Eighteen and a half centuries ago, and the land which now lies desolate—its bare, grey hills looking into ill-tilled or neglected valleys, its timber cut down, its olive- and vine-clad terraces crumbled into dust, its villages stricken with poverty and squalor, its thoroughfares insecure and deserted, its native population well-nigh gone, and with them its industry, wealth, and strength—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 pre-eminence 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.
“We find,” writes one of the most learned Rabbinical commentators, supporting each assertion by a reference to Scripture (R. Bechai), “that thirteen things are in the sole ownership of the Holy One, blessed be His Name! and these are they: the silver, the gold, the priesthood, Israel, the first-born, the altar, the first-fruits, the anointing oil, the tabernacle of meeting, the kingship of the house of David, the sacrifices, the land of Israel, and the eldership.” 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, without priesthood, altar, temple, sacrifices, tithes, first-fruits, Sabbatical and Jubilee years, must first set aside the Pentateuch, unless, as in Christianity, all these be regarded as blossoms designed to ripen into fruit, as types pointing to, and fulfilled in higher realities. 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. Accordingly when, immediately after the destruction of Jerusalem by Titus, they 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; and there they would fain have perpetuated it. 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 such sentiments as we are about to quote. “The very air of Palestine makes one wise,” said the Rabbis. The Scriptural account of the borderland of Paradise, watered by the river Havilah, of which it is said that “the gold of that land is good,” was applied to their earthly Eden, and paraphrased to mean, “there is no learning like that of Palestine.” It was a saying, that “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,” we read in another authority, “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.”
Centuries of wandering and of changes have not torn the passionate love of this land from the heart of the people. Even superstition becomes here pathetic. If the Talmud (Cheth. iii. a.) had already expressed the principle, “Whoever is buried in the land of Israel, is as if he were buried under the altar,” one of the most ancient Hebrew commentaries (Ber. Rabba) goes much farther. From the injunction of Jacob and Joseph, and the desire of the fathers to be buried within the sacred soil, it is argued that those who lay there were to 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 to enjoy the days of the Messiah. Not to deprive of their reward the pious, who had not the privilege of residing in Palestine, it was added, that God would make subterranean roads and passages into the Holy Land, and that, when their dust reached it, 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, it were impossible, by any extracts, to convey the pathos of some of those elegies in which the Synagogue still bewails the loss of Zion, or expresses the pent-up longing for its restoration. Desolate, they cling to its ruins, and believe, hope, and pray—oh, how ardently! in almost every prayer—for the time that shall come, when the land, like Sarah of old, will, at the bidding of the Lord, have youth, beauty, and fruitfulness restored, and in Messiah the King “a horn of salvation shall be raised up” to the house of David.
Yet it is most true, as noticed by a recent writer, that no place could have been more completely swept of relics than is Palestine. Where the most solemn transactions have taken place; where, if we only knew it, every footstep might be consecrated, and rocks, and caves, and mountain-tops be devoted to the holiest remembrances—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 no definite spot to which one could with absolute certainty 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.
“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 alike 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 (comp. Matt 4:13, 15). 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, which engages so much attention in our days, 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, using that mysterious vagueness of language in which we generally clothe things which we pretend to, but really do not, know. “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 where—he informs us as little as any of his other 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.’”
At the time of Christ’s birth Palestine was governed by Herod the Great; that is, it was nominally an independent kingdom, but under the suzerainty of Rome. On the death of Herod—that is, very close upon the opening of the gospel story—a fresh, though only temporary, division of his dominions took place. The events connected with it fully illustrate the parable of our Lord, recorded in Luke 19:12-15, 27. If they do not form its historical groundwork, they were at least so fresh in the memory of Christ’s hearers, that their minds must have involuntarily reverted to them. Herod died, as he had lived, cruel and treacherous. A few days before his end, he had once more altered his will, and nominated Archelaus his successor in the kingdom; Herod Antipas (the Herod of the gospels), tetrarch of Galilee and Peraea; and Philip, tetrarch of Gaulonitis, Trachonitis, Batanaea, and Panias—districts to which, in the sequel, we may have further to refer. As soon after the death of Herod as circumstances would permit, and when he had quelled a rising in Jerusalem, Archelaus hastened to Rome to obtain the emperor’s confirmation of his father’s will. He was immediately followed by his brother Herod Antipas, who in a previous testament of Herod had been left what Archelaus now claimed. Nor were the two alone in Rome, They found there already a number of members of Herod’s family, each clamorous for something, but all agreed that they would rather have none of their own kindred as king, and that the country should be put under Roman sway; if otherwise, they anyhow preferred Herod Antipas to Archelaus. Each of the brothers had, of course, his own party, intriguing, manoeuvring, and trying to influence the emperor. Augustus inclined from the first to Archelaus. The formal decision, however, was for a time postponed by a fresh insurrection in Judaea, which was quelled only with difficulty. Meanwhile, a Jewish deputation appeared in Rome, entreating that none of the Herodians might ever be appointed king, on the ground of their infamous deeds, which they related, and that they (the Jews) might be allowed to live according to their own laws, under the suzerainty of Rome. Augustus ultimately decided to carry out the will of Herod the Great, but gave Archelaus the title of ethnarch instead of king, promising him the higher grade if he proved deserving of it (Matt 2:22). On his return to Judaea, Archelaus (according to the story in the parable) took bloody vengeance on “his citizens that hated him, and sent a message after him, saying, We will not have this man to reign over us.” The reign of Archelaus did not last long. Fresh and stronger complaints came from Judaea. Archealus was deposed, and Judaea joined to the Roman province of Syria, but with a procurator of its own. The revenues of Archelaus, so long as he reigned, amounted to very considerably over 240,000 pounds a year; those of his brothers respectively to a third and sixth of that sum. But his was as nothing compared to the income of Herod the Great, which stood at the enormous sum of about 680,000 pounds; and that afterwards of Agrippa II, which is computed as high as half a million. In thinking of these figures, it is necessary to bear in mind the general cheapness of living in Palestine at the time, which may be gathered from the smallness of the coins in circulation, and from the lowness of the labour market. The smallest coin, a (Jewish) perutah, amounted to only the sixteenth of a penny. Again, readers of the New Testament will remember that a labourer was wont to receive for a day’s work in field or vineyard a denarius (Matt 20:2), or about 8d., while the Good Samaritan paid for the charge of the sick person whom he left in the inn only two denars, or about 1s. 4d (Luke 10:35).
But we are anticipating. Our main object was to explain the division of Palestine in the time of our Lord. Politically speaking, it consisted of Judaea and Samaria, under Roman procurators; Galilee and Peraea (on the other side Jordan), subject to Herod Antipas, the murderer of John the Baptist—“that fox” full of cunning and cruelty, to whom the Lord, when sent by Pilate, would give no answer; and Batanaea, Trachonitis, and Auranitis, under the rule of the tetrarch Philip. It would require too many details to describe accurately those latter provinces. Suffice, that they lay quite to the north-east, and that one of their principal cities was Caesarea Philippi (called after the Roman emperor, and after Philip himself), where Peter made that noble confession, which constituted the rock on which the Church was to be built (Matt 16:16; Mark 8:29). It was the wife of this Philip, the best of all Herod’s sons, whom her brother-in-law, Herod Antipas, induced to leave her husband, and for whose sake he beheaded John (Matt 14:3, etc.; Mark 6:17; Luke 3:19). It is well to know that this adulterous and incestuous union brought Herod immediate trouble and misery, and that it ultimately cost him his kingdom, and sent him into life-long banishment.
Such was the political division of Palestine. Commonly it was arranged into Galilee, Samaria, Judaea, and Peraea. It is scarcely necessary to say that the Jews did not regard Samaria as belonging to the Holy Land, but as a strip of foreign country—as the Talmud designates it (Chag. 25 a.), “a Cuthite strip,” or “tongue,” intervening between Galilee and Judaea. From the gospels we know that the Samaritans were not only ranked with Gentiles and strangers (Matt 10:5; John 4:9, 20), but that the very term Samaritan was one of reproach (John 8:48). “There be two manner of nations,” says the son of Sirach (Ecclus 1:25-26), “which my heart abhorreth, and the third is no nation; they that sit upon the mountain of Samaria, and they that dwell among the Philistines, and that foolish people that dwell in Sichem.” And Josephus has a story to account for the exclusion of the Samaritans from the Temple, to the effect that in the night of the Passover, when it was the custom to open the Temple gates at midnight, a Samaritan had come and strewn bones in the porches and throughout the Temple to defile the Holy House. Most unlikely as this appears, at least in its details, it shows the feeling of the people. On the other hand, it must be admitted that the Samaritans fully retaliated by bitter hatred and contempt. For, at every period of sore national trial, the Jews had no more determined or relentless enemies than those who claimed to be the only true representatives of Israel’s worship and hopes.
—Sketches of Jewish Social Life