The country to which the name of Palestine is given by moderns is that portion of the Turkish empire in Asia which is comprehended within the 31st and 34th degrees north latitude, and extends from the Mediterranean to the Syrian Desert, eastward of the river Jordan and the Dead Sea. Whether viewed as the source of our religions faith; or as the most ancient fountain of our historical knowledge, this singular spot of earth has at all times been regarded with feelings of the deepest interest and curiosity.
Inhabited for many ages by a people entitled above all others to the distinction of peculiar, it presents a record of events such as have not come to pass in any other land, monuments of a belief denied to all other nations, hopes not elsewhere cherished, but which, nevertheless, are connected with the destiny of the whole human race, and stretch forward to the consummation of all terrestrial things.
To the eye of mere philosophy, nothing can appear more striking than the events produced upon the world at large by the opinions and events which originated among the Jewish people. A pastoral family, neither so numerous, so warlike, nor so well instructed in the arts of civilized life as many others in the same quarter of the globe, gradually increased into a powerful community, became distinguished by a system of doctrines and usages different from those of all the surrounding tribes; retaining it, too, amid the numerous changes of fortune to which they were subjected, and finally impressing its leading principles upon the most enlightened nations of Asia and of Europe.
At a remote era Abraham crosses the Euphrates, a solitary traveller, not knowing whither he went, but obeying a divine voice, which called him from among idolaters to become the father of a new people and of a purer faith, at a distance from his native country. His grandson Jacob, a “Syrian ready to perish,” goes down into Egypt with a few individuals, where his descendants, although evil entreated and afflicted, became a “nation, great, mighty, and populous,” and whence they were delivered by the special interposition of Heaven.
In prosperity and adversity they are still the objects of the same vigilant Providence which reserved them for a great purpose to be accomplished in the latter days; while the Israelites themselves, as if conscious that their election was to be crowned with momentous results, still kept their thoughts fixed on Palestine, as the theatre of their glory, not less than as the possession of their tribes.
We accordingly see them at one period in bondage, the victims of a relentless tyranny, and menaced with complete extirpation; but the hope of enjoying the land promised to their fathers never ceased to animate their hearts, for they trusted that God would surely visit them in the house of their affliction, and, in his appointed time, carry them into the inheritance of peace and rest. At a later epoch we behold them swept away as captives by the hands of idolaters, who used all the motives which spring from fear and from interest to secure their compliance with a foreign worship; but rejecting all such inducements, they still continued a separate people, steadily resisting the operation of those causes which, in almost every other instance, have been found sufficient to melt down a vanquished horde into the population and habits of their masters.
At length they appear as the instruments of a dispensation which embraces the dearest interests of all the sons of Adam; and which, in happier circumstances than ever fell to their own lot, has already modified and greatly exalted the character, the institutions, and the prospects of the most improved portion of mankind in both hemispheres of the globe.
Connected with Christianity, indeed, the history of the Hebrews rises before the reflecting mind in a very singular point of view; for, in opposition to their own wishes they laid the foundations of a religion which has not only superseded their peculiar rites, but is rapidly advancing towards that universal acceptation which they were wont to anticipate in favour of their own ancient law.
In spite of themselves, they have acted as the little leaven which was destined to leaven the whole lump; and in performing this office, they have proceeded with nearly the same absence of intention and consciousness as the latent principle of fermentation to which the metaphor bears allusion. They aimed at one thing, and have accomplished another; but while we compare the means with the ends; whether in their physical or moral relations, it must be admitted that we therein examine one of the most remarkable events recorded in the annals of the human race.
Abstracting his thoughts from all the considerations of supernatural agency which are suggested by the inspired narrative, a candid man will nevertheless feel himself compelled to acknowledge that the course of events which constitutes the history of ancient Palestine has no parallel in any other part of the world. Fixing his eyes on the small district of Judea, he calls to mind that eighteen hundred years ago there dwelt in that little region a singular and rather retired people, who, however, differed from the rest of mankind in the very important circumstance of not being idolaters. He looks around upon every other country of the earth, where he discovers superstitions of the most hateful and degrading kind, darkening all the prospects of the human being, and corrupting his moral nature in its very source.
He observes that some of these nations are far advanced in many intellectual accomplishments, yet, being unable to shake off the tremendous load of error by which they are pressed down, are extremely irregular and capricious, both in the management of their reason and in the application of their affections. He learns, moreover, that this little spot called Palestine is despised and scorned by those proud kingdoms, whose wise men would not for a moment allow themselves to imagine, that any speculation or tenet arising from so ignoble a quarter could have the slightest influence upon their belief, or affect, in the most minute degree, the general character of their social condition.
But, behold, while he yet muses over this interesting scene, a Teacher springs up from among the lower orders of the Hebrew people,—himself not less contemned by his countrymen than they were by the warlike Romans and the Philosophic Greeks,—whose doctrines, notwithstanding, continue to gain ground on every hand, till at last the proud monuments of pagan superstition, consecrated by the worship of a thousand years, and supported by the authority of the most powerful monarchies in the world, fall one after another at the approach of his disciples, and before the prevailing efficacy of the new faith.
A little stone becomes a mountain, and fills the whole earth. Judea swells in its dimensions till it covers half the globe, carrying captivity captive, not by force of arms, but by the progress of opinion and the power of truth, all the nations of Europe in successive ages,—Greek, Roman, Barbarian,—glory in the name of the humble Galilean; armies, greater than those which Persia in the pride of her ambition led forth to conquest, are seen swarming into Asia, with the sole view of getting possession of his sepulchre; while the East and the West combine to adorn with their treasures the stable in which he was born, and the sacred mount on which he surrendered his precious life.
On these grounds, there is presented to the historian and politician a problem of the most interesting nature, and which is not to be solved by any reference to the ordinary principles whence mankind are induced to act or to suffer. The effects, too, produced on society, exceed all calculation. It is in vain that we attempt to compare them to those more common revolutions which have changed for a time the face of nations, or given a new dynasty to ancient empires.
The impression made by such events soon passes away: the troubled surface quickly resumes its equilibrium, and displays its wonted tranquility; and hence we may assert, that the present condition of the world is not much different from what it would have been, though Alexander had never been born and Julius Caesar had died in his cradle. But the occurrences that enter into the history of Palestine possess an influence on human affairs which has no other limits than the existence of the species, and which will be everywhere more deeply felt in proportion as society advances.
Excerpted from the Reverend Michael Russell’s Palestine or the Holy Land (1831). Photographs courtesy of Joel Schalit. Published under a Creative Commons license.