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Sunday, December 08, 2013

THE LIGHT FANTASTIC

I wish I had been in the Alexandrian suburb of Eleusis, in July of 169 B.C. when for a few brief moments the past and future were divided by a line in the sand. On one side stood the royal egomaniac Antiochus IV, whose army was just four miles from capturing the Pharaoh of Egypt. Standing in his way was one old man, the Roman ambassador, Gaius Popillius, carrying a decree from “the Senate and the People of Rome”. It ordered the upstart Syrian Greek to turn his Slecuid army around, and go home. Antiochus IV was infuriated, and pleaded he had to consult his advisers.  But Gaius would have none of that. Grabbing a stick the old man drew a circle around the King and insisted, if Antiochus stepped over the line without agreeing to turn back, it would mean war with Rome. It was the original line drawn in the sand, and for one of the few times in history, it actually worked. Antiochus IV went home. It came to be called the “Day of Eleusis”, and because of that day, we celebrate a holiday – just not the one you're thinking about, probably.
Antiochus IV was King of the Slecuid Empire, centered in Syria and stretching from India on the east and now the border with Egypt on the west. He was called Epiphanes, “God Manifest” on his monuments, and Epimanes behind his back - “The Mad One”. And as he retreated eastward across the Sinai, he got madder and madder. You see, some jackass in Judea had spread a rumor that Antiochus IV had been  killed in battle. Maybe the Romans had spread the story to weaken Antiochus in his rear, and maybe Antiochus had spread it himself, to flush out any trouble makers among his conquered peoples.  But whoever spread it, the hottest hot head in Judea was a Jewish religious fanatic named Mattathias ben Johanan. And  Mattathias was eager to believe the rumor. With about a thousand of his followers, Matthathias came charging out of the hills to capture the temple in Jerusalem and drive the high priest Menelaus into the wilderness
Now, few people in Jerusalem missed Menelaus. He had become high priest because his brother Onias had been high priest before him. But when Onias had sent Menelaus to deliver the yearly taxes to Antiochus IV, Menelaus had included a little extra from himself, a bribe, and suddenly Onias was no longer high priest, Menelaus was. So you can see why Antiochus IV tended not to think of the high priests of Judisiam as particularly holy, and neither did the people of Jerusalem.  Menelaus slipped a little more in public opinion when his brother Onias died while cleaning his sword and it went off - bad luck. So the Jews of Jerusalem were not really sorry to see Menelaus gone.
But Antiochus IV(above) was sorry. Menelaus might have been a sniveling bottom feeder, but he was the King's sniveling bottom feeder. And then there was that whole “got to show them whose the boss” dynamic going on. And Antiochus IV had an army which  had been expecting a rich sacking of Alexandria, which the Romans had put the kibosh to. So in the dog days of August 169 B.C., everything was pointing toward a very bad day for Jerusalem. And it came.
It seems – oops - somebody had left the city gates open. So the Slecuid army marched right in, as Mattathias slipped out the back door. First the Slecuid  soldiers stripped the Jewish temple of everything of value -  everything not already sold to pay tribute to Antiochus IV, or stolen earlier by the Babylonians or the Egyptians when they sacked Jerusalem.  Really there couldn't have been that much left to steal. But whatever it was, Antiochus IV took it. And then, according to the holy text, Second Macabbees, “And he commanded his soldiers to cut down relentlessly every one they met and to slay those who went into the houses.”.
The primary non-religious source for what happened was the Jewish radical turned Roman informer, Josephus. He says that over three days Antiochus IV murdered 44,000 people in Jerusalem, which would have been about 10% of the population, and another 44,000 women and children were sold into slavery. Antiochus IV then built a citadel right next to the Jewish temple, which he stocked with a permanent garrison. Then he had the Jewish temple re-dedicated. On the altar where Menelaus had sacrificed goats to honor Yahweh, the Greek priests now sacrificed pigs to honor Zeus. Antiochus IV also issued a decree forbidding circumcision - (who was the lucky guy who got to check on that? ). It seemed the Jews had finally ticked off one King too many.
But, a year later human nature, or maybe it was Yahweh, intervened. In 168 BC, the rising empire of Parthia captured the Afghanistan city of Heart (Hair-it). This was an important because  the region around Herat was  the bread basket of central Asia, and sat astride the trade route with India. We're talking a major loss of taxes, here. So Antiochus IV had to turn eastward to deal with the upstart Parthians. But he did not forget the troublesome Jews.  He ordered his governor of Syria, a nobleman named Lysias  “to conquer Judea, enslave its inhabitants, utterly destroy Jerusalem and abolish the whole nation."
In 167 B.C. Lysias dispatched four divisions to accomplish this task. As they marched on Jerusalem, Mattathias, who had reappeared, now  organized the faithful.  However, because he was a religious fanatic, Mattathias insisted that all soldiers strictly adhere to Jewish law - that's what they were fighting for, wasn't it? Unfortunately the Slecuid army did not recognize the Jewish Sabbath, and on a Saturday they attacked the first Jewish village in their way. Following the law, the villagers refused to do any work on the sabbath, even refusing to lift a weapon to defend themselves. All 1,000 were slaughtered. After this Mattathias was replaced as leader of the revolt by his son, Judah. And under him, the Jews decided to fight, twenty-four, seven.
It turns out the new Jewish leader, Judah ben Mattathias was pretty good at it. In 166 B.C. Judah fell on the Slecuid supply base at Emmaus, killing its 3,000 man garrison, capturing a huge cache of weapons and food, and forcing half the Seleucid army to retreat. A year later he beat the other half of the Slecuid army at Beth-zur, forcing them, again, to retreat. It was battles like this that earned him the nickname of Judah the Hammer, or in Hebrew, Judah Maccabees. Shortly after this victory, word again arrived that Antioschus IV was dead. Except this time he really was. He'd been in Babylon, struggling to prepare a counter attack against the Parthians, when he suddenly dropped dead. He might have been sick, but I think it more likely, he'd been poisoned. In any case, his young son, Antiochus V, now inherited the empire.
Lysias immediately had himself declared Antioschus V's guardian, which put the Governor in charge of the entire empire. Lysias ordered an end to efforts to retake Heart, and in 165 B.C. he marched for a third time on Jerusalem. Third times the charm, right? This time Lysias came by the southern road, catching the Hammer off guard. This time Lysias actually laid siege to Jerusalem. This time it looked as if the clock had run out for the Jews. This time there was nobody to save them. And then out of nowhere appeared a guy named Phillip, (the royal governor of Babylon, actually), who had been with Antioschus IV when he died. Phillip claimed that on his death bed Antioschus IV had asked him, Phillip, to raise the king's son, now known as Antioschus V.  That would make Phillip the regent, not Lysias.  Lysias did not believe a word of it. Would you? But Lysias still had to deal with Philip’s army. And one morning Judah looked out from walls of Jerusalem, and saw...nobody. The entire Slecuid army had mysteriously disappeared. It was a miracle. As long as you did not notice the whole Slecuid infighting going on.
Judah Maccabees ordered a a new altar built for the temple, and declared 8 days of “sacrifice and songs” for its re-dedication. The pigs were out, Yahweh was back in. There was only one problem. Tradition said in re-dedicating the Temple required the temple's  menorah lamps to burn every night, all night, during the celebration. But there was only enough oil for one night. What to do?
Now if it was me, I would have ordered the nine lamps on the menorah to be publicly lit at sundown each night, as usual. And then a half hour after sundown,  after the faithful had gone home, the priests would quietly extinguish the lamps. This way, instead of burning through all the oil in one eight hour winter's night, the lamps would burn for a about an hour each night, for eight nights. And I think that maybe that was what the Hammer did. But then, I am a non-believer. And priest are in the business of believing, even in miracles. And the truth is, miracles don't happen without a little help from somebody. Who that help comes from depends on who and what you believe in. Anyway....
It was the first Hanukkah, the first festival of the lights. Two thousand years later it is not a very important Jewish holiday, and about the only one in which women play a leading role. Each of the eight nights a woman first lights the “shamash”, the central candle or lamp, used to illuminate the entire ritual. On each successive night , the shamash is then used to light one candle more each nigh until all are burning. In each Jewish home they are displayed in a window or an exterior door, “to illuminate the house outside” the home. And as they do so, the women recite the Hanukkah prayer.
“We light these lights for the miracles and the wonders, for the redemption and the battles that you made for our forefathers, in those days at this season, through your holy priests. During all eight days of Hanukkah these lights are sacred, and we are not permitted to make ordinary use of them except for to look at them in order to express thanks and praise to Your great Name for Your miracles, Your wonders and Your salivations.”
Lysias defeated and killed Philip in 163 B.C.. But in 162 B.C. Lysias was defeated by Demetrius I, who had been Antiochus IV's older brother and Antiochus V's uncle. Being the older brother, Demetrius was supposed to have been made King first. But when their father died, Demetrius was being held as the official hostage in Rome. So it turned out Antiochus IV had been a usurper, which made his defeat in 162 B.C.,  payback. Demetrius executed both Lysias, and the boy king Antiochus V. Demetrius then tried to reconquer the Jews, but the Fighting Maccabees  held him off for ten years, until Demetrius was killed by a new usurper in 150 B.C. It was the end of Slecuid empire.
The next empire to come marching down the coast road of Judea would be the Romans. And they and the Jews would have their own problems, strongly reminiscent of the ones the Jews and Slecuid's had shared. They say some people never learn. But I think, most people never learn, certainly not in the middle east.
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