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EXTENT, CHARACTER, AND IMPORTANCE OF THIS STAGE,
HISTORY OF THE ANCIENT COVENANT.
§ 9. The first stage in the covenant history, which displayed itself in the form of a family, was brought to an end by the death of Jacob, unity being an essential element in the idea of a family. With the death of Jacob, the last solitary representative and father of the whole tribe, this unity of the one family was resolved into a plurality of families; and thus the way was opened for their becoming a nation. We have now reached the commencement, therefore, of the second stage in the covenanthistory, in which we shall see the family expand into a nation. But the growth of any nation is directly and primarily determined by the people themselves, that is, by the mass of individuals and families who are united together in a higher, independent commonwealth, by virtue of a common ancestry, a common language, a common religion, and a general uniformity of character. Such an association, of course, necessarily requires a constitution, by which the individuals are held together. This again involves another indispensable condition, viz., a prosperous population, in independent possession of a land of their own, and one that is suited to the character of the inhabitants. But at the commencement of the stage before us, we find none of these conditions fulfilled; though by the decree and promise of God they existed potentially in the dodekad of the families, and gradually attained to the requisite fulfilment. The first step, then, towards the future nation is to be found in such an organisation of the people, as formed the substratum of all further development. This was the embryo-state of the nation. Egypt ( $ 1. 7)
was the womb, as it were, in which the germs of the promised people were deposited, that it might guard them and nourish them by its natural powers, till they had grown into a great nation. As soon as the embryo had reached maturity, i.e., as soon as the people had become so strong as to require and demand an independent existence, an impulse from within urged them to seek that independence, and did not rest till it was secured. The exodus from Egypt represents the natural birth of the people, and the Egyptian oppression resembles those labour-pains without which, in this earthly state, no life can be brought into existence. The wonders of God in Egypt, the strong arm of the Lord, which was stretched out to help and save, were the instruments of divine surgery by which the natural force of the mature embryo, then striving for independent existence, was enabled to attain its end. By the exodus Israel gained an independent position, and stood upon an equal footing with other nations, in fact, became a nation like all the rest. The first step in the development of the national existence, viz., the preparation of the people of the covenant, had now attained its object. Moses, the man of God, was the instrument of the divine assistance; being called by God, and furnished with divine power to be the saviour of Israel. .
But Israel was not to be merely a nation, like the other nations, resting on no other basis than that of natural life. According to its vocation and its destiny it was to be the nation of God, the holy nation, the chosen race, the possessor and messenger of salvation for all the nations of the earth. And thus the nation entered upon the second stage in its history. Moses, the deliverer of the people by the power of God, led them to the majestic altar of the Lord, that altar which He, the creator of the heavens and the earth, had erected for himself among the rocks of Sinai, with their heads lifted towards heaven ; and there they were set apart as a holy nation. If the exodus from Egypt was the natural birth of the nation, the conclusion of the covenant at Sinai was the religious consecration of the new-born infant; its regeneration to a higher life. But as God never demands without giving, so he never gives without demanding. And therefore, when Israel entered upon the privileges of the covenant-nation, and obtained possession of the gifts and goods, the promises and hopes of the covenant, it necessarily undertook the duties of a covenant-nation, and submitted to the commandments, the restrictions, and the sacrifices which such a relation involved. The conclusion of the covenant was therefore accompanied by the giving of a law, which defined the privileges and prescribed the duties of the covenant-nation. This law also conferred upon Israel a constitution, suited to its vocation and its future destiny, by which its internal organisation was completed, its external distinctions defined, and its safety ensured. The events attendant upon the legislation and the conclusion of the covenant ushered in the second step in the onward progress of the nation, namely, the determination of the peculiar constitution, which was henceforth to regulate the course and development of the history of Israel, in other words, the establishment of the theocracy. The mediator of the covenant and the agent in the foundation of the theocracy was Moses, the man of God (1).
But the development of the nation was not yet complete. In the first step of this stage in its history, Israel had received its natural freedom and independence ; in the second, its sacred dedication and covenant. One thing was still wanting, however, which was an essential pre-requisite to the actual realization of the whole of these, viz. a country suited to its natural and spiritual character, its position, and its destiny. In the third step of its national history this want was satisfied, and it obtained possession of the land, which the providence of God had selected as the arena on which the covenant-history was to run its course, and which the mercy of God had already promised to the fathers. The divine hero, by whom Israel was led through conflict and victory to the possession of this treasure, was Joshua, who continued and completed the work which Moses had begun.
The condition and possessions of Israel now embraced all that was requisite, to sustain and exhibit a national existence devoted to God, by the side of the other nations, which were at enmity against God. Country and people, laws and promises, constitution and worship were given; and they contained the germs of all their future development. This brings us to the commencement of the fourth step in the history of the covenant, which we find in the existence of a nation entrusted with the task of working out its peculiar nationality. Hitherto the operations and gifts of God had stood in the foreground. But the time had now arrived, when the works of Israel in performance of the covenant were to stand prominently forward ; when Israel might, and should have shown, that the gifts, and leadings, and revelations of God, which it had hitherto received, it could now use and apply for itself; and when it should have taught the way in which this could be done. Again and again, however, it forsook the path of the covenant; and God had continually to interfere, and by punishment and chastening to save and heal. Surrounding nations were employed to execute his sentences, and Judges were afterwards sent as his messengers of salvation.
(1). The second step of this stage was indisputably the most important and eventful. We must, therefore, examine it with especial care. In doing so we shall divide it into two parts. The first will contain an account of the historical foundations, on which the theocracy was based, and the circumstances amidst which the legislation, that established it, was completed. The second will consist of a systematic analysis of the legislation itself.
The sources from which our knowledge of the first two steps must be derived are the last four books of Pentateuch. As cri