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James Darmesteter: War and prophecy

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Anti-war essays, poems, short stories and literary excerpts

French writers on war and peace

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James Darmesteter
From The Prophets of Israel
Translated by Helen B. Jastrow

When prophetic literature appeared, the moral and political horizon stretching before the eyes of the dreamers of Israel and of Judah consisted of a number of small states, Moab, Edom, Tyre, Philistia, Israel, Judah, all contending with one another with the bitterness characteristic of small states. War and pillage were the order of the day, perpetual razzias supplying captives for the slave trade of Tyre and the Greek islands. Farther off, a powerful state, Damascus, and, still farther, mighty Assyria, with their vast armies, their wars of extermination, their frightful systems of deportation and transportation in mass, already throw the shadow of death upon this chaos of lawless communities. The gods are as wicked and as bigoted as men; religion is become a school of prostitution in the temple of Astarte, of barbarity on the altars of Moloch; worship vacillating between silly and atrocious practices; divination, sorcery, imposture, are closely bound up with all the cults. And when the prophet of Jehovah extends his gaze to his own people, he beholds political and moral anarchy. Israel is divided against herself, and presents a united front only when opposing Judah. Bloody military revolutions create and overthrow kings, and all the horrors of a pretorian regime exist in a kingdom of several square miles. In the intermittent hours of peace, force remains absolute master, as in the time of war; the poor are oppressed by the rich….

The cruelty, the degradation, the iniquity, characteristic of those times, were certainly no worse than in preceding centuries, both in Israel and in the rest of the Semitic world; nor worse than those which prevailed later in Greece and in Rome…It was part of the spirit of prophecy to be dumfounded at human ferocity as at something against nature and reason. In the presence of the iniquities of the world, the heart of the prophets bled as though from a wound of the divine spirit, and their cry of indignation reechoed the wrath of the deity…

Then, at the sight of the crushed Assyrian, a vision of peace that has ever since haunted the universe passes before the eyes of the prophet. War had come to an end, hatred had ceased, Jehovah became the arbiter of nations. The nations no longer raised the sword against one another, and swords were to be forged into ploughshares.

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