The Historians' History of the World in Twenty-Five Volumes: Israel, India, Persia, Phoenicia, Minor Nations of Western Asia
Many a nation has walked God’s earth, has long enjoyed its good things, has come into being and passed away, without our knowing anything of its history, or even whether it had a history at all. For no nation has a history except one that makes history, that is to say, that influences the course of human development. It is with races as with individuals; none is kept in mind by posterity save those who have distinguished themselves by ideas that have modified the life of mankind, or (which comes to the same thing) have been pioneers in fresh fields of action. The greater the spiritual gain a nation has brought to the rest of the world, the longer and more steadily its life has flowed in the channels it was the first to make, the longer is its history told among them. The nations of history are those which have put forward, in one fashion or another, their claim to the dominion of the world.
Thus we may fitly ask what claim it is that is made upon our interest by the history of the Jewish nation. And the answer will be, that nothing which excites our attention, or stirs us to admiration or imitation in the history of other nations, is here present in any large measure. Israel was always a small, nay, a petty nation, settled in a narrow space, never of any considerable importance in the political history of the East; it never brought forth a Ramses II, a Sargon, an Esarhaddon, an Asshurbanapal, a Nebuchadrezzar, or a Cyrus to bear its banner into distant lands. Yet, for all this, the history of Israel has, for us, an interest quite different from that of those other nations of antiquity.
And if, as we see, Israel is far surpassed in martial glory by the peoples of the great empires, and by the Romans in their influence on the development of law, there are yet other points in which it must yield unquestioned precedence to other nations of antiquity. We do not find in Israel the same feeling for beauty as among the Greeks, who, like no nation before them or after, showed forth the laws of beauty in every sphere of intellectual life, and to this day, in such matters, stand forth in a perfection which has never again been attained, far less excelled. Among the Hebrews there is nothing analogous, nothing comparable to what we admire in the Hellenic people. It has no epic, nothing that can be compared with the Iliad and the Odyssey, against which the Germans set the Nibelungen Lied, and the Finns the Kalewala; it has not the slightest rudiments of a drama—the Song of Songs and Job are not dramas. There is a school of lyrical poetry unsurpassed for all time, and the music that corresponds to it. But the bent towards science, which actuates the Greeks, is wholly lacking—wholly lacking the bent towards philosophy. Nor was it ever eminent in ancient days, in the walks of commerce, enterprise and invention, by which, also, a nation may conquer the world; its intellectual life is absolutely one-sided, a one-sidedness that produces on us the effect of extreme singularity.
But the attraction it has for us does not lie in this singularity. It is due, rather, to the circumstance that this small nation has exerted a far greater influence over the course of the history of the whole human race than the Greeks or Romans, that to us it has become typical in many more respects than they. Our present modes of thought and feeling, our lives and actions, are far more profoundly influenced by the world of thought and feeling which Israel brought to the birth, than by that of Greece or Rome. Our whole civilisation to-day is saturated with tendencies and impulses which have their origin in Israel.