Jewish beliefs and literature

The Judaism of the centuries immediately before the birth of Christianity was strictly monotheistic and made much of the Law and the Prophets. Into the long story of its development we must not take the time to go, even in brief summary. For our purposes we must confine ourselves to such bare features of Judaism as are essential to an understanding of the beginnings of Christianity and the nature and characteristics of that faith.

Judaism regarded the Jews as especially favoured by God. Originally, at least for many, their god was a tribal deity, one of many gods, but choosing Israel for his own. With him Israel was believed to have entered into intimate covenant relations through which they were to be loyal to him and he, in return, was to aid them. Early, perhaps from the outset, some among Israel were monotheists. They regarded their god, Yahweh, a name mistakenly put into English as Jehovah, as the God of the universe, the maker and ruler of heaven and earth. Other peoples had their gods, but Yahweh was regarded by these monotheists as far more powerful than they. They were either false gods or were completely subordinate to him. To the Jew the core of his faith and the chief commandment were found in the declaration: "Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God is one Lord: and thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy might." God, so the devout Jew believed, had made man in His own image, but man had sinned against God and thereby had incurred His wrath. That sin, so the Jew held, began with the transgression of the first human couple, Adam and Eve. It was basically rebellion against God. God, however, of His great mercy chose Abraham, and of him and his descendants made a nation, His peculiar people. He also, the Jew maintained, gave him His law to control his conduct. That law had to do both with what are usually called morals and with ritual. It was briefly summarized in the Ten Commandments, but it had much more elaborate formulations. It included the regulation of food and diet and the observance of days, especially the Sabbath. The latter was to be kept with great strictness, tree from the usual occupations of the rest of the week. Circumcision was universal and was regarded as a symbol of the covenant between Yahweh and His people.

The prophets were honoured as spokesmen for Yahweh. They not only foretold the future. The greatest of them also, and more especially, rebuked wickedness, both private and public, and, on occasion, sought to direct the policy of the community and the state and to encourage those who were obedient. They denounced the rich for oppressing the poor. Believing as they did that Yahweh is ruler of all the earth, they spoke out against the sins of the surrounding nations, but they were particularly vehement in their arraignment of Israel.

The law-givers and prophets were claimed by Christians as forerunners of Jesus. Their names and histories, as well as their teachings, became the property of Christianity and entered into its warp and woof. Outstanding were Moses, who led his people out of their captivity in Egypt, and through whom came the initial formulation of the Jewish law; Elijah, an heroic figure who stood as the champion of Yahweh and of the poor against the corruptions of the court of the Northern Kingdom and who captured the imagination of succeeding generations; Isaiah, who rebuked the wickedness of his people, especially those of the Southern Kingdom, called them to repentance, and heartened its king to withstand an Assyrian invasion; the latter part of the book which bears the name of Isaiah, with stirring chapters in which Christians have seen a prevision of Jesus and his vicarious sufferings; Amos, who sternly denounced the evils of the peoples of his world and especially of Israel; Hosea, who in his bitter experience with a faithless wife perceived something of the way in which Yahweh viewed a rebellious Israel; Jeremiah, who, in the last days of the Southern Kingdom, became an unpopular preacher of doom and in his own sufferings foreshadowed the experience of Jesus; and Ezekiel, the prophet of the exile, who spoke to those who had been carried to the Tigris-Euphrates Valley.

Judaism also gave rise to great poetry. The standard collection of its hymns, the Psalms, became the cherished possession of Christians and held and continues to hold a prominent place in their public and private worship. The Book of Job., with its wrestling with the problem of evil, passed over to the Christians. So also did The Song of Songs, which, allegorized, became a cherished treasure house of Christian mystics. What was known as the Wisdom literature of the Jews was also claimed by the Christians. Its proverbs and its glorification of Wisdom became a part of the Christian heritage.

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