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Religion and Morality as They Stand Related
to Each Other in the Old Testament
AMONG the features of the Old Testament which cause it to stand in contrast with other ancient literature, that which we are now considering may not be given the first place. If we contemplate the entire race of man, in all ages and of all nations, we shall conclude that, of the burdens which the race has borne, thât which has held it down longest and ground it farthest into the dust is the superstition which underlies idolatry. There is but one place in the world where there can be found a scheme carefully devised and laboriously executed to enable men to trample this burden under their feet. The outlines of this scheme still exist, and may easily be traced in the Old Testament.
The fact that the Jewish writers placed their golden age in the future, and came at length to point out with considerable minuteness the characteristics of a Great Teacher to come, and to forecast his influence on later ages, is certainly a very conspicuous departure from the course of literature in other nations.
The feature of Old Testament instruction which we now have under consideration will, however, take an important place among the facts which make these writings unique. Notwithstanding enlightened views of religion and morality which appeared at a few points in the early history of the race, flashes of a light which later appears to have gone out or grown dim, the instructions given in the Old Testament are in strong contrast with what is known of the nations with which the Old Testament Jews were in contact, or of the nations contemporaneous with them.
The rites of such gods as Bacchus, whose ceremonies are said to have been observed over a greater extent of territory than the rites of any other of the ancient deities, or the rites of such goddesses as Venus, Aphrodite, Ashteroth, or Isis could not improve the morals of the people among whom those rites were performed. A feast to Bacchus was a drunken frolic. When the rites of one of the goddesses just mentioned were added to those of Bacchus, there was something more and worse than a drunken frolic. Among the heathen, religion and morality have been divorced from each other.
When the Hebrews were first organized into a nation the Decalogue was given. We still read the statement of our duties toward God and the statement of our duties toward our fellow-men in the same chapter.
The Being who says, “Thou shalt have no other gods before me,” says also, “Thou shalt not kill;" "Thou shalt not steal;" "Thou shalt not bear false witness.” The authority of God demands justice between man and man.
Having steadily held its place in civilized nations for thirty-five hundred years, everywhere commanding respect, the Decalogue has toughened the fiber of many a weak and wavering conscience.
"In vain we call old notions fudge
And bend our conscience to our dealing;
-J. R. LOWELL.*
*The martyr Stephen tells us that Moses was learned in all the wisdom of the Egyptians.” Modern research has led to the opinion that in the quite early literature of Egypt there is found a conception of God and of morality worthy of this appreciative mention. We do not, however, learn that Moses had any monopoly of this wisdom of Egypt. The wisdom to which Moses had access was in the custody of the Egyptians. The Egyptians were then in a decline, and they continued to degenerate into a low type of idolatry. The slaves of the Egyptians, under the impulse derived from Moses, which continued to be felt through later centuries, came, at the advent of our Savior, to be quite free from idolatry, and the most spiritual in their religious conceptions of any people then in existence. Having elsewhere (Circumstantial Evidences of Christianity, Walden & Stowe) pointed out, in the Old Testament, the minutes of the course of instruction and training by which this elevation was accomplished, I will here merely call attention to the moral influence by which this course of training was accompanied.
As a matter which may not be appropriate to the body of this essay, though nearly related to its theme, I will in this note mention the fact that much wholesome modern legislation in regard to marriage derives its impulse from Moses. It is believed that an Egyptian monarch near the time of Moses took his granddaughter to be his queen. Such a course would have been in accordance with Egyptian usage; and apparently this usage extended to the nations by whom the Hebrews were surrounded after their migration. “After the doings of the land of Egypt wherein ye dwelt, shall ye not do: and after the doings of the land of Canaan, whither I bring you, shall ye not do.”
Moses was the first and greatest of a line of prophets (preachers of righteousness rather than foretellers of the future, though these offices were united). These might be expected to arise in any region occupied by the chosen people, and among persons of any occupation. More correctly, we may say that they appeared in this way unexpectedly. The prophet, being by some means fully convinced that his message was from God, proceeded to rebuke wrong-doing without fear, whether the offender were priest or king or the people; rebuking with equal vigor whether the offense might be against religion or morality. In the teachings of these later prophets, as in the teachings of Moses, religion stands as the friend and supporter of morality.
Eli while high priest held also the office of judge. Though adding the authority of these offices to that of parent and head of a family, he failed to restrain the dishonesty and licentiousness which appeared among his sons. The sons were mildly reproved and exhorted, but the immorality was not caused to cease. “There came a man of God unto Eli,” a prophet whose name is not given. His warn