Thursday, August 17, 2006

Palestine Oriental history

Palestine is thus a centre of ancient Oriental history. Its occupation by Babylonians or Egyptians marks the shifting of the balance of power between Asia and Africa. The fortunes of the great empires of the eastern world are to a large extent reflected in its history. The rise of the one meant the loss of Palestine to the other.

The people, too, were fitted by nature and circumstances for the part they were destined to play. They were Semites with the inborn religious spirit which is characteristic of the Semite, and they were also a mixed race. The highlands of Canaan had been peopled by the Amorites, a tall fair race, akin probably to the Berbers of northern Africa and the Kelts of our own islands; the lowlands were in the hands of the Canaanites, a people of Semitic blood and speech, who devoted themselves to the pursuit of trade. Here and there were settlements of other tribes or races, notably the Hittites, who had descended from the mountain-ranges of the Taurus and spread over northern Syria. Upon all these varied elements the Israelites flung themselves, at first in hostile invasion, afterwards in friendly admixture. The Israelitish conquest of Palestine was a slow process, and it was only in its earlier stages that it was accompanied by the storming of cities and the massacre of their inhabitants. As time went on the invaders intermingled with the older population of the land, and the heads of the captives which surmount the names of the places captured by the Egyptian Pharaoh Shishak in the kingdom of Judah all show the Amorite and not the Jewish type of countenance. The main bulk of the population, in fact, must have continued unchanged by the Israelitish conquest, and conquerors and conquered intermarried together. The genealogies given by the Hebrew writers prove how extensive this intermingling of racial elements must have been; even David counted a Moabitess among his ancestors, and surrounded himself with guards of foreign nationality. Solomon's successor, the first king of Judah, was the son of an Ammonite mother, and we have only to read a few pages of the Book of Judges to learn how soon after the invasion of Canaan the Israelites adopted the gods and religious practices of the older population, and paid homage to the old Canaanite shrines.

A mixed race is always superior to one of purer descent. It possesses more enterprise and energy, more originality of thought and purpose. The virtues and failings of the different elements it embodies are alike intensified in it. We shall probably not go far wrong if we ascribe to this mixed character of the Israelitish people the originality which marks their history and finds its expression in the rise of prophecy. They were a race, moreover, which was moulded in different directions by the nature of the country in which it lived. Palestine was partly mountainous; the great block of limestone known as the mountains of Ephraim formed its backbone, and was that part of it which was first occupied by the invading Israelites. But besides mountains there were fertile plains and valleys, while on the sea-coast there were harbours, ill adapted, it is true, to the requirements of modern ships, but sufficient for the needs of ancient navigation. The Israelites were thus trained on the one hand to the habits of hardy warriors, living a life of independence and individual freedom in the fastnesses of the hills, and on the other hand were tempted to become agriculturists and shepherds wherever their lot was cast in the lowlands. The sea-coast was left to the older population, and to the Philistines, who had settled upon it about the time of the Hebrew exodus from Egypt; but the Philistines eventually became the subject-vassals of the Jewish kings, and friendly intercourse with the Phoenicians towards the north not only brought about the rise of a mixed people, partly Canaanite and partly Israelitish, but also introduced among the Israelites the Phoenician love of trade.

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