Max Beer April 1908

Studies in historic Materialism

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

Source: Social Democrat,Vol. XII, No. 4, April, 1908, pp.164-168;
Transcribed: by Ted Crawford.

After the defeat of the petty chiefs of Canaan and the conquest of their territories, the Beni Israel surveyed the land and divided it among the tribes. The division of the lands is related with much detail in the Hebrew Domesday Book, which is to be found in the last chapters of NUMBERS and in chapters 12 to 22 in JOSHUA. The lands were taken in possession by the tribes and not by the individuals composing the new Hebrew society. They were tribal possessions and not individual properties. This is shown in NUMBERS, chapter 36, where a remarkable judgment is given by Moses with regard to the daughters of Zelophead. The chiefs of the tribe of Joseph appeared with a difficult case before Moses. Zelophead, the head of a family of their tribe, died and left no sons but daughters. The tribe was, therefore, apprehensive lest the girls marry into another tribe and transfer their inheritance to the tribe of their husbands. This was evidently against the feelings and notions of tribal communities. Moses was therefore asked to decide the matter. And he decided: “The tribe of the sons of Joseph hath said well. This is the thing which the LORD doth command concerning the daughters of Zelophead, saying, Let them marry …. only to the family of the tribe of their father. So shall not the inheritance of the children of Israel remove from tribe to tribe.” The mere fact that the tribal chiefs were compelled and authorised to interfere with contingent transfers of land appears to be sufficient evidence of the lack of the institution of private property. The interests of the tribe as a whole were regarded so much superior to those of the individual that Moses restricted in certain cases the choice of husbands. It may even be that he thereby established an exception to the ancient rule which prohibited marriages within the gens, in order to keep the tribal possessions intact.

In the first centuries after the conquest the Hebrews continued to live according to their primitive traditions and customs. They worshipped Yahve, made their pilgrimages to the holy places and celebrated images, or, as the Hebrew language expresses it, “to see the face of Yahve,” sacrificed their modest offerings, and made war on the natives and the surrounding tribes. In the same measure, however, as peace was established and their settlements were secured and agricultural life became their predominant occupation the new conditions began to revolutionise the mental and moral ideas and habits of the Beni Israel. First came the influence of the superior civilisation of the subdued natives. Canaan had a comparatively flourishing agriculture and a more luxurious mode of living. The religion of the Canaanites was instinct with the various phases of land cultivation. The Baalim were symbols of fertility; it was they who gave corn, oil, wine, and multiplied the herds. The Baal worship was therefore sumptuous, the sacrifices of the best fruits of the land were abundant, and the festivals often riotous. These social and religious conditions could not but impress the famished and vivacious Arabic nomads, and they slowly yielded. Then came the influence of the new material conditions of the Hebrews themselves. And this influence was at once perplexing and profound. Yahve, as a god of desert nomads, representing, as he did, atmospheric cataclysms and warlike qualities, lacked all those virtues on which the peaceful and laborious life of land cultivators depends. Yahve did not fit in with the new conditions. He could not be asked for corn, oil, or wine, and for all those blessings which peasants necessarily wish for. The people began dimly to realise the contradiction between their external conditions and their spiritual life. To save them from their perplexities two ways suggested themselves, either to adapt the conception of Yahve to the new conditions, or to worship Baal. As far as we may gather from JUDGES, the spiritual crisis was long in finding any solution. The Beni Israel drifted. Many of them abandoned Yahve and hankered after Baal, while others adhered unswervingly to the stern worship of Yahve, and fought the influences of the Canaanite religion. The struggle between Yahve and Baal appears thus to have been a conflict between old spiritual traditions and new material conditions; it was engendered by the transition from nomadic desert life to settled agricultural life. The mode of production changed, but the old mode of feeling, and thinking, and conduct claimed obedience, and there was yet no leader to formulate a new conception of Yahve. A later phase of this critical struggle is represented by Elijah and the Baal prophets, as recorded in I. KINGS, chapters 18 and 19. Baal, who was reputed as the divine agency of agricultural fertility, was challenged by Elijah, the prophet of Yahve, to give rain to the famished land. The challenge is characteristic, and affords an excellent insight into the spiritual crisis of the Israelites. Elijah said, “How long halt ye between two opinions? If Yahve be God, follow him; but if Baal, then follow him. And the people answered not a word.” In the course of his demonstration he proved to them that it was Yahve who gave rain, for out of a “little cloud like a man's hand” came water in abundance. In the following chapter Elijah denies that Yahve was a god of desert cataclysms. “And behold Yahve passed by, and a great and strong wind rent the mountains, and broke in pieces the rocks before Yahve; but Yahve was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake; but Yahve was not in the earthquake: and after the earthquake a fire; but Yahve was not in the fire: and after the fire a still small voice. And it was so, when Elijah heard it, that he wrapped his face.” And that soft, mild voice was that of Yahve. This story, recorded in symbols and images, is very instructive. It tells of the first great attempt of a Hebrew leader to adapt the old conception of Yahve to the new conditions, and to put an end to the spiritual crisis of his people. Yahve was not a god of physical catastrophes and of war, but a god who gave rain and who favoured the peaceful occupation of his followers.

While that spiritual conflict went on a deep change was taking place in the basis of Hebrew life. The Hebrews settled as communists. Their society was homogeneous, knowing no antagonistic economic divisions. There were neither exploiters nor exploited, neither rich nor poor, neither money-lenders nor borrowers. In the course of time, however, Hebrew society began to disintegrate. The causes of the disintegration were geographic and economic. In the north of Canaan lay trading and manufacturing Phoenicia, and in the east of the Jordan ran the great trade route from Egypt to Syria and Mesopotamia. The Phoenicians were the intermediaries between the trade of the Middle East, the northern regions of India, and the Mediterranean countries. They did not limit themselves, however, to the distribution of goods, but created manufactures in their own country; they produced, as Strabo recorded, fine linens and woollens richly dyed, glass and metal goods. Occupied with trade and manufacture, and possessing only a narrow strip of land, they were compelled to import foodstuffs from the neighbouring agricultural countries. Such an agricultural country was Canaan, with whose inhabitants they entered into commercial relations, evidence of which is furnished in the story of King Solomon and Hiram. Similar relations must have existed between the Hebrew lands lying on the flank of the Egypto-Syrian trade route. By their capacity of exporting agricultural products, the Hebrews were drawn into the vortex of international commerce. The effect of commerce and money transactions on communist settlements is necessarily a dissolving one. The families who enter into commercial relations are not long in developing a sense of private property, which can only be realised by alienating lands in possession of the tribe; and alienation of lands leads necessarily to inequality, to economic divisions in society. The process of disintegration of tribal organisations is accelerated or retarded according to the opportunities offered by the foreign exchanges. It must have been rapid enough in the Hebrew tribal organisations, exposed as they were in the north and in the east to the influences of commerce. To the religious crisis there was thus added a social crisis. Hebrew society divided into worshippers of Baal and worshippers of Yahve, and into rich and poor. The harshness of the social struggle is shown as early as in the. time of Elisha. We read in II. KINGS, chapter 4, “Now there cried a certain woman of the wives of the sons of the prophets unto Elisha, saying, ‘Thy servant, my husband, is dead; and thou knowest that thy servant did fear Yahve: and the creditor is come to take unto him my two sons to be bondmen.’”


(To be continued.)