Jews in Antiquity

I find it interesting that in all of the Histories of Herodotus, there is no overt mention of Jews or Judaism. Herodotus describes the Persian conquest of Babylon (539 BC), an event of great significance in Jewish history, but there is no notice that the Jews were ever in captivity there, or that Cyrus allowed them to return to Jerusalem. In all of Herodotus’s anthropological investigation of the various peoples of the world in the fifth century BC, there is no notice of the Jews at all (unless they are the “Palestinian Syrians” who supplied some ships for Xerxes’s invasion of Greece in 7:89). Come to think of it, there is no mention of the Jews in Arrian’s Anabasis of Alexander (second century AD), even though Alexander (d. 323 BC) had besieged the Phoenician city of Tyre, and then headed down to Egypt to found Alexandria (and to receive word that he was divine at the oasis of Siwa).

This is strange considering how influential the Jews were later to become. Judaea was the trouble spot for the Romans. I suppose that the Jews had largely settled around Jerusalem (elevation: 750 m), while the road to Egypt passed along the coast – i.e. it was easy for people ignore the Jews in the 5th and 4th centuries BC.

Christianizing

Christians like to believe that they are the heirs to the covenant, but they don’t like you confusing them with the original holders of the covenant. Thus they retain some Jewish practice, but they make sure to change it in certain ways, e.g.:

• they take one day off per week, but it’s Sunday, not Saturday.

• they use the Psalms in worship, but will often Christianize them by adding the Gloria Patri at the end of each one.

• Easter, like Passover, is a moveable feast, but Christians have arranged things so that Easter is never on the same day as Passover.

• something that until recently escaped my notice: a detail from the seal of Dartmouth College:

The Hebrew reads “El Shaddai” and means “God Almighty,” but note what it’s on – a triangle, obviously referring to the Holy Trinity. It’s as though to say, “Look at us, we know Hebrew! But please don’t confuse us with actual Hebrews.”

If you’re interested, more information on the Dartmouth seal may be found in “Notes from the Special Collections: The Dartmouth College Seal,” which appeared in the April 1997 number of the Dartmouth College Library Bulletin. I’m still proud of my first real article but I would like to note that Sir William Johnson, 1st Baronet, was not an Anglican priest, the mangled Hebrew in figure 1 does not look like “Arabic” (or any script at all really), and the seal of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts, on which the Dartmouth seal is based, looks like this (this image was not included in the original article):

Wikipedia.

Different Sources

One of the maddening things about the history recorded in the Hebrew Bible is that it is not corroborated by many other primary sources. There is no Egyptian evidence, for instance, that the Hebrews were ever enslaved in Egypt – and no archaeological evidence that 100,000 of them were wandering around the Sinai Desert for forty years. Some scholars even dispute the existence of King David. But as we move forward in time some events are attested in other sources. Two of my favorites are below – and they provide very interesting examples of differing perspectives on the same event. The first takes place in 701 BC, when Sennacherib, king of Assyria, invaded the kingdom of Judah and besieged Jerusalem (his predecessor Shalmaneser had already defeated and deported the northern kingdom of Israel in 722 BC).

2 Kings 19: King Sennacherib sent messengers to Hezekiah with this word: “Say to Hezekiah king of Judah: Do not let the god you depend on deceive you when he says, ‘Jerusalem will not be handed over to the king of Assyria.’ Surely you have heard what the kings of Assyria have done to all the countries, destroying them completely. And will you be delivered? Did the gods of the nations that were destroyed by my forefathers deliver them?… Hezekiah received the letter from the messengers and read it. Then he went up to the temple of the LORD and spread it out before the LORD. And Hezekiah prayed to the LORD: “O LORD, God of Israel, enthroned between the cherubim, you alone are God over all the kingdoms of the earth. You have made heaven and earth. Give ear, O LORD, and hear; open your eyes, O LORD, and see; listen to the words Sennacherib has sent to insult the living God… That night the angel of the LORD went out and put to death a hundred and eighty-five thousand men in the Assyrian camp. When the people got up the next morning – there were all the dead bodies! So Sennacherib king of Assyria broke camp and withdrew. He returned to Nineveh and stayed there.

“185,000 men” is  probably an exaggeration, but we can be pretty certain that this actually occurred, for one of the documents dug up at the Assyrian capital of Nineveh in the nineteenth century was Sennacherib’s Annals, recorded in Akkadian cuneiform on three hexagonal clay prisms. The relevant bits:

As to Hezekiah, the Jew, he did not submit to my yoke, I laid siege to his strong cities, walled forts, and countless small villages, and conquered them by means of well-stamped earth-ramps and battering-rams brought near the walls with an attack by foot soldiers, using mines, breeches as well as trenches. I drove out 200,150 people, young and old, male and female, horses, mules, donkeys, camels, big and small cattle beyond counting, and considered them slaves. Himself I made a prisoner in Jerusalem, his royal residence, like a bird in a cage. I surrounded him with earthwork in order to molest those who were at his city’s gate. Thus I reduced his country, but I still increased the tribute and the presents to me as overlord which I imposed upon him beyond the former tribute, to be delivered annually.

“Himself I made a prisoner in Jerusalem, [and] surrounded him with earthwork.” And…? The reader is expecting a third clause, something about taking Jerusalem, putting the inhabitants to the sword, and razing the Temple. But no such thing is mentioned! Cleary he didn’t manage to take Jerusalem for some reason – and a plague breaking out among his men is as likely a reason as any. (I doubt that it had much of a long-term effect on his state, though, and as he brags he did quite a bit of damage to Judah otherwise.)

It was the Babylonians, of course, who succeeded where the Assyrians failed, who took Jerusalem in 587 and then deported its inhabitants to Babylon as slaves. When Cyrus the Great conquered Babylon in 539, he famously allowed the Jews to return home. Here is what the book of Ezra has to say about it, the first of our second pair of documents:

In the first year of Cyrus king of Persia, in order to fulfill the word of the LORD spoken by Jeremiah, the LORD moved the heart of Cyrus king of Persia to make a proclamation throughout his realm and to put it in writing: “This is what Cyrus king of Persia says: ‘The LORD, the God of heaven, has given me all the kingdoms of the earth and he has appointed me to build a temple for him at Jerusalem in Judah. Anyone of his people among you – may his God be with him, and let him go up to Jerusalem in Judah and build the temple of the LORD, the God of Israel, the God who is in Jerusalem. And the people of any place where survivors may now be living are to provide them with silver and gold, with goods and livestock, and with freewill offerings for the temple of God in Jerusalem.’” Then the family heads of Judah and Benjamin, and the priests and Levites – everyone whose heart God had moved – prepared to go up and build the house of the LORD in Jerusalem. 6 All their neighbors assisted them with articles of silver and gold, with goods and livestock, and with valuable gifts, in addition to all the freewill offerings.

If you think that it’s odd that Cyrus should be so inspired by Yahweh, the God of the Jews… you’re probably right. From the Kurash Prism, a more direct source for the king’s motivations:

I am Kurash [“Cyrus”], King of the World, Great King, Legitimate King, King of Babilani, King of Kiengir and Akkade, King of the four rims of the earth… whose rule Bel and Nebo love, whom they want as king to please their hearts. When I entered Babilani as a friend and when I established the seat of the government in the palace of the ruler under jubilation and rejoicing, Marduk, the great lord, induced the magnanimous inhabitants of Babilani to love me, and I was daily endeavoring to worship him…. As to the region from as far as Assura and Susa, Akkade, Eshnunna, the towns Zamban, Me-turnu, Der as well as the region of the Gutians, I returned to these sacred cities on the other side of the Tigris the sanctuaries of which have been ruins for a long time, the images which used to live therein and established for them permanent sanctuaries. I also gathered all their former inhabitants and returned them to their habitations. Furthermore, I resettled upon the command of Marduk, the great lord, all the gods of Kiengir and Akkade whom Nabonidus had brought into Babilani to the anger of the lord of the gods, unharmed, in their former temples, the places which make them happy.

No mention of the Jews or their God at all! Instead, Cyrus is working to please Marduk, the god of the Babylon he has just conquered – and he ordered everyone to return to their former habitations, not just Jews.

Methinks that the author of Ezra has succumbed to the very human desire to believe that It’s All About Me.

(Both of these pairs [1, 2] may be found in the Internet Ancient History Sourcebook.)

Menorah

From the Wall Street Journal, courtesy my friend Bill Kappel:

Why Does the Hanukkah Menorah Have Nine Branches?

The more familiar seven-branched menorah has symbolized Judaism since biblical times

The menorah—“lamp stand” in Hebrew—has been the pre-eminent symbol of Jews and Judaism for millennia. It is the oldest continuously used religious symbol in Western civilization. Yet at this time of year, many people—Jews and non-Jews alike—find themselves puzzled about it. Why is there a nine-branched menorah for Hanukkah (which begins this year on the evening of Dec. 24) rather than the more familiar seven-branched one, as in the seal of the State of Israel?

Since biblical times, the seven-branched menorah has symbolized Judaism. It first appears in Exodus, as a lighting fixture within the Tabernacle, a sort of portable temple used by the Israelites during their desert wanderings. The menorah is described in Exodus in minute detail, based on a heavenly prototype.

For many Jews in antiquity, the menorah’s seven branches represented the five visible planets, plus the sun and the moon, and its rounded branches suggested their trajectories across the heavens. One ancient Jewish thinker, Philo of Alexandria, compared the “harmony” of the menorah’s branches to “an instrument of music, truly divine.” Others noted that seven is a key number in Judaism—one need only mention the biblically ordained week.

So the seven-branched menorah evolved into the most important “branding” icon of Judaism. It was stamped on coins, engraved on tombs and inscribed on sundials, jewelry and synagogue furnishings. The Romans considered the menorah so recognizable a Jewish symbol that they depicted it on the Arch of Titus in Rome to illustrate the spoils that they had carried away after conquering Jerusalem in A.D. 70.

So why nine branches for the observance of Hanukkah? The holiday’s menorahs come in all shapes and sizes and may be lighted with either olive oil or wax candles (both of which burn pure flames). The defining characteristic of a Hanukkah menorah is eight lights in a row, with a ninth lamp off to the side or above, separated from the other eight. The ninth lamp is called a shamash, a “servator,” and it symbolically differentiates the eight holy flames from other, mundane light sources. It is usually used to light the other eight.

Each night of Hanukkah, an additional lamp is lighted—one the first night, two the second and so on until all eight are ablaze on the holiday’s final night. The eight (plus one) lamps of the Hanukkah menorah represent a tradition that dates all the way back to the earliest history of this minor, albeit richly symbolic, Jewish festival.

The first-century Jewish historian Josephus called Hanukkah the “Festival of Lights.” It commemorates the rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem during a Jewish rebellion led by the Maccabees against the Seleucid Greeks in 164 B.C. The Temple, the holiest site in the world for Jews, was restored and the seven-branched menorah lighted. This event occurred on the winter solstice, in late December—making the lighting of festive lamps a natural way to celebrate the shortest day of the year.

The Maccabees designed the festival of Hanukkah (Hebrew for “dedication”) as an eight-day celebration modeled on earlier temple-dedication ceremonies—first by Moses after the completion of the Tabernacle and then by King Solomon, who dedicated the Temple in Jerusalem just after 1000 B.C.

The most famous explanation for the eight-day festival appears in the Babylonian Talmud, which infuses the Maccabees’ victory with divine purpose. The Talmud says that although the victorious Maccabees had only enough sacred olive oil available to burn for a single night, it miraculously lasted for eight.

I had also heard that the seven-branched candelabrum of the Temple was so sacred that using one outside of this context was considered blasphemous – thus does the Hanukkah Menorah have nine lights to differentiate it. I’m glad that Dr. Fine acknowledges that the story of the miraculous oil was a later invention.

I’m curious to read these paragraphs from the Wikipedia article. Sounds like the Temple Menorah may have survived for some time following the Siege of Jerusalem:

The fate of the menorah used in the Second Temple is recorded by Josephus, who states that it was brought to Rome and carried along during the triumph of Vespasian and Titus. The menorah was deposited afterwards in the Temple of Peace in Rome. The relief on the wall at the Arch of Titus in Rome depicts a scene of Roman soldiers carrying away the spoils of the Second Temple, in particular, the seven-branched menorah, or candelabrum.

Most likely, the menorah was looted by the Vandals in the sacking of Rome in 455 CE, and taken to their capital, Carthage. The Byzantine army under General Belisarius might have removed it in 533 and brought it to Constantinople. According to Procopius, it was carried through the streets of Constantinople during Belisarius’ triumphal procession. Procopius adds that the object was later sent back to Jerusalem where there is no record of it, although it could have been destroyed when Jerusalem was pillaged by the Persians in 614.

Oakland Cemetery

Our trip to Atlanta also included a visit to Oakland Cemetery (logo from their pamphlet).

oakland

It dates from 1850 and occupies a 48-acre site between the Sweet Auburn and Grant Park neighborhoods, not far from the King Center and the Georgia State Capitol. Numerous famous Atlantans are interred here, among them:

mitchell

Margaret Mitchell, author of Gone with the Wind.

jones

Bobby Jones, the most successful amateur golfer ever, and a founder of the Augusta National Golf Club and the Masters’ Tournament held there.

jackson

Maynard Jackson, Atlanta’s first black mayor.

Of course, a large section is devoted to the Confederacy and the soldiers who died for it, whether known:

csa

Or unknown:

lion

At one point this obelisk was the tallest structure in Atlanta:

monument

Note, though, how they’ve tried to defang its message: all three of the federal, state, and city flags take precedence over the flag of the CSA, which of course is the original Stars and Bars, not the Battle Flag.

flags

There is also a segregation-era African-American section, and a Jewish section, along with the usual collection of interesting headstones and monuments.

jewish

jewish2

bricks chair kontz stump

Psalm 137

A useful primary source to illustrate the Babylonian Captivity, the sixty-year period in the sixth century BC when large numbers of Jews were enslaved in Babylon, is Psalm 137, one that I always use for HIS 111. This is the translation that appears in the New International Version:

By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion.
There on the poplars we hung our harps,
for there our captors asked us for songs, our tormentors demanded songs of joy; they said, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”

How can we sing the songs of the Lord while in a foreign land?
If I forget you, Jerusalem, may my right hand forget its skill.
May my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth if I do not remember you, if I do not consider Jerusalem my highest joy.

Remember, Lord, what the Edomites did on the day Jerusalem fell. “Tear it down,” they cried, “tear it down to its foundations!”
Daughter Babylon, doomed to destruction,  happy is the one who repays you according to what you have done to us.
Happy is the one who seizes your infants and dashes them against the rocks.

The last two verses are always jarring – rather like the third stanza of “In Flanders Fields” – but otherwise this Psalm succinctly and beautifully expresses Jewish sadness over their enslavement and exile (although I’m sure that to scholars of the period, who are better versed in theories of exactly who composed it and when, the story is more complicated).

Although I insist that primary sources come from a particular time and place, I can’t resist noting that some historical episodes become tropes, through which subsequent generations interpret their own experience. (The inspiration that Moses had for African-American slaves is a prime example.) The Babylonian Captivity comprehends the themes of both slavery and exile, thus did people in the fourteenth century speak of the “Babylonian Captivity of the Papacy” when it was located at Avignon between 1309 and 1377, or did Martin Luther compose his tract On the Babylonian Captivity of the Church (1520), asserting that the Papacy itself held the true church in captivity. Closer to home, the trope of the Babylonian Captivity has resonance with Afro-Caribbeans for obvious reasons, hence the Melodians’ rendition of Psalm 137, later done by Boney M. And, of course, “Babylon” retained its relevance for the Jews themselves, following the diaspora, as a symbol of exile from their homeland.

(This is to say nothing about other Babylonian tropes, like the Tower of Babel from Genesis, or the Whore of Babylon from Revelation.)

UPDATE: Something amusing from a friend’s Facebook feed:

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