Translated from the Dutch by Alfred Heath May.
The religion of Israel; can it be necessary to bespeak the reader's interest in a book on this subject?
The land in which the Israelites lived is small in extent. Its area is about equal to that of Belgium. It was not thickly populated, and it also served as a dwelling place for other people besides the tribes of Israel, for the Phoenicians and Philistines.
Compared with the nations with which they came in contact one after another, with the Egyptians, the Assyrians, the Babylonians and the Persians, the Israelites were a small, nay, an insignificant people. On political ground they have never played an important part. In their prosperity they swayed the sceptre over their immediate neighbours; but they themselves were an easy prey to the great monarchies of Asia.
Time after time they were obliged, however unwillingly, to bear the yoke of foreign conquerors, and they had already been transported once from their native soil, when they at length lost their existence as a nation, after a desperate struggle with the legions of Rome. But it is just in this their weakness that the Israelites are the most remarkable people of antiquity. In the very individuality which they have been able to retain to the present day, lies an incontestable proof of their inner vitality.
While her more powerful oppressors have long since disappeared from the state of history, Israel, driven from her native country, scattered hither and thither, hunted and crushed, still remains, and is still true to her past. She still 'dwells' - according to Balaam's prophecy - 'alone, and is not reckoned among the nations.' The cause of this phenomenon is not far to seek: the explanation of the prolonged existence of the Israelites lies in their attachment to their religion. This attachment has but little significance as evidence of the truth of their belief: error too has its true friends and its martyrs. But a form of religion which could endure such changes of times and such manifold attacks, has undoubtedly the strongest claim upon our interest. That interest rises when we observe the influence which Israel has exercised in the domain of religion.
Christianity and Islamism have emanated from Israel. The millions throughout the world who profess these two widespread religions, pray to the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. To them Israel's history is sacred. It is true, they believe that they occupy a higher position than the one maintained by the offspring of Jacob, but they do not wish on that account to be considered to have disowned their origin. In spite of many important differences, their spiritual relationship to Israel is still manifest. Far from denying this, Israel herself glories in the fact that the followers of Jesus and of Mahomed have derived that which is good and true in their worship from the 'Old Covenant', from the 'people of the Book'.
Even could we for a moment forget that we ourselves, as Christians, are so greatly indebted to Israel, we should yet desire to become acquainted with the origin and growth of a religion which has achieved so many conquests. It appears here, if anywhere, how unreasonable it would be to 'despise the day of small things' for here we are reminded of 'the grain of mustard seed, which indeed is the least of all seeds, but when it is grown, it is the greatest among herbs, and becometh a tree, so that the birds of the air come and lodge in the branches thereof.'
The year 70 of the Christian era is the limit of our examination of the religion of Israel. Jerusalem was then reduced by Titus, the temple was burnt and the Jewish state came to an end. But the Jewish religion still remained in existence.
Even after Christianity was born and had detached itself from the Synagogue, a great part of the Jewish people remained true to the belief of their fathers, and the Jewish religion underwent many important alternations. Its later history, which goes on to the present day, retains its unmistakable interest. But from the period which we have fixed as our limit, the Jewish is not longer one of the 'principal religions'. In as far as it has been independent and purely Jewish, the quiet labour expended by the learned among the Jews on the development and completion of their belief has exercised little or no influence beyond the narrow circle of the community itself. In history they undoubtedly fill no unimportant part. They have always shown a great capacity for appropriating the civilization of the people in whose midst they have lived, and for modifying their own religious conceptions in harmony with it. Scarcely had they been allowed a certain amount of freedom, before they made use of it and took an active part in intellectual movements. Among other things they have performed very important service as mediators between Musselmans and Christians. But general progress no longer proceeds from them, however much it may sometimes be promoted by then.
The history of Judaism is a reflection of that of Islam and of Christianity and not the converse. The modifications which it undergoes, whatever weight they may have for those directly concerned, can lay no claim to general interest. Therefore we believe that it will be sufficient, if we sketch them rapidly in a last chapter, an appendix as it were, of this work.