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An obsolete custom, or some forgotten circumstance, opportunely adverted to, will some-
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FIRST EDITION OF THE FIRST VOLUME.
Our estimation of the holy scriptures should be proportionable to their importance and excellence. That ignorance of spiritual things, which is so natural to all men, demonstrates their necessity; and the happy influence which they have upon the mind in seasons of adversity and distress, proves their value and utility. They are admirably adapted to our circumstances, as they present us with a complete system of truth and a perfect rule of conduct, and thus make those who properly understand them wise unto salvation.
But whatever relates either to faith or to practice, was delivered in ages very distant from the present, in places very remote from the spot which we inhabit, and by persons of habits and manners materially different from those with which we are familiar. General and permanently established usages, to which persons conformed themselves from early infancy, must have had a strong hold of the mind, and would greatly influence the turn of thought and the mode of expression. By these circumstances we must suppose the penmen of the scriptures to have been affected; nor can we expect that a revelation coming from God, through the medium of men of like passions with ourselves, should be divested of such peculiarities. This consideration, so far from disparaging divine revelation, on the principle that it is more local than universal, in some measure serves to authenticate it; for though upon a superficial view of the subject, this circumstance may appear to give it such an aspect, yet upon mature examination it will be found that if it contain those branches and articles of truth, which are of general application, and which are productive of similar effects in distant ages and places, whatever local peculiarities it may possess, remain convincing and perpetual evidences of its credibility, while those circumstances are known to have existed, or are in any measure retained by the eastern nations.
If the credibility of the Bible be in any degree connected with the customs which are therein recorded or alluded to, it is certainly very material to observe, that in the East the usages and habits of the people are invariable; many of those which are particularly observable in the scriptures continue to this day unaltered; and doubtless, many things which are noticed as singularities of more recent establishment, may be traced back into ages now almost forgotten, the distance of time and the remoteness of situation, being the only circumstances which obscure the connexion between the past and the present state of things. Mulla renascentur quæ jam cecidere. Horace. That the eastern customs remain unchanged is a fact so incontestable, that the Baron de Montesquieu, in his Spirit of Laws (b. xiv. c. 4), has endeavoured to assign a natural cause for it. Sir J. Chardin, from whose travels and MS. papers many articles have been selected for the following work, adverting to his collections for the illustration of the Bible, says, “the language of that divine book (especially of the Old Testament) being oriental, and very often figurative and hyperbolical, those parts of scripture which are written in verse, and in the prophecies, are full of figures and hyperboles, which, as it is manifest, cannot be well understood without a knowledge of the things from whence such figures are taken, which are natural properties and particular manners of the countries to which they refer: I discerned this in my first voyage to the Indies; for I gradually found a greater sense and beauty in divers passages of scripture than I had before, by having in my view the things, either natural or moral, which explained them to me: and in perusing the different translations, which the greatest part of the translators of the Bible had made, I observed that every one of them, (to render the expositions as they thought more intelligible) used such expressions as would accommodate the phrase to the places where they wrote, which did not only many times pervert the text, but often rendered the sense obscure, and sometimes absurd also. In fine, consulting the commentators upon such kind of passages, I found very strange mistakes in them; and that they had all along guessed at the sense, and did but grope (as in the dark) in the search of it; and from these reflections I took a resolution to make my remarks upon many passages of the scripture, persuading myself that they would be equally agreeable and profitable for use. And the learned, to whom I communicated my design, encouraged me very much (by their commendations) to proceed in it; and more especially when I informed them, that it is not in Asia as in our Europe, where there are frequent changes, more or less, in the form of things, as the habits, buildings, gardens, and the like. In the East they are constant in all things: the habits are at this day in the same manner as in the precedent ages, so that one may reasonably believe, that in that part of the world the exterior forms of things, (as their manners and customs) are the same now as they were two thousand years since, except in such changes as may have been introduced by religion, which are nevertheless very inconsiderable." (Preface to Trarels in Persia, p. vi.)
The language of the scriptures is highly figurative. It abounds with allusions and metaphors, and from this source obtains many of its beauties. The objects of nature, and the manners of nations, are introduced to diversity and adorn the sacred page ; and many of the boldest and finest images, which are there to be found, are formed upon established customs. Such passages, when first de
livered, were easily understood and fully comprehended, and came to the mind with an energy which gave them certain effect. similar influence do not accompany them to persons whose residence is in distant climes and ages, it because they are unacquainted with such circumstances as are therein alluded to, or because they suffer their own habits and manners to prepossess the mind with disaffection, to every thing discordant from its own particular and favourite modes. If we desire to understand the word of God as it was originally revealed, we must not fail to advert to its peculiarities, and especially those of the description in question. It will be found absolutely impossible to develop the meaning of many passages, without recurring to the customs with which they are connected; and these, when brought forward, will remove the abstruseness which was supposed to attend the subject, and give it a just and clear representation.
The accumulated labours of biblical critics have succeeded in clearing up many difficulties; but in some instances they have failed, and have left the inquirer bewildered and perplexed. The reason they have not done better has been the want of a proper attention to oriental customs. Commentators in general have not sufficiently availed themselves of the assistance of travellers into the East. It is but rarely that any materials are drawn from their journals to elucidate the scriptures. The few instances which occur of this sort, discover how happily they may be explained by this method, and excite our surprise and regret at the neglect of it.
A spirit of inquiry and research seems to have animated those persons, who, during the two last centuries, explored the regions of the East. Many of them were men of considerable natural talents, and acquired learning. While they indulged a laudable curiosity in collecting information on general subjects, they did not neglect sacred literature. By their industry the geography, natural history, religious ceremonies, and miscellaneous customs of the Bible, and the eastern nations have been compared and explained, and that essentially to the advantage of the former.
But with regard to these writers it must be observed, that many excellent things of the kind here adverted to are only incidentally mentioned. Some observations which they have made are capable of an application which did not present itself to their minds; so that in addition to a number of passages which they have professedly explained, select portions of their works may be brought into the same service. To collect these scattered fragments, and make a proper use of them, is certainly a laborious work: it has, however, been ably executed by the late Mr. Harmer; his Observations on divers Passages of Scripture are well known and highly esteemed. It must be acknowledged to his praise, that he led the way in this department of literature, and has contributed as much as any one man to disseminate the true knowledge of many parts of holy writ. But his work is too copious for general utility: it