History as Past Ethics: An Introduction to the History of Morals

By Philip Van Ness Myers | Go to book overview

after speaking of the religious ideas which formed the basis of the moral code, we shall sketch briefly the evolution of the rudimentary morality of the tribal age of the nation into the high ideal of the prophets of the later time.

We have seen how the Persian view of deity molded Persian morality. In a still more decisive way did the Hebrew idea of God, of his character and his relation to Israel and the world, shape and mold the moral ideal of the race.1

The conception of deity; monolatry and monotheism

When the Hebrews in the second millennium before Christ appeared in history, they were in possession of a stock of ideas concerning the gods which was, in all essentials save one, altogether' like that held by their Semitic kinsmen of the various lands of southwestern Asia. The single essential point of difference between their religious belief and that of their neighbors was this: the nations about them were polytheists; they were monolatrists; that is, the Hebrews, while they believed in many gods, worshiped only one god, their tribal god Yahweh. As Stade expresses it, "the old Israelite was a theoretical polytheist, but a practical monotheist."2

There is scarcely need that we add in qualification of this, that when the Hebrews first appeared in history they were not all monolatrists. The multitude were then, and for a long time thereafter, polytheists. All that can be affirmed is that in the earliest times of their history there were among them teachers of monolatrism, teachers who inculcated the duty of worshiping a single god, the patron and champion of the nation.

Through what experiences and under what tuition these teachers of Israel made the passage in thought from polytheism to monolatrism we need not now inquire. For our purpose

____________________
1
It may be urged that the moral character given to Yahweh was the creation of the moral consciousness of his worshipers; but even so, this conception of deity once formed would inevitably react upon the moral sense to deepen and purify the feelings that gave it birth.
2
Geschichte des Volkes Israel ( 1889), Bd. i, S. 429.

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