Max Beer February 1908

Studies in historic Materialism

Chapter I - The rise of Jewish Monotheism (continued.)

Source: Social Democrat,Vol. XII, No. 2, February 15, 1908, pp.68-72;
Transcribed: by Ted Crawford.

The Hebrews are a branch of the Semitic race, whose home is Arabia. The physical and economic geography of the Arabian Peninsula controlled in a, decisive manner the primitive social stages of its inhabitants and produced the Semitic type.

Arabia exhibits a great and contrasting variety of physical conditions, partly favouring a rapid increase of population, partly compelling migration and emigration. The south-western, southern, and central highlands possess a healthy climate, and in many parts a rarefied and bracing air, a fertile soil, yielding to a moderate amount of labour rich harvests of subtropical products. The Yemen and the Hadramaut, the ancient Arabia Felix, were renowned in antiquity for their frankincense and myrrh groves, terraced coffee-gardens, orchards, and corn-lands; Nejd and Hasa for their husbandry, fruits and vegetables. Strabo, the greatest geographer of the ancients, regarded the southern regions of the Peninsula, which he described as being under the sway of the Sabanans, as some of the richest of the world. And protected as they were by innavigable seas and impassable deserts against foreign invasions they afforded easy and secure settlements to their teeming populations. Even the Romans, in the heyday of their power, failed to subdue them. Those areas were, however, limited in extent; beyond their narrow confines arid plains and torrid deserts prohibited the normal expansion of a rapidly growing population, and their technique was too primitive to allow an intensive cultivation. Migrations to the numerous small oases with which the desert regions are sprinkled, nomadic shepherd life, became a necessity, and finally emigration to foreign lands.

Up to the second century A.D., the Arabian Peninsula occupied commercially an exceedingly favourable position. Forming as it does a longitudinal land-wedge between Asia and Africa it served as a bridge and an important centre of exchange between the two old continents. And it was in the south-western and southern regions of the Peninsula where those features were most prominent. Indian spices, precious stones, and animals, Arabian frankincense, coffee, and camels, Egyptian corn, African slaves and ivory, changed hands at the ports of the Yemen, whence they were distributed by overland routes to the estuary of the Tigris and Euphrates, the Nile Delta, and the eastern  shores of the Mediterranean. Navigation was still in its primitive stage, and especially that of the Red Sea was in those times regarded as unsafe and dangerous to such a degree that its entrance has become known as Bab-el-Mandeb. the gate of sighs, Commerce preferred continental communication; the land regions which exhibited an intermediary and isthmian character became, therefore, centres of exchange. The chief Arabian trade route radiated from Aden and ran northward to Mecca, which formed a junction of roads, being halfway to the head of the Persian Gulf and to the eastern Mediterranean and possessing a spring of sweet water, the famous Zemzem. For the same reasons Mecca became the chief centre of Arabian worship, long before Mahomet appeared on the scene. [1] From Mecca trade routes were running east and north-east, through Nejd, to the estuary of the Tigris, to Mesopotamia, as well as northwards, through the Hejaz and Midian, to the Sinai Peninsula, the Nile Delta, to Gaza in Philistaea on the south-eastern shore of the Mediterranean. [2]

In the process of adaptation to the varying phases of their physiographic and economic environments the Semites developed their specific type. The Yemen, the Hadramaut, and Nejd, the nurseries of the race, with their agricultural and commercial conditions, afforded them the well-being, the repose, and the moderate activity necessary to the formation of healthy and shapely bodies. Their migrations and caravan leading through desert tracts, their Bedouin life, turned them into hardy athletes, resourceful leaders of men, and determined warriors; their commercial relations with two continents stimulated their intellect, broadened their outlook, developed their capacity of reasoning and arguing, but it imbued them also with a tendency to cunning, sophistry, and legal fictions.

The pressure of overpopulation could, under the conditions prevailing in Arabia, be relieved only by emigration, and having acquired, in the struggle with their environments and in the adaptation to their varying conditions, the qualities of a strong, self-conscious race, many of the Semitic tribes, probably the most vigorous and adventurous, left their native haunts in order to conquer foreign lands and settle down in the manner of their forbears at home. The waves of emigration followed the trade routes. Some moved towards the north-east and pitched their tents on the rivers Tigris and Euphrates, founding there the Assyrian and Babylonian Empires and civilisations which grew in the same measure as the exchanges between the northern regions of India, the Middle East, Cathai, and the Mediterranean countries increased. Other Semitic tribes followed the northern trade route to the Sinai Peninsula, the Nile Delta, and the eastern shores of the Mediterranean, founding the Kingdoms of Phoenicia, Syria, and Palestine, which either by commercial, industrial, and colonising activity or by religious and ethical thought were destined deeply to influence European history.

As in all ancient societies the social organisation of the Semitic tribes was tribal and communal. There are in the Old Testament indelible traces of that form of organisation; and also Strabo recorded some striking evidence of the communal mode of life of Arabia Felix. Under agricultural conditions the land was the property of the tribe; and nomadic life is by sheer necessity communistic. Consanguinity was the bond that held the tribe together. This organisation, strengthened by a community of interests, was in the nature of things more enduring under nomadic than under settled conditions. The tribe migrated together, under the leadership of its most resourceful men, from oasis to oasis, from pasture to pasture, feeding its herds on nobody's lands, satisfying its modest needs from the milk and flesh of the common flocks, and, lacking the opportunity of accumulating wealth and of competing economically with one another, no sense of individual property, individual responsibility, and private worship could arise. A natural feeling of equality and fraternity permeated the tribal organisation.

Such were the physical, mental, moral, and social characteristics of the Hebrew tribes when they finally emerged from the Arabian deserts [3] and entered the populous and cultivated Mediterranean regions in order to look for settlements. There exists, it is true, a dim tradition that they first migrated to Mesopotamia; judging, however, from the more explicit traditions of the life of Moses, we may assume, with a greater probability of truth, that the Hebrew tribes chose the northern trade-route through Midian and the Sinai Peninsula. There is nothing inherently improbable in the Biblical record of the sojourn of Hebrew tribes in the eastern regions of the Nile Delta and of their conspiracy against the onerous duties imposed upon them by the centralised, despotic Government of Egypt. Semitic Bedouins from Arabia might have settled for a time near the Delta, and were sure to rebel against forced labour. Even to this day the greatest part of Arabia has remained independent, successfully resisting Turkish encroachments. But for the history of Jewish development, the whole Egyptian episode is irrelevant. The Jewish mind owes nothing to Egypt, and there is in Jewish Monotheism no trace of any Nilotic influence. The real history of the Hebrews begins with their conquest of Canaan.


(To be continued.)

[1] In the last centuries the process has been reversed; Mecca owes its economic prosperity to religious causes, to the pilgrimage of the Islam world to the Kaaba. This is an illustration of the effect of an idea on economics.
[2] Evidence of the commercial activity of the Arabs is also to be found in Genesis, chapter 37, verses 25 and 28: “A company of Ishmaelites [Midianite merchantmen] came from Gilead with their camels bearing spicery and balm and myrrh, going to carry it down to Egypt."
[3] The only indisputable fact in the pre-Palestinean life of the Hebrew tribes, the Beni Israel, is their migration in the deserts of northern and north-western Arabia.