Palestine - The Jews

Palestine extends from north to south a length of about 200 miles, and 50 in breadth; and is therefore, in point of size, of nearly the same extent as Scotland. The general character of the country is that of a hilly region, interspersed with moderately fertile vales; and being thus irregular in surface, it possesses a number of brooks or streams, which for the most part are swollen considerably after rains, but are almost dry in the hot seasons of the year. The present condition of Palestine scarcely corresponds with its ancient fertility. This is chiefly attributable to the devastating effects of perpetual wars; and some physical changes have also contributed to the destruction of agricultural industry. Yet, after all, so excellent would the soil appear to be, and so ample its resources, that Canaan may still be characterized as a land flowing with milk and honey.

The history of the extraordinary nation which once inhabited this land, must be so much more familiar to our readers than that of any other ancient nation, that all that is necessary here is a brief sketch, such as will assist the imagination in tracing with due completeness the general. career of the East till the establishment of the Persian empire. According to the accounts given of the Jews in Scripture, and in their history by Josephus, they were descended from Abraham, who was born in the 292d year (according to other authorities, in the 352d year) after the Deluge, 'left the land of Chaldea when he was seventy-five years old, and, at the command of God, went into Canaan, and therein he dwelt himself, and left it to his posterity. He was a person of great sagacity, both for understanding of all things and persuading his hearers, and not mistaken in his opinions; for which reason he began to have higher notions of virtue than others had, and he determined to renew and to change the opinion all men happened then to have concerning God; for he was the first that ventured to publish this notion, that there was but ONE God, the Creator of the universe; and that as to other gods, if they contributed anything to the happiness of men, that each of them afforded it only according to His appointment, and not by their own power. For which doctrines, when the Chaldeans and other people of Mesopotamia raised a tumult against him, he thought fit to leave that country, and at the command of God he came and lived in the land of Canaan. And when he was there settled, he built an altar, and performed a sacrifice to God.' After the death of Abraham's son Isaac, his younger son Jacob remained for a number of years in Canaan, surrounded by a family of twelve sons, one of whom, Joseph, as related in Scripture, became the cause of the removal of his father and brethren, and all belonging to them, into Egypt. The Hebrew emigrants were seventy in number, and formed at the first a respectable colony among the Egyptians. Jacob died after having been seventeen years in Egypt, and his body was carried by Joseph to Hebron, and buried in the sepulchre of his father and grandfather. Joseph also died in Egypt at the age of 110, and at length his brethren died likewise. Each of the twelve sons of Jacob became the progenitor of a family or tribe, and the twelve tribes, personified by the term ISRAEL, continued to reside in Egypt, where they increased both in number and in wealth. Their rapid increase and prosperity soon excited the jealousy of the masters of the country; and from being in high favor, the different tribes gradually fell under the lash of power, and came to be treated as public slaves.

The entire body of Israelites, guided by Moses, fled from Egypt in the year 1490 before Christ, at a time when Thebes, Memphis, and the other magnificent cities of that country, were in all their glory. Proceeding in a north-easterly direction from Rameses (near the site of modern Cairo), they went through the level region of the land of Goshen (now a barren sandy plain) to the head of the Gulf of Suez, the western branch of the Red Sea. Here they crossed in a miraculous manner to the opposite shore, to a spot now called the Wells of Moses, where, according to the Scripture narrative, they sang their song of thanksgiving for their deliverance. The country in which they had now arrived was a portion of Arabia Petra, consisting of a dismal barren wilderness, now called the Desert of Sinai, from the principal mountain which rises within it. From the point at which the Israelites had crossed the Red Sea from Egypt, they were conducted by a most circuitous and tedious route towards the Promised Land of Canaan.

The country on the shore of the Mediterranean which was allotted as a settlement to this people, was at that time occupied by many warlike tribes, who had grown strong in its fertile plains and valleys; and the generation of the Hebrews who were conducted into it were compelled to fight for its possession. The struggle was not of long continuance. The whole land was conquered in the year B.C. 1450.

According to the account given in the 26th chapter of the book of Numbers, the Hebrew nation thus brought out of the land of Egypt and settled in Canaan amounted to 601,730 souls, unto whom the land was divided for an inheritance, according to the number of individuals in the respective tribes.

Moses dying before the inheritance was entered upon, was succeeded by Joshua as a leader, and by him the Israelites were conducted across the Jordan. The political government of the various tribes, after their conquest and settlement of Canaan, appears to have been republican, with military leaders called Judges; but these acted by the direction of the Priesthood, who were immediately counseled by the Deity within the sanctuary. This period of separate government in tribes, called the Period of the Judges, lasted 300 years (B.C. 1427-1112), and was one of daring actions and great deliverances - the heroic age of the Jews.

The epoch of kings succeeded that of judges. The reign of Saul, their first monarch, though the people were stronger by being united, was gloomy and troubled. David, who succeeded, was a soldier and a conqueror. He rendered the Hebrews formidable to the whole of their enemies, and gave them a regular and defensible position, expelling their old antagonists from every part of the country. He left an empire peaceful, respected, and strong; and, what was of as much importance, he selected from among his sons a successor who was able to improve all these advantages, and to add to the progress which his countrymen had already made in prosperity. Under Solomon, the name of the Hebrew government being able to protect its subjects in other countries, the people and their king began to employ themselves in commerce. Their trade was at first engrafted on that of the Phoenicians of Tyre. A greater contrast cannot be imagined than between the troubles of the time of the Judges (only 100 years before), and the peace, security, and enjoyment of this reign. 'And the king made silver to be in Jerusalem as stones, and cedars made he to be as sycamore trees that are in the vale for abundance; and Judah and Israel were many; as the sand which is by the sea-shore for multitude, eating, and drinking, and making merry.' (1 Kings, x. 27.)

After the death of Solomon, the country fell into the same divisions which had weakened it in the time of the Judges. Each of the, districts of North and South Israel was under a separate king, and the people were exposed both to the attacks of their enemies and to quarrels with each other. Their history is a succession of agitating conflicts for independence, and of unexpected and remarkable deliverances, of a similar nature to those of the earlier period, and they continued for about the same length of time (380 years); but they are marked by fewer of those traits of heroic devotion which distinguished the epoch of the Judges. The backslidings, errors, and misgovernment of their kings, is the chief and painful subject which is presented to us; and though these are relieved at times by the appearance of such monarchs as Josiah, Jehoshaphat, and Hezekiah, yet the whole. history of this period is overcast with the gloominess of progressive decline.

By far the most delightful parts of it are those which relate to the lives of the prophets, who were raised up at intervals to warn the nation and its rulers of the fate which they incurred by forsaking the religion of their fathers. These inspired men sometimes sprang up from among the humblest classes of the community: one from the 'herdsmen of Tekoa,' another from 'ploughing with twelve yoke of oxen;' several were of the priestly order, and one (Isaiah) is said to have been of royal lineage; but the works of all are marked with the same sacredness, force, and authority. They reprehend their countrymen, in the most eloquent strains, at one time for idolatry, and at another for hypocrisy; and their indignation is express ed with the same freedom and dignity against the vices of the highest and the lowest.

Of the two kingdoms into which Palestine divided itself after the death of Solomon (B.C. 975), the northern, called the Kingdom of Israel, was conquered by the Assyrians of Nineveh (B.C. 722), who carried off many thousand of the people into captivity. Little is known of their fate. By some they are supposed to have been carried to India, by others to Tartary 'what became of all the Israelites of the ten tribes,' is still a question with historians. The southern kingdom, called the kingdom of Judah, retained its independence till B. 0. 588, when it was invaded and subdued by Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, who destroyed Jerusalem, and carried away a great number of the principal Jews into captivity at Babylon. On the subversion of the Babylonian dominion by Cyrus, seventy years afterwards, the captives, to the number of 42,860, were permitted to return to their own land, and rebuild Jerusalem. At this period, the whole of Palestine merged in the growing Persian empire.