Chapter V:
The Land and Questions of Faith


These questions have, no doubt, already suggested themselves to the reader, and will do so again and again as he passes through the land—How far does the geography of Palestine bear witness to the truth and authenticity of the different books of the Bible? How far does a knowledge of the land assist our faith as Christians in the Word of God and Jesus Christ His Son? It may be well for us, before we go through the land, to have at least the possibilities of its contribution to these arguments accurately defined, were it for no other reason than that it is natural to expect too much, and that a large portion of the religious public, and of writers for them, habitually exaggerate the evidential value of the geography and archæology of Palestine, and by emphasising what is irrelevant, especially in details, miss altogether the grand, essential contents of the Land's testimony to the divine origin of our religion.

We have seen how freshly the poetry and narrative of the Bible reflect the natural features of Palestine both in outline and in detail. Every visitor to the land has felt this. Napoleon himself may be quoted: 'When camping on the ruins of those ancient towns, they read aloud Scripture every evening in the tent of the General-in-Chief. The analogy and the truth of the descriptions were striking: they still fit this country after so many centuries and changes.'[1] This is not more than the truth, yet it does not carry us very far. That a story accurately reflects geography does not necessarily mean that it is a real transcript of history—else were the Book of Judith the truest man ever wrote, instead of being what it is, a pretty piece of fiction. Many legends are wonderful photographs of scenery. And, therefore, let us at once admit that, while we may have other reasons for the historical truth of the patriarchal narratives, we cannot prove this on the ground that their itineraries and place-names are correct. Or, again, that the Book of Joshua, in marking tribal boundaries, gives us a detailed list of towns, the most of which we are able to identify, does not prove anything about the date or authorship of these lists, nor the fact of the deliberate partition of the land in Joshua's time. Again, that Israel's conquests under Moses on the east of the Jordan went so far north as described, is not proved by the discovery in these days of the various towns mentioned. In each of these cases, all that is proved is that the narrative was written in the land by some one who knew the land, and this has never been called in question. The date, the accuracy of the narrative, will have to be discussed on other grounds. All that geography can do is to show whether or not the situations were possible at the time to which they are assigned, and even this is a task often beyond her resources.

At the same time, there are in the Old Testament pictures of landscape, and especially descriptions of the geographical relations of Israel, which we cannot help feeling as testimonies of the truth of the narratives in which they occur. If, for instance, you can to-day follow the description of a battle by the contours, features, and place-names of the landscape to which it is assigned, that surely is a strong, though not, of course, a final, proof that such a description is true. In this connection one thinks especially of the battles of the Vale of Elah, Michmash, and Jezreel. And certainly it is striking that in none of the narratives of these is there any geographical impossibility. Again, nothing that the Pentateuch tells us about the early movements of the Philistines and the Hittites disagrees with the other evidence we possess from geography and archæology;[2] while Israel's relations to the Philistines, in the record of the Judges and early Kings, contrasted with her relations to the same people in the prophetic period, is in exact accordance with the data of the historical geography of Syria.[3]

As to questions of authorship, the evidence of geography mainly comes in support of a decision already settled by other proofs. In this matter one thinks especially of the accurate pictures of the surroundings of Jerusalem given in the prophecies of Isaiah and Jeremiah, both of them her citizens, contrasted with the very different geographical reflection on the earlier prophecies of Ezekiel, or the second half of the Book of Isaiah. Geography, too, assists us in the analysis of the composite books of the Old Testament into their various documents, for in the Pentateuch, for instance, each document has often its own name for the same locality, and as has just been said, the geographical reflection on the first half of the Book of Isaiah is very different from that on the second half.[4] But in the Old Testament geography has little contribution to make to any question of authenticity, for, with the exceptions stated above, the whole of the Old Testament is admitted to have been written by natives of Palestine, who were familiar with their land.

It is different, however, with the New Testament, where authorship outside Palestine is sometimes a serious possibility. Here questions of authenticity are closely bound up with those of geographical accuracy. Take the case of the Gospel of St. John. It has been held that the writer could not have been a native of Palestine, because of certain errors which are alleged to occur in his description of places. I have shown, in a chapter on the Question of Sychar, that this opinion finds no support in the passage most loudly quoted in its defence.[5] And, again, the silence of the synoptic Gospels concerning cities on the Lake of Galilee, like Tiberias and Taricheae, which became known all over the Roman world in the next generation, and their mention of places not so known, has a certain weight in the argument for the early date of the Gospels, and for the authorship of these by contemporaries of Christ's ministry.[6]

But if on all such questions of date, authorship, and accuracy of historical detail, we must be content to admit that geography has not much more to contribute than a proof of the possibility of certain solutions, it is very different when we rise to the higher matters of the religion of Israel, to the story of its origin and development, to the appearance of monotheism, and to the question of the supernatural. On these the testimony of the historical geography of the Holy Land is high and clear.

For instance, to whatever date we assign the Book of Deuteronomy, no one who knows the physical constitution of Palestine, and her relation to the great desert, can fail to feel the essential truthfulness of the conception, which rules in that book, of Israel's entrance into the land as at once a rise in civilisation from the nomadic to the agricultural stage of life, and a fall in religion from a faith which the desert kept simple to the rank and sensuous polytheism that was provoked by the natural variety of the Paradise west of Jordan.[7] Or take another most critical stage of Israel's education: no one can appreciate the prophets' magnificent mastery of the historical forces of their time, or the wisdom of their advice to their people, who has not studied the relations of Syria to Egypt and Mesopotamia or the lines across her of the campaigns of these powers.

But these are only details in larger phenomena. In the economy of human progress every race has had its office to fulfil, and the Bible has claimed for Israel the specialism of religion. It represents Israel as brought by God to the Holy Land—as He also carried other peoples to their lands—for the threefold purpose of being preserved through all the changes of ancient history, of being educated in true religion, and sent forth to the world as apostles and examples. But how could such a people be better framed than by selection out of that race of mankind which have been most distinguished for their religious temperament, and by settlement on a land both near to, and aloof from, the main streams of human life, where they could be at once spectators of history and yet not its victims, where they could at once enjoy personal communion with God and yet have some idea also of His providence of the whole world; where they could at once gather up the experience of the ancient world, and break with it into the modern? There is no land which is at once so much a sanctuary and an observatory as Palestine: no land which, till its office was fulfilled, was so swept by the great forces of history, and was yet so capable of preserving one tribe in national continuity and growth: one tribe learning and suffering and rising superior to the successive problems these forces presented to her, till upon the opportunity afforded by the last of them she launched with her results upon the world. It is the privilege of the student of the historical geography of Palestine to follow all this process of development in detail. If a man can believe that there is no directing hand behind our universe and the history of our race, he will, of course, say that all this is the result of chance. But, for most of us, only another conclusion is possible. It may best be expressed in the words of one who was no theologian but a geographer—perhaps the most scientific observer Palestine has ever had. Karl Ritter says of Palestine: 'Nature and the course of history shows that here, from the beginning onwards, there cannot be talk of any chance.'[8] But while the geography of the Holy Land has this positive evidence to offer, it has also negative evidence to the same end. The physical and political conditions of Israel's history do not explain all the results. Over and over again we shall see the geography of the land forming barriers to Israel's growth, by surmounting which the moral force that is in her becomes conspicuous. We shall often be tempted to imagine that Israel's geography, physical and political, is the cause of her religion; but as often we shall discover that it is only the stage on which a spirit—that, to use the words of the prophets, is neither in her mountains nor in her men—rises superior alike to the aids and to the obstacles which these contribute. This is especially conspicuous in the case of Israel's monotheism. Monotheism was born not, as M. Renan says, in Arabia, but in Syria.

And the more we know of Syria and of the other tribes that inhabited her, the more we shall be convinced that neither she nor they had anything to do with the origin of Israel's faith. For myself, I can only say that all I have seen of the land, and read of its ancient history, drives me back to the belief that the monotheism which appeared upon it was ultimately due to the revelation of a character and a power which carried with them the evidence of their uniqueness and divine sovereignty.

But the truth and love of God have come to us in their highest power not as a book, even though that be the Bible, nor as a doctrine, even though that be the monotheism of the Bible, with all its intellectual and moral consequences, but as a Man, a native and a citizen of this land: whose education was its history, whose temptation was some of its strongest political forces, who overcame by loyalty to its distinctive gospel,[9] who gathered up the significance of its history into Himself, and whose ministry never left its narrow limits. He drew His parables from the fields its sunshine lights, and from all the bustle of its daily life; He prayed and agonised for us through its quiet night scenes; He vindicated His mission to mankind in conflict with its authorities, and He died for the world on one of its common places of execution. For our faith in the Incarnation, therefore, a study of the historical geography of Palestine is a necessary discipline. Besides helping us to realise the long preparation of history, Jewish and Gentile, for the coming of the Son of God, a vision of the soil and climate in which He grew up and laboured is the only means of enforcing the reality of His manhood. It delivers us, on the one hand, from those abstract views of His humanity which have so often been the error and curse of Christianity; and, on the other hand, from what is to-day a more present danger—the interpretation of Christ (prevalent with many of our preachers to the times) as if He were a son of our own generation.

The course of Divine Providence in Syria has not been one of mere development and cultivation, of building and planting. It has been full also of rebuke and frustration, of rooting up and tearing down. Judgment has all along mingled with mercy. Christ Himself did not look forward to the course of the history of the kingdom which he founded as an unchecked advance to universal dominion. He took anything but an optimistic view of the future of His Church. He pictured Himself not only as her King and Leader to successive victories, but as her Judge: revisiting her suddenly, and finding her asleep; separating within her the wise from the foolish, the true from the false, the pure from the corrupt, and punishing her with sore and awful calamities. Ought we to look for these visitations only at the end of the world? Have we not seen them already fulfilled in the centuries? Has not the new Israel been punished for her sin, as Israel of old was, by the historical powers of war, defeat, and captivity?

It is in the light of these principles of Christ's teaching that we are to estimate the mysterious victory of Mohammedanism over Christianity on the very theatre of our Lord's revelation. The Christianity of Syria fell before Islam, because it was corrupt, and deserved to fall. And again, in attempting by purely human means to regain her birthplace, the Church was beaten back by Islam, because she was divided, selfish, and worldly. In neither of these cases was it a true Christianity that was overthrown, though the true Christianity bears to this day the reproach and the burden of the results. The irony of the Divine Judgment is clearly seen in this, that it was on the very land where a spiritual monotheism first appeared that the Church was first punished for her idolatry and materialism; that it was in sight of scenes where Christ taught and healed and went about doing good with His band of poor, devoted disciples, that the envious, treacherous, truculent hosts of the Cross were put to sword and fire. They who in His name sought a kingdom of this world by worldly means, could not hope to succeed on the very fields where He had put such a temptation from Him. The victory of Islam over Christendom is no more an obstacle to faith than the victory of Babylonia over Israel upon the same stage. My threshing-floor, said God of these mountains, and so they proved a second time. The same ethical principles by which the prophets explain the overthrow of Israel account for the defeat of Christianity. If the latter teach us, as the former taught them, the folly of making a political kingdom the ambition of our faith, the fatality of seeking to build the Church of God by intrigue and the sword, if it drive us inward to the spiritual essence of religion and outward to the Master's own work of teaching and healing, the Mohammedan victory will not have been in vain any more than the Babylonian. Let us believe that what Christ promised to judge by the visitations of history is not the World, but His Church, and let us put our own house in order. Then the reproach that rests on Palestine will be rolled away.

1'En campant sur les ruines de ces anciennes villes, on lisait tous les soirs l'Écriture Sainte à haute voix sous la tente du général en chef. L'analogie et la vérité des descriptions étaient frappantes; elles conviennent encore à ce pays après tant de siècles et de vicissitudes.'Campagnes d'Égypte et de Syrie, dictées par Napoléon lui-même, vol. ii. (see p. 19 of this vol.).

2See chapter on the Philistines, p. 172.

3See chapter on the Philistines, p. 178.

4Duhm thinks he can make out that part of Isaiah, xl.-lxvi., was composed in Lebanon.

5Ch. xviii.

6See chapter on the Lake of Galilee, ch. xxi.

7See chapter iii., especially pp. 89, 90.

8'Die Natur und der Hergang der Geschichte zeigt uns dass hier von Anfang an von keiner Zufälligkeit die Rede sein kann.'—K. Ritter, Ein Blick auf Palästina u. seine christliche Bevölkerung.

9See pp. 35-37.