XXI. The Early History of the Jews
His successor David was more successful and more politic. With David dawned the only period of prosperity the Hebrew peoples were ever to know. It was based on a close alliance with the Phoenician city of Tyre, whose King Hiram seems to have been a man of very great intelligence and enterprise. He wished to secure a trade route to the Red Sea through the Hebrew hill country. Normally Phoenician trade went to the Red Sea by Egypt, but Egypt was in a state of profound disorder at this time; there may have been other obstructions to Phoenician trade along this line, and at any rate Hiram established the very closest relations both with David and with his son and successor Solomon. Under Hiram's auspices the walls, palace and temple of Jerusalem arose, and in return Hiram built and launched his ships on the Red Sea. A very considerable trade passed northward and southward through Jerusalem. And Solomon achieved a prosperity and magnificence unprecedented in the experience of his people. He was even given a daughter of Pharaoh in marriage.
But it is well to keep the proportion of things in mind. At the climax of his glories Solomon was only a little subordinate king in a little city. His power was so transitory that within a few years of his death, Shishak the first Pharaoh of the twenty-second dynasty, had taken Jerusalem and looted most of his splendours. The account of Solomon's magnificence given in the books of Kings and Chronicles is questioned by many critics. They say that it was added to and exaggerated by the patriotic pride of later writers. But the Bible account read carefully is not so overwhelming as it appears at the first reading. Solomon's temple, if one works out the measurements, would go inside a small suburban church, and his fourteen hundred chariots cease to impress us when we learn from an Assyrian monument that his successor Ahab sent a contingent of two thousand to the Assyrian army. It is also plainly manifest from the Bible narrative that Solomon spent himself in display and overtaxed and overworked his people. At his death the northern part of his kingdom broke off from Jerusalem and became the independent kingdom of Israel. Jerusalem remained the capital city of Judah.
The prosperity of the Hebrew people was short-lived. Hiram died, and the help of Tyre ceased to strengthen Jerusalem. Egypt grew strong again. The history of the kings of Israel and the kings of Judah becomes a history of two little states ground between, first, Syria, then Assyria and then Babylon to the north and Egypt to the south. It is a tale of disasters and of deliverances that only delayed disaster. It is a tale of barbaric kings ruling a barbaric people. In 721 B.C. the kingdom of Israel was swept away into captivity by the Assyrians and its people utterly lost to history. Judah struggled on until in 604 B.C., as we have told, it shared the fate of Israel. There may be details open to criticism in the Bible story of Hebrew history from the days of the Judges onward, but on the whole it is evidently a true story which squares with all that has been learnt in the excavation of Egypt and Assyria and Babylon during the past century.
It was in Babylon that the Hebrew people got their history together and evolved their tradition. The people who came back to Jerusalem at the command of Cyrus were a very different people in spirit and knowledge from those who had gone into captivity. They had learnt civilization. In the development of their peculiar character a very great part was played by certain men, a new sort of men, the Prophets, to whom we must now direct our attention. These Prophets mark the appearance of new and remarkable forces in the steady development of human society.