mental and moral characteristics are marked, they are almost sure to descend; and the character of Jezebel was one to leave its impress.
Thus we find Athaliah worthy of the stock from which she sprang. She was the true, as she seems to be the only daughter of Jezebel. Though early allied to Jehoshaphat and removed into the kingdom of Judah, she retained all the idolatrous prepossessions of her father's house, and she exhibited all the traits which marked her race. She possessed the qualities which had been so prominently displayed by the course and life of Jezebel. The same desperate will, the same determined energy, the same daring courage and dauntless resolution, and the same proud ambition; and she was even more devoid than her mother of all the kinder feelings, affections, and sympathies.
Jezebel had resolutely crushed all those affections and sympathies of her nature which would be likely to check her progress in her career of crime and power. She had trampled upon all that would obstruct her in the attainment of her object. Yet some of the feelings of the woman, the tenderness of the wife, the fondness of the mother, still seem to linger in her proud heart. Unprincipled as she was, she did not abandon herself to utter selfishness. In her most atrocious acts she seems to have had some regard to the aggrandizement of her family and to the gratification of her husband. The daughter was more depraved than her mother. Athaliah was utterly selfish, devoid even of the instinct of natural affection. A character more revolting is not presented to us in the pages of the historian, sacred or profane.