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David’s Numbering Of The People–The Politics Of The Situation
by [?]

You read in the Hebrew Scriptures of a man who had thirty sons, all of whom ‘rode on white asses’; the riding on white asses is a circumstance that expresses their high rank or distinction–that all were princes. In Syria, as in Greece and almost everywhere, white was the regal symbolic colour.[1] And any mode of equitation, from the far inferior wealth of ancient times, implied wealth. Mules or asses, besides that they were so far superior a race in Syria no less than in Persia, to furnish a favourite designation for a warlike hero, could much more conveniently be used on the wretched roads, as yet found everywhere, until the Romans began to treat road-making as a regular business of military pioneering. In this case, therefore, there were thirty sons of one man, and all provided with princely establishments. Consequently, to have thirty sons at all was somewhat surprising, and possible only in a land of polygamy; but to keep none back in obscurity (as was done in cases where the funds of the family would not allow of giving to each his separate establishment) argued a condition of unusual opulence. That it was surprising is very true. But as therefore involving any argument against its truth, the writer would justly deny by pleading–for that very reason, because it was surprising, did I tell the story. In a train of 1,500 years naturally there must happen many wonderful things, both as to events and persons. Were these crowded together in time or locally, these indeed we should incredulously reject. But when we understand the vast remoteness from each other in time or in place, we freely admit the tendency lies the other way; the wonder would be if there were not many coincidences that each for itself separately might be looked upon as strange. And as the surgeon had set himself to collect certain cases for the very reason that they were so unaccountably fatal, with a purpose therefore of including all that did not terminate fatally, so we should remember that generally historians (although less so if a Jewish historian, because he had a far nobler chain of wonders to record) do not feel themselves open to the objection of romancing if they report something out of the ordinary track, since exactly that sort of matter is their object, and it cannot but be found in a considerable proportion when their course travels over a vast range of successive generations. It would be a marvellous thing indeed if every one of five hundred men whom an author had chosen to record biographically should have for his baptismal name–Francis. But if you found that this was the very reason for his admitting the man into his series, that, however strange a reason, it had in fact governed him in selecting his subjects, you would no longer see anything to startle your belief.

But let me give an interesting case partly illustrating this principle. Once I was present on an occasion where, of two young men, one very young and very clever was suggesting infidel scruples, and the other, so much older as to be entering on a professional career with considerable distinction, was on the very point of drinking-in all that his companion urged as so much weighty objection that could not be answered. The younger man (in fact, a boy) had just used a passage from the Bible, in which one of the circumstances was–that the Jewish army consisted of 120,000 men. ‘Now,’ said he, ‘knowing as we all do the enormity of such a force as a peace establishment, even for mighty empires like England, how perfectly like a fairy-tale or an Arabian Nights’ entertainment does it sound to hear of such monstrous armaments in a little country like Judaea, equal, perhaps, to the twelve counties of Wales!’ This was addressed to myself, and I could see by the whole expression of the young physician that his condition was exactly this–his studies had been purely professional; he made himself a king, because (having happened to hurt his leg) he wore white fasciae about his thigh. He knew little or nothing of Scriptural records; he had not read at all upon this subject; quite as little had he thought, and, unfortunately, his conversation had lain amongst clever chemists and naturalists, who had a prejudgment in the case that all the ability and free power of mind ran into the channel of scepticism; that only people situated as most women are should acquiesce in the faith or politics of their fathers or predecessors, or could believe much of the Scriptures, except those who were slow to examine for themselves; but that multitudes pretended to believe upon some interested motive. This was precisely the situation of the young physician himself–he listened with manifest interest, checked himself when going to speak; he knew the danger of being reputed an infidel, and he had no temper for martyrdom, as his whole gesture and manner, by its tendency, showed what was passing in his mind. ‘Yes, X is right, manifestly right, and every rational view from our modern standard of good sense and reflective political economy tends to the same conclusion. By the reflex light of political economy we know even at this hour much as to the condition of ancient lands like Palestine, Athens, etc., quite unrevealed to the wisest men amongst them. But for me, who am entering on a critical walk of social life, I shall need every aid from advantageous impression in favour of my religious belief, so I cannot in prudence speak, for I shall speak too warmly, and I forbear.’