The Early Poetry of Israel in Its Physical and Social Origins

By George Adam Smith | Go to book overview

LECTURE II
SUBSTANCE AND SPIRIT.

ALTHOUGH the inspiration of the greatest minds in Israelt was something unique in the ancient East, and although (as we shall see) a certain distinction between the people and all their neighbours may be traced even in that early period of their history with which we are dealing; nevertheless Israel was no isolated creation. The qualities, which equipped the people for their spiritual service to humanity, were their natural inheritance as children of that family of mankind to whom we give the ambiguous name of Semites, but whose common genius for religion, common religious institutions, common powers and forms of prophecy, missionary zeal and capacity for martyrdom have proved in history to be anything but ambiguous. And so in particular with Hebrew poetry. Neither its spirit, nor the aspects of nature nor the human interests with which it is occupied, nor its characteristic forms can be adequately appreciated, except by comparison with, and frequent illustration from, the poetries of those other Semitic tribes with whom Israel shared the same blood,1 the same or similar physical conditions, the same forms of language, the same economy, and in part the same historical experiences.

It is a question whether Arabia was the cradle of the Semitic race; but no one doubts that upon this vast peninsula and the deserts intruding from it upon Syria -- the deserts from which Israel themselves came up -- the racial type has been most faithfully preserved from the earliest times to the present day. Upon Arabia nature has bestowed few gifts beyond that of breeding men. A ribbon of fertility round most of the coast line, and broadening considerably on the Indian Ocean, encloses a high, bare and broken plateau, with stretches of absolutely barren rock and shifting sand; but also with wider regions from which the annual rains entice a sparse and quickly withered vegetation; while at the roots of hills where springs rise, or in the hollows where underground waters gather and can be tapped, there are oases of real fertility. The life of man is mainly pastoral, with a comparatively small proportion of agriculture and very few industries. The popula-

____________________
1
It is possible that this prevailing Semitic strain of Israel was crossed by nonSemitic strains, e. g. the Hittite, but that is a question which cannot be discussed here.

-26-

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The Early Poetry of Israel in Its Physical and Social Origins
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page i
  • Contents v
  • Preface vii
  • Introduction ix
  • The Early Poetry of Israel in Its Physical and Social Origins 1
  • Lecture II - Substance and Spirit. 26
  • Lecture III - Substance and Spirit (continued) 43
  • Index of Passages 101
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