One of the most famous of all the nations that have ever lived on the earth is the nation of the Jews. The history of this people, how they rose from small beginnings and became great and mighty, and how, after many changes of fortune, they were finally conquered by the Romans, and scattered all over the earth, is very interesting and very remarkable. It is this history as it was written down by Josephus, one of their greatest historians, that our young readers will find in the following pages. Josephus wrote his history in the Greek language. It has been translated into English, but the translation is so full of big words and long sentences, and the history itself contains so much that is dry and dull, so much that young people would naturally skip, that you would probably find it difficult and unpleasant to read. Therefore in these pages the history has been put into simpler language, and those parts of it which are not interesting have been, as far as possible, left out.
You know, of course, that the founder of the great nation of the Jews was a man named Abraham. He was the son of Terah, a shepherd, who lived in a country called Chaldea, in Asia, where the ground was flat and open and well suited for pasturing flocks. Abraham had two brothers, named Nahor and Haran. Nahor, who seems to have been the eldest, died early, leaving a son, named Lot, and two daughters, named Sarah and Milcah. In those days the laws in regard to marriage were not the same as they are now. God allowed men to marry their near relations, and also to have more wives than one. Therefore there was nothing strange in the marriage of the two brothers of Nahor to his daughters, who were their nieces. Haran took Milcah as his wife, and had many sons and daughters. Abraham took Sarah, and, as he had no children, he adopted Lot, his wife's brother and his own nephew, as his son.
When Abraham was seventy-five years of age, he left the land of Chaldea, by the command of God, and went into another country, called Canaan. He lived here for many years in peace and plenty. Then a famine broke out, and Abraham, learning that in the country of Egypt there was no famine, determined to move there. He did not intend to remain there, but only to stay so long as there was famine in Canaan, and after that to return to his own country. When Abraham was in Egypt he talked with the priests and learned men and showed them how wrong it was to worship false gods. He also taught them many things he had learned in Chaldea, among others arithmetic and astronomy, and the Egyptians afterwards taught these sciences to the Greeks.
As soon as the famine in Canaan was over, Abraham returned there. By this time his adopted son, Lot, had grown to be a young man. And he left Abraham's tent and went to live in a tent of his own. For in those days people did not live in houses like ours, but in tents. They did this because they moved about so much. As soon as the flocks and herds which they owned had eaten up all the grass in one place they would move to another. And, as the winters were never very cold, they did not find any inconvenience in this way of living.
Now Abraham had many servants under him, who looked after his flocks. Lot also had many servants. As the servants of Abraham frequently quarreled with the servants of Lot about the lands on which they wished to pasture their flocks, Abraham decided that it would be best to make a fair division. So he told Lot that he might go to any part of the land he preferred and he would take the rest for himself. Lot chose the country which lay around the river Jordan, near a city called Sodom. And Abraham removed his tent to a place called Hebron, and took all the land that lay around it as his own.
Now Lot had not lived very long in his new place when the people of Sodom were attacked by a nation called the Assyrians, who defeated them and carried many of them away to their own land as captives. Among those carried away in this manner was Lot himself.
When Abraham heard of what had happened, he was sorry for his adopted son and for his neighbors, the Sodomites, who had been made prisoners, and he determined to go to their assistance. So he gathered his servants together and armed them and started out in pursuit of the Assyrians. And after journeying for five days he came upon them in the night at a place called Dan. They had been feasting and making merry, and were now drunk with wine, and many of them were asleep. Abraham fell upon them in this condition and killed a great many, and the rest ran away. He released the prisoners from their bonds, and all returned home rejoicing. On their way Melchizedek, the king of a city called Salem, who was also a priest of God, came out to meet them. He supplied Abraham and his army with food and wine, and while they were all eating and drinking he praised Abraham and blessed him. Abraham gave him a tenth part of the spoils,—that is, of the sheep and cattle and money he had taken away from the enemy.
When the king of Sodom saw Abraham returning with the captives and the spoils that had been taken from the enemy he was very glad. And he told Abraham to give him up the prisoners that he might send them to their own homes, but to keep all the spoils. But Abraham would not do so, saying he would not keep anything for himself.
God spoke to Abraham and praised him for what he had done, and
"Thou shalt not, however, lose the rewards which thy goodness deserves, but I will bless thee and make thee rich and prosperous."
Then Abraham answered, "And what advantage will these rewards be to me, if I have no one after me to enjoy them?" For Abraham was childless.
But God promised he would give him a son, who should have many children, and the descendants from these children should become as numerous as the stars in the heaven. Abraham was glad when he heard this, and he offered a sacrifice, as God had commanded him to do. And the way he offered the sacrifice was as follows: he took a heifer, or young ox, three years of age, and a she-goat three years of age, and a ram three years of age, and a turtle-dove, and a pigeon. He cut the animals into sections, but the birds he did not cut. And when he built his altar and burnt these sacrifices, he heard a voice telling him that his descendants should live for four hundred years in the land of Egypt and be treated cruelly there, but that afterwards they should overcome and return to Canaan to possess the land.
Several years passed away, however, and still Abraham and Sarah had no children. Now the people of Sodom had been growing very wicked during these years, and the Lord was angry with them for their wickedness.
One day Abraham sat at the door of his tent and saw three strangers coming towards him. He rose and saluted them, and asked them to stop and eat with him. And when they agreed to do so, he killed a calf and roasted it, and served it up before them. While they were eating they asked Abraham about his wife Sarah, where she was. When he said she was in the tent, they told him they would return that way hereafter and find her a mother. Sarah heard what they said, and she laughed aloud, not believing them, for she was ninety years old and her husband was a hundred. Then the strangers told Abraham they were not men, but were angels of the Lord, and that one of them was sent to inform him about the child, and two to announce that Sodom would be destroyed because of its wickedness.
Abraham Entertains the Angels
When Abraham heard this, he went out and prayed to God to spare the city of Sodom for the sake of the few good men that might be living there. But God told him that there were not any good men among the Sodomites, for if there were ten such men He would spare the town for their sake. So Abraham held his peace.
And the angels went to the city of the Sodomites and were welcomed by Lot, who invited them to come and eat with him. They told Lot of the destruction that was to visit the city, and advised him to flee from it. So he gathered up his possessions, and with his wife and his two daughters he fled next morning from the city. No sooner was he safe outside of the walls than God cast a thunderbolt upon the city and set it on fire. The angels had warned Lot and his family not to look back when they fled. But Lot's wife disobeyed this warning, and was turned into a pillar of salt. Josephus tells us that he saw this pillar, for it was still standing in his day.