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Edersheim: Sketches / Palestine Centuries Past

God gave this land to Abraham

by promise—

Scenes of beauty and richness—
every variety of climate from the snows of Hermon to the cool of Lebanon,
to the genial warmth of the Lake of Galilee, and the tropical heat of the Jordan valley

The land called Palestine presented a scene of beauty, richness, and busy life almost unsurpassed in the then known world. The Rabbis never weary of its praises, whether their theme be the physical or the moral preeminence of Palestine. It happened, so writes one of the oldest Hebrew commentaries, that Rabbi Jonathan was sitting under a fig-tree, surrounded by his students. Of a sudden he noticed how the ripe fruit overhead, bursting for richness, dropped its luscious juice on the ground, while at a little distance the distended udder of a she-goat was no longer able to hold the milk. “Behold,” exclaimed the Rabbi, as the two streams mingled, “the literal fulfillment of the promise: ‘a land flowing with milk and honey.’” “The land of Israel is not lacking in any product whatever,” argued Rabbi Meir, “as it is written (Deu 8:9): ‘Thou shalt not lack anything in it.’” Nor were such statements
unwarranted; for Palestine combined every variety of climate, from the snows of Hermon and the cool of Lebanon to the genial warmth of the Lake of Galilee and the tropical heat of the Jordan valley. Accordingly not only the fruit trees, the grain, and garden produce known in our colder latitudes were found in the land, along with those of sunnier climes, but also the rare spices and perfumes of the hottest zones. Similarly, it is said, every kind of fish teemed in its waters, while birds of most gorgeous plumage filled the air with their song. Within such small compass the country must have been unequalled for charm and variety. On the eastern side of Jordan stretched wide plains, upland valleys, park-like forests, and almost boundless corn and pasture lands; on the western side were terraced hills, covered with olives and vines, delicious glens, in which sweet springs murmured, and fairy-like beauty and busy life,
as around the Lake of Galilee. In the distance stretched the wide sea, dotted with spreading sails; here was luxurious richness, as in the ancient possessions of Issachar, Manasseh, and Ephraim; and there, beyond these plains and valleys, the highland scenery of Judah, shelving down through the pasture tracts of the Negev, or South country, into the great and terrible wilderness. And over all, so long as God’s blessing lasted, were peace and plenty. Far as the eye could reach, browsed “the cattle on a thousand hills”; the pastures were “clothed with flocks, the valleys also covered over with corn”; and the land, “greatly enriched with the river of God,” seemed to “shout for joy,” and “also to sing.” Such a possession, heaven-given at the first and heaven-guarded throughout, might well kindle the deepest enthusiasm.

The Blessing of God

In truth, fair as the land was, its conjunction with higher spiritual blessings gave it its real and highest value. “Only in Palestine does the Shechinah manifest itself,” taught the Rabbis. Outside its sacred boundaries no such revelation was possible. It was there that rapt prophets had seen their visions, and psalmists caught strains of heavenly hymns. Palestine was the land that had Jerusalem for its capital, and on its highest hill that temple of snowy marble and glittering gold for a sanctuary, around which clustered such precious memories, hallowed thoughts, and glorious, wide-reaching hopes. There is no religion so strictly local as that of Israel. Heathenism was indeed the worship of national deities, and Judaism that of Jehovah, the God of heaven and earth. But the national deities of the heathen might be transported, and their rites adapted to foreign manners. On the other hand, while Christianity was from the first universal in its character and design, the religious institutions and the worship of the Pentateuch, and even the prospects opened by the prophets were, so far as they concerned Israel, strictly of Palestine and for Palestine. They are wholly incompatible with the permanent loss of the land. An extra-Palestinian Judaism.  Outside the land even the people are no longer Israel: in view of the Gentiles they are Jews; in their own view, “the dispersed abroad.”

All this the Rabbis could not fail to perceive. Immediately after the destruction of Jerusalem by Titus, when the Israeli people set themselves to reconstruct their broken commonwealth, it was on a new basis indeed, but still within Palestine. Palestine was the Mount Sinai of Rabbinism. Here rose the spring of the Halachah, or traditional law, whence it flowed in ever-widening streams; here, for the first centuries, the learning, the influence, and the rule of Judaism centered.  The first attempts at rivalry by the Babylonian schools of Jewish learning were keenly resented and sharply put down. Only the force of circumstances drove the Rabbis afterwards voluntarily to seek safety and freedom in the ancient seats of their captivity, where, politically unmolested, they could give the final development to their system. It was this desire to preserve the nation and its learning in Palestine which inspired remarkable sentiments.  “The very air of Palestine makes one wise,” said the Rabbis. “There is no learning like that of Palestine.” It was a saying— “To live in Palestine was equal to the observance of all the commandments.” “He that hath his permanent abode in Palestine,” so taught the Talmud, “is sure of the life to come.” “Three things are Israel’s through suffering: Palestine, traditional lore, and the world to come.” Nor did this feeling abate with the desolation of their country. In the third and fourth centuries of our era they still taught, “He that dwelleth in Palestine is without sin.”

Love of the Land
Centuries of wandering and of changes have not torn the passionate love of this land from the heart of the people. The Talmud (Cheth. iii. a.) may have expressed an abiding principle: “Whoever is buried in the land of Israel, is as if he were buried under the altar.” Ancient Hebrew commentaries (Ber. Rabba) go much farther—  those buried within the sacred soil, would be the first “to walk before the Lord in the land of the living” (Psa 116:9), the first to rise from the dead and the first to enjoy the days of the Messiah. For the pious Jews who had not the privilege of residing in Palestine, God would make subterranean roads and passages into the Holy Land, so that, when the dust of their decayed bodies reached such subterranean passageways, the Spirit of the Lord would raise them to new life, as it is written (Eze 37:12-14): “O My people, I will open your graves, and cause you to come up out of your graves, and bring you into the land of Israel…and shall put My Spirit in you, and ye shall live; and I shall place you in your own land.” Almost every prayer and hymn breathes the same love of Palestine. Indeed, synagogues still bewail the loss of Zion, and express pent-up longing for its restoration. Desolate, they cling to its ruins, and believe, hope, and pray ardently! In almost every prayer— they cry ardently for that time to come when the land ,like Sarah of old, will by the bidding of the Lord have youth, beauty, and fruitfulness restored, and in Messiah the King “a horn of salvation shall be raised up”[2] to the house of David.

Yet, it is true that no place could have been more completely swept of relics than Palestine. Where the most solemn transactions have taken place, and where every footstep taken might be consecrated, so that the very rocks, and caves, and mountain-tops could be devoted to the holiest of 

remembrances— if we only knew, but we are almost in absolute ignorance of exact localities. In Jerusalem itself even the features of the soil, the valleys, depressions, and hills have changed,or at least lie buried deep under the accumulated ruins of centuries. It almost seems as if the Lord meant to do with the land what Hezekiah had done with that relic of Moses—the brazen serpent—when he stamped it to pieces, lest its sacred memories should convert it into an occasion for idolatry. The lie of land and water, of mountain and valley, are the same; Hebron, Bethlehem, the Mount of Olives, Nazareth, the Lake of Gennesaret, the land of Galilee, are still there, but all changed in form and appearance, and with almost no definite spot to which one could with absolute certainty can attach the most sacred events. Events, then, not places; spiritual realities, not their outward surroundings, have been given to mankind by the land of Palestine.

Size of Palestine

“So long as Israel inhabited Palestine,” says the Babylonian Talmud, “the country was wide; but now it has become narrow.” There is only too much historical truth underlying this somewhat curiously-worded statement. Each successive change left the boundaries of the Holy Land narrowed. Never as yet has it actually reached the extent indicated in the original promise to Abraham (Gen 15:18), and afterwards confirmed to the children of Israel (Exo 23:31). The nearest approach to it was during the reign of King David, when the power of Judah extended as far as the river Euphrates (2 Sam 8:3-14). At present the country to which the name Palestine attaches is smaller than at any previous period. As of old, it still stretches north and south “from Dan to Beersheba”; in the east and west from Salcah (the modern Sulkhad) to “the great sea,” the Mediterranean. Its superficial area is about 12,000 square miles, its length from 140 to 180, its breadth in the south about 75, and in the north from 100 to 120 miles. To put it more pictorially, the modern Palestine is about twice as large as Wales; it is smaller than Holland, and about equal in size to Belgium. Moreover, from the highest mountain-peaks a glimpse of almost the whole country may be obtained. So small was the land which the Lord chose as the scene of the most marvellous events that ever happened on earth, and whence He appointed light and life to flow forth into all the world!

When our blessed Saviour trod the soil of Palestine, the country had already undergone many changes. The ancient division of tribes had given way; the two kingdoms of Judah and Israel existed no longer; and the varied foreign domination, and the brief period of absolute national independence, had all ceased. Yet, with the characteristic tenacity of the East for the past, the names of the ancient tribes still attached to some of the districts formerly occupied by them (Matt 4:13). A comparatively small number of the exiles had returned to Palestine with Ezra and Nehemiah, and the Jewish inhabitants of the country consisted either of those who had originally been left in the land, or of the tribes of Judah and Benjamin. The controversy about the ten tribes raged even at the time of our Lord. “Will He go unto the dispersed among the Gentiles?” asked the Jews, when unable to fathom the meaning of Christ’s prediction of His departure.  Their mysterious vagueness of language clothed that which we pretend to know, really do not. “The ten tribes are beyond the Euphrates till now, and are an immense multitude, and not to be estimated by numbers,” writes Josephus, with his usual grandiloquent self-complacency. But  exactly where—Josephus does not say.  In that respect, he was no different from any of his contemporaries.  We read in the earliest Jewish authority, the Mishnah (Sanh. x. 3): “The ten tries shall never return again, as it is written (Deu 29:28), ‘And He cast them into another land, as this day.’ As ‘this day’ goeth and does not return again, so they also go and do not return. This is the view of Rabbi Akiba. Rabbi Elieser says, ‘As the day becomes dark and has light again, so the ten tribes, to whom darkness has come; but light shall also be restored to them.’

Mt. Hermon, photo courtesy of Wayne Korinek

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